TAHOE CITY, Calif. — Ted and Monique, a nice young couple in their mid twenties, came all the way from South Africa to attend Burning Man, the almost-anything-goes-that-you-can-imagine desert extravaganza in Nevada currently in full swing. Ted and Monique and I were the dinner guests of some good friends of mine in Tahoe City. It was the first time I met the South African couple. I didn't want to spoil their trip by mentioning the desert dust they were going to be dealing with all week, and probably all the way back to South Africa.
Our dinner hosts showed Ted and Monique and me their slide show of Burning Man from a previous year, including pictures you will never see in the newspaper. The costumes, or lack thereof, and the structures, some stationary and many mobile, were more creative, indescribable and expensive than you can imagine. I was happy to be able to get an insider's view of the festival on their computer from under the pines beside Lake Tahoe. I don't have to hang out in the desert and pay hundreds of dollars to be colorful, bizarre, weird or even a brilliant, ostentatious, eccentric genius for that matter. All I have to do is hang out with my favorite Tahoe locals and let it rub off on me.
I don't think they allow nonconformists at Burning Man. But the real reason I don't go, besides the dust and the price of admission, is that having to conform to nonconformity doesn't really appeal to me. It doesn't allow everyone to just be oneself. To me, nonconformity means just what it says it means. If I went as myself, a devout nonconformist, with a generic tent and no costume or creative paraphernalia, you would think I would fit right in because I would stand out like a sore thumb with my plain old silver '97 Lincoln Continental, my white T-shirt, shorts and flip flops.
Not that everyone at Burning Man stands out like a sore thumb. They do, and they don't, depending on how you look at it. But, if being unique and creative is what it's all about, what's not unique and creative about an ordinary person? Common, ordinary people can be just as unique and as original as a guy dressed as a cowboy octopus or a muscle bound princess on a bicycle made into a hippopotamus with wings.
I've always wondered about the name, Burning Man. It seems a far cry from the names we used back in the sixties for events you might say were the prototypes for Burning Man, but we called them Love-Ins and Be-Ins. The names we used for our events at least had a positive connotation, even if some of the things that happened there didn't.
I'm sure Burning Man is no different as far as that goes.
Burning a man in effigy may have a totally innocent meaning. Taken literally it could mean burning a man, or a woman, like Joan of Arc, at the stake for trumped up charges of heresy and witchcraft. I just finished Mark Twain's book, Joan of Arc, and I loved it. She was one of the most unique persons (just a teen when she died) in all of history, and her story makes the burning of anyone, man or woman, no laughing matter.
Burning Man could literally mean cannibalism. Figuratively it could mean the intellectual decline of mankind. Symbolically it could also mean the extinction of mankind as a result of humans destroying planet earth. But, if you give the word ‘burning' an upbeat connotation, like the old song about a hunk of burning love, Burning Man is cool.
I hope Ted and Monique are having a good time, but I bet they will be glad to come back to Tahoe, where clean air and water means everything, and lose themselves in The Big Blue Pill (Lake Tahoe), far from Burning Man City, hurricanes and political conventions. Tahoe, where nonconformity is so sublime it is extraordinarily ordinary.
Bob Sweigert is a Sierra Sun columnist, published poet, former college instructor and ski instructor. He has a B.A. and an M.A.T. from Gonzaga University. He has lived at Lake Tahoe for 30 years.