I wish someone had told me that before my first year at Burning Man. Or my second. I figured it out myself on my third.
We’re under 100 days ’till Burning Man. People are excited – and they want it to be contagious.
So do I. This year’s going to be awesome. But in that well meaning spirit I’ve recently been asked: “why don’t you use the blog to be more positive? You should only write stories to get people fired up about Burning Man! Why don’t you stick to that instead of talking about negative stuff?”
Well I’ve already said that there’s too much goddamn positive energy at Burning Man. I stand by that. It’s also true that Burning Man affects me profoundly in ways that are challenging and difficult. I’m guaranteed at least two existential crises every Burn, and they were much worse before I realized that they weren’t a result of my doing something wrong at Burning Man – they were just part of the experience. I’ve heard similar confessions from a lot of people.
But I’d really like to answer that question with a true story.
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.
The bouncer spotted me. “Hello sir!” he shouted. “Is there anything you need?”
“Fuck your day!” I shouted back.
“Anything? A building permit? A fishing license?”
I stopped to look at him.
“A Marriage license?” he asked. “A divorce?”
Curiosity can cut through hate. “Wait … what … exactly …?”
He flashed a badge. “We’re the Bureau of Needless Bureaucracy, sir! We handle all of Black Rock City’s paperwork! So if you need an environmental waiver, or a non-conforming use permit, we’re here to help!”
I thought about it. I could start a bar fight half-an- hour later. “I …” I took a deep breath. “I want a divorce.”
“A divorce!” He beamed. “Very good, sir! We can handle that right away. I’ll just give you a ticket and you can go in and get that processed immediately!”
“Ummmmm,” I said. “Where’ the ticket?”
“Oh, I’m on a break now,” he said. “Someone will be with you shortly.”
Past the velvet rope, other visitors sitting at a desk jumped up to their feet and shouted happy shouts. They shook the man at the desk’s hands, and walked off. He sat there, twiddling his thumbs, waiting for someone to come over.
“Can I just go in there and …”
“But he’s …”
“You have to get a ticket, and that has to come from approved personnel, and I’m on a mandated 15 minute break. Sorry, but, if I ever take up smoking this will be really important.”
I fished around in my pack. “Sure is hot out here,” I said.
“Yeah,” he agreed. Sweat was pouring off his bare chest.
I pulled out a juice box. “Interested?”
His eyes narrowed. “Yeah.” He reached out.
I pulled it away.
He took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said, holding out a ticket. “But, if anybody asks … I only gave this to you because you’re a fellow member of the Meatpackers Union.”
I nodded solemnly. “Solidarity forever.”
We traded. I walked inside. I walked over to the free desk. I sat down.
The man behind it beamed at me. I would later learn his name was Noodles. “Hello sir! What can I do for you this fine day!”
I glared at him. “I want a divorce.”
He inhaled sharply. “Oh, I’m sorry sir, that has to be processed over there first.” He pointed at one of the other desks.
I’d kinda figured that would happen. “All right.”
“Thank you sir!” he shouted as I walked over to the other desk. There were people there, who were trying to get a permit to add a pool to their theme camp. After a minute they were sent over to the third desk, and I sat down.
“I want to start a divorce proceeding.”
“Oh great, can I see your 508(d)6?”
“The proper form, sir! To start the procedure!”
“I don’t … have … the form.”
“Well, to start the divorce procedure I need to have a 508(d)6 signed by that man.” He pointed at Noodles.
“Ah … right where I came from.”
“That’s right, sir!”
“He couldn’t have told me that before I came over?”
“I wouldn’t know, sir.”
I got up and walked back over to Noodles. “I need you to sign a … sign a … um, the divorce form.”
“Great! Can I see it?”
“I don’t have it. You’re supposed to give it to me.”
He shook his head. “No no. I’m supposed to sign it. But you get it …” he pointed to the third desk, where the people who wanted the swimming pool were now, “over there.”
