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StraightEdge at BurningMan

Do sober kids have fun with users? Fuck yes. We have more fun than the users!

The following is an old blog-post written by Mark McBride in 2008; It's fair length.

Some background on terms here for those of you that may not be familiar: "StraightEdge" is a movement that sprung out of the American Hardcore punk scene of the early 80s. Back then a band called Minor Threat started railing against drinking, smoking and doing drugs. The kids rebelled against being "poisoned". At the same time you had a band called 7 Seconds who was putting out positive hardcore in an otherwise very violent and negative genre. Other bands started getting on board with music that is aggressive and exciting but the message became about living clean, unity with your friends, anti-addiction and such. The movement is built on the punk ideals of rebellion and anti-authority so it is very poorly dogmatized; that is to say there are 3 rules: Don't drink, Don't smoke, Don't do drugs, but everything after that is up for interpretation. People sign on for many reasons and have reshaped the cause a million ways, but the core is still their: strength through clarity.

On what would seem like the opposite end of the spectrum is an arts festival held each year in the desert 70 miles north of Reno called "Burning Man". Forty to a hundred thousand people (depending on who's numbers you believe), head out to a dry lake bed to camp and party. It is a raver and hippie paradise. A week long party with techno music, crazy art installations, rolling bars that look like a parade that got broken up, optional clothing, and (relatively) unenforced drug laws, culminating in the burning of a giant wooden structure called The Man. It's like the Love Parade in Berlin or Carnival in Rio thrown forward into a post-apocalyptic, Mad-Max wonderland.

As you may guess (or perhaps thought yourself reading the subject line of this blog) Burning Man, with its bright colors, poor bathing, rampant drinking and drug-use, and lack of social bounds, would seem to be in stark contrast to the rigor, aggression and unsedatedness of being Straight Edge... but yet I thoroughly enjoy both.

At one point in history I was asked in a dark apartment by a woman sitting naked with a stiff Jack and Coke, "Why do you go to Burning Man? You don't drink or do drugs. What do you get out of it?"

"It's a good time."

This year I got to Burning Man on Monday and left six days later on Sunday. Once I get there I put my wallet, phone and keys in a plastic bag and lock them in the glove compartment of the car until I leave. What I carry with me is earplugs, chapstick and a grin. On Friday I thought it was Thursday. It was around 3am and someone was talking about how the Man was going to Burn tomorrow, Saturday.

But tomorrow is Friday.

Nope, it was Saturday. I skipped a day and I still haven't figured out where it went. My buddy Miah thought that this was the funniest fucking thing he'd heard in a while. The only sober guy around was missing time like the drunkest of them.

The next day when we headed out to the center of the festivities where the Man was to burn, I sat shooting the shit with a Scotsman about 30 minutes before his whiskey kicked in. Being a Scot he had no concept of a life without drinking. Partying without alcohol was unheard of and the StraighEdge movement even less. But there was no love lost, we had a great conversation. He's a good man and an interesting person.

How do you do it?

If you had asked me a decade ago I would have naively said, "Simple: Don't drink. Don't poor yourself a drink. When the joint comes around, pass it along without hitting it. When The mushroom tea is poured don't drink it." But that is a foolish response. Now, 2 decades into the clean life, after going to college at the top party school in the country (as rated by RollingStone my sophomore year), after many trips to Vegas, after 4 Mans burned, after over a decade in LaLa Land I can see that it is not so easy.

I knew this but sitting there with my Scottish friend trying to explain it cold, I had to admit that it takes practice and a lot of confrontation with yourself.

The first thing you have to do is confront yourself and admit and embrace all the things that people think they are too good to do... when they're sober. Laugh at dumb jokes, talk too loudly, get in fights, have sex with people your friends will make fun of you for later. I love a well toned sculpted ass; the beauty of a finely tuned female physical form can start and stop my heart, but damn I've had some good love from big women. We all have. But I have to stand up and say, "That was me, not the booze." When the cops pick me up for doing drive by shooting with waterguns I have to stand up and say, "No, Officer, I just thought it'd be fun." When I get sucked into a brawl or jump into the pit and hit in the jaw I have to look myself in the mirror and say, "You asked for that."

And I think it's fucking great... But it ain't easy. Our natural inclination as social animals is to protect ourselves. Not to stand out; don't break the line. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down, and believe me, SXErs feel the hammer. All the pain and embarrassment that others drink themselves through sober people have to take on the chin. The only thing we get out of is hang-overs.

But once you confront the world face first, taking the punch to the jaw, you next have to practice listening to the world. Drugs and drinking, especially drugs, are very good at turning up the volume on things that are very sublime. Drugs are chemicals. They carry no message, no information, no jokes, no inspiration. All they can do is turn up the funny, the exciting, the inspiring, the art, the fascination, the joy, the ecstasy, the chill, the energy in you. That stuff, in one form or another, has to be there for the drugs to bring out. They adjust the volume on different things in your head; some things get turned up, some things get turned down.

About now listening to me talk about drugs must be like listening to Priest give a talk on sex, but I don't think I'm too far off base here. I've been around evenings where things were just stupid and fun. I had to choke back my natural feelings of "Damn this is stupid," but when I did, I had fun. I've had nights where the energy in the room from the band or the DJ crawled over me like a low wattage blanket of electricity. I've had those moments where the world seemed to skew around me when I looked at it wrong, or when I stayed out so late I couldn't focus my eyes. Sure they may be nothing compared to what the rest of you have had with your various chemical assistants but the point is that I understand, perhaps better than you, that there are elements to how we see and feel the world, small whispers, that can be turned up or drowned out. And as I sat there with the Scotsman on the dusty playa explaining it I realized how lucky I was to have been forced into the discipline of paying attention to those whispers and subtle glows.

I don't think that I'm super or unusually gifted to be able to grab on to what most people have to get intoxicated just to hear. But I am lucky. I slid in to that exercise regime without even realizing there was an easier way. It would be so much easier to drink and do drugs-- maybe not cheaper, but definitely easier. But way back when, when I started putting a big X on my fist and going to punk shows, when we would scoff at people sitting drunk in a 7-11 parking lot, I got turned on to the long route to fun and stuck with it. Now I'm glad, but it was something I did not do appreciating it. In retrospect I can talk about it like that was the goal, but at the time I was just doing what seemed like a better path-- not a better destination.

I can only speak for myself here because I have not had everyone else's experience. I think that many other SXErs feel the way I do and have the same experiences I have had. And I'm hardly the only person to be able to hear the whispers that drugs and drinking turn into shouts, but this weekend the universe pointed out to me how fucking lucky I am. And I'm just gloating about how lucky I am-- It's my way of thanking the fates.

And next time a naked woman with a Jack & Coke asks me, "Why do you go to BurningMan?" I'll say, "Because I can enjoy it."

*For the record I was not the only sober person at Burning Man

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