"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Friday, August 31, 2007

Re-Burning Man

The big news so far from the annual Burning Man festival taking place this week in the Nevada desert is that the Man was a bit early at his own party. During the height of Tuesday night's lunar eclipse, someone managed to set the iconic 40-foot tall wooden and neon figure ablaze, an event that had been scheduled for the dramatic conclusion of the festival tomorrow night. Remarkably, however, the giant effigy was rebuilt and raised Phoenix-like from the ashes in only two days, and will burn (again) as scheduled.

The perpetrator of this deed was 35-year old Paul Addis, a playwright, artist, and self-described "prankster" from San Francisco. He was arrested on charges of arson and destruction of property, among other things, and before lawyering up in preparation to face the charges against him, called the action a form of protest -- a justified "reality check" for the event which Addis and many others say has become too commercialized over its 21-year history.

The legalities of his actions aside, he's got a point, and talk of the premature burn and what it says about the nature of the festival has dominated conversation among this year's participants as well as outside observers. Many debate whether increased public awareness of the event over the years is a positive thing, spreading the principles on which the festival is based -- self expression and self-reliance mixed with community, social, and environmental responsibility -- to a wider audience, or whether Burning Man has become a sort of "Alterna-Disney", where poseurs, frat boys, cyber-geeks, hippie-wanna-be's and other spectators come to the playa for a week expressly to get high and get laid.

Indeed, the very fact that I -- someone who has never actually attended the event -- am writing about it on this blog is evidence that Burning Man has grown far beyond its subversive, anarchistic beginnings. But is this a Good Thing or not?

This debate has been going on for years, and "The Man", as Burning Man's namesake, has been targeted as a symbol of protest before. In 1997, a group of pranksters attached a set of giant testicles to the figure, suggesting that the festival needed to "grow some balls" and return to its roots. Every year there has been talk of torching The Man prematurely, but this is the first time anyone has actually managed to do it.

For his part, Addis, who is out on bond awaiting arraignment on September 25th, is defiant. In an interview with Wired Magazine, he says:
"Burning Man has become just as nefarious a cultural programmer as General Electric or Disney ... you only need to look as far as Burning Man's media team to see it's like the Bush media team except with a different purpose. They exercise the same tactics to achieve the same results: to portray themselves in the best lights and to avoid negative media attention. To people who would say they are pissed off because the Man got torched, I say, "Why are you really out there?" If the burning of the Man means something, if it brings them some sort of cathartic connection, then build your own thing and burn it down. Don't be a passive audience member. Cross the line."
Meanwhile, back on the Playa, the unexpected early burn did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the participants, who are taking the whole thing in stride. Some say the annual ritual -- always held on Saturday -- is an event for everyone to interpret in his or her own way, and that it took place several days of ahead of schedule hardly changes its nature. Others note that this year’s theme of environmental awareness, dubbed "The Green Man", was not foreign to the premature burn, as the man was destroyed and then rebuilt. Yet this notion seems disingenuous when you consider the thousands of gallons of gasoline being burned by attendees in their RV's, who run generators to power their refrigerators and air conditioners while in the middle of the hot, barren desert.

Mankind has always had a fascination with fire from our primeval days, and it comes as no surprise that this has much to do with the appeal of Burning Man. When The Man goes up on Saturday night in an orgy of pyrotechnics, surrounded by 40,000 or more singing, chanting, dancing Burners, it will have its own meaning to each one of them. Religious experience? Pagan ritual? Or just a really great party, man? Take your pick.

For myself, I will light a candle around midnight Saturday night and stare intently into the flame, while imagining myself dancing in the desert. If I'm really lucky, I might be able to meditate outside of my physical self -- and if in doing so I happen to determine any Secrets Of The Universe, I'll be sure and blog about it here.

To be honest, I expect I'm more likely to singe my hair on the damn candle.

