Not Reflected in the Algorithm

The following hardly qualifies as a health care data point. I’m sure the wizards who carpenter the algorithms that model health care access and costs have not have included a weighted value for the news, appalling to me, that Dr. Henry Nieder will retire this month. Not that my particular distress has a claim on the endless scheming that is the better health care political wrestling match.

No one in his right mind would imagine that if you liked your doctor you could keep him, at least not without hedging for mortality or any particular physician’s choice to make a new plan after 31 years in the business. But, I did, twice. In the seventies, Russ Hoxsie, a good and decent man who was also a doctor, did his best to stanch the relentless decline in my apparent good health. Our get togethers were not appointments, they were visits,  occasions for me to spend time with someone charming, knowledgeable, and humane. We talked, he inquired, he poked (in places no one ever had before), he recommended, he warned, and I listened, and sometimes forgot.

Russ’s retirement should not have poleaxed me the way it did. After all, he had had a long, distinguished career, and there were medical issues that plagued him. Apparently, the conversations I had so enjoyed when we visited were not as medically helpful to him as his had been to me. It may be that I was experiencing early onset regressive tendencies, honing my stubborn resistance to change. Over time I have come to think that landing at Martha’s Vineyard was a sort of homecoming for someone who preferred things as is, not susceptible to scaling up over time. What was a 6,000-person island when I arrived was the perfect hideout for such a congenital regressive. After all, in 1970, the actual steamship Nantucket sailed to both the Vineyard and Nantucket; the lovely, venerable Nobska spent the winters at the old Vineyard Haven steamship wharf with its huge, cool shed where you went to rummage through the freight to find what you had ordered. There were no subdivision control rules or zoning rules in most of the towns, no Martha’s Vineyard Commission overseeing us all. It ultimately took nearly four decades of perennial debate for Tisbury to decide to reroute traffic from the Steamship Authority up the 100 yard Union Street hill to Main Street to relieve traffic at Five Corners; almost as long to change the Barnes Road/Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road intersection from blinker to roundabout. And, back then presidents went elsewhere in August. For a dedicated foot dragger, it was the place to be.

Russ, the physician, endured but as the humanist he was. At the Martha’s Vineyard Times, I published his Let’s Walk, Lilly columns and later a book of those columns. They were therapeutic meditations on places and people, diseases and healthy practices. Lilly, a springer spaniel, was his traveling companion and sometimes muse. As he had been when he practiced for all those years at the Vineyard hospital, so his writing was – observant, compassionate, benevolent, and often amused.

Then this. Henry Nieder wrote to all of his communicants, “My work taking care of all of you these many years has been a great pleasure and very rewarding. At times the work of a family doctor is challenging. It is always fulfilling. I thank you for being my patients.”

Although I missed the letter, at a semi-annual visit we had a few weeks ago, he told me of his plans. He had joined, then taken over Russ Hoxsie’s practice in 1988, the way Dr. Amar Luzic will take over from Henry in September. Henry says Dr. Luzic will be terrific, and of course he will. Russ Hoxsie made a brilliant choice, selecting Henry. He was confident, I’m sure, that here was a young man cut from familiar cloth, a stayer who would one day thank his patients for their custom and trust and conversation – and mean it.

By now, Henry has looked after my wife, my father, my children when they graduated from Dr. Michael Goldfein’s pediatric practice, and me. He is a listener, cautious in diagnosis and conservative about treatment. My mother, who lived to 87, outlasting my father by several years, was a grumpy patient, rarely pleased by something she didn’t want to hear, namely, that she was okay. Perhaps she hoped that her worst fears would be realized at last. She might then be seriously ill, sure, but she would also be right. She just knew she suffered from a grave illness located, she said, “down there,” and she thought that Dr. Nieder was missing it. She told him so, but, unlike so many others of her acquaintance, he was not intimidated. “No, Charlotte,” he said, “you’re just getting older.” Infuriated, she died of pneumonia a couple of years later.

Henry and I chatted, after he had approved of my weight, my cholesterol, and my beating heart. I chided him for throwing in the towel. I didn’t want to learn a new family doctor, didn’t want to explain things again, didn’t want any of this humane medical relationship of three decades to evaporate. He said there were things, important to him, that he wanted to be about. Who could reasonably complain over that? Apparently I could, a bit, and did.

Before our visit ended, he took my numbers and plugged them into a new algorithmic model based on a huge population of other doctors’ patients, some of whose numbers were better than mine, some worse. Of course, there was no value included to measure the effect on the faithful of the retirement from practice of this kind, patient and skilled physician, who had served the members of his flock nearly as long as each one needed him.

 

But the algo designers had placed some bets. If this, then that. If you have these numbers, you have a 24 percent chance of having a heart attack in the next 10 years. Was that bad? Or so-so?  I found the algo online and ran it myself, making slight adjustments here and there to see if I might change, or hoodwink, the odds. I also found another model, a European edition all the rage in the G-Seven, whose constituents treat themselves so generously, and it returned a 16 percent probability. And, I comforted myself, these were the outcomes for the population whose data the algo munched, not for any individual contestant in life’s race, not especially for me. In his good-natured, amused way, Henry did not herald the model as more than it was, namely, a well built conjecture. He proposed a plan. I demurred. I said I’ll think about it and have a decision the next time I see you.

