Adam Gopnik was in town recently with the Salisbury Forum. He called his talk “notes of a reluctant pundit” and opened with a funny story about what he called his first experience with punditry, in the mid 1980’s in New York.
The short version of that story is that Gopnik gave a keynote, with almost no advance notice, to the Pluralism and Individualism Society. He had no idea what the group did but he figured the topic of pluralism and individualism was sufficiently broad to allow him to talk about modern art, which was something he knew about. The conference organizer told Gopnik afterwards that his remarks were healing. I mention this detail because Gopnik had a very similar effect for me.
In the weeks prior, I had been distraught about my relationship with the news media — I wanted to re-engage after our travels, but I couldn’t figure out how or where to do so thoughtfully, especially post-election. My interactions with radio news, newspapers, dinner-table conversation, the writing of friends, and snippets of television went badly. I was, at times, hysterical (and I don’t mean extremely funny).
Writing, thinking, reading, and talking weren’t helping me move through my efforts to re-engage. I was terrified and stuck. With examples from philosophy and history, Gopnik persuaded me that “writing sanely about politics in a less than sane America” is possible. To accomplish this, he cited Camus, Darwin, Lincoln, and many other people, many ideas about irony, (deadly) abstraction, truth, empiricism, tone, and civil society.
I’ve been trying to sum up that “spark” — how and why this moment shifted my thinking — and I’ve concluded it’s not possible to do so in a brief way. It was a long talk, the effect is a sum-of-the-parts. You had to be there. Gopnik did a good job of threading together complex ideas in a coherent and accessible way, and I think it resonated with the audience: they laughed, hmmed and mmmed, and asked questions at the end. His remarks also had personal resonance for me, because of the ways I try to understand the world. That’s all difficult to distill, as are the ideas of thinkers like Camus. In awarding Camus its prize for literature in 1957, the Nobel Prize committee cited his writing’s:
clear-sighted earnestness [that] illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.
That’s not too much to want, is it?
Here are my notes.
It’s been almost two months since we’ve ended our travels and already it seems like years ago. Time is strange that way, how it can stretch and elongate itself or compact and shorten depending on the situation. What once seemed distant can suddenly spring forward as memory is sparked from unusual sources. Standing Rock is that spark for me.
I’ve failed several times to write this blog, my first attempt being last spring. It always starts with how our road trip refreshed and further educated me on American history. Crisscrossing such routes as the Oregon Trail, Pony Express Trail and the Old Spanish Trail gave a clearer picture of the challenges and accomplishments our ancestor’s endured. Then there was the Japanese internment camps we passed and nuclear testing grounds, reminders of darker times.
There were many other historical markers we came across but the one we followed most was the Lewis and Clark Trail. This was not an intentional decision, but one of pure accident but perhaps rightfully so. Just like Alexis and me, Lewis and Clark set off to explore the American West and find an easy route to the Pacific Ocean. Like these two adventures, Alexis and I followed parts of the Missouri, Yellowstone, and Columbia river until we reached Cape Disappointment where, just like Lewis and Clark, we set our eyes on the Pacific Ocean for the first time in our travels. These two explores helped open up the West while also starting the long and unfortunate demise of the Native Americans living there.
Having lived both in the West and now East, I find there is a great absence of Native American presence in the East. Other than their casinos like Mohegan Sun, there are few physical things to remind us that other tribal cultures once thrived in our 13 colonies. The majority were pushed west and that is where they have remained. The West is where over 90% of the reservations are and it was the West that reminded me of the tragic relationship between the United States and Native Americans. Actually being in places where Chief Joseph and his 3,000 Nez Perce trekked while fleeing the United States Calvary paints a clearer picture of their hardships and mishaps. Another trail we came across several times is the Long Walk of the Navajo. This was the path used to march over 8,000 Navajo, 300 miles, and have them live on 40 acres of land. We drove through many reservations, catching a glimpse of their lifestyle and circumstances in which they live.
