Women Are From Venus, Men Are Just Arsons


In the summers of my youth, campfires were rite of passage places where one’s physical celebration of the day could not consecrated until flames flickered and chased away the final shades of twilight lupine sky.  It was a sacred time where a boy could poke a stick into burning embers and experience the raw power of Prometheus and Zeus.

Greek mythology teaches us about the dawn of man, when life was an epic struggle for survival.  Mortals were at the whim of Gods whose capricious acts often visited disaster and plunged them into darkness.  Humans needed divine allies in the heavens and there was no better friend than crafty Prometheus. Driven to return fire to the hands of man, The Titan trickster deceived all-omnipotent Olympian, Zeus, stealing the secret of combustion and releasing the heavenly bounty to mortals.  In committing this celestial felony, Prometheus was condemned to have his liver eaten each day by a voracious eagle, only to have the liver grow back and be eaten again for eternity.   With his gift of fire, Prometheus was ensured a heroic place in our pantheon of Gods.  But he got burned in the process.

It seemed that fire has forever been both a blessing and a curse.  With Prometheus’ gift came fascination, chaos, destruction, warmth, romance and mythology.  As children, we learned some hard lessons and came to understand the risks filled euphemisms as “he likes to play with matches” and “that could easily become an uncontrolled burn”.  Yet, we are fascinated with fire.  We gaze into the bursts of swirling flames thrown from a bonfire on a clement summer’s night, we can almost sense something in the air – a magical confluence of charged ions, created out of combustion, smoke and an electric night.  For a moment, we are at the warm center of a safe universe while all around us swirls ebony unknown.

From an early age, men more than women, seem to be obsessed by fire.  Criminal profilers confirm that 90% of all arsonists are male.  Many of these unfortunates use fire to act out unfulfilled aggression and power. Most women would agree with this prognosis as they watch their husbands, boyfriends and significant others yield to uncontrolled pyromania when afforded the opportunity to build a fire.

For men, there are essentially two types of fire starters the pyro-purists and the anxious arsons.  The “pyro-purist” believes a fire is like a slow kiss.   In the pyro-purist world, initial sparks should come from a flint and steel, flicked into a small hollowed log where it can be succored with gentle breath and fed like a baby chick — nurtured with small combustible pieces of cotton and rotted wood chips.  The purist is certain that in a past life he was an explorer or mountain man.  Near the fireplace are the tools of his trade – the building blocks of combustion : tinder dry kindling, paper, sticks and bone dry branches.  For this hearty pioneer, each fire is like conceiving and rearing a child.  He must give it confidence.  It must be coaxed and led through its adolescence until it bursts into a mature blaze that is finally worthy of a log.

The purist knows that the finest fires come from a slow, even burn – a fire that throws off extreme heat with only a wisp of light smoke.  These glowing works of art can only be achieved from hardwoods – ash, oak, hickory, dogwood and almond wood.  Each type of wood is like an exotic coffee throwing off its own unique aroma and flavor with earthy rich smoke and even fragrant burns. If you are hosting an outdoor party, perhaps a split pinion pine with its deep resins and occasional pops and crackles might be in order.  An intimate dinner for two requires a cedar, which offers a heat that slowly builds and throws off a seductive aroma.

A big-time burnmeister insists that all his logs be seasoned in a protected woodpile for six months.  These fanatics of flame understand the gift of combustion and that each log brings a certain thermal energy content.  It is not just a fire, it is homage to Prometheus.

At the other end of the spectrum is the “anxious arsonist”.  This impatient greenhorn does not grasp the concept of kindling and combustion.  After three frustrated attempts to get rain-soaked logs that are heavier than concrete sewer pipes, he retreats from the fire pit scouring the perimeter for anything flammable including his child’s favorite stuffed animal or perhaps his spouse’s ancient down jacket. The next phase of his helpless huffing and puffing might include hacking green branches from an adjacent tree which produce more smoke than an NYPD gas canister.  To this environmental disaster, he may add toilet paper, torn magazines and even the road map that helped him navigate to his godforsaken campsite.

The neophyte’s blaze begins and ends unceremoniously with a great-polluted gasp of smoke and sizzled hissing that leaves all family members with coughs similar to incurable tuberculosis. The anxious arsonist is undeterred and begins a frenetic search for highly flammable items including Mennen underarm deodorant, perfume and the lighter fluid that was intended for the morning pancake breakfast.  In one great mushroom cloud burst of incompetence, the fire ignites and the Dr Flamenstein is knocked back to the ground with singed eyebrows and a blackened face.  It does not matter.  He stands and proclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

Women witness this bizarre ritual every summer and shake their heads at the pathetic Groundhog Day behavior of the anxious arsonists and pyro-purists. It is simply a fact – men are obsessed with making fires.  But according to some sociologists, the more advanced the civilization, the more men grow up unable to shake the arson monkey off their backs. It seems the less we play with fire as kids, the less the need to burn leaves our psychological systems.  As anthropologist, Dr Daniel Fessler describes, western society is regressing.  We have moved from playing with matches and to anxious arsons.  Fessler writes:

The latter aspect ( man’s penchant for fire making) stands in contrast to results from a survey of ethnographers which reveals that, in societies in which fire is routinely used as a tool, children typically master control of fire by middle childhood, at which point interest in fire is already declining. This suggests that when fire learning is retarded in western children, arguably due to patterns of fire use in modern societies that are atypical when viewed from a broader cross-cultural perspective, fire repressed men will have a higher probability to become arsonists.”

It has been confirmed that we need to let our kids play with matches. If we don’t allow an occasional controlled burn, we are elevating the odds that years from now we may be paying for junior’s decision to torch a truck stop outside of Bishop, California. Psychologists further argue that the need to make fire grows and becomes a surrogate for latent sexual frustration playing out in a destructive behavior.  About this time, many men are saying, “I am not sure I like where this whole thing is going.”  Ok, I admit it.  I made all this stuff up because some kid paid me $20 to try to convince his Mom to let him shoot off some bottle rockets.

But, hey, it is summer time and a campfire remains one of life’s simple pleasures.  The fire you dig may rest deep into the cool sands of a beach, blazing recklessly – urging its audience to dance some pagan homage to the summer equinox or it is hidden – tucked carefully between large granite rocks by a lake, sheltered from high alpine winds that sweep down, tugging at the flames and dispersing curious smoke that seems to follow you wherever you choose to sit.  In the firelight, our shadows leave us and sway giving the illusions of shape shifting giants rising like great waves.

In the end, the fires we make are homages to the Gods. The fires we start allow us for a brief time to gather, share our mythology leaving only footprints and shadows. With the heat splashing our faces and our backs turned to the cold night, we come to better understand our physical world and chase away the things that go bump in the night.  And when our little ones grab a stick, igniting a broken branch and their imaginations, let them play a while.  It was, after all, a gift – – and anything worth receiving must be shared.

My Heroes Have Always Been Screw-Ups

Pete Rose at bat in a game at Dodger Stadium d...
Pete Rose at bat in a game at Dodger Stadium during the 1970s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The true hero is flawed. The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles – preferably of his own making – in order to triumph.”
― Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain

I just learned last week that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter. I was not upset.  Personally, when I saw Honest Abe wield his silver forged axe in Tim Burton’s revisionist film, I was impressed.  Sadly, critics and historical experts derided Sir Tim’s turn of the screw treatment of our thirteenth president, questioning how a great American hero could have found the time to rid the South of slavery and defeat the undead at the same time. I kept an open mind.  I’m used to finding out new and disturbing things about those I admire.

We live in a fiber optic era where it has become in vogue to demythologize everything.  We worship perfection producing dysfunction-free digital vacation photographs, buy genetically modified pets and cosmetically alter ourselves seeking to avoid the indignity of imperfection.  Despite our lust for perfection, we love to tear down the pedestals that elevate others.  We secretly long for someone worthy to follow but now are able to get so close to one another that we resent the blemishes and imperfections that we inevitably find. We are in search of the perfect hero but cannot find them.

The age of ten is innocence’s high water mark for any adolescent boy.  When you are emerging from the chrysalis of childhood into the world of men, you are tribal and look to attach yourself to things – movements, ideas, teams and if you are really lucky, a thirteen year old girl.  In the early 70’s, my wellspring of passion was overflowing with the need to define myself beyond my white picket world.  I followed professional sports teams and players – flashing statistics and personal insights like a switchblade.  Like Thurber’s Walter Mitty, I daydreamed  about meeting one of my sport’s heroes, perhaps even rescuing them from a burning car wreck or insane fans.

