When the Lights Went Out

The snow started here in the D.C. area around noon on Friday. By nightfall most everything outside lay covered by a deep blanket of white, and in the darkness one could hear the cracking of branches and even entire trees thumping into the deep and heavy snow. The power went out here at about 10 p.m. on Friday night, and stayed off for more than 24 hours, until midnight or so on Saturday.

On occasion, when the power goes out, one witnesses extraordinary outbreaks of mayhem and looting. Utter darkness where one is accustomed to light and attendant fixtures of modern civilization seems to bring out the maniacal and lawless in people, especially city-dwelling denizens who – like Gyges, unseen with a ring of invisibility – interpret such cessation of electricity as permission to rampage.

While less newsworthy, the opposite happened when the lights went out in our neighborhood by the Potomac River. In that true blanketing of darkness, we experienced the full measure of neighborliness and community – more than is often the case when we have full benefit of electricity.

During the day it was better to be outside, beginning the daunting task of digging out. By nightfall the neighborhood was dark and silent, but for the cracking of branches. It was then that in most houses the cold began to pierce. But in our house, outfitted several years ago with a wood-burning stove and well-stocked with firewood that I’d split throughout the course of the year, we were warm and comfortable. Candlelight was in abundance, and we had a good stock of food and drink for the duration.

And so we welcomed into our home some families in less comfortable circumstance. The women cooked a large pot of chili while the men and boys played a raucous game of “Apples-to-Apples.” By the flickering of candlelight and next to the warmth of the woodstove we ate our bowls of chili – never had warm home-cooked food tasted so good – with wine and beer adding to the cheer. After dinner the children played hide-and-seek in the darkness of the house, while the adults conversed late into the dark, cold night by the warmth of candles and burning wood. We tasted there the origin of human communities, pulled together by the shroud of darkness and the comfort of fellowship amid the cold and silence. The voices of companionship and simple flickering light brought more cheer than the recessed halogen lights of a renovated kitchen and a flat-screen TV with seven hundred channels. The utter necessity of simplicity made one conscious of small blessings like light, warmth, food and fellowship.

And several times we asked each other – why does it take the absence of electricity to bring people together like this? Could the very thing that makes our lives so easy also be that which makes it so much harder, particularly in encouraging our separation into our private retreats? What of our children, who for that evening were well satisfied with simple board games and ancient forms of play, when otherwise nothing can content them other than the hyper-stimulation of electronic media?

And I wondered – why not turn out the lights more often?

4 comments on this post.
  1. Nathan:

    Patrick -
    We experienced much the same after Hurricane Ike. In our case, the power was off for days and weeks, and the oppressive summer heat and humidity drove us to live in the common spaces we share out of doors, rather than in our houses, as soon as the sun moved past the midpoint and gave us some shade.

    Necessity drove us to common meals, sorties for ice, bottled H2O, batteries, beef jerky, propane, unspoiled produce stands and the like. When supplies became spare, we shared what was left (the beer went quickest). Joint block guards, since our neighborhood was adjacent to a major drug trafficking corridor, were necessary to discourage thugs and looters where certain residents had clearly vacated the neighborhood until power was restored.

    The duration of the experience was the most significant element. Had we all been able to retreat to running water, air conditioning and plasmas within a day or two, I do not believe we would have recognized what we were missing. When Hurricane Rita hit several years prior, the disruption was limited to a couple of days for most of us. I don’t recall any similar coalescing.

    p.s. – as Georgetown alumnus, allow me to extend my sympathies to the Scarlet Knights, toot my Hoya basketball horn, and voice my hopes that you might have a chance to come to Texas in the not too distant future and address the 1000-strong (so I’m told) Houston GU alumni club if you ever have chance to pass through Texas. Professor Voll just met with us for a small luncheon, to discuss Middle Eastern affairs. We could use a break from the diplomat/lawyer complex that so dominates the circuit. The Tocqueville Forum would find an eager audience down here in the Bayou City.

  2. Robert:

    I would like to know when America became a nation of sniveling wimps. My wife and I and live in Western Pennsylvania just outside of Pittsburgh, an area that one assumes is accustomed to a little snow. Yet, based on the reaction to last weekend’s storm, I am now convinced this is not the case.

    The storm dumped about two feet of snow in a little less than twenty four hours on Friday night and Saturday morning. Not only was this a new record for snowfall in a twenty four hour period, but it was also the fourth highest total from one storm since record keeping began in the early 1800’s. Given the severity of the storm, I thought people would understand that it was going to take a few days to remove the snow from the roads and get things back to normal, but I thought wrong. Around seven o’clock on Saturday morning people began calling the local television and radio stations complaining that their streets and/or sidewalks hadn’t been cleaned yet. It has only gotten worse in the days since. I guess part of the reaction is due to the area not having had a snow of this magnitude in about sixteen years, but I don’t think that entirely explains it. I believe people have become so isolated and self-absorbed that they fail to realize the world does not revolve around them.

    Another aspect of the reaction that bothered me was the way people were treating and talking about the city, county, and state workers. I suppose it is now popular to blame “government” for anything and everything, but government is, after all, comprised of people. People who, in the case of the plow drivers, worked through the worst of the storm trying to keep the main roads open for EMS, and who have since worked around the clock trying to clear the remainder of the streets. Personally, I think these workers deserve our appreciation.

  3. D.W. Sabin:

    With Dallas under 10″ of snow this morning and on the heels of twin dumps of 2′ on Foggy Bottom and Philly, here in southern New England, this “snowmageddon” produced a scant 1″of the white stuff. Taking work home on wednesday, I watched all day in vain for the white stuff. We have the cold but none of the insulating benefits of snow. The Mud Season promises to be epic with this kind of frost.

    But, perhaps we shall still manage to pull a storm or two out of the late winter ether so’s I can strap on my skinny Bonnas and ski out into the hillsides. Wood sawing and chopping is getting old as sole exercise.

    The best revelation however is that we have finally determined the proper grouping of scholastic endeavor for the modern era. Meteorology should now be joined to Economics and the two dismally inaccurate sciences can join forces on the telly, babbling away in frenzied half-truths that do not, in general, reach the level of my dog’s understanding of the forces surrounding her.

  4. Brian McCandliss:

    My last power-outage taught me a valuable lesson: buy and install a back-up generator, since the electric company is clearly above the law.

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