During a snowstorm last winter the electricity went out. Put like this it seems completely normal, like saying: I got up this morning and brushed my teeth. Why not say this? But that wasn’t the way it felt: that’s the simple version, after the fact, when you’ve established causality.I’ve learned to say this because I do know some of the fundamental facts about houses and the lives we live in them. I know that electricity comes to the house and all that’s in it over wires I see strung by the sides of the roads. Most adults are aware of this, but children aren’t. If I were a child I would no sooner be able to give this short version from the outside than I would be able to diagnose as illness X or Y an unexplained feeling of tiredness, or internal bleeding.Alternately, I might live in a place that’s so frequently subject to power outages that this is something I take for granted as part of the fabric of life, as I take for granted the fact that periodically the car has to be filled up with gas to make it run, or its oil changed, or my teeth brushed. I drove my father’s car out of gas when I was a teen-ager, because I didn’t know that the tank was empty when the gauge showed 1/8 full: that too came as a surprise to me, but he had long since built this knowledge—fill the tank when it gets to the ¼ mark—into his daily routine.
In retrospect, in fact, it seemed not so much surprise that the electricity had gone out that was the appropriate response, but a weary feeling of “of course”: we should almost have expected it. After the fact, it seemed logical that this snow would have caused the problems. We live in a wooded area that hadn’t had a big snowstorm in a while; it stood to reason the branches had grown back up since the last time anyone had had to be aware of them. It was wet snow that began as rain, perhaps this froze on branches and the weight of the snow took them down.
But all this was after the fact, as after an accident that happens so fast you have no idea what hit you, or what you hit: only in the aftermath of things can you untangle the skein that didn’t seem tangled, and figure out what happened. Indeed, had the neighbor with the four-wheel drive not been obliged to go out and had he not phoned back the report of branches down, I might not have known exactly what had caused the problem for days. As it was, general knowledge enabled me to say “the electricity is out,” and blame the snow; I could go no further.
Like all changes that affect routine, the electricity being out was something I only articulated slowly. I awoke that morning to a sense that I was colder than usual; I pulled the blankets up and went back to sleep. Later, when the sun had come up I got out of bed and tried to turn on a light in the bathroom: nothing. Then I understood. Still, it didn’t seem to me like a major disruption in routine. The few times when we’d had power outages they had been quite temporary. I figured that by the time the rest of the family was up we’d be back in business. In the meantime making do was more a game than anything else.
Absolutely nothing worked except the human beings in the house. We have no backups for power outages in the form of propane stove or non-electric heater; our house is on a well with a pump, so that no water came from the faucets and, past the first flush, none went down the toilets. I knew enough not to open the freezer, but as it was cold outside I figured that things in the refrigerator could be put out on the porch, if need were. So I got milk and a bowl of cereal. At least the fireplace burned wood, I reflected. I made and lit a fire, though as I consumed the cereal didn’t think that much of the heat was reaching to the other side of the room.
As for the tropical fish, their life or death would be determined by how long the electricity stayed off, something I couldn’t control. At that point, however, I was still being optimistic: surely this wouldn’t last for long.I tried to go through the things we normally did, categorizing them into “can do” and “can’t do.” We could breathe, dress, eat, and use the toilets. We couldn’t get water, flush the toilets, stay warm without getting dressed in multiple layers or cook complicated food past left-overs. It was like looking at things from the outside, as if a Martian, all actions spread on the table and re-classified rather than merely being things in one path or another we didn’t think about—rather like packing for a trip, where it’s necessary to visualize all the things one will do and get the pajamas, bathrobe, swim suit, and multiple socks that ordinarily we wouldn’t have to think about as either we don’t use them in our normal lives or they’re ready to hand and don’t have to be thought about.
And then the family awoke.
We discussed the situation, dressed the children warmly, determined that we weren’t getting out of our driveway that sloped up to the road, told the children not to flush the toilet—which they chose to understand as saying to flush the toilet. We hadn’t stored water to flush the toilets, and it was only later that someone told us we could drain the hot water heater to get water for such things. For now, we knew we could continue to use the toilets without flushing them. And then we got on with our lives, knowing that we could at least dress them in their multi-layered snow clothes and go out to play: this was a first large snowfall that Owen, 3, remembered, and certainly it was so for his younger brother. We would be fine.
At this point we still didn’t know why the electricity was off, though we remembered seeing what had looked like lightning in the middle of the night, when we had both been awakened by strange noises outside: later we heard that a “transformer had blown up,” though we did not know what this meant. To say that it was “the snow” was the closest we could come, the way you decide that that tired feeling is “something going around,” or “something you caught from the children, who were coughing last week.”
There were some victories: I realized I could heat leftovers for lunch in the fireplace: we had a pot that could be put directly in the fire, and I found a way to remove its rubber handle-guard, which otherwise would have melted and gone up in stinking smoke. We finally got the telephone to act normally. The alarm system had begun to hemorrhage in some odd way; there was a high-pitched ringing we almost thought was imaginary until we left the room it was strongest in and suddenly the world was mercifully silent. We managed to get through to the alarm people, who informed us it was the backup battery, and told us how to disconnect it.
We did go out to play in the snow; this was a moderate success, as our snowman was at best rudimentary and the children’s hands got cold despite their gloves, little blocks of red ice protruding from multiple layers of puffed clothing.
the day wore on. We had several gallons of water in the basement, which though
it tasted funny we were using. Of course bathing was out of the question; this
early in the day in any case it wasn’t an issue. We established contact with
the neighbors, heard about the branches, discussed the extent of the
outage—extensive, so we concluded that the electric company had to know about
things. But what if everyone thinks that way? We asked. I called the number in
the telephone book (this was all on a Sunday) and got a recorded message saying
to call back during business hours. Clearly nothing was going to happen today.
During this period, automatic actions had become problematic, things we had taken for granted had come to the foreground and become challenges by themselves, many of which we simply lost. Getting clean was no longer the automatic background action that served as a means to other things; it had become the main thing. How to get hot water? I figured out I could remove the rubber cover from the pan’s handle and put it in the corner of the fireplace next to the burning wood. In a few minutes the water was boiling; I diluted it with some of the stored water we still had—only a few gallons—and took a sponge bath with a cup, squatting in the tub. Were there sources of food beyond the left-overs? Perhaps the boxes of protein bars in the cellar? But we weren’t that desperate, yet. Others had food; we could go out to eat once the roads were cleared.
It was the coming to the fore of background that had suddenly become foreground that was so unnerving about this.
Several years before I had stepped off a curb and, within 24 hours, developed a leg cramp so severe it took me literally five minutes to ease myself out of bed. I could barely drive. I dragged myself to the doctor and was misdiagnosed as having a pulled something. But as an added insurance, the doctor gave me a prescription for some physical therapy. Within hours I had dragged myself to the therapist, who told me I had pulled nothing. He worked on me and after a single session I was considerably better. After three sessions it seemed like a bad dream, evaporating into the morning.
That, I thought, must be what it feels like to be old, where even normal motion becomes problematic. Or infirm, or ill—all words we use to describe this strange inversion of background and foreground.
Yet inversion isn’t the right word either. The strangest thing was to realize that until it comes to the fore, background does not in a sense even exist: that’s the taken-for-granted part. The ability to brush teeth, flush the toilet, get food out of the refrigerator—all these aren’t the main show, only things that allow the main show.
What it suggested is that nothing we say about life can be held to be true, since it’s always possible we’re simply not seeing the things we take for granted that an abrupt alteration will bring to the fore. Wittgenstein says, “The world of the happy man is not the same as the world of the unhappy man.” This suggests the troubling possibility that each person has a different view of things—a discovery much exploited in early twentieth-century art forms. Yet the lesson of the snowstorm is far more unsettling. We can at least seem to see, simultaneously, the world-views of the happy and unhappy men, or the four views of the same robbery in Rashomon: we stand outside all four.
But the realization that we’re never aware of background until it becomes foreground, which is something we can’t predict—that is beyond our ability to line things up and see the whole thing. We don’t know what we’re not seeing while we’re not seeing it.