Playing with Superpowers at the Midway

“OhWow,” said Kelly as we walked into the Midway. “This is nothing like what I’d expected.”

“What had you expected?” Kelly is a virgin Burner.

“I’d tried to keep an open mind,” she said. “But it wasn’t … this.”

She thought about it as we passed a man on stilts in an animal costume who seems to have escaped from a zoo. He was gently nudging, and then swallowing, other visitors.

“I think it’s all the playfulness,” she said as we stood in line for a fortune teller. “I don’t think I realized that it could all be so playful. But of course it could, it’s so obvious, but I guess this is why people say you have to experience it to understand.”

Kelly is an ethnographer who studies how artists connect with communities on social media. We’d just met an hour-and-a-half before. Now we were about to have our darkest secrets revealed. It would go badly for me, well for her. But the secret romance she has buried in her closet would become a running joke between us for the rest of the night.

The fortune teller was sitting in a wooden booth, dressed to the nines, her full lips highlighted red and black making them look thin and emaciated. She’d been taking a long time with the people in front of us, but that didn’t scare anyone away; on the contrary, the line behind us just got longer. Her process seemed baroque, involving bowls, crystals, conversation, and things we couldn’t recognize.

“What’s amazing,” Kelly said as we waited, “is how little this kind of thing is valued. Society values iPads so highly, even if they’re just small, incremental, improvements over the last iPad – we build whole industries around that. But an experience like this? Completely personal and unique? Outside of communities like this, nobody recognizes how valuable these experiences are. That’s ridiculous.”

The people ahead of us walked away, talking. The fortune teller interrupted us. “How you doing tonight?”

“Great!” Kelly said.

“Terribly apprehensive,” I said.

“Apprehensive?” the fortune teller asked. “Why?”

“Because we have NO IDEA what you’re going to do! It could be ANYTHING! We don’t understand what’s going to happen at all!”

She grinned. “Well then, we’re starting with you, aren’t we?” She gestured me forward. “What’s your name?”

“Caveat. What’s yours?”

She seemed surprised. Had people not been asking her that? “Abby,” she said. Then she hesitated, and her face fell. “That’s … that’s not actually very impressive at all,” she said. “I should probably have a more impressive fortune-tellery name, shouldn’t I?”

“No, Abby’s good,” Kelly rushed to assure her.

Abby considered. “How about … Abby the Great?”

I nodded. “Oh, I like that. It suggests that you’re great.”

“I like greatness,” Kelly agrees.

“Okay,” Abby said. “I am ABBY THE GREAT! And I am going to tell your fortunes.”

She handed Kelly a white ball of fur with cute eyes, just big enough to fit in your hand. “This,” she said, “is my best friend in the whole world. But he’s been bad and needs to be punished. So we start by giving him a whack. Go ahead and do it.”

Kelly slapped the fuzz-ball, and it vibrated in her hands. “Good!” Abby the Great said.

“Wait, what did he do to deserve this?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s been very bad,” Abby the Great said. I gave her a questioning look. “He’s been cuddling with all the girls,” she said, resignedly.

“Oh no!” Kelly said, and hit him again. He vibrated.

“You … you know you’re only encouraging him, right?” I asked.

Kelly gave me a look and clutched the fuzzball closer. “I know.”

Abby the Great gave me a fortune cookie in a wrapper, and had me crush it still in the package. We emptied the pieces into a metal bowl: while I held a giant crystal sphere, she read the pieces of my fortune cookie like tea leaves.

What followed was one of the oddest readings I’ve ever had in my life – but just as she did with the people ahead of me, Abby the Great took her time, giving me all the attention she thought I needed. I’m afraid I wasn’t cooperative – my future is delicate right now, and I froze up, neither confirming nor denying anything. Her reading was a mixed bag: about half of it frighteningly correct, and about half completely wrong, almost the exact opposite of the truth.

I told her that, when we were done. “Good,” she said, nodding. “Want to keep you on your toes.”

I refused to hit the fuzball – I’m not sure if it’s because I think he doesn’t deserve it or because I think it’s an ineffective form of discipline – so Kelly’s reading began without it. Abby the Great suggested that Kelly’s career is going to be flexible, that she’s not so close to her parents but has a central, strong, influential relationship in her life. That Kelly doesn’t have many people in her life she needs to get rid of – “you mostly seem to have done that work” – but there are a few peripheral people in her life she might want to get closer too.

“And I’m pretty sure,” she said, hesitating, “oh I’m just going to say this, that you’re an amazing lover. Just incredible. Not sure if it’s men, not sure if it’s women … or both … but I’m absolutely sure of that.”

She gave Kelly a curious look, to see if she wanted wants to elaborate. Kelly didn’t.

We thanked her profusely when we’d finished, and walked away. Kelly was smiling. “I like that,” she said. “I really liked that a lot.”

“Well, of course!” I said. “You were recognized as the world’s greatest lover!”

