Season of the Risk

Fall on Martha’s Vineyard: The days grow shorter, the leaves turn — and deer ticks make a comeback.

Ticks are part of the seasonal cycle here. The big ones, called dog ticks or wood ticks, are much in evidence from mid-spring to early summer. They’re big and they’re multitudinous, but they’re not the ones that everybody worries about.

During the summer, Trav and I don’t see many ticks. Summer is a PITA in many ways, but ticks are not one of them.

The deer ticks are back. It’s fall.

tick signThis “Caution! Deer Tick Habitat” sign just appeared at the state forest trailhead near the West Tisbury School. Such signs are common on conservation lands, but this one was new.

The media are in a frenzy about Ebola virus. I’m probably hopelessly retro to be thinking about ticks, but I’ve long been fascinated by risk — how we assess it and how we deal with it. In the decade just past, I wrote an essay, “My Terrorist Eye: On Risk, the Unexpected, and the War Against Terror.” It holds up pretty well.

On October 17, the Vineyard Gazette posted the obligatory story about Ebola prep: “Hospital Ready to Respond in Unlikely Event of Ebola.” The very first commenter took the paper to task: “Why in your reporting would you say, ‘ in the unlikely event’? No one knows that! People are here on M.V. after traveling the world. It is that unpredictable factor that makes preparedness all so urgent!”

Pass the word: “Traveling the world” does not put one at risk for Ebola.

Walking in the state forest, or almost anywhere else on off-road Martha’s Vineyard, does put one at risk for tick bites and the various tick-borne diseases. Lyme disease is nowhere near as serious as Ebola virus, true, but the risk is real. I know many, many people who’ve had it. Some of them are dealing with chronic Lyme, a condition that some doctors don’t believe exists. Considering that Lyme was identified almost 40 years ago, the lack of scientific knowledge about Lyme and other tick-related ailments is sobering.

About two months' worth of ticks, mostly courtesy of Travvy

About two months’ worth of ticks, mostly courtesy of Travvy

In the near vacuum created by scientific ignorance and medical skepticism, most of us get by with anecdotal evidence and personal experience. Those of us with pets have learned a lot from our veterinarians.

Mysteries abound. I had Lyme last year, I thought for the first time — but the ELISA test suggested that I’d had it before. Huh? I had no idea. Not only could I have Lyme without feeling sick; I could have Lyme without knowing it and it could go away without being treated. (See “Musing About Lyme” for some reflections on the subject.)

I go into the woods anyway. Every day, usually more than once, I go into the woods. With Travvy. Every month I treat Travvy with Frontline. From time to time I find dead ticks in my bed, where Travvy likes to sleep in cooler weather. When we get back from our walks, the ticks usually aren’t dead yet. I pick them off him with a comb and put them in the tick jar.

If I didn’t have personal experience to balance against it, I might pay more attention to the sign. “Don’t let ONE BITE change your life!” it says. One bite from a critter that is, as the signs and pamphlets like to say, “as small as the period at the end of this sentence.” Being an editor by trade, I have no trouble seeing periods, even though — unlike ticks — they don’t move around and I’ve yet to be bitten by one. It’s easy to get the impression that deer ticks are microscopic, as invisible as germs.

If all I knew was what I read on the warning signs and pamphlets — which are ubiquitous on Martha’s Vineyard — maybe I’d be more careful. I’d stay on the trail, use tick repellent, and put my clothes in the dryer for 20 minutes — if I had a dryer, that is. Maybe I wouldn’t go into the woods at all.

But I do. Every day and then some. Even after having Lyme once and maybe twice. Why? Well, it certainly helps that the news media aren’t spewing out Lyme horror stories 24/7. It helps that, though tick-borne diseases can be serious, chronic, and even fatal, I know plenty of people who’ve had them and most of them eventually get their normal lives back.

In my D.C. days, I walked, biked, and took public transportation all over the place. My suburban friends thought I was brave. I thought they were nuts. When I moved to a new neighborhood, I’d feel off-balance and uneasy — for about a week. After walking around for a few days, I began to sort out which sights, sounds, and smells were “normal” and which were out of the ordinary. The place became part of my psychic map. It felt like home.

For my suburban friends, most — sometimes all — of the sights and sounds came from the newspapers and, especially, from TV.

Which is where most USians are getting most of their information about the Ebola virus. There’s better information out there, but it’s a little harder to find and it takes longer to digest. I have plenty of personal experience with ticks and Lyme disease. I don’t have personal experience with Ebola. I hope I never do. But I have access to the accounts of people with extensive knowledge of Ebola and personal experience as well.

It makes a big difference.


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God Bless the Grass

Remember how it looked early in the month? My neighbors had to put in a new septic. The little deck outside my studio apartment gave me a front row seat.

