Little Changes

Travvy and I walk the same paths and dirt roads regularly so we notice the small changes missed by those who pass less often or at faster speeds. For Travvy the world seems to create itself anew every night. Each shrub and tree trunk and puddle has a new story to tell him. To me they look pretty much like they did yesterday afternoon.

truck lifts

Well digger performs push-up.

Summer has wrought some changes that even I can see. Here are a few of them.

A guy with a chainsaw is clearing himself a house lot across Pine Hill, in the woods that lead down to the big empty pasture. I knew something was coming when the well digger showed up a year ago July.

The real action just started. First blaze orange marks appeared on some trees. The barely perceptible path became more pronounced. Then the chainsawing started. The owner is clearing the lot himself, on weekends and after work. I’ve seen his big SUV parked in the clearing near the well, but I haven’t met him yet. I hear from my neighbors that he’s a nice guy.

Future fuel

Future fuel

He hasn’t cleared nearly enough land for a house, but already he’s stacked enough logs for a heating season. If you look closely at the photo on the right, you’ll see my buddy checking out the wood pile.

private signFurther up Pine Hill a new sign has appeared. Whether there’s any connection between the sign and the construction I don’t know. This particular house is a ways up the road, and because beyond it Pine Hill is barely passable, the only passersby are walkers, horseback riders, and bicyclists. On the whole I prefer “Private” to “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing.”

Trav and I pass the West Tisbury School at least once a day. Sometimes we cross the playing fields. Sometimes we play on the playground: Trav likes to climb and he likes to jump, and he can do both over there.

Buses behind the West Tisbury School

Buses behind the West Tisbury School

School buses park in the big lot behind the school, next to the soccer field. When I was a kid, school buses were big and yellow. They still are. When their lights flash red, everyone behind and in front of them stops to let kids cross the road. They still do. The buses are somewhat sleeker than they used to be, and when they stop these days, a little STOP sign sticks out from the side, but other than that they look pretty much the same. I still remember how we loved to crowd into the furthest-back seat so when the bus hit a pothole we’d fly up in the air.

124 signEach bus has a number. Last year the buses in residence at the West Tisbury School were 117H, 121, 123, and 124. While they were away for the summer, little signs went up at the back of the lot: 117H, 121, 123, 124. There’s plenty of room back there for the buses to park anywhere they want, but someone at the school must like assigned seating. (“BUS” is stenciled on each space, so the buses will know not to park in the car-length spaces nearer the road.)

I thought the signs meant the same buses would be back for the new school year, but I was wrong. The only returnee is 124. Its new companions are 116H, 125, and 126. The other signs have disappeared. Only 124 has a sign. Will the assigned-seating fan requisition some new signs for 116H, 125, and 126? The suspense isn’t quite killing me, but I am curious.

116H busSpeaking of curious, walking past the buses as often as I do, I couldn’t help noticing last year that 117H had a letter but 121, 123, and 124 didn’t. What did it mean? When 116H showed up at the beginning of this month, I figured the H had to mean something. I looked more closely. It does: the H buses have a wheelchair entrance in the back. 116H is a “Handy Bus” — H is for Handy, probably short for Handicapped, but maybe they’re not supposed to say that out loud.

Probably the rest of the town already knows that, but I still feel pretty clever to have figured it out. If I wrote murder mysteries, I could turn it into a clue. To the unwary eye, all school buses look alike, but our intrepid sleuth pays attention to the numbers and knows which one was AWOL when the crime was committed.

For the rest — this September looks pretty much like last. There are fewer joggers, runners, and cyclists on the bike path telling Travvy how handsome he is. The birch leaves seem to have gone yellow earlier, probably because we’ve had so little rain, and the oak leaves, though still deeply green, look dry around the edges. Geese are gathering at Misty Meadows, and their flying formations are more orderly with each passing day.

The winged sumac is reddening into what might be my most favorite color of all. Last fall my favorite stand of winged sumac was cut down at the height of its crimson glory. I know it’s an “invasive species” and ordinarily my sympathy for invaders is not much, but I hope it doesn’t happen again this year. The guy who did the cutting last year left a sweatshirt hanging on a lower limb of a nearby pine. It’s been there ever since.

Winged sumac

Winged sumac


Posted in Martha's Vineyard, outdoors | Tagged , | 5 Comments

More Than Meets the Eye

Aboard the Vanity: Susanna at the wheel and Capt. Chris Murphy holding the sheet.

Aboard the Vanity: Susanna at the wheel and Capt. Chris Murphy holding the sheet. Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

I love this photo. At first glance, it’s a great shot from a late-summer sail on Katama Bay. If you know the backstory — well, it’s a bit more than that.

Remember the fight against the roundabout? It was, to put it mildly, a pretty big deal. Lines were drawn, sides taken; tempers rose, friendships frayed. I was an active and visible member of the anti-roundabout forces. (If you want to know more, click on the “roundabout” tag at the bottom of this post. That’ll get you a list of all my posts on the subject.)

At the heart of the public battles was the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The MVC was divided right down the middle. At at least two MVC meetings, the chair made questionable calls that gave roundabout supporters an edge.

