Sunday, October 01, 2006

I've never been to Burning Man...

Lately, I’ve gotten it into my head to write a short story that takes place at an outdoor “alternative culture” festival. Because I’ve never attended one of these, I’ve been busy on the internet reading about people’s experiences at “Burning Man”. If you haven’t heard of Burning Man, let me boil it down for you: it’s a big annual affair where a bunch of stoner-type people head off into the Nevada desert for a week and create a sort of ultra-bohemian utopia, where they enjoy outsider art, bartering for bottled water, twirling, fire dancers and public nudity. At the end of it, they set fire to a big, man-shaped fetish, the act from which the event draws its name.

Now, this has been a tradition for a long time now and each year it gets more and more popular. This, of course, leads to old-timers suggesting that things just aren’t what they used to be, as well as occasional accusations of over-commercialism, appalling and traitorous compromises with the straight world, and general shark-jumping. Since I’ve never been there, I’m not competent to judge whether or not there’s any truth to these charges. In fact, I’m probably not competent to judge Burning Man at all. It doesn’t seem like my thing. People I’ve met who’ve been there tend to speak of it with reverence, like it’s a magical moment that outsiders can’t entirely appreciate*. This is probably true.

Still, while researching it, I thought about my own dislikes and how they ruin that whole festival vibe for me. You see, I’m a hard-core introvert. That doesn’t mean that I’m a ragged, nasty shut-in, though: I love people, I love watching people, I love talking to people and I love meeting new people—I just need to get away from them every so often. I can’t be social for hours on end, much less days, without getting exhausted and testy. Added to that is my lack of enthusiasm for the great outdoors. I enjoy majestic scenery as much as anyone, at the same time I’m attached to running water and air conditioning. Asking me to sleep on the ground is like asking me to crap out a family of sea monkeys: I simply can’t do it. It hurts my macho pride to admit this, but I’m sort of a pale, prissy dude. If I was a Marlboro Man, I’d be staring manfully out at the rugged horizon, silently wondering when the bus would come along to take me back to the day spa.

While I was thinking of all that, I came up with an idea for my own outdoor festival. You can call it the “Insomnia Days” if you like, or you can call it “Bummer Man”. My idea was that it would be held in a patch of the desert directly adjacent to Burning Man, and that it would take place over the exact same stretch of days. Only instead of having a bunch of neo-tribalist, long-haired, deliberately-flamboyant young people dancing about to bongo drums, my festival would cater to a totally different crowd, my crowd, a crowd that’s long been ignored by the festival-throwing scene.

At Bummer Man, you would not be forced to use filthy, foul-smelling, fetid “Porta Potties”. No, Bummer Man would provide its guests with spotless, delicious-smelling and tastefully-decorated bathroom facilities of the sort you find on the streets of Paris, London and Seattle. At Bummer Man, the delicate-constitutioned will not be forced to sleep on the hard desert floor in flimsy tents: instead, we will provide classy accommodations and comfortable cots, so that you will be raised up high enough so that the scorpions can’t sting you. Finally, I imagine one of the most annoying aspects of Burning Man is that for an entire week you just can’t get away from some hairy, naked guy trying to show you the bicycle he’s made out of cow bones. At Bummer Man this will not be a problem. We will have a “decompression tent” where overwhelmed introverts can go and enjoy a comfy chair in a soothing, climate-controlled environment. There will an internet hook-up and a well-chosen library of classical and contemporary novels, as well as an assortment of newspapers.

But perhaps the most important difference will be in the entertainment offerings. From what I can tell, Burning Man has a do-it-yourself ethic, meaning that you probably get a bunch of guys strumming guitars, a bunch of other guys banging on things, and maybe some other guys jamming away on their flutes. Here they cannot compete with Bummer Man. I would do it up right. I would bring in a Cuban jazz orchestra, German avant-garde “electroclash” hip-hop lesbians, Morrissey, an army of Brazilian crooners, and—because I kind of have a little bit of a crush on her at the moment—Algerian-born guitarist/singer Souad Massi. In addition, there would be nightly screenings of rare French noir films, lectures on the Bush Administration’s dangerous consolidation of executive power, and a fashion show focusing on affordable-but-stylish contemporary designs.

There would also be a sno-cone stand.

Finally, I realize that there needs to be a ritual in order for the Bummer Man community to be brought together into a cohesive, cooperative entity. Burning Man, of course, has the Burning Man. Bummer Man, however, will be more participatory. On the last day of the festival, after the Burning Man people have burned their Burning Man, we will all march over to their site as one and, together, we will shout at the hippies to shut the hell up, for Christ’s sake, because people are trying to sleep over here.

And it will be beautiful. And we will come together as one, as though in a miraculous dream.

* When I was in San Francisco a few years ago, I heard more people mention Burning Man in one day than I had heard in 27-odd years living in the Midwest and East Coast. People here, even neo-hippie types, don’t talk about Burning Man. What’s up with that?