Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
We recently received a letter from CL&P providing normative data from our immediate neighborhood. If the letter was to be believed, we were consuming enough power to light several small Midwestern towns. Our failing grade suggested we had a carbon footprint larger than Paul Bunyon's boot.
Our environmental F disturbed my global warming spouse and enraged my green teenaged son who had chided us for the past year on our failings as environmental conscious citizens. If I were to succumb to all of their militant pressures, I would be composting everything, urinating in the woods and drinking from a perpetually dented metal water bottle. My house would register a refreshing 58 degrees in the winter and 80 degrees in the summer. I had already turned over the keys to my car and my ATM card. I was not going to turn over the castle without a fight.
I became distressed as our energy bills soared. I repeatedly circled the house wondering if one of my neighbors was perhaps pirating electricity from the tangled tightrope of wires that snaked through the tree line and fed our voraciously energy-dependent home. I did notice at night that my neighbor's houses seemed dark and vacant while our home was lit up like a Christmas tree. TVs were on with no one in the room. Computers were perpetually hibernating but very much alive. Every room was illuminated, yet every kid was downstairs in the basement.
I realize that two of my kids and I were very much part of the problem. As my conscientious spouse would turn off the AC and open a window to welcome a warm, woolen summer night, our teenaged son was upstairs recreating an AC winter and burying himself under a 3-foot pile of buffalo blankets. In the adjacent room, his eco-friendly brother was opening his windows to allow fresh, humid summer air to circulate and, in doing so, releasing the AC Alberta clipper into the soft night.
It does not help that our home is a patchwork quilt of miniature ecosystems with rooms hot enough to support a desert succulent and others capable of serving as a meat locker. Some spaces are haunted -- defying logic with cold spots and odd drafts.
The notion of removing or putting on clothes to combat heat or cold seems anathema to California transplants who prefer a world perpetually set at 72 degrees. I try to explain to the energy leeches that only Heaven and San Diego routinely reach meteorological nirvana. We are, as humans, meant to suffer and through this suffering we find humility and tank tops. These insights are always met with blanks stares and silence. As if to mock me, I hear the air conditioning unit kick on.
I know I am also part of the problem. I am a sleeping furnace and often need to turn down the AC at night to avoid waking up feeling like a malaria patient stuck in some POW camp near the equator. I go to bed early, only to wake up covered in a wool blanket. The energy czar has turned off the AC and opened a window. Overheated crickets are now serenading me with soft derogatory thrums, "lo-ser," "lo-ser," "lo-ser."
I move like a cat burglar and twist the thermostat. Ambient temperature should be categorized not by degrees, but by the weight of the person it is trying to cool. It was turned to 105 pounds. It must be reset to 230 pounds. I am a large man and throw off more heat than Vermont pot-belly stove.
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She is asleep but stirs when she hears the thermostat.
"I opened the window," she murmurs in weak protest. I stand still, waiting and then move to close the window. I ease slowly back to bed. At 6 a.m., I awaken to a soaked T-shirt that looks as if I had shoveled coal in the bowels of some great steamship. I glance at the thermostat, now set to 78 degrees. The window has been reopened. The AC wars have been waged for decades. In 1971, my parents gathered us for a rare family meeting to vote on whether to put a pool in our back yard or install central air conditioning. Summers in Los Angeles' San Gabriel Valley could easily hit 100 degrees -- often with air pollution that would squat like a layer of filthy humidity -- causing health problems for infants, animals and the elderly. The debate raged in every house between swimming pool and air conditioning.
My older brother clearly saw the social advantages of a pool that included parties, skinny-dipping and Jacuzzi encounters that he had only read about in Penthouse Forum. My middle brother and I clearly saw the advantage of air conditioning as we had a number of friends with pools. We saw how they had lost interest in their own swimming holes. On hot evenings, their homes would be filled with whirling fans -- stuck in open windows -- desperate to cool the inside of the home to a temperature equal to the outside air. Air conditioning sounded boring, but I knew there was nothing more reassuring than to hear a Carrier central air unit whirl into high gear.
My youngest brother voted for the pool and we were officially deadlocked. My mother would be the deciding factor. We were certain she would opt for the pool as she knew very well that my father believed that air conditioning weakened the constitution. These modern conveniences were the first left rotation in the cycle of dependence. With dependence, poverty of character would be in full motion. Suffering led to insight and strength. Strength led to freedom. And freedom led to a good job with a country club membership where the men's locker room had air conditioning.
Secretly, my mother's greatest fear was that my father would not allow us to actually use the air conditioner. His frugal fanaticism was legendary and at least with a pool, which he would probably refuse to heat, the water would be cold. Yet, the gods were kind that summer delivering a withering heat wave that broke our deadlock. In a shocking last-minute reversal, everyone opted for AC. Almost immediately, the AC wars began. There were fights over windows left open and $200 monthly electrical bills. There were fiats, moratoriums and bizarre brown-out periods. Inevitably, the AC advocates and the utilities who faithfully delivered their electricity prevailed. Consumption triumphed over common sense.
It is now midnight and I am once again creeping over to turn down the temperature. Brody, the dog, has shifted from the carpet to the cool, wood floor -- a sign that even man's best friend is not willing to accept this pea soup summer night.
I am turning the tumblers of the thermostat like a safecracker hoping to avoid the energy czar's wrath. I hear the whirl of the AC unit and feel the cool, artificial air course through the floor ducts. Brody sighs with approval.
I have won a small victory, but I do not delude myself.
This is war and I fully expect a counter attack before dawn.
Check out Mike Turpin's blog at usturpin.wordpress.com.