To Go…or Not to Go. Is There Any Question?

You may have purchased your first set of Burning Man tickets, or you may be thinking about doing so (yes, there are still opportunities to buy tickets – more about that later). Either way, you might also be suffering through some serious doubts about whether you really want to attend a notorious hippie retreat out in the hot, dusty Nevada desert this August. Trust me, you do.

While Burning Man may or may not change your life, it will definitely alter your perspective. The harmonious environment alone is enough to let you know with certainty that you’re not in Kansas anymore. Burning Man is a hugfest. Every stranger loves you, and you love them in return. That sense of caring for each other is such a radical change of pace from the constant frictions of daily life that you’re bound to return refreshed, if not altered. The desert may be a harsh environment (and it’s not recommended for those who suffer from asthma or other breathing disorders), but it’s tolerable; not only that, sharing the harsh desert environment with fellow Burners binds you to the people you meet and thousands of others who have shared the experience with you. You’ll find it somewhat akin to the bonding among members of the military who served together in stressful situations. Of course, no one will be shooting at you at Burning Man, so the main discomforts are the heat and dust of the desert.

But beyond survival, you’ll also experience an unmatchable sense of freedom to express your inner self. Maybe it’s the presence of so much art (more than you can ever take in – especially if it’s your first year), the sense of whimsy that permeates the playa, the unstated imperative to “let go” of your default world hang-ups, or the erotic atmosphere that surrounds the entire event; but when you walk through the gates of Burning Man, another “you” is bound to emerge – a persona that has always been present, but that life and its constant pressures has kept bottled up.

You are totally free at Burning Man. Free to wander the Playa in search of art (it’s everywhere, not just on the canvas of open Playa, but within the city as well); to people-watch; to sit with friends and share food and drink; to dance your legs off at one of the many disco installations; or to join in one or more of the interactive installations that range from bumper cars to roller disco to Thunderdome (ouch!).

Just one of the extraordinary pieces of art you'll see at Burning Man

Just one of the extraordinary pieces of art you’ll see at Burning Man

It’s a “come as you are” event as far as attire is concerned. Bring your most relaxed clothing, or create a costume or costumes that represent your inner self. You can even pick out something truly unusual from one of Burning Man’s many free costume camps such as Kostume Kult. And if none of the above interests you, you can always go naked or nearly so. Nobody cares.

In your Playa ramblings, you can stop for food or drinks wherever they are offered. You need only bring your own cup and plate: the offerings are all gifts. And though gifting does not equate to bartering, it’s always a good idea to bring gifts of your own to give out randomly as the feeling strikes you. The best gifts are always hand-made expressions of yourself, and frequently include the date and theme of the current Festival.

So, if you’re feeling a little more excited about attending, but have not yet bought a ticket, here are links that will allow you to sign up for the two remaining official Burning Man ticket sales: STEP (Secure Ticket Exchange Program) at http://tickets.burningman.org/secure-ticket-exchange-program; or the OMG sale in August at http://tickets.burningman.org/#omgsale. The sign up period for STEP is on now, and you must have filled out a Burner Profile to be eligible for either of these sales. These are the safest ways to buy a face-value ticket, but you can always look for tickets on Craigslist or eBay. Craigslist tends to offer more tickets at face value; eBay tends to have more ticket scalpers who want to make money (in some cases a lot of money) on their tickets. But you can always be assured that tickets will become available as the festival approaches, because many people change their minds or experience a change in their plans and seek to off-load their tickets at the last minute. If you really want to go, you can usually find a way.

Commitment to Playa and Commitment to Responsibilities

I’m almost never political in my posts about Burning Man, because Burning Man is not an inherently political event.  It is welcoming to people whose thoughts range across the political spectrum, and rarely the center of political activism (albeit, some highly political works of art appear on occasion).  But something has increasingly disturbed me about U.S. politics, and I want my Burning Man community to help change this growing trend.  Not voting seems to be the “cool” way to deal with a frequently dysfunctional political system.  In last year’s Congressional elections, only 37 percent of Americans voted.  This is a shameful result — especially when viewed against the voting numbers for countries that do not have the same level of free speech and unencumbered politics as we enjoy in the United States.

