Etiquette for the End of the World
By Meredith Phillips
MARCH 15, 1999: Control freaks are invariably terrified of dying. We think, "What could I control if I were dead?" In the past, I've specialized in controlling scary things like the weather. Everyone knows you can't control the weather -- everyone except me. Since it's out of my charge, surely, it's out to get me. All spring I can be found staring at the sky with a furrowed brow and clenched teeth, trying as hard as possible to keep tornadoes from happening.
This year, I'm diversifying my anxiety to include the Y2K problem -- the ultimate lack of control. The man who I hired to talk me out of these phobias assures me weekly that it's useless to try to control everything. The best you can do, he says, is be prepared for whatever might happen. Unfortunately, "being prepared" is in direct conflict with another major tenet of $80-an-hour therapy: "Live in the moment."
In the case of the technological horror looming on the horizon, I suppose the advice would be, "Don't spend your last year on earth panicking about the Y2K problem." This may be a struggle, because Y2K is the ultimate lack of control: You can't even hide from it in the basement.
Apparently, calm preparation is the key. Those who know the most about the Y2K problem are the computer wizards, the people the rest of us call for advice when our printers don't work ("plug it in, then try it again"), who litter casual conversation with words like "bussing" and numbers that must surely pertain to something. These are the people who are carving out well-stocked underground shelters in the middle of the country and refusing to tell me where they are. Our techie role-models are in a full-throttle panic. What are the rest of us to do?
Some people aren't even going to think about it. Others cavalierly look forward to letting whatever happens happen. As for me, since I can't control it, I'll probably make a few half-assed attempts at being prepared.
The main advice we've been given is to squirrel away everything we'll need for six months of total pandemonium: Have lots of bottled water, fuel, canned food, plenty of cash, and loaded guns on the premises. Basically, get prepared for some long-term, indoor camping, without the mosquitoes.
I decided to take stock of the situation in my apartment and see just how prepared I am.
FoodFirst, to the pantry. No electricity means no refrigeration and no way to cook, so we'll have to rely on highly processed, canned foods. I own one can of oyster stew that an ex-boyfriend made me get out of his house more than two years ago, a can of beans and tofu wieners that I bought for entertainment value four years ago, and four cans of clams bought over a five-year period, all of which appear to be leaking. Also, I own an undatable can of mango nectar, a five-year-old can of coconut milk, and some blue Kool-Aid. Apparently, when it comes to canned goods, I am well-stocked in the absurd, the disgusting, and the vegetarian. And whatever I do buy, I seem to hoard. To survive, I'm going to have to restrategize. If the idea of hot oyster stew has never appealed to me, then I'm not going to eat it tepid, no matter what. I'm going to make a concerted effort to redirect my canned-goods buying into spaghetti-o-type foods, which I remember to be equally "delicious" hot or cold.
WaterI've got a Brita and take pride in having a spare filter. But I've just discovered that this will soon be irrelevant, because somehow, without computers, water won't be coming through the taps. I write science articles for a living, but still don't quite understand why that is. Also, a time of no bathing means a time to stock up on anti-perspirant, some for myself and plenty to share with others. Better yet, make that deodorant.
Since bathing has been ruled out, the tub, now a vestigial portion of my apartment, can be converted to a reservoir of drinking water.
CashCash. That's a tough one, especially for someone accustomed to the convenience of plastic for everything from the Wendy's drive-through to the rent. If a crash of the technological infrastructure isn't enough to ruin your day, then a regression to a cash-based society will be. I suspect that throughout the entire country, there is probably no more than $40,000 of actual money in circulation. The rest is signed promises and the cash that we do own but don't see since it serves double-duty in investment capital for the banks.
I've already started taking a casual poll, ascertaining which of my friends will be keeping $12,000 in cash under their mattresses, just in case.
What is the etiquette on looting? In my peer group it's pretty rare, with no established protocol. Is it okay to loot from your friends, or are you supposed to burgle someone you don't know? Which is better, to be a prepared "have," and risk being looted, or to be a "have-not" who pillages from others?
These and other questions make the idea of New Year's Eve a real adventure. Everyone wants to usher in the New Millennium at a great party. Consider, however, that your companions for the evening may be the people with whom you must join forces -- or compete against -- during the new regime of no e-mail, no food, and no showers. The pressure will only get more unbearable as the Eve draws near, so choose carefully.
WeaponsThere's no use in arming myself. After learning to shoot a .45 the other day, I know I'd do more damage than good. Not that I didn't have good aim, but the experience confirmed my long-standing opinion that guns are serious business, and at least for me, much more trouble than they are worth. More heft, more noise, more responsibility.
Recently I found myself evaluating a prospective date in terms of the Y2K problem: "Hmm, he'd probably be a good ally for a loot or raid." Forget pheromones, physical attraction, or whether or not your immune systems are compatible -- the question now is: Can he handle an Uzi? Aggressive, competitive Darwinists are appealing to me for the first time in my life, and it's no secret why. I've finally found something I want someone else to control.
If I don't have an appropriate escort/bodyguard for the Y2K problem, a friend has told me that I can stay with her and her boyfriend, but I know that when worse comes to worse, it's me they'll decide to eat.
The assessment is com-plete, and, like the rest of the nation, it seems that I'm in pretty bad shape. But instead of going into underground hiding in an obscure portion of the country, I'm going to stay up here with the living and stockpile my resources with as much composure as possible.
Socking away for the Y2K: paranoid delusion or smart planning? Only time will tell. Really, the unraveling of our technological framework is an idea too big to get anybody's brain around -- it's impossible to know what will happen. It does seem certain, though, that we'll be regressing in every aspect of life -- cellular communications, hygiene, you name it. This, of course, doesn't mean that I'm ready to relinquish control of anything. In fact, I'm thinking of using the situation to my advantage. Now is the time to channel my controlling nature and combative energy into a position of power. My new goal is to become the first battalion commander for my neighborhood.
So through next December, we should all focus on calm preparation and living "in the moment." While you don't need to take every shower as if it may be your last, you might consider weaning yourself off of fresh fruits and vegetables in an effort to develop a taste for canned meat. Increase your collection of precious metals when you can, but please, if you become your neighborhood's battalion commander, don't subject your friends and neighbors to looting drills. They aren't your enemies. Yet.
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