It’s almost the end of October and the yearly heat dance has started. It began when my wife asked me to change the furnace filter.
“Did you want me to start the furnace?” I asked, knowing full well what the answer would be.
“That’s up to you,” she said, and the dance began.
When we were first married, my wife and I worked in crappy low-paying jobs. We didn’t have much money. A luxury was anything not absolutely essential to maintain life. Dinner and a movie was picking up cheap hot dogs and going back to our small rented house to watch a snowy movie on a black and white TV—if the stratosphere gods and electronic gods smiled on us at the same time and allowed not only a signal to come through, but the TV to work at the same time. Heat was not something we splurged on until we risked getting frostbite sitting in our living room. At the time I worked twelve hours a day sometimes seven days a week, so I only had twelve hours that I didn’t spend at work, and eight hours of those were spent in bed sleeping. We were young so there was a lot of snuggling. I’m sure my wife thought she was fortunate to marry a man who liked to cuddle when I was just trying to keep from freezing to death.
Finally my wife and I got better jobs and bought our first home. It was a huge one hundred year-old Victorian monster. We were young and the stupidity of youth possessed us with this maniacal dream of fixing it up and selling it for a huge profit. When you’re young with the enthusiasm of Richard Simmons and the brains of broccoli, you figure you can save money by doing the work yourself. You never figure in the cost of hiring professionals to fix the mistakes you made when you were saving money by doing the work yourself. By the way the professionals begin by ripping out everything you did and starting over, so it actually costs more than if you had just hired them to begin with.
The house didn’t have insulation in the walls and a converted coal-burning furnace in the basement burned more gas and produced more carbon emissions than a rich environmentalist’s private jet. (When our oldest daughter was in high school, she had a part-time job on the weekends. She had to be at work by six in the morning. After she had taken her shower, she would crank the thermostat up to seven hundred degrees and sit on a furnace register with a blanket draped over her like a homeless person sitting on a subway grate covered with a piece of plastic. The scream of the dial on the gas meter spinning would jar me out of a sound sleep.) Right after we bought the house came the energy crisis, and gas prices went through the roof, so we didn’t turn on the furnace until we absolutely had to so we wouldn’t have to take out a second mortgage to pay the bill, because the only thing going up faster than gas prices were interest rates.
We’re passed that now. We have a smaller, well-insulated house with a high-efficiency furnace that doesn’t pour its deadly carbon monoxide fumes out a chimney on top of the house, but rather out a sidewall of the basement where it can be better breathed in by dogs, cats, birds and the occasional neighbor kid passing by, because darn it, we are an environmentally friendly family!
We’re not Bill Gates rich, but we can certainly afford to pay the gas bill. Yet every fall we do the dance. Who will be the first to break down and turn on the furnace?
It’s certainly not because we’re cheap, just look at my wife’s overflowing I-have-nothing-to wear closet or my rod rack in the garage filled with fishing rods and reels, some that I haven’t used in years. My grandparents and to a lesser extent my parents went through the Great Depression. I know every politician now declares every downturn in the economy as, “The worst since the Great Depression.” But in the thirties it was bad, mainly because there were few of the safety nets we have today. Poor people today have cell phones, cars and TVs. Back then many people didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. And even when government finally stepped in and helped, there was a stigma to taking assistance that doesn’t exist today. My parents and grandparents didn’t throw anything away, especially food. They learned to repurpose leftovers or just hang onto them until they became green and moldy in the refrigerator, and then they used them to make penicillin.
Sometimes tough times can have an impact on you that lasts forever. I remember dreading the gas bill showing up, because maybe we didn’t have the money to pay for it, or maybe we’d have to give up something else to get the money to pay for it. So every fall we do the dance as a ritual tribute to the tough times our marriage started in. Eventually one of us will break down and turn the furnace on, usually when the other one is out of the house. We won’t say anything about it, and the dance is over for that year. Until next summer when the air conditioner dance begins.
We finished the editing for The Almond People, my next novel due out after the first of the year. The logline is: The people of a 1965 Iowa town must decide how much they are willing to do for a miracle.
I’ll keep you posted as the release date gets closer.