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The Boston Globe

Magazine

Perspective

Feeling powerless in our hyperconnected world

In our hyperconnected world, it’s sad that a few days without electricity feels like a disaster.

Magazine essay

Nick Lu

OUR SITUATION TURNED DESPERATE around the time Meryl Streep’s infatuation with Chris Cooper began to spell trouble. My wife and I were watching Adaptation on my laptop when a message popped up: “You are now running on reserve battery power. You need to plug the power adaptor into your computer and into a power outlet.” Easy for you to say, MacBook. We were in our 26th hour of powerlessness.

 The Blizzard of 2013 had introduced itself to Plymouth the day before, on Friday, with a lazy ballet of snowflakes that by nightfall organized into a full-on assault. Short of buying a generator, we were prepared to “hunker down,” which apparently is something done only during inclement weather. The fireplace in our house had long been covered over, but the kitchen stove burns gas. We had enough candles to illuminate a good-size vigil, there were no vacancies on the wine rack, and keeping food cold promised to be easy. Not that there weren’t serious questions, such as whether the DVR would still record Girls.

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Early Saturday, wind gusts slashed against our exterior walls, which responded with more creaking than an over-40 basketball team. The thermostat soon registered 38 degrees and our breathing — especially the sighs — produced puffs of fog. We dressed in layers, buried ourselves under two comforters, and listened to nature waging war. You know that notion about there being a baby boom nine months after an outage? I’m betting it’s not happening this time. 

In the morning, we boiled water to make tea and steam and warmed up by shoveling the driveway to an unplowed street. My iPhone kept us connected to the news, and it wasn’t promising — hundreds of thousands of NStar and National Grid customers were without power. Officials projected it would take until Thursday to restore everyone’s service. A neighbor said the estimate was purposely gloomy to lower expectations. I suspected the same — following earlier storm-recovery debacles, the utility companies’ credibility ratings had tumbled into a dead heat with Congress. But a survey of the fractured tree limbs up and down the street made it clear this was a major mess.

Saturday night, after the laptop drained, silence took over a living space that began to feel hostile. You don’t realize how many noises a house makes when it’s functioning. The furnace purrs, heating pipes percolate, refrigerators cycle, devices hum. That consistency reinforces the assumed comforts of home.

With the phone turned off to conserve precious energy, every last gadget in the place was out of commission. It suddenly struck me: This was unlike the 1960s and ’70s of my childhood, when winter storms that brought down power lines never damaged our spirits. Back then, we weren’t dependent on instant access to 24-hour entertainment. The pace of life wasn’t so fast; a forced slowdown was more incremental. Today, we mourn our dormant flatscreens and stress about missed Facebook updates, as if those things matter.         

The lights and heat returned late Monday. Normalcy. Just like that, we were back in synch after so easily being knocked off kilter. We knew others were still shivering, and that more than 200 Plymouth residents sought emergency shelter, but even for most of them, the ordeal would soon end. Our collective blizzard hardships were obviously trivial in comparison with disasters like Haiti, Katrina, or Sandy. We lost little more than sleep, a couple of TV episodes, and a few hot showers.

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That didn’t prevent me from accepting the sympathies of colleagues at work who had read — or even contributed to — stories about Southeastern Massachusetts being “hard hit.” Yes, it was miserable, I confirmed. Truly awful. But really, any storm whose impact can be measured by days of inconvenience and not lives lost isn’t much of a crisis. Nonetheless, we’ve got some stories to embellish. In tales of the 2013 blizzard to be told years from now, the outages will grow longer, snowdrifts deeper, and the cold more unbearable. That’s a long-range forecast guaranteed to be accurate.

***

BY THE NUMBERS

24

Number of electronic devices in the average US household.

Mark Pothier is the Globe’s deputy business editor. E-mail him at mpothier@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @markpothier.

 

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