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Designs for living

If you were smart, you'd know this by now



How fitting. Having locked my keys on the other side of a door I needed to get through to review 30 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do Before Turning 30, I had to call on one of those skills that nice boys aren’t supposed to know. I didn’t even have to go to reform school to learn it, either: A friend of mine taught me to pick locks in seventh grade, using a valve brush for a trombone to demonstrate. And just so you know, I have used this arcane skill exactly three times since seventh grade—all three times basically for good, never for evil.

Still, there’s a dark and tingly sensation that comes with learning a skill you’re probably not supposed to know, getting hipped to information that could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a thrill pulling off my little operation. It’s exciting to play MacGyver once in awhile, living by one’s wits and resources, patching up leaking tanks of sulfuric acid with chocolate bars and things like that. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the key to MacGyver’s syndicated longevity is this hope most of us have that we’re clever enough to think our way out of any tricky situation, like Richard Dean Anderson’s character, and perhaps even a secret desire that the opportunity might one day present itself. Preferably without life-or-death stakes, and provided we’ve been afforded the chance to learn the necessary kitchen chemistry. While I’m at it, I should add that the desire to arm oneself with knowledge certainly also accounts for the underground popularity of publications like The Anarchist Cookbook and all those dirty-trick/get-even books that Paladin Press used to hawk in the back of Guns & Ammo magazine, right next to the ad for instructions on how to make explosive-tipped pellets for your pellet gun. I seriously doubt many people who buy these books actually follow the instructions for rigging their enemies’ houses with booby traps that coat the ceiling with atomized dog feces, but the point is: They could if they had to.

Knowledge is power, yessir, and have you looked at a newsstand lately? There’s a whole crop of men’s magazines like Maxim and Stuff that cater to this craving to gobble as much how-to as possible. These magazines also make it perfectly clear that the only kind of information that matters is the kind that (a) helps you, either directly or indirectly, achieve a sex act of some kind, or (b) makes you better at it than before you bought the magazine. The kicker is that the editors find ostensibly real women (though probably dreamt up by the same pathetic weenie-tuggers who write those “I never though these stories were true, but...” letters in hardcore magazines) to vet the sex tips and offer their testimonials. Watch out for those Maxim readers, gals. They want to sexually enslave you!

Yes, well. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got 30 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do Before Turning 30, a book of helpful hints for successful living written by an MFA student in Ithaca, New York who simply loves explaining things. The terminally cute book seems to have the best of intentions. And a lot of it is actually useful, but a good third of it is so patronizing and remedial. At least it is if you aren’t completely useless at shifting for yourself. Author Siobhan Adcock must have included sections about how to successfully cut a birthday cake (seriously!) purely out of some mania for explaining everything she herself knows how to do, or else she writes instructions compulsively as a way of working through a serious case of anal retentiveness. Either way, it reminds me of working at a restaurant with that one person who always manages to drag a routine employee meeting out for two hours or more because a proper procedure for every last little damn thing has to be hammered out and codified. Plus, I find it disturbing that anyone, given needle and thread, would be unable to figure out how to sew on a button for themselves, and so feel no need myself for a book that takes up eight pages explaining just that.

Maybe I just don’t want to admit how much basic know-how Americans have apparently forgotten in the past fifty years. But jeez, how can anyone turn 30 and have no idea how to cut a cake? I don’t know which is more depressing—that someone would not know something so simple, or that there’s a book that not only tells you how to do it, but also explains why learning to cut a cake is “a good idea.”

As a possible remedy for disenchantment with the kind of information that’s supposedly worth passing from generation to generation these days, let me recommend a book I had when I was younger and just recently rediscovered: The American Boy’s Handy Book, by D.C. Beard. Originally published in 1882, this amazing book tells you how to do things like make your own Tom Sawyer raft, jug for catfish, fashion a fiddle out of corn stalks, shape your own yew bow and stuff an owl. The purple 1880s prose just adds to the fun. This from the chapter on rearing wild birds: “This is the well-known cow blackbird, who disdains to shackle her freedom with the care of a family, and shifts a mother’s responsibility by farming her progeny out, while she seeks the incongruous but apparently congenial companionship of the cattle, with whom she appears to be on the most intimate terms.”

These are skills that practically no one knows anymore, and for that they couldn’t be more delightful to learn. The point, again, is that you could if you had to.

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