After 17 Years, I Returned to Burning Man. This is What I Observed.

Sept. 3, 2018

I attended Burning Man for the first time in 1999. My husband and I had been dating for less than a year and we camped with a group of friends. Our week there was an unforgettable experience which bonded us to each other. Most of our companions on that trip are still very dear to us. It is not an exaggeration to say that we, both individually and as a couple, were greatly influenced by the event.

We went to Burning Man twice more (2000 and 2001), and my husband also attended with a close friend in 2002, the year that I gave birth to our first child. We had dreams of returning again, but life got in the way: a year in Ireland, twins, a year in India, a fourth child, moving from San Francisco to Santa Rosa, then from Santa Rosa to NYC. Before we knew it, we had been away from the playa for more than fifteen years.

Earlier this year, a dear friend convinced me (and more importantly, my husband) that it was time to go back. With four children, the logistics of getting us both to Burning Man were too big, so my husband decided that he would send me with friends as an anniversary gift. The idea was exciting, but I was also a bit nervous to go. What if I’m too old to enjoy it? I’d heard that it was different. What if I didn’t like the new version?

Wow. I got back yesterday and I’m still digesting all that I saw and experienced. Yes, it’s different in many ways, yet it hasn’t changed in its essential spirit. I met so many wonderful people. I experienced incredible art. I danced into the wee hours of the night. I rode a bike everywhere. Burning Man has once again restored my faith in humanity.

What is different:

The biggest change is the scale of the event. In 1999, about 23,000 people attended. Since 2015, the event is capped at 70,000. But beyond the number of attendees, the amount of stuff to see and experience has mushroomed. Burning Man is now five square miles of art and activities. On Saturday night, the entire surface of the playa was alive with lights and music, the biggest adult carnival that you can imagine.

The Burn, which happens on Saturday night, is now optional. Many seasoned Burners opt to leave on Saturday or even earlier to beat the traffic and the crowds. Mid-week Burners and weekend Burners tend to be different groups. Older Burners joke about the model types and tech bros who wander in on Thursday or Friday, wielding their bottles of champagne. The weekend crowd complain about the older Burners, leaving just as the fun is getting started. I can see both viewpoints. I’m glad that Burning Man is attracting more than one generation.

This year, I found The Burn itself to be rather tame, compared to the old ones that I remember. Fifteen to twenty years ago, The Burn was the culmination of the week, a series of processions, all attendees gathered on the playa, accompanied by drums and fire dancers. Everyone surrounded The Man. There was an incredible build-up of tension, and then a projectile started the fire. Everyone bellowed, and once The Man had fallen, surged forward to dance around the flames. It was dangerous and exciting.

This year, the crowds calmly sat in a circle to watch fireworks, then the bonfire consumed The Man. They sat! The fireworks show was impressive, but I missed the crackling tension and primal spirit of old Burns. However, I can see why the change was necessary. As the event has grown, the organizers had to adapt The Burn, had to make it safer for everyone. Otherwise, Burning Man would not be allowed to continue.

What is still the same:

Burning Man still attracts an incredible variety of humanity and can be a touchstone experience, and it still needs to be approached with some caution and a lot of planning. The event takes place in a harsh desert environment. You must bring everything that you need to survive (food, water, clothing, shelter), in addition to costumes, a bike, lights (for your person and bike) and some sort of creative endeavor to share. You need to be selective when choosing your campmates. You should try to arrive well-rested. You should try to save some energy for tear-down.  

Advice for Burning Man virgins:

There are plenty of reasons to NOT go: It’s expensive. It’s hard to get tickets. It’s difficult to find your tribe (theme camp, art car, or sound camp?) and I don’t recommend camping alone. It’s exhausting. You will be covered in playa dust during your entire stay. Traffic getting in and out can be insane.

Still thinking of going next year? Start planning now. Get with a good group of people, as your experience will be defined by your crowd. Take Larry’s 10 Principles to heart. Some other rules that I recommend are: Don’t go out alone (always have a buddy, particularly at night). Drink as much water as possible. Apply sunscreen regularly. Be okay with not showering. (You’d be amazed how refreshed you feel with a sponge bath and clean underwear and socks.) Talk to as many people as you can at the event (the breadth of human experience is breathtaking). 

Maybe I’ll meet you on the playa in 2019. My husband and I are already working on logistics to ensure that we’ll both be there. Why? Because there is nothing else like it on the planet.


An Inadvertent Dick Move

Last week, Manly Guy and I went to see Broadway show “Dear Evan Hansen” as part of his birthday week. (Yes, we celebrate birthdays for at least seven days.) While waiting in line to go through Security, we saw a couple of women taking photos in front of a Dear Evan Hansen poster and Joe offered to take a picture of the two of them together. They were happy to have him do it, and then Joe asked them if they could take a photo of us in front of the poster. They agreed and we were all happy.

But next to us was someone who was clearly unhappy, a couple standing off to the side. We didn’t realize that they were waiting to take a photo at the same place until we were done with ours. The man didn’t say anything, but he was clearly irritated as they positioned themselves in front of the poster after we were done.

When I realized that we had inadvertently pulled a dick move on them, I wanted to apologize. But then a Security guy needed to look inside my bag, and then we needed to present our tickets, and before I knew it, the opportunity to apologize was gone.

“They should have offered to take the photo for the two women,” Joe pointed out. We decided that they had to be tourists, because New Yorkers would have engaged in the process. I chuckled, realizing how much living in NYC has changed me. I used to be more standoff-ish and quiet, but in New York, you learn to participate or get pushed to the sidelines. People think that New Yorkers are pushy, but I would say that New Yorkers are assertive. The City trains you to be that way.

Oh, and if you haven’t seen “Dear Evan Hansen,” go see that show! It was fantastic.



You are speed. Relax.

On our first full day in Paris, I really wanted to give the kids a great impression of the city. Our oldest (T) had been there before, but this was the girls’ first trip to Europe. We arrived on a Tuesday afternoon and I was spending Thursday and Friday cooking at our friends’ apartment (for our Thanksgiving dinner on Friday evening). I suspected that Manly Guy would not push the kids hard on my cooking days to see lots of sights,so Wednesday needed to count.

My plan was to first visit Notre Dame, not far from where we were staying (in the Marais). Then we would walk along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. Okay, it’s a long walk (more than two miles in one direction), but they would get a nice overview of Paris. And the walking would be good for us after a long day of travel the day before. I hoped that we would get to Tour Eiffel in the afternoon so that we could climb the stairs and watch the sunset from the top.

Getting the crew moving that morning was challenging. Red-eye flights are tough on everyone and no one wanted to get out of bed. It was a case of “herding cats” and we did not even exit the apartment until 1 PM, much later that I had wanted. But at least we were finally walking somewhere. We were at Notre Dame within half an hour.

The twins’ reaction to Notre Dame was so funny. S (our impatient one) raced through from one end of the church to the other in a few minutes and desperately wanted to just go outside and wait. (“No, honey, you can’t go outside and wait by yourself. We are in a foreign country.”) She sat by the entrance and sulked. On the other hand, J (our artistic one) wanted to move through the place very slowly and see every little corner. Manly Guy kept her company while I moved back and forth between sulking S, T (who had been there before) and V, who was neither enthralled nor incredibly bored. We ended up spending about two hours at Notre Dame, mostly accommodating J’s desire to see it all.

By now, everyone was hungry and tired. We grabbed some food at an overpriced, highly mediocre kabob place and finally started to move in the direction of  the Eiffel Tower. The sun was setting already. “Damn! I really wanted to see the sunset from the top!” was going through my head, but I kept it all on the inside, prodding the kids with cheerful banter to keep them moving. “C’mon, let’s keep up the pace so that we can get there!” I chirped at them. The sun set and the sky was darkening as we finally stood beneath the structure. At this point, I was still pushing them all to keep up, to get through Security, we needed to get our tickets, etc.

And here is where I encounter the Security guard. I was marching in the direction of the ticket booth, trying to get the kids to keep up and he looks at me, amused. “You are speed. Relax.” Joe smiled at this, probably wanting to express this sentiment all day.

No, I didn’t relax. I still pushed us to get our tickets and get marching up the Tour Eiffel. But the comment made me chuckle.

Interestingly, J and T were so tired from all the walking that they decided to wait at the bottom. But S, who had been so bored at Notre Dame, loved climbing up all those stairs to the second platform and insisted that we get tickets to the very top. The four of us (Manly Guy, S, V and me) spend quite a while at the top, taking lots of photos. It was lovely at night, more beautiful than I had expected. When we finally were at the bottom again, 1.5 hours later, we found J and T and headed off to find some dinner. It was a wonderful first day in Paris.




Black Friday without Thanksgiving

We returned to NYC this week after a family vacation to Paris for the week of Thanksgiving. It was the first time that our girls had ever been to Europe. Manly Guy and our son, T (who is now in high school) couldn’t be gone more than a week, but the girls and I also spent five nights in Ireland in addition to the six nights in Paris. Needless to say, J, S and V loved the trip.

Of course, when you’re in a foreign country, what often strikes you as odd are the little things. Living in Paris or Dublin isn’t THAT different from living in NYC, really. But the way that a stove works, or the layout of an apartment, or needing to push a button to get out the front door- these all present small reminders that one is in a new place.

I cooked for two days in my friends’ Paris apartment preparing food for Thanksgiving, while Manly Guy took the kids out to see the sights. During much of my time in the kitchen, I listened to French radio, recognizing the occasional French word (I am not fluent at all), and enjoying pop music. Every break, there were radio ads for Black Friday, which I found very amusing. They have managed to import our biggest shopping day of the year (Black Friday) without the associated holiday (Thanksgiving). Black Friday without Thanksgiving seems so wrong!

On the other hand, it was really nice to be able to enjoy holiday lights while we were strolling through the streets of Paris, Dublin and Cork. I know that it is the Christmas spending that drives the decoration. So I shouldn’t judge them for importing Black Friday . . .

Waiting Six Hours at Cadman Plaza Post Office

I did not expect that it was possible to spend six hours at a post office on a Saturday, just to turn in passport applications for the kids. Who knew?! At other locations, they make appointments. Not at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, though. Of course, after our ordeal, we heard that they take passport applications at the Main Library in Brooklyn on Saturdays, which we will try next time. In 4.5 years.

Last Saturday, the whole family trudged to Cadman Plaza, as the kids’ passports expire in June. These days, you need to have at least six months on your passport for many countries to allow you in, and since we want to travel later this year, I thought that we should jump on it. Funny, if you wait until the point that you are leaving within two weeks, you can go to the Passport Agency in Manhattan, which is supposed to be pretty efficient and quick. However, if you are the type to plan ahead, you are punished by having to deal with your local post office. And you are severely punished if you happen to be in Brooklyn.

Had it been our local post office in Santa Rosa, CA, it would have taken us an hour. We would have made an appointment, we would have shown up, waited a few minutes, and been done. I miss that post office! The people that work there are so pleasant. I didn’t mind going there. If there was a line, the employees worked hard to process people through quickly.

The Cadman Plaza post office is a very different experience, and not in a good way. Why they don’t make appointments is beyond me. We got there a little before 10 AM and were nearly the last people to get a number, even though their advertised hours are 9 AM until 4 PM. There was one person after us before they stopped giving out numbers. They had three windows that were technically open, but for most of the day only one or two was active. Each employee took more than an hour for lunch and at least one long break. Seriously?! In six hours? From 1-2 PM there was only one window open and a roomful of people waiting. And waiting.

During the many hours of standing, I noticed a lighted display that scrolled various messages next to one of the windows. It took a while, but I finally grokked that the lighted display was actually in demo mode . . . from 1998! So someone installed the lighted display 18 years ago and no one in the post office ever bothered to program the date, the time, or turn on the built-in Trivia function. They could not be bothered. Meanwhile, the thing has been ON for 18 years, saying absolutely nothing.  Which says a lot about the employees’ pride in their work. Or lack thereof.


Apology to Tourists That I Misdirected

Dear Unfortunate Tourists,

I am so sorry to send you in the wrong direction on the C train last Thursday! You probably thought I did it on purpose, but I was just turned around, standing on the wrong platform. You didn’t know that, of course. And since I told you with absolute conviction to “Get on that train now!” you followed my advice immediately. As soon as the train left, I looked up at the sign and realized what happened. I was horrified. A mother and son, trying to get to the Museum of Natural History and a pair of women, trying to go Uptown– all four of them headed into Brooklyn.  I hope it didn’t take you too long to figure it out!

My sense of direction is crappy, always has been. And normally I would pause to make sure that I am correct. If it is any consolation, you got on the train that I was supposed to be on but missed. Since Fulton St. Station is one that I had been in many times before, it didn’t even occur to me that I could be wrong until it was too late.

Our nanny pointed out to me that I’ve given you a story, at least. “Why did that lady who seemed so nice send us into Brooklyn? Those mean New Yorkers!” I can hear your story now. You will say how long it took to figure it out, how long it took you out of your way. And you will be baffled by my behavior.

Later that evening on the train back from Manhattan, I bumped into a couple of parents that I know. After relating to them what had happened and how awful I felt, I burst into a fit of laughing. One of them teased sarcastically, “You’re clearly broken up about it.” I really DID (and still do) feel badly about sending you in the wrong direction. But when one makes a mistake, one has to laugh or cry about it, and I choose laughter. Sometimes you have to shout out to others, “Look at this stupid thing I did!” and giggle at yourself. But I will definitely double-check my location before giving directions next time I’m asked.



