Essay

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And so, once again, I spent the majority of my August vacation on the phone with Comcast. This is nothing new. Every time I come home to visit my parents, whether it’s midsummer or Christmas time, a whole slew of tech issues await me. Last time it was the brand new Apple laptop that wouldn’t turn on because it had never been plugged in. The time before it was the cell phone that was never answered because the ringer wasn’t turned on. As if my parents actually wanted to see me.

The last time I was home, this July, there was a lightning storm that knocked out the telephone, internet, and television with one strike: the true Comcast Triple Play. This meant that I came home this week to an entirely new system: two new phones and an answering machine that didn’t answer, an internet cable that didn’t carry any signal, a “brand-new” wireless router with a significantly decreased range, and HD channels that “didn’t look very HD,” according to my dad.

Sweet. Nice checklist. After sitting at a desk all summer, the last thing I wanted was to look at a computer or pick up a phone. I longed for a project with a definite end and immediate rewards, something I didn’t have to schedule two weeks in advance. I know, I thought, I’ll go mow the lawn to get some exercise and get my mind off all things tech or work related. Oh wait, Comcast’s solution to the cable outage was to strew a cable wire across the front lawn. Guess that’s out of the question then. “Isn’t this a little dangerous?” “Nevermind that, the 6 pm Sportscenter’s on in 10 minutes.”

Of course, even when things are going right with all the technology, I’m still on call 24/7. Ever since I was old enough to go away for the weekend, I’ve gotten calls, not to see if I got there all right, but angry calls about how many remotes were needed to turn on the TV and how all we got this for was to watch the Sox, and somehow we can’t even do that. Now, living in New York, I still get calls from both parents about various tech issues, meaning that the calls to Comcast are not merely an Island phenomenon.

About once a month, something happens to the picture on the TV, and I have to sift through my dad’s explanation of the problem: “Now they’re squishy.” “No, that didn’t do it, now they’re all stretched.” “Now their heads are cut off.” I quickly get online and start reading FAQs and tech forums, hoping to find a solution before my dad finally follows through on his threat of walking up the road to the head of Comast’s mansion and banging on the door to see if his cable is working. “He’s probably got a dish anyway,” I tell him.

For every problem I solve, another two seem to pop up. During this summer’s European soccer championship, I had to explain to my dad how to use the DVR, both how to record and then watch it back. “Record it first, then I’ll tell you how to watch it. One thing at a time.” The other night my friend was over watching the Red Sox and re-wound at one point during the game to watch a play again. “Now how’d you do that?” my dad asked.

Oh God, don’t show him that, I thought. I’m not even sure how that works. I could just imagine the call, “I was trying to use the fast-forward and now it’s been paused on this guy’s shrunken, cutoff head for a week.”

When I’m home from the city, the only activities that interest me are either manual labor or relaxing. So, I go sit on the back porch and try not to look at the overgrown backyard or the vines threatening to tear the roof off. As hard as I try, I can’t help running through a quick inventory in my head: 1. Lawn either overgrown or charred, check, 2. At least one issue with Comast, check, 3. Christmas lights still up – or I guess already up at this point, check.

Enough. I have to be able to relax for at least a few minutes, I tell myself and finally manage to tune everything out. I have to at least momentarily disconnect, disidentify myself as a series of zeros and ones, and read something that isn’t in manual form. To just be alone with my thoughts and the breeze and the sounds of the waves, and the offensively invasive dull roar of the cropper chopper.

I imagined what their infrared technology was picking up around my house. Not much wireless signal, that’s for sure. The thought of all that state-of-the-art, fiber optic, or whatever, technology wasted checking out my tan – “Don’t judge it, I’ve been inside all week on the phone!” – and not being used in my wireless router and cable cord, took my wandering mind right back to technical issues this “vacation” was supposed to help me tune out.

Whenever I come – especially in the summer – I spend the few weeks before imagining the Island as a place where time will stand still. Living in New York, I find myself constantly searching for an end, for a moment when things actually stop. Some nights, I just sit in the park when it’s empty and no-people watch. Of course, as soon as I do get home, I realize that there’s plenty to do and plenty that I want to do as well. Instead of a chance to recharge, I usually end up going back to the city more tired than when I left. And sure, sometimes I do envy the people who come for a week, a month, a summer, and can actually relax when they’re here, but to me, to notice the creaky floorboard, the invading vine or the squished head means more than any “vacation” ever could. It means home.

