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3 Old Men

Last week, all the philosophizing, planning, designing, building came to fruition as I packed my car to the max and headed to LaFayette for my first ever Regional Burn, known as Alchemy.

I’m not going to give you a lot of details, because above all Alchemy is a safe space for those who go there and I am not going to breach that implicit agreement we all have that, for a lack of a better phrase, what happens at Alchemy stays at Alchemy.

But what an experience!  As you produce your ticket at the gate, the hippies greeting you welcome you “home”—and while I can’t go that far, I will say that I felt an enormous sense of belonging as soon as I pulled onto the farm.  Our assigned campsite was the first one inside the farm on the left, and as I pulled up and started to unload I knew that it was going to be an amazing event.

I put my tent up quickly just so I wouldn’t be doing that in the dark, then set about working with the others to get the labyrinth set up.  As in our dress rehearsal, the method for laying it out worked flawlessly, although one of the long ropes was inexplicably six feet short.  We never did figure out why.

Here’s a shot of our camp:

And here’s a shot of our canopy with the banners I whipped up last week and didn’t even share with you:

By 6:30, we were ready for our first ritual—we had decided to do sunrise, sunset, an hour later, and midnight, but that almost immediately got changed.  Dawn was going to be too cold or too wet, and as for sunset, well, I misread the sunrise/sunset charts, not factoring in daylight savings time.  Not a problem.  We moved the sunrise session to noon, and just went for sunset and an hour before instead.  (By the time temperatures had dropped into the 30s on Saturday night, we also ditched the final midnight session, instituting the policy that the Old Men don’t perform their ritual when the ambient temperature is lower than 55°.)

Here’s a lovely panorama shot of the labyrinth, looking across the road to our neighbors, Incendia:

Click for larger version.

In the center, we placed a small altar for people to leave and to take whatever they wished, and the bell from my labyrinth.  I will share one experience that made me happy: a group of young people entered the labyrinth while the Old Men were in session.  They were happy and giggled their way to the center, mock-racing each other to enlightenment.  Once in the center, they found the mallet and one of them rang the bell, which uttered its usual nondescript clang.

But then one of the young men, in a cowboy hat that lit up, stopped and said, “Hey, listen you guys… ” and he struck the bell again and said, “No listen… it shouldn’t be doing this… listen…” and he listened—because he had heard the bell continue with its incredibly long reverberation, on and on and  on.  He left in a more contemplative mood than the one he entered with.  (We saw that a lot, actually.)

Incendia.  My oh my.  We watched a team of tawny youths clamber up and up and up building that structure all day on Thursday, and then as night fell, we were stunned and delighted to see:

Incendia was the hit of the entire Burn: the large dome was a lounge, with seating, bar, DJ, projections, and fire.  This is what the ceiling looked like:

That’s spurts of propane billowing out into never-ending clouds of flame, and it’s as fascinating in real time as you might imagine.  Each of the smaller domes housed its own fire sculpture, and those ceilings were the same.  It was amazing, and the place was packed until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.  (Earplugs were a must on our side of the road.)

So for three days, we did our ritual, answered questions and discussed the impetus behind the project, and sucked up the positive energy all around us.  I will say that I was just a wee bit proud when people were surprised to find that we were all Burn virgins; apparently 3 Old Men gave off the vibe of being old pros at this.  (It also dawned on me that we were freaking selected as a theme camp by Burning Man itself.  Sometimes ignorance of the odds is a great way to develop a project.)

The camp is large: 3200 Burners, two-thirds of them in registered theme camps like us, and the variety therein was impressive.  Art, food, drink, interactive things, games, just a wild smorgasbord of creativity and openness.  Again, details would be over-sharing, but the energy was palpable.

Everything culminates in the Burn itself on Saturday night, in which a two-story structure known as the Effigy is set on fire in the most spectacular way imaginable. I have never been witness to as much controlled pyromania as that Burn, and I found that watching those enormous pillars of flame erupt from tubes surrounding the Effigy, followed by the Effigy itself vanishing in the largest fireball I have ever seen, produces only one possible response: ecstatic, joyous laughter.

It’s a very powerful feeling to watch a structure burn that you were just inside and on top of, and on which you’ve written your own thoughts about life/loss/change.

