A Song of Ice and Fireplace 6

A Song of Ice and Fireplace

It was the middle of the night, so we weren’t too worried about losing power. Again. It had gone out at least twice a year since my wife and I moved into our North Fort Worth house, and it’s usually back long before we two and the 9-year-old need to relocate most of the food in our fridge to a cooler. It’s never usually a biggie, just inconvenient and ridiculous — I grew up in the snowy Rust Belt up north, and in my 20 years there, I think we lost power twice. Don’t hold it against me for referring to my adopted home state as a third-world country once or twice. Or every other power outage.

The morning, Monday, was a different story. Still, no power. And the snow and ice, and subzero temperatures, had coated our humble little domicile and environs in a ghostly white. Luckily, we still had water and a gas fireplace to huddle by, which we did for three straight nights without electricity.

We are among the lucky ones. My initial thoughts were for the homeless. I hoped they would find shelter. My pity then turned to Fort Worthians without fireplaces, and as chintzy as ours is, it still puts out heat (some). Like nearly everyone else, I’d seen the pics of old folks wrapped up in blankets and winter clothing. Oddly enough, the beloved old folks in my life made for a tale of two cities. While my mom back home in frigid Pittsburgh was enjoying her electricity and running water, my in-laws in San Antonio were freezing and subsisting on bottles of Ozarka. Insert: Texas-is-a-third-world-country barb.

Allow me to take a moment to pay tribute to the true hero of our “survival,” my Halo. About the size of an old Russian novel, a Halo is essentially a mondo battery with multiple outlets. My mom, who’s on oxygen, bought one for herself after coming across it on QVC one night, and she loved it so much, she bought one for all three of her grown children and me. I had totally forgotten about it, and we would have been absolutely screwed if my wife had not remembered it toward the middle of Monday. Being able to charge both of our phones and the kid’s iPad was a total #blessing. Just plug the Halo into your car outlet and wait about an hour, and you’re good to go. Things were looking up.

For a little while. All along, I was wondering not only if my co-workers and I could put out the paper but if we were going to at all.

 

*****

 

Our son was a problem but only in theory. In practice, A. was awesome, which is worth noting because he’s developmentally delayed. Though he has good grades and can read on an eighth-grade level or higher, he’s more like a 5- or 6-year-old emotionally. My wife D. and I were worried about him cracking or, more than that, jonesing for his beloved iPad. Unfortunately for all of us, the only a-hole in the house turned out to be the lone alleged adult male: me.

“This is bullshit,” I told D. through gritted teeth, reading the news on my phone. “All the nice parts of North Texas have power, but it’s out in all of the not-so-rich parts like ours. This is total bullshit.”

It would be another three or four days before I would learn the truth, that the energy providers were as ill-prepared as we were and that some “nice” parts of town suffered just as badly as we did. Past me cares only enough to apologize to D. and A. for my not infrequent outbursts/grunts/wild-eyed looks. My bad, fam.

Though it felt like -12 outside, checking my phone every other minute — what else were we going to do? — ensured that at least I was going to stay warm. An inferno of anger raged through me. A lot of my “friends,” according to Fakebook, still refer to climate change as “global warming” and believe that “global warming” can’t exist if there’s a weather event this cold and this far south. I still have to stop myself from commenting the truth. I trust that most of us go through the same thing every day in Fakebookland. Apologies.

Climate change is ravaging the planet, and it also did quite a number on ERCOT. The poorly named Electric Reliability Council of Texas that manages nearly 90% of the state’s electricity load should have been better prepared for another one of these once-in-a-generation weather catastrophes that we somehow keep experiencing every year. As a network of utilities created to avoid federal regulation (and increase profits for a very small few), ERCOT cannot pull and pool resources from other, regional energy systems during a calamity. The recurring joke — that Texas is a state of rugged individualism — can’t be cracked often enough, because when the time came for our infrastructure to support us as it normally does, we were all left alone together. What lots of “individuals” don’t realize is that what’s rugged for some of us might be a little too demanding for Grandma and Grandpa, who may be expendable to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick but certainly, hopefully not to their families.

More than 4 million Texans and almost as many lost water after Winter Storm Uri blanketed most of the state in snow and subzero temps. We many not know how many people died, and many did, until months from now. At one innocent, earlier point, A. snapped a pic of the snow in our backyard and texted it to his cousin in Katy, right outside of Houston.

