Visitors to Casa Chawkins wonder why I squat before our bone-cold wall furnace these chilly nights, futilely trying to warm myself over the paltry glow of the pilot light.
And why, they ask, am I padding around the house in a sweatshirt over a flannel shirt under a woolen cap? Why am I wearing socks on my hands? Why am I scraping frost from the TV? Why do I lie down and dab my chin with tuna to lure the cat onto my chest?
Why, they wonder, don't I just turn up the thermostat?
Believe me, I wonder too.
Here's what I know.
A while back, my wife and I were watching a TV newscast on the huge heating bills expected this winter.
"We don't need heat," Jane said. "It's California. We'll just wear sweaters."
"Right," I said, figuring the idea merited that full and vigorous of a discussion. "Sweaters."
A few weeks later, it started to get cold--at least cold for Ventura, which means a bit cooler than the customary lukewarm.
"The furnace doesn't work," I reported.
"I thought we were going without heat," Jane said.
No problem. At this point, this decision-that-never-really-was-decided smacked of voluntary simplicity instead of involuntary commitment. After all, I lived for years in the Colorado Rockies, where if you blew your nose on a January night, it might shatter in your hand. So going without heat in Ventura sounded like, say, going without soy sauce in Italy: a privation, but not much of one.
But then it started getting really cold. True, it wasn't the brutal cold of my wife's New Hampshire but a more sensitive California cold--a cold that was enough to chill your Chardonnay, but not enough to crack your engine block.
My Chardonnay was getting mighty cold.
"I bet our thermostat's broken," I told Jane.
"Why don't you call somebody?" she said.
"Why don't you?" I asked.
"Because I'm not the one who needs the heat."
So there you are. To want the comfort of natural gas on a cold night signals frailty. To have the thermostat repaired is to declare yourself a cupcake. To turn up the heat is to wimp out.
"We can do this," she insisted, for no apparent reason. "It's California. It's balmy."
Obviously, for me to take up my wife's challenge and go without heat for the winter would be juvenile. It would be as childish as the thumb-wrestling bouts and the breath-holding contests that have punctuated 17 years of marriage.
So we don't have heat.
It's not bad, really. I can't complain about a lack of heat when so many lack a home. Besides, there's nothing wrong with striding briskly from room to room to keep the body temperature up. And I get a kick out of calling my wife, who works nights, at the office:
"I can see my breath now," I say.
"Tell me when it snows," she says.
Friends have suggested a number of unsatisfactory remedies: Buy a space heater. Fill the house with big dogs. Drop by a warming shelter. Just fix the stupid thermostat.
I expect we will. You can play only so much Scrabble in your parka. Until we come to that day, though, I'll gamely chop the icicles off my mustache each morning and sing that great old blues refrain in the shower:
"Baby, it's cold inside . . . "
Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at email@example.com