Late October on the Line

My #1 technique for surviving reasonably sane in these bizarre, bewildering, and outrageous times is to relish as much as possible the small satisfactions of daily life, like walking with my dog, working on my novel, baking bread (and occasionally other stuff), and . . .

Doing laundry.

Lacking a washing machine, I do my laundry at the Airport Laundromat. It opens at 8 a.m. I get there not long after. Trav and I then take our morning walk around the county airport while my clothes wash. This invariably prompts at least one complete stranger to ask if Trav is a husky and when I say “Close — he’s a malamute” we get into a conversation about dogs, their dog(s), my dog, northern breed dogs in general. When Trav and I continue on our way, I feel somewhat encouraged about the state of the country.

Shorts and jeans together on the line

When Trav and I get back from our stroll, the washers have finished their work. I scoop the socks and undies into the smaller of my two canvas carryalls, the shirts, shorts, and jeans into the larger. We drive home. I hang the big stuff on the line and the socks and undies on a drying rack on my little deck.

Drying rack

I do not hang the wash out because I am a fresh-air freak or an environmentalist. If I had access to a dryer, I would probably use it at least some of the time. However, the dryers at the laundromat cost a quarter for a scant four minutes and it takes several quarters to dry even one load of light summer laundry. (1) I am cheap, and (2) I want to get on with my day.

My method of choice requires sunshine and, ideally, at least some breeze. Wind shortens drying time and so becomes more important as dark closes in on both ends of the day. It also takes care of wrinkles, but for me this is not a big deal: I do own an iron, but I don’t own any clothes that need ironing. This past Friday was a perfect laundry day: bright and breezy.

Quite a few of my T-shirts have something to do with the 2016 election and its aftermath.

As regular readers of this blog and my followers on Facebook know, I chart the seasons by what’s hanging on the laundry line. Early this past week, before the rain moved in, I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt most of the day; when the sun went down, I’d change into jeans and a long-sleeved T.

For late October there seemed to be an inordinate number of shorts and T-shirts on the line. A glance back through several years of laundry pictures, however, revealed a comparable number of Ts on the line in late October 2011. My own photographic record keeps me from claiming that this was the warmest October in memory.

Along with all the shorts and Ts there were several pairs of jeans, two turtlenecks, and a 3/4-sleeve henley. No sweaters or longjohns, however. I haven’t even taken my cold-weather clothes out of the closet. Nor have I turned the heat back on: I won’t do that till after I’ve closed the second of my two skylights and swapped the summer screen insert in my storm door for its cold-weather counterpart.

The Japanese maple outside my window is just beginning to think about turning color. Is it running late? That maple has its own folder on my laptop’s hard drive, and photos from previous years tell me that it doesn’t reach its spectacular peak red till the second or third week in November.

One of my newest T-shirts has just six letters on it:


It’s hanging upside down in the photo above, four shirts to the left of Trumpbusters. WTFJHT is the name of a daily e-newsletter I subscribe to: What the Fuck Just Happened Today. It accurately describes itself as “Today’s essential guide to the daily shock and awe in national politics” and I highly recommend it. However, I find it easier to retain balance and perspective if I keep myself grounded in the slower, more predictable changes of the natural world and the laundry line. I recommend that too.

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Growing Up with Guns

By Susan Robinson

Susan Robinson posted this comment on my October 7 blog post, “Gun Store on Main Street.” It’s an eloquent story in its own right so I asked and was granted permission to reprint it here. It’s been slightly revised. Susan and I belonged to the same women writers’ group in our Washington, D.C., days, before I came home to Massachusetts and she left for New York and eventually New Mexico, where she’s lived for years with her husband, Albert, and a diverse family of critters, including the dogs Tony and Red (pictured below). SJS

The Mud and Slime of the Place . . . This reply is from the mountains of northeast New Mexico, where the mud when wet has the slipperiness of slime: ask anyone who’s driven on it. I have an unevolved view on gun control, dating from growing up in Texas, where for my 10th Christmas I was given both a 4-10 shotgun and a contraption where from a tripod three arms stuck out, a heavy cardboard duck on the end of each, and a pretend rifle that sent out small plungers. The idea was to knock each duck off as they whirled down a spiral on the central pole of the tripod. I became a very good shot.

