The Burning Man Festival is where self-expression is tolerated by one and all, but it can be jarring to observe the contrasting atmosphere in Nevada on other days.
My mood combined serious, deep bliss with the excitement of the skinny-dipping I had enjoyed as a teenager
A few days ago, I was standing solemnly and topless in front of the man effigy while it was on fire. It was a beautiful, starry Nevada desert night. My nipples hardened, matching the chill of the night air and my emotions, although I felt the warmth of the fire on my skin. I was surrounded by tens of thousands of like-minded people. For me, it was an inspiring time. My eyes glistened with tears of intense joy. I felt vibrantly alive -- and delighted to be there.
Officially, the Burning Man Festival of 2018 is over, but I continue to live by its principles. The first of these is "Immediacy", the second is “Participation”, and the third is “Radical Self-Expression.”
Two nights ago, most people driving along the highway (around 80 miles east of Reno, NV) were probably unaware of the comforting temperature of the night air, and how brightly the stars shone as they contrasted with the exceptionally dark desert sky.
Not me. I decided to exit the freeway and go enjoy the night. I parked at the bottom of a desert off-ramp where I was alone. I got out and stripped until I was… let’s just say, very scantily clad.
I stood gleefully on that lovely night, looking up at the stars. I felt deeply happy to be alive. I also felt very aware of my nature as a sexual being. Just being there was a turn-on. I wasn’t fully nude but my mood nevertheless combined serious, deep bliss with the excitement of the skinny-dipping I had enjoyed as a teenager.
Suddenly, I saw headlights approaching. Another car was coming down the off-ramp. I didn’t know who it was. Regardless, I hopped back into my car. While sitting in the driver's seat, I quickly downgraded my dress code to something more conservative.
Next, some red, white and blue lights managed my expectations, and a Sheriff’s deputy appeared at my window and inquired with some curiosity what I was doing. His flashlight illuminated some pink lace underwear lying right by the door of my car.
These events explicate much of the difference between being at Burning Man, and not. In both cases, I had been standing scantily clad under a starry Nevada desert sky, happy to be alive. But there was an essential difference:-
In the context of Burning Man, it was not a problem. Having other people around added to my joyous mood; it meant more people smiling at me and sharing in the happiness. As for the law enforcement people who were around: most were Black Rock Rangers, fiercely protective of the Burning Man principles. The rest were Pershing County Sheriff’s deputies or Federal Rangers, and at Burning Man they also tended to be a lot more tolerant towards public nudity. By their standards, topless or not, I was a model citizen, and they left me alone to enjoy my night.
Outside of the context of Burning Man, it was a big problem. Instead of enjoying the night with people, I had actively avoided them. Instead, I had chosen a solitary off-ramp in the middle of nowhere. When someone else did approach, I immediately assumed they would be hostile toward my values. I didn’t even know whose car was approaching, and yet my first thought was “I had better go dress more conservatively.” The potential of having company was worse than being alone.
I felt vibrantly alive
The fact that this other person was a law enforcement officer made it even worse. He asked several questions. I was on-guard and aware of the “talking can harm, but not help” premise. After all, the job of a law enforcement officer is to gather as much evidence as legally permissible, to arrest when a particular tipping point has been reached, and to then let the justice system take it from there.
However, in contrast, there’s also the common-sense "social-decency" premise; it’s not inherently an adversarial dynamic and it’s a mistake to assume that every law enforcement officer is out to get me.
Perhaps this particular officer deserved some civility as long as he didn’t incriminate me. As Martha Stewart pointed out, it’s possible to get into serious legal trouble just by saying the wrong thing to law enforcement even if, prior to that, one has done nothing wrong. Saying the wrong thing doesn’t mean that one is actively lying. Simply being confused enough to provide conflicting answers can get one into legal trouble.
There was also the concern that if I played hard-ball then maybe I would've made the dynamic unnecessarily adversarial, which might inspire reciprocation. For example, my dress code might have already been recorded by his dash cam as he was driving up, in which case I might have already be in legal trouble depending on what the law considers to be too scantily-clad.
Basically, it was a mine-field of a situation that could have ended up with me trying to figure out how to post bail in some county jail dozens of miles away from where I live.
What a stark contrast! At Burning Man, it was fine to be scantily clad. Having people around was a good thing; but outside of Burning Man (a mere five days later, and a hundred miles further south), the culture was stifling instead.
Dress code is only one aspect of self-expression. I’m focusing on that because that’s as wild as I got, at Burning Man. However, there are many ways in which one can express oneself.
At Burning Man, "radical self-expression" is a formal principle to be embraced. Outside of Black Rock City, even more so, because civilian life tends to have a stiflingly hostile environment, so there's resistance to overcome, albeit with caution.
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