Anatomy of a prank gone wrong

Rockstar Librarian GuideBMIR is a major distribution site for the Rockstar Librarian Guide, which means they have people coming in and asking for it all the time.

Last year, the prevailing way to handle it was to shout “BOX!” over and over again at anyone who came in and asked for a guide.  “BOX!” we’d shout at them.  “BOX!” until they’d realize that the box they were standing right next to had a bunch in it.  Only then would we explain the rules about limiting them to one per camp to make sure they get the widest possible distribution.

That’s still happening this year, but there’s a lot of other approaches too.  BMIR Station Manager Mao’s favorite, when I’m around, is to tell them “Sorry, we just ran out.  We don’t have anymore.  But Caveat’s got it all in his head.  He’s basically the living Rockstar Librarian database.  So you can take him.”

They always give me a strange once over.  “What, you mean, like, ask him what shows we want to know about?”

“No,” says  Mao.  “Take him to your camp!  Go ahead.  It’s fine.  He’ll fill everybody at your camp in on whatever you need to know, and then you can send him back.  Keep him as long as you need.  He’ll be really good.”

This goes on for a while, but no one actually takes the bait, and eventually we tell them where the guidebooks are and give them the “one-per-camp” spiel.

But the other day, a young woman desperate to bring a Rockstar Librarian Guide back to her camp said.  “Um … okay.”

“Great,” I said, picking up my backpack.  “Where are we going?”

“Okay,” she said again, as though trying to convince herself.  “We’ll, um, take you back to camp.”


“We’re going to have a lecture on psychedelics.”

“Well, I’ll just be there to provide Rockstar Librarian information, but sure!”

“Okay,” she said again, and walked back out of the station to join a friend and start the trek back to their camp.  Mao surreptitiously slipped a copy of the Guide into my backpack, for when this inevitably went horribly wrong, and I went out and joined them.

“Soooooo …” she said as we walked along the Esplenade, experiencing immediate buyers remorse.  “Will we be able to get a Rockstar Librarian Guide later?”

“Well, generally yes, but you’ve got me now, and really they’re supposed to be limited to one per camp, so, this is it.”

“But … how long can we …” this was really distasteful to her.  “Keep you?”

“As long as it takes.  I’m happy to help.”

“Okay, but, so … you know them all?  When everybody’s playing?”

I tapped my head.  “It’s all up here.”

“Okay, so, then, when’s Thieve’s Thievery Corporation playing?”

“Thursday night,” I said, without missing a beat.  “Supposed to start at 10, but realistically at 11, at 9:30 and G.”

She scowled at me.  “Okay, what about (INSERT NAME OF DJ I’VE NEVER HEARD OF)?”

“That’s tomorrow, starting at 7:30, at C and 3.”

“Are you sure?”


Her confidence was not restored.   “When is (ANOTHER DJ WHOSE NAME I’VE NEVER KNOWN) playing?”

“Thursday night, 11 p.m., at 5 and H.”

“Wait,” she said, “but they’re playing on FRIDAY!”

“Well, sure, they’re ALSO playing on Friday,” I said.  “But I assumed you’d want the next show.  My bad.”

“Okay,” she said.  “When are (I DON’T KNOW WHO ANY OF THESE PEOPLE ARE) playing?”

“Saturday after the burn, at …”

“NO!” she almost shouted.  “They already played on Monday!”

I got exasperated. “Well, look, if you think you already have all the information, why are you even bothering to get a Rockstar Librarian Guide?  If you think you know it all?”

“We’ve already got one at our camp!” she said.

“Well then you don’t need me!”

“But our camp’s 150 people!”

“Well in that case,” I said, “what you really need are great communication skills.  Fortunately I’m really good with that.”

She stared daggers at me.

“What?” I said.  “I’m coming all this way, at your request, to help out.  Don’t get angry.”

“I don’t like being manipulated,” she said.

“MANIPULATED?”  I was actually outraged, although I admit the moral high ground here is a little flat.  “Hey, you came to us, asked for our help, and when we told you what we could do you said yes, and now I’m here.  How have you been manipulated!”

“I … I don’t … okay, but …”

This was obviously going off the rails.  Time for an exit.  “Look, if you don’t want my help, I’m happy to turn around, okay?  If you’re at all uncomfortable …”

Her voice dripped acid.  “You are welcome to come to our camp and hear our lecture about psychedelics.”

“Thank you,” I said, “but, I’m really here as a database for the Rockstar Librarian Guide …”

“You are welcome to come to our camp and hear our lecture about psychedelics.”

Oh crap.  She was so angry she wasn’t even going to take an out.  Was I going to have to blink first?  That goes against so much of what I believe in …

Then her friend stepped in.  “I think maybe I can help,” she said.

The friend turned to me.  “Listen, I know you came out here intending to help, with sincere intentions, and we really thank you for that.  Thank you.  Can I give you a hug?”

“Um …”

She gave me a hug.

Then she turned to her friend.  “But can I say, honestly, that you seem pretty defensive?” she asked.  “Can I say that?”

The woman who I’d been arguing with all this time blinked, and slowly had an epiphany.

“You’re right!” she said.  “I have been defensive!”  She looked at me.  “Oh I’m so sorry!”

Was this really happening?  “That’s okay.”

