The bike path in summer. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s coming.

Most mornings Travvy and I head out in the general direction of Old County Road and the bike path beyond it. We have three basic routes, all circular and all taking about an hour’s brisk walk to complete.

Sometimes, though, when I’ve got something to mail or I’ve run out of something that can’t wait till the next serious grocery run, we go in the opposite direction, toward the West Tisbury post office and up-island Cronig’s. This takes us through the Island Farms subdivision.

After trespassing alongside a house that’s deserted most of the year, and where a big pine that went down in one of the March nor’easters is still blocking the driveway, we come out across from a single-story house with a big garden on one side and goats and chickens out back. Trav is intrigued by the goats, and since the chickens do occasionally cross the short, dead-end road I keep an eye out.

The main event at this house, however, is always the dogs. There are two of them, medium size, short-haired, one brown, one brown and white. As soon as Trav and I come in sight, they start tearing back and forth along the perimeter of their invisible fence line. There are craters in the dirt at either end where they wheel and start back in the other direction, dodging around the considerable plantings en route.

They’re good-looking dogs. Until yesterday, I hadn’t given much thought to what breed they are, beyond surmising that if they belong to a breed, it’s probably the same one.

A few mornings ago, the brown one crossed the invisible fenceline onto the pavement and came at us teeth bared. I stood my ground, yelling — I’m pretty good at yelling — and the dog finally retreated to the yard. I should have reported this, I can see now, but every one of the dozens of times we’d walked by, the dogs had stayed on their side of the “fence.” So I thought it was a fluke.

In the front yard of the deserted house is a small deer family. Here Trav gets acquainted.

When Trav and I passed that way late yesterday morning, with Trav, as always, on a leash heeling at my side, both dogs crossed into the road snarling and barking and ambushed Trav from behind, knocking him down. One of them tried to sink its teeth into Trav’s hindquarters. I screamed bloody murder and charged at them, making them back off but not give up.

What I really didn’t want was Trav to start fighting back. A 10-year-old malamute against two apparently much younger and more aggressive dogs, and me hanging on to a four-foot leash — this could have been very ugly. Surely someone would hear me yelling and come out of the house?

No one did. I hope this meant no one was home. A guy did appear some ways up the road into the subdivision, ready to intervene — didn’t I say I’m pretty good at yelling? — but by then I’d managed to scare the two dogs back into their yard.

Trav scrambled to his feet. We moved out of range. He seemed OK, but when I cleared away some tufts of loose fur toward his tail I found a scrape that was bleeding slightly and what looked like the imprint of a tooth tip. Under a wet place on his side was a similar scrape.

On the return trip, I was on guard. I also wondered if Trav would be leery of passing within range of those dogs again. Did he get why those dogs who always raced back and forth barking so ferociously hadn’t come any closer, and why this time they had?

Trav trotted along on my right side while I gave strenuous warnings and the evil eye to the dogs on my left. We made it through.

When I got home, I called West Tisbury animal control to report the incident. I learned from ACO Tony Cordray that the commonwealth does not consider invisible fencing to be restraint. In other words, if you’re ordered to restrain your dog, invisible fencing alone will not meet the requirement. When I described how the two dogs had stayed in their yard dozens of times as we passed by, he said that the batteries in the collars that must be used with invisible fencing must eventually be replaced.

Tony also said that because the dogs had drawn blood, they would have to be quarantined. Even if they’ve had rabies shots? I asked. Apparently so: State law requires a 10-day quarantine for any dog or cat that bites or scratches another animal or a human. I ventured cautiously that I didn’t know, but I guessed the dogs might be pit bull mixes, hoping I wasn’t getting into canine profiling.

Then I posted a short account of the incident to the Islanders Talk group on Facebook, as a cautionary note both to those who use invisible fencing and to anyone in the Island Farms subdivision. Trav got a lot of sympathy, and I got some useful info about invisible fencing. One user commented that dogs who consistently run back and forth along the boundary line are not considered good candidates for invisible fencing. It was also suggested that other complaints had been made about those two dogs. Hmmmm . . .

I cleaned Trav’s wounds, thinking all the while that a smaller dog with much less fur could have been seriously injured in a similar attack. As the afternoon wore on, he growled when I stroked his left foreleg. He’s a growly dog under any circumstances, but these growls advanced to snarls, so I took them seriously. When we went out for our early evening walk, he favored that leg and didn’t want to go faster than a walk. We took a shorter and slower than usual stroll and returned to the apartment. He gamely made it up the stairs.

This morning he was back to normal, trotting along, bushy tail waving. It was a close call, but we’re both OK.

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April License Plate Report

I spotted NO new license plates in April. This may be a first for any month in the first half of the year. It is not one I want to repeat. So —

This afternoon, on my way home from the Mailroom in Edgartown (where I overnighted a hardcopy proofread back to a client) by way of Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs (where I bought a few staples I’d run out of, like brown sugar and maple syrup), I parked Malvina Forester in the hospital parking lot and took a stroll.

Exotic license plates are often to be found in the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital parking lots. This walkabout yielded Missouri and Iowa — good job! Reassured that May will not be the bust that April was, I can now get on with license-plate spotting on the road.

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Z is for Zoning #AtoZChallenge

When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985 I was as ignorant about zoning and land-use planning as I was about refuse disposal. (See “Unsustainable” for more about that.)

My education started PDQ: In January of my first winter, I attended a meeting of the West Tisbury planning board where what eventually became the Deep Bottom Pond subdivision was on the agenda. The place was packed. This gave me an unexpected partial answer to the perennial question “What do you people do in the winter?” The civic-minded among us turn out en masse for board meetings on hot topics!

Before the end of that month, my “Sonnets on a Planning Board Meeting” were an op-ed in the Vineyard Gazette. At the moment I’m particularly struck by these lines (emphasis added):

This dextrous wizardry cannot be stopped,
it seems that right is on his side. This plan
is like a demon called when no one can
inspire the strength to bind it. Who would opt
for rules finds rules are less than ribbons when
this monster must be bound. 

The rules are daunting, long and complex and written in legalese. It’s a rare annual town meeting that doesn’t at least tweak them in some way, sometimes after heated debate. Homeowners, builders, and, hey, just about everyone at some time or another complain about how picayune and restrictive they are, and how easily they can be amended or interpreted to suit particular needs. There’s plenty of truth in this, but the larger problem is the perception that while ordinary people must jump through hoop after hoop after hoop, anyone with enough money, time, and legal expertise can blow the hoops down and do whatever they want.

Martha’s Vineyard Commission hearing on the roundabout proposal, September 2011.

That perception is justified, even though deep pockets don’t always guarantee a win. During the fight against the roundabout in 2011–12, I attended enough Martha’s Vineyard Commission meetings to realize that deep pockets aren’t the only problem. Some of our elected officials seem all too ready to ignore both the letter and the spirit of the rules and regs when it suits them. (I blogged about the roundabout battle frequently. This blogsite’s search function — look over on the right — will return a bunch of hits. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.)

Zoning bylaws can have unintended and unforeseen effects. Suburban-style three-acre zoning has been disastrous in West Tisbury and other semi-rural and small-town places, contributing to the breakdown of community, inefficient land use, and the ever worsening housing crisis, but three or four decades ago it looked like a good idea, at least to those who stood to benefit from it in the short term.

And no, this is not confined to zoning, or to Martha’s Vineyard. “The law” is far more complex than West Tisbury zoning bylaws and just as easily manipulated by interests with deep pockets that have a lot at stake. It takes serious effort just to learn how it works, and far more to affect the process and influence the outcome. Small wonder that most people throw up their hands and swear they’ll have nothing to do with “politics.”

Trouble is, as things get worse and worse (as they almost certainly will if we don’t pay attention), we get either angrier and angrier or ever more depressed. Often we become patsies for knights in shining armor who turn out to be snake-oil salesmen, and the anger that could be channeled into constructive action gets directed at scapegoats (see “X is for Xenophobia”).

And this, dear readers, is what Martha’s Vineyard has given me over the years: endless opportunities to “chunk it down” and see how things work on the ground. This is a mixed blessing, to say the least. I’d love to blame everything that goes wrong on impersonal forces or identifiable enemies, but I can’t. I and my friends and neighbors, virtually all of us, are accomplices, willing or unwilling, witting or unwitting. The upside? This means there are things we can do about it.


Here ends the alphabet, and with it my contribution to the 2018 Blogging A to Z Challenge. I did it! Thanks to all who’ve encouraged me, especially all who’ve liked or commented on particular posts.

Blogging almost every day, combined with editing for a living and meeting other commitments, has left little time for following the A-to-Zs of my fellow bloggers. Now I’m going to catch up.

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Y is for Year-round #AtoZChallenge

This follows on “X is for Xenophobia,” which followed on “I is for Islander.” The more I think about this A to Z Challenge, the more I realize that everything follows on everything else. Long live hyperlinks!


Year-round vs. summer is the big one, or at least the most obvious one. But PDQ it gets complicated. Plenty of summer visitors have become year-round residents. (I raise my hand here.)

Plenty of people who grew up here have moved away for economic, creative, or some other necessity. They may be summer visitors, but they’ve got roots and relatives here.

Then there’s the “islander” business. I know and have known a bunch of people whose island roots go back to the 18th and even the 17th century, which is as long as white people have been around here.  Not infrequently, the island families who’ve been economically most successful have members who’ve spent much of their working lives off-island, earning off-island wages.

Many of those who never moved off-island spent much of their lives in the seafaring trades, which is to say they weren’t bodily on the island all that much — though their close kinfolk were. That makes a big difference.

The 19th century whaling ship Charles W. Morgan visited Vineyard Haven harbor in June 2014.

Seafarers from Portugal, Cape Verde, and elsewhere passed through, settled, and put down roots. Islanders, without a doubt, though those of Portuguese descent were still occasionally made fun of when I arrived in the mid-1980s, and those whose skin was noticeably darker — well, you know how that works as well as I do.

Lately for a writing project I’ve been messing around in the Vineyard of the mid-1850s. It’s not hard to conclude that the islanders most likely to help fugitive slaves escape to freedom were those with darker skins — Wampanoags and those of African descent.

OK, so let’s assume for a moment that an islander has to have been born here. Someone who was born and grew up here in the 1950s will have very different memories from one who was born and grew up in the 1970s or 1990s. At some point we’ve got to reckon with what makes an islander an islander — that it’s not simply the fact of being born here but the experiences you had and the places you knew growing up.

I’ve noticed that the experiences of my island friends who were, like me, born and grew up in the 1950s and early ’60s were not unlike mine in many respects, even though I grew up west of Boston in a small town that was evolving into a suburb. Some things were different for sure, but others were very similar. So were the experiences of ’60s summer kids.

