That's me holding up the guy in pink. I was all set to take their photo and they said "Hey, can you lend a hand?" What else could I do but put the camera down and help out. Of course Trey Ratcliff was there to capture this magic moment.

I attended Burning Man for the first time this year. I am no longer considered a “virgin”. Here are a few of my thoughts about my “first time”.

I had many friends who were long time burners but they told me very little about the actual event. I now understand why. Despite countless hours of reading and research, nothing fully prepared me for what I experienced on the playa.

If all you know about Burning Man is from photos and blogs then you might think its simply Dust, Drugs and Debauchery. I certainly had that impression as a drove towards the entrance gates. The reality was far different.

DUST vs DIRT

The Dust… The event is held on the playa of the Black Rock Desert. There is no sand, it’s an alkali dust that is finer than talcum powder. The dust is invasive, it is everywhere, you cannot escape it. It’s in (not on) your clothes, your tent, your RV, your hair, your ears, your eyes, your throat and whatever else you have exposed. When the wind blows it creates white-outs with zero visibility. The dust serves a purpose I did not fully understand at first. Why hold the event in such a harsh location? But it now makes sense. The heat, the weather, and the dust do not discriminate. They are the great equalizer. The dust doesn’t care who you are, what you’re worth, what you do, or whether you’re staying in a tent or in an RV. It will own you and you will eventually be forced to throw away your shoes and some of your clothes in defeat.

The Dirt… Leave no Trace is one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man. The community preaches about MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) and the community responds. I may have been in the dustiest desert on earth but it was never, ever dirty. There were 60K+ people having the time of their lives for over 7 days. Yet the playa was cleaner than Disney World. It was truly amazing. I never saw a single gum wrapper, cigarette butt, or sequin on the ground. And had I seen one, I would’ve picked it up.

DRUGS AND DOUCHEBAGS

Were drugs present at Burning Man? Perhaps but I didn’t see them, nor see people abuse them. Law enforcement was ever present but never intrusive.

Were douchebags present at Burning Man? Perhaps but I didn’t see them. I never witnessed anyone acting like an ass, never saw a fight or even a disagreement. All I saw were endless acts of kindness, goodwill, happiness and inclusion. In contrast, my 17 daughter went to a Taylor Swift concert in Dallas and within minutes some stranger threw up on her shoes. I never saw anything close to this during the week we were at Burning Man. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen but I always felt safe and relaxed regardless of the time or place.

DEBAUCHERY

In the days leading up to Burning Man you can read through the event guide and see hundreds of adult-themed camps and events from orgies, to BDSM workshops, to the “Critical Tits” parade. I assume these things really happen but it’s not in your face and unless you specifically seek it out you’ll never see it. I rode around 90% of the camps and playa and never saw anything I would consider lewd. There was nudity. Some women went topless and some men went bottomless. But overall it was a few people out of 60K+. Within hours of arriving it became so normal that it desexualized the act and almost made you laugh at why our culture is so enamored with breasts in the first place.

FIRST AND LASTING IMPRESSIONS

With my misconceptions behind me I began to truly appreciate the greatness of Burning Man, at least from my perspective.

The COMMUNITY

Another one of the 10 Principles is Radical Inclusion. Everyone is welcome. I felt that from the moment we arrived. The standard greeting is “Welcome Home”. There were people from every financial level, ethnicity and religion. People were overtly loving and generous. It makes you wonder if 60K people can get along why can’t we get along in the real world? I have some thoughts on that but I’ll save it for a future post.

The VASTNESS

You can look at maps, you can watch videos, you can try to compare it to other events in your mind but I was still amazed at the grand scale of it all. During the day the dust obscures the horizon so your legs churning on your bicycle will remind you how huge this place is. And at night, when the dust settles down, you can see the neon lights of camps, art installations and hundreds of art cars for miles in every direction. It’s overwhelming.

The ART

My friends Trey Ratcliff and Cliff Baise do a great job of trying to capture the beauty and scale of the art located throughout the playa but even their amazing photography is no substitute for seeing, feeling and experiencing the art first hand.

The MUSIC

The music is far more central to the experience than I understood. The music is everywhere, all of the time, and is always great. It’s mostly DJs, there is very little live music but the energy is always high and there is always a group dancing to the music regardless of the time or day.

The GIFTING ECONOMY

There are only two things for sale at Burning Man. Ice and Coffee. A block of ice can come in handy in the desert. And the coffee was excellent, albeit surreal to stand in line with a buck naked man that had just freshly rolled in the playa dust who was waiting patiently for his latte.

Everything else was a gift. It was not a barter. There was no this for that. It was refreshing to be at the world’s largest party and never have a vendor shoving funnel cakes or glow sticks in your face. Everyone, and I mean everyone, brought extras to share with others. I think the most amazing gift was the snow cones we received on a particularly hot dusty day. But I also appreciate the handmade bracelets and other items we were given.

The TEMPORAL NATURE

This “city” in the desert rises in 30 days, exists as a living organism for 7 days, and then disappears back into the dust without a trace left behind 30 days later. Beautiful (and huge) art installations that took months to design and create, are admired just for a few days and then are burned to ashes. It pushes you to absorb and appreciate things even more. It is a microcosm of life and relationships.

BACK TO THE “REAL WORLD”

It would be amazing if the suspended reality within Burning Man existed outside of it. Unfortunately we all returned to a world full of deadlines, bills, pressures, bosses, politics, mistakes and regrets. But even though Burning Man was temporary you can live out the 10 Principles year round and make your life, and your circle of influence, just a little bit better.

Here’s a little secret I’ll share with you … My kids are NOT my top priority. In fact, they barely made my top three. Of course, I love my children, Colton (22) and Mercedes (17), very much. And it’s precisely because I love them so much that it was important to my wife and I to demonstrate a properly balanced life to them.

Modern Family Vacation

Colton arrived during our first year of marriage. So we didn’t have much time to do life together before we had an addition to our family. We loved our son Colton, and later our daughter Mercedes, more than life itself. But we made a decision early on to establish boundaries for our benefit and for theirs.

Our first priority is to ourselves. You’ll be a far better person, spouse and parent if you’re healthy spiritually, emotionally and physically. It’s vital that you set aside time each day to work on all three areas.

Our second priority is to each other. A weekly date night alone together, away from our kids and our friends, was very important. I guarantee it’s cheaper than a divorce. It can be challenging to find a dependable babysitter but it’s possible if you value your marriage. We missed a few date nights but only under extreme circumstances.

Our third priority is to our children. I’m confident they felt very loved, never lacked anything, enjoyed a lot of quality time from Melissa and I, experienced some fun family vacations and, in hindsight, appreciated the boundaries we set for them. They each played sports (just one at a time per child), joined clubs and had loads of friends over all of the time.

Our fourth priority is to our extended family. Fifth is our friends. Having great friends outside of marriage helps you to grow as a person and not suffocate your spouse through co-dependency. And somewhere lower down the list of priorities comes my career, hobbies, etc.

Of course, there has been periods when I didn’t have balance. I chased the myth that I was “sacrificing for my kids”. I worked crazy hours, travelled extensively and still went into debt so we could build a pool, buy a boat, and go on expensive vacations. Sure we had fun but most of the time I barely looked up from my computer or ever present mobile phone.

In the suburbs where I live the far more common problem is the kid-centric family. Each kid plays several sports, belongs to multiple clubs, has unlimited toys, and wears the latest fashion. Parents always want the best for the children but Generation X took it to a whole new level. Personal trainers, elite teams that travel nationwide, huge weekly allowances, new cars and more. I have no doubt kid-centric parents are well-intentioned but they often end up sacrificing their own health and relationships. It’s no surprise that the divorce rate skyrockets after the last child leaves the home because the parents never had a relationship apart from their kids.

What’s the order of your priorities?

In a 1994 interview Steve Jobs was reflecting on his legacy and he said “All the work that I have done in my life will be obsolete by the time I am 50.”

After watching that two minute clip it made me really consider my own contributions to the world. Am I making a positive impact? Am I leaving a legacy?

There are many people who have made a huge, lasting, imprint on the world through their profession. Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin, Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine, Mother Teresa, and on, and on. Even though Steve Jobs humbly reflects that his work will be obsolete, it changed the course of personal computing on a global scale, not once, but multiple times. He will be remembered fondly and Apple’s devices will be remembered in museums.

However, the vast majority of us will live in relative anonymity. So often, men in particular, define themselves based on their career. But our legacy will not come through our jobs. More likely it will be measured by how we lived our lives, how we treated our family, and how we treated others.

There’s an old saying that no one will have the phrase “I wish I spent more time at the office” on their gravestone. Well I also don’t want it to say that I was bitter, selfish, angry, or any of the other negative qualities that arise in me from time to time.

I’m working hard on leading a life that matters. One that matters not to me but to others. Hopefully that will be my legacy. What is yours?

Trey Ratcliff being awesome!

Trey Ratcliff being awesome!

I surveyed the home page of CNN today and every single story was negative. Death, destruction and despair. Even positive stories are spun the other way around. The stock market is hitting record highs but the headline states “Traders Have Gone Mad”. Samsung releases a cool new phone and the headline reads “Four Reasons Not to Buy the S4″.

Look, bad things happen. They happen everyday, to everyone. It happened to me recently. I hit a huge pothole. I’m sure you can relate. You’re cruising down the road, listening to your favorite song, windows are down, life is not just good… it’s GREAT. Then suddenly, without notice, BAM!! You hit this humongous hole in an otherwise smooth road. There was no time to slow down or take evasive action. The impact was so jarring you’re sure some damage has been done.

