Monday, December 23, 2019

Santa at the Lodi

I dropped into the Lodi Tap House in Utica on Saturday, the winter solstice, and grabbed a stool at the bar.  It was crowded.  Lodi’s used to be Duffy’s, a revered Irish bar and an institution among Illinois Valley drinkers and St. Paddy’s day revelers.  I’d gone to Duffy’s for 45 years, back when the standard order at the bar was a shot of Kesslers and Miller High Life.

When it was sold, and the new owners revealed plans to scrap the Irish deal and create a modern style brew pub ala Chicago, I thought I’d never again enjoy spending time in that old odd shaped building.  But Lodi brought in an unbelievably large selection of beer and ales on tap, 24 that night, and 90 more draft beers in cans and bottles.  The choices are dizzying.  That doesn’t even count the liquor and cocktails.  On top of that are award winning burgers.  It’s a whole new deal for downtown Utica.  I got used to it, though grudgingly.     

There were only two stools open and one had a shot and a beer sitting in front of it and some money.  That’s a local custom, leave your money on the bar and let the bartender take it as you drink.

There was a guy making his way down the bar, talking to everyone it seemed, before he eventually sat down next to me.   He looked familiar.

Under a flat wool tweed cap, he had white hair and a big beard to match.  He was wearing blue jeans, a green flannel shirt, and a black vest.  He stared forward, the way guys in bars do, looking at himself in the wide bar length mirror, scanning the bottles, and the blackboard that explained the day’s line up of draft beer and ale.  He wasn’t paying much attention to me, but something about him nagged me.  I know I’d seen him before.

“Sorry to bother you but you look familiar.”

He spoke without turning his head.

“Do you think you can keep your voice down McClure?  Not draw attention to us?  It’s Santa Claus.  I’m out of uniform and taking a break.”

“Santa Claus!”  I tried to whisper but admit I was still a bit loud.  “What are you doing?  Undercover Santa?"  

“You’re doing exactly what I don’t want you to do.  Don’t call me Santa.  Just look ahead and be cool.  I don’t want to draw attention. Let me buy you a shot.  What’ll you have?”

“Bushmill’s Irish whiskey.  Black Bush if they have it.”

“Good choice.”

He ordered us both one.  I toned down my voice, looked at him in the mirror, where he was looking back at me and raised my glass.

“Merry Christmas Nick.”

He winked at me.

“I can call you Nick, right?”

“That works just fine.  Merry Christmas to you too Dave.”

And so, in the hubbub of Christmas week on the shortest day of the year in an old bar made new in a small town along the Illinois River, Nick and I had a quiet conversation.

“It seems like we run into each other every year, but this time I thought I was going to miss you. What brings you back here Nick?  You must get requests for personal appearances from all over the world.  You end up in Utica.”

“I get lots of requests.  And I try to spread them around.  But I’m kind of hooked into this country around Starved Rock.  I like it.  Seems authentic somehow.”

“Even when we take nice old Irish bars and make them into sparkly clean brew pubs?”

“You asking if I’m upset with the change?  McClure, every year it seems like you forget how old I am.  You act like you’re talking to someone your own age.  I was invented you know, a long time ago.  An idea made flesh, infused with magical power, and immortalized.  At least it appears so.  I mean you never know how long ideas are going to live, or the people that hold those ideas for that matter.  Still I’m in for a long run I think.”

“So now you’re going to tell me about the old days?”

Yes, I am.  I think you could stand a little perspective.”

He took a sip of his double IPA, a Pipeworks Ninja vs. Unicorn in a flashy can. 

“A damn nice ale this one.  Hoppy but not overdone.  Nice finish.”

“You were about to go back in time Nick.”

“So I was.  You forget that I was flying over here when there were still indigenous people camped along the river, the Illini and the Kickapoo tribes.  I hadn’t been coming to America for more than, I don’t know, 175 years when Illinois was the frontier.”

I delivered toys here to Irishmen’s kids living in shanties when they were digging the Illinois Michigan canal that’s a stone’s throw outside the door.  Those boys were making their own whiskey back then, and let me tell you, I wasn’t sneaking into their joints for a taste of it, not when you could get perfectly fine whiskey on the north shore of Ireland.  Bushmills began distilling whiskey in 1608 for god’s sake.

