Voting in the Age of COVID-19

For the first time in anyone’s memory, and maybe the first time ever, West Tisbury held its annual town meeting (ATM — and yes, cash gets dispensed here, but not the way you non–New Englanders may be thinking!) in another town.

On Tuesday, June 23. Five of the six island towns usually hold their ATMs in April; Aquinnah is always the last, in early May. This year they were all held in June.

West Tisbury annual town meeting, April 9, 2019

COVID-19 has played havoc with town meeting season. Take a look at what West Tisbury’s ATM looked like in 2019: see the problem?

Upwards of 300 voters generally turn out for our annual town meeting, which is held in the West Tisbury School gym. In the age of COVID-19, large indoor gatherings are contraindicated, period, and no way could a quorum be accommodated in that space.

Not to mention, the COVID-19 situation had been developing rapidly since mid-March, when the commonwealth shut down all but essential services and shelter in place became a way of life. When would it be (relatively) OK to hold town meeting? How could it be done (relatively) safely? If you’ve ever been to a Vineyard town meeting, you’ll know that the median age of participating voters is probably over 60.

Town officials were also up against a deadline. Allocating town funds is a major part of every ATM, the current fiscal year ends on June 30, and the town’s FY 2021 budget has to be in place by July 1. The commonwealth’s phase 2, calling for a limited reopening, began on June 8 (which happens to be my birthday), and that’s when Town Meeting Season 2020 began: Chilmark, the second-smallest island town, held its ATM on the basketball court at the Chilmark Community Center.

Outdoors was the way to go, with or without tents. Tisbury and Edgartown held their ATMs on their respective school fields. Both Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury held theirs at the Tabernacle, the centerpiece of the Campground in Oak Bluffs, a week apart. The Tabernacle has a roof but the only wall is the one behind the stage.

A bill was passed by the legislature and signed by the governor allowing towns to reduce their quorums (quora?) to no less than 10% of the usual quorum. West Tisbury’s usual quorum (the number of voters who have to be present for business to be transacted) is 120 — 5% of the electorate. For this ATM it was reduced to 30. The number who actually participated was 115.

Town officials sat masked and socially distanced at the front. From left, selectboard members Kent Healy and Cindy Mitchell; moderator Dan Waters; town counsel Ron Rappaport; and selectboard member Skipper Manter.

Town officials did a great job of arranging the ad hoc venue to accommodate social distancing. The Tabernacle seats people on benches. Every other row was blocked off, and in the rows that remained, a social distance of about six feet was Xed out with tape to indicate where we shouldn’t sit.

Microphones were set up in each aisle, with someone sitting by to wipe down the mic after each speaker. Masks block the transmission of the coronavirus, but they also muffle the spoken word, so when we addressed the moderator, we dropped our masks. (Logging in voters on election day, I noticed that masks — which everyone was wearing — made it harder not only to recognize people you knew but also to distinguish consonants at the beginning of names.)

Socially distanced West Tisbury voters

It took less than two hours — about half the usual time — to deal with the warrant, which had been stripped down to focus on essential financial issues.

For me (and for a few others, as I’ve discovered in conversations since), the highlight of the meeting was  Cindy Mitchell’s reading of the Diversity Statement passed by the selectboard earlier this month.

Our town election was held on Thursday. Town clerk Tara Whiting-Wells and her team did a great job of adapting our usual polling place, the Public Safety Building on State Road, to the demands of the age. Instead of using the side door, we entered through the garage bay, allowing us to see our fire engines up close and personal. Check-in was in the hallway; on the usual check-in table just inside the door of the meeting room were a stack of ballots and a supply of pens. You could bring your own pen but they had to be “any color but red,” because the voting machine seems to be color-blind for red.

The check-out table seen from the entrance door. Voting booths on the right, ballot box just visible by the exit door on the left.

In normal times there are two poll workers each at the check-in and check-out tables, divvying up the alphabetized voting roster between them. This year one person at each table dealt with everybody. (This was also true at town meeting.) People maintained social distance when waiting in line, but — as usual in town elections — the lines were minimal. Two of every three polling booths were blocked off.

About 400 people voted, including absentee and early voters, 15.35% of the 2,605 on the voting rolls at the end of 2019. This is about par for the course for a town election with only one contested race on the ballot, but for statewide and national elections our percentage turnout is generally in the 70s. We could, in other words, do better, both in turnout and in the number of contested races.

Why those green cones were labeled CHAPPY FERRY is anyone’s guess; Tara knows but wasn’t telling. It seems that West Tisbury’s town election, like our town meeting, was a multi-town effort.

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Whacked by a Dog

Going from the sublime to the — well, maybe not ridiculous, but rather somewhat mundane and a little bit gross. WARNING: Grim photos follow. Longtime readers of this blog may recognize that the title of this post harks back to “Whacked by an Owl” from July 8, 2013. That was a better story with less dramatic results.

Friday before last, Tam and I headed out for our usual morning walk. The routine: After reading in bed for half an hour or so (while Tam checks up on me from time to time, and occasionally jumps up on the bed), I get up, throw on my caftan, give Tam his breakfast, then go downstairs to the bathroom to pee and brush my teeth. That done, I come back up, zap the last of yesterday morning’s tea, get dressed, and take a few swallows of hot tea. Then Tam and I head out.

On the way back, I dropped Tam’s leash so he could charge across the backyard, pounce on his soccer ball, and play zoomies to his heart’s content. Tam always wants to do this, but I don’t always let him because his impulse control is a work in progress. This time I did, and just for the hell of it, I ran after him.

My boots. Not hard to see how the loop of one might catch on the hook of the other, unless you remember to tuck the laces in, or fold your sock over them, or tie them off to one side.

Whereupon the loop from one bootlace caught in the hook of the other boot. Down I went. No harm done: I’m here to tell you that landing on grass is much better than landing on asphalt, which I did a few years ago.

However . . .

As I started to get to my feet, Tam slammed into my head. I did not see stars but the impact was major. Force = mass + acceleration. Tam weighs about 80 pounds and was, as they say, bookin’. When I got up, blood was dripping onto my hand. Better check this out, I thought. Tam didn’t get why I didn’t want to play.

I could walk. I could see. I wasn’t dizzy. I knew what day it was and who (unfortunately) the president was.

Ice pack

Back in the apartment, I applied pressure to my eyebrow till the bleeding stopped, which didn’t take long, then wrapped an ice pack in a dishtowel and held it against my eye. “Twenty minutes on, twenty minutes off” I’d been told, which is good, because it’s hard to do much of anything when one hand is holding an ice pack to your eye.





Over the next 24 hours the eye grew steadily blacker. Dramatic as it looks, it didn’t hurt exactly, though it felt very puffy — and it did not want to be touched. In the morning I like to splash cold water on my face to wake myself up (even though I’m pretty much awake as soon as I open my eyes). I discovered that it is impossible to do this without hand coming into solid contact with face so I dropped that part of the ritual for the duration.

June 17 (five days later)

June 21 (nine days later)

What’s remarkable is how steadily my body healed itself, with some help from an arnica cream borrowed from my neighbor. The puffiness went down; the blackness receded. Today, June 22, it’s almost back to normal, but the bone under my eyebrow is sensitive to the touch — I guess “bone bruise” is a thing? (Yeah, it is. I just looked it up!)

What’s taking longest to disappear is the bruising along my nasolabial fold, aka laugh line. (I just looked that up too. Nasolabial bruises, it seems, are commonly associated with Botox treatment and facelifts. I hope you can tell from one look at my face that I’ve never had either.) At one point it looked like Harold had drawn my laugh line with his purple crayon.

Once I knew I’d survived in pretty good shape with, most likely, no lasting harm done, I could think about how much worse it could have been. Like what if the retina in my left eye had detached? In 2004 the retina in my right eye did detach — twice. For years the fear that the left might do likewise was never far from my mind. I know that detached retinas rarely result from blows to the head, but it could have happened. (I wrote at some length about that experience, in “My Terrorist Eye: Risk, the Unexpected, and the War on Terror.”)

Concussion could have happened. Brain damage could have happened.

