A Day at the Burn

If you’re considering going to Burning Man, you might be wondering what a typical day will be like on the Playa. Not to disappoint you, but I’m pretty sure there is no such thing as a typical day in Black Rock City, so the best I can do is tell you how we experience the Burn on a day-to-day basis.

We start early every morning because we’re part of the Lamplighters morning pick-up crew, which usually entails working from 8 until 10:30 – 11:00 a.m. picking up the 900+ kerosene lamps that were hung the previous evening, returning them to the work space, and cleaning the lamps in preparation for that night’s Lamplighting Ceremony. Then we make a little breakfast in our RV, and either spend time with our Lamplighter campmates or take off on our bikes to visit art and see friends staying in different camps. If we get hungry along the way, we can usually find a camp that’s serving grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, French toast or something else delicious for lunch. And there are always a plethora of open bars ready to fill our empty mugs.

By 2 p.m., we’re usually back in our RV, where we turn on the air conditioner and take a nap during the hottest part of the day. By 4 p.m., we’ve changed into the appropriate costume for that afternoon’s Lamplighter party (there’s one daily between 3 and 5 p.m.). There, we imbibe in the “drink of the day,” and encourage visitors to volunteer to help us light the city. After 5, with the Lamplighting ceremony underway, we usually change into outfits for that night’s revelry and head out to Center Camp and beyond to enjoy Black Rock City by night. We may head for some events that we’ve found in the “What, When, Where Guide” you’ll receive as you enter the gate; or we may have some specific pieces of art we want to see in their fiery nighttime garb.

A day on the Playa -- clothing may be optional, but a bike is a must.

A day on the Playa — clothing may be optional, but a bike is a must.

If we’re hungry, we can return to camp where dinner is served after the Lamplighting Ceremony is over (usually a little after 8 p.m.), or we can skip dinner until we get home and raid the kitchen for leftovers.

Some nights we stay out well past midnight in search of unique late-night activities, food and drink. It’s a kick to visit the interactive fiery exhibits where we can actually control the flames, or activate a motion-based installation through our own muscle power. We haven’t done much dancing in past Burns, but lately we’ve rediscovered our love of dancing with each other, so we’ll probably hit a disco or two this year – even if the music’s a little loud for us and we’re from a far different generation of music styles.

We believe that Burning Man is best if you’re a participant and not just an onlooker, so we not only serve as Lamplighters every year, but we also take shifts as Greeters and Temple Guardians. The four-hour greeter shift always generates some of our best memories as we “welcome home” virgin Burners and veterans while wearing our most elaborate costumes. Serving as a Temple Guardian is one of the most rewarding roles in all of Burning Man, because you’re able to touch people at their most vulnerable moments, and become an integral part of one of the emotional centers of Black Rock City. We love the middle of the night shift, because we’re heading home just as the sun peeks over the mountains that surround the Playa.

There are plenty of other volunteer opportunities available, and you can check in at the volunteer center to make choices such as working at one of the radio stations or the Center Camp Cafe, helping out at Media Mecca, or joining BRC’s own DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles.

But for some Burners, simply hanging out, partying and people watching are just right. It’s entirely up to you.

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.