Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mentors (Part 2)....

This post is about a very remarkable man named Dr. Jack Jarrett.

When I wrote earlier about the insidious side of what mentors can bring (using Simon Cowell as an example of how mentors can be wrongheaded, abusive and debilitating to your creative spark), I strongly cautioned you in that post to be careful about who you let into your life - or let stay in your life, and what you let them tell you.

Point taken, but there is another side, and that is what serendipity can bring you:

In the spring of '77 I was finishing my first year at Virginia Commonwealth University music school.  Having barely squeaked by in my audition by playing the jazz chord solo version of "Misty" - on a guitar more suited for heavy metal - to people who only knew classical music -- I was in the thick of my redemption from my non-triumphant admission to the program.

I was soaking up the boot camp of music theory in my first intensive class - 10 hours a week!  One day the professor, the wonderful and woefully under-remembered Dr. Loran Carrier, assigned us each to write a short atonal piece, and he saw something special in the one I did.  We went over the pieces in a very early (8 AM) morning session.  When he came to my piece, Dr. Carrier played it over and over again - while praising it strongly - to a class of sleepy, clearly non-plussed students.  Afterwards he took me aside and told me he thought I had a real talent for composing, and that I should pursue it.

"Go to Dr. Jarrett and request he give you private composition lessons this summer", he said.

You see, Dr. Jarrett directed the chorus I had been singing in throughout all of the preceding year.  The chorus in which people - who weren't singing majors, or who weren't orchestral players - went to fulfill their requirement for an ensemble credit.  This basically meant that people who had virtually no business  singing were up against the serious choral literature of music history.  We began the semester with the Poulenc 'Gloria' in G Major.  Great piece - not that hard for me now, but no picnic at the time…

Jarrett was a force, and a flaming genius -  albeit with a down to earth quality.  Yet he seemed to not understand - or maybe not care about - how HARD this was for us.  "THE RHYTHM IS DOTTED!!", he would shout.  "THAT'S A BAR OF 5/4!!!  GET YOUR PITCH FROM THE TENORS IN THE PREVIOUS BAR!!!!!  YOU'RE IN G MINOR HERE!!!!!!"  He was yelling.  Not friendly.  Hard assed.

I'll always remember that trial by fire.  In the room where we rehearsed for example, they kept the piano keyboard locked (so people couldn't wander in off the street and access the keyboard to play).  At the beginning of the rehearsal Dr. Jarrett would crawl under the piano keyboard and find a way to play a single pitch…and that was it for the whole rehearsal!  No accompanist.  It was a point of pride.  It felt like (in drill sergeant's voice): 'Get your act together you maggots!'

Now, I've been in some pretty serious New York City choruses since, and over the years I've sung in accompaniment to Robert Merrill, Marilyn Horn, Leontyne Price, Sherrill Milnes, Jerry Hadley and many others (including Pavarotti) at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Met, and elsewhere in those choruses…

....and I've NEVER seen that done since.  They all  have pianos playing along with you when you rehearse.

In those groups, for a while I thought, 'why do they want to make it so easy'?  'wouldn't we learn it better if we struggled harder to really understand the music?', 'what if we heard ourselves without someone banging out the notes?'.  I guess now maybe now I'm a hard ass myself.

Reed back in 1977 - being an idealistic sort - thought to himself: 'shucks, this is IMPORTANT, what we're doing is IMPORTANT'.

Perhaps I didn't actually use the word "shucks"...

....but I might as well have.  A large, large part of the reason for my feeling that surge of seriousness of purpose....is energetic - in large measure because of the sense of integrity and work ethic - the energy - that Jack Jarrett brought to those rehearsals.  I didn't actually get it at the time, since I think I was largely punch drunk from the proceedings, and basically a blank slate.  But I felt it.  Let's think of this state of seriousness as 'level one'.

Think about this though: it is far easier to settle for non-excellence in order to keep things friendly.  But he walked the walk.  Plus, he could DO anything he was asking for, with at least one hand tied behind his back. I loved that 'no compromise' way of being.

I asked.  He said 'yes'.  Yet not only was I NOT prerequisite-ready for these lessons, but also the school had a quite strict policy about private composition lessons - juniors and seniors only.  When pressed by little ol' me, the people in the office were quite sure they didn't want to make an exception on my account.  Let's face it: I have never fit the profile of the high achiever…at least on paper.  When I went back and told Dr. Jarrett what had transpired, he said, "well I'm going to take Dr. Carrier's recommendation, follow me".  With that, he led the charge as we 3 (Dr. Jarrett, Dr. Carrier, and I) marched over to the front office, and he made it happen.

So, during that summer, he was a glorified babysitter.


a.m.a.z.i.n.g sight reader.  He seemed to focus about %25 of his energy in actually reproducing the music, and the rest was multitasking his surroundings.  He sat and puffed on a tobacco pipe, and he would sit at the piano with one leg folded under his gluts, and he would make comments while he was playing. "You could go into minor here/how about this chord?".

As the years went on, I tried to create more thorny/complex scores, with lots of instruments, and transposed parts, and meter changes - bigger the better I thought.  That was an adolescent phase for me, before I'd found a real 'voice' of my own.  I was more focused on trying to invent something, than expressing myself.  Yet, there was nothing that ever threw him as he read my stuff, the whole time he worked with me, and he'd still be just chatting away.  Plus he'd get to the end of your piece, then say "great, now you could go here" -- and suddenly the piece seemed to improve - now that he was spontaneously composing 'your' music!

Still, as nice as he was to me, he didn't pull any punches - even when we were alone in private lessons.  I once had written a passage of uninspired harmonies that I - deep down - knew was academic and pedantic in the worst sense.  I said to him, hoping for validation in my best adolescent style whine, "What will this sound like? will it sound OK?".  He retorted with typical frankness and gentle condescension in his light southern accent. "Well" he said, "it'll SOUND like a bunch of parallel diminished chords".


OK, back to the drawing board.  Obviously he's not going to glad-hand me here…and my instincts about how lame this is are on target...

Lesson learned: trust your instincts, especially when you feel something isn't working.

