Sandy and Me

By Robert Wright

I live in central New Jersey, and Hurricane Sandy has taught me two things: (1) there's actually something kind of charming about losing your electrical power; (2) the charm wears off after 18 hours. I'm now approaching hour 50.

The charming part is pretty predictable: bonding with neighbors over your common adversity; huddling with the family around the fireplace to stay warm; getting the feeling, right after splitting some firewood, that, gosh darn it, you really could fend for yourself if civilization collapsed and we were all forced to pursue the hunter-gatherer business model.

The charm-wearing-off part comes when you realize how labor-intensive the hunter-gatherer business model is. For example: Every time you want a cup of coffee you have to drive to a Starbucks. (Of course, if you were an actual hunter-gatherer, you would walk to the Starbucks--but you get my point.)

Also, do you realize what it's like to be a hunter-gatherer whose computer needs recharging? Last night I found myself sitting on the floor of the local public library, next to a power outlet that, thanks to a splitter, I was sharing with not one but two people. This library was built in the digital age and so has lots of accessible electrical outlets--a hundred at the very least. And so far as I could tell, all of them had something plugged into them. This was the most crowded I've seen a public library since, well, the beginning of the digital age. (People have asked whether libraries can serve a useful function in the digital age. The answer is yes. Plus, the books add a nice decorative touch.)

And then there's the fact that no power means no wifi. My house is on the periphery of my cell-phone coverage area, so, even when my smart phone is charged (here I'm admirably refraining from sharing my current thoughts about Steve Jobs's having singlehandedly killed the replaceable battery), getting email is iffy, and getting an actual website to load--even Twitter--is close to hopeless. So I'm not just off the power grid--I'm very close to being off the grid, period.

I've gone completely off the grid a few times--on a meditation retreat, on a canoe trip in a wilderness area--and it's always been a welcome respite from the online life. But being kind of off the grid is another story. You get just enough connectivity--at Starbucks, e.g.--to keep your appetite whetted but never enough to satisfy it. This would be hard any time; during the last week of a presidential campaign, it's beyond hard. Rasmussen withdrawal is brutal.

I'm not optimistic about power returning anytime soon. It seems like fallen trees are everywhere. One in my backyard crushed our fence, and more than one neighbor had a tree land on their house. There are at least four downed power lines within a mile and a half of my house, and so far as I can tell, none of them has been attended to by the power company. The police just put yellow tape around the scene of the crime and leave things as they are, waiting for the experts from PSE&G to show up.

Meanwhile, the weather is taking a turn for the colder, and this fireplace is just barely getting the job done. So we're pondering relocation--finding a dog-friendly motel, or maybe driving to Connecticut to see the inlaws (whose many virtues, I'm now realizing, I've too often overlooked). If I resume my previous habit of posting obsessively about the presidential election, you'll know I've found a home with good broadband.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/sandy-and-me/264385/