Lists of Things All Adults Should Supposedly Be Able To Do, And How I Feel About Such Lists

Do you know who I love? Hardly anyone. But in that small number I include plumbers. Also the people who come to change a flat tire. I have encountered both of those people this week, and I love them both. I have added them to my Christmas Card list. Whenever I am blue, I will picture that guy kneeling in front of my flat tire, asking the tire earnestly if it is seriously going to fight him every step of the goddam way. Or that other guy kneeling in front of the broken sump pump in his careful, taking-no-chances, 2-inches-above-the-jeans underpants. Guys Kneeling and Fixing Things is a coffee table book I would buy.

I have seen lists of things all adults should be able to do (debone a chicken! sew a shirt! deliver a baby! start a fire without matches! mix a perfect martini! caulk a tub! iron pleats! drive a stick shift! change a tire! hotwire a car!), and I hard-disagree with all of them, starting with the presumptuous tone and ending with the listed items. By all means, learn things you WANT to know how to do, or personally NEED to know how to do, but there is no reason to run out and acquire the particular skills the clickbait author came up with, making it an even 10, 20, or 30 so they could turn it into a snappy title. (I know it should be “bone a chicken,” not “debone a chicken.” But really at this point in the English language it should be changed to debone. So I’ve changed it.) (I also know that “who” in the first sentence of the post should be “whom.” But it always sounds wrong, and also snooty. I’m changing that too.)

Some of the things on the lists are outdated: it takes awhile for older generations to stop insisting that the younger generations learn things they no longer need to know. (I for one will have a hard time giving up on cursive writing.) I was glad my dad made me learn to drive a stick-shift back when a lot of people had stick-shift cars, but now it is really rare to encounter a stick-shift and really common to encounter people who think everyone should know how to drive one Just In Case, because THEIR dads made them learn how to drive one Just In Case. But we are now at least one generation past that time; it’s like saying everyone should know how to use a pencil to fix an unwound cassette tape. (I can imagine similar lists in previous generations. Absolutely EVERYONE should be able to: recite one performance poem from memory; speak conversational French; fashion a bandage from an old petticoat; darn a sock; pull an abscessed tooth; deliver a breech calf; disassemble and clean a simple pocket watch; make a good plain meal on the cook’s night out; gentle a horse; testify effectively in a witchcraft trial.) The ONLY TIME I have ever been called upon unexpectedly to use my stick-shift skills was when the pharmacist wanted to treat the pharmacy staff to coffee and doughnuts, but he couldn’t leave the pharmacy and needed someone to drive his car so he wouldn’t have to mess with reimbursing mileage. I was the only one there who could drive a stick-shift, so I did the coffee/doughnut run. SAVING LIVES. I think people should learn to drive a stick-shift if their car is a stick-shift, or if they WANT to learn to drive a stick-shift, or if they have reason to believe they have more than the usual likelihood of being called upon to drive a stick-shift.

For other, more currently-useful items on the list, I think we don’t ALL need to know how as long as SOME of us do. Let’s SPECIALIZE and then SHARE OUR SKILLS FOR CASH OR BARTER. I do not want to take the bones out of the chicken. It would take forever and I would hate it and it would be messy. Let’s give that job to an expert wearing a company smock they won’t have to personally launder. They can do fifty chickens in the time it would take me to do one, and then we can all take home our packets of boneless chicken and spend our time doing happier things we’re better at.

Or I certainly COULD learn to change a tire or change the oil, but I’d prefer not to. I’d like the person who changes the tire to be someone who has done it THOUSANDS OF TIMES and so will get it RIGHT. I don’t want to do it a few times to learn it, and then wait a few years, and then suddenly have to remember how to do it on a dark scary road in the rain, when I’d rather be inside the car with the doors locked waiting for the guy to arrive and swear at the tire for me. And it’s more sensible for the person who changes the oil to be someone who has all the equipment (including the coverall that only improves in appearance with a few sexy oil stains) and can handle the whole task quickly, neatly, and efficiently. And then they can dispose of the old oil easily, because they have a whole system for that. In a TRUE OIL-CHANGING/TIRE-CHANGING EMERGENCY, like in a dystopian future where roadside assistance no longer exists, I will read the manual. Or I will find someone who already knows how to do it, and I will barter. I have many jars of peanut butter. Or I can name a baby. Or I can listen attentively and responsively to a really boring story.

