Paint Schoodic

We're offering four workshops for 2020, at Acadia National Park, Pecos, NM, and aboard the schooner American Eagle.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Daring to dream

You can only be disappointed if you allow yourself to hope, but hope is a necessary part of life.
Rain, by Carol L. Douglas
We’ve been pretty careful to make arrangements one step at a time. Ours is an escape ladder built from straw, which can blow over with the slightest breath of wind. We’ve booked enough flights that have failed to be very leery of booking more. But at some point, we had to look past that, because Miami is not our final destination. Our car is in a now-closed shuttle lot in Portsmouth, NH. That is about 2.5 hours south of our home and an hour north of Boston’s Logan Airport.

Yesterday, with 36 hours until our flight from Buenos Aires, we solidified a plan. We booked a flight that lands in Boston at 12:30 AM. We reserved a one-way car rental from Hertz, which is open 24 hours. The shuttle operators offered to leave my car in a safe spot with the keys inside. We’d be 36 hours on the road, but we were on target to be home by Friday at noon.
Crane, by Carol L. Douglas
I shared these arrangements with my kids; I told a pastor from our church. It felt awfully nice to write out these plans; it made them feel real. I told a few friends and went to bed with a plan. I’d start packing first thing this morning, right after I finish this blog. No, we don’t have much to pack, but I’d drag it out for the sheer joy of the experience.

I should have known better. At 10 PM, we received an email from Eastern Airlines saying that our flight is now delayed until the 3rd. That’s assuming they don’t delay the flight still another time—and assuming that this flight ever existed at all. Forgive our cynicism, but we now have a long history buying tickets that haven’t materialized.

Meanwhile, the costs continue to mount. As Senator Everett Dirksen famously said, “A billion here, a billion there; sooner or later it adds up to real money.”

I’ve been careful to keep my expectations low until now. You can only be disappointed if you allow yourself to hope, but hope is an integral part of faith. That’s a conundrum, but there’s hope that leads to dashed expectations and there’s true hope, which perseveres despite circumstances. I know I’m not alone in finding myself in radically-altered circumstances. If you find yourself sliding into hopelessness during this long, bitter confinement, let me suggest a few classic readings:

And, of course, Psalm 23.

I’d say this felt like a kick in the gut, but I was already feeling like I’d gone two rounds with a mule. Last week’s nemesis is back with a vengeance. I’m dosing myself with live-culture yogurt and drinking tea.

The biggest excitement of yesterday was this poor kitchen worker dumping a tray full of china dishes on a tile floor. It rang through the eight-story lobby.
I’m a big believer in staying busy to counter the megrims, but there’s very little work you’re allowed to do in a luxury hotel. We refuse room service and make our own bed. That leaves about 23 hours and fifty minutes to fill each day.

Last night, I found Doug ironing my painting shirts, which were still damp from being hand-washed. 

“You hardly need to do that,” I protested.

“I’m doing it for fun,” he answered. The man’s gone daft.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Notes from the plague pokey

There is restorative power in art, which is why so many people are drawn to it.
Empty plaza with police car, gouache on paper, Carol L. Douglas
American corporations are masters of assembling prepared foods into a simulacrum of cooking. The bar at the Hilton is the only place to buy meals, and what’s on offer are ersatz dinners. Although we’re trying to avoid them as much as possible, there are no cooking facilities in our rooms. Even the minibars have been torn down due to coronavirus.

We decided yesterday that we needed breakfast, so we took a seat in the lobby and ordered coffee and omelets. We were not far from where we’d been seated the night before. From my angle, I got a clear look at the area. A lone lump of cheese remained on the table. Underneath, the carpet was littered with bottlecaps and crumpled cocktail napkins. There were crumbs on the leather upholstery. The hotel crew might be spraying surfaces with alcohol, but if they’re not also wiping, picking up, and vacuuming properly, their efforts are wasted.
We're sharing space with airline crews.
As we ate, another large air crew arrived. This one was from Air France, and they immediately colonized every table around us. France has (as of last night) 45,000 cases and 3000 deaths from coronavirus. An Edelweiss Air crew was already here, but, until then, it had been easy to ignore them. That was folly, however; Switzerland has one of Europe’s highest rates of recorded coronavirus.

