On Dec. 29, a power outage interrupted much of Erie, including where I was working from home.
No power meant no Wi-Fi, and no Wi-Fi meant no connection to the world online, where most of my work takes place. Mild frustration tinged with fear tightened my jaw and shallowed my breath. How was I going to get anything done now? What if this isn’t resolved quickly? What about plans, routines, deadlines?
Then I noticed the silence. The furnace wasn’t kicking on — not a welcome quiet for long (as many locals could attest that day), but soothing for a spell. No appliances knocked and hummed. No electrical buzz droned dissonantly against my noisy mind.
Outside, too, felt placid and mild. So I took a walk. Noticeable quiet blanketed the neighborhood. A couple of neighbors emerged and we commiserated about our powerless plight. That simple, rare connection was reassuring in ways I hadn’t even realized I needed.
I passed other folks outside as I walked down toward the lake: some picking up wind-tossed sticks, some just milling about. I smiled, recalling a 2003 headline in The Onion: “48-Hour Internet Outage Plunges Nation Into Productivity.”
Milling about is its own form of productivity, one we stubbornly undervalue in our hyper-scheduled, machine-driven world. That walk set free ideas I’d been unwittingly imprisoning by staring into a screen, trying to wrestle them out of my algorithm-addled brain.
The lake, still ruffled and haughty after its slugfest with high winds, nevertheless calmed me. Maybe it was the trees clinging to the cliff for longer than any of us will cling to life. Or the enormous presence of the lake, itself: the closest thing to permanence we have, and much more aligned with our own wild roots than the devices we’ve built our lives around.
In A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut writes, “we have contraptions like computers that cheat you out of becoming. Bill Gates says, ‘Wait till you see what your computer can become.’ But it’s you who should be doing the becoming, not the damn fool computer. What you can become is the miracle you were born to be through the work that you do.”
The tricky part for many of us now, of course, is that the work that we do and the computer are interdependent. It is only with illogical hypocrisy that I bemoan our reliance on the very technology that allows me the freedom to work sometimes from home, or during odd hours, or, really, at all.
And I am daily in awe of the Reader community we reach digitally; and their potential to have a democratic conversation about the issues we publish, simply by pushing the comment button.
But Vonnegut would be nonplussed. “Electronic communities build nothing,” he insists. “You wind up with nothing.”
“Nothing” may be a little extreme. Nonetheless, sometimes it’s valuable to lose what we thought we needed. To be reminded of our resilience and flexibility, and that there is no substitute for neighbors, for quiet, for that inconceivably phenomenal lake of ours. And that real power comes from people, not plugs.
“We are dancing animals,” concludes Vonnegut. “How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”
Katie Chriest can be contacted at katie@ErieReader.com.