After that summer, I regretfully had to stop taking private composition with him, since they moved me on to a less experienced (or do I mean less cool?) teacher, and his fall schedule filled up with the 'real' composers (juniors and seniors).  I did still have classes with him throughout my time there.  Conducting, class composition - plus I was in his ensembles.  I was especially honored when he conducted one of my orchestral works (pictured below, click to enlarge) at the end of my time there:

All the while I was taking in everything I got to know about him, by study and by example.  There was a bit of a father-figure relationship going on for me (especially since my real father passed away when I was a child - before I really got a chance to know him), yet only one of us really knew the extent of it - even to this day I suspect.  I was always quite shy around him.  Very quiet.

I wanted to be really good...skilled -- like him.  Not only is he skilled at playing and reading, his compositions are superb, and I soaked in a lot from analyzing them.  For a while, as a composer he was my main influence, and those with a knowledge of us both would still hear it today.  I loved the way he is an unabashed romantic in much of his writing.  He embraces tonality, and with a wonderful and unique style.  Terrific harmonic sensibility.  I remember this sudden modulation in the middle of a phrase of one choral piece to evoke a feeling for a particular word...genius!  I asked him why that worked, and he  emphasized that you can be in a new key anytime you want to be, without preparation if you like...

This was the opposite approach to 'follow the rules'.  I ate it up!

For examples of his music, please visit his website (linked below).  Check out the 'Choral Symphony', for example:  We sang that piece with him conducting chorus and orchestra, and during the rehearsal period I sat at the piano, home alone nightly with the choral score to that piece - knowing my classmates were partying the night away.  I was busy meticulously analyzing his choral parts, picking them out on piano.

Thanks once again to Jack, a great opportunity came for me when I wrote my first true orchestra piece.  I had presented a short score in juries (music school thing) the previous semester, and the jurors were purportedly all excited to see the orchestrated version.  I was making real progress.

When I brought in the orchestrated version at the end of the next semester for juries, it was clear (to everyone but me - obviously) that I needed more experience hearing live orchestras.  So Dr. Jarrett, who was at juries that day, again used his clout and made it possible for me to play percussion in the school's orchestra.  Can you believe it?  Being someone who had scant experience to play orchestral percussion, it's hard to express how special an opportunity it was for me to be in those rehearsals learning about the orchestra first hand.

I'd hit the bass drum, the triangle, whatever was easiest.  The real percussionists were very, very cool about it, and so I got a chance to stand in the back of that orchestra and see everything….how they were seated, how the violinists use a bow, when wind players have to breathe, how great composers combine the instruments….everything.  With some pieces, I actually played the percussion parts from the scores, so that I could see what was going on on the page.

In fact, Jack - as I was now knowing him - was in my experience himself going through a personal renaissance of sorts.  He was a sweetheart in these rehearsals.  What gives?

Hmm.  Well, I attributed it to the fact that he was getting more what he wanted from those players than from the 'singers', since they were doing what they were trained for.  It was a far cry from those rehearsals a few years earlier when he barked all those corrections in exasperation.

…Of course, looking back, maybe there was more  - it may not have hurt that he found a sweetheart in, and then married one of the bass players in the orchestra, Shirley.  Shirley was a really lovely person with a warm smile and easy way about her.  You used to see them coming into rehearsal with her carrying the front of her bass and him carrying the back.  It was sweet and heartwarming.

One day tragedy struck.

I come into rehearsal one day, and the mood is dark and somber, and there is another conductor.  Word goes out that Shirley has been killed in a tragic car accident, caused by another driver.

How are we going to go on, I wondered? Especially ... Jack.  How will he go on?

The music department was a tightly knit enough place that everyone had known Shirley -- and everyone, myself included, was deeply, deeply mourning the loss.  There was a service, in which we sang a movement from the Brahms Requiem.  There were many tears from everyone in the room, including those of us on the stage, and Jack was clearly in deep mourning as he sat in the front row listening to our performance of "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place".  After it was over, we didn't see him for a while, I think it was 3, maybe 4 weeks.

It felt like forever.

One day though, without warning, he's back on the podium to lead the orchestra in rehearsal.  Scant few words are said, and he tells us to get out a piece we were rehearsing for an upcoming performance: movement 4 from Holst's "The Planets".  The movement is called "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity".  You may not know it by the title, but if you're not deaf, or from some remote outpost of the world, you've heard it many times -- a happy, and in places triumphant soaring, piece.  He raises his baton, and still shell shocked, we proceed to give it what would be best called a 'polite' reading.

After we finished, a polite and gentle scolding comes from our courageous conductor.  I can only paraphrase what he said, but this is what I heard:  "Things have been challenging around here lately.  Even though our hearts are broken, we must go on.  This piece has 'Jollity' in the title" (I can especially remember him emphasizing this a few times in his remarks). "No matter how we feel right now, we are musicians, and we can use this piece to lift ourselves, and connect to our humanity."

He stood there, looking at us, more solid than any rock I've ever seen, focused and fully engaged.  A tear dripped from my cheek, and I struggled to hold it together.  In doing so, I looked down and averted my eyes, and could feel the swell of emotion in the room, but for my own composure I did not dare look up.

This is a moment I will never forget.

Some time went by.  It felt like a long time.

After this emotionally charged luftpause, we went on to play through movement 4 again, and something had shifted.

And in that exact moment, the other shoe dropped for me.  Let's call that something 'level two'.  Something clicked.  Something about art and about music - and about life.

Something clicked for me about Jack too: while I had always seen him as this musical genius, this incredible composer, this great musician…I had now - in an instant - become completely cognizant of a new level that I had been seeing all along, but taking in mostly by osmosis, during those preceding years.  It was about leadership, courage, integrity.  Once again I thought, "This IS important".  Only this time for different reasons...

The right ones.

To this day and forevermore, I look to this precise moment in my life for a lesson in how to provide leadership in the most challenging times. I think the most important qualities aren't our abilities, but what we give to the world through them.  We all have our skills and talents, but they can't be developed and shared without leadership.  To have excellence and integrity, you have to provide that, first to yourself, and then to others. Myself: I struggle, I certainly fall short, but I never would have come half this distance without the mentoring of an amazing artist, musical genius, and finally a treasured friend:

The amazing Dr. Jack Jarrett.

Not only will I never forget it, but for you dear reader, just one of these people - a real mentor in your life - can take care of all the Simon Cowells the world will ever throw at you.

