April 26, 2008

Why do you love fire?

(I spend some of my time in Tribe.net, for the fireplay and the contact juggling tribes. Someone asked why we love fire.)

I don't.

I'm somewhat indifferent to fire itself, though I enjoy a good camp or stove fire. I grew up with a coal/wood kitchen stove and a wood fire heater. The non-working farmhouse in Ohio had one electric outlet, three oil lamps, a hand pump in the kitchen for water, an outhouse, and a crank telephone and party line. I'm of the last generation for whom fire was commonplace.

I suppose I think of fire much the same way I think of religion: I'm not personally fascinated with it, but I am fascinated with why other people are so fascinated with it. Which is why I attend fire jams and occasionally go to church services, write safety manuals read and write essays on belief systems, and generally support the fireplay community, and occasionally put something in the kitty, if the sermon has merit.

Why is fire so fascinating?

Fire is a technology that we've largely abandoned, having replaced it with electricity and central heating. But it's still a technology, and the rule still holds: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Even if the technology is archaic.

So it's not surprising that people today feel spiritually charged by fireplay. It's an adrenaline-high version of steam punk. A dangerous form of retro. It's dragons' breath on your skin. It affirms your relationship with the earth, the elements, and with raw nature.

It's kitsch with pain.

And while fireplay is dangerous, it looks vastly more dangerous than it actually is (or there'd be many more crispy critters among us), which makes it an easy entre to personal coolness.

Fireplay today, in the early 1990s, is like home computers in the early 1980s, where the nerdy kids found that unlike their teachers and parents, computers (and fire) never lie to you. If you don't respect it, fire will hurt you.

But if you do respect it, and if you inquire deeply enough into its needs and demands, others will recognize your mastery, and your special relationship with this ancient and fearsome element. Its embers will seem to glow deep from within your eyes, and they will look with wonder on your hairless forearms and wispy eyebrows. They will also forget your years of work in theater arts, literature, political science, history, or any other skill or body of knowledge you might have worked very hard at, and simply call you "the fire guy."

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