Day 24. If it seems ridiculous …

Las Cruces is a detour for us, but we have an old friend there and don’t know when we will be this close again. So … we are going to Las Cruces.

Today’s drive is just under five hundred miles and we opt to spend an extra four minutes keeping our day easy by staying on interstate. We’ve seen all the desert mountain scenery we can appreciate over the last few days. We just want to get there.

But first, we stop for breakfast in Trinidad’s finest restaurant. The breakfast tacos are terrific and the owner is wearing a t-shirt I love. He’s nice enough to let me take a picture. You never know when you are going to find something that makes your day.

We’ve allowed plenty of time to get to Las Cruces before dark (lesson learned) and arrive at our casita without incident. It’s a cute little house off a quiet dirt road, but it’s late afternoon in southern New Mexico. The house is hot. Really hot.

Inside it’s actually a single room with a bed and a small kitchen, and it has a room air conditioner stuck high in a window up over an armoire. It’s turned off, of course.

What the casita does not have is a chair or anything else to stand on to reach the controls for the AC.

This is ridiculous.

We try several ill-fated and bad ideas for getting the place cooled down when my husband notices a page of general info left by the owners for guests to read. It includes the usual wifi password and request to do ones own dishes, and one sentence that is key.

“Turn on the AC by flipping the light switch just to the right of the bed.”

Of course.

Well, at least I have found today’s rule of the road. When something makes no sense at all, go ahead and read the directions.

We meet our friend for beers and some of New Mexico’s finest “Mexican” food and as we laugh over old times, something about the night feels very Jimmy Buffet. I’m glad we made the detour.

 

Day 18. I, Human

All week I look for insights about what it means to be human. After all, the theme of this event is I, Robot. Some of the art, the cars, and the camps riff on this idea, and I’m determined to locate bits of wisdom in these creative endeavors.

Why? Even as I finish up my first six novels, putting the finishing touches on the collection and tying it all up with a bow for the new release of my six books, I am working on my Next Big Thing. It will be a sci-fi crime series, I hope, and will play with the idea of robots and humans and their differences.

The Man himself has a faintly robotic look to him this year, and art on AI surrounds me. Yet, day after day the inspiration I seek eludes me.

I’ve also yet to find a good way to spend the hot mid-afternoon hours here, so I try a new approach. This year some of the art cars have agreed to participate in BAIT, a public transportation of sorts. Official stops have been designated along with a half hour range for pickups, and lucky passengers will be transported out to The Man and on to The Temple and back. Maybe I’ll find my kernel of inspiration on the ride.

Only the ride never comes. I show up 5 minutes before the time range starts and wait 10 minutes past it, as the dust kicks up and my wait way out on Avenue L gets increasingly unpleasant. A nearby camp invites me to come inside and chill, but after a few minutes of refuge inside their large tent I worry I won’t see my ride. Right before I give up, I have my epiphany.

This is totally stupid.

I mean it. It makes no sense. I am standing in the middle of a desert so inhospitable that no life form except microbes lives here. It is hot and miserable. The food is lousy and I have no appetite. The liquor all gives me a headache. It’s crowded and noisy and the sounds never stop. The porta-potties stink and I’ve no where to brush my teeth and I can’t even get a damn art car to stop for me even though the sign says it should have been here by now.

What’s worse? I paid $400 to do this. I drove nearly 3000 miles, spent at least another $1000 on supplies, and used up most of my free time for the last month getting my shit together to be out here. And  ….. here comes the epiphany. I’m glad I did it. I’m enjoying myself. Worse yet, I’m thinking about coming back here and doing this again. Seriously…

Do you think you could program a machine to do that?

I contend that the odd assortment of things that are bring joy here aren’t quite the same for any two people, and are radically different for many. There is no one answer, or twelve answers, about why this works. Somewhere in the quasi-random process called evolution which created us as a species, and the equally bizarre series of events that shaped each of us as individuals, are little beads of capacity for joy that can’t be understood or duplicated. In fact, there is no logical need to understand or duplicate them.