In retrospect, I don’t believe the anti-roundabout forces ever had a chance. We had the numbers and the arguments, but the whole thing was being orchestrated at the state level in offices where we had no influence. We suspected as much, but we fought to the end believing we did have a chance, a good chance — as if the outcome were really up for grabs.

Which turned the MVC chair’s questionable calls into a Very Big Deal. The MVC chair became a symbol of the pro-roundabout faction, a lightning rod for the opposition at a time when the island’s political skies were fairly flashing with lightning.

The MVC chair at the time was Chris Murphy.

So a couple of weeks ago my photographer friend Lynn Christoffers invited me and a couple of other friends to go sailing. The skipper, she said, would be Chris Murphy. I chortled, reminded Lynn of the backstory, and, of course, accepted the invitation.

It was a perfect sailing day: bright and breezy. The catboat Vanity is as seaworthy as they come. She was built on the Vineyard — right in Edgartown, in fact — in the early 1920s and has been working Vineyard waters ever since. Now she belongs to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Chris gave each of us a turn at the wheel, all except for Lynn, who was busy taking photos.

We talked about sailing, the Vanity, oystering — we sailed past the oyster dredges at the south end of Katama Bay, and Chris, who’s lived on the water pretty much all his life, knows how they work — fishing in general, the houses along the shore and the people who live in them. We did not talk about island politics. Roundabout? What roundabout?

I wasn’t surprised. I’ve lived here a pretty long time and Chris, having been born and grown up here and being about my age, has lived here twice as long. We’re both part of the web that connects island people to each other. Each of us belongs to several webs that make up the big web. Those webs overlap at various points, some of them visible and others submerged.

Submerged connections can become visible at any moment. As Chris described the history of a boathouse on the bay shore, I learned that I guy I’ve known for years is related to a family whose name I recognize — I had no idea.

Each of us brings to our interactions with others all the webs that we’re part of. This could result in a hopeless tangle of intertwined knots and threads, but it doesn’t. Some of us by instinct, others by trial and error, we all see what we need to see and set the rest aside. My neighbor may be on the outs with your second cousin, but so what? At the same time we can be pretty sure that most of the people in our respective webs are at least dimly aware of whatever incident sparked the feud between my neighbor and your second cousin.

This is what community is about. It supports us and sustains us, but it also makes us cautious. Any one of us could with a word or action set several boats to rocking. So the pressure is constant, from both within and without, to say nothing — or, rather, to say nothing on the record. Potentially disruptive information circulates behind people’s backs, so we all know plenty of stuff that we can’t let on that we know, and a fair amount of stuff that might not be true.

This accounts for why relative newcomers to the Vineyard so often set about rearranging the furniture, all in the interest of some ideal that sounds good in the abstract but gets messy in its particulars. They haven’t been here long enough to be part of various webs whose interests are contradictory or even mutually exclusive.  Or they choose to associate mainly with their own kind and consider the rest of us part of the scenery.

I suspect this helps account for the miserable performance of our current Congress. A considerable portion of our national legislators think it’s a virtue to be single-minded, to turn the lines between Us and Them into walls and keep building them higher. Martha’s Vineyard is not kind to ideologies. It tends to sideline ideologues who don’t confine their rants to off-island issues like Benghazi and Monsanto.

Vineyard people, and people in any functioning small town or neighborhood, could tell the congressional ideologues that’s no way to get things done. Things get done in those complex webs that connect us one to another in visible and invisible ways.

Without those interwoven webs you get gridlock.

Newly elected members usually come in all fired up to change things. When they start to temper their rhetoric, they’re invariably accused of selling out. What if they’re just realizing that the targets of their campaign invective are real people with real lives, people with whom they might have important things in common?

Without those interwoven webs, you also get the incivility that so many deplore about the current political scene. Maintaining the web is as important as scoring political points. In a hard-fought battle, the threads may stretch, fray, and even break, but when it’s over, it’s possible to repair most of the damage.

When talking about civic discourse and public life, even we landlubbers are forever resorting to nautical metaphors: Don’t rock the boat. We’re all in the same boat.

And you never know who you might wind up sailing with.


Posted in Martha's Vineyard, public life | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

August License Plate Report

In last month’s report, I wrote that the end-of-year license plate map would look pretty much like July’s. Ayup. August’s map looks exactly like July’s:

2014 july license plate

Worth noting however: Last Friday afternoon I was in Edgartown, down by the harbor. A little bright blue car passed me wearing Hawaii plates. This is at least the second Hawaii car I’ve seen this year, and possibly the third — this after seeing zero Hawaiis in 2012 and 2013. I was so excited to spot my first Hawaii of 2014 that I couldn’t tell you anything about the car it was attached to. Maybe Hawaii #2 was the same as Hawaii #2, or maybe it wasn’t.

Blue Hawaii (I know, I didn’t make that up) definitely wasn’t Hawaii #1 and/or #2. Is Hawaii really on the increase, or am I just getting out more? It’s one of life’s unanswerable questions, and likely to remain so.



Posted in license plates | Tagged | 1 Comment

The Musicales—Then and Now

cover scan smShortly after I moved to the Vineyard, I started volunteering at Wintertide Coffeehouse. It was strictly a winter thing in those days, the mid-1980s. It took place on most weekends, January through March. Wintertide, I was told, was inspired by the old West Tisbury musicales (pronounced “musicals”–I didn’t get the spelling right till later). Gradually, by listening and asking questions, I learned what the musicales were.

In this guest post, Shirley Mayhew describes the musicales and links them to today’s vibrant island music scene, as evidenced at the annual M.V. Agricultural Society Fair. The fair’s in town this weekend. I’ll be heading over tonight to hear some music.

What follows is abridged slightly from the chapter of the same name in Shirley’s recently released and thoroughly wonderful collection, Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard. More about that later.


By Shirley W. Mayhew

In the 1950s, on the day after Labor Day, most of the few restaurants, as well as the four movie theaters, closed for the winter.  There were no support groups or theater productions or other means of entertainment between Labor Day and Memorial Day, so it was up to us to make our own fun. We fed each other at dinner parties after the husbands had had a successful duck or goose hunt, or fishing trip, and we got together to play music. This was a male endeavor, as they were the ones who played guitar and banjo, violin and accordion. The wives were the audience, chatting about their babies or a new recipe that had turned out pretty well.

Sometimes we gathered at the Whitings’ house or the Scannells’, and once in a while at our house. Everett Whiting and Johnny played guitar and Willy Huntington was good on the banjo as well as the guitar. Mike Athearn, a self-taught musician, was the only accordion player, though he also played violin in the Vineyard Sinfonietta and tuba in the Vineyard Haven Band. Jack Scannell, who had not grown up on the Vineyard and had never gotten into playing music, tried hard to mix in with a kazoo. Ernest Correllus and Elmer Silva occasionally joined us.

They all played and sang old favorites, some not fit for their children to hear, but it was our only entertainment and we enjoyed it. Some years later my three children confessed that they used to sit at the top of our stairs when we had a musicale in the old church parsonage, into which we had moved after eight months in the chicken coop. And the Whiting and Scannell children hid behind the furniture in their homes so they could listen undetected. The music got into the Huntington boys, as well as into my family (though not from my side). My son, Jack, and my daughter Deborah play the guitar and Deborah has handed down her lovely voice to her daughter, Katie Ann. Jack’s two grown-up daughters are both accomplished musicians.

 * * *

I was reminded of those early days on the Vineyard recently when I was watching MVTV as they showed videos of the 2011 Agricultural Fair—the 150th anniversary of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society. The first fair I attended was in 1946, and I haven’t missed one since, although it is increasingly difficult for me to get around.

I went in 2010, with the help of my daughter Sarah, to listen to a performance of the Flying Elbows, because my granddaughter Caroline was joining them with her fiddle for a few songs. And again in 2011 when I met Johnny there—he was living at Windemere by then and they had brought a few residents in wheelchairs to enjoy the music and food.

In 2013 my daughter Deborah took me over and we set up our folding chairs in front of the stage to listen to the Stragglers. I was almost overwhelmed with nostalgia when I realized I was listening to the third generation of local musicians, and what a wonderful tradition had been started more than fifty years ago here in West Tisbury. The Stragglers is one of several groups in town that now play all over the Island.

Peter Huntington is one of the Stragglers. His father, Willy Huntington, was a member of our informal musicales back in the fifties—and in those early days, when the Fair was held in the Grange Hall, with no carnival and no music coming out of amplifiers, Willy and his brother, Gale Huntington, along with Elmer Silva and Ernest Correllus, sat on the front porch of the Grange Hall with their banjos and guitars and provided music for the annual event. Peter’s daughter, Shaelah, plays the violin today and used to enter the fiddlers’ contest at the fair along with my granddaughters, Caroline, Lucy, and Katie Ann.

Danny Whiting, son of the late farmer and musician Everett Whiting, is also a member of the Stragglers. He was four years old when I first met him at that 1946 Fair, and I attended many musicales when his father was playing guitar.

Jimmy Athearn, that famed farmer who started Morning Glory Farm with his high school sweetheart, Debbie, took up the trombone when he was in seventh grade at the Tisbury School. He went on after his schooling to discover a group of Islanders who were putting together a swing band, music from the thirties and forties that was making a comeback in the mid-eighties. This band, a mixture of native Vineyarders and a few wash-ashores called the Martha’s Vineyard Swing Orchestra, began to play at weddings on the Island. As a backup they also had some rock-and-roll tunes to play in case the big band music was too foreign for the young wedding guests. During the nineties they did a many as twenty to twenty-five gigs a year, sometimes three a week during the high season.

That was a busy time for Jimmy. Sometimes, usually on a weekend, he would rise at dawn to spray the corn, then pick it from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., and then rush to shower and change his clothes and step into his role as a musician and play his trombone until midnight.

Tom Hodgson has been a member of the Flying Elbows, a well-known Vineyard group,  for more than twenty years. He also plays guitar with the Woods Hole Folk Orchestra and sometimes joins with the Gospel Singalong Concert Series in Falmouth.

