We Are Not Calm People: What Happens When The Heat Goes Out

One night recently there was a cold snap. We cranked the heat. Bedtime was cozy. Then, in the middle of the night, the heater went out. I got up in the darkness and peered at the dead eye of the digital thermostat, holding my iPhone up to it like a candle or a kerosene lamp.

This is New Orleans in November, so some perspective is needed when I say “cold snap.” There were no icicles indoors, but nonetheless, it was a shock.

thermoustatI got back under the covers. When dawn broke, I rose again to inspect the thermostats. The one downstairs, where it was really cold, is the old kind. The one upstairs, is the new kind. Neither worked. I was instructed, from within a huge pile of blankets, to get the space heater.

We muddled into our day. The morning rituals were performed in the bedroom where the space heater was cranking. I ran upstairs and down with supplies like a bell-boy delivering room service. It was kind of fun, but our son’s cold a mild cough, mostly seemed to have gotten a little worse. Elizabeth declared she was taking him to the doctor.

Now, Elizabeth and I have different reactions to chaos. I kind of like it, which is convenient for me, since I sometimes seem to create it, but I could see that for Elizabeth this lack of heat, which might otherwise be annoying, took on a new dimension in the context of a sick kid.

The heating and air people came that day.  The guy looked upstairs. He looked downstairs. He vanished into the utility closet for a long time (not a good sign). Sure enough, the problem was not small. We would have to wait  one more day to get the upstairs heater fixed. Downstairs required a whole new heater and would take longer.

I carry within me a kind of psychic seismograph which tracks the signals of time and money — two separate graphs that tend to move in relation to one another.  Both began a series of spasmodic twitches upon hearing this news, like an earthquake detector at the onset of a rumble. But I stayed cool, so to speak.


Alexander was diagnosed with a sinus infection that afternoon. He had been a real trooper about his cold, it turns out. He would need antibiotics. No big deal. Modern medicine reduced the sum of a co-pay at the doctor and again at the pharmacy.

That night presented an interesting conundrum: Where to bathe the children? We decided to take them to the University athletic facility where we sometimes swim or go to run around.

We had never been there so late. Walking up the long flight of concrete stairs to the front door of the facility – an oasis of light –  felt like boarding a cruise ship. Once on deck, the Alexander and Evangeline ran and ran,  laughing hysterically. We got them inside and they ran some more, weaving between ping pong tables, until we corralled  them into the showers.

I had a great time in the shower with my son. He is a real connoisseur of shower taking. He spreads his feet hip width apart and plants himself with his back to the stream of hot water and plays with his fingers with his long tulip neck bent down examining his hands of just staring at the floor in a contemplative mode. We started off in the same shower stall but then I moved to the one next door. He stood under the hot stream in his own stall, discussing this new development while pulling the curtain shut.

“Daddy is taking a shower and Alexander is taking a shower and he is in the shower and he is in the shower by himself,” he says.

No one who doesn’t speak the two-year-old dialectic would have understood this. I speak it. I understood.

I finally got him out, and dried off, and in clothes. I got everyone in the house, which was freezing, turned on the space heater in the bedroom, and went to the pharmacy.

When I returned I bounded up the stairs, expecting to find my family in a cocoon of cozy warmth.  Instead  I came upon a scene of an alarmed mother, a scared older sister, and a little boy whose lips and the area around his lips were blue.

“Something is wrong,”  said Elizabeth. “He’s not warming up!”

An arc of panic leaped like electricity from her to me, and I struggled to ground it. I had a sudden awareness of the space beyond the house, the unfamiliar feeling of cold. On my walk to the pharmacy I had noticed the moon, usually gauzy and soft in the humid New Orleans air, was bright white.  Now I stood in the doorway of  the room with its space heater and lamp, and felt the epic darkness of New Orleans at night spreading beyond this scene, The darkness so thick the street lights don’t brighten the streets so much as punctuate them with a kind of Morse code of halos nestled within the trees.

“Let me hold him,” I said, and tried to pick him up.

But didn’t want to be held by me or by anyone, and squirmed on the bed chattering and crying with blue lips.

“Oh my God, it’s not stopping, ” said Elizabeth as she pulled him towards her.  ”He can’t stop shivering and his lips are blue!”

“It’s fine,” I said. “He’ll be fine.”

Some men can say such words and the people around them calm down. I am not one of these men. Or maybe all wives become immune to such blandishments from their husbands– even if they still need to hear them, just like a kid who jerks away from your kiss still needs to know their dad wants to kiss them.

For a second everything became untethered.

I was saying, “It’s OK, it’s OK.”

Elizabeth was calling the doctor.

Evangeline sat on the bed looking like she wanted to hide. She may actually have covered her ears, I am not sure. She does that sometimes when her brother hurts himself, when he bangs his head on something, or for whatever reason bursts out in tears–she puts her hands on her ears. I think it’s a combination of being worried he might be hurt  — because she loves him — and being worried she will be blamed for it. Or maybe she doesn’t want to hear him cry. I think part of it is that she doesn’t want to hear either of her parents get upset.

Alexander yelled and cried and shivered.  Elizabeth shouted into the phone like the battalion was pinned down by enemy fire and she was calling in back-up.

But that’s not true, I am projecting.

She was totally calm and functional, but I felt beleaguered.  I felt that beneath her calm was something huge that could erupt, and worrying about my wife’s anxiety was my way of worrying about the boy, which was mingled with my growing  distress and shame at having put us in a cold house with heat on the coldest night of the year.

I stared at the boy, blue smudged face, chatting teeth. For a moment it seemed Alexander might be in the grip of some irreversible thing — there was a loosening of all the bonds of normality. Gravity was not functioning as it should. I felt like I was looking down into an illuminated little box that was drifting away into darkness, getting smaller and smaller as the people within the box moved around with increasing panic, aware of a disappearance but unable to stop it.

At one point I was tempted to say, “We are calm people.”

It’s a phrase Elizabeth and I have taken to using when something upsetting happens. It’s a way to remind ourselves to model calmness. For a while “We are calm people!” worked wonders for all of us until one day not long ago when Evangeline abruptly replied, “Why are you saying that? We are not calm people.”


He stopped shivering. His lips were no longer blue. Now he was humming, flopping around, and making funny noises.

“Something is wrong,” said Elizabeth. “This isn’t normal.”

“Maybe he’s just in a good mood,” I said.

“It’s not normal,” she said.

For a whole minute he made googly eyes and hummed and sang like a drunk person while we all stared at him like scientiests trying to decide of this behavior was normal for a two year old.

I had one of those irrational moments when you think your little kid is manipulating your anxiety for his own entertainment. At such moments the kid can seem really diabolical. But then you think, No, they are so little, they might do that by instinct but never on purpose. And you feel all is well with the world, until you catch the kid looking at you like you are a big sucker.

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