Wednesday, August 05, 2009


An undated photo of sagging power lines from the National Historic Weather Service Collection.

The ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suspect.

---Thomas More

Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied VEIL which partially conceals the world.

---Iris Murdoch

Walking along a mountain path
I find a sandal-print in the moss,
a billowy cloud low on the lake,
grasses growing up to a door,
a pine tree shimmering green,
a brook gurgling along from the mountain,
and as I mingle with Truth among the flowers,
I have forgotten what to say.

---Liu Chiang-ch'ing

Last winter we had a severe ice storm here. Electricity went out for large portions of the states affected, in some areas and for some "customers," as we are called, lasting days and even weeks. Our home continues to use well water, powered by a pump nearly a quarter mile down a hill. No electricity means no water.

Somehow telephones still work---although the lines coming up to the house look exactly the same to me. But who is there to call besides each other? If you can get a human being at the electric company, she'll tell you the crews are all out working day and night...and maybe an estimate for restoration. To be told it won't be until tomorrow, or days into the future, is alarming. Do you have your own generator or backup heat?

Years ago you could call a radio station if so much as a hard wind began to blow. They'd get the information for you and onto the air within minutes. In those days the media were considered a public service, and their broadcasting licenses could be withdrawn by the FCC if they failed to meet their responsibilities. We have about a dozen radio and TV stations in town---if you count all the digital this-and-that---including a few connected with a university that boasts an award-winning journalism school. But try to get local news out of them. I can count on 2 commercial AM radio stations to tell me about severe weather conditions...and only one for sure.

I was in the New Haven area for the big ice storm in Connecticut in the early 1970s. Fortunately there was a fireplace in the house and we were able to cook Thanksgiving dinner. In fact it was one of the most delicious Thanksgivings in my memory. The front yard had been full of American chestnut trees, all loaded with bulging nuts and all destroyed by the storm. We crept out on the ice and harvested all we could find---and had chestnut stuffing and chestnut gravy and anything else we could think of to make with them. It was like being on another planet to walk outside. If you've been in an ice storm you know what I mean.

That storm in New Haven is famous, and I guess I wasn't frightened because I was a lot younger then obviously...but also because I was among friends. That's the key. Last winter it was my family in our house alone against a suddenly alien environment. What have I done since to prepare for the possibility of more uncertain weather? We're stockpiling dry goods and canning more, because we know the fridge and freezer can become pretty useless fast. But all that is for ourselves. What have we done to prepare with neighbors...who really should be our friends, but maybe aren't?

When I was a kid, the neighborhood community was really important...even after the necessities of World War II. We tended to know most of the people, sitting out on the front porch or taking walks after supper. The men liked to mow their lawns at the same time, talking to each other as they went. No gasoline-powered monsters back then. Of course this was in a small town, and things tended to be more isolated out on the farms---but not that much. People visited each other more, maybe bringing along a pie or some preserves.

I've lived in apartment buildings where I didn't know anybody at all. I've lived in town here where the turnover of student and faculty tenants is so tumultuous, it's futile to get to know many people at all before they move on. We've lived where we live now for over 10 years, and I guess we're finally acquainted with most people along this stretch of our road. But I never tire of telling the story of how I worked alongside a woman, often eating lunch with her, for a year before I learned she lives across the road. We move out in the country often to get away from people and to be alone.

But what can happen in an emergency? How many emergencies can we think of that could happen these days? I just read the morning news and came up with a half dozen that could occur today and affect my home and family. I'm not going to list them...and of course there are more I'm not even thinking about. Clearly we don't want to think about it. I was scared during the ice storm last winter, but what have I done to network with neighbors in case it happens again and we can help each other? I've done nothing. I've even forgotten the storm. I've put it behind me, in order to move forward.

Everytime I hear a politician say we have to put it behind us and move forward, I feel sick. Sometimes you're standing on the brink of an abyss, and then it's important to know what's behind you and to NOT keep moving in the same direction. How many areas of abyss can you count this morning?

Here's my problem and my confession. Over the years I too have become more isolated than I used to be. I have a lot of entertainments and toys around me and I value as much privacy as I can get to play with them. And during this period, I think I've become even more awkward and cautious with social interactions than I was before. Am I the person who should initiate a network of helping neighbors? Should I telephone those people? Going door to door would be more effective. But would I face rejection and humiliation?

I think it would be very wise for the people on our road to have an emergency plan of some kind. Maybe we could share in the stockpiling of food and supplies. Perhaps each family could undertake a different area of responsibility. Somebody could volunteer to keep extra fresh water available, and someone else could get gasoline. Not only would it be wise, it could be fun. Planning for emergency with friends is certainly more endurable than doing it alone. I'm sure there are people who are doing all this already, but some of us shy persons aren't even started. I wonder if we're on an endangered species list yet.