I live in a leafy inner suburb where life is good, the public school is excellent, everyone has a new gas grill the size of a small spaceship and the only thing anyone worries about is being hit by a weapon of mass destruction.
It's kind of an all-or-nothing situation. We assume that when the good times come to an end, the substitute will be something truly apocalyptic. It used to be, not many years ago, that we could park these fears in a little compartment of the brain, near the neurons that monitor a possible collapse of the housing market. But these are insecure times. We are all a bit nervous. We talk a lot about guns.
Like the other day, a professorial neighbor, a man of refined taste and gentle demeanor, announced that he's thinking of buying a shotgun. "Because of what happened with Katrina," he said.
This is a guy who's never been armed with anything more lethal than pruning shears. We're all liberals in our neighborhood, and are queasy about doing anything more violent than wielding a can of Raid. But we're also post-9/11, post-Katrina, mid-Iraq, and now even the peaceniks and PBS junkies are talking about the coming day when Only the Strong Survive.
You should hear my oversize friend Angus. Angus is the grimmest blond person I've ever met. I always expect the very, very blond to be carefree, like they've just come from playing tennis. But Angus has seen the darkness. Naturally he has cached abundant emergency supplies in an undisclosed location out in the country. He's ready for the Big One, be it a terrorist attack, cyclone, blackout, plague, asteroid impact or invasion of trolls from the center of the Earth.
It's curious that when people talk about the Big One, they don't actually worry about dying. If you die, your problems go away. It's the surviving that's hard. We fear the social breakdown: the power grid failing, hoodlums running loose, cops quitting, Balducci's closing early, book club meetings degenerating into statements that can't be logically defended -- the full urban nightmare.
I don't really mind if civilization crumbles and we are forced to live in squalor, scraping for sustenance, foraging for nuts and berries and whatnot, because it will remind me of my childhood. But I worry about the moment when things get so brutishly primitive, the competition for resources so vicious, that even the bonds of friendship shatter. I worry that, in the darkest hour, when every family on the street is down to its last wedge of brie, Angus will try to kill me.
We have a lot of conversations that seem jovial at the start, but gradually degenerate. They tend to go like this:
Me: It's the volcanoes I worry about. The big calderas. Yellowstone, Toba. The ejecta darkening the planet for decades, shutting down photosynthesis.
Angus: Humans reverting to the condition of animals.
Me: We will have to hole up at your country place and stave off the ravenous hordes.
Angus: I'm sorry?
Me: I'm staying with you. Remember? After the Big One.
Angus: Remind me what your skill set is. I don't need a typist.
He will have a frightening look in his eye, a reptilian gleam. He will be sizing me up for my utility in the post-civilized world. I can tell that, in his head, there are scenarios in which he is forced to harvest me for meat.
How should I feel about this? Obviously it hurts my feelings to know that there may come a day when he carves me up and feeds the scraps to his pigs. Logic says that I need to take action now, to make a preemptive strike. The hulking blond must go, before the Big One hits and the competition for food, water, gas and cabernet becomes truly savage.
I know it's extreme, but these are extreme times. Angus might not like what I'm going to do, but he'll understand, intellectually. The fundamental rule of survival never changes. Eat or be eaten.
Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.