The Hilton is Argentina’s plague pokey and we’re there because we’re foreigners. But we came to Buenos Aires certified as healthy. Our goal is to remain that way. Airlines are grounded right now because they’re vectors for the spread of this disease. We don’t hate these crews, but we’re afraid to share space with them. At the same time, we’re also eagerly anticipating the arrival of an Eastern Airlines crew, because that brings us one step closer to heading home.

Apartment buildings across the street from us. I feel blessed to not live in a high-rise.
The answer is to insulate ourselves as much as we can. Jane Chapin and I ventured out in search of food that we can eat in our rooms. This time we went to a different supermercado. If we didn’t strike gold, we at least found fresh fruit, vegetables, bread and cheese. We came home with four heavy bags and formed an assembly line to wash it. Last night our crew dined on tuna-fish sandwiches, fruit, palm hearts and mushy peas. After the horrid bar food, it was divine.

Painting from the window with Lynn Mehta and Kellee Mayfield. Photo courtesy Douglas Perot.
Jane has jiggered our accommodations so that our group has two rooms facing the street. That gives us small windows on the world where we can take turns drawing and painting. Kellee Mayfield shared her gouache with Lynn Mehta and me. I left my watercolor and gouache at home for reasons of space; I will never travel without one of them again.

I was relieved and comforted to have a brush in my hand, although my painting is as bleak and raw as my psyche. There is restorative power in art, which is why so many people are drawn to it, and why I believe it’s important that everyone should have the opportunity to do it. While we Christians believe in the Resurrection, we not immune to the pain of loss.
You have to know the password to get in. Photo courtesy Douglas Perot.
I had intended to force myself into routine yesterday: drawing first, followed by a few hours of paperwork. I wasn’t able to drag myself into compliance. I went to bed early, foolishly flipping around Facebook before I dropped off. There I saw something that horrified me. An old friend, Wayne Potter, died yesterday, cause unknown. I frantically texted my brothers in the hope that it was a mistake. Alas, it was not. Two deaths in two days was more than my old soul could bear. I cried myself to sleep.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Life in a gilded cage

Buenos Aires is a ghost town from coronavirus. We’re waiting here until all Americans who can be rescued, are.
Those soldiers at the door are to keep us in, and keep anyone without papers out.
If you haven’t met Jane Chapin, she’s a little thing; I think she stretches the truth when she tells people she’s 5’1”. But she’s tough as the old boots she wears. I’d offered to drive the lead car in our midnight escape, since I’m used to dodging white-tailed deer. No; she would take the risk on her tiny shoulders.

We were barely out of the hosteria gate when we encountered our first jackrabbit. He decided his only hope was to lope ahead of us as fast as he could travel. That might work with pumas, but it slowed us down considerably.
Jane clears our first checkpoint. Photo courtesy Kellee Mayfield.
Even at 4 AM the first checkpoint was open. The soldiers carefully scrutinized our papers, calling each of us by name to verify our identities. I had memorized the phrase, Lo siento, no hablo español. The guards were unfailingly polite but utterly serious.

It turned out that documents they cared most about were the health certificates issued by Dr. Carolina Codó. That’s just another example of the importance of local knowledge, since our embassy had told us we didn’t need them.
After daybreak, we drove a long way through a dense fog. Photo courtesy Douglas Perot.
In our car, David Diaz and I sang silly songs to stay awake. A few hundred kilometers later, another jackrabbit drilled into Jane’s bumper, causing more damage than I thought possible. However, the whole panoply of stars were out, and we missed every guanaco and rhea dancing across the tarmac. The sun rose on a magical, stressful world.

