Author Archive

The power of storytelling in Myanmar

Friday, September 28th, 2007

Storytelling. That’s what SMITH is all about. So when I read this story from The Wall Street Journal, I knew I had to share it with my fellow SMITHs.

Citizen journalists in Myanmar are risking their own lives to give a play-by-play account of the deadly crackdown against thousands of peaceful protesters (including Buddhist monks) by transmitting messages via YouTube, text messages, blogs, or cell phone cameras, to news outlets around the world.

Another blog was updated at 3 p.m. Myanmar time yesterday with a few English lines: “Right now they’re using fire engines and hitting people and dragging them onto E2000 trucks and most of them are girls and people are shouting.” Below the post is a blurry photo of trucks with the caption, “This is how they come out and try to kill people.”

According the the article, the last time there was a protest of this scale, the world only heard about it from “diplomats and official media.” But this time around, in the information age, news is spreading fast. And despite concerns surrounding the validity of “Citizen Journalism,” it’s clear that in an environment where reporters have minimal or no access, it’s up to the people who are on the front lines, living it, to tell their story. What’s even more impressive, and speaks to their determination to have their voices heard, is the fact that it isn’t easy to do anything very technical (i.e. streaming video) in Myanmar: (more…)

Tough Jobs: A Labor Day Tribute

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

2869223_59dfc01c8f_m.jpgAh, it’s Labor Day weekend and you know what that means: three-day weekend and BBQ time! My, how times have changed since the holiday was first observed way back in 1882. The good ol’ days.

According the Department of Labor,

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

It’s also a yearly tribute to my grill. Kidding. Anyway, we at SMITH wanted to honor the working men and women with a mini-tribute. First, you should know that one of my favorite things to blog about are the many, many weird jobs people do (and get paid for, which is always sweet). See, like a lot of us, I am anti-cube. Those cold, nasty things make me cringe. Cubes are horribly cruel: you’re existing in a window-less confined space, and that fluorescent lighting that is designed to make you go blind. At least that’s my theory.

That being said, I decided to scour Flickr for as many odd, interesting, unique, and thankless jobs I could find so we at SMITH could say, thank you very much for a job well done.

Now chill out, enjoy your day off, pop open a beer, and light that grill! Ever had a weird job? Share it on our PopuLIST.

You can flip through the many different gigs out there on our Flickr set.

Burning Man: What’s your story?

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

“Dusty wide kaleidoscope, where’s my chapstick?”
—Jessica Bruder’s six-word memoir for the Burning Man festival.

SMITH’s Burning Man photo essay and interview with Burning Book author Jessica Bruder are up!

I have a confession: I had never heard of Burning Man the event until I read Burning Book. It seems like everyone else in my mini-world was more in the know than me; they were all shocked that I was so in the dark about the great glow that goes on each Labor Day weekend in the Nevada Desert.

My conversations with friends go like this:

ME: “Ever hear of this thing called Burning Man?”

EVERYONE ELSE: “Um, yeah… are you serious? You’ve never heard of Burning Man?”

Still, flipping through Burning Book—an awesome tribute to this yearly shindig—I have to say, I was really in awe of the whole thing, even if I couldn’t quite comprehend exactly what was going on. Fortunately, Jess was able give me this explanation of Burning Man, which I think sums it up well:

“Burning Man is a temporary desert city of 40,000 dusty and sleep-deprived people working doggedly to bring their most outlandish, unlikely, and inspired ideas to life in a tangible way.”

BurningBookcover.jpgWild stuff. Now it’s your turn. Got some drama in the desert to share? We want to hear it. Tell us your favorite Burning Man story in 100-1,000 words, and five burning storytellers will win a copy of Burning Book, a work of inspired art and dynamic storytelling.

The Story of Burning Man

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Go to the photos
Thomas K. PendergastJessica BruderJessica Bruder


Prologue: Tinder
The Man is a wooden monument to nothing specific, in the middle of nowhere. He’s a stick figure drawn huge, a splinter jutting out of the Nevada desert.

He looks like a man only in the way folded paper looks like an airplane—suggestive lines, not much definition. Still, you can’t mistake him. Anchored to a giant pedestal, he rises eighty feet from the ground. When the sun drops behind the Granite Range to the west, his spindly frame lights up with neon tubes. You can see him glow like a truck stop sign from more than a mile away.

