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By Lisa Bloom
I am 52 years old. As a litigator, I run a busy, successful law firm. Daily I’m on television as a legal analyst for NBC, MSNBC, CNN, and others. I write serious books like my most recent, Suspicion Nation, about the Trayvon Martin injustice and why we continue to repeat it. Usually I am blow-dried, lawyerly, and camera-ready, and I look like this:
Lisa in her role as a civil rights attorney (Photo: Lisa Bloom)
But for one week each year, I’m none of that. I’m a burner, and I look like this:
Lisa in her role as a burner (Photo: Lisa Bloom)
And all week, I feel like this:
Let the party on the Playa begin! (Photo: Lisa Bloom)
I know what people think of my beloved Burning Man. So let’s straighten that out. I’ve been to the last two burns and savored every minute of every day, talked to a zillion people, and brought my kids (ages 23 and 25), my fiancé, Braden Pollock, and some of my dearest girlfriends.
Burning Man is not a “freak show.” It’s not all orgies and druggies and counterculture. With a sellout crowd of 68,000 a year, it is not “over.” (Those pronouncements remind me of Yogi Berra’s “no one goes there any more, it’s too crowded.”) Tech millionaires have not “ruined” it. (No one knows they’re there. It’s hard enough to recognize our friends, because everyone looks so different.) It is not filled with “hippies.” (Most burners weren’t even alive in the ’60s.) Blessedly offline for the week, I didn’t even know Republican, free-market crusader Grover Norquist was there, and if I did, I would have treated him like all my other new burner friends: I would have hugged him and offered him one of my killer almond-milk mocha iced coffees and sprayed him with sunscreen as we sat on the roof of my RV and watched the sunset and buzzed about our common humanity.
Because that is the essence of the place: connection, inclusion, a focus on what we share, not what divides us. If that makes us kooks, then let my freak flag fly.
I’ve seen over 60 countries, from Greenland to Ethiopia to South Korea. I get a deep charge in meeting people who are as different as possible from me, who have entirely other ways of doing things, ideally whose language, culture, religion, clothing, architecture, and everything else twist my brain. But after traveling the world, I was gobsmacked to discover in 2013 that the most unusual, inspiring, blissful place on Earth was just one state over from me in Nevada, right here in the US of A — three hours’ contemplative bus ride from Reno through the vast arid desert, in Black Rock City, a pop-up city that exists for only one gorgeous week per year and which hosts the enormous art festival that is Burning Man.
Burning Man is, hands down, my favorite destination of all time. Here’s why I love it and plan to go forever and ever.
You can play and be awestruck, and adults need that
Bring on the adult ball pit. (Photo: Lisa Bloom)
Ever see a 3-year-old say “again, again!” when she’s thrown in the air by her daddy? Or that viral YouTube video of the baby exalting in her first rainstorm?
That’s Burning Man.
There comes a point in life where we work, and then we work, and we work some more. Even in my off-hours, the reptilian part of my brain reminds me that I should send another email, research another point, make a note to call that guy. I’m not complaining. Like many busy people, I am my own boss. But my boss can be a bitch. Braden, an entrepreneur who runs a number of successful businesses, drives himself, too. At the end of a long day, or on a Sunday night when we’ve worked straight through another weekend, we remind ourselves: We need to go out and have fun. We exhaustedly add that to the to-do list, where it languishes with the other low-priority items.
Lisa playing in the foam logs (Photo: Lisa Bloom)
On the Playa (as Black Rock City is affectionately called), the primary activity is play. The heaviness of life sloughs off our backs as we do, and we become light, young, and airy. We climbed a jungle gym dome and hurled ourselves onto a pile of foam logs, for instance.
Related to play: You get to wear fun costumes
Lisa and her fiancé in costume (Photo: Lisa Bloom)
A word about those outfits: Proper play requires costumes. Wear anything you want at Burning Man, as long as it’s not normal “default world” clothing and your getup makes everyone who sees you smile. That’s another unwritten rule. And burners comply in spades.
It’s not a party without a costume. (Photo: Lisa Bloom)
In the heat of the desert sun, nearly everyone wears the bare minimum. For women, it’s bikinis or their equivalent (bra tops, tiny skirts). For men, it’s dinky little shorts. Or miniskirts. Whatever.
