The playa was so hot this year, everyone of every gender was manspreading.
All week long, the highest I got was from the heat. The worst hangover I had was from the heat.
Thermometer watching was a thing this year. One afternoon, I had a reading of 119°F in the shade. I swore my thermometer was broken; it only goes to 120°. This was the same thermometer that read 35°F on Tuesday morning after Exodus last year.
The Black Rock Desert will test your physical limits. Sometimes it’s an endurance test, pushing your boundaries. I know I hit the wall more than once this year. But the turmoils we endure — whether it’s being stuck in traffic, having your gear break or get lost or stolen, suffering in the face of weather conditions or sleep deprivation — all of this hardship makes the brilliant moments even more beautiful when we finally make it there.
And hey, we do our best to make ourselves comfortable. The amount of food and drink gifted on the playa hits new heights each year. If you have the nose for it, there are foodie excursions all around. By midweek, I had dined on salmon three meals in a row at three different camps. I ate food from a Beverly Hills caterer and a top-ranked Manhattan restaurateur. I had Indian food, cucumber sandwiches, ceviche. And bacon. Lots of bacon. And grilled cheese. Burners do it right. Bloody marys and mimosas were commonplace. I had an amazing piña colada. I couldn’t help thinking, what if you spent all year planning Piña Colada Camp, and then it’s one of those years where we’re all bundled up in faux fur and it’s 37 degrees Fahrenheit outside before calculating the wind chill factor?
This wasn’t one of those years, though.
By this point in Burning Man history, one can’t help but notice how much money people are willing to throw at being comfortable on playa. However you want to classify this growing melange of plug-and-play, turnkey or fashion model camps — whatever you want to call them — I’m enjoying it. It’s easy to make friends with these folks, especially if you know how to interact with the various staff. There’s a careful balance some of these groups are missing however. If you’re serious about flying scores of people to the Black Rock Desert who don’t know how to install a zip tie and think a Phillips screwdriver is the name of a cocktail — people whose only contribution is buying custom bedazzled aviator goggles in SoHo — you’re going to need a lot of support staff. There seems to be a happy balance in the best of these large, unlimited budget camps when there’s one staffer per four guests. (Crazy to imagine, isn’t it?)
All week long in this one camp, it was easy to gauge the strain, seeing the workers coping with water leaks from their shower trailer where an endless parade of sparkleponies were taking three showers each per day. At least these workers were all getting paid. I hope.
In one of these huge, new-ish big-budget camps, I met one of the organizers, and we had a nice chat. When they realized I had a quarter century of history attending the event, they got apologetic about their excesses, and I immediately corrected them. From as far back as I can remember, Burning Man has been proudly populated by people who would wear a tuxedo in the desert to drink out of martini glasses. The more extravagantly absurd and impossible the better. Carry on.
One side effect of this lifestyle is clearly horrible, though, which is the situation with bicycles left on the playa. At these big camps full of jetsetters — many of whom are provided bikes to which they have no particular attachment — I suspect few people lock their bikes, and when one of those camp guests’ first bike is stolen, all bets are off, and there’s this cascade of random bikes being stolen and later dropped on playa. The abandoned bikes left behind are getting worse and worse; a few days after exodus the playa is a macabre bicycle graveyard.
But the Burning Man community is great at solving horrible problems. There’s got to be some way that these big turnkey camps can start off with clearly labeled, recycled green Community Bikes that boldly say “free to ride” on them or something, so it’s clear which ones are okay to hop on without warning. Maybe they have a yellow and green light or something, a clear identifier that this specific bike is not loved and cared for by anyone in particular.
And everyone else, if you don’t want to lose your bike to the harsh reality of the gift economy, remember to lock it up at all times. It can be a really long walk back to camp.
We’ll get this one figured out. Burning Man is at its best when it conjures creativity, inspiration, ingenuity and problem solving. No matter how many times you’ve been there — or if it’s your first time — this is going to be forced on you with unexpectedly great results.
Top photo by John Curley
I loved the theme from the start. It turned up the volume on all that is deep and sacred about Burning Man.
It took me years before I had the courage to say that Burning Man was my “Religion.”
But this is it. I’ve followed it’s traditions. I’ve created my own.
I’ve found a calling and a congregation. And a temple.
This video is about my experience with the Temple this year.
I am so grateful to everyone who designed, built, protected, & contributed to that magical space. Thank God it exists. Well, *did* exist. Does exist.
Everyone’s Temple experience is unique. I know your’s was perfect, too.
It’s time to admit the truth: I suck at Radical Self-Reliance. It’s really bad.
