I’ve been doing it wrong

Maybe I should have skipped the tie.
Maybe I should have skipped the tie.

Successful theme camps, it seems go through a common life-cycle.  According to organizers from various camps I’ve spoken to:

-          They start out as an incredible idea.  “Hey, do you think we can pull this off?”

-          And then they pull it off, and it’s amazing, and more people want to get involved, and a couple of growth years go by.

-          Then there comes a point where people who have spent so much time and energy and money on this project for the last several years ask themselves … “why are we doing this again?”

-          At which point they either recommit to taking the thing to an even crazier next level of awesomeness … or they let it go and find something else to do with their time.

Individual burners seem to have a similar life-cycle.  It’s noticeable how many serious long-time Burners I know have lost all interest in “The Man,” and most interest in the Temple, and keep only a low-grade interest in the art and spectacle.

Instead they keep coming back for the people:  to see friends who are lost to them the rest of the year, or to be there when their friends dress up and go crazy like they otherwise never would.  They’re here to chill out with their people, and everything else is secondary.  Go out to the fire sculpture and dance naked under the moonlight?  Maybe, but … their friends are all right here, with deck chairs and whisky.

I’ve noticed the change in myself, and have come to the gradual conclusion that – at least for me – I’ve been doing it wrong.

My first year at Burning Man I did absolutely nothing but wander around the playa and take in all the bizarre and wonderful things people were doing.   I interacted with no-one but strangers.  Baffling serendipity dogged my heels.

The next year was like that, only I had more of a home base, so I didn’t get out quite so much and I hung around with a few more of the same people.

Two years later I was mostly hanging out at my two home bases, but still managed to get some good wander time in.

But last year?  2012?  I lived an almost entirely Center Camp based existence – not because I was lazy (although sure), but because that’s where all my friends were.  I’d cycle back and forth and back and forth between Media Mecca and BMIR, back and forth, back and forth, and then occasionally wander off to where another friend was camping to make sure I got to chill with them.  Oh, and I saw the Temple.

I’m not saying I didn’t have a good time, or that good things didn’t happen to me.  The pop-up absinthe bar was awesome.  The war I started between the Census Bureau and Media Mecca was pretty sweet:  I’d never been wrestled to the ground by three people in lab coats before.   I had a great time rolling out in a golf cart with a member of Burning Man’s staff (who shall remain nameless), driving up to random people, flashing our radios and staff laminates, and insisting that we were from Burning Man’s Department of Linguistics and needed to know all your synonyms for sex RIGHT NOW.

See?  Fun.

But the truth is that I spent the vast majority of my week cycling between people I know, and who are therefore known quantities, having very few of the experiences that change the way you see the world.

And I had a great time.  But … well, here’s the thing.

Whenever people ask me “Why do you keep going back to Burning Man?”  I never say “Because there are these awesome people there.”  I could, if I wanted to, get on a plane and see many of these awesome people any time during the year.  And not every awesome person goes every year.  (Am I bitter that BMIR’s Mao will not be attending in 2013?  Yes.  Yes I am.)

No, what I tell people is:  “I keep coming back to Burning Man because in most of my life I have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen next.  Most days, I wake up in the morning and have a clear sense of where the boundaries are, the limits are, how far I’ll be taken.  There aren’t all that many surprises.  But at Burning Man, I honestly have no idea what the hell is going to happen next.  Anything is possible.  I go back because it’s good for me to have that in my life.”

And it’s true.  I do need that.  And yet it’s clear now that I’ve been moving away from it, bit by bit, with each new Burning Man.  Falling into a comfortable – if not to say awesome – routine.  And that’s great, but … I’m doing it wrong.

For me, at least, it seems clear that whatever I’ve gained from my later years at Burning Man (and it’s considerable), I’ve lost the mission.

It’s surely not a coincidence that this last year was also the least challenging burn I’ve ever had.  And I don’t mean “exodus” or “weather” challenging – though actually, yeah.  I mean that I’ve come to expect, as a recurring part of my Burning Man experience, at least two major existential crises during the course of that week.  At least two breakdowns where I’m stewing in the foulest of my inner issues, wondering “why am I such a failure as a human being?” and “how can I make all of you pay for the happiness you have that constantly eludes my grasp?”

Two a week.  Guaranteed.  A couple years ago I even had to bound myself off from the playa for a while in order to restore my mental equilibrium.  It was terrible, and hilarious, and wonderful – and my people came through.

But last year?  Nothing.  No existential crisis at all.  Smooth sailing.  What a party.

And … great, right?

There’s no reason I shouldn’t be happy with that, and who knows – maybe it even represents personal growth.  But I can’t help thinking that they go together:  of course I’m not risking an existential crisis if I’m mostly hanging around my friends and favorite haunts.

I’m not really risking anything.

And if you get out of Burning Man what you put into it … what does it say about my potential experience that I’m playing it safe, even if for the best of reasons?

I don’t know what it might say for you.  Your mileage may vary.  But it means that I’ve let go in practice of what excited me most about Burning Man in principle.  If I want to be part of a space where anything can happen, I have to go outside my comfort zone.

For the happiest of reasons, I’ve been doing it wrong.

This year, then, has to be different.  Steps have been taken.  I’ve dropped out of my on-site volunteer role.  My time will be my own.  I’ll be camping outside of Center Camp.  And if I’m dedicated enough, if I really mean it, I’ll spend only a little time back at my old homesteads hanging around with the old gang, and instead will wander through the hot and dusty streets, opening myself up to whatever wonderful and terrible things you amazing people are cooking out there.

Is this crazy?  Will I really spend less time with the people who like me … on purpose?

I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, I want to ask our veteran burners how your experience of Burning Man has changed over time.  I know, I know … it isn’t what it used to be, we all sold out.  Fuck you too.  But for those who are still going:  how has it changed for you (emphasizing the “for you”), and what have you done about it?

Tell me in the comments below.  I want your wisdom.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man likes to sing by the trash fence at night.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. He is not an official representative of Burning Man, or even an employee, and does not speak for the organization. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com

15 thoughts on “I’ve been doing it wrong

  • Burning Man, in 7 years, has gone from the most challenging (for good and bad) week of the year to the most relaxing. Last year, I showed up on Tuesday with the camp infrastructure already built, didn’t even pitch a tent (slept in my van), hung out mostly at camp and nearby camps, and left before the Man burn. It was fucking awesome.

    In previous years, I’d done an art car, been part of a great wet plate photography effort, volunteered, etc. The usual stuff. Seems like this arc is pretty common. I’m not going this year, but next year I’ll probably change it up a bit. Who knows. That’s kind of the great thing about Burning Man for me. Not only is my time out there unpredictable (in small ways) on a daily basis, but each year is a totally different experience based on what I bring out there, both physically and mentally.

    And yeah, for me it’s all about the people. The art is great for sure. But the people in the state of mind they’re typically at during the event, that’s simply not to be found anywhere else.

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  • Thx for the authenticity Caviat… I feel in a similar place. I use the Burn to mark time vs new yrs, bdays… Etc.
    I feel I have gone through all the yrs in the same sequence as a life trauma:
    First yr: Denial that I thought I knew all my feelings about humanity, and the love, art and that there truly was a ‘land of misfits’ .
    The yrs that followed, including the 2009 recession yr ( my ‘worst’ ) and anger burn…
    Bargaining… And the other one.. In the years in between…

    Then this year.. Like u, I didn’t volunteer (for ice) for th first time without the least amount of guilt…… This 41 th yr has been the toughest philosophically for me.. Every thing that I was able to control before.. Ceased… Life… spit in my face.. to, i guess… make a philosophical point ( to me, at Least) ….
    And having just read your Burn checkpoint.. I relize.. That this yrs Burn for me.. Is one of Acceptace….
    Thx for sharing…
    It’s all empty and meaningless.. But it feels better to put it somewhere. Thx. – I

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  • This will be number 11 for me.
    The overall arc of the experience has gone from being an amazed, wondrous, utterly in-chaos novice, to a practitioner of a finely tuned well adapted routine.
    From absolutely hating being there (the first few days the first year) to not wanting to be anywhere else on those calendar dates.
    From a stranger in a strange land to an experienced inhabitant enjoying the lifestyle in a TAZ.
    From a tourist to a local.
    From an outsider to a two week on the playa volunteer for the BMORG.
    From being a “customer” to being employee.
    From seeing the whole thing as some sort of fantasy, to now seeing it as the complex organizational endeavor it is.
    I am in something of a rut, a routine (or 18 day annual ritual?) in the past few years but damn does not mean I love it any less. In fact I love it more.
    I have gone from hating the dust down to the core of my being, to embracing it as an indispensable intensifier and characterizer of the Burning Man experience. If I had the power to eliminate the dust, I emphatically would not.
    I still go to lose myself and find myself, and to experiment with how I present myself socially. It has helped with my growth and development, and this in someone of fairly advanced age. My first burn was at age 50. The event has changed me forever, too bad I could not have experienced it when I was 20.

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  • This year will be my fourth burn.
    2010 – Like almost every virgin I just wandered around with my mind blown. This is the experience I recommend to virgins when they ask me: your first burn, don’t make any commitments. Just wander around and follow any shiny that catches your eye.

    2011 – This was the year I dragged a virgin with me and worked on other people’s projects. I loved sharing my previous years experience with a new comer, as well as feeling like I was contributing to the city instead of just being a tourist.

    2012 – A dozen virgins (all close friends of mine from the default world) and I decided to organize a theme camp. Being one of the few “veterans” I did a LOT of the organizing. That was a valuable experience I won’t repeat soon. Not because it was a disaster, it wasn’t. It went pretty smoothly actually. The virgins were all great. They worked hard and they took to the principals easily. I loved being able to facilitate a “premier” experience for my friends (our camp had prime placement, we had all kinds of camp luxuries that most don’t, etc etc). They got to have their minds blown AND feel like they were contributing all at the same time. But I rediscovered something about myself: I’m more comfortable as a worker bee than a queen.

    2013 – I’m back to working on other people’s projects, but I’m doing less than I did in 2011. I’m not organizing a camp, much less a theme camp. I’m only bringing one virgin, and this will be the first year I’m attending without my now fiance (who’s the person that facilitated my first burn). I’m not sure if it’s burn out on Burning Man, or just a result of a busier than usual default life.

    2014 – For the first time I have an idea for an art project. This is a big deal for me because ideas aren’t my strong suit. I’m not a creative type. I’m not the guy with a vision, I’m the guy that helps the creative types realize their vision.

    For me Burning Man is 90% about the people, and I think it has been from the beginning. The art is basically an excuse for me to engage with interesting looking strangers (something that, for me, is very difficult in the default world). I don’t have many “playa friends” that I only see once a year, instead I have a community of local burners (shout out to Las Vegas) that I see year round. And that’s great, I love it. But on the playa I get the chance to be the outgoing, gregarious guy I want to be.

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  • “Instead they keep coming back for the people”

    This is my 8th, and yes for me it is all about the people. Our small theme camp is now a well honed, efficient machine. Now i understand the shirtcocker who parks himself on a corner with his lounge chair and umbrella all week chatting to passers by, seemingly missing out on the “event”. The fun and games are great, but the people are AMAZING, and often inspirational.

    I’ve already indicated to my campmates, that this year is my year to fly free, and others will need to hold down the fort while i shirk responsibility occasionally and play.

    I hope to see you out there playing too, maybe we can jump rope or something.. :-)

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  • This will be year 13 for me. whoa.

    I too, find myself slipping sometimes into the ‘time-share’ mindset, which is to say that I set my expectations to ‘Burning Man’ and even with that kind of go-anywhere, do-anything mentality, I have predictable patterns of behavior.

    I was gung-ho, I’ve done giant art, small art, big camps, little camps, volunteered, and staffed. Done it all? Then why continue to attend?

    I like how you said you don’t know what the day holds. I like that aspect. I love the spectacle, the willingness to be absurd that is still the prevalent cultural attitude at Burning Man.

    yes, we’ve sold out and there are more newbies than there were total attendees when I started going. But that’s not it. It’s about me, and what I expect. I find myself in these advanced years of crustiness, asking when I feel a snark coming on, how I can apply that to myself? Am I afraid I’ve become Jane Tourist? Maybe. am I afraid I’m not giving my all? Possibly. do I still want to? Yeah, I do.

    It’s like when I moved to California five years ago, and *everything* smelled good (or strong). Herby eucalyptus, skunk, tar, fiery deliciousness. Last week I drove through Napa and didn’t smell much. What would it take to freshen that sense? My senses on playa? A willingness? An intention? I don’t know, but I hope to do it at least a little this year.

    For 2013 Burning Man, I’m doing things differently. I’m camping in a new place, with new people, different tasks and responsibilities, and stated FREE time. Wanna have a cuppa with me?

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  • This post is so intriguing to me. I feel that I have hit a wall when it comes to Burning Man. And it’s completely my own fault. Last year, I spent the majority of time in my own camp. And then when I wasn’t in my own camp, I was out with my camp mates. From home. The ones that I hang out with on a regular basis.
    This will be my 10th burn. And I intend on doing it right this year. I have a bucket list that I want to hit everything on it. And I plan to venture out as much as possible this year. Even if that means venturing off by myself. I want to meet new people, and see new things. I want to get back to the virgin burner that I once was, with the googly eyed look, and the sensory overload fascination.
    I’m happy to hear that I’m not the only one that’s been doing it wrong.

