I had so much fun writing about Happy Spots last week, I decided to make a video slideshow. I used a format I recently learned about called “Pecha Kucha”: 20 slides, each displayed for 20 seconds. It keeps the presentation moving along in a snappy fashion!
In 2012, for the first time, I got a “fluffy.” It was a proud moment for me, and I felt more validated as an artist than when I received my B.F.A. in painting and sculpture.
The “fluffy” is nothing more than a silver disk, actually a CD, with a construction nail and a tuft of pink plastic whiskers. On the disk are written, in black magic marker, the name and number of your art piece. On the vast surface of the desert at Burning Man, the fluffy’s importance is to show where your art goes.
By the time you’ve gotten your fluffy, you’ve not only created a large piece of art, you’ve documented that art. You’ve made sketches and submitted a written description of it to the Burning Man organization. You’ve told them how you plan to light your art and keep it safe, and how you will make sure it doesn’t leave “moop,” or trash, behind on the surface of the playa.
Based on your written submission, the art team has decided where to situate your piece. That way, the city is totally full of art, without it being concentrated in one place. They also give a map to every person who comes through the gate, showing where all the art is.
To get our fluffy, my artistic partner, MacGyver (aka Philip), and I went to a place called “The ARTery.” Like a real artery, this place is the lifeblood of the event, yet we take it for granted. We were greeted by volunteers who treated us like royalty, who made it clear that our title is Artist. They reviewed our submission and showed us where they’d placed us on a large map. “Is this OK?” they asked. After we asked to be moved further away from the loud sound stages, a couple of field operatives armed with a GPS took us out in a golf cart.
When we arrived at our spot, they again asked, “Is this OK?” We nodded, and then they handed me the fluffy. I personally drove the nail into the ground with a mallet, and when I stood up, we had a little ceremony of congratulation, with hugs all around.
Of course, this simple, exhilarating moment was followed by three days of exhausting setup in driving dust storms.
It was worth it, because I like art. I like it a lot. I like to make it, and talk about it, and look at it, and play with it. I like to encourage people to think about it. I love to inspire it. I’d worked hard to inspire this art — it wasn’t just mine.
Many artists listen to music while they work. In 2011, I had an idea to take that one step further. Just as we convert music into dance through our bodies, I wanted to convert music to art, and then take that art to Burning Man.
The progression goes like this: An artist chooses a song that inspires them to create a piece of art. A passer-by chooses that piece of art, which starts the music playing. That music, combined with some intriguing lights, inspires them to dance. Now we’ve merged music, art, and dance into one experience. What will come from that merged experience?
With this in mind, I created a list of 30 eclectic songs, ranging from the Weiner Blut waltz to the Hokey Pokey. I sent them to artists and photographers, and eight people began creating art for the installation.
For myself, it was exciting, as well as completely intimidating, to sit down and make “real” art on paper. Despite having a degree in painting, I haven’t given myself permission to do this in many years. But Burning Man is about giving ourselves permission to try all kinds of things. I even gave myself permission to fail, knowing that I might have to tear something up and start over.
As I was finishing up my last painting, the other pieces of art began to arrive, and I was completely awed. Wow! I wanted everyone in the world to know about the incredible artists I had discovered, who had been inspired to make beautiful pieces simply by sounds. I was the proudest curator on the planet.
We sent the art out for high-quality scanning and had it reproduced on special material used in the sign industry, so that it could be backlit at night. To my surprise, when it came back, the images were vivid both ways, with or without the backlighting. Now, instead of a nighttime-only installation, we had art that could be enjoyed 24 hours a day.
The problem was, playing music without the dancing lights didn’t make sense. So I contacted the artists and asked them to record an artist’s statement that we could play during the day. The recordings I received were not only thoughtful and interesting; some were theatrical and others poetic or lyrical. In them, I heard the same creative spirit that inspired the art.
In August, I turned my attention to signage and final painting of the installation. I needed something that would draw people’s attention and give them some instructions, but I didn’t want to upstage the art itself.
I’d originally envisioned a big sign at the top that said “Mating Shadows,” but as the time came to create it, I dragged my feet. I later ran across this quote, by Tom Price of Burners Without Borders, that explains exactly what I was struggling with:
“(Burning Man) is the epitome of an unbranded event. It is the anti-brand.”
How could I make a sign to attract people without branding the art? That’s when a bolt of inspiration struck me:
It was so simple! In just two words, I could provide the instruction: “Come over here and choose a piece of art” as well as deeper meaning: “Choose art as a way of life.”
To avoid creating a brand, I accidentally created a movement.
As I designed the lettering and did the woodworking on the sign, something inside me was changing. I gave myself permission to play the piano every day. I gave myself permission to sing. I got up and sang a solo, a capella, in front of 50 people. I wrote poems. I made theatrical recordings layered with music. I danced. I didn’t just appreciate the creativity of others, I reveled in it. I was the poster child of Choose ART.
