At Large

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This is the 807th and last weekly At Large column I will write. The series began in November of 1998, and I haven’t missed a deadline since. All by itself, that’s something to be proud of, I suppose. But actually, it was never my plan to begin the column, and I certainly never imagined I’d rumble on for more than 15 years. Figuring that I’d have to say something at least mildly interesting and certainly true in this final installment, I’ve been thinking lately about my lack of a plan, not just for the column, but for all the years I’ve logged as a newspaper writer, editor, columnist, and owner. I didn’t chart a course for any of it. It was all an accident — delightful, as it turned out, but unimagined and unplanned.

James Reston gave me a job as a feature writer at the Vineyard Gazette in 1972, after someone brought to his attention a story I’d written about living on my little boat with a big dog. A little while later, the woman I worked for left for a bigger, daily publication and a book writing career, and I became the managing editor. The learning curve was steep, but as luck would have it — and there is so much luck bearing on this tale — besides Reston, I worked under the guiding wisdom of Henry Beetle Hough, the Gazette’s hallowed editor, and Bill Caldwell, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary during his career as a columnist at the Record of Hackensack, New Jersey.

Henry’s reputation has over time parted ways with the workaday reality of this gentle but formidable man. He was not a summer visitor. His paper was not conceived as a postcard to summer folk who lived their lives elsewhere for most of the year, hankering all the while for their Vineyard vacation houses. He was a fully committed year-round Vineyarder, a member of the regional school committee, a bank director, the one who, with me, called the funeral directors — there were two in those days — early on Friday mornings to see if they had “anything for us” before the press began rumbling. And, he was the one who sat at the Linotype machine to set the late obituary in type. He meant his newspaper to be a tool for Islanders first, and then for others who loved the place and its land — and seascapes as he did.

Bill Caldwell taught originality and impeccable prose. His copy, which, in an odd and ironic twist, came to me for editing, though it needed none. No X-outs, no punctuation, spelling, or construction errors. Utterly perfect in every respect when he yanked it out of his typewriter and brought it to me.

Reston, the owner and publisher, whose archbishop-like presence led the great and powerful in the nation’s Capitol to genuflect, taught that beginning life as a sports writer and indulging a taste for flavorful sports metaphors and workmanlike, colloquial prose could make a columnist’s analysis of Washington politics and international diplomacy pleasurable and instructive to readers. He also taught newspaper office politics — a fervid, constant pastime in this business — at which he was clever and subtle.

In 1980, I left the Gazette, and it turned out that raising cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, hay, feed and sweet corn was next for me. But, six years later, I had a call from the founders of The Times and an offer. Five years after that, Molly and I bought the paper, and a few years after that, we met Barbara and Peter Oberfest, because our children went to the Vineyard Montessori School together. We and they formed a durable and successful two decades long partnership.

This column wasn’t my idea either. As I’ve told you on other occasions in this space, I began it at Molly’s suggestion. I had been writing a weekly editorial for several years before that — the one across the way on the Editorial page this morning is mine, another and final effort to get you to see things my way — but Molly said back in 1998 they often sounded bossy, and the subjects were boring. Well, no arguing with that. “Why don’t you write something more varied and occasionally fun,” she said. “You don’t want readers to think you’re a bossy, boring person.” (In the end, her hopes may have exceeded my grasp.)

But, as so much else over these many years has been, it was fun, and I enjoyed the unusual and enviable freedom to write what I liked on whatever topic I liked. Best of all, many of you were kind enough to say you enjoyed at least some of them. You stopped me in the market or the drug store or on the ferry to tell me so. On the other hand, some of you objected. A very nice Chilmark woman clipped a copy of one of the columns and mailed it to me with red pencil corrections to nearly every comma, capitalization, and word choice I had used. I’m sure she intended to be constructive, and she certainly was a diligent reader.

Her fading rewrite, pinned to the wall in my office, reappeared the other day as I took down the photos and cards I’d saved over all these years, including the bumper sticker someone gave me that said “MVTimes: Hateful Journalism Every Thursday.”

My colleagues over all these years have been numerous and varied. A few came and stayed. One preceded me on The Times, and she and one or two others have been with me for almost a quarter of a century — excellent, committed people of integrity and, yes, durability. There were tough times as well as triumphs. The ones who came and went quickly left their indelible marks too — the young reporter who, in interviewing for the job, failed to mention that he was dyslexic; the theater reviewer who, inflamed with artistic integrity that brooked no clumsy amateur performances, lumbered the grade school kids acting in the school play; the giggling summer interns who found most of their stories at the beach; the section editor who never met a deadline she couldn’t miss; the other one whose only skill was meeting deadlines; the California website geniuses who built a site that drained our treasury, exhausted our patience, and vanished, leaving us face to face with the fact that we were fools and had been taken to the cleaners.

Today, this happy accident has run its course. Peter and Barbara will navigate the next leg of The Times trip. Molly and I wish them and all of The Times folk great fun, accidental or otherwise. Newspapers by nature are carried along daily in the bouillabaisse of human events: births, deaths, tragedies, triumphs, fire, flood, politics, arguments, crabbiness, euphoria. We are exposed to it all. It’s the job, and thanks to you — readers, customers, newsmakers, colleagues, neighbors, friends, critics — it has been a terrific job to have. There is always smiling promise and great opportunity for someone like me — especially in your neighborly, encouraging, indulgent, and enthusiastic company.

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If you have been marveling at the other marathon, that is, the marathon, unanesthetized colonoscopy now being performed on the Stop & Shop project, history suggests that this is nothing new. When we fight, especially when we consider change, we insular types don’t flag, we don’t cave, we hold grudges, we fight on. Winston Churchill — “Never give in”  — would be proud. The fight over the Nantucket Sound Islands Trust legislation went on for years, followed by the fight over the Martha’s Vineyard Commission legislation, the fight over the creation of the Land Bank, the battle over the golf courses, the vicious and wearing conflict over the Ramsey-Counter land claim, and on and on, beyond remembering.

But, it may be that the fight over Cape Wind, still muttering on in the background, will one day be crowned the mother of all political wars. Cape Wind, more than a decade in the application-permitting-financing journey, has not erected a single turbine, not created a single volt of electrical power, and it’s better than even money that it never will.

If you are one of those who favor a clean, plentiful, growing, cheap supply of energy to support the growth of the American economy — and, naturally enough, its many subdivisions, including this tiny, remote (but not remote enough) outpost we call home — I urge you not to despair.

The state of Massachusetts, in its nutty devotion to wind-powered, ocean-based generating plants deployed, in cooperation with the federal government, in a strangling circle around the Vineyard, does not feel your pain. Indeed, the state’s aim is not only to conspire over the Cape Wind project, but to elbow aside valid economic and environmental concerns expressed by Islanders, to allow, no matter what local opinions may hold, wind factories to the east, west and north of us. It’s a plan whose benefits are immeasurably small and diminishing compared with new, less expensive land based technologies — especially solar, whose installation costs have plunged in the last few years. But, it’s a plan whose time, if it ever came, has now gone.

Among the drawbacks, and the Cape Wind deal with National Grid draws this out plainly, are the state’s policy determinations to allow the expansion of wind generation, no matter what the cost to residential and commercial customers and no matter whether the local targets agree to the intrusion. Wind-driven sea-based power will be significantly more expensive than energy produced by any other source, but the state endorses it, subsidizes it, and would protect its higher costs by attempting to block energy suppliers from buying less expensive power — even power from renewables — created out of state. Absent the politically forced premium to be paid for Cape Wind electricity, the development of that wind turbine factory could not be funded. Wind power needs such well-intentioned but foolishly conceived support, otherwise developers of wind-driven electricity would not find financing or a market. At this point, wind enthusiasts point to billions in subsidies extended to other energy producers, notably oil. But, although oil doesn’t create much electricity in the U.S., it is a vital, current transportation fuel, and for good reason. Oil produces powerful energy, and does it relatively cheaply. It’s been worth subsidizing.

The argument here is that the energy future of our economy will be built on electricity and transportation fuels. Oil, whether produced here or abroad, does not figure significantly in electricity generation now and will certainly figure only marginally in the equation as we move forward. But it predominates as a motor fuel and a raw material in too many manufacturing processes to count, and it will continue to do so until replacement technologies can be concocted or discovered that furnish the same dense, cheap power and hugely variable utility.

The keys to plentiful, growing, and inexpensive sources of electrical power are conservation (especially in homes and vehicles), natural gas, and nuclear power. Something better may come along, but it won’t be wind. And, political manipulation will not make ocean-based wind power more desirable, more economical to build, or more reasonably priced for consumers.

As is apparent after a decade of debate over Cape Wind, the industrialization of 25 square miles of Nantucket Sound and of the empty ocean southwest and northwest of the Vineyard will diminish valuable, wild, clean seascapes, in exchange for modest, intermittent supplies of high-priced electricity that will in the end depend on traditionally fueled, efficient, powerful, economically scalable electricity generators capable of reliably producing power when we need it. And, doing it less expensively on a much less profligate footprint.

The Cape Wind deal to sell the electric power that the planned Nantucket Sound wind farm would one day produce will cost electricity end-users billions more than conventionally produced power. That’s not because wind-driven electricity is better electricity, or more dependable, or more easily scaled up to meet growing demand, or less demanding of the natural environment — consider the marine acreage to be consumed — but it’s because the political climate insists on it, no matter the costs.

For someone with a native fondness for New Bedford, the Whaling City, I’m happy to report that the only valuable spinoff from the failing Cape Wind project is the rehabilitation of a portion of the New Bedford waterfront.

Gov. Deval Patrick selected a portion of New Bedford’s waterfront that will be resurrected to serve Cape Wind’s construction and maintenance needs as the staging area for its turbine factory at Horseshoe Shoals. It’s about $35 million in investments, now underway in the form of dredging and dock building. We’re likely never to feel a single jolt from electricity produced by Cape Wind, but at least a community that needs investment and jobs is getting a lift from the project, now in hospice care.

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What is the paramount requirement for navigating the information age in which we live today? What is the irreducible minimum skill that our children must learn and that we and they must practice all our lives long, in this media-mad life of personal and commercial promotion?

A while ago, a young woman speaking from the audience at a discussion of the changing news media, said she utterly mistrusted what the news and information services — all of them, including print newspapers, online information and news sites, broadcast and cable, and social media of all sorts — do. She did not, I learned later, mistrust James Cameron’s film version of the Titanic’s sinking. That was history, she thought. Go figure.

The discussion topic considered what media consumers could rely upon in the overwhelming stream of incoming stuff.

What’s worrisome is that it is easier to accept what one hears and reads as fact or truth without troubling to discriminate. And, in this single context, discrimination on the part of the reader or listener, is not only desirable, it is critical. This is particularly problematic for parents and teachers who must guard young, inexperienced, beginning thinkers among the web sites, the docu-dramas, the hype, the bombast, and the hyper-opinion that flood our lives.

Most journalists share the young woman’s skepticism. We do not, however, share her gullibility, and we do not despair, as she did.

Information. Data. News. Truth. Opinion. There is so much of it, so many outlets for it, so much need for high quality and reliable examples of it, that it’s a crying shame there is no easy way to distinguish the good and useful from the bad and worthless, or at rock bottom, to recognize the point of view or the promotional attributes of any sort of communication. Eric E. Schmidt, former chief of Google, distributor of much of the nonsense, referred to the online universe his successful company exploits as a “cesspool.”

What passes for news these days arrives interlarded with promotion, Facebook likes, Twitter observations, and sponsored posts, even on the print pages and web sites of responsible publications desperate to keep their heads above water. Smart people yearn for trustworthy intermediaries to sort through the mess.

But, that sort of guide to what one hears and sees becomes more illusory as each day passes and each new digital innovation strives for monetization. Ultimately — and exhaustingly — the responsibility for picking and choosing lies with you, the consumers. Critical watching, reading, hearing, thinking and a discriminating approach to the information age — these are the indispensable tools. And it is difficult work, distinguishing between truth and untruth.

Discovering reliable information and journalism is not so terribly different from the familiar process of shopping for, say, a used car. Cruising the Internet, cruising the newsstand, surfing the channels: but imagine for a moment that you are cruising the Auto Mile. A red car catches your eye. It’s on a dealer’s lot. There are pennants snapping in the breeze. There are big smiles on the salesman’s face. You stop. He talks. You get out your checkbook and you buy.

No, of course you don’t. You don’t stop just anywhere. Mostly you go to dealers whose good reputations you know about. You go because someone recommended the place, or because you had a good experience with that dealer or that model. You know quite a bit about what you want and what it’s worth. And, even in these apparently reliable venues, you discriminate.

You need to shop for news and information, data and opinion, even truth, the same way. You go to trustworthy outlets, and not necessarily to the Comment section of the newspaper’s website. You discriminate. This makes sense, that doesn’t.

What helps you, the information consumers, to sift through all this and all the rest on TV, in national and international publications, and on the web?

Be on your toes. Know what you are looking for — news, information, data, opinion — know what distinguishes one from the other, and know what it is you have found when you find it. Training kids to shop critically for information is a key part of life’s curriculum, as taught by parents.

Shop for sources of information critically. There are signs that mark responsible media outlets. Do they declare themselves? Do they tell you who they are, with bylines and mastheads listing ownership and editorial responsibility? Do they distinguish news from opinion in their pages and identify sources of data? Are they significant businesses, in your community, or in the community of web sites — much harder to get your arms around, of course? Or is it a one-man or one-woman show? A blog? Do they spend money to find and deliver information, data, or opinion? Gathering and publishing information takes money, lots of it. Financially successful organizations and web media spend money to create their information products, and that makes their products better. They hire thinkers, writers with judgment and curiosity, and they give them license to get at information and pass it along. They do not pay by the click. Google earns that way.

Do you know the people behind the information source, or do you know their reputations? Can you approach the web, or broadcast, or print publishers of the information you find? Can you call them, or email them, or write them with questions about the provenance of the information? Will they reply? Do they care about their record?

You want media types to care about the record, and their records in particular. If such news and opinion sources are the ones on which you depend, there is little reason to despair, but every reason to be vigilant.

 

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Our habit of centuries and of generations is to venerate the town meeting as the pure, raw essence of democratic self-government. But, we’ve been duped. It’s just eyewash. After all, town government, measured by town meeting attendance, spends much but involves few.

Ac-vote-sign-ssnd sometimes, the few become too few, and a town meeting fails to convene as scheduled. This phenomena, though stunning, is common enough, especially in Aquinnah, where the sparse population requires a mightier than ordinary effort to achieve the numbers that equal a quorum.

Surprisingly, it’s also common in Edgartown, whose democracy is much more populous but rarely so bitterly contentious. Recalling a true story I’ve told before, an amiable and amusing impatience will sometimes replace the tension that frequently crackles in the air above town meeting audiences. In the mid-1970s, for instance, Edgartown’s town affairs were decided in what was an auditorium on the second floor of the Main Street town hall. Buzz Hall, the elder polymath of the family real estate empire, used the auditorium as a movie theater year-round, except when it was needed for town meeting or voting. Folks gathered to decide the budget or argue about the personnel rules, and it was never surprising when some guy changed the mood by raising a ruckus in the back.

Once, this reporter recalls from delighted firsthand experience of the event, the disruptor had rolled over from Lou’s Worry Lounge (no longer a feature of the Edgartown landscape) after happy hour.

“Start the movie,” he hollered. “When does the movie start?”

And everyone howled, happy for the moment to forget the business at hand. Town affairs are never as amusing as the sloshed and confused in attendance or as intriguing as movies.

Looking for a heartening explanation for poor attendance to annual town business, it may be that Martha’s Vineyard voters practice what many thoughtful political observers have long recommended. There is a profound school of thought, nurtured in smart, academic settings, which holds that less government is better government, that legislatures that gather only briefly do less damage than those that are in session most of the time, allowing members only brief holidays to pick voters’ pockets in face-to-face meetings back in the district.

There are state legislatures whose annual sessions are by law limited to just a few months. There are also towns not too much bigger than the towns here, where the town meeting convenes representatives elected by voters to do the work for them. This means that voters can stay home nuzzling a stiff bit of the creature while an abstemious neighbor heads to town hall to give his constituents the business. Taking all this aversion to governance a bit further, but extending to a deeply practical level, our voting neighbors may be thinking that if we could only avoid quorums year after year, then wouldn’t life be grand.

The Times’s annual town meeting primer is intended to serve as an introduction to these ancient and strange rites for the uninitiated and a refresher for the worn, old hands. In addition to meeting warrants, we include some of the common terms meeting participants annually wrestle with, and a description of the important business that must be done.

I’ve mentioned before that E.B. White, who lived and wrote in Brooklin, Maine, after moving Downeast from Manhattan, had something to say about how his rural community did its business. Writing in March of 1940, he might as well have been writing about us.

“This was my first town meeting (I missed last year’s),” he confessed, “and I was surprised to discover that there was not much discussion on the floor. The warrant contained 38 articles, covering election of town officers and appropriation of town moneys as well as other matters of policy. Most of them aroused no debate. There were questions involving the schools, the roads, the library, public health, yet there was no general discussion of any of these subjects. New Englanders are jealous of their right to govern themselves as they like, but in my town we have learned that town meeting is no place to decide anything. We thrash out our problems well in advance, working in small queues and with a long history of spite as a background. The meeting is just to make everything legal.”

Here, we say: Why not let someone else consecrate these decisions that we made long before the meeting began? We’ll stay home and watch TV, which was not an option when White was writing.

White has a sharp sense of town meeting rhythm. “For the assemblage,” he wrote, “the meeting virtually was concentrated in the first 30 minutes of bloodletting. It began when one of the citizens, who we all knew was loaded for bear, rose to his feet, walked to the front, drew from his pocket a small but ominous sheet of paper, and in soft pacific tones, began, ‘Mr. Moderator …’

“This was when democracy sat up and looked around. This was the spectacle the townsfolk had walked miles for. Halfway through the speech, when the air was heavy with distilled venom, my neighbor turned to me and whispered: ‘I get so excited here it makes me sick. I’ll commence to shake by and by.’”

With a reality show of this quality just down the street, how can so many of us skip the show to snuggle instead with the dancing B-list stars or the aspiring idols?

This month, for us, it’s time to sit up and take notice. How can we resist?

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Don’t miss the account this morning of the career of 31-year-old Matthew P. Tucci, who was arrested last week. Again. This time for dealing heroin.

It’s a story of hard and successful work by police and of repeated failure of the district attorney’s office and the court to protect the law abiding residents of Dukes County.

Mr. Tucci had a five-page record of criminal offenses, including several drug convictions resulting in jail sentences, probation violations, and warrant defaults, according to court records.

In April of 2002, he was convicted of statutory rape and abuse of a child in Dukes County Superior Court. He raped a 15-year-old girl. Judge Barbara J. Rouse sentenced Mr. Tucci to serve a full five years at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Cedar Junction,

Following his conviction in that case, he was ordered to register as a Level 3 sex offender. A Level 3 sex offender is a person with a high risk of reoffending. He is charged today with failing to obey that requirement.

At the time of his conviction on the rape charge, Mr. Tucci was serving a 23-month sentence in the Edgartown House of Correction for a breaking and entering conviction.

In November 1999, Mr. Tucci, then 17 and living in Edgartown, was one of three teens arrested in connection with a series of house and motor vehicle burglaries

As Times managing editor Nelson Sigelman reports this morning, “On March 6, Mr. Tucci walked out of the Dukes County House of Correction. A little more than one year earlier, on January 23, 2013, Edgartown District Court Presiding Justice H. Gregory Williams revoked bail for Mr. Tucci following his arraignment on charges of dealing heroin and failing to register as a Level 3 sex offender. At the time, Mr. Tucci was also free on bail from Worcester District Court, where he also faced heroin dealing charges.

“Mr. Tucci was sentenced to 2.5 years in the house of correction, 18 months committed. The Worcester charge netted him a one year sentence. In their report, police described a long investigation of Mr. Tucci as a drug suspect, including surveillance of drug transactions by task force officers.”

The question is, Why is this man walking our streets, living in our neighborhoods, preying on our neighbors?

The Boston Globe told a similar story this week, one with even more dire consequences. [For Jared Remy, leniency was the rule until one lethal night :The trail of alleged victims runs back to his teen years. So does the line of judges who somehow saw fit, time and again, to give him one more chance, Boston Globe, March 23]. Remy, son of the well known Boston Red Sox broadcaster, was an indulged, excused, aggressive, serial abuser, who was ultimately arrested for beating his girlfriend, jailed and bailed once again, allowing him to kill the abuse victim. Police took this man to jail repeatedly, beginning when he was a troublesome juvenile, and repeatedly prosecutors, the defense bar, and accommodating judges freed him on bail, on probation, or they continued the charges without a finding and ordered him to treatment and counseling. In fact, none of this would protect the community. The safety of others required his separation from that community.

The scale of the misery caused by the subject of the Globe story is many orders of magnitude more horrifying than Mr. Tucci’s criminal activities, but at bottom, there is no difference. Both are dangerous and damaging to the communities they abuse, communities that rely on the justice system to protect them.

Donnie Mills, R.I.P.

The death of Donnie Mills on March 13 reminds me that the less celebrated souls among us sometimes slip by without the accounting they deserve. In an agricultural hiatus between newspapers that lasted from 1980 through 1986, I met Donnie, worked with him, and learned from him. Growing sweet corn – planting it, spraying it, picking it – he was a cheerful, wry, generous instructor. Feed corn – eventually, silage – to support a herd of brood cows, and their heifers and bull calves, was another discipline unfamiliar to me but unremarkable to Donnie. Haying, mowing, tedding, baling in the spring, green chopping in the fall – Donnie had the racket and the rhythms of it all down pat. He passed it all along, and carried on at the same time, in his characteristically genial way, with his truck gardening and marketing. For his remarkable modesty, his competence, and his plain goodness, his mark is indelible.

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Statewide, voters, including especially eager Islanders, have embraced so-called medicinal marijuana sales. Voters nationally lean toward marijuana, whether gilded with a pseudo-health care attribute or not. The harmful effects of pot use on cognition, ambition, socialization, and general health have not entered influentially into the national discussion. And, this is so despite the results of surveys of risky behaviors among teenagers, reported by the Martha’s Vineyard Youth Task Force, which reveal that as alcohol consumption among teens has declined steadily since 2007, marijuana use has increased. This despite general agreement that teenage brains are most at risk from pot use.

Medical marijuana grown at a Rhode Island facility.
Medical marijuana grown at a Rhode Island facility.

In common with the national embrace of gambling — national, regional, and state lotteries, and now licensed casinos — the odor of marijuana use is laced with the odor of big money. Witness the avidity of Massachusetts politicians who are hot on the trail of dispensaries and, soon to come, recreational pot shops. Indeed, the nonprofit Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts Inc., whose chief executive officer is former Massachusetts Tenth District Congressman William Delahunt, has won medical marijuana dispensary licenses in Plymouth, Taunton, and Mashpee, from a Department of Public Health application process that sensible people believe should be reconsidered. Nonprofit or no, it will certainly be profitable for the well-connected lawyer, prosecutor, and member of the House of Representatives.

And besides Mr. Delahunt, who, since leaving Congress, works as a lobbyist, press reports name several other former state elected officials — some of them indicted and convicted of crimes, others not yet indicted or convicted — who have aligned themselves with applicants for licenses, including former House Speaker Thomas Finneran, and former Sens. Henri Rauschenbach (once our state senator), Brian Lees, and Stephen Buoniconti.

If parents and the Vineyard community at large are doubtful about the wisdom of young people drinking alcohol, using prescription drugs, and smoking marijuana, the Youth Task Force numbers, even when they reveal declines, as is the case with alcohol use, are alarming. Combined with a state and national relaxation in attitudes toward marijuana use, the trend lines point to trouble ahead, although carefully documented experience — apart from the benefits to the state treasuries and politicians — in states that move quickly to liberalize pot use will be important to evaluate the true impact of this important and influential national change.

There is some marginally good news. Only 12 percent of surveyed students used cigarettes in 2012, compared with 13 percent in 2007. Only 42 percent of those surveyed in 2012 reported that they use alcohol, compared with 55 percent in 2007. And, high-risk or binge drinking has declined, according to the survey, from 39 percent to 27 percent.

But, as alcohol use has declined, marijuana use has grown significantly, from 30 percent in 2007 to 39 percent in 2012, a 10 percent jump. Marijuana use by Vineyard young people is markedly higher than is the case statewide or nationally. The Massachusetts decision in 2008 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana or hashish passed with 65 percent approval from voters statewide, but with 80 percent approval on the Vineyard.

Worse still, prescription drug use has jumped from five percent in 2007 to nine percent in 2012, nearly double.

The headline results of the Youth Task Force survey are provocative, but the survey offers much more for Islanders to consider. What are some of the specific indicators and findings in this community that say something about us, our children, and how we live? What are the specific points of access for the substances that young people use and abuse. Does the potential for harm elude these children and young adults? How are the users regarded by their peers?

Against the background data collected by this immensely valuable survey, now in its fifth year, there is the question it poses for parents, educators, and the community at large: Are we content with these trends? Survey respondents, 77 percent of them, disapprove of cigarette use, and 51 percent of them disapprove of young people their age indulging in high risk drinking. But, just 44 percent disapprove of getting drunk, just 36 percent disapprove of smoking marijuana, and just 27 percent disapprove of drinking alcohol.

What do we say?

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We have a winner. Commenters have declared without reservations, that the Pacheco family’s Reliable Market, on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs is the best Island grocery store. Of course, it’s an informal survey with a limited group of survey respondents, but nevertheless, it’s a unanimous conclusion.

A while ago, in an effort to shape, not the opinions but the behaviors, of the Comment posting crowd, I included two excellent examples of thoughtful, detailed, modulated comments. The idea was to feature them as models of desirable debate among readers interested in subjects treated in news and feature stories published in The Times. They were not meant to be exclusive models. Certainly, Comment posters employ a variety of styles in their posts, some offering more substantial contributions than others. But, here were two well-composed and assertive posts on a timely subject, deserving of celebration as prototypes of one sort of worthwhile argument.

I was hampered because so much of what is commented upon and so much of what commenters have to say is oppressively familiar and uninspiring — definitely useful for modeling. The issues are the same, the views are the same, the tone is predictable too.

Commenters took issue with one of my choices. One of my choices had appropriated language that originated with writers other than himself (or herself). That’s outlawed in the Comment rules, but I didn’t notice the deception when I read and approved the post. As I’ve confessed before, my customary skepticism may have been allayed by the solid arguments offered by two toe-to-toe commenters on diverging sides of a debate. Or maybe I was just delirious that here were two comments that were neither smart alecky nor facetious, both common attributes that, in their coarsest forms, are grounds for deletion.

One yearns, despite so much disappointment, for comment participation that refreshes. And, that is what was occasioned this week by the current edition of Meet Your Merchant. MYM is an advertising vehicle for The Times, but it’s one that we think benefits not only the businesses that are profiled but also the readers who’d enjoy learning a bit about the people with whom they do business. This edition profiled several businesses that have been enduringly successful and have descended through the years from one generation to another. Reliable Market was one of these.

Some samples of Reliable enthusiasm among commenters: “Love Reliable Market!!!!;” “What’s not to love, best grocery store on the island;” “I just love to shop at Reliable.” “The best part about Reliable, is the Pacheco family! They are all very special, wonderful people;” “The Pacheco family are quiet and largely unsung philanthropic Vineyard legends… good to see this article. They have also mentored many young people and taught them basic good life lessons through employment in their store.”

It was a refreshing moment in Comment feature oversight, I have to say. Oh, and the uniform enthusiasm of commenters for news of the Lampost remodeling was heartening too, as was the encouragement for JB Blau and the opening of the Copper Wok.

The Comment genre is not easily defined, nor managed. Indeed, in the online world of general interest newspapers, there is a nagging tug of war between commenters who are contributors, debaters, and self-moderating partisans and the trolls and fools whose participation seems founded on provocation, bluster, and abuse. Sometimes, it’s as if the comment agenda is set by MSNBC or Fox News, with nary an original note struck. None of the practitioners is in exclusive possession of the domain. There are commenters who criticize fairly, others with an engaging sense of humor, some with condolences to offer to the subjects of sad stories or congratulations to the subjects of stories of triumphs. The collection, taken in all its fullness, is only occasionally rewarding. Thanks to the Reliable and the allegiance of its patrons, this week, commenters struck an unexpected, cheery, and very welcome fresh note.

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Elsewhere on these Editorial and OpEd Pages this morning, the chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), under the pretext of defending his beleaguered regulatory and planning overlord agency, takes his constituents — that is, us — to task. He accuses us of “bashing” the MVC, harsh and undeserved behavior by his lights. And he deprecates Islanders with critical views of the commission by calling us “uninformed.” He admits, in a gesture of sympathy for the hopelessly deranged, that before becoming a member of the MVC, he was like us, but he’s better now.

What he does not do is confront the crucial question, namely, how is a bowling alley in a downtown Oak Bluffs neighborhood zoned for commercial activity a development of regional impact and a matter for Martha’s Vineyard Commission intervention. If the argument in support of MVC action in such a case is that Islanders and their visitors across the Vineyard may be attracted to use the lanes and the associated restaurant, well then isn’t every bike shop, dress store, ice cream parlor, no matter where located, an occasion of regional impact? How silly, and more important, how invasive of the municipal prerogatives of the six separate Island towns is that?

The argument, and the motivation for the “bashing” visited on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission by its constituents is the developments of regional impact checklist that encourages the spreading intrusion of the commission’s regulatory appetite.

This question of which developments the MVC should play a role in regulating and which should be reserved to the towns is a legacy of what was the very genius of the 1973-1974 effort that led to the creation of the Vineyard’s super-zoning planning and regulatory authority.

Islanders spurned Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s 1972 Nantucket Sound Islands Trust legislation because of its top-down, federal government approach. Islanders saw it correctly as a clumsy effort to transform the Vineyard into a kind of national park that would, if the legislation passed, hold the Island in suspension, unchanging and monochromatic forever. It was a national, indiscriminate bludgeon.

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s enabling legislation, envisioned as a prophylactic against the Kennedy Bill, was to be a locally inspired and locally managed effort to add protective authority to overwhelmed town government regulators. Local, to the authors of that legislation, meant the towns, in all their individual natures and aspirations. It was not a state-level corollary to the federal effort, and homogenizing the six Island towns as they grew and changed was not a goal of Governor Francis Sargent’s effort.

The first slate of elected Martha’s Vineyard Commission members in 1974 — I was one of them — were determined to tailor development of regional impact and districts of critical planning concern rules to the inclinations of the six communities, each one having become, over generations, an aggregation of like-minded souls, different in every case from its neighbors in other towns.

And, that early foundational effort, derived from the spirit that prevailed in the development of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission itself, also attempted to reserve for the towns the use of the MVC to help but never to trample or intrude upon the management of their individual lives.

That spirit has been eroded over time, and today the differentiation among Island towns is threatened with extinction, as the MVC inflicts itself on even the most unarguably local issues, such as the permitting of a Main Street pizza parlor in a business area — or a bowling alley.

Or, recall the history of the Girl Scout Camp expansion off Middle Road in Chilmark. There, the scouts’ expansion plans fell within all the town zoning and building rules. There was no possible argument that the contemplated changes had regional impact. But, harrying neighbors pressed the town selectmen to make a referral to the MVC. Their defense of their action was to say that the referral was a way to get the Girl Scout plans aired in a public hearing, because the efforts by critics in lawful municipal forums had not achieved the critics’ aims. In the Girl Scout Camp matter, the MVC had a fingerhold on the project, because development permits from Chilmark were needed for the project to proceed.

The MVC began as a strengthener, an adjunct, specially powered, helper to the towns and, through the towns, to the Island as a whole. It was not intended to act as a parental authority to municipal governments regarded as too juvenile and wayward to plot their own futures for their residents and taxpayers.

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Friday afternoon, some significant segment of the Vineyard population, the majority of them teachers, parents, and children, all of whose desperation was palpable, left home. There were a few unconnected to the grueling routines associated with rearing children, who were plotting their own escapes with no reasonable excuses except that they wanted to go, desperate in their own way over the possibility that they were going where the family units were going.

It is a late winter Vineyard theme. Let me out of here. I can’t take it any longer. If we must take the kids, so be it, but we’ll try to give them the slip at the airport.

Understandably, you may be asking, not in a whining way, what is left for me? The answer is peace and quiet, albeit in 25-degree temperatures and every other day snow. Still, Vineyard roads will be more peaceful, the vicious debates over whether the Vineyard will still be the Vineyard if we allow certain non-native species to be planted will simmer rather than boil for a week, and the big question — is today a snow day — will be unasked and unanswered. And, you’ll be happier, even smugly so, when you realize that you are experiencing a kind of respite, without the travail and expense besetting the horde of temporary expatriates clamoring Friday for relief from their workaday lives. Congratulations are in order for you.

For the record, our departing brethren are a lively bunch, and they are not alone. Innocent, non-Vineyard strangers can make mischief too. For instance, on the plane Saturday, the woman in the window seat, her husband between us, waited till he had gone to the lavatory and leaned over to me, an utter stranger.

“My husband,” she said, “doesn’t know where we are going. He thinks he’s going to Naples.” She meant Naples, Florida, not the other one, which would have enhanced immeasurably the plot this merry trickster had conceived.

The ferries were full Friday, the planes jammed Saturday. Winter-weary Islanders and their pale, desperate counterparts from the mainland were happy to be going — skiing, surfing, touring, sunbathing, to the mountains, to the desert, to the islands, to Europe, through the woods to grandmother’s house, anywhere as long as it was not snowy home. Anywhere but where they belonged. And they were crazed with anticipation. But, temporarily unhinged as they appeared to be, I suspect most of them knew where they were headed. Most of them hadn’t been hoodwinked by a good-hearted woman.

How on earth did you do it, I asked. I could never pull off anything like it. Truth is, I wouldn’t dare. And why, I wondered, did she tell me about her scheme? I think she was so tickled at how perfectly it was working that she had to tell someone, and I was handy.

“I made all the arrangements,”she said.

Didn’t he look at the tickets or the boarding pass or the flight number, the destination — none of that? Didn’t he see the charge on the credit card statement?

“He asked me where we’d go for vacation, and I said maybe Naples. We have friends there. We’ve been there before, had fun. We had looked for a condo to buy, didn’t find one. He said at first, oh no, not Naples. I said why not. We’d been to San Juan before and had a great time, so I bought the tickets and booked a place to stay. I think he’s going to be happy when he finds out it’s not Naples.”

No repercussions, I asked skeptically.

“No, he’s not that kind,” she said, and she was right. She knew her man. It wasn’t till we approached the terminal and the pilot welcomed his passengers to San Juan that her husband’s head swiveled toward his wife. She smiled at him, winked at me. Then, when the pilot asked the whole planeful to wish him happy birthday, his fifty first if I remember correctly, his bewilderment passed, and her clever generosity was unmistakable.

Not every experience during this off-Island diaspora was as brilliantly staged, or as exciting. There were surprises though. In the hotel Saturday morning, the elevator doors opened  and standing at the rear of the car was a West Tisbury school teacher in workout clothes, going down to exercise before her flight. We leapt a foot when she said our names.

On the plane and later at the gate in San Juan, another teacher and her husband were searching for lunch as they waited for their flight and we searched for our connection. It was like leaving home and being home at the same time. A mad and merry week lay ahead.

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And that’s that

Roger Wey, the former Oak Bluffs selectman whose management of the financial affairs of the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging is under a cloud, gets an endorsement this week from Glenna Barkan, writing in the Letters to the Editor columns this week for the Oak Bluffs Quilters. No one could ask for or imagine a cleaner, plainer, less ambiguous, utterly authentic message of support and statement of the circumstances. I refer you to Ms. Barkan’s letter.

In this tortured and relentlessly communicative age, most of the incoming is self-aggrandizing, vicious, promotional, and manipulative. What ought to be simple explanations are most often cast as driveby hits against the other side — think Congressional Republicans speaking about Congressional Democrats, or the other way around, or Fox News vs. MSNBC. By contrast, Ms. Barkan writes with no veiled intentions, no effort to disguise or beguile, not even a nod to the deplorable modern strategies of rhetorical persuasion. She delivers the unalloyed understanding that she knows, unarguable, the straight dope. Utterly refreshing.

Winter

When I was a kid, the horn at the fire barn signaled a snow day. The AM radio station, if the early morning country music DJ Cuzzin Dave was paying attention, or if he was across the street from the station getting a quick breakfast and a smoke while the stack on the turntable worked its way down to dead air, would catch on and Dave would give the weather, “It’s snowing pretty good, looks like a blizzard, no school today.”

For several weeks, it’s been a chilly, snowy, now icy misery much of the time. The best you can say is that there is sledding, and there is ice skating, the latter only if the snow would stop.

I found Abigail Higgins’s Garden Notes particularly heartening this week and perfectly on point, delivered with Abigail’s standard Barkan-like directness.

“I risk provoking ire when I mutter ‘weather weenies,’ but let’s get a grip: we used to have winters like this every winter. Snow: we get it, we get rid of it — and then we get some more. From the gardener’s viewpoint snow is a good thing. ‘Poor man’s fertilizer’ and an insulating layer are two benefits, and the accompanying cold is welcome as a disinfecting control for soil-borne and insect organisms.

“Islanders are eager for spring, the above notwithstanding. Pre-breeding season birdsong has begun; the woods, otherwise quiet and shrouded in cold and snow, are full of it. It is an early sign, as is the flowing of springs and streams, freed from the stasis of winter, and the coloring of twig tips.”

I don’t think Abigail was at all daunted by the risk she assumed.

In a long ago farming life of mine, in the farm pond down the steep, grassy slope below the house, the farm-raised ducklings trailed obediently behind their mother as she passed from shore to shore. It was not much of a pond, more of a West Tisbury kettle hole scooped out of the marshy boundary between pastures.

Waste from the cattle pens drained into it, as did water from the more extensive marshes north across the large field. A sheltering cluster of beetlebung trees, a few locust and black cherry, and one overhanging oak sheltered the western side. Grass ran to the water’s edge everywhere else around the circumference.

Springs fed the marshes from the higher elevations, so the pond was never low, not even in the driest summers. In the winter, because it was low and protected all around, the pond formed ice that hardened and thickened quickly. Winters without skating were rare, as were winters without ice choking Vineyard Haven Harbor and Nantucket Sound.

One of those long ago winter mornings, I recall cold, thick fog, drizzle, and bits of ice floating in Vineyard Sound between West Chop and the Woods Hole entrance buoy — in other words, standard February weather for this sea-girt paradise.

We were on the Islander bound for Woods Hole, hurrying to Boston to catch a plane to Florida, but the current-driven ice had rearranged the buoys in the Woods Hole Passage. We lay outside the Hole, waiting for the visibility to improve, so the Islander’s captain could navigate to the dock safely, no matter where the buoys had got to. We missed the plane.

That’s the sort of winter weather that makes us happy and the pond water solid. Happy in the congratulatory sense that we’re built tough and equipped for this sort of thing. That’s the sort of winter that makes skating and ice boating on Squibnocket Pond possible, or skating parties on moonlit evenings at Old House Pond or Parsonage Pond, or Sunday pond hockey at Uncle Seth’s. Those were the sorts of winters that put this one in its historic place, as just another like the others. Winter being winter, I suppose.