2010 – A War of Attrition: Letters from the Front, or, It’s a Four Cat Night

iceContrary to popular belief, it can get cold in California during the winter, at least in the northern parts of the state. I know that my friends in New England and across the Midwest are scoffing at that statement, but it’s true. Having grown up in Illinois, where it can feel like your eyeballs might freeze in their sockets, I know what cold is. And I certainly won’t claim that by a pure Fahrenheit measurement, it is colder in California. That would be idiocy and I try to avoid that. But it can drop below freezing at night. It’s not Minnesota, but it’s not Hawai’i either. And there is another kind of cold, one that I shall call “experiential cold”. Allow me to explain.

Although I have certainly survived my share of sleet, when it gets cold and snowy in Illinois, the air is, generally speaking, dry and crisp. Additionally, the buildings are built for great variations in temperature. Whether it is over 100 degrees in August and you want to keep the air-conditioned air inside, or it is 15 degrees in January and you want to retain the heated air, the buildings are insulated. If you’ve got your thermostat set at 68 degrees, it can be quite pleasant just hanging around inside.

Now, turn this around as you consider the California winter. It doesn’t rain in the San Francisco Bay area from about May until October; thus, winter is our rainy season. It can rain for days and days. A downpour quickly finds its way inside and drizzle keeps the air damp, inside and out, for weeks on end. I don’t know about you, but I always feel colder when I am wet. It’s a cold that seeps into your bones and stays there. If people can say Arizona is hot, but it’s a dry heat, I can maintain that Illinois is cold, but it’s a dry cold.

Then there is the construction of the buildings and the lack of insulation therein. It’s California after all, warm and sunny all the time, so why would you need insulation? Periodic home maintenance has made it clear to us that our apartment has no insulation. None. When Steve had to remove a trim board from an interior wall, he found an empty 4-inch gap between it and the outside wall. I may be cold as I run from the car to the house in Illinois, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be warm once I get inside. In California, I feel a damp chill all winter long.

In addition, all of the heating vents in our apartment are located at the top of the walls. Umm, excuse me, but heat rises. We spend the winter pumping hot air at ceiling level where it doesn’t do any of us any good except for Cassady, who has cleverly claimed as hers the cat bed on top of a cabinet, about 2 feet below the ceiling. I’m sure she stays nice and toasty up there, but we are shivering down below. Bottom line: trying to heat our house can feel like a losing battle.

This brings me to the problem at hand. I am, to put it nicely, frugal. The local utility company allows customers a “baseline” amount of gas and electricity at a relatively reasonable rate; once you go above baseline, the rate goes up considerably, and there is no way to heat our apartment without going well above the baseline allotment. In addition, winter can be slow to come on. There may be a couple of cold days, but then it breaks and we get a few sunny days in the 70s. This kind of tease can go on well into November before winter really settles in. And, with my Midwest pedigree, I’m quite capable of managing the initial chill by pulling on a sweater. So I’m slow to turn on the heat in the fall. Consequently, there is an annual struggle between Steve, who wants to turn on the heat, and me, who wants to hold out for one more week.

miserThere is this Christmas movie that Steve remembers fondly from his childhood, called “The Year Without Santa Claus”, in which two characters battle it out on opposite ends of the temperature spectrum. One of them is the Snow Miser who lives in an arctic landscape and whose introductory song states that “He’s Mr. Icicle, he’s Mr. 10 Below”. The other is the Heat Miser who keeps things toasty warm. This doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to me because shouldn’t the Heat Miser be miserly with the heat? But I digress. Steve has dubbed me the Snow Miser and every fall can be heard singing the Snow Miser’s ragtime number as he walks through the house. “Bah-dump-bah-duh, bah-duh. Bah-dump-bah-duh, bah-duh.”

Of course, Steve does not engender much sympathy as he’s been known to walk around the house barefoot and wearing shorts all the while complaining that he is cold. Having grown up in my parents’ house, I am well-versed in the appropriate response to that: “Go put on some long pants, a sweater, and some socks, then we’ll talk. And toss on some slippers while you’re at it.”

It started to turn chilly early in November this year and Steve, dutifully clad in his flannel pajama pants, flannel shirt, and slippers, was starting to make noises about being cold. I relented uncharacteristically early and told him he could turn on the heat whenever he wanted. But he didn’t turn it on. A week passed and Steve asked me if I wanted to turn on the heat. Again, I told him he could turn it on if he wanted to. But he waited. It then became clear to me that he had decided to wait me out. Steve had instigated a game of chicken. Upon realizing this, I, of course, took it as a challenge.

