Monday, February 2, 2009

The "What If" game

People in Zimbabwe are selling their meagre household furnishings to buy food. California is sending out I.O.U's instead of income tax refunds because it's going broke. Hundreds of thousands worldwide are losing their jobs. Is it maybe time to get into survivalist thinking mode?

As anyone knows who ever lost electricity for a few days, it's damn inconvenient. All the stuff in the freezer turns mushy. The milk goes bad. You can't log into your email. The house is COLD and you rummage around, wearing five layers of clothing, looking for gloves. Flashlight, candles, check. Oh my Gawd, no TV!!

You can snuggle together with your mate all bundled up into an easychair and read by candlelight and maybe even make it through till next morning. But then you remember: Arrrrrrrrrrgggg, no hot coffee!! Okay, enough. We're talking serious deprivation here.

I sometimes play the "What If?" game. What if the country's entire electrical grid were to be disabled for a month? You are to find a way to live for one month, without electricity. Let's make this interesting: It is the middle of winter, with four feet of snow outside. The telephone lines are down so you can't make or receive calls. Your cell phone's making blippy, cackly sounds and you can't get a connection. It's 4 below zero out, your car won't start and there's a blizzard in progress so nobody with a lick of sense is venturing outside their home.

Oops. Your flashlight batteries are dead and you remember you forgot to stock candles. It's getting dark and your stomach is rumbling. Not only that, three toes on your left foot have just gone numb.

Okay, that's a bit extreme. But a variation of it COULD happen, and at the very least it's a wake-up call to stock up on flashlight batteries, candles and warm blankets. But seriously, what if you had to live somewhere without electricity for not one, but say, FIVE months, 30 miles from the nearest neighbor (or store)? Could you do it?

What are your plans for when the canned food runs out? Do you have a washboard and bucket for washing your clothes (and a rope to make a clothesline)? (Oh right, that little wooden thingie you bought last summer for $200 at some antique shoppe and use to enhance the folksiness of your kitchen--you mean actually USE it?)

What if there's no water? Oh dear. No showers. No clean clothes. We'll begin to smell like.... the homeless! Five months is a long time. Some of us could maybe hack it for a week or two, maybe even a month. But FIVE months? Forget it.

It's an interesting little mental exercise, you gotta admit. But planning and making little lists of items is one thing--dealing with the actual circumstances is quite another. Life, for 5 months in isolation, without electricity, hot water, the Internet, TV, "creature comforts", companionship--news! Some people would literally go mad. I can name at least five of them right off the top of my head right now. A lot would lose weight, I imagine--after a lifetime of trying and not succeeding, this might actually be a good thing.

It is even more interesting to note what happens when you "return". Do you jump right back into your old routine, happy that your harsh exile is now over? And in one week, whoa, it's like it never happened. Or do you take something from the experience with you that forever changes your perspective or radically alters the way you think and do things from now on? Maybe it's a combination of the two (some lifelong habits are hard to break). Of course you won't know 'till you've actually gone and done it, though. And bear in mind: Not all games are really games. (I wasn't supposed to tell you that.)

At any rate, I'd like to try it; maybe not for five whole months, but at least a month, and preferably somewhere where the only people I come in contact with speak a language that is totally unintelligible to me. (Join the Peace Corps! ha ha. Yes, well I'd considered that once. Why didn't I ever follow up on it when I had the chance? That's neither here nor there. The point is, it should be HARD. And it must be voluntary. Otherwise, what's the point of the What-If?)

My old colleague Norman, like dozens of people worldwide, every year, takes a weekend (or a full week whenpossible) and goes to live in a monastery, like a monk. Ostensibly for spiritual reasons or personal enrichment, who cares. And they come back smiling.

I admit, the idea of occasional lengthy retreats of Absolute Silence and complete isolation is enticing. (A psychic once told me that in my former life I was a monk, in France, during the 14th century; I left the monastery and later died of the plague. Figures, ha ha. That, apparently wasn't my only reincarnation. I next popped up, according to him, in England where I married a well-to-do widower and helped raise his five children. Hmmm. Well at least he didn't say I was once Cleopatra or Emily Dickinson or Christopher Columbus or some other famous historical person. I digress. Subject for another day's blog entry....

While visiting a friend's farmhouse in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont six years ago I came upon a Buddhist center and had lunch there one afternoon. They have several little cabinettes on the mountainside where you can go and be by yourself for a week (they'll climb up the mountain and bring food up to you, if you want) but apparently part of the application process is that you must prove that you can handle a week's isolation from human contact (i.e., have you passed and can show certification from a course on meditation, or something to that effect). Apparently some people like the idea of it but when confronted with the reality, freak out or go bonkers. (Otherwise why would they even ask? Non-meditators need not apply, I guess.)

Well, you don't have to shell out big bucks to fly halfway round the country to rise at 5 AM and sit with the monks. Pick a day when no one's at home and just go into your closet. You don't even have to shut the door. Or sneak off to the garden shed and cover the windows, find an empty corner, and be alone. Any place that doesn't experience high traffic and has a minimum of noise will work. Be creative. My kids' former playmate once was able, in a room full of screaming, rambunctious 4-year-olds, to completely block everything out while reading her storybook. Her name was Kai-chi and she spoke three languages. Okay, maybe she's an exception. But it CAN be done--the blocking out of noise part of it. It just takes concentration--and practice.

Playing the "What If? game helps prepare you for the unexpected. You learn to hone new skills. Like for instance, how many people do you know who bake their own bread--I'm not talking Christmas holidays, but Every. Single. Day. I happened on a blog yesterday of a young woman who had gone to Kazakhstan to teach English. She wrote that she was ecstatic that she had actually figured out how to make "homemade soup." Only because she HAD to, but it seemed the highlight of her week--that and discovering that the watercloset had a "flush" chain.

Frankly, I think in general, people are way too unprepared for drastic, upheavally change. Take away the TV or the Internet for long periods of time or put them in an unexpected crisis situation and they don't know what to do. Eventually they climb out of it but what if you know you can't go "back" for a long, long time--or not ever?

I'm not saying we all should go back to living like our great great grandparents did before the convenience of 24-hour markets and Instant Everything. But just in case--some catastrophic "What-If" suddenly occurs, it might be a good thing to know how to get along without the amenities we always take for granted, if need be. Who knows, we might be capable of far more than we give ourselves credit for, and discover a part of ourselves we never even knew existed.

Hard times are 'a comin', folks.

Think about it.

This .... could be any one of us one day. ------------------------>

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