At Having an Opinion

Regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, location or number of pets, everybody on the Internet has one thing in common: we all have opinions. There’s a saying rolling around Pinterest right now that sounds a little something like this: “How to Start an Argument on the Internet: 1. Express an opinion. 2. Wait.”

The Internet is no different from any other modern medium. Television and newspapers are both chock-full of “experts” who are paid to do nothing but voice very strong opinions about everything from education reform to reality TV personalities to corporate policy. Having a decisive opinion on every single issue presented has definitely come in vogue.

Let me tell you a secret, though: not everyone on the Internet, or in the physical world at large, knows exactly where they stand on everything. It just seems like it because every time any issue comes up anywhere, somebody with a firm opinion on the subject crawls out of the woodwork and expresses themselves. It’s not that everybody has an opinion on everything; it’s just that everybody has an opinion on something.

Of course, sometimes it’s necessary to have an opinion on something about which you didn’t previously care that much: elections, term papers and even family dinners will require you to tell politicians, professors and your Uncle Steve exactly what you think about divisive subjects. Also, I hope I don’t need to tell you that in most situations, just having an opinion isn’t enough. You must have a valid opinion, and in many cases you’ll need to argue to defend its validity. Let’s go over a few steps that will increase your knowledge of the world, motivate you to participate in events and movements and even make you sound a little more intelligent when you’re giving people a piece of your mind.

What is not sucking? Not sucking is defined in the realm of possessing a point of view as being able to think clearly and logically about a certain subject, decide one’s thoughts about it, and express and defend them to others when necessary.

1. Know what an opinion is. An opinion is the conclusion of an argument. It must be supported by empirical, observed, factual evidence, and while it cannot be proven true or false, it can be proven valid or invalid. In other words, it’s subjective and supported (or refuted) by evidence.

2. Know what an opinion isn’t. An opinion is not something that is definitely, unquestionably true, backed up by years of experience or observation. Scientific research and evidence do not add up to create an opinion. What I’ve just described is a fact.

Conversely, anything that a person thinks to be true without the existence of or need for strong empirical evidence is not an opinion which can be proven valid or invalid, but a belief. Beliefs do not rely on fact, but faith. This doesn’t make them wrong; it just makes them inarguable. Of course, anything that has actually been proven incorrect is neither a fact nor a belief, and it’s not an opinion either; it’s just an incorrect statement. No matter how hard you believe that fish can breathe air, take a fish out of water long enough and it is going to die.

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Sherlock wants you to read up on subjects that are important to you. Originally posted on gifs-for-the-masses.tumblr.com.

3. Read. A lot. Before you can decide how you feel about something, you have to know a lot about it. While Googling something can turn up quite a lot of incorrect information, searching carefully and with discretion can turn up reliable information as well. Look for the source of your information. In general, information you get from a source with an avowed bias, i.e. a political organization, should be taken like a bad steak: with quite a lot of salt. Also, there’s a reason libraries still exist in the age of the Internet: librarians. Going to your local public library (or your university library, if you’re in college) and speaking to a human who works there is one of the best ways to learn about any subject. Once you’ve got the facts…

4. Listen to your feelings. Extensive reading from multiple sources combined with your own experiences should be enough to give you an initial hint about your thoughts about your subject. Your opinion doesn’t have to be definite in most cases. Despite what you see on TV (and what many people demand from people like politicians), educated black-and-white judgments of complicated issues are rather uncommon. (One notable exception to this rule is when you’re writing a paper. A proper thesis expresses a strong, defined, conclusive argument.)

