Back-Pocket Day

“I thought I was a hoarder. Turns out I’m a prepper.”

That New Yorker cartoon captures the spirit of the last three months. Everybody holed up, thinking long thoughts, mentally bracing for what might be coming — while at the same time rueing that we didn’t snap into prep mode sooner. (It’s not like we didn’t have fair warning.)

As sensible as prepping is, it’s rare. In our exquisite laziness, humans don’t generally take action unless our hair is actually on fire. We learn to change the tire on the side of the road in a driving rainstorm—not in a warm garage before the skill is ever needed. It’s hard to get up for an emergency that hasn’t happened.

I’ve never been much of a prepper, but the pandemic has me appreciating the value of having things in your back pocket, ready to go. I don’t mean supplies, or even skills (as the “bugging in” tribe advises).

I’m talking about prepping not for a physical emergency but a social emergency. Even an existential one. This is about being ready to pounce should opportunity—the flipside of crisis—present itself.

What if you found yourself on a plane next to a wheezy billionaire looking for a good cause? Would you be able to articulate your great idea? Or what if at a retirement lunch you were suddenly called on to give a toast? Or if at a dinner party you let slip that you attend a place of worship, and someone asked you to sum up your belief system? Or if a news crew found you in a crowd at a protest? Could you speak your truth in a tidy sound bite?

Eventually we will all find ourselves on the spot. And in those moments the difference between a big win and abject failure is … preparation.

So here is my theory. Everyone should have:

a back-pocket joke

a back-pocket story

a back-pocket pitch

a back-pocket defense

a back-pocket toast

a back-pocket blessing

a back-pocket credo, and

a back-pocket epitaph.

Very likely there will come a time — once lockdown is relaxed and social situations become a thing again — when you’re going to need each of these. Maybe it’ll be to rescue a dying party. Or to help someone in crisis reframe their problem. Or to rise to the moment when someone really deserves to be honoured. And even if you don’t deploy them, just the practice of writing these things out will clarify your values. That’s never a bad thing.

Not long ago I sat down to mull each of them in turn.

Back-pocket joke

Tom Hanks appeared recently on the NPR radio show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and he was hit with an obscure question about a talking parrot in the news. Stalling for time, Hanks told his own talking-parrot yarn.

It wasn’t a great joke, but it got a hearty laugh from the other panelists. Because he is Tom Hanks. But mostly because he had … a talking-parrot joke ready to go. You’ve gotta respect that. And it was a great tactical move. Because as he was telling the joke you could see the wheels turning on the question he’d been asked. By the end of it he had an answer. (It was the wrong answer, but still.)

There are people who keep file folders of jokes for all occasions — my father was one of them. But jokes don’t have to follow what somebody just said. And you can set them up by steering the conversation that way.

I decided three jokes would suffice: one short, one medium and one long. *

Back-pocket story

Ask Scheherazade: having a good story ready could save your life.

But it could also close the sale. Or get you the date. Or land you that job.

That last circumstance is pretty common. Interviewers will often ask for a personal story — some hinge moment that revealed your sterling character.

“Tell me about a time when you made a mistake and how you recovered.”

“Tell about the time you solved a problem at work.”

“Tell me what you’re passionate about and how you discovered it.”

The habit of answering questions with stories is a certain kind of benevolent tic. It can sound rabbinical. Wise. Lincoln did it all the time. (Then again, this was before Instagram, which has turned the whole exercise into a gimmick to squeeze a few more shekels out of its users.)

Personal back-pocket stories come in handy if ever someone recruits you into party game Two Truths and a Lie.

But it’s best to keep personal stories self-deprecating. Otherwise you’ll sound egotistical, and that’s just boring.

Back-pocket pitch

A friend of mine, a retired political-science professor, had a Bangladeshi student who was full of big ideas and restless ambition. This student managed to finagle his way on to the annual class trip to the Mock UN in New York City. “I want to meet Ghali,” he announced. The student had an idea so hot, he said, he was sure Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the secretary-general of the UN at the time, would be all over it. He figured he’d run into Ghali in New York.

Impossibly, he did. The secretary-general was stepping into an elevator in the UN building. The student followed him in. He had 20 seconds. He gave his pitch. It involved a series of conferences to bring together young entrepreneurs from around the world. By the time the elevator reached the lobby, Ghali was sold. He pledged a million dollars.

If they’re honest, most people will cop to having some idea: for a book, an app, a TED talk, an invention to dangle in front of the investors on Dragon’s Den. You don’t want to be going around telling these things to everyone you meet at parties. Think of them as a fire extinguisher, or a canister of bear spray: you get one shot.