I went to my first Regional in 2003. I first went to Black Rock City in 2006. I have had all the time, support, training, and encouragement any person could reasonably need to get this right. But despite all this support, and so much other success – it’s finally time to call it. I fail self-reliance 101.
You want to know how bad it is?
- Except for the year when I shared an RV, I’ve needed someone to help me put up my tent. Every time. And not “got a helping hand,” I mean needed.
- At about 25% of my Burns I have shown up at BMIR and crashed on their couch from heat exhaustion or lack of sleep and had to have friends nurse me through it. (This year, on Sunday, a Burning Man staffer was so concerned at how out-of-it I looked on a BMIR couch that he later took me aside to ask: “you’ve got a place to stay, right? Someplace to sleep?”)
- A friend and co-volunteer was so concerned that I wouldn’t get this tent thing right that he actually brought a tent for me for three years. A really good one. Which I accidentally destroyed while trying to break it down in the night.
- After all this time, I still get lost trying to leave Black Rock City. Where is the damn exit again?
- Not to keep emphasizing the tent thing, but I think it makes the point pretty well that I finally got one of those expensive “put your tent up in 2 minutes” idiot proof kind of things, and I still need other people to come in and help me zip up the floor.
- I have forgotten to bring a flashlight.
It’s not nearly this bad with the other principles. In fact, I’m pretty good at some of them. My ability to form and work within communities has gotten leaps and bounds better through my years of involvement with Burning Man, as has my capacity to give meaningful gifts to others.
But from a Burning Man standpoint, I am not a self-reliant person. At all. Despite 10 years of practice, I still fail at basic tasks of survival and self-care. I rely on others in a way that is completely out of step with a vital principle. And despite continuing to try (“I’ll buy a simpler tent! I’ll stop fooling around with a propane stove and just eat canned food!”) it’s not getting better.
My very accommodating friends try to fudge the issue. “You contribute!” they say. “People like having you around!” Which is great – very flattering – but come on, that’s pretty obviously not the same thing. There’s nothing wrong with being liked and making a contribution – making a contribution is, in fact, something covered in various ways by other principles. But honestly now, we’re talking about Radical Self-Reliance here, and while it can be interpreted in various ways, it can’t be stretched quite that far.
By the same token, we don’t need to be fanatical about this: on a practical level, there are a whole lot of people who can’t be self-reliant in a literal sense out in a harsh environment. This shit gets harder as you get older; this shit can be extremely difficult for the disabled. Some of them still manage to pull it off, because they’re awesome while I’m just incompetent, but nobody’s going to propose a litmus test about how much gear you can load or what kind of tent you can set up.
But the fact that other people have this issue to varying degrees only makes it more worth asking: what does it mean if somebody just can’t manage a principle? Not just “at this moment” but “consistently over time?”
One thing we can do is to expand the context of the principle, which is kind of what my friends were trying to do when they said “you’re okay, you make a contribution.” What they are emphasizing at that point is not Radical Self-Reliance of the individual, but of the group: not “I” can be self-reliant, but “we” can be self-reliant, and just because you have the camping skills of a one-handed toddler with poor depth perception and a chronic cough, doesn’t mean that you’re not contributing to our ability to take agency and be autonomous together.
There’s something to this. Actually there’s a lot to this: As Burning Man has gone from being a frontier to a culture, and now a high culture, its communities have grown both larger and more complex, able to take on bigger tasks and allow for members to develop specializations in order to better support the whole.
This is happening at every level, and well it should: people learning how to band together for big and ambitious projects without losing their souls or surrendering all their autonomy is one of the fundamental challenges of our time. If we truly want to be relevant to the world and our lives in it, we have to learn how to do that.
So there is a degree to which this expanded view of Radical Self-Reliance, from the individual to the community, makes sense and is legitimate. Worthy of further consideration and exploration.
But … but … even so … that doesn’t let me off the hook. Because even if we accept the legitimacy of self-reliance as a community process, there is still tremendous value to individuals learning to do things for themselves. Not because it’s better for the community – it may very well not be if we’re talking about a complex organization – but because the more we develop the capacity to fend for ourselves the more we practice our capacity to be better than we were before. Someone who learns to weld may never become a professional welder, but they can use that skill – and that experience learning to do something that they couldn’t before – to become more confident in their capacity to solve problems, rather than waiting for somebody else to fix things for them. Radical Self-Reliance is ultimately not about who pitches the damn tent, but who has discovered their capacity to tap into their own capacities to problem solve instead of needing somebody else to do things for them.