I’ve had a couple of other could-have-been-worse mishaps. In 1999 I was trail-riding with a friend when the mare I was riding stumbled, went down, and flipped over me. I’m not kidding: for an instant I felt like I was inside a washing machine. She then used my right thigh as a launching pad to get up. I still have what looks like a hoof-shaped brand on my thigh. The bruise, which extended from my groin almost to my knee, has long since disappeared.

Then a few years later, on a horse-sitting gig, the ladder I was climbing to the hayloft slipped out from under me and down I went, 10 or 11 feet. My dog, Rhodry, and the client’s dog came over to check me out; there were no humans anywhere within hailing distance. Around that time a carpenter in my town fell about 25 feet, broke his back (or maybe his neck), and was laid up for months.

If you can dwell on how much worse it might have been, it means you’ve survived.

The perps: Tam Lin and my boots


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Juneteenth 2020

Crossing the drawbridge from Vineyard Haven into Oak Bluffs

There’ve been Juneteenth celebrations on Martha’s Vineyard before, but Friday’s was by far the biggest and most diverse. We gathered at Veterans Park in Vineyard Haven, then marched — well, “walked” is probably the better word — the three and a half miles to Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs.

The gaps in the line can’t be readily explained by social distancing; more, it’s that we move forward at different speeds, and the participants included small children, smaller kids in strollers, and plenty of grownups who chatted as well as chanted while they walked.

And yes, everybody I saw was wearing a mask or other face covering. (By the way, early reports indicate that the protests that have been taking place across the country since George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis have not led to a spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases. In all the photos and videos I’ve seen, nearly everyone is wearing a face covering. It may be that face coverings are even more effective at preventing transmission than the experts have thought.)

I made my sign on the back of part of the box my new laptop came in.

The signs were many, varied, and nearly all homemade: Black Lives Matter, Silence = Violence, I Can’t Breathe . . . Cardboard has soared in popularity for signage, perhaps because EduComp and other purveyors of posterboard have been closed since mid-March. A pickup drove by with “8:46” printed on the back window in lavender tape: the time George Floyd was pinned to the ground by Derek Chauvin before he died.

Part of the (sort of) socially distanced crowd listens to speakers at the gazebo.

At Ocean Park we gathered around the iconic gazebo, the crowd augmented by quite a few who’d just got off work or who lived nearby; it was a Friday afternoon, after all. Some of the 10 speakers were more audible than others — the “sound system” was a bullhorn that did a surprisingly good job in the open air. Caroline Hunter and James Jennings know how to project, and Amber Henry had everyone’s attention as she spoke of the death of her brother at police hands 10 years ago. Say his name, she said, and we did, over and over: D.J. Henry, D.J. Henry, D.J. Henry . . .

All the speakers emphasized that protesting is not enough. “What are you going to do?” asked Russ Ashton, and the crowd roared back “Vote!”

And more, especially for the white people for whom police brutality is front and center for perhaps the first time: educate ourselves, listen, learn, speak out.

About Juneteenth: No, the current president isn’t responsible for bringing it to people’s attention. Laura Love’s great song “Saskatchewan” tells the story of how word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas, two and a half years after the fact. Why did word take so long to travel from D.C. to Texas? Well, true, the Civil War didn’t end till April 1865, so there’s that, but as the Juneteenth history site notes: “Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or none of these versions could be true.”

I’ve been told that the “Juneteenth” isn’t simply a conflation of “June” + “nineteenth,” the date that General Granger announced emancipation in Galveston. Instead, the story goes, those who spread the word weren’t sure of the exact date or maybe it got lost in transmission, but everyone knew it was in the middle of June, one of those days that ends with “-teenth.” Hence “Juneteenth.” That could be true or not, but it makes sense to me.

As Laura Love tells it, some newly emancipated Texans did head north, reach Saskatchewan, and establish a community there. Her own grandmother, born in Texas in 1880, eventually headed in that direction but only got as far as Nebraska, which is where Laura grew up.


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Standing Up for Black Lives

Even when you think you get it, watching a police officer murder a black man on video is shocking. Even when you think you get it, watching two white men take the law into their own hands and stalk and kill a black man for no good reason is shocking.

