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Blackouts Generate Secret Glee

SLACKERS: Outages alibi for goofing off

Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer

Thursday, March 29, 2001 2001 San Francisco Chronicle

It's the dirty little secret many Californians will admit only reluctantly: They secretly like blackouts.

Experts say that the next time the lights go out at work, no matter what the time, it will be apparent who these Blackout Slackers are -- they will be at lunch.

Best Buy clerk Nick Kastilahn has missed the past two power failures that hit the Pleasant Hill store where he works, but he's already planning what to do when the next one strikes: "I'm going swimming at Waterworld. Just for an hour maybe. "We can't do much here when the lights go out," Kastilahn said. "Even the front doors don't really work."

Experts say the coming months of predicted blackouts will provide a psychological profile of California and a telling comment on the culture's priorities. When your computer screen turns dark, will you grab a pencil and re-prioritize your third-quarter goals or grab your cell phone and feverishly try to get a tee time? Same goes for your darkened family life. Will you worry about meat rotting in the fridge or grab the kids and enjoy dinner out?

In short, are you a Blackout Weenie or a Blackout Slacker?

"People who like to be in control will have a lot of problems," said Dan Beaver, a Walnut Creek therapist and author. "They're going to have to learn that there are a lot of things in life you can't control."

Bean counters moan about lost hours of productivity during blackouts, and cops worry about traffic jams beneath dimmed stoplights. But others say their hearts race, like when they hear a fire bell during a math test, when the power fades. It legitimizes laziness.

Employers will notice. The blackouts will show employers which of their charges are truly committed to their jobs, said Jennifer Chatman, a professor of management philosophy and values at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "It's a barometer of commitment," Chatman said. "To what extent are you going to let environmental obstacles prevent you from doing your job?"

While the Slackers will be out the door at the first flicker, Chatman said, "the Weenies will pick up a pencil and a yellow pad of paper and prioritize their projects for the next three months. Or they'll think through problems that they haven't had time to address in the daily crush of business. Or they'll have a conference with an employee who they're having an interpersonal conflict with."

In the dark? "Well," Chatman said, "they can go outside."

That's where they will probably see Blackout Slackers giddily sunning themselves. As long as you're not a cop, aren't undergoing or performing heart surgery or don't own a small business, some Californians see blackouts as being handed a get-out-of-jail-free card.


"My husband is from the East Coast, and he thinks Californians are always looking for ways to goof off," said technology saleswoman Anita Kratka of Oakland. "But if your PC's down, your phone's down, your fax is down, it's a legitimate reason to goof for a couple of hours."

Quick Blackout Slacker test: Is your PG&E block number posted on your computer screen, framed with lucky four-leaf clovers? Do you rub your hands together and say, "C'moonnn, Block No. 8. You're going down today, baby. Daddy wants to play nine holes!"

Willie Robinson, a reservation clerk at the Claremont Hotel and Spa in Oakland, thinks that some may try to take advantage of the confusion. He knows how some folks -- not him, mind you, no way -- but some folks will transform unsolicited darkness into a few extra hours of sleep.

"You can just bring your PG&E bill with you (to work) and say, 'Look, my (block) number was called today and the alarm didn't go off,' " Robinson said. He said only in the Bay Area could you get away with such a lame excuse.

"I'm from down South," said the former Memphis resident. "We couldn't get away with that down there. Everybody knows everybody there. Here, you're coming from all over. You can say, 'The train was late,' 'My bus was late.' 'The traffic was bad.' "

Yet soon, Californians could have the greatest disaster scapegoat since El Nino: My grid number is up.


Other behavioral experts support the Slacker spirit. When the lights go out, stress-management expert Rhonda Hull said, it's an opportunity to peer over the cubicle and become acquainted with the person sitting next to you.

"Get to know that person for who he is, not what they do," said Hull, a Martinez psychologist who has consulted for several Fortune 500 companies. "A blackout also gives you permission to not get to everything in your 'in' box. You can tell someone, 'Oh, I'm sorry. The blackout deleted all my e-mail.' "

A blackout break offers perspective. "We become more effective when we're happy," Hull said. "When you overwork yourself, you become less productive. As a culture, we have identified fatigue as a badge of honor."

Relax, experts say, the show doesn't always have to go on in the dark. Instructors at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music were recently given a memorandum advising them to continue teaching at their own discretion should the lights go out. Conservatory voice instructor Mai Linh Pham shrugged and said, "Our discretion is to leave."

Those who prefer to mask their slackery behind the guise of parental responsibility can turn off the TV and use it as a time to bond with their children. Hull suggested building a fort with your children in the living room.

Or reading to them by candlelight. Or playing a game with them. Or bask in the solitude of a lightless home and enjoy the stunning serenity of silence. "Take advantage of having all these diversions like the TV and the computer off," said Beaver, author of the intimacy guide, "More Than Just Sex."

Beaver also suggested something else for couples to do. Something that people have been doing in the dark since the beginning of time. Even Weenies.

E-mail Joe Garofoli at

2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page A - 1

-- Swissrose (, March 29, 2001

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