On Monday night I sat across from my work colleague’s wife at a churrascaria. The attendants circled our dimly lit table with 24 inch meat kabobs as she described a grant proposal she had submitted for an art installation at Burning Man.
She wants to build a secret garden with ten statues in it. The statues would represent a pantheon of her own making, modeled after the ten principles that underpin the Burning Man philosophy. The secret garden would give Burning Man attendees a place to go to reflect on those ten principles.
It sounded like an interesting idea to me: a place containing physical objects that represent radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, self-reliance, civic responsibility, and other things that we all would do well to think more about.
I’m disappointed, though, that she intends to do it at Burning Man.
I know, I know: we assume that it should be built at Burning Man. After all, it’s based on the principles set forth by…Burning Man.
I humbly suggest that that assumption is precisely the problem. And perhaps I’m only drawing this connection because of the current time of year, but to me it looks like the exact same problem that makes the holidays such a stressful occasion for so many people.
See, we make the assumption that that art installation belongs at Burning Man because we assign the act of honoring those ten principles specifically to the Burning Man Festival, and to no other time and place. Similarly, we assign the act of spending time with our families specifically to Thanksgiving and Christmas. We assign the act of changing our lives to New Year’s. We assign the act of showing affection to our significant others (often just of having a significant other) to Valentine’s Day. We create all this pressure for ourselves to do those things at their designated times, which also happens to be when everybody else is doing them.
That herd mentality, that one-itis that we get for doing a thing in a specific time or place, demonstrates our complete failure to examine the genuineness of it.
Am I saying that, when we do something at the same time as everyone else, we don’t really mean it? Oftentimes, yes.
I cannot remember a year when I didn’t, one day in December, go looking for a gift for someone I rarely ever spoke to. I’d scour the aisles of a store, with nothing in particular in mind, just looking for something, anything, because I felt obligated to have a gift for that person at the family gathering. And then I would dutifully trek down to my father’s sister’s daughter’s husband’s house and fork over his carefully-wrapped dual set of chillable beer steins (aren’t they all chillable if you just stick them in the freezer?).
His wife would hand me a bright red box with a bow on it: potpourri. And I’d pity her, because I knew she had made the same desultory run to K-Mart that I had. And I’d pity myself, because now I was responsible tor dealing with this potpourri, which meant either devoting precious space to it in my life or finding a surreptitious way to get rid of it because, even though my cousin had bought this thing out of deference to obligation, she would feel inexplicably crushed if she ever found out that it wasn’t just what I’d always wanted.
People turn Burning Man into their hippie artist outlet the same way they turn Christmas into their good family member outlet. That is “if I get so-and-so a Christmas gift, I am a good family member. And if I go to Burning Man, then I am a non-materialistic, radically-unbiased, visionary free spirit.”
We all identify ourselves according to these nouns that we want to be: a dad or mom, a girlfriend or boyfriend, an entrepreneur, a visionary, an artist, a maker, a straight person or gay person or lesbian or bisexual person, a genius, a writer, a friend, a catch. We compose our self-descriptions mainly of these nouns, and we want to believe that, once we are one of these things, we are that thing now and forever, we have earned that thing.
But that’s not real. We aren’t a collection of nouns, running around being an entrepreneur, or being a good father, or being a visionary. We are people doing things. And maybe we’re building a new business right now, or playing with our children every evening right now, or coming up with a new and accessible way to represent some really-hard-to-understand law of physics. Later, maybe we’re not doing that thing anymore. Maybe our identities are better represented not with nouns that we get to keep, but with a fluid set of verbs of whatever we happen to be doing in our routine that month, or even that week, day, or moment.
It’s much, much harder to put ourselves and others in boxes this way, and it’s also much, much harder to pin up our egos this way. So I wouldn’t suggest it, except that we already know it’s true. We know that we have to connect our ideas about what we are to the things that we do, or else we feel that our identities are disingenuous. And so, we’ve made special occasions into bottom-dollar discount ways to do enough to keep some of the nouns that we want in our self-identities.
Want to consider yourself a good daughter, but don’t want to call your mom every week and see how she’s doing? Just get her a TV for Christmas! Your one-time down payment of $349 guarantees you a full year of feeling like a good daughter. No additional payments of time OR money for 12 whole months!
Who goes to Burning Man? It’s about 5% of the population of the city of San Francisco: a city where you have to make $150k just to live comfortably. The other portion of the pop-up city’s population includes art-making people from around the country and, to a lesser extent, the world.
