The preppers have the best stuff. It’s because they operate under such constraints: You have to pack your whole society—money, tinctures, food powders—in a lone bag. Then, when the big bug-out comes, you slip on your paracord bracelets and shemagh scarf and vanish into the woods, to an already-scouted redoubt obscured by trees. There, beside your tent, you gnaw jerky and sip bleached snowmelt out of 5-gallon bags, wrapped in a 26-micron bivy that reflects 90 percent of body heat. A society of one.
By day you carefully inventory the dozens of curated objects in your bag, rifling through sub-pockets, enumerating ibuprofen, contemplating seed packets, calculating caloric yields. Portable hand-cranked flashlight. Clove oil for toothache. At night, with darkness yielding to bright gray inside your night-vision goggles, you patrol, hand hovering near your CZ-75 P-01. Far off down the mountain you hear the cracks, groans, whistles, and shots of a splintering society. A week ago you administered an Oracle database. Now your job is to survive.
And you dream: One day, after the smoke of civilization has drifted away, you’ll link up with others exactly like you. A new world will rise out of your duffel bag. You’ll hang up solar-powered mesh networks from trees and make your own internet. You’ll transact for potatoes and penicillin on the blockchain under the watch of vigilant owls. But now, jerky.
What the preppers do is fully acknowledge their fears and turn them into a particular aesthetic. Like goths. They make their anxieties perfectly legible. I get it. I read My Side of the Mountain when I was a kid. But while prepper gear is awesome, I keep thinking: We should be trying to avoid a civil war, not packing for one.
The Aesthetics Wiki has hundreds of different entries—Preppy and Punk, of course, but also more modern aesthetics like Dark Academia (Eurocentricity, Whit Stillman, sweaters), Vaporwave (synths, VHS boxes, teal), or Cottagecore (shortalls, Hozier). Many of the aesthetics have left- and right-wing offshoots: Vaporwave has produced Laborwave and Fashwave; Tradwifery (patriarchy, heteronormativity, childbirth) can be understood as reactionary Cottagecoreism.
I would have told you I don’t have an aesthetic. But a few months ago my family moved to an old house, not far from our old apartment. This house has a yard and asbestos and a plaque on the front that says: 1913. Multiple generations of telephone wiring run along and inside the walls, and jacks abound: Bell System four-pin 404A jacks and modular 6P4C jacks, too, all useless in 2021. I like them. They suggest critical infrastructure come and gone. The people who lived in the house before us sent a kind, slightly melancholy note, wishing us the best, but we never met them. Pandemic transaction.
When we moved in, we immediately started to plan for an apocalypse. (My spouse’s elementary school overlooked Donner Lake in California, so worst-case scenarios come easily to her; she has a disaster-preparedness Pinterest board.) I figured out where we could put the tilapia tanks and pondered a new fence. We could store barrels of powdered food in the basement. Following decades of living within the collective fortress of an apartment building, a house—just sitting there by the street—feels extremely vulnerable. After a few days, a nice older neighbor dropped off a box of candy. Hardly the Purge.
Oddly, we keep not buying furniture. We did find a dining room table, cut out of a lane in a decommissioned bowling alley, with little inlaid arrows to guide your throw. Cheap and heavy. We bought some chairs, eBayed out of a university library in Georgia. Each chair carries the shadow of thousands of college butts. We like things that remind us of people gathering, playing, or working. Not shabby-chic, but institutional-heavy. Things that have been rubbed down to a shine.
My kids are doing ballet and tae kwon do on Zoom, I am sending Slack messages in a half-empty house, and my spouse is in the kitchen calling strangers to offer them help navigating the state vaccination website. This is the pandemic aesthetic: Everything is connected, but you can’t connect. I lull myself to sleep listening to FDR speeches. In one, he spoke sadly of a Boy Scout jamboree canceled for an outbreak of polio. This is my aesthetic. In this way I achieve safety and control. It’s a little silly, really, but I’m Infracore.
My therapist (cognitive-behavioral, Thursday 2 pm, takes Venmo) tells me that one becomes angry when expectations aren’t met. Thus, to remain calm, you have to adjust your expectations. The kicker: Behaviors tend to stay the same over time, so don’t expect other people to change. Your only real choice, the only thing you can control, is whether to calm down—or not.
This advice has made me think differently about social media. Perhaps social media is not, as people say, a machine for the transmission of viral outrage, but rather an aggregator of shared expectations. In fact, people online are constantly talking about what they expect. They expect political victories, total respect for Taylor Swift, resolution of HR issues, financial aid, and apologies—and they expect it all right now. People online say, We will never adjust our expectations, so you must adjust your behavior. Twitter is the exact opposite of therapy.
Personally, I expect the apocalypse will come slowly, with episodic spikes (pandemics, terrorism, superstorms, buildings collapsing in space or value). There’s no shortage of warnings, feature articles about human climate migration and wet-bulb temperatures, or op-eds asking us to stop buying fridges.
At least for now the infrastructure we have keeps finding ways to route around the crises. When a train tunnel floods, you run a bus. You dump sand on a damaged beach, and one might always use public funds to construct a fine berm. And when that berm is submerged you can build a bigger berm. We are expecting that we can find solutions, ways to preserve the order of things. Just a little science and some elbow grease, maybe a colony on Mars, and society can be good as new.
What else are we going to do? The therapeutic suggestion is: Broaden your expectations, so that when bad things happen you are ready. For some, this means being ready to grab your stuff, slipping into warm, gray clothes, and vanishing from civilization. For me, the only thing that calms fear is the idea that we’ll keep helping until we need help. Doctors at the hospital, National Guard members at the vaccine center, neighbors dropping by with food. Lest you think me too much a fool, we do have a go bag. We just keep raiding it for cash and ibuprofen. And every morning I wake up and prep, by thinking: Expect everything to change but people.