Once the art was installed at Burning Man, I went to visit it every day. It was far out in the desert, but it was never lonely. Every time I went out there, people on foot, bicycles, and art-cars came to look at the pictures and talk. Often, they snapped a picture of the Choose ART sign.
We’d had some t-shirts made, and I noticed thoughtful smiles and nods when people read the words on the front: “Choose ART.” We began to talk about where we could set the installation up after Burning Man. We began to talk about how to improve it, keep it new and fresh. We began to call it “Choose ART,” instead of “Mating Shadows.”
The movement was taking on momentum.
Today, it is still gathering inertia. We’ve modified the design to make it easier to set up in a variety of environments, and tweaked the electronics to make the lights work better. You can sit at home, view the art, and listen to the artists’ statements right here on mepsnbarry.com.. I even made a CafePress store where you can buy a shirt or a canvas bag to show off your favorite piece of art and spread the Choose ART message.
How do you Choose ART? Do you make it, talk about it, look at it, play with it? Let yourself be inspired by our project. Give yourself permission to create, and watch what happens.
Click on one of the images below to view a full-size version of that piece. Before you do, try clicking on the words “Artist’s Statement” in the caption. That will launch a new window, so you can listen to the MP3 recording of the artist’s statement while you are looking at the image. (Sorry it’s a little klunky!)
If you’d like to support the project and show off the art, you can purchase items with many of these images from the CafePress CHOOSE ART store.
Eleven months ago, I grabbed a tiger by the tail, and when it took off, I didn’t let go. As is often the case with tigers that one is holding by their rear-most appurtenance, I didn’t recognize it at the time.
It started so innocently. Barry and I were sitting in Philip and Linda’s backyard, in Santa Clara, California. “Take a look at these,” said Philip, whose Burning Man playa name is “MacGyver.” He held up a couple of mysterious little metal boxes. Then he wired them to a power supply (using duct tape, chewing gum, and his Swiss Army knife) and turned them on. The backyard was flooded with intensely bright, colored light.
“They’re LEDs,” said Philip. “I’d like to do something with them at Burning Man,” he said. He went on to say that he envisioned people dancing in front of the lights, casting long shadows across the desert.
I took the bait and jumped out of my chair to dance around the backyard in front of the lights, making shadow-puppets. I could see what he meant. Wouldn’t it be fun to play with these bright lights at Burning Man?
Barry and Philip starting talking about how to feed a sound signal through the lights, so they would change color and intensity in time to music. Linda suggested that the music should be something more varied than Burning Man’s ubiquitous dubstep. I said people should be able to select the music, but the selection process should be engaging and mysterious.
The brainstorming continued across the country for the next couple of months, and in January, Philip and I submitted an art grant. We didn’t get an honorarium, but by then, we had put so much work into it, we were committed. We scaled the costs back as much as possible and decided to go for it.
In my concept drawing, four speakers face into the center of a cirle, with the bright lights mounted on scaffolding in the middle. To one side is a free-standing art gallery displaying 16 pieces of backlit art, each with a single unlabeled button. Pressing a button would play the music and activate the lights, but the only indication of what kind of music to expect would be the artwork itself.
It looks so simple. Behind the scenes, though, is a massive year-long effort.
Mating Shadows, as it came to be known, started with 4 friends in the backyard and grew to involve about 15 people, including engineers, fabricators, and artists from as far as Australia. Barry and I stored our boat on the east coast, flew to San Francisco, and worked on it off and on all summer. Philip retired from his job and dedicated his time to it. By then, Linda had shifted her work schedule to part-time, so she had mornings off.
The Mating Shadows team created and integrated custom electronics and software, an amplifier, backlighting, safety lighting, underground cables, signage, and batteries. Some efforts were multiplied by 16, such as installing 16 switches with 16 circuit boards. We recorded 16 sound files for daytime operation and selected 16 playlists for nighttime operation. Eight artists created the 16 pieces of art, taking inspiration from their choice of 30 songs.
To call it an eclectic team would be an understatement. Some were old friends or relatives, like Linda’s cousin, Claire. Others, intrigued by my posts on Burning Man discussion boards, contacted me by email. Scary volunteered to transport our baby to the playa, carefully packed in the back of his mutant vehicle, the Cuddle Shuttle. Managing the efforts of such creative, energetic, brilliant people was a lot like having a tiger by the tail.
If you think this is aggrandizement, let me introduce you to some of our quirky construction crew:
Primary Conceptualizer & Lord of Small, Fussy Parts: MacGyver (aka Philip Wilson)
When I met MacGyver 3 years ago at Burning Man, I simply noted that that he gave great hugs. I later learned that this giant guy with huge hands and size 16 feet has incredible focus and dexterity. He can painstakingly, lovingly solder miniscule, elaborate electronics in the middle of a full-blown dust storm.
