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‘The Disaster Diaries’: Preparing for the worst of possible outcomes

Sam Sheridan has spent his life anticipating cataclysm, be it a natural disaster, nuclear holocaust or supernatural plague. All his preparation, however, was stymied by a crucial life event. In "The Disaster Diaries," he explains his worldview. Rise and ShineIn the dark room, caught between sleep and dreams, a noise drifts into my consciousness, rushing like the wind in the trees. I slip from bed,
'The Disaster Diaries'
/ Source: TODAY books

Sam Sheridan has spent his life anticipating cataclysm, be it a natural disaster, nuclear holocaust or supernatural plague. All his preparation, however, was stymied by a crucial life event. In "The Disaster Diaries," he explains his worldview.

Rise and Shine

In the dark room, caught between sleep and dreams, a noise drifts into my consciousness, rushing like the wind in the trees.

I slip from bed, trying to place the sound as it grows louder. My bare feet press against the cold wood floor. A rainstorm? I pull the curtains and touch the cool glass. No rain against the windows.

I stand wondering, squinting into the darkness as the rumble grows, jarring my ankles, shuddering in my knees. The house trembles.

'The Disaster Diaries'

And suddenly, I can hear the sloshing over the pavement, seawater thudding hard into the gate, a terrible authoritative knock. Out the window the streets are vanishing under the white foam, and then the water, torrid and black, nature’s true face revealed: indifference. All that water has to go somewhere. Too late for the car, it’s hood deep already. I holler at my wife, snatch my infant son from his warm crib and dash for the stairs. The deafening noise presses us forward, glass exploding and cold seawater rushing in to fill up everything. It’s waist deep in the time it takes to think, but we slog through it and pull ourselves up the stairs, gasping. The ocean churns in the living room. I know more water is on the way.

I’m the guy who twists in his bed, snarling into the pillow for what Nabokov called the “wolf hours” of insomnia. I gnaw at my worries like a dog without a protective cone.

Sitting on the sand with my family, watching the quiet surf wandering up the beach, with just a hint of onshore breeze building. A gull wheels overhead, cawing.

Then a bright flash, a blinding burst somewhere behind me, over the heart of Los Angeles. The blue sky crackles and turns incandescent white, brighter than the sun; and now it’s burning us. I throw myself over my son as the heat rips my back. There’s pain, I can feel the skin bubble. First the hush, then shouts, then screams.

I know what it is, I’m up and running with the child in my arms, before the flash fades and the mushroom cloud stands revealed. We have to get inside, underground, before the blast wave hits, before the sound incinerates us, but we don’t even have a basement. Where am I running to?

I mutter and turn in bed, and punch the pillow helplessly, not quite awake, unwilling to give up.

Another me stands outside in the quiet night streets of my neighborhood, lit with streetlights shrouded in fog, I hear the rumble of distant surf, and smell the heady ocean night-breeze. A low moan whispers from the darkness, somewhere out of sight.

What was that?

The moan builds, and now it’s the throaty hum of a hundred moans, breaking glass, a whirling car alarm. Slapping feet. They come at a run: Zombies, the living dead, blind and frothing, their bodies flash staccato through the misty pools of light. I dash inside, but the ground floor of our house is all glass, no barrier to that hunger. Up the stairs we go again, screams and smashing all around.

That does it. When we get to the zombies, I might as well call it a night.

Three-thirty in the morning is as good a time as any to rise and start my day. Outside, the night’s blacker than an oil slick. Under the harsh kitchen lights, the gurgle of the machine, and the bitter smell of coffee usually reassure me that all is not lost.

Not yet. The world is still turning, life proceeds. The nightmares are, for now, confined to my sleeping hours.

Is it just paranoia? A noisy mind, as the Buddhists say? Too many late-night double features? Or is something radical headed our way, are my dreams premonitions, warnings from my subconscious?

And if so, if so, what’s to be done about it?

I’m a long way from home, here in the City of Angels. I’m an East Coast boy, and maybe the key to my insomnia lies in my past. Maybe it’s obvious.

I grew up in the historic village of Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, famous for the “Deerfield Massacre.” In the winter of 1704, the French and Indians came over the wall in the dead of night. They came over the wall, silent, tomahawks in hand. Children just like me raced through the snow and were caught, scalped, their brains dashed out. Half the town was enslaved or killed.

Many of the houses on my street were preserved as museums, the private fortresses of colonial New England. Their insides were dim and still, frozen in time, available to tour. As a little boy I knew by heart which doors had tomahawk holes hacked in them. I stood guard through the endless summer of childhood, watching for Indians creeping through the cornfields behind my house; listening, amidst the burning thrum of cicadas and the frogs peeping in the long grass, for war howls.

Perhaps the simple explanation is correct; that these childhood fears marked me. When I think about the kinds of activities I’ve engaged with over the years, they do seem to sway towards preparing for danger. And, let’s be honest, violence.

I started boxing recreationally in college, indulging an obsession that has yet to truly let me go. I lived in Thailand and studied and fought Muay Thai, or Thai kick-boxing, and from there it was a simple transition to Mixed-Martial-Arts (MMA). I’ve traveled around the world training and fighting, and bashed headfirst into my own limitations, physical and mental. I’ve sailed through gales as a professional sailor, and slaved to control burning forests as a wildland firefighter.

What if all this time I thought I was just living my life, I was unconsciously training for something, acquiring the skills needed for a battle yet to come? Was I getting ready for the screams in the night that meant the Indians were piling over the wall? The savage joy of hitting lured me into boxing, but perhaps it cloaked a sense of relief at my growing martial prowess. Why does every little boy (or grown man) want to be Bruce Lee or Mike Tyson? It’s not to beat people up; it’s because hey, if I was Mike Tyson I would never feel afraid again. Bruce Lee wouldn’t be scared if the Indians came over the wall; he’d start kicking ass. And firefighting and sailing maybe weren’t just about setting my own schedule and avoiding the dreary office job, but about testing my own limitations, pushing myself against the extreme forces of nature, defusing fear through understanding and practice.

A small part of me has been expecting Armageddon as long as I can remember. With adulthood, some of the dark fantasies burned off, like fog; but other dreams, darker and more terrible, gathered in their place. And it seems I’m not content to leave them in books or at the movie theater. They come home with me, to be revisited in the hours before dawn.

As student of history, I’ve accepted that the s__t is going to hit the fan, someday. Just because life is almost comically good here for us in the US, doesn’t mean that it always will be. If 9/11 happened (if that diabolical plan succeeded) then anything can happen, and we all know it. Anything is possible. Nothing is unthinkable. I'm not saying the dead will rise and feed on the living; I'm saying, keep an eye on them.

The shift of a plate, the raising of the ocean floor, simple tectonics, geothermal dynamics—whenever we start getting the science lessons on CNN, somebody’s getting hammered, and one day it will be you and me, friend. Just too much water that needs someplace to go, not even a Force 5 Hurricane, not even a perfect storm. You can say what you want about climate change, but do I believe you, or NASA? Steven Hawking is on record saying that any possible alien contact would be dangerous, like when technologically superior Europeans ‘discovered’ the Americas; the locals ended up getting stomped in every conceivable way, physically, morally, spiritually, genetically. I’m not blurring the line between fact and fiction—that line is already blurry. Steven King wrote The Stand twenty years ago about a super-flu that wipes out 99% of the world’s population, and just because the guys at Center for Disease Control have been wrong twice before doesn’t mean that smart, knowledgeable people aren’t still worried about that very thing. There’s got to be a reason they keep standing on the panic button.

I’ve always been aware of the various disasters, hanging like icicles over our heads. I never really consciously sweated it—I’m big, reasonably competent, but most importantly, nothing bad was ever going to happen to me. I’m the hero of this story. If the tsunami comes flooding into Los Angeles, I’ll be fine. I swim like a bastard.

But then something changed for me, and it caused a shift in the quality of my nightmares.

Here’s the bittersweet truth of having a child: it entails the loss of a kind of narcissism, the end of your own childhood. Maybe you’re not the sole reason for the existence of the universe. With the rapid growth of the changeling you care for, his explosive metamorphosis, comes the knowledge that you are changing too, and finite—your perspective is fleeting. You’re no longer the one pure reason the sun rises and the heavens wheel above in the night, the moon pulls the oceans, and doves call at dawn. That is the true gift of youth, and some never relinquish it—not a literal feeling of ownership but a deep sense of their own unique perspective, an unreasoning joy in the universe of their senses.

With a kid, the banal creeps into your life with tiny steps, diapers and formula. The mundanity of child rearing soon becomes impossible to dismiss—I’ve somehow become the guy juggling strollers, diaper bags and a red-faced, surly toddler. In the airport, I push a cart behind my wife and child loaded high with luggage like a Victorian porter. I used to travel light, a pair of socks and a book, and now look at me. I’ve sailed around the world, I’ve sparred with World Champions, and now I follow my kid around the playground, heckling him to eat a goddamn banana.

In the busyness of caring for an infant, and the subsequent passing months that stream into years, you realize that the self is passing, too—and that this particular road ends in one place. We’re all coming to it, the Big Dirt Nap; and when that moves in your consciousness from an acknowledged fact to an intuited truth, then the death of narcissism cannot be far behind, because really, how important can you be? By having a child you have shown the universe that you are replaceable.

Some people may process this humbling by relaxing, ‘it’s-all-a-big-circle-of-life,’ but not me. I’m not a fatalist. Blame it on the tomahawk marks. For me, having a kid sharpened the unease to an unbearable point. There’s no blasé, ‘it’ll be fine, I got it’ when you’re responsible for the lives of others—do you have it? Or not?

From The Disaster Diaries. Copyright © 2013 by Sam Sheridan. Reprinted with permission from The Penguin Press, published by The Penguin Group.