Our history is riddled with such happenings and filled with broken treaties. The relationship between the United States and Native Americans is an unhealed wound, ignored in the hopes that it will go away. It is a situation our government has all but given up on. It’s an embarrassing disgrace that our government and media choose to give little attention to the Native Americans and would rather focus on how other countries mistreat their people.
Our media has diligently covered every tweet Donald Trump made for over a year paving the path to his presidency. Meanwhile, a conflict slowly began brewing between the Sioux and oil industry. Scarcely covered in the news until the shadow of the election seceded, even now this story is barely mentioned. Instead the media would rather listen to the talking heads make assumptions on how Trump will lead this fine country of ours. Ironically, once this peaceful protest finally did get some press, the government decided to shut it down, forcing the thousands of protesters to leave by December 5th.
You would think our government would have some remorse towards the Native Americans, given how much we’ve screwed them. You would think our government would stand up for them and say- hey; we got your back on this one. But just the opposite, once again, America has spit in their face.
Originally, the oil pipeline was to cross the Missouri above Bismarck, ND, a predominantly white city. But Bismarck feared their drinking water could get contaminated and so the pipeline was moved down river next to the Standing Rock reservation. The Sioux have the same concerns as their white neighbors but apparently their concerns are valued less. Why would the oil industry move the pipeline for white Americans and not Native Americans? Why would our government allow this?
Its no wonder the Native Americans have mostly chosen to remain to them selves and not intermingle into our society of racism and inequality. We have proven to them time and again that they are just a nuisance to our own development and will disregard their rights and liberties for the betterment of ourselves. We are not a united nation, far from it.
When Hilary Clinton’s slogan is “Stronger Together”, or Donald Trump’s is “Make America Great Again”, or Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In”, or John McCain’s “Country First”, or George W. Bush’s “Yes, America Can!”, or John Kerry’s “Let America Be America Again”, how much do these campaign slogans resonate with Native Americans? Do politicians even try to win their vote? People like the Sioux, the Navajo and Nez Perce have been swept under our nations rug long ago. They have faded away in the barren and expansive West while the politicians in the East try to forget whose land this was in the first place. As our politicians discuss the rights of muslims, blacks, hispanics, gays, transgender, and women; they turn a blind eye from the Native Americans, the first and last people to suffer discrimination by the United States of America.
How to celebrate Thanksgiving on the road?
Last year we could have been out of cell service, camping at a pullout along route 1 in northern California. We’d been hopscotching up and down this stretch of coast just south of the redwoods for several days. We’d met some hippy kids who were tent camping the same route, and they planned to cook in a fire pit on the beach.
We parked the Cricket on the street in Mendocino and slept there in stealth mode, which means the pop-top was down and the window shades were closed. The days were sunny and sometimes even warm enough to walk barefoot on the beach, but the nights were cold. We slept in hats and jackets, and I woke to find my breath condensing on the wall next to me. Brrr. Our journey down this stretch of coast would have been slower, had the weather been warmer.
We spend months exploring the 750 miles of coast from northern Washington to San Francisco, and still I feel like we haven’t even begun to spend enough time there.
Last year, it happened that we were in Mendocino for Thanksgiving. The town reminds me of Vermont in a way (Victorian wooden homes and an interesting cast of characters in a remote but well visited small town) so it wasn’t a bad place to spend Thanksgiving. We could see a sliver of ocean from our garden-side table. We had thought about being at a mountain lodge, and that would have been nice too.
Please stay here with me in Mendocino,
Where life’s such a groove,
Thanksgiving was our first big holiday on the Cricket adventure. We weren’t sure what to do, disconnected from our annual rotation of being with family in Colorado or Connecticut. It caused us to have some interesting conversations about what the holiday means to us, what we want in a Thanksgiving experience.
Nine years ago Chris and I flew to Japan on Thanksgiving Day. It was a great day to travel. I can’t remember what we ate on the plane; our real Thanksgiving meal had been at home, a week or so prior, when we could schedule it with family.
In the Cricket, Chris and I had each other, the setting was awe inspiring, our days were carefree. I miss it already! (Like, seriously. I think about running away to California. Yesterday, a conservative publication called it “Hillary’s Utopia.” That sounds good to me.)
Last year’s day was awesome, but it still helped us decide to go “home” to Colorado for Christmas. I wrestled a lot with the meaning of Christmas, and it seemed to be the same things we had missed while in Mendocino for Thanksgiving — being with our people, performing familiar rituals. Cooking, drinking, eating, being together. So this year, that’s exactly what we are doing.
This December, these two crickets are the “artists in conversation” at Gallery A3 in Amherst, Massachusetts.
If you’re local, please join us for an evening of photos, stories, snacks, and art! This event is in coordination with A3’s December “small wonders” show.
Travel Tales with the Curious Crickets
Join Chris Nelson and Alexis Fedorjaczenko as they reflect on their fifteen-month road trip exploring the American West. They traversed over 26,000 miles pulling their little Cricket trailer, camping the whole way, living in a variety of natural landscapes.
Where: Gallery A3, 28 Amity Street, Amherst, MA
Contact: 413-256-4250 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When this travel adventure was still largely a fantasy, I wrote about the benefits of getting off your butt and I set a couple of goals related to walking more during my time off. And I did walk. A lot.
I’m not actually an avid “hiker” by which I mean, I avoid big elevation gain. What I do like is to stroll. I also like to walk briskly. I like to listen to music, to daydream, to look around at the landscape. Sometimes I sit for a while. I like walking to get places and, when the landscape doesn’t offer my usual places to get to (like: work, or home), I like making up destinations to get to (like: that big rock, or the ocean). Sometimes I like difficult terrain, when it offers an interesting challenge. Mostly I like to stroll to music.
I like walking because it helps me think. I also like that walking helps me not think. Although it’s possible to ruminate on a walk (and I’ve done it plenty), being out in the landscape can offer something more here-and-now for the soul to come back to.
This week I’ve been listening a lot to Leonard Cohen’s new album, “You Want It Darker.” I love the title track: he sings things that make sense to me, makes sounds that resonate. Evenings are literally getting darker, moods are low, Leonard Cohen is a good poet of shadows and we’ll miss him. And yet what I love about Leonard Cohen’s music is also one thing that’s so good about walking: it makes me feel brighter.
Walking lightens my mood. Movement lightens my mood. Music in triple time lightens my mood, as does beauty of various kinds. Walking is a good, easy example. It’s not just true of walking though: time and time again, I find that movement isn’t just good for my physical body, it’s also good for my spirit.
Sometimes the simplest things that contribute to well being are difficult to do though. Our travel adventure provided so much time and space that I almost had to walk. Now my goal is to keep these routines that I’ve come to love while I add all sorts of other distractions back into my life.
On that note: It’s a sunny bright fall day, and I’m going for a walk.
When humor fails, there’s poetry. This morning after election night, Wislawa Symborska comes to mind, particularly her poem “The End and the Beginning” (to honor copyright, read it in full here; it’s worth it).
There’s also running away. Another of Symborska’s poems, “Consolation,” begins: “Darwin. They say he read novels to relax, but only certain kinds: nothing that ended unhappily.” Darwin’s supposed approach reminds me of my own escapism during this travel adventure. It also reminds me of how I felt at Burning Man.
The awesome XKCD recently tackled that question, and suggests the result would be something like the Salton Sea. Yuck.
We haven’t written about our visit to the Salton Sea yet, but that and Slab City will be a good post-apocalyptic story for … after the election. Yuck.
Go vote today! If you need help voting, check out this resource from another XKCD site.
I write first thing every morning. (To clarify: first thing means after making tea or coffee.)
Most days, I end my morning pages with a list of three things that I am grateful for. This practice helps to keep me positive (not always a simple task for this ever-striving perfectionist). There’s a little bit of science and a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting regular intentional gratitude.