This essay was first published in the Martha’s Vineyard Times of September 6, 2018.

 

 

 

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Not So Special After All

In June of 1961, National Geographic published an article by William P. E. Graves, then a summer resident of Chilmark and a member of the magazine’s editorial staff. The article with pictures was entitled “Old Whaling Days Still Flavor Life on Sea-swept Martha’s Vineyard.

Read today, Mr. Graves’s relaxed and wide ranging exploration of the prelapsarian Vineyard is plainly heartbreaking. June 1961 was, at least in memory, a halcyon moment nationally. The Korean War was over, an attractive young president had won a tough election, defeating a man who reminded voters of difficult decades they were eager to forget. There wasn’t a hint of the turmoil that lay ahead. On the Vineyard, the perfect tranquility and free, bright pleasures of summer reflected the happy mood of the country at large and magnified it.

In 2018, the Vineyard of 1961 is barely remembered, although some attitudes, common then, persist, but attenuated by time passing and by deaths.

Mr. Graves told the story of a fifth grade student in an island school who had written a summary examination of the life of Julius Caesar. “In the first place,” the child wrote, “Julius Caesar was an off-islander.” Perhaps taking his lead from the young essayist, Mr. Graves explained what was required to be a Vineyarder: You must be “a fisherman, a carpenter, or a boat builder; but a lighthouse keeper, a stonemason, or a wharfinger would do very well. So would a schoolteacher, an oceanographer, an editor, or a doctor with a talent for separating fish hooks from fingers.”

All these rules have been repealed in the nearly six decades since the National Geographic published its critical analysis of us. They were probably at great risk even then.

“Above all,” Mr. Graves wrote, “you must never admit that neighboring Cape Cod or Nantucket Island can compare with Martha’s Vineyard – only an off-islander would believe that.”

Funnily, as the Vineyard of 1961, simply itself, grew and was smothered and irredeemably complicated as the years passed, we liked to exalt its new, raucous self as an updated summer retreat, and we called it “special.” But, it has become not so “special,” not essentially different from the Cape or Nantucket, so we have trotted out “precious,” ignoring the word’s historic implications, to hype Vineyard amenities so attractive to visitors who happily add themselves to the growing crowds they have become.

Photographs accompany Mr. Graves’s article. State Beach on a hazy summer afternoon, but there are no Keep Off signs, no snow fencing, no rope barriers, and just a few bathers. The Gay Head cliffs and the beaches below attracted amateur anthropologists. Nude clay bathers gathered at the cliffs then, but alas, no more. Summer visitors bowled on Ocean Park, raced their Wianno Seniors (apparently a forgivable import from the Crosby boatyard in Osterville) off Edgartown, cooked over driftwood fires on the beaches, tended small dairy and beef herds that sustained ordinary islanders, and hankered after a glimpse of the actress Katharine Cornell, the “first lady of off-islanders” and the Vineyard’s celebrity-in-chief at the time.

She is gone now, a “precious” memory, as are Donald Poole the lobsterman, Wampanoag harpooner Amos Smalley, Vineyard Gazette editors Henry and Betty Hough, and fence viewer Oscar Flanders of Chilmark who reported “nary a call” for his conflict resolution services in his forty-three year tenure. Images of each of these were featured in Mr. Graves’s article. Their Vineyard lives seemed so modest and secure. And, it appears that Mr. Graves thought no effort at all, certainly nothing urgent, would be required to safeguard this favored realm. There was not a word to suggest that overwhelming change loomed, and that one day the summer idyll of 1961 would be all but unremembered.

Mr. Graves visited Donald Poole, the lobsterman and father of Everett Poole, Menemsha seafood baron and Chilmark town moderator. Donald Poole stood surrounded by lobster pots and buoys, which would keep him busy fixing up during the coming winter.

“Good luck in America,” Poole said, “Have to get over there sometime myself and see what the place is like.”

But, really, there would be no need to make the voyage. A few years later, America came to visit, liked what it saw, and stayed.

Serendipitous

The workshop that is the Old Sculpin Gallery today has attracted and inspired artistry for decades, first as the workshop of the gifted boatbuilder Manuel Swartz Roberts (1881-1963) and today as a workshop, training, and display space for Martha’s Vineyard artists, young and old.

Roberts’ craftsmanship, his wise and earnest hospitality, and his fine sense of what was beautiful and useful in the fishing catboats he designed, modeled, and built stirred an aesthetic impulse among his daily visitors and made a starting place for their own artwork.

Bailey Norton, whose waterfront boathouse is across the street, describes in his memoir My Long Journey Home, the scene in Roberts’ shop:

“Whether morning or afternoon, upwards of half-a-dozen local men and visitors could be found at Manuel‘s engaged in lively discussions on virtually any topic. While these friendly debates were going on, Manuel toiled in the background single-handedly building a catboat while everyone in the shop would whittle away at a piece of pine scrap picked up off the floor.”

From 1904 to 1954, Roberts, nicknamed Old Sculpin after a fish common in groundfish catches, built catboats and other small craft. He also maintained the schooners and sloops that fished seasonally from Edgartown for flounder, halibut, and cod, and for swordfish in summer. His catboats, handy, shoal, and capacious, were designed with shellfishermen who worked the island ponds in mind. One of Roberts’ cats, the Edwina B, sits at the dock behind the Norton Boat House. What is now Memorial Wharf and nearby docks and buildings such as the boat house, were the home bases for the Vineyard fleet. Now a recreational harbor, Edgartown was in Roberts’ day a busy, working waterfront serving fishermen from across the island.