His mother, the late Nancy Whiting, and I had known each other since we had met in a Connecticut summer camp when we were fifteen years old. Tom was in the Vineyard high school when he started playing the guitar, as was my son, Jack, who was a member of the Bodes, a high school rock band. Three of the original four Bodes still have a gig every once in a while. They have been playing together for over forty years.

Mark Mazer’s family moved to the Vineyard in the mid-sixties when his father became the Vineyard’s psychiatrist. His parents weren’t musical, but Mark began playing the guitar when he was in high school. Later he became a guitarist and lead singer with the Stragglers. I didn’t know Nancy Jephcote back in the fifties, but she sounds like she was born playing the violin. A member of the Flying Elbows, she is in several groups and can play classical as well as fiddle tunes. All three of my granddaughters took violin lessons in the Suzuki method from her when they were very small, and they all participated in the fiddle contests at the annual Fair. Nancy is very talented and now teaches music in the elementary schools of the Island.

John Early is a guitar player for the Stragglers. He is a well-known builder and was a West Tisbury selectman for many years.

Merrily Fenner, wife of Frank Fenner and co-owner of the Menemsha Galley, is the daughter of Hamilton Benz, who played in the Vineyard Haven Band many years ago. She and Nancy Jephcote are the female members of the Stragglers. Though I never really knew Ham Benz, I would recognize him if he were still living—he was a well-known musician on the Vineyard, and Merrily is carrying on the tradition. Peter Knight, who plays drums for the Stragglers, is married to Merrily’s daughter.

Not long ago I listened to the Stragglers on our local TV station. The program ended with a salute to the late Danny Prowten, builder, volunteer firefighter, and a founding member of the Stragglers. The next day I watched and listened to the Metropolitan Opera’s TV production of Carmen—both were wonderful. But my musical life really began when I sat on the floor of the Whitings’ living room about sixty years ago, tuning out the women’s babble about their babies and new recipes, and listening to Willy and Johnny and Everett and the others singing “Country Road” and “My Pretty Quadroon.” The tradition goes on.


Posted in Martha's Vineyard, music | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Built on Stilts

Oak Bluffs streets were crowded on this early mid-August evening, both with cars and pedestrians, but I found a parking spot on Penacook — my go-to street for summer parking in Oak Bluffs — and walked toward Union Chapel.

My feet heard the drumming before my ears did.

2014 signEach performance of Built on Stilts, the dance festival that completed its 18th season last night, begins with a drum circle. Anyone can join the circle. Anyone can get up and dance.

As the minutes move toward 8:00, the dancing around the drummers takes shape. The evening’s performers are warming up. Moves ripple around the circle. The dancers are so attuned to the drums and each other they seem to be of one mind.

This year’s Built on Stilts comprised eight evenings of dance. Each evening comprised 10 or 12 or 14 dances — and no two evenings are identical. If you make it to all eight performances, you’ll see each dance twice. You’ll see some of the same dancers working with different partners. You’ll see at least 40 different dances in all.

Warming up around the drum circle

Warming up around the drum circle

Built on Stilts is like an umbrella, gathering dancers under Union Chapel’s soaring roof. As director and co-founder Abby Bender wrote in this year’s program:

“And so each summer B.O.S. participants juggle their schedules to come together and make new dances with parks and backyards as their training grounds. Built on Stilts has found its home in this beautiful performance space and has made possible the discovery of friends and fellow artists who might otherwise remain strangers. Collectively, we have built an inimitable summer dance community in which we may ALL share our love of dance with you, regardless of our ages and sizes, no matter what our various training and experiences may be.”

 And what a community it is! Grade school students, high school students, and adults of all ages. Summer visitors and year-round residents. Professionals and amateurs. Working together, learning from each other, egging each other on — and performing for a standing-room-only audience as multifarious as the dancers.

Each night Abby Bender thanks the audience for being part of the performance. It’s not hyperbole: you can feel the performers gathering up energy from the audience, transforming it into dance and channeling it back to the audience.

On the last three nights of Built on Stilts 2014, though, the line between stage and audience was more permeable than usual. Roberta Kirn, dancer, percussionist, percussion teacher, introduced us to “circlesongs,” a form that she learned from its developer, musician Bobby McFerrin.

Circlesongs can be sung by a handful of people, or dozens, or hundreds, or thousands. The leader comes up with a tune and gives it to the circle. Then she comes up with another, complementary tune and gives it to part of the circle. And another, and another. Pretty soon multiple layers of harmony are rising from this circle of friends, casual acquaintances, and total strangers.

A few of us have been singing circlesongs with Roberta at her monthly community sings. Why not introduce them at Built on Stilts? Why not indeed. She’d do it with volunteers from the audience. She encouraged us “regulars” to come in case the audience proved hesitant. Hesitant we weren’t: volunteers of all ages, sizes, and vocal ranges made a circle where the drummers had been, and led by Roberta the singers created a song.

Built on Stilts has been evolving for 18 years. Why am I so struck by the wonder of it this year?

Because last week I was witness to an arts-related event that was different in every way: the seriously misnamed Islanders Write conference. For this island writer, Islanders Write was demoralizing. Island writers and island writing weren’t much in evidence. In marked contrast, island dance and island dancers were all over Built on Stilts. Year-round residents were well represented in the audience too. And all this was happening in the middle of August. When people from New York, Boston, D.C., and points west flock to the Vineyard to attend events featuring musicians, actors, comedians, and speakers from New York, Boston, D.C., and points west.

True, dance, like theater and music, is a collaborative art. Writing, like painting, is a solitary activity, but it’s a rare writer who thrives on isolation. Writers are each other’s coaches and supporters, listeners and readers. A conference about island writing could be as expansive and energetic and multigenerational as Built on Stilts. Abby Bender and co-founder Anna Luckey set out to create “an accessible forum for making and performing dance here on the island,” and that’s what it’s become, on a scale they probably couldn’t imagine back in 1997.

You know what? So far the much-ballyhooed “creative economy” has looked like an extension of Martha’s Vineyard: The Theme Park, where year-round working people are mostly support staff. If it starts fostering events like Built on Stilts, I might just get behind it.

Posted in music | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Islanders Write? Not Quite

In the summer we denizens of the Seasonally Occupied Territories are regularly bombarded with events that have “Martha’s Vineyard” in their names. Their main connection to the year-round Vineyard is that they’re held on the same terra firma.

no trespassingSummer residents are often featured at these events. The year-round Vineyard, though, is usually not on the organizers’ psychic map. The underlying assumption seems to be that we year-rounders have much to learn from the summer folk but they have nothing to learn from us.

So earlier this summer, when I heard of an upcoming conference called Islanders Write, I dared hope that it might be something different. “Islanders Write”: Doesn’t that sound active to you? Islanders writing, talking about writing, talking about all the kinds of writing being done on Martha’s Vineyard, encouraging other islanders to write?

Aside: “Islanders” is what the academics call a contested term. Do you have to be born here to be considered an islander? Is it possible for someone from somewhere else to become an islander? It’s worth discussing, but I don’t want to go there now. Let “islanders” include anyone whose feet are in the mud of this particular place. As in what the late Grace Paley once said in an interview: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

One skim through the list of panels made it clear that this was not what “Islanders Write” meant to the event organizers. “Writing for Radio,” “Writing Children’s Books,” “Narrative Non-fiction,” “The Recipe for Cookbook Writing”: any of the panels could have taken place anywhere.

What “Islanders Write” meant to its organizers was, apparently, dozens of people sitting in rows at the Grange Hall, facing the stage, where two, three, four, or five panelists expounded on the subject at hand for 45 minutes. After which the dozens of people could get up, go downstairs, buy the panelists’ books at tables set up by the island’s two new-book purveyors, and get the books signed by their authors.

A handful of the panelist-authors do have their feet in the mud of this place — Nicki Galland, John Hough Jr., Nancy Slonim Aronie — but the roster of the missing was impressive. Where were the poets? Where were the island journalists? Not a single reporter or regular contributor to either the Vineyard Gazette or the Martha’s Vineyard Times appeared on a panel. This is all the more remarkable because the event was sponsored by the Times. (OK, that explains why no one from Gazette was invited, but it doesn’t explain the absence of island journalists, period.)

The “Writing in a New Media World” panel was billed as being about “digital books, video gaming and self-publishing.” Why on earth were these three topics lumped together? Why was blogging omitted?  Worthy questions to be sure, but this was the big one on my mind: Why were no self-publishing island writers on the panel?

Well, well, well. Two of the island’s most knowledgeable self-publishers, Amelia Smith and Michael West, were outside in the “self-publishers tent,” organized by Amelia with some help from other island writers (including yours truly). Those who stopped by learned a lot more about self-publishing than those who attended the panel.

We were outside in more ways than one. We were outside the hall, although there was plenty of room for us downstairs at the Grange. (Fortunately the weather was perfect.) We weren’t invited to be on any panels. Whatever “Islanders Write” was about, it wasn’t about us — or about island writing, islanders writing, or writing about the island either.

What it was, was a tailor-made example of why I call this blog From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. The occupying forces — those with connections and clout — call the shots, make the rules, and define the terms. This is business as usual on summer Martha’s Vineyard and nothing to blow a gasket about. What was, and is, infuriating about this particular event is its name. If they’d called it, say, “Writers with Some Vineyard Connection Flog Their Books,” I’d have no problem with it.

But they didn’t. They called it “Islanders Write.”

The headline on the Times’s puff piece about the event gives the game away. “Islanders Write shows writing is a growth industry on this Island,” it says. This event wasn’t meant to be about islanders writing. It’s about bolstering the so-called “creative economy,” which I blogged about in late June.

So what would an Islanders Write conference worthy of the name look like? First of all, why should we care?

Two reasons:

  1. Because islanders (variously defined) are writing, and writing well, often against the odds; and
  2. Because there’s a crying need for more Vineyarders to be telling Vineyard stories. Most stories the wider world hears about Martha’s Vineyard are told by people whose acquaintance with the place is limited. The national news media and New York publishers, among others, get to decide what stories are worth hearing. That in turn affects what stories get told.

A conference about islanders writing wouldn’t be held in August. That’s a no-brainer. In summer we’re fried: working two jobs, dealing with traffic, supervising out-of-school kids, hosting houseguests, and so on and on. In August we’re fried squared.

In fact, it might not be a one-day conference at all. How about monthly panels held at the various island libraries? Put three or four Vineyard writers on each panel and leave lots of time for discussion.

What might the panels be about? Off the top of my head –

  • Where to start
  • How to keep going and keep growing as a writer
  • Finding or starting a writers’ group
  • Building an audience without “getting published”
  • Why poetry?
  • Blogging 101
  • Self-publishing demystified
  • Challenges of small-town reporting
  • Why write about the Vineyard — and what happens when you do
  • Collaborating with musicians, actors, dancers, and/or visual artists

That’s just a beginning. Any of the above could spin off in different directions. Why not? The off-season is fast approaching. If you’re interested — let me know!

Tools of this writers trade

Tools of this writer’s trade

Posted in Martha's Vineyard, writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments


One of the joys of my life is singing in the U.S. Slave Song Project Spirituals Choir. Directed by project founder Jim Thomas, we sing songs sung by African slaves in the American colonies and the United States from 1619 till Emancipation was complete in 1865. These are true folk songs. None of them were composed.

We sing them at senior centers, libraries, churches, restaurants, and schools. Each summer we do one concert at Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven and another at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. We sing at the East Chop Lighthouse every Della Hardman Day.

These songs are powerful. They pull you into the lives of the people who sang them first. Jim has been researching slave songs for a long time. At our presentations he talks about how the songs developed and spread, and how most of them carry at least two levels of meaning, one for the powerful white folk in the vicinity, the other for the slaves themselves. The songs draw on stories and imagery from the King James Version of the Christian Bible, but they aren’t, strictly speaking, religious. “Jesus” in the spirituals can be anyone who helped the slaves. “Satan” is anyone who treated them cruelly.

So yesterday Jim and more than 20 members of the choir made our way via chartered bus first to Boston, where we sang at the historic Old North Church, and then to Medford, where we sang at the Royall House and Slave Quarters museum — a truly remarkable place. Its goal is similar to ours: to bring alive the daily life of African slaves in this country.

I blogged about our trip in the blog I maintain for the U.S. Slave Song Project. It’s a Vineyard thing as well as a U.S. Slave Song Project thing, so rather than reprint it I’m giving you the link. Check it out. It’s pretty cool.

Tom Lincoln, executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters, gave us a tour before we sang.

Tom Lincoln, executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters, gave us a tour before we sang. That’s the Slave Quarters in the background.



Posted in Martha's Vineyard | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

July License Plate Report

2014 july license plate

Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Alaska are now on the map. Not bad, eh?

If past experience is any guide — and I’ve got more than 25 years of past experience at this point — the end-of-year map will look pretty much like this one. Not much happens in the second half of the year.

But 45 down, only 6 to go, isn’t bad at all.

Last Saturday the sky was overcast — lousy beach day on Martha’s Vineyard, hence a really bad day to be on the road. But I needed some stuff in Oak Bluffs. Off I went. And while I was waiting for a break in the traffic on Old County at the Edgartown Road, what to my wondering eyes should appear but ALASKA.

It made the whole trip worthwhile. No trouble finding a parking place either. It’s all good.

Posted in license plates | Tagged , | 7 Comments

How to Survive Summer

With this year’s changeover I commence my 30th year as a year-round resident of Martha’s Vineyard. Traditionally the changeover is when the July people leave and the August people arrive. I’m not sure we have real changeovers anymore: it seems more visitors come for a week or two than for a whole month.

July people and, especially, August people live on in our imaginations, however. A few days ago a friend commented that the August people had arrived early this year. August people are said to be richer, more demanding, and generally more obnoxious than July people.

July people don’t seem to have any distinctive characteristics of their own. All you really have to know about July people is that they aren’t August people.

I dropped out of the seasonal rat race in 1999 when I left the Martha’s Vineyard Times to become a full-time freelance editor. It’s a dicey, hand-to-mouth existence, but it has its perks. One of the biggest is that I can stay off the roads when the traffic is seriously nuts.

Island Closed smSeasonal stress affects just about every year-round island resident. Now that it’s getting toward the end of July, cries of “Only 26 days till the Fair!” and “37 days till Labor Day!” are heard in the land. (The Ag Fair is late this year. Labor Day is early.) We swap stories of how long it took to get from Vineyard Haven to Oak Bluffs and how many cars we saw on the way.

Back in early June I asked my MV Facebook friends to share the advice they’d like to give to tourists and other summer visitors. The resulting blog post, “How to Be a Good Tourist,” was a big hit.

Time for a sequel, thought I. I asked my Facebook buddies: “How do you keep your sanity and survive the summer?”

Once again, my friends obliged.

Counseled one woman: “Don’t go into town or through town or near town.”

The bike path is more crowded than in the off-season, but bikers, runners, joggers, and walkers move at a manageable speed, and most of them are friendly.

The bike path is more crowded than in the off-season, but bikers, runners, joggers, and walkers move at a manageable speed, and most of them are friendly.

When you have to go to town, as most of us do, the word was to go early. A fellow blogger from up the road wrote: “Do not go down island between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. if you can possibly help it. Save your errands and chores to make as few trips as possible. Take the VTA (Vineyard Transit Authority) bus if you can. Earplugs are good. But not while driving.”

The bus recommendation was seconded by several. Said one woman: “No more looking for parking spaces or driving defensively. I just sit back and relax and let the bus driver take the traffic stress.”

In the morning, noted an up-island resident, “No one is on the roads, it is peaceful and gorgeous, every parking spot is open, and you can even get early morning breakfast discounts at some joints.”

If you can’t go early, go on a good beach day. Don’t ever, ever go to town when it’s raining. Everybody who isn’t at the beach is shopping down-island.

Go to Edgartown the back way, via the West Tisbury road. The only alternative, the Triangle, is the worst bottleneck on the island. Avoid it.

Avoid Vineyard Haven during rush hour. Five Corners is a challenge at the best of times. When the ferry’s unloading it’s downright awful. In summer, ferries are docking and unloading all the time. One morning it took me 30 minutes to get from Grace Church in Vineyard Haven to Lola’s restaurant on the Beach Road in Oak Bluffs. A full 20 of those minutes were spent getting through Five Corners.

“Leave early to wherever you’re going,” advised one friend, “and drive slow because everyone else drives crazy.” She also noted that after picking up her daughter at the Beyoncé–Jay Z concert at Gillette Stadium on July 1, she had a new perspective on traffic. “It took us two and a half hours to get to our hotel six miles away. Six miles!! The Vineyard traffic is nothing in comparison.”

Many of us have turned dealing with traffic into something of a spiritual practice. My blogger buddy noted: “Cultivate detachment, and if stuck in traffic, consider it a golden opportunity to notice things you’d not have seen otherwise.”

Apart from the one at the drawbridge, there are no traffic lights on Martha’s Vineyard. You can wait forever at a stop sign before there’s a break in the traffic. I’m not the only one who makes it a point to stop whenever it’s safe to do so and let people in from the side streets.

Summer is not Trav's favorite season. The foot of the stairs is a cool place to sleep.

Summer is not Trav’s favorite season. The foot of the stairs is a cool place to sleep.

Travvy’s vet does likewise. “When driving,” she writes, “I try to let three cars go at every difficult intersection. It calms me down to practice this courtesy, and I envision that each of those three drivers will be thoughtful to three more, then those nine to twenty-seven — and so on . . .”

One veteran of seasonal employment noted that summer is easier to deal with now that she doesn’t “have to deal with the public all the time.” She advised against working retail and driving a cab. “Be wary of landscaping, too,” she added, “as there is a lot of driving between jobs.”

A mainstay of the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market, however, relishes the seasonal onslaught. “Breathe, smile and wave, that’s what I do,” she said. Crowds? “Bring them on, cha-ching!”

“You’re the involuntary staff of a theme park,” said a sage survivor of many island summers. “Since you have no choice, the way to be happy is to put your heart and soul into it. Go up to strangers with a big sunny smile and welcome them to this wonderful place. In Stop & Shop, greet them and say ‘Are you finding everything you need?’ On sidewalks, when tourists look lost, ask if they’d like a free walking tour of the town. Aside from testing your improv skills, these overfriendly gestures have the fun potential of really freaking people out!”

Be courteous and patient with overstressed cashiers and wait staff too. Look for opportunities to lend a hand. One fellow suggested, “If you are driving a truck or station wagon and see a bicyclist carrying their bike, stop and ask if they need a ride to the bike shop. It will take you a few extra minutes, but you’ll turn somebody’s day from black to golden.”

Having been a regular hitchhiker back in my summer-visiting days, I now regularly pick up hitchhikers, especially women. I’ve got into some great conversations that way.

A big summer stress for many Vineyarders is entertaining a never-ending stream of house guests. Know your limits. “If you have ‘friends’ who want to visit in July or August, either give them a nice list of inns and B&Bs, or suggest they come in October or November.”

Rolling in the grass is fun, and cool. Watch out for ticks.

Rolling in the grass is fun, and cool. Watch out for ticks.

“Easy does it” came up frequently, and in a variety of ways. “Try to enjoy the season itself,” advised a well-known writer. “The sweet pearly early mornings, evenings on the screen porch, the cry of an owl.”

For several respondents, gardening provides diversion, relaxation, and good things to eat.

A man who grew up here and now has two small sons of his own said, “Summer never bothered me until I turned 30. After that I never seemed to have enough time to get things done and my time was no longer truly my own. So my advice is simple: Slow down and stop worrying, everything on your list will get done in time, just not the time you want.”

Another Vineyarder concurred: “Take a deep breath, find some humor in human behavior and play with it. My favorite game is to keep my place and pace on the right-hand side of the sidewalk on Circuit Ave. while smiling and making eye contact with people walking three abreast or to smile and say ‘excuse me’ then ‘thank you’ to groups conversing in the middle of the sidewalk.. The Red Sea parts every time in an amicable way.”

Our techniques for surviving summer on the Vineyard work year-round, and in other places too. Live your life. Roll with the punches. Enjoy the show.

Take a seat, sit back, enjoy the show.

Take a seat, sit back, enjoy the show.

Thanks to everyone who contributed, including those I overheard in the grocery-store check-out line or the post office, but especially Linda Alley, Dan Waters, Jeremy Dunham, Cheryl Burns, Kelly Ames Smith, Annie Parsons, David Corriveau, Michelle Jasny, Kim Hilliard, Helen Green, Amelia Smith, and Tom Hodgson.

Posted in Martha's Vineyard, tourism | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Vineyard We Knew

That's author Kevin Parham at bottom right of the photo, with his cousins Charlene and Vincent Guess.

That’s author Kevin Parham at bottom right in the photo, with his cousins Charlene and Vincent Guess.

Everybody elsewhere knows all about Martha’s Vineyard. They’ve read about it on the newspapers. They’ve seen it on TV. The president vacations there, right?

Plenty of books mention the Vineyard, or use it as a backdrop. Few are those that see Martha’s Vineyard from the inside.

These books are precious. Such a one is Kevin Parham’s The Vineyard We Knew: A Recollection of Summers on Martha’s Vineyard (Plymouth, MA: Pria Publishing, 2014). Shelve it next to Through a Ruby Window, storyteller Susan Klein’s tales of growing up on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1950s and ’60s. On the other side put Jill Nelson’s Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island. 

Halfway through the book the chapter “Turbulent Times” reminds us what was going on in the wider world, but the heart of The Vineyard We Knew is a kid’s-eye view of the island in the late 1950s and especially the ’60s. Every summer Kevin, his older siblings Joanne and Chuck and younger sister Dierdre, and their cousins Charlene, Vince, and Carmella, come from the Boston area to stay with their grandmother, Caroline “Carrie” White. The first chapter, “Beginnings,” recounts the journey they made every year, from Boston to Woods Hole, across Vineyard Sound on the ferry, and finally to Carrie’s little house on Pacific Avenue in Oak Bluffs.

As vividly evoked in the book, both the house and Nana, as Carrie was known to her grandkids, are more than a little scary. The house is forever leaking, sagging, or threatening to collapse. Nana is a strict disciplinarian with a leather strap hanging ready on the wall for anyone who challenges her authority, especially at the supper table. One evening Nana comes home from having a few cocktails with a neighbor. She’s “beyond the point of being tipsy — she was stone drunk,” Kevin remembers. She’s too inebriated to notice that a dirty rag has made its way into the chicken she has prepared for supper, and too stubborn to see it when Charlene points it out. Charlene’s ingenuity saves them all from “rag-encrusted chicken.”

Nevertheless, the adult reader can’t help marveling that every summer, for the whole summer, Nana takes as many as seven grandchildren into her tiny home  so that the kids will be supervised while their parents work. And while Nana herself works, as cook to a wealthy white family on East Chop.

Not closely supervised, mind you. During these decades, summer vacation was a long stretch of days for kids to explore and  have adventures — not only on Martha’s Vineyard but where I grew up west of Boston. Kevin Parham’s memoir includes a couple of incidents that could have had dire results. Cousin Carmella, clearly a rebel, sneaks a boyfriend into the house. Six kids go bike riding on pitch-dark East Chop and almost get hit by a car.

In general, though, the worst threat is that of Nana’s leather strap. At first, Kevin — the next-to-youngest of this band of cousins — tags along behind the older kids. They go swimming and clamming; they spook each other in nearby Oak Grove Cemetery. Then he’s biking around the island on his trusty three-speed, alone or with his siblings and cousins. On an expedition with cousin Vince to watch the ferry come into Vineyard Haven, Kevin hits the front brakes too hard and flies over the handlebars. Bruised and scraped and berating himself for his foolishness, he bikes home with Vince. Nana swabs his wounds with hydrogen peroxide. The next morning he’s out biking again.

The Vineyard We Knew winds down as Kevin reaches adolescence: first car, first romance . . . One January in the early 1970s, Kevin, now a budding teenage musician, returns with his R&B band to play a dance at the island’s youth center, on State Road at the head of Main, where Edu Comp is now. Despite a blown fuse that temporarily silences the electric instruments, the gig is a success. Significantly, it’s a visit to off-season Martha’s Vineyard that makes Kevin think that “there might be something to this music thing.”

He went on to become a professional musician as well as an executive and, now, an author. And his relationship with Martha’s Vineyard has continued to this day.

Because of the memoir’s tight focus on the child’s Vineyard summers, we don’t learn much about Beatrice, Kevin’s remarkable mother, until the very end of the book. In October 2008, the cousins, other family members, and friends gather for Bea’s memorial service, in an Oak Bluffs Victorian with a view of the ocean. Part of Kevin’s eulogy for her is reprinted here. It makes clear that though we didn’t see much of Bea in the book’s earlier chapters, she was never far away.

The Vineyard We Knew can be ordered through Pria Publishing, its publisher.

Kevin Parham will speak about his book on July 24, 6:30 p.m., at the Oak Bluffs library. The setting couldn’t be more appropriate: the library was built on the site of Nana’s house, which was destroyed by arson in 1994. On the library grounds, there’s now a bench dedicated to the memory of Carrie White and her daughter Bea.


Posted in Martha's Vineyard, writing | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments