At Large

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The young woman said she mistrusted what the media do. All the media. She did not, I learned later, mistrust James Cameron’s film version of the Titanic’s sinking. Go figure.

The context for her declaration was a discussion about what media consumers, particularly of the broadcast, cable, and blogosphere media, could rely upon in the stream of cyber-stuff.

What’s worrisome is that it is easier to accept what one hears and reads as fact or truth without troubling to distinguish between the real and the unreal. 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, and I am one, 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. Brian Stelter, writing in the New York Times Sunday, reminds us that Eric E. Schmidt, chief of Google, distributor of much of the nonsense, referred to it as a “cesspool.”

Mr. Stelter quotes Brooks Jackson, the director of FactCheck.org: “The ‘news’ that is not fit to print gets through to people anyway these days, through 24-hour cable gasbags, partisan talk radio hosts and chain e-mails, blogs and Web sites such as WorldNetDaily or Daily Kos. What readers need now, we find, are honest referees who can help ordinary readers sort out fact from fiction.”

Mr. Stelter profiled Snopes.com, one of the oldest and most popular fact-checking services on the web. David and Barbara Mikkelson operate Snopes. It and its truth-searching sister sites are invaluable, but ultimately, the responsibility for picking and choosing lies with you, the consumers.

And it is difficult work, distinguishing between truth and untruth.

“Especially in politics, most everything has infinite shades of gray to it, but people just want things to be true or false,” Mr. Stelter quotes Mr. Mikkelson, attempting to explain why rumor and untruth attract such a large audience. “In the larger sense, it’s people wanting confirmation of their world view.”

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.

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.

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 e-mail 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.

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Run under AT LARGE standing head

Spring whispers

By Doug Cabral

A small gale slams against the slider and, bending the old, weakened aluminum frame in an arc, finds its unruly way into my room. The easterly drives the thick rain before it in gusts. The harried rain sounds like ice against the glass. Despite accepting that the weather is, once again, atrocious, the racket is nevertheless too great to ignore, and one looks up startled by each gust.

You know it’s spring. I know it too. Spring whispers its presence. It is moving west, heading up-Island as it does each year. If this northeaster will only let up. If the jet stream will only shift so that it’s not catching every low moving west to east across the country, larding it with rain, and giving it a ride up the East Coast. If only Canada would contribute one of those tenacious highs to block for us, ay, wouldn’t that give spring a chance to make some noise?

Sure, we’ve had reports of pinkletinks, snowdrops, and crocuses. The interest in reporting these meaningful annual advances stems from the natural competitive nature of Vineyarders, from their outdoor lives, and from their sheer desperation for winter to end. Megan Freitas, explaining this week how she managed to get through the long, cold, snowy winter, said, “Miraculously.” Amen.

In fact, it could be that the surest sign of spring here is the tanned face on your neighbor who, huddled in his thin, azure blue golf jacket, realizes he made a dreadful mistake returning from his winter home in Florida for Easter and town meeting season. Next year, he’ll wait till May 1.

Here it is Easter, but the road is washed out, and there are ducks paddling in the puddle that now extends across it. The back yard is a swamp, and you can feel the cedar roof shingles eroding in the pounding rain.

Generally, spring is earlier in Vineyard Haven than in Chilmark. It may surprise you to learn that on the same April afternoon it can be early spring in Vineyard Haven and late winter in Chilmark, but it shouldn’t. It is no more remarkable than those common summer days when Aquinnah and Chilmark (indeed the whole South Shore) are buried in a fog thick as a wet wool sock, while the horn at West Chop Light is silent.

There are lots of theories about why these small differences in geography should be accompanied by noticeable differences in climate. People say it is on account of the wind. There is more wind in Chilmark than in Tisbury (doubtful), and windy places are colder. At the same time, the theory has it, there is more hot air in Tisbury, and it loafs around pestering the crocuses and daffodils, which consequently jump up in equinoctial agitation.

Or they say it has to do with personality. In Chilmark, folk are peculiar, reserved, crabbed, and unapproachable, according to this hypothesis. The human chill slows the gathering spring. By contrast, in Tisbury, folks are bubbly, antic and warm-hearted. The municipal wackiness gives spring a boost. I have my doubts.

I am not an expert on these things, and I have no opinion about the relative merit of any intellectual propositions that might explain what is going on. Nevertheless, I can tell you that the signs of spring’s accelerating east to west progress slap you right in the face.

Down-Island, people at the post office want to know if your boat is ready for the water. (It is not.) They ask, got the cover off yet? Got the bottom painted? Yes (a mistake I now realize), and no. It was the dead of winter yesterday, and suddenly everyone is in a hurry. That’s because a week ago there was one 60-degree day.

Or if they are gardeners, they want to know whether you’ve planted anything yet. Got your garden tilled? Spread the lime yet? Spread the fertilizer? Got your peas in?

Up-Island, as regards spring, there are fewer promising signs. When you get home after dark and the headlights pick out herds of rabbits zigzagging through the perennial garden, you may conclude that spring is on the way. When you notice the old basketball and the broken outdoor thermometer and the worthless deer repellent that spent the winter in those gardens, and it occurs to you that it’s time to clean out the beds, that’s a sign.

I say, take your signs where you find them, and remember, if you can hear yourself think despite the din the rain and wind are making on the other side of the window, Easter, just like spring, is about faith.

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You may be surprised to learn that enlarged housing opportunities do not necessarily follow from the creation of more houses. Good jobs are important too. Indeed, good jobs and increasing household incomes underpin home ownership.

Massachusetts did pretty well increasing the rate of home ownership over the last three decades of the last century. That was when those much maligned easy-to-get mortgages and securitized mortgage instruments were in vogue. Nevertheless, the rate of home ownership in Massachusetts remains poor, compared with the rate in other states.

On the Vineyard – good news – the rate of home ownership, about 70 percent, is a little better than the national average but a whole lot better than the state’s. But, despite our best efforts, the Vineyard rate of home ownership, despite our affordable housing efforts, is on the decline.

What restrains the rate of growth of home ownership in Massachusetts, and most importantly, on Martha’s Vineyard? It hardly requires a beautiful mind to name the obvious villain. High prices, of course. Massachusetts ranks third in the nation, behind Hawaii and California, in terms of median house value, and Vineyard prices reach higher still, more than $200,000 above the statewide median. Despite this vicious recession, now in its third year, Vineyard property prices remain high, even as the volume of business slows.

Still, it’s worth considering the chief underlying factor, apart from fanciful prices, that controls the growth of affordable housing. That’s income.

When household incomes grow, so does home ownership, across the economic demographic. Even though median household income in Massachusetts is high compared with incomes in other states, it’s lower on the Vineyard, and household incomes in the state and here have been stagnant or declining since the late 1980s. Plus, the income gap between those with growing household revenue and those with the opposite experience has been exacerbated in Massachusetts. Because the price of houses rose so sharply in the 1980s and 1990s while household incomes failed to keep pace, housing has become more and more expensive and more and more difficult for modest income households to afford. And naturally, on the Vineyard the picture is bleaker.

The inescapable conclusion is that an increased supply of mid-range housing, along with good jobs with rising incomes, in an economy that is broadly encouraged to prosper will together do much to ease the housing crunch. Home ownership, especially for modest income families, is intimately and inescapably tied to the success of broad regional economic development strategies.

Here, we concentrate a great deal of earnest energy on the shortage of affordable shelter for neighbors, and our strategies for solving the problem are varied and inventive.

But, as the Island Affordable Housing Fund’s Island-wide Housing Needs Assessment pointed out, “the average job on Martha’s Vineyard pays only 73 percent of the state average.” Given the expense of housing here, whether to rent or to own, the housing solution has as much to do with economic growth on Martha’s Vineyard as it does with new rental apartments, new townhouses, new youth lots, and housing subsidies. And economic development is not something we fancy talking about.

“High home prices (85 percent above the statewide median), high rents (at least 30 percent over the statewide median) and low wages (27 percent below the statewide average) describe the Vineyard affordable housing problem,” writes John J. Ryan, author of the IAHF study.

The understandable focus on providing a variety of housing opportunities for Island families appears likely to yield only limited rewards, as we have discovered. The destructive effects of economic downturns on our housing efforts are predictable and devastating. Our worthwhile goal is a diverse and refreshed Island community of committed neighbors. But, putting good people who will become good, long-term neighbors into decent housing requires a companion focus – indeed a laser-like allied focus – on economic expansion, so that our new neighbors and old friends can make their own way toward independent home ownership and fully vested Vineyard citizenship.

