Social Media’s Sweet Spot May Be Journalism’s Final Resting Place 

I am a First Amendment absolutist. Well, sort of, but especially thanks to my years in the news business, a free press purist. But, the free press is getting clobbered by social media, thanks to the smarmy, fearful toadies in the Congress, which has carved out an undeserved protection for the wealthy and politically generous socials. And that heedless indulgence has successively turned the press into smarmy, fearful social media disciples, intimidated by the online mob and competing with it in the tastelessness sweepstakes.

Over time, the Supreme Court and the voters have allowed sensible abridgments to the Bill of Rights, which are the cornerstones of our liberty. The First Amendment is particularly dear because it protects the press; along with the right to say what you think; the right to worship (or not, as you chose); the right to peaceably assemble (though not to loot, assault, or torch); and to petition government leaders. Whether those leaders are paying attention to you, or to anything but themselves, is a question too deep for me.

The Constitution, which differs from the First Amendment in that it is a human, political conceit that may be modified or amended by law or popular decision, adjusted, and even abused by Congress, the President, and the courts.  

But, not the Bill of Rights and not the First Amendment. Its enumerated rights, we believe, inhere in each and every American at birth, indeed every human, American or not, although sadly the grasping tyrants ruling other societies elsewhere would insist otherwise. The First Amendment particularly, and the rest of the Bill of Rights protect for us these human rights by prohibiting government from messing with them.

They are not, in the first place, the government’s to give or take away, they are simply ours, from birth. Of course, voters may choose to modify, add, or even relinquish these cherished rights, but to do so is a daunting task, so difficult that efforts to make changes focus on politically susceptible lawmakers so as to chip, chip, chip away at, when they may not utterly do away with, our natural inheritance.

Now, I’m afraid, we’ve arrived at a national moment when we may have lost the guiding star of the historically unique political idea that binds us. Or perhaps we have given up on it. We derive from an idea that consecrates the variety of us and our views, distributes government authority widely and stingily, guards against majoritarianism, and fuels a determined skepticism of government and its prideful practitioners.

H.L. Mencken, a most recalcitrant but highly regarded journalist in his mid-20th Century moment, described  the American politician as “a man who has lied and dissembled, and a man who has crawled. He knows the taste of boot polish … He has taken orders from his superiors in knavery and he has wooed his inferiors in sense.” We must diligently keep that sort at bay, back-footed, Mencken advises. His view was that “All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy …” against us. 

Over the top, you say.  Well, maybe. 

Still, he does remind us of the responsibility each one has to ourselves and to others, one by one, to be what Orwell called “a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

Today those “smelly little orthodoxies” propagate themselves in social media, in the political class, and in the craven journalism that genuflects to them. 

Today the breadth and variety of newspapers, magazines, and niche publications of every sort, so cherished by the Founders who named them first in the list of our inborn rights, hopelessly dwindles, impoverished by the Twitters, Facebooks, YouTubes, Googles, et al. Thanks to their rapacious, bloodless intrusion, less odd and original music, fewer free swinging disharmonies and unorthodox opinions will catch our interest and attention, and prod us to say, “Just wait a minute. I have another thought.” The “cancel culture” will execute that variant, that fresh idea and see to it that the tune we will all find ourselves humming will require of us only one note. 

Social media platforms now enjoy unwarranted protection from responsibility and liability for the solicited but unpaid contributions of their constituents. So, not only do they suck up, also unpaid, every scrap of commercially valuable information about you and me and everyone else, but the content they post that attracts users also comes to them free of charge, a bottomless inventory that costs the platform nothing.

Whether the witless, uncouth, raging poster is paid for his participation or not, the social media platform collects the post and publishes it. And really, every newspaper, news site, and social platform is a publisher and should be treated as one. That means each is free to cover, discuss, and host what appeals to its owners and followers. Each may host opinions and comments that may please me but irritate you. It’s up to each of us – the citizens,  never the government – to decide what information is useful, truthful, inspiring for good or evil, or tasteful (if taste matters any more), and what is not. Each outlet’s long lived business success depends on the choices the readers or listeners or Tweeters, or Facebookers or Insta users make. 

Thankfully, the government cannot pick and choose by regulation what is freely posted, aired or written. But, consumers, by their deliberate patronage or disregard, can.

And, whether the news,  information, or social exchanges hire writers or analysts or gather all of their content from volunteers, foreign interlopers, political interest groups (even hateful ones), politicians, even presidents, legacy news organizations, or algorithms, they are publishers. They can and they must be sued for libel, defamation, invasions of privacy,  violations of anti-discrimination laws, or even disgraceful and coarsening vulgarity when they misbehave. They may shelter under the First Amendment, that’s what it’s there for, but to flower, multiply, and enrich the variety of us and what we think, none should be protected, as if some special class, from your disfavor or disregard.

 

 

What We’ve Lost

When I wandered into the newspaper business in 1972, I was a stranger in a strange land. What Manuel said to Mr. Fawlty, I might have said: “I know nothing. I know nothing.” But later, as Manuel told his deranged boss, I might have added, “I learn, I learn.” 

Since then, what I have learned about small community newspapers is entirely disheartening.

America lost a quarter of its journalists from 2008 to 2018, the vast majority of them covering local issues, University of North Carolina professor Penny Muse Abernathy told writer Jonathan O’Connell of The Washington Post, in a story published in December last year. Ms. Abernathy described the state of the art of local journalism for the year just ended, calculating that newsrooms lost at least 3,800 jobs, a gruesome toll, but that’s just the latest bad news.  She told the Post that  the country has lost 2,100 newspapers since 2004, 70 of them dailies. 

Mr. O’Connell writes that she calls “about 1,000 surviving titles as ‘ghost papers,’ because of their painfully thin staffs and reporting. She has dubbed places with few or no reporters as ‘news deserts.’  ‘There is a dearth of local news at all levels,’ she said.”

At the Vineyard Gazette, way back when, the first thing I learned was that newspapering in a small community was fun, and also challenging, though even the challenging parts were fun. Fun because every member of the community was a story, not just the town or county officials, and certainly not the state or, God forbid, federal pols, who only rarely could be distinguished from their public postures, except perhaps in their obituaries. 

Of course,  Democrat-Republican partisan warfare was muted and perhaps entirely inconsequential in those halcyon days. So selectman meetings, police and court news were fun too. Fun to research, to write, and to read. We smile, you smile, no one is wounded, or at least not terribly, and many are pleased, their profiles raised, and sometimes enhanced. 

Perhaps you found yourself surprised to learn that your neighbor was a highly regarded nuclear physicist, or you howled at the story about the rampant turkey gunned down by a town police officer. That one had a smile or two in it and was only mildly wounding to the officers whom the rampaging bird had attacked. No humans were harmed, except perhaps emotionally. It was the sort of story that makes the lives of small town reporters and editors as fun as they from time to time can be.

But, the smiles don’t predominate in community news coverage. Leaving aside the plays, movies, books, music, dance, good deeds, births, anniversaries, sports, club activities, fundraisers, and parades that formed the weekly diet, the news core of a weekly community paper is heavy with zoning/planning issues, budgets, taxes, school committee activities, law enforcement, court news, auto accidents, boating accidents, land disputes, economic development, conservation, and the like.

A good deal of this core stuff was distressing or exasperating, and some of it was heartbreaking, especially when then phone rang with an embarrassed or abused neighbor or friend, whose life has been tilted by finding himself the topic of general conversation in town. What made these stories rewarding was that the people written about were neighbors. One learned that each mattered, whatever side of the issue he supported.

The reward of the weekly community news business, particularly in a smallish setting, was that one got to follow the lives of neighbors, from birth announcement to obituary, from a newcomer’s arrival to her departure, whether for this side or the other. The weekly paper’s job was to describe as many of these human trajectories as it could, as these neighborly characters appeared and receded in the rich variety of their community roles over the years, and to do it without sneering at them, without deprecating them, without calling them names, wishing them dead, or hating them. Sadly, horrifyingly, nationally, that’s changed.

There are several myths about newspapers. One is that newspapers can only report what official sources, such as the courts, the police, the FCC, the White House, the EPA, the selectmen, or you name it, permit them to report. Another is that what newsmakers claim is private is off-limits. Oh, and that news reporters worth the name are doing a journalist’s job, getting the news, by asking some bigwig a question in a televised press conference. Rather, it’s pretend journalism.

Thank the Founding Fathers, news gathering – the press – is unregulated. Newspapers, unlike broadcast television or radio, are private enterprises, free to publish what they choose, as they choose, when they choose, whether it’s official or not. Consequently, there are all sorts of newspapers, some focused on international news, some on community and commercial boosterism, some on small town myth-making, some on the sad, sordid, and self-promotional antics of the celebs, or on the 90-year-old who gave birth to the Mr. Bean look-alike, or, well, you name it. Choose your poison.

Nor is it true in newspapering that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, obliging the reporter to add the word alleged at least twice in every sentence. It’s true in the law, and hooray for that, but it’s not true in journalism. The research and the story’s quality is the rule newspaper people should obey. Of course, make a mistake, publish the story without getting the story, risk a libel suit. Astonishingly also, there’s the myth that holds that some stories are so embarrassing or humiliating or ghastly that they ought to be kept secret by the newspaper, by those involved in the story, and by and from the community as a whole. None of this is true. It’s a choice for the reporter and his editor. The guiding spirit is, Find Stuff Out, Then Publish it.

Along with this freedom comes associated risk and a requirement for care and common sense.  Publish stuff that is not true, or so boosterish or pandering, or enough other stuff that readers find repugnant or merely trivial, and poof, you’re out of business, or maybe in court. But, the general rule is that when community newspapers publish stories that are sufficiently interesting, that obviously have the interests of the community of readers at heart, and that alert readers to matters that need attention, congratulation, or correction, such newspapers endure.

But the tide is running briskly, mortally, Woods Hole Passage-like, against news reporting and publishing today and has done so for decades. Social media has gutted journalism, coarsened, devalued, and discredited it, so that, with few exceptions, information online is indifferently researched, unedited, cocksure opinion, unexamined by a traditional editorial process. And although all of these online social media creatures are publishers, they take no responsibility for what they publish. After all, they are merely reporting or hosting what they’ve heard, what someone said, what groundless conceit has struck the poster today.

Worst of all, as the small, locally focused newspapers fall away, the profoundly personal linkage between journalists and their neighbors, who are also their readers, is lost. And finally, the nation, not the neighborhood, becomes the centerpiece of the life we live.

 

How on Earth Did They Manage?

I learned from the New York Post today that Tom and Giselle are still deeply in love. I had worried because apparently they had a rocky patch a couple of years ago, and Tom needed to get his priorities straight. He did, so in this bewildering moment of universal estrangement I guess things will turn out all right after all.

News like this seems to buck us up in these strange, dangerous times. So do the Instagram celebrity advisors, the tweeters, the political analysts, the online psychologists, even the TV news readers who tell us to wash our hands, keep our distance from one another, wear face masks and gloves. It’s as if, in this maddeningly,  inescapably connected world, there were no actual flesh-and-blood people, people we know, people we can call or meet over a sandwich (responsibly six feet apart) – family, friends, co-workers, buddies, all influencers with a small i – every one wise enough (or, sadly, unwise) to comfort, delight, surprise or appall us.

There are no small i’s in the broadbanded Influencer ranks. We seem to have accustomed ourselves to heed and even to pay allegiance to strangers,  secular priests oozing sanctimony.

My parents lived through the Great Depression, got married just as WWII was ending, when I was born. I understood gradually that no one during all that global chaos told them what was what. They knew, or if they didn’t they carried on anyway. How did they do it, I wonder, without Tom and Giselle and their good news.

Toilet Paper

We are anxious. Stalked by an illness that girdles the globe faster than an ICBM, we cannot unhear the order to keep an arm’s length from one another, just when in such fearful and bewildering circumstances one’s instinct is of course to join arms.

We are suddenly adrift in a vast turbulence of paradox. When it would be comforting to see a friend’s face, to gab and laugh, to hug and shake hands, to gossip and complain, ridicule, sympathize, razz, or reminisce, the face in front of us is masked. We cannot see her smile or frown. If we extend a hand it meets the other’s gloved in latex. When it would be refreshing to take a moment we’re in a rush, and so is he.

The news is always discomforting, sneering, apocalyptic, what should have been done, what is being done wrong, who has blundered and why we will all suffer for it. They closed the schools, that’s good. They closed the schools, that’s terrible. Or, there are the hapless prognosticators: here’s the worst case possibility, millions may die, the pandemic could last for most of the year, the economy will take decades to recover, the hospitals will be overrun, my neighbors will lie dying in the streets, there isn’t a leader one can rely upon.

No wonder folks are stocking up on toilet paper. What better feeling is there than to visit the family laundry room where three deep shelves of stacked Charmin Extra Soft stand by. You may run out of Cheetos, or Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food, but in that out of the way cupboard you have accumulated enough TP to see you through a year, maybe two. You won’t be the one who has to resort to using the MVTimes or the Gazette –or on a bad day the NYTimes or the Globe – in one of those crucial moments, because you lost track of your stockpile. You weren’t one of those big retailers that use the just-in-time system of restocking. No sir, maybe you didn’t plan for just this sort of extended calamity, but you certainly didn’t depend on a roll turning up in a moment of extremis.

Oh, and in this monumentally ironical global moment, astonishingly it turns out we are all in it together.

 

 

 

 

Not Another Like Him: Nelson Bryant

I’ve often reckoned myself lucky to have come across so many unique characters over the years, and especially over the 50 years I’ve lived on the Vineyard. The ones I’m thinking of were not necessarily the celebrated or the overlooked, the wheeler dealers, the politicians or the leaders devoted to their indispensable selves, and not the grouches or the wheedlers or the we-know-betters.

I have in mind men and women who have ever been merely and always themselves. It’s not easy to do, not easy to resist the daily calls to follow or to lead somewhere that is without a doubt not the right place, not your place. 

Each of us these days has strenuously held opinions, and the opportunities to detonate them are deplorably plentiful, varied, and handy. Many of us appear to be of the opinion that, in his or her life’s unfolding, there is the treasure of a memoir from which the world will certainly benefit. In this, they are, almost every one of them, wrong. On the other hand, Nelson Bryant of West Tisbury, who died on January 11, 2020 at 96, has judged correctly that his story — told in his plain, frank, unguarded, and flavorful voice — is worth telling. The result, memoir Mill Pond Joe (2014), rewarded his readers, especially those, whether old timers or newcomers, whose knowledge of and interest in Martha’s Vineyard human and natural history is keen. He delivers himself undraped in this book. He is himself, take it or leave it.

Bryant was the outdoor columnist for The New York Times for almost 40 years. As a young man, he participated in the D-Day invasion with the 82nd Airborne, then jumped again into Holland and fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. He was wounded twice. Later, he became managing editor for 15 years of the Daily Eagle in Claremont, New Hampshire, and then a dock builder on the Vineyard, before beginning a career as a columnist that would take him around the world and back again to the Vineyard. Mill Pond Joe describes most of his hunting and fishing adventures and visits many of the remote locations where game was plentiful and fish were biting. It’s a global story of a born naturalist’s devotion to the creatures he studied, admired, and hunted. He tells his life’s tale with a sharp aim and a storyteller’s gift. He describes an extraordinary working life that grew from an Island boyhood among the fields, streams, and especially West Tisbury’s Mill Pond.

“Now in my late 80s,” Mr. Bryant explains, “I have only an occasional urge to go far afield in quest of ducks and am usually content to visit Town Cove with my youngest son, Jeff, or my partner, Ruth. I don’t abuse the spot — don’t hammer it every day. I regard the marsh, the cove, and Mill Brook that enters it with reverence. My trips there are like re-reading a favorite poem. I never tire of the place even if no birds are flying, and I am deeply grateful to the various owners of the property who have allowed me to hunt there over the years.”

But, set aside for a moment the richly detailed chronicle of birds and animals he hunted, fresh and saltwater fish he caught, the friends exalted and humble he met, the wonderfully remote places he visited, his bravery and fear in combat, skinny dipping with Kay Graham on Chappy, his pedestrian taste in wine, his working relationship with the New York Times, all of which together form the framework for the telling. Instead focus on this story of a writer who, when his professional journalist’s life ended, needed to go on writing.

“All my goddam life here after the war and college,” Bryant said this week, “I’ve been a journalist, and I wanted to keep writing, for the pleasure of it. It’s always been about the words. I’ve loved words, and I didn’t want to stop using them, although really I’m inclined toward poetry.”

The poetry in this volume is plain in Bryant’s earnest self-reflection, his unflinching, really brutal, confession of his youthful romantic and embarrassing enthusiasms, his sense of guilt over the Tisbury Great Pond drowning of his sister, his betrayal of his wife, his “children’s shortcomings.”

“I was a horse’s ass,” Mr. Bryant told me one day, “but I thought, what the hell, I’ve been a journalist all my life, a reporter, and what a reporter does is put down the truth.” Instinctually and from the habits of a lifetime, if he was going to do this he wasn’t going to do it vaguely or evasively. “I thought if I was going to write this memoir, then goddamn it I’m going to tell the truth.”

Mill Pond Joe is the central character in stories he created to tell his children, in place of stories written by others and merely read to them at bedtime: “I was Mill Pond Joe, and my yarns were based on actual events in my boyhood…. A few years after my stint with the Times was over, I was moved to chronicle the story of Mill Pond Joe from childhood to old age. In part this came from having been a journalist most of my life. When I quit writing on a regular basis, I discovered that much of my emotional well-being was wrapped up in getting words on paper. Somewhat melancholic and guilt-ridden, I also had the notion that while assembling Mill Pond Joe’s history I might gain more understanding of his flawed and selfish, albeit life-embracing, behavior.”

The poet in Bryant takes clear-eyed measure of his life and himself. He can’t use W.B Yeats’s solution to the late in life uncertainty that occupies the thoughts of folks his age. He is not disposed to sail to Byzantium: “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick …” Whatever happens next, Bryant told me, he will not “set a course for the “the holy city of Byzantium.”

“I must instead shuffle aimlessly toward eternity. I am, however, sustained by the knowledge that I am supremely fortunate to be living in comfort with someone I love, and with other loved ones close by, although with disturbing frequency I am troubled by contemplating the eternally fog-shrouded terrain of Hamlet’s ‘undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.’ In combat, I feared death, whether from shrieking shells, machine gun bullets plucking at my jacket, or the snap of a sniper’s round passing inches from my head, but after those things went by, and I had yet another chance to live, the fear they had engendered quickly faded. Now I sometimes feel as if I am on an unending and meaningless night patrol — without map and compass — to oblivion. I have discovered that this can be eased by actively sharing my life and thoughts with friends and loved ones.”

This sharing is generous and rewarding, because it is precisely himself. Mill Pond Joe’s life, so earnestly and frankly considered, was the work of a Vineyard lad whose odyssey began and ended at home but encompassed a landscape so rich and extensive that only a writer of real skill and a love of words could do it justice.

Note: I reviewed Nelson’s book for the Martha’s Vineyard Times in November, 2014.

At 75, The Ritz is the same old welcoming, musical place

It’s the 75th anniversary of The Ritz Cafe in Oak Bluffs. I wrote a piece for this month’s Boston Magazine to mark this remarkable moment.

Here is a link to the story:  https://www.bostonmagazine.com/restaurants/2019/06/25/ritz-cafe/

Incurable hostility to change has been Martha’s Vineyard’s go-to stance for decades. The intensity has varied occasionally, but not the outcomes. Change has won. Today, the Gay Head Cliffs, the great ponds, and the beaches would be familiar to a mid-20th Century Vineyarder exhumed in 2019. Almost everything else is different – enlarged, renamed, upgraded, gone upscale, pricier. 

To the delight of the bar’s faithful congregation, among the holdouts there is the enduring Ritz Cafe. Along with the cliffs, the beaches, and the ponds, the blessed Ritz has held the line. It’s the same modest, local, beloved meeting, drinking, and music place that everyday islanders have depended on, after the day’s work is done and after the summer crowds have gone.

In 2019, Wednesday night at The Ritz, with John Hoy on vocals and the blues harp and dancers young and old madly sliding and wriggling among the musicians, recalls the impromptu, unsanctioned revels put on by clannish islanders of the 1970s and ‘80s – the horse races at Kappy Hall’s farm; the demolition derby at Hughie Taylor’s Gay Head (now Aquinnah) field; iceboating on a Sunday morning at Squibnocket Pond; the kids’ bicycle races around Ocean Park; 21st birthday parties arranged for young men and women by their happy families and friends. All welcome.

Often described as located at the bottom of Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, the main business drag in that spiciest of the six Vineyard towns, The Ritz is actually at the heart of Circuit Avenue and the town, a few steps from the harbor, the ferry terminal, the movie theaters, Trinity Episcopal Church, the Methodist Camp Ground, the lovely, spacious Ocean Park with its bandstand and wading pond, and for years the police and fire stations, The Ritz remains a durable anchor to windward.

In 1970, fewer than 7,000 lived on Martha’s Vineyard year-round. There was no zoning or subdivision control. Government had a bit part in the production. Only a handful of ferries carried people and freight to and from the mainland at Woods Hole. Then, only two towns allowed the sale of alcohol –  exalted Edgartown, the county seat, and Oak Bluffs, OB, or Sin City, as it has been variously known. For decades, on a bitter, wind harried winter evening the lights at The Ritz extended the only welcome to be found, from one end of cheerless Circuit Avenue to the other. Edgartown was a drive too far.

A narrow, ground floor walk-in space built in 1930, the bar, featuring jars of 50-cent pickled eggs, extended front to back at the right. A few square tables, four chairs each, were at the left. The decor, bar and walls, sported a utilitarian fishboat green motif, and at the back two or three steps led up to the toilet and storage. In an adjoining space up three steps, called Topside, there were pool tables. The design approach emphasized the predictable need for periodic rapid rehab after a especially boisterous evening. Legacy customers like to tell a story, certainly generously embellished for effect, about the time one spirited customer, moved perhaps by a distaste for boiled eggs or rather because each egg was obviously a god made missile, and handy, began pitching the contents of a full bottle one at a time over the bar. Finding all the egg bits proved so difficult that the bar had to be dismantled and rebuilt to cure the smell. It was a place you made up stories to celebrate your being a part of it. 

Knowing its customers as well as it did, The Ritz was there on Tuesday mornings for the folks awaiting the weekly unemployment check distribution. It was common in the early days, well into the 1980s, that island tradesmen, shopkeepers, sales people, really workers of all sorts, expected to be laid off in the fall and rehired in the spring. In between, they got by on state unemployment benefits. The Ritz was there to comfort them, early before the checks were ready and later when the waiting had inspired a thirst.

Following the familiar Vineyard shape-changing retail tradition, The Ritz building had over the years done time as a fish market, a candy store, an ice cream emporium and a drug store, eventually approaching its true calling in Vineyard life, a liquor store. It debuted as The Ritz Cafe in 1944, Richard L Pease proprietor.

A lot of the old-timers have died, drifted away, sobered up, moved to Colorado, or decided to summer anywhere but Martha’s Vineyard. But all the people I talked with remembered the fun it was to be at The Ritz and enjoyed telling their stories. And I enjoyed hearing them. Plus, I discovered the secret to the place’s longevity. Good live music and an utter lack of artifice or pretension made The Ritz’s long success possible.

Publishers All: A Rant

The affliction that is social media is a Trojan horse of shameful behaviors. It debases the nation’s culture, inviting scalawags of all stripes to anonymously or pseudonymously air their idiocy and nastiness. It finances its devilishly masked intrusion into the personal lives of Americans by marketing what it learns about each of us and peddling this information inventory of habits and interests to businesses. It overruns and impoverishes the legacy press, whose rights and responsibilities were enshrined by the nation’s founders as crucial to our individual liberty. And, it does all this by assuming the protected costume of the publisher, while dispensing with the foundational obligations that come with the title.

Early in my life in newspapers, when ink, not electric impulses, delivered the news and features, when  typewriters and linotype machines were the technology, and before comments from readers became inflamed fixtures appended to each news or feature column, folks wrote letters to admire or complain. They signed their names, and we checked to see if they were who they said they were. We published most of the letters, but not all. We ruled out the unruly, the sneering, the nonsensical, and the merely provocative because it was, after all, the publisher’s paper and the editor’s pages, and it was run according to their lights.

In those long gone days, most reactions, from friends, strangers, and acquaintances met over the lamb chops at the market or at the post office were warmly encouraging. But not always. A reporter or editor might have noticed someone glaring from the vicinity of the organic kale and scuttled away. Or a reader might march into the editor’s office to deliver a strenuous criticism face to face. When newspapers began inviting and hosting comments on all the material they published, a whole new set of readers showed up to knock the gilt off the rose. And they did it with boots on. What seemed like a good idea at the time has come to be not a good idea at all.

Then, reporters and editors, like their readers, were more similar than different. In small towns and cities the newspaper folk lived with, and naturally enough, knew the people they reported on and to. The best of them were modest, driven, sympathetic, and even jolly a lot of the time. Today, the reporters and editors are one with the big-wheel politicians, the fundraisers, the celebrities, the Hollywood stars, and the apparatchiks who serve in the federal bureaucracy. That is, they graduate from the same colleges, they intermarry with the politicians or cable news network anchors, and they enroll their young children to the same private grammar schools as the exalted pols. Consequently unconcerned at the companionable hand-in-glove coverage of the neighbors, these members of the governing class sail miles high back and forth across the nation, offering money for this federal benefit or that one, as if the money were theirs. It’s a racket, and the racketeers and their watchdogs are too often in cahoots.

Or, these journalists admire and report on the self-made, astoundingly inventive and now astonishingly wealthy masters and mistresses of Alphabet, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Uber, Lyft, et al, who touch down in Silicon Valley or Manhattan or Washington to be feted, courted, or occasionally bedeviled, but only timidly and mostly for the theater of it.

What’s an everyday you and me to do about it?

It’s up to us.

The constant news and information artillery will ravage anyone exposed to it, and of course everyone is. But taken indiscriminately the assault is a goulash of smart, dumb, thoughtful, informed, merely informational, calculating, meretricious, promotional, and appalling, certainly a challenge to the reasonable person looking for something worth thinking about.

So, we targets must be cautious and discriminating. Most important, none of it is as important as what your neighbor told you this morning when you chatted, what the checkout person at the grocery store told you about the house fire last night, what your daughter told you last evening on the phone about her new boyfriend. Some perspective and serenity will help. We need to sample widely, spurn most of what we come across, and always read more, from varied sources. After all, the decisions one makes will value some news and some opinions and disdain others. It’s up to us, and if we read carefully, the smartest thinking will leave a mark.

Publishers All

Every newspaper, news site, and social platform is a publisher and should be treated as one. That means each is free to cover, discuss, and host what appeals to its owners, and to host opinions and comments that may please me but irritate you, It’s up to us, the citizens, – never the government – to decide what information is useful, truthful, inspiring for good or evil, or tasteful (if taste matters any more), and what is not. Each outlet’s business success and financial lifespan depends on the choices the readers or listeners or Facebookers or Insta users make. 

Thankfully, the government cannot pick and choose by regulation what is freely  what is posted, aired or written. But, consumers, by their deliberate patronage or disregard, can.

Sue them.

Whether the news,  information, or social exchanges hire writers or analysts or gather all of their content from volunteers, foreign interlopers, political interest groups (even hateful ones), politicians, even presidents, legacy news organizations, or algorithms, they are publishers, and they can and must be sued for libel, defamation, invasions of privacy,  or violations of anti-discrimination laws when they misbehave. They may shelter under the First Amendment, that’s what it’s there for, but they are not protected from your disregard.

 

Those Darn Words

For me, it is a matter of professional research, and I begin with the word patootie. As in sweet patootie. Patootie is a word you may have heard, or even used, though you probably heard it first that Christmas when the estranged husband of your aunt Mildred turned up unexpected at Thanksgiving when you were nine. It also may have been the first time you heard the word philanderer. It turned up in my childhood in a somewhat similar context, and for some reason I heard it the other day in my memory.  

Generally, the context was, “You bet your sweet patootie.” As I remember it, the speaker was likely an uncle animated by spirits, perhaps at the gathering after a wake, having in mind a tippled aunt giving herself up to joyful song in the garden at the reception following a wedding. 

There are words we hear today that have a flavorful ring to them and that we understand in their modern context. Booty, for example, which long ago meant pirates’ plunder and brought to mind Jim Hawkins, now lowlights the current frenzi for junk in the trunk. Captain Flint would never have used the word. Or, mosh, which today has to do with frenetic dancing that originated in the 1960s, as apparently almost everything else we endure today did. It may have sprung from Yiddish as mish-mash or mish-mosh, meaning a mess.

This isn’t to say that our boring, backward looking elders never trifled with the language. They certainly did. For instance there was a sort of uncle by marriage who was forever calling young women tomatoes. “She’s a nice little tomato,” he’d say in my ear, with a nudge. To be fair, he was a teetotaler and did not garden. Sometimes the tomato was a tamale, without further explanation.

Uncle’s tomato (or tamale) would probably be my Irish grandmother’s bold little thing. My grandmother, who often found her voice when that warbling sister of hers encouraged her, did not regard bold girls as admirable examples of liberated ambition. She thought they were dangerous, and she could spot one a mile off. They were inclined to make whoopee, she thought, which could get you into trouble. A flibbertigibbet could do the same thing, she believed.

She also knew frou-frou when she saw it. There is a word whose possibilities are staggering. I’ve heard, and if you are of a certain vintage, you may have heard “frou-frouing femininity,” first found in the 1905 edition of the English magazine Truth. Frou-frouing is everything my grandmother feared. It should not have been. It’s a perfectly innocent word that, like so many others, we ‘ve adapted as necessary, willy nilly, without consulting the linguisticians. We hear a sound, say, the rustling noise a girl’s dress makes when she walks, we make it a word that defines the sound so that we can tell someone else about it, and then we attach motive and sly ambition to it, and my grandmother adopts it as her own. That’s slanging words around.

“Slang,” John Moore wrote, “is a prodigal use of language; its bright baubles effervesce out of man’s invention, they take our fancy with their shimmer and sheen, but they are unstable, and very soon the changeable winds of fashion blow them away. The prigs and pedants who from time to time deplore some current piece of slang are wasting their breath; it is odds on any given word being forgotten in a season. But should a slang word by chance escape the common fate, then woe betide the pedant, for it will live to mock his memory.”

Have you ever encountered golldurnit? That was big in my youth, as in “Golldurnit, where did that dent in the car come from.” I began to hear it around my own house, out of the mouths of kids. “Golldurnit, not broccoli again.” The most prominent memory I have of that word employed in extremis was on the occasion of my sinking the family’s eight-foot pram by stumbling into it and onto my father while he sat in the stern seat. “Golldurnit boy,” he said as he sank slowly beneath the surface. “Look what you’ve done now.”

He had a fondness for nincompoop too, and that may have been employed on the same sort of occasion, or when you came home way later than you were suppose to, and crawling up the stairs you slowly became aware that someone was standing at the top. You began to explain, when you heard: “Stop the mumbo-jumbo, you nincompoop, I’ll talk to you in the morning.” Mumbo-jumbo, now that’s a word that ought to be in everyday use today.

And, there are so many more. You will remember mugwump, kowtow, kibosh, frabjous, gruntle, tomcatting, hanky-panky, harum-scarum, and hocus-pocus.

Most wonderful of all, there is huggle. This is a word for fathers, mothers, but especially lovers, who ought to be using daily. It is also a word which serves, in a variety of disguises, many functions. At heart, it is about affection. One is huggling when one is “imparadised in one another’s arms,” according to Milton. That’s a condition which my grandmother would have taken note of, and not quietly, you may be sure. “A-huggling they were, bold as brass,” one 16th century commentator wrote. Probably some earlier incarnation of granny.

Which leads me finally to hugger-mugger, one of the best old words I’ve come across. It is useful enough to deserve a prominent place in anyone’s everyday vocabulary. It means disorder or confusion, a natural outcome when one is huggling too often or too indiscriminately.

 

Not Who You Think We Are

The idea behind this column is that Cape Codders, and Falmouth folk in particular, might like to get to know their Vineyard neighbors. It works the other way too, of course, but my half century on the Vineyard and in the newspaper business has narrowed my outlook. Certainly, we are not exactly what you may think we are. Not merely the self-absorbed hosts of the rich and famous. Not exactly the plaguey Steamship Authority travelers clogging the roads and at the same time complaining that the roads are clogged. Not exactly the island tribe that adores the Cape Cod Mall but doesn’t want a mall on its own turf and feeling rather pleased with themselves for holding that line.

So, an introduction.

Right off the bat, you must know that we are not today what we were years ago, and an election story of uncertain origin will help explain the way things have changed. Voters use to be predictable, no matter which of the six island towns you lived in. Nearly everyone voted Republican. The characteristic story that proves the rule  recalls the Gay Head (now called Aquinnah) town clerk who was asked by a reporter late in the evening of election day for the vote count in the presidential election. Well, she said, consulting her tally sheet, it was Dewey 47, Truman 1. There was a pause, the flustered town officer appeared confused, then irritated. That can’t be right, she managed, it must be Dewey 48. Today, Dewey would not have a prayer of success.

“The islander refuses to be hobbled by the values of the Protestant ethic: thrift, piety, work for work’s sake. He is willing to earn less as the price of freedom. He shows little interest in the unionization that would increase his wages, because he fears it would limit the range of his occupation and curtail his free time.” This is not casual talk, not puffery. These are the findings in a book length study of Vineyarders, People and Predicaments, the only one ever of its comprehensive kind. It was researched and written by Dr. Milton Mazer, a Vineyard resident and the founder of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, successor to Martha’s Vineyard health center. His research was published by the Harvard University Press in 1976.

“When the deer season comes, [the islander] expects to be able to take the week off because he is often paid only when he works. If he cannot afford to, he expects to be able to have his gun at hand if the job is out of doors and near a wood.”

Gun toting, union shunning, freedom loving, and impious islanders carve their own path, Dr. Mazer discovered. And today, his findings hold true for the year-round population that has grown from about 6,000 in 1970 to nearly 17,000 today. Despite the growth and the wealth, the house carpenter in Chilmark charging $600 a square foot to build an architect designed 5,000 foot house will not hesitate to put his hammer down, pick up his shotgun and plug a deer browsing across the spacious lawn in front of the mahogany deck he is framing.

“If he has inherited land,” Dr. Mazer wrote, “he values it more than the things its sale might permit him to have, for the possession of land gives him prestige and deference from his neighbors, and its sale is felt as a betrayal of the past.”

Well, yes and no. On this point, things have changed over the years. Pneumatic land values and withering estate taxes have made cash king for old time islanders with large family holdings.

“Many islanders who are rich in land live quite poorly, selling bits of land in crises when illness strikes or when a child wants to go to college. The term ‘land poor,’ though archaic in many places, has real meaning on the island,” Dr. Mazer reported. “Planning for the future is of no great concern; the now seems more important than the morrow.”

But, once again, time and change inspired islanders to acknowledge the value of adjusting their net worth upward. They recognized the wisdom of well timed divestitures of property and the pleasures of well funded retirement in Florida.

“Planning and zoning were until recently [the mid-1970s] troublesome words, dangerous to use in public meetings,” Dr. Mazer wrote, “The islander’s primary interest is in what he will do today and, after that, his recollections about the past. Until recently, when the very nature of his life was threatened by the unrestrained plans of ‘land developers’ and speculators, he rarely concerned himself with might be; he was more interested in what is and what had been.”

The press of new people, part-time people, and lots of them have led to layers of subdivision and development rules almost none of which existed when Dr. Mazer did his research. When the Black Dog Tavern was built in the Vineyard Haven beach sand in 1972, the only permit needed was for a cesspool. Of course, you were expected to build it on land you owned, which the Black Dog nearly did, although a corner of the building was discovered to encroach on Steamship Authority property, a problem that was adjusted with relative ease in those less fractious times.

“The islander’s view of human nature departs from the generally optimistic, liberal belief that man is innately good and is corrupted by the evil in society,” Dr. Mazer found. “Human nature is usually seen by the island as innately evil, in comparison to his middle class summer visitors who see it as a mixture of good and evil.”

The puzzle, Dr. Mazer decided was that “The implications of these finding for mental health or mental disorder are governed by the fact that islanders are composed of two groups, those who were born and have lived on the island all of their lives and those who have come to the island. Whether the in-migrants possess the dominant values of contemporary American culture to a greater degree than do the natives, or whether their choice of a community represents a deviance from those values, is not certain.”

An islander today, new or old, would answer the question this way. “These wash-ashores come to the island because of what they love about it, and the first thing they want to do is change it.” Newcomers need only a few years in residence to develop a native islander’s well nursed hostility to the wash-ashores he barely preceded.

In this 21st Century world, data driven and interconnected to beat the band, People and Predicaments is the fruit of analog not digital research. Dr. Mazer’s subjects were also his neighbors, friends and patients. His goal was not just to count them, but to know them.  

“This book,” he wrote, “is based on my clinical work. It owes much to the subtle intimations that came to me day by day as I became more and more a part of the community, joining its everydayness. For, in addition to my job as director of the Martha’s Vineyard Mental Health Center, I have for nine years been moderator of the West Tisbury town meeting. I have come to believe that the second job is of equal importance to and complements the first.”

(The Falmouth Enterprise published a version of this essay on its website.)

 

 

She’s seen it all

IMG_0126.JPG“Now I’ve heard everything. ”Every one of us has said it.” 

Some of us have used the same phrase several times, casually emptying it of whatever meaning it may once have had.

Actually of course, none of us has ever “heard everything,” or even most of everything. It is really a way of expressing astonishment,“Yowzer.” Or perhaps a kind of withered cynicism.

But, Sandy Lippens may be one of a small cell of people – including perhaps mainly bill collectors – who might very well say that indeed she has heard it all. The evidence of her authority in this regard is documented on the inside of the doorway to the shed where the varied, well used, and perfectly useful inventory of rentable tools live at Tilton Rentall, at the Roundabout in Oak Bluffs. If you haven’t been there, then your Martha’s Vineyard neighbor, or your brother, your contractor or carpenter or painter, your floor sander or your gardener certainly has – or will. Or someone has been married in a tent and with other ceremonial equipment rented by Tilton Rentall.

Some of Sandy’s customers have left her notes about their adventures tackling the projects they rented tools to complete and about their failures to comply with the company’s rental rules. Others have delivered their complaints, evasions, and tall tales in person or over the phone. All of these, Sandy has transcribed and added to the doors on which she has memorialized a decades long trail of poor excuses.

Here is one example, perhaps an Oscar winner in this genre.

“I’d like to pay you, but I know this check will bounce.”

Obviously, there is an exquisite clarity embedded in this one, and it makes a warped sort of sense, which makes it a standout. Sandy took note.

I visited Tilton Rentall the other day to rent a floor sander. Sandy threw the doors of the shed open for me to load the machine. She delivered the instructions, explained the cost of the sander and the sandpaper, told me the tricks to operating it and filled out the invoice while I lifted the creature into the back of my Jeep. Waiting for the invoice, I saw that the shed doors were decorated with an artist’s bittersweet collage of scarred bits of trashed machinery, broken promises, and downright scams.

“I just woke up. Do I have to pay for a 2nd day?”

You have to have the goods back to Sandy twenty-four hours after you take them.

 

M. Thurston “Tebby” Tilton, a builder, began Tilton Rentall in 1974. He had accumulated a collection of construction equipment that he had begun to rent to others as he turned his attention to fishing. Sandy, a massage therapist, moved to the Vineyard in 1980, and before long, as Tebby took to fishing she took to the rental business and expanded it. She’s been at it now for nearly four decades.

“May I take these now – will be by to pay for them later – much later.

Some of Sandy’s customers know themselves very well, and they like to leave clues for others to follow.

Sandy is businesslike dealing with customers, many of whom are not especially skilled at working with the equipment they rent, and some who take an Island-time approach to the rent-and-return schedule. But despite the peculiar customers and the complicated tools, most of which Sandy has never operated herself, she has a wry attachment to her customers and their ways. So, she smiles resignedly, charges them what each owes and not a penny less, and records the transaction in her books, and on the doors.

“I would have had it back yesterday, but the blues are biting.”

Her equipment takes the beatings, Sandy records the explanations.

“You mean the blade will loosen if it hits rocks?

Of course, the renters have their problems too.

‘I just woke up. I have a sore throat. Do I have to pay a full 2nd day.”

Or, three days late, “Yes, but I didn’t use it. It didn’t work.”

Some items she just doesn’t have in stock.

“Do you rent breast pumps?”

Often, the problem has been unreliable friends.

“I gave it to Joe. Didn’t he bring it back?”

There’s always an explanation for damage.

“I had the shampoo hose in the driveway, and the UPS driver ran over it.”

None of which should suggest that rental customers do not have real problems that they willingly share with Sandy.

“Do you have a Phillips screwdriver so I can tighten the sheetrock screws in the soles of my shoes,” one asked.

Or, the venerable undependable teenager excuse: “I was off-island and my son didn’t return the chairs, which got rained on and mud splashed, which I then had to wash.”

After solving the problems for so many folks in need of the right tool, and after listening and cataloging the sad stories and magical yarns of hundreds of islanders, it may be that Sandy Lippens has not heard it all. It may be that the Martha’s Vineyard community, endlessly inventive and possessed of tall-tale-telling DNA, may have more to give, and Sandy may have much more to record.