Against Perfectionism

On January 30 I finally did the deed: I changed my voter registration from Unenrolled to Democrat. Written confirmation from the town clerk’s office was dated the 31st.

party-registration

A very small step for a woman, so it seems, but to me it was a pretty big deal. Once I’d decided in principle that the time had come, I still had to do that little dance you do along the shoreline to avoid getting your feet wet: Approach, jump back, approach, jump back . .

Background: Massachusetts is an open primary state. This means that in primary elections an Unenrolled voter can take the ballot of any party, cast her vote, and go back to being Unenrolled when she walks out of the polling place. It is possible, in other words, to hedge your bets — to vote with the Democrats without actually being one.

I came of political age at the tail end of the civil rights movement and in the heyday of the movement against the Vietnam War. In the early 1970s I was involved in student politics of various kinds. By the end of that decade, I was immersed in grassroots feminist organizing, with a focus on the Women in Print movement. Electoral politics and political parties were off on the peripheries somewhere.

Before 2016, I’d been deeply involved in one, only one, political campaign: the campaign to ratify the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment in 1976. It was a feminist thing, not a Democrat-Republican thing.

And that’s where my reluctance to associate formally with any existing political party originally came from: my feminism. The left-right spectrum derives from traditional western political thinking, and “traditional” here means “dominated and defined by men.” Feminism is, among other things, a lens through which to examine those traditions. It does not fit neatly on the left-right spectrum. If there had been a feminist party, I might have signed up, but there wasn’t.

Over the years, however, it did not escape my notice that feminist and feminist-friendly candidates generally ran as Democrats and that the Republican Party was year by year becoming more anti-feminist and often blatantly misogynist. At the same time, the Democratic Party of the Bill Clinton years made me wary. Bill Clinton was the first winning presidential candidate I’d ever voted for, and the experience left such a sour taste in my mouth that I was still holding it against Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Trav and I found ourselves in Nashua, N.H., not long before the 2012 election.

Trav and I found ourselves in Nashua, N.H., not long before the 2012 election.

I enthusiastically supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. In 2012, Elizabeth Warren became the first political candidate whose campaign I made a recurring monthly contribution to. I was thrilled when she won. Her emails invariably end with “Thank you for being part of this,” and each time I get one I murmur, “You are so welcome.”

Why not take the plunge and register as a Democrat? Inertia was part of it, but there was something else: call it perfectionism. Organizations of any kind tend to be messy and cacophonous. Their goals and principles may be inspiring and beautiful, but the struggle to make them real never is. Compromises must be made. You can’t always get what you want. For a perfectionist, any flaw can be a deal-breaker.

Then along came 2016. Not since 1976 — 40 years ago! — have I been so involved in electoral politics. I blogged about it often enough (search on the tag “election 2016” if you’re interested in what I wrote), but only gradually did it become apparent to me how my involvement was making me think and rethink my aloofness from electoral politics. If 2016 taught me one thing, it’s this:

Perfectionism is a killer.

We’re drowning in “what went wrong” postmortems of the election just past, but this one deserves more attention. This was the year of the outsider, so runs the conventional wisdom, but what is it that made these outsiders so attractive?

They were unsullied by practical, real-world experience in government. They could present compellingly attractive (to their respective supporters) ideas with only the sketchiest of plans on how to achieve them.

Practical, real-world experience was redefined as a liability. In the real world, people don’t get to have it their way every time. They take positions that we don’t like. They even (gasp) make mistakes. And for perfectionists, every one of those mistakes and positions becomes a deal-breaker — a reason to sit out the election, or vote for a third-party candidate simon-purer than anyone with a chance of winning.

Since November 9, and especially since January 20, we’ve been face to face with the logical outcome of that perfectionism: the 45th president is the most monumentally unqualified ever to hold the office.

Gradually it dawned on me that my rage at Sanders, Sanders supporters, and (especially) third-party voters stemmed from what I had in common with them: perfectionism. That reluctance, that squeamishness, that horror of sullying my own hands and ideas with the compromises of the real world.

So I finally registered as a Democrat. Less than two weeks later, I found myself secretary of the Martha’s Vineyard Democrats, a sort of umbrella organization for Democrats from the six island towns. I was doing my little dance along the shoreline — approach, jump back, approach, jump back — then a wave came up stronger than I expected and suddenly I was in it up to my knees.