Back-pocket defense

I don’t mean a legal defense — just a verbal defense of your cause. (The first part is figuring out what your cause is.)

When they tried to draft Muhammad Ali to go fight in Vietnam, and he refused, and an explanation was demanded, he offered up this:

If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”

Mike drop.

Your defense doesn’t have to be as stone-and-chisel-worthy as that. The idea is simply to figure out where you’re going to make your stand and hone a smart opinion about it. If someone shoves a microphone in your face on the picket line, you can spin out an elegant summary of why you’re there.

When Betty Krawcyzk, a 75-year-old great grandmother from British Columbia, was arrested for standing in front of clearcut-logging equipment in an old-growth forest on Vancouver Island, this was (part of) her submission to the judge:

“If a private person took the most valuable items out of a public holding, and then trashed what was left behind, they would be thrown in jail almost as fast as I usually am. And yet Weyerhaeuser is afforded all of the rights and privileges of a private person but with none of the responsibilities.”

If you cornered the writer Eric Schlosser near a McDonalds and asked him why he didn’t eat burgers, there’s a lot he could say. But what he might say, what he has said, is: “There is shit in the meat.”

My own defense involves the idea of “flattening the curve.” Not the way everyone is using that term these days: the curve of coronavirus infection. I mean the curve of decrepitude. The long slide into ill health that so many people experience in the fourth quarter as medical science conspires to keep us alive beyond our factory warranty. We fetishize the long, long lifespan, but it’s far better, IMO, to rip along until a reasonably ripe age and then quickly drop dead. The life in your years, not the years in your life, as they say.

This is a little soft, compared to Betty Krawcyzk’s defense. But I’m sticking with it for now.

Back-pocket toast

One ‘don’t’ here: Don’t try to give Will Smith’s toast from Hitch. Not that it’s a bad toast. Just that … it has been done. By Will Smith. In Hitch.

You can’t go wrong with the Irish. Now they now how to toast.

Here’s a winner:

“May the roof above us never fall in, and may we friends beneath it never fall out.”

Another good one (though you’ll have to credit Jonathan Swift):

“May you live all the days of your life.”

Back-pocket blessing

Blessings are tricky, since what’s appropriate will depend on how “religious,” or even “spiritual” your company. Probably safest to keep things secular.

My go-to blessing comes from the great, unsung Jef Mallet, creator of the comic strip Frazz. In one panel, Frazz – school janitor, sensei of sawdust, brahmin of the broom — is invited to dinner at some friends, and he rolls out this:

“Because we live so blessedly, With family, freedom, health and such, Let us make like Elvis Presley: ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you very much.’”

Back-pocket credo:

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, there’s a coming-of-age ritual when the youth hit age 13. The youth do a sleepover during which they write their credo: essentially a short summary of their take on life – not forever, just right now. A spiritual snapshot. They sometimes stay up all night to write it. Then they read it in front of the rest of the congregation. Gutsy! Especially since there’s no safe harbour of dogma. It’s not uncommon for one UU kid’s credo to sound Buddhist, the next to sound Transcendentalist, and the third to sound outright freethinking/humanist (i.e. there’s nothing-but-the-deeds-you-do here on earth, Jack.) I think adults could benefit from the same exercise.

Writing my credo took the bulk of my Back Pocket Day. I won’t share it here because it’s a little long and it’s not quite cooked.

Back-pocket epitaph

“Deathless prose,” anyone? This is the line or phrase you’d like to be remembered by, the one that captures you in amber. You’ll never actually see it on your tombstone, but if you keep it in mind as you live it’ll be a star to steer by.

My paternal grandmother’s back-pocket epitaph was: “A longer life than most, and happier than many.”

My sister Carol drew that out of her, round about grandma’s 100th birthday. I find it incredibly poignant, shaded with a complicated mix of gratitude and sadness; grandma led a fierce and fascinating but tough life.

Carol says she’d like her own back-pocket epitaph to be: “She modeled and encouraged kindness.” She absolutely has.

I like this one from the poet Gregory Orr: “If we’re not supposed to dance, why all the music?”

I suppose that could be a credo, too.

A couple of weeks ago, when the US COVID deaths totals hit 100,000, the New York Times ran 1,000 one-sentence obits — name, age, and one descriptor that summed up the life:

“Known in her family for her beef stew.”

“Son of sharecroppers.”

“Loved nothing more than picking up the tab.”

(And, heartbreakingly, “Said ‘Yes, dear’ a lot.”)

I’ll bet every reader, upon dipping into that list, thought: How would I want to be remembered?

You can’t start asking that question too soon.


  • Here’s the short joke:

“I’m sorry, we don’t serve time-travelers here,” said the bartender.

A time traveler walks into a bar.

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