Sam Griswold lives in New York, although much of his tech rehab business takes place at home in West Tisbury.

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Martha’s Vineyard Hospital is a good place to die, I thought as my mother lay fading away in a hospital bed overlooking Vineyard Haven Harbor on a sunny afternoon as the Shenandoah made her way to sea.

A woman had just entered the room — to deliver a meal, or replenish the linen closet — I forget exactly why. But upon unexpectedly finding me sitting there, she reassured me that my mother was comforted by my presence. “Helen, your son is here,” she said to the frail woman who stared blankly out the window. Her familiarity, the kindness in the voice of someone who could have simply entered and left without a word, affected me more than the sight of my mother dying in a hospital bed.

Several days in the hospital brought my mother, 87, back from the brink, but the outcome of her medical trajectory was never in doubt. With the reassuring professional guidance of Dr. John Lamb, I said that the best course would be to let her return to Windemere, her home for the last four years of her life. We agreed there would be no more trips to the emergency room or hospital stays. The effort would be to keep her comfortable, and not use medical technology to prolong life in a body that was ready to give it up.

My mother had lived in her own house in Boston until it became too much for her to cope with ownership, and she moved into an elderly housing complex in the neighboring town of Dedham. The Vineyard chapter of her life began four years ago. On one of my periodic visits to her apartment, I discovered months of unpaid bills, undeposited checks and uncompleted paperwork. There was a fall that ended with a trip to the local emergency room and a nearby rehabilitation facility. I reluctantly realized that my mother, a very independent and private woman, could no longer live on her own.

It was also the start of my education in the bureaucracy of aging: well before we bury our elderly in dirt we bury them in paper. Medicare has endless forms and health care choices. There are supplement plans and prescription drug plans and variations of the same. It is a bewildering menu for those who must cope on their own.

One insurance form I tried to complete for my mother said, “Do not populate below this line.”

“What does ‘populate’ mean,” I asked the helpful woman on the other end of the toll-free telephone line. “Oh, that means write,” she said.

“Well,” I said, “why not use ‘write;’ it is a perfectly good word.” Of course, I did not expect the insurance bureaucracy to undertake a rewrite on my behalf. It was frustrating, and there would be more of it.

My mother did not have a lawyer or accountant on the payroll. There was no trust protecting the money she had managed to save over a lifetime of hard work. The cost of a shared room and board in Windemere is approximately $7,000 a month. It is a lot of money, but writing checks month after month has a way of making the figures not seem real. I suppose it is a defense mechanism.

The calculus is this. Unless you are wealthy and have prepared in advance, or you are poor and you are already receiving state assistance, you deplete all your assets until you only have $2,000 left to your name. At that point, the taxpayers take over the cost of nursing home care.

The more you have, the more you pay out. The less you have, the less you pay out. If you have nothing, you don’t worry about it. If you are a middle class hero, you are pretty much on your own, and you worry plenty.

Your first worry is that the nursing home accepts Medicaid and will have a room available. Many only accept private pay. Your second worry is how in the world you will ever be able to complete the Medicaid application.

I hired a lawyer at a cost of several thousand dollars who specializes in Medicaid applications. I was advised to consolidate what was left of my mother’s bank accounts, and purchase an annuity that would pay out a set amount each month.

My mother’s combined monthly income, including a social security check for $1,354, was approximately $3,500. And each month for almost four years, I wrote a check for about $3,500, and Medicaid paid the balance.

On Friday, I called the Social Security office to report that my mother had died on July 25. The woman told me that my mother’s monthly July social security check would be debited. Because my mother had died before the end of the month she would not receive that month’s check. I told the woman that my mother’s nursing home bill was based on that payment.

“That just seems so unfair.” I said. The woman said nothing. There was a pause.

“On behalf of Social Security I do wish to extend our condolences on your loss,” she said.

Over the course of four years, my habit was to visit Windemere each week and take my mother to lunch in the hospital cafeteria, then push her wheelchair through the hospital corridors. The new hospital provided a nice addition to our route.

My mother always looked forward to the second floor and the window that provided a view of the nursery. She particularly liked the sign in the window, “beach babies.” Most afternoons it was empty, but one day we hit it just right. A newborn was being swaddled in a blanket as the proud dad looked on. The nurse saw my mother in the window and brought the newborn over to give her a better look. My mother beamed. She was happy to tell anyone who would listen that she had once given birth to twins.