Lisa’s son in his furry pink threads (Photo: Lisa Bloom)
Burning Man is a gloriously gay-friendly community. The large population of exuberant gay men spurs all of us to rise to the same level of campy glory. Shiny pink sequined things are in order for all genders and sexual orientations.
You’ll really learn something — there are hundreds of workshops
Some of the workshops listed in the burner guide (Photo: Lisa Bloom)
They are listed in the burner guide you get upon arrival. We heard a smart lecture by a leading doctor of integrative medicine. Some classes are couples workshops, some are kinky, and some are sober and meditative.
More from the burner guide — and Lisa’s snazzy faux snakeskin mani (Photo: Lisa Boom)
One workshop I selected was a belly dance flash mob, because who could pass that up? After a one-hour lesson by a mesmerizing tribal dancer, we all hopped in an art car (more on that to come), rode out to the center of everything, blasted Middle Eastern music, dashed out in formation, and hip-rolled and shook the coins on our hip scarves. A bunch of people whooped and loved on us — the burner response to all art, music, and performances on the Playa.
Lots of amusing thoughts ran through my head while belly-dancing: Hilarious. I’m a goofball. Oh wait, we’re turning? Hey, I made the turn! I could really be a belly dancer! Hey, a crowd is forming and cheering for us! Oops, time to dash back on the art car. Notice there was nothing about my never-ending to-do list. Those thoughts were truly banished for the week.
A view from the Playa (Photo: Gwen/Flickr)
It forces you to go offline for a while
Next to no Wi-Fi or cellphone service at Burning Man means the modern tableau of everyone absorbed in their phones does not exist on the Playa. Oh, you can bring your own expensive satellite hotspot or sometimes get lucky and get a little cell signal. But don’t. Because the old-fashioned joy of human connection, of neighbors dropping in to say “hello” and have a beer, turning strangers into friends, blossoms in the unplugged world of Burning Man.
The world could use more love — and there’s so much burning love on the Playa
Lisa and her fiancé spreading the love (Photo: Lisa Bloom)
In addition to all the playful good times, there’s a real sweet undercurrent of tender affection at Burning Man. Much is made about all the single folks hooking up, and the environment is certainly love- and sex-infused. (Some joke that those who sleep around go home to their doctors and ask, “Why’s it burning, man?”) But less has been said about how nourishing the week is for long-term couples like Braden and me. After nearly seven years together, Black Rock City is our relationship Miracle-Gro, as we ride our bikes around like kids, stopping at each zipline, each climbable art installation, each music venue for a dance or two. We hold hands, we grin, we press our warm bodies together on the Playa and get the heady rush of new love all over again. We go to the temple and sit quietly, meditating about this thing we’ve built together, our struggles, what we’ve worked through. Go, us.
Black Rock City is a sexualized environment, I’m not going to lie. But there’s also a crystal-clear, heavy emphasis on “no means no.” All the men I encountered, even the drunk ones, seem to have gotten the memo. Many of the sex-themed camps are quite strict about this, preaching the requirement of true consent. One woman in fishnets sported a button that read: “Nudity is not consent.” Right on, sister. Burners rock.
It can be fun to get naked
Skin is in at Black Rock City. (Photo: Benoit Bisch/Flickr)
There’s a fair amount of nudity. Get over it.
The desert at Black Rock City can be scorching. Everyone brings their own water and uses it sparingly. We had an RV with a water tank that needed to last a week for eight people, so we each got only a one-minute shower or two all week.
After a few hours at Burning Man, you’re hot and sweaty. After a few days, you’re sticky and dust-covered and wearing fewer and fewer items of clothing.
Which brings me to the giddy delight of getting naked and foamy with a hundred strangers. I wish I could tell you about all the many zany camps we experienced, but here’s one extrafabulous one: Faux Mirage was a camp with a giant plexiglass trailer that burners pile into — after we’ve removed every stitch of clothing. A live DJ spun EDM (everywhere at Burning Man a live DJ spins EDM) while happy staffers sprayed us with water (wheee!), then foam (oooh, fragrant cleaning soap, hooray), and then more water to rinse. Afterward, some toweled off and dressed, others of us danced in our birthday suits.