After the canal was dug coal miners showed up, first for the easy pickings, shallow veins of coal just below the surface, then coal companies began dropping shafts and sending miners underground in Streator, Cherry, Ladd, Toluca.  Italians, Frenchmen, people from all over Europe came here.”

“Do you have a point here Nick?”  

“The shanty towns became proper towns and they built sturdy old buildings like this one.  And you’re moaning because a bar changes its name?  Gets rid of the mannequin dressed up as an Irishman in a coffin by the front door?  Adopts a new menu?  Come on McClure.  Get a grip.”

Santa Claus has a way of giving you the long view.

“OK, I admit it.  I forget how much we’ve changed, and how steady that change must seem if you’re…how old are you again?”

“My beginnings have always been somewhat disputed, and record keeping being what it was back then it’s hard to be accurate, but everyone’s best guess is I’m 1,749 years old.  When you get that old it a year or ten more or less doesn’t matter much.”

“Yeah.  I have a disadvantage talking the past with you being only 68. But what about the present?  And even more important what about the future?”

“The future has been hard to deal with because it always seemed beyond our control.  But we’re developing facts, and models to put them in that predict things we don’t like.  I live at the North Pole.  I’m terribly worried about the environment.  You can’t believe the ice we’re losing up there or the changes that are happening.  And damned if we aren’t going backwards in doing what it will take to slow that down and stop it.  It’s terribly discouraging.”

“I’m with you there, Nick.  Facts don’t seem to matter.  It’s all about the money.”

“It’s been about the money for a long time McClure.  As I recall your generation was going to change that.  If I was 68, knowing most of my life was behind me, I’d feel I was running out of time to make a difference.  When you were young there was much more hope, I think.  In fact, I had real hope for you kids of the 60’s.  You gave us the promise of change.

But for all that good energy you’re snookered now.  It’s as if the world takes one step forward and two steps back, never really advancing, stuck in its old ways.  I know people your age tried hard.  But you’re not the first generation to fall short of expectations.  Try not to take it personally. 

“Wow Santa, that’s not exactly a song of good cheer.  Can I buy you another Bushmills?”        

“I thought you’d never ask.” 

The shots came. Filled to the brim with clear amber goodness, they bore good tidings of the season.  We clicked our glasses and knocked them back.

“So, this secret Santa bit, like Undercover Boss, is that new?” 

“I’ve been doing it for quite a while.  At least a thousand years.  I feel the need to talk to adults.

I exist largely in a world of kids who steadfastly believe in me.  If you could only look into their eyes as they look into Santa’s eyes, you’d feel their trust and belief.   I tell you, it’s a moment.  If everyone could experience that they might appreciate how people depend on each other to make the future bright.  We’re obligated to be very careful with that future.

But, kids become adults and their ideals fade with age.  They come to see Santa as little more than a prop for a picture.  They forget that ideas beyond themselves help create a world where people are free to live and love and flourish.  And when they do the world becomes simply about them, and they never seem to achieve real happiness. 

“Nick, give us a little more credit, will you?  The game not’s over till it’s over.” 

“Who do you think you are?  Yogi Berra?  People get lazy and fall back on stereotypes.  Tell me McClure, what are the three words most associated with my identity?”


“You got it.  HO HO freakin’ HO.  Always jolly.  Big belly, happy a lark, everything goodness and light.  Everyone thinks they know exactly who I am, what I think, as if I’m not allowed to change.  I get sick of it.”

He went on.

“Don’t get me wrong McClure, and for god sakes don’t be spreading this around.  I mean it is good for mythical characters to have a clear understandable message.  And the branding has certainly worked.  But if we don’t keep thinking about how we get better, uncover the flaws in our beliefs, we’re in trouble.  We can improve the world a lot, but we don’t seem to be.  I still have a big job to do.  I have things to say.”

“And what is that exactly, Nick?”

“Well, what prompted this side trip today was an encounter I had with a four-year old yesterday. I do a question and answer deal for kids I visit to satisfy their curiosity about Christmas.  Invite them to ask about where I live, the reindeer, the elves, Christmas eve, whatever.  You never know what they’ll ask.

