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By Mark Dwortzan


The Montréal Review, December 2011


Leonard Koscianski "Suburbia," Oil on canvas, 48"x 66", 2001
Private Collection




That Monday morning, as Sandcastle Court's 200 lawns glistened beneath the spray of automated sprinklers, and their proud owners drove off to distant workplaces, summer camps, and shopping centers as if business as usual still made sense, I made an executive decision. Standing defiantly in the driveway, I ordered a team of bronzed landscapers to dig up our grass and install a citrus grove in the front yard and a vegetable garden in the back. With every planting I felt more and more empowered. But as the August sun arced across the cloudy South Florida sky, I braced myself for an explosion.

When Julie returned from work with our four-year-old son Alex in tow, she stopped short in the driveway and tumbled out of the Toyota Prius, mouth agape. "I can't believe you did this," she said as Alex ran off to the grove. "Why didn't you ask me first?"

I took a deep breath. "Don't worry, Julie," I said. "I paid for everything out of my own account, just as I did for the solar panels."

Julie scanned the front yard, now a well-ordered array of organic orange, grapefruit, and lemon trees. "My god, Carl, don't you think this is overkill?"

I looked her in the eye. "What happened to the eco-warrior I fell in love with?"

Julie bristled. "Look, I care about the Earth as much as you do, but I also care about us. Ever since you started spouting off about 'the coming cataclysm,' the neighbors have shunned us. Now they'll really think we're crazy!"

"Crazy like a fox. Once they sample our bounty, they'll spread the word. We'll get great press, and I'll finally have the platform I need to warn everyone about-"

"Whatever." Julie stormed off toward the grove.

* * *

A month later, after alarming chatter in the blogosphere almost compelled me to make another, more momentous executive decision, I resolved to talk to everyone first. As Julie and I towed Alex in a used Radio Flyer wagon to the annual Labor Day block party at 1266 Shoreline Road, I steeled myself to wake up our bedroom community to its certain demise.

I hoped people would finally listen. After one year at Sandcastle Court, I had still not found a single neighbor willing to talk to me for more than five minutes. When not hermetically sealed in their minivans or SUVs, most folks on my block sequestered themselves in their climate-controlled homes for hours on end. Few ever set foot on their expansive lawns.

Despite my protestations, Julie wouldn't consider leaving Sandcastle. A surgeon at the local hospital, she chose this gated community west of Miami to escape the city's crime and a one-hour commute. I, a home-based tech writer for Apex Systems' SmarterGrid division, agreed to an introductory tour because the brochure described Sandcastle Court as a "front porch" neighborhood much like my beloved birthplace, Dew Drop, Iowa -just "updated for the 21st century." During our tour, however, I discovered that the community's "convivial front porches" were actually air-conditioned sunrooms made of tinted glass.

When I complained about this to Julie on the long drive back to Miami, she assured me that living here would radically reduce our family's carbon footprint. Over the next week, as her odometer logged another 500 miles, she pouted me into submission. But after we moved in, my apprehensions were confirmed: Most days, the only residents to show up on Sandcastle's sidewalks were wheeled about by a fleet of foreign-born nannies.

I suppose having little ones around was better than nothing. On weekdays when I'd take breaks at Sandcastle Park, the toxic tire-crumb playground/water park where the diapered set convened, I could always count on the infants and toddlers for prolonged eye contact and an occasional smile. That's more than I can say for their parents.

Now, as we trudged past the well-groomed front yards of Shoreline Road, I couldn't wait to change all that. If my new approach worked, I would soon get to know the phantom homeowners with whom we shared this sun-baked stretch of asphalt, concrete, and pesticide-laden grass. At the block party, I'd learn their names, probe for common ground, and then dazzle them with my take on the coming cataclysm. If all went well, friendships would form, a true community spirit would ensue, and Sandcastle Court would quickly adopt my master plan.

Hopefully, Julie would be on board by then. As she tugged Alex past one of 20 sprawling, two-story, red-tile-roofed homes lining our street, I said, "See all these big houses?"

"Not again, Dad," Alex moaned.

