What Happened During The Blackout

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Just when I thought I was unique, just as I’ve been spending the last six-odd months editing a short story about the misadventures of retail workers during a city-wide blackout (Santa Cruz, circa 2002) I read today that actually everyone has a blackout story.

(And no, not that kind of blackout.)

Since everyone has a blackout story (read: electrical power failure) of some variety, what intriguing conclusions can be drawn?

At The Book Bench, David Nye, the author of the forthcoming When The Lights Went Out: A History Of Blackouts In America talks about why blackouts are so memorable:

“Most of the time people are living inside their heads and pursuing some multiple agendas. When the lights fail, unexpectedly we are forced to live entirely in the present, to improvise, to deal with the people right around us instead of ideas in our heads or friends at e-mail remove. Moreover, the present we confront in a blackout is transformed; the world has the same shapes but different shadows and a new soundscape.”

The blackout I experienced in Santa Cruz about eight years ago lasted no longer than a night.  To this day, it’s still one of the most magical nights I’ve ever experienced even if not much really happened.

But the blackout’s occurrence was propitious in many ways — not least of which was I was at work at the time, I didn’t want to be there and the blackout meant we could drink and barhop while still on the clock. It arrived right when it was most needed. It was serendipitous from the get-go.

The evening’s adventures (bars, back alleys, dumpsters, free sushi, candle-lit donut shops, house party) induced an avalanche of odd and startling impressions that have been with me ever since.  The shadows took the upper hand. The city, in rain-glare and magnesium light exposed hidden angles that I cut my senses on to the quick.

The sensation of the present being total was invigorating, of time slowing down to the duration of a half-excited sigh or the clack of dance shoes on cold stone, the feeling of really grappling with an unsettling amount of rain and darkness, and savoring the thrill of interactions and insinuations emerging that might not have been able to before.  And everything happened slowly, until time itself trickled away unnoticed and what was left was space, dark and bountiful and dangerous: a place where tales are spawned.

If these experiences in life are rare, which I believe they are, they should exist (and they do) in myriad forms in the literature and art we produce, at least to remind us of what we might not notice in our rapid-fire, well-lit and overly-distracted lives.

Apropos, even accidentally of all this Reality Hunger hullabaloo, I think one of art’s functions should be to, as Virginia Woolf says “saturate every atom,” to mute the ruckus in our heads, to streamline all the warring agendas (which are often technologically-induced) so the vitality of the things around us can come forth.

If this means carefully writing a novel so rich in setting and character and nuance that the reader is utterly transported to an alien realm or crafting a volume of “true short stories” each one so brief that only the most essential yet subtle details are included, than you’re playing the same game: art-making to induce recognition of the neglected and to incite participation in the unknown.

I’d rather be enlightened than amused.  I feel like amusement comes fast, lazily and partially, is quickly disposed of and is the money-hungering province of Madison Avenue (of Silicon Valley), whereas enlightenment, wherever it’s found, is a gradual and luminous unmooring from your conditioned perceptions.

(I realize it’s dangerous and essentialist to pit one against the other: one man’s labored reading of Dostoyevski is another man’s LOL-Cat pants-pissing hysteria while drunk on Sparks and sexting on his Android.)

More often than not, I want to be challenged by art’s content even more by its form.  As Marshall McCluhan says, “Low resolution equals high involvement.”

But all I really wanted to talk about was blackouts and why I think everyone, if they don’t yet, should have their own blackout story.

Or at the very least, make one up and say it’s true.


Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →