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TODAY

Saturday, December 14

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Airbags

Two days before Christmas we were one of the 58,000 families who lost power. High winds, blowing snow and freezing temps were the undoing of some key power line that knocked out a string of houses across the west side. I had just gotten home from doing the holiday grocery shopping, with a larger number of groceries that usual when there was a sudden clunking sound (why clunking?) and everything went out. Dishwasher, computers, refrigerator, stereo, heat, lights. We live in an old house, thankfully with a recently updated and thoroughly checked electrical system, but it's not unknown for a circuit to pop and knock out everything in the kitchen. That clunk told me that it was bigger than just our house. It wasn't until my husband and I realized that no electricity meant no coffee grinder that the reality of the situation rested its full weight on our heads.

It was early enough in the day that we didn't need to light any candles yet. The giant to-do list that we were slowly working our way through came to a grinding halt as we switched over to preparations for a night of darkness. In addition to a lack of appliances, the two items that I was relying upon to allow me to work unhindered — the DVD player and the Game Cube — were both rendered useless. The boys like their parents were having a bit of a hard time wrapping their heads around the concept of no power. They couldn't play Nintendo, well, they would just play on the computer. No they would have to play with toys. With toys? With toys. Could they go outside? Well, no, it was about 5 degrees outside with whipping winds, and one of the boys was on crutches. Legos. Cars. Superheros. Books. Remember all of those things?

My daughter had thought to charge all of her many devices the night before, so she was able to stay wrapped in her electronic cocoon, snug in her bed, drawing and listening to a book on her ipod. The boys were fascinated by the idea of there being no power, and had question after question to ask. I had a list of questions as well, most of them for the power company, but had thrown away the phone book several months ago when I realized that it was taking up space in the cupboard that could be better used storing my ever growing collection of vintage table linens. I've been paying my bills online for some time, and while I probably have some old People's Gas bill laying around somewhere, I couldn't find it in the gathering gloom settling over my desk. I called a friend on my cell phone, which hadn't been charged in days, and wasn't going to last long. He searched on line for me and found a number. I called it and got a recording that said that the offices were closed, but there was staff available if you were experiencing a power outage or downed line, otherwise you'd have to call back during regular business hours. Click. So there was staff, but no way to get to them.

I called 311, and was connected to People's Gas, where I reported the outage and listened to a recording about the high winds, freezing temperatures and power outages. The winds were expected to continue through the night, and there was no time available for a repair estimate. We were looking at possibly being without power for the night, so we needed to make hay while the sun shone, as it were. I located all of the candles and flashlights, We got out the Coleman lantern, and packed a bag of clothes and toiletries in case we needed to camp on someone else's floor. It started getting darker, and the dog became increasingly agitated as there were no reassuring lights being switched on, nothing cooking, no music playing. My husband put batteries into the kitchen radio and we tuned into the Christmas music station and lit the candles. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Despite adult worries about frozen pipes and dead parakeets, we were all sort of excited about this change of routine. We closed off all unnecessary parts of the house, and covered the birds with two layers of flannel. My daughter and I gathered all of the bedding from upstairs, and found the camping pads. We were going to sleep all together in the living room — not too dissimilar to how we generally wake up in the morning, with anywhere from one to three children having joined us at some point in the night, but rarely do we start the night out sleeping all together. It was starting to get chilly in the house, and I knew that by morning it would not be just chilly, it would be downright cold. Downright cold with no coffee grinder would be a rough morning indeed.

It's strange to realize just how dependent we are on electricity. I can't even look up a phone number in a book anymore, so reliant have I become on the computer for all information. Not only that, but we have in many ways become reliant upon electricity for playing. My kids love to play on the Game Cube, and on the computer. My daughter spends hours drawing, and for Christmas was given a Wacom tablet, which will allow her to draw directly onto the computer, and software that will allow her to put her drawings into Manga style cartoons. It's going to be a great tool for her, unless of course there is no power. The boys were given all manner of toys for Christmas, including a chemistry set, scooters, a pile of books, Zoobs, lego, action figures and a bunch of new games for DS, GameCube and Wii. They have played with all of it in the last few days, skipping around from one thing to the next — but much of their post-Christmas play has been powered by electricity, and happily so.

That afternoon, when I had so many pre-Christmas preparations on my list of things to do, I realized how much time is freed up because of the conveniences I take for granted. I needed to clean the kitchen before it got dark, which meant washing a giant pile of dishes by hand, doing a thorough sweep instead of vacuuming, stashing the piles of laundry instead of washing them. I couldn't do my banking, or pay my bills, or charge my iPod. Worst of all, I couldn't play my hand in the online Scrabble game that I play daily with my girlfriend in West Virginia. She lives in a log cabin that she built herself, exclusively with wood heat, a stove from 1920, a spring that runs dry, and a pump that gives out. Hauling wood and water are a way of life for her, but impossible to imagine for me. I am dependent on the city, we live completely on the grid, sometimes that existence seems really precarious.

