Time to Judge a Book by its Cover

There is no part of getting my work published that isn’t exciting, but lately two things have really brought it home for me.

I got a package in the mail that I assumed was just another thing I had ordered off Amazon while bored or drinking, that turned out to be five copies of the audiobook of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. I screamed for a while, then danced with the copies, then remembered I don’t have a CD player in my house.

So, as some of you saw on Facebook live, I sat in my car and made it happen. It took me a few minutes to get past the utter surrealism of my own name on the digital display, but after that I settled in to really listen. The narrator, Angela Dawe is marvelously talented, and brings an insight and subtlety to the work that just slays me. I find myself holding my breath when she reads and I KNOW what happens; I WROTE the thing.

The second thing is cover art. Both times when my publisher has shown me what they were thinking for covers for my book, I was stunned. I had been prepared (by the horror stories of other writers) to fight for better representation: to reject blonde women in high heels running from danger, to argue that my post-apocalyptic dystopia was not best depicted as a woman making a cosmopolitan and eating a salad amid the rubble.

47North has only shown me art that proves that they both respect and understand my work. There were no fights. There were tweaks and revisions, and I’ve been completely satisfied with what the books look like. Delighted, even.

Both of these are really the same thing, denoted by a nifty little Greek word that I see used far too seldom: ekphrasis. Being an author means seeing art made in the image of your own art, inspired by it and extending its reach. Both the performance of the narrator and the work of the artist/designer are ekphrastic expressions, and it’s such a rush to see that come to life.

All of this to say: I’m revealing the cover for my sequel, The Book of Etta. You’ll get to meet her on February 21, 2017.

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Burning the Man

I opened the stage at Burning Man 2016 with this story. The crowd there liked it, and I hope you do too.

burn

It started off as a joke.

People used say that it was the best week to get brunch, to go to dinner, to try out any new spot that was typically too crowded to be worth it. The week everyone went to Burning Man, people joked that they should build a wall to keep the burners from returning to San Francisco.

But when it happened, it wasn’t a joke at all. It wasn’t a wall, either. San Francisco was just gone.

They piled up, an endless dusty caravan and people spilled out of cars and vans and RVs. Those who lived in Sacramento and Oakland found their way home, but everyone who tried to make the last bit of their journey to the west across the Bay Bridge and over to the peninsula found that no such place existed. The hills of Oakland sloped down and looked out over an untroubled Pacific. No Transamerica Pyramid poked the soft underbelly of the fog. No Golden Gate Bridge and no gap for it to span. It was as if the coast of California had been circumcised.

The Burners of San Francisco discovered in a ripple of shock that they had no ID, no house keys. Not one of them could produce proof of where they belonged. The few of them who trusted authority enough to ask for help from the cops found that they were treated as nomads. Refugees. The cops took one look at the dusty tent city on wheels and told the sunburned, unwashed masses to move along. Otherwise there might be trouble.

Those who did not trust the police tried their networks. Some of them found that they still had jobs in Palo Alto, parents in Sonoma, and friends all over the world. But when they asked those people, “Where do I live?” the answer was as unanimous as it was useless.

“You always say that your home is that crazy place in the desert.”

The Burners without a city called friends they had seen at the festival and asked them what they thought had happened, but none of them understood. “What do you mean you have no city? San Francisco? Sounds like some place in Mexico.”

Some had options. Some had money. Some shacked up with friends or family and tried to figure out what went wrong.

Most of them, thousands of them, camped beside I-80 and set a watchman for the cops. They talked about what they should do. There were several thousand of them; they couldn’t just give up.

In all the talk, one man arose. He was stumbling, mumbling drunk, but he was tall and white and everyone turned to hear. He suggested that they go down to Baker Beach, where it had all started. The answer would be there. He was quickly shouted down with an angry reminder that Baker Beach didn’t exist anymore.

But the drunk guy had planted a seed. If only they could go back to where it all began. If only they could undo whatever if was that had been done. A cautious optimism was born among them. There had to be away, right?

It wasn’t all of them, but the caravan was long, pulling back over the state line and gearing up in Reno. Gerlach residents watched headlights crawl over their ceilings in the night and wondered oh lord what now? Didn’t they just leave?

The playa was as white as scarred skin and drifts of it rose as the cars and vans drove out. They formed a circle against the wind, roughly where they thought the Man would be. In the first few nights, it was as if the Burn had not ended. They drank and danced. There was music beneath a canopy of hastily-strung lights. A few art cars drove people across the dark playa, gliding between the bugs and the stars.

But the speculation began almost at once. They mooped for penance, searching frantically for forgotten traces of man. They erased tire tracks and lines left in the dust by DPW laying cable. They sang their songs backwards and tried to unsay what they had said about their lives back in default. But nothing felt like it had changed.

A small group started rebuilding the lost city in miniature; first building the Golden Gate Bridge out of plywood and rope. They collected Hondas and Nissans and Toyotas and put together something like Chinatown, the tallest tents became FiDi. RVs lined up and became the Mission and handed out peanut butter and jelly burritos, one lone trumpet player blasting out Des Colores in the heat. Even the standoffish types arranged themselves into Sausalito and Marin, raising their wine cups to the weirdos across the bridge.

The dusty rainbow inhabitants of the Castro organized a mini-Pride and it made even the hardest former San Franciscans cry. They had lost the fair fogginess of their city by the sea, and this desert would eventually kill them.

