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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Enjoy Your Pretty Fire, But...

I have enough Irish in me to allow me to wear a shamrock on St. Patrick's Day. I don't have enough to allow me to enjoy green beer, but I love Celtic designs, and I enjoy the lilt of poetry.  I also have one Irish trait that can be troublesome: I sometimes get the 'feeling' that I really, really need to do or say something. Not because anyone I know needs to hear it or have it happen, but... but because I need to say or do it. 

So with this post. 

I was setting the morning's fire in my wood stove. It heats things very well, and the window gives me the pleasure of watching the fire. Someone described a burning log as being the result of all the sunshine, stored within the wood over years of growth, uncoiling and returning to the air. Pretty thought. However it comes about, it is warming and beautiful.
I scooped out the ashes, set them in their bin, lifted an eyebrow at some glowing embers safely inside the bin - and the thought hit me - You Must Write A Post. And I remembered why. Here is my post, about having a fire. The 'why' will be at the bottom of the post.
I have a wood-burning stove inset into my fireplace. I went with this because while I enjoy fires in the winter, it occurred to me that I could cut down fuel bills by burning 'smart' fires. So I bought an insert by a company named Regency. I wish my fireplace looked as nice as this, but this is the model:

 It has worked very well, especially last year when we were without power for a week. The platform at the top gets hot enough to boil water or, if you're patient, heat a frying pan. In fact, when the power came back on last year, I had just put a casserole with chili and hot dogs on to heat. After gasping 'What on earth?' and realizing that we did have power again, I shrugged and continued cooking the hot dogs.

That's my situation with a wood stove. I had an open fireplace before that, with a number of important things. Whether you have a wood stove or an open fireplace, the things I am going to list are very important. This is what you need to have:

Something to screen the fire from the surrounding area. Depending on what you're burning, bits of flaming material can fly out of the fire and onto your floor with some pretty bad consequences. My wood stove has a glass door. Some have metal doors. That's good. Just be careful not to come up against them. They can become very hot.
What of an open fireplace? You need a screen.   Here is one I like: It is mesh, so air can circulate. (The insurance industry has things they call 'friendly fires' and 'unfriendly fires'. I have heard a lot of hilarity and annoyance about those terms, but there is a chilling truth to them.

A fire, controlled and burning where it is supposed to be is a thing of beauty, warming and comforting. Put that pile of flame in the middle of your living room carpet and it is a dreadful danger. Screens will help keep your fire 'friendly'.

 If you look at the photo above, you will see that there is an expanse of what appears to be black stone or tile between the fireplace and the very nice wooden floor. I think a fire inspector in my New England home state would find this one a little too narrow. Wider is better, just make certain it is nob-flammable.  Better still, talk to the Fire Marshal or a reputable store that sells and services wood stoves. 

Fires produce a lot of ashes.  These need to be scooped out regularly.  You will need to have, beside the fireplace a receptacle for the ashes.  You want something that will hold the ashes, as well as any glowing embers you did not happen to notice, and not go up in flames.  Galvanized steel works just fine.  You can get some prettier ones.  Here is a photo of a black ash can and sturdy shovel.  I have the shovel, but a different (uglier) can.  I may get this one.  This is listed on eBay.  Do a search with this:  Wood Stove Ash Bucket & Shovel Set.

Whatever you get, make sure there is a lid that will stay on if, say, your toddler or your dog happens to knock it over.  Ashes on carpet are hard to get out.  Embers are worse.

 I could list tools you need: a lighter (the long-ended ones are good), a poker - get one with a hook, which will allow you to shift logs easily.  A dustpan - of metal - and a brush. 

You also must get your chimney cleaned annually.  

But why am I posting this?


Last year, a house in a historic neighborhood burned down on Christmas morning.  Two grandparents and three young children were killed.  The mother of the children was dragged from the house by her boyfriend.  She survived.  The Fire Marshal completed his investigation and issued his report. 

The cause of the fire?  A stupid mistake.  Never mind who made it.  When the cold fireplace was swept clear of ashes, the person performing the task placed the cold ashes in a plastic bag in one of the rooms of the house.  As I saw this morning, dumping the cold ashes into the steel bin, glowing embers can survive a long time.  Sure enough there was one. I placed the lid on the bin (smothers the ember) and remembered.
If you have a fireplace and are using it and not following my advice, please read this post and take some steps.  At the absolutely very least put in a hearth apron and take your swept-out ashes outside and far from your house.

Do I sound bossy?  It's the Irish in me.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Trouble With Characters in Stories that You Write...

...Is that you have endowed them with life, personality, virtues (and vices).  While they move through your imagination and by the reality you have given them shape the course of your stories, you can't sit down with them, talk about your own trials, troubles, hopes and heartaches, and receive a response.

That is the drawback to characters.

You love them, follow them, mold them, and guide them - and they cannot love you back.

To shift away from this profundity, let me remark that I have only twice had characters from my stories appear in my dreams.

The first time, I dreamed that the receptionist where I worked had called me to tell me that I had...visitors...in the lobby.  I hurried out there to find:

an early renaissance mercenary
an ancient Egyptian archer
a Colonel of Cavalry in the Union army
a Norse type fantasy character

They had somehow heard that I was unhappy (not sure where that came from, since I loved the job).  I had to convince them that I was fine.  The Egyptian was still inclined to nock an arrow and patrol the office, his narrowed eyes moving back and forth.

The second dream was darker.  I had to meet someone, and I had to park on a dangerous street.  I was worried - until I saw the main character of my French story standing at a distance, watching...  I felt safe.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Laptop Detonation

My laptop was stolen in January of this year.  It was a nice laptop, and it was my own stupid fault.  I left it on a plane.  Twenty minutes after arriving at my hotel I realized what had happened, phoned the airline and asked that they look for it.  I had my seat number...
The thing was never found.  I think someone swiped it on the way out of the plane.  Heaven knows they all searched for it (and were very nice about it).  So, it was gone.

I had a short-lived moment of panic: there was a lot of personal information on that thing, but then I remembered that I had a password that was about as break-proof as can be managed.  After a couple tries the memory banks would have been erased and the machine sold on.  It was still annoying, but, as I said, it was my own stupid fault.

I was out of town.  I commissioned a friend to find me another, gave a price range and a sincere thanks.  She found a laptop that had been marked way down because a newer model was being rolled out.  The markdown was very dramatic.  The laptop had huge memory, incredible RAM.  It was fast, capacious - and it was on sale for just about $30 more than I'd budgeted.  Definitely a fabulous buy.

I have been using it and very happy with it, but it started getting a little cranky.  I backed everything up in duplicate and then took it to 'The Geek Squad'. 

They looked it over, gave some suggestions, and I took it home and followed the suggestions - defrag the thing, do a disk cleanup, upload updates.  It froze.  It would not start.

So I took it back the next day.  It was under warranty, though I had declined the extended warranty.  I left it there, ran my errands - and received a phone call.
You have a defective hard drive.  It will need to be replaced.  It is, however, under warranty... (Imagine the voice of the announcer for Superman).
What can you say?  Machines fail.  I gave the OK to ship the laptop out and get the hard drive replaced (they didn't have one in stock, since it was an 'older' model).  I had no complaints.  It was under warranty and it would be fixed. I had backed everything up, so I had lost no graphics or manuscripts.  And my friend, who found me the laptop in the first place, has one she isn't using.
Life isn't always convenient, of course, but I think I was lucky.