On Thursday, February 25th, the power went out in my parents’ New Hampshire home. We weren’t alone; more than 350,000 residences and businesses statewide reported outages in the aftermath of a wind storm that ripped through northern New England, bringing gusts of up to 90 mph in places. The resulting damage was reported to be second only to the ice storm of December 2008. I fortunately wasn’t in New Hampshire for that particular storm, but after more than a year it is still a common topic of discussion. It has emerged as a prototype of the kind of awful winter weather that can befall New England. Many people, including my parents, were out of power for nearly a week in the wake of the ice storm. Talking to them and others it becomes clear the incident will continue to live in infamy for years. Apparently, it was so bad that my folks had to draw water from a stream and resort to going to the bathroom in the woods. (Though I suspect my father secretly cherished this.) People’s reflexive attitude towards the ice storm is indicative of the mindset of a New Englander: on the one hand self-pity for living in such a dismal climate, on the other a feeling of pride from toughing it out.
I am back home visiting my parents and have not had to endure a New Hampshire winter for several years. Since escaping the seasonal plight I have come to regard living in a warmer place akin to getting out of an abusive relationship. Now free, I look back and wonder how I allowed myself to be treated in such a brutish manner. But like revisiting a past relationship, there is also an affectionate familiarity to being home for winter. I fell back into my old hibernation habits without missing a beat, holing up and finishing a number of projects I never got around to in sunnier climes. One has to wonder if the Puritan work ethic would have ever come into existence had the pilgrims landed further south.
When the power went out it was approaching midnight and I was lying in bed watching basketball. The lights had been flickering for several hours as huge gusts of wind assailed the area. I wholeheartedly expected some sort of power loss and so when my room went black I didn’t wait for the lights to come back on. I settled in for a slightly earlier than normal bedtime, hoping that morning would see the restoration of electricity.
My first action upon waking is to check my bedside light. Nothing. After that I get up and groggily stomp into the living room where as usual I receive a warm welcome from my parents’ three dogs. Before this anecdote continues it is necessary to point out that I am not a morning person. I’m not even an early-afternoon person. For me, the only way to get through the early part of the day is to drink several cups of coffee in relative peace and quiet.
I scoop fresh grounds into the machine, pour the water in the back and press power. Nothing. This is because making coffee, like turning on a light, requires electricity.
I go downstairs and look for the box of camping gear I know contains the burner and percolator that will allow me to brew up a pot of coffee. This is already far more energy than I’m used to expending in the morning. I can’t find the box. I pick up the phone to call my mother. Dead. No electricity means no phones as well. But there’s still my cell phone. I dig it out of yesterday’s pants. Dead too. I plug it in for a quick charge before remembering that this also requires power. For those who would think me daft or who have never lived a day in a house without power, it is quite normal when it goes out to still try and activate all those items which require electricity. Our whole lives are so dependent upon certain things working that it’s almost unfathomable to flick a switch or push a button and not have those things work.
I scuttle from closet to closet looking for the camping gear. My parent’s golden retriever follows me around. His propensity to always be by my side is usually cute, but then again I’ve usually had my A.M. fix of legal stimulants. In my haste I almost trip over him. I cock my fist back halfway before catching myself.
“You are about to punch a golden retriever,” I think.
I am a calm, non-violent person and this dog is even more of a lovable lump than most Goldens. He is the Gandhi of Golden Retrievers. I almost punched Gandhi in the face because I haven’t had my morning coffee. I realize the implications of this abstractly but there is still only one order of business on my mind.
I slip on a coat and a pair of boots, grab my car keys and step outside. I’m shocked to see all of the down branches and other things that have been blown around the yard. Driving towards the store I see more devastation: branches are all over the road….huge branches…the kind that take down power lines…the kind that could signal no coffee at nearby establishments.
The local village shop displays zero signs of life. I continue to a nearby gas station with a Dunkin’ Donuts inside. I see no lights, but there are a few cars in the parking lot. A man comes out with a box of doughnuts. I resist the urge to grab him and ask, “Is there coffee?” I’m afraid of how I might react if he says no.
