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First Person

When the Lights Go Out and the Cold Comes In

February 02, 2001|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Arms extended like Frankenstein, I walked through my house in darkness, hoping I wouldn't trip over the furniture. That was after falling up my porch steps and fumbling to fit my key in the lock without the help of a light. So went my weekend in a simulated blackout--a long, cold weekend during which I had no heat, no power and almost nothing to do.

We've been lucky so far in Southern California. Despite weeks of Stage 3 emergency power declarations, we've remained free of the blackouts plaguing our neighbors up north. But these are uncertain times. I thought I'd bring on a self-induced energy crisis to see how I'd cope.

A week ago Thursday, before I crawled into bed, I flipped off the circuit breakers, and, in a nod to those who have electricity-dependent heat and hot water, blew out the pilot lights on my water heater and furnace. When I woke up, without the usual blare from my alarm clock, which sat dark and lifeless on my night stand, I could see my breath.

Touching my feet to the bare floor, I realized one pair of socks was not enough. I put on a second and shuffled to the kitchen. Why I was there, I don't know. Without electricity I couldn't brew coffee. Without gas, I couldn't scramble eggs.

I opened the refrigerator. It was already beginning to smell like warm plastic. I debated whether to eat the lone carton of strawberry yogurt on the top shelf but decided against it. I settled for a glass of tap water, a spoonful of peanut butter and the thought of coffee at work.

On the upside, the lack of heat and electricity streamlined my morning routine. It was bad enough that I couldn't check my e-mail, but without hot water, I also couldn't shower. Well, I could shower, but when the choice was between cold shower in cold house and no shower, I reached for the deodorant and applied two coats. I slicked some unruly hairs into place with a few drops from the tap, pulled the whole mess into a sloppy French twist and hit the road.

Unlike in a real blackout, traffic lights were functioning. Being the only person participating in this exercise, it was a little like trying to play catch all by myself. But, if it wasn't an entirely accurate barometer of what life would be like without power, it heightened my awareness of how frustrating it is to flip on a switch and get no response. And how, for me, in good health and on my own, the hardships of no heat and light were more quaint than dire.

At work Friday, I savored the glow of my computer, Internet access, the heat, even the cafeteria food--things I'd never give a second thought to unless they were missing.

As it approached 5 o'clock, I started to wonder how cold my house would be by the time I got there. Quite, I found out.

Fortunately, I had plans to go bowling with friends. But that presented another problem: how I looked. Getting ready, I decided it was better to go au naturel than risk applying foundation and mascara by candlelight.

At the bowling alley, the lanes were jumping. The karaoke bar was in full swing. The pinball and video machines were abuzz and blinking. All reminders of how much would be affected if the plug were pulled.

After I'd bowled my final gutter ball, I began dreading my ride home. Traveling by motorcycle in the winter and at night is always a chilly affair. After a freezing sprint through the streets, my hands are so cold I can use them to chill drinks. I usually warm them by holding them under hot water or rubbing them together in front of a blast from the furnace, but not tonight.

I changed into a pair of long underwear and got into bed as quickly as possible. I had piled every last blanket in the house on my bed. Once I managed to climb in, I felt like I was in a scene out of "The Princess and the Pea"--but I was the pea, not the princess.

The next morning I checked the thermostat. It read 50 degrees--as low as it goes. This time, I bypassed my kitchen, where the refrigerator was fast becoming the warmest place in the house, and left for my favorite coffee shop.

I dreaded coming home only because there was so little to do. No stereo. No computer. Not even laundry. Living without electricity wasn't just inconvenient, it was boring.

At least I had my no-frills phone--one that still works without electricity. I got on the horn with friends to share the misery.

Later in the day, as the sun was setting and the temperature plummeted, the firewood I ordered was delivered. At first I was ecstatic. A fire was far superior to dressing like the Michelin Man. But my enthusiasm was dampened when I realized I'd neglected to order any kindling. I foraged for sticks in my backyard, but they were few and far between. Those I did find were wet. I never was a very good Girl Scout, so I cheated and got my fire going with a Duraflame log.

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