I wrote this with the lights off

Last Wednesday afternoon — as my followers on Twitter know — my Internet service went down. This was not my first go-round with this particular problem, and since the first time the problem was intermittent and corrected itself within a few hours, I just went to a coffee shop for the afternoon while I waited it out. Long story short (for once), it still didn’t work the next morning so I called up Time Warner and scheduled an appointment with a technician. They didn’t have one available until Saturday afternoon, so I would have to survive a few days with no Internet. As a freelance writer, I work from home, so this was not without its share of inconveniences. But, I muddled through, taking advantage of free Wi-Fi and using the opportunity to journal and read more. In addition to working being a little more difficult, I also found that I — for lack of a better term — missed the Internet. It’s  not like I was getting the shakes or anything, especially since I was able to use my Droid for Twitter, e-mail, Google Reader, Facebook, checking up on Tiles in a Mosaic, etc., but there were definitely more than a few times when I wanted to check something out online that my phone couldn’t handle (like a new writing website…or porn), and I would have that brief moment where my drive to do whatever it was turned to remembering once again that I couldn’t. In one of those moments, I put things in perspective by reflecting on my childhood, when life was significantly less technologically advanced. In this moment of reflection, I fired off the following tweet:

After this went out, I started to get some questions about whether this was actually true. People generally have a hard time believing that I grew up in a home without electricity, so I tend to get a lot of questions, most of them along the central theme of, “REALLY??” I have had so many conversations on this topic that I think this may be the single most interesting thing about me. And yes, as the parenthetical notation in that tweet specifies, it’s totally true….well, kind of. While I maintain that my family had no electrical service and had to improvise, the statement “I had no electricity” is correct. However, once I describe how we worked around the situation, some have argued that we actually did have electricity. So, I’ll let my humble readers judge for themselves:

Heat. We heated our home with a wood stove. No, not a fireplace. Fireplaces are actually woefully inefficient at heating a large area. This was a stove. As in, a big box with a chimney coming out of it that we threw wood into. We then lit the wood on fire. Think Ben Franklin. We would chop, split, and stack the wood ourselves every summer/fall. (The best part of the whole process were my dad’s endless November proclamations of “I wonder if we have enough wood” and “I hope we don’t freeze to death when we run out of wood.” Always left me feeling encouraged and inspired, but most of all optimistic.) Anyone who has ever heated with wood knows it’s an inexact science, so our house was often several degree warmer or cooler than ideal. This was especially a problem in the awkward spring and fall months, when it was cool enough that heat was necessary, but warm enough that any decent fire would quickly turn our living room into a Bikram studio. In these cases, we had two choices: turn on the propane wall heater (which sucked), or put a sweatshirt on. To this day, that’s why I always dress in layers.

Water. There was a well on the property. A propane generator pumped water whenever the pressure dropped below a certain point, keeping the supply of water in the house at an ideal level. The generator also powered the hot water heater. Sometimes the electronics governing the “auto on” for the water pump would fail. Usually this was right in the middle of someone;s shower, leaving them desperately trying to rinse the rest of the soap away before the rapidly dwindling stream of water inevitably gave out. When I was in 4th grade, the pump froze and we were without water from February to May. That got tricky. Fortunately, the snow/wood stove combo served us well for non-potable water, which could also be boiled for cooking or drinking in a pinch. We also this melted snow method to supply water for sponge baths, which I imagine might have put a damper on my teenage brother’s social life. Since I was still at an age where bathing every day was optional, I didn’t feel the burn too much on this front. My parents carried empty jugs with them everywhere and filled them up at any working faucet they encountered. As for using the bathroom, well…let’s just say there were some batches of snow we knew not to bring inside for melting.

Light. Wall-mounted propane lanterns were strategically positioned throughout the house. These had to be manually ignited with a lighter, so, since most of them were about 6-7 feet off the ground, I spent some portions of my childhood either climbing on chairs or simply in the dark. These lanterns were functional, and even provided a little extra heat, but they weren’t very bright. I blame them for my unusually large pupils…and the resultant conversations at summer camp when my counselors thought I was high.

