Life in the Time of COVID-19

Yesterday I attended what will probably be my last meeting for a while. It was the meeting of the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) advisory board; I was there to make a presentation on behalf of the Coalition to Restore Vineyard Transportation, of which I’m a part.

By the end of the day Vineyard schools had closed for two weeks. The West Tisbury library had already cancelled all programming through April 2; now it was closing too, by order of the selectboard (a neologism that’s coming into wider use to get around the awkwardness of “board of selectmen”).

West Tisbury ATM, 2019. 300+ people sitting knee to knee, and probably at least half of us are over 60.

Town meeting season, fast approaching, has been unsettled. Tisbury’s annual town meeting (ATM), at March 31 the first on the docket, has been postponed but not yet rescheduled. The next wave of ATMs — West Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown — is scheduled for April 14. No word yet on them, or on the town elections taking place that same week. The candidate forums sponsored by the League of Women Voters are off (most of them are held at town libraries), as is West Tisbury’s pre-ATM info session, which I was looking forward to. [UPDATE: As of March 19, the WT ATM has been rescheduled for May 12 and the town election is ON for April 16, but the hours have been cut to 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.]

This past Tuesday, the officers of the MV Dems (formally the Democratic Council of Martha’s Vineyard, of which I’m the secretary) decided to cancel our monthly meeting, which is where I would be right now if it were happening. At the time we were a little tentative: Should we or shouldn’t we? By the end of the week it was a no-brainer. By then the state Democratic Party had suspended all town caucuses, at which delegates are elected to the state convention at the end of May.

In deciding to cancel the MV Dems meeting, one factor for me was that we meet at the Howes House, home of the Up-Island Council on Aging, where events aimed at “seniors” take place daily. Most reliable reports and commentaries on the novel coronavirus, aka COVID-19, say that older people and those with compromised immune systems are at greater risk of contracting the disease and are likely to have a higher mortality rate, especially if they can’t get access to treatment.

At some point it dawned on me that I was one of these people said to be at greater risk. I’m 68. However, I’m also in good health. I’m far less concerned about getting seriously sick myself than about the threat to those who are older and/or less sturdy than I am. I’ve read up on the importance of “flattening the curve” of the pandemic’s spread and can now explain it fairly concisely: slowing the spread of the disease will mean that hospitals won’t be overloaded beyond their capacity (which is what has happened in Italy) and that those who need treatment will be more likely to get it.

“Flatten the curve” made visual. If the spread of the disease can be slowed, treatment is more likely to be available to everyone who needs it.

At the same time, the measures being taken to accomplish this are drastic by the usual standards. They’re causing drastic dislocations in many people’s lives, including the lives of the many people who were already living close to the edge financially, who won’t be compensated for lost jobs or lost work hours, who have little or no access to the health care they’ll need if they or someone close to them gets sick. I can barely imagine the fear, anxiety, and/or anger of those who have no idea how they’re going to get through this.

I’m one of the very lucky ones. So far, the preventive measures implemented to flatten the curve are inconveniences at most. I’ve been working from home full-time for more than 20 years. I have work, I have savings, I’m single, I live by myself, I don’t have kids, I don’t depend on public transportation . . . As other freelance editors have noted, we’ve already been practicing “social distancing” as a way of life for some time now. Maybe this is why I haven’t been remotely tempted to stock up on hand sanitizer, or toilet paper either.

However, I’m only one or two degrees of separation from those whose lives are being disrupted in bigger ways. A production editor (PE) at a major New York publishing house emailed me yesterday that his building would be closed all next week (and possibly longer), he and all his colleagues would be working from home, and the proofs I was expecting next week would arrive straight from the compositor. If the building is still closed when it comes time for me to return the completed job, he’ll let me know what to do.

Meanwhile on Martha’s Vineyard, shoppers are having some trouble finding what they need, especially bread and milk, but resupply is coming through from off-island. Some report that the grocery shelves look like August. At Reliable on Wednesday, I found everything I was looking for except jalapeños and mushrooms, and I got both of them at up-island Cronig’s. BTW, up-island Cronig’s is reportedly closing as of this morning in order to help keep down-island Cronig’s fully stocked and staffed.

There have been reports that the grocery store parking lots, like the shelves, also look like August: lots of out-of-state plates, of which the ones from New York (as usual) arouse the most animosity. This has spawned a resurgence of the island’s equivalent of xenophobia, which blames every bad thing that’s happened in the last three (four, six . . .) decades on summer people. Off-islanders flocked to the Vineyard in the wake of 9/11, maybe in the belief that the island was a refuge from the dangers and stresses of the “real world” — you know, the kind of halcyon, carefree place you go on vacation. (I was not aware of this until they started emigrating a few years later, having realized, I hope, that Martha’s Vineyard is part of the real world.)

