Friday, September 19, 2003

Survival of the Misfittest

It had to happen eventually. After watching so many disasters and crises on TV while they were happening to others - floods, storms, blackouts - I knew I had to get mine eventually. Hello Isabel. The odd thing to me is that after living on the Gulf Coast on and off for over 10 years I was never there for a hurricane. Perhaps having noted that oversight the tropics sent a nice storm straight up through Central Virginia. Yesterday about this time my power failed. My husband is a Red Cross volunteer so he was out racing around preparing for the worst. I was home in charge of the pets and supplies and lucky enough to have a friend come over who refused to be ruffled by the whistling wind. ("It's just going to be a big rainstorm.")

Once the power went out we creaked open the old game chest and selected RISK, one of my childhood standards. As the rain continued and the sun went down, we lit candles and earnestly continued our game. I observed that from what I could see it was basically like a Louisiana spring storm. Odd for here, but not scary. We secured the pets in the basement, checked in with the Red Cross on when the eye would come through, and braced for the worst. It was about this time, around 10pm, that I really started to get the tingle. A current racing through my body that screamed, "I want to watch CNN and the Weather Channel". Just as throughout the night we laughed at ourselves for our Pavlovian response of automatically flipping light switches as we walked through rooms WHILE CARRYING FLASHLIGHTS (d'oh!), I could tell that in my mind 'emergency' and '24-hour news channel' are inextricably linked. Somehow it didn't "feel" like an emergency if I wasn't hearing the play-by-play commentary, seeing the fancy graphics (perhaps spinning the storm on it's path or projecting rain fall by color coding), and all while logged in to the internet to cross-check their data with the National Weather Service.

By midnight I said to my friend, "I'm starting to feel like play time's over and I want my power back." I wasn't overly upset, but jonesing for my modern conveniences. It made me realize how much the texture of my life has changed in the past 10 years. Although I was concerned about everything in my freezer melting or the batteries for the radio running out, what obsessively occupied my mind was how I could check on the emergency. I've become an information junkie, strung out on sound bites and color coded charts. Back in the day, Thomas Jefferson was quoted as saying, "I cannot live without books." I'm thinking that if ole TJ were alive today he would say, "I cannot live without the Internet." Information, communication, inter-relation all across our nation; the Internet is a book without covers, without a final chapter, without boundaries. And, some would point out darkly, a book without an editor.

So I lapsed into withdrawal without my CNN and internet connection. I remembered all of the times at work when we would laugh and say, "Gosh, I wonder what we used to do before all this technology!" Now I was thinking, "Egads, what will we do without all of this technology!" I still had telephone service, water pressure, and my cell phone battery was fully charged. I had canned food, a week's supply of water, and a gas grill for cooking. On so many levels it couldnt' even have been called "roughing it". It lasted a few minutes less than 24 hours. My friend had gone home at first light, so I was playing RISK solo and fighting out the struggle for world domination among yellow, green, and blue when the magical sound of the house turning on occured. In a split second my mind frame went from, "You know, I think I can see why I played this game as a kid" to "Oh boy! I can get online now!" Pavlov's dog never drooled so well...

So what I've learned from Hurricane Isabel is that the real crisis I just experienced was the realization of how dependent I have become on modern technology. It wasn't enough to reach out and touch someone (on the phone), I wanted to see their hurricane tracking radar and listen to their 'experts'. But once I logged in, I quickly saw that I was not the only one. One news story reports that, "Richard Staublein, 42, drove his family 13 miles for their first meal in a day, a breakfast at McDonald's in a Richmond suburb - and waited 50 minutes in a line that spilled into the parking lot. Many in line had not eaten because they lost power and were unable to cook. 'I left the house around 8 a.m. and when I got here the line was already a killer,' Staublein said." Thank God, I thought, I'm not the only one. And if a bigger emergency happens I might develop a nervous tic and mumble about leading expert's opinions on the color coded charts, but at least I will be able to feed myself.

Now, if you'll excuse me I've already set the four clocks in this room (microwave, coffee maker, stove, and VCR), but there are at least another seven in the house blinking away. And I would like for things to get back to normal as quickly as possible.

(For those who were ACTUALLY affected by the crisis of Hurricane Isabel, my prayers go out to you and your family.)

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