The next morning, Sunday at dawn, the Temple, another smaller structure, was burned.  Part of my labyrinth was in there: the artist put out a call for frames; I had some in my kindling pile and although I was out of town at the time I sent her directions on where to find them in my back yard.  I ran into her at the Temple and she excitedly told her boyfriend that I was the one with the amazing back yard.

Click for large version

Afterwards, we went back down the hill to the camp, had one final meal together, then broke camp.  By early morning, before most of the rest of the hippies were up and about, we were all gone.

Here’s what I learned.  The Burn’s 10 Principles are a great way to run an event, and their impact has remained with me. I learned to be more Radically Inclusive of other people, which is sometimes a problem for me.  I learned a lot about Radical Self-Reliance, never having camped before—I like it, at least for Burns!  And Leave No Trace has become a mantra for me; next time I will volunteer as a MOOP* Fairy, part of the onsite volunteer staff.

The guiding philosophy behind 3 Old Men turned out to be exactly correct, and I found—even as I watched beautiful, taut young bodies parade past—that I was proud of me, of where I am and  how I got here.  More amazingly, that was how the taut young bodies responded to me as well.  The ritual was simple and effective, and we had a decent amount of participation in those sessions, although we’re working on ways to make it easier for people to challenge themselves to enter the labyrinth.  (Again, no photos, but the 3 Old Men in full regalia—paint, skirt, staff—were imposing to the point of being totemic.)

And mostly I learned that I am made very happy being in a setting where everyone there is free to let their own little freak flags fly without fear of judgment.  I soaked up all that joy like a vampire, and I am committed to continuing this journey with my fellow Old Men.  We’re making plans to go to other Burns and to recruit more people to our roster as we go.  I’ll keep you posted.


*MOOP = Matter Out Of Place, i.e., whatever was not there when you got there.  I am still worried that our MOOP score will suffer because of the spills of kaolin body paint we left behind.

About half the photos in this post were taken by Roger Easley, photographer extraordinaire and a member of 3 Old Men.

Not an update

This is not an update.  It’s just that I haven’t blogged in a while and I wanted to assure my legions of readers that I’m still around.

The reasons are what you might expect: getting to Alchemy—Alchemy—returning from Alchemy—decompressing from Alchemy—starting final preparation for my son’s wedding next weekend.  All that kind of thing.

I promise I have a lot to share—just no time to do it right now.

3 Old Men: staff update

Remember how I kind of wanted jewels for the eyes of the lizard on the staff but never really went back to the idea?

I was in Michael’s picking up some white acrylic paint for one last 3 Old Men project—Alchemy is this week, YOU GUYS!—and there was this whole series of new paint substances.  This one looks like glass or clear sugar candy, and I snatched it up.  Ooohhh…

3 Old Men: the skirt (day whatever)

I have not been boring you with all the step-by-steps of getting the other four skirts made—you’re welcome—but I do want to show off.  Here are three of the four waistbands:

I’m missing enough material to have made the fourth one (although this morning it dawned on me that when I cut out two of the skirts, I should be able to find that).

Aren’t they beautiful?  You can’t really see the buttonholes through which the sashes will weave, but they’re beautiful.  The belt loops are beautiful.  The sashes are beautiful.

If I’m assiduous, I could have three of the four skirts entirely finished today and have time to go outside, do some planting, and in general enjoy the lovely fall weather.  I’ll keep you posted.

A quick foodie post

This is not really a recipe, just a concatenation of ingredients that turned out fabulously well:

It’s just kale chips sprinkled on grilled salmon.  It was suggested that perhaps I should put the salmon on a bed of kale chips, but sprinkling them on top lets them stay crisp/crunchy.  Also, the kale chips by themselves were oversalted; the salmon was lightly seasoned, and together they were quite a tasty balance.

Kale chips: olive oil, sea salt, white pepper; bake at 300° for 10 min, turn the baking sheet, bake for another 15 min.

Salmon: marinate face down in lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil; turn over, season with salt and black pepper.  Grill.

My center

I have been so focused on sewing skirts for 3 Old Men that I haven’t really had time to get out to the place that is my center: the Labyrinth.

Here’s what I’m seeing:

Click for full size photo.

Why is this the most beautiful spot on earth for me?  Let us count the ways.