My first living targets were two young mallards who landed on the lake, joyously turning somersaults in the water, not knowing I was about the blast them into oblivion, which I did when my father said “Pull,” meaning the trigger. I saw them lifeless on the water and trembled for a horrified minute. My father chuckled to me during that time. I saw my choice and, in the rest of my life living with my parents, shot many ducks and quail. Our family ate these but we had enough money and certainly didn’t need to. Once my father shot a swan by accident, thinking it was a goose, and gave it to our dog, who dragged it around for days, to the laughter of family and friends.

I remember my father’s telling me about gun safety: always the barrel pointed straight up or down indoors and, when not intentionally shooting, the safety always on until the last minute, and the gun cleaned. If the barrel isn’t clean inside, the shooting can go badly awry. I remember vividly the scent of the oil we used on cotton discs to thread through the eye of a rod and twist around inside the barrel, and the sight looking through the immaculate barrel when done and I could put the gun away. We kept my father’s gun and mine in the closet in their leather cases. He and I were not to shoot in a group or when other people might be around—too dangerous. I doubt my safety instructions were unusual for a white, upper-middle-class or upper-class Texas child.

Through my childhood and adolescent years, I heard of several people known to immediate family members who were shot. The first was B.B., a white man, hunting in a group of fabulously wealthy friends and relatives, who shot himself by accident climbing over a fence with his gun. I was told about this as an object lesson: If you climb a fence with a gun, pass the gun through first. Next I heard that a boy in my brother’s high school class at the all-male St. Mark’s School of Texas had shot and killed another boy, naked, in the shower after a party at the first boy’s house. Two weeks later the shooter was seen pumping gas at his father’s gas station. None of this was in the newspapers. The two boys involved in the murder were white. (There were no children of color in this school because S.M., the one black fifth grader brought in to integrate the school, another classmate of my brother’s, had hung himself within a year of entering the school. My father, then chairman of the school’s board, did not consider himself oblivious to institutional racism).

When my friend across the street became engaged to L.S., who was white, my mother gave her a wedding present. A week before the wedding, she and her mother appeared at our back door, returning the present and telling us that L. had shot himself while “cleaning his gun”—the standard explanation for suicide by gun at that time and place.

My uncle Robert Treat Paine Thompson (white) had a long career as a hired gun for John Paul Getty. Uncle Bob’s job was to threaten and when necessary kill anyone who tried to get in the way of Getty’s buying any piece of oil property he wanted in east Texas. I never met Uncle Bob until I was 25 and living in Houston. My father, having heard Uncle Bob had tracked me down and was going to invite me to dinner, cautioned me that as a child my father had seen Uncle Bob corner a rat in the bathroom and kill him with a pocket knife, and from then on my father had never crossed Uncle Bob.

Once when I accidentally picked up an extension phone at my parents’ house when the Uncle Bob on my mother’s side was visiting (I had two Uncle Bobs), I heard him threaten to kill the man on the other end of the line if he failed to go by a certain business decision. That Uncle Bob’s brother, H., threatened to kill his daughter if she didn’t hand over her inheritance from my grandmother, threatened her so often and so convincingly that his wife (a woman not allowed to leave the house or have a telephone) managed to help her daughter run away and come live with my family. Uncle H. kept a gun under every bed in his house, and when my cousin, years later, returned to her home with her fiancé so he could meet her mother, her younger sister and brother came to the door with guns pointed at the fiancé until the sister recognized my cousin in the car. The children had been taught by their father to come to the door with guns whenever someone they didn’t recognize showed up.

I only learned as an adult that not everyone in the U.S. or the world shared the (white) Texas gun culture I lived in.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, my husband and I live on a street that was called “Heroin Alley” when we moved here, and the gun deaths were both drug-related and a consequence of (Latino) family members not having role models for anger management. The stresses of poverty, including lack of options for earning money, have played their role. My dogs are terrified of the sounds of neighborhood gunshots and can distinguish them from gunshots on radio newscasts. At our mountain cabin, the gunshots have become more frequent over the years, limiting where we can climb and, along with climate change, making the (welcome to us) deer, elk, owl, bobcat, mountain lion, coyote, and bear sightings, footprints, and scat we find fewer and fewer. These mountains have become increasingly dangerous. My priority in leaving our land to someone when we can no longer care for it is that they will not hunt there.