Once you’ve figured out how you feel after learning all the facts, congratulations: you have an opinion. BUT WAIT, WE’RE NOT DONE—

5. Make sure you’re not using any fallacious reasoning. Sometimes, even if you’ve got your facts right, your conclusion—the opinion—can still be invalid because of errors in reasoning. You might have learned in high school English that these are called fallacies; you may have learned from watching politicians on TV that they make you sound stupid. I could list them all here, but frankly that would just take up too much space; the most common logical fallacies are described in quite digestible detail on this website from the University of Idaho. Read them. Learn them. Love them. And, if you recognize any logical errors in your own thinking…

6. Accept being wrong gracefully. Sometimes, evidence is presented which renders your previously valid opinion or belief invalid. Sometimes when you think a writer is irritating because of his war on the adverb, you read his book about his time in Paris and decide that he’s actually capable of some really beautiful stuff. Sometimes when you think your parents died in a car crash, a hairy half-giant crashes through your door and tells you they were murdered by Lord Voldemort. Sometimes when you think leggings should never, ever be worn as pants, you try on some Denim Flex jeggings at Maurice’s and walk out with three pairs. Everyone is wrong sometimes, and that’s okay. Just absorb the new information and move on.

In my humble opinion, you should totally go like this blog on Facebook and follow it on Twitter. If you have an opinion about this post, leave a comment below or on the Facebook page. It definitely wouldn’t suck to hear from you.

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At Holiday Shopping

If the quality of gifts exchanged at the holidays were as important to interpersonal relationships as the media makes it look, my friends and family would have kicked me to the curb quite some time ago. I’m a great shopper for myself, and I like to think that I maintain pretty close relationships, but for some reason when it comes time to select gifts for people I know, I just… can’t… do it. There have been some successes—most notably the red velvet cheesecake cookies I made for a good friend’s Chanukah gift, the quality of which actually caused his eyes to roll all the way back into his head upon taking the first bite—but for every well-baked cookie or snuggly scarf I can name off the top of my head, I’ve given three gifts that were wholly unsuccessful. Accessories I’ve given have gone unused; handmade bracelets have fallen apart in my pocket before I got a chance to hand them over; well-meaning souvenirs have gotten strange looks and unconvincing expressions of gratitude.

hannukah cookies

The legendary cookies. Original photo by Ira Stecher.

I may never get in the habit of buying excellent gifts all the time. However, what I lack in present know-how I make up for in Christmas spirit. I may not be great at it in every situation, but gift-giving is one of my favorite things to do, and in my opinion it’s one of the happiest parts of Christmas. Plus, after nineteen years, I’ve learned at least a few ways to make sure your gifts to other people don’t get smiled at to your face and exchanged right away behind your back.

What is not sucking? In the world of holiday gift-giving, not sucking is defined as giving presents that are thoughtful and desired or appreciated by the receiver.

  1.        Ask outright. “What do you want for Christmas?” is almost never an unwelcome question. (One notable exception is people who do not celebrate Christmas. Ask these people what they would like for Chanukah/Winter Solstice/Kwanzaa/Festivus.) However, some people (significant others are a great example) would prefer not to answer this question and be “surprised”. In this case, proceed to:
  2.        Ask somebody else outright. The only situation in which it is okay to sneak around and talk about somebody else to their friends behind their back is figuring out what they want for the holidays. Best friends, partners or close family members are sometimes the best resources for discovering the one item that somebody really wants. However, if these resources prove to be no help (“Uhh, I think she likes Doctor Who. Maybe. Or she hates it. Anyway, she technically told me not to tell you anything”), proceed to:
  3.        Think about what this person is a fan of. A sports team? A comic book hero? A book series? A TV show? If the person you’re buying for is a big fan of something, basically anything related to that thing will be a welcome and appreciated gift. If the person you’re buying for somehow isn’t a fan of anything cultural, proceed to:
  4.        Think about your relationship with this person. What have you and your friend/significant other/family member done together that you both enjoyed? If you went to a Disney movie together a year ago and they loved it, get them a copy of the DVD. If you have the kind of relationship that can withstand a few dollars spent on something useless and hilarious only to the two of you, you can buy a gag gift as long as it’s well-thought out, at least not totally tasteless and personalized. Anything to do with an inside joke between the two of you is better than a singing fish. Actually, anything at all is better than a singing fish. If the two of you are romantically involved (or you’re hoping that the two of you will become romantically involved), then something like perfume or cologne is appropriate as long as the person is not allergic to it. Been there, done that.
  5.        Consider making something. If you’re crafty at all, giving a homemade gift is a great option. Homemade baked goods, jewelry, tchotchkes and scrapbooks require a lot of time and effort, something that their recipients will inevitably recognize. You’ll get extra points, they’ll get extra happy. A couple of words of caution: regardless of your skill with crafts, make sure you really do put a lot of time and effort into any homemade gift you put together. If you make something by hand and do it by halves, it shows. Always. Also, homemade gifts tend, in general, to be better for people who really love you already, like parents or significant others (though I will say that everyone appreciates good food).
  6.        If all else fails, buy them a book. A book is never a bad idea. If they like to read, they’ll love it. If they hate to read, you shouldn’t be good enough friends with them to be buying them stuff anyway. Make sure it’s one you’ve read and liked, and that you have at least a 10% suspicion they will like as well. If you feel like it, include some good chocolate to eat while reading.
  7.        And, as always, be kind to retail employees. We’re doing our best.