“Right.” I nodded. “Right. And … is there anything else I should know about?”
“I don’t think so.”
“No other reason I might need to come back here after I’ve gone over there but before I get the paperwork?”
“I doubt it.”
I walked over to the third desk.
But apparently I needed a paperwork permission form, available at the second desk, to get the paperwork from the third desk to be signed at the first desk. But the man at the second desk wouldn’t give it to me until I filled out a performance evaluation he could show his supervisor. When that was done, I took it back to the third desk, but the man there wouldn’t give me the form until I filled out one of those sweet, sweet, performance evaluations he heard I was handing out like candy.
It went on like this. A few trips around later I found myself back, with the correct tokens in hand (really just small bits of re-used paper they were marking up and sending around), at the third desk.
He gave me a shit-eating grin. “So,” he said. “Let’s get started. What’s your wife’s name?”
“I’m not married.”
“Oh.” He considered. “Husband?”
I shook my head.
“Then … who do you want to divorce?”
I leaned forward. “All of humanity.”
He had not seen that coming. “Um … what?”
“All mankind,” I said, my bitterness erupting. “All humanity. All members of this revolting and fallible species that always disappoint me! I want this document to serve as an eternal testimony to my loathing for the human weakness that each and every one of us succumbs to every day when we could be so much better. I want a divorce to serve as a gesture of my contempt to people everywhere!”
God that felt so good!
“Whoa,” he said. He leaned back in his chair. He thought about it for a minute.
“Look,” he said, gesturing to his left. “If that’s the way you feel … we’ve got a spare desk. Would you like a job here?”
“ … Oh god more than anything in the world …”
“Great!” He stood up. “Hey Noodles!” he called. “We’re hiring this guy!”
“Yeah! He really, really, hates all humanity!”
“Great! When can he start!”
“Right now,” I said.
“Right now!” he shouted.
“Great!” Noodles called back. “Has he filled out the health care forms?”
Ten minutes later I was sitting behind the fourth desk, and people like me who had been walking through the desert and saw the velvet rope were coming over to get the proper paperwork for their weddings and funerals.
I stayed four hours, until they closed for the night. They invited me back the next day, and I came.
Best reason to get a sunburn ever. One of the highlights of all my years at Burning Man.
Now, I tell you this … and it makes Burning Man sound fun and exciting, right? Well, it does for me.
But this story isn’t any good if you just summarize it. You have to tell it. And telling it truthfully involves starting with a simple fact: I was at Burning Man and I was very, very, unhappy.
It happens. A lot. And that’s okay. It can be wretched out there, and miserable, and my best advice for first timers (besides sunscreen and water) is that it’s okay to admit to yourselves that you’re frightened and lonely if, in fact, you are. You’re not doing anything wrong. Don’t deny it: make it a starting point. Being honest and direct about it gets you through faster and makes things more interesting. And interesting is what makes Burning Man worth it.
What happened in that story isn’t just that I had fun: it’s that I was given an opportunity to channel my vicious depression and make it something amazing. If I hadn’t been angry, I wouldn’t have been walking by. If I hadn’t been miserable, I wouldn’t have said what I did.
If I hadn’t been honest about what was really going on with me (theatrically honest, I’ll grant you, but honest), then I would never have had the chance to sit behind that desk.
Nor was the point of what they were doing to be fun and nice to people: it was to waste their time for absolutely no reason or reward. It worked so well precisely because it wasn’t benign. Much of Burning Man isn’t. I think the fact that Burning Man doesn’t try to be benign is one of the reasons these once-in-a-lifetime events happen all the time out there.
Burning Man deserves cheerleaders. But if we’re going to be honest, let alone insightful, about presenting Burning Man to ourselves and others then we have to talk about the challenging parts too – on and off playa.
It’s okay to for us to admit how down we can get at Burning Man – its’ a feature, not a bug.
Caveat is a lifetime member of the Bureau of Needless Bureaucracy, and Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com