“Hey, Wilt, quick! Get on the back of my bike.” I would begin to pedal furiously as the seven foot Laker star grabbed my waist. Soon the throng of adoring women would be a distant memory.  (Years later, I would learn that Wilt had actually been running towards the women, not away from them. But, hey, this is a family newspaper.)

My idols in the summer of 1972 overflowed from a generous cup of amateur and professional athletes and beloved public figures.  I cheered for gold medalist swimmer Mark Spitz, and yelled for the underdog USA boxers who were taking on the dreaded Communist elite from Eastern Europe and Cuba in the Munich.  That baseball season, I followed the every move of Pete Rose, the hyperactive Cincinnati Red known as Charlie Hustle.

Weeks later, I declared to my father that I would be an astronaut  but was secretly uncertain whether I could hold my bladder to the moon and back — as the idea of peeing in my spacesuit was too gross to consider.  Years later, Tom Wolfe would infer that at least some of these astronauts indeed had zippers. I switched gears and decided to become a cop. I shivered with delight at the notion of carrying a 44 magnum like Dirty Harry, resolving society’s problems and ridding my community of the social weeds that grew between the cracks of our fractured moral foundations.  I admired my father for his strength and creative profanity and for a brief period decided advertising would be fun –especially if they let you curse at work.

Years later, I would be subjected to kiss and tell biographies and that would deconstruct my idols into troubled souls and demagogues..  While they accomplished great things, life often proved to be a zero sum game where public accomplishment masked personal failure.  When we learned that our Gods were merely mortals flying to close to the sun, we became despondent and cynical. We were obsessed with learning the truth and felt cheated for having held a mere human in such high esteem.  We watched with Schadenfreude fascination the painful character autopsies of our icons.  Camelot was indeed polluted and Eden was, in fact, corrupted by man and his appetites.  We were all mortal, put our pants on the same way, and in a few cases, took them off in public.

Personally, I refuse to live in a godless, dystopic society.  I appreciate heroes because they are flawed.  They are human.  They rise above others simply by getting up and dusting themselves off.  My heroes are measured not by where they have ended up but by how far they have come.  I have come to appreciate that how winners achieve their success is as important as how much they actually achieve.   Those I admire take risks and are unwilling to allow someone else’s opinion of them to define them. They are mothers and fathers.  They are cops, soldiers, teachers and executives. They are divorced. They are single.  They look for opportunities to be of service and defend those who cannot protect themselves. They suffer from bouts of self-pity and vanity and like all of us, vacillate between self-loathing and self-worship. In the end, they come to recognize that they have a higher purpose and their acts of humanity shine brighter than their own self serving shadow.

My heroes are Republicans, Democrats, hail from every ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and creed. They include Mohamed Yunis who won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his concepts promoting micro-finance and community banking and was also accused of being a loan shark and political opportunist.  They were peace makers and diplomats like Gandhi and James Baker who were accused of everything from megalomania to closet imperialism.  Some are politicians.  Lincoln and John Adams were both maligned in their time and paid heavy prices for their convictions in their personal lives.  They are ex-boozers like Bill Wilson who started Alcoholics Anonymous and saved a million lives and Lt Mike Murphy, medal of Honor winner who died while serving our country in the Kandar Province of Afghanistan.

If you dig deep enough, you find heroes everywhere.   They are all around us. And, they have big noses, flawed resumes, scars and can’t fit into size 38″ trousers. We are preprogrammed to lie, covet, gossip, err and lose our way. Yet, heroes overcome their poor choices and circumstances to achieve greatness across a range of professions.  They are mirror reflections of what is best and worst within each one of us, reminding everyone of our incredible capacity for good and our potential to be change agents in a society that desperately needs role models.  My heroes never left.   I left them.  Sinners, some say, make the best saints.

And yes, even after learning that Lincoln lied about moonlighting as a vampire killer, I still admire the guy.

Worth republishing during this summertime. A wonderful tale of California’s Sierra Nevada and the mythology of the west — and it is true!!

A Late Boomer's Guide to Life

“I sort of went off on a tangent from civilization and never got back.” – Norman Clyde

August 24, 1933 – There was a sudden chill as the first rays of a brilliant morning sun were interrupted by a stray cloud. Norman Clyde stretched his arms and glanced up the narrow talus shelf that he would use as a base to climb Michael’s Minaret.  The degree of difficulty to ascend this lonely dagger of granite could not be underestimated.  It was vertical on all four sides and rose narrowly through jagged chutes that eventually gave way to an impossible hourglass summit. For the last five days, he had scoured every inch of this isolated range looking for clues. Clyde had pieced together small bits of information and returned to this particular minaret. How someone could attempt to conquer this serrated spine with no rope and only tennis shoes was beyond…

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Happy Fourth from T-Rex Publishing

English: Bratislava; New Year 2005; FireWorks
English: Bratislava; New Year 2005; FireWorks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just a public service announcement that if you have not ordered T-Rex By The Tail, it is available at New Canaan’s own Elm Street Books and on Amazon.com under author Michael Anthony Turpin. Once you have devoured the book, I would welcome a review on Amazon. It is right under the book itself on the description of the novel. Initial reviews are in.

Bob M from Des Moines writes, ” I laughed, I cried. I hit my sixteen year old for leaving the damn milk out on the counter. It felt good.”

Larry from Arkansas writes, “The Old Testament is still the best book in the Bible.  It’s clear that Liberals got a hold of the presses around 1AD and look what happened, ‘Mein Kampf’ also known as the New Testament!”

By the way, Karl Patton hated the Fourth of July. He hated fireworks as they reminded him of the Chinese. “Putting anything with gunpowder in the hands of someone who has not finished high school is a recipe for a cluster @&$k! The Chinese gave us fireworks with short fuses so we would blow off our own fingers and then not be able to work our machine guns when they invaded the US.”

Road Trip

Cover of "National Lampoon's Vacation [UM...
Cover via Amazon

Road Trip

This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest, a quest for fun. I’m gonna have fun and you’re gonna have fun. We’re gonna have so much *%$#%ing fun they’re gonna need plastic surgeons to remove the smiles from our *&^%ing faces. –  Chevy Chase, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”

In the days before emission standards, mandatory seat belts and mini vans, there was the family station wagon.  This V8, 360 horse power gas guzzler was a modern day Conestoga wagon on steroids.  Over two decades, this car and others liked it transported more adventurous families to more domestic destinations than any commercial airline.

A mixture of concern and excitement sparked with the ignition of the Chevy Impala wagon.  Like the crew aboard the Pequod, we knew that with each mile, we would be further indentured to the whims of our Captain Ahab who would not rest until he could safely guide his ship into the parking space of a distant motel.  The trip would span three states, 1000 miles, four motels, eight rest stops and one empty glass gallon Motts Apple Juice bottle.  There were no bathroom stops until we reached our destination for the day.  That’s what the Mott’s apple juice jar was for. ( I am not making this up ) The captain of this craft felt he could make better time if his sailors used a make-shift urinal.  The process of relieving one’s self was a tad humiliating as it involved crawling into the back of the wagon and trying to hit a target the size of a lacrosse ball while being heckled by three spectators.  Where’s the Flomax when you need it?

The luggage was secured to the automobile’s roof rack with a gray canvas cover and rough, hemp rope.  The cargo was tied with angry knots that would have confounded Houdini. The back of the car was a jig saw puzzle of cardboard boxes filled with groceries, clothes and odd supplies.  A sleeping bag cushioned the ground between the boxes offering a place to lay down — if you happened to be a midget or contortionist. On any given day, a child would be unnaturally curled in breech birth position between the boxes.

The anxiety was palpable. It was dawn and in the cool twilight, each child felt ill and out of sorts. Privately, each boy was confronting his “Four Horseman of Travel” – our possessed driver, the eventual need to pee, the endless purgatory of Interstate 5 and the most fearsome specter of all – carsickness. My brother was so afraid of getting sick that he once threw up before we even got out of the driveway.  Dad pumped the brakes harder than an organist during Handel’s Messiah creating a sensation not dissimilar to being on an Alaskan crab trawler on the TV show “Most Dangerous Catch”.

“Dad, can I please put down the window?”

“Go to sleep. I’ve got the air conditioning on.” He directed his comment toward my mother.  Secretly, he would have loved to open the windows to the 100 degree heat but my Mom hated July in Central California.  He did not like what air conditioning did to his mileage.  Every time he filled the car with 35 cent a gallon Shell gasoline, he copiously recorded his mileage on an index card and tucked it back into his glove compartment.  I never understood his fascination with the Impala’s miles per gallon.  One thing was certain, he hated using the air conditioning and always turned on the recycled “economy” air before yielding to our protests about the car’s heat.

My older brother was always first to barf.  He tried to roll down the window but his scrambled eggs hit the top of the windows and sprayed back toward the middle seat. We all screamed and tried to move away as if an alien had burst out of his chest.  My Dad swerved, pulling over to the shoulder of the road, a skidding plume of flying pebbles and dust.  In the rear of the car, my youngest brother had been covered with a towel trying to go to the bathroom in the Motts Apple jar.  In a flash, the bottle spilled a quart of urine onto the sleeping bag.  It was only 11am and the vehicle already smelled like a Metro North urinal during the evening commute.  Yes, we were on “vacation”.  My father looked as if he might spontaneously combust.  About this time, my Mom took control – – taking out a moist wash cloth and paper towels.  She turned around to calmly administer Dramamine and housekeeping service.

We were probably on our way to a cheese factory or perhaps to see the world’s “largest ball of string”, a sight that the AAA Road Guide insisted was a “must see”.  Just the notion of a detour adding time to our journey made me dry heave. The only antidote to nausea was a restless Dramamine induced sleep or some sort of mental distraction.  The boredom of road trips and the constant need to avoid thoughts of motion sickness required us to play games such as trying to identify license plates from different states.  Kids living on the east coast might regularly see licenses from multiple states.  However in a state the size of California, an Oregon, Idaho or even Nevada plate was a big deal.  Hawaii, Maine and Alaska plates were the rarest according to my brother and as such, not a day would go by that a boy emphatically claimed that he had seen the someone with plates whose mottoes read: The Aloha State, Vacationland or North To The Future.

Lunch was at roadside parks or rest stops.  Our rations were PBJs that bled through the white wonder bread to form soggy clotted tarts.  Grapes and cheetos followed, chased by warm Shasta Lemon Lime soda.  We lodged in motels with two queen beds for a family of six.  Kids slept on the floor or in roll away cots.  Within minutes, our room would be transformed into a refugee camp.  We would head for the green, over-chlorinated pool that was usually surrounded by a metal fence and worn chaise lounges.  We swam until we resembled shriveled Shar Peis.  As we crawled from the water, we squinted through chlorine burned eyes that produced an odd chemical halo if you would gaze directly at an illuminated light.

Despite the chaos and drama, we loved these adventures.  My parents understood that these trips were critical building anchors in our restless lives. We looked forward to each summer and begged my parents for more.  Food tasted better on the road.  We slept deeper, read more books, used our imaginations and stimulated parts of our brain that had gone dormant under the prosaic routine of the school year.  These trips were in fact, treasured times together.  The family road trip required patience, teamwork and stamina — all attributes we could not achieve on our own.

Someone once said that “a family vacation is much like love and childbirth – anticipated with pleasure, experienced with discomfort, and remembered with nostalgia.” Even to this day, driving is still boring. “When will we get there” remains the eternal question from the back seat.  However, road trips are no longer the equivalent of a buckboard wagon lurching across an endless prairie.  Starbucks has replaced Stuckey’s Diners. Interaction has been replaced by a tangle of white earphones and hand held electronic devices. Vacations are silent passages where each person is a self contained entertainment system. Yet, despite its metamorphosis, the family car vacation remains a rite of passage.  As kids mature earlier and earlier and seek to fly the nest, the road trip is an important touchstone reconnecting family and reinforcing the ties that bind us.

As for me, I love our road trips.  Although it was years later that I realized that not every family required their male occupants to relieve themselves in a jar.  And yes, I still have to close my eyes when drinking apple juice.