🎵 The song for this post is Disco Inferno, by The Trammps. 🎵
I'm a few weeks back from the mud, how was Burning Man?
The best I've ever experienced it
This was my third Burn. If you'd asked me in June, I would have told you I'd sworn them off: my first two times (in 2017 and 2018) were with Karen and a camp with whom I had significant value differences. I always came back depleted and defeated.
One of the most impactful things my dad ever told my siblings and I, when I was maybe 9?, was "who you marry is the most important decision you'll make in your life" (my mom is his second marriage). He argued:
"Imagine you love your job, you go in every day and have a wonderful time, but when you come home, you bicker and fight; you two make each other unhappy. You spend most of your time feeling good at work, but are you happy in life?
Now flip it: imagine you hate your job. Every day you walk in and you can't wait to escape. It stresses you. But when you come home, it's someone you love, who loves you too. You laugh together over dinner. In this scenario, are you happy? It turns out your job, like nearly everything else, doesn't matter to your happiness: it's mostly about who you're coming home to and share that space of your life with."
It made sense, even at 9: whatever "work" meant, it's what they did while I was at school, so it was at least that impactful. Whatever happened at school, it was just at school. Home was home.
I mention this to say: Burning Man is a lot of things. In terms of spectacle and novelty, I can't think of a way to experience more. It's truly one-of-a-kind, and I stand by what I said even after my first, sad time: "It's not easy to get a ticket, it's not easy to go, but if there's a path for you to go I think you should strongly consider it."
Like my dad's marriage example, none of the spectacle or novelty matters as much as the people you go and/or camp with.1 As I've alluded in other posts, my relationship with Karen was comprised mostly of "learn from this" material, with only little corns of "replicate this in future relationships." In 2017 and 2018, with the ingredients at play, there wasn't really a hope for a great Burn.
This time, there were several instances where I was looking at my campmates, nearly in tears, feeling so blessed to know them and be there with them. Thinking of inviting them to my wedding, whenever that happens. Feeling like I'd met such a motley group of the most generous, interesting, capable people, who I doubt I would have met otherwise. Feeling valued and appreciated for being exactly who I was, while also feeling supported by exactly who they are.
I'm going to post some photos of art, and it's definitely amazing. But the highlight was the people.
(some personal asides, since I'm already mentioning my ex…)
I was relucatant to include this, partially for optics. I've written a ton about my Karen relationship on here before, and I'd hate to seem "not over it" or still fixated. But as Saurya pointed out reading a draft of this: how could I not mention us? Burning Man, other festivals, and the communities around them were a major part of our relationship, both where it worked and where it ultimately broke. For anyone who knew me or us, going back at all, and embracing the side of myself that hungers for life in this way, was a big deal. To avoid mentioning us would be as conspicuous as reviewing a steakhouse and talking entirely about the salads.
Anyway, at one sunrise with my camp, feeling full of love, I had two pretty big emotional revelations:
- "This is the Burn she wanted me to have." Karen and I'd met weeks before her first Burn in 2016, and she came back transformed. A year later, she tried her best to make my first Burn special. I have beef with her and how the relationship went down, but in this she really tried, actually. Life doesn't reward effort for its own sake (I tried too), but this week gave me a much more profound appreciation of her experience and intention. It's tragic that the only way I could have this experience, one she tried to craft for the person she thought she was falling in love with, was because she was out of my life.
- One of the primary motivations behind moving from NY to SF was because she wanted to be closer to her Burning Man communities. As stated previously, I had value differences with many in the camp. But imagining she felt like I did this go-round, it gave me a bit more empathy for her desires to destroy our NY life and flawed relationship to come here.
What was the path?
How does one "un-swear-off" something? This was how I ended up going back:
- Of all the events in our "festival circuit" from my previous life, there was one that I sometimes had a great time at. Feeling adventurous in May, I got a little posse together and we went in July. Despite record-breaking heat, it was a beautiful time, and got me missing the parts of BM that I liked.
- One of that posse got invited to Burning Man by her friend, and she in turn invited me. Her husband couldn't go (it's a large commitment on short notice, especially if you're not sure you're going to enjoy it). She'd known I was ringleader for the prior festival and that I'd been to Burning Man before. We both gave it a week to think it over.
I was initially skeptical, but then when I looked at my reasons for going and my reasons for not going, the "going" ones were all hopeful, and pointed to a ceiling of unknown height, whereas the "not going" ones felt like fear. "What if I can't hack it?" "What if the assholes from the last camp were right and I'm just not cut out for this?" "Am I too depressed? Too different from these White hippies?" I'm smart enough to have rationalized more reasonable-sounding excuses, and a good enough actor that I could sell them (probably around narratives of pragmatics and self-care), but emotionally I'd know it was because I was afraid. In 2022 I didn't have the spoons to go for it, but I felt capable this year.