So lately, like within the last 10 years or so, I came up with the category “year-round summer people.” Year-round summer people live here year-round — they vote here and qualify for preferred rates on the ferry — but (like summer people) they think real life is happening somewhere else, often but not always wherever it was they came from. They never worked island jobs or moved twice a year. They generally spend a fair amount of time off-island. The ones I know are generally nice people.

“Year-round summer people” started off as a way to describe and understand something I was seeing, but over the years it’s become a handy way to dismiss perspectives that piss me off: “Oh, well, whaddya expect, he’s just a year-round summer person.” Quite a few of these year-round summer people have retired here, often after many years of summer visits. They have lots of time to spend and, commendably, they want to get involved in island life — but excess time, it seems, has some of the same negative effects as excess money. Year-round summer people are like kudzu and other invasive plants: whatever they touch, they take over.

I would certainly take umbrage if that image were applied to me, which probably explains why I don’t mention it to the year-round summer people I know.

At the same time — I do get how us/them thinking arises from these more-or-less innocent attempts to understand what’s going on, and it gives me caution.

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X is for Xenophobia #AtoZChallenge

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “xenophobia” as “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.”

The American Heritage Dictionary agrees but adds the emphasis on “different countries or cultures”: “Fear of, hatred of, mistrust of, or contempt for that which is foreign, especially strangers or people from different countries or cultures.”

Something about the word, and all the other -phobias, raises the specter of frothing-at-the-mouth hatred, the kind seen at Trump rallies, cross-burnings, and the “Unite the Right” march last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, where swastikas and other Nazi regalia were much in evidence. Connecting “xenophobia” to Martha’s Vineyard, my own first thought was of the contempt directed by some U.S.-born Vineyarders to the Brazilian population, especially the undocumented members of it.

Then I considered the blatant homophobia I encountered on the Vineyard in the early 1990s, in person and in print, which did much to inspire The Mud of the Place. Some of its manifestations came close to that frothing-at-the-mouth specter, but what was more unsettling was the reluctance of so many liberal types to take it seriously and speak out publicly against it.

Blogging “I is for Islander” had me thinking yet again of all the ways we divide people into Us and Them, not by their personal characteristics but by the groups they belong to. We don’t froth at the mouth when we do this, but some audible animosity is often in evidence. Off the top of my head, here are some of the categories I hear most often. A few of them occupy considerable space in my own head.

  • Summer people
  • Wash-ashores
  • Native islanders
  • Landlords
  • Tenants
  • Republicans
  • Liberals
  • New Yorkers
  • Millennials
  • Immigrants

Does fear, hatred, and resentment of any of these groups amount to xenophobia? Generally, no, as long as we equate “xenophobia” with that frothing-at-the-mouth hatred seen at alt-right rallies.

But let’s not let ourselves off the hook so easily.

“Xenophobia” is what I like to call an envelope word. We stuff a bunch of related observations and insights into an envelope, seal it, and gradually forget how complex and even occasionally contradictory its contents are. Xenophobia gradually morphs from description into explanation, and since it’s generally seen as a bad thing, we devote considerable effort to defending ourselves against any suggestion that we might be somewhat xenophobic.

Or racist, sexist, or any of a host of other unpleasant, corrosive, but persistent characteristics.

It’s not hard to find one or two or five or even fifty bad apples among any of the above categories. It’s also easy for those bad apples to become the rule and everyone else the exception, even if the exceptions far outnumber those who fit the rule — especially when you’re surrounded by people who think the same way.

And in a society with serious and growing income and wealth inequality, resentment isn’t hard to understand. The huge problem is that it’s usually directed at safe targets. This is one hell of a lot easier than identifying and addressing the underlying causes — which not infrequently include people we like, and maybe even our own selves.

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W is for Wintertide Coffeehouse #AtoZChallenge

When I discovered, and promptly threw myself into, Wintertide, it was strictly a winter thing. It happened at the off-season youth hostel. Now I can’t remember whether this was during my first year-round winter (1985/86) or my second. I’ve been thinking it was my first, but my “Winter Rental” sonnet sequence wasn’t complete until the summer of 1986 and I’m 95% sure I read the whole thing at the youth hostel. If the youth hostel hosted Wintertide for two winters, both memories could be true. That’s what I’m not sure of.

In 1991, writing a story for the Martha’s Vineyard Times about Wintertide’s big move to Five Corners and year-round operation, I tried to piece together Wintertide’s early history. It only went back to the very late 1970s, but already it was getting fuzzy: talk to three people who were around in the earliest days and you’d get three different dates and three different locations.

I did learn that one winter it had happened in the big room at the Wooden Tent and another in the basement of the stone church (Christ United Methodist) in Vineyard Haven, to which it returned when the youth hostel became unavailable. Someone really should do a history of Wintertide before all of us who were ever involved die off or leave the island.

Wintertide was inspired by the old West Tisbury musicales (generally pronounced  like “musicals”), in which islanders gathered in each other’s living rooms to play music together, sing, and chat. In the 1950s and much of the ’60s, the island did pretty much shut down after Labor Day so entertainment was DIY. (For more about the musicales and their legacy, see Shirley Mayhew’s wonderful memoir, Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard.)