These events have festered in my life and still inhabit it with the ear-splitting report of a shotgun at close range and the kick of a shotgun butt against my shoulder. All this has led me to become a Quaker, a vegetarian, and a person deeply skeptical of the term “reasonable gun control.”

two dogs

Tony and Red, happy that their waiting has paid off and Albert
and Susan have made it over a fence to go home (in the mountains).

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Gun Store on Main Street

Early this past week an email went round with the subject line “Gun Store on Main Street.” It started thus:

“It can’t happen here”… Sinclair Lewis

Or could it? There is a proposal in the works to open a guns and ammo store on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, between Mikado and Off Main. The Board of Selectmen will be taking the matter up at their next meeting, a week from today, Tuesday, October 10. Check the Times for details and confirmation.

The sender then called for people to pack the selectmen’s meeting and “do whatever we can to prevent this from happening.” (The proposal is no longer on the agenda for the October 10 selectmen’s meeting, but will most likely be coming up in the future.)

I don’t know the sender, but I did recognize many of the original recipients. (Having had a “blind copy fail” recently, I’m not going to snark at this guy for not concealing their names and email addresses.) One of them forwarded it to a friend of mine, who forwarded it to me.

By then this was a hot topic in the Islanders Talk Facebook group, from which I quickly learned that there was more to it than was told in the email, and the next day the Martha’s Vineyard Times posted a story, “Gun Store Plans to Sell High-End Shotguns,” that clarified the matter even more.

In short, the proposal has been made by the man who runs Vineyard Time, an existing Main Street watch and jewelry store that caters to a well-heeled market. According to the MV Times story, these shotguns are used for skeet shooting and sell for between $20K and $100K.

The price range does boggle the mind, or it would if I hadn’t lived on Martha’s Vineyard long enough to realize that I share these hundred square miles with plenty of people who live in a whole other world. Among the other stories reported this week, in the Boston Globe as well as the local press:

A south Florida woman, who claimed to be a psychic, pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court in Boston to hiding more than $3.5 million of income that she was paid by an elderly Martha’s Vineyard woman to “rid her of demons through repeated exorcisms,” according to a press release issued by acting U.S. Attorney William Weinreb’s office.

In the wake of the latest, and worst, U.S. mass shooting, it’s not all that surprising that the proposal, details of which are still sketchy, caused some alarm. My own initial reaction wasn’t exactly blasé, but my contribution to the Islanders Talk discussion was a question about the economic feasibility of a gun shop on high-rent Main Street. If indeed the proposal is to add inventory to an existing shop that already caters to the very affluent, it doesn’t seem off the wall.

But still, well — “guns on Main Street” is one of those phrases whose impact is greater than the sum of its parts.

My own attitude toward guns and gun control evolved rapidly after I moved here in 1985. In Washington, D.C., I didn’t know any hunters. Guns were the province of law enforcement (about whom I’d been somewhat leery ever since my antiwar organizing days) and criminals (who didn’t even pretend to be on my side). On the Vineyard it wasn’t long before I was meeting hunters and families of hunters and learning that hunting had a long, long history on Martha’s Vineyard. It was more than a sport; like farming and fishing, it was part of feeding oneself and one’s family, and as with many other essential activities traditions had grown up around it.

Not to mention — the hunters and fishermen I met tended to be environmentally savvy, and much more knowledgeable about woods and water than I was.

So I have no trouble maintaining the distinction between “gun owners” and “gun nuts.” Gun nuts all (I’m guessing here) own guns, but gun nuttery goes well beyond gun ownership: it veers into the territory occupied by the more fanatical forms of ideology and religion. It deals in symbols and slogans. Fueled by the National Rifle Association (NRA) since the late 1970s, it has become an integral part of the right-wing platform, and yes, it is related to white supremacy and a particular view of masculinity.

