Hunkering down today because of the alleged hurricane caused me to think about electricity. The storm itself died before it reached New England, as I suspected all long during the last week of mass panic, but after the wind arrived it was still strong enough to knock down countless trees and the power for the entire day. In some ways, it was the best day of my mini-vacation: I played pool, darts, and the piano, read back issues of magazines and the newspaper, ate food I had forgotten about and would otherwise go bad, and engaged in candlelit conversations on the deck while maples surrounding the house dipped and swayed.
The other source of entertainment was the police scanner. In between reports of yet another branch fallen on power lines, there were stories about domestic disturbances, children abandoned to swim in the storm surge, drunk women swaying through the parking lot of the local package store, and flooded causeways. As if everyone went crazy without electronic devices and televisions to keep their hunger at bay. Even the doctor and his wife across the street, outdoor enthusiasts and runners, broke out their giant battery-powered halogen lamp, as if light alone could keep away boredom.
It made me think about even a hundred years ago, when people had to do things like play games, make music, draw pictures, and write letters to keep themselves amused. How things have changed. A day without electricity made me realize that it’s the central source of civilized change, the civilization that I’m not always sure is a good thing. The times in my life when I’ve been happiest are those when I didn’t have electricity. When I lived in a tarp and spent my evenings gazing into campfires, or when I lived on a boat and burned hurricane lamps while I played cards.
I don’t want to minimize the benefits of the electronic age. I couldn’t be writing these words without electricity and its accoutrements. Yesterday I took a field trip to the Boston Museum of Science, where they have the world’s largest Van de Graaff generator, a device that generates lightning indoors. It was awe-inspiring and loud and made me feel like a kid again as I plugged my ears. But it was also shocking (ha!) to see how powerful are the forces that run our lives. To envision the fluid stream of electrons animating our wires, our walls, and our fingers.
As dusk fell tonight, we broke out candles, Shabbas votives made in the Dominican Republic. Maybe I’m not ready to give up my electricity, but a furlough from it every now and again seems a good thing. Sometimes my furlough lasts months or years, on a trail or a boat. Sometimes just a day. Maybe those of the Jewish faith are correct in taking that Sabbath every week. If I were brave enough, maybe I would too.