62 thoughts on “Lists of Things All Adults Should Supposedly Be Able To Do, And How I Feel About Such Lists

  1. Erica

    Personally I think it’s important that all adults be able to re-insert bones into a boneless chicken. For EMERGENCIES.

  2. Celeste

    These lists always remind me of school admonitions about being well-rounded. Never mind that we all know instinctively that not everyone can be good at everything.

  3. Brittany

    Swistle, I love everything you write, and sometimes I just want to tell you that. This was all great and true. I especially take delight in your description of your special skills for barter.

  4. Jaida

    This reminds me of how much I dislike it when people post a terrible, graphic video of some awful event on Facebook with a message about how everyone NEEDS to see it. Or loudly opines how everyone NEEDS to see Schindler’s List (or any other film about awful events in our history as humans). As if we are incapable of compassion/feeling a call to action/understanding history without graphic (often gratuitious) imagery.

    Your plumber and his underpants make me very happy.

    1. jill

      Yes. I just requested people exclude me from their posts containing pictures out of Syria. Trust me, I get it, without graphic videos.

  5. Tessie

    My mom has tried to show me how to cut up a whole chicken AT LEAST 10 times, and my interest and skill level remain shockingly low. I’m pretty sure I would just YouTube it in a real Chicken Emergency.

    My boyfriend changes his own oil, and THERE ARE PANS OF USED OIL EVERYWHERE in our garage. You have to wait for a haz mat pickup from the city to properly dispose of it. It is IN NO WAY worth the $25 he saves a few times a year.

    Men Kneeling and Fixing Things Instagram account. BRB.

    1. Gwen

      The oil!! It’s everywhere. Seriously, we must have 5 years of oil in the garage that I’m waiting for the cat to knock over.

      1. Lis

        Or to, say, walk through the dregs left in the pan that catches the oil, putting little oil stain paw prints all over the garage?

    2. BKC

      Oooh, I can fix this one! Funnel your used oil into a rinsed plastic milk jug and take it to your local auto parts store (I’ll plug O’Reilly’s because I look so great in their green uniform). We’ll dispose of it for you. No fee.

      Unless you like your sexy oil stains on your garage floor as well as on your eye candy.

      1. Gwen

        Yes! Thank you! And while I’m there I’m going to buy new wipers and have them put them on!

  6. heidi

    I didn’t know it but this was exactly what I needed to read today. So, thank you.
    I would also like to mention there is only one thing on your list I can do. (and I am a grown-ass adult!)

    I can drive a stick shift. We actually own one so we made all of our children learn to drive it. I think it helps them pay attention to what they are doing and learn more about how cars work. (ex. what neutral is for.) I think all teens should be required to drive them as it is more difficult to get distracted and text while driving a stick shift. But, that’s just my personal soapbox. When loaning a car to one of the children my first choice is always the stick.

    1. heidi

      I would also like to mention, I am a big believer in hiring people to do things. Why take away someone’s livelihood just so I can save a few bucks or feel accomplished. Mechanics! Plumbers! Electricians! Chicken deboners! It is their job to do these things and I love them for it.

    2. Sarah!

      I was going to say that it is also a bonus that your teen is less likely to let their friend drive if you send them out in a stick… then I remembered the time my friend taught us to drive her stick (in college!) and her mom was super mad for ambiguous insurance reasons. Sooooo, I don’t know if that is a bonus or a risk.

  7. Suzanne

    Yes. Yes to ALL of it. (Also *snort* to the “boning a chicken sounds dirty” comment.)

    Favorite bits:

    – Do you know who I love? Hardly anyone.

    – his careful, taking-no-chances, 2-inches-above-the-jeans underpants.

    – Guys Kneeling and Fixing Things is a coffee table book I would buy.

    – I hard-disagree with all of them, starting with the presumptuous tone and ending with the listed items.

    – (I know it should be “bone a chicken,” not “debone a chicken.” But really at this point in the English language it should be changed to debone. So I’ve changed it.)

    – now it is really rare to encounter a stick-shift and really common to encounter people who think everyone should know how to drive one Just In Case, because THEIR dads made them learn how to drive one Just In Case.