We arrived at the Rio Gallegos airport in ample time. And then our troubles began. Our payments hadn’t transferred from Expedia; we would each have to pay again. (If you’re keeping score, we’ve paid for 14 flights so far, have used four, and have a reasonable expectation of using two more.)

If I can’t draw or sing to alleviate boredom, I make up and solve math problems in my head. This one was elementary: there were ten people in line, each transaction was taking more than ten minutes to complete, and our plane was leaving in an hour and a half. There was no way we were all going to make it on that plane. Doug and I were the last in line.

In Buenos Aires, we stood at the taxi stand trying to figure out where to go. Photo courtesy Douglas Perot.
I recited the 23rd Psalm and prayed. The clock above the desk moved inexorably forward. The agents were as flustered as me, but finally we were finished. We tore off to the security checkpoint. There, waiting, was Jane. She was not going to board until she was sure we were on the flight too.

Any thought that we would mooch around the airport at Buenos Aires looking for a flight were immediately quashed. We were ordered to leave by a soldier. Buenos Aires is a ghost town, but Kellee Mayfield stood at the taxi stand and booked us rooms at the Hilton. At the hotel, another set of soldiers scrutinized our health certificate before allowing us to pass in.

The streets of Buenos Aires are empty. Photo courtesy Jane Chapin.
We’re in a luxury hotel with no services—the laundry, restaurants, cafes and shops, rooftop pool, gym, etc. are all closed. There are as many staff as there are guests. We can leave to walk one block to the supermercado or pharmacy. Anything other than that, and we’ll be arrested.

Our departure has been moved back to April 2. I imagine there are still American citizens in the provinces that they’re trying to round up and bring to Buenos Aires. A few more days in this hotel is minor if it brings someone else home, and it appears this is really and truly the last flight until May.
Kellee Mayfield waiting her turn at the pharmacy. We can only go in one at a time.
Much more personally devastating was that last night my uncle, Robert Marusza, died of coronavirus at Buffalo General Hospital. He was a great man in both the personal and public sense, and very important to me. In normal times I’d be cancelling everything and heading to my home town. But these are not normal times. Funeral gatherings are banned in New York. Like his own children, I mourn from afar.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Our last day of quarantine

Much of what we do is meaningless time-filler. When that has been torn away, where are you left?
Unfinished last painting.
We have certainly run into a pathogen, although I doubt it’s COVID-19. I’m secretly relieved that it ran through me before we start our engines and make a course for Rio Gallegos in the morning. Woe to them who are in its throes en route.

Yesterday, Cristina informed me that I was confined to my room until I was six hours without a fever. This wasn’t her edict; it was that of the village doctor. I could go outside for fresh air, but not into any common areas. My mind turned inevitably to a comment Jane Chapin made to me earlier this week about the shrinking nature of our confinement. I really should be ashamed of myself. 

The Diary of Anne Frank was required reading in my youth. She and her family lived for two years in their cramped attic, and their release was immeasurably worse. My room is perfectly lovely, and I’d managed to snaffle The Spectator on my phone before Cristina noticed me.
Bushwhacking with Jane Chapin. The undergrowth is thick in the valleys.
I went outdoors and sat on a bench in the sun. Eventually, Jane found me, and we went bushwhacking. Mercifully, we have only a few hundred acres to roam in, or we might have managed to get lost. We tromped around in the undergrowth until we found a small stream with a view.

We set up to paint. My gut had been acting perfectly foul all morning, and it was there that the floodgates opened. I am missing part of my colon—that critical part that tells the average person that the @#$! Is about to hit the fan. I wandered off into the brush and cleaned up as well as I could, then returned and folded up my paint kit. It was a beautiful day; so what if I was covered in merde? I lay on my back in the warm sunlight, chatting with Jane as she painted.

