July 4, 2011

Meltdown in Alaska

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(written aboard the S.S. Wish I Was Home, June/2011)

A cruise ship operates on a feudal system.  The peasants smile, say good morning, look exhausted and serve the Revenue Guests until their wide feet ache.  The RGs have so many needs that I understand why room service sometimes brings the cream but the water is cold, or the water is hot but they forget the cream.  I am grateful that I am allowed to order room service at all given my position on this ship.

I am in the artisan class.  Our position in society has not changed in a thousand years.  We are paid mostly in the form of appreciative comments like:

“Oh how lovely.”

“I wish I could do that.”

“I haven’t a creative bone in my body.”

Musicians, artists, and writers are arguably who make life bearable for everyone.  We are a bridge that connects the poor with the mighty.  We finance our own maintenance and are walked on regularly.

If you want to be in the artisan class, you have to not only love what you do, you have to find your internal survival in your art.  Painting, singing, and writing is where I go when life gets unbearable.  Here on this ship, I am glad I have my paints, a pen and a notebook because I am not cleared to touch the pianos.

I was tense my first day of teaching watercolor on board.  The watercolor teacher is so low on the list of who matters that I only saw the activity director twice in a week.  I learned I could be bounced from just about anything without notice.

I arrived at my first class half an hour early, terrified by the fascist language that ordered me to be 20 minutes early and dressed in “business attire,” whatever that meant. And I was feeling inferior because I had just been unceremoniously bumped from dinner in the dining room.  I waited for 25 minutes.  I didn’t know where anything was, I had been assured that Housekeeping would set up the tables, and get out the 35 art kits, each of which contained six tubes of paint, three brushes, ten sheets of cold-pressed watercolor paper, and a palette.  They would hand out numbers to the first 35 people who arrived; the rest could try again at the next class.

There were 45 students milling around before Housekeeping set up the demonstration table and got out the box of supplies.  Instead of 35 art kits, there were, in fact, twelve palettes, three trays of mostly used up watercolor paints in odd colors, and nine small pieces of watercolor paper about the size I use to test for paint saturation.

“Where’s the paper?”  I asked.  “Where are the kits?”

“This is what you use,”  Housekeeping said.

“I can’t teach 50 people to paint with these supplies!”

“This was enough for the other teacher.”  Housekeeping looked at me with contempt.  She added in a hiss, “This is not the place to have this conversation.”

Forty-five people waited expectantly.  So I did what any professional teacher with thirty years of experience would do:  I turned away and burst into tears.

I knew instinctively that what was expected of me as a team player (which I have never been and was not going to start now) was to say, “I’m sorry, but due to my incompetence and ill-preparedness, there are inadequate supplies.  Please blame me.”

But I wiped my eyes, turned around and chirped into the microphone, “Hi, My name is Elena.  If you have heard that watercolor is difficult, I want to show you why it doesn’t have to be.”

I hissed right back at Housekeeping to cut down some cups to make “palettes,”  find me some paper and bring me some drinking water.  Someone brought drawing paper from the children’s center.  It was little more than newsprint that was going to disintegrate with my wet-into-wet technique.  I gave the nine pieces of watercolor paper to the first people who had come in.

I lined up the meager supplies and without thinking, invited people to line up and take one of everything.  What was now over 50 people swarmed the table and began squirting gobs of paint into cups, fighting each other for brushes and water from the bucket.  I watched in dismay.

Someone politely asked me if I could find her some blue paint.

“No,” I snapped.

She was a reporter from a major newspaper which I will not name because I don’t want you going into their archives and reading of my shame.

Somehow we all got through it.  Some folks were even delighted with their paintings.  When they all left for their next activity, I sat down amidst the ruins of Art and sobbed.

My traveling companion on this ship, my great friend, Nancy, who can tell me every time I have de-constructed a thought, had watched the whole mess from the back of the room.  She told me she hadn’t been able to tell anything was wrong.

Two fellow artists, who sat in the front row and who had come mostly for the pleasure of not having to be the teachers themselves, told me I had handled things beautifully.  I was glad I had given them pieces of the watercolor paper because they knew the difference.

But Nancy talked to the cruise director for me.  “She is not going to be able to pull this off again,” she told him.  “She is going to need watercolor paper.”

The paper was three days away in Juneau.  It took me that long to recover from my first class.  Things got better.  Stay tuned.  I think I have one more cruise blog in me.



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