Feb 12 2013
Cousin Pete and I were swapping text messages yesterday afternoon. “IS PWR ON?” “WTF NSTAR?” (Nstar is our electric company) “I AM BAILING” “IF I BAIL THEN LIGHTS WILL COME BACK”
72 hours of a 19th century lifestyle (I don’t know what Pete was bitching about, he had a Honda generator plugging away on his back deck all weekend) but without the whale oil lamps, just crappy scented candles, LED lanterns, and the family collection of flash lights, and I was ready to shovel out the garage and decamp in the sedan for my Manhattan apartment. Instead I hit the gym and made arrangements to take a pity shower at a friend’s place in Osterville. The other squatters had just had their power restored and were decamping, so I took them up on the suggestion to spend the night there, came home, packed up the dog, some food and some old DVDs and settled in for a night of Swedish cinema, leftover coq au vin, and a glass of Talisker on another person’s couch.
Pete texted me at 8 that the power was back in Cotuit. So I turned off the tube, packed up the dog, and returned home to Cotuit in thick fog to a cheery house; a house alive for the first time in three days with the hum of furnaces, refrigerators, blinking alarm clocks and radiant heat.
Here’s what I learned in the darkness.
- Reading is everything. I plowed right through Charles Dubow’s first novel, Indiscretion on my Kindle, using a LED lantern to illuminate the e-ink. Then I resumed my reading of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War.
- The Grundig YB 400PE “Yacht Boy” radio is an amazing device. I bought it in New York in 1996 and it has become a cherished possession, living on my boat during the summer for listening to the Red Sox, in my shed in the spring to keep me company while I paint the boats. From a decent sound to the ability to pull in shortwave signals, this radio is what I want with me during any storm or zombie apocalypse. The sounds coming out of it broke the eerie silence of the house and kept me company. NPR (WCAI in Woods Hole), reggae music from the U-Mass Dartmouth radio station (WUMD) and folk from WUMB kept me from going full-Shining.
- Natural gas makes all the difference. The Vermont Castings gas stove and the four range-top burners on the stove kept the house around 55 degrees, even on Saturday night when temperatures where in the teens. No gas and the house would have been a freezer, likely bursting pipes and causing a complete disaster.
- Candles are pretty but useless and scare the hell out of me. Old wooden houses like mine tend to burn down in five minutes because of candles. The things are useless in terms of real illumination, are a pain to move around (hot wax drips everywhere), and can’t be left unattended.
- One thinks a lot about life before electricity. It’s a well known fact that rural electrification reduces birth rates and increases literacy, but to look out at the village center, streetlights (see post below) gone, only some dim flickers of orange from candles in the neighbors’ windows, and one can’t help but speculate about what life was like before electricity, especially in Colonial times, when the night meant the world shrank to the penumbra of the lantern, where candles were made by hand by rendering down pig fat and then dipping, over and over, strings suspended from sticks like we made in first grade. How did readers read and writers write? What happened to society at sunset? Families must have gathered around the fire, shared a candle or two, and talked. I know the old-timers kept one or two rooms heated and basically dressed and undressed there, bathed there, ate there, but slept in cold rooms (hence the old bedwarmers) under piles of blankets and comforters.
- Bed time came more out of boredom than necessity. I was in bed by 10 each of the dark nights. One wakes at the earliest possible light because sunlight means life and the ability to get something done.
- Life off-line for a few days was a good thing. Sprint seems to have lost its cell signals in Cotuit as I was in roaming mode on my smartphone and barely able to get mobile data on the device. Roaming seems to chew through battery life, so I needed to turn the phone off while I slept, forgot to turn it on, and was unable to respond to text messages and calls asking if I was okay. The spare power cell that came with my Duracell Powermat was a great thing to have. I will not take Google for granted again. If I needed to know the frequency of a radio station, I needed to Google it. If I needed to know what percentage of Barnstable was in the dark. I needed a connection. If I wanted any media other than a book, I needed a connection. The news that the Obama administration is getting serious about Cyber warfare is timely: if the bad guys shut off the power the chaos will be astonishing. The thought is enough to turn a skeptic into a full-blown Prepper.
- My car became my charging station. I’d go for rides with the dog just to give the phone and spare battery a little charge.
- People drive like morons after storms. I think it’s the “soft and puffy” effect where they think the snow banks and pretty trees give them some cushioning, but in truth driving is still treacherous, especially because of the piles of downed trees sitting right on the edge of the road. Frozen storm drains create deep puddles, warm winds blow think mist across the streets, subtract the street lights, add in the usual winter-learning curve of remembering how to drive in icy conditions, and its a wonder I didn’t have an accident. (I did back into the house while trying to get out of the driveway, but that’s another story.
- Bird feeders become an amazing thing after blizzards, especially if one provides the birds some water.
- The power company’s “outage” map is a nice thing, but couldn’t they hire someone to provide a little more information? It was especially frustrating to see half of the village with lights and not know why or what the problem was. Obviously there is some sort of prioritization going on when it comes to restoring electricity — hospitals, public safety, traffic lights, commercial accounts come first — but how does the power company even know who is in the dark and who isn’t? How do they dispatch their trucks and crews? How does the power grid work? Why don’t we bury our power lines once and for all? Can you imagine the danger and agony of standing in a bucket truck in a full fledged blizzard splicing big cables together?
- I need to suck it up and install a generator.