Grabbing a tiger by the tail

Meps unveiling the art

Meps unveils the artwork for the first time at Burning Man

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.

Colored pencil illustration of Mating Shadows installation

Mating Shadows concept sketch

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:

Four members of the setup team

Claire, Roger and Linda help Philip wire the speakers in a dust storm

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.

Philip and Jason conduct a software meeting on the couch

Philip and Jason conduct a software meeting on the couch

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:

The setup crew on the playa

The setup crew watches Suzy work. L to R: Big Barry, Lucky Linda, Rumi-Nator (Roger), Archimedes (Blaine), Halcyon (Suzy), MacGyver (Philip).

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.”

Roger, soldering

Roger revisits a lifelong belief that he can’t solder

Me, with the router and the Choose ART sign

Me, with the router and the Choose ART sign

Barry with the danged circular saw

Barry with the danged circular saw

Blaine at work

Blaine started digging trenches at 7:30 in the morning and didn’t stop for many photo ops.

Philip soldering

Philip soldering in the backyard. The paper bags hold small, fussy parts.

Closeup of Philip soldering

Philip solders parts on one of the small boards

Roger's legs

Roger’s legs are not just behind the console…

Roger, working under adverse conditions

…he’s inside it! I think he’s used to working in tight spaces, given the size of his boat.

Suzy runs cable

Suzy runs cable to the speaker poles

Keeping the flame alive

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.

Barry's ready to take down the shade structure. We took this picture so he could remember his knots for next year.

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!

Anneliese and Sparkle sharing a hug in front of the RV

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.

Our little family at the balloon races

Yours Truly with a couple of thought balloons

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.

Preparing to meet Irene

Hurricane Irene is now heading directly for our boat, which is our only home. She’s just north of Morehead City, North Carolina:

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.


The Fellowship of Pirates

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.

Even pirates have to apply bottom paint to their ships

Who has more influence than a pirate? The boatyard owner who decides when to launch your boat. Here's Logan talking to Kenny Bock at the launching of the pirate ship.

Logan shows off his pirate ship on launching day

Over joyed

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.

Meps dressed as Xena at the Happy Spot

Meps dressed as Xena at 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.

Yani and WhoopAss in the Happy Spot

Yani and WhoopAss in the Happy Spot

The aqua girl in the Happy Spot

The aqua girl in the Happy Spot

The gourd people, with Barry and Denise and John, in the Spot

The gourd people, with Barry and Denise and John, in the Spot

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.

Man with happy orange sticker on his forehead

Man with happy orange sticker on his forehead

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.

The happiest couple in the Happy Spot

The happiest couple 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.

Six people, six wishes (they were using the butterfly net to collect dust)

Six people, six wishes (they were using the butterfly net to collect dust)

Granting a wish for happy feet to our good friend Mike

Granting a wish for happy feet to our good friend Mike

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.

Two wives? Hopefully not at the same time!

Two wives? Hopefully not at the same time!

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.

Meps and the one who makes her happy

Meps and the one who makes her happy

Nothing like the present(s)

Emanuel's interpretation of a sailboat

Emanuel's interpretation of a sailboat

Gabriel's interpretation of pirates

Gabriel's interpretation of pirates

On a May day between my birthday and Barry’s, we were sitting out in the cockpit, enjoying the shade of our beautiful bimini top and eating a mid-morning snack. As usual, the cockpit was a mess, full of tools and parts, which included a pile of teak scraps on top of the refrigerator. They’d been removed from someone else’s boat, so they all had bolt-holes through them, but the bolts had been taken out.

A little wasp, black with white stripes, flew over and landed on the pile. She looked around, selected one of the holes, and climbed in. A moment later, she flew away.

To my credit, I didn’t scream or jump around or do any of the hysterical things I normally do around insects. I simply picked up the piece of teak and studied the two tiny green caterpillars she’d left, now exposed on top of the fridge. “Nice of her to bring us a little gift, but I don’t think we need these,” I said, flicking them onto the ground and cleaning up the pile of wood. When she came back, she walked around for a while, confused, then left us another couple of caterpillars before leaving for good.

The next gift to arrive was even more remarkable and a lot more tasty.

At his gym in Vero Beach, Florida, my Dad met a retiree named Carlo. The conversation turned to Carlo’s passion, making sausage. “What? You haven’t tried my sausage? I’ll bring you some!” After his retirement, Carlo was at loose ends, so his kids and grandkids talked him into making sausage, something he’d done as a child with his Sicilian grandfather. It was so successful that it turned into a business. Now he makes and sells Carlo’s Lean Sicilian Sausage at the local Saturday market, and he also packs it in dry ice and ships it all over the country.

When the package arrived, the first thing we got excited about was the dry ice! We put chunks of it in water and giggled at the bubbles and the smoking effect, and Barry even put it in a drink. Then we fired up the  barbecue.

Barry's birthday feast - tzatziki, baba ghanouj, grilled onions, oranges, pistachios, kalamata olives, cotija cheese, and Carlo's fabulous sausage

Barry's birthday feast - tzatziki, baba ghanouj, grilled onions, oranges, pistachios, kalamata olives, cotija cheese, and Carlo's fabulous sausage

This stuff is magic! It’s full of flavor, but so finely ground that it melts in your mouth without the greasy feeling you usually get from sausage. I said it was the best sausage I’ve eaten. Barry said, “Yummy!”

And it was a lot tastier than the caterpillars would have been.

The next day, when Barry woke up on his birthday, he had a whole pile of presents. Being the hard worker he is, he spent the entire day doing electrical work on the boat, and he didn’t open any of them until evening, when Val and John came by for a piece of birthday pie. When he came up the ladder, Val had a big box under his arm and a shit-eating grin.

There’s a little back story to this one. Whenever a bunch of boaters get together, certain exciting topics  always come up in conversation. These include: 1. Cheap places to cruise, 2. Expensive places to cruise, 3. Marine toilets (this always seems to come up during dinner), and 4. Bedding compounds.

Val is a  proponent of 3M 5200, a polyurethane caulk with extremely strong adhesive properties. Barry and I prefer 3M 101, which is a low-adhesion polysulfide caulk, or butyl rubber, which comes on a roll and is also low-adhesion. After a glass of wine aboard Kuhelli one evening, the two of them got into an argument about it, and the fur really flew! Everyone was looking at Val and Barry, wondering if they were going to see a fistfight over bedding compounds.

That night, when Barry and I got home, I commented on the argument. He laughed, and said, “I’m sure Val knows that arguing with an engineer is like wrestling with a pig. Everybody gets dirty, but the pig likes it.”

So when Barry opened his birthday gift from Val, he found a cylindrical object with the following instructions:

Open in case of a leak from other sealant that gave up. This will happen sooner than you think!!!!
This is powerful stuff. Make sure when you use it you line up the pieces correctly, because after it cures, there is no known way to remove it. Why would you remove it if the pieces are perfectly lined up? Not because of a leak. That I am sure.

We were practically rolling in laughter when Barry pulled out the tube of 5200, which had been further labeled “EMERGENCY USE ONLY ON FLUTTERBY.”

5200: For "emergency" use only on Flutterby

5200: For "emergency" use only on Flutterby

It just didn’t seem like there was any way to top such a perfect birthday gift. But wait, there’s more!

A week before Barry’s birthday, we’d gone to the Beaufort Music Festival and gotten hooked on a new band, an alternative group called Bombadil. Our favorite song is called Jelly Bean Wine, which we’ve been playing over and over (you can hear it on their MySpace page, about the 5th song down). Since I have an interest in wine-label design, I decided to create some Jelly Bean Wine for Barry’s birthday. I picked up a bottle of Arbor Mist, which tastes like this generation’s version of Tickle Pink (don’t ask how I know). They take cheap wine, add corn syrup and kool-aid flavoring, and sell it like real wine with a screw cap. It’s the only wine you can buy in the gas station (don’t ask how I know).

My label involved a photo of jelly beans that I ran through the “spin” filter in Photoshop. Under the photo was the line from the song: “Perfect for a Sunday morning hangover.”

Meps' original label for Jelly Bean Wine. Our friend Tom says the label makes him dizzy, so I accomplished what I set out to design!

Meps' original label for Jelly Bean Wine. Our friend Tom says the label makes him dizzy, so I accomplished exactly what I set out to design!

It’s great as a piece of art. I’m not sure what would induce him to drink it. If he ever does, I’ll let you know.

Most people don’t get a that many birthday presents, let alone such creative and thoughtful ones. But all of these presents paled in comparison to the large, flat, mysterious box that came from Columbus, Ohio. We’d been waiting for Barry’s birthday to open it, but his sister told us, “It’s to both of you! Go ahead and open it.”

Inside, we found a Monopoly game. We looked at each other, puzzled. We knew that the Millers, parents and kids, love to play Monopoly, but how did they know we didn’t have the game? And where would we put it?

Then Barry lifted the lid and took out the board and exclaimed something like “Holy buckets!” (Notice that I said *like* “Holy buckets!” because Barry doesn’t actually say “Holy buckets!” it’s just more interesting that “Omigod!” which is probably what he did say. Or maybe he said, “Wow!” and I said, “Omigod, holy buckets!”)

The center of the Meps-n-Barryopoly board

The center of the Meps-n-Barryopoly board

We bent our heads over the most amazing game board we’d ever seen. In the center were caricatures of the two of us, dressed as pirates, superimposed on the name of the game, Meps-n-Barryopoly. Each location on the board is a place we have been to and written about — Arkansas, Crater Lake, North Carolina, Portugal, Brazil, the Bahamas. Instead of going to “jail,” our set says “go to house,” and the two most valuable properties, instead of Boardwalk and Park Place, are Seattle and Burning Man, our favorite places in the world. The game pieces are sculptures of us and our teddy bears, and the cards are completely re-written to reflect our travel adventures. Even the play money is replaced with Bear Bucks, complete with Frankie the Bear’s head on them.

It was the most marvelous thing I had ever seen.

A day later, when we went to play it, though, we discovered one thing absent from the box: The rules. With our friend Dick, we wracked our brains to remember how to play, and finally reverted to the phone. We admitted to Julie that we loved our present, but didn’t know what to do with it! So she put Barry’s nephew Emanuel on the phone, and he gave us detailed instructions as only an 8-year-old can.

It was a marathon game, lasting until almost 3 am, when we all collapsed from exhaustion. Evidently, there are different ways to play Monopoly, and some take longer than others. If you play by the official rules, the game is only supposed to last about 90 minutes!

One day, we’ll get this boat out cruising, and we’ll stop at Vero Beach to meet Carlo, thank my Dad, and play Meps-n-Barryopoly while we drink a toast with Jelly Bean Wine and watch our 5200 cure. But first, maybe another little road trip? We need to go up to Ohio and thank Julie and Cody and Emanuel and Gabriel personally!

(Pictures of the Monopoly set are below. I made ’em big, so you can read the hilarious cards!)

The full Meps-n-Barryopoly board

The full Meps-n-Barryopoly board

The Chance cards

The Chance cards

The Burner's Chest cards

The Burner's Chest cards

The game pieces - Scuppers in his sweater, Barry with a mohawk, long-haired Meps, and chubby Frankie

The game pieces - Scuppers in his sweater, Barry with a mohawk, long-haired Meps, and chubby Frankie

The money and hand-colored cards -- all of them places where we've been (except for a few oceans)

The money and hand-colored cards -- all of them places where we've been (except for a few oceans). The $50 fun fee for Burning Man is a little low, but $2000 for euphoria seems about right.

Halloween is for amateurs

One year, when I worked at Expeditors, I dressed up as Cousin It for Halloween. My costume was incredibly simple — all I had to do was wear a trenchcoat, brush my hair over my face, and put some sunglasses over the hair.

I suspect the reason I won the costume contest was actually not how I looked, but how I acted. Whenever I wasn’t at my desk (and I don’t think Expeditors got their money out of me that day), I would stand up, hold my arms at my sides, and scuffle-scoot across the carpet, making high-pitched bursts of squeaking noises. In a men-must-wear-ties business environment, it drew a lot of laughs.

That Halloween evening, I came home from work, triumphant with success. I wanted to take my winning costume out again, so I talked Barry into going to Trolloween that night. “But what am I going to wear?” he asked.

I started thinking, and I got out the life-sized crow my Dad had given us in honor of our boat, the Northern Crow. “How about putting this on your shoulder?” It was styrofoam-light, with realistic glossy black feathers. I dug out a huge green jacket with a hood to go with it.

“You look great!” I enthused, after he was dressed. His face was hidden deep in the hood, and the crow looked real, wired onto his shoulder. He’d added black longjohns, a pair of leather hiking boots, and a big wooden hiking staff. But peering into the mirror, he frowned.

“What do I tell people I am?”

“You’re not a kid any more. It’s only little kids who get asked, ‘What are you?’ on Halloween!”

That night, my award-winning Cousin It costume was a complete failure. Without the bright fluorescent lights of the office, I couldn’t see a thing. And my scoot-and-squeak performance didn’t translate to the large crowd, nor was it fast enough to keep up with the parade.

But Barry was a huge success. Everyone who saw the crow did a double-take and asked if it was real. Over and over, I heard (although I couldn’t see a damn thing) people saying to Barry, “Great costume, man!”

At the end of the evening, he was as triumphant as I’d been earlier.

Since then, we’re not afraid to dress up in non-representational costumes (although Barry did dress as Jolly Roger Rabbit at Burning Man in 2007). Our costume bins are full of things that are colorful and wildly patterned, and it’s just a matter of putting the right colors and textures together with the right wigs, hats, and shoes.

The next time you dress up, if anyone asks what you are, here’s what you do. Put your arms at your sides, shuffle-scoot quickly across the ground, and make high-pitched bursts of squeaking noises. I guarantee, they won’t ask twice.

A little costume inspiration

Following are a few of my favorite Burning Man costume photos. Please be forewarned, some of the images are very revealing, and although there is no outright nudity, you might see more of Meps (and some other people) than you really want to.

Brazilian cosmonauts wings Shelly Sailor gals Ribbon lady No Account Meps’ hands Rad’s new costume Pink meets Red ConeyThe CD lady Ms. Caution Tape meets ShellyBelly dancing guys A strange bumblebee Barry in his dragon snake shirt

At a crossroads

Well, that last piece of mine was a total flop. Across the internet, I could hear my readers rolling their eyes. They wanted a lively Burning Man report with crazy costumes, naked people, and dancing boys. Instead, I got all serious.Sorry ’bout that.

I will now proceed to Day Two, when the sun came out with all the crazy costumes, naked people, and dancing boys.

The dancing boys were on top of a large Penske rental truck parked across from the Squid Wagon. One of them wore only a pair of fur hot pants with a long, furry tail. He was my favorite, and I worried that he might trip over his tail and fall off the truck.

The sun was bearing down on us, so we set to work on our flaccid shade structure. First, we unloaded the roof of the van — two bicycles, a room-sized piece of Berber carpet, and one disassembled porta-potty.

That porta-potty was the reason we were camping with the Lamplighters.

Sometime in July, our cell phone rang in the Morehead City Salvation Army, where we were shopping (unsuccessfully; it’s a boring thrift store) for costumes. A Burner named Cosmo had seen my number posted on a Burning Man ride board. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in carrying a large parcel in our van, in exchange for some gas money. “It’s a shower for the Lamplighters,” he told me.

Cosmo asked me “Where are you camping?” I admitted that we hadn’t figured that out yet. “You should camp with Lamplighters,” he said. “It’s a fantastic group of people — they’re just like family to me. Sometimes, I don’t even leave the camp the whole time.”

Barry thought joining the Lamplighters sounded like a great idea, a completely different experience from last year. Instead of a small group of Seattlites near the outer edge of the city, we’d be with a large international group right in the center of the city, with a communal kitchen and lounge. But was this fellow Cosmo some kind of nut? How could he go to Burning Man without leaving his camp?

We never actually met the man before we set out on our cross-country journey. We made the arrangements by phone, and one weekend, he dropped off a large, lumpy pile of plastic parts at my brother’s house in Durham. A few days later, we stopped through, strapped it to the top of the van, and carried it across the USA to Cosmo and the Lamplighters.

Our camping spot, assigned to us by a fellow called Snotto, was on an alley that ran through the camp. To one side were a forest of tents and the elaborate Lamplighter kitchen. On the other side were the dancing boys and the Lamplighter bar and lounge. Behind us were Cosmo’s Ryder truck and a large cardboard box that we assumed was for storage. And in front, about 20 feet away, was a small row of porta-potties.

As soon as we emerged from the van, it was apparent that our campsite wasn’t on a high-traffic pedestrian walkway — it WAS the high-traffic walkway. The problem was, we needed our shade structure to keep the interior of the van from turning into an oven, and there was no way to reef the sail.

Our home at the crossroadsAs we set up the giant canopy, I fretted about all those strangers walking through “our” space. Could we hang sheets or set up chairs to keep them from walking under our shade structure, or across our carpet?

Around then, a woman walked by on her way to the porta-potties. She was wearing a beautifully colorful costume, and I complimented her on it. A fellow passed on his way to the kitchen, wearing a 70’s-patterned muumuu, and we got into a conversation about how he found it on the internet. Then a neighbor came from another direction. He wasn’t sure which way to go — there didn’t seem to be a route for him that didn’t go through our space.

“Please, feel free to come through this way — you’re not bothering us at all,” I said. “We can’t figure out any way to make this shade structure smaller, so just come on through and enjoy it.”

That was how we met one of the most interesting Lamplighters, No Account, known around camp as Noah. The lady in the beautiful costume was Day-Zee. The dancing boy was Christopher, but I never learned the name of the man with the amazing muumuu.

I started to relax. What if we didn’t “claim” the space, but actually welcomed people walking through? What would happen?

What happened was that we met dozens and dozens of fun people on their way to the kitchen, the bar, or the bathroom. We were inescapable — since we attached part of the shade structure to our neighbor Mike’s RV, even people who didn’t stop to say hello had to pass under our guy rope, decorated with the same colorful yacht pennants used at our wedding in 1991.

Once the structure was up, we turned our attention to our costumes, packed in three large plastic totes. Mike unloaded his bicycle, grabbed his camera, and set off to see the art.

About 45 minutes later, when Mike returned, we were still there, digging through the costume boxes. He was puzzled. “Haven’t you left yet?” he asked.

Mike on his bikeWhat had happened was this: As we sorted through the costumes, people came walking through our camp. We said hello and got into conversations with them. So the 45 minutes included about 5 minutes of costume-sorting and 40 minutes of making new friends.

We’d been admiring Swagmeister’s tatoos, teasing Boxes With Bears about his upcoming wedding, and gossiping with Sean about the dancing boys across the way. Then Leanne and Jeremy came by, and we introduced them to Mike. But he had more to see, so he went off again.

When he returned, we were still there. “Haven’t you guys left yet?” he asked, incredulous. “We’re almost ready!” we said. Barry was just tying the turtle sarong that went with his mind-blowing bowling shirt. I had zipped up my pink knee-high boots and was tying on the pink-and-green hat.

“Have you met Mr. Mister?” we asked. “He’s the guy camping in those cardboard boxes over there.”

This particular hour had been spent visiting with Mr. Mister, who gave me a tour of his home. He’d used aircraft part boxes to construct a shelter that was neatly organized and nearly dustproof. In previous years, he’d learned to make it fairly tall, because people didn’t realize it was a house. He’d once been in bed when an amorous couple sat on top of him and started making out.

With all the visitors, it took us forever to blow up the four inflatable space aliens, A. Leeanne, Ros Well, Lou Wheeze, and Gert Rude, and put on their jeweled neck collars so their heads wouldn’t droop. Then I strapped them onto my bike and assembled their spacecraft. Barry put together his flying apparition and hung it from his bike.

Finally, late in the afternoon, we took off. To Mike, it must have seemed that we dawdled around camp all day. But we’d actually gotten a lot done, from engineering an unusual and sturdy shade structure to assembling ourselves and our bicycles as art. For we were not just there to see Burning Man, we were there to be seen by Burning Man.

Meps and Barry at campAlong the way, we made a lot of new friends. I wish I had pictures of more of them. Heck, I wish I knew more of their names. They were strangers when they came to our crossroads, but they weren’t strangers when they left. And that’s the most time-consuming — and entertaining — thing we did for days.

Illumination, navigation, celebration

All across the country, all our supporters want to know: How was Burning Man? The short answer is, IT WAS GREAT! The long answer is very long, so I’ll break it up into several pieces. The first one follows.

My first day at Burning Man was a blur. Literally.

The whiteout started at the worst possible time. We had partially unrolled the unwieldy 30-foot sail over the top of the Squid Wagon, and we had to abandon it and dive inside.

For a long time, we sat watching fine playa dust sift through tiny cracks in the doors and windows. Then we started trying to unearth the dust masks and goggles we’d brought to protect our lungs and eyes. Meanwhile, the sail flapped and chafed against the van, and we couldn’t see five feet. Finally, wearing our protective gear, we groped our way to the Lamplighters’ lounge, almost missing it in the total whiteout.

Was this what we’d driven across the country for?

The storm hadn’t abated by 5 pm, when we coughed and hacked our way to the Lamplighter Chapel. We milled around with the other newbies, until someone directed us to Digital Dan at the signup board. Dan is a tall, handsome man, and he looked like a sexy, elegant monk in his flame-decorated Lamplighter robe. He was also mysteriously silent. At the time, I thought that was to keep the process solemn and avoid back-talk. It seemed so appropriate that it was days later I finally realized he has a health issue that prevents him from talking.

