personal

900 miles

At the end of July, I had a routine doctor’s visit. Got on the scale. Clocked in at 170 lb. I hadn’t weighed that much since 1991. So I got back on my bike.

I still remember when I was six years old and my father took the training wheels off my bike and convinced me to ride it. I was terrified. He ran alongside me as I rode around the block. (My little sister, in contrast, took her training wheels off by herself, leaned her bike against our father’s truck, climbed aboard, and rode off.)

After that I got the hang of it, and bikes became an important part of my life. I started going on long-distance rides when I was 13. I did a little bike touring in high school, and I competed in some triathlons and bike races starting right after I graduated high school.

I didn’t have a bike during the time I lived in Japan, and when I was living in Chicago for a couple of years after that, I had my road bike but didn’t use it much (thus the 170 lb).

After I moved back to Austin in 1992, I got back into riding, and it was a great time to be a road cyclist in Austin—there were a bunch of then-pointless and unused roads that were like a playground for cyclists—360, Southwest Parkway, Bee Cave, and so on. I hardened up and could motor all day. On one occasion, I rode the 165 miles to a friend’s place in Houston in 9 hours flat. Some months later, I did it again, 20 minutes faster.

In 2000, a lot of stuff in my life changed, and I found myself cycling less and less, but in 2010, I started riding regularly again as I prepared for my Southern Tier ride, which I completed in October that year.

But that wrecked me—my upper body was emaciated when I finished. I remember at the end of the ride struggling to lift my 30-lb bike over my head. I decided I needed some kind of a whole-body workout. I signed up for a bootcamp class, and stuck with it until it petered out several years later. I never found a replacement that interested me, so I was back to a relatively inactive lifestyle (thus the 170 lb).

As of today, I’ve logged 900 miles since that doctor’s visit. I’ve clawed back a fair amount of lost fitness, and lost the weight I wanted to lose. But I’ve got a long way to go before I’ve got the level of fitness I had when I was younger—if in fact it’s possible to attain that again. It would have been better all around if I had stayed more active.

Adventures in car-shopping

About a month ago, Gwen was rear-ended in a hit-and-run. She was fine. The car wasn’t.

Our car is a 2002 model, and the damage was extensive enough that our insurer doesn’t consider it to be worth repairing. They’ll let us keep the car and give us a payout that is considerably less than blue book for the car in its pre-crunched condition, or scrap it and give us the salvage value in addition to that payout. It’s been mechanically well-maintained, is still perfectly drivable, and is repairable. We can probably sell the car–even in its current condition–for more than salvage value.

The options we are considering are

  1. Continue to drive the car as-is.
  2. Fix the car and continue to drive the car.
  3. Sell the car and apply the money toward the downpayment on a new or new-to-us car.

So we recently made a list of all the cars that we think might serve our needs and wants, and yesterday we went for test drives. A lot of test drives.

We hit five dealerships and drove a total of nine different cars.

Dealerships

Dealerships are funny. Each one had a completely different vibe.

Honda

We started at Honda, and the dealer we met with there had been in car sales for a long time, was friendly and talkative and generally pretty sympatico. Some of that was probably an act, or a knack for finding something in each person to relate to. He spent a good few minutes with us before we went out on a test drive, asking what we were interested in, and also spent a lot of time selling us on the dealership, which I thought was a little weird. Once we did get in the car, had an established routine that he clearly liked to follow. The dealership was physically huge and had an elaborate system of storing car keys in a vault. The place had the aura of a well-oiled machine.

Volkswagen

The experience could not have been more different than at Honda. Not in a bad way. While the Honda dealership was sophisticated and heavy on procedure, the VW dealer asked us what kind of car we wanted to drive, pulled it up, and gave us the keys. Didn’t ride along with us, didn’t even make a copy of our licenses. We could have driven off to Mexico. The dealer answered our questions but didn’t put any of the sell on.

Mazda

We had a very young and green dealer who only learned how to drive a stick after he started selling cars, about six months ago. He was clearly following a script and had a hard time getting off of it, even when we told him what didn’t apply to us. He was the only guy who said “I need to talk to my manager,” and kept us waiting kind of a long time while he did that.

Ford

The only woman we dealt with in our shopping adventure. It became apparent pretty quickly that Ford didn’t have anything that would work for us, but she humored us anyhow. She also had the most classic patter of salesman bullshit I’ve ever heard–reciting stuff that was maybe not exactly false, but mischaracterized so dramatically that it might as well be, and pitched in a way that it shows she assumes the customer is an idiot who can’t see through any of it.

Subaru

Despite being owned by the same company that owned the Honda dealership, this one seemed casual in terms of their internal procedures. At one point we asked to test-drive a certain model, and the dealer helping us came out with a handful of keys to try. At one point I made a comment about “not buying anything today” and the dealer got defensive about not applying any pressure. Which he didn’t.

Cars

The only category that really interests me is the compact wagon, and it’s almost nonexistent in the USA, where the SUV has almost completely eclipsed it. So we wound up looking at other things that were compact, seemed wagon-ish, and got good mileage.

Honda HRV

This model is new to the USA, and one I hadn’t heard of until my sister mentioned that she was considering getting one. It’s built on the Fit platform, and is a micro SUV. I am extremely reluctant to buy anything that might be mistaken for an SUV, but this was pretty benign. Gets good mileage, very civilized to drive, nice interior. The second-most cargo space of anything we drove. Gwen’s favorite of the cars we drove.

Honda Fit

Surprisingly good for such a small car, but doesn’t have enough cargo space for us. I was especially impressed by the linear acceleration with the CVT.

VW Golf Wagon

I’m intrigued by the diesel, but it costs more than the gas version, and because of the amount we drive, it would take us 12 years to break even with its increased fuel efficiency. This has the most cargo space of anything we looked at, struck me as the most luxurious in terms of ride and cabin appointments, and the most solid build quality. The diesel version gets the best mileage of anything we looked at. My favorite by a long stretch, but also the most expensive thing we looked at by a fair margin.

Mazda3

Fun to drive and seems like a good value but we want more cargo space. If they made a wagon version of this, it would be a contender.

Ford C-Max

Gwen’s feet couldn’t touch the floor when she had the driver’s seat adjusted so she could actually drive it. We didn’t make it past that.

Ford Focus

Chintzy, not enough cargo space. Good looking from the outside though.

Ford Focus ST

A hoot to drive. Powerful engine, firm ride. This is a real sleeper of a sports car and I like that. Poor mileage. Like its plain Focus sibling, not enough cargo space and still chintzy. Hilariously, it pipes a pre-recorded “throaty engine growl” into the cabin when accelerating.

Subaru Crosstrek

Tried both the manual and CVT version: the CVT is actually better, which is not something I expected to discover. Compared to the other cars we drove, this felt slightly dated, and the drive quality was uncouth without being fun.

Four years

Four years ago today, I was smack in the middle an adventure: a transcontinental bike ride.

