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Friday, February 4, 2011

Electricity and Cave Man Living



Like much of the eastern part of the country, Columbus, Ohio, where I live, was caught in an ice storm last Tuesday evening (February 1st). About 8 p.m. the electricity abruptly died. Barney and Mama, my two cats, and I were suddenly in a very dark house with temperatures falling fast. We blinked at each other in confusion. The cats looked at me expectantly. 

2003 Blackout, Northeast USA
Whenever the lights go out, we experience not only the shock that civilization has failed at a very important level, but also the bigger surprise at how fast we revert to primitive needs, those of cavemen. Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration because, after all, we have flashlights and automobiles that still work, as well as some other nifty devices (though it took me 15 hours to remember the Coleman lamp I bought after the last blackout), but it's also true that our first thoughts concern basic matters: food, heat, care of our loved ones, being able to survive the night. Just like the people of the caves from whom we're all descended.

Of course, in 2011, our facile first assumption is that the lights will be back on shortly, but then, as the hours drag by oh so slowly, the possibility of days (weeks?) without power begins to gnaw timidly at the brain, leading to speculation about the collapse of our world and all that that would mean. Laugh if you will, but weeks of subzero cold coupled with an inadequate response from civil authorities would make people with firearms glad that their weapons don't depend on electricity for utility. Milktoast that I am, I don't own weapons, so when I jumped at loud noises just outside my bedroom window in the middle of night (causing Barney and Mama to scamper), I looked around for any object that might offer protection (a kitchen knife being the best I could manage). Nothing happened and I later surmised I'd merely heard ice-laden tree limbs crashing first on the roof and then the yard.

If you want to know how basic electricity is to modern life, just wait till it stops. You find yourself mindlessly flicking light switches, stumbling over objects you've forgotten were on the floor (or cats, who have deliberately planted themselves in your way, as is their wont), thinking about food thawing in the freezer (finally I had the happy idea of putting it in the garage), and dozens of other tasks and objects demonstrating the stranglehold electricity has on our daily lives. Hell, more than ten hours without a computer always gives me the shakes. Or television! TELEVISION!!! I missed weather reports, news, favorite shows, and an important Ohio State basketball game, damn it! Plus there are other little irritants too: just as my washer finished a load of clothes, but before I could put them in the dryer, power went out, leaving me with wet laundry to worry about on top of everything else. What a wimp I am! A caveman would sneer at me.

Michael Faraday
In prior posts I've made much of the idea that we don't appreciate the 21st century even as we're living it (see "Related Posts" below). A sudden ice storm should make us aware that we don't even appreciate the 19th century with sufficient clarity. As Benjamin Franklin (flying his kite in a thunderstorm, risking a lightning bolt travelling down the string and into his body) and others developed the idea of electricity, the world initially took little note. When Michael Faraday (1791-1867), the first to produce an electric current from a magnetic field and the inventor of both the electric generator and the electric motor, first demonstrated his discovery to Queen Victoria, she was, according to legend, less than impressed. "What good is it?" she asked. "Madam," Faraday supposedly responded, "what good is a baby?"

As electrical lighting became popular, dramatic alterations occurred quickly. In just a few decades the world went from being mostly dark at night, to being as brightly lit as it wants to be. The reason paintings of evening parties pre-1830 appear to be so dark is that in real life such affairs were hard to illuminate. When electricity replaced candles (or the messy, smelly gas lights of the day), people could see each other too clearly so fashions had to change dramatically. Some people, including portions of the upper classes, resisted electricity because it wasn't "romantic." But the middle class saw its advantages, and soon electricity was everywhere. It still is.

Until, that is, last Tuesday, when it just annoyingly disappeared, and—poor mortals—we scrambled for candles, returning to the early 19th century. On one such occasion I made the uncomfortable discovery that I couldn't open canned goods because my can opener was electric! Last Tuesday night, in bed, the cats and I became a tangle of mammals protecting each other with our mutual warmth. My friend Pam, who has seven cats, told me that on very cold nights she wakes up feeling much like Gulliver weighted down by many furry Lilliputians.

And then (in my case 24 hours later) the electricity suddenly comes on with a little blinking noise (pop!), and we're jerked back into the 21st century and its usual marvels. It's always a great moment when that happens so unexpectedly, and I found myself yelling, "Thank you, power workers, thank you!"

We tend to live the future, or—the very luckiest of us—in the moment (I don't mean me). But we rarely stop to appreciate what we have, where we are. When electricity deserts us we're forced to confront the basic realities of life. But as soon as it returns it's all too easy to resume our 21st century life with nothing more than a little sigh of relief. Oh, but, people, that would waste a wonderful opportunity! Readers of this blog know I'm star-struck by how lucky we are to be born now, here.

Find that wonder with me!

My electricity returned in the evening on February 2nd, which was, as it happens, Groundhog Day. I never saw an official report so I'm making this up, but I'll bet when Punxsutawney Phil was asked how soon we'll be basking in nice spring weather, he uttered the groundhog equivalent of "@%* ¥ *?_# $!!!"
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Related Posts:
"Benjamin Franklin Riding Shotgun," May 29, 2010
"Teaching English to Cats," August 6, 2010
"Rock Around the Sun," January 31, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

4 comments:

  1. Stephen King wrote something along the lines that in electric light, we see 'evil,' whereas darkness holds the possibilities of 'EVIL.' Now departing from Steve, we all know how to deal with 'evil:' sweep the broken glass from the floor because we can see it in the light. In darkness, we don't understand the 'EVIL' that may have broken the glass in the first place. Thus, electric light has deprived us of some basic fears that we may have been better served to keep.

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  2. Regarding the cats you were tripping over, I think you meant "as is their wont," not "want" ("wont" meaning "custom, habit, or practice").

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