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Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Writer Goes to Burning Man


I first wrote this two years ago about being a writer in a performance and installation art space and each year since there has been a serendipitous opportunity provided by an angel of benevolence. This will be my 13th year on the playa.

I have a Burning Man story I was working on that got interrupted by The Contrarian and all the resulting chaos of his arrival. Perhaps this year I will get out there in the smell of dust, open up my book of notes and it'll all come flooding back. My hope is one year to post it and the following year to bring hard copies for those who want them as my gift.


This will be my eleventh year at Burning Man. 

Sex, drugs, rock and roll.

Oh and lots and lots (and lots) of dust.

Except for me, there isn't very much sex or drugs or rock and roll.

Whenever I get back from the playa, people try to find out about how many orgies I had, if I did all the drugs or just most of them, or how often I danced all night at a camp with a speaker the size of my house.

I always end up disappointing them a little when I let them know that I don't really go for those things.

Then there's usually a long pause and they say, "Well...why the hell DO you go?" (It's hard not to hear the implication of "Cause....you know....what else is there?" in the question.) Their faces screw up into little clusters of confusion wrinkles radiating outward from their crinkled eyes and mouths.

Still it's a fair question.  And I think "for the art" is worse cop out than saying you read Playboy for the articles. Even when it's accurate it's not like you can't get good articles (or really neat art installations) some place else. With everything that's a little iffy about BM's eclectic blend of whitewashed liberals and rabid libertarians, what's out there for me?


First, I think it's important to understand that why I go has changed over the years.

Anyone's relationship to an annual event is going to evolve in over a decade if for no other reason than they were a younger person all those years ago and they have evolved. My relationship to fast food, literature, memory foam, music, homeless people, and cheese has also evolved. My relationship to threesomes has grown no less fond, but has, however, become cynically realistic.

When I started going to the Black Rock Art Festival, I was in my twenties.  I was still married.  I hadn't started college yet.  I was still almost two years away from the fateful encounter with a trio of criticism torpedos that would make me look in the mirror and think really hard about how much I wanted to write and what I was willing to do for it.  I was not quite the same Chris I am today.  I even had crazy long hair and Tony Jaclyn golf clubs.

The event has changed.

Burning Man has changed over the years.  My first year, the tickets were about $150.  The population was still tens of thousands under capacity and everyone was shocked that they reached a population of 25,000. At that time, the event itself was not that far removed from its Ocean Beach roots. People were still impressed that the man was built on a solid structure instead of hay bales. The fireworks show that accompanied the burn was new (first or second year I think). The days of open firearms and "Drive By Shooting" camp where you sped past targets in your car, were recent memories and hadn't yet faded into something that sounds almost like an urban legend today.

There were more chill spaces and fewer sponsored camps. You heard about fewer ridiculous things found in porta potties and you might actually find someone else out there doing their two hours of clean up while you did yours. (These days about 55 of the 65K claim "I do it as I go!" even as they pass by a bit of toilet paper wafting along.) I would get invited into shade structures for cold water, ice cream, a few minutes off my feet, and even "gratitude massages" when I trekked out on Sundays with a bag to gather trash. These days most of the cars leaving don't even bother to slow down as they spray dust into my face.

The cops these days focus on busting people for drugs instead of helping people. It's not unheard of for sexual assault victims to have literally no recourse or resources out there; however, there are multiple, multi-person advanced sting operations to haul off anyone for dealing who might be too high to think not to share their party favors.

There was more fire-dancing and fewer fireworks. More drum circles and fewer drumming base lines on massive speakers. There were more flames and fewer slick LED displays. More nudists and fewer gawkers. More considered art and fewer pieces clearly meant to be enjoyed while rolling balls. More hippies and fewer techies. Sunset brought fire and flashlights and looked less like Disney After Dark. Every other person wasn't dressed to overload some roller's brain with flashy bling or fake fur coats. Giant behemoth art cars in the shape of dragons, submarines, full scale Spanish galleons crawled across the landscape spitting fire and music as impressive as the sound camps. You saw the occasional RV, but most people were still pitching tents. Theme camps with proprietary names hadn't gotten Cease and Desist orders yet for naming themselves after businesses, so the Jiffy Lube camp and the Costco Soulmate Trading Post were still going strong. And I hadn't completely given up on the chance of a blistering, if dusty, threesome.

I didn't even know what a sparkle pony was until my fourth or fifth year. Now they crawl across the landscape like a plague of cute, unprepared locusts.

She's even cooler in person.  Trust me.
This year tickets were $420. (ETA: This year they were as high as $650!) There is every expectation that the population will be near the cap of 60,900 (ETA: 65,000 and it sold out).  Last year the event sold out for the first time ever.

There are almost ten times as many law enforcement officers as the first year I was there. The regulations for cars and camps are much stricter. It's safer, but also more restricted.

They won't even let people have sex out in the open anymore--I mean what's up with THAT?

Beyond the changes you would expect for an event doubling in size and tripling in price, the timber has changed as well. Sure, some of it's me getting older and wanting whippersnappers to get off my lawn.  I just don't have an interest in the drug culture or in drinking like the teens and newly-twenties do. But it's more than that.

It's getting hard to get tickets and even harder to pay for them, and it's changed the feel from a massively inclusive event to a VIP room where only the economically advantaged can afford to play.

There are more tourists every year. (One entire camp consists of people who have paid nearly $10k for a "vacation package" to Burning Man that includes mega swanky RV's, all meals prepared for them, and even an "LSD night" as part of the package.)  They change the feel from participation to "here we are now; entertain us." BM has become less and less the strange blend of art and energy I first fell in love with, and more and more a super happening, exclusive and expensive week-long party–in which, for some reason, people are okay with corrosive dust that gets EVERYWHERE and no plumbing.

So why the hell do I still shlep out there?

One of the things I noticed over the decade is that, as the years went on, I felt like I left the playa with less and less infectious creative energy each year, but feeling more and more centered.  In a way, as a writer, the latter is even better. I don't feel like I've recharged my batteries so much as I feel like my rechargeable batteries (which have been getting less and less from a full charge) have been completely replaced.

Burning Man has become, for me, a period of intense mental and emotional isolation.  So much so that I have to get back in touch with myself and return to all the fountainheads of who I am and what is important to me.  It is so (for lack of a better word) "lonely" out there that I have no one to talk to but me.

If you've ever really talked to yourself–I mean really talked to yourself–you know that you slide through the chit-chat phase pretty quickly.

Obviously I'm never that far from humans. The deepest art safari is only about half a mile from the nearest throng of people, and we camp with wonderful folks who include me in everything they do. My isolation is spiritual and emotional and exists only in a weird metaphorical artsy bullshit kind of way, but I feel it profoundly as soon as I inhale the first lungful of dust.

Welcome home.  You are now alone.  Cope.


-No connection.  Yep, I'm one of them. I check my e-mail several times an hour.  I use Facebook to self-promote so it's pretty much always on. I may be an introvert, but I care intensely about the people in my life and what is going on in their world. When I'm at Burning Man that connection is gone. I think they have cell phone signal at center camp these days, but I don't have a smart phone, so it doesn't really matter. I wouldn't check it if I did. It's good to unplug for at least a few days and remind me that I am basically refreshing obsessively to see what our friends had for lunch and be reminded of everyone's politics.

-No modern conveniences. The closest thing to a McDonalds you're going to find is probably a bar giving away free shots. There is no running water. (Actually there's no water at all except what you bring.) There's no electricity except what is hooked up to generators or battery powered. I have to spend five minutes winding up my hand-crank flashlight to make a midnight bathroom run....to a porta potty (which are probably worth their own whole section). That sense that you can just go pick up anything you want or need fades very quickly out there.

-Life does not naturally exist on the playa.  There are some mountains on each side of the lake bed that have some high desert scrub, a few bugs, jack-rabbits who like to dive in front of cars with a cry of "tellmotherIloveher!", and probably the occasional push-up-crazed lizard, but the playa itself is alkali. Nothing grows in it. Nothing lives in it. It is harsh, unforgiving, barren, and beautiful only in a stark and dangerous way like an apex predator's teeth or talons. Humans, have no business being there, and they will be reminded of that continuously. Okay, technically there's a thirty minute period at dawn and dusk that are mildly pleasant, but mostly I can't possibly forget how far I am from where I physically belong.

-I'm at an unusual age for a burner.  Most people out there are considerably older or younger than me. You get huge chunks of over fifty and under thirty and I'm smack in the middle of those two demographics. Most people my age are punching out hellions or are taking them to see a giant mouse. When you find most of the conversations are about retirement vacations or "dude we were HELLA tripping last night! Oh Em Gee, I am sooooo drunk!" you tend to feel a little like your particular struggles with buying a house or trying to kick off a "real" career aren't the most relatable issues.

-I'm not the physical specimen that most people out there are. Most people at Burning Man are at the upper end of a bell curve of conventionally attractive. This isn't normally a thing I worry about in myself or others, but I feel so different out there that I begin to have a hard time not noticing.

All genders. It makes no difference. They all look like they stepped out of an advertisement for a gym membership. There is so much hawtness, you actually get desensitized to it.  ("Ho hum, garters and stockings. Oiled man-chest. Oh another group in nothing but nighties. ~yawn~ Oh cool a flaming octopus!") Most everyone willing to be (and let's be honest there's some accessibility issues going on there, so also ABLE to be) in the high desert during a week in August is already in pretty good shape, and probably 90% of the people out there have spectacular bodies with smoking muscle definition, and while conventional attractiveness bellwethers are usually a few different flavors of problematic, it makes me all too aware that I do not.

Depending on the groups I'm in, sometimes I can feel mildly in shape, and even appreciate the muscle definition in my upper body.  If I'm standing on a BART platform or walking down the street, I feel sort of average, if a little dumpy. When I walk around on a college campuses, I'm keenly aware that I'm considered overweight. When I'm at Burning Man, I it's palpable.

I think I might see an average body-type over there!
-I'm sober.  Once upon a time, Burning Man probably involved at least one interesting but legally questionable experience in the course of the week, but it hasn't in several years. I don't really drink, so I'm pretty much sober. (I don't eschew these experiences; I just don't spend effort pursuing them.) The fact that a lot of people ONLY experience periods of sobriety because they are aware that they need them to rejuvenate neurotransmitters for their next indulgence means that I am usually surrounded by people in various states of chemically induced goofballery.  That or really bad hangovers. I don't begrudge them their fun, but if you've ever been the designated driver or just been around drunk or high people when you are neither, it can feel a little lonely to not share their altered state of consciousness.

-I'm shy.  I'm always shy–even out in the real world. Painfully so. I burn with the conflict between wanting to talk to you and not wanting to disturb you, and secretly hope you will just say something and end my suffering. But at Burning Man a sizable majority of the people there aren't shy...not even a little, so by comparison I seem to be even shier.

There's a self-selection bias involved in the kinds of people who want to shlep out into some of the most inhospitable territory on Earth to have a 168 hour party. They are gregarious extroverts, most of them and they're feeding off each other's energy. While most of those 60,000 people are getting their social-fu on, I'm cursing the fact that I'm a social-fu white belt and the idea of saying hi makes me want to burst into shyflame. Every once in a while, I find someone who is overwhelmed by all the stimulation, extroverted enough to talk to even the wallflower, or genuinely curious about what I'm writing, and who is willing to have the kind of conversation I can really get into, and we usually have some kind of AMAZING discussion about art or politics or something.

....but that is a very rare event. And it happens less often than it used to.

-I don't look the part.  You think the one place on Earth people wouldn't judge you for how you look might be an event with thousands of people actively trying to subvert mainstream culture and its demand for conformity.

You'd be wrong.

There is a culture at Burning Man that is as prevalent as the culture back in the real world.  It's just different. It demands conformity to its unspoken rules just as much as our culture does--it just does so about different things. There are tribes that do not get along (industrial artists, "hardcore" campers, flower power hippies, ravers, and such) and if you don't fit easily into one of these categories, you can make people just a tiny bit uncomfortable. And the people there–as expansive and open-minded as they usually are–can be just as intolerant when it comes to the Burning Man cultural conventions.

I'm not talking about ignoring the precepts of the entire event. I'm talking about not looking and acting like everyone else.

Expressing yourself radically apparently applies to Utilikilts, lingerie, and public intoxication but not to Hawaiian shirts it would seem. At least a couple of times every year someone takes one look at me and assumes it's my frist year. They sometimes even get a little snarky about my dress, especially if they don't realize I'm wearing socks and shoes due largely to my outrageous dry skin issues and with absolutely no premeditation to offend their delicate sensibilities about not being barefoot and free. I don't bother pointing out the irony of being you-don't-fit-in judgmental at an event largely focused on non-conformity, but I do enjoy it when they discover I've been coming for two, three, four, even five times longer than they have. (ETA: Might hit six this year!) 