Josh Brody and The Invisible Hand- back cover

Can Josh Brody help save mankind?

Josh and his twin sister must leave California to live with their father, whom they have never known. After flying halfway around the world to India, they meet Andrew Brody, an expat workaholic who seems to have little interest in them.

Strange things start to happen from the first day in Bangalore. Josh wonders if someone is trying to kill him. When a freak accident tears the family apart, Josh blames himself. Little does he know that warring factions of a shadowy organization are trying to influence him, with high stakes on both sides.

As he navigates settling into a new school, trying to make friends, and adjusting to living in a foreign country with his father, Josh faces a series of tests meant to destroy him. Will he live to find out what his mission on Earth is?

It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This.

Hearing the sound of the kids laughing in the back yard, playing together in the snow. Enjoying a perfectly seared filet mignon with Manly Guy at a lower Manhattan steak house. Sitting at my desk working while our daughter S makes carnitas tacos for a family dinner with minimal help. Greeting the kids as they enter our apartment after T walks his sisters home from school.

I was able to enjoy each of these special moments this week and it was glorious. We are encouraging the kids to be a bit more independent and they each seem to be rising to the occasion. I am acutely aware of how good life is right now and I’m trying to take note, to be conscious of it.  Life doesn’t get any better than this. Time is flying faster than ever and I regularly remind myself to be present, to be here now.

I’m not saying that life is absolutely perfect, although in the big picture, it is really. One can always think of ways to improve what one has. It is the human condition to want more. I believe that I’m content. I feel that I’m grateful for our NYC life. And yet . . . sometimes I get frustrated because there is *always* too much to do. (I can hear Manly Guy interjecting now: “And whose fault is that?” teasing me with a smile.) I occasionally chafe at the lack of space in our Brooklyn apartment. And unlike three of our four kids, I don’t love winter weather.

I find it amusing that I can know in my bones how good I have it and still yearn for improvements.  And when the next (inevitable) challenge arises, I will look back to this week, this month, and wish then that my life would be just like it is now.

Living in Northern CA Versus NYC: So Many Differences

The kids and I spent nearly all of August on the West Coast.  It was good to get a break from the heat and humidity (and the pace) of NYC and I feel like I returned with fresh eyes and spirit.  It’s funny– I love both places, and I’m grateful that we get to live in NYC and visit CA twice per year– but I’m struck by the differences in lifestyle.  Our life in California was so different from our day-to-day experience in Brooklyn.  Here are just a few examples:

  1. The weather.  This one is obvious.  There are four seasons in NY and only two in California (warm and sunny; mostly warm and occasionally wet).  Whereas in CA one tends to take all that lovely sunshine for granted and complain when the temperature is outside of one’s personal 15-degree comfort zone (usually set around 65-80 degrees), I find that I am absolutely reveling in this week’s perfect early fall weather in NYC.  Not too hot, not too cold, sunny with just a hint of chill.  I love it!  And I know that I must appreciate it now, for it won’t last.
  2. Four seasons of clothing.  Of course, this partners with weather.  In CA, I had two wardrobes (sort of), but much of one’s clothing is year-round when you live in such a mild climate.  In NY, I am currently transitioning the whole family from warm weather clothing to cool weather clothing, hauling boxes of summer apparel to storage and returning with boxes of lightweight warmer things to home.  Of course, it is too early to bring winter stuff to the apartment– where would we put it?  It is a big job to manage clothing for six people, particularly when four of them are growing quickly.  Donating/giving away pieces that are about to be outgrown and purchasing items that we will need soon add to the complexity.
  3. People dress more formally on the East Coast.  We had to purchase an entire new work wardrobe for Manly Guy when he took a job on Wall Street.  His former work attire was shorts and work boots (unless he was meeting with a client, when he would wear nice business casual clothing).  Now he wears a suit and tie every work day.  On the West Coast, people in technical jobs rarely (if ever) wear a suit, even at most high-level jobs.  When I visit Manly Guy at the office, I always ensure that I dress the part of an executive’s wife.  If I showed up in my workout attire, I am certain that I would get stink-eye.
  4. People in CA drive.  People in NYC don’t.  I guess if we lived further out in suburbs we would drive, but we do not even have a car here.  We walk or take the subway (or Uber) everywhere.  I walk many miles each week, often with my granny cart in tow, and I love the fact that all that mileage is just built into my days.  When we arrived back to CA this summer, it felt so strange to get behind the wheel of a car.  It took me a few days to get used to it.  And it felt like such a luxury to drive up to a store (like Target) and BUY AS MUCH AS YOU NEED, load it into the car and drive home. With a granny cart, as soon as it is full, it’s time to walk home, no matter how far down my list I’ve gotten.  Of course, I took advantage of the car in CA and did much of my back-to-school shopping while we were there and shipped it back to NY.  It would have been silly to NOT shop while it was easier than usual.  But I’m still glad that I’m the Granny Cart Queen of Carroll Gardens.
  5. People on the West Coast are mellow.  New Yorkers are not.  I found myself feeling a bit fidgety in CA, missing the buzz in the air that I sense when I walk down the streets in NYC.  While crossing the road in Santa Rosa with my kids, I screamed at a car to stop and the car’s passenger responded like I was insane. (Three cars had blown threw the crosswalk while we were in it and I was determined that the next car would stop.)  People in CA aren’t used to others raising their voices; in NYC one hears interesting (and sometimes heated) exchanges constantly.
  6. Californians say “hello” to everyone but don’t really talk to people that they don’t know.  New Yorkers talk a lot to strangers, but you have to let them initiate the conversation.  While living in California, I was in the habit of greeting other runners on the trail and they would usually respond in kind.  I tried that during one of my first runs in Prospect Park and the runners that I greeted just shot me a dirty look.  How dare I talk to them!  However, I’ve overheard conversations between strangers in NY much more frequently than I would in Northern California.  On the subway, in the street, at a restaurant– people who don’t know each other often jump into conversations.  It’s amusing to witness.