Now that we’re back home, I’m reflecting on themes of our travel adventure. This morning I typed up all of the gratitude notes that I made while on the road. It was pretty amazing to be reminded that even during the most difficult cold and lonely times, even when I was angry at my travel partner, I could find three things to be grateful for every day.
Making word clouds is an awesome way to see patterns in qualitative data. The website wordle analyzes text and creates a graphic that shows word size based on the frequency of the individual words in a text. There are several display settings and other options.
I think the above image speaks for itself.
XO with gratitude,
and of course, it was to talk about Donald Trump.
I’ve written about my efforts to ignore the political fracas during our travel adventure. I don’t believe that I missed much. But all along I wondered (worried) about how I would re-engage as an intelligent member of a civil society. Like coming back to food after a fast; I don’t want to make myself sick on trans fats or click bait.
Some affairs were easy to avoid, but Trump has posed a bit of a challenge. So many people are trying to understand how, why, and what-the-fuck, and they want to talk about it. Even at Esalen, a retreat center with limited-bandwidth internet and a commitment to east-meets-west introspection, Trump was used as an extended example in my workshop to discuss shame and contempt. Seriously, I would have preferred to not be thinking about him while I sat on my yoga mat, but at least there was depth to that conversation. It’s better than making fun of his fingers.
Doonesbury was a staple of my childhood and teenage years, and it was a happy bit of synchronicity that I was able to attend Trudeau’s talk at the White Hart Inn last night. Joanie, Zonker, Mr. Butts, Alex, and Uncle Duke feel like old friends, part of the same gang as Calvin & Hobbes and Opus the existentialist penguin. Last night, Trudeau walked us down memory lane: the Clinton waffle, Newt’s unexploded bomb, the invisible Bush family and W’s many hats.
Donald Trump has been a character in Trudeau’s satirical comic strip for thirty years.
Some things have changed: as Trudeau said last night, he’s been drawing Trump since he had dark hair. More has stayed the same: Trudeau pointed out that we’re still hearing the same phrases that Trump used in the late eighties, and Trudeau believes that Trump’s underlying personality disorder remains constant. Comforting, isn’t it?
Trudeau didn’t disappoint. There were interesting digressions, and his descriptions of the creative process for Tanner ’88 were funny and engaging. I would have liked more of that. But Trudeau’s new book is called YUGE! and the talk was about Trump. Luckily, it also included intelligent commentary on the role of satire. “What’s good for us in comedy is usually bad for the country,” Trudeau acknowledged.
At one point the moderator asked Trudeau something like, “Is it fun?”
I paraphrase Trudeau’s response:
Yes, of course. It’s great fun.
But if you step back … great damage has been done to our civic culture. A lot of journalists are trying to imagine what life after the election looks like, assuming that Trump loses.
What’s the public conversation now? How do we talk about this? Having aroused these people who are moved by these themes, how do we address their issues? These are real problems.
There are other issues the campaign raises as well. Earlier in the evening Trudeau had asserted that the best thing to come out of Trump’s candidacy is the bus tape; that it prompted a national conversation that was long overdue. “It started with Bill Cosby, he said, “but it needed to continue and all sorts of women now talk about …” Trudeau said he’s been talking about this with his wife, Jane Pauley. He’s concluded:
It was like the weather. It wasn’t something you imagined you could do anything about. This is a very important conversation. You and I need to know more about the experiences of the women in our lives that we care about.
Given how appalling Trump’s attitudes and actions towards women are, it’s interesting that both people in last night’s audience who admitted to supporting Trump were women. The audience included maybe 50 people, mostly older, educated, and well-enough-off. We’re in the Litchfield hills of CT. During the Q&A portion towards the end of the event, a woman of about 60 stood up to complain. I summarize:
“People have nobody else to get behind and our country is going right down the tubes,” she said. Her voice cracked with emotion. “We’re making fun of people when we should be looking at what’s going on in the world.”
Trudeau asked, “so you don’t view his candidacy as a big exercise in self regard?”
“I wish we had somebody else as a figurehead,” she replied. “But just because you got stuck with this person doesn’t mean all the platform is bad.”
