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.

The Last Day of School and Other Sighs of Relief

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Every so often something happens that feels like a great weight has been lifted off of some important body part.

The end of war, as in the famous Times Square VJ Day photo of Alfred Eisenstaedt, produced just that giddy, “it’s good to be alive” combination of gratitude, joy, relief, and abandon. In the spontaneous madness of public celebration, the sailor sweeps a nurse unknown to him into his arms.

I dare say that the U.S.A. probably hasn’t experienced anything quite like that shared moment since World War II ended in 1945.

But most of us born after that event probably know some smaller examples of the same feeling from our post-war childhood.

Remember the last day of school when you were young? In the Chicago Public School system, the final day was always curtailed. And as the seconds of the shortened day counted off, all you could think about was how the vast expanse of summer time (“when the livin’ is easy,” as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess told us) lay ahead.

Imagine, over two months (until the day after Labor Day) without the classroom grind!

Amusement park rides, ball games (played and watched), movies, swimming, TV, catching fire flies, trading baseball cards, and sleeping late all beckoned. And, best of all, no homework, no tests, just about no responsibilities.

When I was very small, I’d actually imagined something even better. I don’t recall my age, but I must have been about seven. It was the foggiest day ever. One could see perhaps only a quarter of a block ahead and the world became this mysterious, fantastical, enshrouded place that looked like a different planet than I had inhabited the day before.

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And somehow, on the 15 minute walk from Talman Avenue to Jamieson School, I got the idea in my head that perhaps, just perhaps, my school had disappeared! Minnie Mars Jamieson School still occupies about 2/3 of a square city block in the Budlong Woods neighborhood of Chicago’s northwest side. It is three stories high — all bricks and mortar and intimidation.

But still, if I couldn’t see it, surely it wasn’t there. It didn’t occur to me that all the other befogged buildings on the walk to school were coming into view once I got close enough to them. I didn’t consider what it might have taken to raze the gigantic edifice quietly over night. And sure enough, as soon as I got close, the structure rose up before me and looked down on me, as if to say, “Not so fast, buster. You can’t get out of school that easily. I’ve been here since 1937 and I’m always going to be here. Get used to it.”

No, reality could not be escaped. And, as if to counterbalance the relief I felt on school’s last day each year, the business world concocted a dreaded campaign to suck the life out of the last few weeks of “freedom” one experienced at the end of summer.

Even today it is called by the same name: THE BACK TO SCHOOL SALE.

It seemed to me that all of the stores except for those selling food and tires must have come together in some secret meeting place with the following agenda:

Those kids seem altogether too happy. They are enjoying their time off too much. How can we bring them down to earth?

I’d like to meet the now, undoubtedly long-dead genius who answered that question. The guy who got all the other retailers to promise that they would create gigantic billboards and store signs, employ men wearing sandwich boards, run newspaper and magazine ads, and create radio and TV commercials that would, at precisely the same moment on August 1st, make it impossible for any kid in America to completely enjoy his last month of liberty.

The ads and signs seemed to count-off the days on your stay of execution: 25, 24, 23…tick, tick, tick, 13, 12, 11…tick, tick, tick, 3, 2, 1.

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If you recall James Cagney or some other movie actor going to pieces as he walked down death-row to the electric chair, then you have some idea of what this felt like even if you never went to school a day in your life.

“Oh, no, not that, anything but that!”

It was only many years later, when I became a college professor, that I began to realize that the teachers probably felt as bad about the end of summer as the kids.

But, as I think about it, in the nostalgic after-glow of a long-departed youth, its hard not to be grateful for that joyous end-of-school, end-of-war, sense of relief that still visits me from time to time.

Yes, I get the back-to-school feeling on occasion as well. But it seems more manageable now, easier to accept.

It’s almost spring now. Think Frederic Delius’s achingly beautiful, six-minute tone poem, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. And, to greet the summer we have the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #3, the movement he called “Summer Marches In.”

The end of the school year is near.

The world is full of delight.

Enjoy the small pleasures.

The top image is card stencil spray paint from a photocopy of the famous VJ day image by Alfred Eisenstaedt sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo is Hydrocarbon fog.jpg by Cambridge Bay Weather. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.