Illuminator & Magical Maker of Things: Big Barry Stellrecht
If you’ve read this blog before, you know that my husband can create or fix just about anything on a boat. The great thing about his involvement with Mating Shadows was that it did not have to float, so he worked twice as fast, with half as much stress. The only stressful thing was the lack of good tools; he was forced to do unspeakable things with a circular saw. Philip just shook his head, saying, “Barry is amazing.” To which I replied, “This is nothing. You should see what he can do with a table saw.” When Philip later found out he’d had access to a table saw all along at his Mom’s house, Barry almost cried.
Reticent Enabler & Secret One-in-Charge: Lucky Linda Knepper
The miracles Linda accomplished with her mornings never ceased to amaze me. Parts and materials appeared right when we needed them, wood surfaces got primed and painted, and a critical piece of wood that the amazing Barry miscut was replaced by a correctly-sized one.
Superhugger & Mastermind of Bits & Bytes: Jason Hollister
Jason, an old friend of Philip and Linda’s, showed up one day to write the software. I provided him with a carefully-written description of the user interface, but he made it clear that he needed more of something before he could begin. I finally realized it was chips and salsa, not documentation, that his programming required.
Virtuoso Craftsman Extraordinaire: Archimedes (aka Blaine Gilruth)
We met Blaine and his wife, Suzy, at the boatyard in North Carolina. They started outfitting a boat at the same time we did, but they finished, took it out cruising, sold it, and moved back to the west coast before we even made it out of the boatyard. When Blaine volunteered to help with construction, I was super-excited. Now I would see first-hand how he gets 12 hours worth of quality work done in 37 minutes.
These two members of the setup crew are extra-special, because they are also two of the artists:
Renaissance Woman: Halcyon (aka Suzy Gilruth)
We had a serendipitous moment at Burning Man last year, after placing my brother Stevie’s ashes in the temple. I walked out of the building and right into Suzy and Blaine, probably the only people at Burning Man who had met my brother. Suzy showed me the beautiful piece of artwork she had made on the temple wall, which is how I knew I wanted her art in our gallery. She was probably the most multi-talented member of our team, creating four completely different art pieces and performing four audio recordings to go with them. On-playa, she provided the t-post driver (“It’s mine, not Blaine’s,” she told me), drove fenceposts and rebar, dug and covered trenches, ran wires, and did it all while looking cool as a cucumber in a ruffled green mini-skirt and a pink Choose ART top with spaghetti straps.
The Man Who Can Do Anything, But Doesn’t Know It: Roger Cunningham (aka Rumi-Nator)
We chanced upon Roger one Christmas Eve in Vero Beach, Florida, where we rafted up with his boat in the mooring field. I’m sure he had the only dreadlocks in town. He was taking his boat to Key West, and although we haven’t rafted since, we’ve ridden buses together in Miami and shared margaritas at a Hooters in Jacksonville. Roger provided two photographs and audio recordings for the installation — somehow managing to include the phrase, “a quivering, slobbering mess of capitulation.” He showed up on our doorstep in Santa Clara in August, told us he was lousy at soldering, the proceded to make a liar out of himself by soldering together the entire backlighting system. At Burning Man, he cheerfully volunteered for both setup and takedown, looking just as good as Suzy, but not as modest.
Artsy-Fartsy Conceptualizer & Design Dominatrix: Me
Reading back over what I’ve written about my friends, it is aggrandizement! Since I’m too humble to say such things about myself, I’ll just admit that I worked with power tools, did not cut off any appendages, packed the artwork, arranged transport, did setup and takedown at Burning Man, and performed a tiny bit of behind-the-scenes project management. The next time I write, I’ll tell you more about the artists, my first experience having “placed art” at Burning Man, and why the Mating Shadows sign said “CHOOSE ART.”
Last year, for the first time, I submitted a little item to the “What Where When,” the printed guide to activities at Burning Man:
Graduates of the School of Life/BRC Campus: Your diploma will not be mailed and must be picked up in person. Clothing and student ID optional. Please note that your attitude may determine what field of study is listed on your diploma. Brought to you by the Happy Spot.
Then I sat down at my computer and designed a tongue-in-cheek diploma. At the top, below the name of the school in elaborate Blackletter (School of Life, Black Rocky City Campus) was fancy script that read, “In recognition of Ass-Kicking Attainments Achieved on the Playa and by virtue of the Authority granted by the Citizenry of the State of Insanity…” It featured a book-of-fire border with tiny images of the Man, an official seal that read “Incendo ergo sum” (I burn, therefore I am), and the signatures of four “trustees,” one of whom was Sawyer B. Hind, Janitorial Staff Representative. I printed it on parchment, and from a distance, it looks like a real diploma.
My plan was simple. I would set up a table in the middle of the desert, and if anyone came by, I would hand-letter their name and field of study on a diploma. I thought I’d hand out a few to passers-by and give the rest to my friends.