My wife rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I know: 'When the era of cheap oil, natural gas, and coal grinds to a halt, every last one of these homes will be uninhabitable,'" she recited, mimicking my radio-perfect delivery with surgical precision. "'Even with rooftop solar panels and homegrown crops, they still won't be self-sufficient. Our only hope of survival is to take 'em all down to the studs and use the scrap to redesign Sandcastle the right way.'"

"Exactly right," I beamed as Alex giggled.

Julie shrugged her broad shoulders. "I know you've put a lot of thought into your 'master plan,' but do you still really think all these homeowners will buy into it?"

I scoffed. "When the power plants flatline and air conditioning goes out the window, people will do anything to escape the heat. One good power outage could change everything."

"I'm sure you believe that," she said, running her fingers through her neck-length hair. "But promise me, Carl, no more surprises."

Ironically, Julie, who lived by her BlackBerry, had married me because of my surprises, from a John Denver tribute concert on our third date to an engagement ring after a screening of The Day After Tomorrow. And she had won my heart by sharing many of my contrarian ideas-from giving away all our TVs to limiting our progeny to one child. But now, with our very survival at stake, I couldn't count on her. Or my own son. At four, he had better things to do than talk Peak Oil with his crazy old man. I hoped I'd have better luck with the neighbors.

* * *

After depositing Julie and Alex on a tattered blanket beneath a palm tree, I joined a nine-person queue by the propane grill at the shallow end of the host family's pool. As I scanned the lineup of adults who could easily have stepped out of an L.L. Bean summer catalog, I realized I was the only one sporting cutoffs, hemp sandals, and facial hair.

Wasting no time, I extended my right hand to a fiftyish fellow with a potbelly, receding hairline, and cigarette clamped between meaty thumb and forefinger. "My name's Carl; what's yours?" I said, cupping one hand over my airways.

"J. Blair Parker," he wheezed, flicking the cigarette butt onto the concrete, stamping it out, and shaking my free hand in one fluid motion. "You can call me Blair."

Buoyed by his informality, I tightened my grip. "Delighted to meet you, Blair."

He quickly retracted his hand. "Y'all must be new around here. Which house is yours?"

"The gray one with royal palms in front." Actually, every house on the block fit this description. This was my attempt at opening with humor, Step One of a technique I'd picked up at Winning Friends/Influencing People in the 21st Century, one of Apex Systems' many professional development offerings.

"Only kidding," I added when Blair responded with a blank stare. "Our house is the one with rooftop solar panels and a citrus grove for a front lawn."

"So you're the owner," Blair said, grimacing. "Bring the family with you?"

I pointed to the old blanket. "And you?"

"Nancy's in the house making a fruit salad. Our two girls are in college."

Sensing an opening, I moved on to Step Two: Mine their interests. "So, Blair, now that the kids have flown the coop, what do y'all do for fun?"

"Well, Nancy and I are flying to Bermuda next week for a golf vacation. That reminds me, our contractor is supposed to install a Corian kitchen countertop while we're away. But you never know; we've been waiting six weeks for him to show up-"

"I hear you," I said, tapping the pavement repeatedly with my hemp sandals.

As we edged toward the flaming grill where a few token veggie burgers and zucchini slices vied for space with a dozen beef patties, Blair said, "Smells like hamburger heaven."

Seizing the opportunity, I invoked Step Three: Transition to your topic. "Blair, did you know that the four-legged providers of those savory beef patties emit tons of methane, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming?"

Blair scratched his wide forehead. "Yeah, I saw something about that on the news."

"Then you're probably also aware that to get to our plates from the factory farm, those burgers burned through several tanks of gas."

"Yeah, well, what can you do?" said Blair, throwing up his hands.

I looked him in the eye. "For starters, we can face facts. If global warming doesn't do us in first with coastal floods and vector-borne diseases, Peak Oil will immobilize us."

Blair narrowed his gaze. "Is that a fact? Can't we drill for more oil?"

"We can, but we're fast running out of places where we can extract it on the cheap. Once we run out of cheap fossil fuels, there goes suburbia. And down comes Sandcastle Court."

"Suppose you're right. What can you do?"

Beaming, I launched right into Step Four: Make your pitch. As I shared my master plan with Blair, he nodded politely but kept his eyes trained on the grill.

"Good luck with that, guy," he said the moment our host placed two charbroiled burgers on his unrecyclable plastic plate. Blair snagged a beer from the cooler and never looked back.

Down on the blanket with my family unit, I licked my wounds in between bites of grilled zucchini. When I complained to Julie, she downed her veggie burger without comment-which only intensified my resolve.

Later, as Alex and I joined the ice cream line by the deep end of the pool, I homed in on my next targets, Eli and Leonora Cameron. A sweet retired couple, the Camerons clung to my every word as I opened with humor and mined their interests. But when I began enumerating the ecological evils of the dairy industry, they yawned profusely.

So did Alex. "Come on, Dad, the line's moving," he repeated as I sounded off on cleared rainforests, bovine emissions, and the looming collapse of suburbia. By the time we got our cones, I realized I'd need a much more powerful technique to sway this crowd.

* * *

That evening, after Julie and I tucked Alex into his organic cotton blankets, we headed down to the kitchen to wash dishes, which, as usual, filled the sink to the rim.

"What's Alex's soccer schedule like this fall?" I said as Julie scrubbed a stainless steel pan. With the defining issue of our time off the table, I could think of little else to say.

Julie handed me the pan. "Alex plays Tuesdays and Thursdays at Olin Field. You should go some time; it would mean a lot to him."

I placed the pan on the stove. "Will do. So how's your workweek shaping up?"

"Same old, same old." I extended my hands to rub Julie's back, but she turned abruptly and presented me with a Pyrex baking dish. "Can you dry this?"

I groaned. Short of new, dramatic evidence of the impending catastrophe, I wondered what it would take to move us beyond small talk and negligible physical contact.

After clearing the sink, we repaired to our respective home offices for the evening-an entrenched pattern ever since I offed the lawn. As I checked the latest News Feed on my Facebook account, the isolation ate at me. I longed for the good old days before Apex Systems demoted me from project manager to tech writer, when a conversation was just a cube away.

Back then I supervised eight programmers tasked to maintain electric power grid management software for major utilities in the Southeast. My direct reports and I joked often across cubicle walls and took long lunches at the local Whole Foods Market. I really missed the banter, though I must admit I did most of the talking. My staffers didn't seem to mind; one even said I had "high entertainment value."

Apparently, my superiors were not amused. Senior management eventually clamped down on my initiative to replace all coal-fired power plants feeding into the Southeast Regional grid with wind farms and solar power plants. My direct reports would roll their eyes when I made "campaign stops" at their cubes, just as Julie did whenever I got on my high horse. But at least those guys listened to me. You had to love a captive audience.

Now, anxious to find more receptive ears for my master plan in the wake of the block party, I checked the latest community e-newsletter, Good Tidings, for upcoming events. As I downloaded the PDF file, I wondered if anyone else bothered to open it. As usual, the community calendar was empty, except for one announcement: Our gate control battery backup system would be down for repairs for two more days.

So much for community building; I spent the next two hours surfing the Web.

My first and last stop, the Global Transformation Foundation's Running on Empty blog, had changed my life when I discovered it two years earlier. As always, the blog's opening paragraph hit home:

Picture a land of vacant schools, shopping centers, and office buildings, deserted highways, and frantic neighbors scavenging for food in each other's backyards. Like 9-11, the end of Cheap Oil will invoke a dark new age. That is, unless we transform our world NOW.

Reenergized, I marched off to the bedroom, but found Julie snoring at the right edge of the mattress. Settling along the left edge, I shut my eyes and pictured our world transformed.

Gliding along the dirt trail to our compact, seven-story, energy-efficient cohousing complex, I marvel at the surrounding patchwork of citrus groves, vegetable gardens, woodlands, and solar power stations on terrain that once accommodated 200 single-family homes. Inside the building's wood-paneled dining hall, a banner dangling from the rafters proclaims, "Sandcastle Commons Annual Block Party/Job Fair!" At round tables throughout the room, dozens of former commuters line up to offer vital services ranging from home repairs to home schooling.

