A Thin Veil……

At the back of the house, squirrels have spent the last month repairing their nests high in the treetops, ready for the long winter. It’s part of their routine of life.

Just as for the squirrels, life for most of us progresses normally and relatively smoothly, until some catastrophic event throws our perspectives into disarray. It may be a very personal event such as the death of someone we love, or maybe a divorce. Occasionally, we are upended into a maelstrom of cataclysmic proportions – a flood; the hurricane that hit New Orleans last year, or the devastating tsunami that shattered the lives of millions in and around the Pacific Basin.

On each and every occasion, we are swept from our complacency by events over which we have little or no control. How we react in such circumstances varies from person to person, but the common denominator is a stark realization that our civilization is a veneer, a veil to be rent apart at any moment, exposing us to powerful demons who would whisk us to oblivion in an instant.

The ice storm that hit Illinois on the last night of November 2006 would not stand comparison with previously mentioned catastrophes, but was nonetheless one of those occasions when, for many, life and death hung in the balance. The rapid build up of ice on tree branches throughout the State caused numerous limbs to crack and fall. Lying in bed, listening to the explosions of snapping branches from the many mature trees surrounding our property, it was impossible not to wonder would the next one come hurtling through the roof and flatten us where we lay.

The power went out at exactly 10.38 pm.

Now it was pitch dark; silent, but for the gunshot-cracks that marked another great limb crashing earthwards. It proved a long, sleepless, night.

By 3am, incipient arctic tentacles encroached beneath the meager blankets normally adequate in our steady-state, thermostatically-controlled, environment. Outside, frigid air entombed roof and walls, impatient to be let in. The furnace, our stalwart knight against the elements, sat impotent and lifeless on the garage floor. Another gunshot; the rustle and clatter of timber falling in a hail of ice-shards to the frozen earth beneath. We piled blanket upon blanket, and waited for the dawn.

We, and the house, survived the night. Next day, we boiled water and made oatmeal on the single burner camping stove purchased from Wal-Mart for just such an emergency. I braved the ice and snow to fetch a wheelbarrow full of logs from the woodshed, for the fireplace that would be our only source of heat until the power company restored the fallen cables. For two days we huddled, pitiful, close by the hearth; only leaving that radial arc of warmth to procure more logs, or brew more coffee, or finally to crawl into icy sheets beneath a heaving mountain of bedding burgled from guest room and closets.

Suddenly, more rapidly than it had begun, it was over. The lights flared into brilliance; the furnace groaned, whined, then whirred into life. Digital clocks that had disappeared from useless electronic boxes – once video, hi-fi, or microwave oven – magically sprang back to existence, flashing their urgent need for correction so they might serve us with accuracy once more.

Within ten minutes, the camping stove was returned to its garage shelf; redundant blankets re-covered the guest room bed; logs were allowed to burn low in the grate – it was, after all, getting too hot for a fire. Outside, the yard was a mess of fallen tree limbs and twisted branches, a reminder – if one cared to look out the window – of the drama that had passed so close; inside, could not be more normal. Civilization had returned with the flick of a power company switch.

Later, when TV dinner cartons had been consigned to the trashcan, and the microwave was again idle, save for the comforting green glow of its digital display, I sat back on our warm, comfortable, sofa and reflected on the fragility of that veil between normality and catastrophe. How all our lives hang suspended from those fragile threads called power cables. Unlike the squirrels, we cannot survive the ravages of an ice storm outside, in a nest of twigs high in the branches of an Illinois cottonwood. We are, all of us, totally dependent on the incoming power that molds and forms our artificial environment. Take it away, and the result is catastrophe.

A thin veil, so easily rent.

I walk to the window; remind myself of the devastation. Outside the squirrels are hard at work, rebuilding nests battered by the storm.

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Difficult To Live With?

Something tangible is missing. Something the mind is used to hearing; grown accustomed to register. The computers are down. The internet is dead. Those miniscule, squeaks and clicks and whirrs of hard-drives, email notifiers, and other electronic digitalia that we hear but seldom notice, are suddenly deafening by their absence.

