Scenes and Moments

The porta-pottie I’m in has a bad handle,  so it doesn’t latch properly, which means I’m interrupted by a tall guy in a top hat opening the door as I’m in the middle of my business.

He shuts the door immediately.

I finish.

I walk out.

He’s still there.

“Excuse me,” he says, as I’m starting to turn away.  “But are you Caveat?”

“Um … yes …” I say.

“I love your blog,” he says.

I am certain that we both spent the long moment between him saying that and my saying “thanks” re-evaluating our life choices.  This can’t possibly be how either of us ever expected, or wanted, this moment to happen.

But even for Burning Man, Burning Man is off to a strange start this year.  It’s not that the Man base isn’t ready, and so the man is upsidedown and headless, suspended in mid-air when he’s visible at all through the dust.  It’s not that the temperature is moderate and pleasant.  It’s that – and many people have said this too me, wondering how it’s possible – Burning Man is quiet.

Weird, right?

Saturday night there were occasional bursts of music from the occasional passing art car, but it was a city where – for the most part – the dominant noises were of citizens of Black Rock City setting up their camps and having conversations.  Sunday night there was a little bit more music playing from a few more art cars and big camps, but there was nothing approaching the endless strata of techno that covers Black Rock City and (usually) gives it its signature  soundscape.  The Jazz Cafe is the dominant music in Center Camp, unless someone’s singing opera at the Center Camp Cafe.  Out on the playa, someone is shooting rolling bursts controlled fire into the air not to make a visual impression, but to create a series of sounds – some like heavy rain drops, some like thunder.  And though it’s surrounded by art cars and glowing bikes, there’s barely a beat to be heard.

We have no idea what’s going on.  It’s very pleasant, but it’s eerie.  Many of us wonder:  is something happening?  Is this a sign and portent? Or just a fluke?

Maybe it’s that for all that Black Rock City is open, it hasn’t really started.  The plaza around the upside down man is closed, and many art pieces and camps are still under construction.   But isn’t that always the way?  Every year?

The playa magic however, the power of serendipity and synchronicity out here, are as powerful as ever.  Maybe more so.  Maybe the silence encourages them.  I got one of my favorite playa gifts of all time through series of bizzare and unlikely circumstances.

Here’s the short version of the story:  I gave a gift to my friend Mao, a station manager at BMIR, and he wanted me to sign it.

“Do you have a marker?” he asked.

“Just a pen,” I said.

“No, it has to be a marker,” he said, and began asking around the studio for one.  And then the camp, but nothing’s turning up.

“It’s all right,” he says.  “I’ll keep it here, and when we find a marker this week, you can sign it.”

So I leave to go on an art tour I’ve been invited on.  I arrive late, however, and the tour’s already left.  So I decide to go to camp instead an use my new free time to have dinner.  But as I’m walking to camp I realize my iPod is missing.  So I rush back to BMIR and ask if anybody’s seen an iPod in the couch cushions.

They have.  They find it.

Now that I’m at BMIR, I decide to go a different way back to camp.  And as I’m walking up the street – which I’m only on because I missed an art tour and had to double back to find my missing electronics – I pass a line of people asking passing pedestrians to do things, and then grading them with large cards that say things like “mediocre,” and “great.”

“Hey,” they call out to me.  “Sing us a song!”

I stop.  Turn. “Okay,” I say, “what kind of song?”

“An Irish drinking song!” Somebody calls back.

So I do a verse of an Irish drinking so.  They clap. They cheer.  They stand up, and give me a “great” sign.  And then … then … one of them walks up, gives me a hug, says “I want you to have this!” and puts a green sharpie in my shirt.

Perfectly ordinary.  Not modified or made into art at all.  Not even a little inscription.  Just an ordinary green marker, which would be meaningless to me except that it’s the EXACT ITEM we’d been looking for 20 minutes ago!

What happened!  Who does that?  Who gives such a mundane playa gift?  This can’t possibly be how anybody expected these moments to happen.  It makes no sense, and yet somehow it was absolutely perfect.  Absolutely perfect, for all its imperfections, and wouldn’t have happened at all if anything in the last half hour had gone as I’d intended.


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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