Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Black Out

Artist's rendition of how it was...

So last night I got ready for bed. I invoked my usual procedure.
  • I made sure our son climbed into his bunk bed, told him I loved him, switched out his room light.
  • I made sure our dog, Bullwinkle was denned up on his rug by the kitchen.
  • I checked the locks on the doors, turned out the other room lights.
  • I bumped up the air conditioning thermostat to 84 degrees F. to economize so would run very little or not at all during the night.

Last thing, I turned on the ceiling fan over the master bed and climbed aboard the mattress. These days, because it's been so hot, I've been sleeping on top of the sheets.

I turned out the lamp on the nightstand and lay there in the dark. I thought about my wife who had stayed behind in Alaska a few more days after our recent family vacation there. I wished she was home. I always sleep better with her by my side. Then I fell asleep.

I woke up. Within a few seconds I knew something was wrong. It's not unusual for me to awake in the middle of the night, but this time was different. Everything was too QUIET.

And it the room was uncomfortably warm.

I noticed that the ceiling fan wasn't running.

"Silly me," I thought groggily to myself. How had I forgotten to turn on the ceiling fan? I got out of bed and bumbled toward the wall switch.

The switch was in the "on" position. My brain said to me, "Okay, is the fan broken?"

Then the neocortex woke up a few more notches and started mulling over the outstanding QUIET.

"You know what," Brain said to me, "you ought to consider another possibility."

"Yes, Brain? What's that?"

"This is a power outage."

No Juice
I bumbled my way in darkness that was nearly total until I found myself in the living room. At least I thought it was the living room. I sorta recognized the shape of things when I touched them or bumbled into them: an end table, the couch, OUCH!

Eventually I found my way to the stereo cabinet where I keep a six-inch Mag Light on the bottom shelf. I groped, feeling, feeling, and there it was, a bumpy cylinder that my hand closed around.

Let there be light!

Or at least a small circle of brightness.

I began investigating. There wasn't much to learn. The battery-powered clocks in the house told me it was just before midnight. I had no way of knowing how long the power had been off before I grew too warm sans ceiling fan and woke up.

Bullwinkle was still curled in a tight ball Our son apparently remained asleep, which was important to his health and well being.

I went outside. From the back yard I could tell the power outage affected the entire neighborhood. An important sound was missing from the suburban environment: the hum of air conditioning units.

The A/C compressor. All that stands between us
and "hell"?

I hate to even mention it again, but we're still having this unprecedented heat wave. It began at the end of May. Every day (with exceptions that can be counted on one hand) the mercury has risen above 100 degrees. I've heard that we're about to break the local record for the number of such days in a single summer. The old record was 46 and it was set in 1934.

Here's what looked like in this part of America, according to Wikipedia, one year after the record was set.

Dust storm bears down upon Stratford, Texas, 1935.

Dark Musings
I lay on top of the bed in the silent darkness and realized that without any air conditioning or fan air stirring above me it was too hot to sleep. I would just have to lie there and think my thoughts until the power came back on. So I considered the following:

What if the power didn't return? What if this massive heat wave had finally caused of us electrically greedy people to suck so much power that the system, which was never designed for such a perpetual heat calamity, to totally and utterly fail?

What if we had to return to life in these parts circa 1940 when electricity had yet to reach places like the farm my father grew up on in Oklahoma?
  • We'd have to sleep outside at night on the lawn where it was a degree or two cooler and we might catch a breeze.
  • The food would rot in the refrigerator and I'd have to start over with a big block of ice which would melt and have to be replaced every few days.
  • We'd be lighting a lot of candles after sunset.

I thought I might escape these grim thoughts by calling my wife and telling her what was happening. Due to the time difference between here and Alaska, she'd still be awake. Then I realized.

The land line phone wouldn't work without electricity. I would have to remember where the cell phone was. In the car? In the pitch dark, fiercely hot, unair-conditioned garage?

Maybe I could pass time by turning on my laptop computer (battery operated!) and seeing if there was info about the power outage. Oops. The wi-fi was electricity dependent. No Internet.

I began thinking about a book I'd just finished reading a week ago.

The author, a native New Yorker living in Australia and working as a journalist, embarked upon what she called "the Experiment." It was a bit reminiscent of The Van Winkle Project, but broader in scope. For six months she and her three teens would not use any electronic media.

To get everyone used to the idea, Ms. Maushart began with a two-week warm-up. At Christmas-time she switched off the power to their rental cottage while they were on holiday. For two weeks. Christmas down under, of course, is summertime. The family sweated a bit. They washed everything by hand. They lit candles. The girls' hair frizzed because they couldn't use curling irons.

They survived.

Then they returned to their electricity, but now they wouldn't be able to use phones, the TV, computers. Their role model would be Henry David Thoreau living at Walden Pond.

The kids more than grumbled. They began to fear like Death Itself the enemy of modern civilization: BOREDOM.

But a funny thing happened. They found new deviceless ways to beat the boredom. The "new" ways were actually old ways.
  • Reading books.
  • Playing board games.
  • Playing musical instruments.
  • Fixing food in the kitchen.
  • Lingering over meals. 
  • Talking to each other and their friends, FACE TO FACE

Their lives became richer and more physically active. Best of all, instead of each person off in a room by himself or herself (brother watching TV, sis on Facebook, other sis playing video game, mom scrolling through emails) they were more together as a family than they had ever been before.

It's a good book. And you can't tell it from my description, but the author is VERY FUNNY.

Power to Me
The power came on a little while later and none of my apocalyptic nightmares were realized. But I was left wondering if I've become a rather helpless person without realizing it. Electricity for me is like an umbilical cord for an astronaut on a space walk. Sever the cord and I just float away, helpless in a vast BLACK void.

I'd prefer that it were otherwise, that if forced to give up my electricity I'd still manage to come back down to earth. Sleep outside on the grass, sure! Run my hands over a block of melting ice, cool! Light a candle and watch the wax drip in all its unexpected ways.

Maybe, like Ms. Maushart, I could start trying to do that some now. Not disconnect entirely because even after the six-month Experiment she went back to cell phone and computer, but says she's learned to moderate her technological behavior. Do more things by hand. Try to rediscover who she is without machines.

That sounds good to me as I close the lid on this laptop. There's this other book I've been wanting to read. - V.W.

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