Someone even suggested — on Facebook, of course — that these new arrivals should be tested for COVID-19 before they’re allowed to get off the boat. This was stupid on so many levels, most of which were quickly pointed out, not without animosity: (1) The shortage of testing kits is a national disgrace, and even people who think they’ve been exposed can’t get tested. (2) The fact that there has so far been no report of anyone testing positive for COVID-19 on the Vineyard may well be due to the lack of test kits. (3) People come and go from the island all day, every day. They work here, we work there, and there are plenty of other reasons besides work to go back and forth. (4) I spotted license plates from 25 different states in January facrissake.

Fortunately, for the most part, people here do look after one another, and most of us know that if this social-distancing thing goes on for more than two weeks, more people are going to need more help.

What I hope for most of all is that this giant storm cloud hanging above us will turn out to have a silver lining: a deeper understanding that we are all interconnected and that we all benefit when everyone has access to affordable health care, accurate information, and a strong social safety net.

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February License Plate Report

U.S. map

After a strong January, February is often so-so, but not this year. Sure, 6 is a lot less than 25, but what do you expect when the game starts from zero every January 1?

And will you take a look at #4 of those 6: Hawaii! The “where” is even more amazing, because I didn’t spot Hawaii in the M.V. Hospital parking lot (where I have indeed found it in one or two previous years). No — it was parked next to me at the Vineyard Haven dog park, which is in the woods about a mile down a mostly dirt road.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to speak with the driver and get an answer to the perennial question of how vehicles with Hawaii plates get to Martha’s Vineyard. Well, yes, of course they come on an SSA ferry like vehicles with every other state’s plate — the real question is how, and why, they get across the Pacific to the West Coast and then across the continental U.S. to New England.

The car’s people must have been walking in the woods while Tam and I were playing in the big-dog section of the dog park, and they slipped away without my noticing.

Illinois showed up just after the month changed. What else will March bring? North Carolina is late this year, so that would be nice, and how about Michigan, Indiana, Washington state, and Iowa — Iowa so I can complete the stack just to the east of the stack that will probably never be all filled in. I mean, if it didn’t happen in 2019, a rare year that I actually saw North Dakota, can it ever happen at all? Who knows. Watch this space.

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January License Plate Report

January is the best month in the license plate game. In a good January, I spot half the states, and that’s what I got in the first month of 2020: 25.

I like to think I would have hit 25 even if I hadn’t taken a swing through the hospital parking lot in mid-month. OMG, it was like shooting fish in a barrel: I spotted 10, the ones from Arkansas through Montana on the list at left. IOW: Arkansas, Arizona, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Jersey, California, South Carolina, Maine, Louisiana, and Montana. (Note: I have never tried to shoot fish in a barrel.)

New Jersey, California, and Maine are no big deal, of course, though Maine is often the last New England state to show up. But Arkansas, Louisiana, and Montana?? There have been years when Montana didn’t show up at all.

If it weren’t for the license plate game, I would not realize how many states are represented in the hospital staff, even in the dead of January. Which hasn’t been especially dead, or especially wintry, true, but one expects more travel nurses, doctors, and techies to be on the job in summer, when the Vineyard population quintuples (or something like that).

Fwiw, I’m not going for all one color this year. I’m thinking shades of red, but I’m also thinking that the pink I used for South Carolina and Maine doesn’t show up very well. I might have to touch them up before the February report.

The February tally is usually very small, around 3, which suggests that most of the vehicles here in February were also here in January. The most likely prospects are North Carolina and Georgia (Delaware is almost always the last East Coast state to show up), Ohio, Illinois, and maybe Washington state.

And of course, as always, if you see North Dakota, give me a shout. It may be another 25 years before it shows up again, but who knows?

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Carless and Kore-less

damaged carNote for the mystified: Kore is my Windows 10 laptop. My car is Malvina Forester, but the writer in me couldn’t resist the alliteration of “car” and “Kore.” The editor in me is thinking of sticking a hyphen in “carless,” even though Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate and the Chicago Manual of Style would be horrified. “Car-less” and “Kore-less” are better balanced, and doesn’t “carless” look at least a little bit like “careless” to you?

Yesterday morning I dropped Malvina Forester off at Angel’s Body Shop. Finally the busted headlight cover and front end damage incurred in our run-in with a deer late last September are going to get fixed.