So, this little four-year old girl puts her hand up and says;

‘My mom says you’re not real.’”

“Wow Nick.  How did you respond?”

“I put my hands on my chest and said ‘Gee, I feel real.  I took hold of my nose and said, ‘My nose feels real.’  I pulled my beard and said, ‘It hurts when I pull my beard.’  I didn’t want to contradict her mother, but at the same time I couldn’t just let the idea of Santa die right there in that classroom in front of everybody.

So, I decided to get out and talk to adults, the kids I used to have on my lap years ago, to see what is on their mind.”

“What are you seeing?”

“I see people losing hope.  Busy people, worn down, looking at the future like it’s a black hole.  But then again, I run on to others, like you, who seem to be doing okay.  You and people like you need to be positive.  Young people still look to older ones among them, even boomers, to show them how to enjoy life and make things better for those around them.”

“Well, it helps talking to you Nick.  You’re a pretty hopeful guy.”

“Yeah, well if it was just the kids, I’d be fine.  But the adults…”

Nick shook his head.

“Can I tell you something confidentially?  We’ve known each other for a while.  You can keep a secret right?”

I didn’t say yes but I didn’t say no. Nick kept talking.

“Adults are pissing me off.  Politicians are lying and covering up the truth.  People are so at odds they can’t even talk to one another.  Intelligent people, so self-centered and caught up in what’s only good for them they can’t see how clinging to the past is bad for others and horrible for the planet.”

“Nick come on.”

“I know.  You’ve talked me out of these funks before.  I will admit I’m more hopeful this year after visiting families in their homes.  I believe in the power of families to show kids the way towards a good future.  Families, if they just will, can teach young people kindness and compassion, and to think of others instead of themselves.  But it is still hard to ignore the problems.”

Why is it so hard to come together around truth?  It’s as if we’ve lost the ability to recognize what’s right.  And you Americans are, sadly in the lead on that.  As a country, you’re not looking good Dave.”

“How’s that?”

“You’re so divided.  Polarized, which is something I know about from where I live.   You are letting politics blind you to each other as people.  I feel sorry for Americans.  I used to celebrate people coming together at Christmas, around their family tables, in their churches on Christmas eve.  I even believed I might have had some hand in that.  But now I hear of people dreading those gatherings because they loathe encountering people who oppose their views.  You’ve nearly stopped talking.”

He went on.

“The world looked up to your country for so long.  Your country is a big player, but other countries see you now as just another government out for itself.  Turning its back on the world.  I really wish you Americans would get it together.”

The sun was getting lower in the sky and the light was fading in the Lodi Tap Room. 

“How is it I keep running into you Nick?  Surely you can’t come to the Illinois Valley every year.”

“Well, you go where you’re invited you know?  I have no choice but to leave it to the surrogates mainly, but I get disgusted with them.  So many of them have the wrong values.  Do it for the money, charge for the pictures, that kind of thing.  But I have no control. 

The way I started coming here, not long ago, was a guy called me, also disgusted with the amateurs.  He said he’d been reaching out to the usual suspects with red suits in his community and finding guys with body odor, bad breath.  He even had one come to an event drunk.  He damn near pleaded with me to make a personal appearance.  I started with a group in Streator if I remember right.”

“Nick, you’re scaring me pal.  That was ME!  I was the director of the YSB, and we kept getting crappy stand in Santas.  I wrote you myself, soon after we had email and I found your address.  You don’t remember?  You know there is testing for those kind of memory lapses these days.”

“Don’t give me any crap about my memory McClure.  You’d be in worse shape than me if you had to run an international organization that staged an annual world-wide event operating out of a headquarters in the wilderness with one man, a sleigh, nine flying reindeer and a bunch of elves to staff the whole outfit.”

He chuckled.

“So, it was you huh?  Well, I’m glad you brought me here all those years ago.  I sort of distrust any area where you can go days and days without seeing anyone wearing bib overalls or having dirt on their hands.  That’s what I mean by being authentic.  You have a big mix of people here.  Could be more diverse you know, but a good bunch all the same.  I’m not sure about that woman telling her little girl Santa wasn’t real, but I like the area.

