Three friends, the Temple, and the heart of BRC

Ziffy in the Center Cafe
Ziffy in the Center Cafe

Michael Ziff and Craig Mullin have been coming to Burning Man since 1999, which, because it was in the ‘90s, should and does garner mad respect. We think the dividing line for old school is the year 2000; if you attended before then, you’re old school; if you started coming after, well, we’re happy to have you …

Ziffy and Corky therefore qualify as old school,  and on Friday, just a couple of days before the event starts, they had one of those fundamental kinds of Burning Man experiences that you can’t make up, ones that seem to happen with an almost unsettling regularity, and which restore your faith that you’ve made the right decision to attend again.

Because honestly, it’s not easy to come here.

It’s not easy to step away from the life you know and the people you love and maybe the job you have, to put it all in a state of suspended animation, not for a vacation, but for immersion and energy and maybe even renewal and rebirth. Yes, yes, Burning Man is a dirt rave and a hippy party and a corral for sparkle ponies, we get all that.

But it is also the opportunity to burn things away, both literally and figuratively. It is looking again at the life you are living, looking at it through a different lens, and judging it by different standards. It’s hard not to do that here, because in spite of the recent (and not really new) stories about how Burning Man has become a playground for the tech elite, for most people, the experience is anything but a contest in opulence.

Layna Joy said it pretty well out at the Man Base the other day. She said, “People are the currency here, and I’m rich. Money means nothing.” The strength and freshness of your personality and the authenticity of your life is what counts here.

Ziffy and Corky first came to Burning Man in 1999, and they went to the first Temple ever specifically built for Burning Man in 2000. That was David Best’s first year, and it was the first year there was an identifiable place for solemnity and reverence and memorial and yes, sadness, at Burning Man.

And Ziffy and Corky were out at the Temple again yesterday, too, even as workers were installing decorative panels in the still-under-construction dome. They wanted to be in the Temple at the exact moment, 11:11 a.m., that their friend Daniel, back in Vancouver,  would have himself removed from life support and thus end his long battle against terminal cancer.

The Temple under construction
The Temple under construction

Ziffy began to play a role in the building of Black Rock City when he took responsibility for setting up the bike racks that ring the Center Café. He founded the bike rack crew, the people who haul the dirty, dusty, janky stands out of storage and set them up all around the Center Café, so that when you can come in to have your coffee, you’ll have a place to leave your bike.

But Daniel couldn’t make it this year because of the cancer. And in recent days, Daniel decided that the time was right for him to give in to the disease. Ziffy got a call from his wife, who told him that Daniel had asked that anyone who was on the playa to go to the Temple for his passing. Ziffy’s wife said she didn’t care how busy he was, he had to be in the Temple at the moment Daniel died.

And so Ziffy and Corky rode their bikes out to the Temple. It just so happened that David Best was there, and in fact he was with Larry Harvey his own self, who was making his first visit to see how things were coming along.

Ziffy said, “I’m not really one to approach people, but I thought I’d just go up to him and explain what was going on.”

Best went into action. He brought them over to the tool shed so that they could get hard hats. Then he led them back to the dome and let them sit in the dust inside, even as workers continued to hammer and pound around them. And then he left them so they could have their time.

Ziffy and Corky sat and talked and smoked cigarettes, and they wrote Daniel’s name on a piece of wood, and then they put their cigarettes out on the wood, so that it became stained with ash. They wrote Daniel’s name on it, and his wife’s name, and his dog’s name on the wood.

When they were finished saying goodbye to their friend, they went back to the toolshed to hand their hard hats back in to Brad. They also had a request: Could they leave the piece of wood with him, so that it could be burned with the other mementos and remembrances and pictures that people leave at the Temple? Ziffy can’t stay for the whole week this year, so this was the only way he could leave something at the Temple that would mark Daniel’s memory.

They got an answer that both surprised and thrilled them. “Oh, we’ve got a place for that,” Brad said. And Brad took the wood and he brought it the spire that was placed on top of the Temple today. So Daniel’s stand-in ashes will burn with the Temple this year.

We had wandered out to the Temple earlier, because we had a question for David Best. We didn’t get to ask him, so we thought we’d ask Ziffy and Corky what they thought: How does Best continue to do this? How does he continue to take the weight of so many people’s sadness on his shoulders?

And Ziffy said, as they were sitting out there in the Temple, Best came back out and asked them if the moment had passed. And when they said it had, Best didn’t say anything, but he lifted his arms above his head and shook them, as if he were letting go of the spirit that had been there before, letting it fly skyward.

“I think (Best) is a conduit,” Ziffy said.  “I don’t think he carries it. … When you are truly at peace, it just moves through you.”

Corky and Ziffy imitate the motions David Best made when he heard the moment had passed
Corky and Ziffy imitate the motions David Best made when he heard the moment had passed










About the author: John Curley

John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients, and I'm especially fond of shooting weddings. I'm also the editor at large of the Tasting Panel magazine, which is devoted to the beverage industry. I've also taught a bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on a (house)boat in Alameda, California.

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