Design a machine to behave logically, Or randomly or some combination thereof. Design it to seek joy when its needs are fulfilled, and take a stab at defining those needs. Design it any way you like. I contend that no thought-out effort results in a significant number of your models choosing to go to Burning Man once, much less to return.

Being here doesn’t make sense. It’s a human thing, machines. You wouldn’t understand.

I finish my thoughts, give up on BAIT, and head back towards my camp. I notice one camp has erected a small café, complete with a Maitre ‘d out front, and I decide to get some lunch. He seats me, presenting my menu with great flourish, and I see several other customers stifling grins. What’s going on?

“Take your time, dear” a lady sitting next to me says.

“I know I couldn’t make up my mind,” adds another.

I open the menu. It says “Cappuccino.”

That’s it.

“I think I’ll have a cappuccino,” I tell the waiter.

“Excellent choice,” he says.

The good news is it is excellent cappuccino.

Over the five full days I am at Burning Man, I end up working three four-hour shifts as an assistant stage manager at the Center Camp, and I enjoy myself immensely. On the first of these shifts I discover that if an act doesn’t show up, it’s our job to find someone in the audience to perform. The show must go on.

On my second shift, I discover that if the audience will not produce an act, we must. When I arrive, the previous three acts have all been no shows, and the entire stage crew has been up there for hours doing everything they can think of. Shifts are staggered, so I am greeted by a sound technician and the head stage manager having an on stage debate about what the worst processed foods are. Four or five sleepy burners sip coffee and watch with mild interest while the rest of the stage crew looks at their watches.

It seems only right to provide some relief, so I offer to take the mic and share the story of my day. As I launch into my tirade about how stupid it is to be here, a few more coffee drinkers wander over. By the time I’m arguing no one could program a machine to make an informed non-random choice to attend Burning Man and furthermore, there is no reason one would ever want to, I’ve amassed a couple of dozen listeners and I’m even getting comments from the audience. Not bad for my first time on stage.

Today’s rule of the road?

It doesn’t have to make sense, at least not if you’re human.

Today’s song?

Not one I’d normally pick, but it’s a shout out to the person who invited me here in the first place. Years ago he and friends designed and built a camp with a large shade structure and a viewing platform to climb up to. The supplies have been passed along to others, but he still enjoys going back to visit. They called it the ICU Baby camp. I understand this song is still played there often…

If you’d like to read a short blurb from each day of my journey, check out
Day 1. The Journey of 6000 miles
Day 2. Rules of the Road
Day 3. Just Don’t
Day 4. Bloom Here.
Day 5. Yes Aretha. Respect.
Day 6. No Trucks. Just Corn.
Day 7. Cry
Day 8. There’s No Place Like Home
Day 9. It’s Okay to Ask a Human for Help
Day 10. Always Bring an Onion
Day 11. Gimme Three Steps Towards Nevada
Day 12. I Want to Scream.
Day 13. Dusty Virgin
Day 14: Magical ride
Day 15. As Nice as I Want to Be
Day 16. What Rules? What Road?
Day 17. If you get interrupted by a parade …
Day 18. I, Human
Day 19. A Border Crossing
Day 20. Someone to Help Me Get Home
Day 21. Time flies like an arrow and ….
Day 22. Stop, or Else …
Day 23. What’s Your Reality?
Day 24. If it seems ridiculous …
Day 25. Backing Up
Day 26. To Stop a Hurricane
Day 27. Lights Along My Path
Day 28. Grateful

 

 

Day 15. As Nice as I Want to Be

Participating, as opposed to standing around gawking, is valued here, so as I planned this trip I sought out a place where I could contribute to make the magic happen. It’s Monday morning. The dust is resting and the sky is blue here at Burning Man and I’m off for my first shift as an assistant stage manager for the Center Cafe.

I like the idea of this stage, where only original material is performed twenty-four hours a day. Years of writing self-published science fiction has left me with a huge soft spot for artists of all types who summon up their inner muse and then unveil those fragile creations in front of a potentially hostile world.

When I arrive, I find a universe that is gentler and more accepting than I hoped. Staff and performers hug, compliment and encourage. Some acts are polished and great fun to watch. Others are raw creations, not ready for prime time elsewhere. Yet, they are cheered on by this coffee-sipping audience that seems to understand the fragility of nascent artistry .

I receive quick and generous praise from everyone for being a warm, helpful and happy human. How odd. Is this worthy of praise?

Then it occurs to me. Back in the default world, I often work at being less helpful than I want to be. Less warm, less encouraging. I make an effort to smile less. I’ve had decades of signals from others that my natural behavior is at best odd and at worst downright annoying.

Here? I’m not doing that. And they seem to like it. A lot. Wow.

After four joy-filled hours of finding kind words for everyone that crosses my path, I’m high as a kite. I’m being myself and it is more fun than I’ve had in a long while.

Burning Man is considered by many who don’t know much about it to be a yearly drunken and drugged-out Bacchanalia involving sex, nudity and general bad behavior. Yes, I suppose there is some of that, though I’ve encountered little to none.  Camp mates tell me most of the hard partying I’ve heard of will happen late in week when non-participants pour in. The little that is happening now? You really have to go looking to find it.

Thanks to people I’m close to, I already know of other sides to this event. There is the self-reliance of erecting what is essentially a tent city for 80,000 in a place where the alkaline soil is so damaging that there is zero plant and animal life. That’s right: no cacti, no lichen, no ants, no scorpions, no bugs. Nothing lives here, except for a lone type of microbe in the soil. And 80,000 people for one week every year.

There is also a sense of community. We help each other; we give gifts of words, actions and things. As I leave the Center Cafe I wander around, stumbling on the sizable AA area set up to encourage burners who need to avoid altered states. I stop at the mobility camp, providing aid to burners likely to find life here even more challenging.

I can see the temple in the distance. Each year it is designed by a different artist. Over the course of the week it will be filled with notes and photos and memorabilia from those who have died this past year, along with musings and memories that are meaningful to this year’s participants. Sunday night, after the man has burned and the weekend crowds are gone, the temple will be set aflame. I’m already fascinated by this and I pause outside the tent of the temple guardians. Maybe one year that will be me ….

I climb a platform to look over this rapidly growing tent city. I found it a little presumptuous when I entered on Saturday and was given the traditional greeting for this event. Welcome home.

This isn’t my home, I thought then. But now, I can see how in some way it just might be.

Today’s rule of the road? It is a bad idea to pretend to be meaner or more miserable than you are, just to make meaner and more miserable people like you.

Today’s song? I had a few ideas for this one, but I finally settled on Jewel performing with a live orchestra. Give this video a few seconds, she does appear and I’ll think you enjoy what you see.

 

 

 

 

Day 12. I Want to Scream.

This is the day when I’m tired of driving, and exhausted by road construction and the desolation. I don’t want to listen to any of my music any more. I can’t get comfortable. Every little town looks like the one in this picture. Nothing sounds good for lunch, so I don’t even bother to stop. I recognize I’m getting cranky.

Then I hit a one lane stretch of road, and just miss being part of the group on my side that gets to go through. I wait for 25 minutes, with my left arm hanging out the south-facing drivers side baking in the sun and turning red as I simmer. It’s time to get off the road.

I’m lucky this is my last day of driving until day 19. Tomorrow my journey makes a drastic change as I head into the wild for six days of camping. I’ll be out of my car and off the grid, and will resume posting my rules of the road and my song of the day once I’m back.

Today’s rule of the road? Sometimes you are cranky. It’s alright. That’s when you focus on something else instead.

I let my mind wander to tomorrow and wrote this in my head as I was baking in the noon sun, wondering when my lane would be allowed to go forward.

Listen. Hear that sound? It’s your heart beating, happy to be alive and hoping for an adventure. Go with it. Take that last step and start your journey.

