With the power back on at last, after eight days of generator-induced quasi-civilization, it's time to consider the lessons we might learn from this debacle. And I don't mean lessons of the get-a-generator-in-advance, prune-that-wobbly-tree variety. I'm referring to life skills and states of mind that our collective Sandy experience might bestow upon us. What insight did we gain that might help us out next October, when another storm will surely trample through our towns?
Bad Moods Are Inevitable. Here in Summit, NJ, where 23 percent of residents remain without power and countless oak trees, gutters, windows, roofs and other sentimental or costly possessions were ruined, most of us still feel compelled to repeat that "it could be worse," as if we can rationalize our way out of feeling crappy. Not to be ungrateful, or to minimize the far greater suffering of those in Staten Island, Breezy Point and Long Beach Island, but living through sustained power outages and gas shortages stinks, no matter your circumstance. It is disruptive and unsettling and uncomfortable, which naturally translates into a bad mood. No need to pile guilt on top of the agitation/depression. If you ask my kids, they'll be the first to acknowledge my crabbiness. "You're the worst thing about this hurricane," my son, Jeff, told me on Day Six. "Mom's being a super nag," my daughter, Julie, warned Jeff when I attacked the wrappers, cords and blankets that had accumulated on "his" section of the couch.
Personal Discipline Suffers. When you're trying to figure out how to recharge vital technology, ascertain the shortest gas line or simply keep warm, the resolve to avoid junk food and mood enhancing drinks (see above) deteriorates. Put differently, many of us are eating garbage and drinking too much wine. My brother-in-law confessed recently to having consumed nothing that day but five slices of pizza, a beer and candy. My children have subsisted on Milanos, Mallomars, marshmallows and other processed disasters that don't start with 'm' -- goldfish, chips, Reese's cups. Not to be outdone, my husband and I have added an embarrassing number of empty bottles to our recycling bin this week, and I guzzled an entire can of Reddi-Whip whipped cream one day. When life feels nasty, brutish and short, moderation takes a hit. And so does civility, at least intra-familia. Ordinarily, when my children overindulge, I gently steer them away from the offending food. Last week, when I was scrounging unsuccessfully for my own dose of Double Stuff Oreos, I asked my son, "Hey, fatty, did you finish the cookies?"
It Can Be Funny. Today's low point might be tomorrow's punch line. On the first dark evening of last year's freakish fall snowstorm, I was none too pleased to be driving out to the 24-hour West Caldwell Animal Hospital with my three kids, niece and orange tabby. But after accidentally stepping on Rusty in my blacked-out kitchen, and watching him lie about and pant frantically shortly thereafter, I had no choice but to go. (Diagnosis: "he seems fine now.") Likewise, my friend Sarah might one day see the humor in the 15-minute entrapment she endured in her dark basement yesterday, which happened after her aged cat raced downstairs, she followed, and the door without a handle slammed behind her. (What's with cats and crises?) She achieved freedom after sticking her hand out a tiny basement window and signaling her plight to nearby landscapers, who came to her rescue. This disaster's timing with the election also adds some levity. Shortly after losing power, my neighbor asked a JCP&L worker how long it would take for our city to have electricity again. "We see a lot of Romney/Ryan signs around here," the technician reportedly said, adding "I'm thinking not any time soon."
Send Your Kids to Outward Bound. Camping has never especially appealed to me. You go out in the buggy woods, deny yourself the tyranny of running water and electricity, and pass the time eating Pop-Tarts and making S'mores. Sandy has taught me that living through a blackout is like taking an unplanned indoor camping trip, where instead of communing with nature you tinker with your (now impotent) stuff, worry about the school calendar, and ruminate about your general uselessness. Plus, there's the junk food and cabernet. Now I've learned from my friend Carl, an avid winter camper, that camping skills translate quite nicely to blackout conditions. He has attached his car to the house's electrical system, so that his sedan serves as a mobile generator, but without the airplane noise or need for gas cans, and is fully able to siphon gas from a friend's donated car if the shortage persists. Perhaps the best way to prepare for next year's mess is to send our children to the Rockies over winter break, so they can pick up some real-world skills of their own.
It's Not All Bad. There's something touching about all the extension cords spread across streets, from one house to another, neighbors with energy donating their precious power to those without. The day after the hurricane, a friend up the street offered his chainsaw to help us clear away the enormous oak tree that had smashed across our driveway. Friends around town have invited us over to eat, drink (see above), and commiserate. My brother-in-law, bless him, drove down from Boston with 60 gallons of gas, a mammoth generator, and the electrical know-how to restore our heat. Once our power returned, we offered those still cable-deprived a warm house and working TV to watch the election returns, as well as some extra gas from our stockpile. A crisis throws you back to first principles: life is short, we're all in this together. And even if you're behaving like a petulant cry baby, as I was for a few days, moaning to friends about the new dent in the car -- thanks to that fallen oak -- or the glacial pace of our town's recovery, you still forge connections in your shared misery.
We Need Government. Speaking of first principles, a disaster like Sandy clarifies better than any party slogan or talking point why it is we need the Leviathan. Working traffic lights are not a luxury. An able police force, so useful now at maintaining order at the pumps, is not an entitlement. Passable roads, functioning schools, heat, light and hot water -- these are basic human needs that civilized societies pay for with taxes and rightly come to expect. And what is society to do with the weak and unable, those who cannot fend for themselves at the best of times, let alone now, and who have no family to fall back on for warmth and light? We see them in the shadows of this disaster, even here in Summit, a Romney/Ryan stronghold. They creep quietly in and out of shelters at the Middle School and YMCA. They slip into the Calvary Episcopal Church for hot soup and donated dinner, a little disheveled, a little confused. Are we to abandon them to the elements?
If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, perhaps a liberal is a conservative who has been knocked off the grid, abandoned to a dark house, and compelled to scrounge for food, gas, and water. A little public assistance looks pretty good at such times, even if you fancy yourself a go-it-alone sort. When Sandy blew in last week, she crushed the Republican illusion that a mere 47 percent of us benefit from government services. We're all victims now.