One hour. Twenty-four cities. No lights. Yes, it’s a monumental 60 minutes, fanning out across the oceans in something akin to a giant global seance. (Hello, spirits? Can you put me through to the ghost of our dying planet? Tell her I’ve turned off my TV as an offering.) But in the weeks leading up to the big day, it all seems so, well, easy. Who can’t light candles and get fresh on a Saturday night?
So, a little cocky, with nary a flashlight nor wood-burning stove in my possession, I decide to try my hand at an Earth Week of sorts. Forget 60 minutes – how ’bout six days without power to heat my showers, cook my food, or watch Lost? You know, like Lent for earth-worshippers. Except since the thermostat in my living room controls the heat for the family upstairs, the furnace stays on.
First things first: I need a solar cooker. (Hey, a woman can’t survive on salads alone.) After a quick scan of DIY foil-and-cardboard sketches on-line, I check my clearly misguided MacGyver instincts at the door and dial up a pro at T.O.-based Sun Baked about borrowing one of theirs.
“No problem,” he says, “as long as you’re around to cook between 11 am and 2 pm. It is winter, after all, and the sun’s weak as hell.”
Hmm, okay, I’m sure I can arrange an afternoon off work to bake a sunbeamed veggie lasagna.
Then he adds, “You’ll need a truck.”
Say again? Turns out the parabolic cookers powerful enough to sizzle in -10° weather are so big I’d need to find someone with a Chevy to cart it home. Maybe it’s time to assemble that BBQ my parents got me for Christmas. Propane’s a fossil fuel, but at least it’s off the grid.
Crap, I really shouldn’t have gone to sleep with a fan on (though I’d wake up to a mouse sneezing without it). I dart around my apartment madly unplugging anything still in a socket (the cordless phone, the LED nightlight).
Let me tell you, getting dressed in a basement bedroom without even a flashlight is sort of like reading Braille. (“That feels like my grey ribbed turtleneck. Let’s see if I can feel some jeans.”) I somehow manage to get myself to work in matching socks.
Which brings me to my first major predicament: can you be a journalist any more without power? Even if I could revive an old-fashioned typewriter (not a fancy electric model from the 70s), there ain’t no typesetter sitting around NOW willing to manually process my copy, no steam-powered flatbed press to churn it into a living, breathing newspaper. And even if I could afford 600 bucks for the kind of solar panel that can power a laptop, my battery will only run for two hours tops. Hardly a workday.
I decide what I need is a crank computer, the self-powered kind you can buy for developing-world children for $200. Okay, so it’s not even available to the public at this point, but I figure I should still give the tech a try.
While I wait for it to arrive, I wrestle with my tic-like urge to flick on my desk lamp every few minutes. Click, shit. Click, fuck. I’m like a bloody Pavlovian dog.
All I can say is thank god for the end of daylight savings time. Once home, I have a few minutes before darkness descends to find matches and start sparking the $100 armload of beeswax and soy candles I snagged earlier today and start winding the lanterns and radios my colleagues have donated to the help-Adria-power-down cause. I try to think of the shake flashlight as a space-age maraca, but after just three shakes my tennis elbow joins forces with the knots in my neck.
All right, so barbecuing by moonlight leads to blackened veggie burgers (and a resolve to try a raw food diet), but the mood in the house remains festive – kind of like we’re eight years old and got the okay to set up a tent in the living room. We decide to chow down without music, just lots of candlelit conversation to maximize the blackout vibe.
I already miss my toaster. There’s something deeply unsatisfying about stale bread and peanut butter. I’m just glad I left a tall glass of water on the counter overnight so my military-style spot shower won’t turn my fingers blue.
But that glass ain’t full enough to wash my already stringy hair, so I decide it’s time to take my friend’s advice and sprinkle some hair powder (aka dry shampoo) on my roots. I’m a little afraid I’ll end up looking like a sooty baker, but, I have to admit, this Cake Beauty stuff does the trick. Still, there’s gotta be a way to make it with 100 per cent natural ingredients.
Egad, Captain, I think I’ve got it: cornstarch! But after sprinkling a little of the gravy thickener in my hair, I decide a bandana might be a better way to get by in society.
Back at work, the crank laptop still hasn’t arrived. I get on the horn and start calling kitchen supply shops about manual food processors.
Raw food might be green, but it’s far from power-free. Three-quarters of the recipes in raw food cookbooks call for either an electric dehydrating machine (what the...?) or a food processor powerful enough to spin uncooked squash into rice-sized bits. (Think risotto for raw foodies.)
I venture into the mall to see what tools I can find, but the overload of bright lights and piped-in music sends me into electric shock. I bolt.
At home, my usually gregarious, adventure-revved boyfriend is clearly experiencing a rather different sort of shock – sitting in the dark, eyes lifeless, staring blankly into the distance. I’ve never seen him like this before. I think I’m giving him seasonal affective disorder. Guess going to work in the dark, sitting in a windowless studio all day, then coming home to a dark house can get to a sound man.
All I know is, candlelit Scrabble is starting to lose its charm. We’re guzzling wine like Italian pioneers in an ice storm. Finally he says, “This is what people in Iceland must feel like.”
Things are starting to spiral. In the elevator, halfway up to the gym, I realize I must be breaking some serious rules here. I knew I should have stuck to candlelit yoga. And even though I bank on spinning classes being essentially power-free, I feel dirty just being in a space rammed with blaring televisions and treadmills to nowhere.
Must redeem myself. But my body pulls me toward the locker room showers like a moth to a toasty flame. Oh, how I miss steam. I snap to focus and yank myself out of there.
Back at home, I put a pot of water on over my beeswax survival light and two hours later wash my hair in a bucket.
The sun is shining, the air is crisp. Perfect weather for revitalizing the power-free cause. I take a deep breath, glance over at the sparrows milling around in the yard and thank spring for liberating me from the confines of a long winter. Yes, power-free can be fun. Power-free can be freeing. Power-free sends a big fuck-you to Premier McGuinty and his failure to believe in our power to conserve. Power-free is... almost over.
I know, the end is in sight, but with my boyfriend at work, I feel I have no choice but to sneak in a few hours of computer time. I’m weeks behind on some book deadlines and tell myself everyone will understand. It’s only a few watts, right?
But when Mr. Light-Deprived comes home to find out I’ve been cheating (I’m a terrible liar), he starts flicking on switches. This quid pro quo is going nowhere fast. I grab our coats and usher us out of the house before the whole thing goes horribly Pete Tong.
The clock strikes midnight and I think, “Hang on, doesn’t Lent end the day before Easter? Aren’t we free and clear?” Relief washes over me. I can shower again, with hot water.
The whole point was to see how far apartment-dwellers could push conservation in a tech-addled urban setting, to try out new habits that are lighter on the planet.
Do I wish my landlord would spring for a solar water heater? Do I long for the day I can afford my own off-the-grid house? Hell, yeah.
In the meantime, I may not wash in a bucket any time soon, but the TV and lights will stay off more often. So will the computer.
Speaking of which, the bloody wind-up laptop finally arrives a day after my lights-out week is done. But, hey, at least it helps me crank out this story with a little less nuclear energy than usual.
How to get off the grid
Want to try going power-free for more than an hour?
• Buy or borrow crank flashlights and lanterns and long-lasting, petrol-free beeswax candles.
• Store your edible essentials in a critter-proof cooler outside. Put a blanket around fruits and veggies if the temp goes well below freezing.
• Get a four-wick Pheylonian survival beeswax candle. The single-wick version does heat water, but slowly.
• If you can’t handle ice-cold showers, leave a pitcher of water out overnight for sponge bathing. Plus, water conservation saves the city power (purifying H2O sops up tons of electricity).
• Minimize your meat consumption – it’s 20 times more energy-intensive than grains.
• Stock up on board games.