Well, it’s that time of year again. The dog days of August, when the heat is at its worst — along with the beginnings of the nip of fall. “Not a chill to the winter, but a nip to the air.” Little boys and girls and teachers everywhere are looking with dread towards the new school year. And little burners everywhere are looking forward to traipsing out to the middle of the Nevada desert, spending a week in hellish conditions with 70,000 of their closest friends, and then burning that motherfucker down.
Last year was my first year. I had a blast.
Before I went, I always thought that Burning Man was all about getting high and raving and fucking in the desert. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of chemically-altered people there. But personally, I don’t need hallucinogens to be weird or think “out there” thoughts anymore. Weed just makes me feel stupid and sluggish, uppers make me feel nervous, and I drink too goddamned much; I’m pretty much done with getting altered chemically (aside from maybe a few hits of good old caffeine). And dancing? Well… I’m a lazy ass; I would like to dance more, but I feel like when I dance, I probably look like an epileptic, flopping bonelessly. I’m always worried that when I’m dancing, someone’s going to grab me and try to put my wallet between my teeth. And fucking? Well, sure, there’s a fair amount of sex at the burn — but not as much as you might think. Playa dust is crazy alkaline; there are places you do not want the equivalent of a chemical burn…
So, before I went I didn’t see much reason to go. My raving days are done; I love me my EDM, and probably will — for the same reason Baby Boomers love their Beatles and their Hendrix and whatnot… for me, the songs of my youth were Prodigy and 808 State and various Paul’s (Oakenfold, van Dyk, whatevs). But even though I love the music, dancing, not as much. And giant, seething crowds annoy me more than excite me these days. Grumpy old man? Maybe, but still… you kids get off my lawn! What was I saying? Oh yeah, not a huge fan of crowds. And besides, if I just want to go to a crazy, drug- and alcohol-fueled rave, I live in freaking Seattle, fergawdssake. It’s not like there’s not something freaky going on here pretty much 24×7. So why drive 15 hours each way, spend many hundreds of dollars on a ticket, and live like hermit in the desert for a week?
It’s the art, stupid. Burners are some of the most amazingly creative people I’ve ever met in my life. Not just fancy-shmancy “fine arts” — painting, sculpture, whatever, but down in the thick of things. They’re hands dirty, sweaty, gritty people who weld and sew and paint, yes — they paint — but it’s with giant automotive spray guns, not fancy little camel hair brushes. Their art is loud, and flashy, and psychedelic, and dangerous. It’s not always politically correct, and a lot of times it’s not even very pretty, but I’ll tell you what… it makes me think. And it makes me laugh. And it makes me feel like these are my people. Or at least, this is the kind of person I want to be — crafty, creative, completely insane.
The art there is amazing. I won’t go on about it — you can see countless pictures that do it far better justice than I ever could. I dare you, if you haven’t — go look. Let’s just say that by the end of the week my jaw hurt from hanging open slack so much.
And Burning Man is an excuse. It’s an opportunity to be something we’re not, in our daily lives (in the “default world” as some burners call it). I’m a sort of isolated, socially withdrawn guy. It’s not who I want to be, but like it or lump it, it’s who I am. While I was at the burn last year, I tried an experiment. A friend had loaned me an expensive DSLR camera for the burn (thanks, Jon! Hope you got the playa dust out!) and I took it around taking pictures of everyone I could. One of the rules at Burning Man is that you ask permission before taking pictures of people; not everyone follows that rule, but I was assiduous — I would ask people on art cars if I could photograph them from a distance. And here’s the thing; asking someone if you can take their picture is a neat trick — it’s a great way to start a conversation. People love to pose and show off, and even the people who weren’t comfortable being photographed were usually grateful that I asked, and would often chat for a while. Asking everyone if I could take their picture (along with getting a vast amount of amazing pictures — check out my Flickr feed from last year for a smattering) was a great way to make believe that I’m not the shy, borderline socially anxious guy that I am.
In other words, Burning Man became my excuse to make believe that I was different. I wasn’t Tom Canham, shy, repressed programmer with a drinking problem — I was Tom ForNow, a burner with a weird set of ideas and fun things to talk about who loved getting to know people. Was it “successful?” Did I have some huge, life-changing event, some Disney moment?
Well, no. It was only a week, after all, and we all have to come back to the default world. But Burning Man 2013 gave me an appreciation of what can happen when 70,000 people come together to celebrate and share their insanity. When you come to a City where diversity and strange ideas are cherished. Where the average political leaning is very liberal, yet Grover Norquist is reputedly tolerated.
More than that (and here’s where I bring things full circle and wrap this up), Burning Man is a shared ideal. It’s an ideal of a place where you don’t need all the constricting rules and conventions of society, where a few simple principles are enough to keep nigh onto a hundred thousand people living mostly in harmony. It may be an illusion; it may be a fantasy. More and more drunk frat boys and stoned sparkle ponies show up every year, making it less of an art festival and more of a late-summer Spring Break. Burners love to gripe about how the event is becoming too big, too commercial. It may all just be a dream of the way people can be — without every interaction being a financial, zero-sum exchange, without every motivation being selfish, without every creative endeavour ultimately supporting some bottom line. It may all just be a dream, but it’s a beautiful dream.
And that, friends, is why we keep coming back. And that is why the last week in August is a pretty exciting, special time for burners.
See you in the dust. See you back Home, my friends.