Hello, I am back. Because I still think of this as sort of a science blog, first, I am proud to report that my weeklong sojourn from lab was not without science: I rolled up to the Phage camp just in time for “Ask a Drunk Scientist,” and as luck would have it, at that moment, I WAS a drunk scientist. “Help, I need a neuroscientist–they’re all asking how alcohol works,” one of the Phagelings said. PUT ME IN, COACH, I replied. Twenty minutes later we had covered endogenous opioids, the role of dopamine in pleasure and movement, the communication through coherence hypothesis, and why no, magnets will not heal you, hippie. Never trifle with an MRI researcher when pseudoscience is on the line.
I also spent a good amount of time on my favorite giant science-mobile, Dr. Brainlove (experience the magic through the power of sound here). And I enjoyed tons and tons of non-scientific programming, too, obviously. It was, in short, wonderful. There are pictures of some parts, while others will just have to live on in memory. But what I’m here to write about today is the way the burn has been covered in the media. I am very, very disappointed in it, and I will begin by letting someone I hate tell you why:
“My take, having spent 20 hours walking the streets of this place, is that if your takeaway from looking at the art and the participatory effort that goes into something like this is ‘there were naked people!’ then that’s a reflection on you, not on Burning Man.”
Grover said a smart thing, there. Where he bemoans the focus on naked people, you could easily substitute “dubstep” or “steampunk weirdos” or “fire poi dancers” or “tech bros” or whatever else you hate. For me, that thing is “white people in Native American headdresses.” But time spent complaining is a tragic waste. Seriously, have a coconut water and a nap if you’re cranky–you’ll be right as rain in a few hours. And if, after all of that, you still can’t find something to not hate, there is no hope for you in any world, on the playa or off.
But ok, Grover, that’s pretty much the only thing you’re right about. You and FoxNews really need to quit it with this “no taxes and no government” libertarian horseshit. It’s insulting. That ticket price, half a month’s rent for me, symbolizes trips to Europe I will never take, and I’m not even sorry. It goes to fund the building of fences to keep the event Leave No Trace, the medical tents, the wonderful Black Rock Rangers, and tons of other infrastructure that people arrive early and leave late to work and sweat for because they care. This is a city that stands ready to take care of its citizens, whether they end up needing it or not.
Even so, Black Rock City is not, nor was it ever meant to be, a model for how the world “should” be. Most burners will tell you that, by day 7, they are in many important ways very ready to go home. Even the ones who refer to said home grudgingly as “the default world.” Because we know that this isn’t sustainable. Those port-a-potties are gnarly. You need to sleep at some point. You need a shower. You need to not be standing on what is essentially a giant battery during a lightning storm. There are many reasons why it All Must End. Grover’s championing this event as a model libertarian society misses the point in ways that even your dumbest, dirtiest, hippie understands.
Grover isn’t alone, though–know who else misses the point? The authors of every single article (here, I’m linking only to the mothership) bemoaning the demise of Burning Man due to its being overrun with the “tech elite.” Get your heads out of your asses. Dig deeper than the most superficial layer of your own crusty blogospheric navel lint. Grover couldn’t singlehandedly destroy something beautiful that seventy thousand people built, and neither can your expensive tech camp (and seriously, if it takes you $25,000 in camp dues to have fun at Burning Man, I feel sorry for you, you overmoneyed, hapless buzzkill). I met dozens of insanely friendly people and I have no idea what any of them do for a living (except that topless woman with a half-shaved head and a megawatt smile who turned out to be a nurse–we definitely got her address, since her camp was considerably closer to ours than the medical tent). Some of these people might have been tech douches. I will never know, I was too busy watching them become overwhelmed by something like understanding the True Meaning of Christmas, and it was beautiful.
And in the meantime, all those touting Burning Man as tech’s logical innovation incubator? No. Burning Man is fun. That’s all it is. Plain and simple. It’s absolutely true that too many people find themselves with the job, money, and respect they’ve always craved, only to find their lives void of any meaning. The immediacy of this blessed event can be transformative. We’re not used to feeling like we’re exactly where we need to be, doing exactly what we need to be doing. The fear of missing out, in the default world, is crippling. Setting that aside can show you who you are and what it is you want out of life. The hedonism, in this way, is enough to change you. Knowing how happy you are capable of being is a great impetus for clearing away everything that holds you back in life. In that sense, sure, it is at least in theory possible that this silliness leads to innovation. But that’s hardly the point.
Putting aside the issue of what utilitarian good may come out of Burning Man, because it is gross, grosser than the port-a-potties, we turn our attention to the seemingly most anomalous spot on the playa: the temple. People leave all sorts of inscrutable mementos and memorials in all corners of this (nondenominational) sacred space. This week of hedonism requires homage to those who have helped us find our way but who cannot be there with us. When the temple burns, the enormity of the blaze reminds all in solemn attendance that they are not alone in their suffering, that the togetherness of our mementos and our time here on the playa can be a source of strength.
This year, I watched two burly men use a power drill to affix some sort of golf tournament plaque to a temple wall, in remembrance of someone they had lost. They let deep, ribcage-wracking sobs escape as they hugged each other fiercely. As they patted each other on the back, I heard affirmations murmured, bubbling up through gobs of snot and heartbreak. “It’s you and me now, buddy. We’ve got each other. I love you.” I wasn’t sneering at them for their choice of golf, a blueblooded, eco-horrific pastime. I didn’t tell them their bro hobby was ruining Burning Man. Nobody was laughing at the sight of two grown men crying and hugging. These big dudes were hurting. They had come to the desert to face their hurt together, and to eclipse it for seven days with a happiness too big to torpedo with rumination, regrets, or fear. I snagged a few squares of toilet paper from a woman next to me as my boyfriend assured her friend, “It’s ok, you’re in good company. We’re all hot messes here.”
We are all hot messes here, even Grover and the tech douches. It’s absolutely worth it. It doesn’t ruin it. Mess is, of course, the price of fun.