For a concise explanation of how this happened, see “How the NRA Made the Gun a Symbol of Tribal Identity,” Adele Stan’s October 4 column in the American Prospect.

As George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant, frequently points out, appeals to reason alone are generally ineffective against the deep-rooted moral convictions embodied in these symbols. This has not stopped the proponents of reasonable gun-control measures from circulating countless charts of gun-violence statistics and wondering why gun nuts don’t immediately see the light and stop insisting on their right to own as many assault rifles as they want.

In the current political climate, the chances for progress look pretty bleak — and it seems that even some liberals and progressives have adopted the right-wing view that the 2nd Amendment guarantees the right of all (white) citizens to bear arms, no questions asked.

In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, looking for signs of hope and a way forward, I came across this story in New York Magazine from last December. Subtitled “An Experiment in Empathy,” it tells of more than a dozen individuals “on both sides of the gun debate . . . [who] had agreed to meet face-to-face, tell each other their stories, and try to understand one another’s points of view.” The stories are riveting, and not easy to read. Position papers, polemics, and charts of statistics are a lot easier. But better than any other single piece I’ve read recently, this one conveys what “we the people” are saying and hearing when we talk about guns.

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September License Plate Report

At first glance it looks pretty much the same as the end-of-August map, right? Now take another look to the left of California. Hawaii! Toward the end of the month, I took a swing through the parking lot at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital — a good source of unusual license plates, especially in the summer — and there, tucked into one of the smaller lots, was an SUV with Hawaii plates.

Coloring it in on the map, I realized that Hawaii was #45 — a number that this year has come to have other, less-than-halcyon connotations. No matter: as far as the license plate game is concerned, 45 is Hawaii, nothing more, nothing less.

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A Bookselling Snake

Is it September 15th already?? I spend the whole summer looking forward to Labor Day, and now it’s been two weeks in the rear-view mirror. The island around me may have slowed down somewhat — the traffic definitely has — but my workload hasn’t. Work is good, it’s all interesting stuff, and I do like having enough money incoming that I can pay my quarterly taxes (payment #3 is due today) on time. As the IRS and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue have probably noticed, this was not true (nowhere close) of payment #2.

The Ag Hall, site of the Labor Day Artisans Festival

On Labor Day weekend I got to spend some time selling my books at the big two-day end-of-season Labor Day Artisans’ Festival. My friend the prolific mystery writer Cynthia Riggs had snagged prime space just inside the double doors in the photo (left), and being a generous soul she invited a bunch of her writer friends to play too. These venues lend themselves to authors with multiple Vineyard-related books to sell, like Cynthia herself and local historian Tom Dresser, but even though I only sold a few copies — mostly of Mud of the Place but also a couple of my venerable original anthologies of women’s fantasy and science fiction, which hadn’t been out of my closet in years —  it’s fun to talk book and watch the world go by. The world was especially in evidence on Sunday, which was most emphatically not a beach day.

corn snake

Panthy, aka Suzan’s bracelet

The highlight of the weekend was sharing a table on Saturday afternoon with Suzan Bellincampi, director of Mass. Audubon’s Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature. Suzan was accompanied by Panthy (short for Pantherophis guttatus), a corn snake who lives at Felix Neck and as an educator is an old hand at public events. Panthy spent a fair amount of time coiled around Suzan’s forearm like a bracelet. Plenty of book browsers didn’t notice at first that the bracelet was a snake.

Snakes are cold-blooded, so it’s almost certainly warmth that so attracted Panthy to Suzan’s arm, but as the afternoon sun streamed through the window to the left of our table, she did a little exploring. (Determining a snake’s sex is an intrusive process, so Panthy’s actual sex is not known. Suzan refers to Panthy with female pronouns in part because the usual default setting is he, him, and his.)

Panthy goes exploring.

I was close enough to see Panthy’s tongue flicking in and out to explore her surroundings. Here she checks out my novel, The Mud of the Place. I’ve been known to refer to one of the villains as a snake in the grass, but I will not be doing that again. (The other villain is anything but subtle.)

