Sunday, December 04, 2005

(Un)-Friendly Fire

I promised you I would do something stupid, and I would then write about it; I don’t make promises lightly. There are so few guarantees in my life, but at least once a day I find myself staring at something I created thinking, “That can’t be good”.

I am fairly inept at most of the 21st century skills; I have three phone numbers stored in my new cell phone; one is home and two are wrong numbers I accidentally entered and can’t seem to remove. I am operatically bad at 20th century skills. On more than one occasion I have stubbornly insisted to Consort that the TV isn’t working; only to find out I was using his old cell-phone as a remote control. But consumer electronics is a fairly late entry to the human experience, and my not being able to master such things might just be chalked up to my delicate little brain saving its new learning pathways for the names of Angelina Jolie’s children. In short, I have made peace with being a graceless member of this modern age.

What is really humbling is that I cannot make a fire in the fireplace.

You know fire; it’s the thing we’ve been creating and cultivating for tens of thousands of years. Fire-making is fairly basic Homo Habilus information. I have ancestors whose first response to seeing a paperback book would have been to eat it, but they could create fire. I can use “Chiaroscuro” in a sentence -- hey! I just did! -- but creating and maintaining a fire is completely beyond me. This is about as pathetic a confession as admitting I needed to take Remedial Sneezing.

The sad thing is that I like a fireplace in action. I like the sound. I like what little my allergy-damaged nose allows me to smell of it. I like how fireplace light makes my skin tone almost lifelike. You’d think something I liked this much would like me back, if only a little bit. But fire views me with the same disdain I, when young and single, viewed men who said things like, “You’re busy Saturday? Okay, how about Sunday brunch? No? How about lunch tomorrow? How about dinner? I’m free for dinner…”

Fire scorns me for wanting it so much.

Part of my problem with creating a fire in the fireplace is beyond my control. Let me introduce you to our charming fireplace, surrounded by thin, glazed California tiles painted and carved in the early part of the 20th century for no other reason than to be beautiful. Now, imagine gazing into the fireplace itself. You would note that the fire box is slightly shallower than the decorative tiles framing it. I’ve seen make-up compacts with greater depth. I don’t know what the architect thought this hole in the wall was going to be used for – maybe storing two or three frozen pizzas stacked on end -- but I am beginning to think he would be aghast to imagine a fire in there.

When you are trying to create a hearty blaze in a space the depth of a shoe, you have to be creative. The starter log must be pushed to the absolute back of the fireplace; fire anywhere near the middle of the fireplace will fail to create an updraft and the entire house will fill with a black choking smoke forcing us to camp in the tool shed with the spiders. But logs don’t want to stay crammed up against the back of the fireplace. Like all of us, they long for freedom and autonomy. So, the first half-hour of Fireplace Follies is spent with me sticking my head into the fireplace so as to wedge the starter log back into place. The log fights me, the smoke billows out, and again we all wonder how I still have eyelashes.

Frequently, the starter log -- a product guaranteed to burn merrily in the middle of a North Atlantic gale -- just goes out.

However, if the God of Fire chooses to hear my pleas and I do manage to create a sullen pile of smoldering embers, that’s when the fun starts. I add wood! Or, rather, I add wood, and then press it against the back of the fireplace with the iron thingamajig, and then prod the embers with the other iron thingamajig, and then goose the embers red with the accordion bellows and then wedge the wood against the wall again and then add newspaper underneath and then wash some of the soot off the walls in the kitchen and bathroom before it sticks! An hour later, I am sweating and hostile, Consort has rigged up a breathing apparatus for Daughter and the cat is coughing up little puffs of smoke. The least infernal place in the house is in the fireplace; you might even call it chilly. You could safely store milk products in there.

The rest of the evening is a montage of me battling my mental illness: Quinn, creating ever-taller piles of wood which don’t burn; Quinn, leaping to the fireplace frantically as the wood suddenly, violently catches fire and teeters forward pushing onto the grate, sending flames licking up the walls; Quinn, a second later, staring in confusion at a completely fire-free fireplace; Quinn shouting “I said, I can HANDLE IT!” as Consort suggests that he might take over before our insurance deductible is involved. It’s hard to recall at that point how, hours earlier, I was the one who said “It’s a nice night for a fire.”

Last night, I was in the kitchen, alternately setting up a fan in the window so as to pull some of the airborne ashes outside and getting up on a chair to turn off the smoke detector. Consort had taken Daughter out; we decided she could come back when the house no longer resembled a barbeque smoker with furniture. As I worked, the radio kept me company. A news report informed that, thanks to the heavy rains last winter and the low humidity and high winds right now, there was a greater than average chance of fires this winter.

I’m thinking of offering my help to the National Park Service. Water-dropping helicopters are nice, but if you really want to stop a fire you need me optimistically holding a grubby box of matches and a Duraflame log.


Blogger houseband00 said...

I can see it now:

Quinn - The Un-arsonist Woman.

Coming this winter. Check local listings. =)

12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quinn, let me remind you that you live in southern California, where the number of days when the outside temperature could actually justify a fire is actually a fraction. Hence the architecture. So take the hint and give it up already, and pretend it's what you intended all along...

3:19 PM  
Blogger Joie de Vivre said...

Dork disclaimer: being married to a self-employed handyman means I've watched more "This Old House" than "Sex In the City"

Sounds like you have a Rumford fireplace (?). I've seen them on numerous home improvement shows; their shallowness always made me a bit uncomfortable. Here's a website which might help:

Good luck!

4:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there As a General Contractor and Mason, I have built numerous Rumford fireplaces, and I have never built one that didn't work well. If it is built using the proper formulas, the Rumford fireplace will work fine.
Regarding the Venturi design of the throat, it is the most critical part of the design. Although there is some acceptable tolerance in the rolled throat and Venturi design, if there is too much variation from Count Rumford's formulas, there could be a problem with the fireplace draw and downdrafts. This would be especially true on some very windy or damp days/nights. The Rumford fireplace is much more efficient than a standard
fireplace. It is also a much cleaner burning fireplace. For anyone considering installing a masonry fireplace, I would highly recommend a Rumford fireplace. Best of luck in all your projects.


6:27 AM  

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