My copilot Tammie and I met up for coffee and we both, independently, said "hell yes we want this." I suddenly found myself having 3 weeks to prepare 😅
More about the magic
It's hard to describe, but I'll take a crack:
We need Oxygen to live. A neat science fact is that the air we breathe is only ~20% Oxygen, and about ~78% Nitrogen. What would it feel like if you could live somewhere that was 80% Oxygen? How would your breathing change? Your exercise, your singing, your lovemaking?2
Black Rock City changes so many variables, so drastically that weird, delightful things start to happen in your psyche. A few I note:
Decommodification (one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man): life doesn't become about transactionality (at least, not the money kind). It's like being on an alien planet: people try to see you. They offer themselves and whatever they can because they want to, sincerely. You really don't know how much Nitrogen you're breathing until it gets taken away; changing the underlying fabric of nearly every interaction you have, for an entire city, is a shock to the system.
Disconnection. Almost everyone there isn't getting enough signal for their phones to be useful. It's more radical than most vacations because it's not just turning off your Slack notifications or refusing to check email, you can't really do anything related to the outside world, nor can you even communicate with your friends at the event. If they're not right in front of you, you just have to trust they'll return, or let it go and trust they're on an adventure. You'll often be that "lost friend" to a different group.
Time pressure (or lack thereof). With the above two, and knowledge that you're just there until your scheduled, high-effort exit, you can let yourself ignore normal sleep schedules or meal times and just exist in the present to a degree that's harder to do in the default world. Sleep when you want, eat when you want, but really, what do you want, right now? and the answer can be pretty much anything…
Different mix of abundance and hardship. "…except a flushing toilet and a warm shower." You go back to a tent (or yurt, or RV) instead of a real room. You're probably using awful portapotties. You never sweat, weirdly. But you're also never bored because there's just stimulus in every direction. If you get hungry you can almost always bike around and someone is offering to feed you something that's impractical to make in the desert, and they made it anyway. If you need shade there are countless of the most comfortable lay-down spots you've ever experienced.
When you're bathed in this for long enough, you can't help but come back changed. I hadn't used a keyboard in nearly 12 days and it took a few hours before I could type comfortably again.
I came back to SF with more resolve to rely less on my "dopamine factories." I've now stayed off Twitter since August, whereas for the last 13 years, I was opening it habitually, almost involuntarily, anytime I was unstimulated. Now I sometimes close my eyes, try to remember immediacy and/or allow myself to be mindful of my present state instead of trying to stimulate myself out of it.
I have a theory that I fell in love with Jazz music (specifically, the hard bop era) because it forced me to meditate: when you're listening to it, you have to be present in the moment, and can't let your mind escape to a different topic or worry. A bit like theatre, it taught my brain to slow down and live in the present when all it wanted to do was spin. Theatre also taught me to not fear my feelings, and to have them in front of other people as my whole self.
I still struggle with these, especially with the pressures of day-to-day life. Being in Black Rock City was like a week-long sugar cleanse, or a meditation retreat. You can't make permanent, meaningful change by sprinting for a week; no amount of science or rehab can mend a broken bone like time can. But a complete rejiggering for longer than you can hold your breath can remind you things can be different, and much is in your control. Black Rock City is artificial and unsustainable, but knowledge is a forever gift, and you can get some from being there.
Fantasies of what I'd bring next time
I got to asking campmates "what would your art car be?", and one new friend responded with "I think it'd be a giant dumpling," which tickled me so hard. It's fun to fantasize.
This year, Tammie and I did everything we could for a limited set of skills:
We got there just a hair early and helped hoist structures in the camp. We were there until the end of strike and left in a caravan with the last folks to leave.
We brought a truck and helped load a lot of stuff in. The bigger impact was probably all the stuff we hauled out: about 24 bags of trash and a lot of destroyed/decrepit furniture our camp no longer needed. At least one of the bags leaked so we named our truck "trash juice."
We cooked dinner for camp one night. It was Hainan Chicken Rice with cucumber salad, and boba tea for dessert.
Various other odd jobs and shifts.
For first-time members of the camp, this feels like standard fare: you become hands and arms and legs when needed, but it's hard to truly lead major efforts, especially since we joined three weeks before the Burn. If you're looking to join a camp next year, jobs like these are a good target.
