Maybe I'm Being Catty

I typically am not a reader of how-to books, but one that recently landed on my desk did get my attention. It’s titled The Useful Book: 201 Life Skills They Used to Teach in Home Ec and Shop.

Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I feel like an irritated cat with its fur standing on end when I see a book or magazine cover with a “1” added to what could be a tidy round number — as if 100 uses for baking soda or 200 life skills aren’t enough. And I could tell the authors of the aforementioned book which “1” they could have omitted: Life Skill #97: How to Hand-Wash a Plate. Seriously, is it possible I have been doing it wrong all these years — without step-by-step instructions? The book, by the way, sets forth six steps and prefaces those steps with suggestions such as “Roll up your sleeves.”

Here are some other “life skills” that a diligent editor would slash without mercy:

Life Skill #1: How to Boil Water. Oddly enough, the authors do not include the all-important caution to not watch the pot.

Life Skill #4: How to Crack an Egg. (… in four steps, though you can skip step 4 if you have not dropped a bit of shell into the bowl.)

Life Skill #20: How to Make a Sandwich. Step 5 is “Enjoy your sandwich.” Why else would you make yourself a sandwich if you didn’t intend to enjoy it? And what if you are making a sandwich for someone else? Step 5 is not listed as “(optional).”

Life Skill #100: How to Vacuum. This section includes “FAQs” that cover various things one might vacuum: blinds, curtains, furniture, drawer interiors, etc. On the rebuttal side of a debate, were one to waste time discussing various methods of vacuuming, I would simply state, “Vacuuming is vacuuming.”

Life Skill #139: How to Catch Mice. The four steps all relate to setting a mousetrap. There’s no mention of having a cat do the dirty work for you, which requires only one step: Get a cat. I’m all for efficiency.

As an editor looking for ways to trim copy, I probably would combine How to Build a Chessboard and How to Build a Butcher Block (Life Skills #156 an #157, respectively), because both items are essentially checkerboards. You could just make a couple of butcher blocks and use one for chess.

Notwithstanding the above, I should acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with the publisher adding the word “useful” to the title, because the book includes plenty of helpful tips related to cooking, sewing, cleaning, construction, electricity, plumbing and mechanics. And there are illustrations to help people build a variety of domestic toolkits.

But, honestly, what school used to teach kids in home ec how to catch mice?