How Burning Man Changed My Life: Slowly but Surely

(Photo by Ales aka Dust To Ashes)

(Photo by Ales aka Dust To Ashes)

I have always envied people their transformative experiences at Burning Man. Friends, acquaintances, strangers whose stories I read on the internet. “Burning Man changed my life!” they say, and point at one  instance, one specific moment where they realized their life was going to be different moving forward.

This will be my 12th year in a row of attendance at the event, and I’ve never experienced that lightning bolt of differentiation.

Burning Man HAS changed my life, though, just not in the way I expected. It occurred to me recently that my life would be entirely unrecognizable if not for Burning Man. Transformation has snuck up on me slowly, over this dozen years of participation. (more…)

The Experience of a 12-Time, 15 Year-Old Burner

Furthering the dialogue about Kids at Burning Man that Caveat resurrected in his post Growing Up Burning, I’d like to present the perspective of a 15 year old Burner who has attended the event 12 times. Her name is Sydney, and she’s no longer attending the Burn while she’s in high school (apparently, it’s a big deal to miss the first week of high school), but has plans to return as soon as she is able.

Sydney in 2002. Photo by her dad, CTP.
Sydney in 2002. Photo by her dad, CTP.

I’ve known Sydney since she was 8 years old, and I’ve always been impressed at how easily she seemed to adapt on playa. She had an ever-rotating cast of friends who were delighted to take her on adventures, entire camps that considered her their mascot, and a camp-family who adored her and tolerated her terrible manicures.

I sat down with her recently (blue hair, cool glasses, brace on her knee from a snowboarding accident) to ask about her experiences growing up a Burner. The following interview is edited for clarity only based on the transcript of our discussion. The words are hers. Questions in bold are mine.

Is there a good time for kids to start going to Burning Man? Should you take them when they’re babies, or wait until they’re a certain age?

I started going when I was 1 year old, and I went all the way until I was 12. For me it was just a normal thing; my brain had adjusted. That’s how I grew up. The more that kids only see the real world before going to Burning Man, they might not take in the deeper meaning of the event and might think it’s just a party in the desert. Meeting all these great people and see all this interesting art … it really affected me.

I think a lot of my art interest comes from Burning Man, all the kinds of art I do. But I’ve also met a bunch of amazing people at Burning Man, and I think that changed me in terms of experiencing lots of things. I’ve done so many things I wouldn’t have been able to do in Oakland.

What are some of the best things you remember doing at Burning Man, that you could only have done at Burning Man?

I really enjoyed volunteering in the Black Rock Boutique. I got to help sort clothes, but I also got to take the clothes I wanted! Getting to see the Man and the Temple burn are really big parts of Burning Man that I’ll always remember. I also got to meet PeeWee Herman.

Growing up at Burning Man and seeing people naked, in costumes, cross-dressing…does that translate to real life at all?

I see pretty much everything as normal. If I see a guy in a skirt, I pretty much don’t think anything except that he chose to wear a skirt that day … like I got up and chose to put on these socks this morning. I’m not going to get judged for wearing these socks, why should he get judged for wearing a skirt?

Does this kind of acceptance you’ve learned at Burning Man help you out in high school, something that is a traditionally difficult time for people?

It makes it easier and harder: I’m really open-minded, but when I see that other people aren’t as open-minded, and I can’t MAKE them be open-minded, it’s frustrating. I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be so open. My friends are also really open, though, and I learn from them and they learn from me. We’ll go up to strangers in Berkeley and just start having a conversation with them — I think that Burning Man has helped me do this. But Burning Man has also made me a bit closed-minded towards “average” people — I’ll look at them and think “ooo, they’re not going to be cool, I have to find the weird, cool people” … but then I imagine the normal people are also thinking the same thing about us. So I talk to them anyway.

We’re open to hanging out with whoever. My friend group has a punk, two hippies, and then my friend and I who aren’t … anything in particular … but we’re all just coming together and having a good time. Our differences don’t matter.

Were there any downsides to growing up at Burning Man?