POSTSCRIPT:  Over the years I had been trying to contact Jack, and just send him a short note about how much his help had meant to me.  After being at VCU, he went on to become the chairman of the composition department at the Berklee School of Music for 10 years (impressive), and then had invented a notation software called 'Notion', which has become a major player in the notation market.  A while ago he left the company to concentrate full time on composing, and can be found at JackMJarrett.com.  I urge you to pay a visit.

I wrote him emails, first at Berklee, and then at a record label he was on, both with no success.  Finally, I wrote him at Notion, and included a CD of my latest film score.  A couple of months later a lovely note comes with an explanation that he has moved on from Notion and had not received the package for a while, but with very generous comments about my work and about remembering me and knowing me.

It was a milestone for me, a trip full circle.

Hey, I know I'm no Jack Jarrett - but I'm getting there.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Theme for an Imaginary Western - part 9

Burning Man 2010 - The Temple Burn

on one of my earlier visits to the temple I noticed this written on the wall:

Sunday is a challenging day for me because so much of the city is already being dismantled. I don't want to see it end.  Hell, it only seems like a beginning to me.

It went by. . . . so. fucking. fast.

Some people, especially jaded veterans who don't feel they need to see another man in flames, have left before the man burns. Others flee immediately after.

 In a moment of reflection, I asked Mara if she was sad about the inexorable end coming:


Me: "How do you feel?"

"No Emotion."

That's pretty startling to me. I have emotions when jello hardens. Ummm...good for her, uh...I guess.  There's a time in my life when I would have been intensely envious of "no emotion".

Now, I'm not so sure.

So at this point, I'm feeling a lot of feelings. During the day I go out to the man's surprisingly small burn site and people are still hanging around. It seemed so huge the night before, and it has collapsed into a very small area.  Some people are unclothed, some are clothed. Some are meditating. One person is even making food on skewers:

As for me, I still haven't packed yet because I have to keep the rental car as clean as possible. For the last couple of days, the winds have been too high to do any serious packing (can't get the car dirty or smelly, so I keep it empty and closed at all times).

Everyone else is dismantling at breakneck pace.  This was the highest point in the city yesterday, as tall as - I'm guessing - 100 feet  high:

A gospel performance in Center Camp - complete with choir - reinforces my angst, as I wander through for what I know will be the last time:

It doesn't help my state of mind that right now everything in my little campsite world is a epic mess. My toothbrush has been lying in the sand for about three days, the smelly garbage bag is actually in my tent (the car situation means I have to be careful about those odors), I'm eating food off of a dirty mess kit  (other 'burners' bring fine china) because I didn't bring the proper cleaning supplies ...... I'm buried in used paper towels....

In short, I'm a super slob!

I'm not exactly a neat freak at home, but I certainly have my act together. On the Playa, other folks have kitchen tents, and water systems, and battery power and wonderful shade, and chairs. I feel like Grok (the caveman's) dirty reject of a brother -- ya know, the brother that's sleeping on Grok's stone couch who can't even get a job with the local hunters.

So....true, I do need to go home and reset.

However....I hope - and plan - to have this adventure again next year. If so, I may find a camp (and kindly was already invited to one), or figure out a way to up my game so that I can have the kind of stuff that expert burners have: a shower, good food to offer to others, drinks to share, shade, etc. … and also music.

Sunday night has come, and I arrive early for the temple burn. It's as cold as it has been since I have been here in Black Rock. I go by myself, and actually sit right in the front row. I want this experience to be profound, so I come early and shiver the wait away.  True, I realize I'm not in the greatest place for self preservation, as the wind is gently blowing towards where I am (Nobooty warned me about this...), but I figure they must have their act together here, right?

No, it's probably not that smart, but whatever...too late to change spots once I realize my peril.

Well, some of the yahoos are still here waiting to start yelling, and at first when the temple starts burning, they are whooping and hollering full tilt. I find it almost intolerable, and I'm getting angrier by the minute, especially since the experienced burners do this as a sacred ritual, and it is billed as such.

Always helpful though, Nobooty cautioned me thus -- "there will be three kinds of people" he said: "those who go to cry, those who go to 'zen out' and those who just go to watch something burn."

So, myself being somewhere in the middle of going to cry and going to 'zen out', I'm seething...feeling mightily pissed.  Don't these freakin' yahoos know some of us are on an effin' spiritual journey here?

But then.....then...something really magical happens. When the fire really takes off -- everybody gets stone quiet - eerily so - for maybe 5-10 minutes. The wind whips up quite a bit suddenly, and embers first start rolling along the ground and coming within mere inches of my feet and then stopping (click the pictures):

Before long they are flying directly over top of me:

I do have a hat on, but I'm not sure it matters. Nothing's hitting me.  Embers are actually hitting the crowd behind me, and are coming within inches of me in all directions, but leaving me safe.  The crowd behind starts to fidget and many actually stand up.  From time to time, the only sound on the playa is when someone who gets hit by an ember makes a soft noise of pain.  Meanwhile I'm completely unscathed...

After a couple of minutes these strong wind currents start happening, and they take the form of small miniature twisters, almost as if spirits are leaving the place. For the uncynical, you can see them manifest in the smoke from the fire.

The pictures don't document the gravity of the scene, but the moment was spooky -- really, really spooky.....meaningful:

Eventually the yahoo contingent loses their sense of awe, comes back into play and the spell is dissipated. For that moment in time though, these people lost their power completely.  Imagine the world like that...

Well, after moving into the fire for a while, I leave the crowd and walk home with the annoyed feeling that I've been robbed, and mostly anger. While in this moment I'm feeling quite cynical about people, when I think about it later, what stays with me was the feeling of that swirling.

It was just SO mystical.

2 AM rolls around and as I awaken, I notice the wind is finally dead quiet on the Playa.  So although I still have sleep left in me, it would seem my time has come. I get out of the bedroll, and as I look outside, I'm struck by how much is gone.  It's like a desert again, instead of the city it was a day earlier.  I gather everything up for the last time. Nobooty and Chopper are awake across the street as most of the other 'houses' are gone.  My feeling of sadness is palpable, and weighs heavily.  Since they are rangers, they'll be around till Tuesday -  and they have done this many times.  Old hat for them.

Yet my heart is heavy.

