A Very Good Day

We’ve had a string of lovely spring weather days so of course I was getting apprehensive. The underwear and sock supply was getting low, laundry had to be done soon, but if I put it off too long of course it was going to rain.

I use the washers at the Airport Laundromat but it’s a matter of personal pride that I take the clean wet laundry home and hang it on the line. One February day a few years back I had to use the dryers due to temperatures so cold everything would have frozen on the line, but the rest of the time I save my quarters and hang everything out to dry.

Mid-spring laundry line

Today was a perfect drying day: sunny, dry, and breezy, but not so windy that my socks and undies kept blowing off the drying rack.

We’ve had a lot of chilly, wet weather lately, so much that people keep wondering if it’s still March? April? This is still a fairly typical mid-spring laundry line: lots of jeans, no shorts, but only three pairs of longjohns and if you look very closely you may notice three T-shirts, two short sleeve and one long.

The dislocations of COVID-19 have erased all the usual spring markers. Annual town meetings always happen in April or early May, but none of them have happened yet. Ditto for town elections. School let out in mid-March, and we’re still not 100% sure when and where the high school seniors will be graduating.

I’m feeling guiltily grateful that my 50th high school reunion was last year. I went and had a ball. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” so the cliché goes, but if I’d been in the class of ’70 instead of the class of ’69 I wouldn’t have had a choice.

Susanna holding Tommy

Masasyu’s Tam Lin and I when we first met, May 18, 2019, Canandaigua, N.Y.

Travvy passed almost a year to the day before COVID-19 stay-at-home orders went into effect. His care and my subsequent decision to adopt a puppy would have been more complicated in 2020 than they were in 2019, which is not to say that any of it was exactly easy when it happened.

Malvina Forester, my trusty 2008 Subaru, usually gets inspected in March, but thanks to COVID-19 everyone due for inspection in March or April got a two-month grace period. My grace period was drawing to a close, so this afternoon I headed down to Mid-Island Automotive, aka Kenny Belain’s, in West Tisbury.

Malvina is getting up in years, though not in mileage (she hasn’t hit 80K yet), so I don’t take passing for granted. The shiny new sticker was both a relief and a pleasure, plus it’s sort of cool that I got two extra months on my old sticker. March inspection dates are good, but May isn’t bad. August, however, is a PITA. I know this because old Tesah Toyota (1988–2003) got inspected in August. I think I managed to slide her inspection date into September, but I don’t remember how.

The huge bonus was the SUV in Kenny’s lot with Kansas plates. May has been a bust for the license plate game so far, for all the expected reasons, but Kansas is the cherry on top.

Like I said, it’s been a very good day.

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This Ride Is Just Beginning

Sometimes you pick your issues. Other times — and I’m coming to believe that this is by far the more common scenario — the issues pick you.

About a year ago news surfaced that drivers for the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) were on the verge of striking. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the VTA: how it was run,  who was running it, and so on. I knew that public transit was a good thing. I didn’t own a motor vehicle till I was 37 — three years after I became a year-round Vineyard resident — because in my D.C. years I depended totally on public transport, my bicycle, and my feet.

But the Vineyard is not D.C., and thanks to the distances involved and the difference in population density, among other things, getting around in a small-town region isn’t like getting around in the big city. When I had to go off-island, I usually left my car at the Tisbury park and ride lot and rode the #10 bus to the ferry dock, but that was pretty much it.

The impending strike woke me up. Strikes are a last resort. They mean that communication has broken down in a big way. I started reading press reports more critically, and listening to drivers and riders. On Martha’s Vineyard you’re rarely more than two degrees of separation from anybody. This has its downside, but when you want to know more than what gets reported in the paper, it’s a big plus.

It did not take long to get the gist: The VTA was refusing to bargain with Local 1548 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), to which the drivers belonged. Except it was more complicated than that. Officially it was Transit Connection, Inc. (TCI) that was refusing to bargain with Local 1548. TCI is the Florida-based company hired by the VTA to manage daily operations, which include dealing with labor issues. The state requires regional transit authorities to outsource their daily operations: this was news to me. The ATU summarized the history and the issues in a VTA Strike FAQ.

Tam Lin, not quite 4 months old, supported Vineyard bus drivers, even though he’s never ridden a bus.

WTF? I was learning just how much I didn’t know about the VTA. Others were having the same epiphany. The Democratic Council of Martha’s Vineyard, aka the MV Dems, of which I’m currently the secretary, devoted its July 2019 meeting to unions and collective bargaining.  It featured labor lawyer Rick Gilberg, who’s a seasonal Chilmark resident, and included several of the striking VTA drivers.

In mid-July, state senator Julian Cyr and state representative Dylan Fernandes sent a letter to MV Democrats supporting the drivers and also describing their unsuccessful efforts to urge the VTA administrator to pressure TCI to return to the bargaining table. Dylan joined the picket line to listen to the drivers’ concerns.

Many of us supported the strike on the picket line, by posting signs, by offering lifts to regular riders who wouldn’t cross the picket line, by explaining the strike on social media, and so on.

And the strikers won their right to bargain, and, finally, a contract. On Martha’s Vineyard. In July. When year-round Vineyarders are preoccupied with working extra hours or extra jobs and surviving all the disruption that comes with having the population swell from under 20K to well over 100K for three frenetic, frantic, congested months.

The drivers knew that the struggle wasn’t over, and so did I. I couldn’t unlearn what I’d learned in the preceding months. Why had things gotten so bad, and what could be done about it?

