Year-End License Plate Report 2019

You probably surmised from the lack of a November license plate post that there was nothing new to report. There wasn’t. December was a bust as well, not surprisingly, so the map looks just like it did at the end of August. This is par for the course. The last four months of the year rarely yield more than three or four new plates, and usually it’s less than that.

2019 does go down in my license plate history as the year that North Dakota showed up, the first time in over two decades. And in February. That’s big.

Now January is upon us, and January is the most fun month in the license plate game. There are only five states on the map at the moment, mainly because I’ve barely been on the road at all, and all five — Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Connecticut — are predictable. Often, though, something from farther afield turns up in the top five or so: one year it was Louisiana facrissake. And some New England states are harder to get than you’d expect, like in 2019 New Hampshire and Maine were #16 and #18 respectively.

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De-cluttering Before Breakfast

Not long after getting up on New Year’s Day I knocked some papers off my workside table. This was nothing new. What happened next was: I straightened up — “excavated” is probably the better word — the table’s top.

This was not — I repeat, not — the result of any New Year’s resolution. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I do, however, keep a running “to-do” list, and this had been on it for a couple of months already.

Any visitor to my studio apartment might guess that I have a high tolerance for clutter, and they would be right. There is, however, a limit to my tolerance. My workside table exists so that certain necessities are ready to hand when I want them, but there were so many papers, folders, and clipboards piled on top of my reference books that I rarely risked pulling one out, and the stack of papers, folders, notebooks, flyers, magazines, and newspapers next to the books was close to a foot high. More to the point, I had no idea what was in there and I didn’t dare look.

Transit station for paper overflow, partially sorted. Unsorted pile is at right. Piles include one for each of my two credit cards, an unruly stack of health insurance stuff, and material from various political projects.

So I went to it. First I moved the stack of papers to my bed. Here’s what they looked like with the pile only half sorted. One of my goals was to extract the credit card statements so I could enter them into Quicken in preparation for getting my 2019 tax stuff together. (This had likewise been on my to-do list for several months.)

No, I did not take a “before” picture.

Next step was to get real about what reference books I actually used. I hadn’t opened Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary since I subscribed online. I didn’t need the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style either; I subscribe to that, too, and besides, the 17th edition (which I do consult regularly) is on the floor next to my work chair. And did I really need four years’ worth of the island phonebook?

My stripped-down reference shelf, with pens at the ready

I kept Words Into Type, The Copyeditor’s Handbook, two years’ worth of the island phonebook, and the user guide for Serif PhotoPlus X7. To them I added two frequently consulted books that kept getting lost in the chaos on the other side of my work chair: The Writer’s Chapbook and the AA 12 + 12.

Please don’t be rolling your eyes at the clipboard on top of the books. It holds the attendance sheet from the last MV Democrats meeting, for which I’m currently writing up the minutes. The postcards on top are ready to mail: they’re going to Democrats in Kentucky’s 38th state senate district, urging them to vote for Andrew Bailey in the January 14 special election. In other words, they aren’t going to be there long enough for me to pile more stuff on top of them. OK?

As I said at the beginning, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I have heard that how you spend New Year’s Day affects how you’ll spend the year — or maybe it’s that you should spend New Year’s Day doing what you want to do the rest of the year? I scratched one item off my to-do list (clean up papers), got started on another (enter credit card statements in Quicken), and generally made my workspace a little more workable. This is all about getting ready and it’s a good thing too: 2020 is going to be a watershed year for the country and the world.

In fairness I should also note — as you may have already noticed — that this New Year’s Day post wasn’t written till January 2, and the MV Dems minutes are once again getting written up at the last minute. So it’s not like I’ve turned over a new leaf or anything. It is, however, satisfying to brush by my workside table without knocking anything to the floor.

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Every Once in a While . . .

. . . living on Martha’s Vineyard seems worth the tradeoffs: the high cost of living, the rent insecurity, the widespread head-in-the-sand attitude to long-term challenges, and so on and on. Unfortunately there’s plenty of sand around for people to hide their heads in, but fortunately sand is good for other things too, like walking on in the off-season.

So late yesterday afternoon, after picking up mail at the post office and onions at up-island Cronig’s, Tam and I headed for Lambert’s Cove Beach. The lower end of Lambert’s Cove Road is currently closed thanks to a washout and the discovery of first one sinkhole then another where Smith Brook runs under the road. Fortunately that’s on the Tisbury side and well past the parking area for the beach. There were only a couple of other cars there when Tam and I pulled in.

dog running on beach

Tam runs

We hadn’t been to the beach since June, when Tam was small (remember when?) and not yet three months old. That trip was for an attempted photo shoot that didn’t work out because two other puppies were involved and Tam didn’t want to play with them; he was overwhelmed by the unfamiliar place and all the commotion. This time we had the beach almost to ourselves. I took a chance and dropped his leash.

I never did this with Travvy. He didn’t have a reliable off-leash “come” (experienced malamute handlers say that even well-trained mals have a reliable “come” — until they don’t), but, more important, he wasn’t comfortable with other dogs, and some of them he didn’t get along with. So I didn’t trust him loose if there was any chance an off-leash dog might appear, which was pretty much always.

dog sniffing beach grass

Tam explores

Tam, on the other hand, has had more opportunities to play with other dogs, and he’s gotten along with all of them.  His “come” isn’t 100% reliable by any means — not only is he a malamute, he’s an adolescent malamute — but it mostly works unless he’s super-distracted. He’s also got some separation anxiety, which has turned out to have an upside: he doesn’t want me to stray too far from him.

I finally took his leash off altogether. He had a blast, exploring the beach grass at the base of the dunes, flirting with the waves (which as usual on this beach were pretty tame), and figuring out how to cross the two streams that bisect the beach.

Doesn’t it just look as if some creatures have clawed their way to the top? Maybe they’re roaming around Makonikey even now.

I love the dunes on Lambert’s Cove Beach. Some of them look as if a giant monster has clawed its way to the top. Giles Kelleher, an artist character in Wolfie, my novel in progress, has been working on a series of beach paintings in which semi-visible creatures seem to be trying to escape from inside the dunes — where in heaven’s name did he get that idea? If I could paint or draw, I wouldn’t just write about it.

We went all the way to Split Rock before heading back.

By then the sun had set, and since the day was overcast to begin with, it was getting dark. In the distance up ahead, lights shone from near where Katharine Graham’s Mohu estate once stood. (The bulk of the Graham property changed hands for $32.5 million this past January.)

By then there was no one else on the beach — not that I could see anyway. Tam came when I called, I reattached his leash, and we scrambled up the sandy rise to the path that leads to the parking area.

dog on beach



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On Paying for Local News

Just before Thanksgiving, the Martha’s Vineyard Times announced that as of January 2, 2020, it would be going to a paid-subscription model. This is a big deal. Founded in 1984, the paper has been delivered free to all Vineyard postal patrons since 1986.

As longtime editor in chief Doug Cabral noted of the decision, “It changed things dramatically. . . . We tried to be the Islander’s newspaper rather than the summer visitor’s newspaper. We worked hard to try to claim that ground and protect it. It was a success. It was a risk. But 1986 is a lot different from 2019.”

It was a daring move, but you have to read between Doug’s lines to get why it was so brilliant. “The summer visitor’s newspaper” is code for the Vineyard Gazette, founded in 1846 and still a classic black-and-white broadsheet printed on the paper’s own press. What the M.V. Times‘s  bold move did, among other things, was make it very attractive to advertisers. For local businesses that could only afford to advertise in one paper, the Times, with its saturation year-round circulation, became the obvious choice.

Blast from the past, October 1993: Me checking the boards at the M.V. Times back in the Pleistocene, when all copy was cut with Xacto knives and pasted up with wax. By the end of the decade everything was digital.