I can't thank them enough, I tell them. They stay low key about it, in an 'all-in-a-day's-work' kind of way, but as we part ways I hope they know my words are sincere.

A turn of the key, a clunk of the transmission as I pull the car out of Park for the first time in over a week, and it's off to the 'default world'.

…but I know what you're thinking… what about all this 'summer of finding myself'/'midlife crisis' stuff'?

Well, I give myself high marks for getting out there, especially to Black Rock, and doing my best to place myself in a new environment.  In a sense, I got back to my roots, and felt connected in a way I haven't felt in many years.

Right now though, it feels as though I'm largely unsuccessful in actually transforming those weaker areas of my nature.

Grade: F.  No one is sorrier than I am to hear that.

But - as I say this - I realize I AM pretty hard on myself....

As it happens, I was thinking about my fitness program the other day. Part of it is a stretching routine, and I've never stretched before.  I like it a lot now that I'm doing it.

Here's the thing though: after about 100 days of the routine, I can stretch - maybe - 2 more inches than I could when I started. If I miss time, my progress backslides.  If the question comes up: 'do I ever think I'll be limber?', the honest answer would have to be no. My guess is I'll always struggle with it.

But I refuse to stop working on it because of that. Plus - who knows - maybe I'll end up surprising myself after all.  It has happened before...

Back to the 'summer of Reed' .... well, right now, as I sit on this Labor Day 2010 in this Reno Nevada Starbucks - working on my 4th cup of espresso, I'm not that optimistic. I see the little pattern games my mind runs, I can see how I retreat into the dark corners, how I'm afraid of the dance, my inauthenticities.

Why is this easy stuff so hard for me I wonder?

I will say this: at least for one week in Black Rock City, summer 2010…I tried pretty goddamn hard.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Theme for an Imaginary Western - part 8

My gift to myself/Mara/and the Man burns

Today is the day that the man burns. This should be interesting:

During the day (as directed by my new oracle Reklaw) I head out to the temple one last time to scribe my kind thoughts to myself. This time, I feel I'm prepared to give myself something better. It doesn't come at all naturally though, and I've had to think hard and prepare myself for a fitting turn of phrase.

My angel reader told me to think of myself as God. "God is in the soil, the air, the sunlight.... and in youshe said.

Um, yeah, right.  Lets take this one step at a time…

Here's the best I can do at the moment, written in the precious little space that remains:



I sit down and meditate at the spot where I wrote the sentence, and as I'm doing it there are a lot of music makers in the nearby area. There is a percussionist playing lightly right near me, meditators sit around a man with a singing bowl:

...and a woman plays harmonium and chants over on the other side:

Far in the distance, you hear the rhythms of some techno.

In the midst of this beautiful sonic pastiche, I manage to hold a pretty quiet mind and remain there for about 30 minutes. Afterwards I wander towards the techno, where people are dancing, and in the middle of it all - in the middle of this desert - people are sitting on dusty cushions, hanging out and listening. I LOVE it.  It cleanses the palate for me.

The techno scene:

So, as it happens I've been hanging out at Alecia's friend Mara's camp a bit. As I leave in the afternoon, Mara kindly invites me to come watch the burn with them. It's a very nice and appreciated invitation, and although I want to join them, I'm scared I'll be imposing.

Finally, I decide I'll just show up - despite my misgivings. Plus, there are forecasts of 70 MPH winds, which gives me extra fuel to go over and inform them of the situation.  It feels good to be perhaps helpful, and not just be sponging all the time.

I walk over there.  It's not an insignificant distance (but of course it seems much shorter to people with bikes - which is basically everyone but me).  At the portopottie next to their camp, I run into Mara. "So, are you going home to get ready?" She says.

"I am ready", I counter.

"But where are your long pants?  There's going to be 70 MPH winds!"  (guess they heard) "When the sun goes down it's gonna get cold, do you have a flashlight? Where's your jacket?" All points taken, and I'm thinking it's overkill, but I've been caught unprepared before as you've seen, so I'm certainly not the person to argue.  Plus yes, it's sometimes cold at night - very cold.

As I return to their camp maybe 45 minutes later, they are all gathering for the walk out to the man. There must be 40 of us all totaled. Electricity is in the air throughout all of Black Rock City, and I am feeling the charge of excitement as I wend my way back. People are running to and fro, making last minute preparations.

At camp, a short perky woman named Tabatha is organizing things. It's decided that we'll have a kind of call for if any of us get separated. The call is "CHEEP, CHEEP, CHEEP!". You're supposed to answer back: "NANIE!".

So we get out into the sea of people, and we're all holding hands so that we don't lose each other. I've been talking to a pretty Portuguese woman and her family member, maybe her brother. She and I are hanging out together, taking pictures and walking amongst this large crowd. She seems to like me.

I don't get it...

Seriously though, I see her as a little off of my horizon, being that I'm a lot older than she is, and she lives away from New York, so we'll settle for walking around together tonight:

Nice girl though.  The brother/family member/friend is nice to me (but has limited English skills so we can't converse).  Hmmm, maybe he's not her brother after all....he doesn't seem to hate me.

As we're walking along I can see why the burn was seemingly in jeopardy...the dust is really blowing hard:

(note - top left of the following photo - the man's arms are now pointed skyward, a sign that the burn is imminent):

We get to the man, and where we're going to watch from is pretty close to the action, maybe about 10 'rows' away from front row.

The burn itself is spectacular, with lots of fireworks, and the man topples over and burns in a very hot fireball...

fireworks as the ceremony starts:

As the man is falling:

 Mara watching the burn:

At the end, the perimeter is released, and the feeling is sheer pandemonium:

...and people go running into the middle to dance naked, and just be, next to the fire:

Our group goes off to a dance "club", really a mutant vehicle on the playa that's playing music. People are dancing all around it, including everyone in our group but me -- especially Mara, who seems completely comfortable. At one point she sees how uncomfortable I am:

"You know nobody's watching you right?" "Don't worry about it!"

"I _hate_ dancing" I quickly answer back, without thinking. I know even as I'm hearing the words come out of my mouth that it doesn't bode well for future happiness (mine or anyone else who has to deal with me). Why does everything have to be not fun….for me to enjoy it, I wonder.

