september, 2007

Mon, 3 Sep 2007 20:52:48 -0700

Playa (n.): The hard, dusty, alkaline, dry lakebed into which tens of thousands of Burners pound rebar all week.

Burner (n.): A person crazy enough to spend a week "camping" in the most inhospitable conditions on the West coast, in alternate near-white-outs and scorching sun; covered in polyester, fishnets, and body paint; while ingesting things unlikely to keep them hydrated.

Jae, Dave & I are sitting, totally lit and a few G&T's (Bombay, Dave brought) and Glenlivet 12's in, on the bench outside their petting zoo. We're digesting vegan apple pie and Josh's tofu curry, staring onto Grassland (the 7th alphabetical, concentric street in; still dusty from RV's finding their spaces on this, a relatively outer ring -- how drastic, the change from the empty desert on Saturday!), when a guy rides up on an old-skool, French-style bicycle ("pennyfarthing," I was later told it was called) -- dinner-plate-sized back wheel; huge front -- and I blurt out: "Hey, nice bike!" He pulls around, says, "You want to ride it?" I look down at the 3-inch platform boots on my feet, borrowed from Flan (her extra pair!), evaluate my mental state, and demur. He says, "C'mon, I'll help you!" So while Jae & Dave stare drunkenly off into the playa, I put one boot on a peg, scoot to get going, and launch my beribboned, tulle-skirt-wearing ass onto the elevated seat. I wobble in a circle, and crash into him to stop, receive a hug, and send him on his way. Jae & Dave have barely registered this.

Monday night, before I've figured out that the most efficient way to get across the clock-face layout is to bike through the open playa, I'm circling around on Grassland to find Dave's camp for dinner. It's just twilight, the sky is a deepening pink-to-blue-to-purple -- and, over the eastern mountains bordering the spit of desert on which we're camped, rises the glowing orb of the moon. (The lunar eclipse later that night, I missed; but I had a good view of at least its beginning from a futon on the open desert.) And, since I'm biking counterclockwise, it seems to rise extra rapidly as I advance on it. Two guys pull up on bikes next to me, one wearing a long orange fur coat and a green spiky rubber skullcap. "Look at the moon!" I yell. And they do, and we, still rolling, start calling for the neighbors to come out of their tents and look. And someone suggests that we call to it, and, before long, the entire block is howling at the luminescent moon. My fellow bikers peel off, and I pedal to dinner, still watching the rising moon.

Friday, 31 August 2007 16:54:39 PST
I'm right now sitting on a chair I've dragged out from our dome to the street ("Desert," for D), my ubiquitous Camelbak slung over the back, wearing: (a) calf-high, 3-inch platform boots; (b) white fishnets; (c) a tulle skirt; (d) my pink bikini; (e) goggles; (f&g) an orange bandana over my mouth, and a day laborer's dust mask under that. Because I'm in the midst of a whiteout. I can see this notebook in front of me, and even the bikes littered around the front of our camp five feet away, but not much farther than the people biking and walking down the dusty street. Playa dust is everywhere. Patches of it, collected by small winds during the day, are racing by in clouds, blending into the color of the thick air.

Sushi-rolling is taking place in the kitchen to my right, a structure that, anywhere else, I'd describe as jerry-rigged, but here is standard issue. Having spent the morning sequentially listening to the Shins in some strangers' enclosure; seeking out, on their advice, Bloody Marys poured into my camping cup (but abstaining from the bacon); and questing for rice (I must've gotten 2 pounds in donations towards our depleted sushi stores); and then the afternoon prepping rice -- I'm now greeting strangers with a cheery "Lovely afternoon!" as they roll by in the swirling dust.

Yesterday afternoon was similar: I'd passed out in the dome for a catnap, one earplug in against the DJs and techno of the party down the block, and awoken covered in a layer of grey: grey hair, almost sooty skin; the futon red underneath where I'd slept and ashen elsewhere. And then I realized I'd missed the massage appointment Hanuman had given me that morning, as we stood at Playa Info (a veritable Starbucks of the desert), right before I left him, costumed, seeking out the French Maid Brigade with two other similarly-dressed men. But I got on my bike anyhow, figuring that "5:15 PST" might have meant "Playa Standard Time." And, though Zootown's kitchen blew down and the covering of their dome blew in while I was there, I got a massage anyhow, in a dust storm.