With the help of Barry and my friend Sparkle, I set up the table and started lettering, chatting with the first people who stopped by. People just kept coming, and a line formed. I was focusing intently on each person and the lettering, because I didn’t want to make a mistake and throw away any of the diploma blanks. All of a sudden, I looked up, and to my surprise, there was a line of people, waiting in the hot sun, that stretched all the way to the Man!
I had completely underestimated the importance of the diploma in our culture.
Needless to say, I ran out of diplomas. Not only that, but after three hours of non-stop calligraphy (the event was scheduled to be two hours), my neck and shoulders were cramping. Three fingers on my left hand had gone numb and stayed that way for a couple of days. We had to take down names and email addresses of all the people who were in line when the diplomas ran out.
I have published below my list of the graduates and their fields of study, a priceless tribute to the creativity of the Burning community. Each one is incredibly meaningful to the recipient. “This is so beautiful — I want to hang it up at work,” said one woman, who had initially written her Playa name and then crossed it out and wrote her full name. I lost count of the number of people who told me they were going to frame theirs.
While I was lettering diplomas, my photographer friend Zeke set up a studio and took portraits of the “graduates.” When I saw pictures of happy, proud diploma-holders wearing a velvet-trimmed Doctoral graduation gown, I felt both happy and sad. I’d saved it from the estate of my recently-departed brother, Stevie. I know he would have loved the whole project and Zeke’s pictures.
What had inspired the whole project was the theme for Burning Man 2011: Rites of Passage. When I heard about it, graduation was the first thing that came to mind. I thought it was something that everyone did, that everyone could identify with. I was stunned when many of my “graduates” admitted that they didn’t have a diploma, and they felt incomplete because of it. I was giving them something they really needed.
One man became very emotional, almost tearful, when I handed him his diploma. “It was such a long line, and after I waited for a while, I thought about just walking away,” he told me. “But that’s what I always do.” He admitted that pattern in his life had prevented him from completing many things, including school.
“If I can’t stand in sun long enough to get to the head of this line, I can’t finish anything,” he said. He carefully rolled up his new diploma, proof that he could change his attitude and maybe his life.
Sparkle’s photographs are below. She’s been a fantastic people-photographer since high school, when she edited the yearbook for three years in a row. Be sure to click on the thumbnails to see the entire image.
The list of 2011 graduates with their amazing fields of study is at the bottom, below Sparkle’s photos.
This year, in keeping with the Fertility 2.0 theme, I plan to hand out birth certificates. Maybe I can even find some additional calligraphers, so my fingers won’t go numb.
2011 Graduates, School of Life, Black Rock City Campus
Agent Awesome (Divine Omnipotence)
Aida (Desert Dancing)
Airen (Self Reliance)
Archimedes (States of Consciousness)
Big Barry (Expansion)
Bign “T” Dawg (Dust)
Carlos (Kosmic Sillyness)
Cheeky Monkey (Cheeky Antics & Monkey Business)
Citizen Cain (Playa Anthropology)
Daddy Naha (Pimpin’)
Daniel (Effigy Combustion)
Dust Bunny (Playa Fashion)
Dustin (Rambing & Wandering)
Enabled (Mindscape Reconstruction)
Fred (City Planning)
Greg (Hard Knocks)
Hot Cheeks (Brass & Leather)
IC Bill (Freedom)
IC Jon (Makn)
Jeremy (A-Playa-d Chemistry)
Joshuasca (Musical Shamanism)
Keith (Astral Relocation)
Kitty (A-playa-d Physics)
Lawrence of AA (Revolutionary Theory)
MacGyver (Mad Science)
Margot (Human Identification & Kiffing)
Marie (Art Appreciation)
Mark (Sarcasm & Sincerity)
Maynard (Applied Resources)
Michael (Love Muffins)
Mike (Fire Science)
Mona Lisa (Smiling Arts)
Monicat (Evolutionary Spiritual Energy)
Nora (A-playa-d Improvisation)
Pumpkin DD (Ability to Love)
Ronk (Wildlife Restoration)
Roto (Accepting Inefficiency)
Shawnamenon (Cunning Linguistics)
Sherpa (Fire Performance)
Shorty (Aplayad Visionary)
Switch (Playa Ichyology)
Tiphaine (Serendipity and Kiffing)
White Feather (Geology)
Wiggy (Bringing Love from the Sky)
Every year, there comes a time when Burning Man ends and we have to pack our dusty camping gear and clothing. It’s not like packing up just any campsite.
First, we have to take down and fold a shade structure that measures about 500 square feet, coiling dozens of dust-laden ropes that held it up. As we untie the ropes, we have to yank out the pieces of rebar that they were tied to, preferably before we trip over one of them and get hurt. Since the rebar was driven into the ground with a sledgehammer, it takes a lot of work to get it out. We have to mop up any yucky water that didn’t evaporate in the shower pond, sort the recycling and garbage, and find a place to burn the burlap bag full of dessicated compost.
