Friday, July 30, 2010

Still Life With Robin: Adventures in Simple Living

In the days since the thunderstorm on Sunday that left hundreds of thousands without power, I've been hearing stories of how people are managing without electricity. "It's like being thrust temporarily into an Amish lifestyle," someone writes. (Except that the Amish do not ordinarily lug their laptops to the nearest coffee shop with wifi to update their Facebook status.)

Last summer at this time I was sad that we had to take down our 80-year-old silver maple, which was hollowed out and dying; this summer I'm so glad it's gone, before the windstorm had a chance to send it crashing through our house, which could well have left us in a similar condition to the one shown in this photo. The areas to the north and west of Cleveland Park were hardest hit, with friends in AU Park, Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Takoma Park, Rockville and Potomac out of power for forty-eight to seventy-two hours. That's long enough to have to toss out everything in the refrigerator and freezer -- unless you've taken the step of turning your refrigerator into an old-fashioned icebox and you've been scurrying back and forth to the store, constantly restocking it with bags of ice. People are resourceful that way.

A few days without power can also be a valuable learning experience for kids. I think of the young relative of mine who, during the great Northeast and Canada Blackout of August 2003, gave his parents this invaluable advice about dealing with the heat in their New York apartment: "Let's get out the fans!" It was something of a revelation to him to find out that such an old-fashioned technology as a fan still relies upon electricity to work!

While our children are learning how dependent we are on electric power for just about everything, adults have been learning that it's possible to drive along major thoroughfares without traffic lights. People do take turns. Most of the drivers I saw while out driving on Monday and Tuesday were courteous and willing to wait, but I would bet if the situation had gone on for any longer than it did, that impatient honking and turn-jumping would have become the norm.

At my house we are very into preparedness, and have an inexhaustible supply of battery-operated lights, fans, water jugs, and other items from the recommended emergency checklists. On top of that, we're lucky to have various relatives with houses scattered around in the metro area, who, if they did not lose power, too, would be able to store some of our perishables for us until the power was back on. We've been equally lucky, in the past decade or so, not to have to use any of the resources we have at our disposal. In fact, the last time I can remember having to adapt to a few days of home-life under more primitive conditions was during the big snowstorm of February 18-19, 1979, which according to weather records brought us 18.7 inches. Our problem back then was a heat outage, not a power outage, which brought its own challenges at a time when the average daily temperature was in the mid-twenties, and at night it was down to the teens. (Yes, you think that sounds good now, don't you?)

Eighteen-plus inches isn't on par with our most recent Snowmaggedon, but it was quite sufficient to keep the heating oil delivery truck from making it to our house before the tank ran out of oil. (We have since converted to natural gas, and that running-out incident was high up there among the reasons.) For three days we had no heat. But we did have electricity and so ran a couple of space heaters, judiciously placed around the house. To keep the electricity bill from reaching ridiculous heights, we did not try to heat the whole house to a normal temperature but strove for somewhere in the mid 60s in a few key rooms. We all wore thick sweaters inside and took multiple breaks for hot cocoa, tea, and coffee. The fireplace was lit all day and it served to keep the first floor not just adequately warm but nicely toasty. At night we covered ourselves in multiple blankets and quilts and spread out our down sleeping bags on top of those layers. By the third day we had fielded plenty of offers from friends and family to take us in for the night, but we were young and in good shape and more than up for the challenge of coping with the temperature drop each night.

Although it was over three decades ago, I like to think we'd weather another heatless house experience as well now as we did way back then. And there's something wonderful about calling to mind those cold nights during this, the hottest summer on record in the Washington area. Cools me off just thinking about it.

I wish all of you uninterrupted power and gentle breezes for the rest of the summer of 2010!


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, July 30, 2010

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