Lying on my back in the sun, talking to Jane while she painted.
I’ve had less effective colonoscopy preps.

As I write this, Jane is checking us into our flight from Rio Gallegos tomorrow. We will leave here at 4 AM, driving hours in the dark, keeping a close watch for the guanaco, vicuña, or huemules who might like to ornament our cars’ front grilles. Ours is the last flight from Rio Gallegos to Buenos Aires and we do not—as of yet—have a plan to get from Buenos Aires to America. But I trust in my God as my protector. He hasn’t let me down yet.

Iron-ore laden creek.
Meanwhile, the mountains are shrouded in fog today, as if they are sad that we are leaving. Every morning of this trip, Natalia Andreeva has sat by the window and watched the pink light flicker up onto Glaciar Electrico. “Beautiful!” she breathes. Stripped of all the impositions of our world—of socializing, parenting, working—she remained centered on this one joy of all creation. 
Reader Robin M. asked me how we move our wet paintings. The wettest go into these PanelPak carriers.
The Age of Coronavirus has been one of great costs. There is opportunity here, as well. Much of what we do is meaningless time-filler. Some of it is downright corrosive. When all that is torn away, what are you left with? Do you like yourself well enough to be content in your own company? Can you organize your day, your week, your life, without someone else telling you what to do? If not, think of this as a wakeup call. Nobody owns your happiness but you.
Those that are drier are interleaved with waxed paper that I cut to size before leaving home. I then make a bundle of them, reusing the stretch film I brought. You can also use plastic bumpers or slivers of wine cork to separate the paintings.
This is my last post before we hare out of here. We leave tomorrow at 4 AM. I may be writing from Rio Gallegos, or it may be a week before I find a wi-fi signal I can poach. Until then, take care and remember to wash your hands.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Montezuma’s revenge

We had almost cleared quarantine, so why were we suddenly all feeling rotten?
Kellee Mayfield listens to rap music while painting. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
“Kellee,” I said quietly over breakfast, “you need to take my temperature.” Kellee Mayfield has this nifty no-touch thermometer that she aims at your forehead. If you’re below 100° F, it gives you a green light. If you’re above that, it squawks and flashes red at you. I know this because it did that to me. My heart sank.

I immediately went to bed, took a combination of Tylenol and aspirin and isolated myself. Periodically, Jane Chapin would come in and wave the magic thermometer at me. My temperature dropped into the safe zone, but I was not feeling well at all.

I was not concerned for myself; I’m overall as healthy as a horse, and I don’t have any underlying medical conditions that would encourage Coronavirus to knock me off. But I would have hated to be the weak link that kept us in Patagonia for several more weeks.
Hoping to paint here today. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
Meanwhile, some of my fellows were suffering a different ailment: traveler’s diarrhea. In the past, this was sometimes known by the rather rude names of Montezuma’s Revenge or Delhi Belly. Sometimes pathogens in water don’t bother natives but upset the stomachs of visitors. But lest we feel superior, our own North American pathogen, Giardiasis, or beaver fever, is particularly nasty, and nobody develops tolerance to it. I speak from experience.

But whether it was different food, too much Malbec, or something in the water, three of my fellow travelers were laid low. Since we can’t flush the toilet tissue, I can’t even imagine their difficulties.

By the end of the day yesterday, we had four members of our little troop in some kind of distress. The problem with illness in the Age of Coronavirus is that we question every little spike in temperature, bad gut, or headache. That’s especially true in a foreign country, under quarantine, on sufferance.
Those who can, painted. Those would couldn't, slept. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
Even in the face of worry, the show went on. Those who could, went out and painted. Those of us who couldn’t, rested. Kellee Mayberry told me that her painting blew into the river. I was sad to have missed that.

This morning my temperature is down and my fellows have returned to their usual bathroom habits. Once again, we’re all our usual cheerful selves. Tomorrow our quarantine ends, so today is the last day in which we can paint all day. I plan to make the most of it.