We have to do all this while wearing dust masks and work gloves in the blazing sun. Even so, it’s not the most painful part of leaving — saying goodbye to all our friends is. There’s never enough time in one week to spend with all our dear friends in Black Rock City.
In the past, this onerous period has been followed by a painful multi-step re-entry into the “default” world. There are a number of steps to this re-entry, such as the first time I see pavement after a week. The first flush toilet. The first time I interact with a non-Burner. The first time I use a credit card. The first phone call I make. The first phone call I receive: “Hey, what’s that funny ringing noise?”
But this year was different. It has been almost a month since we left, and I am still floating on Cloud Nine, feeling bubbly and happy. Why?
It’s because I didn’t have to say goodbye to my friends right away. Yay!
We camped this year next to a great couple named Shade and Swirly Sue. The two of them had a small RV and an enormous, welcoming shade structure. They were fun and generous, offering cool foot baths to anyone who wanted one. Because of this, they made lots of new friends. By the end of the week, there were six people camping next to us instead of two.
All six left Black Rock City together, riding in Shade and Sue’s RV and towing their gear and bikes in a large open trailer.
We didn’t say goodbye to them when they left. We also didn’t say goodbye to our campmate, Sparkle. Or our friends in Silicon Village, Philip and Claire.
A couple of hours after we drove out of Black Rock City, we walked into a furniture-free rental house in Sparks, Nevada. “Guess who had a flat tire?” I called out to the assembled group, which included all nine of the fine Burners mentioned in the above paragraph. They were sprawled on the carpet in the living and dining rooms, eating cold, fresh food like lettuce salad and ice cream. All were enjoying life without dust for the first time in a week. As the evening wore on, each dusty person would disappear for a while and then return from the shower, unrecognizable.
The impromptu house party was hosted by Sparkle, who’d just attended her first Burn and had taken to it like a fish to water. Looking around the room, I remembered her asking me about the principle of Gifting. “What should I bring to give away?” she asked me, referring to items she could buy in advance. I suggested she not bring anything for her first year, just enjoy the experience and know what to bring the next time.
Now, after one week in the desert, she was demonstrating that she understood the principle of Gifting perfectly. In fact, she also was helping us experience Radical Inclusion, Participation, Immediacy, and Communal Effort, more of the Ten Principles of Burning Man.
After showers and a meal, two of our friends had to leave that first night, driving through the night to the Bay Area. They got a lot of hugs to help them on their way. Four others took off the following day. But five of us stayed through the week, forming a sort of family group in the Sparkle House.
One evening, we descended on a laundromat together and took over 13 washing machines. Then we ate pizza, played games, and drew crayon pictures for each other at the Blind Onion. Another day, we drove to Lake Tahoe, where all five of us had to share one camera. We lived even more of those Burning Man principles, namely Radical Self-Expression (we sat around making jewelry from glass and wire), Decommodification (no TV!), and Radical Self-Reliance (cleaning all the dust off our gear). The grand finale was the Great Reno Balloon Race, which we all attended at the end of the week. Words do not do it justice — more photos are coming.
It was a magical time, a chance to experience intentional community outside of Burning Man. We’d only met Nick and Anneliese a few days earlier, but they were so easy to be with, it was as though we’d known each other all our lives. My connection to Sparkle was even more amazing. We’d known each other at school 30 years earlier, but had been out of touch ever since. When she arrived at Burning Man, it was the first time I’d seen her since we received our high school diplomas. Now she’s like a sister.
Eventually, we did have to leave and say goodbye to Sparkle and the kids. That was a tough goodbye, but we did not have to say goodbye to Nick and Anneliese. They went along with us to our next adventure.
To this day, people are still asking us, “How was Burning Man?”
“It was great! The best ever!” Barry and I say, in unison.
And, I might add, it’s not over yet. As long as there are Burning friends in my life, it might just go on forever.
Hurricane Irene is now heading directly for our boat, which is our only home. She’s just north of Morehead City, North Carolina: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/refresh/graphics_at4+shtml/152235.shtml?gm_track#contents
But we are three thousand miles away, on our way to Burning Man tomorrow. For the next 12 days, we’ll be incommunicado with 50,000 of our closest friends.
What should we do?
Not this: “When in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.”
Instead, this: Practice non-attachment.
Sure, we’ve done some preparation. We left the boat on the hard in one of the best boatyards in the country. We removed everything from the deck before we left. A good friend has secured the dinghy so it won’t fly or float away. Another has agreed to check on the boat once the storm passes.
There’s nothing more we can do, physically. All the work now is mental and emotional. The worst thing that can happen is not damage to our boat, but pain or injury to dear friends who live in the path of the storm.
It’s just a matter of perspective. I lost my brother this year. Losing a boat would be nothing compared to that. A mere scratch to my psyche.
So I wait to see what happens, and I send calming thoughts to my friends in the path of the storm. I head to Burning Man with the knowledge that an entire city can be built and removed in the space of a week.
Flutterby has been “totaled” in a hurricane before. She was built and rebuilt, and rebuilt, and rebuilt. She can be repaired and rebuilt again, and we have the skills to do so. I’d gladly rebuild her again if I could have my brother back. As I often say, “It’s only stuff.”
Hurricane Irene: Keep it in perspective. Stay safe. And keep breathing.
Now that we’re out cruising, I have a little time to review old writing notes and find stories to share with you. Here’s one from October in the boatyard, with a special treat — a video!
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was walking across the boatyard one morning when I saw a pirate.
I rubbed my eyes, but the image persisted. He was standing on the catamaran named Fellowship, which for years had sat forlornly out in the boneyard. Now Fellowship was parked smack dab in the middle of the yard, in the spot normally reserved for the crane.
At this distance, he was the spitting image of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean — shoulder-length black curly hair, black goatee, red bandana, black leather boots, black eye makeup, torn jeans, and something that I would call a “blouse.”
Women wear blouses. So do movie star pirates.
I went into the office, where Carolyn was staring out the window with a look that could only be called “flabbergasted.” I probably had the same look.
“Er, what’s with the pirate?” I asked.
She shook her head. “He says he’s going to buy that boat.”
Now the pirate was hoisting a large black flag with a skull and crossbones that said “Choose Your Poison.” He had a huge grin on his face.
“Is he legit?” I asked.
“I don’t know — I told him he needed to talk to Kenny. The guy said he’d be over on that boat, and he said, ‘Tell him to look for the pirate!'” Carolyn rolled her eyes, and I couldn’t help but giggle.
Carolyn added, “He FLOUNCED. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man flounce like that.”
Over the next few days, all the boatyard gossip was about the mysterious, dramatic pirate: “Instead of hello, he says ‘Ahoy!'” — “I saw him take down his pirate flag at night, like an ensign.” — “He calls all the boats ‘ships.'” — “He told me he’s more of a Disney pirate.”
The first time the pirate spoke to me, I was sitting in the lounge with my laptop. The door opened, and he walked in carrying a strangely familiar kerosene lantern. This was completely anachronistic, since he went straight to the new high-tech Coke machine, with its illuminated display and fancy purple lights. “Ahoy!” he said by way of greeting. Like several of the older denizens of the yard, I ignored him. We were all afraid of losing our composure and laughing uncontrollably if we spoke to him.
The pirate turned out to be a fairly industrious man by the name of Logan. (“Sheesh, that’s no name for a pirate,” I grumbled.) Even though it was his first boat, he was able to get her launched in about a month. Folks in the boatyard provided him with lots of well-meaning advice. He listened politely, like a traditional Disney pirate, and then did things his own way, like a traditional scurvy knave.
Eventually, Logan-the-pirate started hanging out at Happy Hour. He had a grandiose scheme for Fellowship. He was going to paint her black — black hull AND black deck — and have black sails made. He planned to mount cannons. Then he was going to offer pirate charters aboard his “ship.” Her new name: The Black Lotus.
When I heard the plan, all I could say was, “Brilliant!” Even if you are not a fan of things piratical (yes, we are talking about scoundrels who murdered, raped, and pillaged), it’s a clever business idea. Charter boats are a dime a dozen. But pirate-themed charter boats, with black sails and foot-scorching black decks? And Jack Sparrow impersonators and cannons? There will be only one of those. I know a couple of people who’d sign up in a heartbeat.
Once I gave up being a curmudgeon and started talking to Logan, I decided that I liked him a lot. He was full of infectious enthusiasm. After many years of sailing and a few years in the boatyard, I was losing sight of the goal — this stuff is supposed to be fun! So why not dress in crazy clothes and call “Ahoy!” to strangers? Why not carry a lantern instead of a flashlight? Why be “normal?”
The first time I actually had a conversation with Logan, a few of us were sitting around in the dark, talking and sharing libations. It was too dim to make out details; each person was just a shadowy figure and a voice. I mentioned something in passing about Burning Man, and Logan suddenly sat up.
Aha — another Burner in the boatyard!
This explains a few things. We Burners wear costumes even when it’s not Halloween. Hence me, in my pink-and-white bunny ears, carrying a hula hoop around the boatyard. And hence Logan, the Disney pirate carrying a kerosene lantern. (Which he says he ordered after seeing the ones used by Lamplighters at Burning Man!)
When Fellowship, soon to be the Black Lotus, left the dock, Barry and I were on hand with cameras. Logan-the-pirate was at the helm, grinning from ear to ear. A few moments later, as they approached the bridge, he turned the wheel over to his friend and made his way forward to the mast. Wearing his black leather pirate coat, he climbed the mast steps, some twenty feet to the spreaders. As promised, he danced an ecstatic little jig on the spreader, looking just like Jack Sparrow in the introductory scene of Pirates of the Caribbean — with one exception. Logan’s boat — er, ship — was not sinking.
