Women Are From Venus, Men Are Just Arsons

Burning

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.

Summers With Lampwick

Disney's Electrical Parade: Lampwick and Pinocchio
Image by armadillo444 via Flickr

“Juvenile delinquency is a modern term for what we did when we were kids” -Anon

My mother called them, “Lampwicks”.

She ascribed this sobriquet to any of our friends who exhibited anti-social tendencies.  She seemed to have a sixth sense about boys and almost mystically understood which kid would be most likely to become Chief Justice or a ward of the criminal justice system. “Lampwick” was the name of the truant, ne’er-do-well, delinquent kid who befriended Pinocchio as the two “boys” were swept off by the dark shadows of temptation to a seeming adolescent paradise called, “Pleasure Island.”

In this land of youthful hedonism, there were no adults and a cornocopia of self indulgent choices – – shooting pool, staying out past curfew, smoking cigars, damaging public property, eating candy and exhibiting limited common sense.  Lampwick was Disney’s and every suburban picket fence parent’s poster child for the “wrong” kind of companion.

Each town had its Lampwicks – the habitual class clowns, east parking lot smokers and reckless free spirits who were on a first name basis with every vice principal and cop in town.  While some parents were not up to speed on kids and their transgressions, my mother knew every kid’s rap sheet. She knew that people judged a kid by the company he kept.  Shady companions could lead you down dark alleys and get you into trouble. It was, after all, out of the sight of parents where bad judgment could take root and blossom into highly regrettable mistakes.  The simple act of “borrowing” another kid’s bike for a joyride could eventually lead an adolescent to commit mass murder in Kansas for no apparent reason.

Like most matriarchs, she deployed a powerful BS meter that included a lie detector system more sensitive than a Cal Tech seismograph. She could easily distinguish the earnest kid from the obsequious trouble maker. Over time, she simply defaulted to the code word, “Lampwick”, as a terminal judgment – forever branding any undesirable acquaintance that we might try to insinuate into our circle of friends.

Summer was her greatest challenge as we were rudderless ships – – unable to navigate a day pregnant with possibility because we lacked imagination and our closest friends who had left town for family vacations and sleep away camps.  With the loss of our approved social circle, we went in search of new confederates.  Summer was a season for exploration, experimentation and rite of passage “firsts”.  July and August meant hot sidewalk days that simmered slowly and dissolved into heavy, woolen nights that would cloak our illicit activities. The grass stayed dry under your bare feet as the evening could never quite reach down enough to find its dew point.

The child of the 70’s was not oversubscribed.   Summer’s primary focus was to find a source of income.  To a kid, a job meant financial freedom and spending money.  To a parent, work meant less potential idle time for trouble.  Inevitably, most kids ended up partially employed and filled long open afternoons in search of water, dangerous liaisons and forbidden things.

Summer meant new things – the kid who just moved to town and did not know a soul, a day camp or a summer school class.  Invariably, one would make new “friends”. In our house, it might start with an innocent request to spend the night at “James” house. Having never met James, his parents or not knowing whether James was real or on a work furlough program from the California Youth Authority, my mom would insist on meeting and interrogating my new companion. If he passed this simple litmus test, the sleep-over might be redirected to our home where she could carefully size up the child as well as discern the level of engagement from his parents. She would look for signs of absentee parenting – did they call to speak with her about the alleged sleepover? Did the father even bother to slow down the car when he dropped James off? My mother considered the “drop-off” a leading indicator of how active a parent was in managing their child’s activities.

Mom understood that the mistral winds of July and August carried on them lost souls and latch-key kids whose absence of supervision was only eclipsed by their complete lack of judgment.  They were sirens calling to us with promises of throwing jack knives, shop-lifting from one eyed store owners and staying out all night. They were Lampwicks offering us the chance to bite from a tree laden with forbidden fruit.  After all, no one was ever home or sober at Lampwick’s house.

My mother’s finely tuned antenna could detect any criminal in waiting: the arsonist, extortionist, the joy rider, the daredevil, the school yard bully, the BB gun freak, or the demolition expert. Her thinly veiled, sodium pentothal questioning could disarm any kid into revealing a personality profile that would reliably indicate the probability for a restful summer or a summer full of arrests.