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If you’re an Islander, young or old, looking for love in all of the few available places and unsuccessful, the Internet has you covered. If you’ve been to one potluck after another, till you couldn’t look one more veggie lasagna or bean salad in the eye; if you’ve dreamed of making a romantic connection at work but find yourself unemployed; if you’d like to meet someone, but you spend all day every day shingling a roof in Aquinnah; if you’ve been driven to bird watching and Land Bank walks because your friends tell you that lonely people love such activities, but the weather’s so cold that you can’t assess the looks of anyone you’re watching or walking with because of the down parkas, woolen hats, earmuffs and gloves everyone is wearing, and besides all your fellow participants seem excited and happy, and that’s just not you; if all this has got you staying at home watching Hef in his sailor’s hat sporting around with his pneumatic teenage harem – you’ve got to get yourself online.

You won’t be unique among Islanders. A little casual, anecdotal research has discovered that Islanders, whether they’re looking for other Islanders or just other humans wherever they may be, have discovered that 29 dimensions of compatibility may be more than is absolutely necessary. They’ve decided to settle for one or two dimensions, three if they’re lucky, because it’s all about meeting someone new, someone who doesn’t drool, blubber, or smell, someone, in other words, who is not the guy or girl who just dumped you. Casual research reveals that 33 percent of Island singles, on average, have tried to make a social connection online, or are so desperate they would be willing to give it a try. Numbers are higher among the young, but not much. Some codgers are trolling online, though their motives may be suspect.

With online dating, you can be very particular, if you like. You can try biker dating, fitness dating, Catholic or Canadian dating, nude dating, gothic dating – you name it. You can confine yourself to certain genders, ethnic groups, income profiles, age groups, hair color. Or, you can welcome all comers. Craigslist is a working option for the undiscriminating.

There’s also local dating, but my research suggests that there’s very little of that going on. Probably the small world thing governs here, suggesting that some of the online hunters and huntresses may be taking their love to town and don’t want to get caught. The relationship quest is mainly for non-local partners. The advertisements for themselves posted by such geographically scattered online dating participants are usually regarded by searchers as unreliable, to put it blithely. But the searchers’ own advertisements for themselves may be rather fanciful as well. No matter, it’s a chance to find someone imaginary for your own imaginary self.

It’s certainly not like the old days. In the old days, when there were jobs, people met other people at the office, the factory, or the store. Younger folks met at the bar or at the mixer, or when one day, at your friend’s house, rebuilding a carburetor in the cellar, you noticed his younger sister and she noticed you. Your friend threatened to beat you up if you asked his sister out, but you did anyway. Love means taking risks.

In those days, a girl dawned on you like morning itself. You saw her and blushed. You knew a dream come true when you saw it. But, all that’s over, especially among the Island men and women of a certain age who are giving online romance sites a try. These days, you’re just hoping to meet some man or woman whose romantic past is at least partially a mystery to you and to everyone else you know. Nothing’s crueler than your friend’s comment, when you tell her you met so and so at the bookstore, and she says, Oh yeah, I dated him two years ago, and I think Jenny did too. I think he’s a plumber.

That’s why Yahoo Personals, with about nine million members, is big. It’s big and multi-national. The world is your search area. Or try American Singles, or Web Date, or Friend Finder, if you want to sneak up on this dating thing. For the squeamish among us, there’s It’s Just Lunch, although of course it isn’t, or at least, with luck, it may not be.

What are all these Islanders, and all these others, the forthright and the charlatans among them, after? They are after something as quick and insubstantial as the Internet itself, which is not to say that the Internet is the best place to look. They are after what C.S. Lewis, very wise and thoughtful about all this, called “a delighted pre-occupation with the beloved – a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality.”

It’s not sex, which everyone nowadays believes tragically that it is. “A man in this state really hasn’t leisure to think of sex,” Lewis says. “He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact that she is a woman [reverse the genders, this lovely derangement works just as well] is far less important than the fact that she is herself. He is full of desire, but the desire may not be sexually toned.”

What the smitten wants is to continue in the state he has found himself in. “If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, ‘To go on thinking of her.'”

That’s because love “enters him like an invader, taking over and reorganizing, one by one, the institutions of a conquered country.” The online dating hopefuls among us yearn to be conquered and reorganized that way. Meeting online enhances the fantastical nature of the connection and defers the realization of it, or its ultimately sad failure to materialize, if that’s what is in store for you. But, is it worth it? Really, why try, in person or online?

Joan Didion, writing about life and how to live it, explains exactly why. “I’m just telling you to live in [the world, as it is]. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can, and good luck at it.”

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Nowadays, it’s all about mileage and doing the right thing. When I was a kid, it was all about style, or at least our dim, dumb sense of style. Kids hankered after GTOs, Vettes, Road Runners, T-birds, Bonnevilles. Some of us realized our dreams. Inexplicably, they somehow got their hands on a Vette and drove it across the country on Route 66. Others were handy enough to turn a Ford coupe into a low, noisy street rod. For some of us, the dream died aborning, as they say.

My dad believed that a car was just transportation. At least he said he did. If his heart lifted when he caught sight of a flashy sports car or a wicked street rod, he never let on. A workmanlike ride-on mower or a monster gas-powered red snow blower might give him a flutter, but cars seemed to make no music he could hear.

The first family car I remember was sporty in a limited way. It was a black DeSoto coupe, two-door, flanked with undulating Rubenesque fenders and a stand-aside-buster aura. The sportiness had to do with the two-doorness, but the automatic transmission guaranteed an utter absence of liveliness. There was no visual thrill, and the low bench seat made for an uncertain sense of the open road ahead, or anywhere around for that matter. She was smooth though.

I don’t remember the vintage, but it was old. Sunday afternoon drives had a stuffy, smokey incarcerated feel, no matter the weather. It was no place for an only child to spend his Sundays.

Then there was the four-door Nash Rambler, kind of blue-gray and round, round, round. This was when swooping fins and low-slung bodies were big and getting bigger. Nash had zigged when the world zagged, and my dad zigged with them.

The Rambler was high and bulgy and slow, and it backfired. That is, it backfired if you drove it over 45. Racing to the junior prom, naturally, you wanted to go faster, so you had to accept the comparisons your friends would make between your passage and the cartoon images of rabbits, mice, and dogs toot-tootling down the road with the smoky remains of explosions in their wakes. The young are so unkind. My friends described the Rambler as an upside-down bathtub. My heart swoons at the memory.

To its eternal credit, the Rambler did have reclining seats that turned the interior into a small room with a double bed, and this one feature, especially valuable in those days of drive-in theaters, attracted the esteem of my friends.

There was, briefly, a black two-door Ford Fairlane with splurging, chrome-edged fins that went on forever, and a big round tail light at the end of each one. God, that was a car, and dad caught a bit of its rhythm. Maybe in those days he was taking his love to town, as they say, and he needed a car to take with him. Who knows? But, he spent a lot of time Simonizing it. The paint job was spectacular.

His last car was a Chevy Caprice (I think), also two-door, but this time two-tone as well, and an automatic. Automatic, indeed. Dad had only to start her up and back out of the drive, the Chevy knew the way to work and back. Basic transportation, no pretension, yeomanry on wheels.

The best car ever in my family rarely left my grandfather’s garage. It was a lime green LaSalle two-door, with big round headlights that set out in front and above the fenders. The doors were hinged at the rear, like Saabs were in the early days of their popularity. Although he adored it, my grandfather had little use for the car, and for a long time he would have it out only on Sundays each week for a run, weather permitting. In those days, the prevailing belief was that you had to take the machine, as my grandmother called it, out regularly or it would, I suppose, feel bad and disappoint you when you needed it. Occasionally, he would authorize my father to conduct the weekly constitutional, and I could go along. Wow. Heads turned. In Maine this fall walking through the neighborhood behind Prout’s Neck, I came across a tumbledown shed that garaged an almost identical LaSalle, also green. It had Sunfish sails and surfboards leaning against it, which makes me think it had not gotten its weekly spin for a very long time.

I knew cars were more than transportation. Friends had Austin-Healy 3000 sports jobs and Triumph TR-3s, even Austin-Healy Sprites, and it was easy to see what these wheels did for their spirits, not to mention their love life. One friend had a Romanian or Yugoslavian four-seater, a convertible. We double dated once, but the transmission got stuck in reverse at the A&W root beer stand, and we had to take the girls home driving backwards all the way. Tough to shake that off.

But when in my senior year at college it was time for me to have a first car, I took just a half step away from basic transportation. I marched over to Foreign Motors of Boston, on Comm. Ave., where the wildest, most exhilarating, snazziest sports cars hung out, and came away with a four-door MG Magnette, for $250.

You don’t know the Magnette? Well, the MG web site explains: In 1932, the MG Car Company built some saloon cars that had tiny Wolseley six-cylinder overhead camshaft engines. They were of 1087cc at first, and produced just 39bhp to power a quite smart looking car – oh, yes indeed – on a nine-foot wheel base, and another, shorter version. The names of the models were MG Magna, and MG Magnette. The cars were developed after a year or so into very well known MG racing cars, such as the Magnette K3 and K4 series. (These latter had nothing to do with me.) People have now forgotten that the name Magnette was first used on a small, underpowered, saloon car.

Not everything I had dreamed of. I wasn’t after a saloon car really, but it was a heck of a car. Black, with red leather seating and a wood dash of burly walnut, the Magnette had the squarish hood that speaks to MG lovers, and those cute little magic fingers that poke out of the center doorpost to offer directional guidance to nearby motorists. The word corker was invented for that car.

The Magnette ran like a top, when it did not require a mechanic’s attention to its finicky carburation system. And it loved the open road. In fact, long hauls were best because short hops were bothersome. At the end of its career with me, the car’s starter motor packed up, no replacements were obtainable, and I had to start it with a crank. It worked just fine, but in certain weather and in certain company, it was a drag.

The guy at Foreign Motors who sold me the car was a Brit, imported I suppose to dress up the sales floor. But he was about my age and a kindred spirit, except that he drove a Jaguar XKE, which was to driving what Michael Jordan was to basketball. We traded cars once in a while, and afterward the old Magnette’s charms were temporarily dimmed for me.

Of course, that was all a while ago, and although a moment’s reverie brings it all back sharp and clear, there’s no retracing the many steps between then and now. Cars are not as important anymore. They’re just transportation and a disparaged form of transportation at that.

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There is no apparent link between the Steamship Authority’s demand that Ralph Packer’s Tisbury Towing get a license to transport freight to and from Martha’s Vineyard with its tugs and barges and the boatline’s demand that the Coastwise Packet schooner Shenandoah’s mooring be moved 150 feet (or one boat length) to the southeast from its current (and 44-year) location, to make more room for SSA ferries to come and go from the south slip at the Vineyard Haven wharf.

But, despite the absence of an obvious connection, there are indeed several.

For instance, due diligence, or how boatline members relate to their managers.

In his remarks to the Tisbury selectmen on January 13, Marc Hanover, Martha’s Vineyard member of the authority, explained that the boatline’s position regarding Shenandoah’s mooring location arose from safety considerations. Shifting Shenandoah has been a multi-year, even multi-decade pursuit on the part of the Steamship Authority, something like a Grail quest. Mr. Hanover told the selectmen that some boatline captains think the proximity of Shenandoah’s stern (when the wind is southeast and strong) to the southern side of the harbor channel presents a safety hazard. He also said that other captains said the schooner’s location is no problem at all. He said that the boatline ferries could certainly use the north slip rather than the southern one, if the captains chose, when the weather is southeast. That would neuter the safety concern, if there is one. Indeed the ferries have used that northerly slip recently, even though Shenandoah has not been on her mooring since fall. Mr. Hanover said that the boatline would be content with a shift in the Shenandoah’s location of about a third of the150 feet it has demanded and would use the north slip as necessary, but he expressed surprise when he learned that the Steamship Authority managers, in a meeting with the schooner’s owners and the Army Corps of Engineers, which will decide whether Shenandoah must move, had indicated no flexibility in their demand. “Somebody’s lying to me,” Mr. Hanover told the Tisbury selectmen.

Also, on January 13, Capt. Robert S. Douglas, Sheandoah’s master and owner, asked that the Steamship Authority produce evidence that the safety question it raises is justified, and that there is a reason why the north slip may not be used. He’d like to see that evidence, before he is required to shift his vessel from where she’s been for nearly half a century. The Tisbury harbormaster has asked for the same information, to prepare his recommendation on the mooring issue to the Corps. Besides a letter from SSA general manager Wayne Lamson to the Corps, asking that the sailing vessel’s mooring be moved, for considerations of safety and Steamship Authority convenience, there has been no evidence proffered.

Asked why he does not air this matter with his fellow members, Mr. Hanover told the selectmen he does not do so because the boatline works well if such matters are left to the discretion of professionals in management, especially matters of safety. But, consider a parallel circumstance. Should the board members of the banks and investment companies that bought all those billions of toxic assets that are now crippling their companies have been more aggressive, more inquisitive, more assertive, and more skeptical when the professional managers said they had done the financial risk modeling just right and that they had the financial safety issue handled. Due diligence requires that board members in private and public organizations subject the professional actions of their managers to intensive, continual, sophisticated, as well as common sense scrutiny before deciding that the planned actions make sense for the business as a whole, and for its customers. (Ditto, the Tisbury Towing licensing conflict.)

Then there’s the lip service approach to its mission, genuflecting to the words but not appreciating their implications. As the Tisbury selectmen have said, and repeated on January 13 to Mr. Hanover, Shenandoah is an important fixture in Vineyard Haven Harbor. They don’t want her moved, or at least not out of the general area where she has been moored for so many years. If there were a record of collisions or near misses, or repeated cancellation of ferry trips because Shenandoah had interfered with the safe passage of the ferries and because the north slip were unavailable, the selectmen would doubtless have another view. But, there is no such record. Oh, well, there was the time the Islander clobbered Shenandoah on a foggy fall day, when the wind was in the north. But never mind that. The Steamship Authority’s charter may be to serve the islands, but in the face of an issue where the clear interest of its major Island port community is in the way of a boatline demand, hang the mission. (And, once again, ditto, the Tisbury Towing conflict.)

Finally, there’s knowing what’s important. The many private carriers, all of which the boatline has licensed and allowed to expand over the years, have been meaningful competitors, in the sense that they carry passengers during the season when there is generally a surplus of passengers. (By the way, none of them is an island-based business, as Coastwise Packet Company and Tisbury Towing are. Ah, yes, and remember that the Steamship Authority’s mission is to serve the islands.) In other words, the boatline has regularly granted license permission to private carriers that have skimmed the cream – namely walk-on passengers that are the least expensive to transport and most numerous. But, now they would bring to heel a vital Vineyard Haven service business, Tisbury Towing, whose chief interaction with the Steamship Authority is to relieve it of bulky, difficult, and expensive sorts of freight which, without Mr. Packer’s service, the authority would need to make extraordinary and costly efforts to accommodate.

Oh, and we read that the Steamship Authority has agreed to accept a reduction of $160,000 in fees from its licensee HyLine, the Hyannis-based private competitor, so that HyLine’s Nantucket service may be continued although passenger traffic volumes are falling. One supposes that by refusing to allow Tisbury Towing, a kind of ally, the revenue it received from transporting fleets of rental cars to and from Martha’s Vineyard on its barges, the Steamship Authority will offset the $160,000 it forsakes from HyLine, a true and damaging competitor.

Were the Steamship Authority in business for real, it would regard its unfounded pestering of Captain Douglas as damaging to customer relations, its pursuit of Tisbury Towing as counter to its own operational interests, and HyLine’s inability to fulfill its commitment to its Nantucket passengers as an opportunity to increase lucrative market share. It would make decisions very different from those clumsy and costly ones it has made.

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Until a few years ago, we worried that Islanders had got into the habit of shopping at the Hyannis Mall or BJs or the other mainland big box stores, especially for Christmas. Supporting this alarming analysis, Steamship Authority figures showed the growing use of excursion discounts for vehicle roundtrips originating on Martha’s Vineyard.

Beyond a doubt, Islanders revealed healthy appetites for shopping off-Island, looking for good deals and variety. The roundtrip ferry rate encouraged that natural inclination, as did the improved economic fortunes of many Islanders.

But there was a countervailing strategy at work among mainlanders. Summer residents and visitors looking for adventure traveled here, not for low prices and variety but for unique gifts and products with a distinct Vineyard essence. Having been excessively malled for years, they reveled in traveling here for weekend shopping expeditions. It is not possible to net out the result for Vineyard merchants, except that the discomfort on the part of Island business people seemed for many years not to be paralyzing.

Then Islanders, backward (and happily, insistently so) in many respects, discovered online shopping, along with the rest of the globe. Enthusiasm grew nationally at an astounding rate, and Vineyard folk who had been catalogue shoppers for years joined the craze. The brilliant 20-somethings who know almost everything about everything, and especially shopping, thought they had figured out how to eventually suck up every holiday gift buying dollar with a web site and a credit card cyber-siphon.

But, online shopping, as everything does, eventually lost some of its remarkable vigor, and in this low and worrisome economic environment, retailers, whether bricks and mortar or digital types, suffer together. Steamship Authority figures tell a sad story of insignificant growth in auto traffic, passenger traffic, and freight. During the fall and through the Christmas shopping season, to-ing and fro-ing among Islanders, as well as free-spending immigrant shoppers, has seriously underperformed the standard of years past.

