Miscellany

Life In Juxtopia

Katie Kiang sits by an electrical outlet and a quiet spot to study  inside the air-conditioned Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Md., on Monday. i i

Katie Kiang sits by an electrical outlet and a quiet spot to study inside the air-conditioned Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Md., on Monday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Katie Kiang sits by an electrical outlet and a quiet spot to study  inside the air-conditioned Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Md., on Monday.

Katie Kiang sits by an electrical outlet and a quiet spot to study inside the air-conditioned Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Md., on Monday.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For five full days — following Friday night's nasty wind-and-rain flashstorm — you were without electricity in the Washington suburbs. Dodging felled trees and fallen power wires, you made daily forays to nearby cafes and coffee shops, establishments that did have power. There you could recharge the batteries in your laptop and smartphone and take care of various electronic chores, such as banking, sending gifts, ordering necessities and sorting through email.

But mostly you stayed home, reading books and actual newspapers, just like in the Olden Days.

Still there were so many weird moments, occasions when you had one foot in the pre-Edisonian 19th century and the other foot in the hyperelectrified 21st century. You couldn't help but notice the bizarre juxtapositions that occurred in this — what should you call it? — Juxtopia.

One afternoon, for instance, you sat in the sweltering heat, drinking iceless water and watched a movie — on a DVD in your battery-powered computer.

By coincidence, you chose The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington as Eli. You knew nothing about it beforehand, but as you watched Eli traipse westward through a post-apocalyptic world — a dirty, dusty landscape caused by some natural disaster and subsequent war — you felt a connection to his world. Here was a crumbling brick facade that had once been the storefront of an upscale clothier; there was a hollowed-out nuclear cooling tower, now turned into an impromptu campsite. As in your world, there was no electricity. And fresh water was more valuable than just about anything.

Along the way, Eli barters for battery power to recharge his digital music player. Other characters, meanwhile, listen to their music on a wind-up Victrola.

You identified with the film's constant seesawing between future and past. On your smartphone, you read messages from people kvetching about their lack of electricity – but they still have operative smartphones. You opened your windows to catch the breezes, but instead of silence, you heard the constant roaring of your neighbors' gas-powered generators — like airplanes constantly revving their engines on the tarmac. A friend told you of someone with a generator who had to choose between getting on the Internet and keeping the refrigerator running. The person chose the Internet.

You might have made the same choice. You wrote this line by candlelight; you filed it by iPhone.

During one of your cafe outings, you read that sci-fi futurist (and Freddie Mac historian) Newt Gingrich compared the derecho-wracked regions to the way the world will be in the wake of a catastrophic electromagnetic pulse event. You resolved to set aside emergency stores of clean water.

To be sure, there were tragic deaths caused by the storm and the heat. But many of the so-called problems brought about by the midsummer loss of electricity were merely first-world annoyances. For instance, you heard people complaining about the paucity of pastries at Starbucks. But you couldn't help but notice what works and what doesn't when the power goes off. That could come in handy in case Gingrich and others are right and you wind up living in just such a Juxtopia — somewhere between always-on and never-on — for an even longer period of time.

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