I connected the dots laid out in the VTA Strike FAQ (see link above):

  • In 2015, after years of trying to deal with ongoing problems, the drivers voted to join ATU Local 1548.
  • TCI, the company hired by the VTA to handle daily operations, not only refused to recognize the union, they fought a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that they had to negotiate with Local 1548 all the way to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals — where they lost. In early 2019 a federal mediator was brought in, at the request of the drivers, to help facilitate negotiations. In June TCI walked away from the table, precipitating the strike.
  • The VTA at any time could have directed TCI to negotiate. They didn’t. Instead they paid TCI’s legal bills.
  • The VTA is funded with public (i.e., taxpayer) money, from the six island towns and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
  • The VTA administrator is accountable to the VTA Advisory Board. The board consists of eight members. Each Vineyard selectboard appoints one. Of the other two, one advocates for the rider community and the other for the community of people with disabilities.

Whoa! Stop right there! I’m not sure I’d even heard of the VTA Advisory Board. This isn’t all that surprising. The Vineyard is a thicket of boards and commissions, each with multiple members. (Keep in mind that the Vineyard comprises six towns and one county, each with its own complement of boards and commissions.) They rarely make the news unless they screw up or get sued.

Here’s the kicker: When the strike started in June, the VTA Advisory Board hadn’t met since April. I mean, seriously: Despite the involvement of a federal mediator, not to mention that NLRB ruling that was upheld by the 11th Circuit Court, negotiations were breaking down, a strike was looming — and the board wasn’t even meeting?

Thanks in large part to public pressure, the board finally met in mid-July. The craziness of summer notwithstanding, the claustrophobic room was packed with drivers, regular riders, and community supporters.

Including me. I got my first look at the VTA Advisory Board. Suffice it to say that it was pretty damn clear that though the board might not be the source of the VTA’s problems, its inaction was a major contributor. Among other things, the Edgartown seat was vacant because its member had just resigned, and the two advocacy seats had been vacant for years. (I later learned that these were supposed to be filled by the town selectboards in rotation, but the towns weren’t sure whose turn it was to appoint what and if no applicants appeared when it was their turn the selectboards just let it drop.)

This issue had pretty clearly picked me, though I wasn’t clear what I had to offer. When service cuts were announced in early fall, I became part of the Coalition to Restore Vineyard Transportation. (As you might expect, off-season service is always more limited than summer service, but the cuts were announced with no prior consultation with drivers or riders.) I helped organize a well-attended “town hall” meeting in November, which came up with reasonable recommendations for improving both service and VTA transparency. I helped draft a letter to the editor about our recommendations and also presented them first to my town’s selectboard and then, in March, to the VTA Advisory Board.

The more I learned, the more I thought about the West Tisbury seat on the  VTA Advisory Board. It was held by John Alley, a town icon and longtime public servant, who, like several others, had been on the board for 20+ years. I’ve lived here long enough to realize that none of them were going anywhere until they were good and ready. I’m not exactly a meeting person either, though I’ve been to more of them in the last four years than I had in the previous 30.

Then, shortly after COVID-19 shutdowns arrived on the Vineyard, John died unexpectedly. I was interested, but I’m no ambulance chaser, and town officials had a tall stack of more pressing matters to worry about, like stay-at-home orders and what was going to happen to the annual town meeting (ATM) and town elections? (Originally scheduled for April 16 and 18, respectively; the dates are now June 23 and 25, also respectively, and it looks as though the ATM is going to be held at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.) I checked the “open positions” listings on the town website a few times to see if the opening had been posted yet; it hadn’t, then I got distracted by other obligations.

Till I was on the town website looking for something else — and there it was, with a NEW banner attached to it. I emailed the town administrator to express my interest. She said the listing had actually been up a while and the selectboard was planning to appoint someone at their next meeting on Wednesday. Oops. She said she’d bring it up with the selectboard. I attended that week’s meeting — via Zoom, of course — to see what happened.

The appointment was deferred to the next meeting. I was invited to attend and speak. I did, not expecting much because the other applicant was well qualified and probably had an inside track because he’s held other appointed positions in town. But — after we’d both spoken, and after one selectman had wondered what they should do, flip a coin? the other guy withdrew his application.

So I’m now the West Tisbury member of the VTA Advisory Board. This past week I did the online tutorial on conflict-of-interest law that all municipal officials, elected or appointed, are required to take a test on. I even have a certificate to prove it. What next? Well, it looks like I’m on the bus, but it’s going to take a while to get up to speed. We shall see.

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My psychic map of the Vineyard in August 2011. These days Edgartown is more real than it was then.

Sunday afternoon I delivered orders to two MVY Co-op members, one in Chilmark, the other in Aquinnah. It was a glorious day for a drive up-island, and anything past the West Tisbury–Chilmark line is off my psychic map. That means I think of it about as often as I think about the little toe on either foot. It also means it’s good to get up there once in a while, because Martha’s Vineyard is small enough without my acting as if a chunk of it isn’t there.

Daffodils from Chilmark

Anyway, the views from the road are stupendous, I managed to not get lost on Chilmark backroads, and the Chilmark co-op member left me a bunch of beautiful daffodils as a tip. Social distancing remains the rule, so, as directed, I left the groceries in a wood box at the end of the long, steep driveway and collected the flowers.

In Aquinnah the driveway was short, flat, and barely a driveway at all. An affable fellow walking by turned out to be (I suspect) a resident or at least a near neighbor; he recognized the tea on top of the grocery box. We exchanged greetings, he admired my navigator (Tam doesn’t just come along for the ride), and I set the box on the ground between us to avoid hand-to-hand contact.