Perhaps there was a karmic affinity between the the  boat shop and the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association, begun informally in 1934 by Ruth Appledorn Mead in a shack on the harbor across Dock Street.  Roberts’ built his artfully conceived and executed cats on one side of the road, while the Art Association’s members toiled at their easels on the other, and when the boatbuilder retired, the artists moved into the shop. Today, the Old Sculpin Gallery does for painters and sculptors what Roberts did for the daily audience that watched him work. As it was then it is now, not only a place to find inspiration but a place to learn, to work, and ultimately to present the results to others for their judgments.

What’s now the Old Sculpin Gallery has had many lives – a sail loft, a flour mill, a whale oil factory, and a grain warehouse. Roberts’ boat shop succeeded the warehouse, and the gallery succeeded and extended Roberts’ link to the life of the town’s busy commercial waterfront.

The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which has owned the building since 2005 and restored it for use by the gallery, has memorialized this inventive space that Manuel Swartz Roberts created a hundred years ago.

This is adapted from a sketch I wrote for the Old Sculpin Gallery, as part of its August 2 celebration, called On the Waterfront, The gallery and the Vineyard Trust (formerly the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust), which owns the gallery building on Dock Street in Edgartown, jointly hosted the event. 

 

 

A Review

Plumbelly By Gary S. Maynard. Flat Hammock Press. 2018. Hardcover. 218pp. $24.95.

As a child, the ocean sailor, boat builder, and home builder Gary S. Maynard of West Tisbury sailed around the world with his parents aboard a wooden boat his father built. All grown up, he and his wife Kristi and their two children left Vineyard Haven to roam the Caribbean and the Pacific aboard the wooden 45-foot, ketch rigged Scottish Zulu fishing vessel Violet, which he had converted into a family yacht.

Now, Gary has built a coming of age novel set at sea in the South Pacific, where the dramatic ingredients include racial hostility, paternal abusers, molestation, shipwreck, three deaths, one a murder, and teenage heartbreak. At least some of all this refashions experiences with which Gary is familiar. It is not a memoir although it may have begun as one.

“It’s not a memoir, but my own experience certainly informs it,” Gary said in a telephone conversation this week about Plumbelly, his first fiction. “The vast majority is fictional. Gabe’s character is more of an alter-ego of me, someone looking back on himself.  I didn’t have a storyline, I didn’t have an outline, so the characters developed as the story emerged and took its own direction. They tell the story.”

Fifteen year old Gabe is the narrator. His own family sailing voyage ended in Tongu Harbor. Gabe’s father bullied and abused him mile after nautical mile on their journey. His mother is meek and does not protect him. The Polynesian natives of Tongu harassed him. The head of the island’s mixed race school keeps children in line with a cricket bat. Gabe’s best friend Lloyd is beaten mercilessly with his minister father’s belt. And, Tanya, blond, free spirited, wise beyond her 16 years, is oppressed by her Irish Catholic father.

Plumbelly is the name and the description of a plump, round bilged, double ended, wooden sloop that becomes the essential metaphor for the novel’s journey. She found her way to Tongu, as Gabe and his family had. She has already killed Ohio Dave, her solo sailing owner, in an explosion and fire. And, eventually salvaged by Gabe and Lloyd, Plumbelly becomes the inspiration and the vehicle for the three friends to escape.

Tanya set her sights on Gabe who, though shy at first, knows a good thing when she finds him, and he joins up fiercely before very long. Young, lovely, and independent, she is the  emotional leader and the adhesive among the three friends. She moves the love making along, stiffens Gabe’s sometimes wavering self-confidence, and makes hard decisions that Gabe without her might avoid. She is a more potent character than her billing as a supporting cast member suggests. The night they slipped away, Gabe snuck around to Tanya’s house, to tell her that he and Lloyd could wait no longer to flee.

She was wearing an oversized t-shirt and she stretched it down over her knees. 

“We have to leave tonight.”

She stared at me.

“Why?”

“It’s not safe here anymore for Lloyd,” I said. “Or me.”

“What are you talking about?”

It hit me how ridiculous I was, a skinny kid in worn out clothes looking in the window of a beautiful girl on a dark night and asking her to sail away in the deep Pacific on a tired old boat with no money, no plan, no way home. I listened to my heartbeat and our breathing and turned away and looked up at the dark hillside.

“I understand if you can’t come,” I said.

“Don’t be an ass,” she said. “Give me a sec. I need to pack.”

Much of Gabe’s story is told in dialogue among the fleeing sailors. Speaking to one another they sound like teenagers in flight from problems at home and excited at the adventurous nature of their escape. Their raillery sounds familiar, juvenile, but lively and affectionate. Their commitment to one another is conclusive. In these conversations, 15-year-old Gabe’s voice is often petulant, pleading, confused, and timid. But, speaking directly to the reader, Gabe’s voice is different. He is grown up and sailorly. He sounds more like his creator, in command and at peace as his vessel, in perfect sympathy with the ocean, the wind, and her master, presses upwind and farther from home.   

I held the tiller in both hands, feeling the boat tugging hard as she pitched into the head sea. I sensed the rush of water under her lee bow and the lift as it passed under the turn of the bilge, felt the smooth flow of current tucking into the hollow of her stern and over her rudder blade. Plumbelly navigated the interface of two worlds, her mast and sails reaching up to grasp the winds of one, her hull gripped in the deep currents of the other. I eased the mainsheet a fathom or two and hardened up the jib, and the force on the tiller lessened and the boat steadied out on her course.

Unlike the boats or the houses he has built, Plumbelly was a decade in the making. “I wrote nonfiction, for Wooden Boat magazine a bunch of times, but this was my first foray into fiction. I intended it as a seagoing novel that would appeal to people who were not sailors.” He added that the story and the characters changed as draft followed draft.

This is not Riddle of the Sands, a small boat sailing espionage adventure set under the loom of war. Riddle, widely considered the capstone of small boat sailing literature, is written for sailors for whom the navigation, the seamanship, the mastery of currents and tides, and the political strategizing is compelling, not mystifying. Plumbelly is not Master and Commander, with colossal naval battles, broadsides, grappling hooks, and Gilbert and Sullivan uniforms. It is not Sailing Alone Around the World, one extraordinary sailor’s smuggish ocean sailing travelogue. And, importantly, it’s not a soft-serve teen soap opera.

If these are the available categories, Plumbelly doesn’t fit. It’s less technical than Riddle, less histrionic than Master and Commander, less global than Sailing Alone, and grimmer than a soap. Gary’s is a story of young people finding an unusual way through a thicket of problems and opportunities, and learning the heartbreaking truths of life, love, loss, and making a break for it.

This review was published on July 3, 2018 in the Martha’s Vineyard Times.

 

No Exclamation Points for You

Probably when you and your friends gather around the campfire, warm your hands over the Buffalo wings, and slake your your thirst with a cold Ballantine Ale, the talk is not about punctuation. That’s all right. You’re fine. Whatever you want to argue over is up to you.

In the circles in which I revolve, my crowd has spent many an evening in hot dispute over the use of exclamation points. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. Or, it might be semi-colons, even commas.

Daily, one confronts the prose composition eccentricities of the many-headed. Over the years these have included not only language, grammar, punctuation, vulgarities (especially common these days), and topic anomalies, but even excursions that aren’t prose at all. Among the weirdest of these is the devotion to the most self-effacing kind of expression, which does not use capitalization to signal the beginning of a new sentence, or to distinguish proper nouns. They are grammatically modest, to a confusing degree. For these, I is i, and God (or god) forbid a reader might conclude that the writer’s opinion of himself is exalted. Strangely, the use of that un-capped i in sentence after sentence may infiltrate some ambiguity into the reader’s assessment of the writer’s apparent humility, but each of us is free to make up her own mind about that.

For reasons that I think are wholly unrelated to the no I in i impulse, other writers omit periods at the ends of sentences, preferring the mark for ellipses instead. Thus “john visited judy this evening … they watched some tv then ate some ice cream … then …  “

The sentence pretends to explain what john and judy did, but what did they do, really, especially after the ice cream? Inquiring minds want to know. The three dots don’t indicate the end of a sentence, as some letter writers imagine that they do. The period, acting alone, does that. The three dots can indicate an elision or omission, something left out, and not by accident. It may also suggest that the writer merely lost the thread and, instead of searching for it, set down an unwritten “what the hell” and went on.

Oh, and then there is the absence of periods altogether. Some writers compose one long utterly unpunctuated sentence. Their view, I think, is that the reader deserves a challenge and will somehow make sense out of what they are trying to say.

Or there is the apparently irresistible urge some writers, commenters, tweeters, and others have to add some pop to their message. They bring out the all-caps big guns, figuring that they will give whatever they had in mind to disparage a sound beating. “THAT STUPID BASTARD GOT THE THUMPING HE DESERVED,” as if being called a no-caps ‘stupid bastard’ who got a ‘thumping’ wouldn’t sting.

For all these compositional miscreants, semi-colons, capitalization, and even commas are the least of their failings. And, I won’t torment you with spelling.

Turning to semi-colons, I’m not a fan. Of course, they have a job to do in written expression more formal than tweets. But in everyday communication commas, on the other hand, are useful, and they enhance expression by adding clarity – if clarity is what the writer is after. Sometimes, obviously, it is not meaning or clarity he is after but clamor. Commas don’t lay there on the page being merely grammatical, even puzzlingly so. Their job is to say, “Pause a beat, take a breath, here’s a supplementary idea, now go on.” They are especially useful to brighten a complicated but murky idea, particularly when it began for the writer as a treasured thought but was on its way to being a jumble.

Anyhow, what are really on my mind are exclamation points. I hate them. The problems are duplication and excess. When someone writes “Wow,” the word is an exclamation. Adding !!! doesn’t add a thing, except perhaps the suggestion that the writer is feigning an enthusiasm and disguising insincerity. After all, no one is really three exclamation points worth of eager, and if someone is, do we want have written communication with such a demented soul?

If one writes “Thanks,” or even “Thanks a lot,” will the addition of a ! or even three !!! enlarge one’s gratitude or make it more heartfelt. If it was not heartfelt when it was represented by by the word alone, how can it be made so with a punctuation mark?

My theory – and you may conclude that it derives from my view that everything was better years ago, although that is not exactly or completely my view – is that when we moved from typewriters to computer keyboards, writers embraced the license to clutter one’s prose with exclamation points, and now (the horror) emoji. In the days of the Underwood, you could bang on the keys all you wanted, but you couldn’t find one labeled exclamation point. There were commas, apostrophes that could double as quotation marks, even semi-colons, but no exclamation points. Writers kept their enthusiasms in check. They committed more modest prose. If you wanted to inflate your emotion with an exclamation point, you had to type the period, then backspace, then type the shift-apostrophe. It was a nuisance, so writers restrained themselves. If they wanted to fly their emotional freak flag, they had to find the words.

 

Father’s Plot

Home from World War II, my father became the production manager for a Goodyear tire plant, a job he held until retirement at 62. The plant did not make car and truck tires. His job was to keep the bicycle tires that were the factory’s main product rolling off the line, to make sure the inbound rubber was on hand as needed, and to slide around inside barrage balloons checking the quality of the work he oversaw. He was not a slave to fashion, not at work nor at home, so instead of standard issue dad slippers around the house, he wore special purpose, indestructible  leather moccasins designed for the folks who walked around on the outside and inside of the balloons as they built them.

He was a clarinetist, a disciple of Benny Goodman, a member of a widely unknown dance band that entertained guests on small cruise ships. He was also an un-Lebowski-like social bowler, an avocation that I eventually concluded had an embittering, destructive effect on his marriage.

Unsurprisingly, I was only dimly aware in real time of this varied roster of his activities, all unrelated to raising his only child. They were puzzle pieces that I began to organize into a speculative family history, but only long after Father’s Day was no longer an occasion to celebrate with him. When he and my mother moved from the house they bought when the war ended, they did so unenthusiastically. The Vineyard, where they died, did not suit them.

I found in the bookcase beside his reading chair, the one he refused to relinquish even as the movers were packing away the furniture around him, one volume that was not like the others – not like the leather bound Shakespeare’s plays, Orwell, Ayn Rand, Jules Verne, Henry James, Dreiser, Forster, Conrad, and on and on. It was a dusty, cobwebby bookcase. Great books, in the historic sense, though seldom bothered about these days.

My father was a reader, though mysteriously and retrospectively worrisome to me, his taste diverged from classics when I was a kid to sci-fi and dystopian gothic as he got older and grumpier.  But, readers often imagine themselves writers. If they are reading something that does not imprison their attention, their thoughts wander. They wonder, Could I do better? Could I be the next John Grisham, the next Dennis Lehane, the next Styron, Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, or Katie Roiphe? If they are reading something exquisite in its soul capturing authority, when it’s done they wonder, Could I ever write something so riveting, so meaningful? Could my book make it to the top of the bestseller list? Of course, the answer is, Don’t be silly. Get back in that balloon.

Among my father’s legacy collection of nearly forgotten volumes the one I have in mind yielded a clue to who he was and what he dreamt of, none of which I had divined during eighteen years living at home. The mystery my sleuthing discovered that he had had a writing career in mind. The beginnings of his stories, along with letters from England where he served as a cryptographer in the Army Air Corps, he had secreted in a fragrant, red cedar box hidden in the back of a closet under the eaves in the bedroom he and my mother shared. He wrote in a swooping, stylish, graceful hand. The letters were finished, the stories were not. I guess the balloons got in the way.

It was the Plot Genie, with its  faded maroon cover and occult embossed illustration, was the book that surprised me and illuminated my ancestral research. It was not fiction or nonfiction, not history or science, pseudo or genuine. It was a Depression era self-help reference my father had handled often. The Genie was a nuts and bolts guide to plotting the story you aimed to write, complete with a wheel you spun to move the composition along by matching a character with a location, a murder weapon, a motive, and a scene. To be sure, it left the writer to fill empty spaces with life or rather its fictional facsimile, but the Genie promised to give a desperate, untutored first-timer a leg up.

You might find the wheel unsettling. The thought of spinning a wheel to select among nine general categories of plots, say, using motive 27, with character 29, and scene 42 may suggest a self-help hoax or a board game, a Cards Against Humanity approach to writing fiction. The Plot Genie was copyrighted in 1931. It’s worth noting that it was copyrighted not written. Invented by Wycliffe A Hill, the copy my father kept was published by Ernest A. Gagnon in 1935. Mr. Hill explained that his book resulted from “sixteen years of effort to perfect a formula, and a means of its application, which would enable student writers to inject plots into their stories” – a sort of injection molding fiction technique. I’ve no idea whether my father took the Genie seriously and used it to organize the plots of his unfinished manuscripts. There is insufficient evidence to decide the question, but I am satisfied that he harbored ambitions beyond the rubber industry, even dreams.

