Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Heat Of The Matter

I hate the cold. I don't think I have ever met anyone that that piece of news hasn't come up in about the first 10 minutes of conversation. It may  be the only thing anyone takes away from the encounter-this freak woman is paranoid about turning blue from the temperatures falling under 80F. I wear long pants and sweat shirts year round with layers of tshirts under it. I hate air conditioning. I use the heater in my car even in summertime. There is always tissue in my pockets to deal with the constant drip I get when my nose gets too much iciness, which for Michigan is pretty much all but 6 weeks  out of the year.

So why do I wait so long to turn the heat on in my home each year and turn if off probably too early? Some say it's because I am cheap (I prefer frugal). I don't want to make the energy company (and their monopoly) any richer than need be and I don't own any stock in it, either. The game starts pretty much the end of August or Labor Day weekend to see how quickly others brag of putting the heat ON and I just add another shirt layer.

October 1 was the cut off for years, as the kids were still here but I just knocked down the temp from 68F to 66F to lower. Soon those wonderful programmable thermostats came out and jeepers, the contraption  did its thing after just a few seconds of me bossing somebody around to plug some data in. Worked for me! If by chance the cold got here before it should, I sometimes let it run for a few hours, but not the full cycle that we normally did. I was doing this to save money but I also did this to put myself in a position of knowing what if felt like to be cold. Bone cold. 

I pushed the boundaries until I was into November at times. Hubby was working all the time, I turned off the heat in the unused bedrooms upstairs and just kept the family room and kitchen areas going open vent. At night, when I would use my four hours of dial up Internet, I often could not bend my fingers as I neared my last half hour of time at my desk tucked in an unheated bedroom, looking at the blue splotches on my legs and waiting to crawl into the spot of bed when hubby rose up for work and the furnace was programmed to come on just enough to heat the chill off and tone back for daylight as if by itself in a world of winter dreams.  I would later leave for the gym, and the house would be warmed again in time for my return to start the cycle over and turn off at 11, when droopy eyes and early alarms mandate.

The farthest I ever got was November 15 about 7  years ago. Last year, it was November 11. This year, tonight, November 14, I gave in. I wanted to keep going but it was for other reasons,as something changed  4 years ago. It wasn't any longer a contest just to push the date farther and farther but to experience what many others do on a daily basis in many parts of this country because they can't afford to heat their homes or they have no homes. What started out as a cheap game (frugal) became an act of empathy. And it hit very close to home. 

I found out after the death of my sister that there was no heat in the house she lived in. There was no running water. The electricity was still on because the electric company has a rule they won't cut all utilities in the winter for the elderly. My mom had died the previous winter and no one informed the local power company, so when they cut the gas for non-payment, they left the one that was most usable on, thinking mom was still in there and alive. By having electricity, my sister had a space heater in the living room. Nothing else. No gas to cook with (only a microwave), not water to flush the toilets with, nor to take a bath or shower. She had had bypass surgery and the powers that be decided she could go "home" without the normal check from social services. Had they done the jobs we pay them to, maybe she would still be alive. I think in part she froze to death. It's not a pretty picture and the guilt I take with me the rest of my life is something I wish on no one. Sadly, I had no contact with her the last 10 years of her life because of a controlling brother. Shortly after her death, the house caught fire and that brother nearly died. The fire was concentrated around that space heater. To this day, there is no admission of what really was going on and never will be.

I realize how lucky I am to have ready available heat, running water and electricity.  Many people struggle to keep just one of them on, often using an electric oven or gas stove to heat their homes at night, giving up one to keep another. Water can be bought in grocery stores or borrowed from neighbors in buckets. Gas for heat isn't so easy, only those with fireplaces maybe have a third option-they might even burn their own belongings simply to keep the winter creep from their bones and spend many more hours bundled in beds or sofas just to while the time away. This could be your own family. It was mine.

As I said, guilt has a lot to do with this heat issue, even if I could do nothing about it all. I can't fix what I didn't know about. Plus being brought up Catholic sure adds fuel to the fire! I lived in a household where the winter temperatures as a child were kept at 80F. That is just plain not healthy and when I saw that still happening after I became an adult and learned more, I tried to let my family know, but turning back to 72F would only last an hour and the heat and humidity inside the home led to mold, peeling paint and lots of lung issues from cigarettes, dust  and lead paint over the decades.  Plus lots of heating bills not being paid. Thousands of dollars.

Last year in Michigan was pretty mild. I saved half what I normally would have paid to heat the house in dead of winter to 68F and nighttime 60F. This year went cold very fast and we sit at below normal temps other than an occasional out of sync 70F. I still did not turn the heat on, running an occasional space heater if it became unbearable.  I vowed I would not turn the heat on until the people on the East Coast had their electricity back after Hurricane Sandy. Since I could do nothing else for them other than be with them in heart, I wanted to do something, even if they would never know. I wanted to feel what they were feeling, to be thankful for what I have and to remind me of what I could have done had I known. 

Guilt is a very powerful thing. I am trying to make it positive by turning it to empathy. I just get carried away sometimes and really, that is okay.  As I sit here battling a horrible cold (not from being cold but from daycare germs), I find myself "with" many families who tonight have no heat, are wrapped in blankets by fireplaces (assuming they have a home left standing) yet they are trying to stay positive, even with no turn on date after many promises. I hope the end of the week brings some relief for them.

My house is currently reading 60F at the desk near the kitchen, where it will sit until 8 AM when it heats to 68F. This morning the inside temp in the kitchen was 51F with 22F outside. I said enough, not so much for me but I did worry about pipes. I hear a warming trend is coming. I look forward to the day when no one need worry about being so cold their bones hurt and tears freeze on their faces. Until then, I share some empathy with them. And hope the day comes when the guilt leaves my soul.