The Man: Humanity in Transformation | Monthly Forecast | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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The Man: Humanity in Transformation 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:59 pm

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The thing about the Man is that he’s this elaborate artistic creation, different every year, and then we do something very odd by our society’s standards: We burn him. This is the Death card (Trump XIII) on a grand scale: the point of no return; the actual moment of transformation. We release the form and some new element of energy has the room to express itself. By the time this ritual comes, most participants have been pushed to the limits of their physical and emotional reality. Burning Man is “fun,” but it’s fun only to the extent that we give up some of our worldly trappings, our sense of time, our daily routines, our names, and so on. Like most valid rituals, this is one that takes preparation.

Part of that preparation is what we bring to offer the community. Unlike most enterprises in a capitalist system, Burning Man is about what you give rather than what you get. The whole purpose of capitalism is to maximize profit at the expense of the worker and the consumer. The idea of Burning Man is to give resources to the community, at your own expense. This is a missing experience for most of us, who don’t think we have so much to give; and if we do, the idea of actual generosity is often repulsive or seems inappropriate.

The gift culture ranges from the most elaborate perks from corporate America (somebody with a lot of cash on their hands paid for the Opulent Temple) to the most modest offerings of self. The camp that I was staying in, Poly Paradise, offered a daily Human Carcass Wash, where up to 600 people a day came to be washed down from their coating of playa dust.

Part of the preparation involves developing a new relationship to physicality. I’ll give a few examples. It’s really easy to dehydrate in 110-degree heat. Therefore it’s necessary to constantly think about water, which reminds us that we’re made of water. There are ways to measure hydration; you can figure out how much you drink; or count how many times you pee. My personal method is, if my nose is dry, I’m dehydrated.

There’s nowhere to buy food; therefore every meal is a conscious act. You cannot simply “grab a sandwich.” If you run out of food or water, you’re at the mercy of your neighbors, who are usually generous; everyone is in the same condition. (This particular part is easy for me, because my first gig as a cook was in the galley of The Pioneer, a century-old steel schooner, cooking for 14 people. I was reminded again what a valuable talent this is, to be able to prepare safe, tasty food for myself and others under odd circumstances.)

There are no flush toilets. port-a-potties are glorified outhouses, and if we make a mess out of them, they are messy for the rest of us. We literally have to deal with one another’s shit (something that most of us know not about, in the industrialized world). One result is the most impeccably clean public bathrooms you’ve ever seen at an outdoor event. The potties are plastered with public service announcements created by various camps and factions reminding what and what not to drop down the hole—and the admonition that someone will, in fact, have to dig out your Pepsi bottle if you toss it down there.

By my second day on the playa, I was planning my self-care activities one at a time. Find dental floss. Use dental floss. Find toothbrush. Brush teeth. I shaved once; it was a memorable project, involving the spontaneous discovery that I had left my shaving gear in the glove compartment, then boiling half a gallon of precious water. Every step was a conscious act. The result felt like no shave I’ve ever experienced.

Then there are relationships. Those tend to be rearranged in this environment. It’s true that I was in a camp that had relationship-oriented discussion groups every morning (called Poly High Tea) and where we hosted talks on the history and sociology of monogamy. However, all around, people seemed to be tossed around in a kind of relational anarchy—sometimes pleasant, sometimes not—as a result of being confronted by so much intense beauty and so many people bringing out some aspect of their creative fire. In reality, one makes one’s boundaries, rules, and agreements; then what happens, happens.

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