One aspect of the problematic trend toward non-voting is that it infuses young people more than older Americans.  Younger voters have literally ceded control of the voting process to older citizens.  The affect is a disproportionate representation of baby boomers and even older Americans in the voting booth, and the near absence of the voices of younger voters.  It really doesn’t matter how younger people would vote, it only matters that they have elected not to be heard.

When you combine overall low voter turnout with the much higher percentage of senior aged voters, then add in the effect of big money in the political process (an effect enabled and support by a Supreme Court that can’t seem to tell the difference between free speech and paid speech), you end up with a corrupted political system that looks to young people as if it’s rigged.  Why vote if control of the country is out of your hands?  And why vote when apportionment rules around the country have created a plethora of “safe” districts for one party or the other — districts that can never be captured by opposition candidates?

The answer is that only by voting can citizens change the direction of the country, reject political blather vs. real content, and end the era when money, rather than patriotism, drives decision-making by our politicians.  I, too, have found myself turning off most political speech these days.  I’ve grown tired of politicians and government officials who never really answer questions but speak only from set talking points provided by their parties.  But I continue to vote in every single election.  So I guess I haven’t given up yet on the country and its politics.

Playa fun.  Can we transfer it to real life?

Playa fun. Can we transfer it to real life?

As Burners, we believe in the principles of inclusion, the freedom to speak truth, and the unimportance of politics in maintaining friendships.  So why are so many of us (assuming Burners are average in terms of voting numbers) rejecting the idea of participating in the electoral process.  It makes no sense to believe in the wonder that occurs annually in the Black Rock Desert and then not try to bring that wonder into the rest of the world in every way possible.  Voting your beliefs is one way to extend the culture of Burning Man into our everyday world.  Not voting is NOT a statement of your beliefs.  It is a declaration of invisibility.  It is ceding the world to non-Burners.  It is giving up and giving in.  That’s just not the way people act when I see them at Black Rock City.  Pretending to be invisible in the default world means you believe in Burning Man’s 10 principles only once a year rather than as part of your everyday life.

So drop the skepticism and become in your daily life what you are in your playa life — a participant.

Distortion Reigns in 2015

Anyone who keeps up with news from Burning Man through the JRS (Jack Rabbit Speaks) or the new BurningMan.org website, has probably read about the 2015 festival theme: Carnival of Mirrors. While getting a handle on the 2014 theme required me to do some research, the Carnival of Mirrors theme is one that has not taxed my brain to understand its meaning. In fact, I’ve talked to a lot of people who immediately thought of “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” the Emmy award-winning television series on the FX network. We can hope for a touch of craziness at Burning Man’s Carnival of Mirrors without going into the macabre level of Freak Show (which is both weird and wonderful from my perspective).

I think the Burning Man org has hit on something ideal as a theme for 2015 in that reality and distortion are so totally intermingled at Burning Man. Looking at yourself all costumed up for a night on the playa is a bit like a glimpse into a side-show mirror. It’s hard to know whether you’re seeing the real you or an aberration.

Artist's rendering of the 2015 theme:  Carnival of Mirrors

Artist’s rendering of the 2015 theme: Carnival of Mirrors

I prefer to think of Burning Man as a week-long aberration of real life, but one that represents an ideal rather than a horrific distortion. I’m willing to be so much more than my usual self at Burning Man, in part by absorbing and becoming part of a community that is unique in the world – or at least in my world.

So I look forward to attending the “Carnival of Mirrors” in 2015, and seeing whatever there is to see about myself and everyone else.

