The Burning Man Recap

It’s been a little more than two weeks since I repacked my minivan and drove away from Burning Man. It’s been a little less than two weeks since I finally pulled back into my driveway, and was thrust back into the mayhem of a new school year as both a teacher and a parent. I’ve been processing, but it has been a struggle to find the time to really write about the grating, transformative and utterly mundane experience I had in the desert.

burning man art

The Amazing Parts

Burning Man is built around 10 principles, two of which are decommodification and gifting. Once you arrive you can’t buy, sell or trade anything (other than a few basic survival items that Burning Man itself sells). Many attendees, including me, join camps that have public areas. If you stop by a camp’s public area you’ll find that many offer some type of gift. For instance, I found one camp that gifts a wide array of hand-blended teas, which you custom order either hot or iced. I found another camp that bakes bread in a wood-fired oven and serves it hot, with jam, every morning. Many camps have bars serving liquor, others give away costumes, and others offer a wide array of workshops. Our camp offered a bike repair shop, and my friend and I served tea and fortune cookies. All you have to do to receive one of these gifts is show up.

burning man fortune cookies gifting

There is a saying that “the playa provides” and I definitely found this to be true. I was wandering around very late on the night that the man burned with a craving for something sweet. I met a guy dressed in a banana costume handing out banana candies, who kept pressing me to take more. And one day when I was overtired and grumpy I came across a camp serving the best freshly ground, French-pressed coffee. All I had to do was hand grind some beans for the next person. These are things that would great at anytime, but when you’re tired and dusty they’re beyond amazing.

The art, though, was really my favourite part. Black Rock City, the name of the city built up for the event, is constructed in a semi-circle with a big empty area in the centre where the man is. On the empty desert north of the man is the temple, and massive art installations are placed between the city and the man and the temple and beyond. It’s really huge, and very difficult to see it all. While there are maps showing where the art pieces are, given that you’re wandering large distances in a barren landscape, sometimes in the dead of night, it takes on a serendipitous quality where you stumble across things and feel the thrill of discovery.

art burning man grammaphone

art burning man

art burning man

art burning man

The art pieces themselves are also different at night than during the day. The big hit this year was the tree, which during the day simply looked like a lovely large tree in the middle of the desert. Even though it was obviously artificial everyone sat under it as if it were real. At night it really came alive, as each leaf was lit and changed colour as if the seasons were shifting, or the wind was rippling through it. I even saw a wedding happen under the tree one night.

burning man art tree

burning man art tree

burning man art

burning man art

burning man art

burning man art

While the art was my favourite part overall, the single event that I enjoyed most was the Playa Choir performance. Attendees can join the choir, and they practice all week. On Sunday they perform twice – once at sunrise at the temple (I wasn’t awake for this one) and once at 11:00am in the choir dome. The performance is like a rousing non-denominational church service, and the music was outstanding. It was all capped off with a “communion” in which attendees shared whatever food they had left with everyone else. I left feeling inspired and transformed and like the whole trip was worth it just for that hour and a half.

And of course, there was the burn, complete with fire dancers and pyrotechnics and a giant celebration.

burning man the burn the man

The Terrible Parts

There are no amenities at Burning Man. The bathroom facilities consist of porta potties, and you have to bring your own food and water and, well, everything. It has all the discomforts of camping in the desert, but it’s happening in the middle of a busy city of 70,000 people, many of whom are constantly partying. I was frequently woken up at night by a passing art car playing booming music. There’s no escaping, no quiet, no solitude. You’re part of a week-long non-stop maelstrom and it’s relentless, right down to the noisy generator running outside my tent all night.

The weather this year was very hot. Not surprising in the desert in Nevada, I know, but apparently it was worse than usual. It didn’t really get cold at night, which was a good thing, and there were few dust storms, which was also a good thing. But the afternoons were scorching, and I spent most of them resting in camp because walking or cycling was out of the question. And the couple of dust storms I did experience were unpleasant, with little or no visibility. Fortunately I carried dust masks around with me, and wore goggles at all times, because not having those things would have made everything that much worse.