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  • Once upon a time I was caught up in the thrill of New York City nightlife…before zoning laws and politicians tore it all down. One day, after getting past another velvet rope, I looked around under the pulsing colored lights and thought to myself, “I’m done.” That was four years into it. I lived hard. I lived well from start to finish. But when the time to end it came, I knew to walk away. I knew it was over that night because the thrill of the first time I was on a guest list and a velvet rope parted for me and a promoter slipped me some fun pills and cute guys danced next to me and tried to get my phone number or just a trip to the bathroom…it had all grown so predicable and stale. I said to a friend between thumping beats of Madonna’s new dance track, “I’m done.” And he said, confused, feeling abandoned, trying to convince me to stay one more hour at the Grand Hotel, “But you’ll never be able to replace this kind of high.” He was right. But I still checked out. And there should not be another kind of high in life like that.
    This story applies to Burning Man, as well. There will never be another kind of high like it, literally and figuratively. You can always try to chase the thrill of the first time it all hit you in face, the colored lights, the cute guys, the dust. But it’s just a perpetual chase towards disappointment. My 7th burn awaits. I’m planning a return. I have no idea what will happen or who it will happen to, me or someone I know or don’t. It won’t ever be like the first time. It never has been. Some burns this has pissed me off. Some burns I’ve been relieved. And irony or ironies, I wish I could see my friend again to tell him, “I found something to replace that kind of high.” Now, what can I find to replace the playa?

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  • Just a thought here on the “its the people” angle. I have met more than several people pre-opening who have said that they are okay with leaving as the event starts. I have witnessed this in one instance personally. Last year the outflow at the greeter’s station was steady on saturday, and even friday.
    If you go for the people, missing the big burns understandably just does not matter.

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  • This will be year 2 of my not-going to Burning Man. That, after 19 years (with a couple of years off) of attending each year.

    I miss it sometimes, but I am happy with my decision to do other things with my Labor Day holiday.

    The watershed moment for me was in 2011, on the Sunday before the gates opened. A friend who worked for the org walked into the Fandango bar and told us that the gate had been opened 6 hours early…because traffic was backed up from the gate all the way onto highway 80, and so the Nevada Highway Patrol insisted.

    The news sent a chill down my spine. I spent my college years studying geography and land-use planning. And here I was participating in an event that was overtaxing the local resources (the highway) to a spectacular degree. I realized then that I would probably never go back.

    Burning Man is like nothing else I have ever done, and the friendships & experiences I’ve discovered there have changed me in profound and positive ways.

    Thanks, Burning Man, for being awesome! Evolve, entertain, and continue to transform those who participate in your grooviness. I wish you well.

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  • My last year at the event was 2009. First year was 1999. I’d say the first 3 years were the most exciting in the “OMG, mind blown!” sense. After that, I too fell into a routine. Yes, I added volunteering (Temple Crew, Recycling Camp, Temple Guardians) but after 2007’s epic 200+ hours of volunteering before I even got to the playa, I was done. 2007 was the year I put my father’s ashes in the center pyre of the Temple Burn along with a photo memorial and the Temple Burn was truly cathartic… and I was able to let go of my attachment to the event. 2009 was a last second, miracle ticket deal. I rode my motorcycle to the event. My brother hauled out all my shit for me. It was glorious, and freeing. If I go again, it’ll be like 2009 because I can’t do the same routine anymore. Hell, I don’t know if I even know anyone at the event anymore, so maybe it WILL be like the first year all over again… if I go. In all likelihood, I’ll be bringing my son (9 yrs old now) and that will definitely change my experience. The boy has been bugging me to take him for years, so 2014 might just happen for me, we shall see. Dusty hugs to all you 10+ year vets (and you virgins and 2nd, 3rd, etc vets too!).

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  • My 1st year was amazing, but more life-affirming than life-changing. “So that’s where you guys have been!” It really felt like a homecoming. The next year we did a theme camp with the 2nd-tallest scaffolding tower on the playa (this was years ago). I skipped a year and was blown away by the quantum leap in structural magnitude when I returned (Thunderdome’s 1st year I believe). We had a fabulously scandalous theme camp that was a peak experience. Then I had kids and stayed away for years. Finally the co-proprieter of the previous theme camp invited me to join his new one and I threw myself I head first. We built bigger, better, with a more elaborate narrative and even more work. We kept comparing it to the one we did years before. It was physically spectacular and spiritually disastrous. There were episodes of craziness, power trips, shouting matches, meltdowns. I finally had my life-changing experience on the playa by failing to follow my own advice: “Never try to repeat a peak experience.”

    I went back the next year and joined a large non-theme camp full of people I had never met. Made some life-long friends and still love them well. Stayed away for a few more years, did some regionals with my kids, and will return this year with my 12-year-old son, a virgin. Totally different, again. No longer trying to repeat anything, I understand that mixing it up and doing different things, and not so very often, can keep me fresh and open to more and wonderful rewards.

    I await this trip with eager anticipation and without expecting it to be anything other than intense, difficult, and amazing. That will be plenty good enough for me.

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