Barry and I had seen pictures of the Lamplighting processions, but we were new to the complex, labor-intensive process. Each night, this volunteer public utility lights over a thousand kerosene lanterns and carries them, in robed processions, to 20-foot lampposts along the city’s major streets.

Each route requires dozens of people who sign up for one of four roles: A luminary, who leads each group; carriers, who carry 12 lanterns on long sturdy poles across their shoulders; lifters, who use long, slender poles to hang the lanterns on the lampposts; and support, the people who keep lanterns lit and take care of carriers’ and lifters’ needs.

That first night, Barry signed up as a lifter on the lengthy 2 o’clock route. I was nervous — was I strong enough to carry 30 pounds of lanterns and pole? Was I agile enough to hang lanterns 20 feet in the air? I decided to sign up as support, since that sounded easier.

There were about a hundred people milling about in the dust, cleaning lamps, trimming wicks, and using turkey basters to fill the reservoirs with kerosene. The tricky part was lighting the lamps in the storm, and I fretted about my ability to keep the lamps lit.

Finally, the robetenders helped us put on our robes and tied the cowls behind our heads. Then we gathered into groups, according to our routes. Our luminary, an old hand by the name of Jeff-Who, introduced to the lead carrier, a wild and crazy young woman named Ducky. She immediately began group bonding activities, including calling us the “Deuces” and inventing our own gang sign. Looking at Ducky and another carrier, a slender, silver-haired woman, I thought maybe carrying lanterns wouldn’t be so tough — they looked pretty normal, not like body builders.

So when Jeff-Who reviewed our roles and mentioned that support people would be expected to take over if a carrier or lifter was unable to finish the route, I wasn’t too worried.

Maybe I should have been.

We began lifting the loaded poles onto the carriers’ shoulders. I saw the silver-haired woman falter, then begin to walk slowly toward the front of the chapel. She seemed to be having trouble.

She didn’t quite make it to the fire cauldron, where all the routes gather for a convocation before spreading out. I found myself stepping in, putting a rolled towel around my neck and taking the heavy load on my shoulders. It wasn’t a question of whether or not I could do it. She could not, so I had to.

The load was so heavy and the wind so strong that all I could do was slowly place one foot in front of the other, following the person in front of me. I couldn’t turn my head, so I couldn’t see except straight in front of me. I was too focused on the pain in my neck and shoulders and arms to see anything, anyway. To make matters worse, the lanterns developed a maddening swing that got worse with every step.

Damn. This was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I hadn’t even signed up for it.

Worse yet, I was near the end of the line, and the lifters weren’t taking my lamps and lightening my load. I was right at the edge of my physical limit, and I festered as I carried my load, angry at being ignored. But I was too exhausted by the task at hand to even complain.

I later realized we’d been sent out with extra lanterns. Since mine were swinging so much, they’d mostly blown out. In the fierce wind and whiteout, the lifters had all they could do to hang lanterns that were actually lit.

When it was all over, I stood in the middle of the road with my head down, like a horse that’s about to collapse in exhaustion. Someone took my lanterns and my pole, but I could barely get my arms down. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to use them for the rest of the week. I practically had to be lifted onto the truck for the ride back, where I heard Jeff-Who telling us this was the worst weather he’d ever seen for Lamplighting.

But our ordeal was not over.

The truck made a detour on the way home, out to the Man. That route had run out of lanterns, and they needed us to light and hang some of our extras.

It had only been about ten minutes, but somehow I found use of my arms again. I picked up a lifting pole and managed to hang a lantern. And another one. I drifted away from Barry, towards an empty lamppost, and then onto another one. Finally, I ran out of lanterns. As I turned back towards the truck, I panicked. It had totally vanished in the whiteout.

First came fear, then adrenaline, and then, when I found the truck, relief. And more relief when Barry appeared out of the whiteout.

We arrived back at Lamplighter Village exhausted. The kitchen crew had held dinner for us, but we could barely lift our forks.

This was Day One of a typical Burning Man experience. We’ve often heard it said that the event will push your boundaries, whatever they are. Even — especially — if you don’t know what they are. Evidently, I had some boundaries regarding strength and stamina that needed pushing. Day One of Burning Man 2008 was great!