December 12, 2022
By Keith Sones
It was cold.
Winter had finally set in and the temperature plummeted with each passing day. It had been a warm autumn, but that was gone. Old man winter had arrived on the doorstep.
Not only was it icy outside but it was downright cold inside the house. Once the flames died down in the fireplace, when we had headed to sleep, the frigid air that wrapped the house like a cloak found its way inside, sneaking through the cracks and replacing the cozy warm feel with a frosty chill that commanded us to don extra sweaters, coats and blankets until we arose and lit a new fire in the morning, renewing the warmth.
The use of the fireplace instead of a more modern heating source had been brought on by circumstances and life choices. Two major shifts in our lives had happened in the past year. The first was the purchase of our first home, a nice house in a small but friendly village in the interior of British Columbia. It has been our dream for many years to have such a place to call home, and we had been elated when we finally crossed the threshold, moving in a year previously. We quickly settled into the rural community, enjoying life.
The second change related to our family, or more specifically the size of it. My wife was pregnant and expecting our first child, something we has also wanted for years and the sound of a new tiny human in the house was imminent. Ever cautious about the health of her and the baby, she had left her job a few months ago and as a result our dual income status had been eliminated, the bank account more meagre than we had been used to. Saving money took on a new focus. The restaurant meals and leisure expenses we had incurred were replaced with canned tomato sauce (picking field tomatoes was cheap), walks in the forest and getting whatever we could for free. Including firewood, which I gathered both from the nearby woods and the waste pile at the local sawmill.
Which gets us back to the cold house. We didn’t have money to spare and since using our fireplace to heat the house cost less than turning on the natural gas furnace, I insisted we use wood heat until it got too cold outside for the fireplace to be effective. I had even upgraded the efficiency, trading my bicycle for a fan to push the hot air from the firebox into the further reaches of the house. I was proud of my innovation, which allowed us to save a few precious extra dollars on heating costs.
I was travelling a lot for work in those days, behind the wheel of my truck for about 80,000 kilometers a year. Invariably on any given day I might be visiting work crews at a mountain top microwave repeater site, investigating an incident in the bowels of a large dam or conducting a training course in a small room in a far flung town. It seemed I was constantly on the road, which also meant I wasn’t at home a lot. Which in turn meant I wasn’t the one that had to suffer through a lot of those cold nights when the final embers in the fireplace went dark.
When I was travelling for work purposes, I received $28 a day to cover the cost of meals. However, if I could eat for less than that I was able to pocket the difference, which became another strategy to add to our humble finances. Every week my wife would pack a cooler of food so I could make meals while away from home. Typically I was able to eat for about $15 a day, so the extra $13 was quite a help. However, while I was making dinner in a cheap motel room, with adequate heat, it was my wife that had to become adept at surviving in our frosty abode.
It’s amazing how easy it is to make a decision about something that harms others when you don’t have to experience the same impacts. If you don’t yet have a mental picture of the situation, let me paint it more clearly for you. I’m away from home for 5-6 days a week, often in areas where I can’t be contacted (cell phones were far from plentiful and even if I had one the coverage was poor), calling usually once a day in the evening if I could. I have a cooler full of food and making meals in a warm cozy motel. Meanwhile, my pregnant wife is at home, sending me off with a week’s worth of groceries then making sure she can build a fire to stay warm, wanting desperately to simply turn on the gas furnace instead of dragging waste lumber through the house to continually stoke the fire. And being told by her husband, who spends his days bouncing between a warm truck and a warm motel that using the furnace costs too much.
It was November of that year and I had finally relented. “OK, I get it, it’s cold. Turn the furnace on” I said reluctantly, envisioning dollar bills soaring out of the chimney. So the temporary heat of the fireplace was substituted with the more permanent and dependable furnace. For a couple of days.
It had been some time since gas had flowed through the pipes so it made sense to get the furnace cleaned. Some guy with a brush and vacuum, which didn’t cost much, would make sure it was safe and reliable. On schedule the rep from the gas company showed up and knocked on the door. My wife opened it only to see a uniformed man standing there with a meter in his hand and a scowl on his face. “Hi” she said tentatively.
“You have a problem. My meter says there is a gas leak and if my meter finds it outside your house it’s probably really bad inside.” A quick inspection of the furnace told us the rest of the bad news story. A cracked manifold meant gas was leaking into the house. He cleaned what he could then hung a “do not use” tag on the furnace. Bye bye heat, hello waste wood.
“What do you mean it’s going to cost almost $100?” I grumbled over the phone. “Well, we don’t have the money until pay day, so we’ll have to use the fireplace again. Until we can get the money.”
My wife had had enough. “What do you mean ‘we’”? she questioned. “You’re not here so what you’re saying is that I have to go back to a freezing cold house. No way. I’m going to my mom’s place until this gets fixed.” And off she went.
You’d be forgiven if you think I was a totally insensitive morally bankrupt jerk. In fact you should arrive at that conclusion. Not necessarily because I was trying to save money at a time in our lives when we had very little. My crime was making decisions on her behalf when I didn’t have suffer the consequences. It was easy to sit in my nice warm motel room and dictate how she should live, then retire to a warm bed when she had to lay in the dark cold house seeing her breath. Definitely bad form on my part.
Eventually we got the furnace fixed and in future years the furnace was turned on when my wife wanted it on, not when I said it should be fired up. Over time the money strain lessened and when to heat the house was no longer an issue. So that one ended OK.
But the issue didn’t go away. For all of us, I mean. Life can be difficult at times, and current conditions make it even more so. When people are forced to decide between paying the rent or buying groceries, that’s not a fun situation to be in. Watch your child go hungry as some politician tells you your taxes are going up and you’ll know how frustrating it can be.
There are plenty of issues, both local and global, that feature prominently in the daily headlines. What to do about the changing climate? Crime seems to be getting worse in some places. Inflation eats away at your wallet until there is nothing left. We want to get greener but that’s going to drive up your power bill. How much can we do, how fast, where, for who?
While I have my opinions on many of these issues, just like you do, I don’t have the answers to solving them all. I do, however, know who we should be asking to help find them. The people who are most directly impacted. Those who have to decide between heat, rent and food. Those who know how challenging it is to get things built, like new homes and solar farms. The people that have watched their loved ones die while waiting to get life saving surgery. They’ll be happy to tell you what’s important to them.
Telling people what’s good for them when it’s not you that has to miss meals or lose your house because you can no longer pay the mortgage or choose between heat and food is good for one thing. It gets people upset. And less cooperative. So when you do need their support on something, you’ve already proved that you really don’t care about them. Not enough anyway.
So let’s start by listening, by understanding their situation, by getting them to be part of the solutions which take the many issues, fears and frustration into account. Then those in leadership, both private and public, local and global, can deliver better solutions.