Sunday, September 4, 2011
By the time all of you finally read this—or at least by the time all my local readers at Shelter Rock eventually do—I hope that power will have been restored to all of our homes. We ourselves lost our power at about 7 AM on Sunday and only got it back Wednesday evening. In the history of the universe, it was a blip of not even four full days. Speaking more realistically, the universe having been around for a really long time, it wasn’t even a blip. But irritating, slightly upsetting days they were nonetheless. Washing up at the gym. Downloading my e-mail in other people’s backyards or at Starbuck’s. Charging my phone in the car (but never quite completely, which led to even more irritation and upset). Shlepping the laundry to friends’ houses. Wandering around after dark with flashlights and never quite being able to find what I was looking for. Reading by candlelight and trying not to get wax all over the page. You get the picture!
Of course, there were also good things that Irene brought in her wake. I saw many instances of people being truly kind, generous, and hospitable to each other. We ourselves were invited for dinner each night that we were without electricity at home, as I know were many of you also, by people who hadn’t lost their power or whose power had already been restored. On our street, we actually spoke to neighbors from down the block with whom we hadn’t ever exchanged a word. (Okay, okay, so that was Joan engaging the neighbors, not me. But I could too have!) I noticed a noticeable upsurge in children actually playing outside in the street and in the park, children whom I’m guessing I hadn’t ever seen before in the neighborhood because they have generally been too glued to large and small screens of various sorts ever to venture forth into the daylight.
So, on the whole, it was a kind of a wash—good things and bad things, inconveniences and kindnesses, more stress than usual but also way more sleep than I usually get. And, of course, we were the lucky ones. Not as lucky as some, but still far more fortunate than many New Yorkers who are still flooded and uncertain whether their homes will ever return to normal in the simple way ours did the other evening when someone somewhere threw some unseen switch and the lights went on just as suddenly as they had gone off in the first place. And the damage outside of New York, both to the north and the south, was truly devastating to entire communities. On the whole, we should be grateful we came through this relatively unscathed!
But, as you know happens regularly, this whole incident got me thinking about things. Do you know the expression “the new normal”? I can’t quite figure out who coined the expression, which I do not believe I had heard until just a few years ago, but what it means is clear enough: society moves along quickly enough for things that would once have seemed instances of peculiar, faddish, outlandish, or at least highly idiosyncratic behavior quickly to become the norm. It happens all the time. Nor is this a feature particularly of our age. Cole Porter’s song, “Anything Goes,” from the 1934 musical of the same name, is specifically about how quickly things change, how patterns of behavior that once would have seemed scandalous or unimaginably vulgar can suddenly become respectable and reasonable in the minds of most neutral onlookers. And how the nature of society is such that not only do these things happen regularly and frequently, but how they also remain for the most part unnoticed and uncommented upon, how they do not merely become acceptable but how they become the actual norm, the “new normal,” the standard that people are considered to be acting outside of societal standards if they deviate from rather than if they hew to.
Watching myself flounder around all week racing back and forth from Starbucks to get my mail made me realize that what is true about the way people behave with each other is also true of the way they interact with the machines in their lives. There was a time, after all, not that many years back when I got mail once a day. It came, for readers too young to remember, printed out on pieces of paper or even handwritten and you found it in the mailbox when you came home at the end of the day from work or school or wherever. You could get mail at work in the Stone Age too, of course, but it also came once a day and was also available only in hard copy. You then answered it—reminding the person to whom you were writing what the issue at hand was that you were writing about, since there was no way simply to write a paragraph or two over the original letter unless you actually, physically, mailed the piece of paper itself back to the person who sent it to you in the first place—and then a few days later, or a few weeks if you were writing to someone overseas, it arrived in that person’s hands. And then that person could respond and that too would take a few weeks. Asking a question of a friend in Tel Aviv and getting an answer by return mail could easily take a month. It didn’t seem all that burdensome to wait, however. It was just what it was, the norm, the normal.
From there we moved on to e-mail. The letters could be transmitted almost instantly, but you still had to be sitting at your computer to get the mail. So I got my mail a few times a day—but only when I was at work or at home. People understood that. If an e-mail didn’t elicit a response, it usually meant only that the person to whom it was sent hadn’t found a computer to read his or her mail on, not that he or she was ignoring you. And then from there we moved on to Blackberries and other kinds of smart phones, so that your e-mail could follow you around. You could conceivably not have your phone with you…but, unless you were undergoing surgery (and then really only if you were fully, not just locally, anesthetized), why wouldn’t you have your phone with you? How quickly this all too became normal! Nor does it seem odd any longer to receive text messages instead of actual e-letters from people who for some reason can’t find your e-mail address but have your phone number, or who feel that texting is closer to actual communication and therefore to be desired not solely for its speed (which is no faster, I don’t think, than e-mail most of the time), but for its intimacy and its (perceived) immediacy. All of these things felt like huge advances at the moment they were first introduced, but then became features of daily life so quickly that it seems almost impossible to imagine how quickly they have become almost unnoticeable features of daily life. When I tell my kids that we had exactly one telephone at home and that it was on the wall in my parents’ kitchen, thus making it possible to speak privately on the phone only when no one else was home, they both believe me (because why shouldn’t they?) and don’t believe me (because how could someone only my age have lived, let alone survived, under such primitive conditions?) When I tell them the internet also didn’t exist, they respond roughly the way I myself would if some new friends were to tell me that they grew up in some shtetl somewhere where they didn’t yet have gravity and dropped things just floated off into the stratosphere.
And then, suddenly, it all goes away. No power means no computers, no cell phones, e-mail, or text messaging (at least once the phones die until you find some place to recharge them, if you do), no cold Coke in the fridge, no personal laundromat in the basement waiting for the next load of dirty clothing, no electronic security system guarding things while you’re out and about, no air conditioning, no television, no telephone, no internet. At first it really does feel as though gravity had somehow stopped existing. You tell yourself that people read by candlelight for centuries before Edison invented the light bulb, that candles themselves must have been an innovation somewhere along the way when the switch was made from smelly, dirty oil lamps to efficient, clean-burning, and scent-free wax candles. But for all you know that to be true, you still can’t quite believe that you can’t turn on the TV. Obviously, you can brush your teeth in the dark. But who ever imagined we’d have to?
So the first response, I think, for most of us was incredulity. This is how people used to live? Where did they wash their clothing, in the river? (The answer is, actually, yes. But that was before my day, so even I don’t really believe it.) From there we move on to irritation, then to frustration, then (depending on our sense of social equanimity) either to resignation or to rage. I myself experienced all of the above emotions, other than rage, over the four days we had no power. But I ended up feeling most of all amazed at the wonders of our world now that I finally had the opportunity to conceptualize life without them: without computers (like the one I’m writing this letter on and which I used just before to find out in about three seconds what year Anything Goes opened on Broadway by googling Cole Porter), without telephones, without electric lights, etc.
Instead of being depressed because our service was out for a few days, I found myself marveling at the world in which we live. And feeling grateful to live in the kind of world in which even in the year of Irene we are still likely to end up at year’s end having had 361 days of only-once-interrupted electricity powering up our indispensible machinery.
As we make our way through the month of Elul leading to the High Holidays, it would behoove us all to consider how fortunate we are, and in so many ways, and to ask ourselves how we can allow ourselves to take it all for granted…and then to be outraged when we are deprived of some small part of it for a couple of days. The correct emotion to cultivate during Elul is gratitude and beholdenness to God for all that we have, not irritation with LIPA for not working fast enough. In its own way, Irene wasn’t such a bad way to get Elul off to the right start.