Democratic State Convention

After many years as an unenrolled voter who voted Democratic and even occasionally worked for Democratic candidates, on January 30 I finally registered as a Democrat. Two weeks later, almost by accident, I became secretary of the Martha’s Vineyard Democrats, aka the MV Dems, formally the Democratic Council of Martha’s Vineyard. Six weeks after that I became a delegate from my town of West Tisbury to the 2017 Massachusetts Democratic Convention.

The convention took place this past Saturday, June 3, in Worcester. I went. Hold that thought; we’ll get back to it soon.

My rapid ascent was pretty much by default: newbies generally don’t get gigs like those if older hands are interested. In non-election years political parties are a sideshow, and on proudly individualistic (and generally ineffectual) Martha’s Vineyard they’re somewhat distasteful: one is widely thought to be sacrificing one’s integrity if one belongs to a political party or a union because sooner or later one might have to compromise one’s conscience in the interest of getting something done.

My own attitude toward the Democratic Party was, more or less, “Like I have a choice?” As a feminist I’ve been living in a one-party system all my adult life. The same is true for other significant, often overlapping, swaths of the U.S. population. The Democratic Party knows we have nowhere else to go so over the years it mostly pays us attention only when it wants our votes.

Electioneering on Old County Rd., fall 2016

However, having volunteered in a local campaign last year and being one of those people whose opinion of the Democratic Party rose because Hillary Clinton was its candidate for president, I saw that party infrastructure was key to electing Democrats to public office, and that electing Democrats to public office was absolutely key to bringing the country’s current nightmare to a close.

Once I saw the connection, I set out to learn how it works. Party infrastructure is a mechanism whose goal is to get Democrats elected to public office. Compare it to a car: I don’t have to be a mechanic to drive a car from, say, Martha’s Vineyard to Worcester, but I do have to know how to drive. I’d better know the rules of the road well enough to avoid accidents, and be able to read maps and signs well enough to not end up in the wrong place.

So I went to Worcester primarily to learn. The focus of the 2017 Massachusetts Democratic State Convention was on the party platform, a sprawling document that’s rewritten every four years. By mid-May, after weeks of platform hearings around the commonwealth and much deliberation, the platform committee had produced a draft, which you can find if you’re so inclined on pages 16–26 of the 2017 Call to Convention.

The platform can be amended from the convention floor, but though a first-time convention delegate, I knew there was no way that 3,000+ people could give serious consideration to amendments in the three hours allotted. In my town, 300 people at annual town meeting can spend 20–30 minutes debating a single zoning bylaw. Nuff said for now; more later.

Speaking of my town — the number of convention attendees was roughly the same as West Tisbury’s year-round population. Delegates were seated by state senatorial district. We from the Cape & Islands district could be found at signpost 005.

The convention opened, predictably enough, with speeches, lots of speeches. I got my first look at the three declared Democratic candidates for governor: Jay Gonzalez, Setti Warren, and Bob Massie. (For what it’s worth, I was impressed by Gonzalez and Warren, not so much by Massie.)

Senator Elizabeth Warren onscreen, and if you look over to the left you can see her in person.

During the best of the speeches –for me these were the ones given by our two senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, and by state attorney general Maura Healey, but some of the others were pretty good too  — I felt inspired and motivated: We really can pull together, fight back against the unrolling fiasco that is the current administration, and maybe even take back Congress in 2018!

But under the exhilaration was the somber realization that compelling oratory — speakers inspiring listeners with messages the listeners most wanted to hear — helped get us into the mess we’re in now. Too many people were swept away by cries of “Change! Change! Change!” without thinking too hard about what changes should, could, and would be made, and how, and by whom.

When we got to the platform amendment part of the agenda, it immediately became clear that many of the amendments were being pushed by novice drivers who wanted to throw out both the maps and the rules of the road without first understanding what purpose they served.

The amendments (most of them anyway) that came down my row.

To bring an amendment to the floor, its supporters had to gather 500 signatures from registered delegates, turn them in by 12 noon, and make copies for all the delegates. This led to a proliferation of slips of paper and a huge mess on the convention floor.

A few of the many amendments that came down my row were clear, concise, and ready for an up-and-down vote. Most of them weren’t. Many of them were sloppily worded, and all too many tried to cram way too much into a single amendment. Example: The proposed amendment to the housing plank contained eight separate bullet points, any one of which could have generated at least 10 minutes of discussion.

The absolute worst was a proposed amendment to the MassDems charter. The charter is like the organization’s constitution: it’s evolved over time, by trial and error, and it’s not to be amended lightly. To continue the car analogy: maybe you don’t need to be a mechanic to mess with the charter, but you’d better have a lot of road miles under your belt. So this amendment was a full single-spaced page long. Apparently believing that increasing the size of an organization makes it more responsive, it proposed increasing the size of the state Democratic committee by 50 percent. (1) The state committee is already the second largest in the country, after California’s. (2) In general, the larger an organization gets, the greater its deadweight and the less responsive it becomes.

It also proposed having the additional 80 members elected on the primary ballot by registered Democrats. What the drafters forgot is that Massachusetts is an open-primary state, which means that many of the people who take the Democratic ballot in primary elections are not registered Democrats. They’re unenrolled. I know this because I did it for decades.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed on this one and the amendment was tabled for future discussion. Unfortunately, too many of the sloppily worded amendments were adopted, with little discussion and by acclamation, into the 2017 platform. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, they will be widely ignored along with most of the rest of the platform.

So what did I learn from all this? The big lesson for me is that the platform hearings that were held around the commonwealth in the months before the convention are important. That’s where platform issues can be raised and even discussed at some length. And any complex amendment should be considered by the platform committee, whose members know the rules of the road and how to read maps — or have time to learn as they go.

The convention wasn’t particularly well run. I didn’t get my badge until Thursday, and if the agenda says the platform discussion is going to start at noon, it shouldn’t start at two thirty. The breakout sessions that were supposed to start at three never happened, which is too bad because they were about practical organizing and could have been genuinely useful, unlike most of the post-noon speeches and most of the amendment process.

Driving home on Interstate 495, I thought that the state committee might be compared to motorists going 40 mph in a 65 mph zone, while the semi-organized opposition were the ones having a wonderful time lane-jumping between other vehicles and probably missing their exits because they didn’t believe in road maps. Will the lane-jumpers wise up before they cause a big crash? Can the slowpokes be induced to speed up? Watch this space . . .

Convention crowd, part of it.


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Is That You, Spring?

Memorial Day be damned, I’ve been in total denial that the summer season — not summer, but the summer season — is upon us. Most of the time it’s been feeling like mid or late April. Yesterday I wore jeans and a turtleneck, facrissakes. Usually I spend a week or two procrastinating about doing the Great Winter/Summer Clothes Switch before I get around to actually doing it at the very end of May. This year I haven’t even thought about it.

Shorts, yes, and plenty of long-sleeve jerseys. The jeans are off-camera to the left.

True, two pairs of shorts were on the laundry line yesterday, along with a few T-shirts — and half a dozen turtlenecks. No longjohns, however: I’ve been tempted to pull them on once or twice in the last month, but donning longjohns in May is way worse than wearing white after Labor Day.

Also true, the oaks are leafing out, and many of us are sneezing more with the pollen, but usually by June 2 I’m itching to give Malvina Forester a bath so I can see her natural color. I haven’t started procrastinating on that one either.

I’m not much of a gardener, but I do like to grow cherry tomatoes and basil in the little dinghy out back. Late May felt enough like mid-April that I hesitated to plant anything for fear of frost. My grandma, who was a serious and successful gardener, never planted anything outside before Memorial Day, but she died in 1976 and the world has been getting warmer since then.

Even if this year it doesn’t feel like it.

Maybe 10 days ago I planted some cherry tomato and basil seeds in two containers. For days and days there was no visible action whatsoever. These were last year’s seeds — were they still good? Or were the poor babies just cold and afraid to sprout their little leaves out of the dirt?


One day when the sun actually came out and stayed out all day I spied a teeny bit of green in the basil container. By yesterday there were real signs of life in both boxes.

Vineyard Gardens, the nursery across the street from the West Tisbury post office, offers a 20% senior discount on Tuesdays. Last week I skipped it, sure whatever I bought would be creamed by the weather. This past Tuesday I went.

