by Pete Lee
PRIOR TO ATTENDING THE BURN, I committed a mistake that would be typical of a virgin. My naïveté had convinced me that I knew what Burning Man was going to be like. Why wouldn’t I? I had spent years reading the Burning Man website. I had engaged in many hours of conversations about Burning Man with long-time veterans. And, I think I’d be correct to say that, compared to average society, I’ve had a varied life: camp counselor, wilderness rescuer, salesman, EMT, journalist, world traveler, assistant director for independent films and technology consultant-just to name a few. What haven’t I already experienced?
I soon discovered the answer. A lot.
I write this because friends who haven’t gone need me to, and friends who have gone will ask me about it. I am writing this because I love my friends, but can be lazy at times. I don’t know whether or not I’ll feel like talking about it now, then, in the future, or at all, so this is a bit of insurance against complacency. It’s about love, people.
I’ve also written this because, perhaps, my laziness isn’t as much laziness, but frustration. Have you ever tried to explain color to a blind man? Now you see.
Within the continuum of this diary, you will discover my perspective on why I love The Burn, and why it changed me. Change that didn’t occur because of one particular experience, but a sum of many incredible moments. I would be truly happy if something in this diary jogs your mind, and reminds you of a moment of bliss, terror, or enlightenment that has happened to you. Right now, your experience, dear reader, is more important than mine.
Before I continue, I have an ethical responsibility to communicate a bit of mundane business at this time to those who have not been to Burning Man. Inspired by a comment sagely noted by my housemate Rich, I need to note that the experiences of an individual at Burning Man are wholly, solely, ineffably, and completely their own. Those who show up create a uniquely personal experience, the results of a nebulous formula that includes factors such as a desire to participate, willingness to take healthy risks, and good old fate (thanks, Shiva!). Nothing I write here should be construed as a description of Burning Man. I am certain of only my own experience… and even that I question as I sally forth into the dark night of the soul that begins this diary. Of only one thing I am certain: I was meant to share it with you.
Reasons Why I Shamelessly Obfuscated the Fact That I Had Bought My Ticket In May
1. I was ashamed of the stupidity of why I told people for years that I wanted to come, but didn’t really try hard enough. Even after years of attempting to convince me to go. [Looking back, I now know that I would be ready when I was ready.]
2. I wanted absolute power over controlling exactly who I wanted to participate and hang out with.
3. Isn’t there an element of obfuscation in the Burning Man Experience?
4. I swear, the devil made me do it! (Specifically, Uncle Satan and Miss Inferno.)
Reasons Why Most of My Friends Knew Differently
1. Showed up to too many incredibly fun and inspiring craft nights and “men’s knitting circles” involving way too many power tools.
2. Some folks had heard my excuse that work was the reason, and knew I had become unemployed.
3. Wasn’t a funny joke anymore for some.
4. Evil mind powers used against me.
Some Other Great Reasons
1. Hey, Tiger Wedding. GRRRR!
2. “Dude, we’re at Center Camp this year! On the grid! Near ice!”
3. Burning Man is probably going to be cancelled next year.
4. Our neighbors include an AA group, the Intergalactic House of Pancakes, and a Jazz club.
5. We have four freaking Art Cars-this is ridiculous!
6. Drunken whining/cajoling/threatening fifteen minute conversations about “Pete why aren’t you coming? WHY WHY WHY?” will finally stop, thank god.
Reasons Why It Took Me Three Years to Drive To Burning Man
1. “I’d love to but I have debt to pay off, and it sounds kind of expensive.”
2. “It’s just a big party/rave/art festival.”
3. “You know, I’d really love to go this year, but my work really needs me.”
4. “Yeah, but I’ve done and experienced lots of things like that already.”
5. “I’d rather take that time and money to do something really interesting, like travel abroad.”
Responses My Friends Gave to Call Me on My Bullshit and Make My Drive Much Shorter Next Year
1. “What the hell do you really spend your money on?”
2. “Burning Man is not a rave, and has not had a rave camp since 1996.” (a quote from the FAQ at the Burning Man website)
3. “Gee Pete, are you really meaning to say that your employer can’t live without you for a few days. Sounds like you might have an ego problem.” (Marcus)
4. “Oh no you haven’t! Trust me. Let’s talk about this.”