As the text of Radical Self-Reliance specifies: “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” Self-Reliance is about being able to fend for yourself, as an individual or as a community, but it’s also about pushing yourself to discover what you are capable of, rather than assuming an attitude of dependency.
All of which suggests, to me, that I haven’t really failed at Radical Self-Reliance so long as I am continuing – with no bullshit – to try. That the continued effort means as much as the successful doing (or at least close enough, more often than not). So long as I’m not treating my community like a plug-n-play camp – so long as I don’t assume that my “contributions” (whatever they are) have earned me the right not to try – then I haven’t yet failed in the big picture however much I might fail in this particular moment.
And it does seem to me that in my continued bumbling, Three Stooges, effort to do better next year (I like to think I’m Moe, but deep down it’s pretty obvious I’m Curley), that good things have emerged. I have, if nothing else, become better at admitting I need help and asking for it. Which sometimes is a small thing, and sometimes is an absolutely crucial skill.
And I realized, this year, as I was lending an ear to a virgin Burner with anxiety issues tell me about his struggle to cope with extreme heat and dust storms and both a sense of loneliness and a fear of meeting people, that my own utter inadequacies have better prepared me to say, in a way that is both sincere and believable to someone struggling to get through all this, that it will be okay. That we look out for each other, and that however daunting the struggle seems at this moment, we really can bumble through it, maybe looking stupid but far happier for the trying. And you too will be able to contribute.
I don’t think I could have done that, at least not in a helpful way, if I hadn’t been struggling myself for these 10 years. It’s not the same thing as Radical Self-Reliance, but it’s still a good thing to be able to do, and it developed not because I was succeeding at anything but because I was trying.
Cover Photo by Mark Mennie
This is the second in Caveat’s series of reflections on 10 years of this Burning Man shit. Read the whole series here.
This ferocious, brutal, impossible year was my 10th trip to Black Rock City. I believe 10 is the “heat stroke” anniversary.
Now, 10 years isn’t a long time around these parts … I still get picked on by people who were here during the 90s (especially Stuart) … but it’s a nice, arbitrary, point at which to try and reflect on the things one’s learned.
This will be the first in a series of posts looking at the things I’ve learned about and through Burning Man over time, rather than in any given moment. If I were doing this right I’d have 10 posts – one for every year and for every principle – but (a) I’m not actually sure I’ve learned 10 things; and (b) that would inevitably turn into a goddamn listicle, because focusing on a gimmick like that would sand off all the rough edges, and the rough edges are where all the interesting thoughts are. Which is a fact that Burning Man epitomizes, but that I didn’t actually need Burning Man to teach me.
It Has a Boundary Problem
Burning Man has an incredible capacity to take over your life, which I saw at the very beginning of my association with it – and so for years I created personal barriers to limit the degree of access it had to me. The most infamous was my “do I need to show up for this meeting” test, which I instituted after I became the Volunteer Coordinator of the media team, and started getting invited to attend all kinds of meetings and consider new and exiting roles.
The rule stated that I would only show up for something, whatever it was, if one of three conditions was met:
- The meeting was so key to the role I had actually volunteered for that I could reasonably be accused of misconduct if I didn’t show up.
- There was an open bar.
- Fish tacos were served.
If one of these things was true, I’d be there. Otherwise, sorry art projects, sorry volunteer opportunities, sorry social gatherings … go ahead without me, I’ve got a life over here.
It worked well for about four years. Then, for better and for worse, those barriers went all to hell. It’s no surprise that after 10 years Burning Man has become a major influence on my life, but the degree to which it has become a dominant force impacting everything from how I think about the world to who my friends are is unprecedented for me. This is expressly what I did not want to happen, and yet here we are. Do I regret it? Well … no … but I still have the same reservations that led me to put up roadblocks in the first place. Balance is healthy.
To be in at all is an invitation to do more, and I at least could not resist.
It’s a no-brainer to say that the longer you stick around something, the more opportunities it has to become important to you. But Burning Man is unusually potent this way: a radically inclusive culture is always going to have entry points that you don’t see coming; a do-ocracy is always going to have ways that you can help, and contribute, and be relevant.
Aristotle defined happiness as working at your full capacities, in accordance with your values, towards a meaningful goal. Burning Man offers that, along with a community of people to witness and help and play. In hindsight, of course I got pulled in. I’m not saying this has to happen to you: people leave all the time, people decide this isn’t for them all the time. But I am saying that the binary of “in” or “out” is easy with Burning Man in a way that splitting your time and setting boundaries isn’t. There is a degree to which “mission creep” is inseparable from Burning Man culture. To be in at all is an invitation to do more, and I at least could not resist.