Speaking of dust, it’s everywhere. As a first-timer the greeters had me roll around on the ground upon arrival. The idea is that you’re going to be covered in dust all week, so you might as well just embrace it. I did my best, but it was pretty unpleasant. The dust is superfine and alkaline and very drying. This meant that my hair was better than I anticipated, since the information I’d read about the dust basically acting as dry shampoo was true. But it also meant that in spite of using my shower bag every day and being very liberal with handy wipes, I was always covered in a layer of the stuff. And so was the inside of my tent. And every item of clothing I wore. And my food.

burning man dust greeters welcome

burning man dust

As for food, I brought plenty. However, as the week progressed I ate through most of the fresh stuff and some things got ruined, like a loaf of bread that got moldy and another that ended up soaking wet when I put it in a cooler to keep it from molding as well. I was never hungry, but over time I found myself craving more variety. By the time it was Friday and everyone was tired and cranky, and more weekend partiers were arriving, the combination of heat and dust and noise left my resources low and little issues like running out of hummus seemed like Big Hairy Deals.

Most of the people I met were amazing, but a few were just plain inconsiderate. People steal street signs, which makes it difficult to get around. And while there were no majorly gross porta potty disasters that I witnessed, some people left garbage or toilet paper on the floor, and potty locks got broken. Out walking one night I tripped over an open and mostly full can of beer, which I picked up, and since you’re required to cart out all your own waste that meant I was now responsible for someone else’s undrinkable garbage. It happened because at night in the desert it’s very dark and you can’t see, so tripping over waste, riding your bike into people who aren’t wearing lights, or colliding with a bike that’s been left on the ground without lights is a real risk. People get seriously hurt.

All of the terrible parts are why, as we packed up the van at sunrise on the last day, I was eager to leave.

burning man sunrise exodus

That Thing That Happened

The big cloud that hung over Burning Man this year, and the thing everyone has asked me about since I got home, was the man who ran into the fire and later died from his injuries. Something that’s important to understand is that while the giant wooden effigy of the man is burned, we’re all sitting in a giant circle around the whole thing, with a big open empty space between the spectators and the fire. There’s a multi-layer perimeter set up in this empty area to keep us all at a safe distance. I’m bad at estimating distances, but it was far. Like over a hundred feet.

I was near the front of the crowd, and facing me was a perimeter guard who knelt down with his back to the fire during the burn and watched us. And to his right and left all the way around the circle there were other guards, maybe eight feet apart or so. The fire dancers were allowed on the other side of these guards, but a few feet from them was another perimeter with another set of perimeter guards. And further in there were firefighters and so on patrolling the fire.

This means two things:

  1. It is impossible to accidentally end up in the fire. Six separate people attempted to stop the man who ran in, and I understand that he struck one of them to make it into the fire.
  2. For those of us watching, it was difficult or impossible to see the man run in because even if you’re at the right angle (which you probably aren’t) you’re very far away and the fire itself is very bright.

I didn’t see it at all. My friend who was sitting with me noticed a brief commotion, but had no idea what it was. Campmates of ours saw him run but weren’t aware if he actually made it into the fire or just got close, whether or not he was hurt, or how badly he was hurt. While we were sad to hear that it happened, there was very little news at the event itself, and very little discussion. I wouldn’t say that, in general, it ruined the rest of the burn for the people who were there. A group of folks that we sat beside the next night during the temple burn hand’t even heard about it at all until we told them.

I’m thinking about this in the same way that I would think about anyone ending their own life. It’s a tragedy. I wish it hadn’t happened. I mourn for the man and his family. I understand that sometimes darkness takes people. And I still choose to enjoy my life and focus on the amazing experiences that make me who I am. I had a great time at the burn and I carry great memories with me.

What Next?

burning manAs of right now, I don’t plan to go back to Burning Man. I’m hoping that I will have a teaching contract soon, and that I’ll start off the next school year with my own classroom. However, I enjoyed my first burn immensely, and I’m incredibly glad that I got to go to the event. I took a chance, set out on an adventure, and made incredible memories. Now my next adventure is building relationships with students and growing professionally.

Happy burn!

In Which I Admit to Being Totally Shallow

Confession: I have always been a little vain about my hair. Not that I spend a lot of time on it, or think about it a lot. I don’t. But it’s naturally blonde and straight and for as long as I can remember people have told me I was very lucky to have hair like this.

My hair is also on the greasy side. To keep it under control I’ve been a daily hair washer since junior high. Even when I had newborns and I sometimes struggled to eat regular meals or sleep more than 10 minutes a day, I made showering a priority. Washing my hair was the thing that saved my sanity and made me feel like a human being. This isn’t a big deal most of the time, because I live in a developed country with access to reliable plumbing. But it’s one thing I really dislike about camping – dirty hair.

Now I reveal just how shallow I am. The biggest issue I struggled with when I considered going to Burning Man was my hair. There’s no running water at Burning Man. I bought a shower bag and my camp has a shower stall but showering will be much less frequent and reliable when I’m camping in the desert than it is in my shower at home. Porta potties? No problem. Dirty clothes? No problem. Cooking on a camp stove? No problem. A whole week of greasy, dust-covered hair? Major problem.

I tried googling how to take care of your hair at Burning Man. Here’s a summary of the available advice:

  1. Shave your head and/or get dreadlocks. If you care about something as stupid as hair you don’t belong at Burning Man.
  2. Just put it in a ponytail/wear a hat/ignore it. Everyone else has gross hair, too, so you shouldn’t worry about it.
  3. Condition, condition, condition. The playa dust is alkaline and drying and your hair will need nourishment. In fact, don’t even think about shampooing, just rinse it if you can and add more conditioner. Then condition it some more.

The first piece of advice may be true, but at this point I’m going even if I am way too superficial, so it isn’t helpful.

The second piece of advice also may be true, but if I were able to just put it out of my mind and not think about it I already would have, so it also isn’t helpful.

The third piece of advice, on the other hand? Actually super helpful. If the playa dust really is that drying, then maybe my hair will be dusty but not particularly greasy. In my book this is okay. In fact, this piece of information was actually the thing that finally convinced me I could do this. Because apparently I’m only open to life changing experiences if my hair is manageable (insert eye roll here).

Fast forward to last month. I found myself randomly chatting with an acquaintance at my nephew’s birthday party. I mentioned Burning Man, and my hair fears. We got to talking about hair and she confessed that she rarely washes hers. She does regularly rinse it out in the shower, and she uses powder in her hair as a dry shampoo. She told me that the dry shampoo made a huge difference to her. I realized that it might be time for an experiment.

I have experimented with alternatives to traditional shampoo in the past. I did the shampoo free (“no poo”) thing for a couple of years. It was fine. Using baking soda and apple cider vinegar to wash my hair didn’t really differ at all from shampoo in my experience. It still got my hair clean, and my hair still felt gross if I didn’t wash it again the next day. Which is why, ultimately, I went back to shampoo. It was just easier. What it does demonstrate, though, is that I’m not averse to experimenting.

If my research is accurate, playa dust is essentially dry shampoo. So to see how my own hair would manage I recently made some DIY dry shampoo by adding essential oil to corn starch. The essential oils are mostly just to make my hair smell good. I still shower every day, and rinse out my hair regularly, but I’ve gone a couple of days without washing it. My observations are that after using the corn starch mix my hair looks fine and smells good. It definitely feels different than it does after shampooing. There’s stuff on my head. However, it’s soft and actually has body, probably because of that stuff.

Here’s the photographic evidence. From left to right the photos show my just-washed hair, my hair after one day of the dry shampoo regimen, and my hair after day two of the dry shampoo regimen.

burning man hair dry shampoo

burning man hair dry shampoo

The punch line? Dry shampoo isn’t as great as actual shampoo, but I can handle it. So, if the playa dust really does dry out your hair, I should be fine because it will keep the grease under control. And my hair won’t be as damaged by the dryness because my scalp will be working overtime to produce natural oils to balance things out. If I’m right I have a solution that will work well enough that I won’t be crying about my hair on my camping trip.

I’ll report back afterwards and let you know how it actually works out. Fingers crossed for hair success.

The Soccer Mom Goes to Burning Man

I’ve gone through some big changes in my life in the past few years.

Going back to school.

Applying to, and completing, teacher training.

Getting my minor in environmental education, and re-discovering my love for the outdoors and the good parts of camping.

Working as a substitute teacher.

Watching my own children grow and change and become more and more independent.

Making new friends and building a new social circle.

