Category Archives: Caveat Magister

Does Your Gift Make The Playa Less Lonely?

IBurning Man giant headst’s nice that we all appreciate each other, I suppose, but I think many of us are a little too easy on ourselves.

The notion that everybody’s contribution counts, that it doesn’t matter what you can do so long as you share your gifts, is a good one when it encourages people to step up to the plate and discover a capacity to give that they didn’t know they had. To find ways to engage with their community that they otherwise wouldn’t, or think they couldn’t.

Too often, however, it’s used as an excuse to half-ass a commitment we don’t really want to make.  To say “I’ve done enough” when we’ve hardly done anything we’re capable of.

Here are some activities that don’t actually qualify as “gifts,” no matter how much you think of yourself:

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The Demon’s Face

Burning Man BurningThe playa was rough and even with my flashlight it was too dark to see the bumps in front of my wheels.  Every jolt was a surprise, and instead of relaxing into the ride it made me stare at the ground even harder, as though I could pierce the darkness by concentrating.

That’s how I almost missed the flaming altar, and the cluster of people around it.  I nearly biked right into them.  They were whispering to each other and nearly missed me too: one of a million near collisions that happen at Burning Man every day, averted at the last minute as I veered off to the east and hit my breaks, coming to a bumpy stop.

I turned and shone my flashlight on their backs.  There were maybe seven people huddled around an altar with a small flame, and behind them were three large towers.  Maybe climbable.  Either they’d appeared out of nowhere, or I had.

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Is Burning Man a White People Thing?

Burning Man business menAs I’ve met more minority burners over the years, I’ve made a point of asking some of them (when I remember) about this issue, as well as the diverse friends of mine … like my friend in Brooklyn … who I think would make great burners but who say it’s not for them.   Their surprisingly unanimous conclusion:  Burning Man, while it may be great … “I love Burning Man, and I love Burners,” said one minority burner I’ve grown close to, “but these are some crazy ass white people, and this is their thing.”

At the risk of sounding like a Twitter tag:  Why is Burning Man a white people thing

Generally speaking, I’ve been told, there are four reasons:

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Lost Thoughts

Burning Man temple photoShe said she’d stepped out of the RV because her camp-mates were having a big argument on their way into Black Rock City.  She’d just intended to give them a little space … but then they’d driven away without her.

They didn’t have a pre-planned camp spot.  They could be anywhere.  They had her food and water and clothes.  It was her first Burning Man.  She didn’t know anybody else.  She came to our camp (well, my friends’ camp) because it was a radio station, and wondered if we could put out a call asking for someone to help.

But that’s not why we started calling her “Lost Girl.”

We put her on the air and she started crying when she explained what happened to her, and at that moment she was an honorary member of our camp.  (Well, technically “their” camp since I just hang around here because the couches are really comfortable.)  Everything changed on a dime.  Everyone was resting, it was the middle of the afternoon, I was flirting with Charlotte and getting somewhere for the first time – and the moment her tears hit the ground everybody had something to do.  Get her a beer;  get her blankets;  find her a sleeping bag;  put aside some food;  give her a hug;  tell her that no matter what it’s going to be all right.  I’d never seen the ranks close so quickly.

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What do you do at Burning Man, anyway?

Burning Man with fireworksThe question is similar to the one that you ask yourself in when you’re on summer vacation, or have just graduated college, or have moved to a new city, or retired.  You figure out something to do that’s meaningful … and you do it.  Or you get stuck and become miserable.

That search for meaning is every bit as important at Burning Man as it is anywhere else – and like the search for meaning in daily life, it doesn’t stop just because you’ve found one answer.

This is what makes Burning Man different from a trip to Disney World, where the clear answer is “ride on the rides, eat sugar-on-a-stick, and point at white people.”  Burning Man has all these things, but it has so many more choices because Disney World is a closed system:  the Disney Corporation has clearly delineated what are meaningful choices and what are not.

This is what makes Burning Man different from a music festival, where the obvious answer is “Bounce from stage to stage, listen to the acts, visit the merch area, and hit on white people.”  All of these are options at Burning Man (except the merch table), but it has so many more choices because a music festival is a closed system:  the organizers have established what is supposed to be meaningful and what is not.

Burning Man is an open system.  You can set up a Thomas Jefferson themed party camp.  You can run a hotel.  My first year at Burning Man I carried around a book of original fairy tales and read them to people I met.  Last year I started a war.

Burning Man does not come with a set of instructions, it comes with existential choices:   as many existential choices as you have in the rest of you life … and maybe more.

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It’s Okay to Be Miserable at Burning Man

Two years ago. I was walking through the desert, across the open playa in the early afternoon. It was hot, and I was very, very unhappy.

I don’t remember why, anymore, but I remember what that mood felt like. It would have been depression if I hadn’t been so angry, so resentful. I wanted to bite someone. I wanted to yell at someone. I wanted to punch you in the face. You, personally.

I think I was heading over to one of the Irish bars. I wanted to start a bar fight. Right now.

Out in the middle of the dust I saw four desks separated from a small line of people by a velvet rope. Three men were at the desks, and a fourth was behind a small podium managing the line.

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