More news from the Playa can be found here. In any case, I hope everyone has a great Labor Day weekend.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Stick a fork in him

He's done.

I was thrilled to see that Alberto "I can't recall" Gonzales has finally made his exit. It's about damn time. The most perplexing thing about this whole affair is how long it took him and Dubya to read the handwriting on the wall. Gonzo had exactly zero support on Capitol Hill, was openly criticized by the D.O.J., and rightfully to blame for his leading role in the U.S. Attorney scandal. His inability to make any distinction between commitment to the rule of law and loyalty to the president has been a national embarrassment. We haven't seen a crisis of leadership like this since the Watergate era.

I had to laugh when Bush claimed yesterday that Gonzales had his "good name dragged through the mud for political reasons". Bush just doesn't get it. The "mud" here was entirely of Gonzo's own creation. He signed off on the attorney firings, made a shameful attempt to get support for the illegal domestic wiretap program from then-Attorney General John Ashcroft while he was hospitalized in intensive care, and then stonewalled members of Congress investigating the role that politics played in this process.

It would be refreshing if the appointment of a successor to Gonzales does not turn into another political brawl -- but really, what are the chances of that? Look for the White House to appoint another political crony instead of scouring the nation for a respected but independent lawyer with Justice experience. Just because Bush is a lame duck, don't expect him to suddenly start acting with responsibility.

2008 cannot come soon enough for me.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hunka Hunka Burnin' Toast

Recently I lamented in this spot how I had been unable to find a suitable fever thermometer audible to my rock-and-roll dulled ears. Fortunately, a solution has been sent in by alert reader April, who obviously has had much experience taking the temperature of her baby boy, Aiden, as he has valiantly fought back a variety of childhood illnesses. Way to go, guys!

Thanks to April for suggesting a product made by Vicks called the "Fever InSight" thermometer, which not only takes a reading in under ten seconds, it then lights up green, amber, or red depending on the results. As you can see from the photo, I am definitely an "amber" sort of guy, confirming the fact that I seem to have a relatively constant low-grade fever. I'm not exactly sure what this means, but I intend to ask my doctor about it when I see him next week.

Yes, I am just now about to learn the results of my bronchoscopy from almost two months ago. Due to confidentiality issues, he does not wish to discuss the matter over the phone with me (who knows, Dick Cheney might be listening in) so he's insisted that I make the 300 mile round trip to Houston to hear the latest news about the state of my lungs. However, we've managed to schedule a couple of other activities around this visit as well, and have also planned a festive dinner with friends at the venerable Joe's Crab Shack, so the trip should be productive.

Perhaps the weather has something to do with my feverishness. After months of rain and outdoor temperatures that have been lower than normal, we have finally slipped into our typical Texas summertime pattern; it's been over 100 for the last couple of weeks, with no letup in sight for perhaps another month. This is the price we pay down here for not having to deal with snow and ice in the winter, although I'm not sure which is worse.

But in case my slightly elevated temperature requires medical attention, I will have no shortage of resources to call on. Just today, in fact, I received the following lousy spam helpful advice via anonymous email:

"Benefit from the Shelter, Effectiveness Not Expensive Prices and Eminence Advantage the majority trusted Web-Based Canadian Medical Supplies. We contain over 2000 Trademark and Standard remedy. We are the prevalent internet medical store, we are able obtain at the minimum workable prices. We then send our funds onto you.

No need to have a medical instruction to purchase from our organization. We can even set you up on instant re-purchase so you don't have to uneasy about running out of you medical drugs."

Who knew the Internet was home to such friendly, helpful people? With my remarkable powers of insight, I have determined that English was probably not the primary language of whoever wrote this message, however I must say I am looking forward to them sending their funds onto me as soon as possible.