November 1 is the one-year anniversary of our move to New York.  It’s hard to believe that we have been living in Brooklyn for almost a year.  Last year we had arrived just before the holidays, so celebrations were a bit rushed and underwhelming. This holiday season should be easier and more fun.  Once again, I’m feeling very blessed and grateful.

Lapsus Linguae at a Paris Dinner

My son and I got back a week ago from a hectic, two-week trip to Europe. It was a wonderful trip overall- very busy, with lots of sightseeing, particularly of historical places. Our son T (who turned 13 this spring) loves history, so visiting London, Paris and Cambridge seemed like a perfect itinerary. I am hopeful that I can do something similar with each of our kids, treating them to a special adventure during the summer after they become teenagers.

In reviewing the trip mentally, one avoidable slip-of-the-tongue stands out as a “I should have NOT made that mistake!” moment. If only I could go back and correct myself . . .

In Paris, we stayed with a dear friend whom I’ve known since my college days. Back then, she and I worked together in the cosmetics section of a now-defunct department store; a few years later we would both be living in LA, where we became closer friends. We have stayed in touch all this time, and I’m grateful for the friendship. While it is always great to meet new people, new friends simply can’t know us the way that old friends do.

When my friend found out when we would be visiting, she and her husband delayed a holiday break by two days so that they could spend some time with us. Then they allowed us to stay in their flat after they had gone away. They even arranged for T and I to attend a dinner out on Bastille Day with their friends and their friends’ friends, including two Americans visiting Paris. It seemed a perfect plan.

Earlier in the day, T and I attended the Bastille Day military parade along the Champs-Elysees. To launch the festivities, the French President rode in an open car, surrounded by troops on horseback. As we watched the President go past, I noticed that he didn’t turn to the left or to the right or wave at all, but sat stiffly in his vehicle as he went by.

The group at dinner that night (there were ten of us) was a mixture of French, Swiss and American citizens, all sitting at a long table at what turned out to be a fabulous meal. We chatted in English and French, drinking wine, laughing, talking. It was a lively group. We were having fun. And I was doing well. I had read enough news about the Eurozone crisis with Greece to have some opinions about the situation. (I knew that it was less important to agree with others than it was to be prepared to defend those views.) I had seen the occasional news article on the French President to know that he had been caught meeting a mistress, traveling to her place on a scooter.

My lapsus linguae occurred during the discussion about the morning’s parade. I observed that the President was very stiff as he went past the crowds. (What was his name? I thought to myself. “Mitterand” popped into my head.) “Mitterand looked very stiff as he rode by,” I blurted out. At that moment, I watched the man across from me and I could see his demeanor change. I knew immediately that his opinion of me worsened, it was clear (although I didn’t discover my error until the next day). I had become the Uninformed American. He continued to be polite, but I could tell that our conversation was different now.

Speaking with my old friend on the phone the next morning, I found out my mistake. “Heather, the President of France is Hollande!” she said with a touch of exasperation in her voice. Doh! I knew that at one point. Just not the night before. Time to feel like an idiot, particularly since Mitterrand ended his presidency twenty years ago. Oh, well. I guess I gave that group something to chuckle about later.