Once my car was moving again, I found the music that spoke to the restlessness in my soul. It was classical, the most up tempo and passionate classical pieces I could find. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was great, and this version by a UK group called Sky captured every nuance of my desire to JUST SCREAM. I played it a few times and felt far better.

 

If you’d like to read a short blurb from each day of my journey, check out
Day 1. The Journey of 6000 miles
Day 2. Rules of the Road
Day 3. Just Don’t
Day 4. Bloom Here.
Day 5. Yes Aretha. Respect.
Day 6. No Trucks. Just Corn.
Day 7. Cry
Day 8. There’s No Place Like Home
Day 9. It’s Okay to Ask a Human for Help
Day 10. Always Bring an Onion
Day 11. Gimme Three Steps Towards Nevada
Day 12. I Want to Scream.
Day 13. Dusty Virgin
Day 14: Magical ride
Day 15. As Nice as I Want to Be
Day 16. What Rules? What Road?
Day 17. If you get interrupted by a parade …
Day 18. I, Human
Day 19. A Border Crossing
Day 20. Someone to Help Me Get Home
Day 21. Time flies like an arrow and ….
Day 22. Stop, or Else …
Day 23. What’s Your Reality?
Day 24. If it seems ridiculous …
Day 25. Backing Up
Day 26. To Stop a Hurricane
Day 27. Lights Along My Path
Day 28. Grateful

Day 11. Gimme Three Steps Towards Nevada

I have a six hour drive ahead of me today as I head west out of Moab on I70 to Ely Nevada. The first two hours are sheer joy. Red cliffs are all around, traffic moves well, and the morning is cool. I drive with the windows down, singing along with my music and wondering why I get to lead such a fun life.

Of course, this doesn’t last.

Everything changes shortly after I turn on to state highway 50. As I descend out of the mountains, the temperature rises 20 degrees and the scenery turns to endless scraggly sage. I enter one of the weirdest stretches of road I have ever traveled upon.

I grew up in Western Kansas and most people consider it pretty desolate there, but it is an overpopulated mass of humanity compared to this part of western Utah. For long stretches, I do not see another car or a building of any kind. I have no phone service. The sun blares down and I go to AC.

I pat my dashboard. Not a good place to breakdown, I whisper to my trusty FJ Cruiser. Fortunately, she understands and agrees.

Then I hit the road construction. Or rather, the road construction signs. They insist I slow down to 35 mph, so of course I do. I creep along looking for either people or machinery. Neither appears. The asphalt looks new, and some stretches are missing a center line, but that’s the only sign of roadwork. I let my speed creep back up. If going 35 mph feels slow on a normal highway, it feels like sitting still out here.

I’m just about back up to 65 mph when I see another sign. This one wants me to go 45. Okay, I play along. Again, no workers, no machinery, no other cars going my direction and only a rare one going the other way. I feel silly driving 45. After a while, I creep back up again.

This goes on four or five more times, with each lowered speed limit slightly different, and never a sign saying it is okay to resume normal speed. It has ceased to be amusing when I begin to round the crest of a small hill and notice the top of a vehicle off the right. Surely not, I think. But just in case, I slow down to 40 mph.

Yup. It’s a big ol’ sheriff’s truck, setting smack dab in the absolute middle of nowhere hidden by the only hill for miles. As I go by, he steps out of the vehicle and points something at me, a speed detection device I assume. By then I’m doing 34 mph and giving him the finger in my head.

Doesn’t this man have anything better to do?

No, he doesn’t. Before long I notice him at a distance in my rear view mirror. I slow down. He slows down. I speed up. He speeds up. I’m contemplating all sorts of crazy reactions when Rule 11 solidifies in my mind.

Avoid unnecessary trouble. Just avoid it.

Is trouble ever necessary? Yes, I tell myself. There are fights that need to be fought, causes that should be championed. But … doing something stupid because of one lone sheriff determined to collect a fine is not a cause worth messing up a perfectly fine day for.

