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To Light One Candle

Paralysis by Analysis

The other night, while ratcheting through my usual itinerary of slightly-left-of-liberal online weblog sites, the house power cut off, accompanied with the characteristic, instantaneous screech and thud from the attached PC speakers.

The continuous gurgling of our fish aquarium filters stopped, the HVAC fan was suddenly quiet, and the unconsciously comforting droning of the refrigerator ceased. Our blackened house was plunged instantaneously into an enveloping, pervasive silence.

We lose power here once in awhile, I thought. Usually it only last a few minutes, if that. I will sit and wait for at least that long, to give the our local power utility employees a chance to justify their CEO's fat bonus again this year. It's really not so bad to have a few moments of absolute peace and tranquility. Good for the old blood pressure…

After a few seconds of quiet meditation, I felt convinced that my blood pressure was by then certainly south of normal -- and I had started to run out of meditative mantras. I began to consider the notion of finding and lighting a candle. This gave me pause, since I knew that doing so would inject a certain small -- but definite -- factor of risk into an otherwise risk-free environment. Many house fires start from accidents with open flames. In particular -- and this domicile is about as particular as it gets -- the risk here is higher. Were I to place the candle too low, the dogs might knock it off. Placed high, the cats might do the same. I would have to attend the candle's presence and status continuously. That would be more responsibility than I might want to assume. What if I were to momentarily take my guard off it? My God, what if I were to fall asleep with it still burning?

Our house is filled to its veritable brim with paper, plastic and other flammable (or inflammable, if you prefer -- the same meaning) materials. Books, magazines, newsprint, fabrics, carbon-based ephemera of all sorts cover most of the square footage in our home. This place is an organic chemist's wet dream. We probably deserve a personalized consumer award from both Weyerhauser and Dow Chemical for single-handedly guaranteeing their profit margins each year. There is hardly a molecule of matter in here that doesn't crave being rapidly oxidized. Bottom line: There is no safe place to station an open flame within these walls.

As it was pitch-black in the house at the time, I didn't need to close my eyes to visualize the fiery catastrophe that would befall a minor accident with a lit candle. Sure, all the cats would run out the pet door -- along with the damned culprit with the smoking tail -- and I'm fairly certain we and the dogs would get out in time before the place collapsed in a crash of burning timbers. But those SOB pets can live in the woods, feeding off the game and sleeping curled up against a tree. Where the hell do we live? My idea of "roughing it" is a Ramada Inn in the foothills, not too far away from a 3-star restaurant. God has not yet created a tree that I would want to bed down next to.

You may wonder why I did not simply fish out a flashlight. If so, you are obviously not one of those who understand just how truly dangerous leaky batteries can become. Explosively dangerous. Who would keep such potentially devastating time-bombs in their house? Not me.

In the camping supply section of Wal-Mart, I have seen "cold-light" sticks for sale. I'd read where these contain certain chemicals, and when you bend the stick it allows them to mix to produce a bit of cold, ghostly light that lasts for awhile. Here is how it works:

  • Hydrogen peroxide oxidizes a phenyl oxalate ester, resulting in a chemical called phenol and an unstable peroxyacid ester.

  • The unstable peroxyacid ester decomposes, resulting in additional phenol and a cyclic peroxy compound.

  • The cyclic peroxy compound decomposes to carbon dioxide.

  • This decomposition releases energy to the dye.

  • The electrons in the dye atoms jump to a higher level, then fall back down, releasing energy in the form of light.

I have been tempted in the past to buy a few of these sticks. But reading further about them, the chemicals sound vaguely threatening ("unstable"?) and the explanation of how they work seems oddly glib. To the little devil on my right shoulder, it all sounds suspiciously like a Communist plot to implant these mind-numbing chemicals in every American household -- much like fluoride in public water supplies. To the little angel on my left shoulder, it brings up the question of whether the used light-sticks can be disposed of in an environmentally safe manner or not. The big bozo between them thinks: Sure, carbon dioxide sounds harmless enough -- but it can kill you if it displaces the breathable air within a closed space!

Now, I have been around candles in the past -- but not if I can help it. My contact lenses and sinuses scream in agony whenever we wander past a boutique in a mall that sells scented candles. Candles are made of wax, an oppressive, oleaginous substance if there ever was one. Wax is derived from animal fat. Sitting in the darkness, I can see in my mind's eye that noxious substance vaporizing, floating through the air, and thickly coalescing once again on the lining of my lungs. Just imagining its cloying deposition there makes me want to gasp for oxygen. Give me the breath of life, not the vapors of dead, decayed animal flesh!

I sat morosely in the darkness and silence for a few more moments, mulling over these distasteful thoughts. Soon, my wife appeared at the doorway to the library, holding a lighted candle.

"What are you doing, sitting in the dark?", she asked.


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