Plenty of adults were at least somewhat leery of the bookselling snake, but the kids were mostly fascinated. Like this guy, who went eye to eye with Panthy:

More kids than adults took Suzan up on her offer to let them touch Panthy, as long as it wasn’t close to her head, which she might take as a threat. Several noted how surprisingly soft she was. For the first time in decades I remembered a grade-school kid I knew as a teenager. As well as being an avid horsegirl, she had a pet boa constrictor. Snakes being cold-blooded, a heated cage was a must. Once when power was knocked out by a storm, this kid induced her dad to sleep with the snake’s cage on his chest. I’m not sure how he managed it, but I still think he deserved a Father of the Year award for that one.

When selling books at the Artisans’ Festival, I not infrequently manage to spend more money than I take in. I avoided that this time by not lingering over any earrings, and though I was much intrigued by a woodworker’s gorgeous pens, so many others were crowded into his booth that I managed to walk by without opening my wallet.

I did, however, buy a copy of Suzan’s Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature. Along with lots of info on the Vineyard landscape and half a dozen guided walks, it includes chapters on identifying island flora and fauna, with drawings and photos of leaves, ferns, frogs, shells, and yes, a snake. Not a corn snake, though, because they aren’t native to the island. If you want to meet one, a trip to Felix Neck is in order.

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August License Plate Report

When July ends, I damp my expectations way, way down. Pickin’s are always slim in the last five months of the year, and in a few years they’ve been nonexistent. So spotting Nebraska! and Kansas! in the first week of August was a big wow. Two big wows. Anything was possible!

The following weeks didn’t measure up, in large part because I stayed off the roads as much as possible. The traffic was terrible. Not terrible by urban standards, of course, but our roads aren’t urban roads either. One Saturday Farmers’ Market morning the traffic coming into West Tisbury was backed up on the Edgartown Road almost all the way to the airport. That’s more than two miles, almost two and a half.

Then one afternoon the last week of the month I parked at Ocean Park to do my grocery shopping at Reliable Market. The Reliable lot is very small, so when I can’t squeeze in there I head over to Ocean Park. The four-hour spaces are almost always taken, but if I can grab one of the 15-minute slots, I can always get back to the car in time. An unusual plate caught my eye. I crossed the street to check it out. South Dakota!

Strange but true, while selling books at the Labor Day Artisans Festival, I got into a conversation with a couple who were from, I kid you not, South Dakota. I quickly ascertained that theirs wasn’t the car I spotted on Ocean Park that day. There must have been at least two South Dakota cars on the island at the same time.

Well, I’ve got hopes for the rest of the year. Not high hopes, but hopes. Utah and Nevada are definitely possible, Mississippi and Montana maybe. We’ll see.

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I’m more than half Southern on my mother’s side, but I grew up (and have lived most of my life) in Massachusetts, so until pretty recently I was able to think of Confederate statues as mostly a matter of heritage and history.

Next to her writing desk my Richmond-born grandmother had a World War I recruiting poster that depicted an avuncular gray-uniformed General Robert E. Lee and the words “I FOUGHT FOR VIRGINIA. NOW IT’S YOUR TURN.” (The same slogan was used during World War II, inviting civilians to join the Lee Navy Volunteers.)

My grandmother’s middle name before she married was Washington. She was also a descendant of Custises and Lees. My New England born and bred father was a collateral descendant of Robert Gould Shaw, first commander of the 54th Massachusetts, who was killed in action and didn’t live long enough to leave direct descendants. My father, Robert Shaw Sturgis, was named after him.

The Bonnie Blue Flag, the first unofficial flag of the Confederacy

Having both sides of the Civil War in my ancestry seemed a natural state of affairs. As I and my three siblings entered the world, my grandmother, who played piano by ear, gave each of us a song. Mine, of course, was “Oh, Susannah!” Brother Roger’s was “Dixie,” brother John’s was “Maryland, My Maryland” (he was named after Marylander John Hanson, the first person to serve a one-year term as president under the Articles of Confederation), and sister Ellen’s was “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

My grandmother was almost certainly the source of two LPs I played so incessantly as a kid that I learned most of the songs by heart: Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings Songs of the North and Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings Songs of the South. Both albums were released in 1961, the centenary of the Civil War’s beginning, when I was 10. That’s probably when they came into my family’s home in the Boston suburbs. (They’re both available on CD these days, separately and as a two-CD set.)