Now there are four cherry tomato seedlings in the dinghy — two Sun Gold, one Black Cherry, and one Grape — two coleus in pots on the deck railing, and two purple-and-white-striped petunias in what I keep calling my window box even though it’s not in a window; it’s built into the deck railing. My deck box?

Anyway, it’s looking more spring-y out there. I’m wearing jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt at the moment, but this morning I actually thought about taking the flannel sheets off my bed and replacing them with lightweight cotton. This had as much to do with the white veneer of dog hair they’ve accumulated as it did with the night-time temperature. I keep forgetting to pull the quilt up before Travvy gets onto the bed (where he is right this minute, by the way, wondering when I’m going to log off and go for a walk).

So it just dawned on me that it’s only two and a half months till the Ag Fair, the herald that assures us we’ve almost made it through another summer. So I guess spring really is here, and summer right behind it.

Tomato seedlings, and my venerable Grandmother Chives, who’s been threatening to take over the garden for several years now. Wednesday’s hard rain bent her low, but she’ll bounce back soon.


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May License Plate Report

Missouri and Michigan showed up in May. Too bad Mississippi didn’t make it a 3M hat trick.

The tally was disappointing till I consulted my maps for previous years. They reminded me that May often isn’t a big month for new spottings. 2016 brought just one (Missouri) and 2015 two (Idaho and Utah). I counted five in 2014 (Alabama, West Virginia, Kansas, Tennessee, and Missouri), but 2014 was the best overall of the last several years, not least because Nebraska slid in just under the wire at the end of December.

Missouri does seem to have an affinity for May, or maybe it’s May that attracts Missouri.

I’m bemused by the absence of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington State. They’re usually on the map before June. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all of them, but it hasn’t registered because I thought I already had them. And oops! once again I’ve forgotten D.C. I know I’ve seen at least one from the Last Colony. I’ll be more attentive in June.


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Some Personal History

Here’s an addendum of sorts to “Tolerant, Up to a Point,” posted yesterday.

During the discussion of the Vineyard’s lesbian and gay history at the Spectrum Film Festival, an audience member mentioned Margaret Webster (1905–1972), the eminent Anglo-American actor and theater director. Webster, a Vineyard summer resident. had at least two long-term lesbian relationships, first with Eva Le Gallienne, another theater notable; and later with the prolific British novelist Pamela Frankau.

postage scale

Margaret Webster’s postage scale

Strange but true, I have a little postage scale that once belonged to Margaret Webster. It was given to me by the late Mary Payne (1932–1996), who founded Island Theatre Workshop (ITW) in 1968 and was its artistic director until her death.

Mary recognized me as a lesbian sister almost right off the boat and within a year or so had roped me into ITW and the island’s then-vibrant theater community. True to form, it was a magnet for misfits and nonconformists — lesbians, gay men, creative types, pagans, recovering alcoholics and relatives of alcoholics . . .

My people, in other words.

At one point Mary hired me to help her clean up and paint what had been her bedroom. She needed extra money, the room had a separate entrance, and she was planning to rent it out. This involved going through lots and lots of stuff and is probably when she gave me the postage scale. First-class postage on the scale is 8¢, which suggests it was made between May 16, 1971, and March 2, 1974, when first-class postage went up to 10¢. Webster died on November 13, 1972.

We talked a lot, Mary and I, during that project. My poem “The Lapsed Archivist Attends a House Cleaning” grew out of our conversations. The “mentor” referred to in the second stanza is Margaret Webster. The “woman lover” is Pamela Frankau. I’m not sure “thirty years” is accurate; one source says Frankau and Webster’s relationship began in the mid-1950s, though they may have known each other longer. Millie Barranger’s Margaret Webster: A Life in Theater” says that Webster was devastated by Frankau’s death in 1967 and that “eventually, she returned to her beloved cottage on Martha’s Vineyard and gathered friends around her.”

This would have been when Mary was starting Island Theatre Workshop, and I’m guessing it’s when she and Webster knew each other.


The Lapsed Archivist Attends a Housecleaning

In memory of the voices we have lost
–motto of the Lesbian Herstory Archives

You are outside painting furniture, I
am working in the bathroom, sanding through
three colors of cracking paint. We
are getting ready for your summer tenant.
The diamond window frames are splintered,
gouged with previous efforts; “Sappho’s Coming!”
exults a sticker on the mirror, perhaps
announcing me, you said, a lesbian poet
making poems today with brush and scraper.

Inside you sort through piles and boxes,
deciding what to keep and where to put it,
calling me to see the glossy pictures
of your high school yearbook. You tell
me of sitting by a fire, burning letters
one by one, the letters of your mentor.
Thirty years of letters to and from
her woman lover. You honored her request.

And what if you, or someone else,
willed me to burn her letters?
I once spent hours haunted by
the voices we have lost, unfolding
brittle papers not a decade old,
cataloguing, laying each one flat
in acid-free gray boxes. Could I
consign your letters to the flame,
or would I think of living widows
dying on their husbands’ pyres?
Would I close my eyes and cast in
unread bundles, or try to take
the ones in my own writing back?
Would I hear crackling in the fire
the voices we have lost?

As I complete the second coat, golden
flames are dancing in the diamond panes:
daffodils, from bulbs your mother
planted nineteen years ago. “Sappho’s
Coming!” sings the mirror, Sappho
whose tenacious legacy of fragments
survives two thousand years of burning.
Still some say she pined for some man’s
love. This Sappho shreds all drafts
of each completed poem; each jewel forgets
being chiseled from the vein.
Purged of dross, your mentor’s life
is found in theatre files. I
would not have known had you not told me.

Published in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, volume 10, no. 3 (1989).

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Tolerant, Up to a Point

At the end of April, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center held its first Spectrum Film Festival, featuring films with an L, G, B, T, and/or Q connection. Like the LGBTQ coalition itself, the films had an uneasy relationship with each other, but it was a worthy effort.

Perhaps the worthiest thing about it was the effort to push beyond the screen and include live Q&A or interviews after each show, usually with people who had some connection to the film.

On the festival’s opening night, The Freedom to Marry was followed by a conversation between Mary Breslauer, a Boston-based communications consultant with Vineyard connections, and Mary Bonauto, who argued Obergefell v. Hodges, the pivotal same-sex marriage case, before the U.S. Supreme Court and was featured in the film. Breslauer was live onstage at the Film Center; Bonauto appeared on the screen through the wonders of digital technology.

I was on the panel that followed the film Cloudburst, which featured two stellar actresses — Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker — in a film written and directed by guys who evidently couldn’t imagine that anyone would watch a film about two women unless a male supporting actor was on hand to steal the show. I could go on but I won’t.

The panel was titled “The Shifting Tides of the LGBTQ Landscape on the Vineyard.” Fortunately no one asked me what that meant, because I don’t have a clue. In “Gay on MV” I blogged about my personal take on the island’s recent gay and lesbian history, so I’m not going to go on about that. It did come up during the panel discussion, thanks in part to several in the audience who were there along with me and a bunch of others. Part of that recent history was ILGA, the Island Lesbian and Gay Association.

The closet T-shirt

In the early to mid 1990s, ILGA offered two T-shirts. One featured the words MARTHA’S VINEYARD, and the V in VINEYARD was a pink triangle. I think of it as the closet version, because you could wear it down Main Street or Circuit Ave. in the height of summer and nobody knew what the pink triangle meant.

The other one was bold and blatant. NO MAN IS AN ISLAND LESBIAN, it read, across a pink triangle, and then, in smaller print underneath, and Gay Association of Martha’s Vineyard. This one I wore mostly off-island because, no matter how bold and blatant you are, at some point you get sick of noticing people trying to pretend they aren’t staring at you.

At least I did.

The blatant, in-your-face, very un-Vineyard shirt.

This is the one I wore to the film festival. It was a hit. The Vineyard Gazette story about the Spectrum Film Festival shows me and my shirt onstage with my fellow panelists. Here’s what it looks like up close ->.

The panel’s moderator opened with a bit of island history: In the last three decades of the 19th century, until fire destroyed it in 1906, a summer colony that catered to musicians and singers flourished overlooking the Lagoon. This colony was run by a gay (male) couple who were apparently quite open about their relationship.

The point being made was that Martha’s Vineyard has a tradition of tolerance that goes way back.

People really, really want to believe this. Readers of my first (and so far only) novel, The Mud of the Place, ask me if it could happen now. (Mud takes place in the late 1990s, Jay Segredo, a gay man who grew up on the island and has lived “off” for 20 years, returns and sets himself up for disaster because he doesn’t dare come out to his close-knit family.) Their anxiety tells me that they really, really want to be reassured that it couldn’t, that a young gay man today wouldn’t worry about coming out to his family.

