What’s the Right Temperature?

My sister-in-law Missy has lived with us for the past seven years. She’ll turn 40 next September and she has Down Syndrome. She often does things that make perfect sense to her, but it takes us a while to recognize her logic. Missy figures that that’s our problem.

We were sitting in the den on a ridiculously frigid evening last December when I noticed that cold air was tumbling down the staircase. “You feel that?” I asked. The Lovely Marianne, my wife of many years, nodded. “It’s cold, isn’t it?” She nodded again. I stood and slogged up the stairs. Missy’s room is at the end of the hallway. Her door was wide open and so were both of her windows. The wind was howling into my house. I closed the windows. Then I went back downstairs and found Missy in the kitchen. “Did you open the windows in your room?” I asked. She waggled her eyes, something she does when she knows she’s busted. “The windows in your room,” I said. “Did you open them?”

“I hot!” she shouted and walked away from me.


I went back to the den and told The Lovely Marianne about the windows. “She’s hot,” I said.

“She’s at that age,” Marianne said.

“I’m cold,” I said.

“Me too,” she said.

“So what do we do?”

“We’ll talk to her.”

Which is what I did. I sat with Missy and explained that she is part of a family, and that family members have to work together so that everyone is happy, and that if she is too hot she should tell me, or Marianne, and then one of us will turn down the thermostat. I took her to the thermostat, and I showed her how it works, which, as it turns out, was not the brightest thing I have ever done in my life.

Anyway, a few days went by and the windows wouldn’t stay closed. I talked to her again, but no dice. Missy views me as a minor annoyance that will someday go away and leave her in peace. She was hot, and she was used to opening windows. Habit. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

And then she started opening the windows in our bedroom as well as her bedroom because she liked the crosswind this created. The wind howled down the hall like a good Nor’easter should.

“I’m going to murder your little sister,” I said to The Lovely Marianne.

“Please don’t do that; you’ll go to prison,” she said. “Let’s talk to her again.”

Which we did, but this time, Marianne took the lead. Her argument made more sense than mine because it was in Missy’s self-interest, rather than ours. “The man from the oil company called,” Marianne lied. “He said that I have to send him more money this month because the windows are all open. That means that we won’t have any money to give to Jeannette next week, and she won’t be able to take you bowling.” Missy’s eyes waggled furiously. Jeannette is Missy’s companion. She shows up once a week and takes her bowling, or to the movies, or to a social. Marianne had issued the ultimate penalty. Missy was to be grounded due to a double-hung violation. Yikes!

“I close windows,” Missy shouted, and then she waddled off to do just that. And not only did she close them all, she also locked them.

“You see?” The Lovely Marianne said. “You just have to find the right approach. It’s now in her self-interest to keep the house warm.”

“Makes sense,” I said. She smiled.

In the middle of the night, Marianne and I awoke to what felt like 110 degrees Fahrenheit in our bedroom. I thought someone had transported us to the Rain Forest whist we dozed. Marianne growled. I got up and looked at the thermostat, which was pegged all the way to the right.

“Did you turn up the heat?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“I’m going to murder your little sister,” I said.

But then we thought for a moment, and laughed. We realized that all of this made perfect sense. Here’s the logic in The World According to Missy:

  1. If I open the window the house gets cold.
  2. If the house gets cold, I can’t go out with Jeannette.
  3. Therefore, let me make the house as hot as Brazil so that I can go out with Jeannette.

Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

See? It’s not her; it’s us.

Marianne and I were in a local diner on a July day that was setting records for Long Island heat. We could have used winter coats as we ate our meal; it was that cold at our table. When we were paying the bill at the counter next to the front door, the owner of the diner asked us if everything had been okay. “Pretty cold at our table,” Marianne said. “You could chill meat back there.”

The owner squinted at one of the seven thermostats that were on the wall behind the counter, and right next to the door that kept opening and closing as customers came and went. He shrugged. “Seventy-two degrees,” he said. “Comfortable.”

“You keep your thermostats up here by the front door?” I said. “No wonder it’s so cold back there in your diner. The thermostats are supposed to be where the people are, not up here by the front door where the hot air blows in.”

The owner smiled at me and shook his head slowly, as if I were the dopiest man to ever eat rice pudding. “If I put thermostats back there,” he said, “then everybody touch. Wife touch. Son touch. Daughter touch. Customer touch. Nobody ever happy with temperature. Everybody complain. Like you! I put thermostats her in front, only Gus touch!” He smacked himself on the chest with a meaty palm and smiled like the King of Pancakes.

Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Only Gus touch.

The Lovely Marianne is also my business partner. I work at home where it is quiet. She works in our storefront office with our employees, the elves. The building is old and has one-pipe-steam heat. There are two apartments above our office, but only one boiler. There are, however, two thermostats – one in our office, and the other in one of the upstairs apartments. Either can fire the boiler, but not at the same time. There’s a toggle switch wired into the two thermostats. It’s also in our office and it decides which thermostat is in charge. So we have three places of occupancy, two thermostats, one boiler, and one toggle switch.

Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? I mean, if you’re the landlord. It’s cheap.

When The Lovely Marianne and the elves want some heat they toggle their thermostat on. When the upstairs tenant wants some heat he bangs on the pipes until Marianne or one of the elves toggles control over to him.

The other day, the landlord stopped by to shut the supply valves on the radiators in our office. He explained to Marianne that if the radiators didn’t get hot then the thermostat in our office wouldn’t shut off the oil burner, and the tenant upstairs would have heat and be happy. And might stop calling him in the middle of the night. For heat.

“But if you shut those valves, then we’ll be cold in our office,” The Lovely Marianne said.

“I think you’ll be alright,” the landlord said.

He left; she opened the valves.

Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

Dan Holohan

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