Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Bowl Full of Problems

Since we're on the subject of Burning Man, I thought I'd share an art project I once did there that recently came to mind.

One of the rules for Burning Man is that everyone must participate in the community to some degree. While looking back, I realize that sacrificing my two-week vacation by volunteering my time as the managing editor of the daily newspaper--created and published in real time in the desert--was more than enough participation. At the time, I didn't think so. One of my dream jobs is that of a conceptual artist, the most existential of arts, and I decided to create my first conceptual art piece: Problem Exchange. 

Here is how it worked: People would write a problem they had on a piece of paper, fold it, and put it in the bowl, thereby ridding themselves of that problem forever. They would then take out someone else's--thereby maintaining life's delicate balance. The vision was that the problem they traded theirs for was not quite as serious as the one they got rid of. Or they would get a really serious one which would lead them to realize that theirs wasn't so bad after all. Or they would simply gain insight into the human condition.

I started things off by putting my problem in the bowl: "I can't get my boyfriend to stop needing me to need him," or something like that. Yes, at the time I thought this was a problem.

People seemed to like this concept. Needless to say, many burners (as Burning Man participants are called) were too happy to leave their problems without picking someone else's, thus upsetting world balance. At the end of the week, I ended up with a bowl full of problems.

Some were very real, such as the fear of foreclosure, or a loved family member with a serious illness. Interestingly, most of the problems centered around the theme of isolation and loneliness, particularly for first-time burners. A few people needed a ride home. Some had a friend or a partner who disappeared into the undulating masses of the event and couldn't find them again. (I wasn't worried about these.) Of course there were those who were disappointed to find that Burning Man was not the drug-fueled orgy they had expected it to be. Most, however, revealed a real and intimate view into their lives. I was surprised by how candid people were.

Save for a nice glass of Cabernet and a slice of anchovy-caper bruchetta, I'd much rather sit on my couch and read the intimate details of strangers' problems than endure the mind-numbing repetition of cocktail party small talk.

There was something satisfying about feeling so close to these people--whom I'd never met. And I felt a strong connection to humanity. Also, as I read these problems, I realized how little of life I had actually experienced, and I was grateful. I kept these problems for a long time, and I hoped that things had worked out for those folks.

As I continue my quest for "the real" (see the entry: Biting the Hand that Feed Me), I realize I had truly found it in that bowl full of problems.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Welcome to Nowhere -- a Newspaper in the Desert

During the three years I went to Burning Man, 2000 through 2002, I volunteered as a writer, daily editor, and managing editor on the Burning Man daily newspaper, the Black Rock Gazette, one of the few institutions offered to the Burning Man participants that was funded by the Burning Man LLC.

It was run completely by the efforts of volunteers, and it encompassed the real dedicated urgency of putting out a daily newspaper. Somehow, we managed to make it work in the desert. It was work, but boy was it fun. I had seldom experienced such a sense community since. Sadly, the endeavor lost its funding and folded a couple of years after that, but I am told the volunteers took up the task and had successfully create their own, self-funded daily rag.

I came upon an article I wrote for the Gate edition of the Black Rock Gazette during my final year there. Participants receive the Gate edition upon entry.

I wrote other essays, but this one particularly captures the appeal of the Black Rock Desert.

Welcome to Nowhere

"Topographically the country is magnificent -- and
terrifying,’’ the author Henry Miller once wrote.
"Terrifying because nowhere else in the world is the
divorce between man and nature so complete.”

What is terrifying to me is that I can identify with this
statement. For most of us, it is too easy to lose ourselves
in the man-made lifestyle that we have cultivated. Yet it is
this very notion of man’s isolation from nature that we
contradict by our presence here. To prove Miller’s statement
wrong is part of our charter as citizens of Black
Rock City. For this statement cannot be more wrong.

Indeed, man is nature. Nature is a quality from
which we cannot be separated. Only this intertwined duality
can explain the force that releases us from the tethers
of our world -- the world of keyboards and LCD monitors,
of ATM cards and drive-throughs -- and quietly pulls us to
this land devoid of all things man-made. We
are drawn back to a world of stone and earth, of mountain
and wind. Back to the elements from which we were
made. For we are the art of the playa, its fruit. This connects
us to the desert, to the Earth, and to each other.

The desert reflects the inner calm of the body. If
humanity’s language, technology, and buildings are an
extension of its constructive potential, the desert alone is
a reflection of its capacity for absence, the ideal representation
of humanity’s disappearance. It is here on the
playa that we disappear and are reborn. On the clean slate
of the playa we build a community on our terms. We
incorporate the desert rather than damage it as we construct
our camps, our art, and our stages, and this sets the
tone for the relationships we create.

