Wrapping Christmas presents in the dark

Ah, electricity. Invisible and unappreciated until it’s gone.

               
Like most of the west coast, we here in South Beach, Oregon got hammered last week by back-to-back storms. Rain came down in sheets while wind did its best to rattle everything loose. On Thursday, everyone was talking about the big storm that was coming. When I woke up to blue skies, I rushed out to finish my Christmas shopping and maybe take myself out to lunch before the storm hit. While I was in the checkout line at Fred Meyer’s in Newport, I saw people coming in huddled in wet coats and knew the storm was starting. Folks were talking about getting over the Yaquina Bridge before it was closed. Forget lunch. Time to get home.
               
Rain spattered the windshield harder and harder as I drove south. Wind gently nudged the car as I crossed the bridge. But it wasn’t bad. I still had power to warm up my leftover pizza, to read by while I ate it, and to finish my work at the computer.
               
The lights flickered. I closed my files, but Facebook grabbed my attention until suddenly, silently, the computer screen went dark. Oh. It was 2:12 p.m. Twilight outside, twilight inside. All the little green and red lights on my various equipment were out. The pellet stove, which runs by electricity, had stopped. The only sound was the rain on the skylights and wind thrashing the trees.
                
Okay. I had a plan. Power failures are not unusual around here. I have flashlights in every room, a large supply of candles, and two electric lanterns. I have wood for the wood stove in the den. I have cold food to eat, plenty to drink. One never knows how long the power will stay out around here. Once it lasted two days. An area farther south stayed dark for almost a week.
               
Since I couldn’t work at the computer, this was my opportunity to wrap my Christmas presents. So I did, with loud music playing from the battery-operated radio I keep handy for storms. The sound is tinny, but it’s company.
            
I wrapped and wrapped until it got so dark I couldn’t tell blue ribbons from green.  Now it was lighter outside than in. The rain had stopped and the wind had slowed, so I took Annie out for a short walk. Soon we heard the chatter of a radio from an emergency vehicle and came upon the source of the power failure. A giant tree on the next block had fallen into the power lines. Rain-suited crews from the electric company had cut up the tree and were now restringing the wires from the highway to the street that connects with mine. Big trucks. Bright lights. Noise. “Thank you for what you’re doing!” I called.
               
 “No problem,” a guy hollered back.
             
Satisfied that eventually the lights would come back on, we turned back home, running into our neighbor and her children coming to see what was going on. We’re all nosy.
             
I had thought I would work on my Christmas cards, but darkness in the woods is truly dark, not like back in suburbia where night is only slightly different from day. Instead, I talked to a friend on my cell phone, then settled in front of the wood stove to build a fire. Big logs, little logs, kindling, building from a spark to an orange finger of flame to a roaring fire.
              
I sat back and watched the fire, all other duties canceled due to darkness. I thought about the days before electric lights. Even with candles and lanterns, the light is limited and full of shadows. You cannot see to do anything intricate. If you spill or drop something, it’s difficult to see where it went. It’s hard to stay clean. And surely you go to bed much earlier because it’s so dark.
              
Electric lights have changed the way we live our lives. Natural light has become irrelevant. Many people work round the clock under artificial light. If we need more light, we just plug it on and turn it on.We forget how easily that light could disappear.
              
It’s not just light I was missing. I would not be able to heat my food. The food in the refrigerator would spoil if the power stayed out. My cell phone would lose its charge, the house would cool down, and I would not be able to watch my TV shows. But I could adapt.
              
Luckily, I didn’t have to. At 6:00, just as I was about to make a ham sandwich for dinner, the lights came on. “Yay! Thank you!” I shouted as I hurriedly threw a fish in the frying pan and a potato in the microwave before the electricity changed its mind.
                
Despite predictions of 90 mph gusts, it turned out to be a pretty average winter storm here. We just had a few trees and branches down. In Newport, the big sign outside Bank of America blew down. In Portland, a tree fell on a car, killing the people inside. California had flooding and mudslides. But here in South Beach, we just had a little electricity-appreciation lesson.
              
Lights. I like ‘em.
How is your weather? Any storm damage? Please share your stories in the comments.
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Lozenge on my teeth

As I crawl into bed, the wind huffs and puffs against the walls and windows. Outside, the trees bend and dip. Patio furniture scatters like Lego toys. Pine needles turn the street orange. When I turned the TV off, the news was all about snow in Portland. Again. Here on the coast, we have had precipitation in the form of snow, hail, and rain. It has come down in puffs, rocks, needles, sheets, drizzles and gully-washers. The extended forecast? More of the same. It’s enough to make a born-again Oregonian scream, “I want to go home!” I want to make like the Canada Geese and fly south in the fall. But of course, no one can afford to buy a house these days, especially in the Bay Area. So we put on our slickers and waffle-stompers and go on.

***
One of my jobs is assistant director of the contemporary choir at Sacred Heart Church, over the bridge in Newport. It’s a wonderful brick edifice opened the year I was born, very old-fashioned inside with creaky blond-wood pews, lots of statues and a giant dying Jesus on the cross up front, much like the church I grew up in before it got modernized. The choir sits in chairs on a plywood platform to the right of the altar.

Our director’s husband had open heart surgery last month. I was in charge the whole month of December. However, she was coming back yesterday and wanted to pick out the music, as well as play the piano. Fine. I needed a break. However, she didn’t actually pick out the music until late Saturday night and she was going to be very late on Sunday. She e-mailed the list of songs to the choir, but I was the only one who was online at that point. I had hoped to get to church early and organize the music, but somehow when my alarm rang, I shut it off and went back to sleep, waking up an hour later. It was a miracle that I managed to shower, eat breakfast, dress and be in the car at 9:15.

When I arrived, the choir was in a dither. Although she didn’t have the list of songs, another choir member had already started trying to do the music. There were papers everywhere, and nobody knew what was going on. I was singing the psalm and had not practiced it. Meanwhile there were microphones and music stands to set up. We were still figuring things out as we tumbled out of the chapel into the sanctuary. Father Brian stopped us early in verse two of “We Three Kings”. I thought he had paused to welcome our director back. But no, the number on the board was wrong. He asked us to start the song over from the top so the congregation could sing along. Lord, Lord.

When I went up to the lectern for my solo, I was still sucking a throat lozenge, trying to chase off the gunk in my throat. I had to either get rid of it or sing with this chunk of yellow stuff in my mouth. So there I stood on the altar, biting down, feeling as if the crunching sound was so loud the reader could surely hear it. In fact, it might be going out over the microphone across the whole church. Crunch. Crunch. Swallow. I had pieces of lozenge stuck to my teeth. Picture me clutching my choir book, gazing the over the lector’s shoulder at the sacred words, and trying like crazy to push the sticky lozenge remainders off my teeth with my tongue. There’s a period right after sucking a lozenge when your throat is still adapting to it not being there, and that’s when I took my place at the microphone, nodding at Mary Lee to play the introduction. I had no idea what would come out.

It could have been worse. We got through Mass and even received some applause. After Mass, for the first time since I woke up and saw what time it was, I could finally breathe. I thought my voice had sounded a little raspy, plus this was the psalm with all the place names, like Tarshish and Sheba, but a couple I met during coffee and donuts after Mass gushed over my beautiful voice. “What a gift,” the woman said.

Naturally I decided to ditch everything to become a world-famous singer. Again. But at this point in life, I’ll settle for famous in Newport. That and a maple bar washed down with Ruby Mist tea.

Rain? What rain? Ah, the artist’s ego.