I was always the weird kid in class when I was 7 … short dyed hair, glasses, braces, I was the underdog. I was bullied for a couple of years for being weird. The bullies didn’t like that. I wouldn’t blame that on Burning Man though, it’s just more my specific experience, and my willingness to be a weird kid.

When you were out exploring Burning Man, were you treated well by strangers?

Everyone was really nice to me. If I was biking along, people would come invite me to do things, I’d just start talking to people in line. People would always ask me about being a kid at Burning Man — I got a lot of attention for it. I felt like the VIP of Burning Man!

Did they seem to enjoy the fact that there were kids at Burning Man?

YES! When I was little, I’d tell them “I’ve been to Burning Man 7 times!” and they’d say things like “it’s my first time! And you’re 7 and you’ve been to Burning Man a lot more than me!” I felt super cool for that. I’d talk to someone who looked like a hard-core Burner and they’d tell me it was their 3rd time, and I’d say “it’s my 12th burn”. I had a lot of confidence for having gone to Burning Man so many times. It was my place.

What about the people who say that Burning Man is not as cool as it used to be?

There’s a lot more people recently who have been going just for the party, and not for the art. It’s an ART FESTIVAL. If you just come to party and get wasted, that’s not what Burning Man is about. If you’re seeing it as a big party … it sort of is, but it’s an ART party. It’s not just for coming to drink.

Is there anything else you’d want to say to people attending Burning Man?

Take risks. Don’t take BIG risks, but take … a good amount of risks. If you’re going to go to Burning Man, be open-minded. Push your boundaries. If you’re not comfortable with something, try it anyway. Explore, experiment, try new things. Get to know yourself.

Sydney is a high school student in Oakland, California.
Brody is a year-round member of the Art Department who likes ponies and is searching for someone to teach her how to chainsaw-carve wooden bears.

Lost Traditions of Burning Man

I’ll never forget my first sunset at Burning Man. The sun hit the mountains and all around me rose this eerie noise, as almost everyone in sight stopped whatever they were doing and howled, yelled and cheered the sun down. The hair on the back of my neck prickled in response to this tribe of people celebrating the end of a day.

Photo by Coley King

That stopped happening in the last few years, and now the sunsets pass relatively unannounced by our communal voices. What other traditions are vanishing or lost entirely? Burning Man culture is strongly based on oral tradition, and I love a good story, so I (in one case, literally) sat at the feet of those who have been attending Burning Man longer than I, and asked them to tell me stories.

There were dozens of replies, I’ve highlighted a few below. I did not include any of the memories of epic theme camps from years gone by, (Bianca’s Smut Shack! Xara! Jiffy Lube!), as that could be an entire blog post of its own. (more…)

Burning Habits in 30 Days

Newsflash: Burning Man is soon. (Cue panic…go on, panic. I’ll wait. Ok? Are you back? Great, read on.) A quick spin through the internet will tell you that it takes approximately 21-30 days to create a new habit. Even if you procrastinate for a few days (oh, you), there’s still time to get in the groove of some useful habits before the gates of Black Rock City (metaphorically…no actual gates, but lots of Gate) swing open to embrace your soon-to-be-dusty butt.

For what things should I be developing a pattern of behavior, you might inquire? I’m glad you asked.

Image by Olga Degtjarewsky

Ride Your Bike
That aforementioned butt will thank you. Begin by riding down to your locally-owned bike shop and getting your trusty steed a tuneup. Make sure you have an extra tube for on playa, while you’re at it. Then, go ride your bike, a little bit every day! Roll down a street you’ve never explored, run some errands, obtain a baguette and pedal home with it sticking out of your bike basket. If you don’t get used to riding your bike now, your first few biking days on playa will be sore ones. There should be certain cuss words reserved specifically for the feeling of mounting your bike first thing in the morning after riding a lot the day before, if you’re unused to being in the saddle. I bet there’s a German word for it. (more…)

Behind the Scenes: DPW/Gate Work Weekend at the Ranch

When people say “I could put on a Burning Man event, you just need to draw some roads and bring porta-potties, right?”, I wish they could see what happens behind the scenes. The amount of work that goes into the event is staggering, yet much of it is completely invisible to participants. Take for example, the work weekends up at the Burning Man Ranch that start in the spring and continue into summer.

