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.



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.