My wife and I and our four children, including our five-month-old baby, were huddled together in an airless interior hallway, playing games and trying not to let ourselves be consumed by fear. The wind, squeezing through the cracks in the doorframes, squealed like devils released from hell. I peeked outside the back window and saw a fifty-year-old oak bent double. An eerie groan followed by an ear-splitting crash, and our sukkah was ripped from its moorings on the patio and flung onto the driveway.
I rushed back into the protection of the hallway. Almost immediately the power went out. It would remain out for sixteen days.
That does not sound like a very long time now, but living without power for a little more than two weeks—no air-conditioning in the subtropical heat and humidity of Houston, no way to cook, no hot water, no means of communication other than cell phone, and no means of recharging a cell phone—took all our energy and ingenuity. We learned quickly whom we could count on, and who was counting only upon himself. Some of our neighbors banded together, emptying their refrigerators and freezers and cooking everything on propane grills before it spoiled, sharing with the rest of the neighborhood in sprawling banquets by candlelight, but other neighbors—even among our fellow Jews—became impatient and told people to go away. (In a sign that God’s justice will be eternally inscrutable, they were the first to get their power back.)
I was in the second week of a semester’s sabbatical. Any research that I had hoped to accomplish disappeared along with the power. I had little time during the day to read, and of course it was nearly impossible to read after dark. Even nine or ten candles, burning on the side table while I sat in an easy chair, provided inadequate light to read with anything more than flickering attention.
It was during this period of unelected lassitude that A Commonplace Blog was conceived. Not only did I read Philip Roth’s Indignation, the subject of my very first post, while briefly at a Jewish youth camp to escape Houston, where not even the grocery stores had power yet. (It was the first book to which I had been able to give my full attention since Ike.)
What is more, I experienced the slipping away of my sabbatical with something like rising panic. Two weeks without power, followed by another two weeks of getting life back in order—and then I would have to fumble for the thread of my research. There was, I realized with a sour stomach, little chance to accomplish much of anything in the time left to me.
And so I began A Commonplace Blog three weeks after the power came back on. By the time I returned to the classroom in January, I had managed somehow to write more than eighty posts, giving the blog a good hard shove into the world. Whatever else it is, it has been for me a redemption of lost time, a small portion of the cleanup after Hurricane Ike.