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Delight at our fingertips

February 15, 2021

Flip a switch. Push a button. Turn a knob. Pull a handle.

One might control a light. Another, a thermostat. The knob, a gas burner on the stove. And yanking that handle magically causes our toilets to flush.

Think about that for a minute.

As I sit here in a nondescript layover hotel room far from home, I’m looking out on a swath of downtown buildings and parking garages. There’s a sizable metropolitan mall next door. And every flat surface of these structures is covered in snow. Beneath that layer of snow is a thick layer of ice.

Yes, it’s still winter. But when we think of the season, the cold and snow that we all picture in our minds should not be what I see outside. Why?

Because I’m in Houston. Texas. Just down the road from Galveston and the sandy shores of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s an area much better known for hurricanes than for snowstorms.

But that’s what I see right now.

I just went for a walk out there. It’s not just freezing–it’s well below freezing. The temperatures forecast for this evening are estimated to be the coldest temperatures ever recorded for this location in southern Texas. That’s cold.

But the problem is this: most of those buildings I see, including offices, stores and apartments–are completely without power. The winter ice and snow storm has greatly handicapped the electric power grid in this area. Rolling blackouts cascade through the region.

And no power around here means no heat. That’s bad.

My hotel is operating on an emergency backup generator, which is why I can do what I am doing in perfect comfort. That notwithstanding, the conditions here highlight the wonderful, yet completely ordinary and expected creature comforts we all take for granted. Until they are unceremoniously taken away by Mother Nature.

Imagine you lived 150 years ago. Want to read at night? Candles and oil lamps. Feeling chilly? Snuggle up to that fireplace or wood-burning stove. But go outside and grab a bunch of firewood from the logs you chopped down. Bathroom facilities? Right this way! To the outhouse out back. Pardon the odor.

The point is we have comforts and conveniences at our fingertips today. Delights unheard of before the Industrial Revolution, and for some time after. So ubiquitous as to not even give them a second of thought or consideration–until they’re not available. Utilities like water for indoor plumbing, natural gas for warmth and electricity for light hardly seem like something luxurious or delightful. But I say they are. Think of our daily lives without them.

Downtown Houston this morning. Palm trees near the pool (bottom) have snow on them.

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