It’s about twenty miles to the Nevada border. I can do this. I slow down to 40 mph and creep along. A mile from the border, he pulls a u-turn and heads back into Utah to find someone else to pick on.

Just inside Nevada there is this wonderful little establishment surrounded by miles of nothing, selling gas and a offering a dim room full of singing, blinking slot machines. I use the restroom and consider playing a machine as a thank you for the facilities, then opt for treating myself to a ginger ale instead.

“Have a nice day,” the young man chirps.

“I will. I’m so glad to have made it to Nevada.”

He nods like he understands and I think maybe he does. It could be the sort of thing he hears from half a dozen or so people every day ….

My travels end well with a nice meal in Ely at a place called Cell Block Steakhouse. Each table is it’s own little jail cell. Cute, huh? Maybe not so much so after the day I had. Yet, it could have ended far worse.

Seeking a song for the day, my mind went straight to this, my favorite song ever  about a man trying to avoid trouble. It makes me laugh every time I hear it, and I especially like this recent live version.

 

 

 

Live like you are going die?

The worst piece of advice I ever received was to live like I was dying.

The timing was bad. My father was, in fact, dying and doing it rather quickly. Cancer was tearing through his body, leaving his doctors and my mother baffled by its virulence.

I was grown, with small children of my own, keeping a stiff upper lip for all. The “live every moment as if it was your last” verbiage didn’t sink in until after his funeral, and then it engulfed me so completely that instead of grieving, I stopped being a reasonable person.

Somewhere, deep inside, I now understood I was going to die. It was a fact I’d heard before, of course, but until it happened to my dad, I guess I didn’t really believe it. Didn’t get it would happen to me.

Then, with my father no longer standing between me and eternity, every minute was precious. It wasn’t precious in a “thank-you-universe” kind of way. It was more like a for-god-sake-how-long-am-I-going-to-have-to-stand-in-this-grocery-line-while-you-pull-out-your-damn-coupons kind of way. It was a move-your-car-so-I-can-make-this-stupid-light kind of way. I had things to do and life to experience and now that I understood I didn’t have forever, I didn’t want to waste a minute of what I did have putting up with anyone’s shit.

I was miserable, and I was miserable to be around. It was no way to live.

This lasted for awhile and then I got tired of it. I mostly forgot about the fact that I was going to die, because we’re just not wired to hang on to that sort of thing. I went back to normal, wasting time and letting other people waste my time and usually not getting upset about it.

Much later, I would realize this had been by own way of grieving, and a few tears would finally come. I would find ways to celebrate my dad, and to enjoy my own life more.

I’m pulling out my passport for a trip I will take soon. I’m headed to Machu Picchu, a place I’ve always wanted to go. A closer look at my documents shows that in the past couple of years I’ve been to Portugal, Morocco, and Kenya. I imagine a customs official looking at me and asking “Did you win the lottery? Or are you dying?”

No, I haven’t won the lottery and even with budget travel I’m risking insufficient funds later in exchange for grabbing opportunities now. That’s an equation requiring balance, and I know I’m leaning to one side. I don’t intend to lean too far, but I’m okay with the imbalance.

You see, I am dying. Not any faster than anyone else, as far as I know, but I accept that my time is a limited resource.  I’ve decided to do the things I really want to do now.

During one of the last exchanges I had with my dad, he told me he wished he’d gotten more time, but he was grateful for all the moments he had. All the things he did. “It was a great life,” he declared and even as I heard him say it I thought I want to be able to say that, too.

Which is why this year I’m going to Peru, and participating in at least three other interesting things that matter to me and I’ve not made time for. Yet.

Because, of course, it isn’t about going places. It’s about having the time of your life. I realize having the time of my life is something I should have been doing all along, but it’s never too late to start. I’m thinking of what I might add in 2019.

You see, the best piece of advice I ever received was to live like I was dying.

(For more thoughts on how to use one’s time with wisdom see Spending time.)