It Doesn’t Get Better – But You Do
It’s not just that to be active at any degree in Burning Man culture is to constantly be approached by ever more amazingly fun and interesting things that seem worth doing for their own sake and could use a hand if you have any free time. It’s also that – over time – you get better and better at doing the things that once seemed miraculous and amazing.
In a way that I’m still struggling to articulate, the 10 Principles aren’t just aspirations to follow, they are skills that can be learned and improved.
This isn’t an abstract formulation: this is one of the most concrete realities of my time in Burning Man. This is something that changes my day-to-day life for the better.
No one ever taught a class or gave me instructions, but 10 years in I am capable of giving gifts at a level I did not even imagine possible before. From the very idea of what a “gift” is and how and when to offer it, to the inspiration of conceptualizing gifts, to the process of creating them, to the act of actually giving something away – this is a skill set I never knew existed but has now fundamentally changed my life.
The 10 Principles aren’t just aspirations to follow, they are skills that can be learned and improved.
I was always self-expressive – I never thought I needed help with that one – but attempts to solve site-specific Burning Man problems have in fact hyper-charged my art, leading to some of the work I’m most proud of, and that is arguably the most impactful.
My ability to participate in and engage in communities has likewise advanced in ways I never thought possible. It’s still something I struggle with, but I am a better community member – and more able to be in communities at all – as a direct result of my time in Burning Man. Obviously this, too, has changed my life in significant ways.
I have a far better grasp of inclusion – of what it means, of how to do it, of the problems that will come up, of how to handle the discomfort that comes with doing it right …
And so on, (mostly) down the line. (I’ll deal with the exceptions in another post). It had never occurred to me going in that whatever else it might be, “Burning Man” is also a skill set that you can practice, and get your 10,000 hours in, and that you will actually spend most of your time using off-playa, in your day-to-day life. But it is, and I’m now living it.
To spend time doing Burning Man is to expand your skills in the 10 Principles. I think that’s also one of the reasons Burning Man creeps into your life the way it does: the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the better you get at it, the more you want to explore and use these new talents and capacities – and even if you’re going to mostly end up using them in your day-to-day life, what better place to experiment and discover what you’re now capable of than Burning Man? That’s a virtuous, and very time consuming, cycle.
It Gets Harder
I don’t just mean this year, although God yes. I mean that the virtuous cycle – the more you do Burning Man the better you get at it, the more you want to test those skills, so the more you do Burning Man – means that the difficulty level of Burning Man is always going up. Instead of resting on your laurels and doing what you know, you keep trying to do that much more. It just gets harder.
How could it be otherwise? The whole Burning Man ethos is about plunging into new opportunities for self-expression, community, inclusion … when we say they are “radical,” we mean that these are things that you throw yourself into, or you’re not really doing at all.
So of course it’s going to get harder.
Burning Man is a proving ground for who we are becoming, and we like who we are becoming.
I think this is also happening at a cultural level: that “Burning Man” as a populace, as a culture, has been getting better and better at doing what we do, and so has kept throwing itself in to trying to do it on a grander and more potent scale. Not just bigger art and bigger events, but more complicated, more intricate, more engaging, more intimate. Often we fail – but even when we fail, we learn and we keep coming back. Forget 10,000 hours: collectively, we’re well past a billion. And it shows. Every year, we’re setting new standards of the impossible to achieve.
Ten years ago, I did not understand that Burning Man is a moving target because it changes us. We grow, and so we change it, and as long as we stay involved we are going to make it harder on ourselves, not out of masochism (although sure) but because Burning Man is a proving ground for who we are becoming, and we like who we are becoming.
We leave, I suppose, when that’s no longer true. Or when it is even more true of something else we have found in our lives … which is surely the best case scenario. Until then, our boundaries will be pushed and we will discover new capacities we never knew we had, and they will make our lives so much better and so, so, much more difficult.
Maybe that changes after 15 years, or 20. But I doubt it.
Cover photo by Bowen Johnson
I have just begun my process of re-integrating this POTENT year. But I wanted to share a few tips that help with the decompression process.
Remember, the packing, the entry, the exodus…this is all part of it.
(p.s. Remember to pour vinegar in each washing machine load.)
Someone ran into the fire at this year’s Burn. That affects everything…and nothing. As soon as I got off Playa people began messaging me with, “I heard someone died!” In this video I try to explain my feelings and reactions.
*I am not an official representative of Burning Man. Just a 20 year Participant who believes in this community with all his heart. You can see lots more of my thoughts about Burning Man in this Journal or YouTube.