Another topic covered in JRS and on the Burning Man website is “plug and play” camping and whether it has affected the nature of the festival. One interesting aspect of these fully concierged approaches to attending Burning Man is that I never noticed them. In part that’s because all the big, well-equipped busses serving as luxurious locales for people willing to spend large sums of money to be taken care of, were simply too far away from Lamplighter Village for me to notice them.

But I’d like to highly recommend to all of the readers of this site that “plug and play”BM-2015-Carnival-of-Mirrors.jpg camping is not an ideal way to experience Burning Man. Being “protected” from the Burning Man environment is exactly the opposite of what you want from your week in the desert. It’s undoubtedly tempting – if you have the money – to let someone else take care of all the planning and preparation. But that planning effort is part of what makes your personal experience complete. As Larry Harvey pointed out, there’s nothing about these camps inherently against Burning Man’s 10 principles (in fact, radical inclusion calls for full acceptance of both the rich and the poor, the basic and the elaborate). But what Larry clearly objected to was creating a gated community out of some of these camps. Walling off one camp from the rest of us Burners is the antithesis of Burning Man, and, given the people’s ownership of the land we use, it seems wrong on almost every level.

But it’s important to stress that the majority of plug and play camps made no attempt to close themselves off from the rest of the Burning Man community. Rather, they offered people the possibility of attending when they might not have the time or ability to make their own preparations. I don’t recommend it, but I can understand – within limits – allowing it.

One of the reasons I have no desire to participate in such campsites is that it undermines part of the experience we’ve enjoyed so thoroughly – preparing our own materials, decorating our own bikes, and being part of an open community that welcomes all Burners into our lounge and as volunteer Lamplighters. As an older Burner, I think I would feel less of the invigoration I receive from Burning Man if I became too reliant on others to take care of me. When I’m that old or disabled, I’d choose a different approach to managing my way through the process, or I’d simply stop attending.

Burning Man: A Respite from the World

Hello Again Burners and Future Burners. I’ve been away for a while getting a torn rotator cuff repaired, which kept me off the computer for all but the most absolutely necessary purposes. But my recovery has progressed to the point that whatever minor pain it causes me to type will do no harm to the surgery. And I was further inspired to write a new post by a dinner guest who was a first-time Burner in 2014. An Iraq veteran, he works a number of jobs up here in the Lake Tahoe ski resorts, but can only afford to live in a tent (how can we allow that to happen to vets who have served in war zones!).

The pleasure both Lashes and I took in hearing this young man’s reaction to the Burn, and his commitment to return next year and for the foreseeable future, was a stark reminder of the wonderment we both felt during our first year (2005 for me, 2006 for Lashes), and how we continue to feel that sense of amazement at the experience that is Burning Man. We’re now approaching our 10th year of attending the festival (and our 48th wedding anniversary), and while there have been better and slightly worse experiences at Burning Man for us over the years, we have never felt anything less than renewed by attending.

In fact, this year, we experienced one of our most unforgettable and special moments at Burning Man: being selected as two of the team of eight lamplighters to carry the fire cauldron from center camp out to the man burn.  (Thanks to “Small Transgressions” for the use of the photo of our group carrying the cauldron to the man.)

15208739651_41d5643fa6_nSo after ruminating about our discussions of Burning Man with our dinner guest, I began writing this blog post with the PBS station in the background – playing a special on Peter, Paul and Mary. That music, which was the soundtrack of college and our early married years, reminded me that one of the reasons I love Burning Man is that – while not by nature a “hippie” – I’ve always been an idealist and a seeker of peace and harmony in the world.

No place has reached as close to my ideal as Burning Man, where “radical inclusion,” “welcome home,” and hugs from and for everyone put a twist on life that is the total antithesis to the crazy, violent, racist and politically stagnant world we live in. It is, in fact, our respite from that world, where people of various persuasions, income levels, and life goals put their differences aside and spend the week living together as a loving, peaceful community. Who could not feel renewed seeing people allowing themselves to be so vulnerable yet remaining unexploited.

Where else can you drink at a bar standing beside and loving people who are free to express themselves – sexually and otherwise – without the expectation of a battle for intellectual superiority based on their beliefs, choices or natures. Feeling welcome at all times and in every place on the playa is a massive relief from a life walking on eggshells, wondering who will next be offended by something you’ve said or done.

I can think of no better word to describe our time at Burning Man as once again calling it a respite from the world of spinning politicians, argumentative commentators, controlled newscasters and friends and family who feel the need to take sides on every issue. Once a year, all I need is a hug. One is always available on the playa.

Is Burning Man Worth the Effort?

This post is a direct result of exhaustion. The two of us are warn down to what feels like a pile of playa dust from all the effort involved in getting ready for,it has taken to get ready, attending, and recovering from Burning Man this year. Let’s not beat around the bush: it takes a real commitment to prepare to go to the Burn, and when you get back you’re faced with a dusty coating that has to be washed off of everything you took with you (including yourself) – not to mention all the costumes and other paraphernalia that must be stored away for next year.

The fact is, Burning Man is not, and may never be, for everybody. Its driving principle of Radical Self-Reliance is enough of a put-off to keep the world out and just us 70,000 Burners in. And that seems about right.

Of course, there are exceptions – though I must admit they are apocryphal from my point of view. I have never actually seen one of the so-called full-service charter packages on the Playa where people pay a small fortune to have all their meals catered, live in brand new luxury RVs and even have their bikes decorated by attentive staff members. But there’s so much wealth among attendees from money-printing centers like Silicon Valley that it’s probably real, and it can’t be as demanding as doing it yourself.

At 140' in height, the tallest Man yet

At 140′ in height, the tallest Man yet

We’d probably be considered apostates by long-term, traditional Burners because we stay in an RV and spend hot afternoons napping in air-conditioned comfort. But we make our own costumes and decorations, our bikes come from flea markets, and we volunteer to work in a variety of settings during the Burn so we can feel part of the process – and when it’s all over, we wash our own clothes and struggle to de-playa-ize the RV so it will be ready for another Burn (and a decompression party or two).

So without question, it takes a lot of energy – before, during and after the event – to make Burning Man work, and it can be exhausting for people our age. But while we’re there, we don’t even think about the effort required, because the payback is so amazing. And as tired as we may feel for a few days post-Burn, we’re soon feeling younger and more energized then ever because we attended.

We’re revved up about the art, the fun and the friends we’ve made. We’re refreshed by the complete change of pace that our week or so in the desert always brings to our lives, and we’re already thinking about next year’s Burn.

Is Burning Man worth the effort? You have to decide for yourself. But for us, it’s a definite yes.

The Playa Works Its Magic Again This Year

I’m approaching my 70th birthday (this month), so I wondered as we sped toward Burning Man on that very long stretch of two-lane highway just beyond Reno whether I’d still find Playa magic with one more year under my belt.   I’ll admit that I was a bit more tired this year, but Burning Man worked its wonders on me once again, and I’ve returned to the default world a younger 70 year old than the 69 year old who departed just a few weeks ago.

The reasons remain the same – the art, the whimsy, the radical (albeit temporary) change in my life were all present, and all fresh yet again. I know it always embarrasses my wife when I say this, but there was the sex as well. As I’ve written before, eroticism is a life-force that infuses Burning Man, and it’s a wonderful tonic for people our age.

I don’t go to Burning Man for hook-ups, kinky sex or infidelity of any sort (many do, which is fine with me). But I do find that our marriage of 47 years suddenly becomes physically exciting again at Burning Man. There’s a generally libidinous attitude there – for both males and females. Sexuality is openly recognized as an important part of life whereas in the default world we tend to hide it under a cloud of shame. I’m happy to know that we still have a vibrant sex life as a couple, which is inevitably reinforced by Burning Man’s erotic environment.

Lashes and Perky in our Lamplighter garb to carry the fire to the Man on burn night.

Lashes and Perky in our Lamplighter garb to carry the fire to the Man on burn night.

This year was particularly exciting for us because we were honored by being part of the processional carrying the flame into the inner circle for the Man burn. We also took voluntary shifts for Man Watch, Temple Guardians and Greeters this year, in addition to our responsibilities to Lamplighters. So it was a particularly busy year for us on Playa. We both agreed on our trip home that we had probably taken on a bit too much this year, and we’re struggling as we try to recover from the overwhelming sense of fatigue and letdown that inevitably follows the Burn.

Emptying out and cleaning up the RV feels like the world’s toughest challenge, and re-adjusting to regular meals and showers throws our bodies out of the synch we had established on Playa; but all of these issues are temporary and, day-by-day, we’re returning to “normal.” In a real way, that’s a shame. It would be grand to hold onto the Playa magic just a little longer. But preserving it for our annual trip to Burning Man makes that magic special, so I’m glad we do end up easing our way back into normal life within a short time.

I’ve always felt that my decision to go to Burning Man is one that I need to consider each year. There will eventually come a time when the effort to prepare will seem onerous or our interest will flag. But I don’t think we’re there yet. I’m still looking forward to Playa Magic next year.

Storms Can’t Stop the Party at Black Rock City

One of the running gags among Burning Man attendees is that “everything was better last year,” a sentiment that probably a reflects more on the memory of one’s first year on the Playa — with its psychic overload of sites, sounds and whimsy – than on the reality of the latest Burn.

The fact is that every Burning Man is distinct, not only because of the Festival’s variety of activities, but also because of the unique way every person sees the event.

However, this year felt truly different, and you can probably blame the weather. A freak desert thunderstorm that brought lightning strikes within the grounds of Black Rock City, plus hale and a torrent of rain, put a temporary kibosh on Burning Man, and suppressed attendance for the first few days, even though every ticket was sold.

The gypsum-based desert surface turns into a sticky, muddy mess when it rains, and this storm was no exception. It was hard even to walk in the immediate aftermath of the storm because feet or shoes caked up with the wet surface, which turned into a kind of cement that made it difficulty to take a step without feeling like you were getting sucked into the beige tinged desert.

Lamplighter neighbor Water Dragon picks her way through the mess created by the Monday storm

Lamplighter neighbor Water Dragon picks her way through the mess created by the Monday storm

For vehicles, the situation was even worse. Mud-encrusted car or truck tires would halt any vehicle almost as quickly as it got moving. This meant that service vehicles (such as the porta-potty cleaning trucks) were out of commission. In fact, the Festival was declared closed on Monday, August 25, which should have been its first complete day (gates opened at 10 a.m. on Sunday, but the activity list for that day was skimpy).

With entry barred to all traffic, vehicles quickly backed up along Nevada Highways 447 and 34 – the two-lane roads that take Burners from I-80 to the event. The backup began at Wadsworth, the first town driver’s reach after exiting the interstate. The Nevada Highway Patrol, at the request of the Burning Man Organization, began turning cars at or near the gate area back to Gerlach to wait out the weather. Cars south of Gerlach all the way back to Wadsworth were turned around as well, and told they’d need to wait it out in Reno/Sparks or another nearby town and try again in 24 hours, when the playa was likely to have dried out.

As a result, the next few days for those who had successfully negotiated their way into the festival prior to the storm were unusually uncrowded. There were with no bicycle traffic jams at main intersections, shorter lines at some of the more popular attractions, and plenty of room on disco dance floors. There were also many more open spaces where camps had been scheduled for set-up, and a larger number of incomplete art installations.

And while Burning Man’s population had righted itself by Wednesday, with total attendance reaching 65,000 on the Friday morning of Labor Day weekend, there were noticeably fewer art cars roaming the Playa for the length of the Burn; in fact official figures from the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles), showed the number down from 650 in 2013 to 605 this year.

