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Friday, November 4, 2011

"Acts of God"--On the Virtues of Living Without Electric Power after the late-October Snowstorm--For Up To A Week in Connecticut but Every Night of the Year in North Korea

After Hurrican Irene left the East Coast powerless for a few days, I wrote about the benefits of living without electric power.  Here's a link to that blog post--

I won't repeat those observations except to say I'm happy about the power outage following the recent snowstorm.  I've learned a few new things.

Americans are a very privileged lot.  We take our easy way of life for granted.  When an Act of God (as we lawyers classify a Fall snowstorm) turns out the lights for a few days, we bitch and moan, complain about the injustice of it all, and demand investigations of the power company and its executives for allowing our electric power to go off briefly.  

Don't get me wrong.  I don't like utility companies any more than the next guy.  The chief executive is a spoiled brat who gets paid too much money for doing too little to keep the power grid in service when Mother Nature interrupts the energy transmission system.  It seems he made decisions to cut back on staff lines-people employees when the sun was shining, the winds not blowing, and the snow not falling, in part, I surmise, to improve the utility's bottom line and increase the salary and benefits he takes from the company.

But think of it.  North Koreans live every day of their lives without sufficient electricity and a very severe lack of food.  This is all detailed in Barbara  Demick's book "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea." A Publisher's Weekly review notes that Demick points out that:

        "....ordinary life in North Korea by the 1990s became a parade of horrors, where famine killed millions, manufacturing and trade virtually ceased, salaries went unpaid, medical care failed, and people became accustomed to stepping over dead bodies lying in the streets. Her terrifying depiction of North Korea from the night sky, where the entire area is blacked out from failure of the electrical grid, contrasts vividly with the propaganda on the ground below urging the country's worker-citizens to believe that they are the envy of the world."

A reviewer in the Kirkus Review notes that "[Demick] paints a stark, vivid picture of reality in an industrial city with no electricity and almost no industry, where workers no longer get paid, men are conscripted into military service for ten years, gras, bark and corn husks are considered fod, and death by starvation is all too common."

Americans tend not to pay attention to what's happening in the rest of the world.  If they did, they would probably gain a healthier perspective on their own existential condition which is, frankly, pampered, plush, and privileged.  We ordinary, middle-class Americans live lives which would probably be the envy of the kings and queens of history, the ones who lived in cold, damp, and drafty stone castles, with poor health care and poor nutrition.  

It is now day 6 that Susie and I have been without electric power in our house.  The temperature in the house is in the 40's during the day and lower during the night.  We have no hot water.  Susie's been taking showers at the YMCA, while I go to Middletown High School, where the city has set up a shelter in the high school gymnasium, with cots for people to sleep on.  I've taken showers the past few days in the boys' shower room.  

As I walked through the gymnasium the other day, there were hundreds of people lying on cots, mostly old people, taking advantage of the warmth from the heat supplied by generators at the school.  I stopped on my way out to talk with a few of them and some Wesleyan students who were volunteering to help keep people comfortable in the shelter.

On Sunday night, the first full day without electricity, there was no electric power throughout the entire city of Middletown.  No traffic lights, no street lights, no stores open.  I drove up to Cromwell, to the commercial strip on Route 372, to find a fast food place to get coffee.  On the way there, driving through the darkened Middletown streets, drivers weren't being considerate of each other.  At four-way intersections, rather than taking turns as if it were a four-way stop, people were barging through the intersection.  Drivers were laying on their car horns in irritation, frustration, and anger.

This reminded me of scenes from Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road," about a post-nuclear apocalyptic society.  Lawless, rootless, amoral, survival of the fittest mentality.  At the Cromwell Mcdonalds it was an hour wait to get a cup of coffee.  They'd run out of cream by the time I got there.  I wanted to check my email and Bobs blog on Susie's laptop but they have no wall plugs at that old Mcdonalds, so I went first to a Wendy's next door, also without plugs, and finally landed at the Route 372 Dunkin' Donuts where there were plugs, but nobody had brought power strips, so plug space was extremely limited.

At one point a woman entered the store and demanded that I remove my plug, which was re-charging my cell-phone, so she could plug in her laptop.  I told her I'd waited an hour to get the plug and needed at least one phone for my wife and me to maintain contact with the outside world.  I told her Susie broke her neck in July and I wanted to be able to call for emergency help if necessary.  The woman yelled at me, "You're an asshole."  Stunned, I just told her I thought she could wait a while to check her email.  She walked away, muttering something inaudible.

As the days passed, I was able to move to a more modern Dunkin Donuts on Route 3 in Cromwell, where I met some wonderful people I never would have met had the electricity not gone out from the snowstorm.  And finally, by Wednesday I was able to move back to a modern Dunkin Donuts in Middletown, near our house, where I met some more interesting people.

Susie says she's learned from the newspaper that we may get our power back sometime tomorrow, Saturday, a week following the fateful snowstorm event, the Act of God.  I will be more comfortable when the power returns, but not necessarily happier.  I'm writing this blog post from the Route 66 Mcdonalds in Middletown, where I've been buying my coffee ever since Hurricane Irene, the next most recent Act of God, shut off the power.  And I've made some wonderful friends on the staff and among the customers here.  I don't plan to go back to making  my own coffee, probably ever again, in my own little island home.  

I don't like a lot of the tortured verbiage which lawyers have devised over the centuries to describe and try to control human events and legal relationships.  But one expression I do love: Act of God.

Hurricane Irene and Snowstorm Nameless were Acts of a Loving and Gracious God, a Wise God, a God who knows that his creations, us humans, take our lives and our routines and our comforts for granted.  It's only when we lose something that we truly value it.  At least I can safely say that about myself, if not about you.

Praise God for the loss of electric power.  And praise God for the personal power He doles out each day to those of us he graces with another day of New Life.  God got me, and you, up this morning.  I plan to make the most of this day and I hope you will, too.


  1. Why is it. at times like you describe, I find myself lamenting..." Why didn't you buy that electric generator, like you promised yourself last year? " ...As I sip that awful coffee, you self brew, at the Day's Inn Suites. I'm not even going to mention the great deal I 'could have gotten' on a snow plow, just before "Snowmeggenden" a few years back.

    I hear you Counselor...BUT...We could use a little less " Praise the Lord " , down here in the 'mild' Mid Atlantic States.


  2. ...Oh and did I mention, my house got as cold as North Korea.

  3. No doubt, when the lights (and everything else powered by the grid) go out, a different kind of light is shed on human nature. On another point, I find the phrase "act of God" to be a curious one, to say the least. If the phrase "act of God" has any meaning beyond a legal convention or shorthand used by insurance companies, what is not an "act of God"?

  4. John Hall wrote "what is not an 'act of God'"?
    What comes to my mind is the evil done by human beings; things like the Holocaust, assassinations, wars, the triple murders in Cheshire, etc.
    John Montalbano

  5. I understand that the grossly overpaid 'spoiled brat' head of CL&P has his own generator. Lucky Him! Good manners prevents further comment....but I'm thinkin' it!

  6. Dear Jeff (Domowicz),
    I'm not saying you don't have a right to feel miffed that it took so long for the power companies to get the light and heat back on in our houses. I sometimes felt the same way. It's just that I think it's good for our souls, our minds, our hearts, actually to feel what it's like for much of the undeveloped world and the peoples of the countries we invade without sufficient moral justification, like Iraq, and shut off their power and disrupt their lives for years and years.
    As for why you have passing thoughts about buying a generator, or a cheap snowblower, when the snow "hits the fan" (to mix metaphors), I suspect you don't act on these ideas because your (and my) overall comfort level is very high, despite the occasional power outage. Such outages only turn to rages when the disruptions are long enough and frequent enough that we can no longer NOT act on our thoughts of self-protection or political action. Think Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Syria, and probably the rest of North Africa.
    As for my religious interpretation of Hurricane Irene and the October Winter (the "Fall Winter"), I am not unaware of the controversial nature of such ideas. Please bear in mind that I was a devout little Methodist, until about the age of 10, at which time I began to question religious ideas, to the great consternation of my Sunday school teacher, Harriet Rettgers. By the time I got to Wesleyan University, I was ready to engage in a radical rethinking of my boyhood religious beliefs. I became an atheist. When my first child came along, Susie and I wanted to expose our children to religious thinking, so we joined a congregational church. This was a very free-thinking place, which I loved for over three decades. During that period I saw myself as 40 per cent a believing theist and 60 per cent agnostic and skeptical of all religious claims.
    In July of this year, I began going to a black baptist church in Middletown and plan to ask to join next week. I will then be baptized by full immersion in a ceremony in early December.
    The black baptist religious tradition appeals to me both aesthetically and theologically. I'll write more about that on "Bobs blog" at some point. But suffice it to say that I'm not a "blind" believer. There is a theory in philosophy about the "peformative" use of language. Religious discourse can be viewed as a kind of "performative utterance." That is, when we sing and dance and praise God in the black church, we may be thinking "there really is a God, He's a he, and He got me up today so I'm going to praise Him and make the most of the day He gave me." Or we may be thinking, "I enjoy being with this group of people and want to express my solidarity with them, my friendly feeling towards them, and so I sing and dance and praise God alongside them, in the pews of this church."
    I hope this helps you to see my religious "statements" in a different light. If so, you may be less put off by such language.
    By the way, you and I went to Northeast High School, class of 1967, in Philly, right?

    All best,

    Bob Dutcher

  7. Dear John (Hall),
    In answer to your question, what is not an "Act of God" is anything done by humans using their "free will." Of course, "free will," like "Acts of God," can be seen as a metaphor rather than a literal "truth." But then again, as Jesus is said to have responded to Pilate's question about whether it was "true" that Jesus was the son of God, "What is Truth?"

    All best,

    Bob Dutcher

  8. Dear Diane,
    While I agree that the CL&P chief executive was "lucky" to have his own generator, in another sense he was unlucky. If he had had to suffer along with the rest of us, without electricity for up to 7 or more days, perhaps he'd have greater motivation to improve the CL&P system so these sorts of outages are less likely to recur.
    I commend your self-restraint in not publishing all of your thoughts about this man. You display much more grace, good-breeding, and self-restraint than I typically show when I am frustrated or angry at someone. The good thing is, by not telling us exactly what those feelings of yours are, you impliedly invite the rest of us to fill in the blanks with our own thoughts of outrage at that man.
    Thanks for your Comment. And while I forgot to say so in response to the other Commenters, I also appreciate their Comments.

    All best,

    Bob Dutcher

  9. Actually, it was Pilate, not Jesus, who asked "What is truth?" (John 18:38). John Maltabano gave as good an answer as any to the question "What is NOT an act of God" but of course, it all boils down to what/who you think "God" is. This is a subject beyond the scope of comments on a blog, though I welcome this conversation with anyone who wants to pursue it.

  10. Dear John (Hall),
    John Montalbano suggested the meaning, in the law, of "Act of God," without making the meaning explicit. For lawyers, an "Act of God" is not a theological concept. It is an event beyond human control, like a hurricane or a snowstorm, which causes damage to human property or human beings. Because it is beyond human control, humans are not held responsible for the damage.
    Now, if the damage caused by such an event could reasonably have been anticipated by human beings, and protected against, the law sometimes holds the humans liable for the damage. For example, let's assume a tree overhanging a neighbor's house has a large, obvious crack in it. The owner of the tree does not prune it or cut it down, and a strong wind (from the religionist's "God"; the scientist's "Forces of Nature") blows the tree down, onto his neighbor's house. This destroys the house and kills the neighbor's worst enemy, who just happens to be arguing with the neighbor in the neighbor's house when the tree collapses the house.
    Now in that fanciful and silly hypothetical, the tree's owner will be liable for the repair of his neighbor's house. (But the tree owner also might make a creative legal argument that he should get a credit against the neighbor's damages because the windblown tree took out the neighbor's worst enemy.)
    ha-ha-ha That's the kind of hypothetical situation which law professors like to put on final examinations in courses like the Law of Torts.

    All best,


  11. Dear John (Hall),
    Thanks for your correction of my mistaken attribution of the famous question "What is truth?" to Jesus rather than Pilate. That's one of the benefits of having a friend who's a retired Man of the Cloth.

    All best,