The idea was natural in its coming; there was no other way for this to end. They built the platform and chose fire safety captains. They made plans for a night where there would be no moon. They thought they might have to pick somebody out of the crowd, but in the end he volunteered.

He was young for a CEO, a windsurfer in good shape. He had an easy smile and perfect skin; no tattoos, no scars. Blameless and unblemished. He told them quietly that if the city and his million-dollar house reappeared, that someone should tell his wife that he had died quickly in an accident, not suffered at all.

Standing with his arms raised, he let them tie him in place. He let them pour out their gasoline, their kerosene, their vodka and their butane at his feet. He heard their drumming as if from a great distance.

They lit him and he screamed, they all screamed, the dust lifted off the playa like a veil off a bride or a burn victim revealed at last, after all this time. The man’s arms fell and the coals burned through the night.

In the morning, they broke down the city. They packed it all in, pushing ashes and bone chips out,  scattering the Man until he was everywhere and nowhere. Something had changed, they knew. Surely this was the sacrifice that would buy it all back.

That night they drove out on to I-80, over the state line and into the rolling fog.

 

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Cover Reveal!

To be fair, I loved the original cover for Midwife. My first publisher, Sybaritic Press, let me design it myself and my good friend Devin Cooper shot the photograph and laid out the title. The story of how it came together is a good one… for another day.

That’s because today I have permission to share the new one. My new publisher, 47North, created this one and it’s the cover that will be on the new edition of Midwife, due out October 11, 2016. I can hardly wait to hold it in my hands.

Elison-BookoftheUnnamedMidwife-22063-CV-FT-v1

I love the desolation and cold of this one. I’m making plans now for launching this new version: new cover, new edit, same story.

For those of you who are ready for a new story, Book of Etta will follow in early 2017.

Can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait.

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Reimagining Film Futures

One of the best things about living in the Bay Area is that people who make different kinds of art often get the chance to make it together.

Last week, I got to read something I wrote to accompany a series of paintings by my friend, Katie Morton. So did some other local writers, Louis Evans and Danielle Truppi. Borderlands Books hosted us, and we had a great time.

I wrote a little about what science fiction is, from the point of view of a person in a future where it no longer exists. I finished writing this while I was at Wiscon, which is in its 40th year in 2016 but for my own first time. The convention got me thinking about the state of the genre, and where we’re headed. I scrapped most of what I had written to that point and rewrote it with my head full of speeches by this year’s guests of honor, Nalo Hopkison and Sofia Samatar.

 

What Was Science Fiction?

Guests, esteemed colleagues, it is my great honor to appear here with you today. I am Dr. Elison, professor of Pre-Crisis texts at the University of Calivada Berkeley-Nabisco. I am speaking with you today thanks to the work of several researchers in our temporal engineering department. The Schrodinger Projector here in this podium allows me to project my image not only omnidirectionally in time, but also across divisions in the multiverse. It is possible that I am addressing you from a future that you will never experience. I suppose only time will tell.

My subject today is a pre-crisis genre of texts commonly referred to as science fiction. This genre incorporates many pre-digital texts, but the bulk of the preserved works exist now in the university wetware system. Berkeley-Nabisco’s collection is the foremost inside the quarantine zone, and anyone with a licensed neural integrator may examine it. It is from this collection that I have drawn my conclusions.

The banning of genre fiction came as no surprise to the academics who lived in crisis times. It followed naturally and logically, subsequent to the regime’s outlawing of negative or critical representation of the state or its leaders. From there, what was once referred to as the right of free speech steadily eroded. The early crisis years saw the loss of commercially produced pornography, as well as most forms of immersive gaming. The blacklists of explicit material and those who produced it were even lauded in certain institutions, as the works thought to represent a return to “traditional values.” The meaning of this term is nebulous and its actual definition may be lost to history.

However, up until the third year of the crisis, science fiction was still produced. Some fragments exist from the final examples in our archive, dated just before the genre disappeared forever. The final iteration in the multimedia saga known as Star Wars, titled Rogue One, exists as a series of corrupted digital film files in the archive in my today. Like the fragments here before you in your time, it is difficult to ascertain whether that media depicts a future, a past, or an alternate path in the multiverse.

What is clear is that science fiction served the purpose of imagining or creating a timeline other than the one in which the viewer and the artist lived. It was a way of constructing the world along an alternate outline, to ask the question ‘what if?’ and then to answer it in a way that ultimately commented on the world as it was. It is this last function that fascinates me, and forms the basis of my thesis. Although many academics believe that the banned genres existed purely for pleasure and diversion, I maintain that each of these works contained some form of social commentary. Indeed, it was for this reason that science fiction may have been a contributing factor to the crisis itself.

Before the destruction of the genre, science fiction media had for a long time fixated on the end of the world. In some works, such as the mystifying and partially unreadable text known as “Adventure Time” posed the apocalypse in a whimsical style. In others, such as the lesser-known “Elysium” or “Planet of the Apes” saga, the futures were a thing to be feared. However, no matter what the tone of this media, it allowed audiences to envision the world to come after some delineating event. Science fiction of the apocalypse sought out the unmaking of the world in order to make space for it to be remade according to a new design.

It was this that provided the regime with the public approbation it needed to enact sweeping changes in both governance and warfare. Voters inside the quarantine zone had been instructed by the social commentary of science fiction that only after the corrupt world had been demolished could a virtuous one rise.

