You Should Know

24 March 2001 (again)

Whoever would have thought I'd get a journal entry out of Columbine and Marilyn vos Savant combined? And yet that's what this is. Each has an essay -- Columbine's is old, Marilyn's is in the Sunday Parade section if your paper gets that -- about what people ought to know. So I'm doing my own. Suggestions are welcome.

I'm expecting people who are reading this to be Americans. I know of at least one Canadian who may be reading, and if there's anyone else who is not from the U.S. -- I don't expect you to know the stuff that's specifically centered on English or America. Some of it translates pretty directly with a few amendments -- communication in your mother tongue is essential, rather than communication in English. That's a good idea, probably, but I won't claim it's necessary. Some of it doesn't translate quite as well. For example, I don't expect your average Swede or Indian to be able to name off all fifty states. But if someone says "Nebraska," I think they should recognize it as a state of the U.S., just as we should recognize major regions of other large countries -- that is, I think Americans and Canadians should have about equal knowledge of each other's countries. However, while I know more about Sweden than most people, I'm not going to claim that Gotland should be instantly recognizable to the average adult as a province of Sweden. Also, I think driving is a much less important skill in many European countries than it is here in the states, and I would put modes of public transit higher in importance. Argue with me about this if you want. As you should about any of it.

You should know:

How to read. There's a reason most schools worldwide teach this one first: if you have it, you can get other information. Not all of it, of course. But reading allows self-sufficient learning. Obviously you believe this. You're one of the people who reads for pleasure, or else what are you doing listening to me rant?

How to deal for an hour with:

An Alzheimer's patient. This is going to get more and more common in our society as people live longer.

Someone who is bedridden by disease or injury. You can't guarantee that your friends will stay healthy, and it seems pretty rotten to ditch or avoid them just because they're laid up for awhile, unless they ask you to do so specifically.

Someone who has just had a baby in the last, say, two months. Treating them like pariahs is a bad idea, but there are also assumptions that don't hold any more for new parents.

A person of any age. This includes babies. It includes toddlers, little kids, teenagers, middle aged folks, old people, really old people.... People should not be excluded from being treated like an interesting person by virtue of their age. Also, you never know when you may have to care for someone's kid (even your own, unless you're making darn sure that's not a possibility). It is reasonable for a parent to thrust a child at you in an emergency situation and assume that you and the kid will emerge in one piece.

Someone who has just had someone close to him/her die.

How to guide a blind person without pitching him/her on his/her face.

How to communicate with a deaf person.

How to get married, legally. What legal benefits marriage conveys. What legal disadvantages may pop up. Other aspects of this institution are on a personal choice basis only.

How to prevent pregnancies.

How to cause pregnancies.

What complications are common during pregnancies and during labor. How to deal with someone (including yourself, for half of us) who has gone into labor in less than ideal circumstances without getting her and/or the baby killed.

How to communicate with someone who doesn't speak English.

Major religions in your region: what they are, what major religious holidays are, who their clergypeople are, if any, and what major taboos exist. Example: you should know not to serve a Jew or Muslim pork. Many American Jews and Muslims don't follow these dietary restrictions much, but you should know that they're there. Example: you should know not to call a Protestant minister "Father" unless your kids will call him "Grandpa." Example: you should recognize that Hanukkah is not the only Jewish holiday, nor even the most major one. Etc.

How to communicate a simple problem in written and spoken English.

Basic First Aid. This includes Heimlich maneuver, CPR, mouth-to-mouth, bandaging, splinting, burn treatments, and some random other stuff.

Common diseases: what they do and how. How to prevent them, if this is known and possible. I'm not talking about Marfan's Syndrome here. Adults should know what causes heart disease, what cancer really is, why it's a bad idea to demand antibiotics for a cold, what people with ulcers shouldn't eat...large range of stuff here.

How to balance a checkbook, plan a budget, and figure interest.

How credit cards work and how they don't work.

When it is reasonable to return a purchase and how to do so effectively.

How to open and close banking accounts.

How to use a change of address form. Who needs to be notified in case of a move.

How to vote. This may be something you choose never to use, but if you should want to exercise your franchise for whatever reason, you should be capable of choosing the answer you really wanted. I would not have included this six months ago.

What the basis of government is. What the basis of our government is. What assumptions have been made in formulating its structure, and what alternatives there are, to a rough approximation.

How to calculate and pay taxes. What taxes represent.

How a mortgage works. How to apply for one. What its uses are.

How to get your credit rating. What affects your credit rating.

Major scams and swindles. How to spot them. What a pyramid scheme is and why it doesn't work. (Congresscritters especially should familiarize themselves with this one.)

How to find something in an area of interest at the library. Where the library is (or at least where a library is).

How to find something in an area of interest on the internet.