“Roasted,” A.’s cousin wrote back with a photo of even deeper, bigger snow. That’s just one family I know of dealing with a busted water pipe. Thankfully, our backyard spigot is only leaking. We’re still rationing water as we have been since Monday, when we had to boil it, which we did on the propane grill out back, and by “we,” I mean “I.”

As spread out as Fort Worth is, most of us without power were left with frighteningly few options: bundle up at home and hope for the best or hop in the car and slip-slide on the icy roads to a friend’s or relative’s place with power and risk catching/giving the COVID. My family was lucky enough to stay put and do a lot of hoping.

That first morning without power, Monday, was a little too chill-in-the-rapper-way than it should have been. Again, D. and I had become accustomed to short power outages. We honestly thought that at any minute, all of our appliances would return to life with that annoying beep and all would be right with the world. Texting with the neighbors and surfing Nextdoor brought my wife and me closer to reality. It was when considering the long game that my lovely wife remembered the Halo.

“Let’s hook it up,” I said, and she did — she’s famous for never giving me the chance to follow through, probably because of my lack of follow-through.

“Thank you?” I managed.

As an old journalism prof once said of our kind, you take a notebook out of our hands, and we’re idiots. And it’s true. I can’t tell you where the life-saving devices are in my house, but I haven’t missed a deadline in 22 years. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to miss one on account of some “storm” that wouldn’t even qualify as a two-hour school delay back home up north. My only other questions were logistical in nature: How would we be able to distribute the paper, and who would be able to pick them up? T-minus a day and a half ’til deadline day.

Perhaps scariest of all for two parents locked in a small house with a special-needs child, we were down to the champagne.

And the peppermint schnapps.

 

*****

 

The much ballyhooed “rolling blackouts” were a joke. While some of us suffered, many neighborhoods had a jolly old, full-powered time — as much as I hate Facebook and avoid it, during the times I checked it while powerless, I saw just enough shiny, happy fun-ness in the snow to swear off the app until my nausea went away. I could only hope I wasn’t as nauseous as the COVID-19 patients stuck in their hospital rooms waiting for vaccines that wouldn’t come. John Peter Smith Hospital rushed out into the community and started vaccinating folks on the spot. That’s how it’s done.

Texas had not seen temperatures this low since the 1990s. Playing out back in the snow with my family again, just like we had done one power-full day before, I could not remember the last time my toes had been as cold. My duck boots, they were useless. Making snowballs in my “gloves” was even worse. Somehow, someway, most of the family gloves had disappeared. I say this sarcastically yet lovingly because my wife is crazy about packing up bags of clothes we haven’t worn in a month and dropping them off at donation stations. (Love ya, babe.) All we were left with were a pair of cloth gloves for my wife and, for our son and me each, a pair of “cool” gardening gloves that look like what BMXers wear while riding. All of us had touch-friendly index fingertips and thumbs because America. After packing and launching about a dozen snowballs, every inch of my hands had turned to ice. A., a rambunctious kid, was just getting started. He fired one that hit me in the ass as I was walking back inside to “take a break” but really to check the news and my messages on my dumb phone. The good news: Liquor King is open! The bad: How would I get there?

*Made mental note to get back at son next snowball fight*

Like most folks, I suppose, we also had taken photos and a couple of videos to share with friends and family. Look how silly! Snow in Texas! Snowballs! There was also a vainglorious attempt at a snowman that ended up as nothing more than a glorified anthill. D. and A. dubbed it the “Snowcano” in objection to my label, the “Volcansnow.” On the outside, I was jolly ol’ family guy. Inside, I was steaming.

No one warned us of a potential disaster. We knew snow and subzero temps were coming — why did Oncor and other utilities neglect to inform us that their laughable “rolling blackouts” were a possibility? Had we known, maybe we would have done something differently, like maybe stock up on bottled water or maybe buy Halos for our loved ones or maybe jet off to Cancun with our wife and kids and get shamed into coming back.

Never mind. That’s right. The utility giants and ERCOT and their enablers in Austin couldn’t care less about us. We are Texans. We are “individuals.”

“No one owes you are [sic] your family anything,” that disgraced former mayor of nearby Colorado City Facebooked during the storm, “nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this! Sink or swim it’s your choice! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout! If you don’t have electricity you step up and come up with a game plan to keep your family warm and safe. If you have no water you deal without and think outside of the box to survive and supply water to your family. If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you because your [sic] lazy is a direct result of your raising! Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish [sic]. … This is sadly a product of a socialist government where they feed people to believe that the FEW will work and others will become dependent for handouts.”

And it went on.

