Absinthe & Flamethrowers
Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously
By William Gurstelle
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 William Gurstelle
All rights reserved.
Big-T People, little-t people
"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."
— Helen Keller
On June 18, 1952, the headline on the front page of the Los Angeles Times read "Rocket Scientist Killed in Pasadena Explosion." The unlucky scientist was John Whiteside Parsons, a brilliant but (putting it charitably) strange man who had founded the world-famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Later he went on to start the now gigantic Aerojet Corporation, a major space contractor specializing in missile and space propulsion whose products include the Atlas, Titan, and Delta rocket engines.
In the early afternoon of what had been a quiet day in this pleasant, well-to-do suburb of Los Angeles, an immense explosion rocked the neighborhood. Heard a mile away, the blast tore apart the aging three-story mansion at 1003 South Orange Grove Avenue. The neighbors had grown accustomed to bizarre goings-on at this address, for there was always a strange mix of people going in and out — bohemian artists, science fiction writers, and occultists to name but some. But this was serious.
Sirens screaming, trucks bearing firemen from all over Los Angeles soon arrived. A few daring individuals chanced the smoking ruins to search for any survivors trapped within. Pushing aside the charred rubble, they found Parsons, at least what was left of him, covered by an overturned washtub. The rescuers gasped when they first turned him over. Several pieces of Parsons, including his arm and the side of his face, were missing. They discerned a weak pulse and frantically dragged him outside, where they hoped and waited for a miracle that never came. His situation was hopeless and he succumbed to his injuries about an hour later.
His cause of death was determined to be an accidental explosion from careless handling of an oversized batch of fulminate of mercury, a highly unstable contact explosive. Producing fulminated mercury requires precise laboratory procedures and precipitation reactions that involve dissolving metallic mercury in nitric acid and adding precise quantities of ethyl alcohol until crystals of the explosive precipitate out of the solution.
Most chemists will tell you that fulminate of mercury is far too dangerous to be made in a home laboratory in anything but the smallest quantities. It is not only poisonous but also so unstable that almost anything will cause it to explode. A small bump, an inadvertent knock, or a short drop is all it takes. Simply jarring it a bit can set it off.
Police conducted a thorough investigation of the scene. They found the remains of numerous containers of different kinds of explosives. Piecing together the forensic evidence, they deduced that Jack Parsons must have accidentally dropped a coffee can full of the stuff. And that two-foot drop was all it took to end his life.
Rumors and stories continue to swirl around the memory of Parsons. Although he was not college educated, his innovations in rocketry during the 1930s and 1940s were amazing. His contribution in the field of rocket fuels was particularly important. In fact, a fair amount of credit is due Parsons for powering the nascent American space exploration program. Parsons is credited with inventing the process for casting solid fuel rocket motors. Solid fuel rocket motors propelled the gigantic Saturn V rocket that carried American astronauts to the moon. Today, Parson's contribution is the basis for the design of the two solid rocket boosters that provide the liftoff thrust for every NASA space shuttle.
Parsons's personal life was as noteworthy as his professional career. He was intensely interested in mysticism and was rumored to be a disciple of Aleister Crowley, a British writer and perhaps the preeminent occultist of the 20th century. Before each rocket launch, colleagues noted that Parsons would recite Crowley's "Hymn to Pan," a strange bit of poetry dedicated to the Roman pipe-playing, horned god of fertility.
But Parsons's reputation as a risk-loving disinhibitionist went even further. Stories of orgies, black magic, even incest swirled around Parsons. If Parsons did worship Satan, then his choice of career suited him well, for there was likely no man alive more comfortable working with fire and brimstone. His work was not forgotten. In 1972 a crater on the dark side of the moon was named after him. Given his nature, that's probably a place he'd find desirable.
Type T Personalities
Social scientists have labels for Parsons and others like him. They call them Type T personalities. T stands for "thrill seeker," a high-energy personality who craves excitement and stimulation. When a thrill seeker can't find it, he or she creates it. Thrill seeking is a term that encompasses a great deal of mental territory. Thrills can be physical, or they can be mental.
Thrills can be more than just fun, however. Done often and done well, thrill seeking, as we'll see, imbues those who attempt it with a number of important attributes such as self-reliance, situational control, and the ability to think and act rationally under extraordinary circumstances. The key is to understand the balancing act that must occur for thrill seeking to be both artful and beneficial. Learning the art of living dangerously, I firmly believe, is an important life skill.
Put another way, people choose to fall into one of two risk categories. One can eschew risks or seek out risks. And those who choose to seek out risks can do it poorly, with malevolence or failure, or they can do it well, with art and elegance and a high chance of attaining their goals. The question is how to insure the outcome is the latter.