That evening when Steve again mentioned how cold it was in the bedroom at night, I just said it wasn’t bad for me because I had been wearing a big fleece jacket to bed. An hour later, Steve started a load of laundry then came to me and said, dripping with faux-concern, “Oh, I’m sorry. The fleecy you’ve been sleeping in is in the wash and has gotten all wet. I don’t know what you’re going to do.” I replied calmly, “Don’t worry, I think I’ll manage. But thank you for your heartfelt consideration.” Fortunately, my mom, who is aware of our annual struggle, has made us several quilts and fleece blankets over the years. Little did she know these blankies would become armaments in an epic battle of wills. Without missing a beat, I walked out to the sofa, picked up the neatly-folded fleece blanket, and carefully laid it out on my side of the bed.

thermometerWith the temperature in the house dipping into the low 50s, the last few weeks have been filled with this type of mild baiting, interspersed with quiet mutterings of “I’m so cold, so cold, sweet Jesus it’s cold” upon getting into the shower each morning. Driving home on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Steve checked the weather and relayed that the temperature was predicted to get down to 35 degrees that night. I countered, “I know. Actually, they’re predicting a low of 26 on Thursday.”

In spite of my tenacity, we’ve always had the heat on by Thanksgiving. And yet, here I am the day after Thanksgiving, typing with icicle-fingers and trying to come up with dinner ideas for the week that will require turning on the oven. At least then I can linger over the open oven door and let the hot air wash over me for a brief moment of respite. I may ultimately have to resort to the cat defense and plea that it is not fair to the kitties to keep the house so cold. Mind you, there is a heated cat bed in every corner, and my mom has made fleece blankies for all of those, too.

As for the rest of it. . .

All of our kitties are doing well and continue in good health, but we did have a bit of a scare with Cassady this fall. We couldn’t find her one morning before work and spent 20 minutes frantically calling her. When we finally found her, she stumbled into walls and ignored her breakfast. We took her to the vet for lab work and x-rays which were all clear; she recovered throughout the day and has been fine ever since. We are hopeful that it was a one-time incident. Cassady, Ezra, Elsa, and H.B. have all been doing their part to keep us warm at night, generously sharing their body heat as they crawl under the covers with us.

I am still the law librarian in the Palo Alto office of Townsend & Townsend & Crew. Townsend is merging with another law firm and I am fortunate that I will begin the new year as an employee of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. I remain active with the Special Libraries Association, serving as both the Secretary and the Government Relations Chair of my local chapter. My term as Secretary comes to an end next month, but my recent election to Director of Membership for the association’s Government Information Division ensures that the gap in my schedule will be promptly filled.

Steve is senior development lead for the Collaboration Services group in Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit. We were both thrilled when his team finished their work on Mac Office 2011 in August, and hoped his work schedule would slow down a bit before ramping up for the next project. However, things only got busier as he started right away on Office 15 and working on their mobile software strategy. I know it’s better to be busy, particularly these days, but a small break would have been welcome. As it is, I’m trying to institute a policy in which he does not check his work e-mail after dinner at least two nights a week.

We continue to volunteer our Sunday mornings in the Clinic at WildCare and provide foster care in an enclosure at our home for orphaned baby raccoons. This summer we also got a chance to expand our repertoire a bit when a gray fox kit came to the center. It needed to be in quarantine for a week and a half before it could be transferred to another rehab center that had more fox kits. Between the stress of being in a cage at WildCare and the potential for it to acquire a contagious disease from other patients, it was much better off spending those days off-site in foster care. Luckily for us, it was pre-raccoon season and our cage was empty. While raccoons remain our first love at WildCare, it was a lot of fun to take care of the fox kit, particularly since we get so few of them and this was truly a unique experience for us.

If you want to keep up with us throughout the year, I continue my infrequent blogging at Adventures of a Midwestern Girl in Sunny, Sunny California (www.midwesterngirl.com). Steve and I can also be found on FaceBook and Twitter.

Wishing you and your families a wonderful holiday season and peace in the New Year.

Post Script: After Steve read the draft of this letter, he and I agreed that we could call a truce and start up the heat. However, I feel compelled to note that it was he who actually turned it on. Victory is mine!