Something I just remembered about myself that shocked me solely for having forgotten it: I hired a chimney sweep once. I did a casual survey of office staff and could not find anyone else on staff who has ever hired a chimney sweep, so I am justified in writing about it.
The guy I got was right out of an old English movie, except for the accent. He looked about five-foot-two and 90 pounds, if that. He could have been a professional jockey. He could have been a Mickey Rooney understudy. He wore all black, of course. He came with his own ladder.
It went like this. Back around 1981, I found myself living in my old childhood home, which had been left to me after my parents died. The house was built around the time I was born and had a functional fireplace.
Most people I know now who have homes with fireplaces either have fake fires in them or a natural gas feed. What we had was a big pile of logs in the backyard, an axe and a hatchet. I chopped the logs, made kindling, brought the wood into the house, set it near the fireplace in a tray and then proceeded to set a fire in the fireplace using the wood, as if I knew how.
Now, it wasn’t the first time I’d done this. When I was a teenager I was put in charge of breaking up the wood and setting the fires. But this time, in 1981, it didn’t go right. The smoke was supposed to go up the chimney, not fill the living room. We had a problem.
I checked sources, science, listened to soothsayers I could trust, some witches I knew (I have had connections like that — in-laws, mostly) and figured out that so much soot had accumulated inside the chimney that it was blocking airflow and, hence, the smoke flow. The worst thing I found out was that it was a fire hazard. The soot itself — along with creosote, a wood preservative — could start burning, with disastrous consequences for the house.
Up until then I thought chimney sweeps were a quaint, old world custom. I thought the idea was they just tidied up your chimney so there’d be less soot while the fire was burning. It was, I thought, to keep the living room from getting sooty, which to someone like me, a smoker at the time, was just a cosmetic issue. Smoke, tar, creosote? What’s the problem?
No, the chimney sweep clears out the accumulated soot and tar so your house won’t burn down. It’s so you can use the fireplace without you and your loved ones dying in a conflagration. At the time, I did indeed have loved ones.
I learned the most from talking to the chimney sweep himself. Amazingly, people who practice professions that you don’t are often incredibly well versed in them. I highly recommend talking to people who do things most of us don’t do, because they tend to know stuff we don’t. Imagine that. They have skills. Who would think?
But there’s more to it. Cleaning out the soot in your chimney before your house burns down is a fine metaphor, isn’t it? I can think of some political soot that needs cleaning out right now, for example. We need to take care of our home. Metaphorically speaking.
Speaking of metaphors, I’ve always said bread is the best metaphor, but that wine, sashimi and kimchi are close behind. And don’t underrate cheeses. OK, I don’t exactly know what American cheese is a metaphor for, because I’m not that good at identifying metaphors, actually. I’m no Carl Jung, but it has to be something.
Europeans don’t like American cheese, but it beats a lot of the alternatives. Penguin cheese is crap. I don’t think dog cheese is advisable. Gorgonzola is OK, but there we run into the problem again: “What’s the metaphor?” Green veins? The Hulk? Maybe I don’t know what metaphors are. Time to reread Jung, I guess.
American cheese is a metaphor for Kevin McCarthy becoming Loser of the House on ballot 15. He’s very meltable, especially around Trump. I don’t know why, but he (McCarthy) makes me think of grilled cheese. But not of chimney sweeps, because they know things.
Read more of the Jan. 18-24, 2023 issue.