The Gazette did not take this lying down. I came on board at the Times in 1987 or 1988, first as a temp typesetter, then as a part-time proofreader, and eventually, in 1991, as the paper’s second-ever features editor. Rivalry reigned during those years. Neither paper would mention the other by name. The Gazette referred to the Times as “the other paper.” The Times referred to the Gazette as “an Edgartown weekly.” I remember at least one full-page house ad in the Gazette that featured an illustration of a trash barrel at the post office brimming full of discarded issues of the Times, implying that this was where your advertising dollars wound up.

Reporters, editors, and photographers from the two papers crossed paths regularly at government meetings and other events. My recollection is that these encounters were mostly amicable though sometimes they did get testy. On the management level, part of the resentment might have had something to do with the fact that Doug Cabral had learned the trade as managing editor of the Gazette and then taken his experience to its up-and-coming competitor.

Going freebie (and at about the same time adopting a tabloid format) was indeed a daring and successful move, but as Doug noted, “1986 is a lot different from 2019.”

It sure is. The newspaper business has been in decline for many years, and as the M.V. Times story cited above notes, “Daily newspapers have lost $30 billion since 2005, and haven’t enjoyed a single positive revenue year since before 2008.” Local weeklies have been hard hit as well. The ubiquity of the internet and especially social media has played a huge role.

So has the popular belief that if you can get it for free, you shouldn’t have to pay for it. The digital age has exacerbated this belief for sure, but it’s firmly rooted in something I observed as a feminist bookseller in the 1980s: almost every time, consumers will go for short-term advantages like convenience and a cheaper price over the longer-term survival of institutions they claim to value. Independent bookstores were almost extinguished by the big chains — which in turn have been almost extinguished by Amazon.

With local and regional newspapers as with independent bookstores and “main street” shops, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” (thank you, Joni Mitchell). New York Times columnist David Leonhardt devoted his Dec. 10 newsletter to the significance of local journalism. Studies have shown, he wrote, that “when newspapers shrink or close, voter turnout and civic engagement tend to decline, while political corruption and polarization rise.”

Diligent local reporting can bring important issues to the attention of regional and national news media, whereupon we find out that these issues are not “just local.” (Few issues are!) Good reporting doesn’t come cheap. It demands so much more than doing online searches and quoting public officials. When budgets have to be slashed, it’s the reporters and editors who lose their jobs.

So what’s our way out of this mess? Effective government at all levels depends on a vital press (you can see why I want to avoid the word “free” here!), but “the market” is doing a lousy job of providing it. Writes Leonhardt: “But unlike many other public goods, such as libraries, schools and roads, journalism can’t be funded by the government without violating the spirit of a free press. Philanthropy must fill the void, [John] Thornton says.”

John Thornton is a venture capitalist and a co-founder of the American Journalism Project, in its own words “a new venture philanthropy organization dedicated to local news.” In 2008, he founded the Texas Tribune, a “member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization.” Elizabeth Green, the AJP’s other co-founder, has an extensive background in journalism. The project’s mission is to encourage “social entrepreneurs in building sustainable, nonproft news organizations where they live” through grants and other forms of support.

I like the idea, and it’s inspiring to read about the innovative work being done by the first round of grant recipients. I do have big reservations about relying on philanthropy, which even in its beneficial, or at least less-harmful, incarnations allots great power to the very wealthy. “Dark money,” after all, when it’s being channeled into think tanks and educational institutions, is a form of philanthropy.

So I wholeheartedly back Leonhardt’s advice: “If your area has a new nonprofit publication you like, support it — by reading it, engaging with it through both praise and criticism and, yes, sending it some money.”

My #1 resolution after the catastrophic 2016 election was to start subscribing to the media I relied on most heavily for solid news and commentary. The roster now includes the Washington Post, The Guardian (both US and UK editions), The American Prospect, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Foreign Affairs. I also support the paid version of two podcasts: Preet Bharara and Anne Milgram’s Café Insider (focus on the law) and Deep State Radio (focus on foreign affairs, with plenty of attention to the U.S.). Since my budget is limited, I disable my ad blocker on good sites that I value but use less frequently and don’t pay for.

And now I’m trotting off to subscribe to the Martha’s Vineyard Times, which I’ve received for free since 1986, for which I once worked, and which I depend on for news about local events. For good measure, I’m going to give some money to the Vineyard Gazette, even though they haven’t threatened to cut me off if I don’t.