Above the mirror in my grandmother’s dining room was a small Confederate battle flag with a rustic wood frame. As the years went by and I learned more about the Civil War and more about Jim Crow, as the antiwar movement brought me into contact with veterans of the civil rights movement, that flag would grow huge in my mind’s eye until it was bigger than the mirror and dominated the wall. Every time I returned to my grandmother’s house — which was pretty often, since she lived less than 10 miles away from my parents — I was startled by how small that flag was.

On Martha’s Vineyard the trappings of the Confederacy are rarely seen, and the few swastikas I’ve seen in the last 30-plus years have all been graffiti. Ugly as they are, swastikas chalked on brick walls don’t have the visceral impact of the Nazi flags carried in Charlottesville. So my belief that the statues were mostly about history and heritage was rarely challenged. When it finally was, it collapsed completely.

Writes historian Karen L. Cox:

Almost none of the monuments were put up right after the Civil War. Some were erected during the civil rights era of the early 1960s, which coincided with the war’s centennial, but the vast majority of monuments date to between 1895 and World War I. They were part of a campaign to paint the Southern cause in the Civil War as just and slavery as a benevolent institution, and their installation came against a backdrop of Jim Crow violence and oppression of African Americans. The monuments were put up as explicit symbols of white supremacy.

Cox also notes that “the group responsible for the majority of these memorials was the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), among the most influential white women’s organizations in the South in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” and to which I believe my grandmother belonged. The World War I recruiting poster by my grandmother’s desk would have come from the tail end of this period.

In contrast, a monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts stands outside the Massachusetts statehouse on Beacon Hill. It was erected in 1884. It’s a tourist attraction, but it hasn’t been a rallying point for any political perspective, not even after the 1989 film Glory made the 54th Massachusetts famous.

In the wake of Charlottesville, a vigil and a rally were held a week apart on the Vineyard. Both took place at the Civil War monument across from the ferry terminal in Oak Bluffs. The monument is easy to miss, even once you know it’s there. Its surprising history is told in Tom Dunlop’s “Uniting the Divided” on the Martha’s Vineyard Magazine website, but these pieces of it stand out:

Charles Strahan, who raised the funds for the monument, was by then a newspaper editor on the Vineyard. A native of Maryland, he had fought for the Confederacy. The monument honored the Grand Army of the Republic. It was dedicated on August 13, 1891. Are you feeling a little dissonance yet?

The fourth inscription, 1925

Inscriptions on three sides honored the Union army and its Vineyard combatants. The fourth side was blank until 1925, when an inscription was added, funded by the surviving veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. This had been Strahan’s hope from the beginning, and he was alive to see it dedicated on September 4, 1925. It reads:

“The chasm is closed.”
In memory of the restored Union this tablet is dedicated by Union veterans of the Civil War and patriotic citizens of Martha’s Vineyard in honor of the Confederate soldiers.

Noting the 34-year gap between the two dedications, and wondering how many Union army veterans were still around in 1925, 60 years after the end of the war, I wonder if there was resistance to the idea of honoring the Confederate soldiers. The chasm between North and South was alive and well in 1925 for those who cared to look; the Great Migration of African Americans from South to North was well under way. I suspect that on some level at least, the chasm was within Charles Strahan himself, a man who had fought for the Confederacy but had lived on Martha’s Vineyard since 1884.

After the passing decades had taken their toll, the monument was restored in the late 1990s and rededicated on August 17, 2001.

At the “rally for unity” last Sunday, there was some talk about the statue, and about that fourth inscription. Was this monument problematic? Should it be taken down? Why would anyone want to honor the Confederate soldiers?

I’m not a big fan of statues, but I like this one. It embodies the complexity and contradictions of both the Civil War and our often dis-United States. It makes me look at history from different angles. It reminds me that my grandmother had Robert E. Lee and the Confederate battle flag in her dining room, and that I still know the words to a bunch of Confederate songs.

