Friday, December 4, 2009
Burning Questions for the Fireplace
A little while ago, while I was coming in with fresh kindling from the log pile, my cell phone rang. And when I answered I was delighted to hear the familiar voice of my old college roommate Kenneth on the other end of the line. He said he had a stupid question for me, and when I laughed and said there’s no such thing, he laughed right back. “You haven’t heard this one yet,” he said.
Understand: Kenny’s no dummy. When the rest of the gang graduated and started entry-level jobs in various businesses across the country, he stayed in college – until he was thirty-two. For a long time, as the rest of us got raises and promotions and started families, we teased poor Kenny mercilessly about his decade-long pursuit of the PhD. But when our old friend finally did get out, with two advanced degrees in-hand, he got a job at a different university teaching 19th Century British Literature. Now he clears more than 60k a year, never works in the summer and gets a month off at Christmas.
Indeed, two years ago, when the wife and I spent the holidays with Kenny and his family up in Connecticut, my old roommate had just purchased a two-story Victorian with fireplaces in every bedroom. We spent Christmas Eve in the parlor, listening to his eleven-year-old daughter read a first edition copy of A Christmas Carol before a fire that would have warmed even Scrooge’s heart.
“I thought you had it all figured out,” I said as I lay my bundle of sticks on the fireplace foot and shifted the phone from one ear to the other. “What kind of question could a brainiac like you have for an old log-burner like me?”
“Funny you’d put it that way,” he said. “Because an old log-burner like you is exactly the kind of guy this braniac needs. I’ve got a burning question about fireplaces.”
I pulled back the glass doors of my fireplace and started putting in the kindling. “Oh, well,” I said. “That’s a different matter. Still, though. Kenny. There’s no such thing as a stupid question, and that’s especially true when it comes to fireplaces. And don’t go trying to make one up, either. I’ve heard them all.”
He laughed again. “No, no. I wouldn’t dream of it. This is actually a pretty serious matter. And since it is about fireplaces, I thought immediately of you. You’ve been in the game a long time.”
I told him not to flatter me and to get on with his question or I was hanging up. That’s the kind of humor old college buddies sometimes share, I guess, and he laughed yet again before getting to the point.
“Okay, the question,” he said. “I’ve been looking into installing glass fireplace doors for a couple of the rooms upstairs, provided I can find something tasteful that won’t clash with my antique map collection or my fin de siecle andirons —”
“You can,” I said as I started to lay the logs atop the kindling in the firebox. “Not a problem. And I can tell you where, too.”
“Great. Super. Glad to hear it. But that wasn’t my question. I wanted to know about how to use the doors once I get them, whether I should burn my fire with the doors open or the doors shut, because I’ve heard—”
“Don’t tell me what you’ve heard,” I said. “Tell me what you think, first.”
“I think I’d rather have the doors open. You know, so I can hear the logs crackling, get more heat. It’s a more direct experience.”
“Good idea,” I said. “Now tell me what you’ve heard.”
“Well, I’ve heard the exact same thing. In fact, I have a colleague over in the physics department who explained all the thermodynamics, how the fire needs oxygen for fuel, how the doors don’t let the heat out into the room and how when you have the doors closed all that heat goes straight up the chimney.”
“True, true and true. And that’s why I don’t understand. You said you had a stupid question.”
“I do,” said Kenny. “And the stupid question, okay, the stupid question is this: if you’re supposed to burn your fire with the doors open, to optimize the heat and burn a better fire, why in the world do all the pictures of fireplace glass doors I look at online show a fire blazing behind closed glass doors? Every last fireplace door company out there shows its products with the doors closed tight and a fire going behind the glass. Every single one!”
This time I laughed. I’d heard the same question before, more times than I could count. It’s almost an inside joke in the industry at this point. “Let me ask you something,” I said. “Would you order a set of fireplace doors you’d never seen, not even in a picture?”
“Probably not,” he confessed. “And you can’t see the doors as well when they’re open, can you.”
“No,” I said as I placed one more log on the grate and brushed my hands together. “You cannot. And on top of that, what would you rather look at, a raging fire or a dead, ashy box?”
“A raging fire,” he admitted. “See, I told you it was a stupid question.”
“No such thing,” I said as I lit my morning fire, pulled the screen shut and opened the doors an extra inch. “But thanks for trying, Professor.”
With that, I settled back on the couch, toes pointed toward the fire, ready to catch up on more important things—like his family’s holiday plans and how his daughter was doing in school, when he was coming down to my place for Christmas to sit around my own fireplace for a change. Old college buddies talk about that kind of stuff, too.