Prepared; or, Better to Have It and Not Need It Than Need It and Not Have It


Long before Bruce Willis had one, my Daddy had one.

This morning I sat at the kitchen table in a state of remarkable calm considering that it is a school morning. School mornings are artificial in a way, considering that we must, at the crack of dawn, try to think up everything that could possibly happen over the next eight or nine hours and be ready for that. Not just, what shall we eat now, but also what will we have with us to eat later; and for “eat” fill in any verb, and there’s a college day.

“Do I need my Bio book?” Probably better, in case you have an hour downtime you can get started on that chapter.

Seriously, who wants to think that far ahead?

Am I going to want coffee later? (Hmm. I’m going to say yes.) Bring my refillable Dunkin’ cup? (Needs to be washed.) Do I have two singles for the cafe? (Their debit-card reader is broken for the two-hundred and sixy-fifth time this year.) The heck, I’ll figure it out later.

This is why God invented vending machines: for the early-morning indecisives. If only He had been better about making sure we had quarters.

You know who never had any trouble with this stuff? My parents. My father, for example. Mornings were never scattered or frantic for my father. That might have had something to do with the fact that I think he wore the same Cold-War-Engineer outfit to work every day for thirty-six years: White shirt, polyester tie, gray, black or grayish-black suit, and the Pocket Protector, complete with two pens (red and blue), a mechanical pencil (Staedtler) and a wooden pencil (sharp); security badge clipped to the flap of the Pocket Protector. Wallet. Watch. Keys in a keyfold — that clever leather tri-fold contraption with the dozen nifty spring clips to hold each one key (this was before the automobile “chip key” whose girth ruined this noble male accessory). Coins. And all of this had come, swiftly and surely, from the handy surfaces, pouches and projections of The Kangaroo on the Dresser.

Years later my brother, our spouses and I sat in a movie theater and my brother and I, at least, completely lost the thread (?) of the plot of Pulp Fiction (that’s even funny to write, let alone contemplate) because we just sat there gaping at each other and going, “That’s Daddy’s Kangaroo!” I think maybe John Travolta was in that movie too. And Uma Thurman’s feet. But I only remember the Kangaroo.

My mother had her own calm morning ritual, and until I started housing college students I hadn’t understood it, or even fully remembered it, until one day I did it. The kitchen table, in the morning, always had a little row of objects. These were objects that my sister or brother or I had mentioned, in passing, probably out of the corner of a full mouth, some time in the last full moon, that we would need to take to school on such and such a day. Next to said objects were also food and quite probably a five or ten dollar bill.

“But I don’t need money today,” one of us would say. She would simply look at us as if to say, and until thirteen seconds ago you didn’t remember that you needed [object] and now you are convinced that I just saved your life.

“Besides,” she would say, placing a folding umbrella next to our books, “Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”


Mary and Me on A Wednesday Morning


I had a pretty n220px-NJ_57_eastbound_at_NJ_31ormal morning. With a couple of quirks. Usually I get up and have enough time to let Dog out, make coffee in my much-beloved Chemex pour-over, and stare at my e-mail as if that’s going to help something for maybe half-an-hour before I make the nine-mile drive to school. On Wednesdays I don’t have class until 2 pm, but I usually have “stuff” to do that often involves fixing tech problems I myself created, by being overly ambitious and overconfident in the ability of Microsoft to play nicely with the college’s infrastructure, and/or answering texts from students whose lives seem so much more complicated than mine did thirty years ago. I shoot for getting in by 9:30.

But this morning I had to pick somebody up a few miles out of my way, and the tank was on E, and so I found myself out on the NJ state highways among the regular people who have longish commutes and expectations of a 9 am arrival. I felt like an imposter. For one thing, I went to Dunkin Donuts. That’s not unprecedented, but you know how much I love my Chemex and how much my wallet hates being opened and reminded of its sad state; but in I went. The drive-through was packed with regular people, so I parked. There were three regular people running the place – doing a hell of a job, I might add, given the lines both inside and out. Given the varying quality of customers’ ordering. Are they explicit? Articulate? Of course this is New Jersey; we’re used to fast-talking mumblers who have not yet had coffee. Unlike the famous Krispy Kreme South Carolina experience, when I jogged in at 8 am with two refillable extra-large travel cups, thrust them at the young woman and requested black two Splendas and four glazed, please, to which she replied, “Honey, you’re gonna have to say that a whole lot slower.”

I know; it’s time to get a new story; that was 2003, and both of those traveling companions are dead now. That fellow-traveler and that Dog.

But these women were sharp. They translated mumbles into French Vanilla and pointing fingers into bagels, not toasted, extra cream cheese. (Oh, don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t the French Vanilla. I insist upon coffee that’s flavored like, well, coffee.) I was actually in and out before the car who joined the drive-in line just as I parked. A notable vehicle. A lime-green four-door Jeep. Shiny even in the winter (Fall? Spring? Hurricane?) weather.

When I got to the gas station, there was the lime-green jeep. I caught a glance of the woman driving. Probably a bit younger than me; forties; dark wavy hair, clearly attended to (one cannot say the same for my reddish frizz in its pony tail; it clearly exists without attention) nice black-and-white check blazer. No glasses. Everybody at school wears glasses, but apparently lots of regular people (under 50) don’t.

I decided that her name was Mary. As I turned onto Route 57 and she stayed straight for Schooley’s Mountain Road, I realized that our days, up to this point so in-tune with one another, were also going to diverge, probably radically. She was probably on-target to get to the office by 9. Slip her bag into the bottom desk drawer. She would be greeted, “Good morning, Mary.” How are the kids? What did you do last night? Oh, and when you get a chance can you take a look at the email I sent you? She will glide softly across the corporate carpet in her nice black shoes, over to the printer. The printer is in the same room as Mary’s desk.

Cut to me. My black boots are wet and the waxed floors squeak under them. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing but yesterday a couple of the students were complaining how annoying it was to sit in the hallway and listen to people’s boots squeak. So I’m annoying, already. Everybody’s happy to see Mary but I’m annoying people who have a 9:30 am Biology lab. I slide into the classroom I’m using. It’s not really my classroom but I’m the only one with activities in the room so it’s kind of my classroom, and I have the number code even though it doesn’t always work on the first try. I will need to access my student files today, so I will have to go to the room where I have a locking filing drawer. I have a locking filing cabinet in this room too, but nobody can find the key. Three separate people have written the key code number on the backs of their hands over the last two weeks, but I think they forget if that’s the room number or the key number and anyway I have a locked cabinet and all of my non-confidential files are in a pile on top of the locked file cabinet and my locking file drawer is in the other building. My feet are going to get wet again. Don’t forget to hit the button that locks the door. No, not the right one, the left one. Left as you’re facing the door. Left as you’re facing the door from the INSIDE of the door.

Hey, JoJo. My kids’ school is closed so I can’t come to class today.


Hey JoJo, were we supposed to write that report today?

Yesterday, actually. It’s OK get it to me as soon as you can.

Hey JoJo, my English prof didn’t show up and it says we should just read the chapter. Should I read the chapter?

Yes, why don’t you read the chapter.

JoJo: We are out of 3 x 5 index cards.

Wait, index cards? I thought this generation was supposed to consist of plugged in, wireless, digital natives. Who uses index cards? Isn’t there an IndexCardApp?

Probably, but if you try to download it the school’s WiFi will give a tremendous hiccup and quit for the day, and anyway the professor wants to see what we wrote on the card and we can’t take our phones out in class. Oh and I need to borrow white-out. And your stapler.

Mary’s thinking about lunch right about now. I’m thinking if I lock the door, close out the shared files on the server, lock my laptop, and hide the confidential folders underneath my laptop bag that’s lying on the squeaky waxed floor I can possibly sneak out long enough to pee.

Tonight I’ll have two, maybe three, wayward college students sleeping somewhere in the futons of my dwelling (that’s going to be the title of Part 2 of my memoir I’m never going to write, The Futons of My Dwelling-Place, or maybe that will be the title for “autobiographical poems”). I think I left my phone in the car. That’s OK, no bars today anyway. Write me a note on the whiteboard.

The Secret of My Success


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Today, September 5, 2015, Vice-President Biden wants to be President, but doesn’t.  Roger Meddows-Taylor is happy and proud in his rock-star role, but hates it.  I sense today that in all corners of the world, among the great and the obscure, are people who could succeed, even are succeeding, wildly, and wonder if it’s the right thing to be doing, because it means they are doing so in the absence of someone they loved.
I am not a big fan of Kate Chopin.  You know me, American Lit junkie, feminist, and short-story fan, and also someone who holds particular literary peeves born, I suspect, from anthologies (c.f. my earlier commentary on Jack London). The Story of an Hour is, naturally enough, a very painful text for me.  A widow, shocked, appalled at herself, sits and begins to contemplate the world without Him — and it becomes increasingly obvious that it’s going to be a garden of earthly freedom.  Lucy Maud Montgomery’s The Blue Castle promotes the simple romantic notion that it is the escape from the people you’ve lived with and “loved” in a conventional, social manner of speaking, that will guarantee your happiness and opportunity, even bless your gifts to the rest of the world.  Leave your nets and come with Me.