Merry Christmas! Happy belated Chanukah! Happy Kwanzaa! Happy Solstice! Happy Festivus! And a happy new year to everyone. 🙂

Did I miss your holiday? Want to send holiday greetings to me? (Aww, how sweet of you.) Comment on this post, like How Not to Suck on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @hownottosuckblg (not blog. Blg. It’s Welsh for “the o wouldn’t fit in my Twitter handle”). 

At Cooking Chicken

The last five weeks of the year are always dedicated to the turkey. First there’s Thanksgiving, where turkey is served at one meal; then there’s the week after Thanksgiving, where turkey is served at every meal; and then, in some households, there’s Christmas, where there’s yet another turkey (and sometimes a ham, but we don’t talk about that). However, I’d like to take a break from the turkey love and pay tribute to another formerly feathered friend of mine.

In August, I moved into my first apartment and started providing for myself for the first time (my first year of college doesn’t count because I had a meal plan). My survival over the past three months has been entirely due to one bird in particular: the frozen chicken. It’s cheap. It’s versatile. It’s really, really difficult to mess up.

frozen chicken

Here we see the frozen chicken in its natural habitat. Originally from seedebtrun.com

And yet, for several weeks, I did nothing but exactly that. My first few weeks of self-sufficiency were marred by daily screw-ups involving frozen poultry, including but not limited to discovering the chicken was still partially frozen after I’d cooked it, having to put chicken back in the pan or the oven three times because it was still undercooked, and, my personal favorite, burning. (Protip: chicken crusted with charred garlic powder tastes surprisingly not awful.)

Some people treat cooking like art. I know this because I live with one of those people. His cooking experiments lead to things that taste like they came down from God’s own hors d’oeurve plate—I’ve learned from experience that if he says, “Hey, Shelby, wanna try this?” or “Hey, Shelby, want me to make that?”, I should always answer “OH GOD YES”. (Also, boys… he’s single. 😉 )

I am not one of those people. I cook solely because if I did not I would either go into debt buying takeout or starve to death. If you’re one of those people, too, first, high five because we are adults who fend for ourselves and we are still alive, and then take a moment to reorganize your priorities if you’re feeling insecure about your inability to use an oven. So cooking’s not your passion. So what? You’re not required to become the next Food Network Star. You’re just required to keep yourself alive until you can get a job good enough to allow you to afford to eat out, or until you get married to someone who can cook. In the interest of self-preservation, then, here’s a super-easy chicken “recipe” that it is literally impossible to mess up. Enjoy it—or at least don’t hate it—and move on to doing something more important.

What is not sucking? Not sucking is defined in the realm of chicken preparation as creating a chicken dish that tastes decent, is not burnt, and will not give you food poisoning.

