Ralph Gardner Jr: When The Lights Go Out

Mar 10, 2018

Credit mikecpeck / Flickr.com

That does it. We’re getting a generator.

The lights went out during last week’s Nor’easter. Not once. Not twice. But three times.

That’s not counting the several occasions during those blackouts when the electricity flickered tantalizingly for a few seconds and then vanished again, unable to arouse the energy, apparently quite literally, to stay on.

We’re not one of those survivalist families that stockpiles food, water and batteries for such an occasion. Obviously we’re not. If we were we’d already own a generator.

So when the lights went out for the first time early Saturday morning we hadn’t even filled the bathtubs. Not even one of them. I don’t know what we were thinking? That the storm would have the courtesy to let us make coffee, have breakfast and take showers before the heavy falling snow would down the power lines?

The combination of that leaden precipitation, high winds, and the past spotty performance of our local electric company suggested that we probably shouldn’t expect power to be restored indefinitely.

So we set up camp in our sunroom. It’s not the most efficient space for energy conservation since it has wall-to-wall windows. However, it does have the advantage of a wood-burning stove.

It’s the atmospheric kind with a large picture window where you can watch your logs flame and embers glow. In other words, you’re trading efficiency for beauty.

When we first purchased it I had a fantasy that it would heat the whole house. As it turns out, if we’re lucky it will warm up the sunroom within a couple of hours.

And that it did.

I decided to take a walk around eleven, fearing that our road hadn’t been plowed because downed trees prevented the plow from reaching us. That wasn’t the case, though there were fallen branches everywhere.

However, just as the dog and I were embarking on our expedition the power returned. Being a reluctant optimist I assumed permanently, or at least until the next weather event.

If I’d known we’d have electricity for only a short half hour I’d have returned to the house and taken a shower.

Have you noticed how easily you can go without – whether it’s water or attending to personal hygiene – as long as it remains an option?

As soon as it’s not, you start feeling parched and dirty.

The power remained off until around 8 p.m.

Food wasn’t a problem, since the gas stove still worked when prompted with a match. Nonetheless, roasting the chicken we’d bought for dinner seemed overly ambitious. So we went out to dinner, the road having been plowed in the meantime.

I should have learned my lesson the first time because the power failed again around nine the next morning.

However, a somewhat fortuitous development had occurred in the meantime, a minor morale booster. My wife remembered that a neighbor happened to be a supervising lineman for the power company. Calling his wife, she was able to get real time updates about the state of play and when we might reasonably expect power to be restored.

Uncertainty about how long you’re going to be in the dark is almost as bad as not having heat, light and your evening bath.

Nonetheless, have you noticed that when the lights return, as they did a couple of hours later, the relief is accompanied by a momentary sense of and sadness and regret?

It’s as if the modern world, with its stresses as well as its conveniences, comes piling back in. And you realize there was something magical by the forced time-out from your devices and appliances.

It’s not hard to project yourself back in time a hundred fifty years when that was the norm, when people read by candlelight, as we had the previous evening.

The loss of electricity creates a link between past and present, a connection that fades and is quickly forgotten with the return of TVs and computers, not to mention water pressure to run the bathrooms and kitchen.

And it makes you wonder, if we manage not to blow ourselves to smithereens at some point in the not too distant future, whether we’ll continue to walk away from our ancestral roots, from a not always comfortable or voluntary communion with the natural world, from the arts of self-reliance.

So we’ll be getting a generator. In light of the increasingly weird weather patterns and events predicted as part of a warming planet, it would be foolish not to.

But a Nor’easter has lessons to teach. One of them is to fill your tubs and not to take the conveniences of civilization for granted. They can go at any time.

But another lesson is the grace of hearing the howling wind and watching the falling snow from your window, a large stack of wood, birds at your feeders, and the opportunities a good winter storm provides to reconnect with the cadences of nature.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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