“No,” she said.  “It’s not.  I was getting all defensive and it just …”

“It’s really okay.”

“I’m working through this now …

“Don’t think anything of it.  No harm.”

“Can I hug you too?”

“Sure?” I said.

She gave me a hug.  An absolutely sincere, present, engaged, keep squeezing all the negativity out hugs.  Which is ironic given that just the other day I’d been encouraging people to try making “awkward hugs” a movement at Burning Man – so that every time someone goes in for a hug, you can’t be sure if it will be beautiful and sincere, or if they’ll squeeze too hard and hold on too long, cup your ear, smell your hair, and say something like “Mmmmm, it smells just like when you sleep.”

But that campaign hadn’t taken off, and all it’s lead to is some girl at BMIR whose name I don’t know constantly walking up to me and cupping my ears without warning.

In any case this wasn’t that kind of hug.  This was the most sincere hug anyone has given me at Burning Man 2014 – and I had no idea what to do about it.

What we were seeing here was the complete collision of two of Burning Man’s broad cultures:  the culture of pranks and cacophony, and the culture of self-improvement and spirituality.  They are often at odds, but usually they find ways to walk past each other.  But in this moment I had to figure out what to say next.

Do I tell her the truth?

No.  No I do not.

I don’t know if that’s the right decision, but, it’s the one I made.  I didn’t have it in me to tell someone “you know I was just kidding” after all that.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “Really.  No harm done.  And listen, I don’t think I should go with you, but if you really need a Rockstar Librarian Guide, go back later and hopefully they’ll have some in stock again.”

I didn’t give her the Rockstar Librarian Guide I had in my backpack, both because that would have been tantamount to sticking my tongue out at her, and because … hey come on!  Only one per camp!  Seriously, how many times do we have to say it?

“Thank you,” she said.  We parted ways.

Now some people have told me that this was a perfectly handled prank, and that everything went exactly the way it should have.  Mao is very proud of me.  But others, and I’m among them, don’t think so:  we think that it ultimately didn’t work out because at the end of it we were still on separate teams.  That the best resolution to a Burning Man prank (and maybe to hijinks of all kinds, though I’m less sure) includes a reveal so that we stand together on the same ground, at the same height, fully aware of what is going on.

This doesn’t mean we have to like each other, let alone hold hands and be Best Friends Forever.  But it does mean that the end of the prank should … I think?  (I know I’m on shaky ground here) … be an invitation to further play.  An option, now that we all know what is happening, for the prank victim to play a newer, stronger hand.  Because the best motivation for this kind of bullshit isn’t an ego driven superiority complex, but an interest in making the world more interesting, more full of possibility:  a genuinely playful spirit that asks “what if?”

That spirit is as comfortable being on the receiving end of amazing events and hilarious misadventures as it is on the giving.  If you must always be the “winner,” if you refuse to give your play partners the chance to get you back (so long as they do it in an imaginative or hilarious way) then you’re reducing possibilities, not generating them.  Or, to be more blunt, you’re being less funny and imaginative than you could be because your selfishness is getting in the way.  We can all do better.

I can try harder.

The corollary to this, though, is:  who am I to say that the young woman’s revelation about defensiveness wasn’t actually a personal breakthrough?  That it didn’t actually help her process real issues?  I don’t think we can assume it did, but who am I to say otherwise?  And then … then … there’s always the possibility that in fact they really did turn it around on me.  That while they were hugging me they were mouthing to each other “Be sincere!  HE HATES THAT!”

I really doubt it, but I’d like to think so.  It’s the kind of world I want to live in – and I don’t mind losing if that’s what it takes to get there.

In the meantime, I can try harder.

Caveat is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at)





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

7 Comments on “Anatomy of a prank gone wrong

  • NakedLens says:

    Extra cereal bars for you next year.

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  • J says:

    Thanks… that made me a better person. Seriously.

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  • DNA says:

    More awkward hugs!!

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  • OCTOPUS says:

    Haha, good story. Yes, I like how you explained the obvious but often not articulated two camps, the snarkybutt pranksters and the oh let’s all be one and OMers. My fav has always been Camp Carp, spent some time with those folks in 2006 and 2007 and they are the expert pranksters. This is often an under appreciated and understood part of the culture that folks can get confused by. I call in 2007, or was it 08?, creating a prank with a new ARTery friend where we went around all day trying to convince folks to create a big party at the huge tower, that big empty shell of steel construction a lot of people didn’t like whith many empty floors. We want them to “occupy” it and set up camps, although we had a pretty convincing gag which a few seemed to fall for no one showed up. It was a great way to play with random burners though.

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  • (Office Geek Jessica Here)

    Reminds me of the time when I was about 16, I was prank calling at a sleepover for the first time in my life….I punched a bunch of random numbers and started to ask a bunch of random stuff…..the caller turned the tables on me and once I found out (too late) that I was speaking with a colon cleansing company….I had gone too far and tried my best to back out of the conversation smoothly.


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  • ShanBrazil says:

    Who else was cupping your ear?? WTF

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  • G says:

    Caveat, this essay gave me a flashback to “What if my art project is a loaded gun?” 9/26/13 essay.
    Seems your pranks can backfire on you, and it teaches you a little something about yourself.
    Am I right?

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