Of Woods and Words: Life in the Shack

The shack
The shack

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When I drove home from work a few weeks ago, the thermometer in my car read 6 below. When I opened the door of my humble little home, I discovered the display on the off-peak electric heater in the corner read 42 degrees. While the heater has kept our home cozy all winter, when the seasons start to change, sometimes it gets confused. With longer, warmer days, the heater doesn’t always anticipate that the night could be much colder than the day. That evening I ran around in a down vest and jacket, turning on space heaters and plugging up the gap under the door. When I was satisfied that I had done everything possible to warm up the cabin, I crawled under several layers of down and flannel and went to sleep.

This fall someone asked what kind of heat we have. When I told her about our somewhat reliable off-peak electric heater, she sniffed.

“Oh,” she said. “I suppose you have running water too.”

I live in a teeny building with electric heat and running water that we call ‘the Shack.’ It’s a term of endearment, but also a descriptive term. The Shack is approximately 12 by 20. Realtors would be hard-pressed with their description of the Shack, but they might call it ‘cozy’ or a ‘fixer-upper.’ An accordion folding door separates the bathroom from the rest of the downstairs living area. Although the shower is accessed through the bathroom, the outer walls of the shower sit in the kitchen next to the oven. We all know about the heater’s tendency to malfunction and I have hit my head on the slanted roof of the loft too many times to recall.

The Shack is so small and tippy in stature that the building is actually chained to the cliff it is nestled next to. I suspect it is chained to the cliff because it once tipped over. I find this thought so discomfiting that I try not to think about it too much.

I don’t want to spin the Shack in either a negative or romantic light. That’s because life in the Shack feels a bit like a rite of passage.

Around here, you don’t have to explain why you shove old towels and that Snuggie you got for Christmas around the doorway to prevent a miniature snow drift from forming in your living room. Tell that story and suddenly you’ll be the one listening to stories of hauling water for five years before the running water got hooked up. Of having to wake up in the middle of the night to stoke the fire. Of frozen pipes and septic alarms. Of not having enough outlets to support both the space heaters and a normal lifestyle so that every morning there was a horrible chilly 15 minutes when your wife had to unplug a space heater so she could blow dry her hair. We all seem to have some memory of compromised living, usually involving a teeny house where plastic and insulation stick out from unfinished window frames.

People almost always end their stories by saying: “That’s what we had when we were starting out.” Someday soon stories about the Shack will end that way too.

For now, well, a 12 by 20 Shack is pretty cushy compared to some living arrangements I’ve heard of. At the end of the day, even when it’s 6 below outside and 42 degrees inside, it’s home.

Airdate: March 18, 2010

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