8. The pink stuff is safe to drink, but I wouldn’t.

Upstairs brick chimney remnant, sealed but still standingIt’s been cold here (Jan 31-Feb 1 2019), but we didn’t make the news with our temps. It’s Montana. Bitter cold is normal. We were hardly mentioned in the news of the Polar Vortex, which sounded like a made-up marketing term to me anyway. I create marketing campaigns for a living. I recognize shorthand buzz-speak when I hear it.

This old drafty house is a challenge to keep warm. My great-grandparents and grandparents did it, so it should be doable. Right? I know they had a wood and coal cookstove in the kitchen, and in later years a fuel-oil burner, and in the main room a furnace of some sort with a stovepipe that fed through the ceiling to the upstairs bedrooms and chimney.

The chimney was dismantled when I got a new, metal roof in 2007. The hole for the pipe had been long-since sealed, but it is still visible, mostly because a couple of years ago I ripped the horrible pressboard panels out from the living room ceiling. (They were falling on my head one day as I was trying to work on my laptop.)

Upstairs, about three feet of the bottom of the deprecated brick chimney is still fastened to the wall. It’s a prominent unmovable fixture, painted a tired shade of mint green to match the walls. Which continue to separate as the house shifts on its unstable gumbo foundation.

I was doing fine with the cold, even though my propane and electric bills were sky-high. I also have a beautiful, efficient Jotul 602 woodstove which keeps the kitchen toasty warm as long as I keep the fire going. It’s got a cooktop in case the power goes out, so I’m all set. The situation changed when the temperatures started plunging into negative double-digits Fahrenheit overnight. Miraculously, my indoor worm farm survived. The first such night was not even -10F. I think it was -8F, but it was still cold!

A kitchen bright spot, my jotul stove with a cooktop, and my non-electric eco fan

Next morning, I got up and flushed the toilet. No water filled the tank. I moved my little ceramic space heater (of which I have many!) closer to the uninsulated south wall of the bathroom. Hot water wasn’t working in the kitchen sink – same pipe. I lit a fire in the woodstove. A little while later, I heard the welcome sound of water running again, except that it was spraying out underneath the kitchen sink. I figured the PVC trap had cracked. Wouldn’t be the first, or last time. But closer inspection revealed the pipe had pulled apart at the slip joint. A big relief. A huge relief.

When the pieces were pushed back together, no more spray. I learned my lesson and put the bathroom heater right next to the pipes the next night. Before the freeze, I’d had it a couple feet away, and thought it would do the job since the bathroom was so small. Like I say, lesson learned.

I tried to wash a load of clothes, and ended up bailing out a whole washing machine tub of water. Fortunately, I was able to use my amazing, life-changing Underhill Gulp Ultra manual siphon pump. Emptied the water into a galvanized pail, then slogged outside into deep snow a dozen times or so to dump the water. About 15 minutes total. Disconnected the hoses after an inspection revealed ice in the tub. The motor wouldn’t turn by hand, and due to the floor slope, the whole machine was angled severely downward, so I decided it would go offline till spring. I would just use my trusty hand-cranked WonderWash. There’s a lot to be said for having grid-independent backups when your essential electrical appliances are unusable.

I went out to one of my camper trailers to grab a jug of RV antifreeze to pour in the washing machine. Years ago, when my dad winterized before we left at summer’s end, we used regular full-strength poisonous antifreeze in the water lines. I don’t know if RV antifreeze wasn’t a thing yet, or if there was another reason not to use it. Now, I wouldn’t use anything but the RV stuff. It’s non-toxic, drinkable without fatal repercussions I suppose, rated for -50F “burst protection,” and pink. Very pink.

By now, the daytime low was -23F, so I needed to act fast, if it wasn’t already too late to save the washing machine. I had no idea that antifreeze could, well, freeze. The fine print, which I’d never bothered to read, said the stuff would get “slushy” below zero. Mine was beyond slushy. My antifreeze was frozen.

I’m beginning to come around to the idea that I may actually need a new house. A real house. Preferably a tiny house. A friend once unfavorably compared my Southern California ranch home to other people’s “real” houses. To this day, I don’t know quite what he meant, but it made me feel like a societal impostor. I mean I had decent furniture and all the normal appliances, and the darn thing was worth over $750K at the time. I never did want to be part of what we used to call The Establishment, so maybe it was a backhanded compliment. He wasn’t exactly the poster child for the mainstream himself.

My new goal is to learn all I can about tiny homes and figure out how to buy or build one here. Meanwhile, I’ve got to keep this house standing and survivable in all weather. I said to a friend recently that no one ever said Montana winters were easy. No one. As long as I have heat, I’m OK. But when black goopy creosote started dripping from the seams in my woodstove pipe onto the floor, it was sadly clear that my stove was likely not safe to burn until the chimney was cleaned out. I accomplished that with the help of a friend, but not immediately. So I had to rely on space heaters for a few days. Lesson learned there? Don’t burn pine. Don’t burn old telephone poles (for many reasons!). Burn cottonwood.

Okey dokey. Guess I have an axe to grind.


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6. The Dogs Just Don’t Care.

My big water heater in the corner of the kitchen
In the corner, the water heater grins and I bear it.

I was sitting at the table with a next-gen family member one night after supper, lamenting the condition of my house, making the case that I very much needed assistance with repairs. I was feeling a definite lack of sympathy; I was getting no traction with my argument. In fairness, I was probably whining. I could hear my own strident broken-record voice, and I hated it.

Then something small ran across the floor into the corner.

I screamed. A wild thing was loose in my kitchen.

I’d known it was only a matter of time. Earlier in the week tiny holes had appeared in the plastic wrap over a batch of biscuits on the counter. Possibly, I’d inadvertently poked the pliofilm with a knife tip. Preferring to err on the side of caution, we didn’t eat any of the biscuits on that side of the pan after I thought I saw the tiny, micro-tesimal, nano-sized, barely there, probably not really there at all, holes. But then, the morning before the night of the small alien sighting, there were undeniably bigger holes puncturing a loaf cake on the table, also covered with plastic wrap (torn). My alternative rational explanations were irrational and highly unlikely. Of course there was a rodent in the house.

No matter how often this happens (more than occasionally), I’m always surprised, but as a preventive measure, I had set out mousetraps behind a pet-proof barricade. One of the three then-visiting dogs got around my stack of bricks and got his paw caught. He thrashed and smashed the trap till it broke in two and let him go. He limped around moaning for a day, and then was fine, but clearly the mousetraps had to go. The latest expat from Mouseville had the run of the house, and S/He/It knew it.

On the night of the incident, just when I figured the little squirt had left the premises and squeezed through a crack in the wall to find better hunting grounds outside, I looked around to see two tiny beady black eyeballs studying me from the microwave counter, less than a foot away from my arm resting on the kitchen table. Where we had eaten 30 minutes earlier. Whiskers twitching. No fear. On Her/His/Its part anyway. For my part, I was screaming.

The canine trio paid no attention. We grabbed the likeliest one – the victim of the previous mousetrap mishap who should have been righteously indignant at the very least – and held him up face to face with the evil scourge. They stared quietly at each other. Relaxed, mildly curious. Not worried. The others were screaming too. Not at the sight of the mouse. At me. “Don’t kill it. Don’t kill it! It’s so cute.” That mouse was surely mocking me with silent laughter.

Someone urgently demanded a box or a bucket, or something to catch it with and let it loose outside. Were they freaking kidding?? They were serious but couldn’t get near enough before the thing started running around the kitchen floor, up on the counters, over the table, and behind the water heater.

I don’t think a bathroom should be adjacent to the kitchen, but since my W.C. was an afterthought in the 1930s, it was added onto the enclosed back porch. Right off the kitchen.

The water heater is a big ugly 40-gallon monstrous appliance. I can’t get behind it or next to it to clean. I try not to think about or see that corner of the kitchen, but pretty much it’s what you do see when you walk in. The water pipes enter from outside to beneath the sink, connect to the water heater, and pass through the wall to the bathroom, through the shower, out a wall to the porch, and over to the washing machine. The pipes are not aesthetically pleasing, even if I was going for post-modern industrial. (I’m not. The walls are pink.) This corner is on my list of things that I can’t stand any more. I don’t know how to replace a water heater. I’m waiting for it to quit working so I will be forced to do something about it.

Water heaters in this climate are tricky. If you leave for any length of time, you better leave the heat on so the water heater doesn’t freeze and explode. That happened once in the little house next door; we had our own indoor skating rink. I had to wait until the spring thaw to mop out the water. That was also the spring I found tadpoles under the house, with no pond, lake or river within even reasonable walking distance. So, what, they swam here??? I do not have central heat in this house. I have a little propane fireplace in the living room, space heaters in different rooms, and a wood stove in the kitchen. Obviously, I can’t leave the house unsupervised for days and expect any of those to keep the pipes from freezing.

The mouse on this particular night knew its way about. I had been hearing little scritch-scratches, and bumps in the night for a week or so. I told myself the house was just shifting and settling. Well here was proof that I hadn’t imagined the noises. I darn well did know all along what they meant. This was a classic case of denial, like a toothache that gets worse not better, no matter how hard you try to ignore it. 99% of the time, that kind of problem does not go away by itself – a life lesson I keep relearning.

The mouse had no intention of going away. It walked with impunity – calmly walked – on top of the water pipe along the wall from under the sink through a bigger-than-silver-dollar size hole into the bathroom. And then, disappeared into thin air. Nowhere to be seen or heard. I have to confess that I quietly set a trap next to the toilet before going to bed and shut the door to keep the dogs away. Sometime in the night Ms./Mr. Mouse returned. I threw out the evidence the next morning before anyone could find it and accuse me of unconscionable cruelty.

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