“I sure hope I see you again Nick.”

“I have a feeling you will.  If you take care of yourself that is.  You won’t live forever you know.” 

He put his finger beside his nose, hopped off his bar stool, gave me a big smile and said

“But I will.”

His Ho Ho Ho boomed across the room.  After laying down a nice tip for the bartender, he was out the door.

I followed Santa out the door, watched him get into an old green Buick, and head south out of town.  I waited to see if he could get that Lucerne with the big six-cylinder engine to fly, but he didn’t. I watched his tail-lights turn left onto Dee Bennett Road.

I’ll close as Nick likes to.

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

Tuesday, December 10, 2019


On Black Friday I worked with a small business owner who was closed for the day.  While we worked, I also interviewed her.

She was gearing up for Small Business Saturday after being closed both Thanksgiving and the day after.  She and her business partner wanted to give their employees those days off, plus they needed the day to prepare for increased internet sales.  Their physical location in the West Loop was closed, but on the internet the door is always open.  Black Friday is one of the few days in the year they offer products at sale prices.

The woman I interviewed has a smart phone app that shows online orders in real time.  The sale started at midnight.  At 12:01 product began virtually flying off the shelves.  She showed me the graphic.  During the short time I looked at her screen sales increased.  She was smiling.

"There are some whopping big orders in there.  I think some customers are doing all their Christmas shopping at once."

She put her phone down.  There was other work to do.

“What are we doing here?” I asked.

We were seated beside a plastic tub of granular looking white stuff with purple running through it. Beside it was a  box of jars with lids.

“We’re going to fill these jars with a sugar scrub, label and pack them.  I was a little short on a wholesale order from a nearby  business, Flowers for Dreams.  They create and deliver flower arrangements, and are are launching a program that offers add on products to their floral orders by incorporating products from other businesses like them.

They wanted something unique from us that related to their services.  So, I custom made a scrub that uses lavender buds along with essential oils and sugar.  We simply call it Flowers for Dreams Scrub. They need a couple dozen more jars.”

She began sifting the material through her fingers, blending it together, fluffing it up.

“What’s in it?”

“Well, sugar of course.  Pure plain white sugar is the base.  Then ground lavender buds, sunflower oil, apricot kernel oil, and natural vitamin e.  I finish it off with essential oils; lavender, jasmine, neroli and ylang ylang.”

Lavender and Jasmine I understood.  I decided not to ask about neroli and ylang ylang.

“The ground lavender can clump up a little in the sugar.  As we’re jarring this up if you see clumps just  break them up between your fingers.”

She was using a cylindrical measuring cup that was sized perfectly for the jar.  She gave me a big spoon.

“If I had another of these cups, I’d give it to you.  I pack them very tightly because they can settle when they’re shipped.  Hate to have customers open jars that aren’t full.  Press down hard with that spoon please.”

We were in one room on the third floor of Feather Loft LLC, an old repurposed building in Chicago in the West Loop by the Metra tracks.  It used to be a feather warehouse.

Now it is rented out by the room.  Her simple 12 x 15 space; high ceiling, original brick exterior walls and hardwood floors, is a storehouse for raw materials, a workshop where skin care products are made, and a lab to develop and test new products.  Other loft units are used by artists and musicians.  The possibilities are endless.  Each has good light, big windows, and they are affordable.

“So, you make all your products by hand like this?  Nothing purchased and passed on from somewhere else?”

“Everything that has our label on it is made right here in this room.  I mean we sell jade rollers, small brushes for masks, and accessory items.  But every product of ours: the lip balm, the butters, the deodorant, the soaps, soaks, scrubs, oils- everything with our logo on it, is put together just like this.  Sometimes I have helpers like you, but I make it all.”

The space I visited is pretty much a one-woman operation, and the woman I interviewed likes it that way.  Around her are five-gallon buckets of oil, sacks of dry goods, jars of things I couldn’t recognize.  And by the window is her work space; scales and simple tools, a single industrial hot plate, beakers and containers, books that hold recipes, a laptop computer, and lots of raw material.  That's where her real work gets done.
“We began in 2011 by making soap in my business partner’s apartment.  We went to high school together.  From the start we wanted to make all natural, environmentally sound products totally out of food grade ingredients that were good for people.  It was a challenge.  We mixed ingredients in giant pitchers and poured them into waxed orange juice cartons.