Let’s say that’s true.  A person with whom we were entangled, in good ways or ill, through family obligation or genuine love, is dead.  And then we get a marvelous opportunity to do something good in the world.  Not just successful, but actually GOOD.  I don’t know.  Care for someone sick or lonely.  Start a foundation for the relief of AIDS.  Lead the free world.  Crap.  Is it GOOD that he died?

If Roger had gotten to keep his friend, there would be beautiful music, but there would be no Mercury Phoenix Trust.  If Joe Biden had gotten to keep Beau…If I still had Dan, would I have taken in the homeless kid?  Is it GOOD that he’s gone?  If my career takes off (not bloody likely, but just pretend) if I return to the Church, if I help a dozen college students who might not have otherwise graduated because I’ve got nothing better to spend my emotional energy on, is that Good?

I love September 5th, and I hate it.  In 1997 I left Newark Airport on September 5th and arrived in Heathrow seven hours later plus GMT time and was held up for half an hour while Heathrow shut down for Diana’s final arrival, a moment of silence; never seen London so still before or since.  Then Elton John writes that damn song and people pour out love and affection and there are teddy bears tucked into the arms of Peter Pan’s statue in Kensington Gardens.

Mr. Biden, I would love for you to be President.  But I fully understand if you couldn’t bear to succeed at it.

The Quotable Nietzsche

Ralph Waldo Emerson told us to read for understanding, not for quotations, so out of respect for the man I’m not going to look up that citation.  I’ll choose to understand what he meant rather than quote what he said.

Ah, the polished, the perfect quotation.  People who have never read Huxley put him in their e-mail signature lines.  People who are cloudy at best about determinism will “Like” a Nietzsche quote.  The children of red-blooded, FNGod-fearing, gun-toting capitalists stand up every morning in school and quote a self-proclaimed Socialist (yes, look it up, a Socialist wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, all except the “under God” part). Misogynists steal from Eleanor Roosevelt and the Peabody sisters (hardly anybody quotes Sophia, though.  God bless her,  she was the cute one) without any self-awareness.

“Shakespeare said,” they say, and then they quote something by a minor villain in an early Shakespearean history which he probably only co-wrote.  Conversely, they attribute Shakespeare’s lines to the historical Julius Caesar. Then they misquote Hamlet.

The Perfect Memorial company, from whom I ordered my husband’s urn, and who send me yearly “reminder” e-mails about my Memorial Needs (they must think I need to re-pot him every April or something) have a handy select-a-quote tool to “personalize” the Loving Tribute.  Because nothing says personal as much as a pre-fab quote from a Persian philosopher you never heard of.

Wait, there are Persian philosophers?

On Mental Illness and Mass Shootings From Someone Afraid of Guns

The Text for Today (And remember what the Rev. Norvel Goff said on June 21 about everything before being context, and yes, you were going to listen to the text, and if you got restless or sleepy, he was going to start with Genesis): “What Makes a Shooter Do It?” By Mike McIntire, NYT Sunday Review July 26, 2015, page 3.

I have a mental illness.  And I tell everybody.

Forget whether I should or shouldn’t; if it’s hurting my chances at better jobs, stronger relationships, more public respect.  Forget the lesson of Thomas Eagleton.  I have a real thing, albeit invisible, that is part of me, and I refuse to pretend it isn’t there.

Forget if I “deserved it” or “did it to myself.” Forget if I could be happier if I thought nice thoughts or didn’t dwell on the negative or counted my blessings or got over myself or snapped out of it or had had to struggle to find work or food or paid my own way through college or any of the other things that make good, sane, hardworking, sensible folks. 

Don’t think for an instant that I haven’t berated myself.  If you’d had to dig ditches or clean toilets for a living, I tell me, you wouldn’t worry so much about abstract social injustice and deep metaphysical questions.  You’d be too busy and your feet would hurt, and you would be a real person.

I know I’m not the deserving poor.  I’m undeserving.  — Alfred Doolittle, Pygmalion, G.B. Shaw.

Let’s just grapple with one piece of the equation today.  People like me — people who struggle with mental illness — on some level are expected to behave badly.  Criminally.  Dangerously.

Why did he do it?  He was mentally unbalanced.  Ah.

Gilbert Gottfried does an imitation of Charles Manson at his parole hearings: “Is it hot in here or am I crazy?”

Students write me paper after paper about the narrator in Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.”  He is paranoid, delusional.  He hallucinates; sees the old man’s evil eye; hears the dead man’s beating heart.  A good percentage of the students also conflate the unnamed narrator with Poe himself, committing first a crime against proper literary form and a sin against New Criticism: “Edgar believes the old man is watching him during the night.”

Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic” of Bronte’s Jane Eyre, is both homicidal and suicidal.  She likes to play with matches.

As I was just plugging in my bluetooth keyboard in order to write this, I was reflecting that even outdoors on a beautiful summer Sunday I am dependent upon electricity.  And I thought of the character on the Muppet Show obsessed with electricity.  His name?  Crazy Harry.

Crazy.  Dangerous.  Padded rooms; nothing with which you could cut yourself, hurt yourself, hurt others.  Sharp objects, live wires, lighter fluid.

You want to take away dangerous objects from most of us?  Take away social media. I’m more likely to hurt myself or others with that than I am with dangerous pointy things.

First, I hate open flame.  Ask anybody.  No fireplace in my house.  Only approved candles (the non-tippy kind in deep, high-walled glass, set on a fire-resistant plate).  And even then only in blackouts.  No hibachis.  No smores.  No Weber grills.  NO CAMPFIRES.  No citronella.  Smoke outside and crush the life out of your butt or better yet empty the ashtray into the toilet and flush twice.  Use a match to light a reluctant stove?  OK, but run the match end under the faucet for a minute and a half. 


And for God’s sake, do not leave a lighter in the carpet-lined console of your two-door Pontiac 6000 and then try to put the subsequent fire out with Diet Coke while I’m in the back seat with no escape.

Smokey the Bear stands outside the volunteer fire department in my town and yells at me that fire danger is MODERATE today, and I run home and water all the plants.

I’m not allowed to play with knives, either, because a little blood loss, as I believe I have reported in this blog before, means a very dizzy me, due to genetic aenemia. Actual conversation in a phlebotomy lab:
Me: How many vials are you planning to take?
Phlebotomist: Only five.
Me: I can’t spare that much.
Phlebotomist:  Tee hee hee.
Phlebotomist: …think you should bring a wheelchair.
Me: Wheelchair.  What a funny word.  Like a chair that has wheels on it.
Nurse: See if you can’t get her up from there.  Get some water.
Other Nurse: I don’t think this blood pressure cuff is working. 

Dentist.  There’s just a little bleeding.  Pack it with a tea bag when you get home.
Me: [CLUNK].

Let’s face it.  The flesh wounds that Bruce Willis wipes off with the tail of his tee-shirt would send me to Mount Sinai for a day and a half, to quote Mel Brooks.

And I think that all of that together would make me a perfectly horrible hero.  And, incidentally, an even worse villain.

I’m afraid of my hot glue gun, for god’s sake. Yes, the irony.  I have a craft room.  Scissors, pins, crochet hooks, knitting needles, soldering iron, sewing machine, leather awl, beading needle, rotary quilting cutter, paper trimmer.  I don’t know if I am always on high alert when I’m in there, but I’ve never actually injured myself or any other living creature during the creation of crafts. 

I have major depression.  Sometimes (ok lots of times) I think the world is a pretty lousy place.  I suffer from complicated grief.  I question the justice of the universe.  I have survivor guilt and low self-esteem.  I cried when Maggie-Dog got into a fight with an Irish Terrier (sounds like a dog-walks-into-a-bar joke) and got a quarter-inch cut on her ear that bled. 

I am not in any position to evaluate the complex correlations between violence and mental illness; between mass shootings and gun culture and social ills and flags and fear and victim-blaming and lone-wolf psychology.  I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to worry about violence from every psychiatric patient.

I never even bought a salad shooter.

What a wonder is a gun. What a marvelous invention.  First of all, when you’ve a gun…Everybody pays attention.  — Charles J. Guiteau, Assassins, Steven Sondheim.