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Furnaces, Female Empowerment And The Power Of Frugality

This article is more than 5 years old.

You know those dire injunctions about having your furnace inspected each season? I never do it. Instead, I remove the two metal panels from the unit, carefully vacuum the interior and adjacent basement areas, and change the filthy filter. I hate this task. The basement of a 123-year-old house is not pretty nor in my case clean. Almost always, I cut my hands on the sharp edges of the metal panels, freak out at the centipedes wiggling in the darkened corners of the basement, and am revolted by the spider webs and spiders (there are three different sizes, some as big as tablespoons). But I save the cost of a technician, who may even lie to me about something being wrong that is not, and am spared the unease of having a large male stranger in my home. I hate the feeling of helplessness that accompanies the technical parts of home maintenance. I run extension cords to working electrical outlets for a decade before calling in an electrician to replace a box.

I hate the feeling of helplessness that accompanies the technical parts of home maintenance. I run extension cords to working electrical outlets for a decade before calling in an electrician to replace a box.

After yesterday’s annual furnace mission, cheered by my self-sufficiency and looking forward to a cozy evening, I lugged the vacuum up the treacherous old stairs, stepping over the missing treads, and reached my kitchen as the sun was low in the sky, leaves of the maple trees golden, leaves of the dogwoods red, russet, and amber. I poured a glass of red wine (from a $7.99 bottle) and flicked on the furnace switch. Nada. No click, no fan, no heat. Yet the very night before the same furnace had worked. In my zealous frugality to “service” on my own, I had broken something.

I tried the red kitchen furnace switch in different positions. I tried the switch on the unit, then the circuit breakers. I tried spiking the thermostat (which rarely goes above 60 degrees unless I have company, or flu), up to 65 degrees. Removed the furnace’s metal panels, reset the filter, stared at the matrix of neat little metal doodads and colored wires, as unknowable to me as the inside of a nuclear sub. Put on my eight-year-old winter parka (Land's End final-final-end-of-season-sale, $19.99 marked down from $150). Drank more wine.

At 8 p.m., I called my neighbor, a plumbing and heating guy. He was not at home. I slept in sweat pants (boy’s Large, available at hockey store in Medford), fleece jacket, double mittens, men’s woolen socks and slipper socks (EMS outlet), under two old quilts, a woolen blanket, and a throw. By morning there were crusts of frost on my window.

At 6 a.m., I wrote a note to my heating specialist neighbor and walked outside — where it was warmer — in my full insane sleeping attire, and attempted to tuck a note under the windshield wiper of his huge black truck. His truck is so big and tall, with massive tires, that I couldn't reach the wiper blade, which made me feel like an ant, additionally infuriating. I tucked the note under the wiper arm and returned to my home of gloom. At 6:30 a.m., my neighbor's truck was gone. He did not call.

People did not always have heated homes, I reminded myself, sashaying around my frigid kitchen in a long coat (thrift shop, circa 1992) with the hood up, trying to feel Russian. Wished for blini and Omar Sharif. In growing indignation, cooked Quaker Whole Oats and ate serving for three. What is wrong with people who "cook" instant oatmeal, wasting money, paper, and polluting the planet with the fuel it costs to truck all those thousands of cartons with millions of boxes of zillions of individual paper packets to market? And here I am, eating directly from the pot (one-quart Revere Ware, 1972) without having to use extra water to wash a bowl. I'll be damned if I'll pay for a repairman!

For the 10th time in my freezing dacha, I removed the doors of the furnace, reset the filter, checked the switches, thermostat, and re-snapped the circuit breakers. The sun was up. My indignation and commitment to thrift were on the uptick. Oatmeal carbs, never to be underestimated, were kicking in. If I myself had created the damage that disabled the furnace, it must have been something delicate as I had not sledge-hammered anything or changed settings or dials. Use your head, girl! Gather your wits, assemble your tools.

With the miracle of reading glasses (Marshall's, three for $9.99) and a tiny flashlight (free from LL Bean due to accrued VISA card credits), I discovered a small red wire floating free behind a metal screw. A bit of exposed copper wire, filament-like, gleamed. It looked something like the patch behind my stereo speakers. I am familiar with the phenomenon of speaker wires that disconnect whenever you vacuum or open a window or water a plant because my Model Six speakers (circa 1976) have been doing this for decades; I've grown accustomed to a mono-stereo. I concentrated on the red wire, touched it with my screwdriver to see if I would be electrocuted, in which case I did the right thing by eating all the leftover Halloween candy, savoring every last Almond Joy. I shook off the hood of my coat, removed a spider web with my bare hand, and scorned a descending spider.

I made coffee, took off my coat, shook out my spider-webby hair. Felt fabulous.

Using a 35-year-old Craftsman screwdriver (acquired during an early marriage) and channeling the spirit of Michael Faraday, I loosened the screw, nudged the exposed copper end of the red-wrapped wire behind it, and tightened the screw. Replaced panel doors. Flicked the switch on. Ascended the stairs to the kitchen; flicked the red furnace wall switch on. Rumble, rumble, the heat began.

I made coffee, took off my coat, shook out my spider-webby hair. Felt fabulous.

We read much about the powers of love, reconciliation, organization, yoga, stretching, probiotics, and kale. We do not read enough about the healing powers of thrift. Thrift leads to independence, enterprise, and moral and economic development. Thrift made my house warm this morning, delivered me to gratitude, and endures and inspires insights and accomplishments through all our days.

This program aired on November 6, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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