Here There Be Magic?

[from zd/2016/0613]

Of course, who am I to say whether or not there is still magic to be found at Apogaea or any other festival? Who am I to define someone else's experience?

Let me share a story. Tickets to Burning Man 2011 sold out within hours of going on sale. The event had never sold out before; everyone was taken by surprise. Substantial numbers of long-time Burners, who'd gotten accustomed to being able to buy tickets well into the summer, suddenly found themselves ticketless. The theme camps whose ranks these Burners filled suddenly found themselves lacking the resources and labor they'd grown to rely on. Without enough tickets, the theme camps said, we can't do what we do. And BMorg said (rightly, I think), "Sorry. That's too bad." And so many of those long-time camps didn't go that year.

The result was a huge shift in the culture. When I first went, back in 2005, photo sharing existed, but not with nearly the ubiquity that Facebook brought to our lives, and so we weren't all inundated with our friends' pictures from Burning Man. First-timers back then substantially didn't know what they were getting themselves into. But by 2011, everyone had seen pictures from Burning Man, everyone knew what it was supposed to look like, and though the many, many first-timers who went that year brought a great deal of new energy, they came with a preconceived notion of what Burning Man was based on what they'd seen in photos. The result was a festival that was more visual and more on-the-surface, with less space to go deep. It was more of a party and less a space geared intentionally toward transformation. Let me be clear: I'm not saying this was good or bad, just that it happened. Things change.

My friend John went that year for the first time. Going in, John's outlook on the world tended toward the darker side. He liked a good party and knew how to have a good time, but he also was world-weary and quite cynical. He didn't seem to find much meaning in the world. But John came back from that first Burn genuinely transformed. He immediately began to make substantial changes in his life. He saw things that were no longer serving him and began to remove them. His outlook brightened. Not long after that Burn, he moved boldly toward a career in which he could legitimately devote his life to helping people. These were not surface changes. He lives them still.

Two years later, my friend Richard, whom I'd met at Apo 2013, went to his first Burning Man. A few weeks afterward, I ran into him at the Denver Decompression party. This was late September, two months after my dad died and two weeks after the Boulder floods filled my basement with raw sewage. I think it's fair to say that things were kinda tough in my life right then, but sometimes you don't know just how much the weight of the world is crushing you down until someone can serve as a mirror for you. Richard threw his arms around me in a big hug, and I just stared at him for a long moment, literally gaping. To this day I think he thinks I didn't recognize him, but honestly it wasn't that. It was that the gulf between our respective energies--his still glowing with joy from the Burning Man experience, mine heavy with grief and loss--was so wide that it left me stunned.

Even after the what I saw as the shift in the depth of the Burning Man experience, John and Richard both went to the desert and came back transformed.

So maybe I am wrong that there was no magic to be found this year at Apogaea. Maybe I don't see it anymore because I've already integrated it into my life. I don't need it anymore. But that doesn't mean it isn't there. I used to say that the starting point for the magic of Burning Man and related festivals was found in spending multiple days in a place where people are really, truly happy. And until you've experienced it, you might not realize just how rare that really is. Perhaps this year's first-timers walked away with wide eyes.

Be all that as it may, I don't shy away from my ultimate conclusion from Tuesday's piece: those of us who were given the vision did not come back and change the world. It's not enough to live with open eyes. We have to step onto the path that lies before us. We can no longer wait. It's time.

Post-Apogaea Recovery: a Parenthetical

Because I carefully marshaled my energy before, during and after, I can say now that this Apogaea was worth the energy I spent on it, but still, here it is three days after, after three nights of sleeping in my own bed, and still today I find myself in such a fog of fatigue that I can barely think.

Worth it, but don't disregard the cost.

Apo Reflections: What I Didn’t See

Last night my friend C.K. and I were catching up about our respective Apo experiences, and the first question she asked me was, "What was the best thing that you saw?" It struck me at first as kind of a strange question--why would what I saw be the most interesting thing to ask me about?--but as I swallowed my initial impulse to waggishly respond something about some cute little raver chick, I realized how odd it was that the question struck me as odd. It used to be that you could basically count on seeing something surprising, remarkable, and even fantastical at a festival.

I hesitated for a few moments as a new recognition of this change sank in. I answered, "You know, I had a lot of fun, but I can't say I saw or experienced anything particularly magical." And C.K. agreed.

The jaded old Burner who grumbles about how the festivals used to be better is a tired cliché in the Burner world, and I've noticed that when I ask people from the new generation if they're having a good time, they are always extremely positive about the experience. But it is deeply hard for me to imagine that they're experiencing much in the way of magic. What the festival seems to provide now is a great party, and the new generation seems to be there for that. They're mostly raver kids. You see it how they dress, how they hold themselves, how they spend their time.

Right now you're probably ready to accuse me of being that boring, jaded old Burner who can't shut up about how it used to be better, but I don't think that's quite accurate, not this time. I think the new generation is completely content to have the festival be nothing more than a party because that's what they're expecting. Why is that? When my generation came back from our first Burns, we said we'd seen a vision for a new world. In the festivals, we saw a model for a more just, more beautiful, all around better society. We believed our culture could change the world.

I don't think the narrow, good-times expectations of the new generation reflects their failure. I think it reflects ours. The new generation doesn't have deeper expectations than big, noisy fun because that's what we brought them. We came out talking about changing the world, but we didn't change the world. All we really ever did was throw great parties.

On Sunday, I re-entered the regular world to the news that a madman had gone to a nightclub in Orlando, FL, and used a big gun to kill 49 people. Allow me to offer this reflection: if ever the world needed some changing, now is the time.

Back From Apogaea

I'm back from my weekend at Apogaea. Somewhat to my surprise, I'm feeling now that this Apo won't end up being my last festival. I spent the entire weekend telling myself it wasn't worth the energy expenditure--right up until the moment that I discovered I'd changed my mind.

