Burning Man: Back to the Future

by Whatsblem the Pro

Or you can just sit there forever in your Rules-Royce, sucker

Or you can just sit there forever in your Rules-Royce, sucker


Whether the topic is children on the playa, cops on the playa, feathers on the playa, or just rules in general on the playa, burners are going to argue bitterly and at great length about it. Any time these topics are raised in any burner forum online, the conversation draws hundreds of comments, many of them aggressive to the point of abuse. It’s as though the desert fosters endless dispute in spite of all the groovy talk about togetherness and family and unity of purpose.

How can we resolve these seemingly unresolvable disagreements?

Consider the original reasons for going out to the Black Rock Desert in the first place; it was largely because the remoteness and harshness of the place made it a good place for a Temporary Autonomous Zone. It was a place where you could get your dog good and drunk and let him drive your car across the playa at 120MPH while you leaned out the passenger window, peppering the drive-by shooting range with buckshot. . . and there was nobody who could tell you with any authority that anything about that was wrong.

Ever since Larry Harvey and his gang co-opted that freedom by putting a fence around it and selling tickets, you aren’t even allowed to bring your dog, much less get him drunk. The speed limit is 5MPH, and firearms are frowned upon. . . because as everyone will tell you if you happen to lament those bygone days, the event is just too big for it to be practical to not have any rules. While that’s probably very true, it’s also true that without the fence and the tickets the event may very well have remained small enough for it to be OK. . . but I digress.

When the festivities on Baker Beach grew too large to avoid unwanted attention from the police, it became clear that San Francisco was no place for a Temporary Autonomous Zone of any size, as it would not and could not be tolerated by the locals. . . so, thanks to the Cacophony Society, a TAZ capable of supporting Burning Man as it existed in those days was established in the Black Rock Desert. Now Black Rock City itself is so big that the locals there balk at the idea of having no rules. . . so instead of discarding the best thing about the event in its early days, why aren’t we establishing a new TAZ to serve the needs of the woolier, more freedom-loving denizens of Black Rock City?

The obvious answer, of course, is that no matter what Larry Harvey or Marian Goodell say in speeches and press releases, Black Rock City LLC is a corporate business entity that exists for the purpose of making money, not for fostering anything too radical in the way of culture, and that purpose is inimical to the very idea of autonomy. The Disneyfication of the playa marches ever onward in the name of profits, and public relations problems are dealt with in the corporate way: by paying people off and covering things up. For example, I speculate that rape kits are not available at Burning Man, not because the environment is too harsh or the chain of custody being too difficult to maintain; but because having rape kits on the playa would mean that far more rapes at Burning Man would be reported, instead of shrugged off and forgotten about. Many rape victims would rather stay at Burning Man and quietly put the rape behind them than spend the rest of the burn in a Reno hospital talking to cops and doctors. In short, maybe we don’t have rape kits out there because it would hurt the corporate brand that the Org owns and profits from.

The profit motive is what brought us to this, and the profit motive has swollen the numbers of people attending to the point that most of them no longer have much in common with the free spirits that came to share their visions with each other in the early days of the event. At this late date, any proposal that suggests Burning Man might return to its origins of envelope-pushing freedom is immediately shouted down as unreasonable and unrealistic.

Imagine, though, a designated area on the playa – for waiver-signing adults only – with no rules. A place near enough to BRC to get to easily, but far enough away that gunfire isn’t a problem. A controlled-access TAZ. An anarchy park, within the confines of Burning Man. A place with no cops, no rules, and no limits.

Black Rock City can grow and grow, and so can the rules and the Disneyland-like aspects and the mandated safety and the numbers of children and the vast hordes of finger-pointers and burnier-than-thou shamers. . . and we’ll still have (we’ll once again have) a place to be ourselves, completely unfettered by anyone’s rules or expectations.

Comments are encouraged.

Digging Ra Paulette

by Whatsblem the Pro

You think YOU'RE an underground artist? -- PHOTO: Ra Paulette

You think YOU’RE an underground artist? — PHOTO: Ra Paulette

If you’ve spent much time at all sitting around camp fires and burn barrels chewing the fat with people who go to Burning Man, then you know they tend to be fond of talking about buying land and forming intentional communities of one kind or another, building on the lessons learned by participating in the culture that has grown up around the event.

It goes without saying that they’re also rather fond of art, and uniqueness, and deserts.

Somewhere nestled in the big empty between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, there’s a burner daydream for sale: 208 acres of privacy and freedom to spread out on. . . and the property features two hand-excavated art caves.

Eloi need not apply -- PHOTO: Ra Paulette

Eloi need not apply — PHOTO: Ra Paulette

The large and intricately carved underground spaces – described in the real estate listing as ‘cathedrals’ or ‘meditation caverns’ – are the handiwork of 67-year-old Ra Paulette, who has spent the last quarter of a century working alone at digging out and decorating a series of mind-blowing sandstone chambers beneath the surface of New Mexico.