In this particular instance I wasn’t driving a car. What I hit was one of life’s potholes. The thing about life’s potholes is they are far more dangerous than the ones on the road because if you aren’t careful the pothole will turn into a sinkhole. But only if you let it.

As I assessed the damage in the weeks following the impact, I wanted to throw a “pity party” and everyone was invited. You know what they say… misery loves company. But I came to the obvious conclusion that I couldn’t change the past; however, I could change my outlook on the future. What I needed was a change in attitude. After all, life is too short to be negative.

When I considered my circumstances and everything life had to offer I could see that overall things were pretty good. In fact, they were #%@$#% awesome!

Here’s a few things that keep me going when I’d otherwise spend my day gazing at my navel.

I look for inspiration from others – I’m in awe of everyday people who do extraordinary things. Dick Hoyt’s son was born with cerebral palsy. Inspired by an article in 1977, Dick began running while pushing his son in his wheelchair. His son said “Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not handicapped.” As of November 2011, the Hoyts had competed in 1,069 endurance events, including 69 marathons and six Ironman triathlons. If Dick can push and carry his son though all of that then surely I can get my butt out of bed for a little exercise!

I turned off the news – I stopped watching or reading the news, especially political stories. This doesn’t mean I am ignorant of the issues or lack an opinion. I just don’t allow the endless cycle of negative rhetoric to get me down.

I stopped being a hater – Why must everything be a critique? It may be human nature to put others down to build ourselves up but that doesn’t mean I should act that way. I’ll publicly admit it… I like Nickleback! Their songs are catchy. I even like Carly Jepsen. I bet when no one is around that you’re singing along with Call Me Maybe.

I stopped taking myself so damn seriously – Benjamin Zander calls this “Rule Number 6″ in his book Art of Possibility. Why should I get angry if my flight is cancelled due to the weather? It’s not anyone’s fault. And why should I care if people think I’m acting like a fool. If I’m having fun, then so be it. That’s why I LOVE this picture of Trey doing some sort of “Salutation to the Sun” move while Tom takes his photo. He’s relaxed and having a blast. I believe maturity is over-rated.

I’ve tried to eliminate negative language - Instead of saying things like “I don’t like it when you ignore me”, I now try to say “I really like it when you go out of your way to acknowledge me”. This may just seem like a play on words to you but words matter. Especially the words you say to yourself. Try rewording your internal dialogue as well to focus on the positives.

I stopped waiting till I felt in the mood – If you wait till you feel like working out you may never go. If you wait till you feel loved to express love then you may be waiting a long time. You have to stop acting according to the way you feel and start acting how you would like to feel.

I stopped standing on the sidelines – I am naturally an introvert. I fear meeting new people and making myself know to others. I’m also afraid of heights and flying. I finally began to push myself past these barriers. Over the past year I’ve flown over 10,000 miles. I’ve even flown a small plane myself! I’ve also been to four different countries and met hundreds of amazing new people. As a result I now have some great new friends all over the world!

When I look at my life objectively, who am I to complain?

Everything is #%@$#% awesome!!

A Dream Come True

February 1, 2013 — 3 Comments

nz mapI believe I was in the 3rd grade but I don’t recall exactly. What I do remember was the homework assignment to write an essay on a foreign country. I was as excited as Ralphie in the Christmas story to get started. I lived in rural Oklahoma and the furthest I had ever travelled was Branson, Missouri.

Now this was back in the day before the Internet or Google maps so I consulted the globe we owned. (Do people still own globes?) I spun the globe around to find the location furthest from where I lived that also sounded exotic. I quickly settled on the remote island nation of New Zealand.

I knew nothing about New Zealand. I just thought it sounded intriguing. I consulted our Encyclopedia Britannica collection (my kids cannot grasp this archaic process) and read the few paragraphs the authors had allotted to New Zealand. There certainly wasn’t enough to write a report. So my parents helped me write a letter to the New Zealand tourism board requesting information. We mailed it the next day.

And I then I waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Just as I had given up hope they would reply a package arrived in my name. (Is there anything more exciting to a child than an unexpected packaged addressed to them?) Inside were tons of New Zealand travel brochures and photos. I pored over every word and image for weeks, dreaming about going there one day even though back then it seemed impossible to this country boy.

Well today that dream comes true. It seems fitting that on the one year anniversary of starting my new job as COO for Stuck in Customs that I would be getting on a plane bound for New Zealand. I’m blessed to be going over to help with a photography workshop and spend a few extra days to tour the country. The only bittersweet aspect is that my wife and kids were not able to make this trip. I’ll miss them greatly but I’m sure they will join me on future visits there.

Here’s an amazing time lapse video Trey Ratcliff put together during his first 30 days in New Zealand. (Best viewed full screen in HD with headphones!)