Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I'd Rather Be At Burning Man

Monday was day one at Burning Man 2007 in Black Rock, Nevada. My son Oliver’s out there for his third year, this time with a group of San Francisco hippie-hop musicians. Maybe next year I’ll pack up Jonah and some survival supplies . . . we’ll have to determine what we’re contributing to the scene, though. It’s not a spectator sport.

If you don’t know about Burning Man, it’s hard to sum up in a single sentence. Call it a temporary community of tens of thousands (40,000+ this year) stranding themselves in the desert for a week to interact on the basis of artistic and ritual self-expression rather than economic and ritual self-interest. Art created for the festival focuses on a particular theme every year. And every year, at the end of the week, an enormous sculpture of a human figure goes up in flames.

This just in: In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, somebody apparently set premature fire to the Man. A guy was arrested, and a big crew set about the two-day task of rebuilding the effigy and its support structure.

Further update: A young man apparently committed suicide on the last day of the festival. Stories vary, and given the circumstances, I'm not even sure how they determined that it wasn't an accident, but the guy (20-25 years old, thin build, light brown hair--yikes--I know it's not Ollie, but if it were, that's probably how they'd describe him) was found hanging from the poles supporting the top of a two-story tent.

Life and death on the playa. It's not the first casualty ever at Burning Man--given what goes on there, it's surprising how seldom anything goes seriously wrong. Still, it gives one pause. But pause, too, has always been part of the deal.

Over the past few years, a post-burn ceremony has developed in which about a quarter of the population sits and meditates as the theme temple is destroyed. Oliver says this is the most moving event of all. I don't have any photos of that, but the idea of 10,000 people kneeling and crying in the desert is fairly clear and awfully compelling to my pagan mind.

It’s just a big, wild party for some.

For others, it's a place to perform.

Put your genius on display.

And your bod. (I'd post more bods, but you can go to the Burning Man site and ogle for yourself.)

Push for change, advance the social contract.

Simply connect.

For many, it’s a religious retreat, a profound spiritual experience, charging the batteries of hope in a world that generally feels hopeless. A chance to turn the fear trap into the hope flower.

The lengths to which people go in order to create this countercultural aesthetic are extraordinary. The stuff they haul there, the stuff they build, the stuff they wear, how much energy and time they give to it.

You can’t just drive a car around this vast yet teeming desert space. If you’re driving, you're in an art car registered with the Burning Man DMV.

Otherwise, you’re on a bicycle...

or on foot.

If you were making this stuff up for a movie, how would you pitch it? It's The Wicker Man meets Dr. Seuss. No, it's the Old Testament translated by William Gibson. No, it's Julie Taymor's Tibetan Book of the Dead, a musical starring Timothy Leary and one of those egg-pod things from Aliens, except when it opens, it spits flames.
One thing it isn't...
is carbon-neutral.
Not yet, anyway.

They've recently developed a carbon offsets program. This year’s theme, The Green Man, is the first environmental theme I’m aware of in the 20-or-so-year history of Burming Man. Many themes have touched on ecological concerns indirectly, though, and there’s certainly a contingent of green thinkers on the playa every year. Someone apparently has figured out how to run engines on fuel made from port-a-potty sludge, and then to trap the exhaust from that engine and use it to grow blue-green algae. Nice loop if you can get it.

Participants commit to leave behind no trace of the week’s worth of creation and destruction, not even a cigarette butt--which is more than you can say about hippie circuses like the Rainbow Gathering. But it was never just a hippie circus, never just one countercultural flavor. It’s got a big gearhead constituency, a lot of pyromania, and enough mechanical ingenuity to make Buckminster Fuller sit up from his grave and take notice.
A ship of magnificent fools.

Can't wait to hear from Oliver. He’ll have some tales to tell.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Day 1, Grade 1

What ever happened to summer? Jonah started school on August 16th. Something has gone terribly wrong.

On the other hand, the kid looked swell, sporting his Lego backpack with Darth Vader and Chewbacca zipper pulls. Penny took the picture in the front yard. The maple tree that died this summer is back there behind him, the day before it got taken down. What a beautiful tree it was, a big ball of gold every fall, with a spherical crown oversized for its slim trunk. It had personality. And now its absence feels ever-present. I was surprised at how emotional we all got about it, the day it went down.

Two arborists tell me that the pecan tree in the back needs to come down, too, that it's rotting from inside. It's probably 60 feet tall. Bids have ranged from $1000 to $1900. I want to go back in time.

back to when August was summer,
back to when fall was aflame
with a mapley syrupy cloud of gold light
where no two leaves were the same

i want to retreat to the cave of the past
where the wall-shadows look pretty good
they may not be perfect, but that is deliberate
the way i'd go live in the wood

i want to go forward, but just in reverse
so a tree comes to be from a log
and the days are for dogs and summertime frogs
and my verse doesn't bog down my blog

Just as I wrapped up that stanza, there was a huge clap of thunder and it began to rain. The doggerel days of summer be magic.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Vacations we have squandered

The creature from the lagoon is Jonah, who vacations like a champ. He really knows how to have a good time. The lake is in upstate New York, in the middle of nowhere. There's a movie star on the dock back there, but Jonah can upstage even the bigs. We were there on a day when thunderstorms came and went, as did snakes in the water. In memory, the day has a slow feel, even with a six-year-old in the mix. We also had a Jack Russell terrier who went crazy for the snakes. Later, he threw up a frog.

In the main, however, it was an unrestful vacation. I planned the trip around three locations with three different groups of family and friends, driving from Boston to Maine, down to New York near the Pennsylvania line, and back up to Boston. My darling does not suffer road trips gladly. Plus, the middle stretch was work-related, so my brother and I disappeared into a basement for days, with breaks to eat and deal with various crises. The last such was the losing of the rental car key.

I advise against losing rental car keys while in the country, especially these new keys with microchip remotes that occasion the reprogramming of the car's ignition system as well as getting a new key made. The brave new world is unkind to bucolic key losers.

But the bucolic world is kind to young readers. Here's Jonah in the hammock on the farm, midway through "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." The kid reads like a vacationing champ and doesn't care that he's four books behind the times.

And here's Jonah with his best friend, Gabriel, who just moved to Maine. The beach was at Reid State Park, south of Portland. We also went to Popham State Park in the same area--beautiful spots, where the tide goes out thousands of feet and leaves you with a beach you can walk to nearby islands on. We built sand castles, which are heavily metaphorical.

In Boston, we saw a Shakespeare in the Park production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It was marvelous and inventive, and somewhere near the beginning of Act III, Jonah said, "I don't like this play." But later, he remembered some funny bit of action that Bottom performed during the play-within-a-play.

We also saw a beautiful film about Jane Goodall, and Jonah now sleeps with a chimp (stuffed). At the Science Museum, he also got to put a baggie on his hand and squeeze the heart and lungs of a sheep (dead).

Boston is Joytown to me, my sis having lived there for some time. She and her partner, Pam, have been married a couple of years now and have three lovely daughters. Joy and Pam are exceptional hosts, the most human of Boston baked beings.

Re: their being married... at the penguin exhibit in the New England Aquarium, I asked about same-sex pairs. The guy wading around in the big penguin enclosure said he'd heard of same-sex pairs nesting and tending eggs, but that these particular penguins seemed to confine their same-sex pairings to grooming, preening, and crapping on rocks together--in other words, he hadn't observed any actual homosexual mating--"even though this is Massachusetts." That got a good laugh from the crowd. Massachusetts is hip.

Here's Jonah, with Joy's daughter Grace, and a couple of dixie-cup frozen pop thingies at the end of a long day. Grace is ten, taller than Penny, and a sports nut, just as my sister was in her youth. I think this was the last night before flying back home on Tuesday.

Anyway, upon my return, I note the absence of beaches in Kansas City. And I note that midsummer is gone, that school starts in exactly two weeks, that a vacation is but a play-within-a-play. Our castles are crumbling. Lord, what fools we mortals be.