One of our first bars was Lemon Poppy.  It was scrubby.  We asked friends to try it and they liked it.  We started selling on Etsy but soon my partner put up a basic web site and internet orders increased.”

The woman I interviewed graduated with a food science degree from University of Illinois in 2006.  She worked in a lab for a company that managed private discount labels, testing contents to make sure they met standards and were labeled correctly.  Later she was one of the first lab and quality control technicians at the new Lagunitas Brewery by Douglas Park on Chicago’s west side.  Soap was a sideline.  But profitable.

“We made a Buddy Bar soap for pets named after my business partner’s beagle.  We continued to put food products in soaps for texture and collaborated with a local coffee roaster called Dark Matter coffee to make a nice bar.  After making all kinds of soaps, we began making oils and solid products we called butters.  The orders kept growing. Then we added salt soaks and sugar scrubs, and they slowly gained sales.  My boyfriend made me better reusable soap molds.  I liked it.

But then my business partner talked me into renting retail space.  It scared me to death.  I didn’t know why we would want to spend the money when we had so little overhead and were selling product anyway.  She convinced me we would never get to the next level if we didn’t take risk.  So, I closed my eyes and said yes.

We moved into a tiny street level space in Roscoe Village near the corner of Damen and Addison.  I started making product in the basement.  It was such a relief not to carry ingredients up into a second-floor apartment.  My Uncle Denny made us benches for a waiting area that doubled as storage boxes.  A friend made us inside signage that mirrored what was on our label.  We installed an awning with our logo on it.  For the first time our brand was visible on a Chicago street.  We had walk in traffic and regular customers.
We also bought three chairs and started giving facials and foot soaks using our products.  We hired some help very part time.  It was a new day for the business.  I was anxious but after a time it all began to click.  And all the while internet sales were increasing.”

As we talked, we were filling jars with Flower for Dreams scrub.

“How do you get all this sugar up here?”

“I carry it on my shoulder.  50-pound bags.”

“That’s three floors up.  I thought I saw a freight elevator out there.”

“It’s sort of a theoretical freight elevator.  You’re supposed to make an appointment with the building manager.  He unlocks it and runs the elevator.  But I can never seem to find a time that works for both of us.  So, I do it myself.  The next space I rent will be bigger.  Ground floor with an overhead door that can accept pallets.”

She’s learned to plan ahead.

“Bang that jar on the edge of the tub so it settles.  You have a little void in that one.  And when you start putting put the lids on make sure there are no grains of sugar in the threads of those jars.  It keeps the cap from sealing well.  Here.  Wipe them off with this towel.”

She was particular about every detail of the work.  When I had all the lids on, I thought we were done.

“Now for the labels.”

She walked to a giant peg board holding  spools of adhesive white labels with black letters displaying the company’s brand and meticulously detailing product ingredients.  From the board she took two spools to the work counter and spread them out a thick black towel.  She laid one of the jars filled with Flowers for Dreams scrub on its side on the towel.

“OK feel the side of these jars.  You’re going to notice two little ridges.  You may not see them, but you’ll feel them when you run a fingernail over them.  They mark the exact halves of the jar.  We want one label on one side between those ridges and another opposite it on the back side.  No labels on the ridges.  They don’t stick as well.  Put them on the jar equal distance from the space below the lid and the bottom.  Make sure they’re straight.”

She showed me how.  She was fast but careful.  I would have slapped them on.  That was clearly not her style.

“Where do you get these labels?”

The story on the labels says something about this small company’s values.

“We made our own labels on a home printer using peel off Avery labels for years, but we knew at some point we would need to outsource that.  They weren’t waterproof.  They didn’t look professional.

We asked around and found this guy Juan on Western Avenue who had a small business making big signs and window decals.  He had never made labels but figured out how to modify his process.  The stickers came out on huge wide sheets like Christmas wrapping.”

“Not at all like these,” I said, picking up a roll of stickers, perfectly sized for the width of the label, easily stored on the pegboard.