The 2016 election results were disastrous, but if there’s one good thing to be said about disasters it’s that they generally swamp all the fastidious qualms that come with perfectionism. That’s what seems to be happening now. May it continue, and may we learn from the experience.

 

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Remembering the Ferry Islander

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Originally posted on MV Obsession:
February 2007, exactly 10 years ago was the last time I sailed on the Islander.. Even though not sleek or graceful, for 57 years the Islander brought her own special beauty to the waters surrounding…

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Small Town Nuts & Bolts

handout-coverOne of the few good things to come out of last November’s presidential election results is a renewed interest in how government works, or is supposed to work, and how we can go about influencing it most effectively. So Saturday morning at the West Tisbury library, my town and the League of Women Voters presented a forum on how our town government works.

In the six towns of Martha’s Vineyard, as in most small towns across Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England, “we the people” are, in effect, the legislature. Each spring we assemble for the annual town meeting (ATM — not to be confused with automatic money dispensers; although dispensing money is always involved at an ATM, it’s rarely automatic). Between one year’s ATM and the next, we may also be summoned to a special town meeting (STM) or two. Town meeting approval is required before money can be spent or bylaws enacted.

Between ATMs the work of the town is conducted by boards, committees, and assorted officials. The “What Makes West Tisbury Tick?” handout that each of us found on our chair provides short descriptions of the major boards, committees, and offices, along with a handy organizational chart. Here’s what our town government looks like on paper:

town-chart

selectmen at town meeting

Town officials onstage at a special town meeting, November 2013. Starting 2nd from left: town administrator Jen Rand; selectmen Cindy Mitchell, Richard Knabel, and (standing) Skipper Manter, and town counsel Ron Rappaport.

The three-member board of selectmen serves as the town’s executive branch. They and all the officials (among them the town clerk and the tax collector) and members of other boards and committees (including the finance committee, the planning board, and town representatives on the Land Bank Commission and the Dukes County Commission) named above them are elected directly by the voters. Everyone in the boxes below is appointed or hired by the selectmen. Openings on those boards and committees are advertised in the paper and posted at town hall and on the town website.

Looks pretty complicated for a town with a year-round population of 3,151, doesn’t it? The upside is that there are lots of ways for citizens to get involved in running the town. To participate in town meeting, the only requirement is that you be registered to vote, and any citizen can petition to have an article included on the town meeting warrant.

Citizens can even call a special town meeting, but the number of signatures required for that is higher: either 200 or 10 percent of the town’s registered voters, whichever is less. The caveat here is that a quorum — 5 percent of the registered voters — is required before business can be transacted at any town meeting, and quorums are generally harder to obtain for a “special” than for the ATM.

Deadlines for filing petitions and nomination papers are included in the “What Makes West Tisbury Tick?” handout. A word to the wise, especially those prone to procrastinate: Since spring is town meeting and town election season, the deadlines range from “imminent” (the ATM warrant closes tomorrow, February 7) to “soon” (nomination papers have to be filed by March 10).

Julius Lowe, one of the younger speakers at the forum, was looking for a way to get involved when he was appointed to the zoning board of appeals (ZBA) three years ago. Asked about the time commitment, he noted that the ZBA meets weekly for one to two hours, and there are written proposals to catch up on between meetings. “Any board is a good starting point,” he said, if you’re looking to get involved.

Poet-artist-musician Dan Waters agreed. A person may start in one place and move to another as opportunities arise and interests evolve. A longtime library trustee, Dan is now the town moderator, the guy who runs our town meetings with tact and a firm grasp of parliamentary procedure. Is this a paid position? someone asked. “I get $250 a year,” he said.

Several other town officials were present to explain what they do and answer questions from the audience. Many of the questions suggested that the askers wanted to get more involved and were trying to figure out how to do it. How much does it cost to run for an elected office? The responses ranged from “nothing” to selectman Richard Knabel’s estimate of $3,000+. It depends on the office, whether the election is contested or not, and if it is, whether one is running against an incumbent.

Why do candidates so often run unopposed? The question was asked and the answers, all apt, ranged from lack of time to distaste for elections in general to the nominal compensation for many elected officials. The selectmen receive $5,000 a year. This is a part-time job, but it’s not that part-time. If that sum were divided by the number of hours each selectman puts in, the hourly rate would almost certainly be well below minimum wage.

And why in particular do incumbents so often run unopposed? One fellow remarked that running against an incumbent shouldn’t be a big deal. True enough in theory, but in practice? On Martha’s Vineyard, as in many small jurisdictions, politics are not only local, they’re personal. To run against an incumbent can affect one’s relationship not only with that person but with his or her friends, colleagues, and, especially, relatives.

The same goes for any stand taken in public. Vineyarders are inclined to be liberal when it comes to issues “out there,” but we’re rather more conservative when our complicated interpersonal relationships — “community,” in a word — are in play.

Toward the end of the forum, Tristan Israel, longtime selectman from Tisbury (the town up the road from which West Tisbury was created in 1892), noted that town politics aren’t about Democrats and Republicans. Town elections are nonpartisan; if a candidate has a party affiliation, it isn’t mentioned on the ballot.

This is true, and it’s why I think we’d all benefit from knowing more about how local government works, at least by observing occasional board and committee meetings and participating in town meeting. Dealing with the “nuts & bolts” of governance puts polarizing rhetoric in perspective. The day-to-day job of keeping the town ticking requires patience, tact, and flexibility. Guiding principles are essential, but if they aren’t grounded in the real world, the real work will bring them down to earth PDQ.

Even in a town the size of West Tisbury from the outside it’s easy to see town government as a closed shop, as “the establishment.” In reality it’s less monolithic and more porous than that. Same goes for the state and federal level. Government at all levels is made up of myriad boards, committees, elected and appointed officials, and the citizens who choose to interact with them. Be wary of the stump speaker who tries to tell you different.

 

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January License Plate Report

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After the very slim pickings of fall, January’s bounty is welcome indeed. This January’s tally of 16 isn’t great — anything less than 20 is nothing to brag about — but it sure beats last January’s 13.

The unexpectedly early birds are Colorado, Arizona, and Iowa, #8, #9, and #16, respectively. Last year they were #24, #31, and #37. A couple of days ago I was standing in line at the Vineyard Haven post office, which has a floor-to-ceiling window with parked cars on the other side. The non-Massachusetts plate was blue like Connecticut’s, but after staring at it an extra second I realized the blue was too light. So I stepped to one side so I could read the name: IOWA!

Iowa didn’t show up till August last year. I’m also sure I’ve seen at least two different Arizonas. No idea what that means.

Maine was the last of the New England states to appear. That was true last year too.

In order of sighting: Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Virginia, California, Colorado, Arizona, New Hampshire, Maryland, Rhode Island, Ohio, Florida, Maine, and Iowa.

For the record, the haul for January 2016: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, New Hampshire, California, Rhode Island, Vermont, Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, and Maine.

Pretty similar, eh? Tennessee was the outlier last year. Texas will almost surely be along soon, and (I’m predicting but not betting) Pennsylvania, Oregon, and North Carolina.

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Women March

As the plans for the Women’s March on Washington began to coalesce shortly after the election, I kept the whole thing at arm’s length: It’s a huge diversion of energy from the work we have to do. Let’s wait till he does something really outrageous. Oh god, one more thing for feminists and progressives to trash each other about.

And, of course, “been there, done that.” I lived in DC during some of the biggest antiwar marches of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I marched, I marshalled, and/or I was involved in housing and feeding demonstrators coming into town from elsewhere. I marched for the ERA in 1978 and for gay and lesbian rights in 1979. I think my most recent big march was the 1993 national march for lesbian and gay rights. It was huge. I was living on Martha’s Vineyard by then, so this was one of the few mass demonstrations that I had to travel to.

The following weeks kindled my enthusiasm. The Trump administration was shaping up to be every bit as bad as we’d imagined, and in some ways we hadn’t considered. Planning for the D.C. march metastasized into planning for marches and actions across the country and around the world.

flyer-englishMaybe most decisive, in mid-November I attended “We Stand Together / Estamos Juntos,” a rally in Waban Park. Trump’s election, it turned out, had catalyzed an organizing effort right here on Martha’s Vineyard, and it was already having practical results. This was new. And like the prayer vigil I attended in July and the march in support of Black Lives Matter that followed a few days later, it drew in people who hadn’t been publicly involved before, or not for a long time.

I remembered being an 18-year-old college freshman, standing on Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, on November 15, 1969, with my yellow marshal’s armband on, watching a million people come pouring down the avenue from the Capitol, heading for the White House. It took my breath away the way the ocean takes my breath away. This is what “we the people” looks like.

Me and my pussyhat

Me and my pussyhat

So almost against my will, the determination, the optimism, sucked me further and further in. I followed the emerging plans for a march in Boston. The logistics of getting to Washington were too daunting. Boston could be done in a day. Travvy could stay home alone. On Thursday my neighbor gave me my very own pussyhat. She and her two daughters were leaving for D.C. in the morning.

So yesterday morning I got up at 5. Trav and I went for our usual walk, but in the total pitch-dark. When he started pulling at the leash on the bike path, I hoped there wasn’t a skunk up ahead: If you get skunked, I thought, you’re going to stink all day, but if I get skunked I can’t go to the march.

Neither of us got skunked. I did realize that I need a stronger flashlight.

About 6:40 am, I parked Malvina Forester on Spring Street. Walking down to the ferry terminal I saw several telltale bumper stickers. I wondered if they were going to the march.

Several people waiting in line for boat tickets had signs leaning against their legs and buttons on their jackets. I saw several people I knew.

The 7 am boat was packed with people I knew. So was the 8:05 bus, for which I was very happy to have made a reservation.

I didn’t have a reservation for the march itself, however. Participants were urged to register to help organizers estimate the turnout. I tried, but the process was at least as cumbersome as buying something online and it wasn’t required so I bailed. Besides, the idea of registering for a demonstration stuck in my old-school craw.

Whatever the reason, loads of people didn’t register. Everywhere the turnout seems to have far, far exceeded expectations. DailyKos is keeping track of the numbers as they come in. As I write, the estimate stands around 3.5 million worldwide. Check it out, and notice the incredible range of places where marches and demonstrations took place.

Last I looked, the Boston estimate was 175,000. I believe it. Boston Common wasn’t quite wall-to-wall people, but it came pretty close. It took so long for the throngs to funnel into the beginning of the march route that many of us — including the group I was with — never actually marched. Go online and check out the photos from the various demos. Read some of the signs. The whole thing is amazing.

Neither my digital camera nor my Flip camcorder was working, sad to say. They both got dunked in overflow water from a potted plant. The Flip has recovered. The camera is showing some signs of life but isn’t working yet.

Well, the upshot is that I came home exhilarated and, believe it or not, hopeful about the years to come. Much of my pessimism about the just-commenced Reign of Trump stems from my deep-seated fears that “the left” — basically anyone who’s disgusted by what the Republicans have become in the last three decades — will not be able to get it together to mitigate and undo the damage done and to start moving forward again. So why am I more optimistic now?

  • The Women’s March on Everywhere was a huge undertaking. It came together in a relatively short period of time: barely two months. This was the result of goddamn hard work from the bottom up and the top down. Everything from getting permits to organizing buses and mounting and updating websites to keep people informed. Many people were doing this work for the first time, learning by the seat of their pants, working with people they’d never worked with before. This bodes very well for the future.
  • The Boston march was more multi-generational than anything I’ve been to before. Stories got shared, of organizing and activism across movements and decades. People of all ages were going to their very first demo. The first one is usually the scariest. When you don’t know what to expect, the what-ifs can be overwhelming. If you’ve done it once, it’s easier to do it again.
  • Seeing each other in person, in the flesh, is as exhilarating as it was when 18-year-old me watched all that humanity pouring down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1969. Social media and online communication are wonderful, but there’s nothing like being physically present to each other. One thing I loved: We were pressed shoulder to shoulder all over Boston Common, but when people had to get through, as they often did, the crowd made way, sort of like the Red Sea.
  • This is what democracy looks like. #StrongerTogether. Watching the Trump administration roll into office, acting as if it had a real mandate for its terrible agenda, has made me fear that maybe they do have a mandate for their terrible agenda. Now I know in my heart that they don’t.

I’ve been hearing a lot of gloom-and-doomery lately, mostly from white guys. “Democracy is dead” they cry at every outrageous act of the Trump transition team, the Trump administration, and the congressional GOP. “Only if they get away with it,” I’ve been saying, secretly fearing that they will get away with it because we can’t muster the will and the strength to stop them. Now I know better.