When I joined the party, Wintertide happened mostly on Saturdays from January through March. The musicians were mostly local, with off-islanders and ex-islanders sometimes passing through, and mostly folk and/or blues, which suited me fine. Occasionally a poet took the stage, but not all that often.

At some point, I mustered the courage to read my hot-off-the-page poetry at the open mike that often preceded the evening’s headliners. Reading poetry to listeners primed for music, along with my growing experience in theater, was  a crash course in performance.  It’s a risk getting up there all by yourself, but the energy that comes back from an attentive, even appreciative, audience is heady, inspiring, even transformational. It was probably at Wintertide that I got the notion that writing about the Vineyard was worth doing.

Two or three winters running I organized a Word Wizardry night, featuring the spoken word.

In January 1991, masterminded by sound-tech-turned-manager Tony Lombardi, Wintertide took the huge step of moving to Five Corners and becoming a year-round operation. Here’s the story I wrote about it for the Martha’s Vineyard Times, published on January 10, 1991. That’s Tony in the photo.

In the fall of 1991, the Martha’s Vineyard Times moved from its old location up State Road behind Woodland Market to its current home at Five Corners — literally right around the corner from Wintertide. Not only was I a Wintertide board member, regular volunteer, and occasional performer, I was the Times features editor. To put it mildly, the roles got blurred. Wintertide had very little money for advertising; I could put whatever I wanted in the paper’s Calendar (arts & entertainment) section.

These were the years of the Martha’s Vineyard Singer-Songwriters Retreat, conceived by singer-songwriter-impresario Christine Lavin and co-produced by Christine and Wintertide. Often I think that it’s been all downhill for the Vineyard since then, especially for the Vineyard’s arts-and-culture scene, though there have certainly been some high points in the years since. The recordings that came out of the retreat — Big Times in a Small Town from the 1992 edition and Follow That Road from 1993 — are still available and still wonderful.

It’s no coincidence that I left the Times just after the end of the second Singer-Songwriters Retreat, in October 1993: I loved my job, but it was burnout city, the pay wasn’t commensurate with the work involved, and the Times management wouldn’t put me on salary so I never got any benefits, like health insurance.

About a year later, I resigned from the Wintertide board and pulled way back. As a year-round operation, Wintertide taught me a lot about sustainability, or, more accurately, the lack of it. None of the lessons were unique to Wintertide either.

Wintertide hadn’t been at Five Corners all that long before volunteers and others started referring to it as “Tonytide,” about 25% out of affection and 75% out of frustration and somewhat darker feelings. Like many another visionary, Tony kept others on the peripheries of his vision, especially when he thought they might alter it in any way. Central to his vision was “all-volunteer.” This collided with the huge cost of renting the Five Corners location, coupled with all the challenges of the Vineyard’s seasonal economy. All attempts to put it on a sounder financial footing foundered on Tony’s vision.

As often happens when one person becomes identified with an organization (usually with his or her active encouragement), when that person moves on, the organization falls apart. When Tony decided to move on, the people who might have been willing and able to take it on had long since left. No one was waiting in the wings. There was no one on the bench. Wintertide fell into the hands of two guys who had no idea what it was about. It faltered and finally died.

Attempts to revive it, perhaps in its earlier winter-only incarnation, never got off the ground. Those who volunteered, performed, and/or attended events there still sigh for the good old days and wish they could come again. I catch myself doing this from time to time, but I’m also pretty sure that the exploding real estate prices of the very early 2000s and the accompanying demographic changes have put the kibosh on that.

At the same time, of all the grassroots arts that flourished in the late 1980s and well into the ’90s, the music scene remains the liveliest. You can still hear the echoes of Wintertide, and the music of some who performed there. In 2010 a “Wintertide Reunion” was held at Nectar’s (a nightclub at the old Hot Tin Roof location that no longer exists either). Googling, I found a letter to the editor about it, published in the M.V. Times for September 10, 2010. Before I got to the end of the first paragraph,  I realized that I’d written it.

It concludes:

Can the spirit of Wintertide be recreated in a nightclub like Nectar’s or a big nonprofit like the YMCA? Perhaps, but only if it remains connected to its do-it-yourself roots in Vineyard living rooms, church basements, and whatever other spaces can be improvised on this Island of very expensive real estate.

Tony Lombardi died last December. Long before then he was widely, but not quite universally, acclaimed a saint. His good works and legacy are undeniable, but as usual, the truth is more complicated.

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V is for Violence #AtoZChallenge

I walk any- and everywhere at all times of day and night with nary a fear of being mugged, raped, or murdered. When something rustles in the woods, I know it’s a squirrel or a rabbit or a skunk.

Travvy pounces on a vole hole but the vole gets away.

Come to think of it, skunks are the danger I think most about. Walking after dark on one of the long nights of winter, I know Travvy can see, smell, and/or sense them long before I do. He’s always leashed, but in his younger days while on his retractable he once flushed a skunk from some scrub in broad daylight and emerged with the skunk in his mouth. Fortunately the skunk’s business end was pointing in the other direction, and my shriek “Travvy!” startled him enough to loosen his jaws and release the skunk.

Sometimes the beam from my headlamp catches the flat round glow of skunk eyes further up the trail. So far, so good: the skunk disappears into the underbrush and Trav and I proceed on our way, my heart beating a little faster than it was before.

As potential physical dangers go, skunks are not high on the list. If Travvy or I got sprayed, it would be a big inconvenience, but it’s far preferable to getting beat up or worse.

Freedom from not only violence but the fear of violence is precious, and I’ve come to take it for granted. Long ago I read that people who watch a lot of TV tend to overestmate the dangers of their own surroundings. I don’t own a TV and haven’t lived with one in decades. Studies and stories I’ve heard suggest that women are in most danger from men they know, especially spouses and ex-spouses. Having no male spouses or ex-spouses in my personal history doesn’t make me immortal, but it does make me breathe easier.

On Facebook, though, I see reports of violence from here, there, and everywhere. My mind takes it in, it often makes me very angry, but I continue to walk at all hours without fear.

Two days ago a man drove a white rental van into a crowd of pedestrians on a busy Toronto sidewalk, killing 10 and injuring at least 13. Initial reports suggest that the driver hung out in social media spaces populated by misogynist men.

What violence appears in my first novel, The Mud of the Place, and the novel in progress is mostly in the characters’ past, but the threat and repercussions linger for several of them. And yeah, misogyny is a factor, even when the target isn’t a woman. Wayne Swanson stalks Jay Segredo, his ex-brother-in-law, and eventually takes a shot at his car as he drives down the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road, all because he blames Jay for the breakup of his marriage. Of course the fact that Janice, his ex-wife, was hospitalized more than once for wounds that he inflicted has nothing to do with it.

Wolfie, the canine title character of the work in progress, almost gets shot near the beginning of the book. In the past he’s almost certainly done violence to chickens and possibly to sheep as well.

Violence, I can’t help noticing, makes plotting easier. Violent acts have both backstories and repercussions. Out of backstories and repercussions comes plot. (A few years back I blogged about murder as handy literary trope: “Murder, They Write — and Write, and Write.”)

My friend Cynthia Riggs writes murder mysteries set on Martha’s Vineyard. So did the late Phil Craig. The bodies pile up; both place and character are revealed. I’ve read most of Cynthia’s books (and manage her website) and enjoy them very much, not least for their evocation of the Vineyard and Victoria Trumbull, their 92-year-old sleuth.

But I can’t help thinking that if murder were that common on Martha’s Vineyard, I probably wouldn’t be quite so careless about walking in the woods at night.

Trav barks up the right tree but can’t reach the squirrel.

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U is for Unsustainable #AtoZChallenge

Warning: This is a rant. T/read cautiously.

“Sustainable” is all the rage around here. Support sustainable agriculture.  Buy island-grown. Reduce your carbon footprint.

Recycling is practically a religion. Ditto “rescue” — of animals and the environment. (I was about to add “not primarily of people,” but with the opioid epidemic that’s changed somewhat.)

“Nitrogen loading” comes trippingly off the tongues of people whose technical expertise is even less than mine. It’s about ensuring that the effluent from septic systems and lawns doesn’t mess with the island’s sole-source aquifer or the shellfishery in island waters.

The Dumptique, aka the recycling shed at the West Tisbury dump, where quite a few of us do at least some of our “shopping”

Living in D.C. I rarely thought about garbage, sewage, or where tap water came from. Yes, I was aware of garbage scows in the Anacostia River, but trash got picked up once or twice a week and that was it.

When I arrived on the Vineyard, trash was a major topic of discussion. The dumps in the six island towns were nearing capacity, so the question was what to do with all the trash we were generating.

Eventually the decision was made to export it to the SEMASS facility in Rochester, Mass., and to promote recycling as a way of reducing the cost. Our town dumps eventually became transfer stations, but most of us still call them dumps.

All of this raised my consciousness and influenced my worldview in a mostly good way. Living on an island, it’s hard to avoid being at least dimly aware of where things come from and where they go. Knowing what I know now, could I live in D.C. or any other big city again? Waste disposal and clean water for a year-round population of less than 20,000 (100,000-plus in summer) is daunting enough; what about waste disposal and clean water for a metro area of literally millions?

Yeah, I almost certainly could. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. It’s a survival strategy, and it works. When something’s too unsettling to live with, we repress, forget, or ignore it.

Along with my ignorance of trash, I brought to the Vineyard a penchant for observing what was going on around me. Growing up in a family where much wasn’t said and much of what was said couldn’t be taken at face value, this was a necessary survival skill. Feminism honed it. Silences, I learned, were important clues. What wasn’t being said? Who wasn’t at the table?

Reading Marxist economics in college didn’t turn me into a Marxist, but it did make me realize that popular political discourse in the U.S. tended to slight economics. Fifteen months living in the U.K. in the mid-1970s confirmed this: the economic underpinnings of political events were front and center in both conversation and commentary. And class was and still is the snarly knot I’m trying to untangle.

The Vineyard — some of it, anyway — prides itself on its community-mindedness and civic engagement. Early on, around 1988, I learned that there was much more to it than that. Lesson #1 came at a West Tisbury annual town meeting (ATM). You’ve probably heard people claim that New England town meeting is the purest form of democracy, right? I’ve claimed as much myself. At the 1988 (IIRC) West Tisbury ATM, I identified Snowmobiles in Christiantown Syndrome. Snowmobiles in Christiantown took up something like 40 minutes of floor debate, but the multi-million-dollar school budget was discussed and voted on in less than 10.

  • Lesson #1: The time and passion devoted to an issue is inversely proportional to its importance, and to the prep time required to say anything useful about it.

