Burners

What is a “burner”? Well, since I’ve started living with one, I’ve had a decent amount of exposure to the community of people who not only attend Burning Man but have invested themselves in attending regional events all year round. At these events, people congregate for a number of days, and eventually they burn an effigy, and sometimes more than one. During the days between setup and the actual burn, any number of things can and do happen. If I had to summarize it in a sentence, I’d say it’s free-for-all Disney for adults. Imagination runs wild, and so do the people. Here’s my take on it all.

I’ve wanted to go to Burning Man for years; for me, the appeal of 70,000 people putting together a temporary city is nothing short of astounding. What’s more, some of the most impressive and creative sculptures in the world are there. Some of them are burned down by the end of the week! For a theatre geek like myself, the allure of seeing such creativity exploding at the seams is irresistible, and I hope dearly to go one day soon. Still, it’s always seemed like such a remote and esoteric experience, I had no idea until the last couple of years that Burning Man existed outside the once a year event in the Nevada desert.  Nor did I realize that it’s a community that people identify with and define themselves by, though if you think about it perhaps it shouldn’t be a huge surprise.

Burning Man appeals greatly to Gen X-ers and Millennials for the same reason we still want to watch transformers and mutant turtles. We who are constantly accused (maybe rightly so) of never growing up, not only have we turned Halloween into an adult holiday, but we find almost any excuse to dress in silly costumes and get snookered. We can’t even exercise without silly makeup. I’m so accustomed to seeing runners on the way to their latest drag-themed 5K, zombie 10K, or glow-in-the-dark bocce tournament that I hardly even turn my head at the constant stream of crazy costumes mucking about the city streets all year long. Well, here’s another example of us trying to bask in everlasting youth. Always wanted to be a fairy princess in a castle? Sure, why not? Buy some glitter and fairy wings, dye your hair, and build a castle. Then do a lot of drugs and burn it down. Burning Man is in many ways the ultimate example of our generation’s slow saunter into adulthood. It’s no wonder Black Rock City has grown so quickly in the last few years. Rumors has it if they can get the proper permits it will grow to 100,000 within the next five years. Tickets sell out so quickly that you’ve got to be in the know to get one.

But for true burners though, aesthetics aside, burns are a chance to redefine societal rules and recreate the way we interact with our fellow man, complete with a set of 10 principles. These are: (1) radical inclusion, (2) gifting, (3) demodification, (4) radical self-reliance, (5) radical self-expression, (6) communal effort, (7) civic responsibility, (8) leaving no trace, (9) participation, and (10) immediacy. Members of the community follow these principles with varying degrees of seriousness, but they heavily influence the attitudes, interactions, and even slang spoken at these events. Thus, they create a culture that can be somewhat tricky for an outsider or first timer to navigate, especially one who is anti-dogma. You tell me to obey 10 “principles,” and I hear 10 “commandments” and envision a pastor on a pedestal. Hmph.

Not having the capital to head to Burning Man but still interested in seeing what it’s all about, I attended my first (and likely only) regional burn this summer. The festivity was held in rural Maryland, near the PA border, and it was organized by the Philadelphia faction of Burning Man. Though it was nothing to the scale of Black Rock City, this was still several thousand people strong, most of whom found a smaller camp to be part of. The smaller camps usually range from 10 to 40 people and have some kind of catchy theme to them. Ours was hammocks, but they ranged from art making to massage to lava lounges. My favorite was made entirely from kites. Here’s where the principle of community kicks in. These were communities within a community, and some of them were very cool. One of the tricks to doing these festivals correctly is finding a smaller community that you fit in well with. Your camp will then hopefully provide you with a base point, a few people to collude with, booze, and, if you’re lucky, a bit of food.

Here’s where it gets tricky. The 10 principles make it different from an ordinary festival in a number of ways. First, the ideas of self-reliance, demodification, and gifting: If you need something, like food, you can’t buy it. Also, oddly, you’re not really supposed to trade for it…so you either need to be self-reliant (in other words, you brought it with you), or somebody needs to give it to you. Now, paying dues into a theme camp is supposed to alleviate this somewhat, but that assumes that your theme camp is well organized and that people actually care about eating. For me, this proved a problem. As it turns out, when someone is rolling on Molly they don’t like to eat. As I was not, I wanted to eat, but the rest of my camp did not. I could have/should have directly approached other camps, explained my hunger, and asked them to “gift” me food; they probably would have. But honestly I felt awkward approaching high strangers in crazy costumes, which is a funny self-realization considering that I work in theatre. And contrary to what people told me about the generous nature of burners, very few people offered to help me or provide me with gifts. Nor did they always fit in with the principle of radical inclusion. Some of the theme camps felt like cliches, and though most everyone was welcome to drop by, I would not define them as “radical” in their inclusiveness, which is weird because I get this from non-burners all the time. My neighbors in the city are constantly inviting me over for dinner, having open parties, handing me things they baked, etc. I found it ironic that the community that boasts of its counterculture generosity seemed so selfish, while here in the city the most generous of my foodie friends is in law school. Actually, several of my most generous friends are lawyers.

