Monday, September 24, 2007

Paint My Head

Some people see a bald head, and perceive a monk.

Others, like my friend Chris, see a canvas.

One day at Burning Man, Chris looked at me and abruptly seized a package of water-based markers. "Hold still," he bade me, and since I'm used to him ordering me around I held still while he drew on my head.

He enjoyed it so much, he repeated this action the following evening, improvising a more elaborate, quasi-mystical design on my face and scalp. This time, I reciprocated by drawing mysterious designs on his chest.

This inspired a notion I might propose the next time I go to Burning Man. It might be nice to go to the family camp area, take a seat, and let the children paint my head with fingerpaints.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

These Shackles Were Made By Union Guys, For Union Guys - Try 'Em On!

Dear Algernon D. Ammassa,

If computers can beat Kasparov at chess and perform surgery on human beings, can't we build them to recognize the difference between a period and an apostrophe?

I know you probably don't need "another" credit card. All I ask is that you...see what we've negotiated for AFSCME members and what makes the AFSCME Advantage MasterCard (r) a unique and 'better than' kind of card.

Am I even a member of this union? I was a member of Actors Equity for several years, but I couldn't afford the dues and dropped in 2003. AEA is related to AFSCME but I had never received any mail from them before this.

In 2004, I was forced to join SEIU three months after my hire on a new job. Mandatory union membership was never mentioned, at any of my three interviews, or while I was signing all my new-hire paperwork. It wasn't even mentioned to me before they started deducting dues - expensive dues, at that - from my paycheck. SEIU did nothing for me for the three years I worked for that company except to siphon money from my paycheck. I tried calling my union rep a few times during those three years, and never got through to anyone or a response. I concluded it was a racket, and I would have to put up with it until I found a job somewhere else. Which I did, finally, last year.

And now I've got AFSCME sending me credit card offers. Are they kidding?

Credit cards are PRISONS for working people who rely on them. Working people in America do not need to rack up more debt on credit cards. We need better wages, affordable health care, and the ability to save money. Lots of it, if we hope to retire. What is the labor union doing, getting in bed with one of the world's largest multinational banking consortiums and helping them sell credit cards?

If the union is going to partner with HSBC, how about negotiating some micro-loans to help union members who are in trouble, at low interest rates? Save a few mortgages. Refinance car loans. How about help with college loans for working-class parents belonging to the union? How about business loans that reward small employers who hire union?

Forget about all that. Instead, the union is handing out golden shackles and saying, "Try these on! Hey, they match your boss's cufflinks! Very spiffy!"

Friday, September 21, 2007

Shave My Head

With desert temperatures sure to reach 110, I prepared for Burning Man by shaving my head. It was already pretty hot in Los Angeles the morning I cut off my hair and it felt wonderful to expose my scalp to the air and sunlight.

The Zen school to which I belong has roots in Korean Buddhist tradition, and it draws a bright line between sunims (celibate monks who live a restricted lifestyle according to the Vinaya precepts) and Dharma Teachers, who are lay students that have taken some or all of the bodhisattva precepts named in the Brahmajala Sutra. To make a long explanation very brief, suffice it to say that some people don't like it when Dharma Teachers shave their heads. For some Korean Buddhists, a shaved head and Buddhist robes constitute a specific uniform and way of life. Since becoming a Dharma Teacher in 2000, I have usually worn my hair short, but never bald, as it might cause distraction at the Zen Center and even offend some people.

For Burning Man, I figured there would be no problem. What are the odds I would run into a Korean Buddhist out there?

You know what's coming, don't you? Yes. It happened on the Very. First. Morning.

Walking out across the playa wearing meditation pants, a mala around my wrist like always, carrying a zafu for morning sitting at sunrise, I crossed paths with a Korean woman who saw me and did a full-body double-take. I could just about read her mind. She called out to me: "Sunim??"

So I was going to have to have this conversation after all. "No no, not Sunim. Dharma Teacher - Poepsanim!"

Her eyes widened and she flung her arms around me. "Ji Do Poep Sa Nim??" Oh no no no no. Ji Do Poep Sas are teachers who have received inka from a Zen Master. The term is specific to my Zen school, which revealed she and I were both students of the Kwan Um School of Zen. This was a delightful surprise and also an enormous relief, for now I could explain to her, "No no no, Senior Dharma Teacher - you know, a student who teaches meditation." She introduced herself as Un Ju, from the New York City sangha. I invited her to sit with me some morning, but I didn't see her again the entire week.

I'm glad we cleared it up, although it would have been amusing if, several months from now, I caught up with some rumor there was a mysterious American Sunim prowling Burning Man, like the ghost of Won Hyo in the midst of a bacchanal.

De-an, De-an! Universe is emptiness! De-an, de-an! What are you?

[Photo: Your correspondent, getting ready to teach a free meditation class at Burning Man's central camp.]