When I finished that ride, my body was wasted: I had lost at least 15 pounds. You could see my ribs through my back. I decided it was time to find a more whole-body workout. I started doing a boot-camp workout with Gwen. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it, exactly, but it was definitely good for me. After a few months, I had finally resolved some weak spots left over from my broken pelvis, and had built up core strength that I’d really never had before. I was pretty regular about it for the next 3½ years or so, going three times a week, occasionally taking a month off when life got crazy. Boot camp completely displaced cycling for me. I didn’t do any serious riding after I got home from my big ride, only commuting around town.

A couple of months ago, that boot camp class ceased to exist as such when the trainer started a gym; he offers something similar at the gym, but I realized I don’t want to go to a gym. I was also missing riding. Today I went out with a friend for my first ride in four years. My neck’s a little stiff, and I was tired earlier than I should be, but it was good to get out there.

I still need to do some kind of whole-body workout. But I need to keep riding my bike.

Burner-anxiety dream

You know those school-anxiety dreams where you show up in class, and discover there’s a test you weren’t expecting, or work-anxiety dreams that are similar? I had a burner-anxiety dream last night. I almost never remember my dreams, and this one seems funny enough to bear writing down.

In my dream, Gwen and I had gone to Burning Man as a last-minute thing (which should have tipped me off that I was dreaming). We were in a theme camp that had a TV playing a videotape…which is a little weird, but hey, it’s Burning Man—what isn’t weird? I was putting a bandana on my head, and realized I had left my belt pouch behind.

Then I realized I hadn’t brought even one change of clothes.

Then I realized I hadn’t brought any water.

Then I realized I hadn’t brought any food.

Then I realized we hadn’t had our tickets checked at Gate (another tip-off that I was dreaming), and I was pretty sure we didn’t have those either.

Gwen and I got into a bit of an argument over whether we should try to go back Reno to provision, or try to skate by as sparkle ponies, or just give up and go home. Since I was pretty sure we didn’t have our tickets, I was doubtful that we’d be able to get back in.

Then I woke up. It felt real while I was dreaming it.

Iceland trip, random observations

The nicest thing I can say about most of the architecture is that it’s pragmatic. But it generally lacks grace, decoration, fun, etc. Many of the historic buildings are clad in corrugated sheetmetal (sometimes painted a fun color, usually not). I’ve been surprised by how little stone is used as a building material, either structural or cladding. Because one thing Iceland has in abundance is rocks. We did see some interesting residential architecture in the high-rent neighborhood on the coast, but that’s it.

Regular gas is 95 octane. Premium is 98. Not sure why so high. It’s also about 3x as expensive as in the USA, which is no surprise.

Motorists are unfailingly polite to pedestrians, which causes me no end of confusion. For that matter, they’re very polite with other motorists—cars honking at each other are very rare.

Reykjavik has some excellent used book stores. One pretty big, rambling place, with books piled everywhere, including the floor. I suspect many of the books there have been in that shop for more timed than they haven’t. We found another, smaller and somewhat more orderly, where Gwen bought some interesting-looking old books.

There’s a massive swimming complex a few blocks away. Indoor olympic-sized pool, and outdoor, and a series of hot tubs in temperatures stepping from 38°–42°C, plus a saltwater hot tub. All of these were in heavy use when we went last night—we worked our way up and then down the temperature gradient, and Gwen put in a few laps.

The sun never gets very high in the sky, at least not at his time of year. So at 11:00 AM, something in my brain is telling me that it will be sunset soon.

Tourism is a big deal here. In a country of 320,000 people, they get 600,000 visitors a year. And apparently most of them come during the high season of May–September. A lot of stuff just shuts down the rest of the year. Which leads us to wonder what all the people with seasonal employment do the rest of the year.

Reykjavik apparently has a notorious late-night party scene. We noticed one place had happy hour from 8:00 to midnight, after which things start heating up. We went out to check out the crazy on Saturday night, but by 1:30 AM, things just weren’t that crazy yet, and we decided we didn’t need to stay out any later to watch it happen.

I knew that the level of English ability here is very high, but it’s been interesting to experience it. I’ve only spoken with one person with halting English. Everyone else has spoken it comfortably, and a lot of people speak it as if they’d been raised in an English-speaking country—there’s something about the speech cadences and situationally appropriate word choices that moves them into a different category of fluency.

Iceland trip, part 2

Day 3: Monday

This day was all about Jökulsárlón. A glacier lake at the foot of the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull, it is filled with ice floes calved off the glacier, and is otherworldly. Just shortly before we got to the main entrance, there were a couple of small pullouts along the road. Gwen saw something through a low spot in an embankment and told me to pull over. So I did. We climbed to the top of the embankment and it was a “holy shit!” moment. We walked around on top for a while, climbed down, and walked along the water’s edge. Then we drove the rest of the way to the main entrance and walked along the water there too. We wandered quite a way along the shore, until we were out of earshot of everything, and sat down to listen to the sound of ice melting.

The lake is one of the most extraordinary visual experiences of my life. Any description would be inadequate.

We eventually made our way back, and saw a Duck tour putting into the water, and a couple of tour operators with inflatable boats taking them out without passengers. Back at the snacks-n-trinkets shop, we had surprisingly good cappuccinos. Then we drove down to the point where the lake opens into the ocean and walked along the beach.

We headed back to the hotel, and stopped at Dveghamrar, the “Dwarf Cliffs.” These are columnar basalt formations that have some kind of dwarf-related folk tale to go along with them.

Day 4: Tuesday

This day was mostly about our trip to Vatnajökull National Park, where we did a fair amount of hiking. We saw numerous waterfalls, including the famous Svartifoss, which is ringed by another columnar basalt formation. There were extraordinary views of mountains, glaciers, the plains below. After we did some hiking at altitude, we decided to see if we could work our way around to a glacier tongue at ground level. That wasn’t in the cards (it might have been possible, but would have taken a long hike), and the weather started turning from sunny to blustery, do we headed back. We did get to see some ptarmigans, which were surprisingly indifferent to our presence. Apparently they are capable of flight, but the one that wanted to get away from us just ran straight ahead. Not the smartest bird.

So far, the only wildlife we’ve seen has been avian. No mammals, hardly any insects, even. We might have seen scat from some kind of mammal while hiking, but that’s it.

Day 5: Wednesday

This day, when I am writing this installment, has mostly been a travel day—we’re going to a different hotel about halfway back to Reykjavik.

Our first stop was at Dyrhólaey, a high rocky outcropping on the ocean that in warmer weather is an important nesting ground for birds. And there were plenty of seabirds wheeling around the there today. Mostly we looked at the rocky islands offshore, and the crashing waves.

We stopped next what is apparently the country’s best museum of handicrafts, in the town of Skógar. It has been a good day for indoor activity, because it’s been the first really rainy and cold day of our trip—we’ve been lucky enough to have pretty agreeable weather. We spent a goof while there, marveled at the hard lives of people who lived here not that long ago, and congratulated ourselves for having central heating and modern building materials. The museum had a cluster of old dwellings surrounding it, including several turf-covered homes, and the one thing that stood out is that none of these had any kind of heat source—no fireplace, no Franklin stove (in most of them, no stove period).

