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Burning Man and the World I've Returned To

by Shady Backflash (continued)

One thing about Black Rock City is that one does not really have a chronological experience of it so much as a total immersion in it. So that one day you are hanging out talking to your friends and a guy from your camp might walk in wearing a dress that he picked up from Cross Dress For Less, or else you might be walking across the playa and hear someone announcing "Homoerotic Mexican Grab Ass Wrestling" matches, or the folks in your camp might say that they are going to Pinky's, the "bar" on the corner, to get drunk and watch the pole dancers, and it all just blends into a wonderfully wacky (and highly sexually charged) environment.

There is also Black Rock City's notion of a new economy called the gift economy. The idea is that in modern materialist society, we are "valued" for what we own, whereas at Black Rock City, people are valued for who they are, and often this is conveyed by what people are willing to contribute of themselves. They contribute through art and costuming, through giveaways, through performance, through elaborate and simple gestures, and, most of all, through sincere expressions of themselves in whatever form they choose. The gift economy is at the root of radical self-expression and it is loosely defined in order that each participant can determine for themselves what they wish to offer to the collective organism.

By day I decided to dress in a hospital gown and propeller hat and wander the playa with a piece of hazard tape which read "CAUTION ACID HAZARD" wrapped like a sash across my chest carrying a sign which read "Ye Olde Oracular Numismancy Readings." Numismancy is the art of reading fortunes based on what sort of spare change people have in their pockets. Since most people on Black Rock City had neither pockets nor change, it was, in all honesty, a bit of a lost art, so I would occasionally appease people by offering them a Tarot card or two.

Beyond all the zaniness and debauchery, though, there is a deep rooted spiritual core to Burning Man that is not imposed on anyone, but is as easy to detect as the blaring techno music and blinking neon wildebeests. At one point, I was out on the playa and noticed a Kali like statue, a beautiful, amazing statue, and at its feet was a book in the dust which said "Prayers For Our Mother Earth." I picked up the dusty tome and a dust encrusted Sharpie (that barely wrote) and left a message. The book was to be burned with The Man on Saturday night.

My first experience of Burning Man was in '98 and I found it totally enthralling and inspiring, but the night of the burn itself disturbed me greatly. The Burn night was a night of total chaos energy and while I was moved by it, it also upset me because a lot of people were throwing lots of plastic into the fire and people were burning mattresses and lampposts and anything in sight. When I got home and wrote an article on the experience, which was later published by Magical Blend Magazine, I pointed out how this had disturbed me. The following year, the population of Black Rock City doubled and with the doubling, restrictions came, so the night of the burn was much more contained and, by comparison, felt restrictive and sanitized. The free flowing charged energy of the evening was replaced by RULES. This was, for me, a really interesting insightful look into the entire concept of external (rather than self-imposed) regulation. On the one hand, there was far less burning plastic. On the other hand, I could feel the wild, impulsive sense of freedom and chaos that the burn night evoked in me disappearing into a "moderated" experience. The element of danger was gone, as was much of the element of surprise. My adrenaline was not pumping. Instead, in '99 I sat in the "audience" with thousands of others, and watched The Man burn like a Hollywood movie prop. (Mind you, this was also only months after watching 18 very real tractor trailers burn some few hundred yards from our booth at Woodstock '99 so not having frat boys rush at me threatening chaos didn't exactly bother me. I just noticed that something which seemed much wilder was becoming more and more domesticated.)

This year, the night of the burn my mind flashed to the memory of my friend dying in a fire. As I saw The Man burst into flames, I imagined Dean burning to death, and I was gripped with a certain haunting feeling, but I released it to the fire and was willing to accept that his time had come. He was ready to pass on to the mystery that is death, and I was still here, needing to make my peace with that. It was an intense evening even without the wanton destruction that the '98 Burn seemed to be. And, truth be told, I didn't smell the overwhelming and unforgettable stench of '98's burn night (much of which I guess could be attributed to burning plastic and other things that shouldn't be in the fire) to quite the extent that I had then, so that was a relief.

Walking the playa that night, I allowed myself to experience the quiet sense of sorrow that I knew was lingering grief over the loss of my friend. But Black Rock City is not a place where one can remain unhappy for any extended period of time unless one really wants to be unhappy. I found myself walking the Esplanade (the Main Strip) and came upon The Beggar's Bar. At this bar, people would take a seat and be bullyragged and harassed by muppets until they either took a dare or had otherwise proven themselves to be worthy of a free drink. I watched as a muppet of Death gave one after another person a hard time and then took a seat just after a new muppet, an orange dog-like creature with a tassle, which it called a doolybopper or some such thing, came out. I tried to reason with this muppet for a spell and the muppet taunted me, saying that I could have a drink if I bit its doolybopper. At that, I lunged at the doolybopper and caught it in my teeth. The muppet let out a theatrical yelp and a cup of wine was immediately forthcoming. I walked away with a smile on my face. The muppet had reminded me that I was not in Anytown, USA and that if there was anyplace on the planet that I could experience good grief, it was in Black Rock City among 20,000 of the most interesting artistic free spirits on earth.


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