Insider, Outsider

The Performing Arts Center was filled to capacity when Sen. Warren came to speak.

When Senator Elizabeth Warren came to the Vineyard for a town hall last month (see “The Line, the Hall, and the Senator” for details), an estimated 1,000 people filled a hall whose official capacity is about 800. When my four friends and I made it in, the orchestra section of the Performing Arts Center was nearly full. We spotted a couple of rows over on the right where there seemed to be four or five empty seats in a row. I went over to check them out. RESERVED said a sign at the end of those particular rows and several others.

Surprise, surprise, I snarked to myself. The insiders get special treatment.

But several days earlier I’d contacted the staffer from Warren’s office who was point person for the event. A friend of mine really wants to come, I told him, but she’s not steady on her feet and can’t wait in line. Is there some way she can get in?

Have her get there early and check in at the door, he told me. I passed the word to my friend and all unfolded as planned. Some 200 people didn’t manage to get into the hall itself — chairs were set up in the lobby so they could listen — and another 150 or so sat outside on the grass. My friend and her daughter had great seats up front, at least in part because as an officer of the Democratic Council of Martha’s Vineyard (aka the MV Dems) I knew who to contact and had the chutzpah to do it.

Insiders get special treatment.

It happened again yesterday. Summer brings plenty of big-ticket events to Martha’s Vineyard, including fundraisers for candidates and political organizations, virtually all of them liberal. These take place on the same island I live on but when the lowest price of admission is generally $250 or more they might as well be on another planet.

John Lewis, congressman from Georgia and hero of the civil rights movement, speaking on Martha’s Vineyard, August 6, 2017.

At this particular event, Rep. John Lewis was receiving the Guardian of Democracy award from iVote, a national organization founded in 2014 to “secure and expand access to voting.” The venue was the waterfront estate of Richard and Nancy Friedman, which was the “summer White House” when the First Family vacationed here during the Clinton administration.

Needless to say I’d never been there. I had to consult Google Maps to be sure I wouldn’t get lost on the way. But I got to go because a sister officer in the MV Dems was volunteering on site and she got to invite her friends. Her friends, like me, are the sorts who will spread the word about iVote through our various networks even if we can’t contribute much to the treasury.

Insiders do get special treatment, but the line between insider and outsider is often more permeable than it looks from the outside.

No, I’m not minimizing the insider-outsider split. I’ve yet to encounter an organization or a movement that doesn’t have one, and some insiders are so far inside that they’re several degrees removed from the people affected by their decisions. Insiders are almost never the best authority on why their organization is dwindling in numbers. And when the outsiders try to make themselves heard, their letters, phone calls, and emails are ignored. They’re even thrown out of the office or dumped out of their wheelchairs.

Last year’s presidential election was full of rhetoric about “the establishment” and “the swamp.” The rhetoric on the left of center is riddled with references to Wall Street, Big Pharma, Big Oil, Dark Money, etc., etc., all of which frame the opposition as big hulking insider monoliths. The rhetoric on the right is similar, only the enemies have different names. In the process we frame ourselves as helpless unless we throw in behind a savior who promises to deliver us from evil. When the savior doesn’t deliver — well, it can get ugly.

Mass. attorney general Maura Healey addresses the MV Dems. State Rep. Dylan Fernandes listens.

The good news is that since the disastrous election plenty of us are learning that taking action makes us more powerful. We demystify government by learning how things work and how we can better influence the outcomes.

A month ago Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, spoke at an MV Dems meeting. She talked about what her office does, and about what the Democratic attorneys general across the country are doing to counter the many excesses of the current administration. Ever since people have been telling me how encouraged and hopeful they felt afterwards.

We may not be insiders, but we’re probably not as far outside as we think we are.

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July License Plate Report

After June’s record-breaking tally of nine, July’s yield of precisely one — Wyoming — was a bit of a letdown. Pickings are always slim in the second half of the year, and it’s not because there’s a shortage of cars.

Traffic jams in the down-island towns are ho-hum this time of year, but on one Saturday morning in July traffic coming into West Tisbury was reported backed up almost to the airport, a distance of more than three miles. This prompted some cries that the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market should be moved from the Grange, in the dead center of town, to the Ag Hall, on the outskirts or, maybe more accurately, in the middle of nowhere. The counter-cries were considerably louder: The Farmers’ Market isn’t the problem, it should stay at the Grange, “you call that traffic?,” and of course the old standby “Pray for September.”

There have been years when my last sighting of the year was in July, but 2017 won’t be one of them: I spotted Nebraska in the hospital parking lot on August 2.

Update: Kansas at SBS (the feed, garden, and grain store) on August 3!

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The Line, the Hall, and the Senator

Vineyarders are notorious for not RSVPing, signing up early, or buying tickets in advance. Case in point: Last Tuesday evening I shucked my soggy shorts and T-shirt for a crisp, presentable summer dress and headed into Vineyard Haven to see I Am Not Your Negro, which I have managed to miss on several occasions since it was released.

