Durham News: Opinion

Jesse James DeConto: The magic of fire


I had three beers the other night, for the first time in at least a year. I’m 37, and, for whatever reason, beer makes me feel terrible. Lately, all I can manage to drink is half a pint, split with my wife. Any more than that, and I just want to take a nap. I might have one of those gluten allergies that are all the rage. Maybe my tummy doesn’t like the yeast. Maybe it’s just all those extra carbs. Whatever the reason, I tend to drink whiskey instead, because it doesn’t make me feel so sad and bloated.

But last Friday night our friend Lief came over for dinner. My wife Julie had given me an outdoor firepit for my birthday. That was back in January, but we’d only gotten to use it a few times, just in the past couple of weeks. This was the winter of the snowpocalypse, after all. But the last few days had been just perfect for it – 50 or 60 degrees at night, so the fire keeps you warm but doesn’t overheat you either.

We’d already discovered that the firepit was bringing our little family together. See, we’ve got two girls, ages 9 and 12, and all they seem to want to do is play games on their iPads or handheld Nintendo. We can’t come up with anything better for them to do, and we’re always feeling guilty about this. Plus, the video games keep them busy so we can do what we need (or want) to do. So, you know, no one’s handing us any parenting awards anytime soon. But we found that deliberately setting things on fire can keep them entertained and – lo and behold – actually talking to us for a couple of hours. Throw in some roasted marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers, and we were pretty much the Cleavers.

So, we figured if sitting around the firepit could help a fidgety third-grader, a moody seventh-grader and their preoccupied parents to enjoy one another’s company, it would probably work for adults too. The kids were with my ex-wife for the night. I mixed up Paula Deen’s recipe for southwestern turkey burgers, with black beans, chili powder and crumbled corn chips. I was already sipping on a Breckenridge Vanilla Porter and planning to switch to bourbon when Lief arrived with a sixer of New Belgium’s Shift pale ale – “upscale Budweiser,” according to Lief – a lighter, crisper, much more fitting beer for the spring equinox. I managed not to stuff myself on Paula’s pepperjack- and avocado-topped burgers nor on the peach salsa Lief brought along, and when your buddy brings “upscale Budweiser” to your patio, you’ve got to try it, right?

We’d already been sitting around the firepit for three hours, listening to Lief’s dating stories; tales of the single life make for great entertainment once you’ve been married a few years. Wait, this girl insists that shaving her legs is patriarchal oppression, but as soon as spring rolls around, she does it. And he likes it, and then in an intimate moment she tells him not to get used to it? What’s she playing at? Our friends Tim and Laura showed up with two six-packs of Foothills People’s Porter: full, dark and malty – more my speed. I knew that Tim, an IPA guy, had more or less picked this beer for me, and so, again, how could I turn it down? By the time our friends left, around midnight, we’d passed six hours without feeling bored, and I drank three beers without feeling sick. How is this possible?

I can only attribute it to the magic of fire. Conversation feels lighter and lubricated when I can stare at the glowing orange embers, instead of noticing the people around me and wondering if we’re tired of one another’s company yet. Silence is not awkward, because mysterious chemical changes are happening right in front of our eyes. Wood, once green with life, is now turning into black soot and heavenbound smoke. The gases in the air are burning at different temperatures and different colors. If I push that piece of kindling and its flames underneath that log, they’ll multiply. If I change the position of those logs, more of the dry wood will catch. I can busy myself collecting more branches from around the yard, just finding more material for my pyromania, while carrying on deep conversations about how the church messed up our sexualities and what to do with our body hair. Tending a fire, unlike, say Minecraft or Facebook, requires just enough attention not to overthink a conversation but not enough to keep me from having it. A campfire, like alcohol, has a way of distracting me from myself and my experience of the people around me and allowing us to just be – to just be together, without an agenda.

I’m sure that a mixture of fire and alcohol has helped to cause some terrible tragedies. But this is North Carolina, and the bugs will soon ruin the experience of the outdoor hang, so while we’ve still got some cool spring weather, I’m going burn as many twigs and drink as much beer as I can, and it still won’t be enough. Maybe if I nurse three beers over six hours over the fire pit, my tummy can handle it.

Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. He is author of the spiritual memoir, “This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World.” www.thislittlerlight.com.