Mum Mum and Morty were right

Mum Mum and Morty were right

My maternal grandmother, Mum Mum we called her, used to leave notes all over her Connecticut house where we visited for long stretches each summer. Among the myriad directives to her unruly descendants was this terse directive: "Turn Lights Off." She would scold us for using reams of paper towels instead of the sensible cloth alternative. Leisurely showers ran the risk of intervention of the most appealing, near-Psycho-esque proportions.

Mum Mum may have been a sketch, but it turns out she was also right — despite the fact that energy conservation was essentially un-American in the 1950s. Conventional wisdom went: What good are lights when they are not on? A house all aglow inside and out was a prosperous wholesome place where transparent familial matters transpired. Consumption was the name of the game; hadn't God proclaimed, "Let there be light"?

One of our neighbors, back home on Long Island, lived alone in a large ramshackled house that was eerily lit by a lone light dangling from the ceiling at the end of a black cord. The bare bulb swung slightly back and forth, or so it seemed to my friends and me as we watched from the bushes. We chose not to speculate on what was making it swing.

Everyone knew that old Morty was odder than a stack of three dollar bills. His mother's Cadillac was up on blocks in the garage while he walked about town like a mad composer late for a concert, his long black hair cascading past his collar. Men didn't wear long hard back then, at lease in Huntington, New York circa 1960. And grownups didn't walk places in those days either.

But that one solitary bulb was the clincher in our diagnosis: what sane human being lit a rambling home with a 75-watter? That was beyond odd: it was creepy. No one rang his doorbell on Halloween.

It turns out that Morty may have been on to something. Unlike Mum Mum he wasn't conserving for cold cash; he left a bundle to the local postmaster and police chief. No, our neighbor was something of a latter-day Thoreau, living deliberately and simply in the midst of suburban profligacy. He is looking saner every day.

I'm no Morty, but there is more than a little Mum Mum in my DNA. I turn off lights when I leave a room, or when someone else leaves a room, a trait the rest of my household finds more annoying than laudatory. I set the thermostat low at night, frighteningly low some have alleged. I recycle and compost.

When a suitable deciduous tree falls in our woodlot, I usually hear it, cut it up, split and age the wood, and burn it in the wood stove. When this local fuel is burned hot, emissions are minimized. I've signed up for the clean energy option on my electric bill, mandating the power company to use solar, wind, water or biofuels to generate our household's share of electricity. The company offered customers a rebate if they used less juice over the summer compared to the previous one. So I've been turning off more lights and using fans instead of air conditioning. I am eagerly awaiting my end of year windfall.

The state of Connecticut is urging its citizens to conserve by, among other things, cutting down on our daily shower from ten to eight minutes. Having been raised on three-minute ablutions, I can't imagine what my fellow Nutmeggers are doing in there all that time.

I am not a masochist or saint. I like doing this. Beyond the family tradition and the money saved, there is an overarching issue of what is sufficient and proper. With about five percent of the world's population, our nation consumes nearly a quarter of the world's energy. We have both elbows on the table and a serving spoon in each hand. I wouldn't have dared to behave that way at my grandmother's table.