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Green Songs of Patriotism

The last refuge of scoundrels, someone called it. Patriotism, often made synonymous with nationalism.

The negative stereotype of patriotism has to do with expressions of hatred. I will wrap myself in an American flag and vent my hatred of liberals, Mexicans, Arabs, European intellectuals, feminists, or any other group or nation whose opinions conflict with mine. It wins votes. Why is that?

Those who burn the flag are appealing to patriotism, too, just in a different way. They are striking at the symbol of patriotism - the flag itself - because they know it is an emotional target. Again, hatred: hatred of the United States's painful and complex history, hatred of oligarchy, hatred of corporate hegemony, hatred of the suffering of so many people past and present, and the damage done to a beautiful country.

This kind of patriotism is a divisive thing, and it is used that way in elections. It is especially useful in our two-party system (which, by the way, is not Constitutionally-mandated, nor necessarily a good thing).

Moreover, I don't believe this is actually what people want, even though patriotic rhetoric and symbolism gets a huge response from voters. People want a candidate for government to care about them, and to care for where and how they live.

The values of the Green Party are essentially patriotic, in the most positive sense. If the Greens disdain to use the language of patriotism, they will always have to overcome suspicion and thus play into the hands of Republicans and Democrats, who will portray the Greens as "out of touch with the mainstream" and contemptuous of "normal values."

It's amazing that the Greens want to run national political campaigns, and they still haven't caught on to this: The Greens can honestly present themselves as MORE patriotic than a Democratic-Republican duopoly completely sold out to corporations and their lobbyists.

The Greens should unashamedly embrace patriotism as a love of the United States, of its landscape and its people. Yes, love. Affectionate love and stern love alike. A deep respect and love for neighborhoods and communities, for meaningful work, for healthy streams and air, for the legacy that will be inherited by generations to come.

The parties that sponsor welfare for immensely profitable corporations are not patriotic. The parties that send our children (or our parents) into ignoble wars overseas under false pretenses are not patriotic. The parties that sell out our great-grandchildren's future and soil their streams and deplete resources they will need, assuming we are not interested in making changes in our own lifestyle, are not patriotic.

The party that loves and believes in democratic processes; that believes people will make good and just decisions about their neighborhoods (certainly better than a CEO who has never even been to their town and sees it only as a mine to be exploited); that thinks families deserve meaningful work and medicine and good, nutritious food; that loves the landscape and the music and the rich colors and languages of our public; that wants justice and decency for every person here; that wants to give them useful tools and then get out of the way so people can pursue life, liberty, and happiness; is genuinely patriotic and damn it, they should be. Give us more of that patriotism.

If the Green Party is going to squander its money on national campaigns - and I still think they should be focusing intently on broadening its local office-holders, and maybe sending some Congressfolk to Washington - then it should embrace the language of true, positive patriotism.

A beautiful country can be very mixed up, and ours has been from the beginning (tragically so), and yet the foundation for something deeply beautiful exists here. Otherwise there would be no outrage. In no way does patriotism compromise criticisms of our current system, nor should those criticisms be muted. Wendell Berry, highly critical of the North American economy and its destruction of landscape and rural life together, writing from his farm in Kentucky, is a deeply patriotic voice in our culture. Far from despair, he is still writing - and arguing - out of love for a beautiful country.

That, to me, is patriotism. It is time for the Greens to sing love songs, instead of only appealing to the intellect. We have to connect with Americans who think they are fundamentally different than us, and show them that we actually know and like them, their kids, respect their faith and their parents' values, and like this country just as much as they do. Because all of that ought to be true. Otherwise, how well would we represent them?

We are doing this for THEM, right?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Songs of the Silent Shriekh

Playa names are used by many Burning Man participants and they range in significance from the deeply personal to the tongue-in-cheek. My own playa name evolved from my campmates' comments about my desert garb. During the hottest, sunniest hours, I wore a keffiyah and soon enough Chris referred to me as "the sheikh."

"By temperament, I'm more like a shriek," was my lame response.

Chris said, "Hmmm. You would be a silent shriek. Wait! That's your playa name! 'The Silent Shriek!'"

And thus "Shriekh" was born. People started introducing me as "Shriekh" and there you have it. My nom de burn.

* * *

One of the cardinal values of Burning Man is participation. All participants are encouraged to interact and shape the environment of Black Rock City. Just about any kind of workshop, art, or service you can think of is on offer during the week. There are camps offering yoga classes and meditation. Massage therapy. There are cafe camps serving up lattes. There was a gymnasium camp near us. Workshops on sexuality. A mini-golf course. Body painting. Thrift shops. Bicycle repairs. Activities for kids. Poetry. Dance parties that lasted all day and all night. All offered for free. Black Rock City operates mostly on a gift economy for this one week.

The biggest challenge is finding the camp that is offering something you want. Since most of the real estate is first-come, first-served, finding a particular camp requires some detective work and perhaps some luck. Me, I gave up, and just walked around the camp city finding whatever I found by chance.

For instance, I happened across the "Haiku For Beer" camp. If you wrote a haiku, you got a cold beer. When I arrived, the haiku master was not in, so no beer for me. I was able to view others' work, however.

Some time after this, while waiting out a sand storm, the Shriekh Poems came into being.

The Shriekh Poems were inspired by the memory of Han Shan, a 9th-century hermit from China who named himself after the mountain where he spent much of his time. Han Shan's poems were written spontaneously and left for others to find. Some of his poems are teasing commentaries about the dharma and current events, some are nature poems or enlightenment poems.

A mountain man lives under thatch
before his gate carts and horses are rare
the forest is quiet but partial to birds
the streams are wide and home to fish
with his son he picks wild fruit
with his wife he hoes between rocks
what does he have at home
a shelf full of nothing but books

-translation by Red Pine

While the Thursday storm blew sand into my bones, I sat down and wrote out 20 spontaneous poems. None of them came close to Han Shan's eloquence, wit, or beauty. They were short and pointed at events going on within Black Rock City, the landscape, tongue-in-cheek invitations to sit Zen, a spoof of Han Shan, although I also indulged some positive affirmations that Han Shan would have found distasteful. On Friday, I wrote 20 more. The poems were signed, simply, "Shriekh" with the date. On both days, I took long walks around this village of 48,000 people and left poems in various locations where they might be found eventually.

100,000 greedy eyes
Already burned the man

-Shriekh (from memory)

I tucked them under bicycle seats, in mailboxes people had erected beside their camps, securely fastened to windshields or camp equipment or street signs. I was even able to drop a couple of poems into purses and bags - like a reverse pickpocket.

Were they all found? Did they amuse for just a moment? I hope so. I hope they didn't end up as litter. "Matter Out of Place" (MOOP) is one thing. "Poetry Out of Place" would be POOP, and that is not a contribution I wished to make.

To date, one person from Great Britain (!) tracked Shriekh down by way of internet searches:

You left a very lovely poem on my bike – I've just re-discovered it unpacking from BM and thought maybe there was a chance you'd be somewhere and here you are and so I can say how yummy it was to find a few words that made me smile and warmed me through and through and so a warm smiley thank you is due to you.. No coincidence perhaps that you are part of the fab museum camp that made my almost most favourite part of the week and rendered me speechless and unable to voice anything because I loved it so much and, almost missing my wine completely because of my dumstruckness, and so Shriekh, another reason to genuinely say thank you for being at BM and a big old la-de-da to you.

Well, la-de-da myself. What a lovely, gratuitous thing.

No need to wonder about the other poems too much, I suppose. They are offered like meager sticks of incense, to burn away in the wind.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Letter to the Catholic League

William Donohue, President
Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights
450 Seventh Avenue
New York, New York 10123

Dear Sir,

There is little I can say in the way of apologia or praise for the stupid remarks that Kathy Griffin made when she received her Emmy award; I can only wonder at her choice to upstage her moment of triumph by setting off a controversy about religion. Were I her agent, I would be furious.

Her speech can fairly be called blasphemy. Blasphemy is not, however, a criminal act. The sentiment might distress those to whom faith is most important; it is an exaggeration to suggest that such a statement is obscene.

What is utterly preposterous is to label anything Griffin said in her speech as "hate speech," as you have done repeatedly. Kathy Griffin said something unpleasant, but she did not say anything disparaging about Christians. How do you justify calling her a "bigot?" It is frequently said on television that those who do not reconcile with Jesus are condemned to hell. Would you call this "hate speech" against non-Christians? Would you say the Christians who make these statements are "bigoted" towards atheists?

Or, perhaps, do you feel that Christians merit a privilege to religious expression superior to those who do not worship as you do?

Would you deny the right to self-expression to an atheist that is enjoyed by artists of faith? Why, in light of the First Amendment to our Bill of Rights, should one artist be free to thank the Lord for her award on television, while another artist is forbidden to say, "The Lord had nothing to do with this?"

Your repeated description of Griffin's off-color joke as "hate speech" belittles the hate speech that is endured every day by Americans of diverse non-white races, and by gay Americans. In no way have you suffered what these people suffer. You were offended by an unfunny joke at the expense of no one except perhaps Jesus, who will surely have the last word in the matter. You, a man, were annoyed for a moment by a celebrity who unashamedly professes atheism. And you portray this as some kind of social injustice?

If the Catholic League stands for civil rights, it must stand for civil rights for all people – including atheists. To portray atheism as "hate speech" and "bigotry" not only overstates the case, it seeks to deny one of our most basic and essential freedoms, on the basis of religious discrimination. That is an offense far greater than Kathy Griffin's.

I call on you to scale back this rhetoric and seek, rather, to promote dialogue and understanding.

