James Wallace Harris, 2/18/21
I can’t believe it’s been a whole week since we lost power for 32 hours in the ice storm last week. We lost power three times during that week and I’ve been living with constant anxiety we’d lose it again, especially when it got down to one degree and some of our pipes began to freeze. The inside temp got down to 44 degree during the ice storm outage when it was still in the upper twenties outside. It scares me to think what living in this house would be like if it was near zero outside. That was before the snow, when I was thinking of draining the pipes, putting the cats in carriers, and convincing Susan we need to drive to a hotel. She didn’t want to abandon ship though. Her parents survived a week in this house without power back in the big ice storm of 1994. We bought this house in 2008 after they died. They had used the gas fireplace to stay warm then. Susan was afraid it might blow up if I tried to light it this week since it probably hasn’t been used since that 1994 ice storm.
Looking over the top of my monitor through the big window behind it I see our backyard covered with snow, and giant icicles hanging from the roof. It’s now a much warmer outside today, 24 degrees, but I’m still anxious. (And I’m overjoyed it’s going to get to 27 degrees today.) I’m so looking forward to next week when promised temps rise above freezing. All this frigid weather and power outages have made me very contemplative about the future. I turn 70 this year. This little neighborhood blackout has shown me how dependent we are on certain needs and comforts.
If you don’t feel like you’re getting old, or worried about being set in your ways, you probably don’t need to read this essay. Even though the power has been back on for days, I’m still chilled to the bone, still wearing three layers of clothes. Growing old means growing wimpier. Living in a rich technological society has made us addicted to utilities, and without them I go through terrible withdrawal. At least I’m not living in Texas at the moment or North Dakota.
Susan and I were able to survive by bundling up but it made me fussy and grumpy. I know that’s sounding weak and whiny because folks all over the world live without the environmental control us luckier Earthlings take for granted. We live in an old neighborhood with millions of trees and zillions of squirrels and the power goes out fairly often. Susan and I once went without power in the middle of summer for thirteen days in our previous old neighborhood, and I’ve been without power in the winter two times for three days in this house when Susan was working in Birmingham. So 32 hours wasn’t that much, but it was the coldest, when I was the oldest, and that got to me. Age matters.
I don’t want to do it again. So while I hunkered down in the dark trying to stay warm I fantasized about all the ways we could protect ourselves in the future. My first thought was to move to Florida. Isn’t Florida where old people go to die like the legendary elephant’s graveyard in Tarzan movies? However, Susan nixed that idea. Since we bought her parents house Susan assumes we’ll die here too. I just don’t want it to be by freezing to death – or by overheating in August.
I figure after we get our Covid shots we’ll get someone to check out the gas fireplace. Maybe even see if there’s a superior way to get heat from the living room fireplace. Susan’s parents survived a week closed up in that room with that gas fireplace during the 1994 ice storm power outage. I might also see about adding a gas heater in the master bedroom.
The funny thing is, beside warmth, we missed the internet the next most, even more than hot food. Our phones quickly ran out of juice. We had to recharge them by sitting in the car. So I’m going to buy a Jackery portable power station. A small model claims it can recharge a phone 24 times.
Susan thinks my next idea is going overboard, but I want to research getting a natural gas generator. We have lots of neighbors with gasoline generators. When the power goes off we can hear them all around us. I don’t like their noise, or messing with extension cables, or constantly filling up the tank. A natural gas generator is quiet, turns on as soon as the power fails, and feeds off the house’s natural gas line. I’ve done a bit of research and found a Generac for $4000 with an estimated installation of $2000. But I need to do more research. I’m scared of using natural gas, plus it contributes to global warming, and I need to find out how long such a device will last and what kind of maintenance it needs before committing to the idea.
I also need to research getting a camping stove or gas grill. Susan wishes we’d retrofit the kitchen for gas stove and over. The first night we ordered pizza to have something warm to eat, but once we were snowed in I doubt take-out delivery will be practical. I need to think about the right kind of food to have on hand for when the power goes out. By the way, I put our frozen food in my truck.
Because of previous outages I already own a bunch of battery power LED lanterns, but I need to get more. I want to research all the little gadgets to have that will make surviving power failures better.
When the water line to one of the toilets froze I took several old cat litter jugs and filled them with water. One jug could do one flush. Then I heard in Texas they were telling people to boil their water, so I thought I should also get up a supply of clean drinking water. That was the first thing my friend Mike did when his pipe burst and he had to shut off the water to the house – he drove off in the snow to get bottled water.
I’m sure in the weeks to come I’ll think of more things. Another idea I’ve had is to hire a house inspector, the kind people use when selling and buying a house, to give this place a check over to see how we can retrofit it for reliability, durability, and energy conservation. I need to learn what to do when the power goes off in the winter for a long time, especially to keep the pipes from freezing. I do have a T-wrench to shut off the water, and I could drain the water from the house, but what do I do about the hot water heater? It’s gas powered and keeps running without electricity. We could have taken hot showers if we were willing to shuck off all those layers of clothing.
I feel I need to adapt to adapting. As I’ve aged I’ve become rigid in my ways, and I’ve learned to control the crap out of my life by making everything perfectly comfortable. I’ve spent decades learning how to weed out all the little annoyances, so I’m poorly conditioned for abrupt changes to my habits. That means when things derail I get thrown out of my comfort zone. I believe I adapted fairly well to losing power this time, at least being stoic, but I could have handled it much better. We didn’t do much but play on our phones and slept a lot under lots of covers.
We’re usually unaware of our true selves until we’re forced out of our routines, and then we realize who we are by what we miss. My comfort zone totally depends on controlled temperature, electricity, and the internet. As I laid under blankets dressed in multiple layers of clothes trying to enjoy life at 44 degrees F, I just gave up to inactivity. I need to find ways to stay active and enjoy life without power.
I did do a lot of contemplating. I thought about Louisa May Alcott. I imagined she and her sisters spending long New England winters living in much colder rooms. I bet they found plenty to do to occupy themselves during the day. I wondered if I could adapt to reading physical books and writing with pen and paper in very cold rooms? People in the 19th century kept active in extreme cold and heat. Hell, so do most people around this 21st century world who live with HVACs?
The photo above was taken just before the power returned around 3pm Friday. It was 44 degrees inside and 29 outside. Luckily the power came back before it went down to 1 degree. My two cats were sleeping between my legs, but ran off before they could get photographed. You should have seen us at night lit only by flashlight. At least I didn’t have to go outside to an outhouse.
Here’s our rescuers working on a power pole in our backyard with their truck in my neighbor’s yard. It’s hard to see, but everything is covered with ice. That was last Friday. The power went off again for a few hours on Saturday when a tree branch fell on a powerline around the corner.
Now I understand why my mother would do anything to go stay with my sister in Florida during the wintertime. She was driving down there by herself even in her eighties. Boy, I wish I was living in Florida right now.