If you’re wondering if I’ve left out some backstory — co-op? delivering orders? — you’re right. Here it is: Co-op pickup is currently on Sunday afternoon. Before social distancing, it was in a tiny office space in the Merchants’ Mart building across the parking lot from the Black Dog Café. Forget social distancing: with people arriving to pick up orders, transferring purchases from the co-op’s jars into our own containers, and paying for the goods if we hadn’t prepaid, it was virtually impossible to avoid bumping into each other, never mind stay six feet apart. So now pickup is at a convenient location that’s under cover and open air at the same time. Prepayment is now required, there’s no container transfer, and you sign up for a quarter-hour pickup slot when you place your order to avoid crowding.

As with many small co-ops, volunteering is encouraged. Most members pick up their orders, but home delivery is possible for a modest fee, so I volunteer to deliver in my town of West Tisbury and the neighboring towns of Tisbury and Chilmark. In a pinch I said I’d be willing to drive all the way to Aquinnah, where not all that many people live but, it seems, fewer are willing to drive. So when the co-op director asked, pretty much at the last minute (I was getting ready to leave home to pick up my own stuff), if I could make an Aquinnah run, I said sure.

Aside #1: Off-islanders and recent arrivals laugh their heads off when you complain about how far it is to Oak Bluffs or Edgartown, never mind Aquinnah, which seems even farther because it’s not on the way to anywhere else. They commute 20 or 40 or 60 miles twice a day five days a week and we’re bitching about driving 8 or 10 or even 20 miles? All I can say is “Islands queer distance.” Woods Hole is closer to Vineyard Haven than Oak Bluffs is to West Tisbury but it seems like it’s on another planet because you can’t drive there without getting on a boat.

Aside #2: Psychic maps can evolve. Look at my map from August 2011. At that time, I wrote: “My map starts to dissolve in the middle of the island about half a mile east of Barnes Road. Edgartown snaps into existence when I have to go there, then it slides back into the mist. Chappaquiddick might as well be in upstate New York.” The 2016 election changed that, in part because the point person for Indivisible Martha’s Vineyard lives in Katama and I could now find my way to her house blindfolded. I’ve also been to a bunch of films at the Edgartown library (the programming director books great stuff). Upshot is that Edgartown no longer seems so far away.

Come to think of it, the fact that I belong to a co-op at all is a sign that my psychic map is expanding a bit. This co-op is committed to greatly reduced packaging and to products that are 100% organic or close to it. Reduced packaging is a big plus with me, although COVID-19 has done away with BYO container, at least for the time being. I did buy a dozen quart-size Mason jars because beans, lentils, rice, oat groats, and everything else looks better on the shelves in glass jars than in the recycled yogurt containers I usually use.

The organic part — well, I’m slowly, slowly letting go of my conviction that, at least on Martha’s Vineyard, organic is mainly for those who can afford to pay for it. For a long time I was skeptical that products that claimed to be organic really were, and even when “organic” has to be certified, inspection and certification systems can be scammed. No question, I don’t want farmworkers subjected to blanket spraying or the land subjected to methods that reward short-term profits over long-term sustainability. I often say that how we spend our hours and our dollars is more important than how we spend our votes because we have a hell of a lot more of them to spend.

So if consumers buying organic sends a message to the growers, that’s a plus.

Not to mention — scoring 10 pounds in early April of the steel-cut oats from which I make my morning oatmeal was immensely satisfying, not least because it was more than a dollar less a pound than what I was paying for smaller quantities from the bulk bins at Cronig’s, and I didn’t have to use any plastic bags. In the age of COVID-19 those bulk bins are no longer available anyway, so it’s all good.

Oat groats in a 5-pound jar

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It Could Have Been Me

Rachel’s sky stone

Today would have been my friend Rachel’s 67th birthday. She stopped getting older when she died of cancer this past December, age 66. She so wanted to see Donald Trump impeached but she didn’t quite make it. She died on the 14th. He was impeached on the 18th. I hope against hope that she got the word.

Rachel and I were colleagues at the Martha’s Vineyard Times a few eons ago. She was in production, typesetting ads, and she was the first person I knew who was computer-adept enough to customize her terminal with sound effects. These included a one-liner from Baby Sinclair, of the early 1990s TV series Dinosaurs, that cracked me up every time I heard it: “Mama say don’t talk to fridge!”

Rachel left the Vineyard for Vermont long time ago, but thanks to Facebook we managed to keep in touch. It helped that we were in more or less the same racket, i.e., freelancing in the publishing world, she as an indexer, I as a copyeditor. She was also a therapist, and an avid crafter (more about that in a minute).

Last October she made her last trip to the Vineyard. We met for lunch at the Little House. I knew her prognosis was grim and was surprised by how Rachel she was. She said she felt pretty normal but tired very easily, which was why she was only seeing a few people while she was here. I was honored to be one of the few.

She was sorry that she wouldn’t get to meet Tam Lin in person, having watched him growing up on Facebook. When I remember Rachel, animals are always in the picture, especially cats, birds, hens, and horses. For a while on the Vineyard she was the live-in manager of a cat sanctuary in Chilmark. She was devoted to animals in general, and particularly to the ones she cared for. Not surprisingly, she was a longtime vegetarian.

Rachel’s necklace

When we met for lunch, she gave me a necklace she had made for me, and a “sky stone.” The necklace was for keeping, but the sky stone was to be passed on when I was ready to let it go, either by giving it to someone or by leaving it in a place where anyone could find it. For now I’m holding on to it.

It’s happening more and more often, that friends and acquaintances pass on before they reach the age that I’m at now, and not as a result of war or other violence but from illness. I’m not now, and never have been, likely to die in war, or even from other forms of violence. I’m very likely to die of illness or other physical infirmity, and the older I get, the more likely it is to happen.

And the luckier I feel that it hasn’t happened yet.