October 9, 2014

October 6, 2014

This is how it looked yesterday, from the same vantage point — outside my neighbors’ kitchen. That hole in the middle is, we think, going to be a pond. Despite the rain we’ve had recently, there’s still no water in it.

October 24, 2014

October 24, 2014

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow,” I thought. “Beneath the crosses, row on row . . .” It’s not the antiwar poem I remembered. Its Dead want the living to “take up our quarrel with the foe” — to replenish their numbers in the ground, pushing up poppies.

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is an antiwar song, but there’s no grass in that one either.

While walking along Pine Hill with Travvy, I listened to my boots. (That’s a blatant steal from a Pete Morton song. It’s on his album Swarthmoor.) My boots were saying “Dum dum da DUM.” Pretty soon I was singing along: “God bless the grass . . .”

I love the song, but I was shaky on the words. Here they are.

God Bless the Grass

Notes: words and music by Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1964 Schroder Music Company, renewed 1992. People often think of this as an ecology song, but Malvina wrote it after reading Mark Lane’s comments about the John F. Kennedy assassination.

God bless the grass that grows thru the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
It moves through the ground and reaches for the air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It’s green and it’s tender and it’s easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that’s gentle and low,
Its roots they are deep and its will is to grow.
And God bless the truth, the friend of the poor,
And the wild grass growing at the poor man’s door,
And God bless the grass.


And here is Malvina Reynolds (1900–1978) singing it. (In case you were wondering why my Subaru’s name is Malvina Forester, she’s the one.)



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Old Boots, New Boots

old & new boots

Old boots passed their prime at least a year ago. They leaked. Duct tape didn’t stick. They needed to be replaced, but other needs were more pressing.

All winter I wore my higher, warmer boots. They don’t leak. Long about late April, when those boots got too warm for walking in, it stopped raining on Martha’s Vineyard. I went back to my old boots. Boots don’t leak if it isn’t wet.

Besides, I hate to throw anything out.

As fall got under way, it started raining again. I had to skirt the big puddles on the road, and even then my socks got wet. I had plenty of work. Money was coming in. The time had come.

This past Monday I went up to SBS. This is where Travvy’s food, treats, and toys come from, but they carry other stuff too. Like boots.

I sat on the wooden floor and tried on boots. Several pairs. The fourth pair was Just Right. That’s them in the picture. You can’t see my feet because my feet are in the boots. They’re happy. They’re dry.

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Out of Sight? Not Quite

I lived in Washington, D.C., for 11 years and loved it. All those years I hardly ever thought about where my drinking water came from or where my trash or sewage went.

All that changed after I landed on Martha’s Vineyard in the mid-1980s. Before long, the phrase “sole-source aquifer” had entered my working vocabulary. An aquifer, says the American Heritage Dictionary, is “an underground layer of permeable rock, sediment, or soil that yields water.” “Sole-source” means there’s only one of them. All the drinking water on Martha’s Vineyard comes from that one aquifer. Screw it up and we’ll be importing water from the mainland. Sort of puts environmental squabbles in perspective, doesn’t it?

A very hot topic at the time was the formation of the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District (MVRDRRD — the acronym resists pronunciation so successfully that it’s generally referred to as “the District”). Within a year or so, I was talking trash like I knew what I was talking about.

“Refuse” means “trash.” “Resource recovery” means recycling. A big issue was what to do with the trash that couldn’t be recycled and was filling up the six town dumps, which we were supposed to call “landfills.” Once the decision was made to ship the nonrecyclables off to SEMASS, the big incinerator in Rochester (Mass.), the landfills officially became “transfer stations,” but nearly everyone I know still takes their trash to the dump. The recycling shed at the West Tisbury dump is the Dumptique. “Landfill-tique” and “transfer-station-tique” are almost as unsayable as MVRDRRD.

“Refuse” doesn’t include sewage, but within a few years I had a nodding acquaintance with that subject too. The downtown areas of the down-island towns — Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown — are now “sewered,” but most Vineyard residences and businesses have their own septic systems. Those septic systems are underground and out of sight so in theory it would be easy to forget about them, but in practice it isn’t because they come up in conversation a lot. Someone is always having their septic tank pumped out; a former hairdresser’s husband is in the pump-out business; and when you hear that so-and-so is dealing with a failed septic system, you offer your condolences.

Here’s a handy guide to how septic systems work.

All of which explains why I’d have a hard time living in the big city again. Once you’ve started thinking about where your water comes from and where your trash and sewage go, it’s hard to stop. Thinking about water, trash, and sewage in a place with fewer than 20,000 year-round residents is manageable — barely. Thinking about water, trash, and sewage in a place with 600,000 year-round residents? The mind boggles.

So when my neighbor-landlords had to have a new septic put in, I offered my condolences, but I also had a great view from my deck. John Keene’s crew and their machines arrived last Thursday. Here some of what I saw.

big hole

This is just the beginning. Watching the interaction among the men on the site made me wish I didn’t work solo. The precision of the big excavator is as impressive as its power. When it shook the dirt off the huge stump it had just pulled from the ground, it reminded me of Travvy shaking a squeaky toy. But it also plucked shrubs and small trees up so delicately that they could be replanted when the job was done.

I want to be a heavy equipment operator when I grow up.

Excavator at the brink

Excavator at the brink

All that dirt had to go somewhere. Some of it came back later. The contractor’s shop is just up the road — close to my town’s dump, as a matter of fact — so it didn’t have far to go.

moving dirt

Half of the concrete container that will hold our wastewater and sewage is lifted into place. Behind the excavator and off to the left you can see the deck I watched the proceedings from — when I wasn’t circling the lawn to get a better angle. My internet and phone were disconnected for the duration — the cable crosses the lawn that was now a big pit — so while the work was under way I made several trips next-door to use my neighbors’ wi-fi.

lifting septic

Having watched the excavator uproot a huge stump and shake it like a dog’s toy, I did not want it to go after the little building I live in. My apartment is on the second floor. My bathroom, whose services are being improved by the new septic, is on the first. Luckily the companions of the big beast have trained it well.

staring contestdigging

Most of the cement tank is now underground. See those R2D2-looking creatures on top? That’s how the tank can be pumped out without digging up the lawn again.


Before the hole can be filled in, the town’s health agent has to inspect the new system and give his approval. Here John Powers checks out the dimensions of the distribution area. Note relative size of person and pit.

health agent

health agent 2Now the dirt comes back, some of it anyway. The hole is filled in, the surface graded, and the small trees and shrubs replaced in their original locations. The machine that chews big stumps like candy is astonishingly delicate when it comes to smoothing and replanting.


Before the digging started, a couple of frogs lived in a little plastic pond above where the cement tank now is. One of the girls next door has been asking her parents for a bigger pond. The new pond is bigger than anyone expected. There’ll be room for more than frogs in this one.

new pond

Now I can’t pass by a yard without wondering what’s underneath it. Out of sight, yes, but not quite out of mind. See why I’d have a hard time moving back to the big city?



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September License Plate Report

Around the end of July I start to resign myself: This could be it for the year. August brought nothing new. That practically confirmed it.

Then around the third week of September I spotted Mississippi, one of the top 5 hard-to-gets. Now anything is possible. Five more to go. Bring on October!

2014 sept license plate

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Shirley Looks Back

cover scan smI’m forever quoting Grace Paley — “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you better watch where your mouth is.”

Shirley Mayhew is in the mud of Martha’s Vineyard at least up to her waist, and has been since she moved to the Vineyard in 1947 as the bride of Vineyard native John Mayhew. Now she’s collected into a book her personal essays about her extra/ordinary life in this extra/ordinary place. Three of them have already appeared in this blog — “Miracle,” “Community,” and “The Musicales — Then and Now” — so I don’t need to tell you what a good writer she is. She’s also a fine photographer, as is her daughter Sarah: their photos provide a visual dimension to Looking Back.

Shirley’s journey begins at a mixer she didn’t want to attend at Pembroke College, where she was a less-than-engaged student. Johnny Mayhew, a navy fighter pilot just back from the war, didn’t want to be there either; he was almost engaged, so it seemed, to a girl at Mount Holyoke. After an awkward attempt at dancing and chitchat, they walk into Providence, share three beers, and talk about the real-life stuff that doesn’t come up at mixers.

Shirley in the duck blind on the morning Johnny proposed, November 29, 1946.

Shirley in the duck blind on the morning Johnny proposed, November 29, 1946.

Within the next few months, they date a few times, Shirley gets a summer job on the Vineyard, and Johnny breaks up with his Mount Holyoke girlfriend. Shirley joins the Mayhews for Thanksgiving — and Johnny proposes.

Shirley writes: “We were in a duck blind on Tisbury Great Pond. It was cold but clear and ducks were scarce that early morning, and during a lull in the conversation he turned to me and said, ‘You wouldn’t marry me, would you?’ Without a pause to think it over, I said, ‘Sure.'”

Shirley was in the mud, and the water, of this place right from the beginning.

In the essays that follow, readers are treated to a rich glimpse of the catch-as-catch-can life of most Vineyarders in the late 1940s and ’50s. Johnny, his cousins John and Everett Whiting, and their friend Willy Huntington start the Vineyard Shellfish Company, growing oysters on Tisbury Great Pond. As the Mayhews’ children arrive, it becomes clear that oystering won’t support a growing family. Johnny goes back to school and becomes a math teacher at the (brand-new) regional high school. In “Food in the Fifties” and “Check Stubs Tell All,” Shirley recounts the challenges and rewards of year-round island living, back when the summer people left around Labor Day and didn’t return till Memorial Day at the earliest.

“Thoughts on Turning Forty in 1966″ appears around the middle of Looking Back. When she wrote it, Shirley had gone back to school. After 18 years living intensively in one place, her world opens up: “I felt I had rejoined the human race, and my mind, which was not ready for higher education in my twenties, was now like a sponge, soaking up ideas and knowledge.”

At 40, now equipped with a BA and a teaching certificate, Shirley regards the future with some apprehension. The reader, noticing that half the book’s pages remain to be turned, is curious but not too worried.

With good reason. Shirley becomes not only a junior high language arts teacher at the Edgartown School, but a world traveler. By the end of World War II, Johnny Mayhew had seen enough of the world. Shirley, who had gone straight from Westchester County, New York, to Martha’s Vineyard, wants to see more. And she does, often accompanied by one of her two daughters, and later by one of her three granddaughters. The essays here recount a few of her travels, to Tisbury, England; Finland; the USSR; and Kenya, where baboons really did come to tea — there’s a photo to prove it.

“Saving Edilberto” and “Trucking into Cusco” are both devoted to Paucartambo, a remote village in the Peruvian Andes. Shirley developed a several-year relationship with Paucartambo, becoming godmother to two village children and raising money on Martha’s Vineyard to buy basic supplies for the village school. (Having heard more of Shirley’s Paucartambo stories and seen more of her photographs, I strongly suspect there’s a whole other book in there.)

In 248 pages, Looking Back conveys the passing of the decades, not only for the author but for Martha’s Vineyard and the world at large. In the early pages Johnny Mayhew courts and marries Shirley; in the later ones, Shirley visits Johnny in Windemere, the local nursing home, then attends his memorial service at the Ag Hall. (See “A Miracle” for an account of that day, and a bit about Johnny’s life.)

In the early years Johnny and his cousins raise oysters on Tisbury Great Pond. In 1972, Shirley starts making oyster stew for the friends, neighbors, and relatives who drop in on Christmas Day. The eldest attendees at those early parties have passed on, but their kids and grandkids are still coming; the babies and toddlers of the 1970s now have kids and grandkids of their own. The party now takes place at daughter Deb’s house — and yes, the recipe is included.

In the 1950s, the musically inclined of West Tisbury gather in each other’s living rooms to jam and play and sing. Now the children and grandchildren of the original “musicales” are singing and playing, in pickup bands, at the annual Ag Fair, and — in the case of granddaughter Katie — with the Boston Pops and in London. Worth noting is that at the first musicales, the men play and the women listen (and the kids often listen from the top of the stairs when they are supposed to be in bed). Now the musicians include daughter Deb, son Jack, and all three of Shirley’s granddaughters.

In addition to introducing, or re-introducing, the reader to its remarkable author, Looking Back offers an evolving picture of what Martha’s Vineyard has been about for the last several decades, and why so many of us want to keep it alive as something other than a tourist destination.

On the island, Looking Back is available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. (I think Bunch of Grapes does mail order, but its website doesn’t inspire confidence; better call first: 508-693-2291.) You can also order from the author for $30 (including shipping): Music Street Press, P.O. Box 51, West Tisbury, MA 02575.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m in the Sunday night writers’ group with Shirley, and I copyedited Looking Back. Janet Holladay of the Tisbury Printer did a super job with the design and also helped organize the essays into a sequence that works wonderfully. This book is as island-grown as it gets!

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Susanna J. Sturgis:

My friend up the road, mystery writer Cynthia Riggs, has started a blog about life in and around her corner of West Tisbury. So far she’s blogged about grapes, hops, getting old, writing mysteries, and the hen that stowed away in a car trunk. Don’t miss it!

Originally posted on Martha's Vineyard Mysteries:

This year we had a bonanza crop of grapes.

The grape arbor is next to the small studio where Lynn Christoffers, our resident photographer, lives and works. She’d been watching the grapes progress from blossoms to green marbles to fragrant purple gems. Yellow jackets were moving in to dine on the overripe ones.

“We need to harvest them soon,” she said.

She and a bed and breakfast guest went to work, clipping off bunches of lush grapes and by mid-afternoon, baskets of grapes covered every available surface in my kitchen.

Outdoors, grapes attract yellow jackets. Indoors, it’s fruit flies. I had to do something with the full baskets and their mist of hovering fruit flies before I had room enough to prepare supper. I was in the throes of a deadline and in no mood to deal with a mountain of grapes. I felt mildly resentful of the fact that…

View original 425 more words

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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


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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.


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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.



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