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damaged car front

Malvina’s deer damage

In 2019 my car and my teeth have eaten up most of my disposable income. More than my disposable income: the rear brake job in the spring took three months to pay off, and it’s just been joined by the front suspension job that got put off too long because, well, a deer hit Malvina Forester at the end of September as we headed home from a political work meeting (writing thank-you notes to people who’d contributed to Indivisible MVY’s #DitchMitch2020 fundraiser).

My insurance company is covering about two-thirds of the repair for that but since the work couldn’t be scheduled before mid-January I haven’t shelled anything out yet. The headlight works, the car is drivable, so I’m driving it. The delay had less to do with money than my unwillingness to contemplate one more car expense.

Meanwhile, in November, a molar in the upper-left side of my mouth (known to my dentist as #15) broke and then broke again, leaving a remnant that felt to my tongue like a particularly daunting ridge in the Himalayas. I am now on the road to an implant, which I’m told is going to cost around $3,000 total. I’ve already shelled out about a third of that for the extraction and bone graft.

Oh, and I’ve left out the dog-related expenses. Travvy’s last days did not come cheap, then there was the road trip to upstate New York to pick up puppy Tam Lin (during which the odd scraping noise began that turned out to be a sign that Malvina’s rear brakes were failing). But these exist in another budgetary dimension. At best, dental bills and car repair bills make it possible to keep moving in a forward direction, sort of like paying a toll on the toll road. Dog bills are different. Travvy, Rhodry before him, and now Tam Lin live and breathe and expand my world. Malvina Forester has a name, but she isn’t a dog.

So, a couple of observations:

(1) Recent surveys have shown that about a significant number of USians would have a hard time covering a $400 emergency expense. I am grateful that I am not one of them. I have two credit cards, money in the bank, and enough work (and, now, Social Security) to pay my usual bills. It would take a much larger expense, like a medical emergency with major rehab, to exhaust my resources.

(2) My response to the much-larger-than-usual car bills and dental bills was not to cut all non-essentials out of my budget till the plastic was paid off. Quite the contrary: I indulged myself in several non-essentials either that I’d been putting off (because I’m cheap) or that simply give me pleasure. For instance —

My ancient Birkenstock knockoffs have been in need of replacement for years. The soles were worn nearly through, and the leather had stretched enough that even on the snuggest hole the strap was sliding off my heel. Every spring, though, it was “Oh, they’ll make it through another summer.”

new brown boots

My new boots

Well, summer was well over when I saw an online ad for Earth sandals that looked good. I ordered a pair. They arrived. They fit perfectly — and because I was a first-time customer they came with a limited-time 20% off coupon. Thus incentivized (!!), I conceived a longing for a pair of Earth boots: Couldn’t I use a somewhat dressier but equally comfortable alternative to my usual hiking boots? I went back to the Earth site several times over the next week or so, and well before my coupon expired I splurged.

Somewhere in there I lost patience with my headlamp, which drained its batteries even when it wasn’t on. It’s not sandals season but it’s definitely headlamp season: Tam and I will be walking after dark most days until the spring equinox. The selection on my usual go-to sites — REI, Duluth Trading, and L.L. Bean — was daunting, but I finally settled on a Third Eye headlamp from REI, partly because it came with a cool headband.

While I was at it, I ordered new rechargeable AAA batteries — the old ones were several years old and didn’t seem to be keeping their juice very long — and a new recharger, because some slots in the old one no longer work. I hate throwing things out almost as much as I hate buying new stuff, but there comes a time . . .

See what I mean? Open the purse strings for unavoidable, less-than-pleasant expenses and the money comes flowing out for things that make me happy.

two pens in boxesFinally, the pièce de resistance, the splurge I can’t begin to justify with any appeal to necessity: the two new pens I blogged about a couple weeks ago. These pens, one a ballpoint, the other a rollerball, write beautifully, feel good in my hand, and give me pleasure to look at. Yesterday a clerk admired the flaming orange one when I pulled it out to write a check with. I’m seriously considering visiting pen maker Bill Giordano at the Edgartown Christmas craft fair this weekend to get one of his beautiful wood-grain pens.

