Bad Parent: I took my son to Burning ManKris Vagner
We were at Burning Man.
Yes, that same Burning Man where teachers and stockbrokers are known to walk around wearing nothing but dabs of paint or a strategically placed taco shell, munching pot-laced Fruit Loops.
Burning Man is a convergence of people who value lavish, meticulously planned acts of creativity. In past years, I’d ridden on a life-size wooden replica of a sixteenth-century Spanish pirate ship. I’d felt the night warm up when a huge, steel dragon spat blue flames from its teeth. I’d played on artist-made seesaws and swing sets bigger and cooler than the ones in our local park. But it wasn’t just the spectacle I was into. (Though if you like spectacle, especially of the DIY, Disney – and – Pixar – would – never – have – thought – of – this variety, this is the place to find it.) I’d also seen at Burning Man a sense of neighborliness I’d never encountered elsewhere.
People bike instead of driving, and they go an entire week without buying or selling anything. In the absence of commuting and commerce (and cell-phone reception), people settle into a particularly congenial way of acting. These are people who believe so strongly in art and fun that they’re willing to haul a week’s worth of food, water, shelter, and silly clothing out to a barren lakebed in northern Nevada to share good times with 40,000 strangers.
Those are the things I wanted my son to see. But there was plenty to shield him from too, namely the skin-scorching dry heat and the prevalence of adult activity.
I wasn’t too worried about the heat. If you come from a humid climate, Nevada summer will make your nose bleed every few hours for the first couple days. We’re Nevadans, though, so we’re used to the surreal aridity. My son had already been camping in the Black Rock Desert a few times. Each time, he asked if we could stay longer.
As for the debauchery, it’s true what you’ve heard. People find the most imaginative ways to indulge their carnal desires at Burning Man. Most of that happens behind closed tent flaps, but anything could happen anywhere. The event is structured more like a city than a concert, with blocks and districts and a lot of uncrowded open space. That structure has a major advantage: IF the vibe in a particular area started to seem too lascivious or drunken, we simply moved on to the nearest tree house or lemonade stand.
Mostly, we avoided the likelihood of running into adults-only activity by spending time in Kidsville, the child-friendly camp where a few dozen families gathered. The kids wandered around in little packs, happily riding their bikes up and down the “street” or jumping on trampolines with hot dust-and-jelly sandwiches in their hands. A group of nine-year-old girls came around to advertise their noontime story hour for preschoolers. At night, teens showed off their impressive poi-spinning skills and shot cannons full of glow sticks into the air. Good clean fun in the eye of the storm.
While the climate and the partying were definitely things to be vigilant about, my biggest concern that we wouldn’t get enough sleep. The slightest deprivation sends my normally sunshiny demeanor straight to hell. I made it a point to try for eight hours a night. If my son fell asleep in the bicycle trailer while we were wandering around at night, I gave myself a one-hour limit to get us back to the tent and get to bed. Burning Man is loud, but a combination of earplugs and perpetual exhaustion did the trick. Our official count of stupid arguments triggered by me being tired was three. Same as a normal week.
The kids wandered around in little packs, happily riding their bikes up and down the “street.”
I confess I was a little jealous of all the grown-ups who flounced around without curfews, the ones who got to marvel at the lunar eclipse, watch the man burn unofficially after an act of arson, dance till dawn, then keep dancing till noon. But if you’ve been a parent for any length of time, you’re used to parties raging on without you. I downshifted to kid gear, and, as often happens, I had a really good time running around looking at things from a preschooler’s eye view. My son was mightily impressed with the huge sculpture made of tanker trucks bending backward over each other, but he also wanted to spend a lot of time just playing with Matchbox cars in the dirt or sucking down Otter Pops with his new pals.
The highlight was the night I packed a couple of kids and a pile of pillows into a big wagon and pulled them around to all the fire-spewing sculptures and fire-spinning dancers we could find. They giggled and squealed for a couple solid hours. My son made his usual request: “Can we stay here for a long, long time?” By that point, I no longer cared about what I was missing. I just felt privileged to be the one showing them that there were adults out there who could make blueberry smoothies in a bicycle-powered blender; who would haul an entire roller disco to the desert; who could assemble a camp called “Whoville,” where they stood on stools and read our favorite book with gusto, then dished out salty helpings of actual green scrambled eggs with diced ham – adults whose powers of imagination could compete with a three-year-old’s.
Photo Credits: Kris Vagner