When I was growing up, my father was invariably cheap. If you ask him today, he'll say that he was a product of the Depression where people couldn't afford air to breathe and this upbringing, coupled with having to raise four boys virtually on his own, gave him every right to deny us such luxuries as brand name soap, water pressure and home heating oil. Every winter, my brothers and I would crawl from under the war surplus blankets my dad stole from his stint in the Navy and run through the icy air to dress by the fireplace downstairs. According to my dad, not only were we resisting the evil clutches of OPEC by freezing to death, we were building up our resistance to successfully battle future colds as well. Since I was raised in a house of men, I'm not sure if my inner temperature gauge runs hot because of genetics or the influence of arctic temperatures in ***image1***my ancestral home. Either way, it makes for some conflict now that I'm a husband and father living in a house full of wussies.
A few days ago, I came home from coaching my daughter's soccer team, and my wife looked like a wrestler trying to shed a few pounds before her pre-match weigh-in. She had on four or five layers of clothing, a down vest, ski cap and mittens covering her frigid hands. Running in place, she worked diligently on our children's Halloween costumes. I was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, tracking mud from the bottom of my turf shoes onto our tile floor. My daughter Poppy is smart enough to recognize two cultures when they are about to clash so she quickly grabbed herself a post-practice snack and positioned herself neatly on the couch.
"Jesus, it's like a furnace in here," I said, walking toward the thermostat. Lately, I've been sounding a lot like my dad which, up until recently, gave me the creeps but now I realize I can channel him when I need to cast off my sensitive Superdad persona to act more like Robert Duvall, daddy doctrinaire in The Great Santini.
"Don't you touch that," Lala said, her voice a bit muffled by the scarf wrapped tightly around her mouth. She shook a mitten in what she believed to be a threatening gesture but to me looked more like a coat rack asking to be let outside. Since I was unencumbered by my sporty outfit, I easily evaded her lumbering attack. Feeling quite spry, I danced around her like a campy leprechaun, threatening to lower the gauge and shut off the heater.
"It's not funny," she said. "I'm freaking freezing in here." She clapped her arms around her biceps, the international sign for impending hypothermia.
"You're 40," I reminded her. "What will you be like in 10 years? Twenty? We're going to have to move to Florida.
I don't want to learn to golf." I imagined myself in a lime green polo shirt, matching white slacks and shoes, and one of those hats with a ball of yarn glued to the top.
"Couldn't do Florida, hate the humidity," she said. I then realized that the only place Lala would ever be comfortable would be some sort of temperature-controlled bubble or a fully staffed nursing home, whichever came first.
It's amazing to me the lengths women will go to get warm. Each November, I have to prepare myself for our annual weatherproofing dance. Just after Halloween, I'll come home to see Lala in her studio, wrapped in blankets and quilts, a circle of electric space heaters creating a Ring of Fire around her gelid body. Like every other healthy American male who still has his hair, I'll ignore her issues and retreat to the television to see what type of live vermin Fear Factor is having supermodels eat this week. Lala will limp after me and like our current political leaders frightening us with threats of terrorists stealing our pets, Lala will invoke the children.
"We need to do something about this house," she'll say. "I don't want our kids getting sick."
"That's not how kids catch colds," I'll retort, using my matter-of-fact, gassy-windbag-of-a-teacher voice.
Nothing will deter an unwarmed woman, however. "It will weaken their immune systems, freezing all the time," she'll tell me and cite some odd piece of news about the condition of Russian orphanages or hillbilly babies left in drafty trailers during a twister. If she's really desperate, she'll send my son London to me, having rehearsed and bribed him thoroughly in the back
"Daddy, I'm c-c-c-cold," he'll say and shiver like a wet cat.
"Can I get you a sweater?"
"No," he'll answer stiffly like a mini-Keanu Reeves. Bad actors are so easy to spot. "You can get me a warm house. Even Thomas the Tank Engine has a warm house, dad. And he's a train."
So each year, I surrender. Lala and I haul the kids to Wal-Mart or Home Depot and spend a month's salary on various types of plastic to cover, fill, wedge, or ooze over the many evil drafty cracks in our igloo. I feel like the artist Christo, wrapping my entire home in cellophane and then using a hair dryer to make this high tech heating solution even that much more efficient. Honestly, I don't think these artsy craftsy home improvement kits change things dramatically, yet Lala likes to curse the cold air as it presses up against a sheet of Saran Wrap blanketing our kitchen window.
My friend Nell also belongs to the order of forever-frosty females. She rents a lovely home on the East Side of Santa Fe, and when she travels, I look after her dusty plants and make sure that no one gets inside her house to steal her Zen pillow or old Bob Dylan cassette tapes.
I think of her house as cozy but she doesn't.
"I can't take a winter here. I'm freezing," she said to me on the phone a while ago.
"But Nell, it's September." Outside my office window, I saw wildflowers blooming under piñon and juniper. The sky was so blue and the sun so bright, I was getting a nature headache.
"See what I mean?" she said. "Imagine what it will be like in January."
Nell is a tough cookie when it comes to any type of negotiation but I had to question her wisdom when she decided to split the cost of installing radiant heat with her landlord. Her cut was about $5,000 on a house she would never own and continues to pay rent on. Away when the plumbers came, she asked me to drop by to water her ferns and to make sure the overweight plumbers weren't meditating on her personal cushion. Upon her return, I dropped by for tea and she was as happy as George Hamilton sealed inside a tanning bed.
"See? See?" she screamed, twirling around like a Jewish Julie Andrews. "Can you feel how warm it is now?"
I could feel the fervidity, but it was more of a $250 comfort adjustment to me. For a $5,000 investment in a rental home, I expected palm trees growing in her living room and a naked servant willing to provide extended hugs on command. But Nell was ecstatic and shared her toasty life with Lala on the phone. Unless I find 10 grand on the way home today, my wife and good friend are about to become roommates.