I may have overdone it this time, but maybe not: The bills will get paid, and though there’s satisfaction in a car that runs well and a broken tooth that will eventually be replaced, I get serious pleasure from the well-made things that become part of my daily life.

A lesson I learned in the mid-1990s during a spate of unemployment: I’ve never had an eat-out budget, but at that cash-strapped time even buying a take-out muffin or bagel seemed irresponsible. Nevertheless I sometimes ventured into a deli that no longer exists, ordered a bagel with cream cheese and a small coffee, and sat down to read and eat at leisure. At some point I got to talking with the proprietor about this, and she noted that when you were the most hard up, that was when it was most important to indulge yourself — to do things for yourself that give you pleasure.

I remember her and that long-gone deli often. I’m pretty frugal, though true to my New England heritage, I’d rather spend my money on a few pricey things that last than on many cheap things that don’t. I’ve also noticed over the years that self-denial can turn into a compulsion, and when it does, it’s often accompanied by a need to censure anyone with limited income who buys something the censurer considers extravagant. If the censurers indulged themselves from time to time, maybe they’d loosen up on the rest of us.

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Hunting Season

Me, my orange vest, and my malamute puppy sweater.

It’s Sunday in the middle of shotgun deer season and there’s no hunting on Sunday so I didn’t wear my orange vest when Tam and I went out this morning.

Shotgun deer season began the Monday after Thanksgiving and runs through Saturday, Dec. 14. I don’t go into the state forest during shotgun season, though my regular walking routes include a stretch of bike path that runs alongside it. Sometimes I see hunters way off in the distance down the fire lanes, but not so far this year.

So far this year I haven’t seen hunters on Pine Hill Road either. There’s private land open for hunting on one side of Pine Hill. Thanks to the Land Bank, there’s a public trail through that hilly, thickly wooded area, but it’s closed from September 1 through the end of February, which covers virtually all the Vineyard’s hunting seasons.

The hunters I’ve encountered on Pine Hill invariably admired Travvy, who was always with me when I walked that way. We’d joke about how it’s lucky there’s no wolf season on Martha’s Vineyard because Trav might be mistaken for one. So might Tam Lin, but the hunters haven’t met him yet. Some people dress their dogs in orange, but I don’t.

I’ve blogged about hunting before (see, for instance, “Shotgun Season,” from 2015, and “Blaze Orange,” from 2014), but when shotgun season rolls around each year I think about how moving to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985 changed – or maybe “deepened” or “expanded” is the better word – my attitude toward guns. I haven’t shot a gun since I was about 11 years old. No one in my family hunted. My father did own a .22 and a couple of times I got to use it for target practice. During my city years, roughly from 1969 to 1985, firearms were the prerogative of men I didn’t trust: law enforcement, domestic abusers, and criminals (which categories sometimes overlapped).

Within a year or so of moving to the Vineyard, I knew a few hunters and had friends whose friends and family members were hunters, or had hunted in their younger years. No longer could I see hunters, or gun owners more generally, as the Other, as a monolithic, overwhelmingly male demographic that got off on killing things, or maybe just the idea that they could kill things. Hunting, like fishing, like farming, was a way of putting food on the table. Even if one opposes the practice of turning animals into food, that isn’t only, or even primarily, about hunting. Most of the meat we carnivores eat is raised for that purpose, not shot in the wild.

Recently a Facebook friend railed against hunting for sport — shotgun season inevitably flushes out posts like this — and several responded by noting that on the Vineyard most hunting is for food. Some added their own hunting stories, or mentioned the neighbor who always gifts them with venison this time of year.

Hunting, I learned in my early Vineyard years, is also a family tradition, and integral to an island way of life that stretches back many generations, to before the Europeans got here. It’s no longer necessary in the same way, but neither are many of the other traditions that present-day Vineyarders are dedicated to keeping alive, from institutions like the Agricultural Fair, to crafts like spinning, weaving, and quilting, to livestock raising and farming.

