A World Without Power

I’ve just survived the Great DC Power Failure of 2012. Or perhaps I should say of late June and early July 2012, because before the year is out there may well be another.

In my case, the power failure wasn’t caused by the mammoth storm that swept through the area Friday night—or at least, not directly. Our house survived the storm intact—unlike my mother’s assisted living facility nearby, which lost power immediately and, despite being made a high priority, didn’t get it back again until Monday morning.

No, we were among the lucky few who were spared by the capricious hand of nature. But then we were struck by the capricious hand of PEPCO, our much reviled local power company. Two days after the storm, on a cloudless, windless (and boiling hot) Sunday afternoon, our power started maddeningly flickering on and off, causing various appliances to beep and squeak and then go still. At one point I timed the outages, which lasted perhaps 30 seconds each, and they were about five minutes apart. If this had been labor, it would have been time to head to the hospital.

Each time the power went off we held our breath, waiting to see if it would come on again. And then, around 7:30 p.m., what we had been dreading all afternoon came to pass: the power stayed off.

Given the tight-lipped PR policy PEPCO maintains, we’ll probably never know why we and many of our neighbors lost power on Sunday. PEPCO moves, or fails to move, in mysterious ways. But whatever the cause, the loss of power—which for us lasted only a little over 24 hours—served to remind me of the vast differences between the era I live in and the year 1807, which is the year in which my novel-in-progress is set.

Yes—as my daughter kept reminding me when I was moaning about the heat and the inconvenience—people lived for centuries without electricity, and survived. But of course, in 1807, no one expected electricity. Their lives were organized around the lack of it. Ours aren’t.

For example, I had intended to devote the past two days to working on the first draft of my novel. I seem to be on the home stretch, and I feel some urgency about moving as fast as possible towards the end, basically so I can see what I need to go back and rewrite, once I know what the story is and who the characters are.

Back in 1807, all I would have had to do is sit down at a desk, pick up my quill pen, and start writing. But now, my draft and all my notes—including the PDF of an actual magazine from 1807 on which I’m relying for much of my material—were locked away in my computer, inaccessible without electricity. (My daughter, on the other hand, went off to work on Monday morning, at an office with all its modern conveniences still working.)

Plus, it was basically too hot to work. Yes, it got hot back in 1807 too, and needless to say there was no air conditioning to provide relief. And yes, they had to wear more clothing then than we do now—especially the men (the new Empire fashions for women were scandalous but no doubt considerably cooler than what preceded and followed them). But I have to wonder if global warming hasn’t driven up the temperatures quite a bit in the past 200 years. And you don’t miss what you’ve never known. Perhaps if the concept of air conditioning were completely foreign to me, I would have just rolled up my sleeves and gotten on with the task (assuming I could get to my draft and my notes). But it wasn’t, and I couldn’t.

So here I was, surrounded by all the things that usually make life easier and now, rendered useless by the power outage, seemed to be making everything harder. The dirty dishes were in the dishwasher, trapped in mid-cycle. The laundry, which I had been on the verge of sticking into the washing machine, overflowed the hamper. And the food in our refrigerator and freezer was getting inexorably warmer.

Back in 1807, people presumably had to go to the market to buy food pretty much every day. If you were wealthy you might have an ice house on your property, and you could always try salting or brining things to preserve them, but basically you had to eat perishables like meat pretty quickly, especially in the summer. If there were leftovers after a meal, you would eat them for the next meal, because otherwise they’d go to waste.

Some people in DC who lost power started frantically eating whatever was in their refrigerators, on the same principle. I gorged on some peaches that were fast giving themselves over to mold, but I couldn’t quite face opening the refrigerator. So I spent this morning throwing out food. It was painful to send a dozen eggs and an unopened half gallon of milk down the drain. On the other hand, I was amazed at the number of things in my refrigerator that really had no right to be there—odd condiments and exotic salsas, for example, that looked enticing when I bought them, years ago, but somehow never seemed to go with what I was making. Why on earth did I have two bottles of Worcestershire sauce, which I hardly ever use? And why did one of them have an expiration date of 2004?

I went to the supermarket to replace what I’d thrown out, but I was amazed to discover how little I actually needed to buy, and how empty my refrigerator looks now. (And how clean—once I got rid of what was on the shelves, it became apparent that the shelves themselves were in serious need of hygienic attention.) No doubt eventually there will be another accretion of stuff I basically don’t need, which will languish in the fridge at least until the next power outage, but I’m going to try to adhere a little more closely to the 1807 modus vivendi, at least in this respect: only buy what you’re actually going to eat.

And now that my computer is up and working again, I can use it to mentally transport myself back to a world that knew nothing of iPhones and e-readers, a world of quill pens and candlelight. It’s a nice place to visit, but I know I’d have a tough time living there.

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