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Friday, August 3, 2012

Confessions of a Grid Addict

In 2003 I was still living downstate, but was spending a few summer weeks in my central New York hometown. For the past 20 or so years, mid-August has been the date of the ladies' member/guest tournament at our local golf course, a tournament in which my sister and I play as a team. That year, in 2003, the tournament was being held August 15 and 16.

Nine years ago this month a friend of mine on Long Island was having a milestone birthday party. His birthday is on August 14, which in 2003 fell on a Thursday. Rather than make the 10-hour round trip by car, my plan was to fly from Syracuse to New York City Thursday morning, take a cab to my house on Long Island, take another cab to the party, and then scoot to the airport and fly home that evening in time to get up and out on the golf course the next day for the tournament. My hand-wringing sister and golf partner was concerned: "What if something happens and you can't get back?" My famous last words were, "Ah c'mon, what could happen?"

What happened, as some of you may remember, was The Great Blackout of 2003, when at around 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, August 14, the electric grid went down in the northeastern U.S. and parts of Canada. The cause of the blackout is complicated and multi-faceted, including alarms that didn't go off, under-serviced equipment, too much draw on the grid on a hot day, and, in a nutshell, overheated wires sagging into trees in Ohio. The cascading effect pulled the plug on fifty-five million people.

My own little part of this drama played out as follows: I was in my Long Island house at 4:10 p.m., napping and blissfully unaware, when all hell was breaking loose on the east coast. I woke up around 5 and started getting ready to go to the party. I flipped the switch and..no lights. The power going out in my neighborhood wasn't anything new (don't ask me why...the power always went out in Glen Cove), so I put my make-up on in the gloom of my bathroom, got dressed, and just as I was heading downstairs the phone rang. It was the cab company asking me if I still wanted a car to go to the party location 20 minutes away. "Well yeah!" I said, "Why wouldn't I?" It was then that I learned of the blackout. My primary concern, of course, was my flight home that night, which, as it turns out, had been canceled.

Long story short: I went to the party, being held in a restaurant, and had a fine time in spite of the heat (no AC) and the absence of lights (there were candles, which only made the room hotter). My trip home troubles were quickly solved when a friend offered me her car, into which I jumped at 9 p.m. and roared back upstate. The lights were on in my hometown, and all things considered the blackout only served as a good story in the days to come since, had I not been able to borrow a car, I might have missed the golf tournament.

This week the power grid in India went down. For two days, 670 million people were without electricity. Six hundred and seventy million. That's a tenth of the world's population, 50 million more than twice the U.S. population, a number I can't even get my head around. The blackout in India, the biggest in history, caused massive traffic jams, passengers stranded on trains and at airports, and coal miners stranded in mines. Medical operations were suspended mid-way in darkened hospitals. Government and business offices dependent on the internet ground to a halt. The catastrophic outcome of such a massive power outage, power upon which we all now so depend, is chilling.  

My own tiny inconvenience with the grid going down and now watching what's happened in India have made me think about how personally dependent I am on electricity. For my morning coffee and toast. For lights and air conditioning. The furnace. The hot water heater. The TV, radio, and stereo. The dishwasher, and washing machine, and dryer. The refrigerator where my food stays cold or frozen, the microwave for thawing, the stove for cooking. The computer, where I conduct my business. The telephone, where I also conduct my business. The pump at the station where I get my gas. The lights in the grocery store where I buy my food, not to mention the food there that needs to stay cold. I don't own a chicken for eggs, nor do I have a cow or a single tomato on my three potted tomato plants. I have no garden. If for whatever reason the grid in the U.S. went down and stayed down, there would be no hot showers, no trips to the supermarket, no emailing of work projects, no late-night Frasier on the tube, and no reading in bed with the big old bedside lamp. And no food. I guess I could eat grass and bugs if the grid went down for a long time, and in the end I'd be a skinny jobless woman with dirty clothes and a car I couldn't drive. The thought of living without electricity is so foreign to me I might as well wonder how I would survive on Mars.

Are we spoiled people? I suppose so. Or have we just gotten used to the good life, so provided long ago by a man in a thunderstorm with key and kite? In spite of all the talk about the grid going down due either to terrorists or our own overuse and negligence, I'm not going to run out and buy a thousand candles, nor will I chop down the tree out back to prepare for fire in winter. I shall not build a chicken house, and I will not, like some I speak with these days, decide to "get off the grid." Instead, because I believe in human ingenuity, I'm going to be a millennium type and hope our modern-day Ben Franklins can figure out how to keep the lights on. Sure I can do my part: I can shut off lights I'm not using and try to conserve. Lay off the AC until I can't stand the heat another minute. But in the end, short of buying a couple of dozen extra cans of carrots and a laying hen, I -- like most of you reading this post -- am a hot shower-taking bacon-frying gas-guzzling TV-watching keyboard-typing slave to the grid. An addict is an addict, and I have a feeling this monkey is staying on all our backs for a long long time.

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About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum