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.”

Not a Joiner

To many of you it will not be a surprise to learn that Henry David Thoreau, he of the Walden Pond Hermitage, was not only a naturalist but a fierce exponent of civil disobedience, in the traditions of Gandhi, King, and the Tea Party. And, to most of us, Thoreau shares a naturalist’s kinship with Henry Beston, John Muir, Mary Austin, Verlyn Klinkenborg, or maybe Audubon or even Teddy Roosevelt. But really, he traveled a fiercer, more anarchical path all his own.

It’s not that the one devotion contests or supersedes the other, what is interesting is the way the two were united in the man, along with his fervent embrace of abolition and transcendentalism. “Walden, or Life in the Woods” was published in 1854, eight years before Thoreau’s death and about 10 years after his solitary two years at the pond. It is his story of living alone and intimately engaged with unmolested nature as it surrounded him. Although he might have been remembered as a pencil maker, a transcendentalist, or a philosopher, that book marked the man.

And to be marked that way can be a problem, not only for historical figures with trailblazing legacies, but for any of us. Don’t pigeonhole me man, we cry.

John Updike, who avoided the novelist’s pigeon hole that had his name on it by writing penetrating and surpassingly graceful essays about books, art, artists, politics, golf, eczema, and and poetry besides, considered Thoreau and his masterwork sympathetically, though obliquely.

“A century and a half after its publication,” Updike wrote, “Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”

Thoreau was inspired to his take on civil disobedience by a tax collector who knocked on the door of his shack at Walden Pond. The collector, just doing his duty, wanted Thoreau to pay his delinquent poll tax.

The intrusion and the demand put Thoreau’s hackles up: “But in this case,” he wrote, “the state has provided no way [to redress the wrong against him]; it’s very Constitution is the evil. This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and unconciliatory; but it is to treat with the utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can appreciate or deserves it. So is all change for the better, like birth and death, which convulse the body. I have paid no poll tax for six years. I was put into jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up.”

He saw no sense in petitioning the government to see things his way and leave him alone, Unjust laws, Thoreau thought, survived patient lobbying far too long. Better to “transgress them at once,” but civilly.

What Thoreau reveals is in astonishing contrast to the modern impulse toward mass civil disobedience, typically framed as a movement to change the world, or to save the planet, and to do it collectively armed with Facebook and Twitter. Rather, his motives and objectives were unique to him.

“As for adopting the ways which the state has provided for remedying the evil … they take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone,” Thoreau wrote, “I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.”

Gandhi wrote that this essay of Thoreau’s, the Duty of Civil Disobedience, was his bedside book. “We live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another,” Thoreau wrote.

Not a joiner, he looked for space to do not everything, but something.


They Weren’t “Nor’easters” – That’s Not Something We Say

I don’t mean to make this a big thing. To me it’s pesky, a bugaboo. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Maybe you have an aged father who says dungarees when he’s talking about jeans, and you correct him repeatedly, but he doesn’t wise up.  Or, he calls cars automobiles and tells you again and again that his grandmother – God rest her soul – calls them machines, as in “Did you bring your machine today?”

This is the same thing. We have had two northeast gales in a week, and a third is on the way. All we hear from TV reporters or read in newspapers is nor’easter. Nor’easter coming, nor’easter caused flooding, battered New England awaits a third nor’easter.

I have tried to correct this nonsense before. In a column I wrote in 2009,  I reported that I had been taken to task by none other than Everett Poole of Menemsha.

“You blew it again, Cabral. There is no such contraction as ‘Nor’easter.’ The correct contraction for northeast is ‘no’theast.’ Nor’ is used only when proceeding west as in ‘nor’west.’”

The author of this love note was Everett Poole, fish impresario, former Chilmark selectman, and current Chilmark town moderator, who in many immoderate moments over the years has jumped with both hip boots on something he’s found in my newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times. and especially on something I had written. Every time I put finger to keyboard, I knew that Everett, pipe fixed between his teeth, long-billed swordfishing cap perched firmly on his gleaming head, would examine the result, ready to gaff me. I’m out of that business now, thank goodness.

But, on the occasion I’m remembering he had  overplayed his hand. He had played right into mine. He had taken the bait. Finally, I was the one with the gaff.

Everett referred to a front page headline in the print edition of the newspaper, “Persistent nor’easter claims victim.” The headline accompanied a news story and front page photograph of a sailboat thrown up on the beach in Vineyard Haven. I often wrote headlines in those day, but I didn’t write that one. I had written “Persistent easterly claims victim,” but in the late stages of production someone substituted “nor’easter” for “easterly.”

When I saw “nor’easter” the next morning in print, there wasn’t anything to be done about it. When I saw it on the website, I had it changed to “no’theaster.” Everett is an ink on paper sort of fellow so he didn’t see the change on the website. He figured he’d drag me gasping over the rail, club me, and shove me in the fish hold. Instead, he had to face the fact – and this was hard for him – that we agreed on something.

Indeed, wrong as he was to abuse me the way he did, Everett was right, well, almost right. There is no such contraction as “nor’easter.” Or to be precise, there is one that’s often used, but it’s not authentic, not in any sense of the word. It’s pretentious, a silly affectation. It’s a pronunciation whose users pretend to an unearned saltiness. It’s falderal that’s caught on.

To force a change in this settled “nor’easter” nonsense the right minded will have to fight stiff headwinds and a roaring head tide. Even as I type this, Microsoft Word says okay to “nor’easter” and underlines “no’theaster” in red. As historically, linguistically, and aurally baseless as “nor’easter” is it’s common among dilettantish New Englanders, writers, journalists, and poets, and it’s accepted in dictionaries. “No’theaster” isn’t in the dictionary.

It’s a non-word that no genuine New England salt ever uses.  It’s like Manhattan clam chowder, not chowder at all. It’s like asking for scallops (sounds like gallops) when you want scallops (sounds like polyps). It’s like sailing up-east. It’s like me saying whuddup to my sons. It’s like saying hookup when you mean, well, falling in love.

And, although for me, the opinion of one crusty old salt is all the etymological authority necessary to pronounce “nor’easter” out and “no’theaster” in, I can refer you to people who study words and agree. For instance, Mark Liberman, trustee professor of phonetics in the department of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, writing in the Language Log, on January 25, 2004 entitled his commentary “Nor’easter considered fake.”

Professor Liberman cites Jan Freeman, in the December 21, 2003 The Word column in the Boston Globe.

Professor Lieberman writes, “Jan Freeman cites an interesting alleged mispronunciation: ‘nor’easter’ … The Globe doesn’t (wittingly) use nor’easter for a disturbance blowing from the northeast, but in other newspapers, and especially among TV weather people, it’s common. How, asked reader Bill La Pointe, did this “bogus term” gain acceptance? It’s not, after all, a regional pronunciation, as many journalists outside New England now believe. ‘I grew up on Cape Cod when there still existed a pronounced local accent,’ wrote George Hand. ‘The word – spelled phonetically – was nawtheastah.’ Sailors disclaim it too. They may say sou’wester, but never nor’easter.”

Really, just take a moment to think about it. What’s the letter that Bostonians and New Englanders are notorious for forgetting in their speech. It’s “r.” They drop their “r’s.” They don’t drop the “th.” And, the “er” sounds like “ah.” So, it’s no’theastah, if you actually want to be authentic.

“The facts, however,” Professor Lieberman continues, “have not slowed the advance of nor’easter: Even in print, where it’s probably less common than in speech, it has practically routed northeaster in the past quarter-century or so. From 1975 to 1980, journalists used the nor’easter spelling only once in five mentions of such storms: in the past year, more than 80 percent of northeasters were spelled nor’easter. It’s no more authentic than “nucular” for nuclear or “bicep” for biceps, but it would take a mighty wind, at this point, to blow nor’easter back into oblivion.”

The professor went on to report that the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) cites examples of the use of the bastard contraction from 1837 onwards. But, he does not relinquish his position. He explains that the references are from British, Scottish, Canadian, and Carolinian sources and, naturally enough, they don’t carry water in New England.

“Subject to correction,” he concludes, “the picture that seems to be emerging is that nor’easter is a literary affectation.”

(This was adapted from a column I wrote and published in the Martha’s Vineyard Times in July of 2009. DAC)

A Nifty Bit of Salvage Work, and Some History

Except for the hard north-northeasterly wind, the gray skies, the spitting rain, the submerged dock, and the four yachts driven ashore along the beach, it might have been a July Saturday at Owen Park. There was a crowd, cars squeezed into every parking space up the hill almost to Main Street. Folks gathered in small groups, walked along the beach, and their dogs ran back and forth, exulting in the wind and the commotion.

A doozy of a storm had done a lot of damage alongshore and inland, and it had not blown itself out on March 3, but the day’s higher than normal high tide was due sometime before noon, and the effort to refloat at least some of the stranded sailboats needed to happen.

Fortunately, the ingredients needed to do the work had assembled themselves, as they had many times over decades. Word got around, and help showed up.

Bob Douglas was there of course, because McNab, his wife Charlene’s handsome sloop, nearly 50 feet long, had parted her newfangled and inferior mooring, which was not up to its job. Captain Douglas called it a “rubber band mooring,” and his description got around. Many of those gathered at the beach might qualify as disciples of the captain’s long and influential career as a marine historian and wooden boat enthusiast. His 1964 topsail schooner Shenandoah, along with his evangelical devotion to wooden boats and the history of American sail, had its way with a cast of young men and women, many of whom sailed with him and then sailed their own wooden schooners, ketches, and sloops.

Ralph Packer was there because he loves boats and Vineyard Haven Harbor, and because whenever marine crackups occur, his tugs fire up to help with the difficult work of salvage. He remembers 1967, also March I think, when Shenandoah went ashore in a northeaster at the bend in Beach Road behind the service station. Ralph’s tiny tiger, the 28-foot tug Ursa, pulled on her for hours before she came off the beach.

Saturday it was Ralph’s tug Sirius, 65 feet, usually towing fuel barges or deck barges loaded with gravel for Island road building, or modular houses for Island residents, that got two of the stricken sailboats off the sand.

With the wind blowing 30, with gusts higher, Sirius’ crew did a brilliant job. Captain Paul Bangs first hauled Heart’s Desire, a schooner owned by Matt Hobart and his family of Vineyard Haven, from the beach across the harbor near the Tisbury Wharf Co. Matt is a master boatbuilder at Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway. Several of the G&B work crew joined in the salvage efforts. Captain Bangs drew Heart’s Desire off the beach, towed her to a safe anchorage, then gently put his tug alongside the little schooner to retrieve her crew, a delicate bit of work in a small gale for such a large, heavy, powerful, but not so nimble towboat. Captain Bangs left not a scratch behind.

Next, Captain Bangs threaded the big tug through the mooring field behind the Vineyard Haven Harbor breakwater to help McNab. The crowd on the shore included sightseers, but it also included a collection of experienced marine operators. Of course, the core brain trust was Captain Douglas, Ralph Packer, and Captain Bangs, but there was a lot of advice available to them: Bill Mabee, a former Shenandoah mate, who made a career sailing tankers and freighters. Fred Murphy, owner of the Vineyard Haven schooner Ishmael, also a merchant seaman, was at hand. There was Rez Williams, the painter who sailed his small boat to New Bedford to sketch that harbor’s offshore fishing vessels, which became the subjects of his bold, much admired pictures. And David Dandridge, retired Steamship Authority master, answered the unspoken summons.

Among the G&B crew was Lyle Zell, son of Ross Gannon. Ross built many of G&B’s wooden boats, as his son does now. Many of these were designed by Ross’s partner Nat Benjamin, who sailed into Vineyard Haven from the Mediterranean one day with his wife Pam and their two girls, and decided to stay. His designs, all in wood, including his own schooner Charlotte, which rode out the storm without a problem, populate the mooring field behind the Vineyard Haven breakwater. The wooden sailboat line from Captain Douglas has not been exhausted.

The Owen Park dock was under water. Only the tops of the pilings were visible. Captain Bangs lay Sirius alongside what was the east face of the flooded dock. His plan was a clever one. It evaded the problem, with the wind blowing as hard as it was, of lining up and maintaining Sirius in position to tow McNab off, and guarded against the powerful tug’s damaging the yacht by pulling mightily and perhaps unsteadily on cleats or other of the yacht’s deck structures that might not hold. Captain Bangs chose to use Sirius’s capstan. That allowed slow, steady, smooth pressure to be brought to bear. A line had already been run between McNab’s stern and the Owen Park dock to hold her up to the wind. Three of the crew of helpers got in a skiff and floated hand-over-hand along the line to McNab. They took the towline from Sirius with them, and fastened it to a bridle they fashioned and dropped over McNab’s stern. Sirius’s capstan began turning. The tide rose the last bit it had to give, and slowly the yacht freed herself. It was a nifty morning’s bit of salvage work.

There are several ways to look at all this. It was a dramatic morning for the casual spectator, better than if you were watching the TV news while some idiot staggered in the rain and wind with a microphone in his hand, imagining that he was delivering critical, life-saving information. If you were a tug captain, a salvage crew member, the owner of the stricken yacht, it was a meaningful, even heart-stopping event. If you were one of the bunch that has been here for a long time, been touched by the light Captain Douglas lit, or by the generous devotion Ralph Packer has for the waterfront and its devotees, it was another moment when the history you had been part of reminded you of its enduring authority.

Two vessels, Witch of Endor, a black ketch that charters out of Vineyard Haven in the summer, and Rachel Saunders, a wooden sloop that G&B has done a lot of work on, remained on the beach when the day ended. Witch had the worst luck, hurled against the pilings at the north side of the Steamship Authority wharf. Rachel Saunders rested in the sand, not badly beaten up. She was refloated before the next gale arrived on Wednesday.

First published by The Martha’s Vineyard Times, March 7, 2018.



Death, Tales Told by the Dying

Life is complicated. Death is simple, or can be. Anyhow, it’s conclusive and something common among us. Sometimes how we get to the end can be a story worth telling, and reading. You don’t need to be obsessed with death and its plans for you. I am not. Still, like almost everything else, learning something about the end of the line, how it works, and especially how gifted, accomplished people manage it is worth investigating. No special counsel required. Two books I’ll mention will advance enormously whatever you are thinking about your leave taking.

Nina Riggs’s Bright Hour is an Homeric tale told by a poet, lyric, brilliant, funny, lively, reflective, and heartbreaking. One ordinary life, but an epic odyssey. The immense loss that is, of course, the story’s conclusion reminds the reader of the certainty that awaits each of us and of death’s often broad, always careless embrace of the lives of surviving families and friends. Ms. Riggs died of a cruel, rapacious cancer, as her mother had only months earlier. Riggs’s account is not a cancer story. She might have succumbed to any other terrible, wasting, relentless illness. Bright Hour is the story not of the disease but of the enormity of her loss.

Inspired by Riggs’s prose poem and so driven to enlarge my struggle with death, or at least the inescapable fact of it, I went next to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. You might reverse the order, or you might look elsewhere, to Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal perhaps; or C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed; or Sherwin B. Nuland’s How We Die, or dozens of others. But, you will not find two such perfect companions as the stories by Kalanithi and Riggs. A neurosurgeon and scientist of enormous distinction, afflicted with cancer at the peak of his power, at work Kalanithi peered and probed with exquisite care the brains and spines of his patients to save for them their true selves, or at least, if possible, what was most precious to each. For one, perhaps a few more years, for another to see the first grandchild, or to see a business safely into his family’s charge. Kalanithi worked his scalpel along the delicate, even elusive, frontier between personhood and mere flesh and blood. And, as time grew short for him, as it had for so many of his patients, the certainty of his fate imposed the same reductive determination to save until the end first his work, his patients, but ultimately his wife, his parents, his friends, a daughter, and this book. He had a great deal to explain.

Kalanithi was not a poet, as Riggs was. He was a scientist, a philosopher, and an ethicist. He tells the story of the slow decline of his health, his powers, and his ambition, and comes to the very place that Riggs did and we will, though by a very different path.


Everyone asks, how’s your summer going? Well, not everyone. The former president who is coming this weekend hasn’t. But, sigh, the standard questions are, give or take, these: What are the kids up to? Having any fun? How’s business? Been to the beach? Done any sailing? Hasn’t the weather been funny? dry? wet? hot? crowded? Can you believe the traffic? Can you believe how rude people are? Had many house guests? Catching anything?
I don’t mind the weather, the traffic, the rudeness, the crowds or the houseguests, at least not as much as I mind the questions. Let’s talk about something else, shall we. I think we should all propose topics for casual conversation that diverge from the run of the Vineyard mill summer script. There has got to be something interesting going on in each of our lives.
I feel I’m doing my part. The other day, as I was stopped in a line of cars heading up the hill out of Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard’s main port of entry. Joe was stopped in the line of cars heading down the hill, it happened that I was right across from him. He has a tattoo inscribed on his forehead that says, Back Off. Although he’s a lifelong, laid-back Vineyarder, I’ve never been precisely sure to whom that tattoo is aimed.
Joe leaned out the window of his van and asked, How’s your summer going?
I replied, I’m going to install a roundabout in my kitchen and charge a $1 surcharge to each kid who goes around it. That will help finance the park and ride lot I’m opening in the field to the north of the house. It’s going to be free parking for anyone who leaves a car there, but they’ll have to walk to the ferry, and I’ll ticket their cars while they’re gone.
A cloud of uneasiness passed across Joe’s tattoo, but he tried again: What are the kids up to?
I said, I have got them all jobs putting up signs and snow fencing for the legion of conservation voters, loving nature but vain enough to believe that by their puny impediments they may defeat the ocean’s tireless depredations, preferring fences, ropes, and signs to beach grass, rosa rugosa, and sunbathers. All except for one of the kids, who won’t come out of his room. I think he’s in a messaging standoff, and he’s one of those kids who just has to have the last word.
The cars weren’t moving, so Joe, his avenues of retreat cut off, said, perplexedly, Are you all right? You don’t seem yourself.
I said, I’ve begun to install my Burma Shave signs along the Beach Road between the $50 million Lagoon Drawbridge and the incomprehensible Five Corners intersection. The point is to give people a distraction as they wait in traffic. Otherwise the frustration builds, and when they get to Five Corners they attack the congestion with the zeal of a car service driver in Manhattan.
Easy. Does. It. Don’t Let. Five Corners. Be the End. Of Your World. Burma Shave.
The lines of cars began to move, and pretty soon Joe was down the hill about two car lengths. I knew there was plenty of time, so I got out of my car and walked down to where Joe was. He started to roll up his window, but I got there before it had closed all the way.
I said, We have sent Ping away for part of the summer. Ping is a pug. He hates crowds, so he’s off at a weight-loss camp in the Adirondacks, a rustic place with a lot of outdoor activities. He starts every morning with a dip in the males’ pool, a sort of a rock-lined grotto filled by diverting part of a quick flowing mountain stream. It’s about 45 degrees year-round. He and the other campers jump in, seize up, and the counselors retrieve their rigid little bodies just before they expire. The shivering takes off pounds. In his letters, Ping seems happy enough, although he’s begun to dot his “i’s” with little illustrations of dog bones or lamb chops. I never thought of him as an artist. Of course, we miss him, but we know he’ll be happier if he could lose seven or eight pounds.
Catching anything? Joe said.

(Adapted from News Hounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard)

My Relationship Status


They must be below, napping.

A few years ago, maybe more than a few, I went to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles to renew my driver’s license. Because Martha’s Vineyard is small, and because the Registry staff are nice, it’s more pleasant to drop by there to do business than it is to do it online. To most people that seems unimaginable, but it’s true.

I filled out the form, no problem at all, until I came to Gender, check Male, Female, or Other. Puzzled, I went up to the nice lady, pointed to the form, “Other?” I said. “Are there choices?”

“Put anything you want,” she said. Even then, I had been driving for a very long time and renewing my license when needed. Gender choices hadn’t come up.

I told people about the experience, and they all said, in effect, “No big deal.” Except the children, who said, “Oh my God, dad, welcome to the twenty-first century.”

One of the four, Alix, the youngest girl who was visiting for a bit, put up a Facebook page for me last weekend. She and most of the others are big Facebookers, and because I’ve just published a book, they said, I must get on Facebook to let people know about it. They would say that I never pay any attention to what they tell me, but they’re wrong of course, though it has happened.

“Oh my God, dad,” they say, “how can you not be on Facebook.” I thought of an anwer for that, but kept it to myself.

Alix got busy, and things were going swimmingly when she asked, “What would you like to say for Relationship Status.” I asked her to go on to the next question. What might I have entered in that field?

I might have written long (29 years and happily counting), longer than some, not as long as others. Or, in progress. Durable. Blessed. Sunny with a chance of occasional showers. And maybe a tornado. A work in progress, thank goodness. Just right. In a groove. Perfect in every respect. Everything I hoped for. More than I bargained for.

But, not considered a useful analyst of relationship quality, I’d rather consider how to go about choosing a partner with whom to begin a relationship. I’m not considered a useful analyst of partner choices either, but I have a methodology that works, and I’ll share it with you. And, I know that if you choose carefully, you’ll be rewarded. It happened to me.

The surest way to separate the wheat from the chaff, people-wise, is to administer a cruise of a few days in a small (or even largish) sailboat. It is a test whose outcome cannot be faked. You won’t find this advice in Elle or Vogue or even in a Modern Love podcast. Those advisors may tell you that living together is a good test of compatibility. Or, perhaps the conventional wisdom will call for an astrological analysis to calculate the future of an impending marriage. Or a palm reader. Or eHarmony.com’s extensive compatibility survey. It’s all bunk. If you want to know if he loves you so, or the other way around, and whether he or she will be the mate you want for life’s extended passage, go for a sail.

Amiable, curious, adaptable, industrious, courteous folks who can cook and clean up, and who do not get seasick: that’s what you want. But, you might say, that’s all so elementary, what about passion, getting swept away. All desirable, all very nice indeed, but the basics come first. Can he sweep the cabin sole in a seaway? Can she do her business in that tiny head and stare her product in the eye while she pumps and pumps and pumps some more to wash it into the holding tank? These are the questions that need early answers.

Churlish, timid loners, who are easily incommoded, don’t cook but like to eat, and profess to be indisposed when cooking and cleaning are required: avoid these.

You may think it’s easy in the ordinary course of life ashore to distinguish between the two types I’ve named, and why would anyone of sound mind pass time with the latter. In fact, the rejects have over time become virtuosos of deception and disguise. In search of a good shipmate, or lifemate for that matter, one may be tripped up by the well-groomed appearance and the ready smile. Often these will be added to the facile conversationalist, ever ready with a story or a gibe. Delighted to be asked, these types say when you make the invitation. So sorry to have to go with all this straightening up left to be done, they say at the end. By the way, can you just pop these few things in with the laundry you’re doing. I’ll make it up to you another time. That sort of effortless, heedless affability can go a long way on dry land. People get married on less.

This sorting can be difficult, because even desirable shipmates can fool you. Often, they keep their own quiet counsel. They are deferential, even to a fault. They fly under the radar. But, get to know them, and they’re stalwarts. And, getting to know someone on a small sailboat takes no time at all. A weekend’s cruise, even a day’s sail in blustery conditions, will reveal most of what you need to know. Heck, a half hour trying to anchor or dock a yacht in a busy harbor will tell you all you need to know.

I watched a fancy motor yacht arrive at a busy marina dock in a desirable New England harbor. The husband was the captain, his wife the crew. He shouted instructions. She returned questions. At last, he’d had it. He left the bridge of the big cruiser and stalked forward to the bow where his wife held a rope’s end. Her face was a question mark.

“What are you doing?” he shouted.

“I’m doing what you told me to do,” she snarled. As their unattended yacht floated away from the dock, and they all but came to blows.

“They’ve been at sea too long,” a friend watching with me said.

“Not at all,” another onlooker said. “The problem is, they never went to sea together when it counted – before they got married.

Late one night recently, as a sailboat pushed its way across the Gulf of Maine, the watch on deck chattered happily beneath the slatting sails and the overcast. Four hours passed harmoniously. Whatever work there was to be don, they did it without rousing their sleeping crewmates. They tended the log quietly, disturbing no one. They called the relief on time and went sleepily to their own bunks. The next day, in port, when it was time to clean the ship, both watches split the chores, and the work was done quickly. A couple of evenings later in this cruise, at anchor in a snug, silent cove, dinner over with, one of the crew brought out her guitar and sang for her shipmates. Her warm, pale-honey voice told each tune’s loving story, while her shipmates sang along.

On their cruise, some steered, others navigated. In the blind fog that dogged the sailing yacht daily as she wandered from one invisible port to the next, some watched the radar, others tried to find the crucial buoys in the gloom – or the passing lobstermen. Some sounded the fog signal. Some climbed the masts, others fog-bathed on deck. The weather, only rarely and briefly dry and clear, was what it was, and enough said. The company, a “fellowship in the craft and mystery of the sea,” as Conrad put it, and good shipmates every one, made the cruise a success.



Schooling the Nation’s Leaders

From News Hounds, Chapter 18

When the president, Mrs. Obama and family arrive to vacation, along with an unnumbered retinue of aides and protectors, plus hardware, software, and beachwear, Islanders believe they’re coming because we offer easy going respite and unusually free-spirited, friendly, and carefree recharge. It’s what we do. We think it’s a feather in our caps. Typical of that reaction, Diesel always thought the president came back each summer to get another look at him. He thought there had been a connection. But, I pay no attention to the pridefulness of one self-involved English mastiff, and you shouldn’t either.

Naturally, presidents have no sure claim on carefree. That’s hardly our problem, of course, but we do what we can. We try to be helpful in our way to visitors of all sorts, including presidents, and sometimes despite our best efforts, we suffer some nasty swipes. In mid-summer 2002, to hear him tell it, President George W. Bush believed we were all just sitting on the back porches of our lavish Martha’s Vineyard estates drinking white wine. Stunned and hurt by the mocking, we didn’t know that we were merely between presidential visits — after Clinton, before Obama — and that our self-esteem, temporarily deflated but normally buoyant, would soon bob proudly again.

The between presidents let down was steep mainly because Clinton had been so convivial. He and Mrs. Clinton even invited us to parties during each August visit. At a cocktail party at the Spring Point, Chilmark house of a supporter, Mrs. Clinton told me that she read The Martha’s Vineyard Times every day, which was friendly, but obviously untrue. The president played the sax for us on a hillside overlooking Vineyard Sound. I have photos of that musical interlude and of the guests, including Moll and Emily, in thrall, admiring his showmanship. Another time, wearing a curly blond wig, the president joined the band on the Hot Tin Roof stage, at a party hosted by the nightclub’s owners, James and Carly Simon, before they split. That was a presidency Islanders could get behind …

Forgetting that by far the majority of presidents and their advisers have turned elsewhere for their recreation and for helpful advice, we Islanders are participating in a well documented Vineyard tradition. We, in these exalted premises, know that the ones who visit do so because, forget the beaches, they admire us and the wisdom we impart. Plus, they can unbutton the top button, dispense with the hairdresser for two weeks, eat ice cream, fries, and fried fish of every variety, and we won’t criticize, though we know it’s wrong. We’re here for them, to indulge them and to offer advice as needed. If we’re thrown together at Nancy’s Snack Bar in Oak Bluffs or at the Galley in Menemsha, if we happen to bump into one another while walking Diesel along the bike path in the State Forest, we might recommend to the most powerful man or woman on earth more quantitative easing or draining Warren Buffett’s savings account or making businesses stuffed with cash expand, whether the demand demands it or not. Those are issues that bedevil and even defeat presidents, but not us.

Remember General Motors in the pit of the Great Recession? Steve Rattner, a West Tisbury summer resident and vacation slash fundraising pal of President Obama, got the Car Czar assignment. He got the appointment, I suspect, because of his experience in the 1970s reviving the fortunes of the Vineyard Gazette, which needed to replace its 19th Century-vintage, clattering, cast iron flatbed press with a new, pricy offset model, the one it uses today. The dollars involved inspired resistance in James Reston, the New York Times columnist and a Scot, also a summer resident, who had bought the newspaper from its longtime owners. It happened that I was the managing editor of the newspaper, and Steve, just out of Brown University, was Reston’s Washington intern. There was a lot of negotiating, hand holding, cajoling and inspiring to be done in Washington and a lot of planning, organizing, urging, and more than a wee bit of the creature to be done in Edgartown. Steve didn’t know then that he was preparing for the GM job that fell to him nearly half a century later. But, that’s what the Vineyard does for the movers and shakers who turn to us for succor and advice. And, if it happens that the high as well as the low cannot be us, or with us, then we do not wonder where they sit and what they swill? We wonder if they know what they’re missing?