In politics (where I spend a lot of time these days) George Santayana’s famous line is often quoted and misquoted: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’d add that those who cannot remember the past of the place they live in have lost something precious, and if you cannot remember it because you never experienced it firsthand, there are other ways of learning it.

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On Living in Bubbles

I’ve been accused of living in a bubble. It’s true: I live in a bubble. Several bubbles.

bubblesBubbles have a bad rap. If someone accuses you of living in a bubble, they generally mean you associate only with people who think like you and live lives that look a lot like yours.

True, some people do this. It’s the only way I can explain, say, the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. Their inability to grapple with, or even hear, uncomfortable information is a common symptom of living in the kind of bubble that includes only people who think like you. This makes it difficult to defend your ideas to people who don’t share them without going on the attack, whereupon many people will give up trying to communicate with you except on neutral subjects — whereupon you may accuse them of living in a bubble.

Not all bubbles are like that. Some bubbles are more like workshops, where a team works together on a common project without continual interruptions from outside. Or like master classes, where a certain degree of preparation is required so that participants can reach for the next level. Let’s acknowledge that living in a bubble can be a good thing, especially when we live in several bubbles at once — as many of us do.

At the moment I live in a Martha’s Vineyard bubble, a feminist bubble, a woman bubble, a white bubble, a blue-state Democrat bubble, a writer bubble, an editor bubble, a dog-owner bubble (which contains a sub-bubble for roommates of Alaskan malamutes), and a tenant bubble. For starters.

When I lived and worked in the D.C. women’s community, roughly from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, people sometimes asked me “But aren’t you limiting yourself?” It hadn’t occurred to me that I might be limiting myself because my knowledge of history, music, ideas, writing, art, and what women were up to across the country and around the world was expanding so rapidly. But of course the question had a subtext, and the subtext was “if you’re focusing on women, you’re leaving out the really important stuff, like, you know, men.”

When I moved from D.C. to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985, I expected some culture shock, and I got it: Almost no one read the same authors or listened to the same music that I did. No one said the word “lesbian” out loud. AIDS didn’t become a household word for several more years, and when it did people talked about it as if it could only be contracted through blood transfusions or dirty needles. At the same time, I’d grown up in small-town Massachusetts, so people looked and sounded pretty familiar. As in D.C., everybody seemed to know everybody else’s business and the grapevine was a major source of news.

But before long I started to see my women’s community experience through a Vineyard lens, as well as the Vineyard through a lens colored by years in a diverse, politically engaged community. Nearly everyone I knew in D.C. was born within 15 or 20 years of each other. We were in our mid-20s to early 40s. Many of us had fled families and/or churches that ranged from indifferent to hostile to violent. Most of us knew few of each other’s relatives.

Within a few years on the Vineyard, my acquaintance ranged from kids in single digits to people in their 80s and even 90s. Those who’d grown up here were, it seemed, related to half the island. Family, I realized, could be a curse, or at least a cross to bear, but it could also provide the network that got you through hard times and helped raise your kids. Churches played a similar role, as well as providing meeting space for 12-step programs and rehearsal space for concerts and theater productions. It also seemed that, at least for the Protestants, the feel of the congregation and the personality of the pastor were more decisive than doctrine in choosing a parish.

So I wound up with a deeper understanding of why some people saw religion as an enemy and others embraced it as essential to community life, and why some defended the so-called “traditional family” and others were actively engaged in transforming it in ways that some traditionalists abhorred. The complex inter-relationships of the Vineyard make for frustrating politics: people who’ve lived here a long time are often reluctant to speak out on remotely controversial issues, which means the lead often goes to single people (without multiple family connections) and relatively recent arrivals.

On the other hand, the D.C. women’s community lacked the ballast that can keep controversies from turning into bloodbaths. For all our incessant talk about “community,” we often didn’t step back long enough to consider what effect our words and deeds might have on the whole bubble, as opposed to our particular sub-bubbles.

