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.

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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

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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.



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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.

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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.

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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.


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Best 4th of July Ever

Hurricane Arthur, first of the season, dealt us a glancing blow on Friday. In anticipation, most July 4th activities, including the big parade in Edgartown, were postponed till Saturday. So my 4th of July actually took place on the 3rd, 5th, and 6th, but that made for a pretty clunky headine: “Best 3rd, 5th, and 6th of July Ever”? I don’t think so.

The 4th of July has never been my holiday. Chalk it up to coming of age during the Vietnam War, and being born six years after World War II ended. My father served in World War II. He rarely talked about it. He didn’t use his military service as a club to hit others over the head with. After I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the first time, probably when I was still in high school or not long after, my father said that of all the WWII books he’d read, Catch-22 best described his wartime experience.

I’ve got great respect for the “founding fathers.” Flawed they were, but they were visionaries, and they were out there, thinking, taking risks, leading. I suspect many of them would be bemused or worse by the religion that “patriotism” has become. Or perhaps not.

So this year, after decades of not flying, saluting, or pledging allegiance to the flag; of sticking flag stamps on my envelopes upside down; of trying to live with, understand, and shape my undeniable Americanness, I finally got seduced into celebrating the 4th of July.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Through the usual combination of coincidences and connections, I was asked to participate in a reading of Frederick Douglass’s 4th of July speech from 1852, “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?”

I found it online and read it all the way through. I don’t think I’d ever done that before. Then I read it out loud all the way through.

Wow wow wow.

This is one amazing speech. Talk about “speaking truth to power.” Douglass was invited to speak by white people, he was speaking to mostly white people, and he pulled no punches about slavery, the excuses made for slavery, and the undeniable hypocrisy of slavery for anyone who professed to believe in the Declaration of Independence or Christian teachings.

From the platform at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York, he refused his listeners the complacency and comfort and self-congratulation that they were probably seeking. Of July 4, 1776, he said:

To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when, to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.

We read it twice, first in the studios of MVTV, the local public-access station, on July 3rd. I’d never read off a teleprompter before, but I managed.

My part came in the middle, where Douglass challenged those among his listeners who thought the abolitionists were hurting their own cause by “denouncing” and “rebuking” too much, instead of trying to persuade the unpersuaded. (Sound familiar?) To them, he said: “But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued.” Slaveholders and their supporters already know that the slaves are human beings.

The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave.

The second reading was at the Inkwell beach in Oak Bluffs. Scheduled for July 4th, it was postponed to the 5th by Arthur. The 5th could not have been a more perfect day. We 20 or so readers, black and white, male and female, stood on the sand against a backdrop of blue sea and blue sky. Abigail McGrath of Renaissance House, a retreat for writers and artists in Oak Bluffs and sponsor of the Douglass reading, introduced the speech. (I’m just to the right of the microphone, script in hand.)

20140705 abby & readers

Each of us had entered the TV studio alone, and addressed only the teleprompter. Now we could see the audience, and each other.

20140705 audience 2

That’s MVTV cameraman Jan Karna behind the camera at right. Behind him in the yellow shirt is Makani Themba, the organized and unflappable stage manager of the event, and behind her are the tables around which we all gathered for a potluck afterward.

20140705 audience 3

On Sunday, the U.S. Slave Song Project‘s Spirituals Choir, in which I sing, performed for at Lola’s, a restaurant that specializes in southern seafood, live music, and Sunday brunch — which we got to enjoy when we were done. To sing the slave songs with Frederick Douglass’s Fourth of July speech so fresh in my mind — this capped my best Fourth of July weekend ever. This Fourth wasn’t about complacency and self-congratulation. It was about memory and challenge, and about sharing the day(s) with others.

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Moped Accident

Day before yesterday a moped crashed into a pickup on a stretch of road I know well: the stretch where it’s South Road, Chilmark, on one side and State Road, West Tisbury, on the other. This is where Rainbow Farm used to be, where the Grey Barn and Farm is now, and where President Obama and his family have stayed on their recent visits.

Moped accidents aren’t uncommon in the summer months. This one was unusual in two respects. The moped driver, Alex Garcia, was killed. He wasn’t inexperienced, either: he worked for Sun & Fun, a moped rental business in Oak Bluffs, and was the brother-in-law of Don Gregory Jr., Sun & Fun’s owner.

After a serious moped accident, the cry always goes up: “Ban mopeds! Ban moped rentals!” This time the demand seems muted, at least in the comments made on the websites of the Vineyard Gazette and the Martha’s Vineyard Times. Both drivers had Vineyard connections. Alex Garcia wasn’t the stereotypical moped rider whom so many of us love to ridicule. It’s harder to take potshots at people when, even if you don’t know them personally, you probably have friends who are friends of theirs.

moped stickerMost everyone on Martha’s Vineyard has an opinion about mopeds, however, and most of those opinions are negative. MOPEDS ARE DANGEROUS bumper stickers are a common sight on Vineyard roads. They feature the international “no” symbol superimposed on a panicked rider flying off a moped.

Rearrangements of the above sticker are also common. Here's one of my favorites.

Rearrangements of the above sticker are also common. Here’s one of my favorites.

The stickers surfaced during a grassroots anti-moped campaign in the late 1980s. I was a barely fledged year-rounder at the time and at first I didn’t get it: Why were people so fired up about mopeds when other problems were more pressing? I, along with an estimated 20 percent of the island’s year-round population, was moving twice a year because I couldn’t find an affordable year-round rental, but it seemed as though the only ones who took this problem seriously were those whose lives were dislocated by it. Now “the housing crisis” is on everyone’s lips. Back then? Not so much.

Then it dawned on me that banning mopeds was a perfect political issue. Consider:

  • Moped riders are day-trippers. We don’t know any of them personally. They don’t vote or pay taxes here. They don’t even spend much money here: mopeds are cheap transportation, and moped riders are cheap.
  • The owners of moped rental agencies do vote and pay taxes here, but they are few and (in the late ’80s, when the first big anti-moped campaign arose) not very well liked.
  • Banning mopeds was for the moped riders’ own good. Statistics about moped accidents were printed in the papers, along with accounts of the more serious accidents. Both the reporting and public opinion had a couple of notable subtexts. One was “if the hospital’s emergency room is so busy with moped casualties, who will take care of your grandpa when he has a heart attack?” The other was “moped riders are too stupid to take care of themselves.” And wouldn’t moped riders be better off if they rented bicycles? Most of them are so out of shape.
  • Mopeds are a nuisance. They annoy almost everybody.

I learned a lot about island politics from observing the anti-moped movement, and about politics in the wider world as well. On Martha’s Vineyard, mopeds are a largely symbolic issue. Like symbolic issues elsewhere, this one makes lots of people feel good and involved and united, but it also functions like whitewash, distracting the eye from structural problems that are harder to address, never mind fix.

This particular accident didn’t involve any of the usual scapegoats: bad weather, excessive speed, alcohol, texting, operator inexperience . . . When someone dies in an accident, it’s hard to accept that nothing could have prevented it and nothing can be done to keep something similar from happening again. Even my pet solution — to require that moped operators hold a motorcycle permit — wouldn’t have helped: Alex Garcia almost certainly would have had one had they been required.

Widen the roads, say some. Many Vineyard roads are notoriously narrow and twisty. They have a hard time accommodating the summer’s car, truck, bicycle, motorcycle, and moped traffic. But widening roads almost inevitably leads to high speeds and that we do not need.

I think of the several times I’ve come within a hair’s breadth of a serious accident. So far I’ve always been lucky. Sometimes luck runs out. Sometimes there’s nothing that could have been done to prevent it. Sitting still with that knowledge is hard.


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June License Plate Report

2014 june license map

An excellent haul for June: Delaware, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Hawaii (!!), Nevada, and Utah, bringing the YTD total to 42. Nine to go — I include D.C., last colony and my onetime home, so the goal is 51.

Arkansas was at the West Tisbury post office. The top of the plate was obscured by the plate holder so I had to get really close to make sure it wasn’t Alabama. Speaking of Alabama, I’ve spotted it several times this year, on at least three different vehicles. What’s up with that?

Driving home from Oak Bluffs late one afternoon, I found myself heading toward Vineyard Haven instead of down Barnes Road. Once I realized what I was doing, I kicked myself. The Barnes Road route is a little longer in distance but usually shorter in time, especially in summer, especially during rush hour, which this was: about 4:45 p.m. Nothing to do but stop-and-start my way down the Beach Road and enjoy the view: Vineyard Haven harbor on the right, Lagoon Pond on the left, sailboats and other watercraft here, there, and everywhere.

Rolling toward Five Corners I was going slow enough to spot Oklahoma in a small parking lot. Who-whee! So that was why Malvina Forester took the Vineyard Haven route! (My car has a mind of her own.)

As it turned out, that was only part of the reason. Having made it through Five Corners, Malvina and I proceeded up State Road. The traffic coming into town was heavy, cars were backed up on the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, and no one was going faster than about 15 mph. What should I see coming toward me but the distinctive rainbow plate of — Hawaii!!

More than once I’ve seen Hawaii on the front end of a vehicle but Massachusetts on the back. It’s the back end that counts, so I watched my side-view mirror as the car rolled past me. Hawaii on the back too!

That was more than enough excitement for the month, but Nevada and Utah both showed up in the last week. June was a very good month.

Of the AWOL states, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Wyoming aren’t uncommon, and most of the rest are possible. North Dakota, on the other hand . . .

Funny thing about North Dakota: Two guests joined the Sunday night writers’ group a couple of weeks ago. He’s doing research at WHOI (pronounced “who-ie”; the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which is — you guessed it — across the water in Woods Hole). She’s working on a mystery set in and around Woods Hole. When they’re not in Woods Hole, they live in — wait for it — Fargo, North Dakota.


This is the last North Dakota plate I spotted. As you can see from the 1997 expiration date, it’s been awhile.

Be still, my beating heart. Had they brought their car over? No, their car was in North Dakota. Of course I had to explain the license plate game, and why North Dakota looms so large in it. It seems some friends of theirs from Fargo who also have a WHOI connection occasionally drive to Woods Hole. “Let me know if they ever decide to bring their car to the Vineyard,” I said.

Could the sighting of bona fide residents of North Dakota be a harbinger of things to come? Here’s hoping . . .


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The Morgan Comes to Call

The Charles W. Morgan sailed into Vineyard Haven harbor on Wednesday, June 18, escorted by a local flotilla and her companion ship, the Roann. Built in 1841, the bark Morgan is the last of the U.S. whaling fleet, which once numbered more than 2,700. After several decades wharf-bound at Mystic Seaport, she’s been beautifully restored with painstaking attention to detail. She’s currently on her 38th voyage. The 37th ended in 1921.

Aside: The Mystic Seaport website offers loads of information about the Charles W. Morgan, its history, its restoration, and its 38th voyage. Be warned, though: Every time I visit, I forget what I came for and spend an hour wandering around gawking.

The Vineyard Gazette covered the visit in spades. Time spent on their website will be well rewarded. I particularly recommend this story about Matthew Stackpole, a West Tisbury resident who grew up at Mystic Seaport, has known the Morgan all his life, and is now the ship’s historian.

The Roann (left) and the Charles W. Morgan in Vineyard Haven harbor

The Roann (left) and the Charles W. Morgan in Vineyard Haven harbor

The Morgan has many, many Vineyard connections. Several of her captains were Vineyard men, starting with the first, Thomas Norton. Many of her crew members over the years had Vineyard hometowns. During her recent sea trials and on her current voyage, she’s accompanied by the eastern-rig dragger Roann, which was built in 1947 for a Vineyard Haven captain, Roy Campbell. Like the Morgan, the Roann is now a permanent exhibit at Mystic Seaport.

I paid my first visit to the Morgan on Saturday afternoon the 21st. The U.S. Slave Song Project Spirituals Choir, in which I sing and sometimes drum, had just sung at a Juneteenth celebration at First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven. Juneteenth marks the end of slavery in the United States, and both the Slave Song Project and the Spirituals Choir exist to keep the stories and songs of the enslaved Africans alive. So you know history was much on my mind as I walked up the Charles W. Morgan’s gangplank.


The ferry Island Home seen through the Morgan's rigging

The ferry Island Home seen through the Morgan’s rigging

The three-masted Morgan is a bark, meaning that the fore and main masts are square-rigged and the mizzen mast is rigged fore-and-aft.

The three-masted Morgan is a bark, meaning that the fore and main masts are square-rigged and the mizzen mast is rigged fore-and-aft.



The fo'c's'le (forecastle), where the crew slept. The Morgan is "beamy," relatively wide, which means there was room for each crew member to have his own bunk. The bunks were relatively long -- up to six feet -- but the headroom wasn't much.

The fo’c’s’le (forecastle), where the crew slept. The Morgan is “beamy,” relatively wide, which means there was room for each crew member to have his own bunk. The bunks were relatively long — up to six feet — but the headroom wasn’t much.

My most lasting impressions of whaling probably derive from reading Melville’s Moby-Dick many, many years ago. I knew that whaling voyages could last three to five years, that whaling was a dirty and dangerous business. Ocean travel in the Age of Sail was dangerous whether whaling was involved or not. Thomas Mayhew Jr., son of the man who established the first European settlement on Martha’s Vineyard, was lost at sea on a voyage to England in 1657.

The stairs between decks are steep and narrow.

The stairs between decks are steep and narrow.

You don’t have to look far today to see evidence of the Vineyard’s whaling heritage. Among the properties owned and managed by the Martha’s Vineyard  Preservation Trust are the Old Whaling Church and the house built in 1840 for Dr. Daniel Fisher, a whaleship owner. Two of the four giant murals painted by the late Stan Murphy in Katharine Cornell Theatre (where the Spirituals Choir sang Saturday night) feature whales. In one, whalers pursue a whale on rough seas; the tiny whaleboat is dwarfed by the sky, the ocean, and the whale. In the other, Moshup, the giant of Wampanoag legend, holds a whale aloft by the tail while standing in the waters off the Gay Head cliffs.

But walking around the ship that once carried 35 men around the world in pursuit of whales, knowing that some of those men were the ancestors of your friends and neighbors — this makes it real in a new way. Imagine living and working at such close quarters with men who spoke different languages and often could barely communicate with each other. Imagine receiving a letter from a kinsman at sea and knowing that it was already at least three months out of date. You didn’t know for sure if your kinsman was alive or dead until his ship came within hailing distance of home. No wonder so many old songs tell of sailors returning after long absence to find everything changed. In “Bay of Biscay” the sailor returns as a ghost.

The cooper (barrel maker), smith, and carpenter were indispensable members of a ship's crew.

The cooper, smith, and carpenter were indispensable members of a ship’s crew.

On my second visit, I went aboard again, but this time I spent more time browsing the exhibits. Under one tent, sea shanties were being sung and first-person accounts of whaling voyages being read. In another, a six-minute video played continuously, giving a concise demonstration of what was involved in whaling. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary had its own exhibit, offering not just information but kid-friendly activities. Under yet another tent, the trades essential to a ship’s functioning were displayed and demonstrated. Flipping through a notebook that listed the officers and crews of all 38 of the Charles W. Morgan’s voyages, along with their place of residence, age, and height, I noted that the crew members with Vineyard hometowns decreased over time while those from Cape Verde and other places increased. A quote from Herman Melville noted that very few whaleship crew members were U.S.-born, though many of the officers and mates were.

The night before the Morgan's scheduled departure, I paid another visit to the dock.

The night before the Morgan’s scheduled departure, I paid another visit to the dock.

A map showed the Morgan‘s many ports of call. In the South Atlantic, the African coastal port was so close to one in Brazil, destination of so many Africans captured and sold as slaves. Had the Charles W. Morgan ever carried slaves below deck? If the area wasn’t crammed with barrels of whale oil, there might have been room. Slave trading was illegal by the time the Morgan was built, but it was also profitable.

Poking around online, I learned that some whaleships did participate in the slave trade, but that they were often scuttled after the voyage — to conceal the stench of human trafficking? The Morgan’s very survival may testify to her innocence in this regard.

Wednesday morning, the 25th, I went down to the harbor to see her off. Plenty of others had the same idea.

The Roann headed out while her big sister was still at her berth.

The Roann headed out while her big sister was still at her berth.

Small boats gathered to watch the Charles W. Morgan prepare to depart. 20140625 dogs on boat20140625 small boats





Fore and main topsails ready to be unfurled

Fore and main topsails ready to be unfurled


Here’s a short video of the Morgan being pushed away from the dock and getting under way:

Off she goes, well escorted.

Off she goes, well escorted.

Unwilling to lose sight of her, dozens of us followed the road out to West Chop, abandoned our vehicles by the side of the road, and got as close to Vineyard Sound as we could.  The wind direction in Vineyard Sound was all wrong, so she was under tow (she doesn’t have an engine) till she passed through Quick’s Hole and started her run up Buzzards Bay to New Bedford, her old home port. So we didn’t get to see her under anything close to full sail. It was a thrill nonetheless.

Farewell, Charles W. Morgan. Farewell.

20140625 off west chop

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