For the past week a temporary city has been swelling around him, hoisted out of the dust and duct-taped together by nearly forty thousand pairs of hands. The city is roughly circular, with the man as its axle. Everything turns, grows, and changes around him.

Win this book!
Burning BookSend SMITH your Burning Man story in 100 to 1000 words. Five storytellers will win a copy of Jessica Bruder’s brilliant and beautiful Burning Book.

Then, on Saturday evening, it’s the Man who changes. His arms rise slowly from his sides like levers on a corkscrew. The gesture is triumphant, but it also means that he doesn’t have much time left. Thousands of temporary homes—tents, RVs, geodesic domes draped in parachute fabric—are emptying. From all directions, revelers converge on the Man.

They’re dressed like Egyptian gods and leather angels, sci-fi space jockeys and feral children. They come on stilts and bicycles, dangling from cranes and cherry pickers, riding on the decks of homemade pirate ships. Their faces are streaked with glitter and dirt.

“Burn it!”
“Burn him!

All week long, these audience members were the show. But tonight they’re all part of the same crowd, watching.

With a sudden crack, fireworks spit into the sky from the base of the Man and explode. There’s a second volley, and the Man catches fire. Flames climb his skeletal torso.

Then, all at once, the Man falls. He tips like a bottle, hitting the ground in a draft of sparks.

Starting tomorrow, the week’s spell will break. Pieces of the city will be packed away in crates, consumed by fire, or dragged out in trash bags. There will be an exhausted exodus, and then a bleary reunion with jobs and bills, the cling of responsibility, and strangers who don’t meet your eyes in the street. The evening news will come from another desert, where a war is happening.


BACK IN 1986, WHEN A FEW FRIENDS ROASTED A ROUGH-HEWN effigy on a San Francisco beach, they didn’t realize that they were founding a ritual. Their bonfire evolved from a small gathering into an annual party; gradually the event gathered steam, got a name, and exploded into the center of an enormous, celebratory metropolis. It spawned a scene so beguiling that people now travel from all over the world to take part in what has become America’s most fascinating festival.

Nowadays you can see the show from almost anywhere. Footage of the fire is transmitted to television sets across the country. There’s a free simulcast on the Internet.

You can also read the headlines. Dozens of them have distilled Burning Man since 1996, when Bruce Sterling’s big story made the cover of Wired magazine, crowning the festival “The New American Holiday.”

Since then, Burning Man has been called everything from “Woodstock at the Stake” to “The Neon Babylon,” “Pagan Sacrifice in the Nevada Desert,” “Operation Desert Swarm,” and “Bonfire of the Inanities.”

So why do the pilgrims, in growing numbers, still journey to that bleak desert? They go because the burning Man—a one-ton monument in flames—isn’t the whole of Burning Man.

They fill the desert with a staggering variety of art and amusements, gatherings and performances, and when the week is over, they scour the dust to make it all disappear. The festival runs on a simple credo: “no spectators.” To put it plainly, the city is the work of the people who live there. If everyone came to sit back and absorb the culture, there would be nothing for them to see.

For years observers have been identifying nebulous social forces to which Burning Man can be—must be!—a response: the rise of secular and corporate culture; the expansive connectivity (and later, the physical alienation) of the Internet; the hardening of America in an era of homeland security. These subtexts are interesting enough, but none of them quite scream, “Let’s go to the desert and make something!” They aren’t intimate enough to account for some subtler explosions: what actually happens in the desert when thousands of people embark on a collective experience.

That story is a journey: how they get there, what they do, and how they integrate a week’s worth of dust, ashes, and ideas into their lives after the last fire goes out. It’s about what they burn and, even more, about what they build.


© 2007 by Jessica Bruder. Published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

An interview with Jessica Bruder, author of Burning Book

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Go to the photos
Thomas K. PendergastJessica BruderJessica Bruder

“Maybe you’re walking around the festival and a gaggle of motorized cupcakes whizzes past, while a troupe of French maids is trying, ineffectually, to tidy up the desert with feather dusters, all in the shadow of a barn-sized rubber duck with a jazz club in its belly. Then things will probably get weirder.”