Off on a rice quest, I'm biking vaguely eastwards on a latitudinal street, when a guy with a large knife, standing in the back of a hitched trailer, yells, "You! Stop! Eat watermelon!" And, though I usually pick the mealy pink fruit out of my salads these days, somehow, in 100-degree sun, it's a compelling reason to stop. So I whirl my bike around to face him, and am handed a whole eighth of watermelon (not the only gift to come in that measurement that week, I might add). And what can I do but smash my face into it, trying to extract what liquid I can? It's delicious: I swear I stopped liking watermelon around age 5, after summer camp in the park up the street in Madison where they'd use dry ice to brew root beer -- but this is divine. Mine has to be hacked in half in order for me to extract everything, so, after a bit, I'm standing in the lane of hard dust, a larger-than-reasonable slice of watermelon in each hand, double-fisting. Finished, sticky but satisfied, I bike off on my errand.

I had my heart captured, then broken, at Burning Man. ("What's your deepest fear?" he asked, lying in a hammock at Psychic Taxi on Tuesday afternoon -- and then he proceeded to invoke it.) Said veteran camper Nage, as I gave him the synopsis of my week and the rationalizations involved thereof: "But this is real life." And that was the crux of it.

The [now-intentional] conflagration of the Man on Saturday night had been your typical (as these things go) pyromaniac, Crucible-style inferno; thanks to Dave and good tequila and other things, and to Josh and single malt, I'd watched not one but two burns (with Crude Awakening, the oil derrick being worshiped by immense iron figures, burning after the Man), with something approaching tranquility, or at least acceptance. Priya, Josh and I had wandered back on foot to both our bikes and a song by James, stopping to stare at ourselves in a story-high cracked mirror erected on an intersection of the desert clockface. I'd biked out into the wide open playa and stared into the mesmerizing Cubatron until the chill overwhelmed, and I'd steered the skinny tires of my red little Schwinn through blind sand dunes, back to my solitary tent.

And then the Temple burned. Last(!) night, when Soren and Raquel and I biked out at twilight to catch the last of the installation art, perhaps my relative calm was born out of the fact that I had no expectations. Well upwind of the pagoda-style wooden temple (which contained, among other things, someone's dissertation -- I'd walked through it the previous day), tens of thousands of strangers sat on the desert floor in a circle, silent but for the crackling of the beginnings of the tinder, as the entire structure caught. The reverence was palpable. And I, the avowed atheist, sat agape, tears streaming like they had at the Balanchine ballet I saw when I was seventeen, the first time I realized beauty could move like this. But there, it had been simple aesthetic tremor; here was a collective tectonic shudder. A woman nearby cried out in pain, raw and incoherent; there was again silence, and someone said "let it out." Like the issues of those taking hallucinogens all week, everyone's fears came raring to the fore: and, the temple a proxy, we burned them and all that we held sacred.

It was around this point when I realized that this was exactly what had been going on all week. Social protocol; societal mores; taboos; that dissertation; our own mythologies and hang-ups, conscious and un-; constraints, compromises, and understandings, good and bad: they all went onto that pyre. That was why the greeters (with whom I got to volunteer last Sunday in a dust storm so thick it coated the tops of our donated cans of Tecates, as we gave hugs to and received beer from excited, still-clean burners) had met every car with an impassioned "welcome home!" That was why I had spent two nights distraught on the deep playa; that was why there had been people there on whose shoulders to cry. That was why I had been taught how to ride a pennyfarthing; that was why we howled, all together, at the moon; that was why I had received a massage in a dust white-out; that was why I had stood in the desert with watermelon dripping down my chin. This all became clear in the gentle immolation of the temple before the enraptured parishioners (having similarly profound moments? Just tripping?), and then again proved itself as a cheer spontaneously circuited the gathering in a wave; as we rushed in towards the fire and a bagpiper drew a small dancing circle; as, later, as my companions and I warmed our hands over the embers of last night's Man, I consoled, and then toasted a marshmallow for, a newly unemployed woman who fed her résumé to the fire.