Not all of the ones who want to go get to go: there are a limited number of tickets, and every year there is a wait list thousands long. Maybe this is a personal bias, but I tend to think that anything with a wait list, anything that has a subset of chosen ones among the ones who want to participate, is de-facto overrated, and it would be possible to find or create just as valuable an experience elsewhere without having to wait (looking for a similar philosophy in a festival without the wait? Check out Transformus, Third Coast, or Flame. And that’s for just the Southeast, where there is a relatively small population of folks looking for this compared to the rest of the country).
And after Tim Ferriss, Elon Musk, and a large population of less filthy-rich but still doing OK people have finished with their days-long, radical experiment in the desert, they can return to their sybaritic lifestyles with full confidence that they are, in fact, non-materialistic, inclusive visionaries—because, after all, they went to Burning Man. And Burning Man is all about that stuff.
That brings me to another reason why it seems ineffective to build an art project about the ten principles of Burning Man at Burning Man. Everyone already has those ten principles top-of-mind at Burning Man: a solid proportion of them will only ever have those ten principles top-of-mind at Burning Man. If it is truly valuable to keep those principles top-of-mind, not just as a festive throwaway experience, but throughout our lives, then I’d argue that an installation honoring the principles of Burning Man would have more impact if installed, say, at any place and time other than Burning Man. How about right next to Trump Tower? How about on the beach (every major city has this beach) where the fire spinners go to spin their fire?
Hell, build it in a parking lot! Can’t you see it now? A bleached-blonde marketing exec ticks down the sidewalk in her Manolo Blahniks, her french-manicured nails clasping her iPhone near her ear as she argues with her boyfriend about just how big she expects the rock on her engagement ring to be—and for God’s sake, “white gold” does not count as gold, honey! She hangs up, exasperated, and notices a cute little garden in a parking lot just off the sidewalk. Well, she could use some time to cool off, and it looks like the Starbucks up ahead has a line out the door right now anyhow, so why not sit down among the potted plants for a second?
Would that art installation have the chance to change that woman’s life at Burning Man? Fat chance: you’d never catch her out there.
Not to mention, it’s a heck of a lot easier to walk into a drip café and present a plan for their back garden than it is to become one of the chosen ones who gets a grant to do the same thing at Burning Man.
I don’t know much, but I have a theory that special occasions would be less stressful if we stopped making them our one opportunity to prove our ideal identities to ourselves. If you did, say, call your mother every week, and then a big snowstorm prevented you from getting home for Christmas, it is my humble hypothesis that you would not feel so bad as if you didn’t call her every week.
You might not even worry too much about the fact that she won’t get the gift you got her: a nice, large vase for her growing aloe vera plant. She knows that you love her, and you can give it to her when you see her in March—and at that point, she’ll remember it much better because she won’t be placing it atop a mountain of other gifts immediately upon unwrapping it. In fact, when you give her that vase just because you wanted her to have it, and not because it’s a holiday, she might appreciate it a whole lot more.
And then Christmas becomes, not a tear-jerking time in which you have to prove yourself to yourself, but a welcome opportunity for something a little extra special—extra, that is, not necessary.
So I have decided to perform an experiment. You are, of course, welcome to join me. I’ve identified a special occasion that I look forward to, and pin very high hopes on, and feel very sad when it doesn’t work out the way I had planned. I’m going to figure out what it is I like so much about that special occasion, and I’m going to try to insert more of it into my regular routine, so that that special occasion does not bear the full burden of giving me that thing in my life.
My holiday isn’t Christmas—though if yours is, that’s perfectly acceptable. It’s not New Years (though this is an excellent one to put more of into one’s routine). It’s not Burning Man, either. I’ve chosen my absolute favorite holiday, Mardi Gras. I love the costumes, and the dancing in the streets to live jazz music, and the sharing of festive soul food with my friends.
God knows my waistline does not need a soul food routine. However, I’ve made a commitment to do several things that I reserve for Mardi Gras far too often. I’ll decorate the Christmas tree to be a Mardi Gras tree right after new year’s (not an uncommon practice in Louisiana, actually, and an easy way for my housemates to foist off responsibility for that tree on me). I found some jazz clubs in Chicago that encourage dancing, so I’ll drag some people to at least one of those. I have two dresses that I normally reserve for Mardi Gras, so I’ll find an occasion to wear one of them. And I’ll cook some cajun food for my friends, too. I’ve done this once, and they want me to do it again anyhow :).
I’m already excited about the plan, which I think is a good sign. I’ll send pictures, if I remember.
I love you all, and I hope you are having a fantastic Christmas day. But even if you aren’t, I humbly submit that it doesn’t have to matter so much.