So on Rachel’s birthday I’ve been remembering, humming, and singing a song I’ve known for a very long time: Holly Near’s “It Could Have Been Me.” She wrote it for a commemoration of Kent State — May 4, 1970, which for me, a student activist of not quite 19, was an “it could have been me” moment. She’s added verses over the years, but this may be the first version I heard, in the mid to late 1970s. “It could have been me / But instead it was you / So I’ll keep doing the work you were doing / As if I were two . . .”

Rachel didn’t live to see Trump impeached, but I did. And the work continues.


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April License Plate Report

Fewer cars on the road, and I’ve been driving less than usual — in the age of COVID-19 I attend meetings without leaving home — but I still scored two plates: North Carolina near the beginning of the month and Alabama near the end. North Carolina played hard to get this year, but finally the East Coast is complete. Except for Delaware, of course. Delaware is almost always the last Atlantic coast state to show up. Alabama is always a welcome find.

The West Coast is taking longer than usual. Since it’s only three states, it usually fills in quickly, even though those states are a long way off. C’mon, Washington!

That makes 35 states for the year so far. Both March and April have been behind the usual pace, for obvious reasons, and I wouldn’t be surprised if 2020 turned out to be a less-than-impressive year in the license plate game.

The summer season is, as you might guess, completely up in the air. Many high-attendance events have already been cancelled, including the annual Ag Fair. No word yet on Edgartown’s Fourth of July parade, but I’d be very surprised if that went on as usual. The state’s stay-at-home advisories include a ban on short-term rentals that aren’t for urgent uses, like housing health-care workers. The standing guideline that incomers should self-quarantine for 14 days would seem to preclude visits of less than that, never mind day-trippers.

The island economy is so dependent on the short summer season that there’s huge and widespread trepidation about this. Plenty of people and businesses here are close to the edge even in good times, and these times are emphatically not good. I am grateful that my income as a freelance editor isn’t seasonal and that so far I’ve got work — and my non-work life is busier than ever.

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Tam Goes AWOL

I knew I was pushing it. Malamutes are unreliable off-leash, or, as some veteran malamute owners put it, “They’re reliable — until they’re not.” But I don’t have easy access to an enclosed area where Tam can run, and he’s actually been pretty good playing soccer in the yard and chasing his squeaky ball in the yard or the driveway, or even on the dirt road we live on.

By late October, Tam was 8 months old, bigger than Ziggy but not as fast.

He had, however, interrupted a round of soccer (I kick, he chases) to bolt over to the neighbors’ when he heard his friend Ziggy outside. Tam and Ziggy play well together, though Tam is now more than twice Ziggy’s size. When they first met, this was not the case.

The problem at Ziggy’s house wasn’t Ziggy, it was the free-range chickens in and around the yard. Malamutes and livestock do not mix, and that includes fowl. It especially includes anything that runs. Chickens are not known for standing their ground when threatened. I caught up with Tam in time, but that was a warning. We played less soccer, and I paid closer attention to any sign that Ziggy was outside — all the while knowing that Tam can hear better and react a helluva lot faster than I can.

Still, our early morning routine didn’t change much. I get up, give Tam his breakfast, go downstairs to do my business, then come back upstairs to get dressed and take Tam out to do his business. This generally involves some playtime, with or without the squeaky ball. I run down the path. Tam chases me. Often he’ll get the zoomies and run in a big circle or figure 8 through the woods. In late January I was lucky enough to get a typical morning routine on video:

Watching him run, even on video, takes my breath away.

Even though I know: “They’re reliable — until they’re not.”

So last Wednesday morning we went out as usual. After a little playing around, Tam stood stock still, looked toward Pine Hill (the dirt road that runs behind the house), and took off. He did not run in a big circle and come up from behind me. He didn’t come back, and he didn’t come back, and he didn’t come back . . .

I jogged over to Ziggy’s house, though Tam had taken off in the opposite direction. No Tam, no nobody, and the hens weren’t out yet. I set out to drive around “the neighborhood.” On Pine Hill I met a guy walking who said Tam had taken off after a horseback rider. Aha. The horseback riders I meet around here mostly come from the Indian Hill/Christiantown area, on the other side of State Road. I continued my drive — up Pine Hill to the Dr. Fisher Road (including the godawful stretch with moguls that’ll destroy your undercarriage if you aren’t real careful), to Old County Road, and back on Halcyon Way, which is the (dirt) road I officially live on. As expected, no Tam.

Tam has very little car sense, but I was worried more about the damage he could do than the damage that might be done to him. I alerted the animal control officer (ACO), my closest neighbors, all of whom know Tam, and the MV Helping Animals Facebook group. Then I hit the road again, this time heading for Indian Hill Road and Christiantown.

The Dr. Fisher Road comes out next to the town dump on Old Stage Road, which is short — John Keene Excavation on one side, the back end of Vineyard Gardens on the other, and that’s it. I rolled to a halt at the State Road intersection — and what should I see across the street at Takemmy Farm, in a paddock with two ponies, but the AWOL Tam Lin. For a moment I thought I was hallucinating, or maybe this was some northern-breed look-alike who actually belonged there, but no: it was Tam. He looked like he was wondering Where am I? And where were you?

Tam, I should add, still has some of the separation anxiety he had when he was younger. When I go downstairs to the bathroom, he’s usually waiting at the top of the stairs for me to come back. But his disappearing out of my sight is not the same as my disappearing out of his. Until instinct-driven adrenaline wears off and I’m not there.

