Steve Brau­nias re­sumes — or pos­si­bly ends — his se­ries on prepar­ing for Dooms­day with a con­tem­pla­tion on his, and the planet’s, mor­tal­ity.

Weekend Herald - - News -

Steve Brau­nias re­sumes — or pos­si­bly ends — his se­ries on prepar­ing for Dooms­day with a con­tem­pla­tion on his, and the planet’s, mor­tal­ity.

The trou­ble with prepar­ing for the end of the world is that your own world is more likely to be the first to end. This was the sec­ond of two no­tions that oc­curred to me af­ter cross­ing the street in my neigh­bour­hood one win­ter’s morn­ing, and sud­denly ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an acute phys­i­cal dis­tress which gave me the idea I was about to keel over and die. No one shall know the time of their demise but I felt I was be­ing given a very strong hint that it would be around about 11.17am on a Fri­day. The acute phys­i­cal dis­tress man­i­fested it­self at 11.16am.

Sixty sec­onds to get your house in or­der, to wrap things up, to sign off: I still hadn’t made it to the su­per­mar­ket. I was on my way to buy beans, rice, wet wipes, rub­bish bags, and string — we were about to go on hol­i­day, and I wanted to stock up on a few house­hold items in the event that we’d come home and im­me­di­ately have to face the prospect of Dooms­day.

Prepar­ing for Dooms­day oc­cu­pied my thoughts a great deal last year. I wrote a se­ries about it for the Her­ald, read up on it, acted on it. I did my best to pre­pare for the worst. It re­quires eter­nal vig­i­lance as well a good sense of hu­mour be­cause laugh­ter is bet­ter than a state of anx­i­ety, panic, dys­func­tion. I’m no good at the vig­i­lance part — the last I in­spected my Dooms­day pro­vi­sions, it was full of pas­tas that had passed their ex­piry date, and I don’t know if two bars of John­son’s baby soap will go a long way — and no good at the laugh­ter part, ei­ther.

I don’t find the thought of the end of life as we know it par­tic­u­larly funny. I worry about it all the time. I lie in bed at night and can’t sleep for the var­i­ous as­sorted thrash­ings of the dae­mons of the apoca­lypse in­side my head. They’re not myth­i­cal or fan­ci­ful dae­mons; they’re peo­ple in the neigh­bour­hood, roam­ing around, want­ing in, get­ting in, tak­ing our food, tak­ing whatever they want.

“I see bloody foun­tains,” Neil Young sings in Revo­lu­tion Blues, his lurid, ex­cit­ing vi­sion of shit hit­ting the fan, “and ten mil­lion dune bug­gies com­ing down the moun­tain!” There aren’t any foun­tains or moun­tains in my neigh­bour­hood. There’s noth­ing el­e­vated for a con­voy of amaz­ing ma­chines to de­scend on the way to a

I don’t find the thought of the end of life as we know it par­tic­u­larly funny. I worry about it all the time.

pil­lag­ing. It’s a flat, damp penin­sula, seep­ing into man­groves, sur­rounded by a suck­ing tide. The banks of the creek are higher in some places than oth­ers. There are dense and dark jun­gles, tan­gled in vines, fortresses of squat, stub­born man­groves. They pro­vide per­fect cover.

I’ve gone in there some­times at low tide and walked my way to the banks of the creek. No one can pos­si­bly see where you are. You could be do­ing any­thing in there.

The mud looks like it’s breath­ing, too: every­where there are lit­tle holes in the sur­face, dug by crabs. The crabs stay still when you move, and move when you stay still.

White-faced herons stalk the banks of the creek and pick at the crabs with their long, nar­row bills. They don’t look like much of a meal. They’re very small crabs, only as wide as fin­ger­nails. But the birds look at them like we re­gard rice: one grain isn’t the point, it’s a mat­ter of gath­er­ing an ac­cu­mu­la­tive and fill­ing sub­stance, which is to say I’ve thought that maybe it might work out to hide from the apoca­lypse in man­grovia.

Prep­pers — peo­ple who are prepar­ing for end days — talk about the im­por­tance of “bug­ging out”, which is code for some­where ru­ral and iso­lated that they’ll rush to and be­gin their new life of sur­vival. It’ll have shel­ter, food, wa­ter, fuel, am­mu­ni­tion.

Man­grovia of­fers a kind of shel­ter. It has var­i­ous forms of food. You could light a fire in there at night-time and no one would see the flames as you crouch be­side the heat and pin the crabs with a sharp stick . . .

Anx­i­ety, panic, dys­func­tion. What in the hell was I think­ing, that I could sur­vive in a man­grove creek? Filthy damned place, crawl­ing with rats, no hy­giene, no ground cover, no roof, no hope.

Even the prin­ci­ple was un­sound. In part, I wan­der off into man­groves to get away from peo­ple; it’s why I thought of them as a likely sanc­tu­ary when the end comes from an air­borne toxic event. But this is the cen­tral flaw of prep­ping. “Bug­ging out” and most ideas of sur­vival are pred­i­cated on the need to escape, to get away from peo­ple. It’s the es­sen­tial be­lief that we best get on the run, that the sav­age hordes are fast on our heels — they cover a lot of ground quickly in them ten mil­lion dune bug­gies. It’s fear. It’s the idea of so­ci­ety as a cell, a fam­ily unit.

But why not as­sume that civil­i­sa­tion will do its best to func­tion and con­tinue as a com­mu­nity? In­stead of the ex­pec­ta­tion of fight­ing for ev­ery crust, killing each other in blood­ied foun­tains, men reach­ing out and tak­ing women and lit­tle girls by force, why not the plain, un­sen­ti­men­tal vi­sion of com­mu­ni­ties pool­ing their re­sources, and pro­vid­ing shel­ter, food, wa­ter, fuel — strike out am­mu­ni­tion, and re­place with health care. “We must love one an­other or die”, WH Au­den wrote. Come over to my house. I have beans, rice, wet wipes, rub­bish bags, and string — well, I meant to get them, but then the sun came up over a roof at 11.16am on a Fri­day and my world was ending.

MAN, 58, ex­pir­ing. As I crossed the street, the sun came up from be­hind a build­ing. Win­ter sun­light is so white, so blind­ing. I got to the pave­ment and the whole of my left leg went numb; si­mul­ta­ne­ously,

I felt very light-headed, dizzy. To stand on my left leg was to feel that strange, heavy weight of paraes­the­sia, or pins and nee­dles. Like the patel­lar re­flex, when a struck knee swings out, pins and nee­dles are one of the more cu­ri­ous sen­sa­tions in the hu­man body. There’s a kind of com­edy about it — when there’s no known cause for a tin­gling foot, the term that ap­plies is id­io­pathic. It’s a pass­ing fail­ure of nerve, it’s a numb­ness pay­ing a quick visit then pack­ing its bags.

But there are also a range of se­ri­ous causes for paraes­the­sia. It could be the re­sult of car­bon monox­ide poi­son­ing. Kid­ney fail­ure. Au­toim­mune break-down. Lime dis­ease. Lime dis­ease! Or, surely, and this was my dis­tinct sus­pi­cion as I hob­bled along the pave­ment, car­diac fail­ure.

I was hav­ing a heart at­tack in broad day­light on a Fri­day in win­ter. My heart had caught up with me. It was on the cards. I was un­well. I had gone into hos­pi­tal for a ma­jor pro­ce­dure a few weeks ear­lier.

I lay down like the evening spread out against the sky, and was in­sin­u­ated with anes­thetic. A woman two beds down died in agony the next morn­ing. There was some­thing re­sem­bling a lamb chop for lunch. It rained ev­ery night. They said, “Do you know what you’re in for?”

