Martha’s Vineyard Basketball

Slightly adapted from the review I just posted on Goodreads . . .

MV Basketball coverNo, I’m not a sports fan, but my fascination with the Vineyard and anything related to race and class is insatiable, so I had such hopes for this book. Class is a shifty thing on Martha’s Vineyard. It doesn’t look like what one reads about in textbooks or sees in urban areas. Here, as elsewhere in the U.S., we bend over backwards to avoid seeing it. It’s complicated by the distinction between the year-round population and the “summer people”; by the ethnic groups with deep roots here (especially Wampanoag, Anglo, Portuguese, and Cape Verdean); and by the long history of African Americans on the island.

What a great idea, I thought: to explore “notions of race and class” by focusing on basketball, specifically the summer basketball program that started in 1970. Basketball does bring together people from a variety of backgrounds, women as well as men (and not only as spectators), and the tight focus might make manageable complex subjects that otherwise tend to sprawl out of control.

Unfortunately, Bijan C. Bayne’s Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race and Class (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) doesn’t deliver. The raw material is there, especially the interviews with participants, and most especially those with Coach Jay Schofield and the several participants quoted at length in the “Coming of Age” chapter near the end of the book.

What isn’t there is a coherent narrative, a path for the reader to follow through the thicket of names, dates, and anecdotes. The book jumps back and forth between the 1970s, the ’90s, and the present, and between the Vineyard and the various urban neighborhoods where some of the participants spent their winters.

It deals almost as much with the basketball program at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School as with the summer basketball activities at “The Courts” at Oak Bluffs’ Niantic Park.

It veers off on tangents like Senator Ted Kennedy’s famous mishap on Chappaquiddick (1969) and the filming of Jaws (1974). Not only do these things have little to do with basketball, they play into common stereotypical notions of what the Vineyard is, or was, about. Despite his long relationship with the Vineyard, Bayne generally sees it as off-islanders and summer people see it.

And the book frequently gets bogged down in the scoring and rebounding stats from games that took place 20 and 40 years ago. Momentous as these might have been at the time, they loom much smaller when this much time has passed.

This book desperately needed an editor. Two editors: one to work with the author on structure, then one to focus on words, sentences, and paragraphs. Someone should have noticed that West Chop is not in Oak Bluffs and that the ferry Scamanchi‘s name was not spelled like that. (Schamonchi, anyone?). And, once the manuscript was complete and the page proofs ready, a proofreader. No editors are mentioned in the acknowledgments. Was the book professionally edited at all?

Being an editor and writer myself, I can’t help offering a couple of suggestions, even though it’s too late to make this book what it could have been. At the top of the list: Use the title and subtitle as a guide. There are four big topics here: Martha’s Vineyard, basketball, race, and class. Develop each one separately, then braid them together. As it is, we get some basketball history and some glimpses of the Vineyard before 1970. The history of African Americans on the Vineyard doesn’t come up till chapter 6, and class isn’t discussed at all. What, exactly, are these “notions of race and class” that the summer basketball program defied?

In the process, some major themes would emerge, among them basketball as a rite of passage and performance space; the importance of coaches and peers in transmitting values to young people; the contrast between summers then and summers now, especially from a kid’s point of view; and the importance of friendship, especially across race, class, and seasonal lines.

Then I might look for two or three individuals whose experience over the decades could provide both a narrative thread and a distinct personality for readers to follow. As it is, those with some Vineyard experience are going to love finding familiar names in the text (I did!), but outsiders are likely to be dizzied by the sheer number of names — a little like dipping into the sports section of a newspaper when you aren’t a sports fan. Coach Schofield and the author himself are the most likely candidates.

Then I’d send the author home to organize the wealth of detail in this book into the coherent narrative it could have been.

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June License Plate Report

2015 june license map

A good month for the West and Midwest: South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Iowa, and Arizona.

South Dakota and Iowa never did show up last year, so snagging them both in June is a minor coup. I had a strong assist on South Dakota. Cynthia Riggs, mystery writer, gardener, and co-proprietor of the Cleaveland House B&B, tipped me off that B&B guests here for Virginia Blakesley’s memorial service had South Dakota plates on their car and would be around till Wednesday. I showed up for writers’ group on Sunday night and there it was in the driveway.

About the booboo in the list: I spotted New Mexico, wrote it down, realized I already had it, and noticed that I hadn’t recorded Arizona yet, although I’d seen at least three of them. Being a chronic East Coast girl, I have to think hard to recall whether Arizona is the one on the right or the one on the left.

Same deal with Wyoming and Colorado: Which one’s on top and which one’s on the bottom? When I recorded Wyoming, I saw that Colorado was still blank, though I’d spotted several. Colorado is not uncommon; my theory is that a some people, either seasonal residents or transient workers follow the snow westward then come back east for the summer.

Hmm. Just noticed a goof in the numbering. Arizona is 39, not 36. Will fix that PDQ.

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Measles on the Map

Measles came to Martha’s Vineyard earlier this month. An off-island child, presumably here on vacation, was taken to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and diagnosed with it.

Before, measles was deep background for most of us. Now it occupies a prominent place on the psychic maps of both individuals and the community at large. A month from now, it will have shrunk considerably, but it will be a while before it seems as remote as it did in May.

Aside: For more about psychic maps, see “My Martha’s Vineyard.” Regular maps show places the way they look to a hypothetical objective observer. My psychic map shows places the way they look to me. Each person has his or her own unique psychic map. Communities have them too. Martha’s Vineyard looms very large on the psychic map of Martha’s Vineyard.

Immediately upon diagnosis, the hospital, island health officials, and the state Department of Public Health (DPH) went on red alert.

The Vineyard Gazette and the Martha’s Vineyard Times have now told us just about everything we wanted to know about measles, with all the breathless excitement that accompanies incoming blizzards and hurricanes.

Ditto social media, notably Facebook, particularly the Islanders Talk group (4,500+ members), which is where I learned what was going on.

The kid with measles visited the  Airport Laundromat in Friday, June 12. I was there a week later. That was probably as close as we got.

The kid with measles visited the Airport Laundromat on Friday, June 12. I was there a week later. That was probably as close as we got.

The DPH ascertained where the child had gone when she was probably infectious but no one knew she had measles, Monday, June 8, through Wednesday, June 17. The locations included three libraries (West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah), the Airport Laundromat, and Sharky’s Cantina and Ryan’s Family Amusements, both in Oak Bluffs. Dates and times were given for each location. Each one was notified, and they in turn did what they could to notify whoever had been there at the same time the child was.

On the subject of measles, it seems, my own psychic map was stuck in the late 1950s, which is when I had measles. As noted in a blog post earlier this month, I just turned 64. I had measles when I was 7. Measles was not a big deal then. Nearly every kid got it sooner or later. Yes, we had to stay out of school and away from the adults in the family who hadn’t had it, but it wasn’t till adulthood that I learned just how serious measles could be. The phrase “childhood diseases” made it sound like a routine rite of passage, and that’s what it pretty much was.

Not anymore. The responses, official and unofficial, to this one kid with measles took me by surprise. I caught up on some facts I’d heretofore managed to miss.

  • The first measles vaccine was licensed in 1963. An improved version, licensed in 1968, is the one in use today. It’s usually combined with vaccines against mumps and rubella (known as German measles when I was a kid) in the MMR vaccine.
  • Measles was declared “eliminated” in the U.S. in 2000.
  • Dr. Richard Partridge, who diagnosed the case at the M.V. Hospital’s emergency room, said, “I’ve been practicing 23 years, and never seen a case of measles.” He’s based at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., and does a rotation on the Vineyard and Nantucket every month.
  • Measles has been making a comeback in the U.S., with 668 cases reported in 2014, the highest number since 2000. These cases came from 27 different states. (The Centers for Disease Control estimate that before the vaccine were were about three to four million cases of measles in the U.S. every year.)

Considering how infectious measles can be, the apparent fact that the 668 cases didn’t spread out of control can probably be attributed to widespread vaccination and the concept of “herd immunity.” This is somewhat complicated, but the gist is that if a certain percentage of the population is vaccinated, those who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons are protected against the disease. Because measles is “highly transmissible” — it spreads fast, and starts spreading before the telltale rash appears — the percentage required for herd immunity is estimated at 90% to 95%.

Which brings me to what were to me the most surprising facts of all:

  • Martha’s Vineyard elementary schools have some of the lowest vaccination rates in Massachusetts.
  • At 26.4%, the West Tisbury School’s “exemption” rate is the second highest in the state, according to a study released last year by the state DPH. That translates to about 75 un- or under-vaccinated kids. The exemption rates at the Chilmark School and the charter school, both too small to be included in the state study, are similar.
  • Exemptions can be granted for medical or religious reasons. Medical exemptions must be approved by a doctor and renewed every year. Religious exemptions don’t have to be approved by anybody and are good for life.
  • The state average for religious exemptions is 1%, but for the seven schools surveyed in Dukes County the religious exemption rate is 18%. Most of the exemptions in West Tisbury are for religious reasons.

This is curious. Yes, there are religions that frown upon or proscribe medical intervention, but they are not widely practiced in West Tisbury. I suspect that the religious exemption is serving as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” loophole for parents who for whatever non-medical reason don’t want their children vaccinated.

Yes, I’m aware of the roiling controversy about vaccinations in general, but no, I’m not going to go there. What intrigues me about all this is how we as individuals and as a community assess risk and decide what to do about it. For instance —

  • Vaccinations carry some risk. They don’t work for everybody, and for some they may do harm.
  • As long as measles remains a remote hypothetical possibility, the risks associated with vaccination loom large and larger. Once measles appears on the psychic map, those risks seem manageable.
  • Parents who consider vaccines unsafe don’t think twice about putting their kids in the car and driving down-island, up-island, or off-island.
  • As long as measles remains a remote hypothetical possibility, those who are vaccinated or otherwise immune don’t think much about those who aren’t. “It’s their right, it’s a free country,” etc., etc., etc. Once measles appears on the psychic map, live-and-let-live goes — not quite out the window, but it’s headed in that direction.

In other words, it’s much easier to tolerate something that poses only a remote, hypothetical threat.

At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, the more familiar, worthwhile, and/or unavoidable something is, the better able we are to deal with the very real risks. This freakout about measles would have been unimaginable when I was a kid.

So if a reasonably safe, highly effective inoculation against Lyme disease — which isn’t spread person-to-person but is widespread on Martha’s Vineyard — became available, would those who oppose vaccinations in general make use of it?

Some supporting info:

Centers for Disease Control FAQs on measles

Low Vaccination Rate Prevalent on Island,” by Alex Elvin, Vineyard Gazette, February 12, 2015

Measles Diagnosis Exposes Martha’s Vineyard’s Vulnerability,” by Barry Stringfellow, Martha’s Vineyard Times, June 25, 2015 (posted June 24)

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Singing After Charleston

Susanna J. Sturgis:

I wrote this for the little blogsite I maintain for the U.S. Slave Song Project. I sing in the project’s Spirituals Choir, and yesterday we traveled off-island to sing at a Unitarian Universalist church in Canton, Mass. A moving and inspirational experience. (We also ate very well.)

Originally posted on U.S. Slave Song Project:

The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Canton, Mass. The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Canton, Mass.

When plans were made for the Spirituals Choir to sing at the Unitarian Universalist church in Canton, Massachusetts, on Sunday, June 21 — today — no one knew that we would be singing four days after a white supremacist gunman opened fire at a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine African Americans in cold, cold blood.

Where to start, where to start?

If the gunman is “mentally ill,” his mental illness is shared, to some degree, by millions of Americans. They believe that African Americans are somehow less than other Americans — white Americans. That Africans were enslaved because they were not fit to be free.

The songs we sing say otherwise. As we sang today, I thought of something that Jim Thomas, founder of the U.S. Slave Song Project and director of…

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Gay on MV

Me at Gay & Lesbian Pride Day celebration, P Street Beach, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jim Marks)

Me at Gay & Lesbian Pride Day celebration, P Street Beach, Washington, D.C., early 1980s (Photo by Jim Marks)

I started this post last fall, after the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce blogged about “LGBT MV.” I’ve been poking and prodding it ever since. What used to be called Gay Pride, then Gay and Lesbian Pride, then LGBT Pride, and now often just Pride Day — or Week, or Month — has rolled around again, so I figured this was a good time to fish or cut bait.

Martha’s Vineyard, said the Chamber of Commerce, “is a welcoming, safe, and fun place for members of the LGBT community — plus, the Island has lots to offer LGBT travelers!”

Apparently the first public gay pride event on Martha’s Vineyard was held last summer at The Yard, the seasonal dance colony up in Chilmark. Wow. I didn’t hear about it through the usual channels, which is to say Facebook, word-of-mouth, or the bulletin board at up-island Cronig’s.

But word travels in circuitous ways on Martha’s Vineyard, especially in the summer. And there’s a strange barrier between the summer island and the year-round island. It’s porous enough to see through, but it garbles communication. It seems we can hear the summer people loud and clear, but whatever we say comes through with static if it comes through at all.

This ILGA T-shirt could be worn almost anywhere on MV because hardly anyone on MV in the early 1990s knew what the pink triangle meant.

This ILGA T-shirt could be worn almost anywhere on MV because hardly anyone on MV in the early 1990s knew what the pink triangle meant.

Were the organizers and participants of this event aware that Martha’s Vineyard has its own gay and lesbian history? Or, put a little differently, that some gay and lesbian history has taken place on Martha’s Vineyard?

On Changeover Weekend in 1985 I moved to Martha’s Vineyard from the lesbian-feminist community of Washington, D.C., where I’d been active for eight years. People kept asking if I’d ever been married and whether I had kids. I’d never been asked these questions before. (This was before the lesbian baby boom.)

In D.C. I’d been lulled into the belief that “lesbian” and “feminist” were practically synonymous.

Ha ha ha. Wrong. To my urban eyes, half the women on Martha’s Vineyard looked like dykes: they were sturdy and strong; they wore jeans, flannel shirts, and comfortable shoes. These did not mean the same thing on small-town Martha’s Vineyard that they had in big-city D.C.

Very few of the lesbians I met had heard of Adrienne Rich or Judy Grahn or Audre Lorde or Cris Williamson or Pat Parker. The ones who had were all straight feminists. They were the ones I wound up hanging with. Most of them were divorced, or the men in their lives stayed at a safe distance. When we hung out together, we were all single women with no men in sight.

The lesbian thing did, however, matter. I was recognized and recruited PDQ into island theater by the late Mary Payne (1932–1996). Island theater was like theater in most other places: a veritable hotbed of misfits and nonconformists, gay, lesbian, straight, both/and, and neither/nor. My people. Whew.

The word “lesbian” was never said out loud, even by lesbians. Especially by lesbians: why would anyone say “lesbian” out loud unless they were one?

Instead we said “the L-word,” long before there was a TV show of that name. Or used the ASL sign for L. And gods help us all, some people really did use “Lebanese” as a synonym for “lesbian.”

Having been active and visible in a lesbian community for eight years, four of them working in a feminist bookstore, I had little experience of “the closet.” I was fascinated by closet dynamics. As Mary Payne had recognized me almost at once, I had recognized her — and quite a few other sisters and brothers. I had recognized them right off the bat — or should I say “boat”? — but many of them seemed to think they were “in the closet.”

Even stranger, straight women would occasionally ask me if so-and-so (usually a man they had some romantic interest in) was gay. Invariably he was, but my stock reply was “I don’t know — why don’t you ask him?” This was unthinkable then and barely thinkable today, so they probably thought I was either very cheeky or downright rude.

Finally it dawned on me that when people asked me whether so-and-so was gay, they were actually acknowledging that they knew I was a lesbian and that was OK with them.

In the late 1980s and very early ’90s, Martha’s Vineyard began to discover AIDS. That story deserves its own book, but suffice it to say I often felt as though I’d fallen through Alice’s looking-glass. I was working for the Martha’s Vineyard Times in those days, so I attended various educational events that I wouldn’t have heard about otherwise. From these I got the impression that one could only get HIV from dirty needles or blood transfusions.

At the same time it was clear that for some AIDS was synonymous with homosexuality and that all “homosexuals” were men. When someone ranted that AIDS was God’s scourge of the homosexuals, some of us pointed out that lesbians had a much lower incidence of AIDS than straight people, so maybe God was on our side?

In the very early years of the AIDS Quilt, 1987 or 1988, the late Nancy Luedeman (1920–2010) made a quilt panel for four Vineyard men who had died of AIDS. Things being as they were in those days, two were identified by first name and last initial, and two by initials only.

Amid the general climate of ignorance and hostility, the Martha’s Vineyard Times published a few nasty homophobic letters from a fellow on the Cape. Partly in response, some 26 of us brave souls gathered at the Wooden Tent in 1991 (IIRC) to form the Island Lesbian and Gay Association. The attendees were pretty evenly divided between men and women. As we went around the circle introducing ourselves (first names only), it seemed that half the women were named Kathy. When Lansing Bailey introduced himself as Kathy, everyone cracked up. No one present will ever forget it.

For several years ILGA held regular potluck gatherings. Some members marched in Boston’s Gay and Lesbian Pride parade behind an ILGA banner made (I believe) by ally Tom Hodgson. For the first time ever, island residents and visitors could find lesbian and gay contact info in the almanac section of The Island Book. Dan Waters and Hal Garneau put out a classy newsletter called, appropriately enough, Stone Walls. They were also responsible for the two ILGA T-shirts shown in this post.

In late 1993, two fathers attempted to get two kids’ books about gay families pulled from the Oak Bluffs School library. Over the next several months this spawned several contentious meetings and letters to the editor. In January 1994 I helped organize a Banned Books reading that packed Wintertide Coffeehouse. Using the list of banned and challenged books published annually by the American Library Association, about 20 of us read from our favorites. The late Ken Miner, minister of Trinity United Methodist Church in the Campground, read the David and Jonathan story from the Bible. The Oak Bluffs school committee eventually decided to keep the books on the shelves.

That spring, the short-play festival at the Vineyard Playhouse included Susan Miller’s “It’s Our Town Too,” a poignant riff on Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town in which the parents of the young people who grow up to marry are a gay couple and a lesbian couple.

In the years following, the Vineyard’s year-round demographics changed enough that for many all of the above may seem like ancient history. My novel The Mud of the Place is set in the late 1990s, but its roots are earlier in the decade. One character refers to the attempted book banning. The closet plays a key role in the plot. Readers sometimes ask me for reassurance: “That couldn’t happen today, could it?”

To which I reply: “Probably not in the same way, but there are always things we don’t dare discuss in public, and the fear of being thrown out of family or community never goes completely away.”


No man is an Island Lesbian

One of the cleverest T-shirt slogans ever — “No man is an Island Lesbian (& Gay Association of Martha’s Vineyard)” — but back in the day I only wore it off-island.


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When I’m 64

That would be today, and for the next 364 days until I turn 65.

I love birthdays on Facebook. People from all the nooks, crannies, and corners of my life check in with birthday greetings and remind me of all the worlds I’ve wandered through and the amazing people I’ve met. This makes me think of all the amazing people I’ve never met and probably will never meet, which makes me think that the world is probably going to make it after all, even if I sometimes have my doubts.

On my timeline I’ve posted a few photos from way back when, waaa-aa-aaay back when. No one alive today knew me then. Both my parents are dead, my four uncles likewise, and since I’m the oldest of four, my siblings either weren’t born yet or were too young to remember.

I was an only child for 16 months. I don’t remember that either.

Come to think of it, I didn’t know me then either , but at least I have the pictures.

RSS & SS 1951My father, Robert Shaw Sturgis (better known as Bob), graduated from architectural school a few days after I was born. I didn’t know what an architect was. He didn’t know what he was in for.

CMS & SS 1952 sm

This is me and my mother in 1952. My brother Roger was born in October of that year, but it’s hard to tell how pregnant my mother is. The foliage looks like late spring, so maybe I was about one? That’s my parents’ Studebaker in the background. I’m not sure where the photo was taken. Maybe at my grandmother’s?

And here’s me at about two and a half:

type ca 2.5

This wouldn’t crack me and everybody else up so much if I’d gone on to become, say, a rocket scientist, a garbage collector, or a math teacher. But I didn’t. I went on to become a writer, editor, and all-around word person. My mother was a crackerjack typist, but I didn’t learn to type till I was an unemployable female college graduate of 25.

What I didn’t know about sexism, the work world, and life in general at that point would fill a book, but that’s not what this blog post is about.

What I’ve been thinking about on my 64th birthday is how lucky I was to be born where I was, in a small town west of Boston that was turning into a suburb. A town where war hadn’t come since about 1776. A town where the rule of law was taken for granted and police officers were friends of the family.

It wasn’t till I moved to Washington, D.C., for my first year of college that I began to realize that most people in the world, and many people in my own country, were not this lucky.

Terrorist University

Travvy and I check out the very first print copy of Terrorist University.

Earlier this year I edited a remarkable novel: A. E. Sawan’s Terrorist University. Paul, the protagonist, is an ordinary 10-year-old in a small, ordinary Lebanese town when the civil war arrives in 1975. His family loses everything. They move several times, in flight for their lives. Paul eventually becomes a counter-terrorist operative and has many harrowing adventures and narrow escapes.

Then he finds himself on a flight to Canada, where his middle-aged seatmate asks for a pen to fill out his landing form. But Paul’s pen won’t do, because it writes in black ink. The fellow prefers blue ink. After borrowing a pen from the flight attendant, he proudly shows Paul his landing form, completed in blue ink.

Paul is astonished.

Because at that moment I realized something that I had lost as a child.

I had spent the better part of my life dodging bullets and trying to survive in order to get my revenge. My dilemma was how to survive to the end of the day, because I might get my head blown off at any moment. The Canadian man next to me also had a dilemma: “How do I complete my landing form?”

Black ink or blue ink? A very hard choice to make. I had this big grin on my face. I closed my eyes, put my head back, and started thinking. This Canada place must be so easy to live in; how lucky these people are. In life you can get lucky just by being born in the right place.

On June 8, 1951, I was born in one of the right places. I was lucky.