  1. It’s a labyrinth.  Duh.
  2. I built it.  By myself, with my own two hands.
  3. I designed it.  It includes a couple of features that I have seen nowhere else in my research:
    1. The western path, i.e., a path of bricks that lead from the center to the west.  Sometimes, you need to take the high road home.
    2. The hidden path, i.e., there is a fully paved path leading from the entrance to the center.  I dug a trench, laid out the full walkway, allowed myself to walk the path to the center and back once, then covered it and laid out the labyrinth over it.  So there is a path straight to the center—but we can neither see it nor use it.
    3. The center is an omphalos: a navel, an axis.  The black granite circle rims a ceramic bowl that I made—and the cracks that happened as the clay dried are now golden hieroglyphs.
  4. It’s green.  Green and white are the only colors I’ve used down here, although the spider lilies that show up right about now are a lovely and welcome surprise.
  5. It has a firepit.  I cannot over-extol the virtues of a firepit.
  6. It has four points: the gate at the eastpoint; the Richard Hill “Sun” sculpture at the southpoint; the Brooks Barrow limestone bowl at the westpoint; my earth sculpture at the northpoint.  Each offers a post at which you can hook into their specific energies.
  7. It, further, has a sculpture of the Belvedere Apollo (near the southpoint); and a sculpture of the Dancing Fawn, stand-in for  Dionysus, at the northwest point. You get to choose.
  8. It has a sound system.  Yes, it does: two in-ground speakers, one up by the entrance, the other in the ferns by Dionysus.  At certain points in the evening, it’s nice to be able to walk the labyrinth and be able to hear even the quietest pieces no matter where you are.
  9. It has a great view of the full moon—but you have to get out of your seat by the fire and go stand in the labyrinth.  This is a feature, not a bug.
  10. It has an energy that you have to experience and cannot be described.  Arrive early, an hour before the sun sets.  Sit.  Watch.  Listen.  Then we’ll light the fire.

A fateful decision

I’m trying an experiment: I’m moving Bad Etchings over to its own space on Blogger.  This will allow me to post semi-anonymously and therefore craft captions more ribald than I am willing to do here.

Set your bookmarks to, and be sure to subscribe so you don’t have to remember to go check it.

3 Old Men: the skirt (day 5)

First of all, apologies for not really blogging.  Events have all conspired against me blah blah blah.  I hope the Bad Etchings have entertained you in the meantime.

Recently on Facebook I did one of those challenges where I listed ten books that have impacted me.  Today, as I was working on sashes for the four Old Men skirts, I was reminded of one that truly changed my life, one that didn’t occur to me while making the list because its lessons are so deeply embedded in me that it never surfaces for trivial things like the Facebook list.

That book is Cheaper by the Dozen, by siblings Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey.  The movie is irrelevant, and in fact I don’t much remember the charming shenanigans of the Gilbreth family in the book.  What I do remember is what their parents did for a living: both mother and father were famous efficiency experts, and what they discovered through their motion studies in factories changed my life forever.

Put in its simplest form, it’s this: if you have a multistep task that you have to do repeatedly—as most factories have to do to assemble their products—then you perform each subtask of the final task all at the same time before moving to the next subtask.

So with my six sashes, I cut all the monks cloth panels first, then serged all six, then cut all six colored linings, then marked them, etc.

At the turn of the last century, as America geared up to become the industrial powerhouse it became, the Gilbreths played a key role.  We already knew about standardizing parts, but we were still in craftsman mode.  Even in the new automobile industry, we were apt to have crews who assembled the whole car from start to finish.

The Gilbreths changed that.  They showed to the way to Ford’s assembly line; as the great man says in Ragtime,

Even people who ain’t too clever
Can learn to tighten
A nut forever,
Attach one pedal
Or pull one lever

And so on we moved.

The main way it makes the individual craftsman more efficient is that you’re not always shifting mental gears for the next subtask.  Instead, you can settle into the rhythm of pinning the monks cloth to the lining, for example, and then once that’s done, set up the new rhythm of basting the two pieces together.  And so on I moved.

The other major strategy I got from the Gilbreths—and which I do remember played some part in the hilarity of the book—is arranging your parts and pieces so that they are 1) within easy reach; and 2) in the same order that you’re going to need them.  I can’t tell you how many times I have caught myself in some project or other reaching across myself or the product to pick up something I needed.  I almost always stop myself and rearrange my workspace.  I hope that the Gilbreths would approve.