The virtues espoused by the genre of science fiction include white supremacy, the primacy of the male gender, gender binary, the necessity of euthanizing the severely disabled, the exceptionalism of the nation formerly known as America, the intrinsic worth of warfare as a method of spreading and preserving one’s culture, and the importance of space travel. These norms emerged after a long cultural struggle wherein women and nonwhites were permitted to publish in and read this genre. This period was brief, and we are only capable of locating those works in the canon through remaining reviews and criticisms; the works themselves were expurgated some time before the crisis.

The chilling irony is that the creators of science fiction media were in complete agreement with the crisis-era government. Their symbols were co-opted for propaganda; Captain America was a popular mascot for Dow Chemical long after the graphic novels that created him were banned and destroyed. Robocop’s films were first banned and then eradicated when the crisis-era government determined that they contained too much screentime featuring nonwhite faces, yet we’ve all seen him in milipolice training and tourism videos. Paul Atreides Bank is in fact named after an exceptional character from this genre heavily associated with the riches of oil and spices for which the conglomerate is known.

Once the regime had sanitized these icons and made them into trademarks, they no longer held any value. And so they, like the subversive works of such lost and hardly-known writers as the elusive Nalo Hopkinson or Ted Chiang, were scrubbed from all drives, disks, clouds, and other dryware systems. It is my hope that some of the lost works still exist in your timeline and the crisis can still be averted for you. The Berkeley-Nabisco library is forever indebted to the work of Burrtec-Edison’s electronics waste collection initiative for turning over all potentially readable media discovered on the western side of the quarantine zone for our skilled extraction and archiving. Most of what we find is the approved content of the former state, but some are these pre-crisis gems.

The Schrodinger Projector is an inexact machine, for the multiverse is always in motion and every decision we make can potentially destroy the connection between my timeline and yours. I see through the haze of our linkup that many of the works upon which you gaze tonight are unknown to me. If my optical implants are providing me with correct information, beyond them lie many texts that you may lay your hands on that I can only dream of seeing. I do not know if yours is a verse in which the crisis can be avoided; but if there are texts available to you in any medium that represent the work of diverse creators, SEIZE IT. Propagate it. Celebrate it. I hope that my verse is your verse, and that one of the choices you make will stop me from transmitting.

 

 

 

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Wiscon 40

wiscon

I’m at Wiscon! For those of you who don’t know, Wiscon is a yearly feminist science fiction convention.

I’m enjoying Madison very much. I went out for cheese curds and bratwurst and now I need to lie down for a while. #meatsweats

I’m mostly here to attend and meet the excellent people who make up this unique event. However, if you want to see me read, here’s the details:

Dames of the Darkness

Conference 2, Saturday 10-11:15 AM

I’m reading from my upcoming sequel, Book of Etta. I’ll be joined there by Jewelle Gomez, Tenea Johnson, and my fellow Philip K. Dick Award winner Pat Murphy.

If you see me at con, I’ve got my green interaction badge on and please say hello!

 

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Beauty Tips from the Apocalypse

TEST 2 (1)TEST 22

 

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S E Q U E L

I have been sitting on some good news for a while now and it took a lot of effort not to explode and just TELL EVERYONE all the time. But I made it. The deal is done.

The sequel to The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, my debut novel and winner of the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award, will be published in the spring of 2017. The second is tentatively titled Book of Etta, and I can’t wait for you all to read it. These books are represented by Danielle Svetcov at LGR Literary.

I have a contract with 47North, an imprint of Amazon that has previously published Neal Stephenson and Seanan McGuire.

Bonus round: 47North has also agreed to re-publish Midwife, and make it available in more formats!

I’ll be at a couple of big events this year, promoting my new(ish) and upcoming work. I’m also lecturing at a handful of colleges in 2016 (I’m honored to say Midwife is included on syllabi in gender studies courses in two states!) as well as speaking to creative writing students about my experience. Watch for updates on my Facebook and Twitter. Additionally, megelison.com is about to undergo some serious reconstruction.

Thank you to everyone who has bought, borrowed, read, reviewed, or mentioned Midwife. Thank you for bringing it into libraries and telling your friends to read it and tweeting me pictures of when you handed it to your daughters and sending me fan art. I’m so grateful for the way so many people have supported my work and heard me.

You’ll be hearing from me again soon.

 

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Starhawk’s of City of Refuge: the Fading Magic of Nostalgia

This year, Starhawk’s “City of Refuge” was the gift I bought myself. I backed the Kickstarter and couldn’t wait for it to show up. Getting the third book in this series brought a lot of things full circle for me.

high fidelitySo this is not really a book review. This is that scene in High Fidelity when someone asks whether the main character’s records are arranged chronologically or alphabetically, and he replies that it’s autobiographical. This is the story of these books in my life, and this last chapter in that context.

5th cover

I first read “The Fifth Sacred Thing” in 2005. I found it at Powell’s City of Books, my second home during my unhappiest days in Portland. I had read Starhawk’s nonfiction work since I was a kid; they were my first books on witchcraft that were written for practical use. She was a hero of mine, sparking my interest in permaculture and ecofeminism and introducing me to the dynamics of small group consensus for the first time. I had no idea that she wrote utopian (or Ecotopian) fiction, so I was dumbstruck to read the back cover when I spotted it on the shelf. I ran into the prequel, “Walking to Mercury” a week or two later.

The thing is, I’ve been telling people for years that “The Fifth Sacred Thing” is my favorite book. I always warn them that it isn’t great literature, but that it represented something new and precious to me, and I always felt pretty connected to it. I re-read it about once a year. It gained this status for me because I read it at a time in my life when I was living too small and not thinking far enough ahead. It made me examine a lot of my assumptions about people, sex, religion, the future, and what kind of person I wanted to be. The central conflict of the book is how to  fight against war without warfare. It goes beyond passive resistance into a subtler blend of magic and martyrdom that I found intensely seductive.

But most of all, this is the book that convinced me that I had to move to San Francisco.

The city was described by an author who had fallen in love with the Bay Area that was and will never come again. In both books, the city is rich in its former character: a hotbed of free speech and demonstrations that provided the freaky freedom that a nation of weirdos needed. She follows that thread through to the AIDS epidemic and the slow decay of the movement, but stops short of explaining what it has become.

I’d be lying if I said I showed up expecting anything but Haight-Ashbury in 1968. I went out and found the drum circles, the public rituals and the hippie kids. But I got adjusted real quick to San Francisco in its second tech boom. I think Starhawk adjusted, too. She turned tech culture into intelligent crystals to work around the need to be connected and communicate. She turned this city into an impossible fantasy of wealth and security, better and more equitable than it is now, ultimately so perfect that outsiders in her books don’t believe it exists. With the real dilemma and the fictional one in her immediate view, Starhawk set her sights on the dry south for this third (and hopefully final) installment.

20160105_090318There’s less magic in “City of Refuge” than either of its predecessors. It lacks any of the hardcore witchcraft of “Fifth,” skipping over any of the much-hyped sacred group sex or miraculous dream-working by Madrone. Our heroine visits the bees and the Melissa again, only to be told ‘lol idk’ when she asks what she should do with her ever-growing power. Bird sings songs of revolution, but they’re only understood by decayed academics and they don’t turn the tide. The movement Bird and Madrone start attracts nuts and trolls, and without the convenience of the Wild Boar People to stash the undesirables, the second act of the book reads like a long internet comments section.

It ends in triumph, but one that flatly subverts the message of nonviolence carried by the first two, roundhouse kicking the banner out of the hands of our heroes and replacing it with rifles and tiredness; the same old tale about the same sad world. The driving ideal behind “Fifth” was that nonviolence could change the world. In “Refuge,” blowing up ships will do, I guess.

Throughout, Starhawk backpedals on what was great in the first books. Real-world curse words are replaced with such toothless substitutes as “What the jacks?” in an attempt to separate sex from the profane, according to an author’s note. River’s immediate love of real food is retconned into a widespread love of ‘chips,’ a transparent reference to poor kids’ dependence on junk like Taki’s or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The abortion scene in “Fifth” is repeated for no clear reason, and the reader learns nothing from it.

Bird, who was once the contemplative center of a story about transforming our inner violence to curb our outer violence, becomes a flat manboy whose thoughts are opaque to us as he works Madrone’s last good nerve in an effort to be her partner. And Madrone, who was the witch to beat all witches in modern fiction, spends the whole book nesting and fussing over whether or not it’s time to get knocked up. I signed up for the coming-of-age of the next revolutionary generation, not love among the ruins for people who’ve decided it’s time to stop being badass magicians who shut down nuclear plants and travel to the place where three roads meet and time be conventional, have some kids, and sweep the floor. 

“City of Refuge” is weary. It is lost in the description of generations of trauma and the grey shitty barrenness of Los Angeles. It is punctuated by the memoirs of the witch queen of the series, Starhawk’s clear self-insert Maya Greenwood. It is the indulgence of the writerly mind with near-nonsense rhymes spouted by a street prophet, where there used to be an attempt to eff the ineffable. It is a weak iteration of what used to be a powerful theme.

Starhawk has been my hero since I was 15 years old. This book says clearly to me that a lifetime of activism has diminished or maybe destroyed her faith in magic to the degree that it’s just about gone, even in her fanciful utopian fiction. Those memoirs ought to be hers, rather than assigned to a fictionalized version of the author. The best stories are hers, and the advice in there is priceless. I wish Starhawk had written that, and let this fading little world go for good. I still hope she will. 

I’ve gotten older too, and I’ve lost much of my early belief in what change was possible if we acted courageously and boldly. I suppose it was unfair of me to expect this book to restore me or inspire me, but I got so much from the first two that my expectations were quite high.

There was something I glimpsed between the pages of “Fifth” and “Mercury.” It was the promise of the world to come; an idea that we really could make that next leap of civilization, even after terrible losses and under the undying threat of tyranny. It was that fiction I moved to the Bay to pursue; and I’ve grown up with it as an unattainable but tantalizing beacon toward the next world. Like most aspects of growing up, I see now that it’s smaller and dimmer as I get closer to it, and that the ones who lit it have long since moved on.

I guess it’s time for me to move on, too.

candles

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Guest post: Ten Principles in Search of a Story

manMeg’s note: This post was written by my husband, John Elison, who has no blog of his own. He likes to tell long stories, and I like to hear them. Hope you do, too. 

The Man first burned in ‘86 and the Ten Principles weren’t made official until 2004, and yet much of the Burning Man’s heart seems to lie somewhere in those ten guiding lines. So, as I attempt to process just what happened during my first burn, I am going to use them to compartmentalize my experience. It was that or let this become a novel of some cis white dude’s self-discovery at Burning Man. Nobody wants that.

Radical Inclusion

Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community. And yet, while the invitation is there, I don’t think everyone got it. Certainly, there were more than your standard number of tattooed weirdos, nudist octogenarians, and peacock-blue fauxhawks.

