Ever since the phrase "energy crisis" entered the American vocabulary, the first bite of cold settles a certain stubbornness over our house as firmly as an Alaskan snow.
My husband calls it "Hanging Tough Against Big Oil." Along about mid-November he sets his jaw and becomes the Sentry in front of the thermostat, promising that the Big Guys with the Big Bucks won't see the first penny from our house until January. I set my jaw too, but mostly to keep my teeth from chattering.
This year (mark the words of The Thermostat Sentry), we're going for broke. No monster truck will flatten the azaleas getting at the oil tank. No sheik will keep his harem in bon-bons out of our pockets. No more final payments in June. Tough luck Texaco. Kiss off Exxon. We're not having any. Not a drop.
We arrived at this declaration of independence via a system of trial and error and the realization that a trip to Europe would be cheaper than a winter's worth of heating oil. The trial part centered on getting rid of that nasty ice ring in the bath tub. The errors included a bicycle-propelled generator ("lose weight fast and heat your home") and those cute little calico snakes that are supposed to scare away drafts by sitting under the doors.
The Sentry likes to call this experimentation "adopting an alternative life style." I call it learning to be cold.
Our first alteration was a wood stove: one of those super-deluxe models that slips into the fireplace and blows out hot air with a fan that sounds like a Boeing 707 on takeoff. The thing about a wood stove in a drafty old house with its furnace turned off is that on cool October evenings it melts the furniture and in sub-zero January it's a little like blowing on your hands to keep warm in a blizzard.
The wood stove is the cornerstone of our experiment in hanging tough. It is also the focus of our life at home during the winter. We spend our winter evenings locked in the radius of its warmth and our weekends splitting and sawing and stacking its greedy daily intake of wood. We run downstairs to nurse it first thing each morning and stay up past midnight to fuel it for the night. We put up with the cinder burns on the floor in front of the hearth and the constant trail of wood chips leading in from the back door. Our back yard is booby-trapped with pits for hot ashes.
Our Saturday-night babysitters get a 10-second discourse on the idiosyncrasies of our 6-year-old and a 30-minute lecture on the care and feeding of the stove. (The fire is still always out when we get home.)
The stove is a solution for keeping the furnace off into early December and a comforting edge against a thermostat heavily guarded against a setting higher than 55 degrees in January and February. But as a sole source of heat in the icy depths of winter, it stinks.
I learned this cold fact of alternate living late last December when a dispute -- politely termed -- with our oil supplier convinced the Sentry we would have revenge by doing without. I lingered briefly over the idea of running away to Florida and then threw on more sweaters instead.
We had already exhausted most of the standard tips for conserving energy, with the exception of insulating underneath the house. Our home was built without a basement in an era when Texans were giving their oil away just so they wouldn't drown in it. Certainly the builder never foresaw that, once all those tons of lumber and mortar were in place, anyone would be dumb enough to go under there.
In mid-January we slithered into the crawl (creep) space, where I stifled screams over a dead snake and a cat skeleton while the Sentry waxed eloquent about the pioneer spirit in the quavering beam of my flashlight. It was, coincidentally, precisely the moment when my head got stuck between a joist and the dirt floor that I decided surviving the winter would be a matter of devious innovation.
As the thermostat hit an all-time low that night, I barricaded myself into the laundry room and unhooked the heat exhaust hose on the clothes dryer. For three hours I enjoyed a sauna, fending off each knock at the door with lunatic ramblings. ("What ARE you doing in there?" -- "Just watching the sheets go 'round.")
I took to baking bread, with the oven door open "so the crust will be nice and crisp." I sent urgent telegrams to L.L. Bean for electric socks and Icelandic sweaters. On really cold nights I hid in my closet with the hair dryer going full blast under my coat.
But as the winter wore cruelly on, I realized I couldn't stay warm indefinitely by popping Jalapeno peppers. I began to consider mutiny against the Sentry. Then came a bitter cold evening when we were huddled around the wood stove listening to the news: "The nation's largest oil companies report their profits for the last quarter were the largest ever . . . "
Suddenly, I began to feel a bit warmer. Through some contorted maze of reasoning, it was heartening that even though I was sitting there with frost-bitten toes, at least I wasn't throwing protection money at some unseen giant in a pitiful plea for warmth. I may have gone mad from the cold, but the freedom to freeze or make do on my own terms had a new appeal.
In February, I asked for a quartz heater for my birthday. It made the rest of the winter sufferable. In the spring, I found there was no reason for the annual diet: I just peeled off four layers of sweaters to find a skinny new me.
By June's first hot spell, we were paying for a new patio instead of the last of the oil bills. I found myself smiling confidently in July as the Sentry poured over his latest plans for a backyard windmill. I didn't even complain about spending August scrounging for wood.
This year I'm ready. The wood stove is tuned, the electric socks are primed and the quartz heater has a twin in the kitchen, where there's a standby supply of Jalapenos. The Sentry's ready to take his station.
Take that Big Oil. Our teeth may chatter, but we're on our own.