The Illinois ice-storm not only devastated power lines throughout the State but knocked-out, more surely than any terrorist’s bomb, the cable networks supplying TV and broadband internet access. For those of us utilizing the latest web-based phone technology, the phone lines are effectively out as well. For many, such matters are of little importance. Most of the area still has no power, and temperatures are down in single figures.

Here at “Sparrow Chat” the lights are back on; the furnace is generating a toasty seventy-five degrees. Four days ago that was all we wished for. Stuff the internet; who needs TV anyway? Given the strange nature of Homo sapiens, however, we consider it natural once the necessities of heat, light, and food are satisfied, to demand the less life-threatening, but to our singular brains, equally essential items we are used to. Access to the internet, and TV news – however much we may criticize it when we have it – becomes vital to our normal functioning. Without it we are prone to stalk the house, mutter unintelligibles and snap belligerently at any suggestion this might be a good time to catch up on neglected reading matter, fix the squeaky doorknob in the bathroom, or – heaven forbid! – go do the Christmas shopping. Being reminded that less than a hundred years ago such electronic gadgetry never existed, and having a good time meant gathering round the piano in the parlor to sing hearty ballads and rousing Christian hymns, is not conducive to cooling tempers after the umpteenth cell phone call to the cable company elicits only more vague promises, and “as soon as possible” seems a suitable synonym for “eternity”. My response that a) we don’t have a parlor; b) we have no piano, and c) the last time I picked up my guitar you likened my singing to the night our next-door neighbor’s cat got its tail caught in a rat-trap, only produces the rejoinder, “You’ve become very difficult to live with, recently.”

Difficult to live with? Me? Where’s that darned cell phone? I’m going to ring the cable company again. Damn me, it’s dead! When was the last time YOU charged this thing?

Difficult to live with, indeed! Blah!

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Shoddy; Decidely Shoddy…….

Have you ever wondered why, wherever you travel in America, it looks like an enormous spider has weaved its way across the landscape before you? Cables, cables, cables. Everywhere you look there are cables. Power cables, TV cables, cables for this, cables for that……..America is a land obsessed with cables. And what happens everytime a decent size storm comes along? They all fall down in a hideous, tangled heap, and society crumples as the power goes out and communications equipment gives up the ghost.

America thinks it is obsessed with terrorists. Forget the terrorists. The weather wreaks more havoc on this continent than a whole army of terrorists. America lurches from one weather crisis to the next, and after each catastrophe spends a fortune patching up the damage until the next time.

And that’s the crux of the problem. America does nothing properly. Almost everything about this nation is shoddy. There’s only one thing America does well; marketing its own image to its citizens. Tell John Doe his country is shoddy and far behind much of the rest of the world, and he’ll probably punch you in the mouth. He certainly won’t believe it. That’s understandable. Eighty percent of Americans don’t hold a passport, which means they’ve never been out of the country. They’ve never seen for themselves how much better other nations are at organizing simple matters like power distribution.

The storm that hit Illinois on November 30th will be remembered around here for a very long time. In fact, it wasn’t a storm at all. It just rained for a day, before the temperature suddenly dropped drastically below freezing. The rain froze as it hit the trees, and with the assistance of a strong breeze, caused branches to break away under the weight of ice, carrying away the web of cables beneath them. The result was chaos.

Had the cables been in the proper place – underground – the impact of this “storm” would have been negligible. So why, then, are America’s cables suspended from poles susceptible to severe atmospheric conditions? The answer is as simple as one word: money.

It’s expensive to dig trenches and sink plastic ducting to carry powerlines. Cabling and poles are cheap. Replacing them, while a lengthy process following major outages, and extremely inconvenient – not to say, deadly – to the customer, is not a particularly expensive process. Hence, profits remain high; investors are kept happy; only the customer is inconvenienced.

There lies the crux of the matter. American utility companies don’t give a toss about their customers because in most areas, certainly Illinois, they hold a monopoly. The cost of maintaining infrastructure can be kept to a minimum, prices inflated to a ridiculous degree, and when major storm damage occurs the only loser is the customer.

Of course, they will still spend money telling you how much they care about you, and how you really matter to them.

Are you stupid enough to believe it?

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