I drove through the intersection, parked on the shoulder, and went to rescue my dog. He was paying no attention to the ponies, and the ponies, peacefully grazing, were paying no attention to him. The rails of the post-and-rail fence were so close together that I couldn’t coax Tam between them, so I climbed over, attached leash to collar, and walked him out through the gate of the adjacent paddock, where a big gray Thoroughbred cross gazed at us and went on eating.

Back in the car, I called the ACO (I’d actually brought my cell phone with me) and left a message that Tam was found. I asked Tam how he’d managed to get into the paddock that he wasn’t able to squeeze out of, but he didn’t reply. Back at home, he hung out on the deck while I let everyone know he was OK and it was safe to let the chickens out.

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About That Rally . . .

From a distance Martha’s Vineyard, like planet earth, looks like a tidy, cohesive whole. That’s the front side of the knitting. Since not long after I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, I’ve found the backside more interesting. On the front the colors are distinct, the pattern clear. Only on the back do you see the connections, how each color gets from one place to another.

The backside of the Vineyard rose to prominence this past week, revealing mutual suspicions that ordinarily we submerge with mostly subconscious effort, all in the interest of the community we like to extol so highly. The Vineyard actually comprises multiple communities, some of which overlap a lot more than others, others of which are mutually suspicious, even hostile. Let’s have a closer look.

Starting last weekend, word went round that a “reopen” protest was planned for Five Corners on Wednesday afternoon, and that the Douglas family, owners of the Black Dog empire, were involved. Black Dog T-shirts and other swag have spread, dare I say, virally though not cheaply in recent decades, to the extent that many identify the Black Dog with the Vineyard, the Vineyard with the Black Dog. This drives at least some of us nuts. I like my breakfast burritos and peanut butter chocolate chip cookies but you won’t catch me dead in a Black Dog T-shirt.

This Facebook post was taken down once pushback started, but not before screenshots of it were in circulation.

Sure enough, a post promoting the event had appeared on Jamie Douglas’s Facebook timeline.

Despite the reasonable precautions (“Everyone will practice social distancing”; “smart and safe reopening”), the rhetoric echoes that used to promote the rallies held around the country in recent days: “FREEDOM AND LIBERTY TO WORK” and “The cure can’t be worse than the disease.”

National reporting, from the New York Times and multiple other reliable outlets, strongly suggests that these protests have been strongly backed if not instigated by big right-wing money. So far, there’s no indication that this was true of the Vineyard protest, but the Douglas family easily qualifies for the local 1%. The Black Dog website makes founder and patriarch Captain Robert Douglas out to be a plucky visionary, never mentioning his good fortune to have been born into one of the families that founded Quaker Oats.

Jamie Douglas’s Facebook post prompted immediate pushback, which predictably included calls to boycott all Black Dog enterprises. Blaming the Black Dog and/or the Douglas family is so much easier than holding the current administration accountable, and of course it helps that the Douglases are widely believed to be not only Republicans but Trump-supporting Republicans. (The boycott-the-Black-Dog website reportedly put up by business consultant India Rose has since gone private.)

The Martha’s Vineyard Times reported that the rally was off. Robbie Douglas, brother of Jamie and Black Dog CEO, was interviewed: “Our idea was to have a gathering or a rally just to ask some questions, which we thought were important to address.”

Then the Times updated its story to say that the rally was on again. The Douglases stepped back and Kenny MacDonald and Ben Ferry became the rally spokesmen. MacDonald was not new to the effort. Not only is he tagged in Jamie Douglas’s April 19 Facebook post, on Tuesday morning, April 21, he emailed his Statement to Town Governments to Edgartown administrator James Hagerty, who forwarded it to the administrators of the other five island towns. Its opening paragraph concludes: “However, the state and local governments’ usurpation of power during this crisis has alarmed me enough to act. I will be organizing a small peaceful demonstration on Martha’s Vineyard this Wednesday, April 22.”

Its tone is reasonable enough, but like Jamie Douglas’s Facebook post it relies on right-wing talking points and makes no reference to either why so many scientists and public officials consider stay-at-home orders essential, or the dismal failure of the administration to take COVID-19 seriously from the get-go. It does not demand that Congress and the administration do a better job of alleviating the terrible burdens that COVID-19 mitigation is putting on so many working people, including those who don’t have the option of staying home.

The rally did indeed take place as scheduled on Wednesday afternoon. It was small. As a friend commented: “By the numbers: Six people. Five Corners. Four reporters. Three people honked.” To be fair, “crowd” estimates did range as high as 10.

In a post to the Islanders Talk Facebook group that of course set off a firestorm, Ben Ferry wrote: “This has never been about Black Dog nor will it be in the future.” Well, yes and no. It’s certainly not only about the Black Dog, though the Douglases’ role does invite comparison with that of well-funded right-wing groups in supporting the “back to work” protests in other places.

So once again I’m trying to learn what I can learn from the backside of the knitting, the latest evidence that though Martha’s Vineyard may look like a cohesive community from a distance, it’s got fault lines like every other place, and economic stress exposes and exacerbates them. What am I noticing here?

  • Class distinctions here are real and woefully underacknowledged, but when these protesters mutter about trustafarians and privileged liberals, it’s hard not to notice that they’ve made common cause with residents of the Vineyard’s economic upper crust. This mirrors what’s been happening on the national level since the Tea Party rose to prominence a decade ago. Hmmm . . .
  • It’s been a truism since before the Women’s March of 2017 that “the resistance is female,” and on the Vineyard that’s largely true, but the Five Corners rally was mostly male. Ditto the construction workers who’ve been pushing hardest for the right to waive the stay-at-home orders and go back to work. (This happens in a limited way tomorrow, April 27.)
  • In his “statement to town governments,” Kenny MacDonald’s third sentence is “I have never directly involved myself in local, state, or national politics.” He seems to be offering this as a credential, a reason that town officials (who are by definition very much involved in local politics) should take him seriously. I hear this a lot on the Vineyard, and indeed, until the 2016 campaign I kept my distance from local, state, and national politics because they seemed pretty hopeless. This turns out to be another area where the view from a safe distance is deceiving.
  • Something that does unite a lot of us, right, left, and center, is the instinctive grab for simple explanations and simple cures. “Boycott the Black Dog!” “Reopen the economy now!” “They’re just Trump supporters!”