On the eve of her book tour, and just weeks before the 2007 Burning Man festival (this year’s theme: green), SMITH’s Kathy Ritchie talked to Jessica Bruder, a 29-year-old staff writer for The Oregonian and author of Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man.


SMITH: Tell us your favorite Burning Man story.
Jessica Bruder: The wildest Burning Man story is the event’s own history. Two guys torched a hastily assembled, eight-foot-tall wooden effigy on a San Francisco beach in 1986… and ka-boom! That impulsive gesture exploded into the center of an enormous celebratory metropolis built each summer by tens of thousands of people–more than 39,000 folks in 2006.

Win this book!
Burning BookSend SMITH your Burning Man story in 100 to 1000 words. Five storytellers will win a copy of Jessica Bruder’s brilliant and beautiful Burning Book.

But my favorite Burning Man story is a quieter one.

It began in 1998, when an Oregon fisherman showed up in the desert with 1,300 pounds of tuna loins. That was a bad year for fishermen in the Pacific Northwest; a global glut made tuna all but worthless. So 63-year-old “Cap’n” Jim Peterson from Coos Bay packed his entire catch in a U-Haul with ice and drove it out to Nevada. He figured he’d sell it to the revelers at Burning Man.

Jim had seen some pictures from the festival the year before. These were wild scenes, folks slathered from head to toe in mud, cavorting gleefully as if they’d never been in the middle of such a delightful mess. He figured all that running around must work up an appetite. Even mud-people have to eat. Maybe they would buy his tuna?

Jim drove 450 miles to Burning Man, only to learn that vending is against the rules there (and bad etiquette, too). So he started a marathon barbecue session. He served his tuna to everyone in sight. He ended up giving it all away.

Now, every year at Burning Man, Jim and his friends—nicknamed “The Tuna Guys”—bring hundreds of pounds of fish to cook and share with everyone. And it’s not easy for them; they’ve had their share of misadventures. Their rattletrap pickups and Volkswagens always seem to break down on the long drive to the festival. And the Nevada health department has hounded them so much, their camp has practically become a seafood speakeasy.

I love his story, because it offers insight about the kind of dedication and generosity the festival seems to bring out in some people. These days, the mere mention of Burning Man conjures up visions of tech-savvy hipsters baying at the moon and gyrating around the desert in hot pink fake-fur loincloths. That stuff bores me. And that’s why I love the Tuna Guys’ story—it’s less about the Burning Man stereotype, more about the potluck style of participation that makes the event so fascinating.

What can Burning Man newbies expect?
Jessica BruderExpect sensory bombardment. Just when you’ve decided the scene is strange—maybe you’re walking around the festival and a gaggle of motorized cupcakes whizzes past, while a troupe of French maids is trying, ineffectually, to tidy up the desert with feather dusters, all in the shadow of a barn-sized rubber duck with a jazz club in its belly. Then things will probably get weirder.

Remember and repeat: you can’t see everything at Burning Man. Finding a specific niche during the event is a great way to get your bearings. Black Rock City—the name of Burning Man’s temporary metropolis—can feel amorphous and alienating to first-timers. But if you’re hammering nails on an art installation, greeting people at the front gate, DJ’ing at a local low-wattage radio station, or lending your hands to any one of hundreds of projects, that’s a great way to feel like you’re a part of things and get oriented.

And don’t forget to drink water. Plenty of water.

Best way to attend Burning Man: Naked or clothed—and why?
In my personal opinion? Clothed. Particularly if you’re as pale as I am, which means the desert sun will leave you about as comfortable and attractive as a well-boiled lobster.

I don’t have a problem with most of the naked people at Burning Man. For some of them, I think going naked probably feels like wearing any other kind of costume (apart from the ventilation factor).

Only one kind of nudity makes my eyes bleed: men wearing T-shirts and no pants. Those guys look awful. They’re prime targets for one of my favorite Burning Man inventions: the pants cannon, which uses air pressure to sling slacks over great distances. I consider the pants cannon a public service.

How has the story of Burning Man changed from the first year you went to the last year?
For the better part of two decades, the festival’s survival from one year to the next was precarious. But in 2006, the federal Bureau of Land Management—essentially Burning Man’s landlord—granted the event a five-year permit to operate in the Black Rock Desert.