I was on the road to Alchemy, the Georgia regional Burning Man festival. Several people I had never met before told me I should go on Saturday night. I thought about it on Sunday. Monday morning I had decided to go. By Tuesday afternoon, the Squid Wagon and I were underway across North Carolina.
After a long drive on mostly two-lane roads, I ended up on I-95 heading South. Traffic wasn’t very bad and I was talking on my cell phone. (Gee, I used to hate those people…so much for moral superiority!) I had seen a couple billboards but didn’t really pay attention to them. Then I saw the giant sombrero tower. I interrupted the conversation with “Oh my god, I have to stop now.” and then made my way toward the exit. I said goodbye and then found a place to park.
About five years ago, Meps and I went to South of the Border, and found some much-needed levity. A bit over a year ago, we stopped in and got a few interesting things for Burning Man. By this time, I knew I was at the mother load of kitsch, and must stop and look for inspiration.
Some things don’t change. They still had inflatable space aliens. They still had tasteless stuff. There were still feral cats running around the property. The employees still seem jaded at all the silly kitsch surrounding them. Or maybe they never had a sense of humor anyhow? There still weren’t many other customers there.
Other things are different. The inflatable space aliens are only in three colors now; no pink ones anymore. I didn’t have anybody to point out the best goofy stuff to, and nobody was pointing it out to me. In fact, nobody was smiling or laughing there. Now I’m wondering if I was smiling enough when I was there.
I bought a couple things, then got some food, and went back on the road.
The next day I made it to Columbia. I proceeded to spend most of the day trying to find thrift stores on almost every side of the city, looking to find more costume clothing. Plus the party store. And a really cool costume shop called Hip-Wa-Zee.
But I’d been there before too. Meps and I and her father and a friend in Columbia had all spent a day driving around most of these places, looking for costume bits and other Burning Man stuff. This time when I scored, there was nobody to share it with. And this time I was getting half-lost driving around a strange town, rather than having a native take us from place to place.
So even if it was going up the same river, it was a different place this time. And, of course, the thrift shops had completely different merchandise than last time! I got some great stuff, although I still think the dragon print shirt I got last time is the best costume I’ve purchased in the entire state!
But as I continued upstream, I entered a different part of the river system, and things really started to change. This time, I wasn’t going to Nevada, I was going to Georgia. On the road to Burning Man, it started to feel like we were salmon returning from the sea, and all going upstream to the same destination at the same time. The closer you get, the more frequently you see people obviously heading in with you.
On my way in, I got lost going into and then through the last town, and finally made it to the gate of the event. And realized that I had not once seen another vehicle that I could clearly identify as going to Alchemy with me. If I had been driving to Burning Man, I wouldn’t have had any trouble guessing the last four turns because so much traffic was obviously going to the same place, and it would have been easy to follow.
Then I was in the event, and looking to the present, not the past–being part of the stream that others were walking through, and wading in myself as well.
A couple of months back, Barry and I went for a walk in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. At the intersection of two side streets, I saw something that made me smile — children had decorated the pavement with colored chalk. There were drawings, words, and patterns all over the intersection and extending down both streets.
The item that caught my eye and cause me to detour as I crossed the street was a small box. Inside, someone had written “Happy Spot.” Beside the box was the instruction, “Stand here,” with an arrow. I stood in the Happy Spot and beamed at Barry. Then he came over and stood in the Happy Spot, too.
It was such a simple idea, I had to borrow it.
A few weeks later, we were preparing our gear and costumes for our third annual trip to Burning Man. We had a list of things to do — build and test our shade structure, sort out costumes, and pack camping gear designed for “radical self-reliance” in the desert. There was also an item on the list that said, “Create Happy Spot.”
Using yellow signboard and Sharpie markers, I made a couple of hand-lettered signs. We found some yellow-and-black smiley face lights to put on them, and Barry’s Mom donated a sheet of happy face stickers that had come from Highlights for Children.
We took some good-natured ribbing from our more prurient friends. “Oh sure,” they said, rolling their eyes, “you’re gonna set up a Happy Spot at Burning Man. We can’t wait to see THOSE pictures.”
It’s true, there are many R- and X-rated things at Burning Man. But it’s also true that in our first two years, we’d somehow managed to miss them. There are enough PG-rated activities to keep anyone entertained for a whole week, and if we wanted the Happy Spot to be PG-rated, it would be.
On the first day, we set up our Monkey Hut shade structure, festooned with a fringed drapery and floral sheets. Then Barry installed the large Happy Spot sign at the top. Now our tiny camp *was* the Happy Spot.
The next day, I took one of the smaller signs and set it in the ground in front of the hut. I stuck a garish pink daisy on the sign and affixed an arrow pointing at the ground. Barry used some pink rope and landscape staples to outline a little box on the ground, the same size as the chalk one that had inspired me.
The box was perfect for one person and just big enough for two people if they were hugging each other.