Dr. Frank Farley of Temple University has written extensively on the positive and negative aspects of thrill seeking and the associated personality types. Type T personalities, says Farley, exist on a continuum. On one end are the Big-T people, those who go out of their way to flirt with danger. It's not hard to find examples. Consider the unfortunate Parsons, Ernest Hemingway, DNA researcher Sir Francis Crick, the legendary explorer Amelia Earhart, social reformer Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, gangster Clyde Barrow, and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
Including the felonious Barrow and the revered Crick in the same paragraph is significant. Thrill seeking correlates with both delinquency and creativity. Some people, Crick and Earhart, for example, are admired for the results of their thrill-seeking instincts. Others, such as Barrow and Parsons, came to violent ends. It's the environment in which one operates that makes the difference. A centered, wealthy, and mentally mature thrill seeker can turn to fast cars, sports, and other socially acceptable outlets. But poor and irresponsible ones may turn to criminal or antisocial behavior for outlet. For them the phrase "everything good is either illegal, immoral, or addictive" is sadly too true.
Taking the thought a step further, besides those who risk physical life and limb, there are those who risk it all mentally or academically. Farley cites Margaret Mead, Albert Einstein, and Helen Keller as famous risk takers who were thrilled by the adrenaline rush of their original thinking.
There are many famous Big-T people. In fact, while Big-T test pilots, explorers, and political leaders made great impacts on their societies, there are those who are famous for no reason other than their willingness to take on risk. Evel Knievel is an easy, if hackneyed, example. Daredevils, motorcycle jumpers, and circus performers are famous and admired for no reason other than what they do appears dangerous. There is no particular benefit to society in the work they do. We as a group have little practical use for lion taming a la Siegfried and Roy, or jumping rows of cars on a Harley XR-750 while wearing a patriotically themed, star-spangled jumpsuit.
On the other end of the spectrum are the little-t people. They are people, Farley told me, "who cling to certainty and predictability, avoiding risks and the unfamiliar. Such people are usually neither criminal nor creative; they're gray compared to the bold red of the Type T personality."
It's difficult to come up with examples of well known little-t's. After all, no little-t makes headlines or gets a biopic on cable television. The rare well known ones are fictional characters like Felix Unger, Caspar Milquetoast, and Bud Frump. The timid, inertia-bound title character imagined by T. S. Eliot in his famous poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" may well be the poster child for a life shortchanged by little-t thinking and ennui.
Most people fall somewhere between Knievel and Prufrock; neither as hungry for novelty and excitement as the extreme Big-T nor as mind-numbingly fearful as the frumpish little-t. Imagine a team of psychologists testing the world's population and determining every individual's attitude toward risk. While a census of this sort has never been done, many surveys have been completed. These studies provide a fair indication of what the universal thrill-seeking capacities and needs of the general population really are.
It's no surprise that, like so much else in nature, thrill-seeking behavior in the real world is modeled by what statisticians call a normal curve, the bell-shaped graph that shows how most things tend to cluster around a mean and that large differences from that mean are relatively uncommon. The people who place noticeably distant from everyone else are the outliers. Those rara avises are not the primary concern of this book.
So then, who is? I'll use a bit (don't worry, just a small bit) of statistical data to answer that.
The Golden Third
The normal curve describes the distribution of humankind's proclivity to seek out and enjoy new sensations. As I mentioned in the opening chapter, Dr. Marvin Zuckerman at the University of Delaware has performed extensive research on the psychology of risk taking. He designed a series of questions that measure the test taker's propensity to take risks, to seek out new experiences, and to avoid boredom. The instrument, called the Sensation Seeking Scale, has gone through several iterations and modifications. It remains the best known and most used statistical instrument for studying human behavior as it applies to risk taking. Thousands of subjects have taken the test, providing a reliable and scientifically valid statistical database.
The graph of sensation-seeking behavior follows a normal distribution, which means it resembles the mountaintop of a stratovolcano. The vertical height of the curve at any point indicates the frequency of a particular score. Thus the peak indicates the mean or most common level of sensation seeking in human beings. If a person's score falls to the left, then that person is more cautious, typically less willing to take risks, better able to handle routine, and less inclined to try new things.
The normal curve of risk taking
In a normal distribution, such as this diagram depicts, people with scores placing them to the far left or far right are few compared with those clustered around the mean. The outliers, or those more than one standard deviation from the mean, show either a high propensity to seek new sensations or a strong desire to avoid the unfamiliar and the risky.
Standard deviation is a statistician's term that indicates a certain measure of nonconformity with those near the mean. As the diagram shows, the proportion of the population whose risk-taking behavior falls between the mean and the first standard deviation line is about 34 percent. Therefore roughly two-thirds of all people have sensation-seeking scores that fall between the mean and one standard deviation to the left or right.
