Kage Baker always did her best to spend the week between Christmas and New Year in quiet and privacy. A seasonal hermitage would have pleased her most – as it was, living 300 miles from any notable population centers and interfacing with the world through electronics was just her glass of Coke.
Ideally, this week between the two goal posts of the Western Calendar should be spent as quietly as possible. It’s a null time, a spacer bead on the annular necklace: bracketed between two enormous holidays, this winter span is a deep breath taken and held in the cold, cold air. You draw your collar close, and shade your eyes against the icy glitter on the horizon – the icy glitter that is the horizon, hiding all your future in a grove of blades and silver lace – and give some quiet thanks for the chance to catch your breath at all.
Of course, that’s easier when your house isn’t trying to blow up and catch fire. As some of you Dear Readers are already aware, my Boxing Day was enlivened by the furnace in my sister Kimberly’s house going into a meltdown. And just as the Los Angeles Basin entered its one annual phase of frost, too …
December is a season of fires in most places – chimneys, braziers, kitchen hearths, candles and propane heaters and barbecues dragged in from the porch to warm up the house on a cold night: even in California, where it mostly doesn’t snow, the Christmas season is also the season of house fires. The wild fires settle down and sleep – most of the problems this time of year arise from dry Christmas trees, badly insulated Christmas lights and batteries put in new toys backwards and upside down. At least a domicile a night makes the news every night: and that’s just the ones that catch the media’s attention. Lots of fires are prevented, or forestalled, or fought to a desperate standstill by people who get no camera time at all.
Had our furnace actually succeeded in exploding, we might have made the Channel 4 News. They have a studio not far from Silver Lake, which we also border on one side. But when the furnace in the basement (which is itself rare in LA, and doubtless helped save us) went critical, the first hint was the power going out. The circuit breakers refused to be flipped back, and while we were investigating that, a smell of charring insulation began spreading through the house. Nephew Michael, a young man of his hands (thank all the gods), tracked it down to the cellar – where he found the copper gas hose feeding the forced air heater had blown a hole in itself, and was directing a 6-inch exhalation of blue flame against the main electrical ganglion of the house …
If the heater had been built into a wall, we’d have burned. If the wiring had been laid on higher up, instead of in our rare California half-basement, we’d have burned. If the furnace had been in a utility closet, instead of in a dank, icy-cold, earth-and concrete floored cave, we’d have burned. As it was, all it did was create a few short circuits before Mike got the gas turned off, the ignition uplugged, and the blowtorch off the wiring. It took half an hour for the hot stink to dissipate, but everything cooled down without unnecessary seizures and hysteria. (We had a little of the necessary kind – Christmas fires are scary, even in potentio.)
Of course, the wiring was somewhat bollixed, and the power kept going out as we traced the damaged lines through the network of the house. The place was apparently wired by a demented alien – probably the Doctor, judging by the ham-fisted techniques – and it took several more outages before we had the bum outlets isolated, and plugged in the essential items in the ones that worked. (Michael, young and strong, ran tirelessly round the house from door to door and the circuit breaker box on the outside cellar wall, cursing in a manly way each time I plugged something in and the power died. Again.) We ultimately discovered that the front porch shares a circuit with the laundry room, on the other side of the house; the stove is connected to the bathroom circuit, but the refrigerator is connected to one half of the living room; the pantry – which has but one appliance in it – stands alone.
By a cunning re-assignment of priorities and power strips, we have the fridge and the stove working; lights in all the rooms; the Christmas tree and the computers. A space heater and the fireplace are standing in for the forced-air furnace, and the laundry room can be rung in at need, if we unplug my printer and the microwave … I’d say, at this point, that the house is working slightly better than the International Space Station, and we still have hot water and flush toilets!
Plumbing and heating guys, and electricians too, apparently share with Kage the conviction that the world ceases to exist between December 25th and January 1st. No one on our list is answering the phone. Monday may prove more fruitful – in the meantime, we are forted up for a slightly chilly interval. But we have plenty of quilts and blankets, sweaters and socks and knitted wool. The animals are all happy to share a lap or a shoulder when invited. Even the television works.
So – a quiet day tomorrow, to be sure. We’re set up safely, and in all the comfort we could salvage with a dead furnace and 30-degree nights. We’ve got electricity, which leaves us light-years better off than the majority of human history; and all the festive goodies of the season are available in pantry and fridge. Hell, they’d stay fresh on the back porch, at need: it’s that cold. But we have down sleeping bags and fuzzy socks on our side, so we will triumph.
And we didn’t blow up or burn down. As Kage would wisely quote from Romeo and Juliet at times like this: “There art thou happy!”
Yes. Yes, we are.