A Union infantryman, Oak Bluffs

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Gossip is widely assumed to be, by definition, frivolous, erroneous, and/or malicious.

Call it “orally transmitted information” and it gets more respect.

My first few years on Martha’s Vineyard I didn’t believe people who said they rarely read the local papers. How could they possibly know what was going on?

In part, this was because I worked for one of those papers. My weeks were organized around its schedule: on Monday began the rush to deadline, culminating late Wednesday afternoon when “the boards” were hand-carried to boat or plane or (later) digitally transmitted to the off-island printer. (This was before it and just about every other news outlet was on the web and could publish anything at any time.)

In part, I hadn’t been around long enough and wasn’t well connected enough to get my info by osmosis, that is, through the grapevine.

Tendrils of the grapevine did work their way into the newspaper office. When I was features editor, that’s how I got plenty of story ideas. I came to realize PDQ that there was more to most stories than what appeared in print. Reporters and editors had to verify facts and make allowances for erroneous perceptions and outright grudges.

The newspaper office was one node on the grapevine. Stories flowed in, stories flowed out — some of them orally, the way they flowed in, and others in print, typed, edited, and checked for accuracy.

With gossip there are no editors. It’s all up to the teller and the listener — the teller-listener, I should say, because everyone on the grapevine both hears stories and passes them on. We learn who’s reliable, who tends to exaggerate, who has a long-standing feud going with who else that might affect the story s/he tells, and so on. Maybe we learn how to check things out without letting too many cats out of the bag. At the very least we learn to recognize stories that might blow up in our faces if we pass them on.

Nodes develop where people pass through and hang around long enough to talk. The town post offices, grocery stores, hairdressing salons, the hospital . . . In Cynthia Riggs’s Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series, sleuth Victoria Trumbull picks up a fair amount of information from the regulars on Alley’s porch. These days the porch is so crammed with bright-colored goods for the summer trade that there’s barely room to lounge around, but people still manage.

Business executives and politicians are notorious for doing it on the golf course, though what they do generally isn’t called gossip. Gossip is associated with women; golf is associated with men. Men talk shop. Women gossip.

After I’d been on Facebook a few weeks, I started calling it “the grapevine on steroids.” Information passes to dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands of people at once. I post regularly in a political group that has 55,000+ members. The Islanders Talk group has about 9,500, most of whom live here and any of whom I could run into at the grocery store or PO.

At the same time, when we post on social media, we’re often in the privacy of our own homes. It may feel like Alley’s porch or the post office, but it’s more like getting up onstage at the Performing Arts Center. The Islanders Talk group has 12 times more members than the PAC can hold. Think about it.

Facebook, and social media more generally, unlike the grapevine also leave a written record. We can delete our own posts and posts on our timeline, but we can’t be sure they’re gone for good. Public figures who should have learned better by now still haven’t figured this out.

“Fake news” is big news these days, and with good reason: it was surely a factor in last year’s presidential election, and in the polarization that’s afflicting the country. On Facebook, I don’t see all that much blatantly fake news, but I do see plenty of repackaged and distorted news with clickbait headlines that misrepresent the story. Just like it’s possible to not pass on a story if we distrust the teller or think it might do harm, we are capable of not sharing links to stories that we haven’t bothered to read.

One nasty thing about both malicious gossip and misleading or downright fake news is that once it lodges in your head, it doesn’t disappear, even if you distrust the source and are 99% sure it’s not true.

I’m on a tear about this. The forces using social media to sow dissension are smart. They count on people to uncritically share bogus information because it could be true or because it confirms their assumptions. The other day I saw a meme that claimed Melania Trump had stolen her post-Charlottesville remarks from Michelle Obama. I smelled a rat. A quick Google search turned up zero evidence that Michelle Obama had ever said those words, or anything close, on the day she was said to have said them, or on any other day. I passed that on to the two people who were sharing the meme. I was glad to see (1) that I wasn’t the only one who had smelled a rat, and (2) that both posters deleted the meme.

Circulating unverified information is like littering. Trashing the landscape, physical or virtual, has ugly results. Some rumors are like lit cigarettes: toss them out the window and they may do serious harm. Look before you leap. Check before you share.

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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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