August 17, 2017

Uprooted and Unplugged From Modernity

I’m old enough to get nostalgic about electricity, the Internet, gas stations with pumps that worked, and tree roots that stuck in the ground. Those days were last week. I thought “bummer” when reading about the loss of power in Washington D.C. Utility crews from Michigan were sent out east to help restore power. Then the power went out around here.

They say that reading fiction is good for the brain. The escapism gives the neurons a little morale boost that you really can’t get from reading the Detroit Free Press. I always seem to get a Jack Reacher feeling from one of Lee Child’s novels when passing through a small town. My car’s gas gauge was on empty when I pulled into a small town gas station. The town was surrounded by farmland, which meant the next gas pump was about twenty miles away. Twenty miles I wasn’t sure I had in fuel. A middle aged woman came out to my car and shook her head. Her gas pumps didn’t work. She was on the phone with someone out of state trying to explain to her how to restart the pumps without making a fat fingered mistake. She told me the next gas station was only a few miles down the road. A few miles sounded better than twenty so I watched the gas gauge as each mile increased my odds of getting out for a long walk in one hundred degree temps.

A handwritten sign was on the next gas station. So sorry but we’re closed due to loss of power. Bummer.

The morale boost of a Jack Reacher image in my head was gone. Now it was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Darkness had descended on the land, with marauding gangs of ten and eleven year olds raiding 7-Elevens for Big Gulps and melting ice cream. We were uprooted and unplugged from all the tools of modernity. Busy intersections became four way stops while traffic lights gave us blank looks. Homeowners were trapped inside without air conditioning. Garage door openers wouldn’t go up without power, having the effect of impounding the owner’s vehicles.

“You might have to lift the garage door yourself,” I said.

The last time I hitchhiked a ride on the expressway was in the Great Crusades of the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and Lech Walesa were liberating Poland and Eastern Europe from the tyranny of Communism. No one thought to ask Lech Walesa for his position on gay marriage. The G word for that era was gulag, not Google.  Most of Google’s future employees were still in grade school while their parents struggled with using whiteout on the typewriter.  A truck full of construction workers sped past me and swerved to a stop. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan was the image in my head at that time. But these construction dudes, drinking beer and eating bologna and crackers, were more concerned about the local cops than Russians. A legitimate concern when pushing pedal to the metal at over one hundred miles an hour. They told me to get in, offered me a beer and crackers, and suggested I pay the speeding ticket if a cop snags them for speeding at more than fifty miles above the limit.

Hitchhiking was so 1980s. Keeping a sharp eye for gangs of youths sucking on straws of Coca-Cola, I turned around and returned to my favorite gas station owner within twenty miles. I was on empty. She was on the phone, receiving new instructions for operating the gas pumps in postapocalyptic times. She waved a nervy index finger over the computer console, waiting for the word from this out of state technician to give her if no one else, the green light.  Out on the street were mothers with their children, eating ice cream cones in open defiance of the sweltering heat and blackouts.

The ten year old in everyone comes out when taking the first puckering sip on a straw or lick of ice cream. I didn’t mind waiting for the pumps to work again, or for energy to be restored.  I felt a loss of freedom in a weird way after utility crews restored the digital age to full power. During the blackout, I realized the shallowness of Silicon Valley, its algorithms turning writers into gerbils on the wheel, “curators” acting like human turnstiles. Lech Walesa didn’t have to jump out of a plane wearing Google glass to sell his message of freedom.  A political commentator asked on Twitter recently when was the last time a union had a big win. No one thought of  Lech Walesa, the man who unplugged Communism in Eastern Europe. He was so 1980s.

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