You notice that time does not mean what it used to.
In the vastness of the playa, we no longer measure the day
in seconds and minutes and hours. An hour can seem like
days. The geometry of landscape and situation creates a
new system of time. We live lifetimes here. Removed from
the swinging pendulum, we achieve the ideal of the
dynamic community that we seek to create.

Playa time is a headspace in which you must be
aware of the rhythms of your body. Here, your
endurance will be tested. The desert has no forbearance.
Unlike the world to which most of us are accustomed,
where our needs are met before it occurs to us to be
aware of them, here we are forced to be aware of our
bodies and the elements affecting us. Here is a place
where the difference between life and death is a gallon of
water, a sun hat, sunscreen, and a good pair of walking
shoes. Do not walk barefoot, for mother is not merciful.
Trust yourself; trust your instincts; trust your neighbor; we
are all on the same journey.

The more civilized we become, the more we crave
the primitive. That is our greatest temptation. Welcome to
Nowhere. Welcome Home!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Biting the Hand That Feeds Me

I couldn't help it. The director offended my artistic sensibilities, and while I did not storm out of the theater on opening night, I felt compelled to take him to task and publish an unfavorable review of the play.

I am drawn to all art forms, and particularly to theater, by its ability to take us on an emotional journey that teaches us about ourselves, our fellow humans, and our impact on one another and the world. I'm inspired by the a creative expression of authenticity, or the real, as singer-songwriter Stew so succinctly put it in the marvelous rock musical, Passing Strange, an homage to the artistic temperament.

"The real" touches, provokes, inspires, and moves consciousness forward. We may not like it, but we appreciate it, and we are changed.

The quest for the real: You can call it a sickness. You can call it a religion. I call it food. It's the nourishment on which artists live and the promise of it is the juice that keeps them going. Without it, they die. Does this sound dramatic to you? Precisely.

And this production strayed from "the real" in favor of entertainment. "Um, what's wrong with that?" a friend asked me. "What's wrong?! He beat the very soul out of the play in favor of cheap jokes!" I cried. Ahem, that is, he played up the comedy and lost the nuanced and emotional impact of the message. It entertains, but it doesn't move. And the sad part is, the story is meant to move.

But is anything wrong with choosing to entertain? When you can make an emotional impact in your art and decide not to, it is. As I watched the director make this choice over and over again during the rehearsal process, the artist in me was appalled.

The audience, however, will love it; the critics might, but he, like all artists, will have to answer to a higher power: The Real.

You're welcome to take me to task for not being real by publishing the review as Freelance Arts Writer, but my name appears in the program, and I have a rep to protect in this town. Don't tell anyone it's me.

*The review was originally publish on

Mocha Hazelnut Oatmeal

I got an extra large pot of Mocha Hazelnut tea at the Tea Cup yesterday. If Mocha Hazelnut tea sounds good to you, I assure you, it tastes even better--a hearty, robust cup of hazelnuts, blackberry leaf, chicory, vanilla, and other wonderful, earthy delights. Oh, the aroma.

I took home the half cup I had left, and this morning boiled it in a pot and added to it my morning oatmeal. I saw some almond extract in the cupboard and added some of that too, as well as some cinnamon.

I'm a long-time practitioner of using tea rather than water in my cooking, and this morning's experiment cemented my position as a pioneer at the forefront of combining new flavors. That is to say, it was delicious.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Reinventing Tea

The other day, a friend offered to serve me tea from her impressive collection. She had the Mighty Leaf chocolate tea sampler, which included such delicious-sounding concoctions as Chocolate Chai, Mayan Chocolate, and Chocolate Mint Truffle. Chocolate tea. How perfect. I couldn't decide between the Rooibos Vanilla or the Mighty Leaf Chocolate Mint Truffle. So I chose both. Add a little bit of milk, and it was sublime: robust, voluptuous, and hearty--if ever a tea can be.

The next day I decided to order the Mighty Leaf Chocolate Tea sampler. The photos on the Mighty Leaf Web site looked enticing. The prices, however, were a different story. "Hey, I can make these teas," I thought, "and more."

Tomorrow, I head to the bulk section of my local co-op with my list in hand. I'm going to buy some of the raw ingredients found in these teas in bulk, and whip up my own versions.

Stay tuned for pictures, recipes, and reactions.

What were some of your own concoctions? I'd love to learn.