Last Saturday, members of the 3 Old Men ritual troupe met to assemble the labyrinth for the first time and to run through the ritual.  I am drawing a discreet curtain over our experience—sometimes you, dear reader, need to encounter the sacred directly and not through my reportage—but I would like to show you the labyrinth.

You will recall that I had designed an octagonal labyrinth with four entrances, to be made of 144 tent stakes and about 1000 feet of rope.  You may also recall that I designed the method by which we would lay this out, by using a triangle of rope like the Egyptians.

And you know what?  It worked.

Here’s our Egyptian triangle:

Staked to the center, the ropes form a right triangle when pulled tight, creating a 22.5° arc at the center.  The two long ropes are marked, indicating where the stakes are to be driven (with a few variances).

Here’s that in action:

Give or take a couple of boneheaded mistakes—missing an outer stake, not taking the long ropes all the way to their last stake, that kind of thing—it worked beautifully.


It’s going to be a wonderful thing we’re doing at Alchemy and, next year, at Burning Man.  I’ll talk more later about the actual experience of walking this particular labyrinth.

3 Old Men: the skirt (day 4)

So I rebuilt the sashes, and they work much better.

The new layout:

I laboriously cut the monks cloth along the weave, serged the edges, and basted it onto the lining.

I gave myself a broader strip in which to enclose the piping.

Et voilà!

They’re much cleaner with no loose edges to torment me.

In other news, I took a deep breath and finished the waistband and attached it to the skirt.  I’m all done except the center back seam, which I will do today.


I pinned together the waistband in the back and tried the thing on.  I am not at all pleased with the results.  The waistband is a marvelously beautiful piece of work, but it’s too bulky.  I’m going to have to play with it more, especially this weekend when the Old Men meet to put together the labyrinth for the first time and test drive the ritual.

And no, I am not posting photos of the skirt in situ, as it were.  You will have to attend a Burn to see that.

update, 9/12/14: After working with a couple of entirely new designs, I revisited my finished skirt and decided to try just cutting off the top three inches of the waistband, i.e., the floppy, un-rollable mess.  Et voilà, it worked.  The result is clunky in a really groovy neo-Phoenician way.  I think the team is going to approve.

3 Old Men: the skirt (day 3)

It’s awfully useful being a polymath, don’t you think?  For example, once you understand that a doughnut is the same as a coffee mug, then it’s just a short jump to sewing.

Because one thing that fascinates me about costuming was how you can take a variety of oddly shaped and definitely flat pieces of fabric…

…and turn them into…

It has never failed to amaze me.

So it’s a good thing that I have a spatially oriented science-fu brain, because today nearly drove me around the bend.  I can’t imagine trying to figure this out without a lifetime of watching spheres turn inside out.

I was working on the sashes for the waistband.  The hard part was that we—and by that I mean Craig—decided that we needed a strip of color on the sashes.  That means covered piping, plus a lining to give the monks cloth enough body to survive being tied repeatedly.

Here are three of the four colors:

Here’s what makes this hard: the sash is sewed as a tube, then turned inside out.  (See the belt loops for a simpler example.) That means you have to figure out how to enclose the piping along the seam so that when you turn the whole thing inside out, you get a flat sash with the colored piping emerging from the seam.

I sketched some possibilities, but mentally I knew they wouldn’t reverse properly.  Finally I had to build a prototype out of muslin:

See the circled part?  That’s the casing for the piping.  [N.B.: Jobie is not allowed to comment on this photo.]

When you turn this inside out, it looks like this:

So that works.

First step is to baste the piping into its casing:

Then apparently magic happens, because I have no photos of the layering/ironing/pinning process.  It was not fun.  I have decided that I will be a) serging the edges of all pieces of  monks cloth; and b) basting them onto the lining.  Otherwise, there are too many loose edges that don’t get caught up into the seams.  In fact, if I serge the edges of the monks cloth—just now realizing this… doh…—I can just straight stitch the whole thing.

(Now I’m wondering if I need to back up and re-do my sashes…)

Here it is, unturned:

Again, Jobie is not allowed to comment.

And what does it look like when finished?

It really is pretty.  But I think I’m going to remake them tomorrow.