-I'm not the right kind of artist.  I feel deeply and have passion and all that shit, but I don't express it in the normal playa ways. I trundle around with my Moleskine journal and a mechanical pencil and spend almost the whole time I'm there taking notes or just writing. But Burning Man is a place of performance art and sculpture. It is a place for fire dancers and people with flamethrowers attached to their cars. For the gregarious folks with wild costumes and LED wire who feed off each other's exuding energy. It's not a place for mousy little writers, quietly scribbling away.

In its own words even it fosters "spontaneous acts of artistry" (which 90% of the time bear a striking resemblance to "drunk people being goofy in packs."). There are a thousand things at any given moment competing for your attention (including people trying to hook up that have so much fucking game they could be sold on Steam for $59.99). The quiet guy writing in the corner is, if anything, even more inconspicuous than in the real world seeing as how much other stimulation is readily available and how many people are turned up to 11 in body and spirt out there.

I'm just not the right kind of artist.

Last year I saw a guy painting with acrylics at the temple, and we spent perhaps an hour talking about what it was like to have art styles that were atypical to the playa. His experiences were largely similar. He loved the creative energy, but had a distinct awareness that he was not the right "type" of artist for the Burning Man culture.

No one goes "WOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAHH! That is so TIGHT!" about a short story draft I'm working on.

On the best of days in the real world, I feel alone in a crowd.  I love people and I love all their quirky little foibles, but I always sort of feel like I'm on the outside looking in. ("I love you all, but I do not belong with any of you for long.") Out there everything is magnified. I feel as if I have been plucked completely out of the world, or at best that I am moving through it like a shade. Everything in that environment seems to serve to sequester me on every meaningful level from those standing right in front of me.

I am cloistered within the crowd.

I guess tonight the lone wolf hunts alone.
This might sound awful, and it can be. (Or it might just sound pretentious and it definitely is.) But it is also wonderful. It's like the pain that lances an abscess or the agonizing explosion of a shoulder's rotator ball popping back into its socket. Like everything else out there, the extremeness of the duality brings both into relief. Just as my soul is feasting as my physical body is having the worst time of its life, so too does the isolation serve my spirit.

Which is not as corny and artsy-fartsy as it sounds. At least not when you're standing in the middle of it and experiencing it.

All these things are why it becomes such a period of rejuvenation for me.  There is so much stimulation going on all the time with lights and music and energy, but in a way, I'm in a kind of sensory deprivation tank. Out in the middle of nowhere with flat, cracked land stretching out for what feels like forever, all but invisible to everyone else, and looking at some strange piece of art is where the distractions fade away, and the mindless chatter of online debates and "have you checked your e-mail" and banal conversations and politics and religion and that hum of sexism and racism and it all fades into a distant thump like bass on an art car a mile off, and I discover there's nothing I can distract myself with except those fundamental questions we all usually try our hardest never to have to answer.  "Who are you?" I ask me. "What do you want?" "Why are you here?  What do you actually care about?"

"Why do you create?"

I don't walk away from the playa with "ideas" anymore--not really. I used to bubble over with plans for next year, story ideas, and plans to dress up like a fairy and deliver one-ply to the needy porta-potties (or something), but not so much anymore. Now when I walk away from the playa, I have something different. I have a renewed sense of identity and purpose. Like somewhere between the unforgiving environment and the austere loneliness I have shed my skin like a snake and my soul has emerged looking vibrant an new. I slough off the bullshit and I return to the real world more me than I was when I left.

Not that I would MIND a threesome, you understand...

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8 comments:

  1. I feel like I've found my writerly soul mate. Much love and hugs and I hope we can shyly run into each other on the playa some day.

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    1. I'll be the dumpy looking guy with the shoes and the leather bound book. :)

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  2. Nicely chronicled, fellow scribe.

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  3. Will you be at burning man this year? I'd love to meet you and listen to your short stories. :)

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  4. Will you be at burning man this year? I'd love to meet you and listen to your short stories. :)

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  5. Interesting. Burning Man has been a goal for a number of years but I have always held back, knowing that I am not THAT kind of artist. I did not travel to San Francisco for the Haight experience either. I don't FEEL like a burner. I didn't FEEL like a hippie. It would be false of me to strip down to nothing and flash my perfect body like a lamp of some sort. It would have been false of me to wear thrift shop clothing and sing to the stars. I, too am this dumpy guy who writes and sings and plays guitar but never in THAT way. Nice to see that I am not alone, even if I feel alone. Ha. (type type type type type)

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  6. was lovely reading this! I even forgot what I was reading, forgot it was an article about why you go to Burning Man and was just there, with you, alone and with others.

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