Belatedly we learn of the murder in March of Breonna Taylor, when plainclothes Louisville police officers executed a no-knock warrant on her apartment. An NPR story reports: “According to [Taylor’s] family’s lawyers, the subject of the investigation was not Taylor, but a man she had dated previously who had once sent a package to her apartment.”

To make matters worse, if that’s even possible, “the subject of the investigation” was reportedly already in custody elsewhere.

On top of this we see a white woman, one Amy Cooper, attempt to weaponize racist law enforcement against a black man who had the audacity to ask her to obey the law and leash her dog. She joins a long, long line of white women who wrongly accused black men of assault. (This is why I believe any slogan that says “Believe women” should have several big asterisks after it.) Unlike so many of all those black men wrongly accused, Christian Cooper is alive and well. He has accepted the woman’s apology. In an NPR interview, quoted in a CNN story, he said, “Now, should she be defined by that, you know, couple-of-seconds moment? I can’t answer that. I think that’s really up to her and what she does going forward.”

What I ask is why, in that “couple-of-seconds moment,” this woman’s reaction to being asked to leash her dog was to call 911 and accuse Christian Cooper of assaulting her. For decades I’ve been quoting a line from The Boys in the Band: “Guilt turns to hostility.” It explains more otherwise inexplicably hostile behavior than anything else I’ve come across. I’m betting that Amy Cooper knew her dog should have been leashed and, well, guilt turned to a hostility that could easily have turned lethal.

Because, well, racism. And the sort of white privilege that assumes that a white person’s lies will be believed over a black person’s truth.

In How to Be an Antiracist Ibram X. Kendi writes that there are two options: racist and antiracist. This avoids the tedious to the point of infuriating habit many white people have of claiming how and why we aren’t racist. (Read this book if you haven’t already. I’m not kidding.) In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, and the killing of Breonna Taylor, and so many other killings by law enforcement and by people taking the law into their own hands, many thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, have marched, rallied, and held vigils around the world to protest the murders of people of color and to demand reforms of police departments and policing practices.

Me and my mask. It applies to a lot more than the spread of COVID-19.

About 450 of those thousands were here on Martha’s Vineyard. A Sunday morning vigil at Waban Park was followed on Monday afternoon by the largest rally I’ve ever seen at Five Corners. All of us wore masks (many of them colorful, and some bearing messages), but social distancing was out of the question: All five of those corners were jammed with people. It was the first time many of us had seen each other in person, as opposed to on Zoom, in going on three months.

It was catalyzed by a high school student, Graysen Kirk, who told the Vineyard Gazette that when she first started organizing the event, “I thought it was just going to be me and my sign.” It turned out to be so much more than that. This is what antiracism looked like on Martha’s Vineyard last Monday.

Maybe my most favorite sign: “We must PLOT, We must PLAN, We must STRATEGIZE, We must ORGANIZE & MOBILIZE.”

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May License Plate Report

May was well on the way to being a complete bust — disappointing, but not unexpected since incoming traffic has been down due to the now-familiar reason and I’ve been on the road even less than usual.

Then I pulled into the area behind Kenny Belain’s Mid-Island Automotive to get Malvina Forester inspected. (Malvina usually gets inspected in March, the month I bought her and brought her home, but serious COVID-19 shutdowns began in March and the Registry of Motor Vehicles gave all of us March and April inspectees an extra 60 days to get current.) What should I spot while the mechanic was checking Malvina out but Kansas.

Of course I had to look more closely, because plenty of the vehicles on Kenny’s back lot haven’t been driveworthy for some time and their plates, if any, may be years out of date. But Kansas was current, the plate mounted on an SUV that looked ready to hit the road at any time.

So we’re up to 36 on the year.

One new sighting seemed pretty pathetic for May, so I went back to previous Mays to see how 2020 stacked up. Turns out I only spotted two in May 2019, but I made two off-island weekend road trips that month, one to Boston for my 50th high school reunion and one to Canandaigua to pick up my now-14-month-old puppy.

The haul in May 2018 was considerably better — six! That’s more like it, I thought, till I went back another year: only two new ones in May 2017 — but that report included this note: “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).”

Turns out my expectations for May, and my disappointment that they were not met, were not supported by the facts, and since “the facts” were gathered by me personally, it was futile to argue with them. Statistics can be used to mislead, distort, and maybe even lie, but they do come in handy sometimes. We’ll see if I remember this when next May rolls around.