One of the most obvious principles is radical self-expression. It seemed to me that the vast majority interpreted this as nudity, really bizarre clothing, and doing drugs. Yep, lots of drugs. Doing drugs is not technically part of the principles nor is it required, but drugs are a serious and strong part of the experience for many burners. So if you are going to go to one of these events, you need to be comfortable surrounded by people doing them, even if you aren’t. I honestly thought I would be and was surprised at myself that I wasn’t really. Same with the nudity, mostly because I had a hard time interpreting why people were naked. Was it ’cause it breaks the rules? Because it’s comfortable? Because it’s freeing? For some, that was definitely the reason; I met a lovely hippie couple in nothing but REI hiking boots and backpacks, and they were pretty great. But many of the women took it as a chance to take off their clothing and flaunt, which I think I might have looked on favorably if the women were of a variety of sizes and shapes. They weren’t. Turns out, doing lots of drugs makes you super skinny, so I saw lots of model-skinny topless girls who just wanted attention. As a feminist, I take issue that this is such a big part of burner culture. If you say you are trying to break negative cultural norms and then proceed to bask in being ultra-skinny and sexy, you are in fact propagating the WORST of cultural norms.

But not everyone was like this. There were clearly some very talented artists, performers, and puppeteers in the mix. I saw a few awesome sculptures, fire twirlers, and talented DJs, and my favorite thing was a nightclub called “The Temple of Boom,” a spoof of Indiana Jones of course, in which you had to interactively make your way through mysterious rooms in order to gain entrance. At the end of the festival, the temple was torn down and burned. Super cool. Though the visual and performance art was impressive, the music was seriously missing. Talented though many of the DJs were, they cannot replace the utter lack of live instruments, of which there were almost none. No bands at all. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never been to an outdoor festival completely void of live music. One burner explained it’s because the community does not want to attract groupies. You get any type of well-known band in and they bring their own fans, which would intrude on the burner experience. Hmmm. Okay, but again, that’s not radically inclusive. That’s actually exclusive. Another burner explained that it would go against the principle of immediacy because you’d have to schedule a concert, set up equipment, etc. Okay, but there were plenty of scheduled workshops and performances throughout the weekend. Personally I think it’s simply because people on Molly/Adderall/LSD cocktails prefer to bop around to dance music. Yep.

So now, on to my favorite principles: participation, civic responsibility, and leaving no trace. I love to learn. I spend whatever little disposable income I have on taking lessons and classes, which I try to make apply to my career somehow, but they don’t always. Like most Gen X-ers and Millennials, I’ve spent so much freakin’ money on school, and that’s why it’s so incredible that the burner community offers workshops at these festivals. Free workshops! They consider it part of the principle of civic responsibility to share skills and participate. So my ticket to the festival bought me unlimited access to free classes. I loved it, I loved it. I was especially interested in learning aerial arts: aerial silks, trapeze, lyra. I took hundreds of dollars worth of free classes, which according to my camp-mates went against the principle of immediacy as I loaded up my schedule with free, planned classes. Apparently the proper way to do it is to wander, randomly stumble upon a workshop and take it, if you should feel the urge. Fuck that. If I could do it over again, I’d ignore all the hippie dippy shit and spend all day in free movement class. Wow. Okay, so that’s the East Coast city girl talking, but I mean, really, the Trapeze School in DC charges $40 an hour for a class in aerial arts. And I also took a roller disco dance class. On old school skates. Just sayin’.

The final principle of leave no trace is why Burning Man is allowed to happen every year in a publicly owned park. Every year, 70,000 people leave, taking every bit of evidence that they’d ever been there right back out again, leaving the space clean and free and in its natural state. That in turn has translated to the rest of the community. Emphasis is put on using only what you need, recycling, carrying reusable water bottles and bags, and creating as little garbage as possible. If nothing else, burners are good for the environment. You know this, especially if you’ve ever been to a big public event. Think about the last time you went to a football game or concert. You can look down at the end at the mountains of trash and litter that people so carelessly chuck around. Then imagine that same space left untouched. It’s truly an amazing feat and probably the thing about this community that impressed me the most.

After careful reflection on the good and bad, I’ve decided that this is not a community I want to be part of per se, but I’m happy to be a visitor there. I’d still like to go to Burning Man once in my lifetime, though probably never again to a smaller festival. The scale of Black Rock City appeals to me, and now that I know what does and doesn’t work for me, I think I’ll be able to navigate through the community in a way that I like, even if it doesn’t obey all 10 principles.