Describing his process, Paulette says “manual labor is the foundation of my self-expression. To do it well, to do it beautifully, is a whole-person activity, engaging mental and emotional strengths as well as physical strength.”

Armed only with hand tools and his trusty wheelbarrow, Paulette follows his own very particular star in a starless darkness whose sky lies beneath our feet. He seems to have developed techniques all his own that allow him to work with remarkable efficiency, accompanied only by his faithful dog.

“When digging and excavating the caves,” he elaborates, “I break down all the movements into their simplest parts and reassemble them into the most efficient patterns and strategies that will accomplish the task while maintaining bodily ease. Like a dancer, I feel the body and its movement in a conscious way. I’m fond of calling this ‘the dance of digging,’ and it is the secret of how this old man can get so much done.”

Paulette’s strange story and that of his long and solitary labor of love has been immortalized in a documentary that may just be on its way to an Academy Award nomination: director Jeffrey Karoff’s CAVE DIGGER. The film, which has been much-lauded at international film festivals this year, spelunks both Paulette’s artistic ouevre, and the artist’s difficulties in dealing with the demands of his patrons. Paulette’s clashes with those who would try to direct his artistic efforts in exchange for mere money have spawned a distressing number of unfinished projects and left the cloistered cave-carver determined to work only for himself as he completes his magnum opus over the course of a decade of digging.

“My final and most ambitious project is both an environmental and social art project that uses solitude and the beauty of the natural world to create an experience that fosters spiritual renewal and personal well being,” explains Paulette. “It is a culmination of everything I have learned and dreamed of in creating caves.”

According to the real estate listing, grid electricity and telephone lines are ready to serve the lot at its perimeter, and the gated property features roads that connect with New Mexico State Highway 285 for easy access. Along with Paulette’s underground cathedrals and their “candlelit niches, recessed seating and various breathtaking side rooms that are washed in sunlight,” the 208-acre homestead boasts “majestic mountain views” and “surreal rock formations throughout.”

See you there?

The trailer for Jeffrey Karoff’s Ra Paulette documentary, CAVE DIGGER

Miss Molly Goes to War

by Whatsblem the Pro

CJ Hardin has gone from PTSD to MDMA to A-OK

CJ Hardin has gone from PTSD to MDMA to A-OK

CJ Hardin first went to Burning Man in 2006; when he can make it to Black Rock City he volunteers as a medic. He spins fire staff, and is learning ball poi.

Outside Black Rock City, CJ Hardin is a soldier whose three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan left him an alcohol-soaked, suicidal wreck peppered with physical, emotional, and psychological trauma. The physical damage wasn’t much – some minor injuries, a touch of tinnitus – but the PTSD he suffered picked him up by the scruff of the neck and took him right out of his life.

Michael and Annie Mithoefer are burners, too, and more formally known as Dr. Michael Mithoefer, MD, and his co-therapist, Annie Mithoefer, BSN. The couple run a well-regarded internal medicine practice in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

The Mithoefers are currently conducting clinical trials as part of a ten-year, $15,000,000 project that intends to transform MDMA — sometimes sold under the street names Molly, Ecstasy, or X, among others — from an illegal street drug into an FDA-approved prescription medicine. CJ Hardin is a patient in one of those trials.

The project is being administered by a non-profit organization called MAPS, or the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. MAPS, currently the only organization in the world funding clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, has earned a solid reputation in the scientific community by doing peer-reviewed work on the legitimate medical uses of psychedelics and marijuana since 1986.

To a non-profit organization like MAPS, exploring the medical uses of MDMA makes good sense, because the patent on the drug has expired. This being the case, the for-profit pharmaceutical industry has little or no interest in testing and developing the drug into a product. Once someone like MAPS does it, the for-profit big boys in the big league may manufacture their own version and sell it alongside the patented products they own, but since they can’t hold a monopoly on the drug, there’s no money to be made in doing the groundwork that must come first. This is part of the reason why MDMA has remained on the government’s Schedule 1 list of substances that supposedly have no medicinal value.

All the drugs that MAPS works with either have expired patents, like MDMA, or are unpatentable, like marijuana; once the research allows products to be manufactured from them, nobody – not even MAPS – will have a monopoly on making and selling them, and thus they will likely remain cheap or even free to the people who need them most.

I interviewed CJ Hardin about his progress with the Mithoefers’ MDMA-assisted psychotherapy on Tuesday, November 26th, 2013.

Whatsblem the Pro:
CJ, you’re a burner, right? How did you find your way to Black Rock City the first time?

