Are you at home? No kids around? OK then, listen. What do you hear? Is the tv on? Music playing? Turn it off. Is it quiet? No? Mute your computer, laptop, phone and all of those devices. Ah, silence! Listen again. We are surrounded by machinery that whirs, hums and clicks. Clothes in the washer or dryer. Refrigerator. Dishwasher. Microwave. Somewhere a fan is spinning to circulate air through your living space. Maybe you can’t hear the fan itself, but you can hear the soft whoosh of the air moving through vents. Garage doors open and close. The bubbler in the fishtank. Doorbells ring. We live in a veritable din of ubiquity.
And then, suddenly –
The power goes out.
When this happens at night, the immediate effect is instant and dramatic. Blackout! We are plunged into darkness. We knock over lamps. Stub our toes. We walk like Frankenstein, arms outstretched. We step on the cat. We scramble for a flashlight and candles (and matches or lighters; smokers have the edge here). We curse the darkness – along with our inability to buy and store batteries for the %#$@! flashlight.
But losing power during daylight hours is a more subtle transition to life in the 17th century. For the first few seconds, it isn’t even apparent what has happened. Battery-enabled devices coast along, unaffected. TV goes blank, but cable tv hiccups now and then. Lightbulbs blow out. Sure. But… before the thought has even formed, there’s one unmistakeable tell: the silence. We live in a noisy world of traffic and sirens and jet engines and car alarms and barking dogs and crying babies and reality tv and talk radio and YouTube vids and smartphone notification rings, dings, beeps and tones. It’s only in the moment when you realize you can’t hear the whirr of the fridge that you know the power has gone out.
This happened to me on Monday afternoon. I can’t even remember what I was doing when the electricity stopped flowing. It’s pretty much a given that the tv was on, laptop open, phone apps demanding attention. When I didn’t hear the refrigerator, I took the dogs out to stretch their legs in the dog run of our condo. The building handyman was working to free an upstairs neighbor from the stalled elevator. (Fortunately it was Hugo, an unflappable Spaniard.) There was a commotion out in the street. Seems a truck delivering furniture was parked at the top of our steep hill. When its brakes failed, the truck careened down the street – missing everything and everyone – until a utility pole stopped its progress toward a very busy intersection on Sunset Blvd. And that’s the good news. The bad news: the sacrificial power pole had been holding up the transformer for our little neighborhood.
As disasters go, this really wasn’t much of one. It didn’t extend more than a couple of blocks in any direction. And it did afford an opportunity for some schadenfreude, overhearing some highrise neighbors bemoaning the stairclimb to their 12th floor aeries. 😀 I even had time to gather the flashlights and the candles before darkness fell. (Thank you, Mike, for leaving behind half a box of candles on Thanksgiving.) For some reason, we had an unusually large supply of eggs in the fridge, which soon became an unusually large supply of hard-boiled eggs. When the laptop and phone batteries were completely drained, and candlelight being lousy to read by, sleep was a perfectly good option.
It was only the next day that the powerlessness became annoying. Word on the street was that it would take the Edison crews till mid-afternoon to restore the current. OK. A gas range and a French press meant coffee as usual. A few hours of quiet, non-electronic, unplugged existence… not so bad, actually. But I found myself aching to hear the thud of the garage gate opening and closing, the racket of those refrigeration coils, the ding of an incoming email or text or tweet. And of course, the warm embrace of my good friends on MSNBC. (It was delish on Monday, with the RWNJs getting their knickers in a twist over THE POPE! and his radical so-shul-ist agenda!)
So, I was missing my 21st century technology as I noticed some 20th century technology in a pile of mail: the latest TIME magazine. If today’s news was momentarily unavailable, I could at least catch up on last week’s news. How unsatisfying. How s-l-o-w. Where are the comments? Where are the trolls?! Where are the hyperlinks to something else entirely? Rapidly losing interest in this pathetic print medium, I lazily turned the page and felt my blood run cold as I confronted this creeping horror: The FCC may soon allow cell-phone use during air travel.
Maybe this is why we call them “the good old days”? I don’t want to have to kill my own food, so I generally am a fan of what we call progress. But this 24-hour cut in power did serve as a reminder that everything we gain through advancing technology comes at a price: everything we lose.