During the Q&A at the Film Center, several people raised examples of the Vineyard’s supposed tolerance. Like Innisfail, these stories generally involved summer people, creative types, and often both. My own experience was similar. I arrived in 1985 knowing virtually no one, and within a year or two had been absorbed into the island’s grassroots theater and music scene. There, diversity ran rampant. Everybody recognized the pink triangle. Outside the scene we were pretty discreet. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was the order of the day.

Most — not all, but most — of us came from somewhere else. Even if we’d been here a while, we didn’t have extended family on the island. Unlike Jay Segredo, we had nothing to lose by being out as whatever we were: lesbian, gay, creative, intellectual, radical, or just plain weird. For many native islanders, the situation was very different. Family was key. Quirkiness was tolerated, even prized, up to a point, as long as it didn’t threaten to make you a stranger to your own family.

It took me a long time to get this. My family wasn’t happy and my town, though not oppressive, was boring. I couldn’t wait to get away. In the big city (Washington, D.C., in my case) I quickly fell in with others who’d fled their families and towns for similar reasons. We bonded around our politics, our creative aspirations, and our stories of what we’d left behind. We talked a lot about “community.” We wanted to be one. We thought we were.

In general, we didn’t do community all that well. In the absence of any containment mechanism, relationship breakups and political disagreements turned incendiary. And it wasn’t till I’d been on Martha’s Vineyard for several years that I began to understand why. Nearly all of us who had escaped to the big city were of the same generation, born within 15 or 20 years of each other. We had few elders to give us ballast with their experience and few children to give us reason to think ahead. The Vineyard by contrast was a multigenerational web. It didn’t always take care of its own, and old grudges lay just under the surface, waiting to blow up with a careless step, but it did manage to contain brushfires before they spread out of control.

The Vineyard, in other words, was the kind of place that many of us had fled from, and that some of us fled back to when we realized that unfettered self-expression by unrelated individuals did not create the kind of community we wanted to live in.

I was fascinated. My fascination grew into The Mud of the Place. And I’m still here, chafing at the restraints but unwilling or unable to leave.

The bottom line is that we tolerate what we think we can afford to tolerate. We don’t tolerate the monsters that are breathing down our necks — do you think we’re stupid? Twenty-five years ago, the Vineyard considered lesbians and gay men alien and threatening. Now? Not so much. Brazilian immigrants are more so, regardless of sex or sexual identity.

The summer people and the year-round summer people, they can be infinitely tolerant because they aren’t part of the web. Their web is somewhere else.

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Mid-Spring on the Line

I’m not kidding: Wednesday was windy. A perfect drying day.

It was like winning the lottery: I was almost out of underwear, laundry needed to be done, and Wednesday — two-for-one day at the Airport Laundromat — dawned bright and very breezy.

Off I went, a little later than usual: the laundromat opens at 8 a.m., and Trav and I got there a little after 8:30. “Late” didn’t matter: everything was dry by 2:30, even the jeans. Not only was everything dry, even the wrinkly T-shirts et al. looked like they’d been ironed.

No, I don’t iron T-shirts. I don’t iron anything. I do own an iron, but the last time I used it was the last time I rode in a horse show — at least eight years ago.

Spring is most definitely here. The first shadbush blossoms appeared in the woods a few days ago. Now they’re in full bloom, floating ethereally in the woods before the oaks leaf out and overwhelm them.

And the grass seems more blindingly green than usual. Spring always comes as a jolt to senses grown both keen and complacent with winter, but really, this grass is green. We’ve had a fair amount of rain this spring, so I’m wondering if that’s it.

Wednesday’s laundry line was a typical mid-spring mix: turtlenecks shoulder to shoulder with T-shirts, both long-sleeved and short-; one sweater and one sweatshirt; only three pairs of longjohns (once I take them off for the season, I hate to put them back on again); five pairs of jeans; no shorts.

I’m wearing shorts at the moment, but with a long-sleeved mock turtleneck on top. Come to think of it, this is a mid-spring combination.

The Airport Laundromat isn’t a very social place. Often I’m the only do-it-yourself customer; the women who work there are busy doing laundry that’s been dropped off by individuals and businesses (the quantity of bed and table linens suggests that restaurants and inns are well represented among the clientele). But the word about two-fer Wednesday seems to have gotten around, and I generally have more company — and more competition for the machines — on Wednesdays than on other days.

I did run into a friend, who passed along the word that the West Tisbury planning board was going to take up the matter of “big houses” at its regular meeting next Monday at 5:30. As a source of gossip and local news, the laundromat is no match for the post office or the porch of Alley’s General Store, but it has its uses.

Long and short on an early May laundry line. You can see the OMG GOP WTF T-shirt I wore to the Boston Women’s March on January 21. January is NOT T-shirt weather in Massachusetts, but it was warm enough that day to wear a T over a turtleneck, so I did.




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April License Plate Report

A pretty good month, all in all: Oregon, Georgia, Indiana, and New Mexico. The gaps are filling in. Now I’m on the lookout for Washington state and the Carolinas, all of which are running late this year. Delaware is often the last East Coast state to show up, but now’s the time for them too.

The other day I got all excited because I was behind a pickup with Oklahoma plates at the four-way near the Oak Bluffs fire station. When I got home, I realized Oklahoma was already on the map: my first sighting was on a rental truck parked in a loading zone in Edgartown.

Rental trucks never seem quite legit because they’re usually here by coincidence — the driver might have rented the vehicle in New York or New Jersey and have no connection whatever to the state whose plate the truck is sporting. I count them anyway, but seeing a relatively scarce plate on a bona fide personal vehicle makes it real.

I just noticed that once again I’ve omitted to put D.C. on the map, though I’ve seen more than one D.C. plate in the last few months. I’ll add D.C. in May.

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Rise Again

Excuses first: In Write Through It, my other blog, I took on the 2017 A–Z Challenge: to blog thematically through the alphabet, starting with A on April 1 and ending with Z at the end of the month. To make it come out right, you got Sundays off (except for the last one). I met the challenge, and am pretty satisfied with my output, but From the Seasonally Occupied Territories languished in the meantime. Now I’m back. If you have any interest in writing or editing, do check out Write Through It: On Writing, Editing, and How to Keep Going.


Starter jar

At the very beginning of April, or maybe it was the very end of March, I committed a Big Stupid. I bake all my own bread. For the last seven or eight years, nearly all of it has been sourdough. I keep a starter going in my refrigerator.

The drill goes like this:

  • In the morning, take starter jar out of fridge, pour contents into big bread bowl, add cup of flour and about a cup and a half of warm water, whisk together, cover with towel, and leave out all day.
  • In the evening, when doubled starter looks bubbly, pour a cup of it back into jar and return it to fridge.
  • Add other ingredients to what remains in bread bowl — liquid, sweetener, oil, and enough flour to make a batter — mix well together, and leave out all night.
  • The next morning, or when batter is well risen (in cool weather this can be closer to noon), mix in desired additions (raisins, nuts, chopped onions, grated Parmesan, whatever), salt, and however much flour it takes to make a kneadable dough, knead, let rise till doubled, then bake.

Pouring half of doubled starter back into starter jar

My Big Stupid? I forgot to double the starter before I started mixing up the batter. It’s said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it seems old dogs can learn new tricks without being taught, because in more than 30 years of using a sourdough starter I’d never done this before.

When I caught myself, I’d already added applesauce, water, and vegetable oil. My starter wasn’t starter anymore. I went ahead and made bread with it.

Over the years I’d given cups of starter to a couple of friends, so I contacted them to see if they had kept it going. If they had, they could double it and give me a cup, whereupon I’d be back in business. But they hadn’t.

I had, however, managed to start a starter from scratch before — when the starter I’d kept going for about 25 years died of neglect. (Aside: “And Will Rise? Notes on Lesbian Extinction,” my essay based on that experience, appeared in Trivia 10 and is still available online.) So I set to it, again following the instructions in Floss and Stan Dworkin’s Bake Your Own Bread, one of my two favorite bread books (the other is Beard on Bread).

 Step #1

In a small bowl, mix up a cup of reconstituted skim milk from the dried skim milk that had been in my cupboard for god knows how long — probably since my last adventure in starter starting at least seven years ago — cover it with waxed paper, and leave it in an out-of-the-way place. (In take 2, I discovered that skim milk from the store works just as well.)

Step #2

Wait. The Dworkins say the milk will smell sour, but the decisive sign for me is that the milk becomes a custardy semi-solid. My apartment in early April is on the cool side, which probably explains why this took several days.

Step #3

Pour the custardy milk into a somewhat bigger (but not too big) bowl, whisk in a cup of unbleached white flour, and put it back in your out-of-the-way place.

Step #4

Wait. The milk-and-flour mixture’s job is to attract wild yeast from the air. Your job is to wait till yeast is in residence. When bubbles appear in the batter, you’ve probably got yeast. Like the curdling, this seems to take longer in a cool room than a warm one. If your mixture turns blue or green, what you’ve got in residence is mold, not yeast. Throw it out and start again.

Bubbly batter

At this point, I thought I was home free, so I doubled my new starter and began a new batch of bread. However, the batter did not rise noticeably overnight the way it usually does. It had bubbles, but it wasn’t especially bubbly. Was this due to the coolness of my apartment or was the wild yeast too weak to raise my batter? I left it out another day and a half. At the same time, hedging my bets, I repeated Step #1, this time using store-bought skim milk.

Lacking confidence in my wild yeast, I sprinked a scant half tablespoon of active dry yeast on the batter before I added the rest of the ingredients, kneaded it, and made two loaves out of it.

O me of little faith! When I bit into my new loaf, the telltale tang told me at once that wild yeast were in residence and my starter was sour. Whether it was peppy enough to raise bread on its own I wasn’t sure. Hence —

Step #5 (optional)

I poured the starter out of its jar and back into a bowl, fed it a heaping spoonful of flour, and returned it to the out-of-the-way place (on top of the Rinnai heater behind my desk, in case you’re wondering), which it now shared with starter #2, which seemed to be coming along fine. For two or three days I fed starter #1 a spoonful of flour each day, along with enough water to maintain its consistency (more liquid than batter). By this point I was sure: the starter was rising up the sloping side of the bowl.

Now I had two starters. A single home baker does not need two starters. I made pancakes with starter #2, saving a cup of the starter just in case.

Sourdough pancakes

Starter #1 (right) and starter #2

Saturday morning I commenced the real test of starter #1, going back to step #1 (and remembering to double the starter this time).

Sunday morning, when I peeked under the towel that covered my bread bowl, I knew starter #1 had what it took. The batter had risen well up the sides of my bread bowl, just the way it was supposed to.

Risen batter

Before 2:30 p.m. three perfect loaves were cooling on their racks. (In my experience, sourdough takes longer to raise bread than active dry yeast, but the time was on target for this time of year.) In this case, the proof isn’t in the pudding; it’s in the bread.

Ready to rise



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March License Plate Report

You wouldn’t have trusted a report I posted on April Fool’s Day, right? And yesterday was another one of those ridiculously crowded Sundays: We Stand Together at 1, Messiah rehearsal at 2:30, campaign mailing at Richard’s at 4, and writers’ group at 7. Between #3 and #4, I nipped home to go walking with Trav and print out my pages for writers’ group. My big regret was having to leave Richard’s before the pizza was ready. Serious bummer. I’m doing my first-ever stint as an election worker from 4 to 8 p.m. in the town election on April 13 and I’m told pizza is one of the perks. No way am I leaving early.

As predicted last month, Pennsylvania did show up in March. My other predictions — “D.C., both Carolinas, Georgia, Oregon, and maybe Washington state” — weren’t worth the ether they were printed on. However, the March haul was respectable enough. Idaho was outside the West Tisbury post office, attached to a pickup that was attached to a long flat trailer hauling lumber. I spotted Kentucky in the airport’s long-term parking lot while doing laundry last week. I can’t remember where I saw Wisconsin, but I did see more than one of them.

Unlike March 2016, with its record-breaking 12 sightings, this March wasn’t exactly spectacular, but the year-to-date total is currently 24, only 3 behind last year’s pace. Not bad.

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Candidates’ Night

There are only two contested races on West Tisbury’s town election ballot, and so far the buzz is not exactly overwhelming, but the turnout for Candidates’ Night on Wednesday was respectable enough.

The event was organized and moderated by the League of Women Voters. The time-keeper sat in the front row with two signs, one announcing a one-minute warning and the other (red, of course) saying STOP. Candidates in contested races were allotted five minutes each, those in uncontested race got three, and no limit was imposed either on questions from the audience or the responses to them.

Candidates spoke in the order their offices are listed on the ballot. Those running unopposed gave a capsule description of what their jobs were about, which made the evening a short version of the “What Makes West Tisbury Tick?” forum that was held in the same room in early February.

Dan Waters, unopposed candidate for moderator, led off. As the one who runs town meetings, the moderator is one of the most visible town officials.

Dan had never expected to hold the office: his predecessor, Pat Gregory, first elected in 1991, seemed tailor-made for the job. Then in May 2014, just a month after town meeting, the whole town was shocked by news of Pat’s murder while he was hiking in California.

So Dan — artist, poet, printer, muscian — stepped up to the plate and was elected to the position that fall. Part of his self-education for the job involved watching videos of 11 town meetings that Pat conducted. His main task is, he noted, “to make sure that everyone feels free to get up and speak,” especially newcomers to town, new voters, and anyone daunted by the prospect of speaking before 300+ of their townsfolk.

One of the two contested races this year is for selectman. In West Tisbury, as in many New England towns, town meeting is, in effect, the legislature and the board of selectmen is, more or less, the executive. In a year there’s always one annual town meeting and maybe one or two specials. The three-member board of selectmen meets weekly. It’s not hard to figure out that much of the day-to-day business of running the town falls to the selectmen. Selectmen are elected for a three-year term, and one seat comes open each year. Turnover is not great, and contested elections are not all that common. This year incumbent Richard Knabel is being challenged by Kent Healy, a civil engineer who’s served the town in various capacities.

At the table, candidates for selectman Richard Knabel (left) and Kent Healy.

In the interest of full, or semi-full disclosure, I have to say that I’m not remotely neutral in this one. I like Kent Healy, but I’m also on Richard’s small but valiant campaign committee. So I’m not going to go into the blow-by-blow of who said what — just read whatever campaign literature comes your way.

Katherine Triantafillou, running for re-election to the finance committee, spoke about what the fincom does: basically they review every article that appears on the town meeting warrant, and if it involves spending money (as many warrant articles do), they examine its implications for the rest of the town budget and the tax rate. Gary Montrowl, also running for re-election, wasn’t able to be present. Since there are two seats open, they’ll both be re-elected.

There followed unopposed candidates for the board of assessors (Maria McFarland), tax collector (Brent Taylor, represented by a written statement), and town clerk (Tara Whiting).

The other contested race on the ballot is for library trustee, where three candidates are vying for two slots. Candidate Rob Hauck spoke for himself, and a statement from candidate Wendy Nierenberg was read to those assembled. They both sounded well qualified for the job. I’d heard some interesting stories about why the third candidate was running, but that individual neither appeared nor sent a statement so I’m no wiser than I was at the beginning. I believe I’ll vote for the other two. This race did elicit the (to me) most interesting factoid of the evening: 85% of West Tisbury’s residents have library cards. Yay us!

Town clerk Tara Whiting oversees all aspects of elections and issues dog licenses, among several other duties. She’s running unopposed this year.

Next came the Parks and Recreation Committee and the Planning Board, and the town’s representative to the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission. Binnie Ravitch is running for the latter. Vote for her.

John Powers, the town’s retired former health agent, hadn’t known exactly what the constable’s duties were, but he did know that of the town’s two constables, one had retired and the other moved to another town. Turns out the constable mainly serves at the direction of the town clerk, helping oversee elections. It’s the constable who sits by the imposing ballot box at the polls and makes sure that it’s only one ballot per voter. So John decided to run, and since he’s unopposed it looks like he’ll be elected.

No one was there to make a presentation about either of the two ballot questions — one resolves to ban moped rentals in town and the other is a non-binding referendum about whether to establish a housing bank to support affordable housing. So we adjourned a little early and went into the night at the still-respectable hour of 8:20.

NB: You find find out almost anything you want to know about West Tisbury town government, including the Annual Town Meeting warrant, at the town website. To find out other stuff, you could hang out on Alley’s porch, at the library, or in the post office parking lot and listen to people talk.

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