The Power Elite

Our house is among the 80,000 in Virginia still without power. The number is down from one million, so we are headed in the right direction. We sit in a pocket of about twenty unlit  homes surrounded by humming air conditioners and flickering televisions. Virginia Dominion crews work alongside hired tree services under unrelenting sun to saw through and haul away a giant oak that toppled lines on the road bordering our neighborhood.
“Power, power, power,” Bug sighs as we sit in the back yard. “All anyone ever talks about around here is power.”
We are eating our way through a spoiled-food banquet at a steady clip, trying to stay several paces ahead of the e.coli.  As a mother, I suppose I should be more risk averse. We grill the last of the thawing cow from the deep freeze, playing infarction roulette by devouring steaks the size of catcher’s mitts. Bug and I together plow through half a leftover birthday cake. The rest of it lands in the dumpster. We body-bag the the limp boxes of popsicles, dripping Costco pork chops that had been neatly re-packaged into family-sized ziplocks (sorry, Mom), all the salad dressing and pickles and yogurt, and one entire 10×13 pan of homemade lasagna (really sorry, Mom).
Bug and I read books by candlelight in our living room encampment. We sing songs. He strips off his shirt. “It’s too hot,” he moans. The night finally cools down enough to open a window, but we cannot conjure up a cross-breeze from the sedentary air. I keep reminding Bug to be still and to try not to let anything upset him. Hot tempers make hot bodies. I stroke his back with the tips of my fingernails. He shivers, his giggles a low moan.
In the morning, Bug walks out with me through the garage. “Mommy,” he chokes. “It smells really bad in here.”
It is no small blessing that the garbage service is operational.  Today is trash day, and I am thanking the gods of infrastructure for this gift. Our provisions are now down to a single cooler plus one bin in the freezer. My father has taken on the role of ice hunter. Last night, he had to travel to three stores, but he did return to camp lugging two giant bags. I can keep Bug’s Amoxicillin cold for a couple more days. The lunchmeat, the mayo, and at least four Yuenglings might hold out, too. These events have a way of clarifying priorities.
I see the pinched expressions all around me. Several of my co-workers are also spending their nights stranded on islands of foul heat surrounded by oceans of restored power. Even those who have electricity grumble about being tired and about the slow pace of restoration. No one in the whole of the region had a restful weekend. One  friend reported that her childhood bedroom was gutted by a downed tree for the second time in a year. The desire to help fights against the pull to lay low and conserve energy.
Even such minor tragedies narrow the gaze. The work on our to-do lists languishes on our desks. We are in the middle of something else for the moment. I’m not sure what it is, but it feels a little bit frantic. Primal, even.  We talk and talk of people we know whose houses suffered damage, of trying to find fresh milk or a patch of shade. We take turns being cranky. We map out our routes home past supermarkets or gas stations offering the supplies we need to carry us through another night. Sometimes we are all ornery at exactly the same moment, and we retreat to the safety of our offices.
The misery here baffles me.  We have so very much. I can’t fathom why a few days of heat is so upsetting to those of us who live out in the suburbs and have access to cool amenities just blocks away. Unlike the crews up on cherry pickers re-hanging utility lines at high noon, my co-workers and I pass our eight-hour workday in an office with air conditioning, an ice maker, and internet. Unlike tens of thousands of others, the utility crews and my team are all bringing home paychecks.
This is more than manageable. This is luxury.
Attend to the absence, and the sense of loss become a loss of control.
I keep my mouth shut, though. Nothing worsens a mood more than hearing someone say, “Lighten up. At least you’re not in Colorado Springs. Or Syria.” Each of us has a unique yardstick for comfort. The precise texture of our suffering is based on a corrosion of that comfort. The location of one’s security is not fixed, however. Experience a deprivations or two, and all things rattle into a novel arrangement. Upheaval is a lot like Boggle. Shake, and the familiar text disappears. A new vocabulary materializes before your eyes.
I have to be honest here, though. I can appreciate the vaguely prickling comfort of complaint. It is a little like Bug’s shivers when I run my fingernails down his back. The sensation can become addictive.
When my marriage and camp life unraveled, I exceeded my quota of self-pity. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when I was reeling from a sense of such profound displacement that I felt homeless. The divorce pulled the floor out from under me. I’m sure anyone around me could have said, “Homeless? Who are you kidding? You’re not living under a blue tarp in a refugee camp.” No one cut me with that particular glinting truth, though they would have been right to do so. I am grateful for the friends who endured my relentless moaning.
Now, I have a safe place, a path, a voice, a name of my own. I can live with the unknowns. My son is well. My mind is clearing.
So, it is not entirely fair for me to say, “I can’t understand what everyone’s bitching about. Things are not really so bad.” I have to remember to listen with an open heart and keep my attitude to myself. Privately, I am pleased to notice that riding out this power outage is not nearly as hard as I thought it might be. The lights have been out for a few days, but a few other things are also true.


