Nearly nothing is as core to the male psyche than the ability to start a good fire. It’s almost a cliche, perhaps some deeply ingrained residue from our days as cave dwellers. And if our large-browed, brutish ancestors could make fire, surely, so could I — and there was a lesson in doing so that I never saw coming.
I had everything on my side. I’m in the military. I’m fairly well-educated. I was motivated: my wife asked me, “Do you need any help?” (the rough equivalent of “get it done or you’re sleeping in the other bed tonight”).
That other bed was in a “sleep yurt” at the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center just beyond Leadville in the valley where the 10th Mountain Division trained for the Second World War. Our yurt was at 10,800 feet, an elevation where even experienced athletes huff and puff out breath that quickly turns into a visible reminder of the chill in the air.
That’s why we needed the fire. “Yurt” is another way of saying “big round tent,” and tents are basically thin strips of toughened plastic, mind you, which was all that separated us from Jack Frost nipping at our toes. So I got to work.
We had a wood-burning stove, the kind with a silver-colored pipe extending up to vent smoke out of the yurt. I opened the flue at the stove’s bottom; that allowed air to amplify the fire to get it roaring. I placed a log across the inside of the stove, propped up smaller kindling in a T-shape across the larger log, and placed some paper underneath. Recalling my Cub Scouting days, I knew the “fire triangle” demanded my fire required fuel (wood), heat (a match), and oxygen, so I left ample space beneath for the fire to “breathe.” The setup was perfect.
Or so I thought. The fire didn’t come. It wouldn’t start. I just couldn’t get that big log to ignite. It was frustrating. Embarrassing. And when I think back on that humiliating encounter in the cold yurt, it was the pressure I put on myself. The self-talk turned negative: Aren’t I in the Army? Shouldn’t I be smart enough to do this?
In my mind’s eye, I saw a hairy caveman point and grunt and laugh hysterically at me.
That’s when I stepped back. I noticed the side door where I’d been loading the wood was open, so I closed it, and lo and behold — fire! I’d been so narrowly focused on failure that I’d completely forgotten one of the key steps to using a wood stove. I had been trying too hard, white-knuckling it, and just needed to step back and let the wood stove do what a wood stove’s supposed to do. Burn, baby burn!
I’d also been so wrapped up with what I thought I was supposed to be able to do that I’d forgotten an important part of our reality. The modern world has changed the skill set we all need to thrive and survive in today’s world. In terms of payoff, composing an email has replaced building a fire. That might upset some outdoorsy folks or committed campers, but it’s true, nonetheless.
So it should come as no surprise that it’s harder for me to do something I never have to do (build a fire) versus something I do all the time (write a message).
Our notions of masculinity have shifted as well. While in younger days I spent a bit over two years in combat, nowadays, the “manliest” thing I do on a regular basis is go solo to take our kids on the weekly grocery run. (Which, let’s face it, simultaneously managing two unruly kids and slinging 10-pound potato sacks into those mongo-shopping carts at Costco is pretty heroic.)
But struggling through lighting a fire was a little different, and not entirely because it was clouded by my straitjacketed conception of masculinity. It was a good struggle because it was something beyond my day-to-day comfort zone.
We all get in ruts. We prefer to do the thing we’ve done before, not necessarily because it’s good, but because it’s comfortable.
It’s a good thing, a very good thing, to break past those comfortable ruts and feel a little burn in the process. Some might even call that “growth.”
Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and co-edited, with author Max Brooks, “Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict,” from Potomac Books. Connect at MLCavanaugh.com or through his ArsenalOfIdeas.com blog. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.