One of the many lessons learned by this crisis is that some of us are better prepared than others. I, sadly, am one of those others. My fiancé, a nurse, has taken disaster training courses, and bought a hand-cranked radio when we moved to hurricane-prone New Orleans. I tuned it to WWOZ and immediately lost it. If someone were to poke their head into my study right now and shout “Emergency! Grab your shit and go!” I’d probably emerge, panicked, clutching a handful of fountain pens, my pockets stuffed with neckties, having forgotten my wallet and keys.
Fortunately, Matt Hranek, editor of WM Brown Magazine, has spent the past few weeks of isolation inviting his most raffish friends to submit flat-assembled photos of their “go bags,” giving us an insight into their fears, comforts and egos. WM Brown, inspired as it is by Hranek’s own combination of luxurious and sporty enthusiasms (sporty like staggering tipsy around a moor in Hunter boots and a Barbour jacket lightly bothering local wildlife — not sports relating to anything involving a team or a ball) is in many ways a magazine about men with keen aesthetic, epicurean and intellectual sensibilities saying “look at this great thing I’ve found!” to one another, and the “go bag” project is that distilled to its material essence.
Obviously, there’s an inherent irony in assembling a “go bag” during the current emergency, when we are being emphatically told not to go anywhere. But Hranek explains that this project has allowed him to indulge the “armchair doomsday prepper” within. Indeed, there seems to be a potent male fantasy of being stranded like Robinson Crusoe, or escaping to an island with some friends and some tobacco like Tom Sawyer.
“I’ve always liked the idea of a survivalist mentality,” Hranek tells InsideHook. “But this whole idea of ‘what would you take with you if you needed survive’ — is a little bit of a fantasy. Because it’s not terribly practical to just bring one mylar poncho and a bar of chocolate. But the way I proposed it to people was ‘What are some of the things you can’t live without?’ ‘What are the things you want to have in your life for the short term that give you incredible pleasure?’”
As a result, the WM Brown go-bag challenge is a bit like a visual version of “Desert Island Discs,” and sets out to answer a few different questions: What would you need to survive? What would you need for comfort? What’s important to you? And, because this is the first global emergency to play out on social media in this way: What do you want to show off to your friends and our readers? The relative importance of each of those questions to each participant can often be inferred from their choices.
Some objects are nearly ubiquitous, pointing to shared values among WM Brown readers: nearly everyone included chocolate, which seemed an uncharacteristically feminine choice to me until I remembered what a bar of chocolate could get you in occupied France in 1945. Lots of flasks and bottles of wine make appearances. Ditto Tylenol and Advil (possibly for hangovers?). There is a profusion of finely crafted knives and a smattering of mostly antique and heirloom firearms. Many cigars are in the mix, along with cutters, lighters, and cases. The more pragmatic people brought Band-Aids and passports. The less pragmatic — a lot of them — chucked in velvet slippers.
“Velvet slippers would be the last thing I would grab,” laughs Hranek. “It must be a reminder of civility and glamor.”
One wag simply posted his laptop, a bag of Kleenex and a bottle of hand lotion, suggesting that he’d be waiting out the plague alone in the woods, wanking.
“With a good wifi signal,” adds Hranek, laughing. “He probably knows that’s not what it was going to take to survive, but that was his fantasy for survival.”
Before setting out to create my own fancy go bag a la WM Brown, I asked Wei Koh, publisher of The Rake and Revolution magazines, about his kit, which contained — among lots of cigar-smoking equipment — two watches, three knives and a pair of nunchucks. Koh’s bag looks like he’s going to be spending lots of time smoking and fighting. He swears he’d rather focus on the former than the latter, but admits that choosing a few weapons comes from a real fear borne of reading reports of Asians around the world being verbally and physically attacked. But why the nunchucks, specifically?
“Guns run out of bullets,” says Koh. “And then you basically have a large paperweight. You pull out a pair of nunchucks and people figure out, ‘OK, shit’s about to go down.’ Of course, it’s also the kind of weapon that can injure the user more often than the person intended. Fortunately I had a youth spent obsessively watching Bruce Lee movies and then a pair of foam practice nunchucks.”
Uniquely among participants, Koh has included in his bag a cornicello, the red Italian horn-shaped charm that resembles a hot pepper, used to ward off evil. This is largely because of his love of Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic. Koh finds the tradition of the cornicello comforting and “charming” — no pun intended, I’m sure.
When the time came to assemble my bag, I found myself gathering up fountain pens, as I’d predicted, although I ditched the neckties. I picked up a paperback copy of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, some notebooks and nice Florentine stationery, a sketchbook and pencil box, a bird-watching guide and binoculars, my fanciest bottle of vintage Charles Heidsieck Champagne, a can of Diet Dr. Pepper and — of course — some chocolate.
Hranek looks over my selection:
“This reminds me of what I think many of them are: In the most dire situations what are some things that are going to make us be happy or give us the most human relationship with ourselves? At the end of the day we are so far removed from that part of ourselves that understood how to survive in the cold, in the environment, out there … So for us, I think it’s about what is the intellectual survival?”
So in this case, the perfect bug-out bag is more a source of comfort rather than an essential toolkit. It isn’t necessarily filled with things that will help you start fires or — nunchucks aside — stay alive a little longer in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Instead, Hranek’s vision is something more positive: It’s the objects that will help you occupy your hours with less anxiety, that will help remind you that life is worth living as well as you can manage it and that this crisis, too, shall pass
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