Got mad skillz?

Logs for use as firewood, stacked to dry.
Logs for use as firewood, stacked to dry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people possess certain skills that leave me gobsmacked, thinking they’re simply not possible — when, clearly, they are.

Just not by me. 

While house-sitting, I  needed firewood. I didn’t dare try splitting logs without supervision, so asked my friend Sally’s husband Rick to do it. Which he did. (They live at the edge of a lake, in the woods, year-round, and have for many years.)

Sally designed (!) their house and adjacent studio and Rick, a professional carpenter, built it. Every time I step foot in their cosy, lovely, light-filled home I’m in awe of this fact. How pioneer-esuqe to be able to design and build your own home!

In my Dad’s fridge were some gorgeous jams and jellies made by his 80-year-old neighbor.

Being surrounded by all this self-sufficiency made me think about my own skills, few of which would allow me to survive without electricity, running water or heat — all things that many of us in the more developed world take totally for granted.

The new American television season offers the weekly drama post-apocalyptic Revolution,  set 15 years into the future after every form of technology has died, shoving the world back into an eat-or-be-eaten set of warring tribes. It’s a popular fantasy and one I think about as something quite likely to happen. People know how to use axes and arrows, a skill set fairly unusual in suburban New York where I live.

The city-dwellers I know consider “skills” as being able to steal a cab from someone at rush hour on 42d. Street or snagging a reservation at the hot new bistro or making sure your new book gets a decent review in the right places.

Not exactly life-saving.

I took a class last year, and wrote about it for The New York Times, that was — like my silent retreat a few months earlier — life-changing, this one in how it made me relate to the natural world and wonder much more deeply about my place in it. It’s taught by Shane Hobel, whose skills left me open-mouthed:

The day’s class began with a lesson in cordage: turning virtually anything, from a cocktail napkin to the soft and pliable inner bark of some trees, into a length of rope useful for lashing branches together to build a shelter, to make a fishing line, or to string a bow. Mr. Hobel patiently showed everyone how to make cord by twisting raffia that he brought in lieu of cutting open a tree, and how to double or triple it in strength and length.

Within minutes his students happily saw the fruits of their labor. “This feels familiar,” said Ms. Browning, a knitter.

“These are time-tested skills,” Mr. Hobel said. “Many years ago we all used to know them, and now we’re bringing them back.”

The key to surviving in the wilderness, he explained, is conserving precious time and energy by remaining calm and aware. “The more skills we have, the more capable we are,” he said.

Spending a few hours in the woods reminds me that I’m simply one species among many, and one extremely ill-equipped to survive, or thrive, without the trappings of domesticity. In the woods, I observe more carefully. I can usually tell the time within 20 to 30 minutes by the quality of the sunlight. I notice things like mushrooms, and if I really knew my stuff, I’d be able to forage some safely for dinner.

I wish!

Some of the things I know how to do well, some well enough I’ve been paid for:

Teach writing

Edit others’ writing

Translate French

Shoot a gun, whether rifle, shotgun or handgun (best with a Glock 9mm); yes, I’ve had professional training while writing my first book, about women and guns

Sell on a retail floor, the subject of my second book

Translate and interpret Spanish

Take photographs

Draw and paint


Design an interior

Trim a jib for a sailboat race

Build a fire

Sail, canoe, row, kayak

Ride a horse

Buy 20th, 19th and 18th century antiques fairly knowledgably, having studied the field

Ski, downhill and cross-country

Ice skate, (fast and backwards)

Play acoustic guitar

Orient myself quickly in unfamiliar territory

Speak publicly

Organize a public event

Some I long to acquire:

More sophisticated cooking

Making pottery

Speaking a new language, or several — (but which ones?!)

Use a sewing machine


What sorts of mad skillz do you, or people you know personally, have?

Which ones would you like to acquire?

27 thoughts on “Got mad skillz?

  1. I often think about these same questions…isn’t it ridiculously easy to live in the modern, industrial world without possessing any real, hands-on skills? There’s far too much leisure and convenience in our world.
    I’m impressed with your list!

  2. Julia

    It’s sounds weird to say this, but my mum taught me all of the domestic skills she knew, sewing, knitting, cooking, manners, etiquette (there’s a difference!), how to write a thank you letter, how to snuff out a candle, how to fold a sweater, how to preserve clothes from moths. And how to darn socks, which I never do.

    1. I love the domestic arts and envy you these…My mom taught me to write a thank-you note, for sure, and how to cry (when necessary) to a hotel manager if in crisis alone in a foreign country. That came in handy after a brutal allergic reaction I suffered when alone in Istanbul.

      How DO you preserve clothes from moths? (Cedar?)

      1. Julia

        She had a cedar chest, a large, heavy mahogany trunk lined with cedar where the folded sweaters were kept. I have some cedar-lined zip bags for the same purpose. For wool coats and suits on hangers, she used zippered garment bags and moth balls. The head of textiles at the ROM told me never, ever use mothballs. But mum’s wool never had holes and she smelled faintly of mothballs. Most of my wool clothes have at least one hole, but I can put my mad sewing skillz to mending them, if I get around to it.

  3. 🙂

    I once went skating on Wolllman Rink in Central Park with a group of American colleagues who al boasted what great roller-blade skaters they were. Pshaw! After I raced around the rink a few times, one said “Yup, you’re Canadian.”

  4. Ballet and hunting. Incongruous but both will serve their purpose when the zombies rise/the aliens come/the Mayans were right. (A subject for another day is how I have a coworker who ascribes so several of these sorts of theories and regales us, from time to time, with predictions of how her neighbors won’t make it but she, SHE will be prepared. She’s a treasure trove of material but alas she reads my blog!) I’ve also got rudimentary wilderness survival (thank you Dad, the boy scout), and excellent cooking (thanks, Mum).