My big concern was parking. The film was showing at the M.V. Film Center, located in the Tisbury Marketplace, where parking can be horrendous even in the off-season. Mid-July is not the off-season. Sure enough, the parking lot was jammed. The only spaces available were the 15-minute slots for people picking up pizzas at Rocco’s. But I found a place at the nearby Ace Hardware lot and all was well — until I got to the theater and learned the film was sold out. Buying an advance ticket, or calling ahead to find out if tickets were available, had not occurred to me.

Elizabeth Warren speaks behind the West Tisbury library while campaigning for the U.S. Senate, summer 2012.

So a week or so ago it became apparent that staffers for Elizabeth Warren, my state’s senior U.S. senator, were concerned about the possibility of a low turnout for her upcoming town hall. True, the venue — the Performing Arts Center at the regional high school — is one of the island’s largest, with capacity around 800, and also true, in high summer there can be as many as a dozen events competing for one’s attention at any hour any day of the week.

Still, Senator Warren is popular among year-rounders, several local activist groups had been putting the word out to their members since late June, and there’s a reason that so many high-profile Democrats do big-ticket fundraisers here in the summer.

Still, the off-islanders were worried. They had set up an event page on Facebook to get an approximate head count, and with barely a week to go the “Going” and “Interested” numbers were well under 20% of the 800 necessary to fill the hall. Could we locals who were helping get the word out perhaps devote a couple of hours to phone-banking, calling people up to tell them about the upcoming town hall?

The line stretched back to the front of the high school and then around it . . .

We locals mostly fudged it, in part because in mid-July most of our waking hours are already committed but mostly because we didn’t believe for a moment that it was necessary. We were convinced that an overflow crowd was far more likely than a half-full hall. Yeah, we got that the “optics” of a half-full hall would be a PR disaster: imagine how the Republicans would be crowing if their nemesis couldn’t fill a venue on bluer-than-blue Martha’s Vineyard in the summer!

. . . and up to the front doors.

We were right. The event was scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m., with the doors opening at 9:30. When I arrived at 9:15, I snagged one of the very last available parking places in the very large high school lot and the line stretched from the not-yet-open doors of the Performing Arts Center all the way back to the front of the school and then around the corner. I checked at the table out front to make sure that a friend needing assistance had managed to get in (she had), then started walking toward the end of the line, greeting the many people I knew en route. Before I got that far, I fell in with friends.

Soon the line started moving. It moved in batches: the staffers inside were both counting people and keeping an eye on the number of empty seats. The banked “stadium” section at the back was cordoned off till the orchestra section was filled. It was close to capacity when my group arrived. We didn’t see five seats in a row anywhere, so we moved the cordon out of the way and occupied the front row of the house-right side of the stadium section.

People kept coming in. The organizers set up two rows of chairs in the wide space between the two sections — then they started setting up chairs in the foyer. This is what the place looked like just before the event started:

This morning the Facebook event page reports that 214 went and 226 were interested. Yeah, right! 😉

According to the Martha’s Vineyard Times report:

There were 1,000 people inside, 150 listening in the lobby, and another 150 people who couldn’t get in got a private audience with Sen. Warren before she came into the school, state Sen. Julian Cyr said in introducing Sen. Warren: “I feel so fortunate and blessed we have someone so interested in talking to people who couldn’t get in the door.”

I expect the whole event will be available on MVTV and/or YouTube before long. Will post links as available. Suffice it to say, the senator is a dynamo and the crowd left even more energized than they came in.

Sorry about the fuzziness — my little point-and-shoot was at the brink of its zoom capacity, but here’s our senior U.S. senator onstage.

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Street Fair

The Tisbury Street Fair takes place every year on July 8, a date I remember because it was my father’s birthday. From 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Main Street and Union Street are closed to traffic, shops and nonprofits set up tables along the sidewalks, bands play live music at both ends of the street, and long lines gather at the booths where food is sold.

It’s the sort of event you look forward to when you’re new on the island but then it sort of fades from your psychic map. During the almost five years I lived off Skiff Ave., in the mid-2000s, I sometimes strolled into town to check out the street fair with Rhodry, who was well behaved in crowds and always attracted plenty of admiration. Trav is not at his best in new situations, and besides, we live up the road in West Tisbury.

This year was different. As I blogged last month, I’ve fallen in with Democrats. For years now Cathy Brennan has done an MV Dems table at the Tisbury Street Fair. Usual practice was to focus on election years, when there’s lots of campaign literature to be handed out, but as non-election years go, 2017 is proving pretty unusual, possibly unique, so it was decided that a table might be a good idea. I volunteered to help.

Cathy has the routine down and had the table set up before I showed up. Here we are:

Cathy on the left, me and my hat on the right. Photo by Kim Hilliard.

Jay Gonzalez, Setti Warren, and Bob Massie — the three names on the sign at left — are the three Democratic candidates who’ve declared so for the the 2018 Massachusetts gubernatorial primary. We heard them speak at the Democratic State Convention last month, and Cathy brought home their literature to pass out.

