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Confessions of A Fireplace Failure

This is the time of year when a lot of TV commercials show groups of friends enjoying a cozy party in someone's living room, their mood warmed by a jolly fire crackling in the hearth.

For a long time, those cheerful scenes left me cold, but not because I harbor any Scrooge-like hostility toward the holidays. No, my problem with such gatherings was more elemental. Somehow, I reached adulthood without ever understanding exactly how to make wood burn in a fireplace.

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There can't be many secrets more embarrassing to admit, especially for a man. Fire is, after all, a masculine enterprise, the Promethean energy that gives us the power to tame nature, build entire civilizations, and make life more comfortable for our loved ones. In my case, however, attempts to coax bright yellow flames out of dry wood were always difficult and usually futile.

Not that I didn't have plenty of hands-on learning opportunities. There were guys in my Boy Scout troop who could transform a few twigs and a candy wrapper into a roaring conflagration within minutes. Their hands moved with the ease of skilled magicians, and their small bits of fuel seemed to ignite spontaneously.

My own legacy of campfire building resembled a sophomoric parody of the experts. I would go through the motions and, with luck, the kindling might smolder momentarily and perhaps even glow faintly before fading to its original, innate state. If I had been with Lewis and Clark, the Indians would have called me "Makes Cold Darkness."

INSTEAD of confronting my incompetence, I chose to follow the tradition of countless frontier cowards who quietly stepped aside and allowed more-talented people - their wives, for example - to handle the tough jobs.

Not surprisingly, my abilities in fire management remained minimal as I grew older and pursued an indoor lifestyle. Others could make fireplaces erupt in a shower of sparks by striking a single match, while my efforts to brighten up a cold night usually produced a few blackened logs, a load of ashes from 30 pages of wadded-up newspapers, and a smoky haze throughout the house.

I used to joke that if scientists could analyze the conditions inside my fireplace and then duplicate them out in the forest, we'd never lose another tree to careless campers.

It's not clear exactly how or when this situation changed. There was no sudden revelation. Insights built up little by little over time, and I finally caught on. Call it a seasoning process. Kindling slowly became an ally. Arranging the sticks changed from a puzzle to a procedure. And I acquired wood savvy: Oak is wonderful; honey locust, the sawdust of which may figure in the manufacture of asbestos, is dreadful.

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So bring on the holiday festivities. No more embarrassment for me when the fire starts. I may do a slow burn, but now it's the good kind.

* Jeffrey Shaffer is the author of 'I'm Right Here Fish Cake' and 'It Came With the House,' collections of humorous essays. He lives in Portland, Ore.

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