Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Power's Out--life's down

The northwest is blanketed by snow, with several inches falling last night.  Eager to avoid the mess that occurred a couple years ago when, out of environmental extremism, Seattle refused to salt its steep downtown streets, paralyzing the city, snowplowing, sanding and salting commenced immediately.  Our daughter, fearing difficulty getting to work in her teeny car, was set to sleep over at our house, which is much closer than hers to her job.

Needless to say, for a mom still afflicted with the dreaded Empty Nest Syndrome since our son went off to study abroad this September, I was thrilled to have an evening of girlie movies, Bananagrams and face time chat, rather than merely the online kind. 

With the wind whipping outside, my daughter commented as we sorted our Bananagrams tiles, that she was glad we still had electricity.  That's when the lights went off.  My next words: "Thanks, sweetie."

Thanksgiving gains a new item for gratitude when you realize just how dependent we are on electricity. And on a whole lot more.

I got out some candles, and the hand-crank emergency lantern.  My husband relished this opportunity to use his wind-up flashlight.  He brought in an armful of firewood since our furnace could no longer shield us from the 26-degree weather outside.  I was just thinking that this could be a fun adventure, when my daughter's boyfriend called.

He was at his parents' home, a few blocks away from us. "What? You've lost power? We've still got ours; why don't you come over here?" he suggested. His parents, too, were recent empty-nesters, and had plenty of spare bedrooms.

My husband would have none of it.  Give up his own bed? Abandon our home to darkness and snow?  Not under his macho watch.  I was welcome to join our daughter if I liked, but not him, Uh-unh.

The steep driveway at the parents' house precluded Boyfriend's driving to pick up our daughter, so my hunky husband insisted he walk her through the darkness to meet him.  "Stay home," he commanded me. "I don't want you out in this."

What if on his solo return, he slipped, fell and crushed his cell phone, and was left to be frostbitten in the snow?  After the usual male-female debate, the three of us set out in the hazy moonlight through a forest, our boots crunching the virgin snow.  Only meager flashlights lit our footsteps. The eerie stillness was punctuated by gusts whirring through firs.  The cold was invigorating, the snow brightening deep-laden boughs.  I sniffled with the chill; my husband's tree branch walking stick struck the earthen path in rhythmic accompaniment.

Poetic experience, 2010.  Daugher's cell phone nearly out of battery; need to guard the remaining charge in the others. Writing in progress lost to suddenly-dead computer. Cordless phones don't work unless plugged in.  How to arise on time tomorrow, when it's too dark to read a wristwatch, and the clock radio's blank?

Food's colder on the counter than in the fridge. Don't open the freezer, lest everything spoil.  Candle wax drips on floor and counter; can't read by its flickering light.  Sitting in near-dark in a down coat, gloves and high boots, watching breath form steam.

The phone company recording says power should be restored at 3 am.  Nothing to do but go to sleep.

On this Thanksgiving eve, I marvel at how spoiled we are.  It has not been that long since every nighttime brought the end to most productive activities.  It was as different as night and day; now both meld into 24-hour florescent-lit supermarkets where your choice of cereals spans four rows of products, thirty feet long.  Where we are reachable at all times, by phone, text, Skype, IM, and if we choose, our location anywhere on earth can be pinpointed and broadcast, moving here-to-there.

We can find out the value and sales history of any property instantly, and see its street view. We can watch any television program at any time, while in bed, at a coffee house, even while riding a bus.  We can take pictures and video and post them for the world to see, and replay, and distort, and put auto-tune to, each person with potential for fame gone viral.

What has this done?  Unfortunately, it's made us impatient and selfish.  If the internet's down, we get indignant.  If we have to wait in line, we fume and call a manager.

We no longer take responsibility for what befalls us.  Every accident is someone else's fault, and that someone will be sued and have to pay.  Every child deserves a hot lunch and dinner, not as a parent's duty but as an entitlement that taxpayers must provide.

All this causes stress and worry and makes us angry.  Anger is the opposite of happiness.  The antidote to anger is gratitude.

A Wall Street Journal article today explains how saying thank you and counting your blessings is associated with higher achievement, more energy, and greater well-being.  It mentions that researchers believe that half of what determines one's temperament, which translates generally into being a glass-is-half-full person or the glass-is-half-empty sort, is genetic.  The rest comes from learning and experience.  So even if your temperament bends toward the negative, you can practice, i.e. force yourself, to observe and state the positive, and to credit others for their roles in your successes.

You may think that's being dishonest with your feelings. No, it's a strategy, a purposeful means you choose to employ to replace negativity with optimism, blame with gratitude.  It takes self control: "gratitude is actually a demanding, complex emotion that requires 'self-reflection, the ability to admit that one is dependent upon the help of others, and the humility to realize one's own limitations,'" says UC Davis psych profesor Robert Emmonds in the WSJ story.

But it's not just a personal battle.  I do believe our culture pushes us toward arrogance, narcissism, instant gratification and materialism, as opposed to the abstracts of kindness and appreciation.  With an iPhone in your hand, you control the world; you're powerful.

That is, until the electricity goes out.  Without your charger, without battery, without light or heat, you realize your true size and true dependence. Not just on the electric company, but on the Power who determines your continued existence, and the people who make it worthwhile.

I was so thankful at 3 am, awakened by lights blazing in the house, clock numbers by my bed flashing, and the furnace whooshing on.

The thermometer outside reads 16 degrees at the moment, but I don't take for granted being warm. It's the perfect time to remember we're all vulnerable, interconnected, and small, with so many wonders and miracles to enjoy. And for which to give thanks.


  1. great post. i love stories like that one ... where we are sent a reminder (seemingly ex deus machina) on the wonderments of a simpler time, replete with treks in the snow, and family board games, and male-female conflicts, er, conversations. thanks for sharing.

  2. What a great post! You are indeed a story teller. I wish we weren't so dependent on all of our technology. Oh, for a return to a simpler life.