  1.        Thaw your chicken. If you’re a college student and you eat meat (sorry, vegetarians and vegans), then I highly recommend buying your chicken frozen. You can get a lot at one time for not a lot of money. Frozen chicken breasts are cheap, and thighs are even cheaper. When you buy frozen, though, you have to thaw it before you put it in the oven. You can do this way ahead of time (think 8+ hours) by moving the chicken you want to cook from the freezer to the refrigerator, but for more spontaneous cooks, there’s the option of putting the pieces you intend to cook in a bowl of water and letting them sit for anywhere from a half hour to two hours. Check it every so often by touching it and deciding if it feels more like a block of solid ice or a piece of actual flesh (which is what it is, so don’t be squeamish). Health note: always wash your hands after every time you touch chicken. Or any meat. Or a stray dog. Once the whole piece of chicken feels like it’s not frozen, you can move on to the next step.
  2.        Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. I don’t know how to further assist you with this step.
  3.        Get some foil. Place your chicken piece or pieces in the foil. Wrap them individually. BUT WAIT, BEFORE YOU WRAP IT—
  4.        Make it not boring. Plain chicken breasts are really, really bland. If you eat that all the time you are going to throw yourself off the roof of your apartment building in a matter of weeks. If you don’t have spices in your cabinet, go get some—to figure out what you should get, call your mom, your grandmother or a friend who can cook. I can tell you from experience that garlic powder and paprika go well on just about anything. Oregano and basil are good for Italian flavor; basically anything with the word “pepper” on it will make it spicy; you could probably add soy sauce to give your chicken a little Asian kick if you wanted. Experiment however you want, but be aware that this is college, so you’re gonna need to eat whatever comes out no matter how it tastes.
  5.        Wrap up the chicken in the foil. This does two things for you: it locks in the flavor and keeps you from having to do a lot of tedious cleaning up later.
  6.        Put the foil-wrapped chicken on a cookie sheet. You don’t even have to grease it.
  7.        Put the cookie sheet in the oven. Only do this if the oven is heated to 350. Every oven is different—usually there’s a little light or a bell that goes on or off to let you know your oven is ready.
  8.        Wait 20-25 minutes. Longer if you’re using thighs.
  9.      Put on some oven mitts and pull out your dinner. Make sure not to let the cookie sheet touch your bare skin—I found this out the hard way while baking cookies last week. (Scarring builds character.) The foil, however, will not be hot.
  10.    Serve with some kind of vegetable. We don’t want your parents to worry. Hope it’s decent!

Hey, now that you’ve eaten dinner, you can go like this page on Facebook and follow me on Twitter (@hownottosuckblg–no, no o)! 

At Having Decent Body Image

It’s really hard to be an American with good body image.

America, along with the rest of the world, is in a weird place right now when it comes to thinking about people’s bodies. On the one hand, you’ve got the huge group of advertisers selling “ideal” bodies to “average” people: superthin women with impossibly large breasts and hypermuscular men selling cars, fragrances, clothes and countless other products to the jealous and insecure masses. On the other hand, you’ve got the “I just want you to be healthy” movement, which looks on the surface to be a harmless battle against obesity, but often defines “healthy” as three shrimp and some apple slices for dinner followed by 200 reps on the rowing machine for dessert. This movement is the reason you see so many “motivational” workout posts on the Internet that just shame and embarrass people: “What you eat in private you wear in public”, “Would you rather have fries or a thigh gap?”, “Won’t quit till I’m fit” superimposed over the body of a girl with protruding hip bones or a guy with biceps the size of basketballs.*

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The proper response to body shaming.

Then, balancing on our culture’s collective knee, there’s the “love your body” movement. This growing cultural phenomenon has a good message—embrace what you were born with, treat your body with respect, screw other people’s opinions of how you look—but it can be an intimidating change for people who have been inundated with messages of body conformity since birth. I love Disney movies as much as the next person, but Lilo and Stitch was the first one to present characters with any degree of anatomical truth, and that didn’t show up until I was eight.