Most Sincerely,

Algernon D'Ammassa

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Crude Awakening

One of the most memorable pieces at Burning Man was Crude Awakening, a creation of Dan Das Mann and several other artists and pyromaniacs. It was surely the most didactic piece of the entire festival, with a political message we've all gotten for quite some time surely: several steel figures are on their knees, worshipping a wooden oil derrick reaching 90 feet into the sky. Got it? Oil stands head and shoulders above all our other gods - we are a world of petroleum worshippers. Got it? Got it? Anyone here not get it? Okay. Moving on.

The artist invited all of the attendees to gather round on Friday night (later bumped to Saturday night) and watch the oil derrick be consumed in a tower of flame. 450 gallons of kerosene would be pumped into a pilot fire to create an explosion they hoped would be seen for miles.

Got it? Got it? The oil economy is precarious and one day the oil derricks will all fall. Indeed, there is currently speculation that Saudi Arabia's single most important oil field, al-Ghawar, might be drying up.

Okay. Bludgeoning aside, what was most memorable for me were the steel figures. Generally, steel sculpture does not move me. It may appeal to me conceptually, but usually I am left either cold, uninterested, or both. It's just not my favorite medium. Here was an exception. The figures were actually rather beautiful.

For logistical reasons, the much-anticipated "tower of flame" that would burn the derrick was rescheduled from Friday night to Saturday night - one hour after the man burned. Curious decision, since this display would upstage the burning of the man.

After the man burned, the crowds made their way further into the playa and made their way to a perimeter around the derrick, behind safety ropes. A stage was set up here at a short distance, and while they got everything ready to cook the art, one of the best musical performances I heard all week took place as Mutaytor rocked the desert. While they played, Cirque Berzerk danced from ropes and sheets suspended over the stage, like sexy angels flitting around the stars.

There was a very long delay, and there are numerous rumors about what has happening at this point. It had something to do with a fireworks display, and the need to inspect some or all of them at the last minute. At any rate, we waited and waited and waited, and Mutaytor was obliged to play encore after encore. Not that anybody minded.

Finally, the Crude Awakening presentation began with an air raid siren that wailed for several minutes. The sound bounced off the mountains in the distance after the siren ceased. Over the sound system, a musical medley consisting of the national anthem played in a minor key blending into middle-eastern music and various other musical quotes blasted away while a dazzling fireworks display went up all around the derrick. Everyone had seen fireworks before, but the impeccable timing of these fireworks to the music was the more amazing thing.

There was another long pause as they pumped - say it again - 450 gallons of kerosene into a fire to create a gigantic mushroom of flame. The flash and the heat drove everybody back, even the fearless burners.

There was a running joke about Crude Awakening at our camp, which also related to the year's artistic theme. This year's Burning Man theme was "The Green Man." To begin with, any talk of a "green" Burning Man is darkly comical. This was summed up by one of the signs you drive past to enter Burning Man, which said: "If you were green, you would have walked here." Can you imagine Edward Abbey's wroth at our conceit? Bad enough we're driving all these combustion engines out onto the desert floor and firing up generators to power our huge stereos, dropping "Matter Out Of Place" (MOOP) which volunteers spend MONTHS cleaning up as best they can.

Add to that, a piece that alerts us to our dependency on petroleum and the corporations that sell it, by going to a corporation and obtaining a vast amount of petroleum product in order to produce a fireball? Our joke went something like this:

"Take that, corporations!"

"I'm sorry - could you repeat that?"

The tower of flame went woooooosh and made a spectacular finish to the evening as the derrick burned and burned and finally fell to the ground.

The real scandal came the next day. There was to be a final act to this piece, you see, in which the artists erected something in place of the fallen derrick. Accounts vary as to what took place. I do not have an official story but parts of the episode took place in full view of Black Rock City.

What I have heard or read is that the artists originally intended to put up a steel tree the day after the fire. At some point this year, the artists decided instead that they would plant a real tree - in fact, a California redwood. They spent a great deal of money buying the tree, uprooting it, and trucking it to the gates of Black Rock City where they were halted.

Incredulous outrage: Are you crazy?! That thing can't survive out here! We don't bring non-native vegetation onto the playa! Look at all those needles - every single one of them is a piece of MOOP. Get this thing out of here and WATER IT!!

The tree sat on its oversized flatbed truck in "D" lot for days, according to some accounts, because they needed to apply for a new permit to drive the tree across Nevada again. At some point Sunday morning, some think around the time there was a medical emergency around the exit, the tree was quietly brought into Black Rock City. The artists had actually started planting it when they were stopped and turned away. Some people actually got pictures of the spectacle - a redwood being planted in the desert of Nevada.

I know not where the tree went, or if it will survive. I will state confidently, however, that Crude Awakening is one of the most costly works of art I have ever seen or heard of.

A perfect analogy to the dark side of the "environmentally conscious" Burning Man.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sand Storms

You can seem them floating towards you. If you spot them in time, you may have a couple of minutes to prepare yourself: put on your goggles and your dust mask, and get yourself to a place where you can sit comfortably and wait it out. Ideally, this would be a camp where you can find good conversation and perhaps good food and drink. Of course, whatever you consume will have dust on it. And every thought you convey in conversation will have dust on it, too. Your very words will be dusty. People who are sick of the frickin' dust already will sit quietly, not eating or drinking or talking.

It is a dusty summer in the Black Rock Desert and even the gentle daytime breeze flicks sand into your eyes. Throughout the week there were intermittent white-outs lasting a few minutes. On Thursday and Friday, we got the intense sandstorms for which the playa is known, with clouds of sand covering the sky and turning the air green, blasting us with winds up to 75 MPH for hours. The wind tests your tent and your shade structure, and probes your camp for anything you didn't secure properly. Just to see if you were well prepared.

The Museum Camp set up the back of our U-Haul truck as a kitchen and a place of shelter. On Thursday and Friday, when the worst storms of the week hit us, most of us ended up sitting in there. I have a vivid memory of Treiops, the most sanguine human I've ever met, casually cooking himself some macaroni and cheese while the camp was consumed in a roaring funnel of sand.

It is even more interesting when you're caught out on the open playa, as Sarah discovered. She was out visiting the art and goofing around (as seen here, shortly before the storm hit) one moment, and hiding under some debris the next. A passing stranger gave her his own dust mask, and she ever so slowly and blindly found her way back to camp, where we were sitting in the truck drinking vodka and watch the wind cut into our camps. Like Dave's tent below. We watched the wind take his tent down and fold it up, as if telling him to pack up and go home.

Sarah, shortly before the storm hit

The wind packing up Dave's tent. Note the tent pole getting tied into a knot, at left

After four or five hours, the sand quickly fell and something else blew in and it smelled like, and felt like, could it possibly be oh yes Lord yes it was, gentle and cold redemptive RAIN, glorious drizzles of rain in the sunshine! Thousands of people emerged from shelter to let the rain fall on them.

The closest thing to rain we had felt all week came from the trucks that watered the pathways through our camps, to help keep the dust down. They crawl along slowly, spraying the water behind them, and campers will strip naked and run behind the trucks to snatch a free shower.

We came out from hiding and exulted in the rain, feeling the sun and the raindrops on our skin at the same time. It wasn't long before people looked up into the sky and saw something even more wonderful.

It was the first double rainbow I had ever seen with my own eyes. To boot, these were full, 180-degree rainbows. One could feel several thousand people gasp at once. Soon after, the sound of far off cheering and applause, the foolish and beautiful spectacle of people with sand in every pore of their skin applauding the sky.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Man Burned Twice

Whatever kind of event Burning Man is - art festival, bacchanal, convention of radically self-sufficient types, or any of the million things it is claimed to be - it culminates in a series of large fires.

Actually, there is fire throughout the week. Lots of fire. There are cars that roam around shooting plumes of flame into the sky. There was an art installation on the playa consisting of perhaps 20 torches that lit up the desert at night with rhythmic blasts of fire. There are so many dancers twirling poi balls and scimitars of flame that they become Burning Man's equivalent of street mimes.

The burning of "the man" connects the event to the early parties on the San Francisco shore in the 1980's, when participants would hoist a wooden figure up and torch it. As these parties grew in popularity, the police interfered, and this drove them into the desert. These days, with tens of thousands of people in attendance (48,000 this year by most counts), things are a little more scripted. The man is 40 feet high and covered with neon that lights the playa at night. He stands on pedestals or pyres so as to be visible to masses of people. There are spectacular fireworks and explosions. It is a carefully planned, meticulously stage managed show.

As burning the man has evolved into such a large production, there are grumblings from people who have been part of this scene for a long time. One hears people tell wistful stories about older days, when things were more spontaneous and participatory. Indeed, after a week of interacting, encouraged always to participate actively, it felt strange to go back into audience mode and stand in one of the biggest crowds I've ever witnessed to watch fireworks and a bonfire. Rather anti-climactic.

At night, the desert is lit up with fire

As you may have heard on the news, this year the man burned twice. The scheduled burn, the big show, was to take place on Saturday night. Four days earlier, however, in the wee hours of the morning, as everyone was watching the lunar eclipse with childlike fascination, a man named Paul Addis took spontaneity into his own hands and set fire to the man himself.

Within minutes, Addis was being handed over to the County Sheriff by the Bureau of Land Management, as "burners" looked on the burning man with diverse feelings. Many were thrilled. Some felt cheated. The fire was put out, and the pavilion beneath the man - a space where various art projects and "green" technology were on display - was roped off. And a great many of us did not even hear about it until sunrise. For instance, I was at my camp with Chris, Phil, and Treiops, watching the eclipse and drinking scotch. We exercised all our jokes about the moon being eaten by the Pac Man Sith Lord and once the moon was completely hidden we went to sleep.