Trudeau asked if there was anyone else who felt the same way. A woman about my age slowly clapped, and then spoke briefly along the same lines. Essentially, I don’t know what else to do.
There’s that, and there are more angles too. I’m interested in the ways that the Trump persona appeals to people who, I think, envy his lack of a filter and his ability to “succeed.” That’s about internal landscape, not platform. Trudeau said last night, “people who love Trump don’t seem to grasp that he doesn’t love them back.” I don’t think they want his love; they want his life.
But to the point of “how does satire fit into civil society,” Trudeau had this to say to the woman who didn’t want to mock Trump:
I agree that what’s going on in the world is not funny, but the whole point of entertainment, and storytelling, and commentary, and satire is precisely because life is such a bitch, we need that relief.
It’s the like what Heinlein wrote in Stranger in a Strange Land (which, incidentally, is perfect way to describe how it feels to come back to this election after fifteen months on a mountaintop, so to speak): “I’ve found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts so much.”
Trudeau talked about when the late night comedy shows went off the air after 9-11, and how important it was when returned. He said that “society doesn’t work if we’re not all doing our jobs.” Throughout human history, there’s always a storyteller who creates meaning, who creates the levity that allows us to deal with the fact that life is a bitch. “My profession is a response to that,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau also posited, “most satirists are not cynical.” I suppose that I’m not either. While I wish it weren’t under such bizarre circumstances as this election, I like that Trudeau’s talk got me a little more excited to deal with this question of how to come back.
Last year, circumstances resulted in Chris going to Burning Man alone. This year we attended together. Wow! I had an awesome time and I hope I’m able to go back next year, or soon thereafter. I think it would only get better with experience.
There’s a narrative arc to my week, the ways in which I responded to the events around me. I found myself becoming more open as the week went on. As I found my niche, I also felt more at home. I started to understand more clearly why people get so excited (and devoted to) this crazy event. There’s so much I could say about our experiences — here are a few things that really stuck with me.
The desert tries to kill everything, including your relationship
On our third date, Chris and I discovered that we had both recently burned upright pianos — and that we both think this sort of thing is a ton of fun. I remember thinking, and telling friends, that the connection seemed auspicious. Still, it was beyond my imagination that almost ten years later we would be on playa together participating in burns of a different scale!
I’ve heard from several sources that Burning Man can wreak havoc for couples. There’s a “relationship survival” guide on the Burning Man website, and “How Burning Man is going to destroy your relationship” was this year’s cover story in BRC Weekly. So I’m kind of proud of the many ways Chris and I got along during the intense week of activity. A new friend, one of our across-the-street neighbors, commented to me that Chris and I work well together and don’t seem to fight. That’s mostly true, although we certainly did have our moments.
Yes, there are many relationship challenges at Burning Man; one of the biggest was described well in the above-mentioned BRC Weekly article:
This place is a never-ending series of distractions, and the distance between what you THINK you are going to do at any point in the day vs. what you ACTUALLY end up doing can be measured in light years.
Your partner can tell you that they are just headed out to get some ice, and end up coming back three hours later because they ended up getting involved in trying to set the world’s record for the world’s longest conga line or some shit.
Chris & I had those moments of distraction or missed expectations, along with the hungry, cold, hot, dehydrated, tired, or overwhelmed moments too, all of which create pressures inside a partnership. Especially because some of the other good advice about surviving Burning Man with your loved one includes this: (1) plan dates together to stay connected, and (2) leave time for yourself and your own interests too. That’s A LOT of planning and logistics for a place where planning doesn’t work that well! Still, it helped to be aware of the duality of these needs.
I’m also extremely grateful for everything Chris and I have learned during these travel adventures about how to communicate, share space, have fun, get time apart, get needs met, plan, anticipate, adjust, iterate, and (importantly) move on. It really helped us rock this event, despite some inevitable moments of frustration. I think that Burning Man would been a lot more difficult for us as a couple had we not had the practice of living in close quarters on the road for 14 months. It’s a strange event, at which people don’t always act like they normally would. It helps a lot to be flexible.
