Getting Ready: It’s All In The Preparation
Growing Up in the 1950s: Be Vigilant, “Watch Your Step”
I was a teenager when I first saw and heard the adage, Semper Paratus (“Always Prepared”), the official Coast Guard motto. My two brothers joined the Guard back in the 1950s, and the motto became a kind of meme of the 50s culture.
Of course, those were the times of the Red scare and the Cold War. It was a time when school kids were trained to duck under the chairs during a nuclear air raid drill, and Catholics prayed every day to “save Russia.”
I was taught early in life that I had to be vigilant. I had to “watch my step.” I had to avoid temptation or, as the Catholics of my generation used to say, “the near occasion of sin” (Over time, I desperately searched out those near occasions as an antidote to my increasing repression).
And I was always told to “look both ways” before crossing a street.
Vegetables, Last-Minute Tasks, and the Final Preparation
Chefs were later to tell me that “it’s all in the preparation.” Vegetables and portions of meat have to be cut early in the morning so that when brunch and dinner arrives, the cooks can spend time watching them simmer. Orders, of course, have to be filled, and chefs don’t have time to stoop over a cutting board while a customer fidgets nervously after his second drink.
And all those little “last minute” tasks before a long vacation: putting a hold on my mail; emptying the refrigerator; cleaning the apartment (after all, if I were to die on my trip, I don’t want my adult children gossiping about my sloppiness); letting my kids know my destination; stocking up on all my meds; checking my car registration sticker and oil level; putting a few more books on my Nook; buying a couple of bottles of water; and emptying my computer of any tell-tale signs of embarrassment (as Joan Rivers would say, “Grow Up!”).
Now, what about the big preparation? You know what I’m talking about: all the foreplay activity before the final blackout of my life—a health proxy; a living will; a hefty savings account to pay for all the wrap-up festivities, including a donation to hospice; all the PIN numbers to my debit cards; my on-line passwords; the phone numbers of my children, my credit union, my church, and my close friends; copies of all of my articles, blog posts, and poetry sent as attachments to my adult children’s email addresses (they will, of course, read them all before sending them to literary agents to ensure my posthumous Nobel Prize for literature or a post-mortem Pulitzer in a pinch).
I have not known too many people who don’t want to be ready for something—death, a cleaning lady, a meeting, a court room trial, a date, a night out, a trip, a foreign country, a menu, the in-laws, a recital (if you are a singer or an instrumentalist), a sports game (if you are a player), a jogging marathon. (I was intrigued one time in a locker room when a group of guys had just finished their workouts. All of them talked about going out for a few drinks and getting laid after picking up a “chick” at a bar. Exercise for them was stamina preparation for the big bang.)
I have to wonder how much time we spend on setting ourselves up for an event, of preparing the tables of those events with careful detail, smoothing out all the wrinkles, getting everything just right so that there are no mistakes, no flaws, no weaknesses, no cracks in the pavements, nothing left unattended.
The Rainy Day, Medicaid, the Cost Overrun
And then I think about a friend of mine who never traveled, who never drove, who seldom went out to visit friends or relatives, who didn’t read much, who complained a lot about her hammer toe and people dying, who always checked her bank accounts, who saved and saved and saved for a “rainy day,” who kept saying “I want to visit a friend in California before she dies,” who told me not to have scruples about getting anything from her will because she did not include me in that will.
One day, she was taken to a hospital. Over time she was eventually shuttled to a nursing home as a private pay with a single room. Her money ran out. She is now, I assume, on Medicaid and has been downsized to a double room in a cheaper facility.
She was always preparing. Preparing for that eventuality when she could use all of her savings to protect her from the masses of the impoverished. She would outwit them all. She would rescue herself with her money. She would drift out of this world, comfortably.
My friend, by the way, prided herself on having had a secure job with an investment firm and a bunch of guys who would protect all of her investment assets after she retired. She was, so she thought, an armored capitalist ready for every medical or long-term care eventuality. She was prepared.
So now, she is one of those social parasites. Her money has quickly dwindled. She is living off the system. She is now one of those elderly moving into the debit column of our society, a cost-overrun (David Brooks tells us that an elderly couple cost around $200,000 over what they put into the Medicare system).
Pinching Pennies, Buying in Bulk, Four Months to Live
Where am I going with all this? Well, we can make sure that there is always a cushion of money in the bank, “just in case.” We can pinch our pennies. We can buy cheaper Christmas gifts. We can start shopping at TJ Max or Marshalls. We can begin cutting out coupons. We can buy in bulk. We can give up our car and ride public transportation. We can start bringing clothes to the Good Will we no longer wear. We can cancel cable.
Or we can shoot ourselves now and shorten the preparation time for our eventual death.
I have come across many people who obsess about the future. They get all of their “ducks in a row.” They build their economic fortresses paying off the last mortgage payment, changing their IRAs to annuities, putting their homes up for sale (the old “nest egg”), looking at Florida condos.
And then, one day they find out from their oncologist they have four months to live.
So, as the Latins would say, “cui bono” (“for what good?”). All of the preparation in the world will not redeem us from the Grim Reaper. Sooner or later, he will come knocking. Maybe like a thief in the night. Or a nagging friend. But he will come.
The Orderly Life or Living in the Mystery and the Unexpected
What if we choose to focus our retiring years on paying attention to life? What if we decide to go inward, to take stock, to search for some kind of meaning to it all?
What if we go back and read a few classic poems about death? Or about life, for that matter?
So, let’s try one. Let’s try one poem that tells us that we spend too much time “getting and spending.” Maybe we can come to the same conclusion that the “world” is, indeed, “too much with us.”
Perhaps we can choose, rather, to be pulled, even vicariously by a poem, into the grand mystery of “Nature,” to actually feel the heaving bosom of the Sea breathing its full sensual life at a blankly staring moon (the sea baring its “bosom to the moon,” does, after all, metaphorically suggest a primitive, visceral act of seduction and fertility—fun kind of stuff when you contrast it to PIN numbers).
Or we can choose to playfully dive into myth, to imagine that nature is peopled by all kinds of preternatural creatures like Proteus or Neptune.
We can learn a lot from Proteus, a water god. Water, after all, is a liquid. Liquid lacks solidity. The absence of solidity suggests mystery, change, even uncertainty—all the antidotes to a measured life, a life full of preparing and order. Maybe, after all, order must be hung out to dry. And maybe we should think of our lives and our journeys as entirely liquid, to expect, in the end, nothing but mystery and the unexpected.
Or we can choose to be Neptune —the ruler, the controller, the master of our own destiny by pinching our pennies and saving for that rainy day. But, like the Shakespearean “fool,” knowing full well that destiny is a fool’s paradise, for it is the water of change and mystery that, even as illusory masters, we must finally surrender to.
Wordsworth’s narrator was definitely admonishing his readers for wasting their lives in the banalities of “getting and spending.” His anodyne, of course, is to connect to the larger forces of Nature, even if that means taking on the role of a Pagan “suckled in a creed outworn” (the Romantic poets seemed to be obsessed by the pre-literate “noble savages” who would be forever damaged by the artifices of civilization).
Well, what would you have: a neatly prepared, orderly life, or a deeper connection and surrender to life’s mystery and forces of nature?
Maybe I can do both–give my adult children the PIN numbers to all my debit cards. And then a gift certificate to a Niagara Falls motel.