Check this out. I’m not kidding. It explains a lot about the dismal level of political and other discourse on social media. Town meeting discourages the worst excesses in a way that social media does not: Townsfolk are generally reluctant to say publicly anything critical about anyone they’re likely to run into the next day, or anyone they’re related to or know someone who’s related to. (In private you may get an earful, however.)

Lesson #2 arose from the anti-moped crusade, which emerged in 1988, went into remission for a long time, then was reborn with vigor in 2016, when the attention of the politically minded was absorbed by arguably more important things.

  • Lesson #2: The perfect Vineyard issue makes its supporters feel altruistic and, more important, won’t seriously inconvenience or piss off anyone they know personally.

Armed with these two lessons, you’ll begin to understand why most people didn’t begin waking up to the housing crisis till 10 or 15 years ago, though the housing situation was bad enough when I got here. We normalized it, we made do, until suddenly (not!) it was so bad  that a whole generation of young people was moving off-island because island jobs didn’t pay nearly enough to pay for island housing.

To this day most people I know don’t want to think too hard about this. Is it a failure of language, a failure of observation, or a failure of nerve? “Denial” springs to mind, but that’s a tautology. Denial doesn’t spring out of nowhere. Denial has causes, and powerful incentives to keep it in place.

To venture a huge generalization — what makes the Vineyard as we know it and like to think of it unsustainable is an unwillingness to grapple with Economics 101. Housing is unaffordable because the price of land went through the roof some time ago; the price of land went through the roof because it was bid up and up and up by the second-home market; and most of us working Vineyarders have at some point owed most or all of our livelihood, directly or indirectly, to the second-home market.

Raise the issue however obliquely and someone will smack you down: “We should be grateful to the summer people because otherwise we couldn’t live here.”

So far I haven’t grappled with this in my fiction. Some of my characters make occasional snarky comments about summer people, but that’s about it. They make do, and help others make do, and they do it all pretty well.

A phrase comes to mind from a story that’s very famous in science fiction circles: “The Women Men Don’t See,” by James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon). One of the women says to a clueless man that women “live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.'”

Vineyarders live in rather larger groups in the chinks of an island that looks pastoral and familiar but over which we have very little control.

My plan is to take this on in novel #3, working title The Squatters’ Speakeasy. This, you’ve probably noticed, is the URL of this blog. It’s been on my mind for a long time. The opening scene came to me around 2003, but I had no idea what to do with it. Five or six years ago I gave it a try, but it sprawled and sprawled and wouldn’t coalesce — a failure of the imagination, temporary, I hope. It did, however, spin off Wolfie, which is now in the home stretch. So we’ll see.

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T is for Theater #AtoZChallenge

The late Mary Payne (1932–1996), founder and longtime director of Island Theatre Workshop (ITW), was utterly shameless about drafting people into theater (or theatre — you choose). I was one of them. She needed help with PR. She knew I was a writer. QED.

As I recall, it was Molière’s The Miser that was in rehearsal when she “suggested” I show up at Katharine Cornell Theatre at one of several possible times. Finding the place was easy — it’s above the Tisbury Town Hall on Spring Street — but I had to walk on by several times before I mustered the nerve to go up the stairs and through the double doors. Timorous newbie that I was, my imagination conjured a cavernous space filled with people I didn’t recognize going about their business with no interest in me.

What I found was a bustling but cozy place with light streaming through tall windows and two or three small dogs scampering here, there, and everywhere in complete violation of the rules. My most vivid memories of that production include Terry Zaroff playing Frosine in impossibly high heels and Christopher Lyons playing musical commentary on the grand piano at the front of house right. For the lead Mary had drafted Jonathan Revere, whose previous acting experience, if any, had been decades before. He proved perfect for the part and went on to play many more.

I wrote the press release and delivered it to the papers, picked up posters from Tisbury Printer and helped distribute them around the island, and was listed in the program under Publicity.

That first encounter turned out to be portentous, fortuitous, and, in a word, transformational. I went on to stage-managing, first as the assistant stage manager in a reprise production of Macbeth. With Medea I got to watch a production grow from casting through rehearsal though the last performance. That Medea, with Lee Fierro in the title role, was intense almost beyond bearing.

I was giving readings fairly frequently in those days, so I picked up plenty from watching Mary direct and actors act. Mary coached me from time to time. The most important bit of advice she gave me when performing my own work was to come to it as if someone else had written it. Don’t assume that just because you wrote it you can put it across to an audience. Rehearse, goddammit.

Betsy Corsignlia took this photo while I was rehearsing my Macbeth poem. It appeared on the back cover of my second women’s f/sf anthology, The Women Who Walk Through Fire (1990).

I started writing with performance in mind, reading everything out loud as I worked on it. One of the best things I’ve ever written was a poem-monologue, “The Assistant Stage Manager Addresses Her Broom After a Performance of Macbeth.” You can guess where that came from, and you can read it at the end of this post. I performed it often, and usually “off book,” i.e., from memory.

Having learned a bit about how a show was put together, I fell into theater reviewing for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. I’d reviewed plenty of books before I got to the Vineyard, but this was different. For one thing, with a theater production you couldn’t flip back to see if you’d missed something, and deadlines being deadlines you  usually couldn’t see the show twice.

For another, you were reviewing performances by people you’d often worked with and would almost certainly run into on the street the day the paper came out. At the time the prevailing “rule” was “Never say anything negative about anybody.” My goal was to give readers an idea of whether the production was worth the time and ticket price or not, and to maybe give cast, crew, and/or director something they could use.

