Cure for the Cold

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)
By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, February 19, 2006

People now talk about heating bills the way they used to talk about sex. Some try to be discreet, but others like to gossip. "I hear the Cumbersoms paid $624 in December because Ralph won't caulk the windows," someone will say. "Janice is devastated."

The first large heating bill of the season always feels like a betrayal. You're stunned. You think maybe it's a mistake. Then you lash out, disgusted by things you had once loved, such as high ceilings and bay windows. During winters past, you felt a chill creeping into the room, but you were in denial and just put on an extra sweater. You fool.

Once you start thinking about the heating bill, you become obsessive. December's cold weather activated a brain mechanism that refused to shut off even during the weirdly mild weeks of January. It's as though your house is a cab and you're always watching the meter. Let's be brutally direct: You become conscious of the energy you use.

The average American burns roughly 47 jillion "British thermal units" of energy daily, plus an uncounted number of French and German thermal units. The general standard, in the past, was that you would turn down the thermostat only if there was evidence that your house was melting the under-lying planetary crust. People took pride in having a house so hot that, in the depths of winter, everyone sat around in undergarments, fanning themselves and holding iced beverages to their foreheads.

But that's changing. Now we recognize that household warmth, far from a necessity, is a fetish, an indulgence. It's a recent invention of a society grown so soft that its members have forgotten how to kill, gut and don the hide of a wild furry animal. Other than the socialites.

The good news is, there are many very practical steps that ordinary people can take to keep their heating bills reasonable. In my house we keep the thermostat at 48 degrees and then turn it down at night. It's hard to enter my house because of the towels and spare curtains and stuffed animals crammed by the front door to keep the heat inside. When you do manage to fight your way in, the first thing you see are strange mounds of blankets and clothes in the living room. Laundry? No, my children.

We've stopped using the gas stove entirely. Often the kids lobby for a "hot meal," and they have been known to get a little whimpery about it. The trick, I tell them, is to eat with great speed, so that the sheer violence of the teeth grinding and gnawing will generate heat in the mouth. This doesn't work as well on frozen food.

We eat as much as possible, since calories are technically a measure of heat. Then, to keep the blood moving, we burn them off every night during "calisthenics hour" in the living room.

On the very coldest days, we go in and out of the house so fast you can barely see the door move. When the children insist on leaving, I shove them through the narrow aperture before slamming the door closed. I would like to apologize to my youngest for trying to fit her through the mail slot.

I got a little rattled the first time I went downstairs at dawn and saw the furniture covered with frost. And our visitors are always a bit taken aback when they come into the house and can see their breath. There have been some awkward moments when I've asked dinner guests to rub their bodies against mine to create what I call "survival friction."

One overnight guest complained bitterly about a frigid bedroom, even though I lent her an extra blanket and two cats.

Obviously we cannot have a fire in the hearth because it turns the entire house into a kind of vacuum, sucking cold air in through every crack and then spewing any remaining heat back up the chimney, forcing us to the window to wave goodbye.

"Where does the heat go?" one of my kids asked.

"To the rich -- the damn, warm, toasty rich," I answered.

We've become very class-conscious, all too aware that, as middle-class people, we spend the winter shivering, while the rich will never know what it is like to sit down to a Sunday dinner with chattering teeth. For them, vichyssoise is just a culinary option, not a necessity.

We shan't despair. We cling to hope. That hope has a name: global warming. Bad for the environment, great for the monthly heating bill. We'll worry about summer when we get to it.

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