A Learning Experience


There’s something lovely and decadent about lying in bed with the morning sun streaming through the windows, feeling everything rock slowly in the rhythm of the waves. Granted, the sensation is unnerving when you remember that you’re at home in Palo Alto, but it’s to be expected after spending a week on a boat. When I got off the ship after my month at sea with the NB Palmer it was a challenging couple of days before I fully got my “land legs” back.

This year’s Ephemerisle brought some challenges, too. It was, in retrospect, a fascinating education in how a group of hard-working, intelligent people of good will can so easily find themselves at each others’ throats.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOkay, not necessarily everyone was of good will. When, at 7:30 in the morning, the crew of Bump Bed aimed their entire barge full of stadium-ready, window-rattling speakers at the main island and began cutting between 30-second clips of everything from Merle Travis to Daft Punk? I’m pretty sure that wasn’t good will. More like psychoacoustic warfare. And guys who couldn’t be bothered to find a place where kids weren’t playing to drop their trousers and pee off the side of the boat? Not thinking there was a lot of goodwill going on there, either. I am willing to cut a little slack on the goodwill front to the oversloshed party girls trying to board our boat swinging half-empty gallon jugs of cheap whiskey. They kept insisting that our problem was that we weren’t partying hard enough. Goodwill? Sure, I suppose. Judgment? Not so much.

IMG_20150722_134043But by far, the largest part of sustained conflict seemed to be between people who were earnestly trying to help each other. The architects who had designed the ambitious network of floating bridges and platforms. The folks who came out a week ahead to try to actually build the crazy thing. The artists who wanted to make the bridges beautiful as well as functional. And, of course, the folks for whom the bridges were designed, who would really like to actually connect up and use them before the festival was over.

It did help to remember that so many of us were sweating our volunteer posteriors off together to make it work, spending each afternoon hauling lumber, drilling, fastening, inflating, replacing to get the damned platforms and bridges functional. But it was inevitable that tempers would rise. A case in point was bringing Explorers, the “family-friendly” clustering, into the fold. We had come out on Monday, at the start of the festival, but it was Thursday before the archipelago was finally ready for us to join up. And when we were finally marshaled into our assigned position, we found ourselves…18 feet short of the bridge that was supposed to serve us. Because the plan said that the bridge was going to be 18 feet longer, you see, and there’d been a breakdown in communication. Moving us again was apparently not an option for reasons I never really understood. So with the volunteers we could muster, we scraped to build another 18 feet of bridge before sundown. Instead of, um, docking us in 18 feet closer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe kicker was learning that our newly-completed bridge was only going to be a temporary solution. Because ours was the bridge that was intended for the Sanctuary platform. Our long-term bridge (meaning “for the remaining day and a half”) was a different one, also too short and, incidentally, broken at the moment. But once we’d fixed and extended that one, they’d pull our bridge, replace it with the other, and tow ours over to Sanctuary. Why on earth? Well, because the broken bridge had been painted, beautifully, like a long piano keyboard, apropos to the family theme. And once our current/temporary bridge was in place at Sanctuary, it was intended by the artists to be decorated by naked people covering themselves in paint and rolling around on it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAgain, as I said, it really helped to keep reminding ourselves that everyone involved in this process was intelligent, hard-working and of good will. But honestly, by sundown on Thursday, murmurs of mutiny were getting louder, and I was giving greater credence to the observation that Explorers could achieve a rare convergence of figurative and literal collective action by just burning our bridges and moving on.

We didn’t. Instead, conversations were had, tempers were soothed and compromises reached. Yes, everyone agreed, this was really hard, and communication breaks down so easily. And just like in any marriage, what one person thinks of as “help” is often what the other what the other thinks of as “For God’s sake will you stop doing that!!!”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd by Saturday evening, the last night of the festival, peace had been made, and everyone was finally, finally, settling into their groove. In the end, even the Bump Bed wall o’ noise problem was soothed over after a couple of visits with their DJ (“Yes, we understand that you want to share. Let’s figure how you can do that without pissing everyone off.”) They pointed their speakers off to the southwest for the duration, presumably to rattle the windows of Tokyo.

Sure, the bridge to the Sanctuary platform collapsed that afternoon, but folks seemed to work around it (there’s some speculation, but I’d not be shy about pointing a finger at the guy encouraging people to line up and jump up and down on the painted piano keys so that he could get a picture of them all in the air at the same time). Our bridge needed a few repairs but held to the end, brightly emblazoned with evocative blue body prints of lovely ladies who’d decorated it for us. (I have to admit that I was impressed by the revised rationale: “These are the family boats and, um.. these prints kind of show the parts that babies come from…”).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor our part we had a mellow time. We sat and listened to talks on practical life extension and intuitive photography. Kayaked over to Ithaka and were fed lovely curried things. Admired the hovercraft Delorean as it careened around the delta (“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!”). Sang sea shanties on Ocracy and later had a full-blown midnight folk jam on Themeasaur (a combined effort of Dinosaur Island and the “Theme” boats). And amazingly, woke up to a quiet mist-covered morning well-rested when it was all over. Without even any Daft Punk.

[A million thanks to the tireless and patient Scott and Simone, the superhuman Sean Faul and Chris Rasch, the beautiful and kind people of Ithaka, the supremely diplomatic Paul Grasshoff, and everyone else who pitched in. Special call out to the Matts, Carly, and the incredible Colleen, who could teach Lara Croft a thing or two about kickass]


3 responses to “A Learning Experience

  1. Thank you! Wish I had the patience to secure my e-mail and writing with such appropriate strings! Can’t wait to read! Putting together pkge for Miranda, grad and birthday, nothing huge! When does she leave for school or do you think I shld send it to her AT school? Love, Mel✈😘😋


  2. We apparently learned the same thing. The way I ended up phrasing it to myself and others on our boat was something like, “The intent of the action of this person is to give me a gift. That I perceive it as a burden does not make their gift less generous”, but it does point out a place where communication could be enhanced. The few folks over on Bump Bed who I met were kind and generous. Just wrong about my desire for their gift.

    I left a day early — missing the Better Saturday night — because after three nights of poor sleep I was about to kill the next person who gave me a burden. I’m sorry I missed the Saturday, but I’m not sorry I failed to kill someone.


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