“Nope.  These are from StickerMule, a new on-line company catering to small businesses.  They have great online tools and good customer service.  But we still like to buy local from other small businesses whenever we can.”

I was putting on my third label.

“That one’s a little crooked.  Here, let me fix that.  I can get them off easier than you.”

“You really are particular about these labels.”

“Yeah, I am.  The people we sell to want to know exactly what they put on their skin.  We need to list every ingredient accurately, in descending order of amount, in plain language, and make it easy to read.  We’re proud of our ingredients.  We take a lot of time to make sure they work well together and get people the results they’re looking for.  They’re not inexpensive, because we choose ingredients based on quality not cost. That approach is working.”

We finished the labels on the scrub jars and moved on to our second task; filling, capping, labeling and packing 8 ounce bottles of Tea Tree Cleansing Oil.

“This product is one of our biggest sellers.  It’s selling so well we’ve gone to larger bottles.  We sold it in only 2 and 4 ounce bottles and noticed people ordering multiple bottles.  Like a 2 ounce and a 4, or a couple of 4 ouncers.  So, we offered it in 8 ounce bottles for less and now that’s our most popular size.”

“What does 8 ounces cost?”


“Wow.  I just buy Bag Balm at Farm and Fleet.”

“That’s petroleum based you know.  Has some lanolin, and a touch of Hydroxyquinoline sulfate, but mostly it’s petroleum jelly.”

“So, how is Tea Tree Cleansing Oil used?”

“It’s a deep facial cleanser, great for removing make up.  You spread the oil all over your face, steam your face with a hot cloth, and wipe everything off.  It’s a healthy alternative to soap for your face.”

“So, what’s in this oil that makes it work?”

“I experimented with this mix for a long time.  The ingredient that does the most work is castor oil.  That oil is super thick and great at dissolving skin sebum, our natural face oil.  But you can’t use straight castor oil because it’s too strong and by itself would dry out the skin.  So, I use sunflower oil as the base, and blend it with jojoba to improve the texture.

Then I add Tea Tree oil to give it a nice fresh scent, and also acts as an anti-bacterial.  Finally, I add meadow foam seed oil, a premium oil that prevents oxidation and ensures shelf life naturally.  After lots of trial and error I think I arrived at a really good blend.”

 “OK.  So how did you get from Roscoe Village to the West Loop?”

“Our place in Roscoe village was too small, and people were coming from other places in the city to get to us.  We weren’t necessarily serving Roscoe people.  We needed to move.  And if we were going to move, we wanted to get to an area that had a lot of foot traffic, drew a lot of people to the neighborhood to work, and was a desirable destination.”

“So, you found that in the West Loop, but you had to move several times, right?”

“Yes.  We tried a spot in Fulton Market for about a year, but wanted to get closer to the action in the West Loop.  We hired a lawyer and worked with a real estate broker through a series of pop ups while negotiating a deal on our current space in a historic building that needed a lot of work. At some point during that time I quit my job and worked the business full time.  In October we opened a space that carries a ten-year lease.  We designed it ourselves with an architect.

We learned a lot.  And we’re pleased with the neighborhood.  It has great restaurants, new hotels, and lots of consumers who are drawn to our brand.”

“What is your brand?”

“We’re a food grade skin care and wellness company.  We make a full line of natural skin care products by hand, offer wellness programming in our space, a ten-seat mask bar which is a facial class led by an instructor.  The mask bar, used by both individuals or groups, is designed so people can make and apply their own mask using products we sell.

We offer varied wellness programming from yoga to meditation to calligraphy, dance and more.  We maintain flexible event space people rent for celebrations, parties, corporate events, often with catered food.  They sometimes pair up an event with seats at the mask bar.  And, as always, there are in store and online sales of products.  We want to create an inclusive wellness community.”

“You have a lot going on.”

“Yep.  It’s not just soap in orange juice cartons anymore.”

“How many staff?”

“Eight, in addition to my business partner and I, and volunteers oddly enough.  People are drawn to our space, offer to help in various ways, and we let them.”

“So, 2020 is the start of your tenth year in business.”

“It is?  Yeah, I guess it is.  Wow.  We’ve been too busy to count.”