It also really helped that Chris attended last year, and we had some experience to build on as we prepared. For months and weeks leading up to the event, we’ve been talking, asking, planning, and dreaming. We came up with some good practical solutions, like cooking yummy meals in Durango and freezing them to bring to Burning Man. We put together costumes. We argued about how much water to bring. We talked about the things that made us nervous. It all worked out.
Make like a lighthouse and shine
Obviously, there’s no shortage of cool stuff to do at Burning Man. Each day is so chock full of potential and unique experience that it is difficult to mentally process or to sum up. One of my most memorable and favorite experiences was helping the Lighthouse crew with burn prep. I had no idea what to expect when I showed up onsite Saturday morning. I simply knew that I loved the creation of the Black Rock Lighthouse Service, and that the crew wanted assistance with getting ready for that night’s burn.
The Black Rock Lighthouse Service is the name of a project on playa. It was one of a few really large wood structures that were burned during the course of the week — first the pyramids, then the man, then the lighthouse, then the temple. The lighthouse was actually a cluster of whimsical lighthouses, outfitted with steep staircases, a spiral staircase, high balconies surrounding the lanterns, and rope bridges to connect each tower. (Pics and info about the artists here.)
Many of the smaller lighthouses in the cluster were leaning, by as much as 20 degrees. Everything was askew intentionally, including the balconies you walked on. There were art installations inside. At night, the lighthouses used mirrors to send light onto the playa. They also shot fire. (Yes, you heard that right. The cupola of each tower was equipped to make bursts of flame.)
Late Saturday night, after the man fell, the lighthouses were burned. I feel so lucky to have helped in a small way (with emphasis on small; the artists and team responsible for the lighthouse have been thinking about this for years, gathering materials since fall, and building since winter; they worked long hours in Oakland and on playa). I learned a lot. I was able to spend time up close with a project that really impressed me in both design and execution. I worked with the people who had conceived of and created this piece of art. I got my hands dirty in service of their goal. I feel lucky.
So what is burn prep, anyway? It includes a lot, I learned. I don’t know all the terminology yet (but oh my, I want to read and learn more) but it includes … Setting perimeter to secure the space. Removing everything that shouldn’t be burned (wiring, lights, fuel hoses, glass, materials that could blow in the wind while alight). Placing ignitors and accelerant, sorting and hauling scrap wood, placing tinder and kindling. Decisions had been made about how they wanted the structures to collapse, and everything was done with that goal in mind. Holes were cut as needed to ensure airflow. A rigger came in to wire. We used highway flares and boxes of wax and sawdust. There was a lot of activity.
There was also something gratifying about experiencing the wildness of Burning Man while busy at tasks. I like this way of experiencing the stimuli, compared to simply riding around looking for adventure. Throughout the day, I noticed the music changing as different art cars rode towards and away from the lighthouse. Most of the day, there was the thud thud thud of electronic music that’s so prevalent at Burning Man. It’s not my favorite, but I minded it less on the work site. At sunset, orange rays shone melodramatically while classical music filled the air at a terrifying volume. As darkness fell and a dust storm rolled in, tribal sounding drum music set a rhythmic beat. This (and many other factors) all set a festive mood unlike a worksite almost anywhere else.
A rainbow of colors, and not so green
Being an east coast gal, I don’t know many people from back home who attend Burning Man, and I haven’t heard a lot about it. Thus, my preconceptions of the event were mostly based on: (1) what Chris told me after he attended last year, and (2) what I read in the Survival Guide and on the Burning Man website. Add to this my predilection for appreciating back-to-the-land and minimalist lifestyles, and hippy events, and ended up with some expectations that were a little … off.
Once at Burning Man, I realized I had been naive. Yes, Burning Man might be the world’s largest leave no trace event. Yes, radical self reliance is another of the ten principles, and everyone is responsible for hauling out their own trash. Yes, the organization works closely with the BLM to ensure no detrimental impact to the playa on which we party. Yes, there is an alternative energy camp and there are a lot of old hippies. But.