My historical Christmas shopping patterns do not fit comfortably into any of the patterns I’ve just described. After a slow start and a sort of early 1980s upswing, I have long recognized the contracting nature of my shopping behavior. Reports on my earliest shopping habits, circa 1969, show that I did very little shopping at all, and the trends have been declining since. Years ago, I made Christmas presents in the woodshop: unique, rough hewn jewelry boxes out of two by threes; dining tables with mismatched legs; bed frames that needed cinderblock supports. A stop at Lillian’s on Main Street (in the 1970s, a sort of Vineyard Victoria’s Secret and now the Bramhall and Dunn department store) for some foundation garments. A trip to Ben Coggins’s Ben Franklin Store. Maybe a spin through Hancock’s Hardware (now the Boch Park (ing) lot), and my shopping was done. I would sometimes shop in Edgartown. Maybe Fligors, or Hall’s, once Lily Pulitzer.

In the 1980s, the booming economy had me in a tizzy. I did shop Edgartown, and I shopped Oak Bluffs; in the early 1990s, even Nantucket. Nowhere was off limits till I dropped.

All that has changed, and I find my parsimony and buyer’s resistance in vogue once more. It’s not a cyber-question for me. It’s not a mall question or a catalogue or an online buying question. It’s become a question of whether I will leave Vineyard Haven at all. This season, a trip to Leslie’s, a little bit of Shirley’s in my life, a stop at the Green Room, and my sack was full.

As a matter of fact, a little contrarian buyer’s regression feels right. And a la mode, too. But we’re facing a new issue now, and one which threatens to expand my consumer horizons.

Permit me a diversion. I was once invited to the wedding of a charming, pliant, convivial Scotsman. For special occasions – and his marriage would be one – he wears a kilt. For his wedding, we celebrants were asked to wear kilts, too.

There must be something you are fond of wearing, something you are comfortable in, something that is your signature apparel. For lots of people, male and female, it’s what used to be dungarees, now it’s anybody’s Guess. There are a million brands, and some of them, ordered online, will build the pants to fit your body like a glove. (For some of us, that would be a mitten.) Still, it’s all denim.

I’ve been wearing khaki pants now for nearly 50 years. (Recently, I got a pair of green pants, but I’m not convinced it was the right thing to have done.) I have three or four pair of khakis, which I rotate till one wears out. Then I replace it. I don’t wear kilts, and I don’t know where to shop for a kilt. My shopping habits do not allow for trips to kilt stores.

A bit further afield, George Buchanan, in his 1581 “History of Scotland,” explained the Scottish interest in kilts this way: “They delight in variegated garments, especially stripes, and their favourite colours are purple and blue. Their ancestors wore plaids of many colours, and numbers still retain this custom … and sometimes lay themselves down to sleep even in the midst of snow.”

You see, this is definitely not me. Purple and blue are not my favorite colors, and I am not looking for snowdrifts to curl up in, especially in light of what they say about the devil may care Highlander’s scant regard for undergarments.

Later in the 16th century, Nicolay D’Arfeville wrote, “[The ‘wild’ (Scots)] wear like the Irish a large and full shirt, coloured with saffron, and over this a garment hanging to the knee, of coarse wool, after the fashion of a cassock, they go bareheaded, and let their hair grow very long, and wear neither hose nor shoes, except some who have boots made in an old-fashioned way, which come as high as their knees.”

Wild? That’s not me either. Long hair, high boots. Ditto.

My ancient and honorable patterns of shopping and dress lend themselves to extremely limited shopping. And, for someone who doesn’t shop much and is steadily shopping less, someone who has spent a lifetime in trousers, kilts are simply not on the agenda. Now, picking up the thread I began with, these times – as we are constantly told – demand some rethinking. If we (and I include myself in that number) are to do our part to support the Martha’s Vineyard economy, not to mention the national economy, where lots of people have it much worse, and even the global village, which is not only economically beset but frequently bloody-minded as well, we’re going to have to spend whatever we can. And we must spend it where it will do some good. So, whether it means a journey to Edgartown, or even a kilt, I say, I’ll do my part. See you at the kilt emporium.

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In the bowels of The Martha’s Vineyard Times’ techno center, things are humming. Change is on the way at mvtimes.com. In the nearly two decades that the newspaper has published a web site, it’s been changed, and changed, and changed again. I’ve lost count. Each edition of mvtimes.com has won awards from our newspaper peers, including the one we’ve just set out to revamp. In fact, whenever we’ve had an award-winning site, we’ve scratched to the relentless itch to improve it. You may have noticed already some of what we’ve done, namely changing the navigation features and moving some standing features. More is on the way, some of it structural and invisible, some of it more obvious, a sort of digital weeding of the garden of features that have attracted your interest and others that have inspired your eloquent "Ho hum."