5. (If I was really wanting to do that, why haven’t I made good on threats to travel to Asia or Europe within the last three years?)
Quotes & Greeters
THERE IS AN AMAZING AMOUNT OF EFFECTIVE WISDOM CONTAINED WITHIN THE POETIC, COMPACT AND ELEGANT CONFINES OF A GREAT QUOTE. Some turning points in my life have happened because someone told me something I needed and was ready to hear at a precise moment.
As we wended our way to the gates of Black Rock City, we read what seemed like hundreds of signs. Each had parts of quotes. Some quotes I wasn’t sure what to think of. Some, I was moved and inspired by. Others, I was surprised to see: notably, the writings of Teresa of Avila-quotes from Catholic mystics aren’t something I would expect to see at an event shallowly described by some to be a “pagan festival.” And, the requisite contrast: “BELIEVE ALL SIGNS BUT THIS ONE.”
As I cross through the gates, our car is greeted by someone in rather strange attire. I can’t remember exactly how the dress looked, but it had a busty, white, shiny, feathery quality to it. One would not expect this from a greeter at Wal-Mart. And, before I could reconcile my mind with this circumstance, we were yanked out of our car by people yelling “Virgins!” and were commanded to loudly ring a bell. I experienced a rush of happy emotions I didn’t understand, and was hugged by the greeter telling me “Welcome Home,” which I understood even less. I would be welcomed home by many after that, and see signs on cars saying “Going Home.” What the hell was all of this welcome home thing about? Weirdos!
Looking back, I would hear the bells through the quiet beginning of a week on the Playa and coyly smile at the great fortune of the virgins coming through the gate.
I HAD ALWAYS HEARD THAT WHATEVER YOU WERE LOOKING FOR AT BURNING MAN, YOU WOULD FIND. Prior to attending, I found this a rather charming statement cute in its innocence. I discovered the amazing truth of this statement later. I also discovered that things you were definitely not looking for would come find you.
I was passed by a group of individuals, riding in a parade of art cars through Center Camp. All of the cars were black, the conveyance for a group of blackly clad people toting bullhorns, towing a black broken car with a burned-out frame of a rather large dinosaur atop. Before I could complete my first thought of “gee, how odd,” I heard one of the bullhorn toters say, with a rather matter-of-fact tone, FUCK YOU. Not in anger, not in jest, but in a neutral tone reminiscent of train saying “mind the gap” or “next stop, Old Town/Chinatown,” FUCK YOU. The passing crowds responded in turn. “Fuck you asshole!” Suddenly, I find myself enthusiastically shouting back to the riders, “Bullshit!”-shocking myself. I wasn’t quite ready to tell anyone to fuck off (hey, I’m new), and then laughed, as many others in the audience did.
I discovered later that this bit of crowd-participation-cum-performance-art was very likely the fine work of DPW, the hard working staff who set up the city. During the previous day’s ride, I found one element of their work in miles of long trash fence, staked out at regular intervals with metal fence bars. While a labor of love, this work (as well as many other tasks) would not dispose any group of people to giving off huggy New Age vibes.
While taken aback by this, I also discovered that their act of “radical self-expression” triggered a very necessary radical experience. Why should I be offended by someone telling me to fuck off? After all, shouldn’t I already be settled with the fact that I am who I am? I have my imperfections, my gifts, and, quite frankly, if someone doesn’t like that, why shouldn’t I take that as an opinion (which it is) and simply respect that?
How many times has an outside opinion caused me to do things which really didn’t provide any lasting reward? Become a doctor or a lawyer… Only date/marry people who are like X, Y, and Z… Work like a slave and make more money… Wear clothes of Brand X… Buy status symbols… Don’t embarrass us!
And how many times have I consented to believing these opinions, and thoughtlessly plodded along? Especially in the last few years of my profession, I had managed to get myself into a vicious cycle of cluelessly fucking myself over. The most truthful personal response to DPW should really have been “Why yes, I have been working extremely hard, doing just that to myself. Thanks for the reminder.” This experience was one of many that led me to arrive at The Burn as a spectator in my own life, and leave a more active participant in it.
To DPW, one of my favorite and most inspiring groups of performance artists, FUCK YOU!
(This selection was excerpted from a longer work submitted by the author: http://ourhands.fea.st/The%20Man%20Has%20No%20Hands.pdf)