Living Without Electricity

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Living Without Electricity

Children learn how to play by being bored

Posted on Oct 27 2017 by Martin Holladay

This year’s hurricane season brought extensive power outages to areas of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. In some cases, electricity was restored in two or three days. In much of Puerto Rico, however, the electricity has been off for weeks, and may not be restored for months.

While most news stories from storm-devastated regions focused on deaths, injuries, and property destruction, a few stories mentioned a seemingly trivial issue: namely, that some families living without electricity weren’t sure what to do with their bored children. Facing a day without access to television or iPads, many children (the stories report) “have forgotten how to play.”

Clearly, these news stories are squishy and anecdotal. Moreover, the stories risk trivializing the pain and loss experienced by families who have been victimized by recent hurricanes. Before veering off to discuss children’s entertainment, I want to make it clear that my heart goes out to all the families that have lost loved ones, or their homes, in these storms.

“It's like coming off drugs”

I recently read a news story about frazzled parents with bored children in the wake of Hurricane Maria. When I later looked for a link to the story, I couldn’t find it again.

But similar stories have been published for years. For example, in , Aimee Lee Ball wrote about children deprived of electricity by tropical storm Sandy. She wrote, “The storm provided a rare glimpse of a life lived offline. It drove some children crazy, while others managed to embrace the experience of a digital slowdown.” A woman named Lauren Handel Zander “likened the first days of the blackout to rehab. ‘It’s like coming off drugs,’ she said. ‘There’s a 48-hour withdrawal until [the kids] are not asking about the TV every other minute. … We got to hang out more, which was an entire family adjustment, but it’s a good problem to have.’”

Another mother, Marjorie Ingall, said, “‘For the first three days, I was full of maternal pride … Look at my children: reading by candlelight, cutting out paper dolls, engaged in such brilliant imaginative play. We are so “Little House on the Prairie.” Then Day 3 hit and the charm of screenless togetherness wore off. I was genuinely concerned that we were all going to kill each other.’”

In 2013, a blogger named Jamie posted the following tale in : “Last week during those crazy storms we lost power. And, my kids almost died. … It’s like they forgot to how to function. Like there was absolutely, positively nothing they could do without power, TV, and wifi. … How can my kids possibly have forgotten how to play? … I realized that this generation we’re raising is just different. … Thankfully, it wasn’t a full 24 hours when the power came back on and my Minecraft-loving boys dove onto their devices with glee.”

Following an archetypal pattern

I’m inclined to think that some of these stories fall into a myth-like category, an archetypal pattern going back millennia. (It has been said that there are only seven or eight human stories. Each generation endless recycles the same plots, with only minor variations.) The theme I’m thinking of is this one: “Today’s children aren’t like our generation.” The stories always begin with the same opening line: “When I was their age…”

But the news reports about bored children got me thinking about the years I lived without electricity. What was it like?

Living in the woods

In 1974, at the age of 19, I moved to rural Vermont. I lived in a simple house without electricity, at times with my girlfriend and at times with my brother. Until I bought my first photovoltaic(PV) Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow. module in 1980, we used kerosene lamps for lighting.

It’s important to balance any romantic vision — “life was better without electricity” — with a dose of reality. Back then, we always went to bed early. (We were usually physically exhausted from homesteading tasks, and in any case darkness lured us to bed.) Dark evenings can be depressing, and I’m sure I suffered my share of gloom, especially in November.

In winter, it was too dark to work outdoors after 4:00 p.m., and I would prepare supper by the light of a kerosene lamp. One reason that meals were simpler back then was due to the fact that it’s significantly harder to prepare food by kerosene lamp than in a well-lit kitchen.

But while darkness had its grim side, it’s worth cataloguing the various ways we entertained ourselves. During the summer, we had weekly volleyball games to which all our neighbors were invited. In all seasons, we had regular poker nights. (These poker nights required four to six kerosene lamps, positioned carefully so that each player could see their own hand without needing to angle their cards toward a lamp in a way that revealed their cards.)

I spent many evenings reading. I built a simple frame that held an adjustable mirror; the invention was designed to throw the horizontal beam of light from a kerosene lamp downward onto the page of a book that was opened on a tabletop. The mirror was situated carefully so that it shaded my eyes from the lamplight.

I remember one long weekend when many family members were visiting, when we worked to backfill a long trench designed to protect a buried water line from freezing. We didn’t have a radio. To make the shoveling pass pleasantly, we took turns reading out loud from a novel. The laborers were entertained, and the reader got a break from shoveling.

On another weekend, we passed a dark evening by reading a play out loud, each taking a different role.

Needless to say, my voluntary decision to move to the woods can’t be compared in any way to the interruption in electrical service that follows a hurricane. I had the technology I needed, however simple, for daily life — unlike in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, when normal distribution channels for water, food, and medical care have been entirely disrupted.