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Progress Report #1

The other day I posted “Projects in Need of Progress,” a chronicle of several projects that weren’t getting done because I kept putting them off. The mere act of going public helped break up the sludge in my motivator, and since breaking big projects — especially big, scary projects — down into small, less scary steps works pretty well, I’m going to issue periodic reports on how things are going.

Here’s the first one.

The MV Dems minutes are done. You can hold the applause because (a) that was probably the easiest item on the to-do list, and (b) I manage to get them done every month.

For “Turn Mud of the Place into an Ebook,” I revisited the websites of several ebook publishers — Draft2Digital, BookBaby, Smashwords, and Lulu. Three years ago, I had some email correspondence with Draft2Digital, so I sent them a follow-up query to see if their requirements had changed (they’ve added various features since then) and if I understood them correctly. Haven’t heard back yet, but already the project is feeling more possible than it has for years.

For “Start T-Shirt Blog” — well, step 1 currently occupies most of the surface of my bed (see photo below). I hauled both boxes of T-shirts out of my closet, sorted them into piles by theme or subject, and counted them. The grand total, including the four in the laundry hamper and the one I’m wearing, is 168, which suggests that either I’ve been overestimating or a couple dozen have gone missing. I’m guessing the former in part because I don’t have to feel guilty about acquiring more shirts, right? Anything under 200 is OK, right?

Oops, just remembered: 168 doesn’t include my sleeveless “muscle Ts,” which are still in my winter storage boxes. I have about 10 of them. Virtually all are from the first half of the 1980s, my women’s community days. Muscle Ts were long ago largely replaced by tank tops, no idea why, because if you really need to wear a bra (that would be me), muscle Ts cover the straps. These days, bras tend to have more colorful straps, and at least on Martha’s Vineyard no one seems to care if they’re showing or not.

As expected, many shirts would be at home in more than one pile. The tallest stack, for Vineyard Ts, includes the arts, bookstores, other local businesses, gay/lesbian, and special events, all of which have piles of their own. Bookstores overlaps with writing-related overlaps with theater overlaps with fantasy/science fiction overlaps with feminism, and so on. I made a separate pile for the oldest shirts, the ones from the 1970s, because that’s where I’m planning to start.

Once again, taking the first step makes the project seem possible, even plausible, maybe even inevitable? Uh, no, not quite, but it’s getting there.

My T-shirt collection. Missing: the sleeveless Ts that are still in storage boxes.

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Projects in Need of Progress

I keep a running “to do” list. Most everything on it gets crossed off in a (fairly) timely fashion. The ones that don’t tend to be those that (1) can’t be accomplished in one sitting, and/or (2) are, for one reason or another, scary.

A handful of projects (again, for one reason or another) keep slipping to the bottom of the list and not getting done.

Writing things down, like on a list, usually helps. When it doesn’t, the next step is to let someone else know about it. I’m figuring that putting it all out there on my blog qualifies as letting someone else know about it. This helps especially with the scary stuff. (Not all of this stuff is scary. Some of it is.)

So here’s the list, arranged in order of increasing level of complexity and/or scariness.

Switch Winter Clothes for Summer

Typical stage in the seasonal swap. First step is shake the dog hair off the comforter. Second step is keep the dog off the bed.

The temperature just went almost overnight from mid-spring to early summer. Time to get the shorts and tank tops and long cool dresses out of their boxes, and put away most of the long pants, turtlenecks, flannel shirts, and sweaters. (Full disclosure: This does not belong on the list at all. It is the kind of tedious but essential activity I use to avoid doing the scary, long-term stuff.)

Finish Minutes for MV Democrats May Meeting

I’m the secretary of the Democratic Council of Martha’s Vineyard (MV Dems), so this is my job. It always gets done, usually at the last minute: just before the agenda for the next meeting goes out, with minutes attached. Our last two meetings have been via Zoom, so instead of taking minutes during the meeting I take them from the recording of the meeting. Everything I write tends to go long, including my minutes (“soon to be a major motion picture” I say, half apologetically), but this makes them longer. Instead of jotting down phrases from what’s being said, I can transcribe whole sentences. So I do.

