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Jeff Ward: The Powerlessness of a Power Outage

It's amazing how something as simple as electricity — or the lack of it — can remind us of our dependence on others.

Taking absolutely nothing for granted, just last week I was conjuring up some warm and fuzzy thoughts about Geneva’s crack power people and even our fine friends at ComEd. To wit, I quietly remarked to myself, “Wow! We haven’t had a serious west side power outage in almost a decade.”

Not only that, but, despite the fact we're being slow-roasted by climate change, we haven’t had to deal with those infernal 10-second mini-outages that don’t do anything for the longevity of consumer electronics.

So if you need to blame someone for , it may as well be me. Next time I harbor those kinds of happy thoughts, I swear I’ll follow Eddie Floyd’s advice immediately afterward.

When the power went out around 3:30 followed by a short-lived resurgence, I told my technology-addicted sons to fasten their seatbelts because it was going to be a bumpy ride. Any Genevan knows that halfhearted second effort is never a good sign. When all those common household devices were still silent after 20 minutes, you knew we were in it for the long haul.

Ironically, the first thing that hits you is a feeling of abrupt disconnection. I couldn’t finish my column and send it to Rick, I had to resort to the radio to keep up with the Cubs, and I couldn’t obsessively check Patch for the latest news.

Of course that feeling lasted only until my younger son started pacing around the house shouting, “I’m bored.”

Then there’s that terrifying notion we Westerners can barely tolerate on our best day — being at the mercy of other people. Though the fantasy of being the masters of our domain is just that, we can’t stand having it thrown in our faces.

So, in an effort to reassert the control I never really had, I called the mayor, a couple of aldermen and the police department in an attempt to determine our ultimate fate; but other than saying a feeder line went down, no one could say when the current might flow.

The next step is denial. We’ve become so dependant on our electronic contraptions that resorting to them has become as reflexive as breathing. Though I clearly knew the power was out, that didn’t stop me from trying to use the microwave, put up the garage door, turn on the basement light or employ my cordless phone.

But as it is with anything else in this life, after about an hour, you start to get used to it. My sons stopped screeching “this sucks!” and settled down to play a board game. My wife, who barely noticed anything had changed, continued reading her book. Bereft of the dryer’s magic, I hung my load of athletic wear to the overburdened drying rack.

Then I decided I may as well take the dog for a walk.

The first thing that struck me on that trek was the silence. No steady whir of central air conditioning units meant the rare summer equivalent of the vast quiet that always comes after a six-inch snow.

Then I saw some neighborhood folks I swear I’ve never seen before. There was a young couple playing soccer, a couple of middle school girls with a radio control car and a whole lot of other folks walking their dogs.

This phenomenon that literally disconnects us from the grid, somehow brings us together as many of my fellow subdivisionites simply stood in their driveways and lamented the lack of power by committee.

While still strolling down the street, at about the two hour mark, I noticed a mass exodus as family after family got in their car and took off. Apparently, if the power wouldn’t come to them, they’d go to it!

I will admit there is a certain Zen-ness to that kind of thinking.

Though the stove would’ve worked with a little assistance from a friendly Bic lighter, we’d chosen grillable fare, so there was no problem there. However, watching my wife get the burger condiment items out of the fridge at light speed reminded me of the All In the Family episode where Edith tries to save energy by doing the same thing.

Much to the delight of my youngest son, the power came back on about 7:25 when he descended upon his computer like a hungry raptor upon his hapless prey. Ironically (I do love that word), in a case of only absence makes the heart grow fonder, once the power was restored he was painting his miniatures just 30 minutes later.

While reflecting upon this rather rare Sunday evening event, I come away with three thoughts.

First, I’m grateful that we don’t live on the east coast where millions of folks have been without power for days in 95-plus degree heat. As far as electricity delivery goes, we actually have it pretty good out here in Geneva.

Second, though multi-hour outages are rare, I’m surprised ComEd hasn’t build more redundancies into their infrastructure. Considering our growing dependence on AC current and the current weather forecast, one wonders if this is just an early warning shot.

And lastly, when I left that message for the mayor, I said the veneer of civilization is already pretty thin on the west side of Geneva and a prolonged power outage could result in a societal collapse.

Well…maybe not, but when you take the time to really think about it, our dependence on the expertise of so many other folks is really frightening.

Dennis C. Ryan July 05, 2012 at 07:51 PM
A wired-in natural gas generator looks pretty good right now, doesn't it, Jeff? Best money we ever spent, 13 years ago.

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