For the record, of course I’m writing this to alert you that what you’ve become accustomed to at mvtimes.com will gradually be transformed over the next few weeks. But also, for the record, I’m pleading with you to hold your fire. There are many of you who are notoriously (notorious to us, that is) opposed to change. We understand that, and we sympathize. All we ask is that, before you fire off that violently deflating email telling us to stop messing around with your site and return things to the way they were, give it a chance. Chill. Hang with it a little. Let it work for you. Then, let us know what you think. Our nerves are jangled enough already. We tremble at the thought of disappointing you.

According to the theory that a newspaper participates in a weekly or daily conversation with its readers, you and we are supposed to talk with, not yell at, one another. We’re supposed to work together. But that notion has been overtaken by the viral quality of the contention culture in which we’ve practiced newspapering over the past 25 years. Yelling, in nearly all human-to-human exchanges, whether oral or written, is now common. The conversational metaphor for a newspaper’s communication with its readers seems no longer to apply.

But, we’re a trifle retro, so among the more prominent changes you’ll notice are some stiffened protocols for those of you who post Comments on mvtimes.com. I know that, years ago, when the conversation thing was going on, it was a lopsided conversation, at best. The paper handed out the word, the readers wrote letters, which the paper elected to publish, or not. Of course, we publish almost all the Letters to the Editor we receive for the print newspaper. Some letters don’t make the grade, or at least parts of some letters, but generally we hold dear the notion that the letters columns ought to be a place, like Alley’s Porch or Squid Row behind Menemsha Texaco or Bert’s Barber Shop, or the Wharf, where Islanders and their friends, neighbors, and guests get together to gab.

I do not include among the Letters to the Editor all the letters and e-mails that I receive. Sometimes that’s because they are shockingly profane. They fail to meet rudimentary community standards as we define them. I blush to read them. I would not impose them on you.

But, times, and The Martha’s Vineyard Times, change. Now, on mvtimes.com, the possibility of conversation, not just once a week but any time, exists in several forms. Whereas, in the old days whose conversations sparked this reverie, we talked with you, and you talked with us. Now, thanks to the ever present, ever evolving, ever demanding, ever shocking, often tiresome, and relentlessly with-it Internet, we talk with you, you talk with us, but if you like, you can talk with others of you, and leave us out.

The Comment feature especially permits you to converse with other readers, whether neighbors, in a Vineyard sense, or in a planetary sense. You can converse about something we’ve published, or something else you’d rather talk about. You can even verbally skin a neighbor alive, as some of you have apparently enjoyed doing, via The Martha’s Vineyard Times Comment feature. Welcome to the 21st Century and the web.

To me, some of these aggressive conversational opportunities seem pointless, and painful. For instance, one benighted Islander with access to email wrote recently: Dear Mr. Editor: Everything you and your newspaper write is worthless. Why don’t you give it up and go away. (What’s the likelihood that I’ll take this to heart? Not great.)

This is an example of a communication that cannot possibly advance the community conversation to which the letters, comments, forums, feedback, and blogs are dedicated.

We acknowledge that the rules for letters in print and comments or other postings online differ. The latter enjoy greater latitude. We don’t quite understand why this should be, but it is what prevails in the digital world, so we try to keep up. Still, in an attempt to steer the Comment conversation away from jihadist aggression to thoughtful, communal analysis and observation, we’ve steadily added hurdles, or curbs, if you will. For instance, we re-wrote the terms of agreement for posters and did our best to require posters to read and assent to the rules. We put up a complaint feature, so someone could write asking for review of a post deemed below the standard. Then we added a review feature, so that every single Comment posted comes to me first for review, approval, and posting.

How’d that all work for ya, you may be asking, in your smirking way. Not as well as I might have liked, I admit. So, we go further. Now, all Comment posters must include a name, address, and verifiable telephone number. As I’ve written before, in most cases there is something Templeton-like that attaches to a Comment poster who chooses to thrust his opinion forward while keeping his identity in the shadows at the edge of the conversation. Anyhow, absent entries in these new required fields, the Comment goes to the digital dustbin.

Upon preliminary analysis, there is a hint of progress. We don’t profess to have turned the course of history back toward conversational civility, but in the newspaper game, holding the line while we wait for folks to come to their senses and demand news the way it ought to be may be the best strategy for the near term.