If your standard is nowhere near a coastal city.

There were so many gorgeous naked 20-somethings that the first couple days I was torn between states of Stendhal syndrome and paranoia. I was convinced that the BRC police, baffled by how I even got in, were going to find me and kick me out for not meeting their strictly-enforced beauty quotient. My only saving grace was that I am white (which is kind of redundant, I know.) Everyone here is white. Everyone.

Not really. But every year BRC keeps a census and according to their latest record I meet every majority demographic from race, age, gender, and education. While this gave me some comfort that I would not in fact be kicked out, it did a lot to kill the radical inclusion illusion. While talking to one of the few POC I found, it was explained to me that one of the biggest issues facing Burning Man’s quest for greater diversity is that since time-immemorial POC have tried to avoid places where white dudes are riding in the backs of trucks screaming “Wahoo!”

Even in my attempt to find online POC Burner’s suggestions for more inclusivity, I found that the topic is mostly being discussed by only more whites.

(an interesting piece on the topic of security is also addressed in this piece.)

Being of that ivory camp, I don’t have an answer other than to continue to invite those whose voices are often neglected to speak up. Even if we lack the radical inclusion we profess to seek, it doesn’t mean that we don’t want to find it.

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Gifting

At the beginning of August I announced that I would be giving free massages to my friends and family. In part, this was just my way of giving back on the road to my 35th birthday. It was also so that I could knock the rust of my skills, a bit. I knew that I would be gifting some of my time to my crewmates as their masseuse and I really wanted to do a good job.

I got a few wonderful friends to lay on the table for me and I practiced my effleurage, petrissage, and tapotement; as well as my timing, and grounding, and draping. Then, when the time came, I hauled my table and chair and coconut oil off to the desert. I even brought a tub and extra vinegar for foot washings (a practice my dad started doing when he worked at Renaissance Faires.)

It’s been theorized that in gift economies that the bigger the gift given, the more prestige and power the giver gets in return, and I had every intention of being the big mystic imperial poobah.

I think this was one of the reasons our first day there was so difficult. There was no way for me to give that gift. There just wasn’ the space, time, or environment for it. I had tied my self worth to my gift, which made the gift for me more than anyone else. And that, people, spoils the gift.

In time, we were given a wonderfully sagging Easy-Up, that hung downward over our heads like an enormous canvas breast. Tired of feeling it brush the top of our heads, we wounds the center tight and wrapped the excess in duct tape, putting a huge silver nipple on the newly-lifted breast. Being the incredibly talented, witty people that we are, Meg and I named it Nipple Tent.

Slowly, as we made connections with the rest of our crew, people started coming to us. I worked on bodies with rods in their backs, with scars from botched surgeries, heavily pierced bodies, protected bodies, PTSD bodies, and bodies that had just worked 18 hour days for a week to build an Escher-esque suspension bridge that was just going to burn a couple of days later. I worked on my wife, on strangers, on new friends, and old friends who were once enemies and everyone was so incredibly, painfully beautiful. This trust was their gift to me. Every time someone laid on my table or sat in my chair or in any way let me offer a healing touch to them, I received this gift of trust and it was crystal clear that I was never going to be a mystical poobah anything. I can’t even profess to have helped everyone I worked on, but I know that work always helped me. The connection built in those tender moments of intentional love healed things in me and I am supremely grateful. Thank you.

Decommodification

It’s true that Burning Man is its own brand. One we pay dearly for, both directly and indirectly. The irony of this is not (I hope) lost on any of my fellow burners. However, it is also true that once we set camp, I stopped seeing brands, phones were put away, and the constant rush of being sold something was put to rest. My eyes began to relax. By the 3rd day, even my Male Gaze was reduced to the much more controllable Male Glance. Admittedly, this may have been from overstimulation, but I was nonetheless relaxed.

So did the need to sell something. Once I got over the “my job/gift is my identity” trial of the first 48 hrs, I also stopped telling people what I do for a living. Once I went a couple of days without bathing, I stopped worrying about what I looked like. Once I started handing out raw and real for free to strangers I was able to forget that the commodity once known as “John” was ever for sale.

And it wasn’t just me. Meg read from her book on the spoken word stage, but didn’t bother to hand out copies, because it smacked of self-promotion. I watched singers finish sets only to hand out CDs of other people’s music. And I watched a baby boomer named SHRED improvise metal sets with lyrics like “She’s not Mexican, she’s a Hawaiian,” with no sense of irony whatsoever.

We can all stand to decommodify, once in awhile.

Because we’re worth it. 

worth it

Radical Self-reliance

For the most part, I felt neither radical nor self-reliant during my stay in BRC. How could I? My wife and roommate/sister-wife/younger brother managed most of the packing, sewing, and driving. Once there, all of these amazing, brilliant, strangers went out of their way to make sure I was fed and hydrated, that I was getting enough sleep, that I knew how to do my job and covered my ass when I didn’t. Even those outside my camp made sure that I wasn’t overheated or dirty. There were volunteers putting rolls of toilet paper in all the portapotties every day in what felt like it was just for me. A wonderful camp of sweet, gentlemanly bears even offered a space where I could lay back, get a shoulder rub while being fanned and misted, sipping on a wonderful mango mojito and then they cleaned, clipped, and cared for my beard. Why? Because clay encrusted pube face doesn’t look good on anybody.

But maybe self-reliance isn’t only about things? I mean, really, what if nothing is only about things, but especially this?