#StrongerTogether

Yes we can.

 

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Office Hours

se-mass-mapGetting around the Barnstable Dukes Nantucket house district is a challenge. If you don’t live here, or even if you do, check out the map.

Barnstable Dukes Nantucket comprises Nantucket County (surprise!); the County of Dukes County (no kidding, that’s its official name; this is Martha’s Vineyard plus the string of islands southwest of Woods Hole, which do not contain many voters); and the sliver of Barnstable County that stretches up the west side of that peninsula with Woods Hole at the end of it. That sliver, including Woods Hole, is part, but not all, of Falmouth.

Yes, the three parts of the district look close together from the air, but if you’re on the ground you can’t help noticing that there are no roads between them. If you’re well-heeled or in a big hurry you can fly from one to another. Most of us take the boat.

Our new state representative, Dylan Fernandes, lives in Falmouth but is no stranger to the islands. In December, midway between the election and his swearing-in on January 4, he made a “listening tour” of the whole district. His two Vineyard stops were at the Chilmark library and the Oak Bluffs library. This past Saturday he came over to hold office hours at the West Tisbury library. (Have I said lately how indispensable the town libraries are to the community life of this island?)

I think of “office hours” as generally a one-to-one thing, especially where elected officials are concerned: individuals or small groups come to make a case, ask questions, present a problem, and generally make themselves known to the person who’s representing their interests. I didn’t have a case to make, a question to ask, or a problem to present, and since I worked on his campaign, I’d already met Dylan, but I figured I’d go anyway, to say hi and see what was up.

Dylan Fernandes (left) and Kaylea Moore hold office hours at the West Tisbury library.

Dylan Fernandes (left) and Kaylea Moore hold office hours at the West Tisbury library.

Several of us sat around the table in one of the library’s downstairs conference rooms with Dylan and Vineyard legislative liaison Kaylea Moore. (When the representative from Barnstable Dukes Nantucket doesn’t live on the Vineyard, which has been the case ever since the Vineyard lost its own representative when the state house of representatives was reduced in size from 240 to 160 in the late 1970s, he — so far it’s always been a he — generally hires a part-time legislative liaison who lives on the island and helps him keep in touch.) It was, in a word, educational. Here’s a sampling of what came up.

Nip bottles. Those one-shot hard-liquor bottles that are so visible in roadside trash because they make it easy to drink while driving and even easier to toss out the window when you’re done. Beer and soda containers are relatively rare because the 5¢ deposit required since the commonwealth passed its bottle bill in 1976 makes them worth hanging on to or worth picking up. The liquor industry, including retailers, is of course dead set against expanding the bottle bill to include nips or anything else. This discussion also touched on the risks one takes when one becomes identified with a cause on the Vineyard, or anywhere else.

See what I mean? Nip bottles weren’t on my political radar at all, even though I see some every day by the side of the road, but two key points came up in the brief discussion: (1) Powerful interests line up against even the most modest change if they think it threatens them; and (2) Sticking your neck out is risky in a small town or neighborhood where everyone’s got their eye on everyone else.

This came up again when the talk turned to affordable housing, a bedrock issue across the district. Making more affordable housing available takes money, lots of it. Attempts to raise the funds by creating a housing bank or by including housing in such existing agencies as the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank inevitably run into vociferous and well-funded opposition from the real estate industry. They’ve been blocking efforts on Nantucket even though the Nantucket proposal would only affect houses that go for more than $2 million.

Impending repeal of the Affordable Care Act or parts of it. The general feeling was that Massachusetts is relatively well positioned to deal with it because it hasn’t participated in the insurance exchanges that have been problematic in other states.

Ticks and tick-borne diseases. I already knew that proposals have been made to add a two-week shotgun deer season in January. Deer-hunting season runs from November 1 through December 31, but the part of it that keeps me out of the woods is the almost-two-week shotgun season that begins the Monday after Thanksgiving. I’ve been somewhat skeptical of plans to extend the hunting season in the name of curbing Lyme and other tick diseases because, well, because gun lobby, but at the same time — having had my first deer-car collision this past October I’m edging toward the notion that reducing the island’s deer herd isn’t a bad idea.

