No Burning Plans

7/27/06: Post 1.004

Michele and I used to go to Burning Man every year. Between us we’ve been going for eleven years, which is an impressive way of saying she’s been seven times and I’ve been four. The first year we camped together Michele and I built an art installation that got placed in a direct line past David Best’s temple. It was an incredibly cathartic piece for both of us, and it taught us a lot about how we functioned as a couple.

The day we spent nine hours in 100+ degree heat installing our art piece confirmed what we both already knew: that we’d be together forever. Ask either one of us, and we’ll say that every decision we made that day was the right decision. We worked well together, and created something that surprisingly was emotionally cathartic for a lot of other people as well. Every year we went together we created something for the desert: our art motorcycle, Nyx: Queen of the Night, was one of our favorites. We unleashed our creative juices and had a great time playing together out there.

We stopped going when I made a career shift and became a fundraising auctioneer. Fundraising is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. David Reynolds, the man I work with, has been an incredible mentor from the very first moment I came on board as the third employee at his company — the other two employees are David and his wife Colleen. One of the biggest events of the year that we do is the Sonoma Valley Vintners’ and Growers’ Association Wine Auction, which takes place on Labor Day weekend — the same weekend as the end of Burning Man. When David invited me to join him on stage and co-auctioneer, there was no going back to the desert.

It was tough that first year, especially when two different sets of friends announced they were getting married on the playa. The pictures and stories people brought back were great, and we found that we were creating some pretty damn good stories of our own.

Still, about this time of the summer is when people start planning for the Big Fucking Camping Trip in earnest. The group we camped with, Fandango (they had the name long before the movie ticket company), is still going strong, and we masochistically stay on the mailing list. Every year about this time is when we begin romanticizing about going back. All of our fantasies seem to be the Burning Man that existed before our son was born, back when we both were earning dot com salaries. Taking a toddler to the desert sounds like a nightmare, and somebody shoot me if you see me ten years from now introducing my son to the playa.

Recently a friend informed me that she’s planning on attending Burning Man for the first time next year. She’s going to take her time and plan it right. She’s already subscribed to Jackrabbit Speaks, and is overviewing the calendar of events to see what will interest her once she gets out there. My immediate advice was unsub from JS, and toss aside all notions of schedule once you arrive in the desert.

The beauty of being in the desert is the time shift that takes place. Simply going to the bathroom in the morning can take two hours; not because of lines or the distance to the blue rooms from your camp. Because there is so much to see, and so many people to meet.

On the way to the bathroom you might discover a camp that offers free massage from certified massage therapists and while getting a free massage you find out that the person on the table next to you went to the same school and sat next to you in lecture and knows lots of the same people and is camped right around the corner and in a few minutes their camp will start serving free pancakes to everyone so why don’t you come over and while you’re having pancakes smothered in ice-cold yogurt which seems a miracle since you’ve been in the desert for more than five days now and how do they keep the yogurt so cold you’ll realize that two hours ago you had to go the bathroom and hey, you haven’t peed your Utilikilt yet and that must mean you’re not drinking enough water so you’ll head back to camp to refill your water bottle before setting out for the bathrooms again.

Time at Burning Man is painted in large strokes: Fandango Friday Night Formal; the Man burns on Saturday night, and so on. If you have a whole night to make it somewhere for cocktails and dancing, odds are 50-50 in your favor that you’ll actually do it. If you have to be there at 10:05pm in order to catch your buddy’s Dj set…good luck, and why bother?

The joy of Burning Man is being able to let go, knowing that you could in theory spend the entire week away from your camp and you’d be taken care of: there would be plenty of places to sleep, water to drink, and you could probably find enough kind people to feed you as well. Although I prefer to self-sustain; few people bring my favorite breakfast cereal or soy milk out to the playa.

If you haven’t been to Burning Man, go. Find some friends, organize a posse, build something to contribute to the community, and prepare for a mind-blowing experience. Then, learn from it. The joy and freedom I found in the desert and the creativity it unleashed in me I was able to channel into my every day life. I miss the desert, but nowhere near as much as I appreciate what it helped lead me to.

But whatever you do, for god’s sake, toss the calendar of events in the back seat as soon as the greeters give it to you. It is more fun to read it while waiting in line to get out on Monday, to see how much of their event you discovered, how much of your burn was entirely your own, and how much you’ll have to come back for next year.

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