A line in the sand

Photo by Howard Banwell (Creative Commons License)

This is a slightly fictionalized account of true events

The naked man jumped up and down below us.  “This is undemocratic!” he shouted, spittle flying, “and unfair! And not participatory!  And not communal!”  He pointed.  He was electric, jerky, energy coursing through him, high and tweaking and just getting higher.

From the roof of the station, Christa called down:  “If you don’t let us alone, I’m going to have to make you suffer like you’ve never suffered before in your life.”

She was doing it to protect me.  Something dark had been chasing me all week:  I’d come to Burning Man and couldn’t quite figure out why.  No matter how nice people were,  I just wasn’t fitting.  Less than an hour after my arrival I was being driven around on an art boat at sunset to look at sculpture installations while topless girls danced and I opened bottles of champagne … and I was a square peg in the roundest of holes.

It got worse every day.  I smiled, I laughed, and festered.  I was lonely no matter what the size of the crowd.  Intimate conversations were like eating the flesh of my friends.  My limbs turned into dead skin and I dragged them from party to party.  I told a few people about it, old comrades.  “We’re so glad you’re here,” they said.  “It’ll get better.”  It got worse.

Finally, one day, after the desert and my volunteer position had chewed me up and spit me out, I told just a few friends that I needed them.  I was taking my best booze (I only bring the best) and my finest cigars (why smoke any other kind?) and bringing them to the roof of the BMIR studios.  And I wanted them to come, and be with me, and share what I had, and close in around me because without that circle I could not go on. 

Kanizzle coulnd’t make it, and Beast couldn’t make it, but Christa did, and Mao did, and Munney did.  We climbed to the roof of the studio and they looked at me and when they saw my eyes they pulled the ladder up after us.  This was a private party in the middle of a celebration that knows no borders.  I needed boundaries.  I needed to keep these few people in and everything else out.

I passed out cigars.  We started drinking scotch … and other friends started coming by and looking for the ladder.

“Hey!” they called up.  “You’ve got the ladder up there!  Put it back.”

They looked at me, and I shook my head.  This wasn’t selfish, it was self-defense.

More people came, more people called.  “Come on!”

“Sorry, this is a private party.”

“That’s bullshit!”

Occasionally Mao would whisper in my ear, advocating for people below.  “You know,” he said, “Gray is really cool.  He’d get you.  Consider it?”

“Yeah,” said Christa.

I shook my head.  I needed a boundary, a line encircling a space that I could fill and fit securely.  I needed it like I needed water under the sun.

Some people went away, some people sulked below us.  Eventually the naked man appeared, hair wild, bouncing back and forth, jumping up and down.  We didn’t know him.  I have no idea who he was:  but he came as the righteous sword of justice to avenge my private party.

“You can’t do that!” he screamed.  “You’re not sharing!  You’re not letting other people participate!”  He wouldn’t stop.  He wouldn’t go away.  He had no idea that I was as low as he was high, and wouldn’t have cared.  This was an existential knife fight;  a battle underneath the moon between the depths of my suffering and his soaring energy.  Only one of us could live through it.  “You’re poisoning the spirit of Burning Man!  You’re being exclusionary!  You’re being assholes!  You’re being selfish and taking other people with you!”

Mao just laughed at him.  I shouted back:  “This conversation is non-consensual!”

But it was Christa who stood up and looked down at him.

“Walk away,” she said.  “Walk away now, or I’m going to have to hurt you.”

“You need to let everybody participate!” he screamed back.

She looked at me first, to make sure I really needed protection. To make sure she was doing this for the right cause.  We hardly even know each other, but I think she’d kill for me.

“Walk away,” she said.  “If you don’t leave us alone, I’m going to have to make you suffer like you’ve never suffered before in your life.”

“No,” he shouted, “you need to be inclusionary!”

“All right,” she said.  “You asked for it.”

“No, YOU asked for it when you pulled the ladder up and violated the spirit of Burning Man!”

We held our breath.

“Because what you don’t understand,” she shouted, her voice dripping acid, “is that I’m inside your HEAD!  I’m the demon inside your head, and I’m PULLING YOU IN!  I’m grabbing your eyeballs and PULLING YOU IN!  I’m eating your eyeballs from the INSIDE, and you can feel my fingers and my teeth inside your head gnawing on your eyes and your soul and YOU NEED TO RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN BECAUSE THE DEMONS IN YOUR HEAD ARE FOLLOWING YOUR BLOOD TRAIL AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO EAT YOUR EYES!”

He stared.  His face went pale.  He looked inward.

“No!” he screamed  “NO!” and he ran off into the playa, shouting, into the desert.

Mao and I stared.

She shrugged. “You just need to know how to get into their heads, it’s easy when they’re that far gone.”

We laughed.

I’d won.  The fight had been won for me.  I’m not proud, but I was touched that someone had done this.  “Thank you.”

“Well, yeah,” she said.  “Nobody fucks with you.  Hey, are you going sing something or what?”

I took a sip of port.  I puffed a French cigar.  “Sing?  I could do that.”

We started a sing-along.  An even bigger crowd gathered.  Eventually, 12 songs in, someone found another way to climb up to the roof and joined us by force.  “Fuck you,” he said, walking over to put the ladder down.  “Sing another one.”

Mao looked at me.  “I think ‘Caveat time’ is over man.  Are you okay?”

I nodded.  I was.  Now.  We let him lower the ladder.  A dozen more people came up, and some stayed until my voice gave out.

Once, during the singing, we saw the naked guy pass by the studio … running … running … still running.  But not screaming.  His voice had given out too.

I’m sorry, man.  I know it was wrong.  But we tried to warn you.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

2 Comments on “A line in the sand

  • joe says:

    he he he
    Is puddling not allowed at burning man?
    Is not allowing allowed at burning man?
    Am I included even though I am not including?
    I’m glad a picture of the raving naked is not included
    I like the picture in my head better
    And the Demon has some great scotch too
    he he he

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  • Radical Inclusion is an interesting challenge and balancing act. where do you draw the line? some of it may have to do with how public you are with your need for privacy.

    no one cares if you’re away from everyone or squatting in a dome with all your friends. most people understand that privacy. but what if you’re clearly making it public that you are indeed having a good time and that no, you are not invited? what if you advertise it or get on a bullhorn and yell out to the community “YAAAAAY! this awesome shit right here is NOT. FOR. YOU!”? or, as i’ve seen, give out VIP tickets to a party and make it really loud and obvious that the party is a private event so kindly fuck off.

    fun is infectious and i guess most people assume that if you’re having it, you’ll have no qualms with sharing it. having a private event is understandable but i think people feel excluded and react when that need for privacy is obnoxiously broadcast to anyone and everyone.

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