You’re Only Paranoid Until You’re Right

The epicenter of a national emergency seems an appropriate place from which to write a blog post on preparedness. I am currently burrowed in my home during one of the largest storms ever recorded. The sky is black, my sump pump is working overtime, and the wind sounds like a chorus of ghosts clamoring to enter my back door. Power is intermittent, and we are occasionally plunged into darkness and analog silence punctuated only by the nature’s rage. It looks apocalyptic, and so, let’s discuss the apocalypse.

If there’s one thing you should do to prepare for a catastrophe, what should it be?

The End (May Be) Nigh

I know a man who buries ammunition in waterproof cases around his yard. I knew a family who stockpiled gasoline and spent New Year’s Eve 1999/2000 inside their home, armed and waiting for looters in the wake of Y2K madness. Shows like Doomsday Preppers boast massive viewership. Rock-and-roll scribe Neil Strauss wrote Emergency a few years back, brilliantly detailing his journey down the slippery slope of survivalism.

And then there’s the genre of apocalyptic fiction. Doomsday scenarios have become increasingly popular as of late in film, literature, and television, with humanity meeting its end due to either zombies, plagues, or—in cases such as Cormac McCarthy’s simplistic masterpiece, The Road—causes left entirely to the reader’s imagination.

The apocalypse has become a multimillion dollar industry.

The doomsday preppers are good for an easy laugh and post-apocalypse fiction can be incredibly entertaining. Yet our intrigue seems to run deeper than entertainment; perhaps its roots exist in the fact that such lore reminds us that civilization is at all times only a single cataclysmic event away from breakdown and martial law. Perhaps, deep down, we all know we’ve gotten too comfortable. I remember a conversation I once had with a man who came of age during the Bosnian War. We spoke of something that I’d always known but rarely considered: Life could be relatively tame and sane one day, and then, a few short months later, you could find yourself in a hell on earth. To quote Strauss,

All it would take is one war, one riot, one dirty bomb, one natural disaster, one marauding army, one economic catastrophe, one vial containing one virus to bring it all smashing down. We’ve seen it happen in Hiroshima. In Dresden. In Bosnia. In Rwanda. In Baghdad. In Halabja. In New Orleans.

I’d be surprised if the average person living in the prime of ancient Rome gave much thought to its fall, and the United States is—chronologically speaking—in its very infancy. We’re not immune to civil unrest or breakdown. No one is. With this in mind, when I scoff at the doomsday preppers, smiling smugly along with everyone else, I can’t help but recall something an old man once told me: “You’re only paranoid until you’re right.”

Your Options

This brings us to the theme of this post: making reasonable plans for worst-case scenarios. We take out insurance policies to account for relatively unlikely events, and yet most of us really have no sense of how to survive if the proverbial shit hits the fan, even though such insurance requires very little investment. Most of us don’t know what to eat in the wild. Most of us don’t know how to collect drinkable water. Most of us can barely defend ourselves, can’t use weapons effectively, and would make simple mistakes that would result in our freezing to death if left to the whim of the elements.

These facts, coupled with the rise in apocalyptic media, have spawned an entire industry of survival. All over the US, one can attend (urban or rural) survival classes, often taught by retired military personnel. This is great, but how much preparation is appropriate? In short, I believe the answer to be, “more than none.” I’m no doomsday prepper, but I think there’s certainly a reasonable minimum level of knowledge that everyone should have (or, at least, have access to).

Let’s first get self-defense out of the way. In many doomsday scenario films, shows, and books, battle is abundant; however, you’re not going to learn to fight or handle a weapon by reading a book or watching Youtube videos. Serious self-defense is a lifetime commitment, and some of the best training programs out there, such as Krav Maga, can be brutal as well as time-consuming. If you can find the fun in such brutality, go for it; it’s easy to argue that self-defense-related hobbies offer more “odds of surviving a disaster” potential than playing video games or watching television.

The author having his arm removed.

The author having his arm removed.

Due partly to the fact that I sincerely love it and partly to a poorly-masked desire to prepare for the worst, I’ve been involved with combat sports since I was a teen; however, I am lucky enough to be able-bodied and relatively young, and these things can’t be said for everyone. Over the past five years of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and combat grappling, I’ve suffered everything from black eyes and loose teeth to multiple torn ligaments and fractures. With that in mind, it’s perfectly understandable if this doesn’t meet your criteria for “reasonable” and you feel as though your survival efforts would be best directed elsewhere. Moving on.

You could learn to shoot. You could learn to dig trenches. Hell, you could slowly introduce common poisons to your system in order to prepare yourself for chemical warfare. But the key word we’re focusing upon here is “reasonable.” What reasonable measures can we take? We are parents, employees, brothers, sisters, tee ball coaches and crocheters, after all. There is only so much time in the day.

Two Books Can Save Your Life

The US government suggests a first aid kit, water, and few other goodies. While there are certainly benefits to preparing in this way, I argue that your best bet for survival “bang-for-your-buck” comes in the form of two books that explain exactly what to do if things do go down.

Tom Brown's Field Guide

Brown's Field Guide even shows you how to harvest electricity.

The first is called Tom Brown’s Field Guide to City and Suburban Survival. In it, survival expert Tom Brown lays the foundation for skills you should possess in the event of a catastrophic event in a major metropolitan area. Despite being almost thirty years old at this point, the principles taught in the book are priceless. It includes everything from harvesting water from the pipes of an abandoned home to the scenario I now find myself in (hurricane preparedness).

The second is Tom Brown’s Guide to Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants. If something drastic were indeed to occur, you’ll eventually run out of food and find yourself competing with the hungry throngs for the leftovers at the local Shop-n-Bag. In a word, this book teaches you how to forage. As an alternative, you should also consider Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not-So-Wild) Places by “Wildman” Steve Brill. I once took a “wild edibles” nature walk guided by Steve, in which he taught the group how to identify food sources in the wild (you can find out more at

So, if you ask me, this should fall into everyone’s definition of reasonable. It’s two books, and they’re dirt cheap. This is the “more than none” that could one day save your life. You could easily argue that there’s no need to hoard gasoline, bury ammunition, or practice stabbing a dummy to death over a can of baked beans; however, there’s no shame in taking out just a little insurance. With these two books alone (get hard copies, as you’ll need electricity for a Kindle to work), you may find yourself in a much better place than most, should you find the world around you crumbling. Hell, you don’t even need to read them; just have them in your home in case you do need them some day.

…which actually seems likely right now, as the lights flicker yet again. Wish me luck. And to everyone else on the east coast, see you on the other side.

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