“Thanks.  And thanks for the interview.  You asked questions I hadn’t thought of.”

“Well, I have a real interest in both you and your future.  I like watching you grow.”

I labeled my last bottle of oil, put it in a carton, and closed it up.

“Can I help you carry this stuff down to your car?”

“You don’t have to, but if you  want to, I’ll let you.”

Full Disclosure: The woman I interviewed is my daughter Maureen McClure.

She and her business partner, Elizabeth Leipold, both formerly from Ottawa, Illinois, own and operate 

You can visit their store in Chicago at 847 West Randolph or visit them at their very cool website by clicking here: Scratch Goods.  If you do, tell them Moe’s Dad sent you.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Learning from Mistakes

After being in Chicago for three days over Thanksgiving, and lazing around in the house for two more, I returned to the shack Monday morning and built a fire in the stove.  I do that nearly every winter morning when I’m home and in my routine.

It’s a tiny stove, made in the San Juan Islands at a place called Navigator Stove Works.  I bought their “Sardine” model, smallest in a line that includes “Cod” and “Halibut” stoves as well.  The stoves were designed and marketed to heat small spaces below deck on sailboats.  Turns out they also work great in a small space like the shack.
Half a brown paper  grocery bag, pinecones, thin pine sticks, a single heavy chunk of wood and my little stove is full.   It’s a formula for fire.  I leave a piece of bag sticking up near the top.  Before I light a wooden match, I check the air intake on the side of the stove, open it wide if its throttled back, strike the match, let the flame grow a moment or two outside the stove, then reach in and light the paper.  I put the lid back on the stove, turn to the computer, and go on with my day.

When I hear the pine crackling inside the stove beside me, or feel warmth on my shoulder, I know it is burning as it should and I add wood.  Monday, I heard or felt nothing.  I pulled off the lid to reveal unburnt fuel and wisps of smoke.  That rarely happens.  When it does the paper burns and my kindling doesn’t catch.  When I lit a second match and applied it directly to a pinecone, I realized the paper was still there.  What the heck?

I relit the paper, making sure this time it caught and was burning well, and replaced the lid.  My computer was booted up to Outlook and I began to check e mail.  After a time, I realized I still had no heat.

I removed the stove lid to the same scenario.  Smoke and unused fuel.  How could that be?  I sat back in my chair.  My formula for fire had failed me.  I had good dry fuel, the fuel had access to air, and I started it with a strong flame.  It had to burn.  It always did.

And then I remembered.

Before I left for the holiday, we had high winds.  Leaves were racing past the shack and piling up on the saplings at the edge of the ravine.  Trees were swaying side to side outside the shack and wind whistled across the top of the stovepipe that carries smoke up from the stove and lets it pass through the roof.

I closed the flue.  Something I rarely if ever do.  Somehow, I thought it wise to keep that air from blowing down into a cold stove and the shack while I was gone.  I’m not sure why.

The damper that closes the flue is just a circle of tin inside the round 4” stove pipe.  It is fastened to a rod that extends outside the pipe on both sides above the stove.  On the rod is a handle.  Turn the handle horizontally and the tin circle inside the stovepipe is flat, shutting off air from entering or escaping the stove.  Turn it vertically and the tin circle is straight up and down presenting no obstacle to escaping air and smoke.  Simple little deal.

I thought I knew exactly what the fire in my stove required, but I left out a critical fact.  Fire requires air to burn, but not simply an air supply.  Fire can’t exist without air flow. Intake means nothing without exhaust.   While I checked the air intake on the side of the stove, I ignored the other side of the equation, a way for that air and smoke to escape and allow more air in.

I opened the flue, applied a third match inside my stove, and in less than a minute a fire was roaring, and smoke was floating away through the trees outside the shack.  I smiled.  

Forgetting the flue and not recognizing the need for air flow in my stove was a small thing, but it reminded me how I can and do at times ignore facts.  In this case it was a law of physics, a basic component needed for combustion.  In other situations, or at other times, we may overlook or fail to acknowledge basic needs.  Perhaps our own.  More likely those of others.

I was reminded to think clearly, and not ignore what I know as fact.