Later, as the community dines on fresh-picked, sautéed garden vegetables and textured vegetable protein, I mount an empty table, grab a megaphone, and speak extemporaneously on the power of community. Alex clings to every word and Julie dotes on me.

"Carl, you're not only the savior of Sandcastle; you're my personal hero," she gushes as the crowd gives me a standing ovation. Gazing at me with dewy eyes, Julie hoists me up to the master bedroom of our family unit. Our clothes peeled off in a flash, we make love with abandon.

When I opened my eyes and noted the gaping chasm between our bodies, I felt livid. Tiptoeing to the far wall, I wondered how I could get through to a wife who once adored my ideas but now couldn't live up to them; a son who, fixated on ice cream cones and soccer balls, showed no interest in the ultimate issue of our time; and neighbors who routinely avoided eye contact. As I peered out the windows at the perfect lawns, wide garage doors, private sunrooms, and external central air-conditioning units that defined life along Shoreline Road, and imagined the neighborhood transformed, my pulse quickened.

I then recalled the morning at Dew Drop Middle School when I stood alone in a sunlit hallway on my way to the boys' room. For an eternity I stared at a glass fire alarm box on the wall. Then, with one flick of the wrist, I propelled hundreds of kids from their hardwood seats to the school's front lawn, where we greeted roaring red fire engines with resounding applause. I looked on in a daze, awestruck by how much power a single person could wield in a split second.

Now, armed with a stolen password and intimate knowledge of a critical software application, I could do it again. All with a single, undetectable mouse-click.

Sure, it would hit the young, the old, and the infirm pretty hard, but they could all be rushed to hospitals running on auxiliary power. Sure, if Julie saw my hand in this, she'd go ballistic. But years later, while chaos broke out in countless blacked-out suburbs across the globe, she'd thank me profusely beneath the blankets in our solar-powered, air-cooled bedroom.

* * *

That morning at eight, with power down throughout South Florida, the outdoor temperature approaching 90 degrees, and our four-bedroom home fast becoming uninhabitable (our solar-electric power system had "apparently" malfunctioned), Julie and Alex did the expected. As I watered our crops by hand-and feigned the need to stay behind to finish the job-they packed their bags, opened the garage door manually, boarded the Prius, and headed for the hospital. Once the garage door closed, I filled my own backpack and raced to the gate.

As I predicted, the massive steel gate that fronted Sandcastle Court remained in locked position. Too heavy to pry open with brute force, the gate now transformed Sandcastle Court into an open-air prison. Ensconced in their air-conditioned vehicles, scores of residents, none of whom apparently read Good Tidings, converged on the community's sole evacuation route. (The rest, I surmised, were treading water in backyard pools. I'd get to them later.)

Edging backward from the gate, I removed a jumbo Thermos and a stack of compostable cups from my pack and began working the line. When I approached the first car, a Toyota Sienna minivan, the tinted window rolled down to reveal a robust, fortyish woman in a pink bikini.

"How are you holding up?" I said, pouring her a cup of ice-cold lemonade from the Thermos. (Winning Friends Alternate Step One: Curry favor.)

"I feel like a caged tiger," she said before downing the lemonade in one gulp. "I just hope I make it to the beach."

"This ain't easy, is it?" This was no small talk strategy; now operating on adrenaline, I trusted my instincts.

The woman squinted at me. "Who are you?"

"Carl from Shoreline Road. And you?"

"Iris Donaldson, Starfish Road. And yes, this ain't easy." She rolled up her window.

"It's probably hardest on our seniors," I said in parting, pointing to a silver-haired couple in the rear-view mirror that I now recognized as the Camerons from the block party. As I glided over to their Dodge Grand Caravan, I felt as revved up as a TV talk show host.

Wrapped in tennis whites, the Camerons sipped the lemonade like vintage wine. "Eli and Leonora Cameron, this must be really hard on you," I began, verging on an Oprah impersonation. "What concerns you the most?"

"If power isn't restored soon," said Eli, wringing his hands, "our perishables will rot."

