Field Notes From the Wilderness

I just read a book about a family surviving in the Alaskan wilderness. They had no heat, no electricity and no running water. In the depths of winter they would use their four hours of sunlight to collect firewood so that they could melt snow for drinking water. As always happens with great books, I was transported into the story and found myself wondering how my family would fare under such circumstances. As luck would have it, Mother Nature answered my query almost immediately.

You probably think I’m going to tell you that we were one of the thousands of families who lost power during the winter storms. We were not. We had heat, lights, hot water and a working coffee maker. Alaskan homesteaders would not have been able to imagine our comfort. But on the day of the second storm, a wire came loose from the front of our house and we lost the Optimum trifecta – internet, cable and telephone service.

Imagine the five of us drifting off to sea on ice float. It was a lot like that.

Only robots call our landline, so the loss of the phone was no big deal. Not having internet access is a problem, as we couldn’t use the printer or gather with our virtual friends in the basement to shoot things and build forts. But it was the death of our television that shook us to our core.

In the beginning, denial was strong. After each member of my family heard the news, he still tried to click her on. Clicking once, clicking twice, until finally the realization of what was lost sunk in. At one point we found ourselves lined up in front of her on the couch, exactly like the Simpsons, gazing at our own reflections in her darkness.

In the morning, Tom and I sat in silence drinking our coffee. When had we ever had coffee without Jim Cramer? What madcap thing had the President tweeted over night? We squinted into our phones to find out.

On the second night someone realized that we could still watch DVDs without cable. Now this was survivalist-type thinking, and this idea was a game changer. We scattered to all corners of our house collecting discarded DVDs like they were berries that we would can for the winter.

Our DVD collection was meager. We would have to make sacrifices. We had a few movies that we’d seen a hundred times, recordings of our kids’ school plays and an animated TV show that promised to teach us all of our letters. I popped in The Jerk and felt everyone relax the moment the green FBI warning came on the screen. She was alive, emitting a gentle hum into our family room.

Five minutes into the movie, I noticed that no one was watching it. We were all checking our phones. I got up to make tea, Tom started reading something on his iPad. We didn’t need something to watch, we just needed the familiar energy of her electromagnetic radiation. When the movie was over, we left her on just so we could enjoy the background music and the brightly colored DVD menu.

It occurred to me that my family doesn’t really watch TV. I mean our TV is on all the time, but we don’t have any shows that we look forward to watching. We just have channels that provide the backdrop for our daily lives: CNBC in the morning, ESPN after school, the Food Network in the evening. I wonder if our TV is just there to protect us from the silence found in what Thoreau called “the infinite leisure and repose of nature.” We can’t handle it.

At this writing, our cable has been out for eight days. Last night I caught one of my children reading. I called Optimum to tell them that this downed wire was causing dangerous conditions. I think they thought I meant the wire.