Saturday, April 23, 2005

off the grid

The few days before I had the power turned on my fresh new apartment felt like a temple. It sat modestly among the other apartments, quiet and unassuming. Speakers became bedside tables and lamps ornamented the ceiling uselessly. I would read until the sunlight left my floor, go out for a walk, sleep early and wake up to cook breakfast at dawn. The place is humming with electricity now, music emerging from plastic boxes, refrigerator purring contentedly, images from Iraq flicking across my computer screen.

My last English student on Saturday nights is a tall, strong man rounding out his fifties who has spent his entire adult life designing and selling machines that make machines. Everything about him is big, his strong wide hands gesturing out a chemical equation, his broad voice curling around English syllables and pouring out deep low laughs, his legs sprawling under short table. Although he is ostensibly studying for the TOEIC exam, we usually end up spending our entire hour discussing Asian politics, the macro-causes of Japanese weather systems or the ideal brewing conditions for sake. This week he gave me an extended tutorial on the current state of alternative energy sources being researched by the Japanese government, all of which he looked up in his own free time on the internet. He lives alone and drives a company car.

I found myself turning this conversation over and over in my mind this past week, to think of the electricity charging through everything. It is humbling to consider that several million souls yearning and acting out their dramas of food, sex and a warm place to sleep somehow churns up skyscrapers, train lines, billions of lights. The trains run harnessed to rivers. The city shines by the grace of atoms bursting apart in boxes. Wires tangle the sky between buildings. The finest purring BMW feeds on the liquid of dinosaur bones. We live in a world of guitars that scream electricity and earpieces to bring back our hearing.

There’s a hippy friend of mine here who has a beautiful old step-action sewing machine she bought on an impulse. It’s the size of a small table, the cast iron legs framing a flat wide iron pedal at the base. The machine itself can tuck away inside the sewing section, where it has sat for several years, unused. She said one of the appealing ideas of a man powered sewing machine was that if the energy infrastructure ever collapses she could mend and repair her own clothes off the grid. Until then the sewing machine is tucked into its heavy cast-iron and oak table, her shock white Toshiba Dynabook spilling gray wires all over it.

The other day I was sitting in a café surfing the internet when the whole building went dark, the murmur of conversations hushed out in the black. The low roar of a spring thunderstorm groaned at us through the walls. We all sat quietly in our individual booths as our pupils expanded to the dim emergency lights. The staff assured us everything would be alright in a few minutes; sure enough our pupils soon seized up when the overheard lights flipped back on. After we had blinked away all the fluorescent noise the computers whirred back to life and we went back to staring at our internet consoles in silence.

But a much noisier silence than before.

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