So this past weekend there was a hurricane in my area. It wasn’t much of an event, for me. I lost power for 3 days, but it could have been much worse. Nonetheless, there were two take-aways: I’m not prepared for serious disasters, and … what am I doing with my life?

Emergency Preparedness

I’ve always considered coolness under pressure, and being prepared for unusual situations, to be among my skills. (I suppose many people feel the same way, the same as everybody considers themselves an above-average driver). My presumption made my unpreparedness for this hurricane all the more jarring.

When I say that carrying myself well in serious situations is my strong point, I mean that I’m pretty proud of the way I’ve handled the few difficult or emergency situations I’ve been in. I’m also an Eagle Scout, I’ve backpacked for over a week at a time, I know basic first aid and so on. I try to think about different eventualities, and I’m very careful when hiking.

Nonetheless, after the hurricane, with stores closed and no power, I was left with some pasta and beans. Most of the other dry food I had was expired. So I subsisted on chili, macaroni & cheese, a can of pineapple chunks. I didn’t have candles or even a true flashlight, but I did have two little single-LED lights that I was able to use. Without those I would have been in bad shape once it got dark out.

I need to keep more supplies at hand. Although for the NYC metro area, this was a major disaster, I feel like many places, even in the US, can have much more serious disasters (earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Florida/Gulf Coast, Tornadoes in Kansas). Personally I think that disasters are going to become more frequent, and I’d like to be able to weather any disaster without having to worry about rushing to buy supplies. Such desperate actions indicate a softness that I don’t find appealing. I’d also like to be able to draw on fresh knowledge if I’m confronted with a serious medical problem, or whatnot. In my daydreams I’m all set for a survival/post-apocalyptic situations, but reality doesn’t bear those dreams out.

I Stepped Into a Hurricane

I had no electricity for three days, and absent that, much of my identity disappeared. There were only three things I did without power: sleep, read, and feed myself. That’s pretty much it, and I find that disturbing. I have essentially no non-electronic hobbies. When I think about life in the 19th century, this is what I find most confusing. There’s some evidence that people were a bit bored back then: for instance Edward Everett’s speech preceding Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was about two hours long, and people considered it short. Can you imagine people wanting to listen to a single speech for two hours today? Still, it seems like people kept busy.

Overall it seems people worked about the same hours as people today, or had seasonal hours – such as when farming. I’m sure people read, maybe played a musical instrument or knitted. Letter-writing, conversation and drinking were popular past-times, much more than today. But what else were people doing? I find it baffling, they must have done other things. What could I do, that would keep me occupied and engaged if I had no power?

At this point, I’m looking to institute a “no electricity hour,” where I’d shut down everything electric except a light, and then figure out how to keep myself occupied.

I’m also distressed at my lack of worthwhile skills. I’m re-reading Shop Class as Soulcraft, and it resonates as much as the first time. I’m totally disengaged from the real world. I can barely feed myself, fer chrissakes. I’m not mechanically inclined, can barely repair anything, or build things on my own.

To remediate this, I’m planning on starting a series on this blog called Skill a Week, where I’ll describe some skill I’ve taught myself, why it’s useful/interesting from a self-sufficiency and frugality perspective, and provide tips/instructions for people also interested in learning that skill. Don’t expect any skill to be particularly complicated; the idea is it’s something to pick up in a short amount of time and use with regularity. It could be a recipe/cooking skill, a way to repair something, a new way of learning, and so on. I want to be forced to push my boundaries and maybe help other people learn as well.


The Art of Poking Around

People are really afraid of fucking things up. In some situations, you can cause serious damage by poking around. But that’s a heuristic and not a rule. Even worse, it’s a heuristic developed to deal with high risk/low reward situations that you encounter infrequently.

Speaking more broadly, I think the safest way to accumulate “handyman knowledge” – skills to repair cars, or do home improvements, or fix computers – is through experience. And the first step to gaining experience is to acknowledge and set aside your fears, and accept that poking around is ok, and even fun.

Now, I currently know essentially nothing about home improvement or car repair, classic areas where people are afraid of Fucking Things Up. But I do know quite a bit about computers.

Short of (A) deleting something or (B) wiping the hard drive with a magnet (actually quite difficult to do), there’s very little that can seriously screw up a computer.

But remember, people are really afraid of touching anything, because they’re worried they’ll break something. If you’ve ever done ‘tech support’ for family, I’m sure you’ve seen the results of this mentality. The browser will slowly accumulate dozens of search bars because the user isn’t willing to right-click in order to remove them. The taskbar will grow to contain dozens of icons. This, even though right-click is the default “show hidden options” command in 90% of Windows programs, and right click will usually allow you to disable something that’s a nuisance.

As long as you can remember your last 2-3 commands, it’s usually quite easy to reverse them. And in a worst-case scenario, what do you do? You get someone who really understands the system, which was what you were going to do anyway.

This isn’t just an attitude for computers. You can fix a lot of things just by ‘poking around’ and trying things out.

If you still want to be cautious, google your basic problem before making any changes. If you’re exploring home improvement or car repair as a total novice, this may be the best policy, because there are times when “undo” is not an option in real life, or there’s a hidden danger you might not be aware of. You don’t want to mess up when jump-starting a car.

About a month ago, my kitchen sink started to leak. It’s a very simple construction: there’s a spot in the sink for a drain, underneath there’s a pipe. The pipe is connected to the drain, and there’s a metal plate screwed on that forces the drain against the sink, and seals everything with a rubber gasket.

Now, my initial response, and the response I usually employ when confronted with a handyman problem, was to ignore it. I put a towel underneath to prevent water from getting everywhere… and then operated as usual. I suspected that the gasket was rotting and I’d have to get a new one… but I could ignore that for now, right?

Well, I totally forgot about the problem and the damp towel started to mold. Long story short, it was nasty and smelled terrible.

So now I was in the same situation as when I first encountered the problem, but I had to try to replace the gasket. Well, the first thing was to try to get it off. To do that I had to unscrew the plate that held the gasket against the sink. I started to unscrew it but couldn’t tell if it was getting any looser. Out of curiosity, I turned on the water at this point. The leak was even worse! Either the gasket had degraded substantially over a month — or maybe it was loose to begin with. Turning the plate the other direction solved everything. It had just gotten knocked a little loose and this is what caused the leak.

This isn’t something I’m proud of. I let a trivial problem, which took me all of 5 minutes to investigate and fix, fester for a month, ruining a towel in the process. Why? Because I was afraid that poking around would cause more problems, or be more difficult than I anticipated.

So: poke around. Experiment. Explore the world, inhabit the problem, and be fearless.