In Which I Direct You Elsewhere

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I haven’t had a chance to write here for the past couple of weeks, partly because I’m trying to do NaNoWriMo – or a version of it, anyway – and partly because on a whim I went to a presentation on executive functioning skills yesterday that took up most of my night, which is often my only available blogging time.

In lieu of a new post here, I am proud to say that I have a personal essay up on The Toast this week called “Hope Is Not a Strategy: On Violence, Redirected.” It is probably the most personal thing I’ve written to date, and I hope you read it if you have a chance. Then you should read everything else on The Toast because they are awesome.

And hopefully I will be back to posting here next week, unless I’m still trying to decipher how Hilary Mantel can write so very perfectly that maybe the rest of us should just give up, at least on NaNoWriMo if not altogether.

 

In Defense of the Thousands of Little Elsas Descending Upon our Cities Tonight

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It is the word you knew was coming. The dreaded one-word answer to “What do you want to be for Halloween?” Gone were the days where you could stick your baby in a Hot Dog sack as a nod to Portillo’s. Or glue a mustache to their binky in homage to the great Ditka.

unnamedNo. Now they have opinions of their own. They don’t like your hilarious ideas or genius play-on-words costumes. This year, they want to be what THEY want to be.
And they want to be Elsa. Continue reading

An Ode to My Favorite Kids’ Show

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My kids are obsessed with the TV show Peppa Pig. In case you are not familiar with it, which is likely unless you also have small children, it’s a British series about a family of pigs and the other animal families they are friends with, and it centers around 4-year-old Peppa and her little brother, George. It’s actually pretty adorable and not super annoying, even when you, the grown-up, end up watching a whole bunch of episodes in a row. It features nice little moments like a bull who loves his china tea set breaking it and having to take it to a china shop to get repaired, where the rabbit who owns the shop gets to yelp, “Oh, it’s a bull in a china shop!” See? Hilariously cute, and the kids don’t get it! That joke was just for you!

Anyway, my favorite thing about Peppa – other than the fact that the animations are simplistic almost on the level of stick figures, like a talented kid drew them – is the fact that, almost once an episode, everyone in the final scene starts laughing together at something that has transpired, and they always laugh so hard that they fall over. The episode typically ends with them laughing as they lay on the ground in a big group, so tickled by whatever the situation may be that they just can’t stay upright.

I love this. I love it because it somehow feels like it encapsulates the best parts of childhood, the wonder and the hilarity that can be found in so many odd places and that tend to evaporate the older we get, the more we are bogged down by the many details of orchestrating a life. Continue reading

Things Taken, Things Given

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Up until recently I’ve been relatively lucky in the arena of theft. As a long-time resident of a crime-filled city, I’ve had very few things stolen, but all of those instances have been within the last six months. I’ve had three sets of bike lights lifted, my car broken into twice, my bike stolen, my checking account drained, and my entire security deposit commandeered by my crappy ex-landlord. Ugh. And yet, I’ve experienced a tremendous amount of generosity in return that far exceeds what I’ve lost. I’ve gotten everything back somehow, and then some.

I’ve been trying to figure out the patterns. In some instances, what I get has been as a direct result of the things taken. When my bike was stolen, a guy I was dating custom built one to replace it. When my account was drained, friends came to the rescue, sweeping me away to dinner parties, fun evenings out, and even the beach. My bank replaced all of my money pretty quickly anyway. Partly I think I’m getting more because I’m better at asking for help than I used to be, but also fate seems to have steered me at the right time into a small minority of DC residents who are very generous, giving, and kind-hearted.

One of my friends said recently that mediocre people don’t exists in DC. People here are either incredibly wonderful, or really awful. I’m of a mind to agree. Continue reading

Domestic Erotica

CandlesHey baby.

No, not the baby. I was talking to you. Yes, you! Put the baby down. Let’s- no, she’s crying but she’s fine, she just… here, just here, let me take her. Oh god, she needs a diaper change. Oh god that stinks.

Where were we? Oh yeah. Hey. You look good. Have you been working out? Ha, I know. I was kidding. But seriously. Is that a rabbit in your pocket or are you happy to see me? WINK, WINK. Oh… it IS a rabbit. Kiddo was looking for that everywhere yesterday. Ew, what is all over it? Gross, it’s like gum or something. And hair. Hold on, I’m going to go throw this in the hamper. I don’t know if it’s salvageable at this point.

Kiss me. Wait – let me take these Crest White Strips out. They do? Yeah, I didn’t know if it’d work or not, but you think so? Oh good, they were expensive! Continue reading

The Back-to-School Blues

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So, I had a conversation with my five-year-old about child labor laws on the drive to school last week. We discussed them again briefly at breakfast this morning.