I said, “I have a bad heart.” They said, “What do you know about a ra­dio fre­quency pul­monary vein iso­la­tion pro­ce­dure that we’re go­ing to per­form on you?”

I said, “It’s to fix my bad heart.” I pre­ferred the term “flut­ter­ing heart”.

The med­i­cal term was atrial fib­ril­la­tion, an un­gainly pair of words which meant my heart­beat was ran­dom, hap­haz­ard, chaotic. It could lead a stroke, they said. It in­creases the risk of it, they said. They tried elec­tric shock treat­ment for a year and that didn’t hold and now they were tried a ra­dio fre­quency pul­monary vein iso­la­tion pro­ce­dure. They wanted to re­store the heart­beat to si­nus rhythm. They es­ti­mated the chances of suc­cess were maybe 50 per cent. It was a long pro­ce­dure and after­wards they kept me in for tests, and they said “clot­ting” and “brain” and “dan­ger”. I never re­ally lis­tened that closely but the gist of it was death.

Death, while stand­ing on a street corner op­po­site the su­per­mar­ket, high as a kite with waves of dizzi­ness, the left foot as numb and in­sen­sate as the cast-iron claw of a bath. I held two rub­bish bags in each hand. I was a good cit­i­zen. Our daugh­ter men­tioned one day that the lo­cal Count­down su­per­mar­ket had in­stalled a Love NZ Soft Plas­tics Re­cy­cling bin; shop­pers were wel­come to stuff it with the soft plas­tic wrap which comes with frozen

food, bis­cuits, pasta, toi­let pa­per, potato chips, courier en­velopes — it comes with masses of things, I quickly dis­cov­ered, as I set up a bag be­neath the kitchen sink and filled it with wrap.

We now threw very lit­tle out in the rub­bish. Fruit and veg­eta­bles went into the com­post bin, glass and pa­per went to the re­cy­cle bin, stale bread and left-over rice, pasta, and ce­real went to the birds. I went to the su­per­mar­ket with bags full of wrap.

“I’m try­ing, Ringo,” says Jules (Sa­muel L Jack­son) in Pulp Fic­tion.

“I’m try­ing real hard.” So many of us are com­mit­ted to do­ing small, good things that help to clean the planet. We’re mak­ing in­formed pur­chases of de­ter­gents, we’re read­ing about elec­tric cars, we’re col­lect­ing liq­uid from the tap on our worm farms. We’re re­cy­cling, we’re say­ing the word “sus­tain­able”, we’re think­ing about the fu­ture. We’re try­ing our best. There is so much ev­ery­day good­ness in the world and the thought, the op­ti­mism is that it’s ad­ding up to a hill of beans, that it’s mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.

Down in man­grovia, in and around the creek near my house, I wan­der through the jun­gles with a black rub­bish bag, and fill it with junk — chip wrap­pers, bot­tles, toys, ma­chine parts, plas­tic tubs, Sty­ro­foam cof­fee cups, all the things. But they got there in the first place be­cause peo­ple threw them out of cars, dropped them on the pave­ment. So many of us are ac­tively con­tribut­ing to the planet sinking be­neath its waste and its filth, the sheer, crush­ing weight of all its fuck­ing things. The prospects are hope­less. Noth­ing makes a dif­fer­ence. It’s doomed, isn’t it? “We must love one an­other or die” — Au­den came to de­test that line, thought it sen­ti­men­tal, glib, false, had it re­moved from an­tholo­gies. The world is go­ing to hell and when it gets there it’s not go­ing to get by on love, or com­mu­nity spirit, or the kind­ness of strangers.

HEAD FOR cover, or stay in­doors? “I’d prob­a­bly bar­ri­cade my­self in with a shot­gun,” said tele­vi­sion writer Neil Cross, asked by a jour­nal­ist how he’d pre­pare for Dooms­day, “and a chem­i­cal toi­let.”