"I don't know if I'll last in this heat," added Leonora. "We're going to the hospital."

"That's where we're headed," said a close-cropped man in the Lexus SUV behind us after I related the Camerons' story. "I sure hope the place has Wi-Fi."

"I hear you," I said, nodding as I doled out four cups of lemonade to the man and his family. "This blackout's a real game-changer, isn't it?"

Six heartfelt exchanges later, I came upon the Prius.

"You must be out of your mind," said Julie as I handed Alex a cup.

Pausing my "talk show" for this "commercial break," I could feel the adrenaline slipping away. "You've got to admit it's a teachable moment. Why not make lemonade out of lemons?"

Julie glared. "You did this, didn't you?"

My stomach clenched. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh, come on. Yesterday you said, 'One good power outage could change everything.'"

I pointed at Alex, his face eclipsed by the cup. "You really think I'd do this to our son?"

Julie sighed. "You would if you believed the experience would enlighten him."


"Look, Carl, I need some time to think. We're heading to Jacksonville to stay with my folks for a few days."

I gasped. "Julie, I really wish you'd reconsider-"

"It's too late," she said, her voice eerily calm. "By the way, I just heard on the radio that the police raided Apex headquarters. They may be onto you."

I crushed a compostable cup. "I can't believe this."

On adrenaline once more, I dashed to the 10-foot gate, climbed its evenly spaced steel bars, mounted the top platform, and unzipped my pack. Seizing the portable PA system that I had purchased that summer on the Global Transformation Foundation's "Power Outage Response" Web page, hid in my office, and kept fully charged for the right moment, I marveled at the river of idling vehicles before me.

"My friends, today we have suffered a great loss-not only of electric power but also of personal power," I bellowed into the microphone. "The power to live comfortably in our homes, schools, and workplaces. The power to drive anywhere, anytime, to places unreachable by foot. Today's power outage is temporary, but tomorrow's could be permanent . . ."

Though I couldn't see them through all the tinted windshields, I could sense dozens of eyes meeting mine as I issued a stern warning about the decline of cheap fossil fuels and the inevitable collapse of Sandcastle Court. For the first time since moving here, I felt heard. Energized, I moved in for the kill. "The good news is that we can avoid this calamity. If we prepare now. Collectively, we have the power-the renewable energy-to transform Sandcastle Court into a self-sustaining community -"

I heard one honk and then several more, an unmistakable stamp of approval. I now felt completely justified in having breached Apex Systems security and shut down the region's power grid. I not only felt heard but understood-if not by Julie, at least by the community.

So you can imagine my surprise when I felt a strong vibration emanating beneath my hindquarters. As the gate slowly swung open, my heart hammered my ribcage like a snare drum.

"Mark my words," I demanded. "The sooner y'all get back on the road, the sooner the cheap oil will run out. Before it's too late, we must all-"

Now I could barely hear my voice above the din of engines, as much of Sandcastle Court began its usual evacuation to places unreachable by foot. When the last motorist departed the gate area and the unmistakable wail of distant police sirens emerged, I sprinted to the sprinkler section of Sandcastle Park to warn the next generation. I climbed to the top of the tallest slide, grabbed the mike, and addressed six wide-eyed children.

"Hey, babies," I boomed, "Can you imagine if Mommy couldn't buy you formula because it's too far to walk to the store? And how about all you toddlers? What if Daddy couldn't bring home any new toys because there wasn't enough fuel to ship them from China? I know this sounds like make-believe, but . . ."

As the sirens grew louder and I talked on, the nannies averted their eyes, but most of the kids continued to stare at me with rapt attention. You had to love a captive audience.


Mark Dwortzan is a Boston-based writer and editor focused on promising innovations in science, technology, business, and the environment--and their potential impact on how we live and work. Currently a science writer/editor at  Boston University, he has contributed news and feature stories to academic, corporate, and journalistic publications for more than a decade.  His nonfiction has appeared in The  Boston Globe, Harvard Public Health Review, Technology Review, and other venues; his fiction has appeared in  Cadillac Cicatrix, Mouse Tales Press, and  Westview. More of his work can be found at www.dwortzan.com.


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