Monday, August 11, 2008

Power outage illuminates our dependence on routines

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 11, 2008)

The power at our house went out on three separate occasions recently. The first two outages were relatively brief, but the third lasted eight long hours. About 90 minutes into that final blackout I was struck by a shocking realization: I'm inordinately dependent on electricity.

Before the storm, I hadn't thought of myself as such a plugged-in person. More eclectic than electric, my self-image revolved around someone comfortable with basic needs and at ease with her surroundings.

I suppose that's still true, as long as those surroundings and needs include an on-the-grid house with working electricity and high-speed Internet access.

The lightning strike happened about 5:30 p.m. Although the electric company responded quickly, repairs weren't completed until 2 a.m. That meant from about 8 p.m. on we were literally left in the dark.

Fortunately, I wasn't caught completely unprepared. From years of summer storms, I have learned to secure a stash of emergency supplies. Candles and flashlights -- even one or two with batteries that work -- were on hand, together with plenty of food in the pantry. Our gas oven depends on an electric pilot, so it's useless during outages. Not so with the stovetop, however. The top burners flicker into action when lit by a match.

Water is essential. Because ours comes from a well powered by an electric pump, I keep at least a dozen bottles in a low cupboard with more in the freezer. Rather than buy bottled water, I use recycled 64-ounce juice containers filled from the tap. During outages, water is invaluable when one of us gets thirsty, needs to brush teeth or flush the toilet. Plus, the frozen bottles help keep food in the freezer from thawing.

Three of us live at home these days, and no one lacked essentials during this recent outage. The only things missing were the comforts and conveniences of modern-day life -- running water, air conditioning, lights, TV, microwave, computer and Internet access.

And yet, despite this less than severe situation, a strange languor set in after sunset when candlelight was our sole illumination. The house felt empty and eerily quiet. Without the refrigerator working, no electric hum filled the air with ambient noise. Absent also was the glow of LED lights emanating from the usual collection of electronic equipment.

Thinking back, I'm surprised by how inconvenienced, lost and impatient the outage made me feel. My comfortable patterns -- evening routines of making dinner and TV watching, cleaning up the kitchen, checking for e-mail and reading in bed before going to sleep -- were replaced by frustration and boredom. Many times that night I forgot the power was off and tried to turn on the faucet. Repeatedly I entered the kitchen intending to get something out of the fridge before remembering I shouldn't open it. How accustomed I'd become to living life a certain way.

I didn't enjoy this forced reduction of societal trappings. Although I'm a proponent of conservation and of living more harmoniously with nature, I have no desire to turn back the clock or rid myself of modern conveniences. Rather than seek fewer technological attachments, I wish we'd prioritize the development of efficient and affordable alternative energy systems. When power goes out -- as it does so often during summer storms -- homes should, at the very least, be backed up by alternative systems that maintain basic appliances.

We live in the Sunshine State after all. Why isn't more effort made to harness the sun? It seems crazy to me that we continue to pour billions of dollars into tapping environmentally harmful fossil fuels while the development of safe, clean sources of renewable energy idles by the wayside.

The three power outages we experienced last week might have blacked out the lights but they illuminated my thoughts. They made me realize how much I enjoy my comforts and appreciate my routines. More importantly, they reaffirmed my conviction that alternative energy systems are essential if we want to maintain the lifestyles most of us have come to depend upon. If more people take the time to tell our lawmakers to support the development of solar and wind power, perhaps the future will remain bright for everyone.

Side note: In last week's column, I mentioned that muscadine grapes are now ripe at local you-pick farms. Several readers wrote asking for more information on how to find the two farms mentioned in the article. Tommy Free's Lake Apshawa Farm & Nursery is at 18030 W. Apshawa Road, Clermont, 325-394-3313. Tracey and Fred Estok's Howey-in-the-Hills farm, Valley View Vineyard, is at 22370 County Road 455, 352-243-4032. Before going to any you-pick farm, always call ahead for hours of operation and fruit availability.

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