By Lisabet Sarai
A few weeks ago, on a Wednesday, there was a notice posted in the elevator of our apartment building. The metropolitan electricity authority had scheduled some major upgrades for our neighborhood, so on the following Sunday, electricity would be cut from 8 AM to approximately 2 PM.
My husband and I looked at each other, aghast. What would we do? Where would we go? How would we manage to live for six hours without power?
Our concern wasn’t completely irrational. I try to devote Sundays to my writing. He typically works on a variety of projects outside of his job responsibilities, most of which involve the computer. Plus we live in the tropics, where, especially in the hot season, being stuck in a place without air conditioning or fans is uncomfortable bordering on dangerous.
Still, what strikes me, looking back, is our extreme consternation. We weren’t exactly panicked, but our planning engines immediately went into high gear as we tried to figure out a strategy for dealing with this looming problem.
How widespread would the problem be? How reliable were the times (previous experience suggested not very...)? If we didn’t leave the apartment until Sunday morning, would we have electricity for the espresso maker and our showers?
I also started worrying about the food I had in the freezer. I altered my meal plans for the next few days to make sure I could use up the pork chops and the smoked salmon before they could spoil.
What files would we need to take with us? What applications needed to be installed on our laptops? Could we get by without our chargers? Or the USB DVD reader? Did I need my portable mouse?
Eventually, we decided to spend Saturday night in a hotel in another part of the city. We chose a place we knew would have a desk in the room and made sure it had wifi. We requested a late check-out, so we could devote the maximum amount of time to working. The best the hotel could do was 1 PM. At that point, we left our overnight bags at the hotel desk and set out on a quest for a likely coffee shop, hauling our computers with us. We didn’t want to head back to our neighborhood too early. What would we do if the electricity was still out? Sit around in the lobby and sweat?
Modern urban life depends on electricity, no question. Our reactions though... you might have thought we were facing an outage of days rather than hours. There’s no question we’re addicted to power.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was younger, I remember quite clearly that power cuts due to storms sometimes had a holiday quality. (Not the ones in the dead of the New England winter, of course...!) Bring out the candles and the flashlights. See if we can make dinner on the emergency Sterno stove, or the hibachi. Open a bottle of wine and celebrate an excuse not to work.
I’ll never forget when Hurricane Donna hit Massachusetts in 1960, causing a major blackout. My mom was so calm. She gathered my siblings and me around the candle-lit kitchen table and taught us to play bridge.
It was like camping, something I did a fair amount of in my youth. Back then I loved getting away from civilization, roughing it. I recall with some affection one summer at the Girl Scout camp where we stayed in big tents, with no electricity. I didn’t miss it at all.
Now, though, the notion of being without power (and without the Internet) scares the heck out of me. All I can think of is the email accumulating, the blog posts needing to be written, the adoring letters from fans that I can’t access... (Okay, I made the last one up.) I haven’t been camping in about twenty years. I wonder if I could stand the isolation.
Of course, I’m not alone in this addiction. In the Asian city where I live, everyone carries not just his or her cell phone, but also a portable power bank, just in case the phone battery runs out. (I haven’t sunk that low yet, mostly because I don’t use my phone that much.) Cafes and restaurants feature power outlets next to each table. I attend quite a few technical conferences and trade shows. These days every one provides stations where you can lock up your device in a little cubicle while you top up its charge.
I remind myself that millions of humans on the planet live without electricity and for the most part, survive without too much difficulty. Presumably I could do so too, if necessary. My clear addiction makes me quite uncomfortable. I’ve always liked to believe I am a flexible, adaptable sort of person, the kind of individual who can be creative in handling the unexpected. My frantic unease when facing last month’s power cut makes me question that belief, though.
Maybe what I need is a long vacation in some rural location off the grid. Going cold turkey, so to speak.
But I have so much work to do on the Internet, I really don’t have the time.