A particularly dangerous stretch of road in West Tisbury that has gone undealt-with for years (like about a decade), apparently because the state Department of Transportation can’t decide whether the brook crossing involved is a bridge or a culvert. Whatever it is was designed more than a century ago for horses and buggies. The traffic using it now is considerably wider and faster and more than it was then.

State money allocated to “the Cape and Islands” rarely reaches either one of the islands. The phrase rolls trippingly off the tongue, but take another look at that map. Cape-based groups have been known to include one or both islands in their proposals without even notifying their island counterparts that it’s happening. So if the grant comes through we don’t hear about that either.

Dylan mentioned that criminal justice reform is a priority in the coming legislative session. I’m currently copyediting a book that deals with the need for this, but I didn’t realize that Massachusetts has a three-strikes law. These laws limit the discretion of judges and juries dealing with repeat offenders and come down hardest on poor people and people of color.

The above represents a small fraction of the problems and priorities being dealt with every day in the Barnstable Dukes Nantucket district, which comprises about 40,000 people, and on the Vineyard, whose year-round population is less than 20,000. If life in a small jurisdiction comprises this many layers of this many issues, how can anyone assume that the nation’s challenges can be met with a magic wand?

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Snowy Walk with Dog

I woke up to snow yesterday morning. Three inches of it at least, and still falling lightly. The water in Travvy’s outside dish hadn’t made it past the slush stage, but there was a pile of snow in the corner where the previous day’s ice disk was last seen so I excavated it very carefully. It had survived.

If the term “ice disk” elicits a quizzical look, check out “Ice in August” (2015) for a brief history and some samples.

Friday morning

Friday morning

Thursday afternoon

Thursday afternoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

The slush suggested that the night hadn’t been all that cold, but temperature had dropped enough to make the snow light and fluffy. Martha’s Vineyard is often on the rain side of the snow line: the Cape and the rest of southeastern New England get snow and we get rain or freezing rain. Not this time.

Snow is much more fun to walk in than freezing rain. It transforms my familiar walking routes into something new, so of course I packed my camera.

On Pine Hill, I tucked the handle of Travvy’s retractable leash between my knees and pulled my camera from my hip pocket. The leash was almost fully extended, but Trav was engaged in pawing and sniffing so I figured I had time to get focused.

Wrong. Trav picked that moment to come barreling up the path, which wrapped the leash three-quarters of the way around my knees. Fortunately the resulting tug was enough to stop him but not enough to knock me over.

Was this a photo bomb by a malamute who noticed the camera was not pointing at him? Whatever it was, it got him into the picture. Two of them. You don’t have to look too closely to see that I Photoshopped the leash out of the pictures.

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Further on, I stopped several times to take pictures of trees. I love pictures of trees with snow on them.

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No more photo bombs by Trav, but I took another picture of him anyway. This is how he looks when I stop to talk with a neighbor and the talking goes on for a while. Taking photos of trees fits into the same category. He knows he’s got to wait it out.

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There’s more snow in the forecast for this afternoon and evening. Maybe a lot of it. We’ll see.

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Beginner

Once upon a time I must have made New Year’s resolutions. Who hasn’t? I doubt I kept many of them. Who does? It’s a cliché how much exercise equipment winds up in the classifieds by the first of February.

I did make one resolution as an adult. I think it was for New Year 2002. I must have had 300 second- or third-draft manuscript pages of The Mud of the Place by that point, but I’d never successfully completed anything longer than 40 pages and I was sure I was going to choke before I finished this one. My resolution? I will work on it every day until it’s done.

And I did. Some days I was so terrified that the thing had turned to crap when I wasn’t looking that I wouldn’t open the Word file till five minutes to midnight. Whereupon I would realize to my astonishment that my ms. wasn’t the crap I’d been thinking all day that it had to be. Thus reassured, I’d then tinker, revise, or write for at least half an hour before I went to to bed.

A couple of decades before that, in my D.C. days, a friend confided that on New Year’s Day she made a list of all the things she’d done for the first time in the preceding year.

I loved this. I grew up with a perfectionist father who was forever ridiculing my mother for getting her facts wrong and supporting insupportable positions. I learned early on that it wasn’t safe to make mistakes. I learned to get my facts straight and make coherent arguments. I’m still pretty good at it.

