I think of myself as an observer. Its sort of who I am and how I interact with the world and people around me. I'm not really outgoing, but I am up for trying new things. I participate, but I'm not a ring leader, or even very noticeable. I've been to Burning Man since the Green Man got torched in 2007 (which I mention because I know this post will be read and judged based on how much of a true Burner you think I am), and I've watched the community discussions pulse back and forth over numerous issues. Occasionally, I pause in my life and wonder, if an alien being who knew nothing of our ways was looking down at what we're doing, how ridiculously funny the human race would be. I mean, take skiing for example. We get on a little metal frame hanging from a cable, ride it up to the top of a mountain and then slide down it with boards strapped to our feet. If you had never heard of skiing, you might think the concept would be ridiculously funny (or, at least I would, and I sometimes laugh randomly as I ski down a mountain because of how ridiculously funny I think it is to strap planks to my feet and slide crazily down a mountain).
When people who have never been ask me what Burning Man is, I tell them the following:
Burning Man is what you expect it to be. If you think it is nothing but nudity, debauchery, drugs and alcohol, bingo, you found it. If you think its nothing but frat-boys wandering around with cans of bud-light oogling the naked chicks, hey, look, there they go! If its great artwork and human creativity and ingenuity, bull's-eye. I have never heard a suggestion that someone has put forward as something I might not see at Burning Man that I haven't seen at Burning Man (including 2 nights ago where someone (who was really working to come up with something impossible) described the possibility of a tiki bar serving fresh tropical fruit, mai-tais with misters and Jimmy Buffet to keep you cool. Yep, saw that, the mai-tais were great and it was Jimmy Buffet with a sprinkling of Richard Cheese).
So, too, I say to the experienced Burners. Hey, remember, this event is what you expect it to be, and its also a direct reflection of the people who come. And I see this more and more, as the event gets larger. With more and more people coming, more newbies, the more the event mirrors our every day lives. The discussions going on about "Plug-n-Play" or "Adventure" camps and how to deal with them sounds very similar to city planning meetings talking about land use or home-owner associations discussing the neighbor with the RV parked in front in violation of CC&Rs. What started as almost a "free for all" event now has a pretty healthy set of regulations backed up by fines, law enforcement, penalties, etc. While I personally feel a loss of freedom at this daunting list of do's-and-don'ts, I also recognize that you can't just have 50k people show up and all behave. Especially with all that nudity, debauchery, drugs and alcohol that's going on. Sheesh.
Every year I poke around on the Burning Blog and ePlaya and get discouraged when I read the impassioned discussions about "Burning Man is OVER" and "It used to be so cool and now it sucks" and "You're not a real Burner!"/"No, YOU"RE not a real Burner!"/"Well, I'm more of a real Burner than YOU are!". It gets me down, and I think back on the bad experiences I've had (that EVERYONE has had) at Burning Man and think, meh, I'm not going this year.
And then I remember: Burning Man isn't JUST what I expect it to be. The magical thing about Burning Man is all the things that happen that I DON'T expect:
Its the girl in the pink fuzzy bikini riding the pink fuzzy bike giving me a CD of music for the drive home my first year, which turned out to open a whole new world of musical exploration for me.
Its Michael Christian's "Elevation" art piece (the 40' tall stainless steel high chair, 2008).
It was ME! jumping out of my chair to come to the aid of a burner who's bicycle drive train literally exploded right in front of my camp, and seeing her look of absolute astonishment when I pulled out my bike stand and all my bike tools and fixed her bike while my camp mates offered her food and drink.
It was the random exodus party of strangers that started completely randomly 1 hour into a 4 hour exodus and continued with waves and flashing lights down the highway until we were all scattering out on our own way homes.
It was my wife's first burn and we didn't get a single dust storm!
I know I can't control what Burning Man becomes. I am just a single tiny pixel in this Hi-Res image. I try to be the best pixel I can be: I want the aliens to laugh.
In the end (I remind myself), there's really no difference between Burning Man and everything else in life. Its a week in the desert where certain social norms are exchanged for other social norms, but the formulas for behavior are the same. Humans are great adapters, and I am constantly amazed whenever I see the lengths people go to PRESERVE their thought processes in such an extreme environment. Whether its the newbie sparkle-pony who bought all her burner gear at a mid-town store 2 weeks before the event (to satisfy a perceived social norm of what a burner is supposed to look like), to the "culture" camps that recreate traditions for specific religious/heritage/culture groups. That might read critical/cynical, but I don't mean it that way. After all, we're all just pixels in the image. I can choose to snub those people's efforts, or open myself to them and learn something. For instance, I can possibly learn where to score a great deal on EL-wire or other costume supplies from the sparkle pony, or I can attend a Jewish Sabbath ceremony, or attempt to live a day as a raver.
For me, Burning Man offers a blank slate. Literally for me as an artist and sculptor, and personally as a way to experience different ways of thinking and challenge myself to break down my own thought habits and judgements.
And, MOST IMPORTANTLY, reminding myself that I don't need to be out on the desert to do this. Yes. That means today, too.