Maybe we too, like the phoenix on the face of the post-arson Man, rise from the ashes. Or maybe we're all just crazy and underslept. The only way to find out for sure is to go back next year.

Fri, 7 Sep 2007 23:52:14 -0700

I left my heart in Black Rock City. What a fucking transition: To get back Monday evening after twelve hours (three of them alone spent getting out the gate!), then a BART back to my city of choice, and to the apartment I almost forgot I've been renting, and, you know, living in. That one that won't, presumably, fall down if there is a dust storm -- in fact, in a place that's very unlikely to ever see a dust storm of any magnitude. Apparently I live in more than just a tent. I walked around my beautiful kitchen, looking blankly at the granite countertops and backsplash that were the clincher on me signing this lease a year and a half ago, and started to cry.

I took two showers, washing the playa dust out of my encrusted hair (literally: the water turned brown); I opened my computer for the first time in ten days, and couldn't tell if something subtle had changed about the Google search results page, or if I just hadn't seen it in actually that long. And then Tuesday, waking up in something nice and fluffy ("bed," they're called), I expected to be sleeping on the desert floor at street level -- what was that loud thing going past my tent? An art car? Oh wait, that's the train. And I'm on the second floor. And my alarm's going off, because I have to go to work.

So I drag my ass down to the south bay, even given that all I could do (not only because of my lack of sleep, still not fully made up) was read accumulated email all day. My voice was pitched lower; I must have looked vacant, having been yanked from my magical world I was just starting to believe was real back into a job at a company with meetings, deadlines, and which was apparently in the middle of a performance review cycle. People told me "welcome home"; it felt wrong, given that I just found a different kind of one.

All I want to do is talk about the playa, not write a detailed self-evaluation for this review cycle. I want to talk to people who were there, not just be the party trick with my burner stories to those who weren't. I want to talk to the people I met on the playa; I want to look at pictures of it with my new contextual understanding (thankfully, there are a lot of those at work, on the walls of Building 43!). I've been having to suppress urges to hug people. I'd gladly fuck up my cuticles, re-slather my skin with layers of day-old sunscreen, and rub fine, alkaline dust into my normally slippery hair until it held its shape with only one pin, all if I could only go back tomorrow.

But of all the default (not "real") lives to come back to, as I commented to fellow SushiLoveCake camper Day this evening on the phone, one based in SF and working at Google is a pretty burner one. And either it's my awesome situation, or some kind of hippie "manifestation," but, right after I was walking to No Name this afternoon for lunch, New Yorker under my arm (of course I didn't once touch the three back-issues I brought with me to the playa), thinking as I went, "I miss Burning Man! I wish I had some burners to talk to," what should I overhear in the line for frisée salad, shiitake ragout, and quinoa cakes, but something involving the phrases "unsanitary kitchen" and "rebar." My ears perk up. I join fellow burners Dustin, Bob, and Georg for lunch; we discuss art on the deep playa, the reasons it's still awesome after Dustin's sixth year, the ways in which wouldn't it be nice if default life were more like Burning Man. And, standing in the parking lot passing around a bottle of Jim Beam, introducing it to a helpless engineer who was just trying to find a parking space, I found the bit of the playa I've been missing this last week. Or at least, some of it, or just enough to make me remember I didn't dream the whole thing.

Now, the next thing to "manifest": two violinists and a cellist with electric instruments who are willing to learn Bartók's 5th string quartet with me and take it out to Black Rock City next year ...

Mon, 17 Sep 2007 19:39:53 -0700

I went in to buy jeans on Saturday, two pairs to replace the old ones that inevitably develop the same embarrassing hole. As I paid, the effusive shop owner said, "Here, Nori, you need one of these; this just looks like you" -- and tied a leather thong around my wrist, with the words "Live in Love" stitched into it. Be it part of their viral corporate image (the laid-back surfer type meets intense hipster type), she was right: It did suit me. I kept it on my wrist through coffee at Ritual, shuffleboard and pool at El Rio that evening, and retied it the next morning after my shower. It's an idea I like, as self-consciously naïve and green as my embracing of it may sound.