Create Facebook Group for West Tisbury DTC

DTC = Democratic Town Committee. Each of the six island towns has one, and I just got chosen chair of West Tisbury’s. The MV Dems do the heavy Democratic lifting on the Vineyard, but the DTCs have the essential role of choosing delegates to the annual state Democratic convention (which was scheduled for tomorrow but won’t be held tomorrow because of, you guessed it, COVID-19). I’d like to make the Dems more visible in town and a Facebook group is an easy way to help with that, but I haven’t gotten around to it because (1) a week or so ago I emailed the previous chair for a copy of the bylaws but haven’t heard back, and (2) I’m not happy with my options for cover photo. Both of these “reasons” are bogus. I don’t need the bylaws to create a FB group, and whichever photo I choose can be replaced when a better one shows up. Just frigging do it, Susanna.

File Tax Returns

I used to do my own returns every year. I always left it to the last minute. Finally I hired someone to do it. Wow. I could actually enjoy February and March without obsessing about April 15. Then this person got a full-time job and cut way back on tax preparation. By then I was hooked on having someone else do it. I tried H&R Block for two years, wasn’t happy with either the results or the cost, and so had an appointment on March 30 to see someone a friend recommended. Which of course got cancelled. Filing deadlines, both state and federal, have been moved up to July 15, but somehow my goddamn taxes have got to get done. Ugh.

Turn “Mud of the Place” into an Ebook

This project has been hanging fire for three effing years. I was up to the brink, had cleaned corrected errors from the print version, secured an ISBN, and even written a short preface to the ebook edition — then was told that conversion would wipe out all the formatting done with Word’s Styles feature, which I’d used to format the ms. I could not face the idea of going through the whole thing again and coding all the italics and boldface so they could be restored after conversion. This was all happening in the spring of 2017; that is to say, in the wake of the 2016 election, when everything changed and I was getting more heavily involved in politics. But there was, and is, more to it than that, and deep down I still want to turn Mud into an ebook.

Start T-Shirt Blog

File this under “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” My T-shirt collection has been out of control for a very long time. I keep saying “No more!” but they keep coming. I haven’t tallied them lately, but there must be close to 200 of them in two big boxes in my closet. I am clearly powerless over T-shirts.

Me wearing a Vineyard classic, from 1977. I don’t wear this one often because it’s one of the few that’s wearing out.

The upside is that my life since 1976 could be chronicled in T-shirts. 1976 is represented by a blue T from the 1976 Folklife Festival and three from the Campaign to Ratify the Massachusetts ERA, for which I volunteered. 2020 brought two from Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. In between we’ve got feminism, the women’s community, bookstores and bookselling, horses, dogs, theater, Wintertide Coffeehouse, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, assorted local issues, and lots of politics. My idea is to use selected T-shirts to trigger memories in a fairly light-hearted blog. Writing has not been fun lately, and I think this could be fun — fun enough to make me want to stick with it.

Learn How to Teach Writing

This is the scariest of all. It’s so scary I don’t even know what to call it. Here’s the situation: After decades of living in spaces that were temporary and/or just big enough for me and a dog, I may have access to a nice space that’s big enough to hold writing groups or workshops or small classes in. I’ve learned a lot about both writing and editing over the years. I draw on it when I edit, especially when I work one on one with writers, and in all the informal sharing I’ve been doing online for more than 20 years. I’ve been telling myself for years that I’d really like to get more systematic about it, run workshops or teach classes, but the lack of space nipped those fantasies in the bud.

So now a possible space has appeared, and what’s my reaction? Panic. I’ve never taken a writing class — how could I possibly teach one? If you think this is a ridiculous objection, you’re not alone: I do too. I could start with workshops, maybe around particular topics, and move toward an ongoing group . . . ? Yeah, I could. The operative word is “start,” as in start deciding what I want to do and how to go about it and remember to leave room for the wildcard.

OK, I feel better already. Maybe the most important advice anyone ever gave me about confronting big projects is to “chunk it down” — break it into steps and then take the first step. It usually works. Stuff gets done. We’ll see.

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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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