The other week Burning Man’s San Francisco office held a goodbye party for Andie Grace – Action Girl! – who is leaving us because eventually all the good ones do. (That’s actually the 3rd noble truth of Buddhism.) It was a good party: there were heavy cocktails, helium balloons, hors d’oeuvres, and speeches.
A lot of people, it turns out, have been inspired in life changing ways by the gifts of Grace.
At the time I didn’t say anything. As regular readers of this blog know, I only attend Burning Man functions for the open bar. Andie gets that about me. Still, in hindsight my silence that day was a mistake.
Andie Grace is entirely responsible for my taking up the volunteer work I have performed for Burning Man for the past five years – and the story of how that happened, while not entirely flattering, seems worth sharing in order to thank her properly.
This story also might be enlightening for those who think Burning Man’s organization works like a well oiled machine, and who think that the Org is always plotting five steps ahead. It’s not. From the very first experience I had volunteering for Burning Man, it’s been clear that rather than leading from the front the Org spends much of its time desperately trying to keep up with all the things the rest of us do.
The story goes like this:
I moved to San Francisco over six years ago and the only people I knew were brilliant artists who’d invite me to a warehouse party and then disappear for months at a time. They wouldn’t answer their texts but then I’d bump into them during a Viennese waltz at an absinthe tasting and we’d hang out on the roof until sunrise.
Such friendships are only healthy as part of a balanced social life – and I didn’t have one. I really needed to meet some new people.
I’d been to Burning Man before, and thought that volunteering might be a good way to make local connections, so I went to one of the periodic volunteer fairs they held back at the old headquarters.
There are many ways to help out at Burning Man, but most of them are for … how to put this delicately … “competent people.” I am not one. I call the landlord to get my shower head fixed; I survive on cold Chinese take-out because my microwave outsmarts me; Whenever I call up friends to say I’m thinking about killing myself they always respond: “Yeah, sure, like you can use tools.”
So building roads or fixing buildings or making dinner for artists was just not a feasible option. Burning Man’s dangerous enough already. But when I saw they had a media team to work with the press, I thought: “Okay, I can do that.” I have a background in that.
So I walked over to the Media Mecca booth.
I chatted with a few people, they seemed nice, and the job didn’t involve power tools, so I gave out my email and was told they’d be in touch. A few days later I got a form email thanking me for attending the open house and explaining that the media team was between Volunteer Coordinators, so things were a little up-in-the-air. Meanwhile our first step was to go online, fill out a volunteer survey, and make sure to check the “Media Mecca” box.
I followed the link, looked at the survey, and thought: “Well, that’s kinda boring.”
It was (and is) so … utilitarian. So straightforward. So blasé. I mean, “Interests and Talents,” “What Do You Do For a Living,” “Degrees,” blah blah blah. What kind of questions are those? Filling out a survey like that, I thought, defeats the whole point of going to Burning Man in the first place.
So I decided to make my survey a lot more interesting.
I admit it: for a guy who can’t even swing a hammer I am enormously demanding.
Listed here, for the first time outside of the Burning Man database, are a few of my answers to the Burning Man volunteer questionnaire. They are real and unaltered (except for formatting) :
As a Cynic, I believe we are fundamentally on our own. As an alcoholic, I believe that I don’t have a problem: YOU have a problem! Taken together, these two principles suggest that, in an emergency, what are you doing talking about my sister? If I weren’t so drunk I’d kick your ASS!
It’s being described in detail in an upcoming issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Look for it in June! If you bring me a copy, I’ll sign it for you on the page where something’s gone horribly wrong in my limbic system.
Does anyone at Burning Man ever answer this honestly? I swear to God – some of these people would sniff medical waste if they heard that’s what the kids at the clubs were doing now.
Something else you would like to tell us:
My dream is to finally crush the Amazing Spider-Man.
He’s managed to elude me so far – it’s almost as though he has some kind of strange “spider-sense” that warns him of danger. And he is formidable – possessing the proportionate strength and speed of a human sized spider. When I attacked him with monkeys he was able to leap to safety.
If only I knew his secret identity! Then I could attack when he least suspects it!
In the meantime, I’m preparing a small army of the world’s greatest villains – headed by my chief minion “The Vanishing Gingersnap.” They include:
- “Rohrshach” – he could be a rabbit. He could be a chicken. He could be your mother! There’s no way to tell!
- “Syntax” – He possesses the power to cloud men’s grammar!
- “Statistical Mean” – the world champion of “Bell Curve” based martial arts!
- “The Quantum Mechanic” – they called her “unmeasurable” at the institute!
I didn’t want to be a super villain. But not everyone’s cut out to be America’s Next Top Model. This is a reasonable compromise. I’m only human.
Are you serious? Do you want a transcript, too? I got a scholarship, you know. Oh aren’t I just the best!
That’ll do it, I remember thinking. That’ll either amuse the hell out of them, or get me blacklisted. There wasn’t one useful piece of information in the survey – except insofar as it demonstrated that I was the kind of person who would answer a volunteer survey this way. Sometimes it’s good to go for broke.
I sent it off. I didn’t hear back that day.
Or the next day. Or the next one.
Or that week.
Or that month.
Or that fiscal quarter.
Or that year.
By that point, I’d long given up hope. Sometimes these things just don’t work out. And hey, I figured if Burning Man was the kind of organization that would be turned off by a survey like that, we probably weren’t meant to work together.
… Stupid Burning Man …
After almost exactly 18 months, I got an email. From Andie. “Well hello!” it said …
I was just perusing the Volunteer database over here looking to fill a role on the media team, and came across your questionnaire — and my first thought was, “Wow, how’d I miss THIS one the first time he came through? We must capture him at once!”
Andie suggested that this incident showed just how desperately the team really, really, really needed someone to fill that Volunteer Coordinator role she’d been hoping to get looked at a year-and-a-half-ago. Would I like to do that? Would I?
Thus began my five-plus years volunteering for the media team.
Despite its delayed start, Andie proved to be the perfect boss: her gut told her I would do the job, and she trusted me enough to prove her right. She left me alone when I was on track, but was always attentive when I came to her with an issue. Not once, ever, did I feel like my concerns weren’t important to her or the organization – and while they couldn’t always solve my issues, she always made it clear that they were her issues too. Most importantly, it turned out that Andie hadn’t put me in a leadership role on the team in spite of my being a freak, but because of it. She, too, felt that competence wasn’t enough. She never needed to tell me to have fun with this job – she brought me in exactly because she knew I’d go the extra mile to make sure that happened. That fun is contagious, and the result has been a new batch of volunteers who enjoy the hell out of the work we do.
This is a rare combination of right decisions – one I’ve frankly never found anywhere else. It’s so easy for a big organization to lose track of the fact that each volunteer has a unique experience that can’t be reduced to a checkmark or a number. The best way to deal with people is always by being a person. Andie’s greatest skill (among many) may be the way she brings out the humanity in others.
It’s worth noting that on the media team 5 years ain’t nuthin’ for a volunteer to put in and come back smiling. I’m still a relatively junior volunteer: a lot of exceptional people have been coming back for decades. Andie’s been a big part of the that.
Many thanks, Girl of Action, for giving me the chance to step up and make a difference. Thank you for taking chances on unusual people. Thank you for the open bars.
I hope you know I’ve been laughing my ass off. I have a feeling you do.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are not statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com