Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Heat By Soup And Sweater

We started with a reasonable-sized house (American-moderate, Third-World-ridiculous), and then we let our desires get the upper hand and it metastasized into a 2700-square-foot house even though it was still just the two of us, and in all that time I have never really been willing to heat the sucker. When we bought it in 1978, an octopus furnace squatted in the basement, eating oil. It was not forced-air. My grandma had a house with a big vent in the floor on the main level and all the heat emanated out of that without blessing the second floor in any way. Somewhere in the nether regions was a furnace that hoovered coal, which was as plentiful as bunnies in North Dakota. Our house in Portland was similar, in that if you turned the thermostat up, a big rumbling could be heard from the basement, and a tepid breath of warmth would seep out of the various vents and take the edge off, after an hour or so.

Second floor? Forget it. Whatever vapors deigned to coax the first floor into the low sixties were sucked straight out the walls and windows before encountering the second floor. That's where our bedroom was. Our breath froze on the windows to the point of being chippable. I bought flannel sheets. I had insulation blown in. I think it was more a suggestion of insulation. We don't really know where that insulation ended up. You're supposed to trust the blower guy.

Early on I bought a Vermont Castings wood stove and Dave installed it in the kitchen after he put in brick walls and a hearth. I spent most of the winter four feet away from the stove. Dave put in ducting and a fan to pull some of the wood heat into our bedroom on the second floor. The ice disappeared from inside the windows but it was still hard to get out of bed in the morning.

We bought a cord of wood that first year but then Dave kept coming upon discarded pallet material and whatnot and before long he had developed a habit of scrounging waste wood from construction sites, a habit that continues to this day. "What does your husband do now that he's retired?" people ask, and the first thing I think of is his butt in the air bent over a dumpster scouting for dimensional lumber. All our wood is free, if you put no value on his labor and willingness to dumpster-dive and saw shit up for our stove.

We each had our bailiwicks. I'd pay for utilities, for instance, and he'd pay for food. It just sort of settled out that way, and after about five or ten years of shivering in the dark, Dave announced that  he was going to (dammit) pay for fuel, and he (by cracky) planned to pay for some right then and there. He'd buy us a tankful of oil, and stride right up to the thermostat and flip the lever Like A Man. The problem was--and he knew it--something else was responsible for my heat tightwaddery. There have always been things I'm totally cheap about and other things I can't throw enough money at. My budget for good beer would buy a lifetime of BTUs. I'll go out and spend enough money on one dinner + tip to pay for a hundred mosquito nets for African kids. I buy Art. But I'll reuse the same Kleenex until it's saturated and if it has enough integrity to hold up when it dries I'll pull it out flat and start over. And I can hardly bear to heat my house.

When I was a kid our house was always cold. I remember crawling behind my mom's Electrolux vacuum cleaner because the exhaust coming out of the back end was warm. Sensing the oil heat flying out of the house makes me squirm. Maybe early on it was about the money, but now it just seems wasteful in a way that drinking good beer just doesn't. We have natural gas heat now, but that isn't much better. I hate to pull all this fossil fuel out of the ground and squander it just because it's hard to move with ten sweaters on. I'm not out of sweaters yet.

It's the curse of the liberal. I'm totally cool with having a wonderful meal and supporting my local farmer and brewer and restaurateur and wait staff. One of my favorite local joints was in an old drafty concrete electrical substation building that was impossible to heat. The waiters tucked Pendleton blankets around our laps and then brought us Pad Thai. I felt right at home.

46 comments:

  1. I hear you. Our house, built for the tropics, is cooler than most houses here, but man! come winter, and you rediscover forgotten nipples!

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    1. Forgotten nipples are the very worst kind.

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  2. My house has two thermostats...so I do turn down the upstairs bedrooms except for company. I hate hearing he sound of the heater kick on and on when that cold wind is blowing at 50 MPH. I hate burning fossil fuels but I also realize that releasing carbon into the atmosphere with a wood fire, while romantic, is no environmental virtue.

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    1. Absolutely. They'll outlaw my stove soon enough anyway. The pollution from my stove is one of those things, like the fact that beer contains wheat and I'm off wheat, that I pay relaxed attention to.

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    2. Beer contains wheat? I thought it was barley and hops.

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    3. Some of it does, but I don't know if all of it does, and I don't intend to find out.

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  3. My first wife refused to open any window in the winter to conserve heat. My mom had always said to open a window "a crack." For years I suffered migraine headaches in the winter. After the divorce I opened windows a crack and no more headaches...seems the brain needs oxygen...who knew.

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  4. We keep our bedroom closed off during the day and let it stay unheated. I open the window a crack in the winter and snuggle up under the covers. We are both happy with this arrangement, and then when I get up I turn the thermostat from 62 to 64 for the rest of the apartment. Heat is electric and way expensive, so Soup and Sweater are well known to us. :-)

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    1. Ooo, electric heat! We have that at the cabin. Man it's spendy.

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  5. No. Sorry. I hate being cold. I have down comforters and mohair sweaters and quilts to go with every chair. I will happily wear a hat in the house and multiple socks are a given. And still, I have to burn enough gas to keep the house at 72 or I start to get sick. AND I burn candles all winter because the savage in the back of my brain needs to see fire to stay warm.

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    1. I was wondering what that was in the back of your brain.

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    2. It has been wondering about you, too.

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  6. I am becoming less tolerant of the cold as I get older. We used to be very cheap - keeping the thermostat at 62, wearing sweatshirts, etc. Our house is not well insulated. It was built as a summer house so who needed insulation!? But now I want my comfort and am willing to pay for it - call it an old-age luxury. If it gets too expensive I will move south...

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    1. I'm becoming less tolerant of heat. I'm way past having hot flashes, but my thermostat seems to have been reset. When I have friends over I turn up the heat and put on a T-shirt and they're still all bundled up in layers.

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  7. We were raised on no heat, by children of the depression. No upstairs vents could be opened; the stairwell had a curtain hung. It was total economics when I raised my children. I couldn't afford more than fifty dollars a month for gas. I drove a nail into the wall that stopped the thermostat lever. Nothing has changed in my dotage except now I hate winter.

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    1. I love winter. It doesn't get much below freezing here but some of those 33-degree rainy days pack quite the punch.

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  8. I hate being cold, but I'm also a cheapskate. I set the thermostat to 72, but thanks to our crap windows there's only one place in the house where that's actually comfortable (not-too-coincidentally, my office). But every now and then Hubby bumps it up a degree and we bask in the illicit thrill of sybaritic comfort.

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    1. I have to go look up sybaritic now. It sounds itchy.

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  9. Six of one, half dozen of the other. Burning wood pollutes the air. So I guess it's a pick-your-poison situation. I like heat. I've lived in the south too long to appreciate the cold.

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    1. And here I'm thinking if I ever have to move anywhere, God forbid, it will be north.

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  10. I hear you. I try and keep the house cool. An ongoing battle with himself. Though a rented house we lived in years ago was too chilly even for me. A rented, drafty damp house. In winter the frost would settle on the blankets in the bedroom. Which made getting out of bed really hard.

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    1. I will refrain from making "hoarfrost" jokes about your bedroom. This is me, refraining.

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    2. And how stunning you look while refraining...

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  11. Yes, Murr, do come north! And bring your sweaters - you'll need 'em. We use electric heat (... which is produced from burning coal around these parts). Seems like a person can't win without the environment losing. Dang our consciences. They're like an albatross around our necks, except not as warm.

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    1. Ha. Yeah, we do all the same wrong things as the right-wingers do--we just feel awful doing them.

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  12. You'll all have to come defrost your frosty toes in my reptile lab. I have to keep it at 79 or 80 during the day, summer and winter--but the house is on a cheaper routine. I've insulated almost everything to make up for the lab temps and put in solar, which paid for my heat pump and other electric use all summer and through October. Now it's on to some new doors. When it's cold, I see the great outdoors though the cracks at the edge of the front door panels. I've delayed getting rid of that oak door for way too long. I guess one can spend the money on prevention or otherwise; it's the same money.

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    1. There's nothing more satisfying than a new thermal window or good door. Well, I'm probably showing my age, there. There might be other more satisfying things.

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  13. I can attest to the veracity of this post. Early on, when their house was still normal-sized, I was staying with them while they went off to their cabin one weekend. One particularly dank and bitter cold weekend, for Portland. Being the can-do guy I was back then, I couldn't even figure out how to get that big wood stove to burn wood, so there was no heat, but I buried myself under every blanket and quilt I could locate. I think I finally ended up going to the ER, just to get warm. Murr does not exaggerate.
    Love you both,
    Jimmy

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    1. HA HA HA HA HA go to the ER to warm up! Oh right. You did. I remember now. Good to hear from you, Jimmy.

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  14. We have enough sunshine falling on Oz in two days that, if harnessed via solar panels, would be able to power the whole world for a year. And what are we doing? Digging up fossil fuels and fracking for gas!! Yep, dumb down under.

    Like you Murr, my internal thermostat is wonky and I don't feel the cold. I wear shorts and t-shirts all year round, and boil my blood in summer. Thank you, thank you to whoever invented air-conditioning. If only I could afford to install solar panels I could enjoy guilt-free cool.

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    1. ICK. We don't have air conditioning here. Don't need it. Lots of people have it, but they don't need it. We have about four or five uncomfortable days and even then it gets cool enough at night to manage, if you can exhaust out your indoor air. This climate is pretty much a requirement for me now.

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  15. Do you have double-paned windows? If not, try plastic over them for the cold season. It's amazing how much the temperature climbs, and how fast, once we're not heating up the whole neighbourhood.

    I am also getting less heat-tolerant as I grow older. I dread the day (may it not be for a couple of decades yet) that the family puts me in one of those nice "homes" for seniors, where they keep the whole place at 80 degrees, and don't let you open windows.

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    1. Most of our windows are double-paned, but not in the "old" part of the house. I love them. And if I got in one of those hothouses, I'd bring a hatchet with me.

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  16. Murr, thanks for the laughs. I like a cold bedroom but it does pose a problem when I need to pee at 4am. I lay awake and hope to fall back to sleep so I don't have to shiver my way to the toilet.

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    1. This is so true. I don't usually HAVE to get up. I lie there for a while thinking--how bad could it be to just...you know?

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  17. When living in eastern Washington we could judge the heat of the fireplace insert by where Susie the cat was sleeping. Smack in front of the fireplace = not very warm; on the rocking chair in front of the fireplace = pretty warm; on the couch across the room from the fireplace = TOASTY. Loved that fireplace insert and the heat it put out once it got going.

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    1. Those new gas fireplace inserts work great. Our first cat couldn't get hot enough. If she was missing we'd look in the hottest part of the house. This one likes warmth well enough but then she has to go somewhere to recalibrate.

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  18. I sleep better in a cold bedroom. I just throw another layer of flannel on. By February laying in our bed feels a bit like getting dental x-rays.

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    1. I sleep better in a REAL cold bedroom. In fact, I can't imagine why we didn't love the old set-up. But it was probably more like 35 when now it only gets down to 50 or so.

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  19. I like a cold room, but the damp and cold in there now is beyond comfort. It is too damp and too cold. And, I am warm-natured! I wrap up, wear a coat in the house, eat warm food, and wish I had more than a space heater!

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    1. Oh, I'll admit it. I turn on the heat now and then these days.

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  20. I prefer being cool to melting on the couch, but in winter I would much rather heat my home to comfort level than eat out. I still wear warm clothing and wrap a blanket around me to watch TV, but the heating is on too, enough to take the chill out of the air. I don't understand people who heat their homes to the point where they could walk around in a swimsuit if they wanted, that's just wasteful.

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    1. I can't imagine wanting to walk around in a swimsuit.

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  21. Personally, I find it easier to "heat up" rather than "cool off" and I just love a cozy sweater and blanket!

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    1. Plus, you look good in it. Makes everyone else warm.

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