    – Let’s give that job to an expert wearing a company smock they won’t have to personally launder.

    – In a TRUE OIL-CHANGING/TIRE-CHANGING EMERGENCY, like in a dystopian future where roadside assistance no longer exists, I will read the manual.

    – Or I can listen attentively and responsively to a really boring story.

  8. Kirsty

    I totally agree with this, and always love the way you write, but I’d just like to point out that the learning to drive a stick-shift thing is still very useful for anyone planning on coming to Europe and hiring a car – almost all cars here are stick shifts, and automatics are even more rare as rentals. Also, if you don’t have a stick-shift licence, they won’t let you hire the car at all…
    Otherwise, those lists depress me and make me feel very incomplete and useless. It takes a supreme amount of effort to make myself get back to the “yes, there are lots of useful things I can do. It’s just that none of them seem to be on this stupid list” point.

    1. rlbelle

      Our babysitter has family in Europe and is learning to drive. Her sister learned on an automatic, and then moved to Germany for college (for free! Free college! Oh, to have family in Europe), and had to basically take a crash course once she was over there, so our babysitter was like, “No, I’m totally learning to drive stick.”
      I suspect we’ll do how my parents did, which was teach us on an automatic, and then have us practice on a stick once we could steer and not crash into things. There were still some fairly harrowing moments, like the time I drove the car by myself to work shortly after getting my license and had to pull out of a parking lot with an extremely steep hill. I kept rolling backward, inching ever closer to the car behind me and getting really panicked about it, until I finally all but peeled out to get on the road. I then had to pull over at a safe spot to cry a little. My husband will be teaching the children to drive.

  9. Kara

    I know how to drive a stick (and have one as my daily driver, actually). I do think that’s an important Thing that Grownups should know how to do. But I don’t know how to drive a truck with airbrakes, even though we have those at my company, and I’ll probably never learn. I call AAA (or one of the mechanics at work) for all other car issues.

    There are some things that I do think are important for grownups to know how to do, things like:
    1. knowing how to make at least one meal that will not kill everyone that you’re trying to feed
    2. how to turn off the water main to the house, just in case a faucet breaks and the shut off for that faucet won’t work (you don’t need to know how to fix the faucet, just need to make sure the house doesn’t flood)
    3. How to plunge a toilet
    4. What school your kids go to (my Dad had no idea where my youngest siblings went to school and pulled me out of high school one day to help him find their school)
    5. How to flip a fuse in the fuse box, if it pops

    1. heidi

      THESE are useful things to know. They are also things I know, unlike the other list.

      I still need a barterable skill though. Must think on that.

    2. nonsoccermom

      I cannot stop laughing at item 4. There is a very real chance my father would have done something similar…if he had ever once picked either myself or my sister up from school.

      I’m feeling a bit better because I can, in fact, do ALL of these things. And you’re right, these are all very important!

      1. Kara

        Yeah, he knew if he admitted to my Mom that he didn’t know what school the kids went to, he’d be in trouble. So he found me (knowing there’s only one high school in the town helped) and I found out where they went to school.

  10. nonsoccermom

    This is an excellent list! I would always much rather pay someone who knows what they are doing. I’m good at lots of things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I need to be able to do ALL things. Although I’m not sure what my barterable skill would be in the case of a post-apocalyptic society. Maybe I should give that some thought.

  11. magpie

    one of the things i like about my husband is that he can do basic plumbing and electric work around our house. and he can take apart a chicken, cooked or uncooked.

    i wonder what i could barter. i’m good at organizing medical bills and insurance paperwork…?

  12. Court

    You are my favorite person on the internet. Reading this immediately made me feel better about my large lack of adult skills.

  13. WL

    I’m an expert at paying experts to do things I can not/choose not to do.

    Swistle, may I please barter with you for the “Or I can listen attentively and responsively to a really boring story?” There are so many times I just look at my husband and want to scream, “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UPPPPPPPP!” (late 40s, stillllll hearing (the same GD) stories of his hockey golden days….help me)

    1. Anne

      When my sister is on long drives and notes that her husband (the driver) seems to be getting a bit too tired for safe driving she asks him to tell her about the time his team won some big contest. He becomes alert and animated and she can doze off. I use a similar technique when I am having a hard time falling asleep.

  14. Alice

    Heeeeeee oh my I just giggled delightedly through this entire post. So much delight.

    I was going to say the same thing as Kristy, the only time driving stick has been necessary so far has been in Europe, where renting an automatic costs, like, 18376245x as much (if it’s even offered as an option).

    Oh, and also that one time many years ago where I was at a wedding with an ex-boyfriend, and he ended up with such a dramatic hangover the next day that by check out time, he still couldn’t be upright for more than 30 seconds without puking, so I had to drive us home in his (stick shift) car. That was actually very rewarding (for me) because he had refused to ever let me drive his car until that point, because I was not a stick shift aficionado, yet behold: I got us home safe and sound without ruining his transmission.

    For everything else I am staunchly Hire A Professional With Aggressively Visible Underwear because ain’t nobody got time for that.

  15. Erin

    Do you care at all about gardening? I can’t remember. But I’ve recently become a huge fan of the writing of gardener/plant researcher Carol Deppe. You remind me of her (or the other way around).

    Getting to the point, in her book The Resilient Gardener, she’s like, “nobody in the history of Homo sapiens or even homo erectus has been truly self reliant. Bartering/trading/sharing/gifting exists because it makes sense. Even in the event of a mega world disaster.” (Paraphrase)

    Noah and I didn’t learn to drive stick until we bought a stick shift car. Because it was cheaper and we had no money. Did I spend a week hiding from the car? Yes. But I also learned to drive it quickly, out of necessity. Everybody needs to just CTFD on the “musts.”

  16. Jenny

    On the list of “things you should have been able to do in previous generations”: build a log house from scratch, paint your lover’s silhouette, die of tuberculosis

  17. Grace

    This, tangentially, reminds me of people who say, “You MUST learn to speak another language! It’s PATHETIC that you only speak one!”
    To which I would like to respond, “WHICH one of the BAZILLIONS of languages would you like for me to learn?”
    I am crazy and have dragged my children to approximately 13 countries outside of our own and with the exception of the UK, they all had a different language. Which country did we have the hardest time communicating in? The UK, because the different accent made it hard to decipher when speaking quickly. And do you know the second language that I can communicate in most effectively in? Spanish…which is the ONE language we have never used in all of that travel. So the ONE language I have a sporting chance to become bilingual with is the one language I have never needed while traveling.

    I know how to drive a stick shift. I will barter with someone who can launder and remove stains effectively.

    1. Anna

      Ooh, me, I am a freak who loves to do laundry. Never touched a stick shift in my life (he he he).

      1. Grace

        NEW BESTIE!
        I don’t truly have any marketable skills but my husband makes bread, cooks like crazy good food, can build a fire, knows edible plants, and can tell which direction we are going at all times.

        So basically, I can whore my awesome husband out. That’s my skill.

  18. Sarah

    I have to comment because I’ve been watching a lot of HGTV now that I’ve discovered it online, and I’ve realized that I actually do not want to do my own home renovations. When you look at all the (mostly) men fixing things and all their tools – why would I want to do that when I can give them all of my (non-existent) money to do it for me in 1/1000 of the time and with infinitely more skill than I could.The point is moot at the moment due to the lack of both skills, tools, and money, but I’m happy to have settled on it nonetheless.

    My only caveat is that I do like having a cordless drill for small projects.

    Also, I can (badly) debone a chicken, and I’ll will definitely trade you for some peanut butter in the apocalypse.

  19. BKC

    My barter-able skill: able to patiently explain and verbally walk old and/or crotchety people through technology stuff. Even over the phone. (Will there be tech and phones in the apocalypse?)

    Skills I would need to barter for: most everything else.

    1. Elizabeth

      I love this comment so much.

      You can solve my tech woes. I will cook you a good meal out of random ingredients.

  20. Gigi

    I love this post and all the comments!!

    In the event of an catastrophe, I have no real discernible bartering skills – but I have a husband who can de-bone a chicken, drive a stick, and can do multiple things around the house – so I’ll use his skills.

  21. Cindy

    I love everything about this post and the comments so far, and I laughed out loud at letting the tire guy swear at the tire for you.