Taking skiing up again, and getting pretty flipping good at it.

There are things I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing a few years ago, that I now do frequently. My word for 2017 is adventure, and I would say that for the most part I’m living up to it. And now I’m really embracing it, because this summer I’m planning to attend Burning Man.

Burning Man

Aerial view of the festival. Photo credit: Viaggio Routard on Flickr

As in, I have a ticket, and travel plans, and a couple of costumes to wear.

If you’re not familiar, Burning Man is a massive alternative arts festival that takes place each year in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada in the week leading up to Labour Day. The culminating event is when this massive wooden effigy (the “man”) is burned (…as in, “Burning Man”).

The event itself is, well, I don’t really know yet. Everyone says it’s amazing. And terrible. And transformative. And the worst vacation ever. I do know that it’s very dusty, hot during the day, cold at night, and rustic. It’s also massive, with about 70,000 people attending last year. For a week they all build a city from nothing. There’s no running water. No flush toilets. No real amenities of any kind. Amazing art displays. A strong culture of inclusion, self-reliance, participation and communal effort. And did I mention the dust?

Burning Man

Photo credit: Jon Collier on Flickr

I’m going with a friend who’s been twice before. I’m joining a camp that provides some good stuff like water, ice and electricity. I have a very cool, supposedly-guaranteed-dust-proof shelter and a bike. I bought myself new boots and a portable shower. I made myself some hoodies to stay warm and look cute. I’m reading the Survival Guide cover to cover. I’m stocking up on sunscreen and LED lights to wear at night so that no one runs me over in the dark.

I’m doing my very best to prepare. I’m not really sure I can prepare. I sort of wonder if I’ve lost my mind.

Burning Man

Photo credit: dvsross on Flickr

Here’s the thing, though. This is my one shot. If you don’t have a boatload of money you pretty much need to drive in and out of Burning Man, and leaving is not a quick process. There’s this whole “exodus” rigamarole to get your car from your camp to the road that took my friend eight hours last year. That’s eight hours after you’ve packed up and before you actually begin the 15 hour drive back to Vancouver. It would be difficult, if not actually impossible, for me to make it back home in time for the first day of school.

This year? I can do it because I’m a substitute teacher. I can just book the first week of school off when I likely wouldn’t be that busy anyways. But by next year I’m hoping to have my own classroom. I’ll need to spend the last couple of weeks of summer preparing. I’ll need to be there with bells on when school starts.

Maybe I’ll hate Burning Man. Maybe I’ll regret going. But I suspect that I would regret not taking the shot more. I’m old enough to know that time is precious, and you need to seize opportunities as they present themselves. Which is why this summer I’ll be taking out the booster seat, loading up the minivan, kissing the kids good-bye and dancing in the desert.

Bring it on.

My Name is Not Megan

I am not really much of a blogger anymore, but I still get a lot of unsolicited email. I usually ignore it. When people get in touch asking me to cover stories I understand why they’re doing it, and to some extent I’m flattered, but I just really don’t have the time to respond to everyone.

On Wednesday I got an email that at, at first blush, I took for one of those messages. But for whatever reason I took a closer look and quickly realized it was something different. A woman who I’ll call Ms. X was emailing to let me know that my photo was being used in connection with a house for rent in St. Catharines, Ontario. The photo didn’t appear in the rental ad itself, but when she emailed she got a reply that included this:

Thank you for your interest in our 2 bedroom.

About us:

My name is Megan and my husband is Thomas, blessed with 2 Children; Jason and Sara, We have a 2 bedroom house in…St. Catharines, ON

At the bottom of the email was this picture.

Strocel Family Portrait

Clearly, the idea was that “Megan” and “Thom” and “Jason” and “Sara” were the people contained in that photo. A lovely family that moved and now needs renters for their home. Which, no, they’re not. That’s Amber and Jon and Jacob and Hannah. I can offer that on the best authority. And I have never been to St. Catharines, Ontario, nor do I own property there. Although I’m sure it’s lovely.

Ms. X discovered that I used that image in this blog post: A Canadian Family: Heritage and Identity. She surmised, correctly, that I was unaware and sent me the email she had received. So thank you, Ms. X. I really appreciate it. You didn’t have to go out of your way and you did.

