Sunday, December 4, 2011

Power Trip

We don't lose our electricity much in Los Angeles. We don't get snow to weigh down the power lines. Most of our activities involve being outside, where electrical needs are at a minimum. School cafeterias are outside in courtyards (weird, right?), many buildings are only a story or two (thanks, earthquake code!), so there aren't a lot of elevators to rely on. The infrastructure, while poorly maintained, is relatively new, compared to John Hancock and George Washington's old stomping grounds.

When we lived in a fancy area on the West Side of LA, on some very hot days, we would receive robocalls with dire warnings that the city might impose "rolling blackouts"--turning off the electricity on purpose(?!)--because of surges in power use. The reason for these surges? People had 10,000-square-foot mansions to cool so their pets would be comfortable, and heated pools don't heat themselves. Although we, in our pool-free, tiny slice of real estate, never ended up incurring the wrath of these bureaucratically imposed blackouts, I have a feeling the owners of the aforementioned manses didn't either. Idle threats on the idle rich. LOL, Con Ed!

I am from New England, where the infrastructure is old and pipes and wires are buried beneath streets modeled on 17th century cow paths. Blackouts, water main breaks, and other Modern Convenience Disasters tend not to make national news because they are so frequent. I remember the Blizzard of '78--not to be confused with the Red Sox Collapse of '78--left us without power for three weeks. I don't recall too many negative repercussions from the event, aside from a little cannibalism, but I think at the time we thought going Back to Nature would instill many lasting memories. Maybe I need to spend a little more time trying to remember.

More recently, my friends and family back East had a series of snowstorms that left them without power for many days. It was in the 20s and 30s (that would be Farenheit, for my readers abroad), and there were frozen pipes, no hot water, limited access to food shopping, and accumulating diapers. Yuck. Although I worried about them, while I was 3,000 miles away with 70 degree weather, I found solace in the fact that many of these same people go on camping vacations and enjoy winter sports. A week in a dark, frigid, food-free environment--sounds like a trip to the Vermont mountains to me! But cheaper and no need to pack and drive! The lack of food, power and heat with small children in the house is not a potentially dangerous situation as much as it is a fun holiday! A stay-cation, as it were!

So when a recent windstorm left us without power, we were not sure how to react. In fact, we initially were not even certain we were without power. It was about midnight, and the adults in the family were woken up by the crashing of outdoor objects apparently wanting to come inside. Since the children were sleeping through the Armageddon-force storm (Note to self: Add less Ambien to the kids' milk), we didn't try to turn on any lights, lest we awaken them and have to start explaining that the banging on the roof was not Santa coming a month early. It was a neighbor's tree crashing onto our roof. Or maybe part of another neighbor's roof making a stop on ours before continuing down the street. It wasn't until one of us asked, "What time is it?" that we realized the clock was dark. But, truthfully, the clock often gets unplugged by the TV remote falling on the electrical cord, so even that wasn't sure-fire proof. But, trust me, we eventually determined that the power was indeed off.

After the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, I had stocked up on emergency supplies at an Army-Navy (why not Marines?) store during a trip to Boston shortly after the Japan disaster. Sometimes it just seems easier to buy emergency supplies when you are 3,000 miles away and will need to pack them for a planetrip home, inevitably being charged for having luggage that is over the airline's weight limit. But when it comes to emergency preparedness, there is no rule book I am aware of. Well, there probably is, and that is a Google search I probably should have dome before lugging 30 pounds of glow sticks, NASA food packs, and neon tarps cross-country. Although I was on vacation when I bought the goods, we all know safety never takes a vacation.

So, when we realized we were without power, I was confident that we would be able to flag down a rescue plane, whittle sticks into lodging, and skin squirrels for food. I had not doubt that there would be an Ikea-like instruction sheet with my emergency goodies. Because isn't the US government as efficient and cheerful as my favorite Swedish store? Well, regardless, I was certain we would be fine once it was daytime, because neither my husband nor I had any idea where a flashlight might be. So we went back to sleep. 

The next morning, we were excited to find that the electricity was still out, so our military adventure could begin! We found a plastic flashlight in the garage. We couldn't tell if it was an official adult flashlight, or left over from one of our kid's Diego Explorer Packs, but it certainly appeared to have the requisite flashlight qualities: it was shaped like a flashlight and appeared to need batteries. Fortunately, because my son plays video games 24 hours a day, we have plenty of batteries. Unfortunately, the batteries are all AA, and these flashlights appear to take batteries that are not AA. OK, one thing for the Target list.

When the kids woke up, we gave them the bad news that there was no power and no school. Cool, was my son's response. Can I have a friend over? Well, sure, I said, but it is 7 a.m. and maybe a little early to arrange such an activity. My son immediately grasped that no electricity meant he would not be able to Skype his buddy, so he announced he was going to email the friend to see if he could come over. I informed my son that they would not be able to receive the email because there is no power. Although my son has unfettered access to all things computerized, the parents of his friends have better judgment and do not let their kids use email as frequently as my son. So the electricity explanation did not compute as much as the "Oh yeah, other kids' parents have rules" one did. He told me his strategy would be to email them so in case they were able to read the email during the day off, they could respond. It took a minute for him to grasp that not only could his friends not access email, "no electricity" meant he could not send email either. And, no, he could not use my iPhone to check his email.

Good thing I had just read my son's copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever, so I had a head's up on what to do when there is no electricity. I was easily able to locate the board games, since I had dug them out of the garage for a recent vacation where I thought we would have old school down time. The games went unused. While I was in the garage, I poked around for those elusive emergency items purchased for just such a situation. No luck.

Or, rather, lots of luck, because our lights returned by 11 am the next morning. Our four hours of powerless daylight hell had ended! My children quickly recovered from the trauma of the darkside by gaining an even newer-found appreciation for iPads and Wii. Unfortunately, many friends continued without power for days beyond our personal ordeal. I felt occasional pangs of guilt as they described sleeping with down jackets, or spending 8 hours at a crowded shopping mall just to soak up some heat and cooked food. But think of all the quality time you are getting with your three active pre-teen sons! Babies don't need TV! You like to camp anyway! I did my good deed for the day by helping my friends find the silver lining in their dark, cold lives. All the while thinking warm thoughts of the rosy General Electric glow basking inside our home.


  1. Great post. Love the details like the Diego flashlight; I can imagine the same mix up at our house! ANd the skinned squirrels. LOL. Oh AND the computer addicted sons! One of mine isn't, the other is big time, and he's only 8. We were without power for 7 days after H. Irene, and though he doesn't do email (yet) surviving that long without a video game was trying. Thank god for Legos.

  2. Hi, Sandra! My brother in NJ lost power for a week during that snowstorm a few months back, so he really has the bragging rights in our family :). But his kids have hobbies and interests that don't involve joysticks (wait, that didn't come out right..), so one hour for us FELT like seven days (lol). The wind storm was sure chilly... would have loved to have some of your beautiful scarves to keep my thin-blooded LA family warm! Thanks for checking in. Best, Karen :)