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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Oldest Man at Burning Man

Burning Man festival
Suenos Del Agave performers dance during the annual Burning Man festival on Aug. 29

Brad Horn / AP

I bet my cousin, Irving Kofsky, was the oldest man at Burning Man this year. But Andie Grace, a spokesperson for the festival who keeps track of such things at the annual, week-long circus in the Nevada desert, said there's no way to know. "Among the oldest participants I've ever had the pleasure to hang out with, one was actor Larry Hagman, who was born in September of '31," she said. "So your cousin has him beat." Easily. Irving was seven when J.R. Ewing was born.

"Do you think you're the oldest guy at Burning Man?" I ask him.

"Don't go there," he says sharply.

Irving, a physicist, is my hero. This is his second trip to Burning Man. His son, Lewis, who's made the trek from New York to the desert eight times, turned Irving on to the scene here and Irving liked what he saw. How could I resist tagging along, too, to gauge this pre-Depression Baby's reaction to one of the most unbridled examples of 21st century self expression and self indulgence? Techno-hippies, freaks, self-described "mutants," the pierced and the tattooed and the nude streamed past us on foot, on bicycles and in two-decker "art cars" festooned to look like pirate ships and space shuttles.

We were walking along the esplanade that rings the crunchy, white sand of the central playa, where 45,000 people materialize, suddenly, every August to construct huge metal sculptures, geodesic domes, mobile dragons that shoot real flames and other art installations that, well, wouldn't be possible anywhere else. Here in the Black Rock desert, a sandstorm caused a white out last Monday and again on Saturday, but on this day, it was clear and windless. Irving, bare-chested beneath a rainbow-colored vest, and a straw pith helmet festooned with a lei of red, purple, blue and yellow silk flowers, looked like he'd just arrived. Which, come to think of it, he had, after a two-day drive in a truck from his summer place in Montana.

We stop in front of a three-story statue composed entirely of bleached, animal bones. I am impressed, Not Irving. "What are we missing here?" he asks. "Art is supposed to inspire."

When I was a little boy, Irving was a man of mystery, like James Bond suavely passing through Miami International Airport. My grandmother and I greeted him as he came off a plane and we sat in a coffee shop, where he diagrammed an atom on a napkin and explained his job — nuclear physicist. Only years later did I learn that he was involved in Operation Dominic, as the U.S. detonated 105 nuclear explosions in the Pacific and he flew in an airplane trying to measure a bomb's electro-magnetic pulse. He hardly ever discussed it.

Could anything be more riveting than watching an atomic bomb explode? What could possibly trump seeing the sky, high above Johnston Island, turn into a man-made aurora borealis?

As usual, my cousin Irving swats aside my questions as if they were pesky mosquitoes. "It was disgusting," he says. "A terrible waste of time. We learned nothing."

Now, across the desert, a giant explosion of flame sends up a rubbery puff of soot-black smoke, and a diaphanous form slowly takes shape: A perfect smoke ring. Framed against the deep blue sky it hangs lazily above the playa — one of hundreds that an attendee known as "the smoke ring guy" will crank out this week. It's typical of the science-heavy art here: Burning Man is where the right brain meets the left brain, where technologists use science to create art.

Suddenly, Irving and I find ourselves surrounded. A mob of people dressed as bunnies — hundreds of them, maybe thousands, with bunny noses and bunny ears and buck, bunny teeth. They swarm the esplanade, carrying picket signs ("The only good human is at the end of a key chain.") The lead bunny is yelling through a megaphone, inciting the crowd, and we are engulfed in a bunny stampede, the annual Billion Bunny March.

We can't move and are frozen to the spot. One bunny pulls a wagon with a boom box that blares "Little Bunny Foo Foo," and a bunny brass band, with a tuba and trombone, marches by. I glance at my cousin and see the light sparkling from his eyes. "See?" says the oldest man at Burning Man. At last he'd found his inspiration. "This is the kind of thing you could never explain."