By John Rolfe
The flickering bulb in my skull recently came on with a realization: Life during a pandemic is a lot like living in a power outage. You keep doing things out of habit only to realize — oh, right — most stuff isn’t working.
For instance, during a blackout, while you’re grabbing flashlights, lighting candles, and cursing the darkness, you’ll still flip a light switch and say, “oh, right” when it doesn’t come on. Or you’ll turn on the TV or boot up the laptop. Oh, right, the wi-fi is out. Or you’ll try to bathe. Oh, right, the hot water’s out. Or rustle up some vittles …
During my time on this whirlin’ blue orb, I’ve blundered through some lovely power outages like the famous one that paralyzed New York from July 13 to 14, 1977. It struck while I was taking a shower, making it a royal challenge to light a candle so I could see my way out of the pitch-black tub.
I’m very grateful that I’ve never had to deal with the prolonged aftermath of a hurricane or tornado. The longest power outage I’ve ever endured lasted several days. Caused by a blizzard and ice storm, it brought frugality, austerity and restlessness to Ye Olde Rolfe Ancestral Home.
With stores closed or ravaged by frantic shoppers seeking supplies (snowstorm survival is apparently impossible without milk and bread), we kept a close eye on our stock. We tried not to keep the fridge or freezer door open more than a few moments while choosing leftovers lest they eventually try to exit under their own power.
With water dwindling and our well pump unable to replenish the supply, unthinkingly flushing the toilet was cause for a Homer Simpson “D’oh!” moment. Fortunately, our pond is a source of buckets of H2O for flushing and a place to bathe if the clouds of flies grow too dense, though the neighbors will likely be alarmed.
After roughing it overnight, we resorted to our trusty generator, though it powers only the water pump, furnace, and some lights and outlets, but not the stove, wi-fi, washer or dryer. Think of it as living in a partial re-opening of a city or state with some stores, services and activities available — a half-loaf of life with a semblance of normalcy.
With no place to go and card games and puppet shows losing their power to entertain, an anxious brain on autopilot becomes the enemy. We had to be mindful of how long we ran the generator because it uses gasoline. With roads hazardous and local stations possibly powerless, getting more is a tad problematic. It's kind of like what can happen if you get lax with COVID-19 precautions. You’ll find yourself back in full lockdown.
Like the blizzard blackout, the COVID-19 lockdown in New York came on suddenly though with some warning. Blessedly, the power has remained on, so being confined to the house has been pleasant (though I’m sick of losing at card games), but three months in we’re still dealing with store limits on foodstuffs such as that staple of existence, ramen noodles. I’m still setting out for places and discovering I’ve forgotten my mask. Or catching myself acting on the impulse to visit my local library, which has not yet been re-opened. Or suggesting we go somewhere on a jaunt only to have my wife remind me it is not the safest notion. Oh, yeah, indeed.
Of course, the big, nagging, eternal question at times like this is when the problem will finally be fixed. If you reside in a rural area like I do, it can take a lot longer to have your power restored than if you dwell in a town or city, though we have enjoyed the special aggravation of seeing the electricity come on across the street while our shack remained dark for another day. With the pandemic, rural areas will probably be fully open before urban viral hotspots, but we shall see.
No matter how long a pandemic or blackout lasts, one thing is certain: You never get fully used to living in them.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.