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May License Plate Report

2015 may license map

Idaho and Utah are new on the map this month, for a total to date of 34 — out of 51, because as a former D.C. resident I always include the Last Colony non-state in the tally.

The map seemed a tad colorless for the end of May, so I looked up May for the previous two years. I’d logged 36 by this time in 2013 and 2014, so 2015 isn’t far off the pace. Visually the big states across the nation’s midsection account for most of the difference. In 2013 and 2014 both Colorado and Kansas were colored in. In 2013 so were Nevada and Utah; in 2014 Nevada and Utah were still AWOL, but Missouri had shown up, as it never did in 2013.

On the plus side, Wisconsin is early this year. I’ve seen at least three different Wisconsins. A few days ago, while driving alongside Oak Bluffs harbor, I spied two interesting plates, so I pulled over, parked, and walked back to check them out. One was a South Carolina whose design I hadn’t seen before; the other was Alabama. I had both of them already. Worth the closer look, though.


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Memorial Day

Memorial Day on Martha’s Vineyard is the quasi-official beginning of “the season,” which is to say the season of crowds, traffic, and unaffordable housing. As elsewhere in the U.S., schools, banks, government offices, and many businesses are closed. Parades are held. The cemeteries come alive with red, white, and blue. Back yards come alive with the sound of romping kids and the smell of grilling hamburgers. We are, we tell ourselves, honoring those who died for our freedoms.

The other day I snagged this cartoon off Facebook because it conveys so well my deep uneasiness about Memorial Day.

mem day cartoon

As I read it, the teacher is guilt-tripping a student for exercising a freedom that the serviceman was wounded defending. The student is tipped back in his chair with his feet up on the desk, as if he’s just being contrary.

It’s brilliant: Exercising one’s freedom is equated with dissing a wounded vet. Rote repetition of the pledge of allegiance must be a more suitable tribute.

In my lifetime the U.S. military has been more actively engaged in suppressing other people’s freedoms than in defending our own, and in any case we defend our freedoms more effectively by exercising them than by repeating platitudes about war. Conversely, we here in the U.S. are doing an excellent job of suppressing our own freedoms with no help from terrorists or anyone else’s military.

As Memorial Day approached, I found myself thinking a lot about Edward Snowden. From the beginning I was more for him than agin him, mainly because I saw him as a direct descendant of Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Only gradually, though, did I come to understand the significance of what Snowden did, which is to say the significance of what he revealed about our government’s threat to our freedoms. (If you haven’t seen Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s award-winning documentary about what Snowden did and why, I highly recommend it.)

The reaction against Snowden was a feeding frenzy. Pundits and public officials competed to condemn his action in ever more cataclysmic terms, rarely if ever grappling with what his actions revealed. No surprise there: this is our customary national reaction to anyone or anything that makes us uncomfortable. Take a look at the hysteria that followed 9/11, which hasn’t gone away. Attempts to criticize or protest any U.S. military action are greeted with rage and chants of “Support our troops! Support our troops!”

Hodding Carter III takes a hard look at the feeding frenzy, especially the media’s role in it, in “Glenn Greenwald, I’m Sorry: Why I Changed My Mind on Edward Snowden.” He applauds the “few and far between” media outlets who “pressed the print button and revealed the NSA’s dirty linen,” who “sounded the alarm, warning the American people anew of how much further down the road to an all-intrusive garrison state Washington had ventured.”

At the same time he castigates the far more numerous outlets and journalists “who twitched at every government accusation,” who saw no need “to grapple with the meaning of a government that conceived, created, and operated a secret high-tech vacuum cleaner to suck the meaning out of the Fourth Amendment.”

emperor's clothesMy favorite fairy tale has long been “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Of course I identify with the child who cries out that the emperor is parading down the street with no clothes on. Don’t we all?

But in the U.S. the knee-jerk reaction to such revelations is rage. The child would probably be dragged off her parent’s shoulders and torn limb from limb.

Or maybe she’d just be guilt-tripped for saying rude things about the nice emperor who makes her freedom possible.

So how to maintain some perspective on Memorial Day? It helps to go back to the beginning. In “Forgetting Why We Remember” (New York Times, May 29, 2011), historian David Blight reminds us that Memorial Day began in the wake of the Civil War, in which 625,000 died. “If the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as died in the Civil War,” he reminds us, “four million names would be on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, instead of 58,000.” Not surprisingly, he writes, “Memorial Days were initially occasions of sacred bereavement.”

Then he takes us back to Charleston, South Carolina, in the spring of 1865, to the first commemoration of what came to be known as Memorial Day. Here’s a bit of it — but really, read Blight’s whole account.

The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then came a parade of 10,000, most of them black freedpeople, led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.”

Once Reconstruction ended, and white supremacy returned to Charleston, South Carolina, and the South, the event vanished both from memory and from the official record.

On this Memorial Day, it’s worth remembering.

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Rocky Mountain Low

For Travvy, the malamute I share my apartment with, breakfast and supper are the high points of the day. Supper usually comes around five o’clock, sometimes before and sometimes after our late afternoon walk. If I’m working at my laptop, he starts reminding me at 4:30 or so. He sits in front of me with expectation in every fur follicle and maybe a little drool coming from his mouth.

Monday I was still working at almost six and Travvy was sacked out on the rug as if he’d already eaten.

Hmm. This was unusual. Not alarming, just out of the ordinary. I gave him his supper, he scarfed it down, and we went for our evening walk. Normal. All normal.

What I often see first thing in the morning

What I often see first thing in the morning

In cool weather I often wake up with Travvy’s backbone aligned with mine, his head pushing mine off the pillow. In warmer weather, he usually listens for my waking-up stirrings, then he jumps onto the bed, curls up next to me, and waits.

When I throw back the covers and yell “Breakfast time for the puppy!” he springs to life, 80 pounds of wriggling fur, leaps off the bed, does a play bow, then goes over to the little rug I feed him on so he and his bowl won’t slip-slide on the linoleum.

Tuesday morning he jumped onto the bed — but he didn’t make it in his usual clean leap. He had to scramble.

Hmm again.

When I yelled “Breakfast time for the puppy!” he roused himself slowly, jumped carefully off the bed, and padded sedately over to the rug.

Big hmmm this time. He snarfed his food down almost as usual, but something was not right.

On our morning walks, Travvy usually trots ahead on his Flexi lead, plumy tail waving, alert to everything, sniffing the bushes and the air to see what’s new since he last passed that way. Tuesday morning he lagged behind. I looked at him as if to say Get a move on. He returned my gaze with Do I have to?

We continued on our way, he did his business — which looked normal — but he didn’t work out of his reluctance, though he did show some enthusiasm when I lured him with a cookie.

Back home, he climbed the outside stairs to our second-floor apartment like an old man. Trav turned seven at the end of February. He’s moving out of “prime of life” and into middle age, but he’s not old. Besides, old age generally doesn’t come out of nowhere and hit you overnight.

I called the vet. I was about 90 percent sure we were dealing with Lyme disease or some other tick-borne ailment. Martha’s Vineyard is tick central. Ticks are everywhere. If you spend any time outside and especially if you’ve got a dog, you’ve got ticks on your mind even when you’re thinking about something else.

Rhodry at a yard sale, ca. 1999.

Rhodry (1994–2008) at a yard sale, ca. 1999.

The late Rhodry Malamutt introduced me to tick-borne diseases (TBDs in the trade) when he was not quite two years old. Overnight he went from healthy active young dog to geriatric case. Turned out he had Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Travvy wasn’t as lethargic as Rhodry had been, but I was already thinking that he might have it too. Rocky Mountain is carried by wood ticks, also known as dog ticks, though they sure aren’t the only ticks that prey on dogs. Spring is heavy-duty wood tick season on Martha’s Vineyard. I scrape them off Travvy’s legs whenever we get back from a walk. You don’t want to see my tick jar.

Our vet could see us at one. We arrived promptly. Travvy isn’t quite a veterinarian’s nightmare, but he’s no dream either. The prodding, poking, and sticking that goes with a routine exam he takes as a threat to his well-being. I take his teeth, his instincts, and his reaction speed very seriously, which is to say we use a muzzle when he needs to have blood drawn or his temperature taken.

He was running a fever. The blood test for Lyme showed the same low positive it had been showing ever since he had Lyme as a youngster. The other tick tests were negative. However, the veterinarians of Martha’s Vineyard know dogs, ticks, and TBDs very well. They’ve got plenty of day-to-day experience as well as book knowledge and test results.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever, my vet suggested. We might have caught it soon enough that the antibodies weren’t showing up in Trav’s blood yet. My thoughts were running in the same direction.

We talked it over. Rocky Mountain, like Lyme and the other TBDs, responds to doxycycline. It also responds to another antibiotic that only has to be given for 21 days (the usual doxy course is 30) and is somewhat cheaper. Whatever was ailing Trav might not be tick-related at all. The only way to determine that was with further bloodwork, which might run as high as $500.

One thing I like about my vet is that she lays out the options but never acts as though cost doesn’t matter, or as though it shouldn’t matter. It matters big-time. So we weigh most likely against possible, with least likely hovering in the background. We play the odds.

Sleep may not be the best medicine in all circumstances, but it’s cheaper than doxycycline.

In this case the odds were good enough to inspire confidence. It was almost certainly Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but Lyme was enough of a possibility that I decided on doxycycline rather than the more specialized antibiotic. Least likely was a very long shot, but we could hedge our bets: freeze Travvy’s blood sample so that if he didn’t respond to the doxy, it could be tested for the more remote possibilities.

Doxycycline is not cheap, but lucky for my checkbook, my vet had an ample supply of the 100mg capsules in stock. The 100mg pills cost almost twice as much. (Here we took a brief time-out to cuss the pharmaceutical companies.)

The good news is that by Wednesday morning Trav was about 95 percent back to normal. I’d almost swear that he was showing improvement after his first dose of doxy. Rhodry had the same overnight response 19 years ago.

Trav, need I say, is still sleeping on my bed. We are still walking in the woods and around fields that are infested with dog ticks this time of year. I still scrape the ticks off Travvy’s legs when we get home, and keep an eye on him while I work to see if any more of the little buggers crawl out of his fur. When I got Lyme summer before last, I wondered if I would become more reluctant to walk in the woods or let Trav sleep on my bed. It didn’t happen.

As I blogged last fall in “Season of the Risk,” the risks we live with day to day are easier to assess and deal with than the ones we hear about on the news or social media. Which is why I haven’t posted a link to more information about Rocky Mountain spotted fever: the first half-dozen articles I skimmed couldn’t get through a paragraph without alluding to the risk of death and other worst-case scenarios. Look them up if you must, but remembr that the same could be said about getting into your car or walking down the stairs.

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Two Downed Trees

The snow hung around long enough this winter that I almost forgot what my neighborhood looked like before the snow started falling.

Gradually the snow melted. Gradually spring flowers bloomed and the grass turned green. Now the oaks are leafing out. Soon a layer of yellow-green oak pollen will overlay the dust on my car. (This spring has been very, very dry. I live on a dirt road. Every couple of days I hose off the rear window so I can see out of it.)

Oaks leafing out along Old County Road, May 17, 2015

Oaks leafing out along Old County Road, May 17, 2015

It’s almost as if the winter just past never happened.


Most of our snowstorms this past winter came with high winds. One of them toppled a slender birch across a path that Travvy and I often walk. The birch’s many small branches hung down like a curtain, blocking our way. Between the other trees and the heavy scrub on either side, there was no easy detour. Travvy could duck easily under the fallen tree. I had to crouch down and frog-walk through the branches. The branches often scraped the hat off my head.

Evidently other walkers were getting annoyed with the obstruction. One morning all the hanging branches had been trimmed from the trunk. Walking under was easier than walking through. My hat stayed on my head. I was grateful.

The fallen birch was still partly attached to its trunk. It began to leaf out along with its upright companions.

Downed birch leafs out, May 12, 2015.

Downed birch leafs out, May 12, 2015.

Fallen it might be, but it was still attached to its roots and thus to the earth. It lived.

Then one morning the path was clear. No birch.

Dying birch

Dying birch

Clear path, May 13, 2015

Clear path, May 13, 2015

In the summer of 2011 Hurricane Irene brought down a big oak near another path that Travvy and I often walk. I was so sure it was dead that I told a neighbor about it. He heats with wood and is always on the lookout for fuel. This particular downed tree, though, was not easily accessible by pickup, and transporting its logs would be no job for a wheelbarrow.

The following May, to my astonishment, the fallen oak leafed out. Like the birch, it was still partly attached to its trunk. Attached enough to keep it alive.

Downed oak, leafing out

Downed oak, leafing out

My recumbent oak leafed out in 2012, and again in 2013, and again in 2014. So glad I was that no one had turned it into firewood.

Severed trunk

Severed trunk

This spring there were no buds. Winter had sundered my oak from its trunk.

I think it was winter, not a woodsman. Those clean cuts were made three years ago, to clear a large branch off the trail. Could a person, or even two or three people, have separated tree from trunk and lifted it out of the way? Perhaps, but I’d rather believe it was the winter just past.

In a late March post, “Sunderings,” I blogged about people sundered from their roots, whether by war, economics, or some other nearly irresistible force. Every time I walked by it, my recumbent oak reminded me that even damaged roots can sustain life. The oak was lucky: when the hurricane brought it down, it fell alongside the path, not across it. The little birch was not so lucky: it blocked the way. I’m happy that the way is clear and sad that the birch will never leaf out again.


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