CJ Hardin:
I went with friends in 2006, after my second Iraq deployment. I really didn’t know much, other than that it was a huge party with cool music and art in the desert. We rented a bus and really kinda glamped it. I didn’t know that it was such a participatory event, but I really started to enjoy it once I began talking to fire spinners, since I had done fancy drill teams with rifles in the JROTC. I had a great time, but also gained a deeper appreciation for the burner community. I really appreciated how Burning Man set itself apart from music festivals I had been to, like the Family Values Tour, and Bonaroo.

Whatsblem the Pro:
How long have you had PTSD, and how long have you been doing the MDMA therapy?

CJ Hardin:
I got deployed in 2003 during the initial push to Baghdad, and served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. I started to really feel it after the second deployment.

I’ve been in the MDMA study since midsummer of 2013, and I’m about to do my third MDMA session, on December 3rd. If I haven’t been getting the higher of the two doses they’re testing, I’ll get another five sessions with the high dose after this.

Whatsblem the Pro:
This is a horribly rude question that I wouldn’t ask under other circumstances, but would you mind telling me something about the experiences you had that left you with PTSD?

CJ Hardin:
Well, I’ve been hit by two IEDs while in armored vehicles, but I wasn’t seriously injured, just some hearing loss. I was hit by a bullet fragment from friendly fire that made me think I was shot. . . and pretty much every day we were being targeted with mortar and rocket fire, so we could never really feel safe. On top of that, I was a member of a command team, so I got to see all the operational stuff and the casualties. There was a lot of gory stuff, and friends getting injured and killed. . . and of course never knowing whether a mortar was going to drop on you in your sleep or on the shitter was a really bad feeling that dissociates you from the real world. All of it combined was the problem.

Whatsblem the Pro:
What sort of symptoms did you develop?

CJ Hardin:
Any sudden noise, change of air pressure in the room, motion. . . I’d get hyper-vigilant. Rapid pulse, crippling anxiety. Depression. A need to avoid crowds. Driving became impossible; I’d swerve to avoid anything near the road because it would remind me of IEDs. I got into some major alcohol abuse to keep my mind off stuff. Insomnia. Lack of a sex drive. Thanks to the IEDs, I’ve also got permanent tinnitus, which is a ringing in the ears.

I got to the point where I stayed home and never went out. I didn’t even try to work really, just did odd jobs. I had a lot of suicidal thoughts.

Whatsblem the Pro:
How has the therapy you’ve been doing with the Mithoefers affected all this?

CJ Hardin:
Working with them and with the MDMA has vastly reduced all the symptoms. Some are gone totally. I go out and hike and drive now; I don’t jump as much at all at sudden things; I’m much better with crowds now. Essentially, I realize on a gut level that I’m not at war any more, and I’m safe.

Whatsblem the Pro:
All that, with just two sessions?

CJ Hardin:
Two sessions with the MDMA, and some therapy sessions in between, yes. I’m about to do the third MDMA session.

Whatsblem the Pro:
It sounds like you got your life back.

CJ Hardin:
I did get my life back! There was a profound difference after the first session. . . and my girlfriend benefits by having a sane boyfriend. Did I mention that I lost my marriage due to the PTSD?

Whatsblem the Pro:
I’ve read that a single dose of MDMA might be worth years of psychotherapy.

CJ Hardin:
Oh, yeah. . . eight hours of therapy with MDMA feels like three years of therapy without it.

Whatsblem the Pro:
What went with the MDMA? Were you guided through any particular experience with it, or did they just give it to you and babysit passively?

CJ Hardin:
Oh no, I was totally guided. The doctor and his wife, who is a nurse, were with me the whole time. There was soft music playing, and they gave me a sleeping blindfold in case I wanted to “go inside.” My girlfriend was there for most of the time, too. They let me talk about whatever. Sometimes they would remind me of what I was saying or get me back on a train of thought.

Whatsblem the Pro:
They told you to go inside yourself?

CJ Hardin:
Yep. After I’d talk about something a little more intense, they’d suggest that I go inside and try to feel where I felt the feelings. . . then breathe through it. To dwell on it, kind of.

Whatsblem the Pro:
I can see that happening at a theme camp at Burning Man, too.

Thank you, CJ. This is fascinating research, and from what you’re telling me it seems very promising. Is there anything the community can do to get involved and help?

CJ Hardin:
Actually, yes. . . the study I’m taking part in right now needs funding to continue. It’s all non-profit, and runs on donations, so there’s an Indiegogo campaign that you can give money to. You can read all about the clinical trials and the science and everything there, too.

I really believe that the work the Mithoefers are doing is going to end up helping a lot of people who need help badly and can’t get it because MDMA is illegal. It’s helping me, and I’m very grateful. Please give generously!

Whatsblem the Pro:
Good luck, CJ! We’re rooting for you.