Groundhog Day

The idea that all of those working from home during the pandemic are experiencing our own personal Groundhog Day is not an original one, but it is something to which I completely relate. For those of you too young to remember (or who never got around to watching it), the 1993 movie Groundhog Day featured arrogant weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, who spends years in a time loop reliving the same day (February 2) in the “tiny town” of Punxsutawney, PA. At first, he grudgingly covers the Groundhog Day ceremony that is the pride of the town, and generally tries to find ways to escape from the town and the loop. Over time, Phil finally changes his selfish ways, falls in love with his producer, Rita (played by Andie MacDowell), and learns to treat her and the townspeople with compassion. This breaks the time loop and Phil can move on to his new life with Rita.

Since the closure of APPA’s office on March 19, exactly seven weeks ago, our family’s life has certainly correlated strongly to Phil’s experience – although minus the debauchery and selfishness (well, mostly, on the latter). My girls, who are 8 and 12 years old, get up late every morning. Despite getting a lot more sleep than usual, they still must be dragged out of bed, frog-marched to the bathroom to brush their teeth, and nagged to finish up their breakfast and start the “school day.” 

After the first few weeks of confusion about teacher expectations, I was finally able to establish a loose schedule of teacher meetings/check-ins. Despite this structure, constant reminders are necessary to ensure they actually participate in these check-ins, do their assigned work and submit it in the format expected (don’t get me started on the latter piece – let’s just say that the school system’s online platform can be “clunky”). Since Arlington County decided to not teach anything new in the 4th quarter, it is difficult, at best, to motivate my girls to constantly review old material.  It took about a day for them to figure this out and, really, the jig is up.  I doubt my second grader is learning a thing from school itself. However, we go through the motions and have added some outside online learning platforms to the mix – where actual learning may be happening. Hard to tell.  As the day progresses, we allow some fun time, which can vary slightly, depending on the weather. Then we have dinner, I walk the dogs and workout, Alan works out, the girls have baths, we watch a show together, I read to them (The Little House on the Prairie series – that has been fun, truth be told), the girls go to bed too late. Rinse and repeat, except with the variation on the weekends that we get more outside time and less complaining, and maybe the occasional Zoom happy hour with friends.

Oh, but there’s work, too!  How could I forget?  Pepper the above with frequent (some would say constant) conference calls, online meetings, documents to review, the regular outreach I would normally be doing in person now attempting to do online, etc., etc. Things like this blog and other projects that need a bit of peace and quiet to undertake – well, they take longer than they normally would. Multiply times two for my husband’s work commitments. This has all come to feel so rote and unvaried that I was excited a couple of weeks ago to take my youngest daughter to an emergency dentist appointment a few days after she fell off her bike on her face – she was fine, but the permanent tooth was a bit loose, so we needed to get it checked out. Don’t judge me for my glee in having a 10 minute, in-person, interaction with the dentist about the state of my daughter’s tooth (it’ll be fine, we just have to be careful what she eats the next few weeks).

Believe me, I know my version of Groundhog Day could be much worse – people in NYC have been confined to closet-size apartments, and folks in Wuhan, China, were literally bolted into their homes by the communist police. This is not an attempt to compare our relatively easy time of it to those others – or to people who don’t have jobs or to families living with constant anxiety about how to put food on the table and pay their bills. Not at all. It is an attempt to correlate the feeling of Groundhog Day with the constancy, the relentless dedication and striving for perfection that our public power members must undertake 24/7/365/Forever (or as long as they work in this industry and as long as we need electricity).

The electric grid (actually, a series of grids) in the lower 48 states has never been out of service in its entirety at one time since the three major interconnections were completed in the 1960s. Those interconnections represent the “bulk power system” (BPS) that bind 300+ entities together and necessitate high levels of collaboration and coordination between these systems, which are governed by different business models (including not-for-profit, publicly owned systems). Beyond the 300+ BPS entities, there are another approximately 2,700 distribution utilities (lower voltage grids that step down the voltage so businesses and homes can receive power) that must also understand each other and coordinate on myriad safety matters, standards, and response to weather events that can cause electric outages. Electric utilities rely on each other and a discrete set of vendors to respond to these disasters by sending highly trained utility crews who specialize in restoring power.

Electric utility personnel – from lineworkers to control room operators, electrical engineers, inspectors, communications specialists, customer service personnel, and the list goes on – must show up to keep the lights on all the time. They cannot close down, they cannot decide to call it a day and not restore power, no matter the circumstances. I bet this sometimes feels a lot like Groundhog Day – it is relentless and the show must always go on. During the response to COVID-19, public power and other utilities have strongly collaborated on ways to adjust their work and behavior to ensure that they could keep the lights on while keeping their workers as safe as possible. Given that safety, reliability and affordability have long been the key cultural tenets of public power, our members have been able to build off the safety culture to implement measures to keep employees healthy and keep the lights on (and the hospitals running, the transportation fuel pumping, the internet hopping, etc.). Practices like sequestering control room employees, initiating contact tracing early when needed, and of course, implementing stronger hygiene and social distancing standards have been key to our weathering of this “storm.”

As we continue to experience our own personal Groundhog Days, let’s all take a moment to appreciate how different they would be without electricity, and to express our thanks for those whose commitment to keeping the lights on has not wavered.