She laughed. “No, just an amazing one. What did you think of yours?”

I shook my head. “I’m afraid that her reading of me confirmed that I’m doomed.”


“Yeah,” I said. “I’m definitely doomed, she picked up on that.”

“No!” Kelly said. “No, she’s probably completely wrong, anyway. In fact, I’m a terrible lover.”

“I don’t know …”

“Really mediocre. Nothing special at all. And you’re not doomed.”

I considered. “I’m not sure if fighting our fates actually makes the world a better place, I think we should probably stick with the readings we got.” I’ve had a bad year. Efforts to convince me I’m not doomed are wasted right now. Weirdly, many months ago, before everything started to go askew, I was sitting in a café and a woman walked over to me and gave me her card. She was a psychic with a local storefront. “Something’s just happened to you,” she said. “You’ve just had something change. I can see it, you should talk with me about it. Give me a call. Please.”

I never did, and a month later her storefront closed.

Kelly and I walked over to a wheel listing things you have to do. It’s part of a series of games that can be played for the chance to learn how to make a drum.

“You want to spin the wheel, don’t you,” I said.


I grinned. “Virgins always want to spin wheels. That gets less exciting each year, I’m afraid.”

She gave me a skeptical look as one of the game volunteers came over. Kelly spun the wheel. It landed on “Tell us what’s in your closet.”

Kelly’s face fell. “Um … clothes?” she said. The volunteer and I gave her looks clearly indicating that this was insufficient.

“My cat? He’s always in my closet.”

The looks continued.

“Okay, maybe a love affair or two that never were,” Kelly said.

We nodded. “Much better,” the volunteer said.

“That’s really a pity,” I told her. “She’s apparently an incredible lover.”

“Well, then, what are they doing sitting in the back of your closet, under your clothes and cat?” the volunteer asked. “Come on!”

“Oh, you make your choices,” Kelly sighed. “You make … you know what? Nevermind.”

“It’s your closet,” the volunteer agreed. She looked at me. “Now you have to spin.”

I did. The wheel came up “Tell us about your superpowers.”

I shook my head. Hardened my eyes. “I think my superpowers are obvious.”

They looked at each other. Looked back at me.

“They’re obvious,” I said again.

The volunteer grinned. “I DO admire your confidence. Okay, want to play another game?”

She took us over to two other visitors waiting at the booth, and asked if we wanted to play a game of Snake Oil: each of us was given give cards with nouns and adjectives on them, and had to combine two cards to form the idea of a product. One additional card each would determine who we were trying to sell it to, and we’d then need to make a sales pitch for that bullshit product to the volunteer, who would assume the identity of the prospective customer and determine the winner.

The cards were dealt. We looked at them carefully. One-by-one, starting on the opposite side, sales pitches were made: for fabrics that would help fortune tellers, for bacon flavored dust masks (tell me that’s not a million dollar idea), and sheer novelties that made no sense.

I went last. The card said I was selling to a drum maker.

I took a deep breath, and suddenly launched into a high energy old-timey salesman’s voice. “You’re a drum maker,” I said to the volunteer, “and the most important thing to you is getting your drums made and out the door and into the right hands! You do your job, you do it well, and there’s more music in the world! Well who wouldn’t want that! But being a drum maker is hard. And you know – of course you know – what the number 1 problem faced by drum makers from the tip of Toronto to sub-Saharan Africa is? Well I’ll tell ‘ya: it’s monkeys! That’s right, monkeys! They love drums and they love to get in your workshop and have more fun than they would in a barrel! Making a mess everywhere, tearing up the materials, throwing the product around – you can’t make drums once the monkeys get wind of what you’re doing! It’s a problem as old as time! But now there is a solution! Safe, modern, and effective: it’s Ape-be-Gone monkey solvent!”

I turned over two of my product cards: “Monkey” and “Solvent.”

“Just coat your workshop in Ape-be-Gone monkey solvent and those pesky chimps, orangutans, and bonobos will bother you no more! Our patented formula of hallucinogens and deodorant gets them running away and gives them other things to worry about! It’s safe, it’s effective, it’s organic! And for a limited time you get a free sample of elephant remover with every box of monkey solvent that you buy! That’s Ape-be-Gone monkey solvent! A drum maker’s best friend!”

There was stunned silence. Then clapping.

Another volunteer came out from their booth. “You win,” she told me. “I didn’t even hear any of the other pitches, but … you win. You so win.”

I gave Kelly and the first volunteer a look as I was pulled into the back area. “My superpowers,” I said, “are obvious.”

The new volunteer gave me a necklace shaped like a drum, which I am wearing now. “We’re closing up for the night, but will you please come back and play with us some more tomorrow? Please? Will you please come play with us again?

Nothing is a better cure for impending doom than to be asked “come play with us again.”

Kelly assured me play more valuable than an iPad, or any mass produced gadget.  She’s right.

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

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