Friday, January 6, 2017

Burning in the New Year

I started out the 2017 shack year by burning the chair above, seen there in summer.  I’d considering burning it for some time.  I have not read, but heard many people talk about, a Japanese woman’s book about decluttering your life.  Her system involves, from what I hear, focusing on a single object, looking at it, holding it in your hand, and carefully considering if it brings joy and utility to your life.  If it doesn’t, you pitch it.

I didn’t do that with the chair.  I bought it at a neighbor’s garage sale.  As you can see it was a pretty nice looking all wood chair on casters.  Here it is a little closer up.

It was on a 4 legged platform, which is no longer recommended because you can tip forward or back in them, if you’re really clumsy, and hurt yourself.  One year the Worker’s Comp consultant at YSB urged us to get rid of any and all of those chairs still in use which I ignored. I did go around and tell the people still sitting in them to be careful, and showed them how they could go wrong.  In the end we threw them out fairly early in the long life cycle of chairs at YSB, mostly donated.  We had chairs donated from State Farm that defied wearing out, good Steelcase stuff we would have never bought new.  We think they gave us to them because they were the wrong color.  I couldn’t have cared less about the color.  We were a not for profit after all, with more important things worry about than chairs.  But as far as I know no one hurt themselves from the dangerous four legged roller platform chairs like the one I carried to the shack.  I certainly wasn’t afraid of it.

I should have looked closer at this chair but heck it was my neighbor’s kids, clearing things out after their last parent passed away.  As soon as I showed an interest in the chair, with a price tag of $20, they cut the price in half.  They even threw in this nice wooden shelf I idly picked up off a table crowded with junk which now serves as the perfect companion for my prized 2015 Rookie of the Year and 2016 Most Valuable Player bobble head doll.

All for $10?  You have to be a jerk to not take a deal like that from your neighbor.  It was just across the street, late in the afternoon, and they had stuff to get rid of.  Maybe it was a moment of weakness. Before I knew it I was lugging a new chair into the shack along with the shelf.

Not that there was anything wrong with my old chair.  It’s a chair we had on the farm since before I can remember, pretty well made, crude in a way, but a proven performer. Could be walnut, but whatever it is it is most probably older than me.  It used to sit on the back porch.  We’d bring it out when we ran out of chairs in the kitchen.  Occasionally we’d stand on it when we changed a light bulb or something.  Plain, simple old chair.

The problem with the new chair, which I completely failed to consider, was that the casters were hell on my shack floor.  I put porch flooring in the shack, the kind you usually paint gray on a front porch, to go with white railings and such.  Porch floors are mostly walked across on the way somewhere else and not designed for heavy use.  This porch flooring was tongue and groove fir, not a hard wood by any stretch of the imagination.  I stained it red and gave it a coat of varnish.  It looked great.  It still does except for the area I began to roll over with this new chair.  It quickly found every imperfection, little ridge, slight crack where the boards joined, and wore the varnish off.  Not long ago it kicked a sliver out between my fir tongue and groove.  That was the death knell.  Had it been a better chair I might have scoured the internet for better wheels. Rubber tired deals, maybe with air in them, which would glide silently over the wood harming it not at all. 

But it wasn’t that good of a chair.  It was the kind of chair that would have been great in some room where it was matched with a desk at which little if any work happened.  Maybe one of those big McMansions in the suburbs where the proud woman of the house takes you for a tour and says, while opening a door with a sweep of her arm,

“And here’s Greg’s office.  He’s hoping he can work more from home soon.”

You look in and see polished wooden furniture you know hasn’t been used an hour in the last month.  This chair could have lasted twenty years in a room like that.  Especially if Greg was either small or slender.  I am neither.  And from the time I carried that chair into the shack, and took my old farm chair back to the garage, I used it nearly every day, several hours each day. I use chairs heavily. 

If chairs could pick their owners, like captains used to pick kids for pick-up kickball at recess, a chair would never select me.  It just wouldn’t happen.  Imagine this impossibility.

The chair surveys a small group of anxious humans, hoping to select the perfect owner, one that will use him sparingly and treat him kindly throughout his life.  After careful consideration the chair says

“Give me the big guy with the bad leg that sits six hours a day and does everything possible to avoid getting up.”

Pure fantasy.  I’m hard on chairs, especially the main chair in the shack.

This chair wasn’t up to the task.  Not only were the casters destructive, its design was flawed.  You couldn’t tell by looking, but flip it over and you would have seen the metal mechanism that made it swivel and rock screwed directly into the seat.  No frame for the seat to rest on with the mechanism underneath, but wood screws holding the seat onto the deal.  The screws had obviously stripped the wood where the original holes had been, the mechanism had been shifted slightly,  the screws were reapplied to fresh wood, and were in the process of doing it all again.  I tightened the screws a couple of times while I owned it but they loosened quickly.  Someone prior to me had even drilled a hole through the back of the seat, clear through, in order to insert a bolt with a nut to better secure the seat.  It was terminally wobbly, doomed to fail.

That, combined with the damage it was doing to my floor, sealed its fate.  What to do with it was all that was left to decide.

The factors I consider when making decisions have changed over time.  I might, earlier in my life, have given the chair away to someone hoping they could figure out a fix.  Or I might have put it out by the street hoping someone would take it off my hands.  But now I think, why pass on my problems to others?

Besides that, I own a wood burning stove.  That changes everything.  It was a wooden chair I bought for $10.  For me, it had way more value as fuel than furniture.  It’s amazing how burning wood changes your perspective.  I often admire dead trees, discarded pallets, any number of things I would have never noticed previously, imagining what they could do for me if converted to BTU’s.  I especially covet corn cobs.  Lightweight, easy to handle, easily burned.  I don’t think I could ever get too many corn cobs.

But the chair?  It was at the worst pine, at best maple though I doubted it.  Most probably it was Luan, a wood from the Philippines that looks like mahogany but isn’t as good.  It had a nice shiny finish.  That’s all that counted when it was a chair.  But as fuel nothing would have beaten maple, except black locust or hedge.

I turned out all the screws, pried the casters off the legs, and voila.  The metal was separated from the wood and it was ready for demolition, cutting up, and in the end-combustion.  It didn’t take long.  Within forty minutes my former chair looked like this.

My stove is small, the round lid opening on the top accommodating five inch lengths of wood at most, so it took a while to modify the chair so it could be quickly and easily burned.  All without getting out of my new chair I might add.  When I designed the shack I was careful to put the stove within arm’s reach of the desk, so that very task could be easily performed.  I used a cleaver, a chain saw, and before you could say oxygenation my chair, instead of holding me up off the floor, was keeping me warm.

The chair was made from Luan and burned really well.  It should have, after all it was dry and well seasoned.  As fate would have it the day I burned the chair it turned bitter cold, and my need for wood spiked.  Turned out it was a little more than a one chair day.  I began burning the chair at sunrise, took a break for lunch and a swim at the YMCA, and fed the last hunk of the chair into the stove at about 3:00.  When I was out of chair, I burned instead oak chunks, cobs, and a little of the chapel floor we removed from our church in September.

Talk about here today gone tomorrow. My former chair, which had greeted me solidly every morning for the past year and a half, was suddenly gone, vaporized, converted to heat (which warmed me and the stuff in the shack but briefly), and smoke from the shack’s chimney which floated over, and dispersed into, the air over the ravine never to be seen again.  The very fact that it was utterly and entirely missing struck me.  It was with me all that time, and now it isn’t someplace else, it’s simply gone.  It’s the ultimate change don’t you think?

I was reminded of a similar incident many years ago.  It was late in 1976, one November day before Jimmy Carter was elected president.  I had hitchhiked to my brother Denny’s house in Alamogordo, New Mexico on my way back home to our farm in Danvers  I had crossed the border in Nogales and made my way up through Tuscon.  That trip had started near the equator in a small town named Sua south of Esmeraldas, Ecuador.  It had been a long slog, and i felt good to be back with family.  Upon arriving at my brother’s house my sister in law did my laundry, cooked me nice meals, and put my shoes outside on the patio, believing they smelled.  She was probably right, although I had long stopped noticing.

While there for a few days I was able to visit with an old grade school friend. 

He, like my brother, was an officer in the US Air Force and rented a nice suburban house with another bachelor jet pilot or navigator.  They both flew two seater F-4’s, defended our country from its enemies, and lived a decidedly military lifestyle.

I on the other hand had not worked in ten months.  In Ecuador I lived for free in a shack on the Pacific eating papayas and bananas, crabs, oysters, and the occasional fish taken from the sea, supplemented by canned sardines and spaghetti.  We were both once Danvers farm kids leading nearly identical lives but those lives had diverged.  We had a lot of catching up to do.

I had in my backpack the means to escape reality for a short time and we used it to do so, staying up the whole night.  It was a great night.  He was living in a ranch home designed for the desert. The kitchen was big and flowed into a large dining room with a big fireplace in the corner.  I suggested lighting a fire but my friend said he had no wood.  About 2 a.m. it occurred to him that his neighbor down the block had a lot of wood and probably wouldn’t miss a little.  We struck out across the back yard fences and returned with two armfuls.  The wood must have been really dry because it was quickly used up.  As we talked and drank he warned me about the chair I was sitting on.

“Careful.  These kitchen chairs are old and crappy.  We’ve been gluing them together and should get new ones but we might get orders any day and then we’d be out of here.  We’ll let the next renters deal with them.”

As he said that I shifted my weight, felt the chair give, and heard it creak.  For no particular reason other than to be ornery I stood, picked the chair up off the floor, and slammed it back down.  The legs on that chair split apart like the front legs of a giraffe drinking from a lake.  The whole thing collapsed.  I looked at my friend, who was stunned for a moment, before he began to laugh, picked up his chair, and did the same thing.  We couldn’t stop laughing.  Long story short we busted up and burned all four chairs.  The fire didn’t go out till the sun began to come up. 

Later the next day we were on opposite sides of the table eating bowls of cereal standing up.

“I don’t know what I’m going to tell my roommate when he asks about the chairs.” 

“Well, you could tell him we burned them.”

‘I know.  That would be the honest answer.  But it sounds crazy doesn’t it?”

“No crazier than anything else really.  You fly through the air faster than sound.  I guess you can burn a few chairs if you choose.”

“Yeah  maybe.”

He had another spoonful of Wheaties and chewed.

"It’s just the absence of them.  It’s so striking.”

“Yeah.  It’s extreme all right.”

I was afraid I may have been a bad influence on my friend and his rather orderly life.  As an afterthought I added.

“Feel free to blame it on me.  You know, the crazy hitch hiking world traveler.”

I don’t think my friend and I were thinking about dramatic transformation in the same way then, when we were both 24.  But I fully realize now that one day I won’t be in the shack either.  In fact, unless I can think of a more useful purpose, chances are I’ll be burned up somewhere nearby much like my cheap garage sale chair, radiating heat, a little smoke, then nothing.  Change comes to everything.  And to every one as well, at least so far. 

I think my old farm chair, if it could experience and appreciate humor and irony when that time comes, would be chuckling loudly.



  1. I love your posts! Chairs wouldn't pick me either. I plop down, full weight, crunch my legs under me, anything to balance myself so I don't feel like I'm sitting.

    The shack is a retreat...a place to question.

    Are you trying to find the most uncomfortable chairs possible? Lol.


    1. Thank you Tammy. It's more comfortable than it looks. I'm curious though. How did you find my posts?