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Afterburn

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It’s been nearly two weeks now since I left the playa. The blog posts are up, the story is written, the video has gone live, and I’m about to embark on my next mission on Monday, to Mexico City. But I wanted to share a few parting reflections on the weirdness that is Burning Man, as well a photo of me in my Burning Man best on the final night of the burn (you’ll have to read to the bottom to see that).

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On the flight out, I had been reading a column in The New York Times predicting that President Obama would fail spectacularly in his push to reform health care if he neglected core American values of individual liberty and personal choice. Politically, that may be inescapably true. But in practice, I found it hard to understand how Obama could hope to preserve the nearly total freedom from government interference some Americans consider their birthright, alongside with a sense of collective responsibility to ensure everyone has some modicum of care.

It’s not a conundrum facing only for the president. The Jewish community is also struggling to square that circle, as the institutions that represent the sense of obligation towards the Jewish collective face the possibility of demise even as we experience a wellspring of incredible creativity from younger Jews insistent on living their Jewish lives on their own terms. Is it possible to have both?

That was the question swirling in my head as I arrived on the playa, and I wondered if, amid all the craziness that was to come, Burning Man might provide a clue about how to achieve nearly limitless self-expression and a strong sense of communal responsibility at the same time. Certainly, there is an abundance of both in Black Rock City. Most of us have heard about the folks who walk around naked, or dance ecstatically until daybreak, or build bizarre works of art way out in the desert.

But BRC is also a place where each morning I enjoyed a fresh cup of coffee from a group of Portlanders who brewed thermos after thermos and called out to passers-by to come get their morning fix. It’s where one night, at 2:30 in the morning, I enjoyed a hot soy chai latte while jamming on a piano that a California couple had hauled out to the desert. It’s where you can take tango lessons, or get a shiatsu massage, or take a hot steam bath, or enjoy popcorn and a movie — or a thousand other things, all offered in exchange for nothing more than the pleasure of giving.

A photographer who has been coming to Burning Man for more than a decade told me about being out on the playa one day and seeing a tiny speck of white far off in the distance. Curious, he rode his bike toward it to discover it was a refrigerator. He was so far out he could barely see the city, but there in the emptiness was a functioning fridge stocked with cold beer. And the amazing thing, he said, was that there was a healthy choice of options from all the people so thrilled to find a cold beer in a dusty desert they returned to restock the fridge and offer the same experience to others.

Cynics will say such things are ultimately unsustainable, and they’re probably right. Someone has to go earn a living to pay for all that coffee and beer. And the conditions that make this kind of living possible are fairly unique — BRC is a harsh place and few would make it without some help. Participants are also a self selecting group — only those attracted by the ethic of the place spend the money and go through the hassle necessary to participate. And when there’s no money to be made because nothing is for sale, a far gentler form of transactionalism takes its place.

None of this applies beyond Black Rock City, nor are they likely to any time soon. But as a number of folks suggested to me, maybe it’s possible to take some of that feeling back to the real world.

Frankly, I’m skeptical. Nor would I necessarily want much of what goes along with the Burning Man culture to become the norm in the streets of my city. But having experienced the remarkable creativity and generosity of the place, I can’t say I would be entirely opposed either. And any place that could make this normally buttoned-up journalist wear pink spandex can’t be all bad, right?

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