Our first day in BRC was my birthday. We were met by an eight hour dust storm. My asthma, which has only come out to play about once every 7 years since junior high, gave me a strong, hearty hello. Our tent and bedding were immediately hidden under alkaline dunes. My eyes ached. And the dust in my beard aged me about 20 years but somehow made everyone else look like the Greeks carved punk paragons and brought them to life in Reno.

I had hoped too long for this. I was given too many opportunities not afforded others to be here. I was miserable and I felt guilty/ashamed/bad for feeling that way. Finally, I pulled Meg into the car to get out of the white-out and I asked her “Can we just accept that this sucks?”  And being the bad ass that my wife is, Meg didn’t guilt me: “Look here, dude, (I hate it when she calls me dude) you know how hard we worked to get here?” or let me wallow in it: “Oh, puddy-wumpkins, why does this always happen to usss?” Or try solving it for me: “Let me just take care of that storm for you, babe. Oh and here’s a G&T and a handjob, too.” She thoughtfully acknowledged that my feelings were real and valid and then sat with me while I processed that. She smiled and nodded. And that’s all I needed to turn things around. Because that’s life. Or at least that has been my life and I suspect the lives of many of my friends. When we ignore the obvious suckiness in the world I believe we can’t properly deal with it, either. Like hoping to shoot invisible snipe with a gun you don’t believe you have, loaded with imaginary buckshot.

Owning your negative feelings is self-reliance.

Not giving in to negative feelings is self-reliance.

Not allowing other’s negative feelings to take you down is self-reliance.

And when we are all being self-reliant it is so much easier to also build community, to make art, to give more to our neighbor, to make that extra bit of magic in the desert happen. And that’s what makes it radical.

Radical Self-expression

There were art cars and murals and mutant monkey babies. There were fire dancers, a 20 ft. skeleton marionette, and a burning temple. There was a blue sabretooth leopard that played the Hang drum and a Discordian wizard who slung hard truths and nonsense through wicked rhymes and rhythms (Zak and What Army?) and the winner of the Battle of the Marching Bands had a stilt-walking witch who dual-wielded 6’ bullwhips like they were just another member of the percussion family.

And yet none of that seemed  “radical” per se. Delightful, wondrous, awe-inspiring, and surreal? Definitely. But nothing so radical as sitting silent in a tent across from a nymphet with vitiligo and eyes in Heisenberg Blue. This was a tantric exploration of Divine Intimacy at 6:30 and Ersatz. The closest I got physically to anyone was a long hug, however, we sat and sprawled in a dirty tent, enacting a cosmic dance where we ran across the infinite spectrum of radical human expression, silently breathing, staring into one another eyes, honest, naked, and open.

Once the silence was broken, this long-limbed youth and I spoke in turns about heartache and loss and self-sabotage and all of the incredible, godlike potential we have stored in us and how only fear seems to cork that in. Fear of rejection, of failure, of responsibility, and all the million other shades of fear, which are just that; shades. Nothing real or substantial, here. I am prone to both laughter and tears and with this nameless elf, I did both.

I truly believe that every man and woman a star. As a star, I emit light and have my own gravitational pull. Better still: as you are all stars, I receive your light and occasionally get pulled in by your personal gravity.

I should note that there was one performance that took place on Center Stage that I think transcended into that similarly vulnerable, truly radical space. During Sorne’s performance of Fragile Frame, Laura Blake’s dancing ushered me into a liminal space and taught me something, however, when I try to talk about that particular moment my words run dry. I was raised to believe that certain things are sacred. That talking about them too directly cheapens them. Perhaps this is one of those moments.

Communal Effort

From the lamplighters to the TP patrol to everything the Black Rock City Department of Public Works does to the art to the music to the fluffers, Burning Man is a community and I was really glad to be a part of it this year. I was especially fortunate to have been a part of the Cafe Sound community. We were all working hard and playing hard and I have heard more bitterness from coworkers in quiet, air conditioned libraries made to work an extra 10 minutes on a desk than I ever heard from one of my crew who had to work a double shift while their relief slept off whatever happened the night before. My Cafe Sound teammates were all amazing.

An especially memorable night was my first day as Lead Stage Manager. One of my duties was to make sure we didn’t have dead air. If an act no shows, we find someone in the audience who might have their guitar, drum, theremin on hand and throw them on stage. While this definitely makes room for plenty of playa magic, the reality is that often it’s a hassle. My shift started at 7am. I showed up at 4: 30am just to get a feel for the madness. For all the tantric yoga sun worshipping that goes on in BRC, not many burners actually like waking up at dawn. And it looked like we were about to have a long line of no shows. And none of my almost sleeping hippies in the audience had even a kazoo to share amongst the lot of them. Then came Simply B. This long-haired, walking smile from Salt Lake City, UT showed up with a bass, guitar, a harmonica, and his looper and proceeded to play for almost 3 hours. Then when he had played everything he had (covers aren’t allowed in Center Camp), some of it twice, he personally went out and found people in the audience to play his instruments in order to cover the next hour of no shows, while he sipped coffee and rocked out to his fellow burner’s jams. Simply B was my Community Spirit. Seriously, I love you, man.

lotus

Civic Responsibility

Knowing what I know about the history of Burning Man, what happens now at Burning Man, and the general politics of East Bay Burners at large, I almost feel like this principle was written in either at governmental, metaphoric gunpoint or beneath an alkaline veneer of cynicism and irony. But then my darktard butt went and ran into an anarchist with dreads and a non la and rather than give me grief for my clumsy, virgin ways he threw me a light and wished me luck and safety. I and all of my would-have-been victims thank you, Mr. Lightgiver Man.

