Things It Took Me Way Too Long to Learn
Tales from a 41-year-old. Wisdom—and the woeful path that preceded it—for all ages.
Pouring water
1. Standing up for yourself isn't pouring water on somebody's head.
Once upon a time, I had a bad habit. When I felt ignored, dismissed or put down verbally by an individual, I poured a glass of water on that person's head. Usually that person was a man. Most of the time, he had fallen asleep, because I had needed a little time to think about how mad and insulted I was. The result was a terrific, wall-quaking roar and then a wild chase around the room while I explained how very furious I was and how much he deserved water down his ear, while leaping over furniture and throwing soggy pillows. My logic seemed to be: I can't let some guy treat me like a ding-dong! I have to do something! Like...act like a ding-dong!

After roughly 1,789,452 times of doing this, I realized that you can take the same glass of water over to the same sleeping human who said something totally crappy to you earlier, shake him awake, say, "I'm so upset that I really want to pour this water on your head." And then drink the water, giving him time to ask why you're upset and giving yourself time to calm down and get your point across. In relationships, it doesn't matter what your particular weapon is—be it a f__k you, a baleful silence, going into his dresser drawer and cutting up all his socks (yes, I know a woman who does this)—any attack only leads to a counterattack. Whereas an 8-ounce-long pause may just lead to understanding, if not reconciliation.
2. Nobody sees that tiny bit your zipper slips down on skinny jeans. NOBODY!
How many hours did I stand at the sink cringing at that horrifying millimeter-long snippet of brass that inevitably flashes up from the closure of fashionably tight pants? It always seemed so obvious, so winky, a little firecracker of humiliation. And yet, not another person on the planet sees it. Sadly, this took me about four years to figure out. The seminal moment? I went to dinner with my girlfriends. I saw them across the room. I saw the expressions on their faces: happy, excited, a little depressed, hungry, happy. This is what I was looking at. Only after dinner did I notice they all had on skinny jeans. And when I noticed, I didn't look at their crotch area to see if the zipper was perfectly up to the snap. Because only a crazy person would be looking there. Those kinds of people exist in the world. But they are not people you want to impress. They are not even people you want to meet for dinner. So get out of the bathroom!
Postage stamp
3. Always carry stamps.
It's the easiest way to be a hero to the friend, coworker or stranger racing by you with an overdue bill or late birthday card. And it is the only way on this earth that the postcards you buy on vacation will actually get sent.
Helping a friend move
4. You don't have to help if you don't actually want to help.
We all do this. We don't want to help with the clothing swap/potluck/school auction/book-club meeting. But we feel badly if we don't offer, mostly because we fear we'll wake up the next morning with the words "bad person" written across our forehead in Sharpie. Only two things happen when you offer help you don't want to give:

1) The person will be able to tell that your offer is phony. For example, you're really general and say something like, "Give me a shout-out about what you need." She may or may not accept your help, but either way she will think to herself, "What a lame friend."

2) If she accepts, you will keep thinking—despite knowing it's all your fault—"She is so demanding; this is too much for me." And she will sense this and think, "What a lame friend."

How much easier it would be to just skip all that and say outright, "I can't help, I'm sorry. And I don't want to lie about it and ruin our friendship."
5. "Dear Human Resources" is so NOT going to get you the job.
I used to fuss over my résumé. I worried about the spelling, the length, the alignment of margins—but never the cover letter stapled to the top of it. Then one magical day eight years later, I got to be on the other end of the situation. I got to pick who selected the candidates to interview. I sat there, flipping through the stack of résumés. My superior looked at me puzzled. Her thinking (which was better than my thinking) was that the cover letter was this wondrous blank space where an individual was allowed to paint a portrait of themselves in words. They could be funny or thoughtful, quirky or intelligent. They could also be boring, braggy, arrogant or timid. The cover letter was the person you were going to be working with for the next three to four years. The résumé was just what they had done. Which—suddenly and horrifying—explained why I had only gotten jobs via some fluke meeting, and not by actually applying. I had come off like a person who says, "in so far as" and "attached you will find my résumé" and "I look forward to hearing from you." I'm not saying you have to get jazzy with fonts or ink colors. But you do need to be who you are—not somebody who sounds kind of like somebody else who might have once starred on Masterpiece Theatre.
Effortless woman
6. Usually the reason something looks effortless is that someone has worked really, really hard on it.
Two years ago, during a rainstorm on our vacation, we ran into a restaurant in Maine. I was with my two sopping-wet kids and husband. We had made a terrible mistake. The place was not the fried-clam bar we had expected. It was a fancy-date restaurant, with a piano player and tablecloths and about 125 people waiting to be seated. The hostess took one look at us, grabbed some menus, smiled a slick smile and announced to the hungry crowd, "I seat kids first." Faces fell, foam appeared in the corners of certain mouths. And yet she sashayed nonchalantly past the angry rabble and sat us. After thanking her, I asked, "How did you do that?" She looked at me. "Prep school," she said. "I was the poor kid on scholarship." Oh, I thought. That's how it's done. Under every unruffled, totally composed person is a scholarship kid who went to prep school or the kid with the headgear. It's the reward you get after years and years of being ruffled and uncomposed. Which is what I need to remember the next time I meet such a person. There is no pixie dust or biological gene that makes some people awesome. In general, that quality is earned.
Back pain
7. Back pain is not the flu.
It will not go away in a few days or a few months. It will not go away with an aspirin. It's not something you can soldier through with orange juice and grit. It will go on and on and on and on. Do not wait for the wince in a child's or spouse's or friend's eye when you snap, "What do you want?" due to horrible pain. Go immediately to a doctor or acupuncturist or back whisperer—and keep going until you find the solution.
8. If you think, "I really shouldn't do this, but...," stop immediately at "but."
Everything I have done after "but" has been a huge glaring mistake. Shooting off an angry response to a friend after she sent me a thoughtless email. Jumping off a stool while pregnant. Eating the whole weird shriveled-up black pepper in the take-out Chinese Magic 7 Vegetables dish. Pouring water on my husband's head even after knowing better (as articulated in rule 1). "But..." is the car alarm designed by the human mind to stop you at the point of stupidity. Ignore it at your peril.
Thank you in many languages
9. Overthank.
You can overhug. You can overthink. You can overdiscuss. You can overexplain. But you can't overthank. People like it. Over and over.

Leigh Newman is the deputy editor of and the author of Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home.

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