  22. Alexicographer

    This made me laugh. I am of the “must learn to drive stick” school (mostly because of the “renting a car in Europe” question), and have several times found it useful to change my own tire, and also prefer to change my own oil (seems much less time-consuming to me than the alternatives). But at the same time I agree with your fundamental point. Indeed I recently was thinking that my son (about 6 years from driver’s license age) WILL learn to drive a stick and then found myself wondering … if he’ll need to learn to drive a car at all.
    I’ll be happy to barter my tire- and oil-changing skills for some peanut butter should the need arise.

  23. Shelly

    I can’t do any of the things on that list. I’d come the closest to making a perfect martini, and have now decided to learn bartending in my spare time (hahahahha, what’s that?) as my end-of-the-world skill. That’ll work, right?

  24. Rachel

    I love you so much. In the apocalypse, you can entertain us with terrifically constructed rants around the fire barrel.

  25. Maggie

    I came back to this post today just to read the comments and your commenters did not disappoint!

  26. Emily

    I am 34 and have no idea how to sew a button on. I figure I’m ok for as long as my mom is alive…

  27. Eva

    You know what skill I would pay for? People to do my phone calls. I would email them with a long and detailed list of what needs to be taken care of and how, and they would skillfully do it and then email me back with a report. No phone talking involved.

  28. Maggie2

    Yeah, I’d buy that book, too. I’d pre-order, even. There could be a section of Men Vacuuming, Men washing dishes, and Men Carrying the groceries in from the car.
    (Great post. You still win the Internet.)

  29. Carrie

    I was all set to change a flat last week, but my husband gave me an out and I TOOK IT. But I felt I should say I *could have* done it if I needed to. His response, “There’s no way–the lugnuts were so tight, you could not have budged them.” And I’m ok with that. Because even he could not change his own tire last summer for the very same reason. We have Road Side Assistance for a reason! No shame!

  30. Cc Donna

    One good reason to learn to drive a stick shift is because standard transmissions are about all one can lease in England. I believe most autos in Europe are standard, as well.

  31. Squirrel Bait

    How have I not seen this post already?! It’s been four days and therefore kind of late to be jumping in, but I can’t help myself because I have OPINIONS!

    A couple of years ago my sister-in-law made up her own list for her offspring who were +/- college age. I thought it was genius because her list was actual life skills (more “cook a meal without killing people” than “gentle a horse”) and because it was stuff she knew that she and her husband could teach their kids before they left the nest, so to speak. It also had things like “use public transportation” and “say no gracefully to alcohol/drugs if you don’t want to partake.”

    But! Even more important would be to teach your kid how to learn how to do life-skill things. My totally resourceful spouse wanted to go canoeing over the weekend and neither of us knew how to steer a canoe. Fifteen minutes of YouTube videos later, she was ready to pilot that thing like a champ. (I sat in the front like a princess, pointing out turtles and offering up unskilled muscle power.) She runs into a lot of college-age people at her job who plaintively say, “Well, what do I do now?!” instead of saying, “Okay, I bet I can look this up/call somebody to ask for help/figure it out through trial and error.” That type of confidence/self-reliance/resourcefulness can really get you far.

    One of my clearest memories from the first couple of weeks of college was a guy in my dorm wandering through the hallways bellowing, “Who wants to do my laundry?!” I cannot describe my level of disgust for the idea that a grown man didn’t know how to wash a load of socks. So from then on, my basic life skills requirement is that every adult should know how to keep themselves fed, clean, and safe. Although gentling a horse might be kind of cool too…

  32. Jenine

    Your first paragraph made me so happy. Imagine me reading it aloud to my husband tonight. There is no escaping — I will read it!

  33. Ruby

    I’m late to comment, but I have thoughts!

    I think all of those lists should be changed from “things all adults should know how to do” to “situations all (or most) adults should know how to deal with.” Like, every adult who regularly drives a car should know what to do in the event of a flat tire. Maybe that means changing the tire yourself; maybe it means having the phone number of someone who can change it for you; maybe it means being willing to wait on the side of the road with your hazards on until someone pulls over to help. Or, every adult should have a plan for getting their taxes done. That could mean learning how to do them yourself, or designating that job to another member of your household, or having the financial means to pay someone else to do it.

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