In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
Like about 70 million other people, we’re in the path of Hurricane Sandy. As of this writing, we still have power, but after last year’s catastrophe, we’re expecting to lose it for a while. (If this week’s blogging gets spotty, that’s why.) Given some warning, we spent the weekend preparing.
It has been an exercise in time travel.
When TW and I were kids, the only reason that schools closed was snow. A good blizzard, or maybe a stray ice storm, would do it; otherwise, we went. The Boy and The Girl didn’t believe me when I told them that; bless their short time horizons, they think annual hurricanes are normal. They don’t see anything odd in “frankenstorms” or “thundersnow” or the other weird weather hybrids that have been popping up with unnerving frequency. They think annual extended blackouts are normal. The reliable power that I remember as a kid has become an historical artifact.
When the power goes out, most of the recent technological advances quickly become irrelevant. Anything internet-based is inaccessible without electricity, and batteries drain pretty quick. (Last year, even the local cell towers went dead, so I couldn’t even use tethering to compensate for dead wifi.) The old copper land line went away years ago, replaced by the cable version that goes down when the electricity does. Even television is out.
Last year, our lifeline was radio. We had enough batteries to keep the radio going as needed; since then, we’ve picked up a hand-cranked one. If you ever want to feel really old-fashioned, crank a radio. It’s one step above churning butter.
Which brings me to refrigeration, or the lack thereof. Last year we were caught off-guard, so just finding unspoiled food became a full-time focus. This year, with warning, we were able to stockpile peanut butter, granola, bagels, cereal, and even the juice-box sized milk boxes that don’t require refrigeration. Luckily we don’t have well water, so at least we don’t lose water.
Without electricity, there’s nothing to power the blower that makes the furnace relevant, so the house gets cold fast. The fireplace keeps one room relatively warm, but “high-maintenance” doesn’t begin to cover it. The occasional ornamental fire is one thing; actually using the thing for heat is something else altogether.
Even light is an issue. When it gets dark before dinner, and your battery supply is finite, and you don’t know how long it’ll be before the power comes back, you have to ration light.
Last year, the power came back in a geographic patchwork, rather than all at once. (That makes sense, given that the issue was downed lines.) That meant a sort of foraging, as we looked for places with heat and, ideally, cooked food. We were lucky before that we got gas the night before everything went dead, so we didn’t have to wait in the gas lines we saw. This time, we made sure to get gas and cash. There’s something vaguely Mad Max about it, but there it is.
On Sunday the projected path of Sandy showed it moving north through western New York, crossing Lake Ontario northward towards Toronto. That may not mean much to many people, but to those of us who grew up along Lake Ontario, the idea of a storm moving north across the Lake is deeply weird. They don’t do that. They move either south or east. I don’t remember ever seeing one move north. It’s such a given that it never occurred to me that it was a given until I saw it violated. Toronto will get lake effect rain from Rochester? That. Is. Not. Normal.
As folks who know me can attest, I like my gadgets. I’m a fan of technological progress, and I have little patience for those who try to argue that, say, ditto machines were superior to photocopiers. But as grid failures become more common -- whether through climate change, deregulation-driven neglect, increased demand, or some combination thereof -- I find myself relying more often on newspapers, radio, cash, and firewood.
In a way, we’ve mastered backwards time travel technology. We use it every time the grid goes down. The kids think it has always been that way. It’s up to TW and me, as ambassadors from the past, to explain that no, it wasn’t.