State rep Dylan Fernandes listens to Mass. attorney general Maura Healey speak at the July MV Dems meeting. Photo by me.

Maura Healey, featured on the sign at right, is our state’s attorney general. She gave a rousing speech at the convention. I’ve now got her bumper sticker on my car. It says

MAURA HEALEY
THE PEOPLE’S LAWYER

As it happened, she and our state representative, Dylan Fernandes, had been the guest speakers at the MV Dems monthly meeting that morning. They both talked about what they and their offices were doing, at the state house and on the legal front — Healey has been a leader in the legal battle against the Trump administration’s many excesses, and other Democratic state attorneys general across the country have also been on the front lines.

In the days since, several people have told me that they felt more encouraged and energized and inspired after that meeting than they have in months. I get it: I did too, and still do.

The gloom-and-doomery out there is contagious. Social media is a hotbed of generalizations about how screwed up the country is, how stupid Trump supporters are, how clueless and/or corrupt the Democratic Party is. You try to keep your guard up but it gets to you anyway.

So it’s encouraging and energizing and inspiring to listen to elected officials doing important work in the real world, and to be reminded how demanding that work is, and how change doesn’t happen overnight. At the street fair I had conversations with people from an array of states, among them Arizona, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Maine, and people from across Massachusetts. I learned a little more about what’s happening where they live; they learned a little more about year-round Martha’s Vineyard.

One guy noticed the I’M WITH HER button on my hat and said, “I’m still with her.” It made my evening.

Summer money lures Democratic politicians from all over the country to Martha’s Vineyard for big-ticket fundraisers. The cheapest option is usually $500. The ridiculous cost of campaigning, made worse by the Citizens United decision, makes these big-ticket events inevitable. Those able to afford them wind up with face-to-face access to candidates and officeholders, while the rest of us are little more than faces in a large crowd.

This is not to knock large crowds. I’m planning to be a face in the crowd that turns out this Saturday morning to hear Elizabeth Warren, our senior U.S. senator, at the high school’s Performing Arts Center.

But officeholders like Maura Healey, who speak to relatively small groups and stick around for coffee afterwards, are so refreshing, and effective representation in state legislatures is so important. In Massachusetts a state rep represents on average about 40K people, a state senator about 160K. The house districts in particular are not large, at least not in population.* Elect a real representative and the chances are excellent that you’ll be able to establish a face-to-face connection even if you never contribute to a campaign.

  • Dylan did note that a colleague of his from western Mass. has been heard to complain that his district is so big it takes two hours to drive across it. To this Dylan replied that it took two and a half days to get across his district, which includes the Vineyard, Nantucket, and part of Falmouth (on the mainland). He spends so much time on the boat that the Steamship Authority should give him office space — or maybe a berth.
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June License Plate Report

Woo woo! June was the best month ever in recent memory for the license plate game: nine new sightings. Consulting maps back to 2011, I find a high of six and a low of three. Nine beats ’em all, and they included some heavy-hitters.

In order: Minnesota, South Carolina, D.C. (which I’m sure I’d seen before but not remarked on), North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Washington, Delaware, and West Virginia.

The map at the end of June 2016

See that stack of states immediately north of Texas? They’re always the hardest to get, but the line just to the east of them isn’t easy either. At this time last year none of them had showed up. When 2016 drew to a close, Arkansas and Louisiana were still AWOL.

But at the end of June 2017, that stack was solid. The only state east of that line that’s still missing is Mississippi.

Hands down the most fun of the new sightings was West Virginia. Late one Saturday afternoon, my friend the writer Cynthia Riggs emailed to say that West Virginia was staying at her B&B, near the center of West Tisbury on the Edgartown Road. I high-tailed it over there as soon as I could, only to learn that West Virginia had just left for supper. I did collect some spinach, mint, and peas from Cynthia’s amazing garden.

The next morning Cynthia called to say she’d just told her guests that they couldn’t leave till I’d seen their license plate. Not wanting to be responsible for anyone’s missing the boat, I dropped everything and high-tailed it over there again. Not only did I spot a West Virginia license plate, I got to spend a delightful hour with the couple who belonged to the car that was sporting it, talking about politics, writing, and Martha’s Vineyard.

It does help to have accomplices in the license plate game. Another friend tells me that she saw North Dakota at Al’s Package Store in Edgartown. By the time I got the word, it would probably have been gone, but boy was I tempted to drive to Edgartown and maybe set up camp at the Triangle to watch vehicles leaving and coming into town. Later a Facebook friend reported that she’d seen North Dakota a few years ago, also in Edgartown. Hmm.

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Democratic State Convention

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

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

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

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

Electioneering on Old County Rd., fall 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Convention crowd, part of it.

 

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Is That You, Spring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pesto-to-be

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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May License Plate Report

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

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

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

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

 

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Some Personal History

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

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

postage scale

Margaret Webster’s postage scale

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

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

My people, in other words.

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

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

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

 

The Lapsed Archivist Attends a Housecleaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tolerant, Up to a Point

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

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

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

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

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

The closet T-shirt

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

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

At least I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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