Let me stand next to your fire

Much is being made these days about boys who don’t know how to be boys; less so about their adult counterparts. One essay currently bouncing around the cyberblock is Claire Bretana’s "Men Have Caves and Women Have Covens," her thesis being that when the going gets tough, men retreat to their various cubbyholes, while women reach out to their friends. It’s a gross generalization, and even though my feminist upbringing (three kick-ass sisters and their kick-ass mother) loudly suggests otherwise, sometimes the stereotypes fit.  

To wit: A couple years ago for Christmas, I gave my father a book of photography that depicts men’s "caves" as home offices, garages, locker rooms, strip clubs, barber shops, gyms, basements, etc. We shared a knowing chuckle about the black-and-white portraits, many of which were simply shots of empty rooms, save for a lone pin-up girl calendar hanging on the wall or an idle work bench. To the naked eye they are innocuous spaces, but to any male of a certain age, they are instantly recognizable as an oasis of peace and quiet away from the day-to-day rigors of breadwinning and competition: "A soft place to fall," as Alison Moorer put it.

The dark side of the oasis has become a hellhole for the likes of Larry Craig and numerous professional athletes, politicians and celebrities, whose respites from their own ambitions have turned into public embarrassments or worse. Would that they had merely done something similar to what a pal of mine did — build a smoking room in his basement, complete with a ventilation system and air purifier so as not to disrupt the rest of the family. Damned if it doesn’t warm the cackles of my heart to think about him happy as a clam down there and chomping on a cigar in the dead of winter.

I started thinking about all this the other night as I sank into a plush chair at Seville’s, the downtown Minneapolis gentleman’s club. I had a glass of red wine, talked to manager Scott Schuler about music and songwriting, and watched scantily-clad women dance for about 45 minutes, then headed home. I can count the number of times I’ve been in such establishments, but the other night I understood the appeal (beyond the obvious) for what seems like the first time: I knew absolutely no one in the joint, no one knew me, and I was relieved to get away, decompress, and enjoy one of the most beautiful sights known to man — a woman dancing to music.

Fortunately, I’ve found a couple more primal instincts to follow this fall. Most Sundays, as we have for most of our lives, my dad and brothers heed the siren song of the Vikings and hunker down to my parents’ basement to worship the big purple and gold cathode ray tube. We’ve never talked about it, but there is something ancient to the ritual of getting together to stare at flickering lights, just as there is something deeply primordial to my new favorite fall activity: gathering around the fire pit that my neighbor Mike built in his backyard a couple years ago.

There is nothing like it. The stars come out, and, save for the occasional airplane or car going through the alley or a bus on Bryant Avenue, you could be in the deep woods of Minnesota or Wisconsin. It is the same respite from the technological world that the Boundary Waters and bars provide, and it instantly casts the fire-breather back to an age when the only form of meditation or prayer was to be had while staring into a fire. And trust me, there is a lot to be found there.

Autumn is the right season for such things — the time of year when nesting, indoor cooking, and a new commitment to work and family kicks in. Last night, Mike and his wife Molly and I lit up the pit and sat and talked as our kids slept inside. A few neighbors joined us, guitars and beer and Maker’s Mark came out, and after a couple hours, everyone turned in with the promise of more fires to come before the snow flies.

At the end of the night, it was just me and the embers. I stared into the red coals for a long time, rubbed my hands over their heat and felt the warmth on my palms and through the soles of my boots. It was so still, so quiet, that it made me cast out an early thanksgiving to the universe for everything, all of it, even the times when not even a fire can warm a cold mannish boy.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.