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.

Survivorman Comes To Wall Street

The corner of Wall Street and Broadway, showin...
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Survivorman Comes To Wall Street

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”- Charles Darwin

In the 1985, Hollywood introduced us to Angus MacGyver, an engineering and applied science genius who could bring down a Russian T30 tank with the most prosaic of jury rigged household items  – chewing gum, a paper clip and a ballpoint pen. Macgyver, hailed from a long line of resourceful improvisationists – all spawned by a Cold War preoccupation that one day in a few violent flashes of light and mushroom clouds, we would be cast back into a Stone Age where physical and intellectual prowess would replace financial and social prowess as linchpins to our survival.

America loved MacGyver. He was the ultimate scavenger.  He did not need people.  People needed him. In an era where ICBMs idled silent in underground silos, hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles, we became fascinated with people who possessed the skills necessary to survive if anyone dropped the big one.  To subsist in a post apocalyptic world, man must learn to catch small animals with a snare, spear fish and move across an urban wasteland perhaps dressed only in a musk ox coat and buffalo moccasins.  If you were really good, you might domesticate a wild dog and call him Lobo.

Fast forward to 2009.  Armageddon has occurred in the form of a nuclear melt down bursting from an overheated reactor with rods fashioned from sub-prime debt, credit swaps, reckless leverage and unhealthy risk taking.  Suddenly, everyone’s worst-case scenario is closer to their reality.  We are in survival mode.

At night we turn on our TVs desperate to escape our new realities – hoping to vicariously live someone else’s life.  Some turn to the empty carbohydrates of reality shows.  Yet, others long for a hero.  Since MacGyver had improvised his last solution in 1992, channel surfers are turning to another set of survivalists – ex SAS instructor Bear Grylls in “Man Versus Wild” and my favorite Canuck toughie, Les Stroud in  Survivorman.

Canadian Stroud uses wits and ingenuity to survive a multitude of survival scenarios.  He must endure psychological isolation, uncertainty and inadequate resources. His ability to control his fear and focus on what is required to confront extraordinary circumstances reassures armchair mountain men who want to believe that a person cannot be so tenderized by prosperity and materialism that he cannot rise to confront and overcome disaster.

Each episode finds Les making bivouacs out of debris found on deserted islands, eating roots in boreal forests, navigating inhospitable mangrove swamps, dodging dehydration in the arid African Kalahari and or enduring the open sea adrift in a leaky raft.  Les films his own experience and survives, albeit uncomfortably, eating native plants, hunting local game, sleeping rough in every conceivable circumstance and occasionally taking drastic steps to survive such as drinking his own urine or consuming indigestible organic matter that the most ambitious contestant on Fear Factor would rebuff.

With the permanent contraction within the financial services community, the world is becoming even more Darwinian and it seems that for every position there are ravenous packs of feral workers fighting over a slave wage job in hopes of living to hunt another day.  I got to thinking, could Les Stroud last a few weeks in the primordial boardrooms and post Armageddon landscapes of Wall Street?

Those already laid off are learning new survivor techniques – – distinguishing between the discretionary and the necessary, separating wants and needs, and appreciating the clear, unobstructed perspective that now fills a field of vision once obscured by country clubs, second homes and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, serial vacationing.  Those that are still employed, understand the radical climate change in business and face their own weekly survival scenarios dealing with cutthroat last-man-standing politics, heavily leveraged balance sheets, back-lashing regulation and a self consciousness aversion to the general public opinion that anyone who works in finance or banking must be up to no good. I wonder what Les Stroud would do. Could Survivorman endure if he were confronted with the daily challenges of today’s recessionary economy?

I called David Brady, the show’s producer to discuss my idea.  Mr Brady’s secretary said he was busy and would return my call.  A few weeks later I called again.  He was still in a meeting.  ” That’s one hell of a long meeting,”  I told her.  ”  Would she mind just taking a message.  She agreed and attempted to outline my idea for a new season theme show:  Survivorman Comes To Wall Street.  “It would be the diametric opposite of “Survivor – Samoa” or “I am a Celebrity Get Me The Hell Out of Here”.   We could launch the special shows on the anniversary of last year’s meltdown.  We could then subject Les to the cruelest of corporate conditions and watch him squirm.”  The phone was still connected so I kept talking.  I could hear her scribbling furiously.

Week 1 – Les is hired as a mid-level manager at XYZ, Inc, a financial services firm’s insurance division.  Although, the problems that brought the firm to its knees are all based in the firm’s Financial Products division, XYZ is days from bankruptcy and is taken over by the Feds. Les has just learned that a new EVP will be running his division and that he hates Canadians.  The insurer is crawling with regulators.  The stock is down 75% and rumors are rampant of a massive layoff.  Employees are rapidly jumping ship.  Les decides to refuse to leave his office to avoid a potential pink slip.  At night, he hides from security guards and scavenges for meals, foraging on the most unlikely items in the office including week-old coffee that tastes like burnt popcorn.  Les cleverly uses a coffee filter to strain toilet water when the water supply is cut-off by the authorities trying to get him to vacate the building.  Can Les survive the week?