I was in the throes of begging to spend the night at the broken home of a boy I had just met at the community pool.  Within a span of 2 hours she had gleaned through her phone tree of friends and a few select questions the fact that the boy’s brother was a suspected drug dealer, the house was teeming with teens that had no supervision because the Mom was holding down two jobs while the stay at home grandmother was motionless in the den watching “As The World Turns” in a semi stupor.

How the heck she could gather this much intel in such a short period of time was beyond my comprehension. In a time before police blotters, she always seemed to know before I did which of my friends had broken his arm trying to jump his moto-cross bike off the roof of the school. She knew who had been arrested for shop lifting and who had been disarmed after shooting their Daisy BB gun at cars.  As a red-blooded child of adventure, I was starved for the adrenalin rush that only came from being chased or at risk of physical injury.  This led to a succession of alliances with boys who my mother had blacklisted for their ingenious ability to break the law and whose parents seemed impotent to stop them.

Through my arsonist friend, Ed, I developed a profound fascination with fire.  My budding pyromania and Ed’s engineering prowess teamed us up to create the first tennis ball cannon. The device was constructed by hollowing out three metal Wilson tennis ball cans, taping them together and puncturing the base of the bottom can with a ballpoint pen.  We would spray copious amounts of lighter fluid into the sides of the three-foot mortar and then shake the lighter fluid to even distribution.  We would load the device with a tennis ball soaked in gasoline, leveling the improvised weapon at a predetermined target. A match would be placed against the small pen hole at the base of the bottom can. With an oxygen sucking “whoosh!,” a flaming tennis ball would be propelled 500 feet through the silky morning sky.

As the incendiary bomb landed on the neighbor’s roof igniting dry leaves, we panicked – scrambling up a trellis in an effort to extinguish the blaze. The home’s elderly occupant was suddenly concerned at the sound of reindeer on her roof as she was certain that Christmas was not for several more weeks. A phone call, sirens, an ill-timed leap into another neighbor’s garden led to our subsequent “arrest”. Hours later, the verdict was delivered – – Ed was given the death sentence of Lampwick.

Despite my mother’s best efforts to steer us along a straight path, we could not help but test the boundaries of our suburban cocoon. We once built an elaborate mannequin out of street clothes and dropped it off a bridge into the path of an oncoming car.  The horrified driver stopped and took our dummy resulting in the loss of clothing and a visit from the police when my friend, Mike realized that his mother had written his name in an indelible marker on his shirt collar and pants.

We pretended to foist an invisible rope that caused cars to screech to a halt. Using surgical tubing and a plastic funnel, we fired water balloons, oranges and eggs with pin-point accuracy at buses, trucks and bicyclists without regard to the damage or risks that would ensue. We once tried to ride our bicycles twenty miles through fenced off sewage culverts.

Invariably, we were ratted out, eye-witnessed, caught, injured, or incapable of out-peddling a police car on our bikes – and subsequently incarcerated. Each kid’s parent would inventory the circumstances and promulgate punishments and tighter controls to prevent their child from becoming labeled “delinquent” in our small town.

After my new friend Scott and I got caught stealing bottles from the back of a store so we could turn them to the same store for recycling refunds, my mother had declared enough and forbid me from seeing my friend. I had to call him and share the bad news that he had made the dubious Lampwick list.

As I was preparing to dial his home, the phone rang.  It was Scotty.  “Mike, my parents won’t let me come over to your house any more.  They say you are a bad influence. “

He was suggesting that I was Lampwick.

I shivered at the thought.  Every kid knew that Lampwick eventually turned into a donkey and was dragged off into the salt mines of Pleasure Island to labor forever as a beast of burden – a high price to pay for making bad choices. Upset at the tables being turned, I sought out my mother for advice.  She smiled as if she had been waiting for this opportunity. “You remember what happened to Pinocchio? He almost turned into a donkey as well. Just be careful…“

At 12 years old, I did not buy into the whole Disney Pinocchio parable.  But just in case, I went in to use the bathroom and studied the mirror.

Were my ears getting bigger?

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