Trouble is, it’s hard to learn anything new if you don’t dare make mistakes. The list of projects I dropped or never started for fear of looking stupid is very, very long. See why I loved my friend’s idea? Ever since it’s been my way of giving myself credit for overriding the voice in my head that’s sure I’ll get ridiculed, ostracized, or trashed for looking like a klutz.

So here’s one thing I started in 2016: learning to play the guitar. As a teenager I was insanely jealous of my friends who could play the guitar. I had fantasies of going to bed and waking up a guitar virtuoso without ever having to be a beginner. It didn’t happen.

Guitar takes a break.

Guitar takes a break.

This is actually my second attempt. Ten years ago, with huge trepidation, I took a free intro guitar course offered by a local musician. You’re right to be suspicious of my excuses for not keeping up with it, but in that first attempt I did acquire a guitar, the Rise Up Singing book (which has the lyrics and chords to at least half the songs I ever knew in my life, and plenty more besides),  and enough competence to accompany myself on a few songs.

This fall I heard that a free intro course was being offered at the West Tisbury library. I signed up. My fledgling skills had long since faded, along with the hard-won calluses on my left fingertips. At the first class in November I couldn’t remember the fingering for a single chord.

Four classes in, I’m still at it, practicing every day. All the while my endlessly creative mind is inventing excuses for giving up.

My fingers are too short

My guitar’s neck is too wide.

My fingers can’t do that.

Half the people in the class aren’t really beginners.

The other half have more talent than I do.

I’ll never catch up.

I can’t change chords fast enough.

I will never be good enough to play in public.

At some point “My fingers won’t do that” progressed to “I can’t change chords fast enough.” Gotcha, girl; you’re making progress in spite of yourself. You’ve still got problems, but the problems are more advanced than they used to be.

Travvy and me at a Pam Dennison clinic in 2011.

Travvy and me at a Pam Dennison clinic in 2011.

This is a wonder. My short fingers can actually reach farther than they used to, all because I’ve been practicing.

When I was training Travvy all those years ago, we’d repeat a lesson over and over and over and I’d be sure we were getting nowhere, then all of a sudden he’d get it. He’d know something as if he’d always known it.

Seems like my fingers work the same way.

Part of the challenge is that I keep comparing my guitar playing to my writing and editing, which I’ve been doing for almost 40 years (editing) and more than 40 years (writing). I know writing and editing so well that I don’t know how I know it, and I don’t remember how I learned it.

I will never be that good at playing the guitar, or at doing anything else for that matter. But really it doesn’t matter. Starting from scratch is a good thing because it’s a good thing to fumble and feel like an idiot and realize that you’re getting better.

 

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Year-End License Plate Report 2016

201611-nov-license-map

In the license-plate-spotting department, 2016, a nasty year in so many ways, was nothing to write home about. No end-of-year surprises. After Montana in October, there was nothing, period. Still AWOL as 2016 slipped into 2017 were Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota (surprise!), Nevada, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Hmm. That’s 10 states. Montana was #40. 10 + 40 = 50, but I always count D.C. so there should be 51. After counting back from 40 to see if I’d misnumbered, I realized that I hadn’t counted D.C. Now I’m really bummed.

However, 2017 is a new year. I’ve printed out a clean copy of the map and written “2017” at the top. The new year’s #2 plate is Vermont. You’ll never guess what #1 was.

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No Man Will Shake Me From This Land

An amazing meditation about place — maybe someday I’ll be able to write as well about New England and Martha’s Vineyard, but meanwhile this expresses so well why I know they’re crucial to my being.

GODS & RADICALS

The spirit of my people is wedded to this land.

The bones of my Ancestors lie in a small churchyard in rural Kentucky, a place without cell phone reception and filled with people who may have never seen a plane fly over their heads. There, among those secluded stones, rest nearly every one of my Kin that walked the clays, sand, and dirt we now label the United States.

Generation after generation, all brought to one place, and practically holding hands in union. I can remember setting eyes on it that first time, walking up a hill 860 miles from home to witness the collected essence of the streams my heart rowed upon.

My family is an old one, migrating from Germany to Pennsylvania in 1650, nearly fifty years before the Seminoles ever set foot in Florida. In one generation they moved to the hills of Kentucky, becoming farmers and…

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