This book is written for the people within one standard deviation of the thrill seeking mean, the 68 percent of the world's population that neither takes ridiculous chances nor is timorously risk averse. If you fall inside the Golden Third (the shaded section in the diagram between the mean and the first standard deviation, which will be explored in a subsequent chapter), then you're in the 34.1 percent of the world's population that lies within one standard deviation upside of the mean.
John Parsons most likely never took a psychological profile. But based on accounts from those who knew him, he would almost certainly place well right of the mean. His proclivity to take risks — mental, physical, and financial — made him interesting and out of the ordinary. The over-the-top and sordid aspects of his personal life aside, his capacity to court danger with a certain degree of flair and style is admirable.
Many artful and risk-tolerant people have made enormous contributions to society and have not been blown to bits in an explosion of homemade chemicals. These are the people of the Golden Third — the people who understand the art of living dangerously.
These people understand the dangers and rewards of sensible risk taking. Golden Thirders have attained a balanced, comfortable approach to trying out new activities and ideas that involve reasonable but significant risk. I consider this the optimum range on the risk-taking/thrill-seeking continuum.
However, I believe the information and ideas presented here will interest most people, not just those already in the Golden Third. If your makeup places you on the asymptote-hugging left side of the curve, you might not be able to internalize the arguments I present for consciously introducing more risk into your life. And if your makeup places you on the extreme right, well, you don't need my advice, other than to be careful out there. But if you reside anywhere near the middle of the risk-taking curve, as the vast majority of people do, this book is for you.
Eminent scholars in institutions worldwide have researched and written about the advantages that accrue to those who make an effort to move toward the right on the little-t/Big-T risk-taking continuum, at least until you recognize that you've reached your optimum risk-taking zone.
It is a sad fact that for many reasonable people, societal strictures have forced the information their intellect desires underground, unavailable in the mainstream media and untaught in schools and universities. I hope the information provided here may change things a bit for the better. Here, for the first time, the know-how and wherewithal go mainstream and into the minds and hands of you who want it.
In a nutshell, this book explores the theory and practice of reasonable risk taking. It is written to be useful for those on both sides of the risk- taking curve. If you find yourself already on the right side of the mean, the pages that follow provide information and projects that will interest, stimulate, elucidate, and educate.
If you operate on the left side of the statistical mean, then you will find advice and ideas for moving to the right that take (or keep) you in the region of statistically proven higher-than-average life satisfaction.
Such experiences are described by a single word: edgeworking.
What Is Edgework?
"It was dangerous lunacy, but it was also the kind of thing a real connoisseur of edgework could make an argument for."
— Hunter S. Thompson, From Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
I've written this book for readers who want more out of life: a bit more brain stimulation, a little more excitement, perhaps a few more things to talk about at the next cocktail party or social gathering. In the next section, I'll make my case as to why reasonable, eyes-wide-open, and carefully considered risk taking is good for you. My hope is that this book opens your mind to the world of interesting, edgy activities that require no great investment in time or money.
Hunter S. Thompson, perhaps the most extreme Big-T writer in recent memory, termed these sorts of activities "edge-work," and he wrote extensively on his pursuit of such experiences. Thompson explored the areas where only a thin, knife-edged boundary exists between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, life and death, and funny and just plain stupid. In my opinion he did this more vividly and more transcendently than any other writer.
But, with due deference to the late, great gonzo journalist, living life in the Golden Third precludes incorporating the Thompson hallmarks — shotguns, LSD, and anarchy — into the lifestyle. It's hard to make them artful. And there is a better path: the art of living dangerously. Living dangerously is an art and a science. Since artfully dangerous and non-artful edgework activities share some similar characteristics, it's tempting to simply define the art of living dangerously by a loose "I know it when I see it" definition. However, to be helpful, the concept needs to be reined in, and some structure placed upon it. Upon a great deal of reflection, artful, dangerous living is not all-encompassing. It can be understood based on the extent to which it possesses some key characteristics. Artfully dangerous activities:
have short learning curves;
are human focused, as opposed to technology centric;
are not unduly expensive; and
demonstrate true but reasonable risk.
Selecting these criteria was difficult. Arguments certainly can be made for including other criteria or for excluding one or another of these. But to me, the difference between artful edge-work and less desirable, dodgy activities is that edgeworkers are not burdened with a long learning curve, a great deal of complexity, or the need to spend a lot of money. Let's explore each of the qualities that make up quality edgeworking. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Absinthe & Flamethrowers by William Gurstelle. Copyright © 2009 William Gurstelle. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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