Now people are wondering just how far the game can go. They’re debating whether Burning Man should be a self-contained escape from routine, or if festival-goers share enough common desires and values to work together towards some kind of progress—social, political, environmental—during the rest of the year.

After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, a group of festival-goers (later named “Burners Without Borders”) went down to Mississippi to help clean up. They found some of their desert skills—building a base camp in a hostile environment, working with heavy machinery on colossal, daunting projects—came in handy as they rebuilt a devastated Buddhist monastery and demolished 60 ruined houses.

Now that Burning Man has proved it’s not a passing fancy, how does the whole thing evolve? That’s where the narrative tension is today. People weren’t thinking in quite those terms back in 2002, when I started attending the festival.

On top of that, the event keeps growing. In 2002, the population hit about 29,000 people; there were more than 39,000 people at Burning Man in 2006.

If the Burning Man festival itself had a six-word memoir, what might it be?
Dusty wide kaleidoscope, where’s my chapstick?

And your own personal six-word memoir?
Talk to me. Write it. Repeat.

Click on photos to enlarge; mouseover for previous and next.

Thomas K. Pendergast Tim Timmermans Tomas Loewy-Lansky Jessica Bruder Rick Egan Rick Egan Rick Egan Jessica Bruder Thomas K. Pendergast Jessica Bruder Michael Christian Fabian Mohr Caroline Miller Caroline Miller Stewart Harvey Stewart Harvey Stewart Harvey Stewart Harvey Stewart Harvey Stewart Harvey Stewart Harvey Rick Egan Jessica Bruder Dan Adams Rick Egan

One is the Loneliest Number

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

I love being alone. Actually, I love quiet more than anything else. And while it might sound surprising to some that in a city like New York, you can actually find both pretty easily—you just have to know where to look. See: Time Out New York’s latest issue, “Need To Be Alone?”

The same quiet and solitude can also be had at the “office.” It just depends on the kind of job you take. So, in addition to giving NYers the low down on where to go for that precious you-time, TONY spoke to four people who have pretty lonely gigs. But they like it like that. What I especially love about the Joes profiled is that they are all working outside the cube. And anyone who knows me knows that I am totally, 100% anti-cube.

A mortician, a window washer, an overnight doorman, and an overnight DJ spilled the beans about their work to TONY writer Kate Lowenstein. My personal faves are the window washer dude and the mortician—what wild jobs!

Here’s part of Duane—the mortician—Brown’s interview:

How long have you been working with the deceased?

Sixteen years.

What does working with a dead body consist of, exactly?

I clean and embalm it, and dress it for viewing. This includes removing all germs and putting the body in a state where it will be preserved through the time of the viewing. It can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two and a half hours, depending on the condition of the body and how the person died.

You can read the rest of his interview here.

And part of Tom—window washer dude—Bulawa’s interview:

Why do you choose to work alone?

It’s nice to be by yourself—that way you can concentrate on what you’re doing. You’re dealing with heights, and you don’t want to drop anything. You have to keep track of all your equipment. If a squeegee slips out of your hands at that height, you could injure someone pretty good.

Speaking of sights: Ever look into the window you’re cleaning and see anything…unusual?

Every once in a while you see something you don’t expect. I’ve seen people chasing each other through an apartment. Manhattan can be pretty strange.

Any nudity?

Only once in six years.

Wow, I’m kind of disappointed to hear that. Ever catch anyone in the act?

No, no—not yet.

And the rest of his interview here. You can read the entire piece aqui.

The To-Do List

Monday, August 6th, 2007

891824316_2184f2f1d1_m_1.jpgI was sitting at my desk contemplating my list of accomplishments for today—Gym. Check. Clean house. Check. Make five-to-seven layer dip. Check. Blog for SMITH. Check (after I hit Publish). Research upcoming SMITH project. Check. Google self. Check. Read gossip blogs. Check. Convince myself that I am not addicted to gossip blogs by reading The New York Times. Check—when I realized how much I need my to-do list in order to feel good about myself (and that I need to add more work-related stuff to my list, like “pitch story ideas” or “craft query”).

In fact, without my to-do list, I would seriously waste an entire day doing absolutely nothing, and then I would feel like a giant poop who is a total drain on society, friends, and family. So, of course, since “blog for SMITH” is always on my list, I thought it would be fun to search flickr for “To Do Lists.” Wow, what a productive day and it’s almost 5 p.m.!

It’s weirdly reassuring to know that pretty much everyone needs a list—even for some of the more mundane tasks in life (think “shower and shave”). I personally like the folks who have some fun with their to-do lists—number two on one list reads, “build fort.”

So what’s on your to do list today?





Play by the rules or rebel without a cause?

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

Well, your response to that could well determine if you use Facebook or MySpace. In the latest issue of Newsweek (with the cover, “Slaughter in the Jungle”), writer Steven Levy (The Technologist) talks about an apparent class war between the two social networking sites.

According to a controversial study done by Berkeley researcher Danah Boyd, “The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes and other ‘good’ kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college.” Weird. The jocks in my high school were all really bad boys. And not in that good-bad way—more in that, I’m-a-real-jerk kind of way.

Of course, since all the nice kids are using Facebook, the bad ones hang out in the back alley of the internet: MySpace. Cue dramatic music. Boyd says those kids are the ones “whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school.” Her research was based on “months of interviews, field observations, and profile analysis.” As for Facebook, one reason the site is may be so hip with the richies is because it started at Harvard and spread out “from the Ivies.”

Go figure.

Natch, MySpace founders Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe totally disagree with Boyd’s findings. “We have everyone from heavy-metal bands to mothers in Portland, OR,” says DeWolfe. “How are you going to put 70 million people in a box?” Snap. Oh, and another good point: many Facebook members are also MySpace users.

You know, should I ever give in and join one of those social networking sites, I’m gonna have to join MySpace—sounds like they’ll accept me and my state school degree with open arms.

Weird Job: Aerosol Artist

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

774690715_9bcdab9de1_m.jpgFunny thing about New York City. The only two boroughs that seem to get any attention are Manhattan and Brooklyn. Manhattan? Sure. Makes sense. Brooklyn? Hmmm. Worst of all, pubs like Time Out and New York seemed to give BK so much love both inside the book and on their covers that I decided NOT to renew my subscription to either mag. It was total overkill. Plus, there is life outside of Brooklyn. Sorry, dudes. I live in Queens—you know, one of the other boroughs that make up New York City.

Anyway, I was super psyched to read a story about a cool, must-check-out site in Queens/”veteran graffiti artist,” Jonathan Cohen in The Christian Science Monitor. Finally. Cohen plays “volunteer curator” for a section of Long Island City (Yup, in Queens), known as 5 Pointz, where graffiti artists or “aerosol artists”—evidentially, that’s the PC word—can legally show off their work on the walls of a 200,000-square-foot warehouse. Love it. An artist living outside the cube in Queens!

“These days, the thin-faced, hazel-eyed Cohen is always on call, which may explain why his five o’clock shadow is closer to 10 o’clock. When he’s not answering his cellphone or making sure the building isn’t tagged illegally, he gives tours to interested onlookers. And every Sunday afternoon he teaches aerosol art to a class of 10 kids—after they earn their keep with two hours of scraping walls, painting them, and picking up trash. (more…)


Friday, July 20th, 2007

71917774_64b31d1fbe_m.jpgThank God It’s Friday. Actually, in my case it doesn’t really matter that it’s Friday since I’m a struggling freelance writer—I never actually have to sit my butt down in the torture chamber, a.k.a the cube.

Still, I really dig Fridays because most everyone is in such a good mood—it’s all about the positive vibes, man. So, to get your Friday off on the right foot, if it’s not already, I decided to see how our pals at Flickr decided to honor the big day. Random thought: Did you know that the word “Friday” comes from the goddess of beauty? Like, that totally makes sense.

Check out this entry from Wikipedia:

The name Friday comes from the Old English frigedæg, meaning the day of Frige the Anglo-Saxon form of Frigg, the Germanic goddess of beauty. In most Germanic languages it is named after Freyja—such as Freitag in Modern German, vrijdag in Dutch, fredag in Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish—but Freyja and Frigg are frequently identified with each other. The word for Friday in most Romance languages is derived from the name of Venus such as vendredi in French, venerdì in Italian, viernes in Spanish, and vineri in Romanian. In Hindi, Friday is Shukravar, named for Shukra, the Sanskrit name of the planet Venus.

OK, back to my original point. Scroll down to see what Friday means to these random SMITHITES:




How do you honor Friday?

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