    Sidenote, I’ve never watched an episode of Revolution because, and I’m quite serious, I’m annoyed how in the future all the women seem to have expertly managed and luscious hair despite the lack of curling irons or the electricity to run them.

    1. Ballet and hunting? Ballet and hunting? This sounds like a Dickensian law firm.

      The mind boggles…pirouettes with a Perazzi? Arabesques with an AK-47? I can do ballet, too….so I wanna join your tribe.

  5. You may have started out by admiring other people’s skillz, but you certainly have an impressive list and range of your own. And ha, Dickensian law firm! I did not see humour on your list but I think you might add it. ~ Lily

  6. First of all: I heard that lavender also keeps the moths away – Mom’s a fiber artist, so these things are important. I like using lavender since it means that your clothes smell nice as a bonus.

    Second, I’m curious what you thought of Revolution? It’s been getting major hype as my uncle’s in the show, so we as a family are excited. I too was dismayed by how well-coiffed all the ladies were. When I used to spend my summers backpacking and horsebackriding, we all wore our hair either very short or braided. I love the idea though. The thing that blew my mind was the loss of long term communication. I’d never be able to write you without electricity. Heck, if the power went out I’d be stranded from my family until we rediscovered the art of building transatlantic sailing ships. Food for thought, though…it’s a fabulous concept.

    Third, I can knit, learning to sew, play music, ride horses, hike/backpack, ice skate, and swim. I’m lousy at climbing trees and doing cartwheels though and my vision’s too awful to ever be able to use a bow/rifle. My arts are much more book-y though. I can speak in front of people though! And I’m decent at learning foreign languages. Thanks for another great post!

  7. I’m seeing a whole new tribe forming here…:-)

    Glad you liked this post. I didn’t include all my skills; swimming, diving and snorkeling among them. I used to do synchro. But I have a weird and highly specific phobia of being upside down under water (which seems normal!) and so I cannot do Eskimo rolls which are necessary for some sorts of kayaking.

    I didn’t like Revolution, which I wanted to becs of JJ Jacobs. I’ll try it again, though.

    I miss Lost!!! No offense to your uncle. I find this one too TV-ish, which I now get a lot better since Malled was optioned by CBS as a sitcom but did not go to pilot…seeing my life (!) and book become “television” and sculpted into a 3-minuted network television script was quite instructive. It’s being shopped again now to three agents for TV/film so my fingers are crossed.

    In fact you would NOT need electricity for long-distance communication. We might revert to dogs and passenger pigeons and (geek alert) did you know how Genghis Khan built and ruled his enormous empire? He created the first version of the Pony Express…a rider with a message destined for far away was strapped into his saddle with bells…as soon as he came within earshot, the next rider was ready to take the message to the next rider, and so on. In this fashion, GK was able to get mail back and forth fairly fast across (land) distances. Tale that, Fed Ex.

    Bizarrely, I sometimes really crave a step back from all of this tech and madness. (Except for 21st century surgery and anesthesia.)

  8. Ah, skillz, I can make and throw a french arrow, fire a rifle, pistol and bow and arrow accurately enough to eat. I want to be able to track better than I can at the moment. Weather forecasting is always useful, reading the clouds to know whats happening. Read maps, and the terrain, with and without a compass.

    As for skills I want, to know the names of things, I haven’t got that knowledge yet. I know a Frenchman who I have walked with,his memory and knowledge of plants and uses is amazing.


    1. This sounds terribly impressive to me!
      I, too, wish I could name all the plants and animals around me. It’s embarassing to love being outdoors as much as I do but be so ignorant of what I’m looking at.

  9. I’d like to learn how to fish, in large part because my son wants to learn. I have no gear and very little knowledge. Your post has inspired me to look into it some more and I’ve found a place where I can “check out” poles and tackle, like a library. It’s not close so it will have to be combined with a camping trip.

    Thanks for inspiration!

  10. I’d like to learn a lot of things, such as how to make a decent jam, one that sets properly. To have better aim with a crossbow and a rifle, so I can go hunting with my husband when the kids are older and we won’t need a babysitter. To gain enough skill to strike out on my own as a consultant, and to write a decent blog post.

    Skillz… whipping up a (nice looking) crocheted hat or some lace fingerless gloves for my daughters without a pattern. Juggling all the different demands on me without cracking (can anyone relate, ha ha)…professional (P.Eng., CMA candidate), family (wife, mother of 2), home maintenance, keeping fit & trim, keeping my mind sharp by engaging in hobbies & reading.

    Thanks Caitlin for sharing your blog with all of us !

    1. Whew! Wish I had your interesting combination of skills…

      It’s really challenging running a clean, pretty home (if that’s important to you); staying fit, being an attentive mum/wife/friend…and, oh yeah, work. 🙂 Then we wonder why we’re pooped.

      Which is why I’m typing this in bed on a Saturday afternoon…

  11. Pooped…yes. Too often!

    Some things just have to slide, and sometimes I drop the ball. Thank God for my husband.

    Oh, and my kitchen stove is Harvest Gold (the original version). That will have to wait!

  12. Over the years I’ve been variously trained or otherwise picked up skillz in a lot of stuff from voice-work to music to anthropology to electronics to astronomy to journalism to physics to photography to history to publishing to writing to philosophy. I can build and repair the family’s computers (up to a point) which has saved many thousands of dollars over the years. I do a lot of basic maintenance on the family cars, same deal. All of these roads lead, inevitably, back to writing…

    Stuff I’m useless at? I can’t dance or cook (I understand the chemistry, it’s the slicing-and-dicing that beats me), I can’t tie knots, and nobody can read my handwriting. Don’t get me started on craft-works or sports. There are amoeba on Saturn that are better at both than I am.

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