Our third stop was at Skógafoss, a big, thundering waterfall. We were able to approach close to where the water hits ground level, creating a spray that rises about three stories, and then we climbed to the top on a staircase provided for that purpose. Between the rainfall and the waterfall spray, I got pretty wet (Gwen wisely wore her rainpants). We were not far from our destination for the day, the town of Hvolsvöllur. Which is where I am writing these words.

Aside

I am continually intrigued by the idea of a country whose total population is less than that of St. Louis’, making it barely equivalent to the 60th-largest city in the USA. But despite that, it maintains all the mechanisms of a modern nation-state: it has its own currency, national government, diplomatic corps, road network (despite having one of the lowest population densities in the world), etc. And despite the obvious influence of American popular culture, the country has its own language, literature, music scene, movie industry, etc.

Of course, things are different. There are national highways that are gravel roads. Highway 1, the ring road that encircles most of the country, is frequently interrupted by one-lane bridges that have no traffic-control measures other than the common sense of motorists. None of the national parks that we have visited charge any admission, or even have a way to keep people out if the government decides to start. Some sites are on privately held farms, and tourists are apparently welcome to let themselves in–we climbed over a stile into a sheep pasture to get access to a waterfall.

Iceland trip, part 1

Day 0: Friday

Our flight was uneventful, and only noteworthy for being on a
737—I don’t think I’ve ever seen one used for international travel before, and this one had ass-hammer seats that were impossible to get comfortable in. Neither Gwen nor I could sleep. I wound up getting about 1/6th of the way through Reamde.

Day 1: Saturday

We landed in Keflavik at about 6:00 AM, well before sunup. The passport check was instant and perfunctory. The customs check in the “nothing to declare” line was literally non-existent. We just found ourselves out in a different part of the airport. We went into the shopping part of the airport, thinking we might be able to buy SIM cards there—no luck. So we exited, and were met by someone from the car-rental agency who told us where to get on the bus to pick up our car. Got the car, a mini-SUV not sold in the USA. Also got a GPS unit, which has turned out to be very helpful (in the absence of data connections on our phones). Drove into the town of Keflavik right as the sun was coming up. Parked the car and walked along the shoreline for a while. Had breakfast at a hotel, where there were also a bunch of guys in the U.S. military eating. Gwen ventured to have herring for breakfast; I stuck with a more familiar meal of bacon, eggs, and toast.

The weather was drizzling when we headed out. We stopped at a 1011, a store that’s got more stuff than a 7-11, but doesn’t quite qualify as a grocery store. Picked up fruit, cheese, snacks, water.

Then we proceeded to our first sightseeing stop of the day, the lighthouse at Garðskagi. There was not a lot to see there, aside from the ocean, some seabirds (gannets, I later learned—giant seagulls), and of course the lighthouse. This was on the tip of a peninsula, so there was a lot of ocean to see. The rocky shoreline was covered in some kind of rotting seaweed. It was also notable that we saw no one on the road, but shortly after arriving at this deserted headlands a customs van pulled up and circled around. Gwen thinks this was not a coincidence.

We drove around the edge of the Reykjanes peninsula, which is like no place I’ve been. The only thing growing there is grass and moss. Not a single tree. Nothing to break up the landscape. This seemed to be echoed in the villages by the way that structures seemed to be placed haphazardly, with nothing to delineate or suggest property lines. We drove through villages where fishing is probably the main industry, past a few pastures with sturdy ponies or sheep under massive layers of their own wool. Stopped and looked at a village graveyard. Stopped at the Bridge Between Two Continents, which is literally a footbridge connecting the European and American continental plates. Kind of a gimmick, but we were really killing time until our next stop of the day opened. Which, around then, it did.

That stop was the Blue Lagoon, which is a hot-spring bath that is in all the guidebooks and an obvious tourist destination, but no less worthwhile in spite of that.

The fun starts before you even get to the door, as they’ve got an unused pool for show in front. The water is nearly opaque, milky blue, and white silica deposits accumulate on the black volcanic rocks surrounding it. Completely unreal.

Inside, they’ve got a very efficient, high-tech system where you get an RFID-tagged wristband that gets you in, lets you lock and unlock a locker, and even lets you put drinks on a tab, which you can get while soaking in the waters.

The pool itself is enormous, and could probably accommodate 1,000 people. There was maybe a tenth that number when we were there, so plenty of room. There are various attractions around its edges, including saunas, a waterfall/shower, buckets of silica that you can rub on your face (apparently it’s good for the skin), and the aforementioned bar. Gwen and I worked our way around, found the hottest part of the pool, and stayed there as long as we could stand it. We worked our way around some more and lamented that there was no good place we could take a nap in the pool, since at this point we had gone about 30 hours without sleep.

Eventually we decided that we had had about much relaxation as we could tolerate, so we got dressed and pushed on to Seltún. There’s not much human activity around there, but there is a lot of geological activity. Superheated water is boiling through the surface, creating puddles of bubbling mud and streams of hissing water that leaves unnaturally colored deposits on the surrounding rocks. There are walkways that let you get dangerously close to the fun stuff, and we walked all around before moving on.

The next leg of our drive was on a gravel road over very rugged terrain, with steeply pitched hills and sharp switchbacks, following along the edge of Kleifarvatn, a lake formed by volcanic activity, with sheer cliffs on the far side. Gwen was driving and had to give up at this point due to the utter lack of guard rails, which tapped in to a well-known fear of gravity failing.

As we moved on toward our hotel in the town of Selfoss, we crossed through some mountains and found ourselves in a different terrain yet again, one where at least a few trees can grow.

When we got to the hotel, we checked in, dropped our stuff off, got cleaned up, and headed out immediately for dinner. Partly because we were hungry, but mostly because we knew that if we stopped moving, we’d be down for the count.

Our dinner was a highly recommended place in the next village over, Við Fjöruborðið, but it might as well be called “that lobster place,” because that is their specialty, that’s what people know it for. The lobster was great. The wine was not.

Pleasantly full, we managed to make it back to our hotel room before we fell asleep. Just. We were in bed by 8:00 and slept till 9:00 the next morning.

Day 2: Sunday

Sunday, at the end of which I am writing these words, was less eventful. Breakfast in the hotel restaurant, where several ten-top were filled with middle-aged Icelandic women, with only a few couples to balance them out. Gwen had fish again. There was a decent-sized grocery store very near by, so we checked that out, because grocery stores in other countries are always interesting, and because we might want some food for the road. The rest of the day would be heavy on driving. This grocery store was not that different from a small grocery in the USA, except for the selection of dried fish, the minuscule beer assortment, and the availability of blood in 1- and 3-liter jugs. Vampires would do well to book a vacation here, especially in the winter, when there’s almost no daylight. Of course, that blood probably isn’t human.

We got on Highway 1, the ring road that encircles most of the country, and headed east along the southern coast. There was sporadic sleet, and a very steep climb with hairpin turns (again, no guard rails). Passed through some landscape that was otherworldly, some that was merely dramatic. In the otherworldly column were miles of plains deeply covered in treacherous volcanic rock, which was in turn deeply covered in moss. The effect was of frozen green clouds.

In the merely dramatic column, we drove for a long while with mountains sticking vertically out of the ground to our left, and flat plains or rolling hills to our right. Glacial meltwater formed frequent waterfalls down these mountains, and every so often, we’d see a farmhouse tucked in at the foot of a mountain, sometimes downstream from waterfall. More sheep and ponies.

We passed just south of Eyjafjallajökull, the unpronounceable volcano whose eruption grounded planes across Europe a few years back; we stopped at the information center for it just to stretch our legs.

We made it to our hotel for the next few days, which is just outside the tiny village with the long name of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. We checked in, dropped our stuff off, and went into the village, which has its own waterfall, with a trail leading to the top. We climbed that trail. Being at the top was extraordinary. There’s a lake feeding the waterfall, and a footbridge crossing the top of the waterfall. This mountain, like all the others, is of the thrusting-directly-up-from-the-ground variety, so the top was surrounded by gut-turning dropoffs, but the panorama of the country below is worth it.

We wandered around the mountaintop for a while, exclaiming over the view, and turned to go back down. The descent was much scarier than the ascent, because you have to look down.

Back at the hotel, we just had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. The food was good, and we got a laugh out of the fact that the music playing was Icelandic covers of soft-rock hits of the 80s. Gwen had fish again.

At 11:00 PM we went outside. Everything was quiet. The northern lights were active.

Sometimes the new ways are the best

Char Griller brand dual grill

I’ve been barbecuing all my adult life. I don’t claim to be a grillmaster. I haven’t made a study of scientifically optimized barbecuing techniques. But I can usually get pretty good results. I’ve always been a traditionalist about it, only using charcoal, and always owning a primitive grill. I had a L’il Smokey in college. I had a tiny thing that fit in a backpack when I lived in Japan. Since then, I’ve always had one of those converted 55-gallon drums. I always felt that part of the fun of grilling was the unpredictability—that each time I got good results in spite of the lack of control, it was a small triumph over chaos, and my ability to get good results was evidence of some inarticulable talent.

It turns out that this represented one of those unexamined assumptions that turns out to be wrong.

The bottoms on those drum grills eventually rust out completely, so I’d wind up replacing them every few years. After the last one was gone, Gwen decided it was time for something different. She knew that charcoal grilling tastes better, but she also knew that gas grilling was more convenient, and can be a better-tasting option than stovetop cooling. She picked out a two-way grill, with gas in the left barrel and charcoal in the right. It was on sale at the big-box store, and we bought it. This is not something I would have picked out for myself—the charcoal side alone is fancier than any of those drum grills I’ve owned. And I felt a bit odd about allowing a propane grill into the household, even though I can avoid using it if I want.

We took the grill on its maiden voyage yesterday, and it immediately proved itself to be vastly superior to any grill I’ve owned before. To hell with triumph over chaos and inarticulable talent. I’ll stick with convenience, predictability, and control from now on. At least when it comes to grilling.

Flipside 2011

Another year, another Flipside.

In September last year, I was elected to the Combustion Chamber, which is the advisory board for the limited-liability company that nominally produces Flipside. This means that every couple of weeks, I get together with other CC members and we argue over The True Meaning of Flipside. So I’ve been kept abreast of and involved in Flipside-related developments to a much greater extent, and felt more of a sense of responsibility for the event’s success, than usual. It’s a good thing that it turned out really well, at least from my perspective.

One of the most contentious issues leading up to the event was what to do with the Effigy. The effigy burn is the apex of the event. There have been two previous occasions when we could not burn the Effigy at Flipside, but this year there was a lot of debate over what to do with the Effigy in the event of a non-burn, which seemed all but guaranteed, given the wildfires all over the state. By amazing coincidence, the burn ban for Milam County (where Flipside is held) was lifted for one week, just a couple of days before Flipside started, resulting in this unlikely burn-ban map:

It was widely speculated that the Apache Pass’ landowner applied pressure to the county judge to lift the burn ban or that “somebody was paid off.” Perhaps, but I doubt it. Milam County actually had isolated flooding in the week before Flipside.

In order to get a head start setting up our theme camp’s infrastructure, Gwen and I got out to the property in the early afternoon on Wednesday, a day before the official start of the event. Two of our campmates, Matt and Lori, arrived a few hours later. When we arrived, we were surprised at how much had already been set up—a lot of theme camps seemed to be fully set up already. I got the impression that, more than any year before, there was an unspoken agreement that Flipside would hit the ground running when the gates opened for general admission on Thursday morning.

With a little help of a couple of Shaven Apes (the Flipside department of people who help with odd jobs), Gwen and I managed to get our main shade structure almost completely pitched in a few hours. Good thing, because it was freaking hot. Matt and Lori arrived in time to help with the tail end of that project, and we got the “residential” side of our camp fully set up before dark. Gwen and I wandered over to Wonderlounge (which had its bar going already) for bad drinks and good socializing. I waited until Thursday evening to get the fire circle set up, as there would be more warm bodies to help with that task.

On Friday evening, Monk (2009 DaFT lead) stopped by our camp looking for people to help finish the Effigy. David and I grabbed our work gloves and headed over. I spent the rest of the night off and on doing scut-work, like cleaning up wood scraps or holding pieces of wood in place while someone screwed them together. DaFT (the Design and Fabrication Team, which builds the Effigy) managed to open the Effigy by about 2:00 AM. I’ve always had a lot of respect for the DaFT crew, but that limited exposure gave me a much more direct appreciation for how hard they work. I don’t think I could keep up.

Saturday was my off day. I didn’t have any notable responsibilities, so I spent a lot of time in the creek and drank some beer. The one responsibility I did have was to attend a theme-camp meet-and-greet, and somehow I managed to misremember the time for that, so I missed it. I brought some homemade cookies to hand out there, and wound up handing them out to people I encountered at random instead. Someone asked “Are these plain cookies or special cookies?” I replied half in sarcasm “They’re special because I made them with love.”

Myschevia (the North Texas burn) had been held under a burn ban, so they brought their Effigy to Flipside. They took advantage of the last-minute lifting of Milam County’s burn ban to burn it at Flipside. Apparently their preparations were last-minute as well, because that thing would. not. burn. Normally an effigy is loaded with diesel to get it to burn better, and I’m guessing that didn’t happen at all. Shiree heckled the fire—”a bunch of ten year olds with sparklers can burn better than that!” I wandered over to the stage for Flipside’s own Effigy, where the Drishti Dancers were putting on a performance. Then Arc Attack fired up their singing Tesla coils and everybody was pulled away from whatever they were doing to watch. It’s almost unfair. I think Arc Attack was having some technical problems this year, as they had much less performance time. As far as I can tell, Parsec (the guy in the Faraday suit) wasn’t present at all. They had a new Faraday cage that is much larger—it can accommodate four people at once, so more people can have the experience, but the price is that none of them feel as close to the lightning (so I am told).

The fire circle at Circle of Fire got a lot of action on Saturday night, and I got in a few good light-ups. It was gratifying to see. Due to space limitations, our circle was smaller than usual. I would have preferred it to be bigger, but word reached me that some people liked it small. I think the size inhibited some people from going on when there was already somebody lit up, which slowed throughput. I guess that could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it.