As I reach for the door it opens and a clerk ushers me into the darkened shop. It feels like I’m entering a speakeasy; I look behind me to see if I’ve been followed.
“We’ve got doughnuts and all baked goods as is and anything else in the store, cash only.” she says.
“Coffee.” I say. “Have you got coffee?”
“No.” she says. “Believe me, we want some too.”
Her voice trails off, as if she’s leaving it open for me to somehow come through with a connection. I feel like I’m in high school trying to buy weed.
I get back in the car knowing it’s hopeless to suppose any shop in the area has power or coffee. Back at home I turn on my laptop to see the latest news about power outages. I stare at the “This webpage is not available” message for several long seconds before I put two and two together. But what about my email? What if somebody left a comment on my blog that is going unanswered? How did my fantasy basketball team do? Has anybody “liked” my witty Facebook status from last night or replied to my epigrammatic Twitter post?
I sit at the dining room table, distraught. The dogs lie at my feet, seeming to sense that something is off. They obviously don’t appreciate the dire straits we are facing, but then again, sniffing each other’s crotches and digging up the backyard doesn’t require electricity.
When the lights go out, it feels a little bit like camping. Camping is great. I regularly set off into the woods to live an ascetic life for a few days. The difference is that when I camp, I brace myself for withdrawal from modern conveniences, even readily welcome it for a short spell.
This is not camping. This is me, at home, without coffee, without internet, without TV, ready to punch the King Charles Cavalier Spaniel if he keeps staring at me.
“Calm down.” I instruct myself. “At least it’s light outside. You can get some writing done.“
I sit in my customary chair, notebook open, pen at the ready. The words don’t come. It feels all wrong. There is no steaming cup of coffee by my side. I can’t read online news and make biting remarks to total strangers on comment boards when I reach an impasse. I’m totally lost. There’s only one thing I can do: sleep this day away….sleep until the power is back and life can resume…
I eat some plain bread and crawl into bed. The dogs join me. I rip off about an hour at a time of sleep. Each time I wake up I try my bedside light and each time the unsuccessful effort prompts me to go back to sleep.
At around lunchtime I manage to rouse myself. I eat some more bread and scour the pantry for caffeinated beverages. There is an old, flat bottle of Pepsi in the back. I drink most of what’s left. The caffeine injection rejuvenates me enough to read an issue of Newsweek. An editorial by George Will incites the desire to email the pundit a vitriolic response peppered with big words I find on Thesaurus.com. Then I remember…
Back to bed.
At about four o’clock I wake up. My mouth tastes disgusting. Brushing my teeth doesn’t require power but I couldn’t be bothered. My will to live has been diminished. Soon it will be dark. My parents will be home from work and we’ll be eating dry bread together by candlelight. It’s a lucky thing my father doesn’t keep firearms in the house.
But more worrisome is how long we’ll have to go without power. Judging by the destruction outside, it could be days….maybe a week. Can I possibly sleep away the entire time? I think of family in the area who wouldn’t be affected by the storm. I have distant cousins in upstate New York. If I start driving now, I can have internet by midnight…
The dogs leap off the bed, excited at somebody’s arrival. My dad walks in and sees me lying down.
“What are you doing in bed? Are you alright? It smells like farts down here. What, have you been lying in bed all day farting?” he says.
It doesn’t seem worth denying.
“Well get yourself out of your farty bed and help me with the generator.” he says.
“Generator…you have a generator?” I say, barely able to contain my joy.
“Of course we do.” he says. “I learned my lesson after that goddamn ice storm.”
I leap out of bed, dress myself and join my father in the shed. We drag the generator out and fire it up.
“Let there be light.” says my old man. And so there is.
Back inside, I brew a pot of coffee, extra strong. The internet and cable may be out, but I’m at least able to play X-Box. I slip in Grand Theft Auto IV. While perhaps not as satisfying as an anonymous, impertinent email to a member of the right-wing media, there is really something to be said for having sex with a hooker, blasting her with an automatic weapon then running over her corpse with the vehicle of your choice.