Deer run-ins are not uncommon on Martha’s Vineyard. (The dent below the headlight happened three years ago but since Malvina still ran fine I didn’t bother to repair it.) Neither is waiting three months for an appointment at the body shop. I contemplated taking Malvina off-island to get the work done, but the hassle! the hassle! Driving to Hyannis or Bourne would be no big deal, but getting back to the boat? I’ve yet to use either Lyft or Uber, and besides, I’m cheap.

Hitchhiking is still done on Martha’s Vineyard, though far less than it used to be. I’ve done it in the last year or so, but since Malvina is likely to be in the shop till the end of the week, I invested in an annual bus pass. These are a tremendously good deal if you’re over 65: only $40. However, yesterday morning, having had breakfast at the Black Dog Café, I had no sooner taken up position at the bus stop near down-island Cronig’s than a friend swung by and gave me a ride back to West Tisbury.

I generally only use the car three or four days a week. The post office and up-island Cronig’s are within walking distance, and I’m a walker. Naturally, as soon as Malvina isn’t waiting outside, I’m immediately aware of everything I can’t do, at least not without strategizing, like return the novel I’m reading to the library. (It’s not due till the end of the month.) But nearly all my end-of-week commitments — co-op pickup and memorial service for Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Heschel late Friday afternoon; Women’s March rally on Saturday — are accessible by bus, and the one that isn’t — postcard party in Katama on Thursday night — I can probably bum a ride to.

Now for the Kore part of the story. Monday a week ago Kore’s screen started dimming, on/off, on/off, like it was trying to tell me something. A few minutes later I noticed that the battery was low, WAY low, like about 3%. Since Kore is almost always plugged in, this was very odd. I checked the surge protector: it was on. I checked the plug: it was firmly plugged in. I checked the cable: ditto. The battery dropped to 2%, 1%, then Kore shut down completely. WTF?

I did not panic. Hekate, my old Windows 7 laptop, still works. Her own keyboard is sticky as hell but her wireless one works fine — and all my active folders and then some are backed up in Dropbox. Besides, my current editing job is on paper, and when I’m editing on paper, I use my (nameless) smartphone for consulting dictionaries, Chicago, and Google. I was, however, puzzled. This did not feel like a hard drive crash, and I could see no reason for the battery to be dead.

So off I went to the tech department at EduComp, toting Kore in her messenger bag. At first Kevin was puzzled too, then he noticed that the cable connecting Kore to the adapter was frayed. It wasn’t a big fray, but the metal wires were showing through the covering. Was that enough to keep juice from getting to the battery? Kevin thought yes.

I took Kore home, ordered a new cable and adapter from Dell, and got reacquainted with Hekate. Windows 7 and Windows 10, and Word 2010 and Word 2016, are like different dialects of the same language; in other words, going back to the earlier versions was a little disorienting but not all that difficult. However, I couldn’t for the life of me remember where Win7 hide Word templates (finally had to ask my online editors’ group), and for some reason CameraWindow wouldn’t recognize my digital camera even after I’d updated it. I could live without them for a few days.

I shelled out for expedited delivery, so the cable and adapter were supposed to arrive last Wednesday. When they hadn’t showed up by Thursday, I called Dell customer service. The order had glitched and had to be placed again. This gave me several extra days to wonder what I’d do if the new cable didn’t solve the problem, but this was not too big a deal: if Kore couldn’t be fixed, setting up a new computer is a hassle, but it can be done.

puppy and laptop

Tam Lin meets Kore, mid-June 2019. He’s a lot bigger now.

As soon as I plugged the new cable in this morning, Kore woke up. Whew. She’s now fully charged. I’ve had a little talk with Tam Lin, who was almost certainly responsible for the frayed cable, and have resolved to pay more attention when he starts rummaging for his toys in the vicinity of the surge protector (which he has more than once inadvertently turned off).

I also patted myself on the back. For about 25 years, I was totally unprepared for a computer disaster. I had only my desktop, Dropbox didn’t exist, and my backups were, to put it mildly, haphazard — even though I was very computer-dependent. This time round I barely missed a beat.

I think I’m just as ready to be carless for a while. Malvina’s repair prognosis was “four or five days.” I’m hoping this means “by the end of the week,” but since there’s a holiday weekend coming up, it might be longer. Either way, I’m ready.


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Year-End License Plate Report 2019

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

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

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

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De-cluttering Before Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Every Once in a While . . .

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

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

dog running on beach

Tam runs

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

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

dog sniffing beach grass

Tam explores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dog on beach



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On Paying for Local News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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damaged car front

Malvina’s deer damage

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

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

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

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

So, a couple of observations:

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

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

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

new brown boots

My new boots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hunting Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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