Later, I back off into the dark - and OK -  maybe my big toe's wiggling a little bit. Mara dances up to me. She's delighted - "I see you shakin' that ass!" She says:

Yeah, well...it'll have to be small steps and shakes for me tonight in the darkest part of the 'room'. I can't handle anything else it would seem. I admire people who can dance without compunction. The only other person in my shoes is the Portuguese woman's brother/family member/friend, who is still doing much better than I am.

I guess I have additional work to do...I gotta start making a list...

The call sounds out: "CHEEP, CHEEP, CHEEP!"…. looks like it's time to go.

We form a conga line and go around the fire. Sure enough, there are naked people all over the place taking in the warmth. It is just amazingly hot there, so much so that I am rubbing the side of my face that is towards the fire so that I can cool it off just a bit. A man gets in behind me, naked, and breaks our line. I'm not happy about that. He doesn't have the right vibe. He feels like one of the 'yahoo crowd'.

Either because of that or for some other reason, we lose the rest of the people, and we can't find them in crowd anywhere:

CHEEP, CHEEP, CHEEP?......................


CHEEP, CHEEP, CHEEP?????......................

Nothing.  So after a search we set out alone, first to find portapotties, and then to go to another place. There's just five of us left, Mara, two other woman, a guy dressed like the Indian in The Village People (...with less than a loincloth on, why is this guy not cold?) and me.

As we're walking through the open playa, I realize that I'm losing my energy in a big way, partly because we seem to be moving so slowly (the other two girls are seriously straggling and I'm a New Yorker....not a fan of super slow walks).  But, it is nice to have a moment to talk a little more in depth with Mara finally.

We meet - by chance - some folks who are friends of some of the others we lost, and it's looking like we'll be able to find them and rejoin our group...yet...

....as momentum is slowing, I'm finally realizing I'm beat enough that I need to go home. I'm guessing they will be dancing all night.

Amazing spectacle - this burn. It seems to mean different things to different people, but the hardcore seem to be reveling in a kind of ritualistic ecstasy that is somehow elemental. That therapist from the last part might have asked "Where do you get your ritualistic ecstasy?" I don't -- no dancing, no rituals... I just don't.

The 'yahoo' crowd is just a pain in the ass.  Part of me thinks these are the same people who come in from New Jersey to scream at the top of their lungs directly under my window at 3 o'clock in the morning.  WOOOOOOO!!!

Serious folks, enough is enough.

…and it's hard to believe they let people get so close. It seems a little dangerous.  But dangerous in a cool way.  Burning Man is dangerous...I like that.

As I drift off to sleep, the city pounding it's rhythms out  - sounding like an perpetual, highly grooving earthquake, I think to myself that I'm looking forward to the temple burn tomorrow…

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Theme for an Imaginary Western - part 7

Part 7 - Mara's camp and the sandstorm.

As it turns out I've been hanging out at Mara's camp:

This is a real step forward.

It was an exercise in "Dr. Livingston I presume" to find these folks. I went to the approximate place where Mara would be found on 4 separate occasions. Each time I was unsuccessful.  Finally, Alecia told me in her Facebook post: "go to 5:30 and D, and ask the best looking girl you can find -- 'do you know Mara?'".   Once I did that, the first girl I asked led me right to her.

Mara was asleep in a chair however, and I didn't want to wake her.  So I killed a couple of hours and then came back -- and she hadn't moved a muscle. Tail between my legs, I went home to my humble abode.

The problem? I'm told Mara is notoriously hard to pin down, and sure enough, now that I've located her, I've been going back again and again and not finding her at camp.  From my place to hers is a pretty serious schlep by foot, so once I get there, I tend to linger.  Instead, I've been finding that the camp's other inhabitants - especially women - in her absence have been very nice to me, even though they don't know me from a bundle of sticks.

I can't figure out whether I just like women better, or if I actually relate to them better (or both), but the men and I look at each other like, "Who the hell ARE you?", and the women keep being sweet and offering me nice things.  Fortunately, even the men start mellowing out after a while.

The third time, they invite me in, and give me a nice margarita, and then the next time some food -- much better stuff than the tuna I have, so I can't say 'no' even though I feel like I should. I could get used to this...

They really have this camp together! There are wonderful shade structures, and a great kitchen setup.  They also have a little compost pile as well as a place where they capture grey water (like from the shower) which - in the spirit of 'leave no trace' - needs to be taken off the playa at the end.

I don't have a shower.  Several camps have offered me theirs, but I can't make myself take advantage of their hospitality.  I'm used to being the hospitable one in life.

The food they offered me was SO nice.  They had avocado for cryin' out loud!  AVOCADO!

Amazing.  A shower is one thing, but how could I say 'no' to avocado?

Yet, these obviously very nice people don't know me...uncomfortable.  It's mostly in my head though, no one else is noticing that I'm a leech.

OK, maybe a couple of the men...

One of the issues is that this is a so-called 'gifting economy'. The only sales that are 'allowed' in Black Rock City are ice and coffee, so it's weird to say to someone, "can I cover some of that expense?"… "let me give you a couple of bucks for the salad." Which I normally would do. I came so unprepared that I have nothing to give. Thus, it feels weird to just hang there, but ya know…..this is burning man.

I am SO gonna get my act together for next year!

Well, I am getting to know the folks in Mara's camp. Then, one day, I finally find myself seated across from her at dinner!

We talk a little at that point, but generally, it's me and someone else talking, or I sit and listen to them talk about stuff, much of which I have no knowledge of.  Mara heads out and does her own thing, of course, as well she should.  So, it does feel a little like I'm hanging by a thread, but how nice to be hanging out in a good group!

I am determined not to let my own head get the best of me in this instance, so I just keep showing up --  even though I'm not all that comfortable. In general - the larger the group - the less settled I feel, and this is a pretty large one.

One day I come by, just to say a quick 'hello', and I run into a kind of heartfelt scene. It's Seratonin holding court with Shepardess, Katya and Janet, and they are reading cards that Seratonin has given them.  Seratonin has a kind of playing card deck of - let's call them 'mystical' - short poems.  I've heard them talking about Seratonin before, and they have a respectful tone when they speak of her, so I know that this is big.

This would be my first and last meeting with Seratonin.