Burnt man, Wednesday morning

A great many people applauded this action. Burning the man early was a dream project spoken of with much joy and hilarity in previous years, in response to concerns that the event is becoming less spontaneous, more of a stage-managed event, popularized and some would argue commercialized. There is much sniping to be heard among elder circles of burners, and in playa publications such as Piss Clear and on the internet, about "newbies" who "don't get it," with particular revulsion for "tourists" who pop in on the weekend in their freshly clean clothes to walk around as if this were just an adult Disneyland for them to photograph and drop their litter.

What better way, some have said, to defeat the "tourists" and teach the "newbies" about freedom than to burn the man several days early? That'll show 'em. It has the added benefit of bedevilling the legal entity that now manages the event, yet another bone of contention for many. A corporate entity? A trademark on the Burning Man symbol? Isn't that like a pirate trademarking the skull and crossbones? Shiver me timbers! Indeed, the tensions around this issue exist among the founders of Burning Man.

The trouble is, some pranks are much funnier in concept. Every prankster learns this: some jokes cost too much once the genie is out of the bottle, even though the idea is funny. You put the metal bucket of water up on top of the door and realize just seconds too late that the metal bucket full of water is now a very heavy object that delivers a serious head wound. Too late, you think of other pranks that might have been just as effective and less dangerous.

Paul Addis, who is either a folk hero or a terrorist depending on who is talking at you, faces federal arson charges. No one was hurt, yet on that night there were many opportunities for things to go awry. Addis denies there was ever any danger and spins himself as the rebellious conscience of Burning Man, or something. He faces prison time and/or heavy fines. Some of the art projects and displays of "green" technology below the man were off-limits for a few days, as the burnt man was taken down and replaced by a brand new man.

Maybe he just lost his head for a moment.

The pavilion was itself a bone of contention for critics. Apparently, the organizers had approached a few energy companies about displaying "green" technology here. They were told they could not advertise, could not display their logos, or distribute advertising material. They could display technology, just as if it were artwork, and that would be it. A few small companies did just that. As a result, the tent was referred to in harsh murmurs as "the corporate pavilion." A great many people refused to go anywhere near such a thing. It wasn't something the Cool People did.

Say, aren't burners supposed to be independent free-thinking folk? Every time I encountered groupthink at Burning Man, there was a jolt of amused disappointment. Since I've never been Cool, and because I have this aversion to letting other people make up my mind for me, I checked the pavilion out. There were technological displays about potential uses of recycled material, algae that can eat ozone, a few very interesting exhibits and a few things that weren't so interesting. If the soul of Burning Man was being raped and strangled, it wasn't taking place here that I could see.

One of the best commentaries about this whole incident I have read was on the website, where a great many burners do their internetworking. To paraphrase, the fellow (who had a very balanced attitude about what Addis did) wondered what might have happened if the organizers had responded differently.

What they did was put a new, identical man in place and carry on with the show exactly as scheduled. Call this the "top-down, business as usual" approach, best executed with an air of calm efficiency that can be either reassuring or unnerving, depending on your disposition. What they might have done, according to this Tribe correspondent, was go to the people for a "bottom-up" solution. Something along the lines of, "Someone burned the man early. If you want a burn on Saturday night, we all have to come together and construct a new man. We must use materials and tools that we have here on the playa. Let's go."

It's an intriguing idea, thrusting any remaining spectators into the fold as full participants in the event, responsible for building and hoisting a new man. (Unless the crowd reconceived the man as a woman, or a dog, or a space ship. A gigantic phoenix, perhaps.) A sense that anything could happen, anything was possible, whichever way the human energy went.

And yet, the "Department of Public Works," as the Burning Man volunteer crew is identified, took the former approach, restoring the man as originally designed while sporting t-shirts that said, "DPW - WE decide when the man burns!" To do otherwise, in the eyes of some, would have vindicated what Paul Addis did. So restoring the man may have become a point of principle, pushing back against the resistance. The mutual resistance makes an intriguing koan for the citizens of Black Rock City: Who is rebelling against whose power?

Authorized burn

The man burned on Saturday night, business-as-usual, after an interminable prologue of firedancers doing the same impressive things we had watched them doing all week long. (No disrespect intended - the best of these dancers were breathtaking, and there is something erotic about bodies dancing with fire - it was just an embarrassment of riches, if you will.)

Thousands of people surrounded the pyre on foot, and on the art cars that pulsed with electronic music. There was a clamor of laughter and horns and competing sound systems and goofy, flashing mutant vehicles and "fire cars" startling people with random blasts. There was a feeling of all the spirits we had encountered during the week converging in one zone, every last sarong-wrapped, fur-trimmed, liquored-up, bare-breasted, shroom-headed, freshly-laid, neon-enhanced, glow-stick adorned, radically self actualizing, camera-wielding, freak-flag-waving chimpanzee that was there, save for the few who weren't "feeling it" and hung out at their camps for quiet time with friends.