Photo by Miranda von Stockhausen

I attended the last combined DPW/Gate work weekend for the year and, not having a particular task to do, was adopted by Gate.

I spent much of the day in the warm desert sun, painting steps. From my central location, I got to watch the busy hum of activity in the common shop area, as well as a small crew building a small “shack” (which was remarkably well-constructed for something called a shack). I overheard one of the construction managers say to a volunteer: “We don’t care about getting this done fast. We want it to be good.” (more…)

Advanced Gifting: Why Not Adopt a Burning Man Virgin?

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s talk about being Jaded. Have you heard the following from anyone in your circle of Burner friends?
“Yeah, been there, done that. I’m just going to stay in camp.”
“Oh, I saw that last year.”
“Wasn’t the art better in 2005?”
“Ugh, I’m so over it.”

Photo by Brian Vincent

Maybe you’ve even been guilty of it yourself.

Perhaps the soft, smoky tendrils of a tendency towards snark and eye-rolling are starting to creep into your brain, strangling the wide-eyed enthusiasm and the knee-jerk joy.

Is your “yes, and” being slowly replaced with “NO”?

Do you spend entire days in camp, lying on a couch and reading comic books rather than going out to play?

There is a solution, my friends!

Adopt a Burning Man Virgin. It’s as simple as that. 100% guaranteed cure-all for the Jaded that ails you.

Find someone new to the event and take them under your wing, teach them your secrets, answer their questions, listen to them shout “EEEEEE!” with excitement. This process is extra-helpful when started before the event (see the bottom of this post for resources), but also grants great benefits when befriending a newbie on-playa. (more…)

Tips for Shy People at Burning Man

Photo: Jon O.

Hi. Are you shy? Do you have a hard time walking into a camp full of complete strangers and striking up a conversation? Does the idea of walking out of your tent in a crazy outfit strike terror into your heart? Fabulous! My people! Read on.

The dumbest mistake I made my virgin year was expecting the playa to entertain me. Waiting for other people to reach out to me and draw me in, figuring all I’d need to do was show up and I’d somehow be assimilated into the vibe. I was intensely shy, and didn’t have much experience figuring out how to insert myself into an unfamiliar culture. I had all the stuff I needed to survive, except social skills.

Burning Man is full of 50,000 people who are more-likely-than-in-normal-life to want to talk to you due to our participatory culture, but they’re still just people doing their own thing. If you are desperately shy and walking around hoping someone will talk to you- it might happen, it might not. But if you make an effort to talk to other people, the results will likely be good. If you don’t make an effort, you might be disappointed. And lonely. And nobody wants that.

Here are some suggestions that have worked well for me, perhaps some might work for you too. I’ve managed over seven years at Burning Man to transform myself from a desperately shy person into someone who is less-shy and can easily talk to others. Most of the time. I still have my moments of wide-eyed terror and wishing I had a book to hide behind.

Smile. Seriously. Shy people are sometimes seen as angry, aloof, haughty, unfriendly, you name it. Pretend you’re outgoing. Yeah, it’s terrifying. Do it anyway. Burning Man is a good place to practice looking friendly. Smile at everyone until your face hurts. Then take some ibuprofen and smile some more.

Have some conversational starters. Not “lines”, per se, but there’s a few things I’ve found that most everyone wants to talk about. I have great success with sidling up to strangers and asking “what’s the coolest thing you’ve seen today?” or “what’s the best piece of art that you’ve run across?” or the like. Everyone has wildly different experiences! Explore them.