Katya is holding her card against her heart, and fanning her face in that 'don't cry, don't cry', kind of way, so it's clear that this is a moment that I shouldn't be torpedoing with my dumb antics.  I stop - and hold - in this scene.


She gives me a card....

.....and when I look at it I quickly say, "can I have a do-over?" (OK, so obviously my antics are hard to repress).  I'm kidding really, but everybody seems to take me seriously here in Black Rock City.
I'm funny...what's the matter with these people?

Anyway, realizing that I'm operating in a 'no-hijinx zone', I show the card it to Seratonin without speaking again. She says, "oh Four, that's obviously about women".


"Read it", they all say in a unison....

So I read Poem four aloud:

'Empty the glass of your desire
so that you won't be disgraced.
Stop looking for someone out there
and begin seeing within.'
Divani Shamsi Tabriz.

Well Janet loves this, because we had a long talk previously, and it's in harmony with the things I was saying about why I made the journey to Burning Man.

"That's exactly what we were talking about!", she says, excitedly.

I resist telling them it doesn't rhyme.  Someone will just point out that it's translated.  Must. resist. hijinx.

In deference to my protest about a do-over, Seratonin looks at my next card. She thinks it's interesting. She flashes a knowing look.  She declines, however, to surrender or even show that card. I don't press the point....

Later in the day, I run into Reklaw in center camp. Remember her?

I tell her about my temple writing and about the gratitude for friends that I had expressed, and she gently says in her best unintentional Meg Tilly impression: "you know know what you should do, you should write something nice about yourself. Or maybe set an intention...."

Why do I keep running into this woman? She's like the fucking oracle or something....

The big problem is, she's right.

…and she's given me my hardest assignment...

So, I make a plan to go out that evening to the temple. As I start out there the weather is nice, so nice in fact that I'm in shorts and a t-shirt, and I don't have my goggles, hat, particle mask, or water.....and night is falling....

Prescription for disaster.

During my journey out, a sandstorm is starting. As I'm walking out I'm trying to think of what I'm going to write, and nothing is coming. I guess I'm not feeling that great about myself tonight. I'm thinking I'll figure it out when I get there.

I get to the temple, and I'm feeling the agitation of the weather.  As I'm running around, I start writing random intentions -- all lame. I finish and leave, but as I get into the middle of the desert going back towards the city, I'm hesitating.  I'm thinking that I've let myself down. The sandstorm is getting worse but I don't care…finally, I decide: I'm goin' back, that's it.

As soon I start out to the temple again, almost on cue -- it's a total whiteout - in total darkness.

A less severe sandstorm on another day:

You can't see anything, and there's no way to know where you are. Soon, I realize I'm going in circles. I can't see the temple, the man, the city -- nothing. I finally happen upon a golf cart with three people.

The person that is on the back is a kind of a hot woman with a mad max look: the goggles, the vest with feathers, boots etc. She's got that raspy kind of Tara Reid voice. You can barely hear people over the wind, so we're shouting.

I hear her talking to the driver of the golf cart, answering a(n unknown to me) question he's posed.  "....no, all I have with me is cigarettes, condoms, and Tampons"... She then muses: "what's wrong with this picture?"

Obviously a colorful individual.

She turns to me and screams, "pull your shirt up and cover your nose, I won't look at your tits."

I say back, "don't worry, that'd be the most action I've had in 5 years."

"You need to work on that" she says.

Point taken.

Me: "Whats your name?"
She: [incomprehensible]
She (screaming louder): [incomprehensible]
"[exasperated] NO!"
"Spell it!"

I love these playa names!

Well, nobody can move at all, and the conditions are pretty tough. So we're hunkered down in the middle of this sandstorm, and Pippi and I are talking about various aspects of life as our conversation meanders.

I just love the serendipity of this place.

I'm telling her about my journey to the temple. She's telling me about her boyfriend (a playa virgin) and about seeing the experience through his eyes.  I didn't ask why the boyfriend wasn't present.

Finally, there's enough of a break that we can give travel a try, we both are standing on the back of this golf cart (registered by the DMV for some mutant qualities that sadly will not be appreciated by me in this weather).

I am loving the ride though, and the whole scene: this post apocalyptic costumed woman, the raging sandstorm, hanging on the back of this vehicle which is lurching and honking through the blacked out desert night...people screaming at one another, near misses with other vehicles.....It feels like a cool movie that I've dropped into the middle of. At this point I don't even care what happens, I'm home.

P: "Want to go to a party?"

R: "Well you are going with your boyfriend…what good is that going to do me?"

P: "You don't want to go to a really fun party and meet really cool people?"

R: "Well now that you put it that way…"

No sooner has the invitation come out of her mouth --  that we realize that we're actually in center camp by some stroke of fate, instead of where we thought we were going,

So this alleged party will not be attended by yours truly this night.

The good news is that I can get home pretty easily from here. I find my way through my usual route even though I can barely see where I'm going. So home camp is where my journey will take me now, hunkered down in my little tent - alone - eating one of my 12 cans of tuna.

Oh well...maybe next year...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Theme for an Imaginary Western - part 6

Dr. Bronner's -- aka Foam Mo' Arigato

My mood is up and down at Burning Man. I mean _wildly_ up and down.

In these posts, I realize I'm talking mostly about the down part, because that's the "sharp edge" that Chogyam Trungpa, for example, talks about "leaning into" - the edge I want to work with -- but I'm up a lot too. Don't worry, there's more on that later...

I'm walking down the road this morning, and I'm just unhappy. Can't elevate my mood with happy thoughts.

This is not like me.

On the other hand, I'm oftentimes insulated from the fun in others' lives, my existence being a little on the solitary side these days. Maybe I'm just jealous?

Actually, no - not jealous -- that's not me either....I think, maybe unrequited...

Here at Burning Man everyone seems to be having this great time with people they just met, their old friends, etc….and I can't get arrested. They are doing what they want, dressing like they want...having FUN...

...and it just feels like it's my fault that my experience is not better.

Well, it is, isn't it?

Thankfully, I am here to hold my feet to the fire (and remember, everything is burning), so I'm not exactly complaining, but on the other hand...I need the magic formula that turns it all around...

