Last month, at a rest stop on the New York Thruway, I bought my very first Popular Mechanics magazine. I rushed back to the car. Grinning, I showed my husband the cover– 42 Things You Should Know How to Do at Every Age. Just as I expected, he looked puzzled. I’m not sure even he
knows the extent of my passion for learning new things. But I have begun to wonder if my quickly aging brain has slowed my learning curve? And, if so, will I ever have enough time to learn everything I want to know?
I’ve always fancied myself a woman who knows how to do just a little bit of everything, but only recently have I recognized that the harsh truth is, I’m not. I can do a couple of things relatively well, but for the most part, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by all that I don’t know how to do. According to the Popular Mechanics magazine by my age I should probably know how to drive a stick shift, paddle a canoe, light fireworks, throw a punch, read a river, fell a tree and sail. In fact, of the 42 items listed, I could competently do 4—ride a bike, tie a shoe, change a diaper and hammer a nail.
Each time I read yet another dystopian novel (The Dog Stars, One Second After, Not a Drop to Drink, The Road, Station Eleven, Oryx and Crake), I am again reminded how I lack the ability to survive without the benefit of four walls, heat and a pantry stocked with food. Or perhaps it began with my fascination with survival shows. Drop two strangers on a remote island with only rudimentary tools and watch their struggle to survive (Naked and Afraid and Survivor). Or enlist two people to race around the world completing physical and mental challenges to win one million dollars (Amazing Race). I dream of competing on these shows but then I remember that I cannot read a compass or a map. I can’t identify plants. I don’t know how to start a fire. I can’t even whistle. I’m too ashamed to go on. What was I doing all those years when I should have been learning these valuable skills?
Overconfidence, delusion, denial, I’m not sure which of these best applies, but I still forge ahead toward each new task with the expectation that I will and can excel. This year it was Pilates, where as a newbie I was somehow certain this would be an exercise regime easy to grasp. I clung to every word of my very supportive Pilates instructor, made mental notes. But how exactly does one simultaneously pull in abs, tuck a pelvis, extend arms, curl a neck, drop shoulders while remembering to breathe? I pretend not to notice that I am the only one in the class who needs reminders, adjustments and corrections. My mental picture and physical reality have serious communication issues.
Did I once have a vast store of knowledge and somehow just forgot? I went to Camp Grotonwood every year. I attended Girl Scout camp. Surely, I should have learned how to tie a knot, or pitch a tent.
To reboot my brain, I dusted off an intricate 1000 piece puzzle. I’m great at puzzles, I announced to my family. But after struggling to piece together four pathetic pieces, there it sat, untouched for one full month, a reminder of my failure. When my son came home for spring break, he put the puzzle together in 24 hours while watching tv, eating plate after junk food plate, and entertaining friends.
The day after my mother’s 90th birthday last month, she, my sister and daughter went on a college visit to a school in Boston. They had the opportunity to visit a lab and meet with professors who discussed current research trends. As inspired by the visit as my 14-year old daughter, my mother announced she would like to go back to school to get her biology degree. The only problem that she could see was that pursuing a degree may interfere with the swimming lessons she just started at our local pool.
They say that with age comes wisdom, so my hope is that I will soon be wise enough to either accept what I will never know or, like my mother, realize that
perhaps I have as long as it takes.
And in case you’re wondering, the complete Popular Mechanics list below:
Make a great paper airplane, tie your shoes, ride a bike, shoot a bb gun, hammer a nail, paddle a canoe, properly load a dishwasher, do a donut, drive a stick, survive alone in the woods, jump start a car, locate yourself on a map, get down from a mountain, throw a curveball, fell a tree, unsnap a bra with one hand, throw a punch, plan the perfect road trip, fit a couch through a door, light fireworks, bowl a hook, make a batched cocktail, butcher a pig, plane a door, whistle with two fingers, fix a sink drain, make a roux, golf, use a circular saw, change a diaper, play poker, teach something, build a stone wall, drive 100 mph, identify plants, sail, read a river, make hand cut dovetails, fly fish.