being prepared
14 Oct 2009 11:55:23 EST

It's rare for me to write an essay, as opposed to code, but this is something I've been thinking about recently. Someone's been ribbing me recently about "being prepared" - partially because I happen to be an Eagle Scout, but partially because I also happen to always be prepared. I suppose I do fit the superficial model of being prepared. I carry a pocketknife on me, I have a change of clothes in my trunk, I keep emergency cash handy, I try not to let my gas tank get too empty, and so on. But as I've grown older, I've discovered there are three parts to "being prepared".

First and foremost is what you have. It's the easiest, it's the most superficial. If you're going camping and you're not bringing duct tape - you're not prepared. Same with a first aid kit, cleaning supplies, or a tent. This is what most people think of when they hear "that guy is prepared". They hear "that guy has a lot of crap". And it's handy, don't get me wrong. It can get you out of jams - once I landed in Madrid, completely alone, and discovered that when they say the Mastercard would "work everywhere" what they meant was "it'll work anywhere it's accepted" - which was nowhere in Spain or France. Lucky I had a hundred USD to change and get a metro ride into the city where I could get to a bank. Here's the thing though - it's not important. At least, not compared to the other ones.

The next part of being prepared is what you know. If you've got a snakebite kit and no idea how to use it, but you saw on TV that some guy made hash marks with a knife and sucked out the venom - congrats you're a detriment to your friend's life. You need to know what to do and how to do it when you find yourself in an emergency. Whether it's first aid because someone just cut their artery on a kitchen knife, or you're getting mugged in a foreign city. Here's an example of not knowing what to do. My car broke down - the engine overheated. A guy stops, and drops off two gallons of water - then he takes off. I have a gallon of coolant in my trunk (that's right, I had everything I needed). And what did I do? I fake-remembered that water cools better than coolant, so I dumped the water in the radiator, and started driving. I didn't get too far - I just boiled off all the water. Coolant has a higher boiling point than water. That's why you mix them. I had everything I needed to accomplish my goal, but I failed because I didn't know what to do.

The last part of being prepared is the most subtle. You have to keep yourself together under pressure. This is often what people consider manliness to be - keeping a rational head in the midst of a crisis and delaying your emotional reaction so others can rely on you. If you have a T-Shirt and you know to apply pressure and keep the wound elevated, but you can't hold it together at the sight of a lot of blood - you're not helping anyone. Or closer to home - your car just broke down. In 5mph bumper-to-bumper traffic, no shoulder, as a lane is merging in from the right, in a tunnel. What do you do? I've been there. And I'm not going to say I handled myself flawlessly. I snapped at my friend that I was doing the best I damn well could. But I survived, and it could have been a whole lot worse if I didn't hold myself together as well as I did.

So here's the thing guys (and gals). Being prepared is an admiral quality and don't let anyone tell you differently. But it's more than how much crap you have in your pockets. So start easy - take the baby steps. Put a first aid kit in your car, an extra twenty behind your mom's photo, and a roll of duct tape in your camping supplies. Now, go take a CPR class, ask your EMT friend how to treat a half-severed finger or a cut vein or artery. Then practice it, remember it, and refresh your memory until it's more than memory - it's a reaction. They don't call it muscle memory for nothing. Finally, here's the hardest thing to do: push your comfort zone. Do things that make you nervous; whether it's ordering at that fast-paced no-nonsense deli or navigating a new city by yourself. Build up your confidence. Then when you get into a jam - just stop, breathe, and remember, you've handled lots of other difficult things and you can handle this. That way the next time your car breaks down - you won't.

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