My friendship with Mary Payne frayed somewhat over this. We had a rather fraught exchange on the op-ed pages of the M.V. Times and a shouting match on the staircase of the Vineyard Playhouse, which I think had to do with my then-partner’s decision to take a role in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, a play Mary hated as lesbophobic. This was a big reason that most of my theatrical activity in the 1990s took place at the Vineyard Playhouse, then under the direction of its co-founder Eileen Wilson.

Rehearsing “Paper Whites” for the 1994 Spring Short-Play Festival at the Vineyard Playhouse. I learned a passable English accent for that one.

Eventually, not surprisingly, I dabbled in acting, usually at the Playhouse, especially in the wonderful short-play festival that ran for a few years in the mid-1990s and also in staged readings for the New England new playwrights competition that the Playhouse sponsored in those days.

Also not surprisingly, I dabbled a bit in playwriting, turning out three one-acts, including one inspired by my experience as an extra in a Tisbury Amphitheater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In my A Midsummer Night’s Alternative, all the couples were gay or lesbian. If I do say so myself, it was stylish, funny, and all in iambic pentameter.

After the mid-1990s the grassroots theater scene dwindled. Island Theatre Workshop was never the same after Mary Payne died unexpectedly in October 1996, and the Vineyard Playhouse took a turn for the professional, becoming a mostly Equity theater. If it had continued to thrive, I almost certainly would have written more plays.

But what I learned doing theater is all over my fiction. To learn more about my characters, I  write monologues in their voices — a trick I learned from one director I worked with. As writer, I’m often the stage manager or director, watching my actors move about the stage, giving the occasional direction or prompt, thinking about what blocking might be more effective. And I have to say I’m pretty damn good at dialogue.

Last fall, strange but true, I was hired to write a full-length script from a concept developed by someone who died in 2015. It was a stretch in multiple ways — not only had I never written a full-length play but this play includes music (which I don’t have to write), is set in the 1850s, and involves working with an advisory board — but the second draft of the project just had its first read-through and it went well. For more about it, see “Fundraiser for 1854.


The Assistant Stage Manager Addresses Her Broom
After a Performance of Macbeth

Who am I? Let me tell you what I do.
Within these walls I manage time and space,
make sure the pitcher’s on its hook before
its bearer wants it, warn the messenger
he’s on soon, check to see his torch is lit
and that the backstage lights are out. Right now
I’m cleaning up debris from this night’s show.
Is this a dagger I see before me?
It is, but split in pieces. I’m the one
who tapes it back together after hours.
Tomorrow night this plastic dagger turns
to steel, honed sharp enough to pierce a haunch
of gristly meat — or Duncan’s royal breast.
Before each show I sweep the stage. I see
green needles strewn where Birnam Wood has come
to rest the night before. I shiver, chilled,
as if I’d slept and woken centuries hence
with all my friends and family dead. And then
I sweep them all away. “Out, out, damn trees!”
I cry, “You haven’t come here yet! Begone!”

Here, separate ages stream like shimmering strands
in one great waterfall, and time dissolves.
Mere mortals we, what havoc do we wreak?
Elizabethan Shakespeare conjured up
Macbeth, medieval Scottish thane, and we
invoke them both, in nineteen eighty-six.
I watch the people enter, choose their seats,
and rustle through their programs. Normal folk,
it seems, and yet this gentle summer night
they’ve purchased tickets to a barren heath,
a draughty castle primed for treachery.
Right now the lights are up, the theatre walls
are strong, the windows fixed within their frames.
At eight o’clock the howling winds begin,
the wolves close in, the sturdy walls are gone.
These common folk, I wonder, have they bought
enough insurance? Have they changed their bills
for gold and silver coin? If challenged by
a kilted swordsman, how would they explain
their strangely tailored clothes?

No loyal lord
or rebel threatens me. Between the worlds,
or through this velvet curtain, I can move
at will. I warn the sound technician, “Ten
more minutes,” then I pass backstage to say,
“The house is filling up.” The Scottish king
is drinking ginger ale; a prince-to-be
in chino slacks is looking for his plaid.
The Thane of Glamis is pacing back and forth,
preoccupied with schemes to win the crown,
or trouble with his car. I prowl backstage,
alert for things and people out of place.
Last night I found a missing messenger
outside the theatre, smoking cigarettes.
I called him back in time: Macbeth’s bold wife
demanded news — What is your tidings?; he
was there to gasp, The king comes here tonight!

No phone lines run to Inverness, no news
at six o’clock. (Walter MacCronkite’s face
appears and says that base Macdonwald’s head
was nailed upon the wall, that Cawdor’s fled
and Glamis has been promoted; polls predict
he might go higher still.) The kingdom’s nerves
are messengers who run from king to thane
to lady. Take the Thane of Ross, who comes
to tell his cousin that her husband’s flown
to England, leaving her unguarded; then
he takes himself abroad, to where Macduff
and other rebel lords are planning war.
Macduff’s unguarded lady fares less well.
A breathless runner pleads, “Be not found here;
hence, with your little ones!” but on his heels
come murderers, death-arrows from the king.
Two sons, a daughter, and their mother die
with piercing shrieks that vibrate in my spine.

