I wouldn’t survive the Apocalypse. If the world fell apart, I probably would, too. I’m too squeamish to shoot a gun, too klutzy for hand-to-hand combat, too slow to outrun a pack of hungry dogs. At least Michigan likely won’t be Ground Zero for a North Korean nuclear attack or a killer tsunami. But come the day when ISIS hacks our power grid or solar flares short out all electronic devices, I’m probably going down in the first fight.
Thankfully, I’m not afraid that modern civilization will collapse in my lifetime. Neither is Sam Sheridan, author of The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse (The Penguin Press, 2013). Except he kinda is. And he’s decided to take a few precautions, just in case—because unlike me, if the world ends, he’s determined to survive.
In the first chapters of Disaster Diaries, Sheridan describes his slide toward not-quite-paranoia. “A small part of me has been expecting Armageddon for as long as I can remember,” he admits. He lives in California, a state ripe for destruction by quake, wave, disease, fire, drought, or grid failure. Becoming a father recently brought these threats into hyperfocus. He knew he could fight his own way out of a crumbling Los Angeles, but how could he best protect his wife and child?
Sheridan doesn’t actually believe he’ll witness The End Of The World As We Know It (or “TEOTWAWKI” in doomsday-prepper parlance). But imagine what would happen to Los Angeles if an earthquake knocked out the electrical grid for a month. Plenty of hell can break loose in thirty desperate days. Look at New Orleans, Ferguson, post-Sandy New York. Why not prepare to come through unscathed?
Sam Sheridan is a tough guy’s tough guy. He worked as a ranchhand in Montana and a wilderness EMT in Washington, crewed a private yacht in the Caribbean, did construction work in Antarctica. He’s skilled in Muay Thai and mixed martial arts. He gets lost in the Brazilian jungle—on purpose.
But Sheridan is no meathead. He holds a degree in art from Harvard and has published two books about the mental and physical challenges of being a fighter. He can barely shoot a gun and only knows enough about cars to navigate SoCal gridlock. He also feels hugely responsible for the health and wellbeing of his wife, film director Patty Jenkins (slated to direct the upcoming Wonder Woman), and their young son.
I picked up Disaster Diaries for a buck at Schuler Books, expecting to find either macho-macho toughness or nail-biting paranoia. Instead, it’s a surprisingly engaging combination of the two. Sheridan’s not interested in digging a bunker in the Sierras, stocking it with a ten-year supply of ramen, and sitting in the doorway with a shotgun until mushroom clouds fill the sky. Instead, he wants to know how to handle short-term and prolonged stress, how to drive evasively, how to fight with knives and start no-match fires and butcher an elk.
Sheridan tackles a new skill in every chapter. He dips into science and sociology while training with stunt drivers and Inuit fishermen. His real-world exploits are bracketed by hypothetical vignettes that pit his family against rogue militants and giant metal space spiders. Yes, he acknowledges that reading this book requires a healthy suspension of disbelief. “I’m not saying the dead will rise and feed on the living,” he writes with a wink, “I’m saying, keep an eye on them.”
Sheridan may be preparing for Armageddon, but many of his new skills translate into the real world. Know how to cope with stress reactions after a gnarly fender-bender in the grocery store parking lot. Know how to detect signs of gang activity when walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood. Know how to set a friend’s shoulder when he dislocates it on a weekend backpacking trip. And, if facing TEOTWAWKI, know how to improvise, survive, and even thrive.
As Sheridan writes, “With the supreme good luck of being alive comes a duty, a requirement, to understand. You have to be curious. You have to try.”
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.