I turn a corner and there's 4 people splashing around in the mud of a water truck. Occasionally the trucks come by and wet down the road by dropping 'spare' (non-potable) water on them. (YUK!)

below: generic Internet photo of Burning Man water truck:

On this day, there are 2 beautiful women in bikinis and 2 young guys in shorts, probably in their 20's, and they are giggling up a storm. Sheer happiness. Closest to me, one of the men is hugging one of the women and she's sort of wiggling to get loose in that playful way. It's a moment when time seems to slow down - in this tableau - before she turns and wiggles loose of his embrace.

When she turns, I can see that she's missing her right arm from just above the elbow.

I feel truly touched, that she seems accepted, loved, happy, self expressed. It's quite beautiful really...

At the same time, I simply hate myself in this moment. Lowest ebb of the trip. Burning Man 2010's nadir.

Here is this person, so very happy despite whatever challenges she's facing (at least right now) - no discernible compunction, unease or remorse - and I can barely smile. I have arms. What is my fucking problem? Seriously - It's like I'm my own worst enemy.

As I walk on, I'm thinking about what I'm going to write in this particular post, and it's dark. Man, is it dark. 'Damn, I can't write that', I think, 'people will think I'm suicidal'.

Also I'm starting to become cognizant to the fact that this all is ending in a few days, and even if I'm not always happy in it -- this is one happy place. I would move here tomorrow if it were a 365 day city instead of a 7 day one.....and no, I'm not kidding.

I'm not ready to say goodbye.

Well, I started thinking about this therapist I once had. One night at the session (this probably goes back 15 years), that therapist asked me this question:

"Where do you get your touch?"

I thought it was totally weird. It's like saying do you get your tomatoes from Trader Joes or Whole Foods? Touch? What the hell are you talking about?

But over the years, I have thought about that question more and more. It's not merely a sexual question. The therapist's inference is that touch is so important to human beings, that it's something that absolutely needs to be supplied - like a basic nutrient. That was not acknowledged in my childhood - not acknowledged by family or environment.

As lovely as my family is, there weren't a lot of tactile signals from them -- especially my mother who didn't love being touched (or so she would SAY). I do want to say, she stood strong for me over the years - very stong, and I feel immense gratitude....but there's definitely a lot I have to learn, that's the bottom line...

...and I admire people who have that gift of being tactile beings in their normal demonstrative moments...yet every time someone touches me unexpectedly, I jump a little. Not in a good way. In the past, I used to express displeasure when that 'jump' happened inside of me.

Now - I don't mention it, instead realizing its life-affirming value, and I try to settle into a comfort zone - which is a small step forward.

On this day after a week away from my short hello/goodbye hugs, plus a little rawer emotionally than usual, I think I was particularly 'hungry'. More than usual...

It's against that backdrop that the next experience occurs:

I heard that there was a place that you could take a shower. At this point it's been a week since I took a shower, so - even within my basic grumpiness - I'm pretty excited about the notion of that. I've actually been there a few times trying to catch them.

The camp is called "Foam Mo' Arigato".

I went by there once and said, in my typical non-threatening, jocular style delivery - "Are you still doing the showers or have I missed it forever?". The guy thinks for a minute and then replies in a guru-like demeanor with a question: "Well, you never really miss anything forever, do you?"

How Zen...I like this place already....

The bad news is that I had, in fact, missed them on that earlier day...

....and it is a really long walk, almost to the other side of the city (at least a mile), but on this day, with the girl with no forearm still very much on my mind... I made it -- for the very last round of showers!

NOTE: I include a few pictures - found around the web - for some idea of the place. I didn't take pictures, with the exception of the one of me below, because no one had clothes on.

Informally to the rest of us, it's the Dr. Bronner truck camp. Remember Dr. Bronner's Peppermint soap? Well, here at this camp, they put you in a plastic shipping container on a flatbed truck platform, and then pump Dr. Bronner's soap into the container from these big vats of it (at least 50 gallons each) they have sitting there...

...and then spray water into the container from a fire truck. I figured I'd give it a shot.

On this day when I arrived, they were doing the showers, and a bunch of really good looking people women and men, were waiting with no clothes on on the ladder up to the container where the wash takes place. Probably all 20 to 30 year olds. All differing, but beautiful body types. The men I didn't look at so much, other than to size them up, so to speak. I had nothing to worry about here…so despite my natural shyness, I took off my clothes and joined the line.

The ladder, but on a different day:

When it's our turn to go in, I respectfully head to my little area on the other side, and the men and women are somewhat separated. The guy who's running it says "that one doesn't work, go over there", and with that he pushes me into the middle of the women, then quickly turns on the soap spray. I've lost my balance and - in fact - everybody is falling around and bumping into one another. Happily I'm on the women's side (or this post might either be about my upcoming round of therapy, or that I have some 'news').

Anyway, it was fun...and natural, very natural.

Happy people with more clothes than us on, different day (and not at Burning Man):

It really felt liberating to actually be naked around a gender-mixed group of other people like that. My experience in military school showers - with all male contingent - was NOT calming, this was. Primordially calming.

This modesty that I got from my Puritanical ancestors is bullshit. Absolute bullshit. Unhealthy. I want a do-over!

Censored photo of me in birthday apparel after the bath:

That dark mood was instantly transformed - - - and I think I stopped - for good - doubting the veracity of my former therapist's question.

Later I walked almost all the way home with no clothes at all on, straight through the center of town. It was my answer to unhealthy modesty. What I met with was mostly indifference, mixed with being subtly checked out by attractive women a couple of times (if those imperfections I mentioned earlier can be attractive to me, certainly mine can also be attractive to the right recipient?).

Ok -- this time -- I'll allow myself to believe I really saw the glances.

I also provided fodder for an esplanade comedian, with surprisingly little embarrassment on my part. I even answered him back. Maybe the fortune was right...maybe the smallest step toward your goal is progress...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Theme for an Imaginary Western - part 5

Click to enlarge (then click the picture to further enlarge): Temple wall detail...
Temple-take 2, reading my angels and another fortune

As the days pass, I am really feeling lonely. Painfully. I am having a lot of trouble with it. Still loving the whole experience, but lonely...

The veterans have other veterans, Lesbian ladies have "Camp Beaverton (a home for wayward girls)", Our 'flexible' friends have the 'Gender Bender' camp.

Where does this wayward soul go?

So, I'm hanging out with people in these large groups, feeling uncomfortable, and very often I don't even say anything for the longest time...

