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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

T-minus 35 and counting; a simple life in the bitter cold

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 2/8/23

On the morning of Friday, Feb. 3, after a cozy night under my comforters, the moment my feet touched the floor, I had a hunch this was going to be one of those really tough days. Despite ample …

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T-minus 35 and counting; a simple life in the bitter cold


On the morning of Friday, Feb. 3, after a cozy night under my comforters, the moment my feet touched the floor, I had a hunch this was going to be one of those really tough days. Despite ample warning, I was overcome by a wave of dread having seen the temperature on the outside thermometer — 35 degrees below zero. This kind of cold used to be old hat, but not anymore. No doubt about it. I’ve turned into a lightweight.
Much to my surprise, when I opened the latch on the wood stove, I found a nice bed of bright-red coals. There was a chill in the air but with a little kindling, a few chunks of birch and a wide-open draft, within minutes, the house was warming up nicely. My morning routine had begun.
Once I’d had my first cup of coffee, I was able to decide what had to be done next. I knew, for my own safety, that eventually I’d have to attend to the car. It surely would resist cranking over on a morning like this. I don’t have a garage, nor the electricity needed for one of those plug-in oil pan heaters. But I do have a different tried and true method to start my car. To employ it safely and successfully, precision timing is a must.
To begin with, I’d have to let those few small pieces of firewood that I’d tossed into the stove earlier burn down a bit. I’ve learned to watch for that “sweet spot” between too hot to be safe and too cool to do the job. Experience has been my greatest teacher. The process requires patience. The best way to get to the next step is to pour oneself another cup of coffee and relax with something good to read. After a half hour I checked the stove again. The coals were perfect, ready to scoop into my old-fashioned turkey roaster — the ideal pan for this purpose.
One might think it was engineered specifically for this task. With its sturdy welded handles that magically resist transmitting heat, my gloved hands were well-protected from getting burned. In addition, this roaster is divided into two equal halves — a shallow lower half (great for a moderate amount of coals) and a deep oval lid that fits snugly against the bottom, perfect for carting the coals down the path to the driveway. That lid shields my precious cargo from wind that could cause flaring and ignite my jacket.
The next step also requires some expertise. Cars typically have a lot of plastic that protects the underside of the engine. Ideally, my roaster with its humped lid reduces the worry of lighting my car on fire — as long as I’ve carefully positioned it directly under the only exposed metal, the bottom of the oil pan. Once the coals are in place, I throw two large blankets used just for this purpose over the hood, making sure they touch the ground. They serve as my improvised portable garage. Time now to return to the house where I can warm my stinging fingers and wait some more.
Happily, I found enough coffee in the thermos for one more cup. I turned on the radio and chose to skip the news. I figured I had enough weighing on my mind without having to listen to last night’s tragic mayhem. I wasn’t in the mood for music either. Then, I recalled a neighbor’s excitement over “some really great podcasts”. With my still-limited exposure to the wonders of my smart phone, I hadn’t really understood at the time just what he was talking about. But oddly, on this very cold morning, my curiosity took over.
I turned on my phone and clicked on Spotify where I’d once see “Podcasts”. There, dozens were listed. Randomly, I picked one. “Reinvent Yourself with Dr. Tara.” It sounded kind of hokey, but I tapped “Play” anyway, and began to listen.
Dr. Tara Swart Bieber received her education at England’s Oxford University and now is a neuroscientist on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research has focused on the evolutionary development of the human brain, its neurochemistry and neuroplasticity, a term to describe the brain’s ability to adjust and adapt to change. The discussion was full of fascinating information about complex interactions among various hormones —oxytocin, testosterone, and cortisol just to name a few — neurochemicals that influence how the brain receives and processes internal and external stimuli. Dr. Tara detailed their impact on our moods, coping abilities and other important cognitive and emotional functions. From her research, she has developed self-care strategies along with recommendations for diet, exercise, and stress reduction techniques designed to better balance our neurochemistry and improve our overall well-being. After 45 minutes, I suddenly realized it was time to hit the pause button and run out to check on my coals. Sure enough, they needed to be replenished. Once done, waiting resumed. I pushed “play” and continued my listening session.
The second half of the program was as interesting as the first. It continued by examining the science and power of “intention,” its way to improve our focus, as well as our ability to achieve greater health and happiness. By the end of the program, I was convinced.
That 90 minutes had sure seemed to fly by. It was past time to try and start the car. Instantly I felt a wave of anxiety — anticipation of failure, grinding the battery dead, and the stress over what I would do next. Being without my car presented risks, and fear, greater than I wanted to face. Once behind the wheel, I crossed my fingers and turned the key. Lo and behold, my old Corolla fired right up! I let out a hardy “Hallelujah!” in sharp contrast to earlier that morning’s “Ugh.”
It’s funny how many people just don’t get why I’ve chosen my simple life in the woods — one that resembles something more like the 1800s than the 21st century. But my lifestyle, as this story reveals, straddles two worlds. Yes, there are challenges that require more effort, but as is also true, I can access current scientific and technological advancements that without a doubt enhance my quality of life. On that morning, with those bitter cold temps, I moved from dread to delight. Filled with gratitude. And I can say is “Thank you, Dr. Tara!” Now on to Episode II.