Read Old Man Scanlon


11 September 2011

It's the unofficial end of summer again, the week before Labor Day, the cusp of August and September. Even with herculean effort I can't summon the cranky and morbid mood this transition often brings me. I take note of old friends, the yearly cyclical classics. The sun sets an hour and a half earlier than at high summer; it's lower in the sky, and shadows are long. Asters bloom at the edge of woods. Yellowjackets aggressively zig-zag in to forage for possible sugars on our plates as we dine on the porch—we oblige them by eating native tomatoes and peaches three meals a day. Katydids have been stridulating briskly since the sweet pepper bushes bloomed at the end of July, trying to get lucky. An unexpectedly cool night congeals their calls into strained slow motion. Tangy whiffs of sun-dried grasses catch my nostrils; they near completion of their season and wither. As do we all.

This year the time preceding Labor Day was idyllic, and not just because it was September's first golden, backlit week. We started with a hurricane, finished with the traditional Saturday supper with the grandchildren, and sandwiched between them, we watched the Red Sox defeat the hated Yankees, live, at Fenway Park (but that's another story).

Incessant shrill media coverage warned us about a major storm and predicted dire effects. We live in New England, for God's sake. We know the drill. Empty every store of bread and milk. Get gas. Make sure you've got flashlights and candles. Stockpile some water. Batten down anything that might fly away in the wind. Brag about how long you've had no power. We've done it before. This time, the harangues were all the more annoying because they turned out to be right.

Hurricane Irene arced up the Atlantic coast from the Carolinas to points north, coming hard inland at New York City, continuing as a tropical storm through the Berkshires into Vermont. We were on its eastern side, spared the freshets that plagued Vermont and elsewhere, but losing power almost immediately.

Knowing the media propensity for hawking disaster, and remembering their past record on snowstorms, we'd rolled the dice on losing power for maybe a day and lost. We were without power for five days, as were most people in our town. We have no municipal water; about ten thousand people here rely on electric pumps for their wells. There's nothing like five days without running water to sharpen one's appreciation of the flush toilet. What we lacked in water supply we made up for with smug moral superiority derived from exercising our pioneering skills, virtually camping out in our own houses.

The storm plowed through in about twelve hours, followed by a week of shockingly perfect weather. As usual, the extraordinary event elicited good and bad behavior. Our day's supply of stockpiled water ran out, and for refills and the occasional shower we relied on the kindness of friends and relatives in nearby towns who had power and running water. Neighbor John cut up the large oak branch which had downed our utility connections, freeing them to be repaired, and slightly augmenting his next year's firewood. I've seen grace under stress often enough that I've come to be unsurprised by random acts of kindness—even the courtesy at dark traffic lights from normally maniacal Massachusetts drivers.

On the other hand, letters to the editor of the local paper whinging about having no electricity reflected the umbrage of soft, fat, citified generations disconnected from nature and accustomed to instant gratification. You could feel the insulted outrage of a thwarted sense of entitlement—as if restoring power to a million people and dismantling a thousand downed trees could and damn well ought to be done in one shift. As if it were an abject failure, accomplishing all of that in a week. That attitude had its political counterpart—the proposed legislation from a grandstanding state representative mandating that electric utilities pay a penalty to customers for every day they have no power.

It was hardly a matter of survival—survive is what you do in Katrina or Haiti or a tsunami, when the physical damage is so great there's nothing left to support the social fabric. But for some, like those with children, no electricity might well be a gargantuan pain, perhaps excusing a little petulance—if only petulance didn't seem like a hallmark of current popular culture. I had to read by daylight in my lawn chair in the driveway. Such deprivation. No flushing, no Facebook, no Twitter. For us the disruption was mere inconvenience, a chance to reprise our great-great-great grandparents' lives, but with automobiles and minus their grinding labors on the farm or in the factory.

By the weekend we've had power for a couple days. I'm shaved and showered, and I've flushed the toilet several times just for the hell of it, because I can. Having received the weekly invitation from my son-in-law, I drive to Jeff's house, downed and mangled trees still visible on the way. Recent milestones in the kids' lives preoccupy me. My grandson is taller than his mother. One of my granddaughters has grown to fit a 26-inch bike; her twin's not far behind. Validating the stereotype, my three teen and near-teen grandchildren have astonishing appetites—but not always. I'm thinking of these events as one-shot occurrences. Yet they're really cyclical, their period much longer than a year—a generation.

We gravitate to the kitchen. While I'm standing around rehashing the tired old "how soon they grow up," being of no help whatsoever in the supper preparations, Jeff marinates pork for the grill and the girls chop salad. Going for the big fish, Hunter hoists her skinny butt up onto the counter and casts out a query, deadpan, all innocence. "Dad, do you smell updog?" A brief pause. She twitches the lure. "It smells like updog in here."

Dad bites. "What's up, dawg?"

Got him. "Oh, nothing!" Wide-eyed Hunter levitates an inch over the countertop. She can't believe she's reeling in her father, the master jokester; whether Dad actually fell for it in an unguarded moment doesn't matter. She flashes a grin of sheer delight in her skill at pulling her generation's version of the hoary "henweigh" gag. Her head recoils slightly as her exuberant laugh bursts out and ricochets around the kitchen, infecting everyone. I can usually gaze at my grandchildren for at least a few seconds before I smile, but their laughs—no artifice, joie de vivre incarnate—instantly flood and restore my heart. I accept no doubt about the power of human laughter against all manner of adversity.