Thursday, February 28, 2008


The Importance of Being Furnaced

Originally published in the New York Mills Herald on 2/6/08 and credited to my alternate identity, Elisa Korentayer.

The furnace had been testy for the last day or so. In my inexperience with our new house, I figured it was because the furnace wasn’t capable of heating a house against negative twenty six degree temperatures and thirty mile-an-hour winds. The day before the second floor had only made it up to 49 degrees, while the main floor topped out at 60. That morning, the upstairs thermostat read 43. From yesterday’s experience, I figured it would probably be about ten degrees warmer on the main floor. So I tramped downstairs seeking heat, thinking that perhaps I could dress in the family room. Troubled by the thought of those agonizing moments between turning off the warm water and bumbling into my clothes, I began to question whether a shower was absolutely necessary that day.

As I traveled down the staircase, I first noticed that there was no warmth flowing upwards and then that there was no discernible temperature difference downstairs. I started thinking about whether I needed to get out of my pajamas at all that day and about how many layers one could actually put on at one time. The thermostat had been set to 67. That morning, the main floor temperature read 42. I was slyly impressed with my ability to be in 42 degrees without a coat or much of anything outside of my pajamas. Then it hit me—the furnace must have stopped running, and I became dully aware that this was not a good thing during a Minnesota winter.

In the basement, the big metal monster sat motionless and quiet. Looking in to the mess of wires in the furnace’s bowels, one could discern the glow of a small red indicator light—a tiny signal of a very large problem. It was 7am, and I frantically dialed Mike’s Plumbing and Heating. Hallelujah! They could come that morning. For the next hour or so, I busied myself making hot tea and hot cereal. I put on my ankle-length down coat and went outside to gather wood for the fireplace. I was in a state of mild panic, though I was too numb to notice. The heat was gone. There was no way to make more heat. The house would freeze. I would freeze. And even if I managed to find shelter, the pipes in my new house would freeze, and there’d be even bigger problems. This dream house I had just moved into, this place that I had lovingly imagined as my Minnesota refuge, this haven that was supposed to shelter me from all that was cold and hazardous, this house had failed me.

Within an hour or so, Jeremy the furnace expert was over. Cheerful and smiling, he wasn’t at all fussed at what seemed to me to be a small Apocalypse. After finding the fuel tank and the furnace, he got to work tinkering and repairing. A new fuel nozzle and a few adjustments later, I heard the most blessed sound, the furnace firing up and blowing air. Soon Jeremy was on his way with parting words about how it could take a full day for the house to warm back up to a comfortable temperature.

It was my first free day at the new house, and I had intended to use it to unpack my office. I couldn’t face that task in forty-some-odd degrees. But I had made plans, and I wrestled with myself. You must unpack, I chastened myself. You must take what the cold weather gives you and get things done. A saner and more practical side of me spoke quietly. There’s a sale on electric oil heaters in Alexandria. It may be a two-hour round trip, but your little Honda has heat. My heated car sounded like paradise. I felt sick at the thought of staying one more minute in cold that was the sign of a house that had betrayed me. I couldn’t even face changing out of my pajamas. Then I realized that no one can see what’s under my great big winter coat, and I remembered that winter hats are very handy for hiding bed-tousled hair. I grabbed my keys and my purse, and, feeling unfresh and unclean in last night’s pajamas, I piled into my car and cranked the heat to high.

I spent that day purchasing warmth: a down-alternative blanket, two electric oil heaters, rope caulk, door draft dodgers, plastic for my windows, outlet insulators, and even a towel warmer. I returned home to a house that had warmed significantly. Yes! It was finally in the sixties. I had never properly appreciated the source of my home’s heat. It took a cold house in a Minnesota winter to make me understand the importance of being furnaced.

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