After the first vaguely nauseous feeling passed, I got in touch with a close friend of mine who’s a lawyer. He informed me that this wasn’t just bad Internet etiquette, it was out-and-out identity theft. Regardless of how or where I had shared the image, it is unlawful for anyone else to misrepresent my likeness as their own for any purpose. This made me feel better. People have used my images before, sometimes with permission and sometimes without. But they’ve always been properly attributed, and used in ways I was comfortable with. This felt…different. And it turns out that it is different.

Plus, he told me that in all probability this rental ad is fraudulent in and of itself. The spelling mistakes, the religious references, the fact that they’re sharing my photo when I obviously won’t be around to hand over keys – they’re all red flags. This is what makes it particularly gross – my kids were being used in an attempt to dupe people out of their money.

Apparently, this sort of thing is on the rise. Jon and I have a friend who recently rented an apartment. When responding to ads on Craigslist she got a couple of replies that were very fishy. And I read this story about someone who found a whole lot of furniture in his driveway because a fraudster rented his Ottawa house, while he was living in it and had no awareness of the situation. Of course the person who thought they were renting the house was the real victim, but it sucks for everyone. Except, I suppose, whoever made off with the cash. They’re doing fine, other than the bad karma.

Today I got a Facebook message that confirmed my worst suspicions. Someone I’ll call Ms. Y sent me a message letting me know that someone used my photo to scam her out of over $2000 on renting a house that wasn’t really for rent. I’m going to assume it’s the same person. I really hope it’s the same person who emailed Ms. X, because if it isn’t, well, it means things have gone even farther, which makes a gross situation even grosser.

In truth I’m the lucky one here. I might feel icky but I haven’t lost any money. I was not the victim of fraud myself. My lawyer friend drafted a strongly worded letter and I submitted a report to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre so they’re aware of the situation. My hope is that whoever is using my image decides that it’s more trouble than it’s worth and moves on. But much more than that I hope more people become aware of this type of scam, and fewer people fall prey to it.

My name is not Megan. My husband does not work for Canadian Tire. I do not have a house for rent in St. Catharines or anywhere else. And I am now the victim of an identity theft that fraudsters used to scam people out of thousands of dollars.

Some days it’s harder to have faith in people than others. Today is one of the days when it’s harder.

Poem for March: All In

Recently I re-embraced my adolescent love of writing poetry. Many of them are written just for me, but others are for sharing. And so, a blog series is born.

Here is a poem I wrote just now. Today was the first day of Spring Break. In the six months since I shared my last poem I have been busy. I’m working full-time as a substitute teacher. I love it. Every day is an adventure, getting to know new students, learning new things. I teach every subject, from kindergarten to grade 12, depending on where I’m most needed. Spanish. Art. Wood shop. P.E. Math. Science. Social studies. English as an additional language. You get the picture. Some days I go to more than one school, and work with more than one class in each. It’s busy and hectic and amazing.

And then, when I have time off, I do my best to make the most of it. I go skiing. I take my kids on adventures. I spend time with friends. My life feels full. Replete.

Don’t you love that word?

And so I wrote this poem, which is about diving into life head-first and embracing what it holds.

All In

Moderation in all things
Even moderation
Such common advice
It must be true
Just not for me

I do not sip life
I gulp it thirstily
Let its juices dribble
Down my chin
Experience is
Such messy stuff

Coffee, wine, joy
Pain, milkshakes
They sit in my heavy
Stomach filling me
With love and regret

Had I known then
Maybe I would
Have learned a
Different way
Now I am too wise
For actual wisdom

Now I dance under
Wide skies with mages
Abhorring temperance
In a universe of
Utter repleteness

A Word for 2017: Adventure

For the past number of years I’ve been choosing a word at New Year’s to represent what I wanted to bring into my life in the 12 months ahead. In 2011 that word was space. In 2012 I chose clarity. In 2013 I chose presence. For 2014 my word was forgiveness. For 2015 I chose strength. And for 2016 I chose confidence. For 2017 my choice is a little bit different: adventure.

adventure word of the year creek

Over the course of 2016 I had a number of experiences that stretched me in new ways. I completed my student teaching practicum in a grade 6/7 class. I attended environmental education field school here in the Vancouver area, which involved two overnight retreats (one at the beginning and one at the end), a visit to the landfill, interviewing a rock (for real), mapping an urban neighbourhood, and hanging out with some of the most awesome people I have ever met. Plus a whole lot more. I graduated and earned my teaching certificate. I started substitute teaching. I started skiing again. I turned 40.