With piercing shrieks vibrating in my spine,
I contemplate a different line of work;
this sending harmless people to their deaths
is bad for my digestion, and what’s more,
it’s happening much too often. First I let
King Duncan in, and he gets killed in bed.
Could I have known so soon that Cawdor’s heart
was rotten? No. But shortly after, I
send scoundrels to the banquet hall; Macbeth
himself has called them. Not the kind of guest
that Duncan entertained! And then I tell
Macbeth’s friend Banquo and his son it’s time
to join the party. What about the thieves
I know are lurking on the gate road, dressed
to kill? But Banquo is a fighting man,
well-armed, and Fleance does escape. Not so
Macduff’s fair lady, and her kids. Could I
prevent their deaths? What if I plied the brutes
with Scotch? They might get drunk enough to lose
their maps, or drop their knives, or fall asleep.
What if I whispered in the lady’s ear,
“Don’t go outside today — and bar the doors.”

I doubt she’d pay attention. Each one goes
to meet the dagger destined for his breast.
Perhaps I’d get my point across if I
could speak in rhyme and paradox, the way
the witches do, with fair is foul, and foul
is fair. The witches manage time and space
like me; you could call me the unseen witch.
I wonder, are they working from a script?
You’ll see: the second sister sweeps the stage
as I do, clearing them the space they need
to cast their circles. We both summon kings
and apparitions out of time, although
our methods differ some. “You enter soon,”
I warn, “stage right.” Mundane, compared to how
my sisters work, with Double, double, toil
and trouble, cauldron, fire, and lengthy list
of weird ingredients — the eye of newt
and toe of frog, the blood of sow that ate
her piglets — but we get the same results.
Our audience is moved to awe, and then
proceeds along its merry way to rendez-vous
with fate, or Birnam Wood, or man not born
of woman. They get blamed for it. I don’t.

The witches disappear, and one last time
prince Malcolm calls his kin to see him crowned
at Scone. The set is struck, costumes returned
to cardboard boxes, wooden banquet bowls
and Scottish flag to rightful owners; kings
go home to mow the lawn or fix the car.
Where did the blasted heath go off to? I
am leaning on my broom again. What stays
when all the parts spin off? Just memories
of daggers, prophecies, and anguished screams?
The air still tingles here. The gates remain
but smaller, well concealed. I might reach in
and conjure back that knife, that messenger.
“There’s knocking at the gate,” the lady says,
“Give me your hand! What’s done cannot be undone.”
To bed, she says. To bed, to bed, to bed.

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S is for Single #AtoZChallenge

OK, this one’s gonna be short because I need Sunday morning to get back to Wolfie so I won’t keep the Sunday Writers in suspense about What Happens Next.

“Short?” chortles the Internal Skeptic. “We’ll see about that.”

Here goes.

In “F is for Family” I blogged about how Martha’s Vineyard woke me up to the importance of family not as something you run away from but as something that sustains its members and makes survival possible. So why are all the principals in Mud of the Place single?

My subconscious did it, I didn’t plan it that way, but when I saw what was happening, I wasn’t surprised.

I wanted to show something of how Martha’s Vineyard worked, from different perspectives. So Mud had to be an ensemble piece, and it had to take place mostly in the “public square,” as opposed to behind the closed doors of family homes. In the writing I learned enough about each character to sketch in their background, but if I’d done more than that Mud would have turned into a thousand-page doorstop. As it is, the print version is almost 400 pages long.

Another thing: Out in the public square, most of us most of the time move about as individuals — or so it seemed to me when I hadn’t been here all that long. In real life we actually carry our connections with us, but they’re in the background, soft focus, almost ghostly. If you’re wise you’ll keep those connections in mind in any public interaction.

Volunteering in island theater and at Wintertide I couldn’t help noticing how many of the most active volunteers were single and in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s — as was I. Single people without children or other family responsibilities; still too young to be the caretakers of aging parents.

That particular demographic has been decimated by the ongoing housing crisis, including the dearth of cheap winter rentals and safe places to crash in the summer. Many have left the island for gainful employment and/or to raise families. Those who haven’t work so many hours to pay the rent that little time or energy is left for volunteering.

These days the volunteer cadre seems dominated by those 60 and up. They have time because they’re retired and housing because they’re living year-round in what used to be their second home. The nonprofit and civic landscape has changed quite a bit since the 1980s and ’90s.

During his off-island years as a social worker and community organizer, Jay Segredo helped form a loose network of like-minded folk that call themselves the Free Radicals. This was a mischievous double entendre on my part, or maybe his. Free radicals are atoms with unattached electrons that fly around looking for other atoms to bond with. In health food circles, free radicals are a bad thing and anti-oxidants such as broccoli are advised to help neutralize them. This is why Jay’s homophobic sister Janice is seen eating broccoli in the hospital cafeteria.

Each of the Free Radicals has a tie bearing the group’s logo, an atom with electrons flying around its nucleus. When Jay’s malevolent boss, Dr. Jerome Turner — known to his underlings as Gerbil Turd — spots it, he remarks, “I didn’t take you for a fan of nuclear power, Mr. Segredo.” This is not the only mistake Dr. Turner makes.

When Wolfie opens some 12 years later, the returning characters are, not surprisingly, more settled than they were in Mud. I can’t explain the new arrangements without giving spoilers for the earlier novel, so I won’t. At the same time, the main players are once again single in that they act outside of institutional constraints, which I do believe is the only way they can learn what they learn and do what they have to do.

Single girl and single dog

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