He already complains about going to school. It isn’t a consistent complaint, and he loves it once he arrives, but he hates having to get dressed and get out the door on a schedule. On one hand, I understand, and that’s why I work from home. On the other hand, I did attend school and then report to a 9-to-5 job for many years before I had the privilege of sitting around all morning in my pjs, drinking coffee and repeatedly calling the Public Works department about that nice big gap they’ve left between the curb they recently installed in front of my house and the street.

Anyway, last week – the FIRST WEEK OF THE SCHOOL YEAR – he was complaining, and I had just had enough. I couldn’t face it anymore, or the thought of having to deal with it every day for, literally, months. But yelling, cajoling, reasoning, all of these things have not worked. So I decided to try reality, or possibly fear, and I started talking about how much better school was than working in a factory or on a farm all day. He wanted details: what kinds of work does one do on a farm or in a factory? How early does one have to get up? And then when he started asking what could be bad about working in a factory, I thought, maybe this conversation isn’t quite appropriate, and I reined it in. Of course, I didn’t have much more to say anyway because I don’t actually know all that much about child labor laws. I know just enough, it turns out, to get my kid to stop whining about going to school. Continue reading

A Brief Bunny Eulogy

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Extreme Fergie close-up!

Extreme Fergie close-up!

This is a good-bye to my lovely furry friend Fergie, who came into our lives almost exactly seven years ago and who left us this past Saturday night. She has made several brief appearances on this blog and was well-known to those who loved her for her excellent disapproving rabbit face, her penchant for bumping you with her nose when she wanted whatever you were eating (this happened a lot), and her joyous hops in which she liked to change direction in mid-air. Also, she used to lick Scotch off my husband’s nose whenever he drank it, and she once ate the eyes out of a jack-o-lantern we left on our kitchen table because we forgot to push all the chairs in to block her ascent.

Fergie steals an apple.

Fergie would steal an apple right out of your hand.

She was an awesome rabbit who behaved like some sort of cat-dog, giving us the best of both worlds and the annoyances of neither because rabbits are quite clean little animals who don’t make any noise. When I was pregnant, I would fall asleep on the couch almost nightly and awake to her sitting by my head, just in case I needed her. Every night when my boys went to bed, she would hop into their bedroom and give it the once-over, just in case they needed her. Then, typically, she would settle down somewhere on the living room rug to hang out while we read or watched TV. Also, she liked to stand under my feet while I cooked, hoping I would drop something down to her, which I did whenever I had something that was safe for her to eat. I think she ate her body weight in Cheerios, too, by the time my older son was two. Continue reading

If you are really an ally…

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I recently saw this blog post and I wanted to share it with you all.  This is exactly how my wife and I feel ALL of the time.  People, mostly good people with good intentions, feel that they have the right to ask personal questions about our daughter’s conception. Most of the time we are nice about it and don’t say what we want to say or what we actually are feeling. Such as:

It’s none of your F*&&*** business, or maybe, what position did you and your husband have sex in when you got pregnant with your kid?

I don’t think that most straight people would appreciate us asking them that kind of question. So, what makes a person think it’s OK to ask us intrusive and inappropriate questions?

We go through this more often than most would think and are dreading the day that someone says something like this in front of our daughter when she is old enough to understand. I honestly can’t tell you how I will deal with that.  It isn’t my nature to be rude to someone or throw a punch, but inside that is exactly the way I feel.

Inside I scream, but outside I smile politely and bite my tongue.

I don’t want to come across in a negative way because at times, we represent all LGBTQ families. For some, we might be the only family like us that they know. This is a difficult burden to bear because it is hard to balance my feelings regarding standing up for my family and making sure that people are being respectful, and being an advocate for the LGBTQ community. In each moment we have to think about if we will take this moment to educate or if we will take this moment to put someone in their place.

I guess my question is: If you are really an ally, why aren’t you acting like it?

 

Not Part of the Plan

life-is-what-happens-to-you-while-you-re-busy-making-other-plans-1-777x350June was a big month for me. We moved into a new home, we blended families. Sitting firmly in mid July now, I can say that things are going really well. We’ve settled into a dance of driving everyone to where they need to be and picking up and dropping off and dinners and baths and bedtimes for a family of five.

Five, not six.

It’s taken me a bit of time to process this turn of events, hence my writing absence.

Moving weekend finally arrived. The plan was for Norm and I to drive the four hours to pick up Callie and bring her up to Chicagoland to join us in this new start. The next day, the movers would come to Norm’s house to pack him up as I packed up my moving truck, and we’d all meet at the new house. That was the plan, anyway.

Saturday morning, Norm and I hopped in my car and started the roadtrip. I was giddy. On the way, we talked about how excited we were. The things we’d do this summer. We laughed, remembering how I lied to my parents about going out to dinner with friends instead of actually going out with Norm those first few dates, and how far we’d come.

“My boobs hurt,” I complained.

“Maybe you’re pregnant,” said Norm.

Continue reading

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