Friday, September 17, 2010

not Iris's mother's Burning Man

A few people have called me out, in a polite enough manner that it didn't offend me, on taking Iris to Burning Man. It's understandable enough, because these people haven't been to Burning Man themselves and were working off the legends and rumors they've heard over the years. They thought Iris was "exposed to so much nudity and casual drug use", when the reality is that Iris sees more nudity and casual drug use walking around San Francisco. At home we often smell marijuana as we run errands or play in the park, and it's quite fashionable to walk around the Castro nude these days, no matter what the weather. Out at Burning Man, people tended to wear at least underwear, fearing the rage of the sun and also wanting to make more of a fashion statement than skin can pull off alone.

And only an idiot would have openly used drugs, given the ubiquity of law enforcement. Every Nevada county which barely brushes Burning Man enjoys billing the event for untold amounts of overtime for its cops, who clearly enjoy being paid to drive around sneering at the participants and looking for something, ANYTHING, that will allow them to make an arrest.

It's not the old days, people, not at all. The days are over when Burning Man had just moved to the desert, before it was so famous and big, when there were no roads and reserved camping spaces. Back then, the days of Iris's mother's Burning Man, we took guns to Burning Man, and sometimes we shot at things (one year there was a Drive By Shooting Range). We had fires all over the place, and we felt free and anarchic. But then in 1996 the first participant died on the playa, and it was clear that the freedom needed to be reined in. I was part, as General Counsel and a member of the LLC for a few years, in dealing with the authorities and creating rules and changes that Burning Man participants had to accept. The event could not go on, once it became internationally famous and once someone died, without becoming lawful and tamed down.

That's not to say that Burning Man isn't worth going to. It's just a different place now. It's a much safer and more regulated spot, with a beautiful, air-conditioned medical clinic and tons of law enforcement constantly roving the streets. There's still amazing art to be marveled at; there are still tons of interesting strangers to meet. The typical participant is creative, highly intelligent, and fun, and who doesn't want to be around people like that?

One big change I saw was that there are now so many businesses which create products for people to take to Burning Man. Back in the old days, we built our own shade shelters, and we shared tips on line. We went to Home Depot and bought PVC pipes and lengths of rebar, and we practiced putting up our makeshift shelters in the Panhandle or Golden Gate Park. Now there's an online Ikea of Burning Man, a place which sells furniture for you to assemble for your theme camp, and endless other shops as well. I complimented a campmate on his beautifully arced rebar stakes, and he blushed. He shamefacedly said he'd bought them online (my comparatively shabby rebar stakes were state of the art circa 1998, when a friend of my husband's made them for me onsite).

I noticed that roughly 85% of the women at Burning Man were wearing the same thing: a tool belt over underpants, with bare thighs but calves covered with boots or faux fur leg covers. All these tool belts were the same, and virtually none of them contained a single tool (some women carried a water bottle in the tool belt). Obviously they were all buying this same tool belt somewhere, and it was considered a must-have for the 2010 burn. Back in my day, we dressed more diversely, because there weren't yet businesses set up to sell us Burner chic clothes.

Another booming industry was goggles. "You've GOT to have goggles," said so many people. My friend N. asked me, "Am I going to be okay? I don't have goggles." I reassured her. "Back in the day, we didn't have goggles. NO ONE had goggles. We wore sunglasses, and we were fine."

Despite that, I did buy goggles for Iris and myself. Why? The goggles they were selling at the Nixon gas station were just so fabulous, I couldn't resist. Iris's goggles went so well with her microbraids. And when I saw a spiked pair that fit me, I couldn't pass them up. They fit in with the Warcraft theme all too well. "I'll say I'm an engineer!" I said (Warcraft characters who choose engineering as a profession craft goggles themselves for their characters). I felt bad at spending so impulsively, and I tried to justify it. "We can wear them to the Makerfaire and try to look steampunk, Iris," I said. She nodded agreeably and admired her goggled self in the mirror. "Also, I like to put money in the local economy, make up for the inconvenience of all the traffic they have to put up with once a year." I pulled out my money and conformed to the trend.


hughman said...

i have been obsessively checking for days for this post. yay! i hope there's more to come. maybe even a guest post from iris??

Carroll said...

OK, fine -- the spiffy goggles, for sure! And putting money into the local economy? Absolutely. But tool belt/online gear conformity at Burning Man? At the iconic celebration of creativity, that's just wrong :-(

I did hear a fairly hilarious radio commercial from Orchard Supply Hardware the week before the event. Voiced by a "kindly old geezer" type, they were promoting all sorts of old-fashioned home and garden equipment, and then, following a brief but significant on-air pause, he added (I might be paraphrasing just a word here) "And, if you're heading for Burning Man and haven't got your $hit together yet, we're the one-stop shop for all your creative construction needs!"

I'm with Hugh -- want to hear more. Want to see more. Lay it on us, Housewife!

Our older son used to make the pilgrimage, but hasn't gone in quite a while. It's on my bucket list for sure, but until then, your eyes and ears are all I've got. Don't fear being boring, at least not to this segment of your faithful readership :-)

virago said...

Just keep your impressionable child away from the "douchebag fratboy bro types" and "vapid club girls," all right?

Apparently, the above-mentioned subcultures are a small but noticeable minority at Burning Man, according to a fellow SF blogger, Audi at Fashion for Nerds. She admits to anti-bro feelings and says their presence makes her wish the place could be closed to weekend partiers.

Audi documents the popularity of tutus and Utilikilts in several pics, though she herself favored an olive-drab motif at Burning Man (accessorized with cowgirl boots, a navy-blue bandanna and dusty, spiky "playa hair").

Her "Burning Man: The Fashion" post here -- -- links to her "Burning Man: What Is It?" and "Burning Man: The Art" posts, all full of pics.

Between you and Audi, this sun-shunning introvert has become fascinated with Burning Man, despite the plethora of a) humans and b) rays therein.