 

 

Smiling my way across Kenya

I have the opposite of a resting bitch face. My default expression, through no effort of my own, is a smile. When stressed, I often smile more without knowing it. There are plenty of times this is a problem, like every incident of corporate layoffs in which I was ever involved. Trust me, there is no role during such an event in which a smile is appropriate.
It has been an advantage at times, though, yielding me more tips as a waitress, better treatment at airline counters, and dozens of compliments on my good attitude even when my attitude sucked. But no where does this quirk affect me more than when I travel. The further from home I go, the more I smile. Sometimes the expression is genuine, because I love being on the road. Sometimes, I don’t even know I am doing it.
I’ve just returned from one of my furthest journeys ever, a trip to Kenya which got me thinking. What do people do here in the US when you smile at them?
1. They smile back
2. They say hi and maybe try to talk to you.
3. They try to sell you some thing or some idea. Depending on circumstances, that might include the idea of hooking up with them.
4. They take it as an invitation to do harm, attempting to scam or rob you.
I think we can all agree that the first is rather nice. The Kenyans smile back, too, and I carried home the images of hundreds of their smiles. It seemed to me that (with some exceptions) their culture encourages smiling, and it was a delight to have women and men, young and old exchange this simple greeting with me.
I’m less comfortable with having strangers talk to me, but luckily one of my travel companions was not. We made a great team. I did the smiling and then she engaged in the ensuing conversions, much to her own delight.
Sales is another matter. My travel group preferred to buy our trinkets in little shops with established prices. I’ve never understood the charm of haggling, and I respond poorly to pushy sales techniques. I found myself forcing a determined pucker when our van slowed to a stop in traffic and the inevitable crowd selling bracelets and fruit approached us.
Then I thought about similar places in the US. Selling anything to stopped cars is illegal back home, but instead we find beggars with signs detailing their woes and girls’ softball teams asking for donations to attend tournaments. Wasn’t this enterprising foot-based sales force far more admirable? I think so.
In fact, I don’t remember seeing a single beggar in all of Kenya. Or a single homeless person. Granted, there were huge swaths of Nairobi which I never entered, but in a country with an unemployment rate of nearly 40%, the major highways are lined with people trying to make a living, not folks asking for a handout. It seems to me that the people of Kenya embody the virtue of self-sufficiency to an admirable extent. You would think that the American Tea Party would love this place, and ought to be praising the people of Kenya as an example to lazy Americans. Why do I get the distinct feeling that few of them have ever traveled this far, or would be impressed if they did?
For all that hundreds of people tried to sell me things, not one tried to sell me their ideas. The Kenyans I met were proud of their indirect association with Barack Obama, but otherwise left their politics and mine out of the conversation, along with religion and philosophy. There was a feeling of acceptance, of you’re-entitled-to-be-you and I’m-entitled-to-be-me that also reminded me of what Americans aspire to, and often fall short of these days.
The most unfortunate result of a resting smile face is that one can inadvertently invite scams and thieves. It was worth noting that in spite of all the warnings I received before I left, I and my party encountered no theft, no unwanted attention, and no attempt to cheat us. While I’m not naive enough to think it doesn’t happen here, a combination of caution and planning seemed sufficient to avoid problems under normal circumstances and most of the Kenyans with whom I interacted made me feel as safe or safer than I feel at home.
This is not to say that poverty is not obvious, even from the road. The average monthly wage in Kenya is under a hundred US dollars, and even though the cost of living is much lower, this little bit doesn’t go far enough. I’m sure there was hunger and disease, hidden from my view.
What was in my view, however, was people who had very little but were not, in general, miserable. There is a difference between poverty and misery, and that is something I think we tend to forget in the US.
What did I see in Kenya? I saw smiles and I saw hard work and I saw people willing to help each other and even a stranger. I saw curiosity and I saw tolerance and I saw people who appeared to be enjoying their lives.
When I arrived in Nairobi, after 36 hours of travel, my face was in its resting smile mode, with me exhausted and grumpy inside. When I left eight days later, the grin on my face was genuine, warmed by the charm of so many people who had smiled back at me.