Week 2 – Les inherits a hedge fund in total free fall – redemption requests are flying in faster than spring swallows to San Juan Capistrano.  The stock market is plummeting and Les’ investment bank is making margin calls on the loans his fund used to make heavily leveraged bets on a range of securities and credit swaps.   Long time clients are bailing out faster than black ship rats as Les is hit with margin calls.  The SEC has decided, post-Madoff scandal that they must find a poster child for reckless investment management and Les fits the profile.  In a soon to be classic scene, Les sprinkles blackened eraser shards throughout the office and then calls the Health Department claiming that the building is infested with rodents.  With the building abandoned, Les uses his Gucci belt and a nail file to start a fire that rages through the main office, destroying incriminating documents and the main server where all the back up emails are stored. Will Les avoid jail time ? Is it too little too late ?

Week 3 – Les becomes former Lehman CEO Dick Fuld’s personal bodyguard. Les must accompany Dick to his favorite health club and help him avoid getting punched by disgruntled ex-employees and angry activists.  At one point, Les fashions jump ropes into trip wires as he cordons off Dick’s bench press area. He also advises Dick to carry a self cooling pouch of his own plasma.  “You never know when you may be stabbed and in need of transfusion.”  Les says to Fuld and the camera. “I’m usually the one that is drawing blood from other people,” chips in an animated Fuld. Can Dick and Les complete an entire circuit of machines without losing a quart of blood.

Week 4 – In this week’s episode, Survivorman is faced with the grim possibility of being made redundant – (the business equivalent of dying in the wilderness ).   Les goes berserk and holds everyone in the lunchroom hostage with a sharpened punji stick.  Les, recalling an old trick he used on Bushmen in the Kalahari, threatens to drink his own urine – a powerful gesture of male dominance.  To Les’ bewilderment, his new boss – a twenty-something private equity, enfant terrible with no personal boundaries – scoffs and tells Les that he drank from a commode several times during fraternity rush at Yale.  Les’s desperate act of defiance draws local media attention and unfortunately the SWAT police.  Les finds an air duct and the game of cat and mouse begins with the local authorities.  Can Les make it to Friday before getting fired?  Will Les be able to keep his backdated stock options?

“Well?” I asked.  ” Do you think he will like it?”

There was a pregnant pause and then an animated sigh.  I could tell she was smiling. “Mr Brady may like this. He can show how the American workplace has become a virtual wilderness where only the strong can survive.  Les can merchandise his survival ideas to corporate executives – Les Stroud’s Guide To Surviving a Bear Attack or A Bear Market.”  Suddenly she was covering the phone and speaking to someone.  I could hear their muffled exchange.

“You know Mr Turpin, perhaps we can get Les to climb a building or throw a chair through a window and fashion shoes out of his leather note pad? Mr Brady just got out of his meeting and wants to know if you think we can get Les to replace Ken Lewis at Bank of America for one week ? He thinks that would be one hell of a survivor episode. We need a job that really puts Les at risk.”

I thought for a minute.

“Why not put him in charge of healthcare reform. That should just about kill him. “

Mountain Man

Baden-Powell on patriotic postcard in 1900
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Mountain Man

Jeremiah Johnson: You’ll do well, Del; providing you don’t get into trouble with all that hair.

Del Gue: Ain’t this somethin’? I told my pap and mam I was going to be a mountain man; acted like they was gut-shot. “Make your life and go here, son. Here’s where the people is. Them mountains is for Indians and wild men.” “Mother Gue”, I says “the Rocky Mountains is the marrow of the world,” and by God, I was right. Keep your nose in the wind and your eye along the skyline.

My self reliance avalanche started with a snowflake – a light, fictionalized account of a ten-year-old boy who runs away from home to literally carve out a new life deep in the wilds of the Catskill Mountains.  In My Side of The Mountain, Sam Gribley possessed only a small knife, string, axe and a flint and steel set.  In time, he had carved a warm home deep in the broken trunk of an ancient hemlock and trained a peregrine falcon as his pet and companion. To my amazement, in a time before child endangerment laws, Sam was allowed to live rough after his father physically finds him and recognizes his son’s maturity and independence. At night, I would lie in bed and crane my neck to trace the purple contours of the serpentine San Gabriel Mountains and Mt Wilson. I became fascinated with hunters, explorers and mountain men – those rugged societal contrarians who, chafing at the yoke of a controlling and material world, preferred the reverent counsel of a quaking aspen and the garrulous conversation of a high alpine blue jay.  Deep in the wilderness, these sons of Thoreau thrived in their own self-sufficiency.

