September 11, 2012 at 4:21 PM

A Fair Trade

"I’m speaking about Burning Man. Baby Shae and I had our first experience there a couple weeks ago..."


Not much food grows in the desert of Nevada, but the soil is fertile nonetheless. Yes, weary Internet-user, I’m speaking about Burning Man. Baby Shae and I had our first experience there a couple weeks ago—hence, the blog silence—and Melina enjoyed a first return. The greeters welcomed all of us “home,” then told me to ring the bell, declaring that I’m not a virgin anymore. Initiation is important, I think, but one probably shouldn’t ring the bell until he’s on his way out.

The Burning Man tickets arrived fortuitously and opportunely as the family settled into Grandma Katherine’s home in Taos. We were all feeling on edge given our recent failure at the farm, but I was feeling particularly tense and hopeless, realizing that freelance pay would require too much of my time for too little compensation. Hesitantly, I gave up a number of gigs for local and national publications, afraid that if I didn’t keep working, I’d struggle to pick up any work at all. And I realized that this was the problem: Too many publications, online and print, take advantage of writers and photographers hoping to get their names out enough for someone to notice. (Photographers have it worse than writers since editors started accepting iPhone photos for publication.) The publications aren’t entirely to blame, because they haven’t figured out how to make revenue in the changing media economy; however, hard times test an organization’s integrity. And employees deserve to be paid.

A month or so ago, the art blog Hyperallergic posted a story about corporate grants for artists, saying that as well-intentioned as the grants may be, they crowdsource artists’ creativity to build revenue, essentially creating a team of consultants and paying only one of them, and at a fraction of the amount the company would pay a consultant. And artists aren’t alone. Programmers are plenty taken advantage of by companies that create contests to improve functionality. These companies make money off of these contests, just like publications make money off of their contributors. Any activity that creates revenue should be fairly compensated.

I’m thinking about all this and getting rather self-righteous about it, when Melina comes to me and says, “I think we should go to Burning Man.” We had a week to find tickets, with no money, and I had a cover story to write. But I did have a really nice bottle of wine that I had forgotten about until a few days earlier when we were tidiyng up. I told her that if someone would trade two tickets for the wine, we would go. The tickets came through, and the guy who traded told us that the bottle would be a gift for his camp at Burning Man, so we could just deliver it directly to them when we arrived. Trust—if ever a sign of affirmation existed. I have to admit, however, that after we dropped off the bottle, I complained that they probably wouldn’t appreciate what they had—the bottle should have been stored for a few more years—but I did give up the bottle for an experience.

Burning Man offers a glimpse of what life might be like if money weren’t the basis of transactions between individuals or the motivation to contribute. I write this with the understanding that the guy who gave us the tickets paid $800 for the two, and that his money fell into a fund with all the other fees to pay for infrastructure enough to support 60,000 people for a week. And if any measure of success exists, it’s ability to keep the port-a-potties clean and hand sanitizers stocked, which Burning Man staff accomplished.

Mel and I didn’t spend a single dollar at Burning Man. The food and drink at all the camps was free, and people handed out gifts of appreciation to one another, just for being there. Hardly a person passed who didn’t comment on the fact of Baby Shae wrapped up in rebozo, and we found no shortage of people to talk to about decisions we’ve made about immunizations* or ideas we’ve had about education. And beholding all the work that people put into their themed camps, art cars and art installations just for the joy of doing it and sharing it, I understood that writing should be fun, and I stopped having fun with it a while ago. The notion of fun was the missing piece for a website concept I’d been contemplating for a couple years. It was the reason I hadn’t begun building the site yet, but this week, Caldera Culture Review has become my primary project. It will treat art as an entrance into understanding the individual’s place in the world, as well as her immediate environment; it will favor adequate compensation over revenue; and it might totally fail, but the experience will be fun.

I’m ready to ring the bell.

*When I tell friends and family that we chose not to immunize or circumcise Baby Shae, they actually take more issue with the latter choice. My mom (a woman whose version of the sex talk was to tell me to go into the living room and read the book on the couch) actually expressed concern that his foreskin would make him appear a freak to girls, and Shae’s godfather said that the foreskin increases the risk of bacterial infection, not to mention the spread of STDs. These are cultural fallacies. The fact is that no medical association in the US suggests routine circumcision, and it was actually first instituted as a punishment for masturbation. Can some men benefit from circumcision? Yes. But ritual genital mutilation isn’t the answer any more than, say, a malaria vaccination for someone who never leaves the US would be appropriate.