While we waited for Dr. Moreau to come out and throw a virgin into the volcano, or whatever was going to happen, a woman came through the crowd in a wedding dress and veil. People were eagerly taking turns writing messages on her dress, and her companions explained to us that this woman was getting "Unmarried" tomorrow. She was leaving an unhappy marriage behind her, you see, collecting the wishes of her fellow Black Rock denizens. The following day, she would leave the dress on the Temple of Forgiveness, a structure which would burn the following evening. (More about the Temple will follow in another post.)

A long fireworks show distracted us while the pyre went up in flames and the man, built from moist green wood, was slowly consumed. It was a very long time before the rangers pulled the man down and the crowd rushed forward to run circles around the man.

Chris and Phil pressed us newish folks to enter the fray, at least close enough to feel the heat. Chris grabbed Shirley by the hand and dashed forward. I took Sarah's hand and followed them. The crush of people became disagreeable and slightly menacing. It's not so much that a lot of us were marching around the fire in a circle and bumping into each other. That part of it is no worse than riding on the New York subway at rush hour. The menacing part was the unnecessary pushing, shoving, and crushing that went on. For instance, Sarah - who could comfortably curl up to sleep inside a thimble - get herself sandwiched between two linebackers who were marinated in asshole juice. As I held her hand, they were crushing her. While I yelled at them to let her through, my own travel collided with a woman locked in a chain with some of her friends. Her eyes looked lack black saucers and she was giggling inanely, beyond the reach of any human language. Sarah felt unsafe and wanted out. I wasn't able to muscle us through, and my commands were not being heeded. So I reached into my bag of tricks and tried this one:

"Look out!" I yelled. "This woman is about to be sick!"

And suddenly, a path opened! Isn't that amazing? Well, clip me and call me Moses! No matter how stoned, tripped out, drunk, belligerent, deaf, and dim people are - there is still some cortex of wakefulness, some locus of awareness that does not want to be puked upon, and will sober up just long enough to get itself out of the way.

And so we emerged from the slavering mass and beheld the moon, which had also restored itself and shone brightly in the night sky as the delicious-smelling smoke rose upward and danced itself into beautiful serpentine shapes.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Big Rig Jig

As reported earlier, we arrived in "Black Rock City" a couple of days before the official opening of Burning Man in order to build an art installation. As work on our little Museum progressed, other works were being hammered, welded, folded, erected, glued, posted, soldered, and otherwise put into place in various locations around the playa.

Our first night, Chris, Sarah, and I took a ride on bicycles across the desert underneath a bright, nearly full moon. We took a tour of the camp city that was just beginning to take shape, the "center camp" where various message boards and services are available, and the esplenade, a thoroughfare that bridges the camping city and the playa.

Out on that playa, a project off in the distance seemed particularly large. The area was flooded with light, and there seemed to be a squadron of people working at a fast pace to get a large project ready. Chris was off in a shot - as he often is, the fellow is very difficult to keep up with - saying, "Big Rig Jig! That's the Big Rig Jig!"

The Big Rig Jig is a sculpture by a team of artists and welders headed by New York sculptor Mike Ross. For material they used two oil tankers, actual 18-wheelers, which they cut into pieces and welded into a striking image that might resemble a dragonfly, or a bizarre collision, or a ballet:

The team appeared to have fallen behind schedule, and were furiously working long hours as a growing populatino of Burners rooted for them and offered assistance. Conceptually, the piece is crystal clear just at the visual level. We theatre artists look for images that communicate beyond words, and this image gets at something about our economic predicament - the oil economy, in particular.

Moreover, this is Burning Man. This is not a museum where one is roped off from the art, experience it from an enforced distance, perhaps by stantions and velvety rope. On the playa, art is there for you to touch - and burners are not shy about this, as a rule. An oft-repeated principle there is "participate, do not spectate." People who have made the trip to Burning Man expect to interact with the art, and they will. You can only hope they will do so with respect.

For the most part, people do respect the art. Of course, with an attendance that reached 48,000 people, you will get some who do not appreciate a difference between interacting and destroying. Our museum, for instance, get tagged very soon after we built it:

And yet, for all the many, many visitors to our museum, the art inside was left alone:

Frequently during the week, I thought of Umberto Crenca, who once told me it was very important for art to be able to defend itself physically the way some things in nature do. He thought it was great when a painting had spikes coming out of it or sharp edges. We joked about exploding sculptures. At Burning Man, some of the sculptures DO explode. Sometimes there are even injuries. Between this and the harsh desert conditions, the unwary can easily die here.

