Life as a Full Time Member of Airship Isabella

I so often hear “It would be great to be able to travel and go to cons for a living…to meet all kinds of people and feel like I’m making a

Captain Whittaker fitting a custom bracer to one of the patrons of Louisianime 2010...the moments that make it worth it.

difference…I want to do that!” My standard response is…no you don’t. On the one hand all of those things are completely true. It is wonderful to travel especially with the eccentric personalities that I have the pleasure of traveling with. Two, cons are wonderful to me because I’ve never known them as a civilian. I enjoy the work, but make no mistake, it is work and a lot of it. Honestly, the reason we keep doing this is the meeting people and the feeling like your making a difference, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Nothing I have ever done beats those moments. But nothing is as easy or as pleasant as it seems. Traveling when you want to is wonderful. Being on the road for 6 weeks with the same people in a confined space with lack of sleep takes a special kind of person to enjoy, and you don’t get to choose where you are going nor what you do when you get there. That is easily overcome with the joy of the event and the people that you work with, but it’s what you don’t see that makes this life difficult.

Enjoy your sweat because hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but without it you don’t have a chance. Alex Rodriguez

There are no promises. We may work our behinds off and be totally prepared, and we may sell out of merchandise at the first event in a six week run. Great ,right! Yes and no. Great that we will actually be able to eat on the way to the next event. Not so great in that as soon as we find crash space for the three days between events, we will be feverishly working to replenish supplies before the next Friday, all while maintaining an internet store. God help us if we run out of raw materials on the road. Did you know you can ship things to post offices in towns you will visit? Just saying. Or on the flip side, we may work our behinds off and be totally prepared, and no one shows up to the event. If we walk away with enough for cup o noodle for the next three days, we will be lucky, not to mention where we are going to sleep. National Park passes are a good investment as is making friends with the locals. And it starts again every Friday. The uncertainty and instability is enough to drive most people crazy. On the crew, we have all had moments of “I can’t do this anymore” and “I just want to know where I’m going to sleep or how are we going to eat.” But we hold each other up in those moments, and figure out new and inventive ways to survive. Some of my favorite stories involve having to come up with ways to get through what seemed to be impossible obstacles. To date, we have had to sleep in our vehicles, but no one has gone hungry. For that, I am thankful.

Then there is the disparity between the way we see the con world and the way a convention goer sees the con world. I hear time and

The Wonderland Crew - Dickens on the Strand 2010. They started with about three hours of sleep and these guys worked in a crowd of approximately 20,000 people for six hours without a break.

time again once people actually book and work conventions, “How do you guys do this?! This is too much like work!” Well, yes, yes it is. It is our job, and treating it as anything less will make you miserable. We do not attend conventions to have fun. We go to promote steam punk, the steam punk community and hopefully make enough money to survive until the next one. To me, that IS fun. I will give you a little taste of what it’s like by relating what we have learned over the course of two years on the circuit. We did attend Ikkicon 2010 as guests, but mostly we stood around being awestruck and not knowing what to do. It was a whole new world to us, and we LOVED it. I had no idea that there were that many people who took the time to make costumes of their favorite characters and dress up for the weekend. I can’t explain to you, as a costumer, how excited that made me.

After giving our very first panel. If you don't recognize them, they didn't make it past the first Spring.

The first convention that we tried to pull together some organization was Comicpalooza in March of 2010. It was our first run at hosting panels on our own, and standing completely independent from other more established groups. We got our first taste of what con life was like on the inside. First, nobody sleeps. How is it that nobody sleeps? But there we were fighting waves of sleep deprivation while having to maintain some semblance of knowledge and decorum. Second, it’s really hard to find food that isn’t a convenience store hot dog for $9, and cons frown on coolers. So, eating is an issue. Third, it’s really, REALLY hard to be polite, welcoming and answer questions without sarcasm when you are suffering from numbers one and two. Finally, desperation often breeds real innovation.

Cedric at our first con workstations, Comicpalooza 2010

Comicpalooza was the first convention that we set up workstations for our leather workers. Not because we thought, “What a great way to get people interested in steam punk!” or “This will be really good marketing!”. No, it was because we are just like every other artist out there, and we had time management issues. We were utterly unprepared for the convention, so in desperation, we brought our workstations with us thinking that we could work in our down time. It turned into a round the clock DIY panel that was inspiring for everyone. It also taught us how horribly wrong not sleeping and eating can go. One of our crew members fell asleep at the wheel, and crashed into a culvert. He broke his back. We now have a policy for cons in which we have to travel more than 3 hours. We do not leave until Monday. Nothing is worth a 21 year old having a lifetime of pain.

