Ding-Dong, the Pellet Stove is Dead

45f2e-dscn3711Let’s talk about heat. I didn’t think too much about it growing up in San Jose. The old-time gas heater embedded in the floor between the living room and the hall poured out sufficient heat to keep us warm in our three-bedroom tract house. It was also a great place to spy on the grownups because we kids could look through the grill from the hall and see what was going on, especially on Mom’s canasta club nights. The only drawback was our marbles falling through the grate and into the depths when we were shooting them across the brown tweed carpet. Bang, rattle, rattle. Quick, get it out before Dad catches us.

No, we didn’t think much about heat. The outside temperature stayed above 70 degrees most of the time, and it rarely rained. The heater would come on with a gentle whuff, and all was well. Deep inside, the blue flame of the pilot light kept burning. Almost 70 years later, it still works. The fireplace, also a trap for errant marbles, was mainly for entertainment, not for warmth. It hasn’t been lit since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

In San Jose, we thought more about avoiding heat. The temperature crept into the 80s, 90s and 100s from late spring through fall, but ours was a low-tech house. Air conditioning? Open a window. Turn on a fan. (Don’t touch the fan, it will cut your hand off.) That old house with its minimal insulation soaked in the heat. Still does. When I walked in last summer to visit my father, it was so hot I wanted to walk right back out. The only place I could find any relief was on the front porch, and even that was relative. At night, I’d sleep uncovered and backwards, feet on the pillow, trying to get my head as close to the window as possible. My hair almost touching the dusty screen, I was still sweating.

But here on the Oregon coast, heat is an issue, not like in the places where houses and cars are buried in snow. I don’t know how folks in the Midwest and East Coast stand it. Our temperature is more chilly than cold, I guess, miserable, but not life-threatening. When I woke up this morning, it was 46 outside and 62 inside. No big deal, just turn on the heater, right? Ah, but in the forest where I live, heating is funky. Natural gas lines do not reach this far, and few houses have whole-house heating systems. Or cooling systems, as if we ever need that. We have baseboard heaters, cadet heaters, plug-in portable heaters, woodstoves, fireplaces, and pellet stoves. Most houses, including mine, have firewood stacked high and deep for the winter. Shops selling pellets have a hard time keeping them in stock.

With all of these heat sources, a body has to think about heat. Chop the wood, light the fire, fill the pellet stove, turn it on, clean it out, buy more pellets. Turn on the little heaters or not? Don’t forget to turn them off lest you burn the house down. We think about heat all the time. We turn on NPR in the morning, listen to the weather report and groan.

I’ve got five different thermometers in the house, one of them an indoor-outdoor one. I’m constantly checking. Is it warm enough inside? Should I turn something on or off? How cold is it outside? Do I need a coat and gloves or just a hoodie? Dare I sit out on the deck and read my book? Is it going to freeze? Should I cover my pipes? Will I be able to drive to church or the store if there’s ice on the road?

Heat. For years, I have been posting about and cursing about my pellet stove. Yesterday, a repairman declared the old Quadra-Fire dead. Unplugged forever. May it rest in peace, amen. How many hours have I stood in front of that thing reading, writing, thinking, playing my guitar, or gazing out the window, usually with my feet straddling the dog. I singed the back of my old bathrobe getting too close. If I could add up all the time I’ve spent feeding it and cleaning out ashes and half-burnt pellets, it would probably come out to a couple of weeks. If I added up all the time I have spent waiting for repairmen to fix it, it’s probably a year. But now that it’s done for, I’m sad. Forever hopeful, I had just bought 15 bags of pellets and given the stove a name: Charlie. I probably jinxed it.

When Kevin from Airrow Heating pulled it apart yesterday, he exposed the ruined heat exchange mechanism as well as an information panel that said the stove was installed in 1992, six years before Fred and I bought the house. Twenty-five years and change, a longer-than-average lifespan for a pellet stove.

I have ordered a new one, opting to stick with the devil I know rather than try a different system. It’s coming a week from Thursday. It’s going to cost far more than I can afford. I’m going to be doing some fancy financial footwork for a while. A miracle infusion of cash would be helpful.

Meanwhile, I’ve got a patchwork of little heaters that make it almost warm enough. My body is adapting. Right now I’m overly warm in my bathrobe, and my office thermometer says it’s 62 degrees in here. At a jam session Sunday night, I got so hot I had to strip down to my tee shirt.

Am I doing the right thing ordering another pellet stove? I don’t know. But I will never take heat for granted again.

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Joyful days on the Oregon Coast


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Now I feel the joy.
When I came home from California two weeks ago, after nearly a month helping my ailing father, I thought I would feel joy the moment I walked into my house. I would have my dog Annie, my work, my friends, my house, my piano, my WiFi, and my beautiful Oregon. But all I felt was sad, sad for being so far from my father, sad at being alone, sad that my husband and so many other loved ones are gone, sad at all the bills and work that waited for me in this cold, wet place where the sky was always gray.
It didn’t help that it was raining and the roof in my kitchen leaked. Or that the warning light came on my car and I found that all four tires were dangerously low. Or that the dog was scratching with fleas again. I was still not completely over the food poisoning that struck me in San Jose. I did not feel any joy.
But over the last couple days, I have felt the joy. Maybe I’m just sun-drunk. The rain has stopped for the moment, replaced by dry cold. The pellet stove being my main source of heat, I’m using pellets by the truckload. I’m also giving my sweater collection a workout, but the place where I live in a forest two blocks east of the ocean is so beautiful I can barely stand it. Just now, at 6:30 a.m., I went out with Annie. Stars filled the sky, and the moon was so bright I could see my shadow on the ground. Yesterday, I lay out on the lawn in the sun with Annie, watching a tiny pine siskin in the Sitka spruce above me. The sky was so blue, the trees so green, and the quiet so profound that I fell in love with this place all over again. The day before, Annie and I walked on the beach. We were the only ones there. The ocean was a swirl of blue and green, the sand full of shells, the air like tonic. Yes, it’s warmer at my dad’s house, and his squirrels are as big as pussycats, but this is my little piece of paradise.
Last night I played the piano and led the choir at the 5:30 Mass, and that felt like heaven, too. I was surrounded by friends, the Christ the King liturgy was beautiful, and I felt so blessed to be able to do the music that I love. I have my writing, my house, my dog, my friends, and so much more. My tires are fixed, friends patched my roof, and my father is doing amazingly well for a 91-year-old man with three faulty heart valves.
Now I feel the joy. It’s going to rain again. The sun and the moon will disappear behind the clouds. I’ll worry about bills, Christmas presents, Annie’s fleas, and other problems. My writing will be rejected, my music will go flat, and I’ll hate my new haircut. My father is scheduled for surgery next week, and I’m going back to California. I believe the surgery will go well, and he’ll live on, but there are no guarantees. Life is never perfect, but I’ll do my best to hang on to the moments when I’ve truly felt the joy.
Do you have times when you feel that true happiness? I’d love to hear about them.

If it’s not wet, it’s frozen

Annie and I have a bedtime ritual. I turn off the TV, empty the water out of the dehumidier in the den and turn it on. That machine that we bought secondhand many years ago sucks up about a gallon of water a day in the rainy season from a room that appears to be dry–but it’s not. Our den used to be the garage. It’s damp and usually about 60 degrees. Mold appears on things in the closet, and giant water stains mar the beige carpet.

Moisture is a constant problem here. I was sorting through old newspapers and magazines on Saturday and found a box containing my very first publications. I found poems, short stories and articles from the early 1970s, as well as articles I wrote for various publications, including the San Jose Mercury News, Bay Area Parent, Bay Area Homestyle, South Valley News, Corporate Times, the Advocate Journal and others. There were my early prizewinning poems,  the article I wrote about San Jose State University when I was a student, my treatise on bees for Family Motor Coaching. A whole history of a career lay in that box, but a lot of it was so moisture-damaged from years in a coastal storage locker and then another year in my garage that I had to throw it away. I set aside the most precious things to be scanned into the computer. Then I went to Staples and bought some plastic bins for future storage.

The moisture is good for our skin, and it’s good for ferns and rhododendrons, but not so great for paper.

We haven’t had any rain for several days now. Instead we’re into an icy period, with the temperature in the 30s during the day and the 20s at night. If we had precipitation, it would be snow, but instead everything is coated with ice. So the other night, I turned on the dehumidifier, took my bedtime pill, brushed my teeth and then led Annie outside to make her final potty stop. She has a doggie door but rarely goes outside without me.

Her first stop is always the water bowl. This time, she put her tongue down and hit solid ice. I laughed at the look of total confusion on her face. I got her inside bowl and offered her liquid water, but no, she had to drink out of the outside bowl. She licked at the ice, pushed it around with her nose and finally found some water underneath.

After her drink, she skidded across the pavement and crunched across the frozen lawn to squat and melt some of the ice. Unlike most nights, she did not take time to sniff the air or run after phantom invaders. Too cold! She ran back inside and waited for her two Milkbones. If I just give her one, she’ll stare at me until I give her another. I kissed her goodnight, and we retired to our respective beds, mine in my bedroom and hers by the pellet stove which would be coming on and going off all night, lighting the room with an orange glow. By morning, the bin would be empty, and Annie would be curled up tight against the cold. I’d get another bag of pellets and start fighting our daily battle against the cold again. I just bought another 18 40-pound bags, half of them still in the car.

Nobody told us it would get this cold when we moved to the Oregon coast. And yet, when I look out the window at our bright blue sky without a hint of smog, when I step outside into the icy cold at night and see the stars so bright I could touch them, when I look at the trees and the ocean and the boats in the bay, I can’t believe how beautiful it is here. So I’ll buy plastic bins to protect my possessions and lots of pellets to keep me and Annie warm. Only a fool would complain.

It’s Still All About Keeping Warm

Annie raced out the dog door to her bowl early this morning for a drink. To her surprise, her tongue touched ice. She licked and licked, but never hit water. Luckily she has a defrosted water bowl inside.

At 6 a.m., when the restless dog woke me up, the moon was shining so bright I could see everything. Stars dotted the black sky. The deck and lawn sparkled with ice as Annie skated across to do her business.  Then, happy and ready for a new day, Annie zoomed back to me, tail wagging. I could read her mind: Give me some food and then let’s play. Nope, I replied, it’s still dark. We’re going back to bed, where it’s toasty. I still have dreams to be dreamed.

In these December days, life is about keeping warm. I go through more than a 40-pound bag of wood pellets a day keeping the pellet stove burning. I keep space heaters and baseboard heaters going in the occupied rooms. I sleep under an electric blanket. I’m wearing my flannel nightgown at night and my long underwear during the day. Annie sleeps on the old couch by the pellet stove. In her crate in the laundry room, she’d turn into a pupsicle.

In the mornings it’s in the 30s outside, the 40s in the laundry room, which has no ceiling, just a bare roof, and it’s right around 50 in the den. The living room has made it to the low 60s, but the pellet stove is empty again, and the temperature is dropping. 

I know it gets a lot colder elsewhere, but for this California-born Oregonian, it’s cold! It’s also oddly dry. We haven’t had real rain for a couple weeks. If precipitation comes now, we could have a white Christmas. Think it can’t snow at the beach? Oh yes it can. The photo is from a previous December when Annie experienced her first snow. She doesn’t look happy.

Keep warm, friends.