How to drive an automobile. Preferably how to drive either stick shift or automatic transmission. (Obviously I don't know everything I should. Em once gave me a huge lecture about what if I was out in the middle of nowhere and something happened to the person I was with, and we only had a stick shift and the cell phone didn't work. She seemed to think that I chose not to know how to drive a stick. When really the problem is that our car is an automatic, and no one has yet been willing to volunteer their car for me to learn on. Which makes me think that the chances of Em's horrible situation occurring are rather less than large.)

How to change oil.

How to check a tire's pressure, fill it with air, and change it when necessary.

How to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner for oneself. Some people claim that this can't involve prepackaged stuff. I think it's a good idea if you can figure out how to make a supper out of some random list of ingredients like eggs, butter, milk, peppers, onions, tomatoes, chicken, and an assortment of spices. I don't claim that it's necessary, however. You can survive on prepackaged junk if you want to. I firmly believe that human beings deserve at least one meal every three days that does not include artificial thises and thats from a box. I recognize that this is a matter of preference, however, and if you are happy eating Ramen and Fruit-Roll-Ups for the rest of your days, mazel tov. Just don't do it in my kitchen.

What the approximate expiration periods are of major foods you eat. I don't say that you have to clean out your fridge constantly. I do think that you should not be surprised if your milk has gone south after a few weeks.

How to pick out fresh foods adequately. You should be able to find fruits and vegetables that will not spoil immediately. Since these can be eaten straight, I don't really think this is part of "cooking."

What a balanced diet consists of, regardless of whether you choose to have one.

The difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise. The benefits of each. Again, regardless of whether you choose to do this, you should know what you're not doing and why it would be beneficial to your long-term health.

How to stretch major muscle groups safely.

How to clean a house. This is yet another matter of choice. Live in a pigsty if you want to. Live in a snake pit if you want to. But know how to clean every room of a house.

How to paint a house. Inside and out.

How to lay carpet. Advantages and disadvantages of types of carpet pads.

How to put together a piece of furniture, given the proper tools and instructions.

How to deal with a stopped-up toilet or sink.

How to spot an item of furniture, appliance, or other item which is about to break.

How to drill a hole, fill a hole, hammer a nail, and solder. Welding is good, too, but seems more specialized to me. Maybe soldering is, too. I hereby revoke soldering. But I like it.

How to clean an oven. Not all of them are self-cleaning.

How to clean clothing: wash and dry in machines with appropriate settings. Also how to hand-wash clothing and dishes.

(Sorry, Mom: how to iron doesn't go on my list.)

How to pack up dishes, books, clothing, knick-knacks, and furniture. How to load a moving van so that your possessions are not destroyed.

How to handle a crisis without panicking (at least until later).

How to handle your home and protect your body in a natural disaster common to your area. Where to go and what to do if your home is unlivable due to a natural disaster. Or, I suppose, an unnatural one.

How to find the major points of the compass. What your personal orienteering and hiking limitations are. I don't think it's essential to know how to blaze a trail, for example, or even how to read trailmarkers. I do think it's essential to know what you don't know, rather than plunging into the wilderness and expecting other people to come out and fetch you if your stupidity injures you or others.

How to swim. How to tread water. How to float.

How to tie a square knot, a slip knot, and a bow. A couple of other types of knot are good extra credit.

Which local plants are poisonous, and how much so. Which local animals are dangerous.

How to set up a computer. Come on. Most of them are color-coded nowadays, and many of the plugs only fit into one slot.

Algebra. It's a problem-solving tool. If you think you can't do it, you probably had poor instruction at some point. No one in our society would say, "Oh, I just can't read. You must be so smart, to be good at that! I just never really caught on." But it's socially acceptable to be functionally innumerate. Wrong-o.

Geometry. Also a problem-solving tool. Length, area, and volume are all quite useful concepts. You ought to be familiar with them and with spatial relations.

How to draw and read a graph.

Statistics. If a survey has an error rate reported, you should be able to interpret that error rate. If something that seems unusual happens, you should be able to estimate the probability of its occurrence.

How to follow a chain of elementary logic. What the commonly used logical fallacies are and why they're illogical.

What allergies are.

How eyeglasses work.

What the major forces of the universe are. Where they pop up in your daily life. Where they don't pop up in your daily life -- that is, the limitations of distance on gravity, electromagnetic fields, etc.

What friction is, what a lubricant is, and how they will affect you in ways you could discuss comfortably with your grandmother.

How to gauge the motion of an object and its approximate distance from you.

What the building blocks of matter are. Quarks. Atoms of various elements. Molecules. Chemical bonds.

Some notion of scale. If you don't know scale, you are quite easy to swindle. The difference between a trillion and a billion, say, and where each one tends to pop up.

Chemical reactions. When it is reasonable to get which results (that is, rough weight proportions of carbon and oxygen needed to make carbon dioxide, stuff that's often used in popular science articles). What things don't mix well together around your home.

Environmental trade-offs. You should have reasonable expectations of different coolants, fuels, fertilizers, etc., and recognize that humans are going to affect the environment no matter what. Even Jainists. (I guess I can't put "what Jainism is" on the list.)

How your home electrical appliances actually function. What electrical current and charge are. How to deal with each safely.

How to change a fuse.

What the Big Bang is.

What the Theory of Relativity does and does not say. What "chaos" does and does not mean. What "quantum" does and does not mean.

What the scientific method is. How it is useful and how not. What claims it does and does not make.

What a cell is.

What DNA is. How it does and does not work.

The names and locations of all fifty states. For those of you who live on the coasts: no skimping on the flyover. It's a really bad idea to confuse Minnesota and Missouri and Michigan, for example.

A general geographic outline of your area. You should know which towns are close, being familiar with major towns an hour or more away. Knowledge specialized to your geography: Minnesotans should know how to gauge the depth of a lake. Oregonians should be familiar with riptides and their dangers. Etc.

How to plan and execute a driving trip to a different city.

How to use public transit systems.

The location of all countries which have been countries for ten years or more. A general idea of which countries used to be what -- for example, Iran/Persia, Russia/Soviet Union, etc.

The general continental area of all countries in the world.

Major regions of large countries other than the U.S.

The sites of major political and social upheaval. Why they are important. How they may affect your daily life in the future. How much the U.S. is involved in the upheaval.

A general outline of immigration to the U.S. What immigrants had to put up with in their home countries. What they had to put up with here. Who came when, roughly, and some ideas of why.

Major wars the U.S. has been involved in. Major wars in its history that it hasn't been involved in.

How social customs and mores have changed in the last hundred years in this country, and in other countries in all parts of the world. Differences and similarities in these changes.

A rough sketch of the major periods of history, how long they lasted, which countries were dominant, what major innovations were introduced. This is not limited to Europe. It is especially not limited to Western Europe.

Prehistoric periods: how did they fit together, when did they overlap, which things were likely to have coexisted, and how do we figure these things out. What evolution is and isn't.

A musical scale, arpeggio, and chord. Vocally. Instrumental music will go on my later list, which is stuff you should know if you want to be "educated." (And no, in case you're wondering, I do not hold myself up as a paragon of education. I'm still learning.)

What different types of music are. How they differ.

How to sketch some basic shapes and represent three-dimensional perspective on a two-dimensional sheet.

How to make a simple model of something -- a house, for example -- on paper.

How to behave in a restaurant. How to behave in someone else's house of worship. How to behave in a funeral home or cemetery. How to behave at a formal dinner honoring someone else. How to behave at a formal dinner honoring oneself. How to behave at an informal social event of your personal choice.

How to entertain yourself for at least a week without other people's help.

How to give and receive a gift graciously.

How to give and receive a compliment graciously.

How to give a speech of a given length, from brief thanks up to a five minute talk. Anything longer than that is specialized skill.

How to attempt to introduce oneself to a stranger in a public place without scaring that stranger half to death. What constitutes a public place. How to politely get rid of unwanted company, familiar or unknown to you.

How to defend yourself from an attacker. When to use this skill and when to get the hell out of Dodge.

You'll notice that there's a lot of stuff that's not on this list.

Yeah. For example, specifics of literature, art, theatre, and music. I don't think there is any one book that is so essential to life in the U.S. that everyone should have read it. I think that there are lots of books everyone who considers himself/herself educated should be somewhat familiar with, because they will come up in references in other works. The same goes for the other arts.

But I'm not entirely prepared to say that those are universal. For example, I think it's more important for someone who wants to write science fiction to have read Foundation and Stranger in a Strange Land than Vanity Fair and Much Ado About Nothing, to take some fairly random examples. Not that I think it's okay for any writer to be functionally illiterate outside his/her genre of choice. Just that specific works may have more and less applicability.

There are people who think my taste is execrable. That's fine. I am prepared to say that some authors have better books than others in terms of plot, character, setting, style, etc. etc.etc. I am not, however, prepared to say that there is no other reason you should read a book. My grandmother, for example, enjoys Christian historical romances. She would probably say that Love's Enduring Promise or Orphan Train West is a darn good book. Is there any point to it if I try to shove Aliens of Earth down her throat after she's tried reading some genre stuff and hasn't liked it? And if not, why should we both be forced to read The Grapes of Wrath? (Well, I can see a case for forcing me, because I'm a writer, and we're subject to that kind of indignity just so that we can know what not to do. But forcing someone else who liked Aliens of Earth...that just seems wrong.)

And I guess that's one reason I don't believe in "classics" any more: John Steinbeck. We were forced to read five years of him in a row in junior high/high school. He was supposed to be "great," but we weren't really given a chance to say that he didn't speak to us. As with most classics, timing and personal preference are considered unimportant. Bleah.

What are books supposed to be for? Are we writing castor oil? Were the "great authors" of the past doing so? I don't think so. I don't think they were writing Lessons Of The Ages. And if it's not going to be something you enjoy reading or find personally insightful or instructive, why are we doing this? Entertainment, instruction..what else is left?

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