Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Surviving Real Life

The irony about the whole 12/21/12 scare is that people who needed to prepare, probably didn't, because they realized that nothing significant was likely to happen on that day. Others rationalized that if it was, truly, the end of the World, it wouldn't matter anyway, because there's no preparing for the end, right?.

Now, four days later, a major, significant, and scary storm is doing things to parts of the country that are, possibly, not accustomed to the sorts of weather they are getting.

Deus Ex Machina says that his cousins out in the southwest had a white Christmas. We did, too, but here in Maine, white stuff on the ground is accepted, expected, and appreciated (mostly) this time of year. In fact, in the western mountainous parts of the state where there are ski resorts, real snow means they have to manufacture less of their fake stuff - which saves both time and money. Snow is good.

Cold and winter are part of life for us here. We have warm clothes and boots, insulated pipes, heavy blankets and a winter's worth of wood for our woodstove. With or without electricity, we're set - and so are most of our neighbors.

I'm saddened by stories about people who are not ready when the cold comes, and how they are unable to deal with a loss of amenities - like electricity - in extreme conditions. Staying warm is not nearly as difficult as we think, and there are some very simple things we could to do make it less uncomfortable, and eliminate the life threatening cold.

The key is to get smaller.

Start with our own bodies. We have all heard the advice about layering our clothes, and it is true that the proper layers will insulate against, even very cold temperatures. A few years ago, we were taking an outdoor skills class, and we spent the whole day, a couple times per month, all year long, outside - regardless of the weather. With proper clothing, we found that the cold didn't bother us.

My daughters wore a comfortable pair of pants (usually sweat pants, because that's what they like to wear) underneath their snow pants, which are insulated and water repellent. I usually just wore jeans, because I've discovered that if my hands and feet are warm, and my core is warm, what I wear on my legs doesn't matter so much. I even ski in jeans, not snowpants. So, for me, wool socks and good boots, gloves covered by mittens, a long-sleeved tee-shirt, covered by a flannel shirt, covered by a wool coat, and a scarf, are enough so that I can get away with just a pair of jeans.

The next step would be to downsize the living quarters. Most of our homes, especially here in the US are decently insulated, but they are simply too big to keep warm. In the event that we lose electricity and can't heat our homes, the best advice is to move into one or two rooms.

For us, that room would be the office. It's in the center of the house, surrounded on three sides by other rooms with only one, northeast facing, window. A room with southern exposure would be better, and we have a room like that, but it wouldn't be as warm, even with the southern exposure, because three of the four walls are external walls.

If we closed doors to other rooms, and all of us cuddled (with the dogs, of course) in the one room, we could probably keep it comfortable enough with just our body heat.

But we could do more.

A couple of years ago, the BBC aired a program on a human-powered house. For a half day, a family was set-up in this house, which, unknown to them, was entirely powered by people riding bicycles. During the program, the hosts would provide tidbits of information, advice and tips on saving energy. At one point, they even cooked a chicken using a 100w incandescent light bulb. The lesson I took from that is that a small heat source in a small space can be more than enough.

Something as small as a candle - or many candles - could heat a small room. Probably not to 70°, but enough that the occupants wouldn't freeze to death.

If open flames are a concern, there are other options. A ceramic bowl placed on a fireproof surface, like a tile, filled with wet sand, into which we could place a very hot rock (one we heated on a fire outside, for instance) would help warm up the room a bit, and as the rock cooled enough that we could handle it, we could put it inside a sleeping bag and keep a bit warmer.

Another great way to stay warm is with warm beverages. Water can be heated with as small a flame as a candle. The key is to heat small amounts at a time. Trying to heat a gallon of water using a candle would take a very long time, but heating a few ounces - enough for a cup of tea - is relatively quick.

We've been stocking up on cans of sterno, which we can use with our chafing dish for cooking and heating water, but a very simple burner can be made using a small tin, like the kind tuna fish comes in, a rolled piece of cardboard and some leftover wax.

If you're without heat and/or electricity, heat water, drink lots of tea, and make soup. Warming from the inside out does a great job of keeping one warm, and there's nothing quite so wonderful as wrapping cold fingers around a warm mug.

For those living in usually warmer climates who are experiencing a Maine-like winter, bundle up, stay off the ice, and enjoy the beautiful snow ... from inside your warm(er) house ; ).

And if you can, get a couple of these to help keep you warm. I'd like to introduce you to Morgan (the red chow) and Seven (the puppy), the two newest members of the Brown clan. We adopted them from the Chow Chow Rescue of Central New York. They are beautiful puppies, and we are so thrilled to welcome them into our home.


  1. Yeah suddenly a "snowstorm" heading our way doesn't seem so scary. We did 6 days w/o heat and electricity. It sucked, but we did it. And personally, I was glad it happened in the winter. For me, it's MUCH harder to cool off than to get warm. I HATE being hot! Staying warm is easy in comparison ;-)

  2. Same here, Kaye. I prefer "roughing it" in the winter than the summer - mostly because of the freezer issue.

    Stay safe and warm ;).

  3. By freezer, I mean the appliance that keeps the food cold ;). I should have been more specific, I guess ;).

  4. Hats are your friends. There's no shame in wearing a stocking cap in the house and even to bed. And there is a reason that Grandmothers kept throw blankets on the back of couches and chairs. Use them when you're sitting there, drinking your hot beverage. We have a woodstove fireplace insert and husband has a tree removal business which keeps us in wood.

  5. I hated those bulky coats my Mom used to make me wear and disliked scarves and hats. Then I moved to Maine and lived with a Mainer and she taught me how to layer and dress warmly without the bulk and the bulky coats! Oh! How thankful I am I had the chance to live in Maine, and to this day, I continue to practice the layering thing. Almost 20 years later, I like scarves now, and hats, when it's really cold, but still do not like the bulky coats. I also still have all the wool sweaters I bought while I was in Maine and still use them!!