At conventions, we are up every morning between 5:30 and 7:30am depending on the con, and work solid until 8pm-midnight. Some cons, I won’t mention any names, seem to think it’s ok to push that end time to 4:30am. This is not because we choose to be there. This is not because we thought it would be fun even if it was. It’s in our contract that we will attend/host/vend. I have wanted to see Abney Park play since I started doing this. I have attended three conventions where they were playing and have not seen them once. The last time I was not working at that exact moment, but I had to choose between catching two hours of sleep, literally on the convention center floor, or the concert. I chose sleep, and including that two hours, I only got three hours of sleep that night. So please don’t take offense when we don’t show up to after parties or don’t drink with you. We are already looking at less than 4 hours of sleep. Having a hang over only makes the next day worse. We had to learn that one the hard way, though we still do it occasionally. People have to cut loose sometimes. As strange as it sounds, you do get acclimated to operating under these conditions, and the pleasant demeanor gets easier to maintain in time. It’s the first six months that’s a killer. After that, it becomes second nature. I will also tell you that you can do far more than you think you can, and push much further than you ever thought possible if you want something badly enough.

To be honest, I think that we learned all of the basics at that first full-fledged con. At the time, we thought it was a fluke. That we hadn’t prepared properly. But the truth is, the con world and life on the road is both totally predictable and utterly unpredictable. You can count on the lack of sleep, the difficulty in locating food and the iron will to maintain a pleasant face while operating under the first two. You can also count on the fact that something will go wrong, things you were promised will not happen and schedules change without anyone bothering to notify you. These are a given. But you can also count on that one person that makes your smile real through the fog, the one panel that you enjoy giving as much as the people enjoy attending, the random acts of kindness, and the light in people’s faces that just make everything worth doing.

Kitty and Nyxie, Ikkicon 2011, day two, midnight

Surviving in this world requires one thing: perseverance. Thriving in this world requires two things: perseverance and flexibility. One, always have a backup plan. You are suppose to have a hotel room? Know where the nearest dive that you can afford to shove all 15 of your people into is. In the same vein, know the crime rates in the city you are going to. Green room access? First trip will be to the grocery store. We will have time to do that once we get there….no you won’t. Two, schedules don’t work…for us or for them. Cons are notorious for changing in mid-stride and we just learned to deal with it. Nothing is ever written in stone,so it is a waste of time and energy to get upset about it. Knee deep in a season, we have neither of those things to spare. Plan for it instead. We assigned crew members and friends to this problem. Their job is to keep poking around places so that we have as much warning as possible to the inevitable changes. And it doesn’t hurt to get to know the staff. They are either your best allies or your worst enemies. Don’t make them the latter. You will regret it.

Finally, people seem to think that we can relax between conventions. This is so far from the truth that its mind boggling. I hear people on the internet talking about con comas when they get home. We have a rule in the shop. If we arrive at the shop, or our next port of call before 9pm, we all have to put in an hour of work before we can sleep. Actual building work, not computer work. The computer work is for the next day. And that includes the end of a long run. Once we end a season, there is still a weeks worth of work to do. We do occasionally have two-three week breaks and those are when our con comas hit. I have seen a marked change in the crew in this regard over the year. When we first started, every break was treated like a weekend. Now, people won’t take more than two weeks even if we have more time, and for anything less than two weeks, no one slows down at all. But after that 6-8 week push in the fall and spring, the first week back, no one changes out of pajamas or goes out to do anything other than buy smokes or sodas. And they sleep. Sleep like they will never see it again. Which in their defense, they won’t once the ramp up to the next run starts

…I didn’t bring my peremptory tone to bear in regard to what you’d just said about the unnecessariness of sleep but only, only, mind you, because of the fact that I absolutely, simply, purely and without any whatevers have to sleep now, I mean, man, my eyes are closing, they’re red hot, sore, tired, beat…” Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The guys of Airship Isabella hosting an impromptu panel with Mr. Saturday and Sixpence at Realmscon 2011, day three, at this point an hour of sleep in 48 hours.

During long runs, we only have three days to replenish stock which is all hand made by us. That means 16-18 hour work days leading into 4-36 hour road trips leading into 20-22 hour work days with no weekends for 4-8 weeks at a time. Now with all of this, you still have to update your outfits, repair any gear that was damaged, and maintain family relationships….and I home school my children as well. We still have the Ike shack as a shop and home when we are not on the road, and we have added a leaky camper in the driveway to house our two newest full time members. And somehow we have managed to eek out enough space to fit three more workstations in the living quarters that has no central air or heat. Any creature comfort we have ever had is gone, from privacy to consistent hot water. Still sound like something you want to do?

I will tell you it is worth every minute, but it is not for the faint of heart! Every time someone comes up and thanks you; Every time they bring their first attempt at building and garb to an event; Every time you see a family brought together by a common vision; Every time you leave the con floor with a smile, and I have never left the con floor anything but smiling, you are reminded why you work so hard. In the midst of everything, I do get to spend more time with my family. Even if we are all working, we are working together. I am closer to the people on this crew than I have been to anyone that is not related to me by blood, and with them, I have shoved a lifetime full of incredible stories into the space of a year. I have been to more places than I ever thought I would get to see. I get to work my rear off for something that I love, and I was not raised to be ashamed of hard work. I’m actually really proud of it. So if you still have a mind to set out after that dream with your eyes open, come talk to us. We will help you any way we can!

Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life. Jack Kerouac

The Airship Isabella crew at Wild Wild West Con, Tuscon, Arizona...would not trade them for anything.

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Airship Isabella – the real life “Origins” of Cedric and Amelia Whittaker

The fall season is finally behind us, and I will admit to crawling in my little hobbit hole and taking a much needed break from the front lines. I’ve probably slept more in the past two weeks than I have since September! This fall was wonderful and busy and everything that I could have hoped it would be. That being said, it was also everything I expected it to be.

I wanted to take this short moment between awaking from post-road dogging stupor and moving on to the holidays and then without a breath, the slower, but still busy winter season to talk about what it’s like to be a full time member of Airship Isabella. It’s probably one of our most commonly asked questions, and it is often said with a glitter in the eyes and a look of longing. I don’t understand the look because I’m here, at headquarters, and know the full story. 🙂 With the upcoming release of our first installment of Airship Isabella – Origins. I thought I would also take a moment to give you the real life “Origins” story as well.

In the fall of 2008, my firefighter husband, Michael “Hawk” Ford came up with a “brilliant idea”. We were going to build a full scale 20′

Kitty in our backyard Summer 2009

X 50′ two story “airship” to be taken to Flipside the next May, and set up a dance camp. For those of you unfamiliar with Burning Flipside, it is a regional Burning Man festival in central Texas. We called her “the Airship Isabella”, and we did actually build it and take it to Flipside. We had a wonderful time building the ship, and we fell in love with steam punk in the process. We even came up with characters and back stories, and named ourselves Cedric and Amelia Whittaker. In June we moved into a beautiful home on Lake Travis, and rang in the summer playing in the lake and teaching our youngest how to swim. It was about as perfect as anything I had ever imagined. But out there in the economic world, the recession had be going on for almost a year, and we were about to become victims. It’s a long story that is just rotten all the way around, but suffice it to say that by the middle of July, Hawk was out of a job. That left me, a secretary, trying to take care of three children while living in a very nice house on the lake.

“Every problem has a gift for you in its hands.” Richard Bach

We had savings enough to get us through December, but after that we were going to be in real trouble. There were no jobs to be found, and cities, now loosing revenue, were not looking to hire. Hawk continued to play with his new found hobby in steam punk while looking for a job, and as finding a job anytime soon began to look less and less likely, an idea began to form. We had done so well throwing the party at Flipside maybe we could do it professionally. It was crazy. We were desperate. So, we banded together with some friends, and started mapping out what we wanted to do. We created a plan to build our reputation as event hosters and to use merchandise sales to fund our start up. We had a box of old leather in the closet from when Hawk was in the SCA, and a whole lot of bits and pieces from the Flipside project. So, we set out to build steam punk merchandise. It was slow at first, and we didn’t really do much to offset even our costs at first. We also had a hard time figuring out where to market ourselves. We did clubs and small events, but nothing big enough to even begin to be hopeful. We did manage to book a movie spot as extras, and were hired by the artistic designer for the scene we were in, J.R. Fleming. We let her use our boat house as a scene shop, and much to our benefit, she joined the team.

December came and went with the last of our savings, and January was looking incredibly bleak. On the day before New Year’s we got a call from Beth at Ikkicon, asking us if we could fill a single spot on Thursday night before the con. We jumped at the opportunity, and put together a show…complete with a band…that didn’t exist before that day…in under 24 hours. I’m just going to be honest. It was horrible. I cried and had a panic attack. I really didn’t think we were going to survive the backlash. Nonetheless, we showed up the next day to sit our table, and low and behold, people had liked it or they hadn’t seen it. It didn’t really matter either way. We made a ton of connections, and while we had shown up with some merchandise, we had had no experience in the con world. We didn’t realize the volume we were dealing with. By Sunday, we had sold all but two pieces of the gear WE HAD ON to the patrons of that Ikkicon. More importantly, we met there a large portion of the future members of the Isabella.

As the winter progressed, we started working on making inroads into the convention circuit, and trying to survive. We lost our only whole car, and had to pull the old Jeep out of the scrap bin just to keep going. It had two shattered windows and no heater, but it ran…sometimes…and we owned it. J.R. let us use her car when she could, and her mother even picked me up and took me to work a few times when the Jeep was acting up. We had some disagreements within the crew over the direction of the group, and we lost all but three of our original members who weren’t family. They thought the convention circuit was snobbish and a waste of time. They didn’t see how pursuing this venue would be beneficial to promoting a party company. Those who remained had begun to see things a little differently. Those who left were right and they were wrong. It was definitely snobbish, but we were convinced it wasn’t a waste of time. We were also convinced that we didn’t want to concentrate on parties. We could see a bigger picture beginning to emerge and an actual community beginning to develop that we wanted to be a part of. In that split, we lost all but one of our closest friends. And we kept going.

We went with my parents to the museum for Father's day after a really rough spring.

The spring brought another round of triumphs and perhaps the worst tragedies that we have seen to date. We actually started making inroads in the convention circuit, and met people who would become some of our closest allies. We lost a good friend to accidental suicide and had to file charges on a member of the crew that resulted in one of our children moving away…on the day of the funeral. The two weren’t actually related in anyway other than rotten timing. Even in the midst of turmoil, no one lost site of the mission, though the mission had changed. We no longer had any desire to be event managers/promoters or party planners. We had seen the magic in steam punk, and the potential that it had to actually inspire people to be creative and innovative. The mission became, in the summer of 2010, to make sure that that potential was achieved as much as this crew of rag tag misfits could.

I learned there are troubles of more than one kind. Some come from ahead, others come from behind. But I’ve bought a big bat. I’m all ready, you see. Now my troubles are going to have trouble with me. — Dr. Seuss

By July of 2010, we had reached a cross-roads. We were out of money, completely. The Jeep finally quit working altogether. We were facing me having to get two jobs, if I could even find another one. Or Hawk having to put down the steam punk venture, and take any job he could find just to survive. Even those were damn near impossible to locate. We had one other option. We could completely abandon trying to make things work in the “real world” to try to make Airship Isabella full time. We had realized quickly that the only way to make this work was to be able to travel. Without reliable transportation and being tied to an 8-5 job, I couldn’t go along. The second barrier was the children’s school. The third and final problem was start up costs. We made the only logical choice for us, terrifying as it was. I quit my job, cashed in my retirement, sold all of my household belongings, decided to home school the children, and set out on the road. They say the only way to really build wings is as you are falling, so we gave it a shot.

Last day at the Lake House August 2010, our moving/packing partners: Hawk, Remy, Nick, Korrin, Alex, Julissa, Whitney, Eevie and David

We set up a home base in a tiny house behind Cedric’s mom that had been severely damaged during Hurricane Ike, and was and is probably uninhabitable. Over the course of the Fall of 2010, Captain Delacru and Johnny No joined us, and several other members quit their jobs and school to do this full time though they did not move into the shop. To truly understand this, you must understand that this house is about 900 sq ft with two bedrooms and one bath that kind of works. We had to pull the seaweed out of the stove. In this house was our workspace for Cedric, Lazuli, Johnny No and me. As well as sleeping quarters for my two children and Cedric and me. Hawk’s mom kindly let the guys sleep inside her house. We used the start up cash to buy tools and supplies and a vehicle that lasted all of three weeks before blowing out the engine. And we started to work in earnest. We booked a few really great events, and by October were booking well into 2011. We booked and performed at Dickens on the Strand in Galveston, and then we really started to gain steam.

Dickens on the Strand 2010

So, the background being set up and knowing where we were coming from will hopefully make what will come next make more sense.

 “Here’s to the crazy ones; the misfits; the rebels; the trouble-makers; the round pegs in the square holes; the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Jack Kerouac