Playing through a power cut

Power cuts make me think about the end of the world. The more I think about the end of the world, the less I want to watch TV and the more I want to play the piano.

A few weeks ago a meandering cat short-circuited itself on an unforgiving part of the Otumoetai electricity substation. The resulting pop took the poor cat’s nine lives all at once and plunged 10,000 homes into darkness for an hour.

Worse than the power cut was losing Wi-Fi. No matter, I lit some candles and played the piano. The piano is my favourite machine. I love the resonant quality of it. I find myself at my most content wrestling with a Beethoven sonata late into the night. I was disappointed when the lights fizzed back on.

My piano is roughly the same age as me. It has never needed a software upgrade. Notes written 300 years ago are still compatible with my model.

That’s not to say I don’t like modern technology. My laptop is my second-favourite machine. I use it every day. One of my best decisions as a teenager was not cutting corners in typing class. I am an ace touch-typist. I can type ‘ace touch-typist’ faster than I can regret pulling a phrase out of the 80s.

I used to write mostly by hand. I have 30 notebooks filled with scrappy poetry drafts; page after page of lines refined without the benefit of copy and paste.

Gosh, my handwriting looks terrible these days. I need to write with a pen more often. The other day I wrote something with a pen and I actually tried to double-tap a word to select it for deletion.

The last time I kept a handwritten journal was over ten years ago. One of my final entries describes a large man I met who told me he had 32 steel plates in his body after earning 63 broken bones from years of motor racing. Rubbing his sore neck, he said, “A bit of acupressure should do the trick. It’s like acupuncture without the needles. Works quite well in conjunction with the right oils.”

If that conversation had happened today, I would have channelled it into a Facebook post. Instead of maintaining private diaries, we are now more likely to catalogue our lives across social media. That is notably different to writing in a journal. I wonder what our new digital habits will do to our cultural history over the long term.

I have a book called This Is Not The End Of The Book in which Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere chat about the end of the world. Carriere says: “Lose electricity and you lose everything, for ever. But even if our entire audio-visual legacy were to be lost in a power cut, we would still be able to read books in the light from the sun, or in the evening by candlelight.”

One day I will no doubt own a Kindle or another such e-reader. It will be my convenient little friend. It will lead me to exciting new reading. But my relationship with an electronic device will always be different to my relationship with a solid book.

I like books because I can share them. I like flicking through the pages. I like the smell of the paper. There is something about the smell of a book that an electronic device can never replicate.

I’m not trying to start a fight between old and new technology. I am quite obviously torn between them. I think we need the best of both.

However, if the end of the world begins with a power cut, I want to make sure I still have something to do. A piano and a pile of books will be a good start.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 21 August 2015. Reproduced with permission.