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Blackouts and Urban Cavemen

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The recent heat wave resulted in a mini-blackout of sorts in my NYC neighborhood...recalling the events of August 14, 2003.

Huddled around flickering candles and eating food before it could spoil, longtime neighbors introduced themselves, discovering similarities and answering the question of the day: "Where were you when the lights went out?" But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. This story begins in the stars.

Living in NYC, I often see stars...at caf├ęs, boutiques, movie premieres, health clubs, and other such earthbound venues. Check the gossip columns if you don't believe me.

When the blackout of '03 dimmed the mighty skyline, however, I could suddenly see stars by looking up...zillions of them blinking at me from beyond the unlit skyscrapers. Traffic lights were out of commission, but to the southeast, Mars provided the only red light we really needed. By coincidence, our crimson neighbor was closer to Earth than ever before and the power outage gave us Easterners an excellent view of Mars's southern hemisphere from a mere 34.6 million miles away.

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Still, even with the stars twinkling above and little green Martians close enough to reach out and shake my hand, it was when I returned my gaze back down to the streets that I truly couldn't believe my eyes. That clammy evening, one could witness a sight even more uncommon than any celestial spectacle. Across the darkened city, Big Apple denizens stopped hustling. They sat still and talked to each other. No computers, no televisions, practically no telephones...just face-to-face communication (even if it was too dark at times to actually see faces).

This unforeseen solidarity was accomplished without the assistance of e-mail, palm pilot, or fax machine. Money didn't change hands...no cell phone radiation was emitted...no air was conditioned. Under a sky full of stars and a visiting red space-mate, it was possible to encounter the sort of life we may have evolved to live back in the "caveman" days.

Our modern caves, the subterranean tunnels of transportation known as "the subway," were empty but the concrete jungle above them might as well have been the Savannah. The tribes of Manhattan sat around fires, sharing food and communal stories. Some even beat on drums.

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In times like this, it's easier to appreciate that we each possess a physiology that evolved to negotiate the Stone Age. Here lies the rub: we live in the Space Age. We are urban cavemen (and women)...overmatched in our daily crusade to navigate an artificial reality because we have lost contact with our instincts.

For one thing, we likely didn't evolve to be surrounded by this many people. Thus, in our futile search for a manageable tribe, we preserve our attention for a handful of fellow humans. What's vexing is how to deal with the millions not in our tribe...but still in our face. Subsequently, we inventive mortals have cultivated the ability to hastily disregard non-tribe members.

"In the busy streets, you develop human traffic skills of amazing dexterity," writes zoologist Desmond Morris. "In crowded buses, trains, and elevators, you acquire a blank stare. You have eyes only for those you know. This enables you to enjoy the varied delights of the big city while mentally re-creating a personal tribe existence."

But what happens when those streets aren't busy...like, say, during the worst blackout in U.S. history? We may have eyes only for those we know, but what about when it's too shadowy to tell the difference? With our vision impaired enough to create the illusion of intimacy and our vaunted technology no longer at our overworked fingertips, we get a taste of a potentially different culture. Sure, things returned to "normal" by the next day, but the experience left some of us wondering just was "normal" means.

The last time Mars got this close to Earth was 60,000 years ago...an age when stars were easy to find and one could cause a blackout by simply dousing the fire. In a mere 284 years, the extraterrestrial lady in red will once again be 34,646,418.5 miles away. I wonder what kind of earthly culture will be there to greet her.


Mickey Z. is the author of several books, most recently 50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed to Know (Disinformation Books). He can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.
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