Substitute “the country” for “community” in the preceding sentence and the result has plenty of truth to it. “The country” may be too damn big, diverse, and amorphous for any single one of us to grasp the whole of it: I have a hard enough time making generalizations about “Martha’s Vineyard” or “the D.C. women’s community.” But on the whole I believe that people who live in several bubbles and are willing to keep making translations between them are our best hope for holding the country, and the world, together.

NOTE: My feminist buddies will probably realize that the imagery in that last sentence owes a lot to Donna Kate Rushin’s “The Bridge Poem” (1981) and the book it gave a title to: This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, first published in 1981 and now in its fourth edition.

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A Tale of Two (More) Pens

Yesterday I went to see a man about a pen.

Turned out to be two pens: it could have been more, but I restrained myself.

thirteen fountain pens

My pen collection as of yesterday morning

If you know me, you know I’m a pen junkie. I have more fountain pens, and more bottles of ink, than any writer needs — even a writer who does most of her first-draft writing in longhand because her internal editor can’t read, and therefore can’t mess with, her barely legible handwriting.

However, being a cautious type, I don’t carry fountain pens around in my pocket, carry-all, or backpack. Not that any of my pens leak, but there’s always a chance . . . There’s also the possibility that a pen might run dry on the road, and no way am I going to tote a bottle of ink around with me.

ink bottles

Ink bottles pose for the camera. As you can tell, I’m a mail-order customer of Fahrney’s Pens in D.C.

Besides, which one(s) would I take with, and which would I leave at home?

So I pack a ballpoint or two. For a long time generic disposables were good enough, but then a Pelikan fountain pen I wanted — the one at far right in the photo above — came bundled with a matching ballpoint. I was hooked.

Then, earlier this year, I left it behind. Not for the first time, but this time I didn’t remember where and it hasn’t managed to find its way home. I went back to generic disposables, but it wasn’t the same. I browsed the Fahrney’s Pen catalogue, pen porn at its finest, but nothing caught my eye. (Visiting the Fahrney’s website just now, however, an “Inkvent Calendar” caught my eye immediately. OMG! An Advent calendar in which each day’s little door conceals a mini-bottle of high-class ink! The price tag, however, is $90. If you’re hankering to buy me a present for Christmas, New Year’s, Tam’s birthday [March], or my birthday [June], or just for the hell of it . . .)

Time passed. Earlier this fall, I think in a Facebook thread, I became aware of a Vineyard guy who makes pens. If you know the Vineyard, you can probably guess that Bill Giordano is in the restaurant business; he makes pens as a hobby, doesn’t sell through any Vineyard shop, maintains only a barebones presence on Etsy, but does sell at Edgartown’s Christmas craft fair in December. I made contact and learned (1) that he makes ballpoint, rollerball, and fountain pens, all hand-turned and all able to use commercial refills; and (2) that he’s willing to travel.

I didn’t want to wait till December. We played email tag for a while, and finally . . .

Yesterday I went to see a man about a pen, at the Black Dog Café in Vineyard Haven.

Maybe I should have been anxious. What if I didn’t recognize the guy? What if none of his wares said I’m the one?

No problem on either count. Pens are not large, so Bill could bring considerable inventory to the table (literally). I was wowed. He showed me how the mechanisms worked. I picked two, one rollerball and one ballpoint. My only regret is that I didn’t go for one of his wood pens, which make gorgeous use of the wood grain and are unlike anything else in my collection. So I might make the Edgartown Christmas craft fair after all . . .

two pens

My new pens on a blank sheet of paper

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Post-Veterans Day Musing

I don’t “celebrate” Veterans Day but I do indeed observe it. I notice. I take note.

Coming of political age during the Vietnam War, I was not favorably disposed to either the military or the U.S. government. In the decades since, my perspective has become more — what? complex? nuanced? Still, it’s more than mildly disconcerting that, thanks to the lawlessness of the Trump administration, the gobsmacking gutlessless of congressional Republicans, and the not-as-outlandish-as-it-should-be idea that Trump might refuse to leave office voluntarily, I’ve sometimes thought “If worse really does come to worst, the military is our only hope.”

