The Simple Beauty of a Power Outage

Powerless.

They said it would be over by the next day; the Commonwealth Edison recorded message said so, that is, about the power outage that began at about 9 PM Tuesday night, June 21, 2011.

It would be over by Wednesday. An estimate? A guess? A hope? Of course, there was the caveat that it could go on until Friday night or maybe even longer. Storms, tornadoes, fallen trees, and downed power-lines had done it. Nothing to do but wait. And so we did nothing, my wife and I.

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The first thing we noticed was the quiet. Quieter than the usual quiet, which, it turns out, isn’t really still. No music, no TV, no radio, no computer (with its “You’ve got mail” greeting), no air conditioning; just the low-frequency chugging of a few distant gasoline powered generators. Everything by candlelight and flashlight. Time to sleep: earlier than usual, more dictated by the sun than by the clock.

Wednesday morning. Still no power. It is still still. How dependent are we on electricity? What about the food? The stuff in the refrigerator and the freezer? It is cool out, not to worry — yet. We will get ice, pack it in the freezer and refrigerator if we need to.

Things are slowing down. Listening to bird sound and song — pretty nice. The quiet seems to simplify things. The rooms look different by candlelight. The shadow of a lamp, not the usual light-giving object itself, but the elongated, misshapen outline of the object on the other side of a candle, cast against the wall.

Easier to think. Easier to read: no distractions. And then there is the pleasure of sitting in the dark or in the half-light, just listening to the small squeaks and creaks of the house; the small sound of footsteps, your breath and your heartbeat — all the things so easily missed, so meditative.

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The latest Edison recording said that the power was expected by 10 this Thursday morning. “Check that,” as Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse used to say — now the prediction is 2 PM. And later a real person at Edison tells me that we should be back to normal by 11 PM tonight, still Thursday. Maybe another trip to get ice will be needed.

Bored? Not at all. It is remarkable how interesting little things can be: the perspiration accumulating on your upper lip after you’ve lifted weights; the physical sensation of your feet as they touch the floor; the feedback from muscles and joints simply doing their job, if you are paying attention; the tiny sounds your neck makes when you turn your head; the air around your fingers as your open hands extend beyond the touch of the chair’s arm rests.

In T. S. Elliot’s words from Burnt Norton, I arrived

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is…

Friday morning, 6:03. The power company’s message now says that they think we will be back in business by 5:30 PM. Over 440,000 “customers” have been without power, meaning that many more people have been affected than originally reported. One-hundred-sixty crews from other states are working on the problem, along with the Illinois contingent of 440 repair groups.

By now I’ve finished Sissela Bok’s Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science and am on the home stretch of Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. Thank goodness for the Light Wedge battery-powered reading accessories provided by my youngest daughter. Much better than candlelight.

The planned week off from work is stretched, but not by impatience; rather, by the ratcheting down of the slave-driving electronic grid and its attendant, inessential distractions. I have less to do, but more focus in doing it. A bit like an earlier time, I suppose — most of human history, after all, was lived by nature’s tempo, not according to man’s technologically created stopwatch. No electronically calibrated exercycle to use, so I walk more.

Remember how, when you were a kid in the car with your folks and a train stopped the traffic at the railroad crossing? How neat it was to look at all the different cars going by? How it made your eyes crazy with back-and-forth movement? How if the train was long enough you started to count the cars, all of them or just particular types like box cars or cattle cars? How some of the names on the sides of the cars suggested far away places — different states that you’d never been to? When did being “stuck” at a train crossing become an inconvenience and not a delight, something that slowed you down, something to get angry about?

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Two-thirteen PM Friday afternoon. The dishwasher is whirring! The lights are flashing! The power is back! Wow, electricity! The dazzle of a working computer, of artificial light, of TV!

That won’t last, of course. It didn’t even literally last because we lost power again one week later, again at night, although only for a few hours.

The long powerless interlude was pretty nice, partly because it wasn’t a flood or a tsunami; partly because we had hot water and motorized transportation; partly because it wasn’t too hot. Happily, as little as it was, it didn’t go on forever. Just long enough to give some perspective.

Take nothing for granted.