Texas individualism, as I understand it from this blowhard’s post, is the opposite of socialism, that bugaboo of the right as if anyone who throws around the “socialism!” sobriquet actually knows what it means. Socialism does not mean poor people are given handouts. Socialism means we all share in the struggle and reap the rewards. Socialism means narrowing the gap between 1-percenters and the rest of us. Socialism can also mean public parks and beaches, public schools, public roads, public libraries, and public utilities. And if you’re afraid of socialism, don’t dare call 911 unless you’re prepared to pay for all services rendered. You’re welcome.

 

*****

 

As enervating and dour as “the social network” is, it occasionally presents me with something interesting or even sublime. Like last week during Uri. While making my daily 10-second scroll through my newsfeed, I came across a stunning photo of my hometown of Pittsburgh from that morning. The focal point was an incline, or funicular — it’s like a cable car along the side of a mountain. There it went, running up and down its tracks smoothly, perfectly, surrounded by snow. Nearly 1,250 miles away, there I was with my family praying for electricity and heat and for our pipes not to burst.

No matter what the talking heads on the right say, and they will say a lot, untrammeled deregulation and a lack of leadership are mostly responsible for last week. As Gov. Greg Abbott has demanded and received the heads of ERCOT’s leaders, he still sits comfortably ensconced in the Austin Capitol when his and Dan Patrick’s obsession with bathrooms and Chick-fil-A instead of infrastructure and good governance helped lead to the “rolling blackouts.” I needed a dance party.

As A.’s psychiatrist and play therapist have told him millions of times, the best way to control anger is to just start moving. With D. and our son dancing like lunatics in the living room on Monday afternoon, I sat back and filmed it. Not to share. There aren’t any pictures of our son in social media-world. But to document. For the three of us to be able to look back on this moment and say, “See what a badass mother your mom is?” In total, I offered next to nothing to keep our spirits up or distract our son from perhaps the bone-chilling possibility that the situation would last for days. My snowball-throwing game was on point, though.

Finally, I heard from our paper’s owner. For Tuesday, our press deadline, we would put out a “greatest hits” issue, essentially republish select stories from our recent past. I told him fine but that I would squeeze in as many timely stories as possible. I told my writers to simply email me their stories and I would edit them on my phone. Somehow.

Plotting the upcoming issue, there on my phone by myself while my wife was shaming Mary Poppins, I thought we should focus some of our 2021 coverage to energy justice. As a newspaper in energy-rich Texas, we should explain the Green New Deal whenever we can. Note: It’s not socialism. The Green New Deal simply means that utilities will be publicly owned, that they will be carefully — not overly — regulated, that they will be completely decarbonized, and that they will be guaranteed to all. It’s about time.

Republicans can’t wait to start throwing shade. We all need to get used to hearing them blame Democrats for everything. I’m sure in some warped right-wing minds, it was the Democrats who did not insulate the wind turbines and natural gas pipelines.

To some of the trolls, it was also the Dems who sent Uri, not Mother Earth.

Never one to apologize or accept blame, Abbott and other Republicans are arguing that the catastrophe is a reason to increase our reliance on fossil fuels, either completely oblivious or completely unconcerned that we can all see the oil and gas lobby behind the statements much in the way that very same lobby is behind Abbott’s and other Republicans’ political careers. That there may be no planet for their children and grandchildren to inherit means nothing compared to political expediency.

Uri “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said Tuesday, despite the fact that only a quarter of the state’s electricity generation in 2020 came from wind and solar, according to ERCOT. The rest came from gas and nonrenewables, nearly 60% in total. Bloomberg News said that wind comprised a tiny fraction of resources taken offline due to the subzero conditions.

Some sunshine made our second snowball battle a little more bearable. I made sure to stay on the patio, where the heaps of white stuff were a lot less liable to pile up on the cellophane-thin toes of my ridiculous duck boots. I packed my first one tight. “Grrr, Greg Abbott.” Bang! I nailed my kid in the back. “Grrr, ERCOT.” Ka-pow! Got him in the thigh. “Grrr, Donald Trump!”

If my son had not turned his head at the last minute, he would have eaten a face-full of snow/ice, not that I was trying to or even could aim that well. Still, I’m a monster. I had to remove myself.

A quick check of my phone back inside told me it was really time to start worrying. Oncor, the state’s largest energy provider, indicated the outage was “extended.” Opening the fridge to make another round of PB&J’s for all three of us, I was stunned by its emptiness.

“I took all the stuff out and put it either out back or in the garage, which is colder — no sun,” D. said. Once again, survival was just another excuse for my lovely wife to point out my lack of follow-through, my “alleged” lack of follow-through. I’m still contesting the results.