Souvenir of my first big demonstration, the Vietnam Moratorium, October 15, 1969

While interned at the Washington Coliseum for sitting on the Capitol steps during the Mayday demonstrations of 1971, I struck up a conversation with a young National Guardsman. He said that if he wasn’t on duty, he’d be “in there with you.” He talked about why he’d joined the Guard: part of it was steady employment that came with educational opportunities that I took for granted because of the family I’d been born into.

In my D.C. days, when I was working at the national HQ of the American Red Cross, my friends and drinking buddies included several vets, including one “lifer” who had served his 20 years, retired in his early 40s, and was now working for USA Today. Having both a pension and a salary to live on struck me as pretty cool — but I couldn’t imagine myself following orders for 20 years in the military.

I started college as an Arabic major with the vague idea of going into the Foreign Service. The antiwar movement was a crash course in U.S. foreign policy.  As a teenage Arabist, I was already very familiar with how British and French imperialism had worked in the Middle East. It wasn’t hard to transfer that knowledge to the French and then the U.S. in Indochina. No way could I envision myself representing the U.S. government abroad, or at home either. It looked like a civilian version of the military: stifle your disagreements and do what you’re told.

Poll after poll tells us that the military is the most trusted institution in the U.S.

Aside: A fascinating survey conducted in October 2018 found that “the top five were the military, Amazon, Google, local police, and colleges and universities. The bottom five were the press, the executive branch, Facebook, political parties, and Congress” (emphasis mine).

Since my antiwar days I’ve often been awed and inspired by the stories of veterans and serving members of the military, but that doesn’t translate into trust for the military as an institution. My wariness stems partly from how support for the military has become a secular religion, and any doubts or questions treated as heresy.

There’s also my acute annoyance with the platitude “If you love your freedom, thank a vet.” Shortly after the 2016 election I wrote “Do We Love Our Freedom?” I noted: “When I consider my freedom, I want to thank Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and hundreds of suffragists whose names I’ll never know. I want to thank civil rights activists and labor organizers and the ACLU.” Then I asked how much we as a people loved our freedom when we’d “just voted in a guy who admires autocrats and whose idea of freedom seems to be the freedom to fleece, stiff, and exploit.”

All of which has come true and then some in the long months and years since January 20, 2017, but there’s something else: The list of people I have to thank for my freedom, which very much includes defending the Constitution and the rule of law on which our freedoms depend, has grown.

That list includes institutions and individuals I never thought to see there. Seriously. The CIA, which during my political coming of age was notorious for helping engineer the overthrow of duly elected governments? The FBI, once the fiefdom of one J. Edgar Hoover, the outfit that persecuted antiwar activists and civil rights advocates as communists? James Comey, facrissake, the guy whose ill-advised announcement in late October 2016 might have been the straw that broke Hillary Clinton’s chance of becoming president?

Following the progress of the impeachment inquiry, and this past week watching the public hearings, I’ve added many names to my thank-you list: Bill Taylor, West Point graduate, veteran, member of the Foreign Service; Marie Yovanovitch, Foreign Service; Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, serving officer currently seconded to the National Security Council and working in the White House; Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), chair of the House Intelligence Committee that is leading the impeachment inquiry . . .

They’re all in positions to do what they’re doing because they made choices that I didn’t make and, in most cases, for decades did jobs that I can’t imagine doing. We on the outside have our roles to play, of course, but for now I stand and salute them for their courage, their intelligence, their ethical clarity, and their service.


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October License Plate Report

In the license plate game, no news isn’t good news, it’s just no news. Which is to say that you probably guessed from the extreme lateness of this report that there were no new sightings in October. I did cruise through the M.V. Hospital parking lot toward the end of the month to see what I could see. I saw Louisiana and Montana, which would have been exciting last spring, and Texas, South Carolina, and Oregon, which aren’t hard to get but at least aren’t (ho-hum) New York, New Jersey, or any New England state.

But not South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, or Alaska.

Time is running out, but I’m not giving up. One year I spotted Nebraska the last week in December. I clinging hard to that possibility.

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