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Winter means remembering the gas meter keeps ticking


ON WEDNESDAY, the first day of December, I finally turned on the furnace. Holding out this long - or "cheaping out," as a family member who has been wearing blankets calls it - was a record, a personal best.

Some years, I have lasted until late in November, maybe a day or two before Thanksgiving, before giving in and switching on the heat. But this year, the milestone day, Thanksgiving, came and went, and the furnace remained silent.

Studying my latest utility bill, I saw that between mid-October and mid-November, I used a mere 37 therms of natural gas or $31.56. Of course, I also have to pay another $23.69 to have the gas "delivered" to my home. (Do you have to tip these delivery pipe people at Christmas?) I also discovered that the price of gas jumped 10 cents a therm, just when you needed it most, at the beginning of November.

Nevertheless, the overall news was good. According to a woman I spoke with on the phone at the BGE billing center, most homes in the Baltimore area burned between 90 and 150 therms in that period. In other words, I underachieved for the October-November heating period. I am proud of that.

I couldn't have performed at such a low level if I did not live in a rowhouse. It has fewer sides exposed to the weather than free-standing homes. Moreover, when your rowhouse neighbors turn on their heat, your common walls warm up. On chilly nights, I loved my warm-hearted, furnace-using neighbors.

I couldn't have done it without the stretch of warm weather - including some 60-degree days - that miraculously appeared at the end of November. And I couldn't have done it if I had not, as Ronald Reagan used to say, "stayed the course" and refused to cave in to pressure groups.

Those pressure groups, also known as family members, had pleaded with me during those occasional nights that temperatures dipped into the 40s to turn on the heat. I told them to focus on the future, namely the fact that the weather forecast said it would be warmer soon. I told them to go to bed and stay there, under the covers. Or I told them to make like a cat, and sit in the sunshine.

Most family members tolerated the chill. The exception was the college student, who during his sporadic appearances on the home front would complain that "it is freezing in here."

Kids learn a lot of things in college, but apparently not how to dress in cooler weather. It has been the custom, I informed our college student, that when the leaves fall off the trees in this section of North America, humans begin to put on long pants, thick shirts with long sleeves and leather shoes, not shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the college boy shuffled around the house in a get-up I called the homeless athlete look, draping himself in a blanket over an outfit of gym shorts and a T-shirt. The college student replied that what we had here was a clash of belief systems. He subscribed to the view that a person should always feel warm and comfortable in his home, even if he is wearing next to nothing. I replied that this nature-boy approach was fine with me, but only during the months that the gas meter was not ticking.

Parents are often shocked when they learn what their offspring are actually doing in college dorms, and when my kid told me that he kept the thermostat in his dorm room set in the mid-70s, I was stunned. Maybe that is why tuition is so high.

Didn't he know that spending too much time in an overheated environment leads to lethargy and weak thinking? Didn't he know that cold air clears the mind, toughens the skin and stiffens the spine? Apparently during all the years that the kid was living at home I thought he was picking up core values when, in fact, he was primarily concerned with raising his core body temperature.

Monday, when I drove the kid back to his college dorm, I noticed that many of his fellow students dressed as if they were residing in Bimini, not Baltimore. I was the only person in a two-block radius of the dorm who was wearing anything close to a winter coat.

These cotton-clad students are younger than I am; their blood circulation is no doubt better than mine. But the central difference in how we react to cold weather has to do with economics, not genetics. I pay a heating bill, they don't.

When Wednesday's fierce winds blew open a basement window and made the house even colder, I felt it was a sign that the time had come to begin the home-heating season. I vacuumed debris from underneath the gas jets that fire the furnace. I oiled the pumps that send hot water throughout the house. I bled the valves on the ends of the radiators until they spurted ugly water. I set the thermostat at the positively libertine level of 68 degrees.

The forecast for this winter sounds chilly. Both The Old Farmer's Almanac and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast that temperatures this winter in the Mid-Atlantic will be colder than normal. The Old Farmer's Almanac even predicts "significant snowfalls" in the middle of December.

That is disappointing news. Even though the family furnace is now ready for action, I was hoping that we really wouldn't have to use it.

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