Phone. There were no phone lines, so our phone used radio waves to receive from and transmit to an antenna about 3 miles away. This meant that technically my father was operating a radio station, and therefore had to have license from the FCC. As phones go, ours sucked. There were stretches of time when the transmission was so bad as to render conversation impossible. Even when the signal seemed clear, a slight interference — gust of wind, squirrel on the antenna, swamp gas refracting off of Venus — would cut the transmission off, usually right as you were trying to relay your most critical piece of information. My parents frequently had to call each other back to hurriedly decry “buy dog food!” They’ve since upgraded to some sort of space age system that uses cellular signals and also delivers high-speed internet, but I think this is why I’ve always hated talking on the phone…and still do to this day.

TV. My high school friends always asked about this one. Mostly because they were all knuckleheads who couldn’t imagine life without TV (If you guys are reading, don’t worry; I still love you). When my parents were designing and subsequently building our house (yes, really), they installed an array of solar panels on the southern exterior wall. These panels were connected to 12 volt car batteries, which stored the juice they collected from the sun. The batteries were connected to inverters to convert the DC to AC, and ta-freakin’-da: our TV (and radios, phone chargers, really annoying rechargeable R/C cars, and all other small electronics) came to life. People may be all about solar now, but the Atkinsons were on board with green power back in 1987. We could also use the generator to charge the batteries up. We especially had to do this in the winter when we got less sunlight. Over time, the batteries would lose their ability to hold a charge and have to be replaced. By that time, they had usually gotten so shoddy that we could only watch about 30 minutes of TV on a full charge, which meant that afterward we either had to turn the generator on or go read a book. We were always excited when we got new batteries, because it meant we once again had more TV-watching time available. New battery day was so full of hope and endless possibilities.

Large appliances. Our range was gas, as was the refrigerator. Yes, our refrigerator actually made food colder via combustion. How exactly that tiny propane worked in the refrigeration process is something I have never understood, but it did. We also refrigerated food outside a lot, using coolers and various wooden crates to keep critters away. The oven, microwave, dishwasher, and washer/dryer were all electric and therefore had to be powered by the propane generator, which my father had rigged an on/off switch for right in our kitchen. Often we would combine “generator tasks” in order to get the most mileage out of any time when we had to run it. So, my mom would often bake bread while doing laundry. Or, if my dad was running the generator because he needed power tools to fix something out in his workshop, we would take the opportunity to run the dishwasher.

That was how I lived from the time I was about 4 until I moved out for college at 17. There were some even more rugged years in my early childhood, before my parents got our house built, but we don’t really need to get into those. I barely remember them anyway. Over the years, my parents have made some upgrades to the system. They have high-speed wireless Internet at home now, and — thanks to an expanded solar/battery array, and my dad’s forethought about twenty years ago — there are even some electric lights in  the house. By and large, though, not  a lot has changed. There’s still no electric service (nor is there likely to be any time soon), the house is still heated with that same wood stove, and my parents still multi-task any time the generator is on. Maybe it sounds primitive, but I like to think that growing up in those circumstances is what has made me so resilient and resourceful, two things I pride myself on. I may not have had a toaster, but I know how to build a mean fire– you tell me what’s more useful. Then again, a pretty isolated childhood probably also contributed to me being so sarcastic and socially awkward, but hey, can’t win ’em all.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “I wrote this with the lights off

  1. Pingback: Smart phone, dumb owner « tiles in a mosaic

  2. Pingback: Dan Atkinson » Blog Archive » 5 Ways a Broken TV is Better Than a Working One

  3. Steve Atkinson

    The water heater is propane, not electric.

    Re cooling with combustion. When a gas expands (lowers its pressure), it gets colder. Think boathorn. When a gas is heated in a confined vessel, its pressure increases. An electric refrigerator works by compressing a gas (Freon) with a compressor, thus increasing its pressure and then allowing it to expand as it circulates through the cooling mechanism of the refrigerator.

    A gas refrigerator works by compressing a gas (ammonia) with heat, thus increasing its pressure and then allowing it to expand as it circulates through the cooling mechanism of the refrigerator.

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