What ended up being the difference? I'm still working on figuring that out. The best I can say so far is that the festival experience offers a really interesting place to explore all that I've learned over the past couple of years about maintaining a sense of flow and ease in the face of life's challenges.

Over the rest of this week, I hope to understand better what conclusions I can draw from the experience.


Today I leave for Apogaea, the Colorado Regional Burning Man festival.

There's a reason festivals like this have become so popular. There's a reason Burning Man itself has grown from a population of a few thousand during its early years in the desert to something like 70,000 last year. At their best, festivals can be hugely energizing. I came back from my first Burning Man in 2005 and felt like I was glowing for months. My creativity surged. Whatever energy I put into that first Burn, I got back many times over. And that's not an uncommon experience. The positive impact on one's energy can be genuinely life-changing.

I'm not sure that experience is available to me any longer. We change
and grow, and what was a clear net-positive at one point may be neutral or worse at another. So one intention I have going into Apogaea is to find the answer to this question: is it time for me to close this chapter in my life? The answer will be clear in terms of my energy on the other side of the event. The way I figure it, I come out ahead either way: either I get that charge again or else, by letting go, I free up energy for whatever's to come next.


I've been to Burning Man four times, in '05-'07 and '09. This year will be my fifth trip, and quite possibly my last.

Perhaps such a statement strikes you as unexpected. After all, aren't I championing the greater culture of Burning Man as a force for creative problem-solving during the political crisis I see developing even as I write this? A seed out of which will grow a reformed society?

I fervently hope so. During the week the festival is on, Black Rock City likely has the highest-density population of creative, resourceful, iconoclastic people anywhere in the world. Creating a thriving city in the barren wasteland that is the Black Rock Desert takes extreme creativity, intelligent planning, and a resilience in the face of hardship that you won't find in such concentration in any other city in the world.

But Burning Man is no utopia. It's often spoken of in those terms, but it's intellectually and perceptually lazy to do so. Burning Man is rife with some very harsh contradictions: Burning Man is often seen as a celebration of freedom, even anarchy, but it is run by a centralized organization that need answer to no one--and frequently doesn't. That organization, Burning Man, LLC, (often known within Burner culture as "BMorg" or even "the Borg") is a for-profit corporation whose only income is the ticket sales for entry into the event, yet depends on thousands of person-hours of volunteer labor for the event to happen at all.

More? Burning Man culture extols anti-commercialism, to the extent that BMorg ostensibly bans commerce on the playa--but then undermines the "gift economy" it wants to create by running a cash cafe in Center Camp. Burning Man bills itself as an arts festival, but it discriminates fiercely on what sort of arts it champions--visual artists can apply for grants to get their work out to the playa, but the big sound camps that dominate the nightlife get no such assistance. Burning Man claims to want to foment creativity, but then puts layers of bureaucracy in the way of that creativity--for many creative acts, you need permission.

As I noted in my first post, my experiences at Burning Man have been broadly transformative within my life. But as the years have gone on, the contradictions at the heart of the experience have come more and more troublingly to the fore. To put it succinctly: most of what is wonderful, ebullient, life-changing, etc., about the event comes from the Burners themselves, the wonderful, creative people who devote vast parts of themselves into creating the most vibrant city in the world. Most of what is aggravating, disenchanting, hard-to-navigate, frustrating, etc., about the event comes from BMorg itself or from the volunteers who most willingly do its bidding. Not to say that what BMorg and said volunteers do hasn't been valuable--the event would have long ago ceased to be without their efforts--but on a fundamental level I believe that BMorg radically, narcissistically overvalues itself and undervalues the community that supports it, and it may be that I can no longer directly support, with great blocks of my time (not to mention substantial amounts of money), an organization that treats me and others in such a manner. Perhaps I'll have such a great time this year that I'll be in a big hurry to go back--we'll see. But right now, I'm pretty disillusioned.

Nevertheless, I will continue to be an ambassador for the greater culture that Burning Man has spawned, and will continue to follow the hypothesis that Burning Man culture can ultimately be the breeding ground for the solutions to the political problems that even now are disintegrating the bonds that hold our society together.


Let's start here: I first attended Burning Man in 2005. Among the many changes it engendered in my life, the most important for our purposes here was in my understanding of our day-to-day society (what Burners like to call "Default Life").

A society and the rules under which it operates create a sort of synergistic feedback loop. That is, the society develops governing structures, which then alter the structure of the society, which then alters its governance, which further changes the society, and so on. It's a chicken/egg evolutionary spiral.

Laws and norms are human-made. They can be created, changed, discarded. Therefore, when talking about society, I never believe "that's just the way things are." That's the way things currently are. Anything human-made can be remade.

Why does all this matter? It informs this hypothesis: the vast entrenchment of power in our society, the corruption caused by the self-serving wielding of that power, the betrayal of the non-upper classes for the greater enrichment of the already wealthy, the deification of finance, and the combination of the fascistic drive toward a homogenized social order built on fear and the hypocrisy of those leading that drive have us poised on the precipice of a monumental political crisis and, in response, a commensurate countercultural uprising.

The revolution is coming. Like feudalism before it, capitalism, along with the social/political structures that support it, is dying. No need to mourn: it had its time. Now it's time for something new.

And how does all this relate to Burning Man? Here by "Burning Man" I mean the emergent society that erupts when 50,000 creative people descend on Nevada's Black Rock Desert for a week, build the most dynamic city on Earth, and tear it down again. That Burning Man  operates quite literally by a different set of rules--and far, far more so than the event's central organizers even intend.

If you're looking for something and someone to guide this coming revolution, look to the successful revolutionary society that already exists, and to the people who made it that way.