Max Brownstein of Mill Valley is filled with mixed emotions this week.
In his first semester studying environmental engineering at City College of New York, the 24-year-old Brownstein is pursuing a dream. But on the other hand, he's missing his annual camping trip with his dad, Robert, an event that is not your typical father-son bonding experience and one that has had a profound impact on his life.
Max's dad Robert, a 60-year old accountant, is headed this week to the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada for Burning Man, the massive annual gathering that concludes each year with a ritual burning of a giant wooden effigy. Brownstein has spent every first week of September at Burning Man since 1997.
"You go out there and you see spectacular things, art pieces that wouldn't fit in any art museum that are designed to be built for the week and burned at the end of the week," he said.
But Brownstein is no mere partygoer, combining the professional and the pleasurable, having served as Burning Man's accountant in a variety of capacities since 1997. And with the exception of Max's freshman year at Tam High, Brownstein has brought his son every year since 1998, when Max was 11.
"In taking me, he showed that he thought that I was able to see the world in all its beauty and strangeness without it being filtered unnecessarily by him, and that I could handle it," Max Brownstein said.
Burning Man's cardinal rule is participatory self-expression, and Robert and Max Brownstein take it seriously. In consecutive years, the duo walked around naked together, with Max sporting only a sign that read "Before," while his father's said "After."
"No other father and sons that I knew that would ever do that together, and that was really cool," Max Brownstein said. "It was clever, funny, and we were both really into it."
"We got a lot of laughs and people were scrambling to get their cameras when they saw us," Robert Brownstein said.
Some parents might find such a move shocking. But Robert Brownstein clearly marches to the beat of his own drum. With more than 25 years of accounting experience at powerhouse firms like Price Waterhouse Coopers and Grant Thornton, he boasts a wide range of clients throughout the Bay Area and abroad. He's a member of the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club of Mill Valley and Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. Between those affiliations and his deep connection to Burning Man, Brownstein walks among an array of disparate worlds.
"There's not a lot of overlap among them," he said, dryly.
Born in Philadelphia, Brownstein moved to the Bay Area in 1989, first to Sausalito, where he still keeps his office. He lived on a houseboat in Sausalito for a period and was introduced to Burning Man by neighbors in 1996. He wanted to go that year, but didn't want to abandon the little league's corn on the cob booth he manned at the Sausalito Art Festival.
In 1997, he connected with a theme camp that allowed people to escape the heat and play board games under a shade structure. The camp was part of the Blue Light District, Burning Man's first village that featured shared resources like a kitchen. That village also included many of the people that have been at the core of the Burning Man organization since it started in 1986. Brownstein's name was sent their way when they needed a tax planner, and he's been running their numbers ever since.
Long after the man burned down in Brownstein's first year in 1997, that community stayed together online, a precursor to the social networking bonanza of today. Other group camping trips followed, including an annual Thanksgiving jaunt to Death Valley, and Brownstein felt comfortable enough with the community he'd joined to bring Max the following year.
Burning Man regulars know that every year is different, but Brownstein said that first year with Max stands out. On the night the Man burned, Max and Robert got into the inner circle and stood very close to the Man. An unintended explosion occurred while the Man burned that year, sending a huge mushroom cloud into the sky.
"I looked over and Max was jumping up and down and yelling, 'Yeah!'" Brownstein said. "I was so happy to give him that experience."
The Brownsteins said that fire's dominant presence at the event – almost all art is created with the understanding that it will be burned by week's end – makes for a primitive experience that binds them.
"Aside from a love for fire, it has expanded his imagination and outlook on what's possible in life," Robert Brownstein said.
Max Brownstein took classes at College of Marin while enrolled at Tam High, and played John Walker Lindh in Tam High's 2003 production, "Patterns of Interference: The John Walker Lindh Project," and later worked in theatrical production in New York for six years.
The Brownstein family affair with Burning Man extends beyond Robert and Max. Brownstein's daughter Gina, a teacher, joined him one year as the one string attached to his assistance in her purchase of her first home. His ex-wife drove Max to Black Rock City another year and decided to stay the weekend.
"Everybody knew and loved my son and they were all excited about meeting Max's mom," Brownstein said.
As Burning Man's tax guy over the years, Brownstein has had a by-the-numbers view of the event's enormous growth, from 10,000 attendees in 1997 to more than 47,000 10 years later. He said Burning Man is as recession-proof as it gets.
"It's stayed pretty robust," he said. "In tough economic times, it's a good place to just relax, if you like harsh landscapes. It's one way to get away."
Max Brownstein will miss that getaway this week, but can't wait to join his dad again at Burning Man next year.
"It feels very strange," he said about not being there this week. "I always feel like I should be there. It's our father-son camping trip and I would like to keep it that way. But I'll be back for sure."