The interview was to pro­mote Neil’s se­ries Hard Sun, a “preapoc­a­lyp­tic” crime drama about two de­tec­tives who dis­cover that a mys­te­ri­ous cos­mic event will de­stroy the earth in five years. He’d gone to great lengths to imag­ine the end of the world, but was sketchy on the de­tails of how he’d go about sur­viv­ing it. I wasn’t any bet­ter.

I wanted to bar­ri­cade my­self in, too, but I didn’t know how to get hold of a shot­gun, and lay awake in bed at night think­ing of what dam­age I could do or what threat I could pose with an air ri­fle. Loot­ers, reach­ing in and tak­ing — I’d open fire, I’d shoot, I’d see them off the premises.

I didn’t re­ally want to leave the house in the event of a na­tional state of emergency. I didn’t want to traipse down to a stink­ing man­grove. There had been a kind of re­hearsal for end times when the power in our part of the city was knocked out by a wild storm; the rain lashed down, tram­po­lines went fly­ing, the last thing any­one wanted to do in their cold, dark homes was to leave it. A fire truck drove slowly down our street at mid­night, and shone a bright beam into the houses. I went out on to the front porch.

“Are you al­right?”, a fire­man called out.

I shouted over the wind: “Yes!” Ex­cept I was about to go miss­ing. I was about to be taken out of the pic­ture; I was about to be taken out, on a Fri­day morn­ing.

The sun had come up over a build­ing, its sud­den, blind­ing light in my eyes — was this the hard sun Neil Cross had imag­ined in his TV show? And then the dizzi­ness, and the paraes­the­sia, the heart at­tack. Surely it was a heart at­tack. It was the only pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion. What else could have caused it?

It can’t have been an acute at­tack of hypochon­dria. It can’t have been the ex­tremely re­mote and re­ally quite lame pos­si­bil­ity of pos­tural hy­poten­sion. Also known as or­tho­static hy­poten­sion, it’s ba­si­cally an abrupt drop in blood pres­sure. It causes dizzi­ness, and paraes­the­sia. It’s com­monly trig­gered by sim­ply stand­ing up af­ter ly­ing down. An­other cause, as my GP ex­plained that morn­ing, when I de­scribed my walk to the shops, was be­ing blinded by a glar­ing light. The sun, for ex­am­ple . . .

Okay, The sun did it. That, and an acute at­tack of hypochon­dria. It was noth­ing, I was fine, the world blun­ders on de­spite nu­clear weapons, de­spite cli­mate change, de­spite ideas, de­spite the need to an­ni­hi­late each other, de­spite ev­ery­thing we throw at it. I cer­tainly don’t think it’s point­less to pre­pare for the worst. I ad­mire peo­ple who lay down pro­vi­sions, have a plan. I have no naive or touch­ing faith that the state will pro­tect us if ser­vices dis­in­te­grate — it didn’t do a great job dur­ing last year’s black­out in Auckland — and I wish I had a gen­er­a­tor, a get­away car, a gun. I worry late at night. But the rest of the time I’m too busy to worry about an event that may never hap­pen some­time in the fu­ture.

Too busy liv­ing, too busy dy­ing. I wanted to sit down on the pave­ment that morn­ing but kept mov­ing.

An el­derly lady walked to­wards me. An el­derly man drove past in a small car. How was it that these two old buz­zards lived to what ap­peared to a great age, and I was set to ex­pire in merely my fifth decade to heaven? It was a cold morn­ing. The trees were bare. I won­dered about sit­ting down on the pave­ment and ask­ing for help.

But I made it to the su­per­mar­ket and put the four bags of wrap in the Love NZ Soft Plas­tics Re­cy­cling bin. It cost a great effort — I was woozy, afraid, I needed to lie down — but I wanted the last thing I did to be the right thing. He left the world a bet­ter place.

I looked at my watch. It was 11.28am: the time to die had passed.

I was hav­ing a heart at­tack in broad day­light on a Fri­day in win­ter. My heart had caught up with me. It was on the cards.

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