The photo reproduced at the top is called Old Bottles of Wine Aging by Candle Light, by Steffan Hausmann. The second photo is Sky at Sunset from Brancoli’s Crux on December 26, 2007 by Luccio Torre. Next is A European Penduline Tit in Estonia on June 19, 2010, the work of Alastair Rae. The final image is of a Class 50 steam locomotive near Gundelsheim Station, Germany taken on April 4, 1970 by Roger Wollstadt. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Of Grasshoppers and Ants: When Winter Comes

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It is an age-old dilemma and an age-old story. Spend or save? Play or work?

Aesop told it in the tale of The Ant and the Grasshopper. The grasshopper sings the summer away while the ant works to store food for the cold months. When winter comes, the grasshopper is out of luck.

There are numerous different versions of this story, but I’ve always wondered about one particular, very human variation. What happens when two people, close friends or lovers, both are engaged in a life style that only one can afford?

The woman, a high-powered executive with a salary to match, can afford to live the way she does; expensive meals, nice trips, Broadway musicals and the like. The man has the same tastes as his lady friend and enjoys indulging them no less, but isn’t a big-time earner. His is a “live for today” attitude, and let tomorrow take care of itself.

Finally, though, the man has a reversal of fortune; perhaps he loses his job. Or, let’s say that he must retire. Both remain healthy and active, but the small amount of savings in the man’s account are mostly gone, spent on all those dinners and trips,  the wine and the laughter that accompanied the good times. The woman still wants to live in the same old way: not counting the pennies. The male is largely dependent on his severance and unemployment benefits in one scenario; or his modest Social Security and retirement checks, if he is a bit older.

What happens now?

A few different possibilities:

1. The woman adjusts her life style and learns to live in a new way, still spending the same amount of free time with the man; the man, too, realizes he cannot live as before and finds less expensive ways of having a good time. Travel is severely curtailed. Lavish restaurant meals are now just memories. They accept the new financial terms dictated by his financial status and still enjoy the relationship.

1a. Both parties try to live with less expense, but it doesn’t work for them. The man believes that the woman could support some approximation of the previous level of entertainment and luxury if only she wished to. The woman regrets the need to set aside “fun,” even if it is in an effort to maintain the relationship. Each one feels the strain.

2. The woman decides that she still wants to live in the old way and is willing to pay for her friend to accompany her. Some amount of “hostile dependency” is inevitable, with the man feeling resentment that he has lost “standing” in the relationship. Meanwhile, the woman matches his resentment with a sense that her lover is not sufficiently grateful for her generosity.

3. In the final scenario the woman decides she wants to live as before, but she doesn’t intend to pay for her friend’s expenses all the time. So she leaves him behind with some frequency, going to expensive dinners with female friends, going on trips alone or with others who can pay their own way. She does not want to mortgage her economic future to indulge her friend.

Of course, this path risks its own tensions. The man is angry at being left behind and the financial strain of trying to keep up with his companion to the extent that he can. The woman resents his resentment, because she is paying for more than before, even if not for everything.

The lovers are spending less time together now and therefore might have more opportunity to meet someone else of the opposite sex with whom these difficulties would not be present. Temptation exists where none existed before.

Now, I imagine that you might have one of several responses. “Too bad,” would probably be one, a shame that they have had this reversal in fortune that has changed the relationship.

On the other hand, some of you might blame him for being the “grasshopper,” not saving for the winter. Others could find the woman to be selfish and self-involved if she chooses either the second or the third “solution;” not willing to be more generous toward the man whom she says that she loves.

In my experience, it would be relatively rare for two people used to a certain, somewhat extravagant way of living to adjust to a more modest life style, when such an adjustment is a necessity for only one of them. Indeed, in the present example, one can fairly assume that shared interests in elegant dining, good seats at sporting events, and travel were among the elements that attracted one to the other and bound them together.

In the end, we outsiders often think that the proper solutions to — let’s face it — non-life-threatening problems such as these are obvious and should be easy to enact.

But when you are in the middle of the thing itself, it often isn’t as easy as it looks from the grandstand.

If only this couple could realize their good fortune in having each other, friends and family, and their good health (Solution #1), as well as the relative unimportance of living in a grand fashion…

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There is a famous 1819 painting by Francisco de Goya, La Riña. It shows two men attempting to beat each other, stuck in muck and mire. Nothing too remarkable in that.