Walking up to the Big Rig Jig and touching it, there is a very interesting sensation of having the front grille of an 18-wheeler hanging just over your head. There is yet an extra dimension: the viewer can actually climb inside the piece, up through the first bend and to the very end of the first tanker. Inside, the sculptors arranged some green leaves (perhaps an allusion of some kind to the fossilized material from which we get our petroleum), although the inside is mostly a maze of steel.

It took a few days of very hard work, but they finished the piece in the middle of the week. By then I was nursing a very large and unhappy blister on my left foot (they called it "playa foot"), but no matter. I had to limp out there and climb the Big Rig Jig; I had been waiting for days.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Technical Difficulties - We Will Be Back

Ding dong, the modem's dead...

This series of illustrated blogs about Burning Man, and the usual drivel found on this blog, has been interrupted by the death of a 2wire DSL modem. When it is replaced - very soon, we hope - we will resume. Unfortunately.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

With A Hey Ho, The Wind and the Dust

We arrived on Saturday, August 25, with steady winds blowing dust into our eyes and up our noses.

Two days before the official opening of Burning Man, the lines of vehicles entering the playa were already long. From the end of the paved road to our camp, several hours passed. We were allowed to enter before Monday only because we were involved with an art installation and even then we were detained for a while in the dreaded "D Lot" before passing the first checkpoint.

At the second checkpoint, greeters asked us if there any virgins in the car, and we said, "Both of us." Our barrel-chested greeter bellowed, "Two virgins!!" and ordered us out of the car. Sarah was made to climb up onto a bell tower, from which was suspended an iron bell. I was presented with a steel rod and told to hit the bell as hard as I could. Which I did. And the sound of that bell would tap my shoulder for days, as virgin after virgin followed us into Burning Man, the bell reaching us across the playa. As for me, I was ordered to lie on the ground and make "dust angels" front and back. "Welcome home," said our greeter, and gave us both hugs.

The wacky week that awaited us was foreshadowed by the remains of a truck fire right at the entrance to the event. Somehow, somebody's truck had caught fire right there, completely engulfing his truck and all the bicycles it was carrying.

Once we found our campmates, who had gotten in line ahead of us, we set about pitching tents and shade structures in the midst of insistent wind and occasional white-out conditions. Welcome to the playa.

Sunday brought similar conditions, plus sunshine so intense it was nearly audible. In this weather, we set up the museum on the playa close to the man. By sometime on Monday, the work was finished and the artworks put on display, all under the supervision of Treiops, the project's mastermind. The master carpenter, of sorts, was my cohort-since-2005, Christopher Nelson.

Those first two days were about working until we dropped. Besides all of this, we were trying to execute a bright idea for a solar-heated shower that would recycle and filter our greywater for bathing. Once we had the logistics worked out and a pyramid-shaped stall built, a defective pump short-circuited the project and it was bottle-showers for us.

With the Museum set up and the camp arranged by Monday night, however, we were able to settle into the revelry for which we had come. And thus the mind-bending weirdness unfolded.

A Word From Algernon's Car

What am I, a mule? No one ever treated a mule like this.

Oh, this guy has put me through a lot. I've driven back and forth across the country several times. I've been buried in snow, doused with polluted rains, encased in ice, left in a field for three months while he lived in a monastery, collided with an 18-wheeler on a slick freeway, and we haven't even broached the subject of what it's like to be a stickshift car in the city of Los Angeles.

But this really took the cake.

To begin with, he packed me so heavily I thought my chassis was going to scrape the road with every bump. Coolers, camping equipment, kitchen gear, and huge containers of water. The water was the heaviest of all. Why so much water? Where was he going? I figured, he likes deserts, and he's bringing lots of water - okay, we're going to the desert. In August. Shikata ga nai - whaddya gonna do?

But wait - we drive all the way up through the Sierras PAST Death Valley, up into Reno, and the next day we drive all the way to the Black Rock Desert. Here, I get parked for nine days. He sets his tent up behind me, using me for a windbreak. And his closet.

Oh! And that's not all folks! Check THIS out: he hammers these long metal poles into the ground right next to me, pads them (inadequately!), and uses ME to brace his shade structure! Nice, huh? What am I, a building? A hurricane barrier? No sir, I am a high-quality automobile with excellent consumer ratings. I am not a STRUCTURAL ACCESSORY. Cripes!

There I sit, getting sandblasted in these high winds and all this - well, you know, it's dust. Gritty, alkaline dust. Sitting there, with the sun cooking it into my finish. And when the heavy winds came, I got a fresh dent on the driver's side from one of the damn poles. And did you know this desert is the bed of an ancient lake? Hello?? I'm sitting here for a week covered in PREHISTORIC FISH POOP!?

Sure, he changes my oil, and he pats me on the dashboard and says "Good car" (which I frankly find a bit condescending), but really. One of these days, he's going to be rambling through Lone Pine or one of those other lonely towns, and I might just blow my water pump.

Let's see him deal with it.