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
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
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