Pissing on the Playa

(this post was unfit for publication on the Burning Blog, so I decided to post it here)

The community has spoken. Don't piss on the playa.

This vulgar act of disrespect toward the principle of Leave No Trace was a pervasive theme in the comments on my last post. What I'm trying to say is, pissing on the playa has really pissed off the playa. AJontheplaya writes that he "saw boys pissing on the playa in a drunken stupor and voiced that it was uncalled for," but he's "sure it fell on deaf ears." PUNAPETER added that "[T]he pee on the plaza trip really was like peeing on the face of Burning Man. Quite disrespectful to the Native Americans too, it’s their aina." I couldn't agree more strongly, other than to promote the heroic deeds of the DPW volunteers who hang out long after we're gone to scoop out our crystallized piss.

By the way, have you seen the 2010 MOOP Map? It will help you visualize all the Matter Out Of Place left on the playa this year. See if you can find your camp. I found mine. Goddamn burn barrel.

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The piss comments continued:

"Just try to have fun and don’t pee on the art."
- Tomcat

Some felt that the Burning Man organization could do more to address this piss crisis:

"And Tomcat and the others bring up a good point about pissing. bathrooms are too far all the time… my brother-in-law made a good point too: “I should write a book about my experience at burning man and call it… I Was Having The Time of my Life (At Burning Man), but then I had to pee.” I’m sure anyone who’s been to the toilets on the playa after 12 knows what he means by this. Maybe better access and more toilets are needed."
- Steve D

"…and people with bladder problems, it can really become hell. All you end up getting to do at the burn is going to the toilets. Just cant pee your pants.. sorry"
- Steve D, cont'd

Others felt that the responsibility lies firmly with the participant:

"P.S. If my grandpa can pee in a bag then so can you."
- Dirt Wheel

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I think we've hit on something deep here. Pissing on the playa is a serious problem. Whether you've been doing karaoke and warm tequila shots all day under a parachute tent, or you've been drinking your 1.5 gallons of water a day like a good Burner, but you can't for the life of you remember which side of the damn Temple the port-a-potties are on, there's a real, burning human need there, and people have trouble fulfilling it at Burning Man.

No, I'm serious.

I think we need to talk about Pissing On The Playa. POTP. Or POP.

But if pee graffiti is really such a big problem out there, I think we need to talk about it more broadly. We need to talk much less about how badly you need to do it, and much more about what it means to Piss On The Playa.

First of all, think about what an entitled, privileged move that is. For one thing, broskis, think about all your fellow Burners with different urinary equipment or levels of physical ability who can't let rip in mid-bike-ride as easily as you can. But even worse, I know you read your survival guide before you got out there, and I know you know somebody has to dig that piss crystal up when Burning Man's over and everybody else goes home. You're disrespecting yourself, you're disrespecting other Burners, you're disrespecting the land, you're disrespecting the principles, and you're disrespecting the event. It's like PUNAPETER said, you're "peeing on the face of Burning Man."

I think we should try to avoid any kind of pissing on the playa, literal or metaphorical. Can we agree to that right now?

Let me tell you a story from Metropolis of the most disrespectful example of POTP I encountered this year.

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On Thursday night, I went for a walk by myself to look at the carnival of blinky lights and, ironically, to think about how I would write for the public about Burning Man, if given the chance. On the way down 3:00 toward the Esplanade, I came across a small camp, the People's Art Congress, with four painted portraits in front of it: George Washington, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. They were all displayed on easels, gruesomely lit, and they had pens and paints around, so that people could deface them.

I don't clearly recall the details; I think "MURDERER" was scrawled on W's face, and stuff about owning slaves on Washington's. Obama may have had "LIAR" written on his forehead. In any case, what I remember was this elated feeling that Burners were clearly passionate about justice and integrity in America, but they were also non-partisan. None of these historic figures was spared criticism, no matter what side of the so-called aisle they sat on.

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Soon, to my delight, a fellow wandered into the lights of the camp to join me, a guy around my age, perhaps slightly younger. He was clearly feeling great all over, and he looked at our surroundings with intense interest. I struck up a conversation with him, and we talked about the portraits, people's responses, what seeing the faces of presidents felt like at Burning Man, how not seeing any money all week meant we saw a lot less of them, that sort of stuff. I can't say the conversation was completely lucid on both ends, but the guy was engaged with me, and that mattered more to both of us than whether his next thought followed logically from the last.

He stayed for a while, as long as I had hoped he would stay, so that this wouldn't be one of those unfortunate, art gallery-like playa exchanges where you're both doing your own thing and you fail to make a connection. When our interaction drew to its natural close, he said "Dude, let me give you a hug," so we embraced. It was going great, until the intimacy freed him to express one of the most honest things he'd said the whole time:

"Dude, I'm rolling so hard right now. That's the only reason I'm still talking to you."

Piss on my face, why don't you. I felt so angry, so hurt, and I let it go almost instantly, but that was the most hurtful breach of Immediacy I had ever faced at Burning Man firsthand. That was the only reason he was still talking to me? I didn't even believe that; I just chalked it up to nervous chatter, but it certainly brought me down. I felt disrespected. That guy just pissed on the playa.

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As Burning Man grows, and as more people come into the fold, the signal will surely develop more static. Now that the city is so huge, there are so many more chances not to be exposed to the real teachings and values of this desert culture we've built together. Don't let this happen. Talk about the principles, share them, tell stories about them. Start gifting now. Start participating now. Practice immediacy every day. This is why we go to Burning Man.

When it comes to your bladder needs, just try to plan ahead, huh? You planned ahead for Burning Man, didn't you? Try to use a little microcosm of those skills when you're heading out on a playa expedition. Don't piss on the playa. (Jackass.)

In closing, to defuse any such criticisms before they start, let me be the first to admit that I have disrespected Burning Man and its principles before, and I hope never to do so again. Sometimes, the playa environment can be so extreme that we submit to our more animal instincts and we lose our grip on our higher ideals. Years ago, in my virginal days, I violated the principles in ways small and un-small, and I hope we can all be honest enough to admit when we have. That makes us a lot less self-righteous-sounding, and it makes us confront ourselves with more integrity. Remember why you are a Burner.