Leaving No Trace

Picking up MOOP (matter out of place) was sort of a nostalgic zen thing for me.

Before I left for Burning Man, I talked to my Dad who took great liberties at teasing me about how me and my siblings still complain about that one time he hauled us out for desert camping. We were hot and miserable. There were so many bugs that the ones that covered our tents made the lighting inside look like dusk at noon, and the ones in the pool left a layer thick enough you could walk on it. “Hey Dad, I’m like Peter. I can almost walk on water, too.” And now here I was going out of my way to go to a hot, miserable desert full of bugs.

But actually, I loved our family desert camping trip because my dad taught me then that the only thing worth bringing back from a vacation is a better story. He taught me to always leave no trace. It’s not just the crazy hippies in the playa who understand that this is important. But it was really nice to see that most of the crazy hippies in the playa did get it.

Participation

Everywhere I went there were Easter eggs of delight. No corner came without some sort of spritz or drink or smile. And food and drink were abundant where I was told that hydration and nutrition were scarce and treasured necessities (and they are, burners. Stay hydrated. Eat things.) And towards the middle of the week when the party really got started it seemed as though I was almost being chased down to be given things. At one point, I literally had a remote control guacamole truck drive me down and follow me until I took some of its chips and dip. But why?

The best I can come up with is the 100 hand massage.

During my wanderings, I ended up in a tent with some Angelenos and a strange bed space. I had ducked in to avoid a quick gush of dust and they asked me if I was there for the 100 hand massage.

“Well, I am now.”

And with that someone stripped and got on the table while the rest of us massaged their body all at once. We took turns. The more times we worked on someone, the more people saw what we were up to and joined us. We got more in sync and our technique together improved. My own time laid on the bed was incredible. And fun. And I think most of us get this. We want to share. We know sharing is fun. That the more we share the higher the chance that someone, or several someones, will want to share with us. Maybe I get to be the great mystical poobah, after all.

fork

Immediacy

Linear time is a lie. Time is both infinite and eternal. Therefore, it is one giant single point and plane. What we are experiencing is just that facet of time that we have chosen to focus on, right now.

One night, I got to see a steampunk octopus car with moving, flame thrower tentacles light up the sky, in direct competition with my wife’s cherub-cheeked grin. Then she hit me. With a snowball. In the DESERT. Dumbfounded, I watched her giggle and run away. She looked 10 years younger. And not in spite of the crusty grey dreads that had developed in her molasses curls, but because of it. No, she was 10 years younger. Because time isn’t linear. And that slip might demonstrate the most challenging part of this principle. Time is a slippery point on a greasy, tilting plane. We want it to be linear and clean and behave the way we expect. For all of our bemoaning of the number of hours in the day and how aging sucks us dry, we tend to like our memories of the past and plans for the future much more than their actual present-time manifestations. Immediacy is intense. But it’s also all we really have. Even off the playa.

Before I conclude, let me just say I tried really hard to not be trite, but then Meg told me that it was ok because that’s how all Burning Man posts end and who am I to argue with an award winning author?

robot

Conclusion

“What do you want most out of Burning Man?” Meg asked me as we started up the car, our new car, the first new car I have ever owned, the new car I had bought just a week before, the brand spanking new car I had just bought and was about to drive to the desert.

“A story.”

I don’t recommend driving new cars into Black Rock City if you want to keep them looking new. But I do recommend taking anything that’ll get you there, if what you are looking for is a story. And these days, a better story is all I’m ever really looking for. The desert is a pretty good place to find one. Or ten.

-John Elison

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9 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Burning Man

All photos by Devin Cooper.

All photos by Devin Cooper.

There are more guides for first-time burners than there are grains of playa dust in my still-unpacked suitcases, but I’m adding this one anyway. No two burns are alike, and I learned a few things in the doing that I hadn’t been warned about. So here it is from me, virgin no more. These are the things I learned about my own comfort and discomfort levels during the strangest vacation I have ever taken.

  1. I wish I had brought more clothes. I brought fun costumes and sealed Ziploc bags of underwear and socks, warm night gear and gauzy daywear designed to make me look like one of Immortan Joe’s prize breeders. It wasn’t enough. I ought to have planned 2-3 outfits per day, to account for sweat and blood and dust and wine and scrofulous plastic outhouses and surprise puddings and all manner of other things. This is tricky, because nobody wants to be the over-packing diva with a trunk full of formals and two costume changes per act. Do it anyway. You’ll thank your past self.

temple

2. I was warned about playa dust. I cannot say that people didn’t tell me I’d be filthy and bone-white for a week, they certainly did. However, every body is different and we all react to things in our own way. My skin hurt. It ached so that I could hardly stand to be touched, it cracked when I stretched and it screamed when the sun touched it (that’s normal for me). I packed two parasols that I lived under and I wore sunblock all day, every day. The playa dust adhered to both of them. Where playa dust touches oil, whether it be my various attempts at a protective barrier or the stuff on my scalp intended to keep my hair healthy (more on that later), it turns sickly yellow and becomes a kind of clay. That clay sucks you dry like a bentonite facial mask. My skin abraded and broke anywhere something rubbed on me, and wearing goggles, a utility belt, and a mask every day contributed mightily to that rubbing. The break and ache didn’t stop until my third shower at home.

That third shower happened because I had to run through several attempts before something washed the clay out of my hair. My hair’s texture makes it run to locs under normal conditions; under these it ceased to resemble anything I had seen before. It lay in clay clumps that were grey and gummy to the touch. Vinegar loosened the clay but did not break it. Dr. Bronner’s made it worse. No shampoo, dry poo, or no-poo could break through.  Desperate and moments away from washing my hair with dish soap, I tried my acne wash. Winner. I have my own wiry insubordinate hair once again.

  1. Take clothes and shoes that you want to throw away. Some things wash out fine. Some do not. Don’t take anything irreplaceable. NB: I broke this rule to bring my diary. Calculated risk.

woman

  1. Definitely bring a bike. The playa is bigger than it looks on the internet, and walking everywhere is slow and very tiring. The neon lights of parties and cars and art whip by like a Lisa Frank peyote wonderland, and other bikers honk their little horns and ring their little bells as you navigate the undefined space that only sometimes includes roads. You’re going to be sore no matter what you choose; raging quads beat throbbing feet on my score card. Consult your own needs, but know that a bike is worth the effort.
  1. Everyone there is from the Bay Area. I expected to make friends and I did, but I also expected to wave a bittersweet goodbye to most of them after the Temple burned. Instead, I learned that most of them are my neighbors and I’m free and able to see them again.
  1. I dreamt vividly every night. I dream almost every night in the default world, but this was an exceptional run of days and nights. I suspect that my sudden and total digital fast contributed to this phenomenon, but the constant input of thought-provoking art and performances likely played their own part. I had a startlingly clear dream of John Candy driving a 50-foot carving fork, for example. Play hard, dream hard.

medusa

  1. There were drugs literally everywhere. I thought the stories were an exaggeration, but I’ve never seen a higher concentration of drug use anywhere else in the world. I saw mushrooms, ayahuasca, marijuana, 2C-I, mescaline, cocaine, and things referred to by names I’d never heard before. I saw enough alcohol given freely in that de-commodified space to drown the entire Marine Corps, and I did far more desert day-drinking than I planned. I drove through the main gates beside a beautiful girl who was casually doing whippets at each stop. I found a plastic Easter egg filled with LSD, left behind by a generous individual who wanted to blow some minds. I expected covert drug use, carefully hidden among friends to avoid trouble with the Pershing County Sheriff’s office. What I found was an open and convivial drug scene that resembles the fairy tales I’ve heard about the 60s.
Best new tumblr of 2015.

Best new tumblr of 2015.

  1. I knew there were two main burns, Man Burn and Temple Burn. What I didn’t realize was that the two are starkly different in tone and function. The Man burned to a thunder of drums and cheers, in a sacrificial and yet expansive mood among the participants. By contrast, Temple Burn is silent, with throngs of thousands engaged in acts of mourning without words or music. After the Man burned, the whole event changed in tone. I started hearing about what people did for a living, and opinions like ‘prison is too lenient’ and ‘climate change might not be real.’ After the Temple burned, the remaining faithful could only talk about going home. I understand now why so many subject themselves to the 8-hour exodus after the Man is gone. Everything slides downward after that point, everything feels like a long goodbye.
...except this one, which is clearly mine.

…except this one, which is clearly mine.

  1. That long goodbye is only a tiny piece of the emotional rollercoaster of the whole burn. People warned me that relationships could be taxed and limits might be pushed by the circumstances of the event. What I didn’t know was that I’d feel euphoric, incredible (natural) highs that produced that irrepressible, Frank Capra-style love for mankind that only the very young and the very old can hold on to. I also experienced utter hatred for the ascended spiritual masters peddling DMT and new age bullshit who think they have it all figured out, but in sudden shifting moments of compassionate clarity, I’d see them as perfect and ineffable, just as if they were made in the images of a thousand fresh-faced gods.

I’m glad I wasn’t prepared for wanton expressions of kindness and support we received from our fellow Burners. That is best experienced firsthand. There is no way to prepare yourself for this process; it’s like dying and being reborn every few hours. But it is real.

My husband John ran head-on into one of these, crashing out on the dark playa into a white kid with dreadlocks and a nón lá. The kid hugged him and then gave him a light for his bike, telling him to be safe. Or I’d slog halfway across Black Rock City to find an event that had been canceled without warning, only to sit hot and dejected in the dust preparing to turn around and get back to camp. Then some girl with a green sparkly face and fairy wings would roll up on an adult trike and spray me gently with icy water, laced with peppermint oil, while chanting to me about my unique beauty. John and I were welcomed to a long, low tent full of coffee and fruits given freely by a kid named Aladdin, only to be joined moments later by a man named Genie. We had a snowball fight beneath a flame-throwing mechanical octopus. I raved to Fleetwood Mac. We climbed a Thunderdome and cheered for the bungee-bound combatants. A Scotsman made me tequila sunrises for breakfast. I watched the dust rise up and veil a bride as she walked down the aisle as if she had commanded it. I arrested a self-proclaimed rock star and his roadies gave me a medal for being Cop of the Year. These moments replay themselves for me when I wake up in the middle of the night, still feeling like I’m there.

pulpo

I think that months from now, I’ll still be saying that I just got back from Burning Man.

I’ve spent a lot of words here trying to define an experience that is ultimately indefinable. It’s something different for everyone, and you will likely have different wishes after your first burn.

It was the best and worst vacation I’ve ever had.

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