The beauty of the blackout

When the power failed last month, we were walking the beach at the eastern tip of Long Island, watching waves crash and slide across the sand, blessedly disconnected from the usual routines and preoccupations of life. Our days there had been bracingly elemental, reduced to little more than sun, sand, water, and wind, our eyes grown accustomed to a simple spectrum of white, blue, and green. So we didn't realize that anything was amiss until we returned to our beach-side rooms and noticed a small crowd of hotel guests surrounding a portable radio perched on a picnic table. Most of the Northeast was without electricity, we quickly learned - eight states and two Canadian provinces. And no one knew the cause.

The deeply tanned faces of our neighbors expressed both bemusement and worry. A few looked vaguely shell-shocked, unprepared for this sudden jolt of reality after so many carefree days at the beach. Someone mentioned terrorism; another, nuclear meltdown. I simply thought: Of all the places to find oneself in the midst of a power failure, surely an airy room at the beach in the middle of August ranked as extraordinarily fortunate. While city residents coped with stalled elevators and subways, inoperative stoplights, gridlocked intersections, and swarms of bewildered pedestrians wondering how best to get home, we had only to consider our dinner plans.

A few quick-thinking guests jumped into their cars in search of flashlights, batteries, and food while others, realizing that hot water would soon be scarce, hurried to the shower. But most simply returned to the beach with a renewed sense of their good fortune. There, beyond the dunes, it began to feel like a time out of time, uncorseted by the usual restraints of energy-dependent routines.

The clocks had stopped, the lights were out, even the ubiquitous drone of air conditioners had ceased. Lacking refrigeration, most restaurants would have to close. The movie houses would be shuttered, along with other beach-side entertainments. We were released from even the petty tyranny of self-imposed amusements. Nature alone remained undisturbed by this sudden change, and we were perfectly positioned to enjoy it.

But my wife was finding it hard to do so, concerned about patients on life-support, people trapped in high-rises, all that spoiled food. She feared for national security, for planes in flight, and for our own home, suddenly vulnerable without electricity's vigilant eye. And the kids announced that they would feel less unsettled this lightless night in their own beds, no matter how hot it got.

I tried to convince them that a three-hour drive along unlit highways through towns without functioning stoplights or gas stations, across bridges without operational tolls, simply to return to a dark house certain to be less comfortable than our oceanside rooms made little sense. I left unspoken the hope that, lacking electricity, our family vacation might finally become the one I had envisioned, stripped bare of the usual distractions, no televisions or VCRs, cellphones or Walkmen, just the beach and the sea and each other.

And then the neighbors on either side returned with pizzas, hot dogs, and charcoal, and invited us to join them in an impromptu barbecue. All doors were thrown wide and a warm collegiality developed. Families gathered around candle-lit picnic tables beside the dunes, adding their perishables to the mix, each feeling like the Swiss Family Robinson, gamely confronting a primal world of unrelieved darkness with ingenuity and good humor.

As the light began to fade we shared tales of previous blackouts: the stifling July night my wife and I spent spritzing each other with a plant mister in an airless apartment 26 years earlier, and the more ominous outage in the mid-'60s, when, fearing Russian attack, we tuned in Walter Cronkite on a battery-powered TV. My father had chuckled over this corroboration of one of his favorite quips, "If it weren't for Edison, we'd all be watching TV by candlelight."

Though we had been at the beach almost a week, the kids had not ventured out beyond the dunes after dark, unwilling to leave the cool, incandescent comfort of our rooms for the sultry, unlit shore. But now the transition was effortless, our eyes already adjusted to the dark, the narrow dune path easy to negotiate by starlight. We were greeted by a beach bristling with sparks. Small bonfires burned up and down the coast, surrounded by families roasting hot dogs and marshmallows in the yellow, wind-tossed flames.

Overhead the constellations sparkled with rare clarity amid a backdrop of stars normally invisible in the ambient light of the suburbs. A single shooting star streaked across the heavens, Scorpius curled against the usually indistinct contours of the Milky Way, Mars glowed a warm orange, and then the rust-red moon rose out of the ocean and began to command the night sky, casting pale silver shadows across the sand.

I felt renewed astonishment at the mysterious depths of the night sky. When one can command light at the flip of a switch, what difference does a sunrise make? But when the only light comes from the heavens, the advent of an evening moon or the sun at dawn is cause for celebration, its effect immediate and profound.

I watched this celestial show with my back to the dunes until a sudden flicker of light caused me to turn. A faint white aura hung above the black silhouette of the heaped-up sand. The lights had returned. As I crossed over the dunes, the roar of the waves was replaced by the cicada-like drone of air conditioners. I felt faintly mournful at the loss of the boundless dark fraternity of the heavens. Already the twinkling canopy and moon-cast shadows had dimmed, obscured by the high-intensity glare of security lights.

The kids headed straight for the television, tuning in startling images of darkened skyscrapers silhouetted by canyoned streams of headlights. Within minutes they were back on their cellphones, talking to friends at home still without power.

"Good thing we didn't try to make the drive," they conceded, lounging in the frigid wash of the air conditioner. I was beginning to feel just the opposite: At home we would have been gifted with a few more lightless hours in the silent company of the stars.

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