Monday, May 23, 2016

Addicted to Power

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.


  1. Man, you got it bad, Lisabet!

    I remember the Pennsylvania winters, one time we were out of power for a week. Luckily the gas still worked so we stayed warm by the kitchen stove. Seems like it was always fun. For one thing, we kids had snow days. We'd sit around the radio praying they'd say that our school was closed. Then I'd throw a snow shovel over my shoulder and walk to the upscale part of town and shovel walks., since nobody in my neighborhood could afford to have theirs done.

    WE've had a couple of big California storms over the years in this house. In fact, 13 days after moving in, we had the floods of '82. A friend across town who lived by a stream had visiting parents and came to our place to stay for several days. We had no electricity. We made a big pot of soup on the gas stove and kept the place warm that way. Man, was that ever a test of this 950 sq! Six people here. Took it it stride. We're on a gradual slope, not enough to slide, but all the water went by our place. There was three feet of water at the end of the street and water was coming up from a manhole that looked like a fountain, spouting up from the road.

    Sorry for the exhausting comment. Got carried away. Probably a good time to write something?

    1. I used to have the same sort of attitude, Daddy. That sort of thing was an adventure, a challenge. I miss that feeling.

  2. I'm in Silicon Valley, Lisabeth, not the tropics, but I didn't have my iPhone for a day
    and I don't have a landline. It was interesting. I had this one quick moment of fear -
    what if something happened to me or one of my dogs? I have a car, of course, but
    not having any way to connect, well it was different. I zenned out and just went with it.
    I read more than I ever have time for. I slowed down which I hardly ever do. I fell asleep early which was wonderful. But man, I couldn't wait to pick up that iPhone at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. Oh, and the dogs and I built a tent out of sheets and pretended we were camping. I still had power, I just this no phone time as freeing and fun!

    1. Hi neighbor- Marin county here! And that sheets making tents thing is a scene in my story "Tenters", in the book to your right.

    2. Hey, Mary! Great to see you here.

      Being concerned about the ability to contact someone in an emergency is rational, I think. Though of course before mobile phones, we didn't have that instant capability.

      I recently sent my phone to get repaired overnight. I hardly ever get calls, and I don't do online stuff on the mobile, but still, I felt naked somehow. (And not in a good way!)

  3. Whenever we can get away, we go camping for a internet access, since we don't have smart-phones, just "dumb-phones"...flip-phones, actually. We have a cheap rate since we pay for a talk/text package but would get charged for any data usage. We never use data, so we're okay.

    And we always try to get away for at least a week per summer, up to somewhere that has no cell signal, and certainly no internet. Heading up to Grand Marais again this year, to the setting of 2 of my 3 Minnesota Romances. We love it up there, and part of the charm is being incommunicado with the rest of the world.

    Of course, one year a cover artist sent me a sample the day we left, and 5 days later, she called me on my cell phone, wondering why I hadn't replied. I had told the publisher that I'd be unreachable for a few days. The only reason my phone got the message was that we'd headed into town for groceries, and so I could do some laundry. I got my laptop out of my truck, (I try to write while I'm up there, since I can't go on-line, so lots of time to compose, with no FB or email or other time-sucking vortexes calling to me.) I sat in the laundromat and scrolled through hundreds of emails, to find the one with the cover, and I approved it. Sheesh! That's the only thing I don't like about being out of wi-fi access: having to deal with, literally, thousands of emails when I get back. You'd think I was a best-selling author, based on how many emails I get in a week...instead of someone who can barely buy a cup of coffee with my royalties!

    Husband was once on a lake fishing, up in Ely, Minnesota, when his cell phone unexpectedly got an errant signal from somewhere and rang. It was some guys in Guadalajara, calling "Senor", asking him what to do with one of the products that was failing testing (he's an engineer.) He laughed and told them he was on vacation, had no internet, and was losing signal...then he hung up. That's also why he doesn't want to get promoted to being a boss, since then he'd HAVE to bring his laptop on vacation, and check in every day. How is THAT a vacation??

    1. I envy you, Fiona! I'd love to do that. Love to have the time.

      And I think I'd adapt to being out of touch. That happens to some extent when we do international traveling.

      When I think about it, it's largely the Lisabet marketing tasks that I feel panicky about. They mount up when I'm not online.

    2. Fiona, your trips sound like heaven!

  4. I think I could do it... could go without power or connectivity for a few days...

    A few years ago, I was living with my boyfriend and we didn't have the funds to afford either cable TV or internet, and that was before I got a smartphone, so my flip phone was just for texting and calling (but I did little of either). We went out to a lot of coffee shops when we needed internet. We had plenty of electricity, but what use is it when you can't do anything with your computer except write? (I did get a lot done, though...)

    That was a painful year -- I felt like I was going out of my mind by not being connected to anything. But, eventually, I grew to like it. I withdrew from the time suck that is Facebook and I still barely engage with it, I learned to be more focussed in my online work, so I go in, get it all done, and go do other things.

    Now that I have internet at home, I still don't use it 24/7. I go online, do a few things, then go offline. I still don't have cable TV -- once I broke the habit, I was unable to go back. (Sometimes when dog-sitting at my mom's house, I'd turn on the TV, but it just seemed so annoying now that I'd broken the habit that I just can't bring myself to watch it. I still watch some shows on DVD or Netflix, but not much.) I have a smartphone, so I've got connectivity in my pocket, but I've turned notifications off for almost every app -- I go into them when I want to go into them, not when the app tells me I should.


    1. Hi, Cameron,

      I think you're rare for your generation!

      Keep it up!

  5. I've been through power outages of a week or so, but they do seem so much worse now that we rely on being connected online. I've vacationed "off the grid", too, which is okay as long as you're someplace already set up for living without electricity, with oil lanterns, wood stoves, manual water pumps, things like that. Sure, everyone lived without electricity until fairly recently as history goes, but how would we manage if we suddenly had to live that way without preparation? How would we communicate once the batteries wore out, or get anywhere once the gasoline ran out? One of my friends has joined a short-wave radio group, which is somewhat tempting.

    1. Living in New England gives you more of an opportunity for that sort of outage...!

      Maybe we don't really NEED to communicate long distance. But these days, it sure feels like we do.

  6. Ha. It's too true that we're addicted to the power of electricity. I can't imagine living for long without it.

    1. Yeah, it's annoying. I swore I would never get so dependent on the Internet that I couldn't live without it. Well... I could live without it, much more easily than my students could. But it would be a challenge.

  7. I remember that party feeling when the power went out! That's very much the way it was in childhood. There was a blackout one year when I was in college, and it had that same fun feeling. At some point, I thought about it and realized I sort of missed blackouts.

    I know that panic you're describing, Lisabet. It ate me alive when I worked in tech. When I quit my tech industry job, one of the first things I did was delete my accounts on Facebook and LinkedIn. No marketing or networking value can possibly be worth the panic they induce in me. Ever since I've struggled to balance the need to minimize panic with the demands of communication associated with being a writer. Still working to find the right mix.

    1. My own work with computers is likely partly to blame as well. Both work and play (i.e. writing) depend on power.


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