Jaime and I had one of our rounds Thursday night, the first time we'd caught up in weeks. It went like this:

Me: "Burning Man Burning Man boy Burning Man."
Her: "Protect yourself! You keep getting hurt!"
Me: "La la la Burning Man."

And though I suspect Mike is of more or less the same mind as Jaime (though I can't quite drag it out of him, diplomat that he is), he understands, if not endorses, how my approach is consonant with my nature, if not immediately productive. In the movie version of Gaiman's Stardust, which he & I saw after brunch later that afternoon, the protagonist (being a celestial body, y'know, but that's beside the point) literally glows with love. Shines. I am no stranger to the sensation of emanating a blinding light. When I'm on, I'm a klieg; I don't know how to angle it any way but head-on.

Why would you not want this? Operating within Newton's laws, an "equal and opposite reaction" means a deep low after a heady high. But I optimize for the high, not against the low, and so the refraction is always acute. So be it.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the center of reason and emotion, and in mummification, discarding the brain, embalmed the heart as fitting of an organ with such a function. They were later shown to have been wrong, of course; but why, then, do we feel emotions so strongly in the left chest cavity? A betrayal hurts the heart, not the head. Maybe it's just the surge of blood to the heart. Maybe it's a precursor to a heart attack, the body attempting to commit harakiri in response to the perceived loss.

I'm sure the scientific explanation is more mundane than that. But, like the tooth fairy, I'd rather believe.

(P.S. Fuck you, Wordsworth -- maybe "recollected in tranquility" really does have something to be said for it.)

Fri 28 Sep 2007 19:24:13 -0700

The weather's taken a turn for the colder, just in time (as usual) for my birthday. The Wednesday before, it dipped from classic, sunny-California 70's and 80's to full-on clog-wearing weather, enough to justify wearing the cute white hat Tam gave me. Even here, seasons happen for my birthday. There's even something precipitating on the highway, visible in the headlights of cars on either side (it gets darker ever earlier), as the late Friday crew shuttles up 101, drinking leftover light beer from TGIF.

I'm tired. I'd rather have one more beer and read my book, eat the leftovers of the Indonesian tempeh curry I made last night with the Goat Book Club instead of discussing the book none of us read, and be fresh for yoga in the morning, than go see Paul van Dyk spin something loud, long, and late tonight. I grow old, officially: 33, no longer in my mid-twenties. Not, of course, that I feel any different; I've forgotten for the last few months that I've been 26. Eh. Trousers rolled; trousers unrolled and disintegrating because I can't be bothered to hem the ends of my latest pair of Luckys -- either way, I can't put much stock in this age thing. (I do like the number, though.)

But of course not too old to have a big ol' birthday party last Saturday night: I made people dress up, as I am wont to do; and, as also is my wont, I made them vegan desserts (cupcakes this time). Kenneth captured on film a great moment, of me in my pink polka-dot corset, huge feathers in my hair, paint on my face and red lipstick, holding an errant candle in my pink satin opera-length gloves, blowing out candles on the platter of cupcakes I'd made, held by a singing Jaime. (I now even more want a digital SLR.) I could have been 5 years old, but for the fact that I made those cupcakes, not my mom; and that I suppose (as the difference between the mug shots on my new California driver's license versus my expired-as-of-last-week Wisconsin one from ten years ago shows) I do, in fact, look a bit older. Just maybe.

September flies (flew). I've seen Air in concert, subscribed to the San Francisco opera for this season (oh fuck it's expensive to really pay for tickets!), reviewed a lot of Python, written a lot of monitoring, and done many performance reviews for myself and my peers. I would like more sleep, more beer, and more time to read. I'd like to be able to run again. More yoga; more clean laundry. But I do have: bagels; a surplus of wine; new music; trips to look forward to; the front section of the New York Times every day on the morning shuttle; new jeans; a birthday-present Tivoli radio that ticks, reassuringly and quietly, once per minute; my fuzzy fuchsia Oregon Shakespeare Festival hoodie; a gorgeous Lower Haight banner scored from city workers removing illegally-hung objects from utility poles; the right to vote in California; perspective.

all this Šnori heikkinen, September 2007

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