I have always considered myself to be fairly self-reliant, feeling that if push came to shove, I could figure out how to make a go of it without the modern conveniences. I'm a good fire builder, I know how to cook over a fire. I'm pretty sure I could walk for days, carrying my kids if I had to. I am first aid trained, and have a fair amount of information stored up about herbs and home remedies. I could probably kill a chicken, having heard stories for most of my life about my grandma killing chickens. I've read so many books in which women easily kill chickens — scald, pluck, butcher, dredge in flour and fry up in time for a big noon meal that I feel fairly certain that I could manage that. But where would I find a chicken to kill? I don't have any chickens. Just the frozen organic breasts of chicken that I gather from the Costco.

Taking this all right on down to the bottom, where I don't normally allow myself to go, if society failed, would I be concerned about chicken? Yes, if we use the term "chicken" to cover the broader idea of "food for my kids to eat." I grew up reading about pioneer women, and we read plenty (not including the daily news) about women in worse circumstances, women who were taken out of their comfortable existences and shipped off to Siberia, or the Killing Fields, or Bergen Belsen. They had to care for their children, feed them, keep them warm, keep them from losing hope. I'm fairly certain that perceptions of what one is capable of change very quickly when the health and well being of one's children comes into play.

Back in '01, when it seemed that just about anything could happen, I made a plan with my family, that if anything happened to Chicago, that we would somehow get to Iowa. For a while I made a point of keeping the van filled with gas, made sure the camping gear was organized and stocked. Like everyone, I had a running mental list of what exactly I would need to take, and what we would do. A friend of mine and I had serious conversations about what we would take if we had to get out with our children and cars weren't an option. Our bikes. Winter coats. Sleeping bags. A tarp. A Leatherman tool. Rope.

That has all seemed to fade away over the last seven years; we've just stopped worrying so much. I hope none of us ever have to access that list and put it into action, but it's happened before to women just as unsuspecting and dependent as we all are, and very recently as well, so it's certainly not out of the question. I'm not prepared to build a bunker in my basement and stock it with canned food. I don't have a supply of duct tape and tarps laying around like we were all supposed to. I don't even really have a decent working flashlight, truth be told. I've got my pocket-sized Maglite and a cool LED necklace light, but that's about it.

What would we do with the animals? I don't know about you, but in the post Katrina aftermath, some of the hardest stories to read about or see were the stories of abandoned animals, and people devastated by loss searching for their pets. I can't imagine fleeing with three kids, an 85lb. dog, a spoiled cat, a bird cage and a fish tank. I suppose that's part of the perspective change that would happen, if push came to shove. Bye-bye beloved pets, and good luck to you, I would say as I released the birds and dropped the fish into the Riis Park Pond. The cat would grow wild and thrive, only one generation from the street, I'm certain he would survive. The dog would come with us, she'd never make it on her own, given her love of carrying around stuffed animals and eating plastic. All of the wild was bred out of the Golden Retriever line long ago, even ones that came from animal control. She's another child I'd strap to my back and carry.

I don't want to go back to feeling as worried as I did during the earliest years of this century, but a few hours without light, heat and music certainly set those gears turning. I realized how quickly all of those thoughts can resurface. I suppose that's a good thing. If anything, I've been thinking about what skills kids really need to possess. Creative thinking, flexibility, basic first aid and survival skills. Ability to recognize edible and medicinal plants. How to read a map. Ability to bike and walk. That seems like a silly thing to say, but a lot of kids really don't walk all that much. This is the kind of list, and the kind of thinking, that could rapidly devolve into paranoia and fear-based obsessing, which is not how I want to start the new year, or spend any of the rest of it. There is a difference between living worrying that the worst is going to happen and living thinking that if the worst happened you'd rise to the occasion.

We were running out of daylight, cuddled together in the living room, drinking tea and listening to Christmas carols on the radio. I put a mirror on the top of the piano to reflect the light of the candles. Just that morning I'd bought three new Virgin de Guadalupe prayer candles at the Jewel, and they flickered on top of the bookcase, casting a glow on our nativity set, the same one that I had had as a kid, with dried moss on the roof of the manger, Jesus, Mary and Joseph tucked inside. We aren't religious; I don't believe that Jesus is the reason for the season, though I like him, and his mother. I think something else that predates Jesus is actually the reason for the season, the planets, the stars and the Sun and people who needed a reason to come together and be happy in dark times.

The lights came back on, moments after old friends from out of town arrived. We were back in the zone, all systems go. The reassuring sound of the furnace clicking on sent all thoughts of frozen pipes and a basement filled with ice from my head. We blew out the candles, and uncovered the parakeets, who immediately began chattering, awakened from their early winter's nap. We carried the bedding back upstairs, and plugged in the Christmas lights, donned our gay apparel and headed out into the city to get some pizza, cooked in a wood oven. If push came to shove, there could still be pizza.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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