I was at the 'Super Friends' across the street, and after not saying a single word for maybe 45 minutes, I felt like I got the idea, and so I got up and said, "well, I'll be running along". 'Quiet' then says - sounding a little disappointed - "oh, do you have to go?". That was quite lovely, made me feel good and it also bent reality a little for me, because it meant 'we'd like you to stay even though you're not entertaining us'.

I left anyway.
...let's face it - Rome wasn't built in a day.....

TEMPLE - part deux:
The other day when Reklaw (from across the street at 'More Fun, Less Suck') gave me the fortune cookie I mentioned, I opened it and revealed the following fortune:

...and so I resolved that my Temple post of gratitude would be about my dear friends.

I decided I would actually list people - alphabetically, and I thought about the list very hard, spending an entire evening on it. The newest friend is someone I very recently met, and the oldest non-family member is someone I've known for 47 years. Also my mother - who passed away in 1985 - my nephew, and my sister and her husband are included.

It was a careful process. I set down important criteria about who could be on the list. It had to do with the person's integrity, and what they brought out in me, or amplified in me, maybe how they had 'had my back', or experiences that we shared. Some knew my father, now dead for 45 years - more knew my mother. A couple have passed on, some are out of touch. Some are superb musicians...

All are great friends.

Also, there were reasons why some folks who were once great friends could not be on this list, and so I regretfully omitted those names. Also there are people I wish I could list, but I haven't gotten to know them as well as I'd like, and likely never will.

But the list is right.

I composed the prose very carefully. I poured over my memory and lists of contacts to make sure I hadn't left anybody out, and I contemplated each person included. It also gave me a chance to reflect on the future...who might I not yet know? - someone who isn't yet, but will be, on the list...

After I went out to the temple and wrote my message, I shared this post on Facebook for them to know they were remembered and loved:

As I thought about it last night, I decided I wanted to write something more, and something more positive. So before dinner I borrowed a sharpie from a person at the next camp, and this morning - at first light - I set out for the Temple once again, and when I arrived I wrote the following:

'When I arrived here a women gave me a fortune cookie....It said: "Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are."

...so with this burn I commemorate deep and abiding friendship with my love and gratitude:
Alecia, Andy, Damion, Danny, Gary, Jack, Lake, Laura, Lucy (RIP), Mitchell, Murray, Pickens, Robert, Saraswati, Sevgi, Simon, Tom A., Tom B., Tom P., Tony (RIP) and Whit.

Reed Robins - 9/2/2010'

Click to enlarge (then click the picture to further enlarge): 'Reed's friends' detail..

Following the temple visit, I resumed a search of sorts. I have been looking for Mara.

My friend Alecia, having read on Facebook about my challenges with loneliness and connection, has been encouraging me in her comments to contact a friend of hers who is at Burning Man named Mara. I have gone looking for Mara's camp a few times and not been able to find it, and today was no exception. It has devolved to me just walking around in the vicinity where she's known to be camping, walking up to random people and saying "Do you know Mara?". Next person: "Do you know Mara?". I'm starting to think the search is futile...

So, after abandonment of today's search, and feeling the pinch of that lonely feeling, I happen upon the following sign as I am walking down the road:

I think, 'what the heck, who doesn't want to know about their angels anyway?' I decide to walk over.

The woman who is doing the readings is sitting there next to her vintage 1961 trailer all alone, and she is quite attractive. Her name is Ava, and she speaks with a strange accent. I asked her where she is from, but while I don't remember her answer (Canada maybe?), I can say it doesn't fit the accent, so there's more to her story....

We talked about why I am here at Burning Man for a minute, and then she goes into the reading. All told, it takes about 30 minutes.

She gave me some background on her beliefs about the angels who purportedly follow us and help us. It's not the first time I've heard this.

Anyway, she starts by telling me that when I see a rainbow - actual or representational, or just the colors of - my mother is around. There had been a fairly impressive rainbow after a hard rainstorm the previous day (a rare event on the playa), she may have that in mind:

Then, somewhat of out of the blue, she gets very intense: "Your mother did the best that she could, you know that don't you?"
"I know" I say.
(I'm thinking 'can we take this down a notch?', but as she ups the ante, it's hard not to get swept away...)
Growing even more intense, she says - pretty emphatically: "I want you to know that your mother did all she could." "Things were different…what they knew…"
"I understand", I say, gently interrupting.

...this is getting a little uncomfortable...

Then she throws her head back to concentrate, thinks for a minute - maybe more - and actually sheds tears as she fans her face in that way people do when they're trying to hold it together. Then she looks me over slowly from head to toe...."You are so weighted down, It's like your feet are chained to the earth, you can't fly." (Points to my feet) "You need to unchain yourself."
"You have to realize that when you are with people you are giving them a special gift." "Only you can give this gift. It's very special." Her language circles back to this repeatedly as she continues to talk. She pauses often and checks to make sure I'm taking it all in.

"Imagine your presence in other people's lives as a gift to them"....

Angels or no angels...this feels pretty heavy.

Afterwards we have a very long hug. This is the first real human contact I have experienced since coming to Burning Man, the first time that someone has actually given me the gift of their complete focus. It feels like thirst being quenched, so I want - and ask - to stay....but she has other plans, so we part ways there.

I walk a couple of blocks before I go back and ask to take a picture to at least remember the moment:

It was particularly poignant for me as I walked back to the camp. The experience, basically just a goof at first, had laid me bare.

I felt like a person might feel - parched from thirst, after receiving a single drop of clean cold water...

I decided I'd take the more circuitous Esplanade route back to camp, as I wasn't quite ready to talk to people. I know when I pass 'More Fun, Less Suck' there will be happy, chipper people out there that I'll be snubbing if I don't at least engage a little.

So feeling the need to process all this, I turn the corner onto the esplanade, still pretty far away (1/2 mile?) from our camp and quite preoccupied with my thoughts, and this is who I run into:

It's a city of 50,000 people, but I just 'happen' to run into Reklaw...

After a short greeting and a little small talk, she says to me, "would you like a fortune cookie, or a candy"?

"Yes, thank you, I'll have another fortune cookie."

As I walk away from her, on my way back down the Esplanade, I open the cookie to reveal the contents...

...and this was the fortune inside: