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Life Skills for the Modern World

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2014-09-04


One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received about being an adult came from the mystery writer Raymond Chandler, whose fictional detective Philip Marlowe once declared that all men should learn how to become a decent breakfast cook at some point in their lives. You don't need to be a Michelin-level French chef, he pointed out, cranking out confits and cabernet reductions and pots du chocolat, but every man should at least know what do with a can of coffee, some eggs, a few potatoes. A small but vital skill, he thought, one that would ease the burdens of early morning hangovers and blurriness and give the average Joe at least a fighting chance of getting through the working day.

It's advice that I've taken to heart, for over the years I've become a pretty accomplished breakfast jockey. God knows it's hardly that impressive an achievement, for even the worst cook can become a virtuoso with just a bit of practice, yet I'm still astonished at how making a simple cup of coffee and an edible omelet can often overwhelm the most earnest of hosts. Worse, there are those who refuse to even give it a go, they simply drop a pound of kale and an orange in a blender and buzz it up, thinking that that Soylent Green-flavored sludge is what you need to kick off your day. Bleah. I'd rather eat the blender.

No, I'm convinced that being a decent breakfast cook is one of life's essentials, a skill that everyone should know, something that children ought to be taught as soon as they learn to walk and talk. Thinking about Marlowe's dictum, though, I started to wonder, What else should be on that list? What other small, vital skills should everyone know how to do? We live in an age where basic life skills are constantly in danger of becoming obsolete because of technology; what are the ones we need to fight for? After some deep, scholarly study, I came up with a comprehensive list of the ten skills that any self-respecting, self-reliant American should know how to finesse in the year 2014. In addition to breakfast-cooking, then, and in no particular order:

You should know how to kill a bat. I've often fantasized about a particular scenario where a group of power-brokers and world shakers are meeting somewhere say, at an emergency Cabinet session, or a Board of Directors meeting at Apple, Inc and right in the middle of the proceedings, someone were to drop a live bat on the table. In that instant, those esteemed leaders and business titans would be reduced to a pack of screaming infants, because, let's face it bats are scary as hell. But it is an inescapable fact of life that at some point in your apartment-renting or home-buying history, you're going to have to deal with one of those infernal creatures, and when that time comes, you will be required to calmly grab a tennis racket or snow shovel or barn door and dispatch that screeching hell-beast to another dimension. I know this is deeply offensive to animal lovers, but well, tough inside your four walls, there's no such thing as "vermin rights."
You should know how to drive a stick. I know cars are basically driving themselves these days, and that most hybrids require little more than knowing how to push a button, but car manufacturers are still producing vehicles with manual transmissions and knowing how to handle one will come in handy when your drunk, VW-owning friend needs to get home from the bar. And besides, driving a stick is unmistakably cool, and you should always do things that make you look unmistakably cool. And if you feel a bump and a thump on your way home, well, don't sweat it, for You should also know how to change a flat. No calling Triple A, now, just grab the jack and the crowbar and get to work. And if you get lost on the way to your friend's house, no fair going to the GPS, either, for You should know how to read a map. I know how handy a smartphone is on the road, but sometimes that 3-inch screen doesn't give you enough big-picture info, and besides, when the Zombie Apocalypse strikes, all WiFI technology will be wiped out anyway and you're going to need to know how to read those arcane maps and legends.

At the risk of sounding like some GQ fashion editor/d-bag, I still believe You should know how to tie a tie and You should know how to mix a drink. And please know, you don't have to be a "mixologist" with tinctures and novelty syrups and caperberries, no, just a few rudimentary bartending skills will do. And tying a tie is not that tricky a proposition Catholic grade schoolers do it all the time. There's simply nothing lamer than having somebody tie your tie for you, with you slipping the noose over your head and trying to tighten it to make it look right. Because it never does.

I know that the next skill on the list will strike fear in the heart of every man and every woman, but You should really learn to speak in public without pissing yourself. And I know, speaking in public is the on the list of life's greatest fears, almost greater than fear of death, but it is, simply, another inevitability in this life and it must be dealt with. So when you have that wedding toast to make, or that power-point presentation, just remember the three basics: take a deep breath, make eye contact, don't throw up. After that you're home free.

Being a good breakfast cook will take you far in this world, but there is one other culinary skill that you're going to need to learn: You should know how to cook the turkey. This is one of those holiday tasks that people just naturally assume someone else is going to take care of; usually it falls on the matriarch or patriarch of the family. But what happens when, one year, Grandma gets all whacked out on Spiced Rum and can't get to the kitchen? A lot of staring faces, a lot of What do we do now? It's incumbent on you to take a quick look at the "Joy of Cooking" or Julia Child's book and start brining.

Before I get to the last essential skill I should point out that I had to leave a couple of viable entries off this list, entries like You should know how to sew a button and You should know how to write an essay and You should know where to get good Chinese food but unfortunately, I had to leave it at ten, just ten. But I'm confident that they encompass all the important aspects of modern life. And I hate to end this list on a do-gooder, altruistic note, but You should really learn how to do CPR and the Heimlich Maneuver. Just because. For, as James Dean once said in his infamous public service announcement about car safety: "The life you save could be. . . um, mine."

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