Nudity at Burning Man is normal, and you get used to it on your first day. Old folks, fat folks, young hardbodies — burners disrobe for the freedom and comfort, for the chance to be a toddler running gleefully through the house in just her own skin. Good for them. They all remind me of the India.Arie line, “What God gave me is just fine.” The unremarkability of the occasional naked dude walking by is part of the charm of the place.
It’s nice to take a break from corporate sponsorship and commerce
Taking a break from corporate-sponsored this and efforts to sell me that for one week is gloriously refreshing — because at Burning Man, it’s better to give than to sell. Commerce is strictly banned, with very few exceptions. No commercial logos are allowed on anything. The U-Haul my neighbor brought was duct-taped over to read “Gay-Haul.” A Budget rental truck was transformed into a “u get me?” truck. Typical burner humor.
When someone at Burning Man stands in the dusty road and entreats me to come to his camp, it’s to give me a scoop of free vegan ice cream (a big hit this year), which is nirvana on a scorching desert day. Others offer massages, or pedicures, or bike repairs, or pancakes, or tarot card readings, or pasties, or margaritas. All gratis, but with touts as enthusiastic as those in the “default world” trying to make a buck.
Exceptions: Mercifully, you can buy ice from a few strategically located vendors. Coffee is for sale in one location. And you can pay some service trucks that drive around to empty an RV’s wastewater and refill fresh water, halle-freaking-lujah. But that is really and truly it. Bring what you need, pack it in, pack it out. It’s radical self-reliance, an explicit core burner principle.
And, of course, you too are expected to give something freely and unconditionally, without any expectation of receiving anything in return. (It’s not barter.) This year we were sunscreen fairies (hey, I am a Jewish mother), so we brought a box of spray bottles, stood on the corner for an hour or so a day, and yelled out: “Sunscreen fairies! Don’t burn at the burn! Get a spritz for your bits!”
You see crazy magnificent art
So much of the art is interactive. Lisa climbed the cactus-y looking tower. (Photos: Lisa Bloom)
Unnamed, not-corporate-sponsored creators of giant, mostly interactive installations perfectly displayed on the giant white canvas of the Playa floor, I salute you. Thank you for your gifts, like light-up discs that turned pretty colors as we danced on them. Also, keep your eyes open, because some of the art moves.
Drive around the Playa in style. (Photo: Christopher Michel/Flickr)
Even the transportation is art — mutant vehicles amaze and delight. In Black Rock City, everyone gets around on foot or by bike. Other than a few Segways, the only motorized vehicles allowed are art cars. To qualify and pass the rigorous licensing requirement, the vehicle must look nothing like its original self. I don’t know all the other rules, but they must be strict and someone is doing a bang-up job curating, because every single art car is a knockout.
It’s better to burn out than fade away
Burn baby, burn. (Photo: Gwen/Flickr)
Something about the temporariness of Burning Man makes it all the more precious. We know it’s not just going to be done, it’s going up in flames, bigtime. As Neil Young sang, it’s better to burn out than to fade away. At the end of the week, the Man, the giant intricate wooden center of Black Rock City, true to its promise, blazes in a ceremony with hundreds of fire dancers and thousands of us encircling it, sharing the hour it took him to go down. The following night, a more serene moment as the temple, site of tears and grief and prayers for many during the week, burned, too. This year our temple went down more quickly, in a graceful, gasp-inducing death spiral, as pictures of loved ones lost, messages from the heart, mementos, and other physical embodiments of things we wanted to release we’d placed inside lost their physical form and went up in smoke.
A decorated portable potty (Photo: Lisa Bloom)
The week whizzed by, and we weren’t ready for it to be over.
When I arrived at my first Burning Man, a stout, hairy guy in nothing but a chartreuse tutu and Mardi Gras beads hugged me like I was his sister and said warmly, “Welcome home.” And now it truly does feel like my alternative family.
For one week a year, I get childlike awe, a community filled with kindness, humor, and the gift of phenomenally talented artists. When I meet fellow burners during the other 51 weeks, we smile, hug, and share our stories of wonder at our utopia.
I’ll leave you with one of the thousand random acts of kindness I discovered, someone’s lovely, anonymous decoration of a portable potty with vines and flowers, air freshener, and wet wipes, and graffiti that expresses what we believe.
Words to live by (Photo: Lisa Bloom)