While we're on the subject of burning, it looks like I will not be heading to the Nevada desert for Burning Man again this year after all. As I write this, some 25,000+ people are making their final preparations for a trek to the playa during the week leading up to Labor Day, where they will construct a city out of nothing, enjoy a week-long celebration of art and community, and depart leaving behind no trace whatsoever of their experience there. (You can see a remarkably detailed bird's-eye view of last year's event in Google Earth by clicking here.) Huge interactive art installations are constructed on the desert floor, groups of people gather in elaborate theme camps, and everyone dresses outlandishly (if at all). The festival started in 1986 as an impromptu annual gathering on a San Francisco beach, and has turned into an highly-organized if not exactly mainstream event. Although not quite the debauchery of sex and drugs that marked its early years, Burning Man still maintains an air of spirituality and counterculturalism, and in this respect is somewhat like the Glastonbury Festival in the UK -- only without the music. The other big difference is that Burning Man is held in the middle of a harsh, barren desert with no shade, water, electricity, or other "creature comforts" for miles around. Temperatures range from near freezing at night to over 100 degrees in the daytime, and freak windstorms can whip up out of nowhere, driving the alkaline playa dust into every crack and crevice of your body. But the very act of not just surviving but thriving under the harsh conditions creates a camaraderie among the participants that is hard to describe, and I have wanted to experience this event for years. However, considering my need for supplemental oxygen and the generally fragile state of my health, this difficult environment would not be ideal for me -- let alone the fact that it's a 2,000 mile drive to get there.

Oh well, maybe next year. If I do go, I'll be sure to bring my new thermometer.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Mrs. Toast Went To Mexico (and all I got was this lousy paper hat)

Fetching, wouldn't you say? As if it isn't bad enough that I have had the Bloggin' Blues for much too long now, my dear jet-setting spouse has been flitting all over the globe, only adding to my stay-at-home, do-nothing funkiness. Yes, following her fun-filled vacation in Venice just a couple of months ago, Mrs. Toast just returned from a business trip to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she was part of a group from the University sent to study the culture and folklore of the area in order for the library to develop international programs for high school and college teachers to enrich their social studies cirriculum. But of course, like any business trip it wasn't all work and no play -- she also picked up all sorts of cool trinkets like these:

But while the shopping was lots of fun, unfortunately for Mrs. Toast, she reported that she and her group were forced to stay in horrible third-world accommodations such as this:

Er, at least that's what she said -- frankly, it doesn't look so bad to me. Maybe she was just trying to make me feel better about being left at home. They also have some strange road signs down in Mexico, for example:

I believe the one above, loosely translated, means: "Caution: Loch Ness Monster ahead in road."

She also got to enjoy all sorts of tasty treats like those from the candy store pictured to your right. The "$" stands for pesos, and with the exchange rate each of those yummy sugar bombs are about 89 cents apiece.

Did I mention that this was a business trip, in which the library footed the entire bill for an entourage of five people to spend a week visiting craft centers, historical sites, girl scout camps and other locations to interview Mexican artists and craftsmen, and photograph various objects for the interactive web site the University has made? If you're wondering "how can I get a job like this?" -- sorry, you're too late. I've already asked Mrs. Toast that question and have dibs on the next available opening.

Oh yes, and I should point out the significance of the Krispy Kreme hat is that at one point during their tour, the group stopped at a donut shop just outside of Mexico City and bought about humpteen boxes of them to take back to their hotel room. Seriously, with the value of the dollar versus the peso, a delicious glazed cruller was like six cents each. This may not be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think "Mexican food", but hey ... they were in Mexico, and it was food, so that's plenty authentic enough. For some reason this particular K.K. was giving away free hats, so everybody in the party got one and Mrs. Toast brought one back for me too. (I would have preferred the cruller, but I don't think it would have survived the return trip nearly as well.)

On her next international adventure coming up in October, the library is sending the group to Toronto, Canada. I'm not exactly sure of the cultural significance of this trip yet, but I hope she brings back more local souvenirs from there too. A case of Molson would be nice, eh?

"DoNut" subestime la energía del Kreme.