When I finally got to bed (probably around 4:30 AM), I noticed that Carpe Noctem, the neighboring dance camp, was a lot quieter than I expected. I learned the next day that there had been noise complaints on Thursday and Friday, and I’m guessing the dance camps had all been told to cut their subwoofers. Friday (?) was the only night that I felt rattled in my bed by the sound, and I generally managed to sleep well.

Sunday was all about getting ready for the burn. There was a 12:00 meeting that was supposed to be followed by a 2:00 meeting where the go/no-go call would be made. Since the 12:00 meeting ran until 1:30, we postponed the 2:00 meeting until 5:30, where a go call was made. As Ghost put it, certain dominoes needed to fall in order to make a go call: first, we had to be out of the burn ban. Check. Second, the county sheriff had to give his approval beforehand. Check. Third, Kit (the landowner) needed to give his approval. Check. Fourth, the wind levels had to be within the limit set by our own fire chief, Henry. At the 5:30 meeting, the prediction was that the wind levels would be near or possibly above that limit. Henry decided that we’d be able to take advantage of a window of opportunity, and so he gave us a go. Some of us then prepped the Effigy to burn by removing a wooden skirt around its base to promote airflow, and shoving wood scraps under it.

The next thing on my docket was the fire procession. I had put out the call to have fire performers assemble at Circle of Fire at 8:00 PM. This would give me plenty of time for stragglers to arrive, and still time to go over the details with (almost) everybody before the putative performance time of 9:45. I say that I’m the cat-herder in charge of the fire procession, and that’s as apt as any title, but in fact I could not do that job effectively if it weren’t for other people who step up and help organize the procession—Wulff, Matt, David, Frank Marissa, Warlock, and of course Gwen all made things run smoother for me. In spite of some confusing instructions on my own part and things not quite going exactly as I planned, the fire procession seems to have gone smoothly and safely. It looked great, and I think we had more performers than ever. I don’t have an exact count, but I think it was around 70 people.

With that out of the way, I could relax and watch the firecracker hats, fireworks and the effigy burn. Lacking anything like a chimney, I didn’t think the Effigy would burn well. I was wrong: it was halfway engulfed before the fireworks wound down, and fully engulfed shortly after. It burned beautifully, with a sheet of flame rolling under the arch and the flame-shaped pickets rimmed with yellow fire—like fire on fire. It collapsed in on itself quickly and perfectly, and a few minutes later, the Rangers dropped the safety perimeter so we could approach. People cavorted, running and leaping toward the fire, still burning intensely hot. We made our three circuits around the fire, stopping to wish friends “happy burn” as we encountered them in the circle.

Monday morning came all too soon. I got up early to take down a personal art project, and found that Matt and Lori—who had never gone to bed—had made a lot of headway toward striking camp already. By the time I was done with my project, Matt and Lori had gone to bed and most everyone else was up. We had a relaxed breakfast and got to work striking camp. Things went pretty quickly, and we were out of there by 2:00 PM. All in all, I felt that this Flipside and the preparations for it seemed to go smoothly.

That’s all I can think of for now. I’ll update this as I think of more.

Kevin

We buried Kevin today.

A freight train hits you just as hard, whether you’re blindsided by it or you saw it coming from miles away. Kevin is the third old cat that Gwen and I have had to euthanize, after Oscar and Squeaker. In Kevin’s case, we had a better sense that he had little time left, but being mentally prepared doesn’t lessen the impact.

Kevin came into Gwen’s life as a young, scrawny tomcat in 1994, not long after she moved to Austin. Gwen already had Oscar and didn’t want another cat, but he kept hanging around in her garden until she took him in. After Oscar established that she was the boss, the two of them were buddies forever. Once a part of Gwen’s household, Kevin filled out to a majestic 17 lb.

Every cat has his or her own personality, and, apart from his fear of small children, Kevin’s was always unceasingly sweet and happy. He would start purring the moment anyone picked him up.

Four years ago, Kevin lost his best buddy Oscar, and it was clear that he was lonely. When we got a pair of kittens two and a half years ago, one of the two, Bubka, decided that Kevin was her new best friend, and so happily he had another excellent cuddlebuddy in his later years.

We’re not sure how old Kevin was—we estimate he lived to be 19. Old age was not easy on him. He developed an allergy that could only be treated with prednisone (though for a full year the previous vet insisted it was behavioral). He became completely deaf and his vision deteriorated. He suffered a herniated disk in his spine that left his hind legs wobbly. He was recently diagnosed with intestinal cancer. But his sweet disposition remained unchanged. It seemed that he never stopped enjoying life.

This morning he was too wobbly to even sit up, and was not purring. He was clearly having intestinal distress. His condition improved a little as the day went on, but we knew it was time. He spent the day lying on the back porch with Gwen, with friends dropping in to say goodbye.

(Gwen here.) One of Kevin’s nicknames was “Kev-Dog”—after his entirely endearing trait of simply following me around the house like a good dog so he could always be in on the action. His favorite thing was to enjoy a good book with me, stretched out on my legs on the couch. And sleeping all night as near to my head as I would allow. He was loved by many, and his sweet nature won over more than a few cat-dislikers. He had a bad spell once that involved a urinary catheter and a move from the vet to an emergency hospital—when we saw the vet after a miserable long wait, she looked at him and said “This must be Kevin,” and he started purring loudly. He was that kind of guy.

A word of grateful thanks to our excellent vets at Austin Vet Hospital (especially Dr. Besch) and their caring staff. They looked out for him in a way that I would wish for animal friend.

Kevin & Oscar

Kevin & Bubka

Flipside 2010

I didn’t take any photos at Flipside this year, but I’m putting together a little gallery of shots I liked.

The land

Flipside was on new land this year, a pecan orchard and pasture adjacent to Apache Pass. The site has been nicknamed Apache Passtures.

What I liked

The topography is flat and allows theme camps to be situated much more closely than in the past. Flat Creek in particular has such varied terrain that theme camps wind up in isolated pockets, and getting from one to the next takes a long time; in contrast, one could comfortably walk a loop around all the campsites at Apache Passtures.

The trees are a huge asset.

The river was another huge asset, and the fast-moving current kept the water cool, preventing the hippie-soup effect that Flat Creek is prone to. And I never trusted the water at RecPlant.

The art ridge was great, and I hope to see it fill in more in the future.

What I didn’t like

The allergens. I don’t know what was in the air, but it rendered me almost completely non-functional all day Friday.

The flies. They were never much of an issue in past years, but they were a constant presence here.

The poison ivy. I haven’t suffered any outbreaks (yet). On some level, I’m inclined to look at the PI as the environmental challenge that seems to be endemic to burner events: Burning Man has the desert and the dust; at Flat Creek, it was cliffs and cacti. All of these require you to take certain precautions to deal with your environment, and I feel that’s part of the experience. So while I don’t want to wind up dealing with urushiol (the motto at Flipside this year was “Poison Ivy is the new STD”), the threat of it and the need to prepare for it fits in with the Burner experience.

My way of dealing with it was to stay on existing paths—no bushwhacking—and to wear my boots all the time. We kept alcohol wipes on hand to wipe down our boots if we thought they had come in contact, but I never used them. Also had Zanfel, just in case.

Parking

Parking at past Flipsides has been tightly controlled, to keep the camping area free of cars (except for art cars), with each car given a parking permit good for only a few hours, and vehicles that openly flaut the rules either being towed away or turned into impromptu art cars. For whatever reason, there seemed to be no parking organization this year—nobody even discussed limited-time parking permits, nobody seemed to be guiding people to parking places (admittedly less of an issue at Apache Passtures, since the parking field was wide open), and a lot of cars conspicuously parked at theme camps all weekend. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but that bothered me.

Pyropolis Parks Department

Fantastic idea and execution. Designating certain spots as parks, guiding people to them, and educating us about the environmental hazards were all important services to the community.

My camp

I’ve been theme-camp lead for Circle of Fire since 2007; before that, it had been led by SCESW, and looking back, the camp started going south when I took over.

I’m not sure if there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between those two facts. Stephen has a very different personality than I do, and may well be better at motivating people than I am; he’s also closer to more people than I am. But the real reason that I think the camp started deteriorating as a camp is because the roll call of people in camp changed.

When Flipside was smaller, CoF was bigger. Firedancing seems to have been the gateway to burner culture for a lot of people, and so it’s no surprise that they would camp with other firespinners, at least at first. But as time has past, some of the people who were at the core of CoF in my first years there moved on to find other ways to express their Burner identities, or simply moved on with life.

When I took over, I extended an invitation to any fire performers who wanted to camp at CoF. While this led to my meeting some good friends and solid campmates, it also opened the door to people who were just there for a party. They weren’t there to make CoF or Flipside better, they didn’t seem to get the whole point of Flipside, and they weren’t people I wanted to camp with.

While this has been a low-level annoyance for some years, the problem came to a head this year with a contingent of 10 kids from Dallas. I’d only had brief phone and e-mail contact with one of them shortly before Flipside; he turned out to be the den mother for that group, which was mostly guys in their early 20s, not one of whom would be able to find his own ass with both hands, a map, and a flashlight. They were (mostly) firespinners, and at least some of them had been to Burning Man and/or Myschevia before, but none of them seemed to understand the basic principles of a Burner event or have any interest in contributing to the camp. I am sure they hold me in equally high regard.

Anyhow, this forced me to reflect on how I run the camp. I’m not sure what I’m going to do in 2011, but it will be different.

Apart from that, Circle of Fire was a success. Our site was out in the open—no benefit from those great pecan trees—so it was a lot hotter than other camps during the day. The bjurt we built for Flipside last year, along with the radiant-barrier sub-canopy we fabricated for Burning Man, proved their worth again. Our kitchen cleanup situation seemed to be just about ideal, thanks to David Cummings putting together of a couple of compression vessels that sprayed soapy water and rinse water; these were worked into my existing not-quite-there camp kitchen, and in the end, we only used a total of 5 gallons of water for all washing up. The camp was sited along a low rise with a gully running behind it, which made getting everything laid out a little tricky, and the fire circle needed to be a little smaller than in previous years, but it saw consistent action and the setup seemed to work as well as ever. Ultimately, the camp’s central mission is to provide firedancers with a stage and a safe fuel depot, and in that respect, I feel that the camp was not only as successful as ever, but had become the place to light up, from what I could tell.

Arc Attack

As if singing Tesla coils weren’t enough on their own, Arc Attack keeps stepping up their game. Last year, Parsec stood in the discharge field, wearing a Faraday suit. When we saw that, Gwen was transfixed, and said “I will do anything to be in that suit.” This year, she got her chance, pretty much. Arc Attack has added a small Faraday cage, just big enough for one person, that they place in the discharge field, allowing audience members the experience of being in the middle of that lightning storm. There was, unsurprisingly, a long line, but Gwen got her chance, and was more excited than a ten-year-old who was just given a pony.

The Effigy

Kudos to Kris Blahnik for designing and heading up construction of an effigy unlike any others I’ve seen, in terms of its representational design, use of color, surrounding gantries, and use of two figures instead of one. I know that he and a lot of other people busted their asses to make it happen, and it was worth it.

Interstellar Transmissions

One of the unexpected high points of the burn was waking up to Interstellar Transmissions (no website, as far as I can tell) playing on the effigy stage. Having been woken up to megaphone wars at past Flipsides, this was so chilled out and uncharacteristically pleasant that Gwen thought she was dreaming.

Burn Night

Burn night went pretty well. I know there were some technical difficulties with the methanol cannons and I get the impression there were some with the propane jets. Caleb (or someone) was tinkering with a control box in the middle of the effigy circle even while the fire procession was taking place–something I hadn’t been aware of beforehand. But the effigy was great, and it made a good fire.

The fire procession beforehand also went as smoothly as I could hope. There’s always a certain amount of chaos that attends this, but I feel that I’m getting better at accommodating that, and for the most part have the process figured out. There was only one minor safety incident, where someone set his hair on fire. I didn’t have as many spotters as I wanted this year, but for the first time, I felt confident that all the spotters I had were competent.

Moving forward and circling back

zenit-3

I recently resolved a nagging issue in my life that had been like an albatross around my neck for years.

Back in ’97, I visited the Netherlands, and became interested in recumbent trikes. I’ve always been drawn to the mechanically obscure, and if recumbent bikes are weird, recumbent trikes are way out there. As is my wont, I researched them obsessively when I got back home, and eventually homed in on a model that, even by the rarefied standards of recumbent trikes, was exotic. It was the AS Engineering Zenit. Made in Russia by former Illyushin Aircraft engineers, it had front-wheel drive, a box-section aluminum frame, hydraulic drum brakes, and other unusual features.

I ordered one. It took forever to arrive—the better part of a year. I may have been the last customer to have an order filled. I know that AS Engineering stiffed several customers. It didn’t come as a finished product, but it didn’t come as just a frame (the way many custom bikes do) either: because of its many custom parts, it was somewhere in between. I began putting it together with quality parts, but after a while, I got bogged down. I had routed the hydraulic lines poorly, and didn’t want to redo them. One of the lines also needed to be re-bled, which was a massive pain. The shifting was erratic, and I had trouble getting that dialed in.

So it sat in the shed. For a decade.

Every time I went into the shed, there it was, mocking me. Eventually Gwen gave me the ultimatum “ride it or get rid of it.” and I eventually decided to get with the program. I took it to Austin’s recumbent bike store, and had the proprietor deal with its various shortcomings. At the same time, I found a website for recumbents that included a classified section. Someone saw it listed and told a friend, who had been looking for a Zenit for years. I sold it.

Putting that trike behind me was an illuminating life-lesson. I had let a molehill grow to a mountain in my mind: I had become frustrated by some minor problems and intimidated by the prospect of fixing them. Ironically, in the ten or so years that had passed, those problems became much more difficult to solve (the hydraulic parts needed for the trike had become much harder to obtain, and there was a new leak somewhere).

But revisiting the trike reminded me of an idea I had for it when I first got it: to use it as the vehicle for a transcontinental bike ride. I had completely forgotten about that goal after the tumult of breaking my pelvis, getting divorced, and getting into firedancing in 1999–2000. But reminded of it, I realized that I still wanted to do it. I mentioned it to Gwen and she said “You’re not getting any younger!” So that’s going to be my big project in 2010.

Ironically, I still think that a recumbent trike is the right vehicle, but I have no regrets about having sold the Zenit, and would shy away from using it for this purpose if I hadn’t: a trike with critical parts that simply cannot be replaced if they break is a bad vehicle for a 3,000 mile journey. And at this point it would be bad mojo to ride a trike that symbolized my own inability to complete a project.

The Temple Burn

Burning Man was too big to fit into one blog entry. I’ve got a few ideas for things to say, but for now, I’m going to focus on the Temple and the Temple burn.

The Temple was finished on Tuesday, and we spent Tuesday evening getting rid of temporary scaffolding and cleaning up the work site so that we could open it to the public. Finally, Dave and Marrilee, the project leads, called all the crew up to the top floor of the Temple for a champagne toast and to hand out T-shirts. Fine words were spoken. The fire tornado was lit up. We all got to experience the Temple as it had been designed—for the last time.

Once this brief celebration was over, the safety perimeter was dropped and the Temple was instantly flooded with visitors. In that moment, it became a gift to the community, and became transformed into something else.

I later spoke to Johnny 5 about how he felt about the Temple, and he admitted to having complicated feelings about it: the Temple, to him, was about happiness. But to the community, the Temple has always been a place to seek solace—to say goodbye to people who have died or to let go of some negative personal trait. When we dropped the perimeter on Tuesday night, that’s what the Temple became. People immediately began writing on it and leaving memorials. There was at least one box of cremains left there. There were several elaborate memorials to pets, which left me especially choked up and which cause me to mist up just recalling. There was a message from a grandfather to his lost grandchildren. How could one not be moved?

After it had been open for a day or two, it was impossible to walk around in the Temple without being moved by the emotions there. I’m not a spiritual person, but I do believe that artifacts can be sanctified by the labor that goes into them. That definitely happened at the Temple, but it was sanctified far beyond that by the emotional outpouring for which it was the medium. The memorials were like a new skin on the Temple that made it impossible to see it in its original form.

We all knew in advance that there would be plenty to do on the day of the Temple burn, so Gwen and I got out there around noon with our work gloves. When we got there we learned that the plan was to set up a safety perimeter around the Temple pretty soon, to prepare it for the burn that night: the fire tornado at its center needed to be removed, another art piece that was going to be burned needed to be lifted into place (both these operations requiring a really tall crane), and the structure was going to be filled with as much scrap wood as possible, plus accelerants. When we got there, the upper floors were already cordoned off and other crew people were up there being industrious. A young couple arrived with a small chest. It was full of toys that had belonged to their infant son. Everybody there was wrecked.

Shortly after that we set up a safety perimeter, which Gwen and I and several other people maintained. People kept showing up, wanting to leave a message or memorial in the Temple. We couldn’t let them in, but we had offcuts from the panels and sharpies so that they could write messages, which we carried into the Temple on their behalf. We carried in other things too: I scattered the ashes of three people that afternoon. That’s a hell of a thing, to have a complete stranger walk up and give you the ashes of his brother to leave in the Temple. The same went for someone else working perimeter: we both knew in the abstract what the Temple was about, but we hadn’t realized what we were in for when we volunteered. It may have been the most emotionally intense day of my life.

A deaf woman approached me and whipped out a Sidekick, on which she deftly typed out a question asking if she could leave a message in the Temple. I less-deftly typed out a reply telling her what I told everyone else. She came back a few minutes later with a wood scrap bearing her message, gave it to me, and immediately walked away. I imagined she was frustrated communicating through the gadget, and wondered if she wanted someone she could talk to directly.

The people kept coming. We generally didn’t have any trouble with people trying to get past the perimeter, although I recall one couple blithely stepping over the yellow CAUTION tape and when I pointed out that we had a perimeter up, acted surprised. Yes, it does apply to you too. I held back on the sarcasm—it wasn’t the occasion for it.

At about 3:00 PM, Gwen took a bathroom break and found that the cable locking my bike to hers had been cut. My bike was stolen, and so was her headlight. I decided not to let that get to me, but being forced to confront behavior that shitty at Burning Man was a real disappointment.

At about 7:00 PM, we headed back to camp to have a bite and a bit of rest. By this time, a bunch of Rangers had arrived, as had the Temple Guardians. At 9:00 or so, we rode out on Blinky the art car with a bunch of other members of the Temple crew to work perimeter during the burn. I wound up standing in front of a few members of the Pyronauts, and had a chance to chat with them before the burn.

The burn itself was fast and quiet. The burning of the effigy the night before had been a huge party—all the art cars were there with sound systems going full blast. There were fireworks. It was fun. The Temple burn was different. Parachutists trailing fireworks circled down. A single firedancer performed. Only a few minutes passed from the time that the fire started inside the structure until it was completely engulfed, and it was reduced to a pile of embers in less than half an hour, I estimate. Dust devils spun off downwind every few seconds once it got going. Most remarkable was the crowd—there were probably 30,000 people present, and they were all silent.

There were so many people that came to the Temple looking for solace and catharsis. I hope they found it.

The Temple

temple sketch

Today is a minor milestone for me.

I’ve been talking about going to Burning Man for about ten years. Every year I’ve come up with a perfectly reasonable excuse not to go. In the meantime, I’ve become an active member of the local burner community. I’ve been to the regional burn, Burning Flipside, six times, and have become at least a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond.

The longer I’ve been involved in the local burner community, the more Burning Man has become freighted with diverse significances. I’ve heard all the stories of how harsh the environment is (I’ve seen playa dust stuck to seemingly impervious surfaces for years), how astounding the art is (I’ve seen the pictures), how corporatized, mainstream, and Californicated that Burning Man is (everybody likes to complain). I know that if I go, I’ll be a small fish in a big pond. A newbie.

And then Dave and Marrilee, two stalwarts of the Austin burner community, were awarded the Temple build this year. With an inadequate budget and half the normal amount of time to finish. Shortly after this year’s Flipside they held a fundraiser. David Best, the artist behind the first few Temples, was present, and a documentary about his work was screened. A whole bunch of burners were there. Before that event, Gwen and I had been talking about how this, too, was not a good year to go to Burning Man. After we got home, we just started making plans, without ever explicitly discussing the fact that we had suddenly decided to go. The decision had become inevitable.

The Temple as Marrilee and Dave envisioned it required a huge amount of new design work, which would be cut into of plywood panels using two robotic routers. They had a wiki to sign up. I dived in and wound up designing 11 panels. There was also a huge amount of manual labor that needed doing: assembling pieces, moving stuff around to make room, or just sweeping away the torrents of sawdust spewed out by the Shopbots. Gwen and I made our way up to the work site as much as we could.

The Temple is being loaded in pieces onto a number of large trucks even as I write these words. Along with dozens of Austin burners who have committed to spend a month living in incredibly harsh conditions, the pieces of the Temple will head out to the Black Rock desert in a few days, where the rest of the construction work will happen.

Tomorrow, Gwen and I are going out to San Francisco to celebrate a friend’s wedding. It’s not the timing I would have picked, but I can’t fault the happy couple, and am happy to be going. But when we get back, the Temple crew will be gone. By the time we get to Black Rock City, the Temple will be up. So today, my role in building the Temple ended.

It’s a hell of a thing to be able to be involved in the construction of the Temple, especially as a first-timer at Burning Man. The Temple is one of the major landmarks and spiritual focal points at every year’s Burning Man. It’s probably the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of. It’s going to be significant to some 50,000 people. As a newbie, it would ordinarily be difficult to contribute to Burning Man in a serious way. Being involved in the Temple has been an opportunity to do that.

Flipside fragments

I’m not even going to try to give a blow-by-blow of Flipside this year. Suffice it to say that fun was had and asses were kicked. I’ll just tell some stories.

Gwen and I (and our campmate Scott) went out to Flat Creek on Wednesday evening, a day before the regular opening. We were able to get in early because Gwen had an early Zone Greeter shift the next day and because I’m a theme-camp lead. We had just enough time to unload the van and get our own tents pitched before dark. We had the small bjurt standing up half-collapsed like a geometric sculpture. Someone wandered through our camp and said “I know what that is.” We chatted about shade structures for a while.

A certain friend who had been partying a little too hard was taking a piss and passed out. He came to later and found that he had fallen into a cactus patch. Drugs may have been involved.

I was helping Greg set up his art installation, About That Time, which involved driving a lot of T-posts. Driving T-posts is a lot of work, and I try to avoid it (I say that, but my camp setup involves 24 of them). After we had gotten a few in, one of the DAFT guys working on the effigy came over and asked “Can I drive some?” He was wearing a DPW T-shirt—DPW people are notorious for being rowdy and practically masochistic in their work ethic. I was feeling like Tom Sawyer having just convinced the neighborhood kids to whitewash the fence for him. I said “Sure.” He grabs my T-post driver and starts waling on that thing in a very sexual manner. After he got a few in, he started tearing off blisters (he wouldn’t wear gloves). A couple other DAFTies came over; he said to them “Want to drive a few?” They did. After they did two or three, he took over the rest, finishing with the same hip-thrusting gusto that he started with. The next morning, I saw a pickup with a bumper sticker bearing the DPW logo and the motto “My best vacation is your worst nightmare.” I thought “that sounds about right.” Later I discovered the pickup was driven by Demon Monk, the architect of the effigy.

One of the most notable events from this (or any) Flipside was the Arc Attack performance on Saturday night. If this had been just a typical performance from them, it would be special, but this was astounding. Parsec donned a Faraday suit and stood in the discharge field, like some science-fictional Thor directing lightning bolts. Everybody’s jaw hung agape. Gwen wanted to try it herself.

We had some heavy weather during the day on Saturday. I don’t know exactly how much rain fell or how hard the winds blew—I checked weather almanacs for two nearby weather stations that completely disagreed on rainfall, wind speed, and even wind direction. We had about 20 people clustered inside the big bjurt, and apart from some water getting past the rain flaps when strong winds lifted the canopy, we were dry and comfortable within. Having put so much work into the bjurt, I was very gratified to see that it worked.

After the rains, Gwen and I went wandering around and stopped by Red Camp. I was admiring a pendant a woman had fashioned out of pop-tops when she asked “Are you looking at my necklace?” I said “no, I’m checking out your tits.” She said “Oh, thank you!” I love Flipside.

We didn’t get to burn the effigy this year. Everybody was disappointed about this, but Demon Monk had come up with a no-burn plan to allow for this contingency, and I feel like the whole “unburn” ritual was a success. We had fire performers do a long (~10 minutes) set to music that was slower and more ethereal than I would have expected. That was followed by Sparky’s firecracker hats, and then excellent fireworks by Moss and the DAFT crew tearing the effigy down, having weakened it beforehand so that they could flatten it by pulls on a few ropes. This was good, but not as cathartic as a burn, and the mood throughout Pyropolis seemed more subdued—the fact that we received a noise complaint from a neighbor, which caused Sound Town to be shut down no doubt contributed to that subdued quality.

I hope I’m not giving away any secrets by explaining how the no-burn decision came about. The Flipside organizers knew for months beforehand that, because of the historic draught conditions, we probably would not be able to burn the effigy, and a no-burn plan was part of the selection criteria in the effigy contest. At a Burn Night meeting a few weeks before, it was decided that a final go/no-go decision to burn the effigy would be made at 4:00 PM on Burn Night, as this allowed the minimum amount of time needed to rig the effigy for one contingency or the other. In the week or so leading up to Flipside, there actually was some rain, but the property owner, Child Inc, in the form of its manager Strick, informed us that he would not allow an effigy burn (or any large burnable-art burns), as brushfires had followed even those recent rainfalls. After the toad-floater we had on Saturday, the organizers did contact Strick on Sunday asking him to reconsider, and additional rain was even in the forecast for that evening. Strick was present at the final go/no-go meeting and said he’d only allow the burn if that rain actually materialized. But we were already at our cutoff time, and in fact the rain never did come. Strick was apologetic, and has been supportive of Flipside for years now, but there were obviously larger issues at stake. The previous day’s rain had already soaked in and the ground was relatively dry by Sunday.

After we got home, I remembered the line that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. It’s sort of like that with Gwen. I think I have a more visible profile in the burner community, but the fact is that Gwen works as hard as I do, and is indispensable to making all the things I try to do happen. And she does it wearing a pink wig and platforms.

I took very few pictures (and none of them were good), but other people did, so I’ll just point to them.

Bjurt construction notes

view of the mostly completed big bjurt

Having taken the bjurts out to Flipside, I have updated these notes to reflect my additional experiences

I am a theme-camp lead for Burning Flipside and one point of dissatisfaction with my camp has always been our shade structures. For the past few years, we have made do with a few cheaply made carport canopies lashed together. These drip water in between when it rains, don’t cut the heat effectively when it is very hot, and are interspersed with poles, breaking up what should be a communal gathering place into cramped zones. I had been casting about looking for something better. Domes are an obvious candidate, but they are a pain in the ass to make, and a pain in the ass to assemble on-site. After a while, I ran across bjurts, a plan for a shade structure designed by a burner to stand up to the harsh conditions at Burning Man. These seemed perfect, except for one drawback—they’re kind of small. Sizes can be varied somewhat, but the biggest calculated plan is 17′ in diameter. Not big enough to replace three 10’x20′ carports.

I corresponded with Bender (the designer of the bjurt) about ideas for making bigger bjurts, and other possible modifications, and he wound up providing me with a standard set of connectors for an 8-sided bjurt, and also a connector kit to build a giant 16-sided bjurt. This 16-sider is unknown territory for Bender and me.

We wound up dimensioning the small bjurt with a 12′ diameter, the big one 24′. This allows both of them to use some tube sizes in common, which simplified ordering and fabrication.

After much cutting, drilling, grinding, improvising, and a little bit of intemperate hammering, Gwen, some friends, and I have gotten both the big and small assembled. In case anyone else is considering doing this, I am writing up some construction notes. I have also posted some photos of the construction process to flickr.