  • The shops have cold drinks, produce, fresh meat. Shipments have already arrived. The restaurants are hopping. The kitchens are busy. The kegs are tapped.
  • I do not have facebook on my blackberry, landlines are down, and the DVD player has no juice. Bug and I play legos without interruption. He has gotten back into puzzles. He pulled out blocks for the first time in months.
  • The postal service is operational and the Washington Post is waiting for us in its dewy sleeve every morning. My own mail-order medication arrived yesterday and today’s news is fresh.
  • The tap water is safe to drink.
  • My house has a pool. Its chemicals are balanced, more or less. We are perfectly capable of ignoring the debris carpeting the bottom.
  • My rec center has a shower.
  • Giovanni has offered up his washing machine, fridge, and air conditioning for when I reach the end of my tether. Or, maybe so I don’t reach it.
  • Tomorrow is a holiday.  A friend has invited me to a picnic. Since I will not be able to prepare the corn-and-bean salad, I will dip into my sufficiently stocked pocketbook and purchase a pre-fab something-or-other from the supermarket.
  • Bears are not eating our garbage. Locusts are not eating our crops. The hospitals have beds and antibiotics. The Supreme Court seems to retain some vestige of democratic principles.
  • I can get to my house, and it is still standing.

I quietly reserve the right to maintain a Pollyanna attitude in the face of DC Storm 2012. It is not pretense to acknowledge that this is not the apocalypse. I actually am thankful for what I have. I am even thankful for the fact that my house is one of the few still in the dark. Without a little struggle, how do we know our strength? When we wake up to find that we are Syria, how else will we know that we can survive? How else will we discover that we have the power to overcome cataclysm, even despotism?
Power, power, power. All anyone ever talks about around here is power.
Practice is good. We need to know we can continue to look with fresh eyes and seek new vocabularies no matter how rattled the foundation, no matter how prickling the heat or the fear. It is good to know how to live without power of one sort so we can tap a greater reserve of the stuff when the time comes. The time will come. It always does.


Lessons from the State of Emergency

  1. You can cook far more than you ever imagined on a backyard grill.
  2. A living room camp-out is almost as exciting as the real thing.
  3. The deep freeze needs a good purge anyway.
  4. If the metro is running, just get on. Your destination will appear.
  5. Neighbors you have never met are eager to talk and happy to help.
  6. Suffer or adapt?
  7. You don’t need A/C to build a castle.
  8. People really do treat broken traffic lights as four-way stops.
  9. Ice is a minor miracle.
  10. If you get up the courage to ask your ex for a hand, he might provide it.
  11. The dark basement is your friend.
  12. When your kid needs to unleash his boiling crankiness, get in the pool with him and let him splash you in the face as many times as he wants. His pleasure will not surprise you. Yours might.
  13. If you see a nap, seize it.
  14. Trees are further proof that it is possible to love and fear something in equal measure.
  15. It’s never too hot to cuddle.