We tried it out. Mmmmm, it was happy.
Our first “customers” were neighbors and friends. Our friend Yani came by and got her picture taken in the spot, showing off the her funny little thumb puppet, whose name is WhoopAss.
On the second day, a woman in furry aqua boots and a matching bikini top was riding by on a bicycle. She screeched to a halt and jumped off her bike and onto the square, saying “Oh! What a Happy Spot!” Before she pedaled away, we gave her a hug and a happy sticker for her bike. The magic was working.
Most of the people who stopped were on foot, because it was easy to meander over to our side of the street. But many stopped on bikes, and some firemen even stopped their truck in the middle of the road, got out, and stood in the Happy Spot. They gave us little plastic junior fireman figures to play with.
Everyone who stopped got a happy sticker. Unlike most stickers given out at Burning Man, these little stickers were all on one sheet, so they had to be affixed immediately. “Which sticker would you like and where would you like it stuck?” I’d ask. It was fun to watch them decide. All the stickers were different colors and had different happy expressions. Some people chose to put them on their bikes or water bottles. Others asked to have the sticker on their forehead or chest. A couple of people had little notebooks to put them in. Everybody got a hug with their sticker.
As the creator of the Happy Spot, I actually missed its most intense moment. Barry and Yani were hanging out in the shade when a man walking down the street stopped and stood in the Spot. “I need to go get my girlfriend and show her the Happy Spot.” They chatted briefly, and then the man looked up and said, “Oh, here she comes, right now.”
He called her over to stand with him in the Happy Spot. Then something very special and powerful happened, with a lot of tears and kisses. It was such a lengthy private emotional moment that Yani decided to make herself scarce, quietly saying goodbye to Barry and riding off on her bike. Barry, who had been sitting right next to the Spot, got up and puttered around the back of the campsite, trying to be unobtrusive.
The next morning, the two of them came back, hand in hand and smiling. Something big in their relationship had been healed in the Happy Spot.
Even with the Happy Spot at my camp, though, I wasn’t done dispensing joy to my fellow citizens of Black Rock City. On Friday, I put on a floor-length blue skirt, a huge satin confection with a glittery, gauzy overskirt. With it went a matching top, wings, and a wand. As the Fairy Godmother, I was going out to grant wishes.
I walked into Center Camp, which was, as usual, chaotic. A cute young guy caught my eye and smiled. “Would you like a wish?” I asked. “Sure!” he said. I realized I hadn’t actually figured out how the Fairy Godmother should grant wishes, so I had to make it up on the spot. I told him to close his eyes and make a wish. “You don’t have to say it aloud, just think it.” With my wand, I tapped him lightly on the right shoulder, the left shoulder, and the right again. “Bink, bink, bink.” I gave him a kiss on the cheek, and I said, “There! It may not come true right away, but it will come true — in your cosmic lifetime.” He grinned up at me. “It just did,” he said. His friends all laughed and asked for wishes, too.
I continued around the circle, offering wishes to people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and colors. From a bench across the way came a shout, “Shelly!” I looked over, and an animated young guy was telling his friends, “I saw her last year. She had the most amazing costume, made out of giant seashells.” I couldn’t believe it. I’d worn the “‘shelly” costume a couple of days earlier, but it hadn’t generated a lot of comment this year, and I thought maybe it was time to retire it. Yet here I was, dressed as the Fairy Godmother, and this guy remembered me, and the costume, from the previous year. Bink, bink, bink, went the wand, and then I granted wishes to all his friends, too.
Hearing what the wishes were would have been interesting, but that would have diminished the gift. I didn’t want to exchange a wish for a piece of interesting information. I just wanted to give the gift of a wish.
I did accidentally hear what a couple of the wishes were, though.
A man sitting by the street, offering beverages to passers-by, wanted a wish. I asked if Barry could take a picture as I granted it. “Sure,” he said, “Can you take a picture with my camera, too?” “I’ll grant you two wishes, then.” “Does that mean I’ll get two wives?” he asked.
I offered wishes to two little boys who were with their father. “Are you sure we don’t have to tell you our wish?” they asked. With parental wisdom, their father said, “You can whisper it in my ear.” He leaned down, and the younger boy whispered in his ear. Then I granted his wish. Bink, bink, bink. The older one, probably about 10 or so, did the same. The younger one looked up at his brother. “What did you wish for?” Big brother leaned down and whispered something in his ear. “Oh!” said little brother, loudly. “You wished that Jeremy would stop being a jerk, too?”
When I offered a wish to their father, he declined. Gesturing at the two boys, he said, “I’ve already got mine.”
For me, the Happy Spot and Fairy Godmother were what Burning Man was all about. Connecting with people, and giving them a once-in-a-lifetime gift that wasn’t about “stuff.” In a gift economy, I’d found the most valuable thing I could give away — the gift of joy. Yet the more I gave away, the more I had.
Bink, bink, bink.