Mr. Gagnon was not modest about the utility of The Plot Genie. “I sincerely share the opinion of other publishers who have expressed themselves as believing that this invention of The Plot Genie will have a definite bearing on the character of story plots around which much of our future fiction and drama will be built, to the end that stories in general will be improved in merit because they will be better plotted. I further feel that such a scientific system as is applied to the building of dramatic plots with this method is distinctly in line with the modern trend in all things toward efficiency and economy of effort.” Mercifully, Mr. Gagnon was dead wrong on all counts. The trend he saw coming in 1931 petered out quickly, efficiency and economy of effort giving way to shameless, extravagant, egocentric memoirist wallowing, and of course, now and again, some awfully good fiction in the gloriously fruitful post-war years.

If by now in this story you find yourself smirking, I must add that Mr. Hill developed his Plot Robot, as he called it, out of the most common stimulus known to would-be writers, to wit, a rejection notice. “Sixteen years ago,” he explains, “ I was started on a rampant search in an effort to track the thing called ‘Plot’ to its lair when the famous motion picture director and producer Cecil B. DeMille rejected one of my pet stories with the kindly criticism that ‘although an interesting narrative, it contains no dramatic plot.’”

Mr. Hill plotted his own revenge with The Plot Genie. Don’t think for a moment that the spinning wheel, decorated with the image of Aladdin himself, has only a few story ideas to suggest. In fact, Mr. Hill’s formula is amazingly exhaustive. It lists and classifies dozens and dozens of dramatic situations, describes plot building, and gives examples of plot outlines and a complete plotted story, developed with the mindless efficiency of the slide rule-like Genie. There are lists of locales, common and unusual male and female characters, fictional problems, obstacles to love, complications to thicken the stew, predicaments to challenge the characters, crises, climaxes, and surprise twists. It’s a feast for the novelist with a hobbled imagination.

You begin with three turns of the wheel on the Genie. That will yield a locale or atmosphere. Then, three more turns and the first character will be revealed, three more and the beloved appears. Each of the results is a number on the Genie’s wheel, and each number refers to a list in the pages of The Plot Genie. “The object,” Mr. Gagnon writes, “is to have the mechanical device select a series of nine numbers which call for the requisite plot elements, one from each of the nine lists in the book.” That’s it, you’re done.

A few revolutions of the Genie’s wheel could yield – as one example does – a story Mr. Hill says he sold to movie studios, but perhaps not to Mr. DeVille. The story is about Elwood Parker, the elderly publisher; Keith Durant, the wealthy sportsman; Zenda, an aging mystic; Pamela Wynne, the daughter of Zenda; George Barry, a moonshine mogul; Anna Meggs, a farmer’s wife; and Dulcy, the redbone girl. The collision of these characters creates a detective story, whose motivation is a $100,000 reward that the federal government is offering for information about bootlegging operations that market alcohol for sale in Chicago. The action takes place on a hunting trip, set in the hills of Kentucky.

Never seen the movie based on this plot? Neither have I. In the end Pamela and Keith get the reward and fall in love.

Examining The Plot Genie’s faded, mildewed pages, I made out on an endpaper the faint record of some notes. Dim as they were, they were certainly my father’s. Barely legible after so many years, I read a few lines. “The mystic’s daughter tells him that the publisher is a frequent visitor to the restaurant. She is overheard, and the gang leader attacks them. After a furious battle, he overcomes the enemy and delivers him to the police.”

There is nothing more.

 

Everything Is Up to Us

The beauty part of the term “fake news” is that it welcomes all comers. It is inclusive. Whatever your motive, you can spread it. The president wields it to criticize and provoke the press, as well as his legion of other antagonists. He does it to rev up his base, and because he is foolishly, tastelessly impulsive. The press and the president’s opponents wield it to criticise him, his behavior, his policies, his person, and doing so stumble into the tasteless gutter with him.

It’s become one of those terms with enormously wide currency, used every day by folks of all sorts of opinions. It’s a phrase, such as “unbelievably great” or “incredibly smart” or “iconic American” that may be applied to whatever one chooses, and that can mean to you whatever you want it to mean, and to others perhaps something else, or nothing at all. It is undefined and mostly meaningless.

And brilliantly, as if it were a mechanism invented by some diabolical linguist, everyone who uses these empty words and phrases comes to believe he or she has communicated a concrete, immutable idea that everyone else completely understands and with which they all agree. So, as time passes, with each use, meaning drains away. Such phrases and fake news are empty vessels that each of us fills in ways that suit us, believing that everyone else is filling the meaning void in the very same way.

Consider the labels, Democrat and Republican. Think of each of these terms as representing a variously wide spectrum of people and notions. Among Democrats, some are left wing, some right, some deeply invested in issues surrounding money in politics, others in gender equality, others in Bernie, others in Hillary, immigration, or race, others in something else, and these issues may dictate their voting choices.

Or Republicans. Along their spectrum, there are right wingers and centrists. Some want to hollow out the federal government, starve it of funds, attack the national debt head on. Others want to work out a deal with their Democrat colleagues to spend more on defense, attack climate change forecasters, destroy labor unions. Some think President Trump is a conservative, a Republican, a moderate, a liberal in borrowed conservative clothes, or a would be emperor.

Where there is agreement and common bipartisan enthusiasm, it is among the politicians who march under these various banners, always joining up. At both ends of the spectrum, they agree to wanting, no matter what, to be reelected.

Each of these party labels represents some sort of core commonality, I suppose, though it defies definition, which means it is nearly useless. Neither helps us much to understand what’s going on in the political world  around us.

My wife is a guidance counselor. One of the problems she encounters in youngsters is that some of them are “on the spectrum.” Autism. High functioning at one end, not so high functioning toward the middle, severely challenged at the other end. She looks at me strangely at times, so I think maybe she sees me on that spectrum somewhere.

There is a fake news spectrum that runs from news articles and on-air or cable discussions that seem like news but are actually flimsy analysis, baseless predictions, or worthless, common opinion, usually driven by a hardened bias, sometimes declared, sometimes not. It continues through errors, mistakes, and attacks that people including politicians post on FB, Twitter, and other social media, and in comments to news sites. It is endlessly uninspired, repetitious, and unhelpful. And sadly, one must add the intentionally deceptive commentary or posts, made by everyday folk, crazed partisans, attacking politicians and foreigners, and ordinary people like you and like me who tweet or retweet for the atta-boy reward that we covet. Each of these fits the fake news rubric. None is original or insightful.

At a party, a frustrated someone said, “All I want is to have some TV channel that I can look at each morning, and that only broadcasts facts, the truth about everything.”

Which brings me to the First Amendment, the absolute bedrock, unique and unambiguous distinguishing feature of American government. It is ours alone.

The First Amendment is a reminder of our most precious rights as Americans, and as humans. And it reminds us of our unnumbered responsibilities. It bars the government – any government, local, state, national – from meddling with what each of us possesses merely because we are human, we  have been born, and we are American citizens – namely, the right to speak our minds, write what we think, worship a god as we like or not at all, assemble peacefully and petition the government. These rights, we believe, were not given us by a king, queen, or even a democratically elected government. They preceded all of those. They inhere in us and are ours just as our eyes are blue, or brown, or black, or we are tall or short, fat or thin, American-born or naturalized. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights did not give us this supreme gift. Instead these three documents told the government “Hands Off, This is Ours.”

What the First Amendment does not say is that the use, the benefit, the protection, and the responsibility for enjoying and maintaining all of these rights fall to us. To you and to me.

You can’t palm the use and protection of your inherent rights to Facebook, or Google, or Instagram, or Twitter or the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, or Breitbart or Fox, or MSNBC, HuffPost, or even government itself  – or to some imaginary TV channel that will fill you up with facts each morning with your coffee, granola, or eye opening belt of tequila.

Each of us is the designated curator of the information we find, gather, think about, evaluate, and decide upon. Hallelujah.

 

Haulout

I don’t think there is a commonly observed annual moment when one takes a whole week to make a personal assessment. There ought to be.

There may be cursory moments when one looks around at the wreckage, the disrepair, and the battered relics of a year gone by, then shrugs, and staggers on. But I don’t mean those familiar sorts of mercifully fleeting jiffys. I mean an occasion when one stares unblinkingly at the deterioration that a year has wrought on one’s plans, one’s ambitions, one’s treasury, and one’s own sorry carcass, then calculates the toll, rolls up the sleeves and puts things right, or at least as right as the natural course of things allows.

New Year’s Day is a possibility. You know, the resolutions, the sloppy sentiment, the sense that with the new year, everything’s fresh. But the track record of permanent effects resulting from resolutions made at New Year’s is poor. No one feels very well on Jan. 1, and who has the energy to make big plans when one has such a jackhammer headache?

April 15 is another possibility, but that’s all about trying to defeat the taxman, who has his own very detailed calculation of the condition you’re in, and he wants his generous piece of your action. You may not know what happened to all that money, but he does. You may not have made an unflinching analysis of your income and spending, but he has.

Now, if you happen to have a boat, big or small, there is a perfect, inescapable annual moment for assessment and repair. That moment is now — spring. It’s time to haul the boat out of the water, set it on the land where you can get in touch with all its parts, including those that are hidden most of the time, to see what wind, weather, water, tides, and your own occasionally monumental stupidity have done.

Slime, grass, and barnacles have taken hold of the bottom. The paint on the sides is cracked, and what’s worse, the errors you made the spring before in preparing the hull for painting have endured. The rouge and blush you hoped would disguise all the dings and scrapes have washed away. The varnish is utterly missing in places — many places. She looks, and you feel, a long year older.

On the other hand, if you are lucky, and at times I have been, no planks will be popping off, water won’t be rushing through the seams, and another year afloat may be assured with the application of some sandpaper, putty, paint, and varnish. And, most important, the haulout means that nothing is hidden any longer. You know where the soft spots are, where the blemishes have revealed themselves, where the accumulated dents and scratches of years announce that the old girl’s got some age on her, but with your diligent help, she’ll totter on.

And, if you’re even luckier, one of the boys you’ve grown expressly for this purpose will be on hand to scrape and sand and paint. You are reminded that it was real foresight to have fed and clothed those boys, knowing that, as the years have passed, you would accumulate some leaks and wormy parts yourself, and need their help.

Besides, getting together with one or both of the boys to do the scraping, painting, cleaning, mending, chivvying, and general boatkeeping work is pleasing beyond words. And anticipating the fun that will follow the work is pleasant too.

The chores fall into two categories. The first is demanding and very important work: You have to sand the topsides and the bottom, then paint both. You have to grease the propeller, which has these tiny set screws and tiny grease fittings that try their best to get lost. If a tiny set screw finds its way into the beach sand, it’s gone forever. No two ways about it.

Plus, almost every substance you work with is toxic to some degree, even lethal in the most extreme circumstances. During the annual haulout, your life is on the line.

Among the worst jobs is changing the engine’s four filters — one an oil filter, the other three for fuel. There’s a sequence of events that must be followed, or else the engine won’t fire off when you’re done. I’ve only rarely got the sequence right. When I screw up, then it’s a matter of draining this and bleeding that before the engine finally clatters to life, signaling the end of the tough stuff.

Back in the water, the work becomes less onerous. Bending on sail. Cleaning the smelly bilge. Cleaning the mossy woodwork. Cleaning the sink and the dishes and the toilet. Washing the towels and the settee covers that spent the winter aboard, and smell like it. But afloat again as spring becomes summer, we can set up the awning over the cockpit, so that it is cool and breezy as we work.

Still, there’s the matter of where I put all the little pieces of hardware and the specialized lines when we put the boat away in the fall. Then, I could have put my finger on each and every bronze this and Dacron that. By spring, that treasure trove of clarity has been depleted. I hunt in the cellar, the garage, and every nook on the boat. It takes more time to find the stuff when you need it than it takes to do the stuff you’re trying to do. And sometimes, besides forcing you to acknowledge your negligence, the search leads you to food you left aboard by mistake, food that’s now metastasized into a gruesome, unrecognizable, hitherto unknown life form that can’t be merely tossed out but must be scraped off the joinery. As the days stream by, the annual assessment threatens to overrun spring and cripple early summer.

Eventually it’s mostly cleaning and deciding what can be kept and what must be tossed. In a fleeting but brilliant moment a few years ago, I settled on a new strategy for keeping track of the boat’s vast and elusive inventory. I got a collection of plastic tubs and toolboxes from Shirley’s, plus a Sharpie. On the outside of each container I listed what’s in it. Sometimes there were tough decisions. Should the electrician’s tape go in the Electrical box, or should it go into a box with other kinds of tape — sail repair tape, rigging tape, mast boot tape, duct tape? Such issues often require coffee and a long period of contemplation before the most efficient outcome becomes obvious. Then there was the problem of storing all these containers, out of the way but accessible. There isn’t much storage space aboard the boat, and all the available space is curvilinear. All the containers are rectilinear. More contemplation, more coffee, and more sitting around is called for.

Such a pause often refreshes. Once, sitting around rewarded me with the memory of an occasion, years ago now, when the two boys and I went on a brief sailing cruise during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It was crisp, bright, and windy, temperature in the low 30s. We cooked our meals in the pressure cooker, a small-boat culinary mainstay. We had pot roast, lots of it, and corned beef and cabbage. The steam expelled by the cooker supplemented the heating system, which is a tiny wood stove mounted on a bulkhead at the forward end of the main cabin. It heats the cabin atmosphere so that we could sit around in our shirtsleeves, telling stories and admiring our hardiness, but no heat reached the cabin floor, where frostbite conditions threatened bare feet.

I recalled E.B. White, a sailor himself, writing in “Trumpet of the Swan,” “Safety is all well and good: I prefer freedom.” Freedom and boats are entangled for me.

So, in this annual moment, or month as may be the case, even as you are consumed with preparing to sail when you should already be sailing, even though it would be splendid to get out sailing on each tender spring day, it turns out that, in its own way, it is splendid enough to haul out, to clean and reorganize, to sift through the remains of last season, to welcome memories that revisit, and to look ahead — pleased that nothing is hidden, everything is properly attended to once again.

Published May 17, 2018 in The Martha’s Vineyard Times.

 

A Fine Man

Politics is a noble calling though its practitioners rarely meet that standard. When Greg Mayhew and I met in the early 1970s, we discovered that we were the same age. He was a politician, and I was in the newspaper game. We ought to have been genial or perhaps contentious adversaries, and he ought to have prospered in his safe State House seat as the representative for Dukes County. But, when we saw one another on his political rounds, we talked boats, fishing, Fairhaven where I was from, Vineyard life and people – not bills, not votes, not elections.

Greg had no windiness, no hollow conversation, no self-satisfaction, no arrogance. He kept at the job, but it didn’t fit. When he had served a decent while, he stepped aside and went home to make a life fishing with his Chilmark family. Had he continued in his inherited profession, would the clatter and toadying native to the species have transformed him? Not a chance.

He was a fine man, fun loving, plain spoken, kind, and determined to be himself and to live life as it fit him. In recent years, before his death this week, when he and I met, we talked admiringly about our children.

Empty Words

You must have heard someone say, “I want to thank you for blah, blah.”

Or, “May I  take this opportunity to just say blah, blah, blah?”

Why don’t they just say, “Thank you for blah, blah” or, even more simply, “Blah, blah.”

If they want to say it, why don’t they just say it?

A small but crucial distinction must be drawn between “I want to say blah, blah” and “I’m just saying blah, blah.” The latter, heard often in spousal conversation, is a reflexive/defensive technique, allowable in all circumstances where a husband has ventured an opinion that has identified him as the bonehead his wife always knew he was.

“I’m just saying blah blah” is a sort of respectable verbal retreat, to which a typical beloved might reply, “You’re just saying you have no idea what you’re talking about.”