But what is stunning about the composition is how it contrasts the brutality of the antagonists with the staggering beauty of the landscape they inhabit. Just as in the case of the hypothetical man and woman I’ve described, who (unless they can comfortably arrive at the first solution) will live in some unnecessary measure of tension and unhappiness, these men too do not see the beauty around them, or do not value it highly enough.

And so the consolation of what the lovers still have together — those things about their relationship that are free of any cost — are dismissed, just as the beauty and wonder of nature are ignored by these men, sacrificed to their resentments.

Sound familiar?

The first above image is The Ant and the Grasshopper, from Aesop’s Fables, a 1919 illustration by Milo Winter from Project Gutenberg, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second is the Goya painting I described, which resides in the Prado, with the same source.

Dr. Jerry Katz: A Lesson From the Greatest Generation

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Sometimes the memory of a few minutes lingers for the rest of your life. And teaches you a profound truth about life.

Jerome (Jerry) Katz was a psychiatrist in the Chicago area some years back. Jerry died in his 70s after a very long career practicing in Chicago’s northern suburbs and in the city itself.

He was a big man with a gentle soul, despite his days as a high school football player. Someone who, at least professionally, always seemed to be at ease — an inviting smile on his face, a soothing voice, and a twinkle in his eyes — as if he knew something that the rest of us hadn’t figured out quite yet.

I didn’t know Jerry very well. It was the kind of relationship that is cordial, saying hello, passing a few words here and there, telling a joke as Jerry often did, but never much of anything more. From time to time Jerry would consult me for my diagnostic opinion about a hospitalized patient. Beyond that, I suspect we never had a conversation that lasted more than five minutes.

Except for one day.

We were sitting alone in the doctors’ cafeteria at Forest Hospital, at the time, a private psychiatric facility in Des Plaines, IL. It must have been more than 20 years ago. Uncharacteristically, no one else was around and we were undisturbed for the entire period of our lunch.

The conversation turned to Jerry’s youthful service in World War II, “the good war.” I don’t remember whether Jerry said that he was underage when he enlisted. But, like many young men of the time, he felt service was his duty and he made his way through basic training to the killing fields of France after D-Day, the Allied Invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944.

Jerry could not have been more than 17 or 18 when his view of life changed because of a single German soldier.

Katz and his unit were “dug in” that day. They’d taken a position with relatively little cover, perhaps behind some rocks, dead trees, and some hastily created earth works. It did not sound like the conventional trench of World War I, but something more ad hoc.

A German force attacked: in effect, an infantry charge. And Jerry, a strapping young man of perhaps 6’2″ did what he had been trained to do. He held his ground and fired into the oncoming assault.

Soldiers fell at a distance, but a few continued their onrush. One in particular — a towering giant of a young German — bigger even than Katz, built like a mobile fortress, and seemingly indestructible.

Jerry and his comrades kept firing, and no amount of speeding metal seemed to deter the attacker. He just kept racing toward them.

Jerry remembered the surreal nature of the event. He and his comrades had fired enough bullets to kill 20 men. But somehow they must have missed this soldier. He was now almost on top of their position and on top of Jerry.

Finally, the man lunged at Jerry with his bayonet — and collapsed, close enough for Jerry to touch the enemy and the blade intended for his flesh. Had the giant German only one more second of life, the future psychiatrist would have lost his own.

In a very real sense, Katz was touched by this combatant, because he thought this soldier would be his executioner. The man who wanted to end Jerry’s life, had instead transformed it.

“Since that day,” Jerry told me, “everything in my life — every day of my life — has been a ‘lagniappe.'”

It was a word I had not heard before. “What does that mean?” I asked.

“It’s a French expression,” he said. “It means ‘something extra.’ Like when you go into a bakery and they give you a 13th roll because you bought a dozen. A kind of gift.”

The conversation ended not long after Jerome Katz told me that story.

Like most of us, Jerry had his ups and downs in life. Heart disease was one of his challenges; a loving wife and family one of his boons.

But, when I think of Dr. Jerome Katz, I’ll always think of that story. I’ll recall how every day of his post-war life was “something extra.”

And I’ll remember how the ever-present twinkle in his eyes got there.

The image above is The British Army in the U.K. 1939-1945, which comes from the Imperial War Museum and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This is a staged bayonet-charge as part of a training exercise that took place on the Isle of Wight, August 10, 1940.