Perfect body comfort—just like a perfect body—is something you may never achieve. That’s okay. For now, let’s just focus on getting to feeling decent about your body, mmkay?

What is not sucking? Not sucking is defined in the world of positive body image as acknowledging that, while your body may not fit somebody else’s or even your own picture of the ideal, it’s, in the words of Stitch, “still good. Yeah, still good.”

  1.        Stop saying mean things to yourself. Would you ever tell a friend that the fact that her thighs touch makes her a worthless human being or that his lack of six pack abs makes him a loser? Then stop saying it (or even thinking it) about your own body. You deserve just as much love and respect as the people around you, and you should treat yourself just as well as you expect others to treat you. I know this is easier said than done, but just start by being conscious of the way you think about your body. Becoming aware of negativity in your thinking is the first step to eradicating it.
  2.        Say some nice things. Take a look in the mirror. Then, out loud, on paper, or just in your head, name some things that you actually like about your looks. Don’t ask other people for input; the only way to do this right is to do it yourself. These things you like can be anywhere on your body, they can be quirky things or “average” things, and they can even be things that society or the inside of your brain tells you that you’re “supposed” to hate. They just need to be parts of you that elicit a positive reaction when you look at them. Try to get to five things. Then ten.
  3.        Stop attaching moral value to things you eat. Unless your broccoli gets hit with gamma rays and starts fighting crime, it is not an inherently “good” food. Unless your pizza puts a tack on your chair before you sit down to eat it, it is not an inherently “bad” food. What you digest does not determine whether you are a good or bad person, a success or a failure. Remember this as we go into the holiday season: eating that second helping of mashed potatoes or that third sugar cookie is not going to put you on the path to dropping out of school, quitting your job and living in a van by the river.
  4.        That said, respect the temple. Eat fruit. Eat vegetables. Drink water. I don’t know about you, but when I satisfy actual hunger or thirst with stuff like that, I feel good. When I’m craving chocolate, though, eating an apple just makes me want more chocolate. Eat what will make you feel happy—not entertained, but happy.
  5.        Move around. You don’t have to go to the gym for this. Of course, you can if you really want to—I’m aware that some people enjoy going to the gym like I’m aware that some people believe Elvis is still living. However, if the gym sounds more like a medieval torture chamber than a place to have fun and get fit, you still have lots of opportunities to stay active. Walk places. Dance. Go swimming (for fun, not laps). Play a sport, if that’s your thing. Do some yoga. When you see what your body can do, you’ll be better friends with it.
  6.        Look nice. Wash yourself. Brush your teeth. Wear clothes that fit. Smell good (or at least don’t smell bad). This isn’t for other people—it’s for you. Self-care is important because it makes you feel like you’re worth being taken care of.
  7.        Focus on your inner parts. Not your spleen—your mind. Your spirit. Your soul. The part of you that scientists think might exist in your brain but that they’re still looking for. When we’re forty, with spouses and/or children and/or cats and careers that we’re perfectly happy focusing on, we’re not going to have the time or biology to keep up with “perfect” bodies. We’re definitely going to have whatever inner qualities we chose to invest in when we were twenty. Are you kind? Smart? Passionate about something? A good friend/artist/cook/mathematician/shopper/whatever the heck it is you are? Make that what you focus on. Remember the reasons why you, the person, are awesome, and your body will start to look better every day.

To you, of course. It already looks fabulous to me.

Hey, gorgeous. You know what really wouldn’t suck? If you liked How Not to Suck on Facebook and followed us on Twitter (@hownottosuckblg–no, really. No o). Stay beautiful.

*Hi, there! Thanks for reading my footnote. Readers, if any of you feel at all like your body image is extremely distorted or that your eating/exercise habits are profoundly affecting your physical and/or emotional health in a negative way, please go see a doctor. You are special, you deserve to be happy and healthy, and you are loved (and not just by people who want you to continue reading their blogs).