“Thanks, babe,” I whinnied. “So where’s the jelly?”

“Out in the garage.”

“OK?” I said. “But what about the champagne?”

“Where do you think?” my wife answered. “Out back in the snow.”

 

*****

 

By the end of Monday night, stories for last week’s paper started filling my inbox. I thought about my time as a cub reporter back up north and how I would call in the main points of late-night council meetings to my editor, who would insert my words into the skeleton story that I had penned before leaving the office for the city building. I thought that that Anthony would slap me for not taking advantage of the technology in my hands. Basically, I edited last week’s issue using the markup function on screenshots. Only three “greatest hits” stories ran. The rest were all brand new. Hope you liked it. Thanks to the writers for not demanding much of me and for our proofreader Taylor Provost for carrying the feature and art director Ryan Burger for kicking major ass all around. I owe you all.

This was around the time we Marianis started boiling water on the stove and the propane grill out back. In between pots, we managed to sneak in our family’s inaugural game of Clue, the Simpsons version. We would roll a few times, stop to explain the game to the youngest player a few times, get confused a few times, and then I would slip off my Crocs to put on my dumb duck boots and go out back to check on the water. The weird thing was, it seemed so natural. I guess having a kid makes adults accustomed to struggling. We also had some leftover homemade jambalya that I thought to warm up over the propane flames. In reality, I just wanted more time to play on my absurd phone. And stew.

One tweet among all of the angry tweets really got me going. It was by this guy Bryan William Jones: “This is a good time to note that the electrical grid in Texas was deregulated, privatized, and removed from the interconnected networks to avoid federal regulation and increase profits to a small number of wealthy individuals.”

Standing in front of the grill, me dressed in my high school letterman’s jacket and a hoodie, I thought to look down to my left. There, buried up to their necks, were our last two bottles of bubbly. Fakebook came back to me. For whatever reason, my “taking the edge off,” probably, the social network kept showing me an ad for Drizly, an alcohol delivery service.

It took me about 10 seconds to download the app and place the order.

It took Drizly about 10 minutes to cancel my order. “No drivers.”

For our nighttime entertainment, we thought to introduce our son, officially, to the Star Wars franchise, starting with the second-best movie, The Empire Strikes Back. Thanks, Halo. Thanks, Ma. (We all know Return of the Jedi is the best.)

 

*****

 

Wednesday brought a little sun. And quite a little luck.

The day was the anniversary of our first date. True to our early years, D. was craving a pizza with jalapenos and pineapple. Jalapeno-pineapple pizza was our go-to date-night meal back in the day. The only joint open was a Domino’s exactly 1.3 miles away. Almost without question, I started stepping into my useless duck boots.

“Where you going?” my wife asked.

Cue: a sweet story about wanting to do whatever it took to make our 22nd dating anniversary not just come and go with no fanfare or jalapeno-pineapple pizza.

In truth, the lack of leadership from Austin and last night’s, um, working conditions had me raging. I needed to just move.

The roads leading out of my housing complex were an icy mess. Once I reached the main drag, Old Denton Road, the coverage wasn’t as slip-inducing and Old Denton itself was passable, its gray lay wiped clean in one direction either way by the kind of people who have to drive to work during a major snowstorm to make pizzas for people like me. I almost fell only once.

Paying for my pie took all of about five minutes, just enough time for me to google “liquor store 76131.”

By the time I reached the last bend to my house, my toes were frozen and my lower back ached. My wife and son greeted me. I handed them the pizza.

“Where you going?” D. said, incredulous.

“It looks like that little liquor store by Fred’s on Western Center is open,” I said.

“OK,” my wife relented. “Text us when you’re on the way back, and we’ll come and meet you.”

The path to GG’s Liquor Store took me through a Chick-fil-A parking lot and drive-thru. The line stretched for at least a quarter mile in two directions. And lots of honking. Lots of chicken lovers honking at one another. Lots of anti-LGBTQ-company folks getting their honk on. One of them even pulled up in front of me as I, a humble pedestrian, was trying to cross the line. Like WTF? You think I’m going to stand there to order food? Is that a Texas thing?

One of the chief reasons that a damned Yankee like me does not want to “go back to where I came from!” is that I’ve made my life here. I was sent to Texas by a large company for a job, and I fell in love with an Air Force brat who happened to be in the state at the time. Had I not met D. and married her, I think I’d probably be living in Hawaii. I heard they have their own grid, too.

 

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