BOSTON — When Larry Shook and his wife, Judy Laddon, invited the neighbors over on a recent Sunday afternoon, their intent wasn't to coordinate carpools, watch football, or hawk Tupperware. The Spokane, Wash., couple had a more serious agenda: a discussion about Y2K, what could happen, and how to help each other.
The meeting, says Judy, was a huge success. "We talked about a severe ice storm here when we lost power for two weeks. We decided that was our dress rehearsal for Y2K." The couple and their eight guests agreed to share key resources - from wells to wood stoves, gas heat to grain mills - if the power goes out and the water dries up on New Year's Eve. And if Y2K turns out to be a mere blip, they'll break out the party hats and horns.
Neighborhood meetings like Larry and Judy's are becoming more common as word spreads of the potential impact of Y2K, shorthand for the year 2000, or the so-called "millennium bug."
In an article for The Inlander, a Pacific Northwest weekly, Mr. Shook explains its relevance to daily life: "Y2K is a widespread computer programming error that could cause many systems to malfunction by not recognizing the millennium date change. Because computers regulate modern life from soup to nuts, some inconvenience is considered inevitable. Will it be worse than that? No one knows, and there's the rub. Clearly, the most conservative response is to plan for protracted interruption of electricity, food, water, transportation, medical services." What's most fascinating, he adds, is the moral of the story: We are in this together.
Not everyone agrees. Some shrug off Y2K as a simple computer glitch that will be fixed by the likes of Bill Gates. Others have been swept into a buying frenzy and are squirreling away provisions. But a growing number of Americans are calmly taking precautionary steps on a personal level as well as within their communities.
At the Spokane gathering, two households realized they could have helped each other during the ice storm: One had gas heat but no electricity for hot water, the other had hot water but no heat. That discovery sparked a lively discussion about who has what, and how they can collaborate in the event of Y2K meltdown. One neighbor invited everyone to dip a bucket into her well, the hostess offered her grain mill, and others volunteered to share food.
Each guest lives on a different block, so they appointed themselves "block leaders," and decided each block should have a "hub house" with alternative heat, food storage, and other basics. They agreed to distribute surveys to other neighbors - asking about special needs or resources, and finally, to meet again in a month.
These folks are demonstrating just what Eric Utne, founder of Utne Reader means when he says "As we prepare for Y2K, something surprising and quite wonderful is going to happen. We're going to get to know our neighbors."
Not only in Spokane, but also in places like Kauai, Hawaii; Boulder, Colo.; and Lowell, Mass., neighbors are meeting with one another as well as with local politicians, farmers, and religious and community leaders to plan for Y2K.
Such grass-roots efforts are growing partly out of frustration with inactivity in Washington, but mostly out of determination to avoid last-minute panic and make the best of a potentially challenging time.
"We are having a quality conversation in our society that I haven't seen in my lifetime. This event is pulling something profound out of our national character," says Shook. He and his wife are members of the Spokane City County Y2K Task Force and co-editors (with Tom Atlee) of "Awakenings: The Upside of Y2K," a collection of writings by some of America's leading thinkers.
The idea of connecting with neighbors is dear to the heart of Unitarian-Universalist minister Rev. Dacia Reid, who preaches exclusively on Y2K. "Unitarians talk often about the interconnected web of life, so I was naturally drawn to this," she says.
In her sermons, Ms. Reid illustrates the need for preparedness with a familiar disaster - Titanic. "The ship was considered unsinkable, the pinnacle of technological achievement of its time," says Reid. "The real disaster was that so many people died because of too few lifeboats, inappropriate use of what lifeboats there were, denial, inaction, and disbelief. I have a carpenter friend who says that he can't believe that with all the materials on that ship and all the people on board that they couldn't have devised flotation platforms for virtually everyone in the two-plus hours it took that ship to sink. It would have been a lot better than having the band play on."
Reid suggests ways to start "making lifeboats": "Think of Y2K as a technical storm," by stocking up on enough food, water, and emergency supplies for a couple of weeks. For specifics, she recommends following guidelines outlined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the American Red Cross.
She also urges people to network. Churches, especially, could play a vital role, she says. For starters, churchgoers could meet with community leaders, organize ways to help needy residents, and devise a plan for checking in with one another.
Schools also play an important role, says Jeannette Thomas of Becket, Mass. When she's not with her fourth-grader, Ms. Thomas is teaching other children, school leaders, and PTA groups about Y2K.
"I don't prepare the kids in a fearful way," she explains, "but they need to know we could lose power, that they can help by toting water, gathering wood, or taking care of little children."
Her daughter, Samantha, used to be frightened by Y2K. Not anymore. "It'll be kind of fun to learn how to live naturally," she says. "Some of my friends don't think it will happen. Others think it'll be really cool. And my grandmother, who lives with us, says we don't really need electricity."
The Thomas pantry is already brimming with food. And plans are under way to install a wood stove and a manual pump on the well.
What if the Y2K bug doesn't bite? "We won't have to buy groceries for weeks, and we'll be all set for winter storms," says Ms. Thomas.
Larry Shook is equally nonplussed by the possibility of a nonevent. "We have nothing to lose," he says. "We will have greatly improved the quality of life in our towns and become a more caring society."
Look at those folks in Florida who were hit by major hurricanes, he adds. "They are bonded. They still get together for potlucks. They don't ever want to go back to the way things used to be."