We’re still bringing in tens of thousands of cars, trucks, and semis hauling all the infrastructure to make a temporary city. Each day a 42-foot long truck hauls in more ice. Pump trucks are in and out of the city, emptying porto-potties and RV black water tanks on a constant basis. Did I mention that it’s about a 100 miles to the first town of any size? That’s a lot of miles back and forth. It’s really quite a display of extravagance.
Plus, each camp hauls in all their own water, usually in disposable plastic gallon jugs that can be difficult to recycle. I didn’t recycle all the cardboard, plastic, and glass that I normally would, because of disorganization and/or laziness. Generators are running all over the city. And that’s just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Thankfully, EL wire means that glow sticks, which end up in landfills, are mostly passe. Still, there’s a lot of disposable plastic at this event. A cacophony of stuff.
Even as I had fun, the waste gnawed at me, along with the realization that there’s a LOT of money poured into making the event happen. I expected the “plug and play” camps and famous attendees, but I didn’t expect how well-off the regular attendees would seem, how many comforts of home people would bring with them into the desert. I wasn’t prepared for the overall scale of the art pieces, or the scale of the city itself. It’s a LOT of material to haul in.
For most of the week, I felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic scenario in which only the wealthy and the artists had survived and were living off the scraps of a consumer society. Dressed up on the dusty playa, partying in style in an inhospitable environment, it was as if we were spending our last days on earth with as much spectacular glory as we could muster. As if the end was inevitable, and this was one last hurrah. Or at least that’s how it seemed in my head.
I’m not saying this is “bad,” per se. Indeed, much of the excess of Burning Man is not all that different from regular American life, although it does feel more extreme, more condensed, more in-your-face. Even as environmental matters weighed on me, I also had fun and appreciated the wonderful things people created and shared. The flip side of my complaints about the impact and excess of Burning Man is that I really liked it and I participated willingly. Black Rock City is beautiful. People make ingenious things. In addition to the money that pours in, people devote time and love. Often materials are recycled, reused, saved from the landfill. The coolest things don’t usually cost the most money.
Besides the lighthouse, my favorite piece is one that I’m told comes back every year: El Pulpo Mechanico. It is a big metal octopus mounted on a truck bed. It has eyes that move in and out, and tentacles that wave. Oh — and each tentacle shoots fire. Fire also comes out the top of the octopus’ head. And sometimes the truck plays music over loud speakers, and the tentacles wave and the fire bursts forth in sync with the beat, like the octopus is dancing. This piece was created by people who are smart, creative, and resourceful. If you look closely you realize a lot of the materials are discarded baking tins. If you look closer you also see the scale working model that was built from old soda cans and other scraps. If you stop to talk, you’ll hear that the creators are designing and building a new piece, which they’re really excited about.
It’s the excitement for creating and experiencing that would keep me coming back to Burning Man, despite some of my reservations about the event’s excess. This excitement can be found in places both large and small. We camped with a couple that Chris had met last year, some really interesting people from California. They built their own dome from scratch (you can catch a glimpse of it in the first photo, behind the Cricket), teach robotics classes to school kids back home, and are enthusiastic about all the neat people they meet at Burning Man. They had curious minds and were really fun to talk to at the end of a long day exploring. Their smiles helped me stay grounded, and I appreciate that. Their stories kept me inspired about life, and I appreciate that too.
In the end, there’s no way for me to perfectly reconcile these conflicting feelings. Burning Man is a large and varied place. (Every day I would ride down to the info station and check the population census, which peaked around 66,000 this year.) If I am lucky enough to return, I’d want to be more involved in a project (like the lighthouse) both before the event and on playa. I’d want to learn a lot more about making fire, safely. I would continue to think about the meaning of the event, the ways that Burning Man’s ten principles help create an immersive experience unlike almost anything else. I would continue to wrestle with the rest.