Did any of the weather and resultant traffic issues make it a less successful Burn? Probably so for those who had spent 20 hours in their vehicles between the drive to the general vicinity and the long wait for the gates to re-open. But if you were looking for a typical Burning Man event with monumental desert sculptures, art everywhere, a loose-tongued population un-tethered from day-to-day working lives, and – here and there – some naked bodies, then you found it in spades at the 2014 Burn. And if you happened to have arrived prior to the weather-related closing, then you enjoyed a rare day of Burning Man leisure talking to old friends while waiting for the Playa to solidify.

A highlight of this year’s Burn was the rococo-style temple – viewed by Burners as a sacred space, but not necessarily a place of religion. The temple, designed this year by Bay Area architect David Best –who originated the idea of the temple at Burning Man in 1996 and has designed more of them then anyone else — was awe-inspiring with its towering height and sculpted details. People may well be raucous during most Burning Man events, but they are quiet and respectful in the temple, where many individuals go to honor lost friends and family members.

Temple Burn underway

Temple Burn underway

Another eye-catching art installation – for both its grandeur and meaning – was “Embrace,” a 100-foot high wooden sculpture of two heads intimately close to each other. “Embrace” was nearly as visible across the Playa as the Man itself – this year a monumental 140 foot tall effigy that stood on the Playa surface and was surrounded by a bazaar know as The Souk that typified way-points along the Silk Road that opened the far east to commerce from the beginning in the 2nd century CE into the 1800s.

Burning Man’s theme for 2014 was Caravansary, a kind of travel stopover that marked the treacherous trip along the Silk Road. As usual, there were a number of art exhibits (such as a giant genie’s bottle) that reflected the theme. But uniformity is not one of Burning Man’s strong suits, and there were many art installations and exhibitions that veered away from the theme.

One example is the Black Rock Observatory, situated beyond the Temple in the area known to Burners as Deep Playa. The observatory provided a unique opportunity to view the crystal clear desert sky through professional telescopes. On Thursday at sunrise, a musical composition written especially for the observatory was played live in Deep Playa by an ensemble that included keyboard, violins, cello and voice. It was an awesome example of the melding of art and nature.

Among the other new features was an actual Ferris Wheel located along the Esplanade – Burning Man’s main street.

People who have a “drugs, sex, rock n roll” image of Burning Man might have been surprised by late Friday night’s annual Marching Band Competition in Center Camp. Three bands competed for audience and judges’ approval this year, with the nattily attired Love Bomb a Go-Go taking top honors. The bands all played gigs around the Playa, so they weren’t just there for one night’s show. Most eclectic of all was the Burning Man Orphan Band — a collection of musicians, majorettes and dancers who had come to the Playa independently. Meanwhile, the Burning Band, the festival’s original marching band, celebrated its 19th year of entertaining Burners.

Bluegrass jam

Burning Man’s traditional million-bunny march wound up its boisterous show at the man base. Bunnies were followed quickly by the BRC Bureau of Animal Control, which vainly tried to keep its charges under constraint by offering a carrot (literally) instead of a stick. One white-suited, highly official looking Burner with Bunny ears carried a brief case labeled, “Bunny Civil Liberties Unit,” and was apparently there to defend any captured hare.

On Burn Night, eight robed Lamplighters (my wife and I included this year) carried the fire cauldron out to the man. Torchbearers on stilts, a line of drummers, and org officials carrying multiple radios were all led to the Man by Crimson Rose, one of Burning Man’s top executives and its artistic inspiration. The man itself was set ablaze around 9:30 and took an unusually long 90-plus minutes to fall.

The 140' tall Man engulfed in fireworks just as the burn started.

The 140′ tall Man engulfed in fireworks just as the burn started.

While some of the art installations remained incomplete until well after the event’s start, and a few never recovered from the drubbing they took in the Monday storm, there were still eye and earfuls to keep one’s attention. And the feeling of openness that resulted from the briefly suppressed attendance made it seem to some of us long-time Burners like an older, some would say better, Burning Man experience.