I mingled with these free spirits in the pages of books and in Outdoor magazine’s monthly adventure feature entitled, ” This Happened To Me – Amazing True Life Experiences”.  In between pages of dead elk and rocky mountain big horn sheep, there were illustrated tales of hunters stranded in caves with killer cougars and mountain men left for dead by grizzlies. The men in these magazines were predominantly hunters, military veterans or societal anachronisms who advocated pioneering and self-reliance.  They sported buck knives as big as machetes, could field dress a five point buck faster than your Mom could make hot chocolate. They could survive sub arctic temperatures by crawling inside the freshly gutted carcass of a musk ox they had just felled with a bow and arrow.

I graduated to tales of the old West by Zane Gray and Louis L’ Amour, understudying the techniques of desperados and cowboys.  Yet, it was the novel Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher that struck me like a thunderbolt.  It was the story of Sam Minard, a settler drawn into the romanticized life of a mountain man only to have it ripped away when Crow Indians murder his Indian wife.  Vengeance drives Minard to declare war on the Crow nation and in doing so, this Rambo of the Rockies becomes an immortal force as wild and the mythic as the western landscape that sustained him.

In 1972, George Roy Hill adapted the novel into the film, Jeremiah Johnson.   I crouched in the flickering darkness of the Rialto theatre watching Robert Redford battle Indian assassins, skin “grizz” and blunt a succession of fierce Rocky Mountain winters.  The Old West held huge appeal for this young romantic eager to head west.  The fact that I lived less than an half hour from the Pacific Ocean posed a great logistical problem because if I wanted to “ go west” to live in the wilds, I must head east.  I resigned myself to the fact that I had been born a century too late.

After a demeaning afternoon of weeding and sweeping the trash area of a suburban backyard, the allure of a four by four, flat roof log cabin shanty softened with beaver pelts and bear skins, and provisioned by a squaw who excelled in turning elk into great strips of jerked beef held enormous appeal.  If pushed too far by life’s authority figures, I would simply vanish into the mountains with backpack filled with cans of Hormel chili and live out my days like Sam Gribley or Jeremiah Johnson – with a squaw and an insane pioneer lady’s son as my foster child and maybe a wolf as my dog.   The fact that I always slept with my radio on, bathroom door cracked for light and a tattered “blankee” did not interfere with my fantasy of fleeing suburban serfdom to become a wilderness alpha male with tangled matted hair and beard.

I joined the Boy Scouts Troop 354 eager to explore the deer trails and less traveled paths of our American wilderness.  It was my first exposure to a world of merit badges, bowline hitch knots and organized camping.  Initially, I was delighted by the freedom, hiking, emphasis on orienteering and self-contained survival.  We were a renegade militia meeting irregularly, choosing to avoid other troops and Jamborees.  Our scoutmaster, a henpecked oil and gas archeologist, faithfully dropped us off miles from our destination, giving us maps and instructions, and would drive ahead to our campsite to drink himself silly while waiting for us by a campfire.  It was around this swirling, roaring blaze that he would regale us with stories of his world travels divining oil and gas in the Middle East, Mongolia, the Sahara and Alaska.  It was The Lord of the Flies meets Lord Baden Powell and we loved it.  Eventually, one of the scouts gave a little too much information to his parents after a campout and we suddenly had a new scoutmaster whose obsession with khakis and cleanliness drove me to retire well short of the coveted Eagle Scout.

While, I continued to backpack well into my 30’s, I could feel my sense of reckless adventure ebbing from my bones after each night spent sleeping out on a cold ledge.  Upon reading Jon Krakauer’s non fiction account of Chris McCandless in Into The Wild , I further demythologized my dreams of log cabin living.  The life of a mountain man did not seem quite so glamorous.  I could have ended up starving to death in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wild.  For a man who believes gluttony should be an Olympic sport, starvation seemed the worst possible way to go.  I also noticed that many of these mountain ronin exercised their right to civil disobedience, and often ended up in shoot-outs with federal marshals and ATF agents.  Perhaps all the peace and quiet starts to weigh on you.  You hear voices and think that the government is spying on you.  With no mailbox or H&R Block, you forget to pay your taxes and then wound a park ranger when she comes too close to your” homestead”.  I realized most mountain men never made it past their 35th birthday. In the end, like most free spirits, I domesticated. I lost the path of the mountain man and chose to apply my orienteering, tracking and survival skills in the primordial boardrooms of corporate America.

Yet, these days, the catastrophic climate change in American business leaves me restless and feeling bloated by the obligations of a material world. I hear the whispers of the pine trees to “simplify” and can almost make out that hollow hemlock where I would set out my essentials – candle, compass, mirror, rope and miscellaneous survival gear.   A great horned owl hoots off in the distance..  My retirement portfolio is in my pocket in the form of matches and a Victorinox Trailmaster Knife.  My newspaper is the peeling bark of an ancient shag hickory, my stereo – a steady, meandering brook and my big screen television a horizon line of a thousand dawns and sunsets. As crickets serenade my slow descent into a deep, satisfied sleep I close my eyes and suddenly realize that I forgot my flashlight.

I wonder if my wife left the backdoor open.