Boredom is a motivator

We’ve all heard the folk wisdom: kids should experience boredom, because out of boredom comes imaginative play. A child with a smart phone in his or her pocket is probably being deprived of an important element of childhood.

When I was young, hanging out with neighborhood kids, our play was mostly unsupervised by adults. We played four-square. With no adults watching, we played baseball. We bicycled and walked for miles, wherever we wanted.

On summer camping trips with my family, we often found ourselves stuck at the side of the road, staring for hours at our broken-down family car. Accustomed to such breakdowns, my brothers and I developed a routine: we would walk up and down the road, collecting tin cans. (Litter was more common in the 1960s than it is now.) When we had six or seven cans, we would line them up in a row. Then we would each gather a collection of rocks. The game was to take turns throwing rocks at the row of cans from behind a line in the sand. If you hit a can, you got a point.

Eventually, a passing motorist would stop, and help solve our mechanical problem, and off we went.

I remember another summer camping trip where my brothers and I made a checkers set.

I once used the saw on my Swiss Army knife to make dice from a stick. After I fashioned a pair of dice, my brothers and I invented a game, lost to history, that required dice.

Selective memory

Of course my childhood memories are imperfect. Did those of use who grew up in the 1960s always manage to amuse ourselves without irritating any adults? Of course not. Like other children, I’m sure that I tugged at my parents’ pants, whining, and I’m sure that I spent many a Saturday morning watching cartoons on our family’s black-and-white TV.

When I was 25 years old, living in the woods of Vermont, I began the transition from a life without electricity to a life with a 12-volt battery. As soon as I rigged up a little fluorescent light, I loved having electricity. It made many things easier, from food preparation to reading.

But these days, when I get together with friends who have also made the transition from kerosene lamps to electricity, we sometimes wax nostalgic about the good old days.

Are there any lessons for green builders embedded in my rambling anecdotes? I'm not sure. If you've had to live in a tiny apartment for years, it's exciting to move into a four-room house. But green builders know that a 12-room house isn't necessarily better than a four-room house.

Similarly, the transition from kerosene lamps to electric lighting is exciting and liberating. But that doesn't necessarily mean that our children benefit from having electronic entertainment available during every waking hour.

Finding the balance between simplicity and convenience isn't easy, even for the Amish.

If your home has escaped natural disasters this year, and your electricity supply still works, be grateful. It's wonderful to have electricity when we need it. And here’s some advice for anyone who is blessed with 24-hour electricity: if you have an opportunity to spend a few days or weeks without electricity — whether on a camping trip or in a remote cabin — you should jump at the chance. And if you’re a parent, bring the kids.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “A Better Bath Fan Termination for Soffits.”

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Image Credits:

  1. Rajeev - Flickr

Oct 29, 2017 11:32 AM ET

Rocks and Cans
by Andy Kosick

The rock and can story reminds me of when I had the opportunity, at the end of my college days, to frame a house in Tok, Alaska (this was for credit mind you). We camped in tents right on the job site and at night someone started throwing pea gravel into a tin can on the other side of the fire. By the end of the trip this had become a dead serious competition that everyone looked forward to nightly.

The green building bit I can add is that this is the first and only time I encountered triple-four steel siding. The entire exterior of this house was covered in steel. This area was very familiar with wildfire and were basically always waiting for the next one. They also made sure to keep an area clear cut around the buildings. I've thought of this quite a bit lately for obvious reasons.

What a trip though, except for the morning I woke up floating inside my tent, but that's another story.

Oct 30, 2017 5:30 AM ET

Response to Andy Kosick
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for your comments.

You tell us that you were camping in Alaska. You report, "I woke up floating inside my tent." You're not the first. It happened to my wife (and other members of her group).

Let me guess: a sea kayak trip. In late afternoon, you start scouting the shore for a good camp site. You finally find a place that looks like it will work. You pitch your tent on flat, dry ground between the ocean and the rocks (or the woods). In the middle of the night, or toward morning, you realize that you are dreaming that you are sleeping on a waterbed. The tide has come in. Quick -- scramble!

Nov 3, 2017 9:10 AM ET

Edited Nov 3, 2017 9:11 AM ET.

Dam gates open too! A metaphor?
by Paul Kuenn

As a guide, we'd be on glaciers for up to 48 days. Back in the early 80s that meant much of the afternoon was spent chasing clouds (either on skis or just with the eyes) and knowing what they meant for weather. Climbers now days have their eyes buried into their phone Apps and wonder where the rainstorm came from ... unless they had the Weather Channel alert on!

Thanks Martin! On U-tube, I still see many young folks homesteading but they're smart enough to bring in the solar equipment right off the bat.

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