Another way to contribute, frankly, is vibes. It's easy to overindex on this, and dangerous to give yourself too much credit (like being "cool" or "sexy," you can state this about yourself but it's only really credible if other people use those labels on you too). One thing Tammie and I tried to contribute is what I call the "Hollywood and Rock'n'Roll" factor, after this amazing post by Bret Devereux on the importance of the humanities (emphasis his):
[...] the steady marginalization – as a matter of education and funding – of the humanities in favor of STEM in the United States has been motivated by the need to ‘win’ geopolitical contests. And perhaps the most obvious benefit of the humanities, particularly in the geopolitical sphere, is the soft-power aspect of a robust culture ‘industry.’ No rocket, no weapon-system of any kind was as instrumental in the collapse of Soviet Communism as Hollywood and Rock’n’Roll – or more correctly the vast culture edifice that those two ideas are used to represent. The Soviet Union wasn’t defeated with missiles, after all, it collapsed from a failure of ideological legitimacy; a crisis of words not numbers.
Even if you weren't in a position to design the camp's layout in CAD, or work with the greywater service, there's a lot of power in just making every space you're in more amazing. Be sincere and truly yourself, but also let every interaction remind your camp, particularly when things get hard, of why everyone's doing all this work in the first place. If you can't be a missle, try to be Hollywood and Rock'n'Roll.
Okay, but what about art? What would be a dream for bringing in next year?
Most attainable: the PlayStation
I'd love to bring my play readings to Burning Man. I'd make a sign, a shade structure (or sit in a piece already in Deep Playa) and facilitate play readings, call it the PlayStation.
I did a low-effort version of this: I brought plays and a shade structure, but had a few issues I couldn't solve. We still read a lot of Five Times In One Night because it's such a perfect party trick: each play is a 10 minute commitment, approachable, and brilliant. But I'd like to facilitate some longer pieces, maybe even get it in the What Where When book.
Full length pieces feel hard for that environment: 90-minutes to 120 minute commitments for a passerby is unlikely. People may be under the influence. But with only a little more prep I'm pretty sure I could do this.
Stretch and very unlikely: Worry Dolls
One thing I asked is "how could I bring Guatemala to Burning Man?" The best idea I had was "giant worry dolls." I had a friend who worked on La Victrola, a giant gramophone that sat in Playa. "Giant sculpture" in the desert is a pretty common theme, and you'll see some in the photo dump.
I've always loved worry dolls. They feel very Guatemalan, they're so small and simple and always make my heart hum. I loved the superstition as a child. My ideal sculpture would also play marimba music (it's the national instrument of Guteamala, and a key sensation of going there. This is my grandparent's love song), to give us a break from all that EDM.
The main obstacle is I've never done anything like this before in my life. But an old coworker of mine, Bree Hoffman, is an inspiration to me. She brought Shelly the Crab and built The Prodigal Swan. She once presented internally at ClassPass about the very beginnings of Shelly and when we all asked how long she'd been building (surely she grew up learning these things), she told us not very long at all; she was just inspired by her trips to Burning Man less than a decade ago.
It's easy to forget, but: you can acquire skills, even exotic ones. The biggest obstacle for most people is having the courage to start, the courage to be unskilled at it for a very long time. After that, the persistence to keep going. I'm learning this with accordion now, and maybe next year is too soon, but if I really want worry dolls at Burning Man, there's no reason they can't be there in 2026.
Never gonna happen: the Pablo art car
When I've played with AI Image generators, there's one image I always try that they still struggle with, and it's my answer to "what would your art car be?": an accordion with beefy biceps. And probably a mustache, idk.
Everything I've read about "advice for making art cars" is "don't," followed by "seriously, please, for the love of God: don't." So on top of the skills gap above, I figure life would have to surprise me pretty strongly to consider building an art car. But life has surprised me, so maybe someday, you'll get a ride in the Pablo car: a double-decker where the bottom floor is a playreading lounge and the top is a gym setup with forever pull-up competitions, all while blasting Michel Camilo and Tito Puente (again… too much fucking EDM).
Wow, you've become That Asshole
For most of my life, "person raving about Burning Man" was a strong indicator that this person sucks ass and drives me crazy. It may surprise you to hear that's still true. Something I've always said (and still believe) is "every criticism you hear about Burning Man is correct." The difference is that there's also a ton to love about it, and with 70,000 attendees, you'll meet all sorts of people and can have any kind of experience.
If you want to read some criticisms (and/or mine), I've got a whole section with links in my 2018 post. This year I really liked Moira Donegan's piece. An email exchange with my dad, who forwarded me the article:
Per the author, there are only two types of people who go to Burning Man. Which are you, Pablo, a "reactionary tech mogul" or an "earnest hippie?"
Alright, photo dump
You made it to the end of the text! Here are a bunch of photos and captions 😄
1.^ A note here: you can also go alone. Open Camping is a thing, and almost all camps have people they bring in last-minute without too much context. That's a different adventure for sure, but understand that doing this is a very different journey.
2. ^ idk, maybe nothing actually changes, I'm not a scientist. Go with the metaphor!
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