And out of all of this came a big shift in my mindset.

I have always been a naturally conservative person. I don’t mean that I am politically conservative, or socially conservative. I mean that I am personally conservative, in that I resist change and upheaval. But what I learned by hanging out around a campfire with a bunch of people I really didn’t know at all, going swimming in an ocean that was cold enough to take my breath away and coming out laughing, and learning to ski on moguls, is that new and different can be good. Very, very good, in fact. Taking a leap and embracing new experiences leads to great things.

In short, I have discovered the wonders of living adventurously. Of accepting physical discomfort in exchange for personal growth. Of waking up to a phone call at 6:00am telling me what I’m going to teach that day and where, but never really knowing what’s in store. Of seeing what the trail holds for me as I whiz down the mountain.

I was recently speaking to a friend about my tendency to want to control everything in life. I love a meticulously crafted plan. I adore knowing what will happen, and when it will happen. My friend said that the trick isn’t giving up control. It’s not trying to control the things you can’t control. And for whatever reason, that hit me like a ton of bricks, the idea of acknowledging that I can’t control everything, and sometimes I shouldn’t even try. It makes logical sense, but it feels like a leap.

It also feels tremendously freeing. Because trying to control the uncontrollable is tiring – intellectually and emotionally. Giving that up would be a whole new way of living for me. A way of living that might just facilitate adventure.

That is exactly what I want more of in my life this year. Adventure.

How about you – are you choosing a word for the year? If so, I’d love to hear what it is, and how you’re setting your intentions for 2017!

The Post-Christmas Lull

Well, hello there! If you celebrate Christmas, like I do, I hope it was good.

My Christmas was, all in all, fairly relaxed this year. In part this was because I had more than a week off leading up to the holiday, since the last day of school was December 16. And in part this was because I had (minor) dental surgery on December 21. It was my third gum graft, and it went well. Since I didn’t want to have to do any shopping after the procedure, though, I did my best to get all of my preparations squared away by December 20.

This level of preparedness is unheard of for me. But I pulled it off. And so, by the time the procedure was finished at noon four days before Christmas, I didn’t have much to do. I went home, laid on my couch, ate pudding, and binged holiday movies on Netflix. My favourite? Love, Actually. It was kind of nice to just relax and enjoy, hanging out with the kids and taking Christmas at a slower pace.

pudding gum graft dental surgery

Once our Christmas celebrations were over (which was at around noon on Christmas day), however, all this downtime started wearing thin.

I started knitting, which has been great. It’s been a while since I took needles to yarn, but I’m back at it. As I noted in my last post I recently ordered some yarn. While I wait for it to arrive, it occurred to me that maybe I should finish that Clapotis I started three(ish) years ago. I’m still not done, but I’m making headway.

My husband has taken advantage of this opportunity to work on a freelance project that he’s got going on.

My daughter has been drawing. Because she is always, always, always making art. Plus, she got a new artist’s tablet for Christmas.

My eight-year-old son, on the other hand, started watching Trollhunters on Netflix. So far, he’s four episodes in. Here’s his review:

I would give it four out of five stars. I like that it has funny things, like Toby. I also liked it when the gnome attacked Jim in the dollhouse. I did not like when Aargh said ‘pacifist’ instead of ‘no fighting’ because then the littler kids wouldn’t know what it means.

So, that’s his take on that. The folks at Netflix also sent me a recipe for an Aargh approved gemstone candy recipe. If you don’t already have too much sugar in your house, give it a try. You can click for a larger image.

rock candy recipe netflix trollhunters

We do have plans to get out of the house, too. Tomorrow my daughter and I are going to see Mary Poppins on stage with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Later this week we’re planning on going skiing. But all in all, things are pretty chill.

I hope your post-Christmas lull is going well. What have you been up to?

This is my final post as a member of the Netflix Stream Team. The opinions in the post are my own, but take the fact that I received cool promotional swag from Netflix while I was on the team as you will.

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