A Recalibrated Zero

I taste bone.

My mouth and hands are coated with meat grease.

And I am cold. We are very very cold.

Wool scratches my neck, but the warmth should make up for it. I can feel the heat from a dog at our feet. As for the grease, it is oddly comforting. The alcohol cuts right through the cold with a different heat, a vibrating, clean heat. On this December night I can see our breath in the soft casts of moonlight coming through the fogged windows, the primary source of illumination.

The city is solid dark from hill to hill, the only lights those of passing cars. PG&E is struggling and our battery backups are exhausted. For the first time ever, we see our building completely cast in tungsten-colored light from candles. There are strong marks of blueish white from the gas stove and our LED flashlights. It all looks like we are visiting history, another place and time.

I am reminded of a few magical times when the power went out while I was working in restaurants. We cooked by flashlight. The waitstaff rushed candles everywhere and struggled with carbon credit-card slips. The best part was the profound silence. Restaurants are by nature noisy. The compressors, hoods, and dishwashers serve up a constant background soundtrack, something I personally find comforting. It’s quite eerie when those sounds go missing. In the silent dark, everyone spoke more softly. We realized that we were all there, in it together. There was an implicit bond amid the suddenly front-and-center sounds of searing food and the clinking of glass and metal.

It’s late now, and I am sitting here in the cold dark with layers of fur, laptop nearly dying, surrounded by silent construction-paper silhouettes, very old ghosts, and sleeping family.

Fire. Unconditional love. Light. Protection. Heat. Sustenance. My neanderthal brain has kicked in.

First thing tomorrow, I plan to install a huge generator — with a full shotgun rack attached, and night-vision goggles. OK, maybe that’s overreacting.

Losing power has been the best gift of the season, a Charles Dickens Christmas Carol reset. It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment, to forget where zero is, to lose sight of priorities like good family, good friendships, good neighbors — all the things that provide the truest gifts, those of conversation, civility, wonder, support, delight, making, and meaning. A properly calibrated zero may be achieved in numerous ways, and tonight it’s all thanks to the winter dark with the smell of pine and chicken stock.

Suddenly the old engine house comes alive, slowly lumbering, lights and refrigerators struggling, electronics beeping and chirping, heater spinning up, Christmas tree illuminated.

This holiday season, Carmen and I send you love and fond wishes of food, libation, and celebration. And after the holidays, drop by and check out our new generator.

Postscript: The power outage affected 6,500 PG&E customers of San Francisco, Daly City and Brisbane.