Thursday, January 12, 2012

Let there be dark

Last evening, around 9 p.m., in the process of finalizing a detailed reply to a fellow researcher, the lights suddenly snapped out, all sound disappeared, and everything went completely black. Neighborhood-wide power outage,  not the first time that's happened and rarely at night.  This one was completely disorienting.

First of all I couldn't see anything, not even my hand or the desk or even the contours of the room.  It was complete and total darkness.  I stumbled my way to the kitchen to the cabinet that houses the candles, then felt my way across to the drawer where we keep a box of matches.  Meanwhile my mate somehow located a mini flashlight, which helped because we'd been knocking things over or stepping on cat tails miscalculating which piece of furniture was exactly where.

"Where are you?"
-- "I'm here, where are you?!" 
"Over here."
-- "Where's 'here'?"

ha ha.

Three blocks away I could make out a faint light overhead from a streetlamp over the little baseball field, but apart from the occasional headlights of a passing car there was no light outside Anywhere.  I wondered what'd caused it and how long it would take HydroQuebec to fix it.  We lit a few candles and sat for a while playing a little film trivia game but after an hour it began getting noticeably colder.  No heat, no phone, and if this continued till morning, some stuff in the fridge might have to be thrown out. I put on an extra pair of socks.  We brought an extra blanket out, blew out the candles and decided let's go snuggle up in bed and hope the heat comes back on soon.

It did, eventually, and all was well.  But initially,  more than an hour having passed, the candles having burnt down to half, and nothing having changed, I began thinking how much we take for granted.  That energy can be had and maintained indefinitely (how could it not be?)  Remembering the big ice storm fourteen years ago, when parts of Quebec were without power for as long as a month, people now joke about it, bringing out their "I survived" T-shirts to prove their resilience.

I remember that storm.  It arrived the day I was moving all my belongings, including 25 boxes of books, in a creaky blue van whose driver had a broken foot, from Boston to Vermont.  I especially remember the trees, those beautiful, tall, elegantly simple white birch standing like sentinels along the highway,  encased in ice, horribly twisted and broken.   Every little village in southern Quebec looked like a war zone.  It was devastating.  You can still spot, today, some of those broken trees.

So it occurred to me last night, one of those uninvited little mental what-if's:  What if the national grid should suddenly permanently malfunction, thanks to a Stuxnet attack, and virtually the entire nation--any nation--were, in effect, "shut down".  Hospitals, of course, would have generators.  But imagine, being stuck inside an elevator on the 85th floor in a darkened city somewhere, for days, or without heat in the dead of winter for a week or more,  grocery stores having to throw out tons of spoiled produce, schools/offices/Everything closed, life as we're used to it, come to a standstill.   I think they call this sort of thing Worst Case Scenario:  a possibility, but something we don't think will actually really happen--to us.

It was the sudden, complete disorientation (Darkness. And Silence) that momentarily bolted me out of my complacency, like being zapped into Nothingness, struck momentarily blind and deaf all at once, not knowing where anything IS, every movement  a stumble forward, only to be blocked or thrown off balance.  Pretend this is not temporary.  How would you react?  What would you be thinking of?  It has all the makings of a possible science fiction thriller (or a 2020 survival guide), when we might have already begun running out of water, arable soil, non-polluted  air, sufficient food, available space.

But snap! Just as we're drifting off to sleep wrapped cocoon-like in a layer of blankets, the clock radio starts blinking, forced air begins hissing through the heating vents, a voice from a radio downstairs starts crooning out.  Power!!!!!  We've got Power!!

And today it's all forgotten, a blip in a day's existence.  Except that one little arrested moment that stays lodged in the back of the memory bin:  that tiny little uninvited 'what-if' consideration.  Okay - stock bigger candles. Get a proper flashlight.  Be better prepared  'case  it happens again. You get a whole new appreciation for modern-day conveniences.  I mean, try reading for hours by candle light - that's what our ancestors did.   Squint, squint.  You keep wanting to turn the candle brighter.

Am not saying we should "go back" to those days, just that we maybe get too dependent on certain habits and expectations.  Like that there always will be enough water, food or power at our disposal, etc.

A former acquaintance used to be fond of saying, "Never assume anything", and those words have kind of stuck with me.  Never assume that love will last,  that circumstances can't abruptly change, or that you will find all the answers in the end.  But I tell you, that abrupt jolt into silence and darkness, that sudden loss of real (and perceived) power, brought those thoughts to me again, what we're doing to the earth, how we cope when unexpectedly uprooted, so to speak.

It is snowing.  The weather channel predicts we'll go from zero to -15 C tomorrow.  And then it will snow some more. 

Ah, l'hiver.  :)