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Oct 2023

I awoke with a start -- whatever that means, but it sounds about right for what happened. I hadn't gone to bed until after 3am, when the Wifey arrived home from her road trip to pick up her Boy from his dad's. I sat up and tried to see the alarm clock, but couldn't; I wondered who set something in front of it. Standing up and moving closer, I could see that nothing was in front of it. The power was off. I dug around in my pants pocket and found my celphone. It was not quite a quarter after 7 in the morning.

The children were up and thumping around upstairs, just shy of what we call The Ow Game. The Ow Game, forbidden in the house, is played by deliberately causing pain to another gameplayer, after which everyone laughs, then the next player causes pain to the other player, and so forth until the parents get mad. This morning's game sounded like it could shortly become the Ow Game, but wise children were avoiding the most important part of gameplay (the loud "OW!") and were simply wrestling around violently.

Half-awake, I scrambled around the pile of papers on the table to find the electric disconnect notice. At the beginning of February, we recieved a $800 electric bill: in December they apparently either misread the meter, estimated the meter (which they've done in the past with similar results) or simply missed billing us once, causing a large bill only two or three weeks after the previous bill, and only a few weeks before the next bill. In five weeks, our electric bill balance went from zero to $1,200, making us scramble a bit to catch up. The disconnect notice is automatically generated, despite our intent to pay things off soon. The notice gave us until the end of the month, so I doubted it was the cause, but thought it best to have it in-hand when talking to the electric company.

Clue #1 of the problem: extremely long hold-time for 7:30 on a Saturday morning. It gave me time to wake up a bit more, so I didn't mind.

Clue #2 of the problem: The first three seconds in talking to the customer service person went like this:

"How can I help you?"

"My power is out..."

"You're in Fargo, right?"

His answer was quick and without missing a beat; he was reasonably able to assume that, because my power was out, the odds were high that I was a Fargo resident, which means something Big had happened.

I tried to also discuss the disconnect notice, but he was rather annoyed and talked me into calling back on Monday. I'm sure that he could see a display someplace showing the number of calls on hold, and was more interested in telling those people that they know about the problem than to work with me on something that could be handled later. I thanked him, and hung up.

Clue #3: The radio. It took me around twenty minutes to find both a working portable radio and the correct size of batteries. Those who know me should be shocked: I am an electronics fiend, and have at least one version of most every form of media communications in the past hundred years. Want someone to copy your 8-tracks to DVD? I'm your man.

Unfortunately most are in the basement, which has only one window and the light was still rather dim outside. I first grabbed a boom-box from near the washing machine, but it required 6 C batteries -- I could come up with only five. I found a portable shortwave/police-band radio, but couldn't get it to run off batteries. In digging, I found another C battery and was able to get the boom-box to work, and immediately tuned to AM radio. 970AM is good for local news and a likely target for finding out when power will be back.

I was highly surprised to find the AM band extremely populated. Usually, only two or three channels come in good, but this morning, I could get everything: Sioux Falls SD, KFYR in Bismarck, Winnipeg (Canada!), something from the Minnesota Lakes area...they were all quite clear, at least as good as what I'd expect from a local station, and the local stations were loud and sharp. This radio wasn't a high-quality piece of electronics, designed more for looks than features, and it was bringing in stations for hundreds of miles around.

At this point I started to realize the scale of the power outage: AM radio is affected quite a bit by static. The motor in the furnace, the compressor on the fridge, the TV, the computer monitor, the celphone charger -- they all give off RF noise. There was very little static, even between channels. For a large area around our home, there was no artificial radio interference. Nothing was scrambling the far-off radio signals.

The DJ finally announced the outage, but said it only affected South Fargo. Our house is in North Fargo, close to downtown, but still a ways from anything I'd consider South. I called my dad, around 15 blocks north of our house, on my celphone. No, he said, they still had power on. We were on the northern edge of the outage, it seemed.

I settled in on the couch with a magazine. The kids had quieted down upstairs, but were no doubt causing just as much fun-trouble as before.

Suddenly, the house came to life: the kitchen lights flickered on, the stereo display lit up, every smoke alarm in the house beeped three times, and the furnace fan roared. Ween, the bigger of our two dogs, suddenly appeared at the edge of the couch, shaking a little. The house was so quiet, it was a surprise to hear it back at normal decibel levels. I scratched his ears and scooted over on the couch a little. He jumped up and laid down next to me, teetering on the edge of the cushions.

Not five seconds later, everything went quiet again. The radio said they'd found the location of the problem, but didn't know exactly what was broken. The power, which had gone off at 7:10am -- almost exactly the time I woke up -- would still be off for a while.

Quiet is a relative thing: a quiet house isn't really quiet. There's fans and motors and screens and transformers and capacitors pumping with electric current at all times, and all give off noise in varying levels. The change in noise when the power went off at 7:10am was so drastic that it woke me up from the middle of a deep sleep, barely 4 hours after going to bed. It interferes with our ability to communicate -- AM radio is the simplest, cheapest, and longest range form of radio, but static impedes it's ability to work well. First they came up with FM radio, and now they're pushing for digital radio, an encoded and technologically complex form of radio that gets over the hurdles of the electrical noise caused by our other appliances and the electrical cables themselves. Noise, however, is comforting: they play music in stores to even out the background noise so it isn't silence broken up by loud noises, and people often turn on TVs just 'for the noise'- because the silence is disconcerting and lonely. I could sleep through noise, but the silence was jarring.

Personally, I like silence. The last time I'd heard real, genuine silence was in the National Grasslands of Wyoming: Destiny and I pulled off the road and walked a good quarter-mile into the grasslands, stepping over tiny cacti, until we reached a rusted windmill. There was no wind that day, so not even a leaf rustled. The highway was paved and well cared for, but it was a little off the beaten path and we hadn't seen a car in miles. There was not a power line in sight, no houses, no oil derricks, nothing - just ourselves.

That utter silence filled out house, other than the quiet snoring of my wife in the other room and the wrestling children upstairs. I just sat on the couch, reading a magazine and petting the dog.

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