A question presses at the back of my mind: Once the worst is over and we’ve reached some accommodation with COVID-19, will we remember the fault lines that the disease has revealed — fault lines that were already obvious to some but not enough of us? And will we be moved to act?

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Around the World in 30 Years

looking backShirley Mayhew could have rested on her laurels after publishing Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard in 2014. It’s a lovely collection of personal essays covering, well, Shirley’s long life on Martha’s Vineyard, from 1947, when she arrived as the young bride of Vineyard native Johnny Mayhew, through 2014, when the book came out. For anyone interested in how Vineyard life has evolved over the decades, Looking Back offers the experiences and insights of an extraordinary “ordinary” woman whose observational skills are equaled only by her ability to express them in writing.

Lucky for us, Shirley did not rest on her laurels. (If you know Shirley, you know this was never an option.) She has continued to publish Vineyard-related op-eds and other essays in island publications, notably the Vineyard Gazette and Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. All the while she was also honing her travel essays in Cynthia Riggs’s Sunday writers group, which is how I got to know her and her work. In the last year she has self-published three collections of those essays: Around the World in Thirty Years (one of my favorite titles of all time), Living Life with the Grace of a Butterfly: Vineyard Essays, and, most recently, Paucartambo: A Midlife Adventure from Martha’s Vineyard to Peru.

All are available in paperback from Amazon. So are her children’s book, Islander:
The Circus Comes to Martha’s Vineyard,
with illustrations by Vineyard artist Linda Carnegie, and Seasons of a Vineyard Pond, which grew out of a college research project when Shirley went back to school in the 1960s. (Choose Books from the dropdown on the Amazon site, then search on “Shirley Mayhew” and you’ll find them all.)

Cover photo of Shirley in Termessos, Turkey.

In the introduction to Around the World in Thirty Years Shirley writes: “In 1972 I was 46 years old and had never been out of the country.” In the next decades she made up for lost time. Her husband, having done much of his growing up abroad and then serving as a navy pilot in World War II, had no desire to leave the island, so Shirley traveled solo, or with a friend, or with one of her daughters or, later, her granddaughters. She managed to visit not only a roster of countries that would do credit to a diplomat or a foreign correspondent but also quite a few of these United States.

Around the World opens, however, with “The Summer Mouse,” a charming story about a summer spent in Chilmark, the next town over from West Tisbury, where Shirley lives. Longtime Vineyarders will immediately get how appropriate this is: West Tisburyites tend to speak of Edgartown as if it’s somewhere near Nebraska, Edgartonians reciprocate, and most of us down-island of the Chilmark line think Aquinnah is on another planet. From Chilmark, the book jets to Russia and Ukraine, then back to the U.S. for a horseback trek in Colorado, and on to England, Kenya for “Tea with a Baboon,” a climb up Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, a wedding in New Delhi . . .

Several Around the World essays document Shirley’s experiences in Paucartambo, a village high in the Peruvian Andes. Lucky for us, Shirley collected these and more into a book of their own: Paucartambo: A Midlife Adventure from Martha’s Vineyard to Peru, which has just been released. In the preface she writes: “After being a tourist in eleven countries, I grew tired of being a tourist and visiting monuments and museums and famous sites surrounded by other tourists — I wanted to stay put long enough in a country to see how the rest of the world lived.”

In five sojourns over several summers, between 1983 and 1991, Shirley became part of village life, even becoming godmother to two children and patroness of one of the dance groups in the village’s annual fiesta, which attracts visitors from all around Peru.

Shirley is matter-of-fact about her own courage and resourcefulness, but seriously: this woman who’d never lived alone before, who had spent most of the previous 35 years surrounded by family and community on self-contained Martha’s Vineyard, set out to live in a remote village where almost no one spoke any English, when she had only rudimentary Spanish and nonexistent Quechua?

Once or twice she might have wondered if she was going to make it out in one piece, as in the hair-raising “Trucking into Cusco” in Around the World in 30 Years (a version of which is part of chapter 7 in Paucartambo), about riding what serves as public transportation in the high Andes, but she’s resilient: she listens, she adapts, she goes on — and she takes excellent photos.

More, she brought Paucartambo home to her middle-school students, who became engaged in raising funds to buy desks and other supplies for the Paucartambo school. Perhaps the most poignant story in Paucartambo takes place at the Edgartown School, where one of Shirley’s most reticent students becomes the project’s star fundraiser.

With one exception, and as its subtitle suggests, Living Life with the Grace of a Butterfly: Vineyard Essays sticks close to home. Family and community loom large in these pieces, many of which were first published as op-eds in the Vineyard Gazette. Family is integral even to the one travel piece: in “Nanny Diaries Meets Kris Kringle,” Shirley accompanies daughter Deborah to Finland as nanny to her infant granddaughter, Katie Ann (who is now Siren Mayhew, a stunning vocalist with a daughter of her own).

Taken individually, these essays are, as expected, variously charming, insightful, and poignant. I do wish that they’d been arranged somewhat chronologically, according to Shirley’s age at the time of the incidents they describe. Instead they jump back and forth from her years as a young bride to her old age after the death of her husband, frequently alighting on points in between. Because Shirley does often mention her age or that of her kids, it’s possible to improvise some sort of time sequence, but only infrequently does one glimpse just how much Martha’s Vineyard has changed over the decades since Shirley came here in 1947.

At the same time — well, to me, who tends to focus on the changes and what drives them, it’s reassuring to be reminded of the things that don’t change. Four generations of Mayhews are currently living not only on the same island, but in the same town. This is rare, and becoming rarer. In 2014, Shirley decided to throw an 88th birthday party for herself. Since so many of her old friends had passed, she invited “16 of the children of my deceased friends. All had grown up on the Vineyard and still lived here, and most had been born on the Island.”

Here’s how it went:

The first year I made lobster salad and bought tiramisu for dessert; the guests brought appetizers and salads. It was a real West Tisbury potluck party. While we sat around drinking wine and munching bluefish pate, I told them each an anecdote about their parents as I knew them long ago. I have found throughout my long life that most children pay little attention to their parents’ activities or early life. It seems to not occur to them that their mothers and fathers had a life before they were born.

And the next year she did it again.

It doesn’t occur to most summer people that the Vineyard has a life when they’re not here, or to most who move here that it had a life before they arrived. That’s only one of the reasons that you owe it to yourself to spend time with these books, but it’s a big one. Shirley is passing on stories of what happened before we got here, or just out of our line of sight if we’ve been here all along. Listen, and pass them on.


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Short version: It’s strange and (almost) normal at the same time.

We’ve been living with stay-at-home orders for more than a month now, and what I’ve realized is that I’m pretty much a stay-at-home person.

Except when I’m not.

I still work from home. I still take Tam out early so he can do his business (which usually includes racing through the woods several times in a big circle), go for a long walk in late morning, then stroll around the neighborhood in early evening, when it’s sometimes dark enough to wear my headlamp. I still do all my own cooking. Even in normal times, I rarely eat out. The only change there is that I no longer meet friends for the occasional breakfast, lunch, or coffee at the Black Dog Café.

Meetings of various kinds are still happening, but not the way they used to. More about that in a separate post. Suffice it to say here that I’m not yet a Zoom expert, but I’ve advanced well beyond the novice stage and now have my own paid Zoom account.

As discussed at some length in “Culinary Miscellany,” the big changes in my life have been around shopping, mostly but not entirely grocery shopping. Up-island Cronig’s, which I can walk to in 20 minutes, remains closed, so I’m not relying in it for fill-in-the-gap grocery runs. A few of my staples have grown scarce, like I haven’t seen long-grain brown rice on the shelves at either down-island Cronig’s or Reliable, and the co-op hasn’t had it either. The co-op does have short-grain brown rice, and a wild-and-brown-rice blend, so I’ve switched to those. The beans I use most often are hard to find too, in both their dried and canned forms, so when I do find them, into the cart they go.

Oat groats in a 5-pound jar

For me at the moment, luxury is having 10 pounds of oat groats in the cupboard. Usually I buy one or two pounds at a time from the bulk bins at up-island Cronig’s, but up-island Cronig’s is closed and the bulk bins are gone from the down-island store. Oat groats — with which I make my morning oatmeal — aren’t especially popular at the co-op either, so when I had the opportunity to score 10 pounds at once, I grabbed it.

You now need to be wearing a mask, or at least a face covering, to go into down-island Cronig’s or the Stop & Shops in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown, per order of the boards of health in those two towns. I didn’t realize this when I last visited Cronig’s, but the health agent at the door let me in when I pulled my turtleneck up over my nose and mouth. Many more people are wearing non-medical masks than were two weeks ago.

I had mixed feelings about this, and about boards of health dictates in general, but the last time I went into Reliable, where masks are not required, I rigged up a face covering with a bandana folded around a doubled-over coffee filter. Non-medical face coverings may be of limited use, but if they make the store staff on the front lines of the pandemic more comfortable, that’s a big plus.

I have, however, been won over to mask wearing, because Crooked Media is now selling a three-pack of non-medical masks for $20 plus shipping. Each mask has a message printed on it: THIS WAS PREVENTABLE, SUPPORT HEALTHCARE WORKERS, or VOTE! VOTE! VOTE! and the three-pack contains one of each. They’re made from recycled sweatshirts, and proceeds go to Crooked’s COVID-19 fund. I’ve ordered a set. You can too.

The first person who tells me I’m politicizing the pandemic is going to get an earful.

So, back to shopping and how COVID-19 has changed it . . .

Earlier this month Tam’s kibble supply was running short. In bygone days, when I needed dog food, I’d stop by SBS, the grain, gardening, and pet supply store, go to the cavernous back room where all the bulk bags are stacked on metal shelves, shoulder a bag of 20-pound bag of Entrust puppy food (does Tam still qualify?), and take it to the register, often picking up a toy or a treat en route. Two weeks ago SBS still had walk-in hours in the morning, but I was a little late for that, so I called in my order and wrote a check for the total amount before I left home. When I drove round back to the loading dock, the bag was waiting for me. I gave my check to the clerk and hit the road. Walk-in hours are no longer, but you can call in your order for feed, gardening supplies, etc., and have it delivered out front.

Another change: In early April, Cronig’s was already prohibiting bring-your-own bags (I’ve been bringing my own for years and keep a stash of cloth bags in the back of the car), but Reliable let me bring my own bag as long as I filled it myself. No longer. BYO bags are now verboten per order of the governor. This past Tuesday, my purchases were bagged in plastic. The irony here is that single-use plastic bags were banned last year. Now they’re back, and I’m not all that unhappy about it because I used to use them for wastebasket liners and I ran out months ago.

By the way, it’s been four weeks since I got $60 from an ATM, and two of those three $20 bills are still in my wallet. The third went for quarters to do laundry with. Martha’s Vineyard is the kind of place where cash, and checks, still circulate in normal times, but in these abnormal times I’m reaching for plastic to cover those small amounts I would previously have paid for with paper. Ordinarily I don’t think too hard about where those dollar bills have been before they get to my wallet, any more than I think too hard about where Tam’s tongue has been before he licks me in the face.

One last thing: Has anyone else noticed that the objects they depend on most waited till all the non-essential shops closed to really screw up? Malvina Forester makes a strange rattling sound when I turn the key. It stops after a few seconds but it definitely doesn’t sound right. Auto mechanics are considered essential services, but I’ve been holding off because social distancing and, well, Malvina is so disheveled these days she looks like a breeding ground for all sorts of diseases. Tomorrow I’m calling my mechanic.

Tam checks out Kore. Need I say this was a while ago, like last June. Tam has grown. Kore has just gotten sticky.

Kore, the laptop on which I do all my work and a lot of my play, has had a sticky keyboard for some time. She’s been getting slower and slower, which isn’t all that surprising because she’s 4 1/2 years old. She’s probably due for replacement, but first I wanted to see if anything could be done to speed her up, and if it could, I’d spring for a deep keyboard clean. I put this off, however, because I’ve got a whopping dental bill to pay off. Then came the stay-at-home order, and almost immediately afterwards Kore’s ALT key stopped working.

If you don’t use Windows and if you don’t rely heavily on keyboard shortcuts, you probably don’t realize what a disaster this is.

I put up with it for a while. The tech department at Edu-Comp is only open to those with service contracts, and while the store is closed, they’re only selling in-stock Apple laptops, iPads, printers, and ink. Finally the frustration overwhelmed my desire to buy local whenever possible, so I ordered a wireless keyboard from Staples. It’s supposed to arrive tomorrow.

Life won’t return to “normal” any time soon, but at least I’ll have my ALT key back.

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“Going viral” has been idiomatic English for quite a while. Just about everybody, or everybody with an internet connection, knows what it means: a meme or image, story or video, goes viral when it’s diffused far and wide through the efforts of individuals. Thanks to COVID-19 many of us are taking a closer look at where it came from — at the literal meaning.

When I heard for the first time that something had gone viral (or registered that I’d heard it), I was mystified for a few moments before I got the gist. It was probably around the time I got on Facebook, in January 2011: plenty of expressions and abbreviations entered my lexicon around then.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (online), however, dates “viral marketing” to 1989: “marketing designed to disseminate information (as about a new product) very rapidly by making it likely to be passed from person to person especially via electronic means.” The concept had clearly been out there for a while, but the rise of social media in the late 2000s multiply multiplied the very in “very rapidly.”

Thanks to COVID-19, we’re being reminded of the literal meaning of “viral.” Viruses go viral. By definition. It’s what they do. Some are slower about it than others; others are speedy. Some, like the common cold, are relatively harmless to most people; others, like Ebola, are deadly. COVID-19 combines the worst of both worlds: it’s highly contagious, and it has a high mortality rate. There are indications that some who survive serious cases sustain damage to kidneys, heart, liver, and other organs, as well as lungs.

Because COVID-19 is so new, there’s as yet no vaccine and no cure. Neither vaccines nor cures come into existence overnight. The inadequacy of testing equipment and uncertainty about the tests have so far made it hard to tell who has it, or has had it, and whether having it once confers immunity against getting it again. That’s a lot of unknowns.

In an online discussion among editors earlier this week, one participant said that thanks to COVID-19 she was having reservations about using the expression “go viral,” although she’d be happy if one of her blog posts went viral.

This brought me up short, in part because I’ve never thought of “going viral” as an unmitigated good thing. For sure there are plenty of instances where a video gone viral has, say, provided important and decisive evidence of police brutality, but there are also plenty of instances where manipulated videos or clips taken out of context go viral, planting distortions and outright lies in millions of minds. And don’t get me started about all those memes that distill complex information into a compact, easy-to-share image, or the sketchy “news” stories that are shared totally on the basis of their often-misleading headlines.

The advent of COVID-19 actually has me pondering just how appropriate the expression “go viral” is, how true to its literal roots, and how the measures being taken to curb the spread of COVID-19 and “flatten the curve” might be useful in curbing the spread of the more mendacious memes, videos, and such.

For one thing, COVID-19 has made us much more conscious of our contact with other people, and with inanimate surfaces. When images and videos go viral, it’s often because hundreds of thousands of people are on semi-automatic pilot. Back in the day, we thought forwarding emails was easy. Compared to photocopying and mailing a letter, it was. But compared to sharing on social media, it’s almost rocket science. That’s so cute! Click. That’s horrible! Click. Can you believe this? Click.

COVID-19 has also reminded even the math-impaired among us of what “exponential” means. You share that outrageous photo with five people. Each one of them shares it with five people, then each one of them shares it with five people. Before long the photo has been shared with 3,125 people — then you learn that the outrageous photo was cleverly Photoshopped and the event it depicts never happened. Can you then reach all 3,125, or 15,625, or 78,125 people and say “Never mind”? You cannot.

As Mark Twain didn’t say, but C. H. Spurgeon did, ca. 1859, “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” This wasn’t an especially novel observation in 1859 because in 1710 Jonathan Swift wrote “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

So I’ll continue to say that this, that, or the other thing has gone viral, but with renewed appreciation for the appropriateness of the metaphor.

Intriguingly enough, when I look for synonyms to “go viral,” the one that keeps coming up is “spread like wildfire.” Now there’s a simile that could stand closer inspection.

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