Reflexively hitting switch, even when the power's out - Tucson Local Media: Editorials

Reflexively hitting switch, even when the power's out

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Posted: Tuesday, June 8, 2010 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:07 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

What do you do when you're home alone on a Saturday night and the lights go out in Oro Valley?

You fumble for that flashlight on the dresser, then dig for candles and matches. We'll always need candles and matches, to create romantic airs, to cover up unpleasant smells, but mostly to defeat the dark when technology fails. A back-up home generator? Only if we're on supplemental oxygen, or life support.

Once settled in the dark, there's nothing to do, no reading by candlelight a la Abe Lincoln — so much for presidential aspirations — and no constant entertainment. No AC, either. Grab a bottle of water, the flashlight — only the next day do you remember the headlamp in the garage — and go for a walk in June's furnace.

Immediately, it's time to meet someone who lives across the street. She is a "neighbor," a word suggesting you actually know one another's name. Common condition is a good time to meet people who live nearby, because there is an unanticipated, forced bond between aging man and high school student. We've probably seen one another before, but never spoken.

She reports, with confidence, that the lights are out all over Oro Valley, Catalina, even on the East Side. How does she know this? Duh! She's called her friends on the cell phone. Thanks to cell phones, people can learn a lot about a little very quickly. There's electric power to a cell phone tower, and thank the powers that be for that.

It appears the lights are on across the wash, I tell her, but she suggests otherwise. "Must have those outside lights," the solar-powered ones, she says. "Or back-up generators."

Greater Tucson prides itself on dark skies, but a blackout sky is genuinely dark. The stars shimmer when the lights are out. Sound is amplified, too. No droning air conditioners, no music, no blather from the enormous TV screen. You hear the almost-roar of traffic off Tangerine Road, the yips of a dog, and bugs.

Then there are sirens, and a Golder Ranch fire truck comes roaring down Monterra Vista. You've never seen a fire truck appear quite like it does when it's the sole source of light. It is a blacker-than-night, three-dimensional, hurtling rectangle, red and yellow and blue and white lights blinking and beaming on its perimeter. This might be what a submarine looks like 10,000 feet below the ocean's surface.

At home, on the porch, headlights move like ghosts on the retaining walls above the cooler wash. Venus is setting. We're in for a long dark night. You're alone with your thoughts. But, please, not those thoughts. Move. Do.

Ever notice how you reflexively turn on the light switch in a dark room even when there's no power? And how, when there is no light, there are fewer choices? We'd eat less if it were always dark at night. Hey — a way to address American obesity. Turn the power off.

Forty-five years ago, on Nov. 9, 1965, a power line failure in Canada resulted in a cascade of darkness that blacked out 80,000 square miles in the Eastern U.S. and Canada, leaving 30 million people in the dark. More babies were born nine months later — see above "alone" reference. What you remember, from childhood, was getting into the car with Dad, and turning on the AM radio, and learning that a whole bunch of people are without power. There was no immediate information about why. The Russkies? UFOs? Someone pressed the wrong button? Regardless, a power outage is a big deal. To the car, then, for a drive, and a spin around the AM dial.

Tucson Electric Power crews are working, trying to figure out what's wrong. Less reassuring is the radio. If you don't listen to AM — admit it, you don't – what you pick up is people talking about the Gulf oil spill, which might be more properly characterized as a "leak," or sports and political talk radio, blah blah, blah blah, blah blah. I just want to know why the power's out. And I don't get an answer.

It's late. Candles flicker behind your silhouette someplace so far above the wall. Ten minutes into bed, the AC starts, lights alight, electronic clocks begin flashing "12:00. 12:00. 12:00." Great word, twelve. Put it to rest. Restore order. Turn out the lights of your own free will.

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