Wear It Anyway! If you bring costumes to Burning Man but then feel uncomfortable going out in them, wear them anyway. You might feel terrifyingly like the center of attention when you step out of your tent in something that pushes your comfort zone, but you look pretty normal to everyone else. Nothing is normal in Black Rock City, so the weird becomes the norm. People enjoy complimenting each other on costumes (if they notice you at all). It’s a good conversation starter, too. Ask that person wearing the fabulous costume if they created it themselves.

Float More, Steer Less. Try an experiment where you let the whims of others dictate your day. Walk up to strangers and ask them for a destination suggestion or an activity. When they say something like “go climb the Man base and check it out” or “go visit XYZ camp and do (activity)”, do it. Once you’ve accomplished that task, ask someone else. Repeat. Have adventures. Or get distracted on the way. Whatever.

Go to an activity you find in the What Where When guide. You’ll meet people there because you’ll all be doing the same thing. It provides context, and context is a great way to meet people.

Meet your neighbors in the next camp over. Bring a snack or a drink or just a smile. Ask where they’re from, how their journey to Burning Man went. Let them know that you’re there to help if they need anything. They will usually offer their help too, and often a seat in their shade and a beer and an invite to sit a spell and chat.

Go to the Volunteer table near Playa Info in Center Camp, and ask if they need volunteers anywhere. Many projects and departments need volunteers. Having a Job makes it easy not to be shy.

The Nuclear Option. If all else fails and you feel desperate yet brave, make a sign (hand-held or on a t-shirt) that says “I Am Shy” and go hang out somewhere. People will come talk to you because, well, shit, we’re all shy sometimes.


Hug Your Greeter, We’re Here All Week

Photo: Phil Steele

Burning Man is the only city in the world in which each citizen is welcomed within its gates by intentional human contact. Often, this takes the form of a hug. Physical contact with other humans, even just the touch of a shoulder or a brief friendly embrace, is an incredible way to create connection. Hugs make our brains happy. What an amazing opportunity we all get, coming into this City in the dust, to be personally Greeted by someone volunteering their time to make sure we feel loved and invited to participate.

In the past six years volunteering at the Greeters Station, I’ve seen a lot of different interaction styles. There’s a huge spectrum from the wide-eyed Virgin racing out of the car to roll in the dust and bang the bell and hug everyone in sight and screech “I’M NOT A VIRGIN ANY MORE!”… to the frustrated, tired person who’s been driving all night and just wants their damned packet of dead trees and NO HUGS LEAVE ME ALONE WHY DO YOU WANT TO TOUCH ME.

Both are understandable. Our emotional baggage stored neatly in the overhead compartment can sometimes shift during transit to Black Rock City. Here’s the thing though- if you show up for your vacation to Burning Man, no matter how long you’ve been driving or how hellish your travels, and you can’t spare a moment for the person welcoming you? If you can’t bring yourself to relax, to let go, to make that shift in your brain towards Saying Yes? I’m of the opinion that you’ll regret it.

As a Greeter, I specialize in trying to gently break the brains of these tired, frustrated folks. I love them. They are my people.  “I understand that you’re exhausted and you want to go get your camp set up,” I say. I tell them that I’m offering them a moment of relaxation and welcome, a brief respite to appreciate that they’re stepping over that invisible line in the dust and into Black Rock City and that everything is now different.

But mostly, I tell them that they will regret not getting out of the car to hug me.

Once they’re in camp and chilling in the shade with a beer, once they venture out into the thumping heart of the City- they will perhaps think back to the very beginning of their time at Burning Man, when they told a stranger NO, I will not hug you. I will not take a moment with you. I will not accept your gift.

Occasionally, while I’m leaning into their cars and telling them this, some of them get it. I see them think for a brief period of time. The hand on the door latch. It opens. They extract themselves from the car and reach for me. We embrace. Sometimes, it’s sort of resentful. Sometimes they tell me they can’t remember the last time they’ve had a hug. Always, they say thank you.

The Greeter Station is your one, 100% guaranteed, invite to participate. Greeters don’t care if you’re shy, if you’re angry, if you have swamp ass from sitting in the car for 10 hours straight.

Hug your Greeter. You won’t regret it.