Each week, we would encounter people she had met in one capacity or another. “Hi Helen,” was a familiar greeting. The intimacy of the day-to-day caregivers, from cafeteria workers to nurses, the genuine warmth of the greetings reflected the ties that bind our community and elevate the experience of being in the hospital or Windemere.

After my mother returned to Windemere, I stopped in, if only briefly, as often as I could to reassure her that I was near. She did not speak, she only stared straight ahead. One night, she lay trembling. The night nurse, a young woman named Anna, came in and began stroking my mother’s forehead and speaking to her soothingly. Anna’s was one of so many of the small interactions I had witnessed over the past four years between patients and staff at all levels.

Anna left the room and returned with some medicine to make my mother more comfortable. My mother spent her last week of life in a shared room looked over by loving and caring people.

Nelson Sigelman is The Martha’s Vineyard Times managing editor.

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Wet bathing suits are back on the line, and we shower outside amid pale pink roses that tangle in my hair. We brush by the fireplace in our rush to get outside, barely recalling its central place in our lives these past six months. Summer solstice is just two days away and now we’re eating barefoot on the porch and listening to screen doors slap.

More visitors arrive every day. Hummingbirds have been dashing to the feeder since early May. Catbirds and bluebirds have nested, and the first eggs have already hatched. A friend tells me that when I hear the catbirds sing, I am listening to mothers and babies calling back and forth, trying to strike the right balance. Too much calling and they will attract predators. Too little, and the babies might get lost.

Our phone, quiet in March and April, starts ringing off the hook in June. “We’re here on the Island, can you come to dinner?” “Can we visit you for three or four nights?” Like the catbirds, finding the right balance can be delicate. Too many guests and we feel like we’re running a hotel. Too few and we feel selfish, hoarding this thick summer beauty.

It’s hard to set limits when a niece travels all the way from Singapore to visit, or a friend from elementary school days wants to drop by. Saying no when the fecund world is shouting yes is a challenge. Even the days are deliciously lopsided, with seemingly endless light and short nights punctured early by vibrant birdsong.

What helps me rebalance in these hectic summer months is a good swim each day. Morning plunges start in early June when the water is bracing and cold. Diving in takes my breath away, but I sputter to the surface exhilarated to be here doing this once again. As the water gradually warms, a dip becomes a long, leisurely swim in the shallow waters of Lambert’s Cove. I drop a towel on the beach and swim west to the inlet of James Pond and back. The water is so clear, I sometimes see striped bass swimming nearby. Occasionally water and movement and beauty create an alchemy that is the closest I get to rapture.

Today I swam in Ice House Pond to remind myself this delicious alternative is always available. When beach parking lots fill to bursting and visitors outnumber us ten to one, I often leave our wide open saltwater rim to the summer guests and turn inland.

With space for only four cars, this tiny Land Bank property off Lambert’s Cove Road is an ideal place for a quiet swim. Songbirds, flowering blueberries, and stands of oak and evergreen circle the small body of water. Swimming here can be a relief after the challenge of the open sea. Little fish with flashes of blue-green on their fins feed on the sandy bottom, their backs dappled by sunlight. Diving in, I braced myself for the sting of salt, but my eyes opened easily in the fresh water. I drank some. It had a loamy, sweet taste. My body was heavier in this fresh water; instead of being buoyed, I felt embraced.

Picking up a languid crawl, I swam to the middle of the pond. Voices of two other swimmers drifted over the spun sugar fog as they called to one another like catbirds. Suddenly it was quiet, and I was alone. I floated on my back and soaked in the magnificent wide sky. The tensions of this season drained away in the cool water. By the time I got out and dripped dry on the metal dock, I had fallen back in love with this Island, with summer solidly fixed on our glorious dizzy planet. At home, with a lighter step, I stood in the warm grass and pinned my bathing suit to the clothesline. The catbirds were calling to and fro in the thicket nearby.

It’s all about finding the right balance.

Laura Wainwright is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury. Her essays appear here from time to time. Her book of essays, “Home Bird: Four Seasons on Martha’s Vineyard,” was published this month by Vineyard Stories. She will sign copies of Home Bird at the Bunch of Grapes on Saturday, July 28, from 2 to 4 pm.The illustration accompanying this essay is from Home Bird.

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I got into the habit of coasting downhill in neutral my first winter on Martha’s Vineyard, in the fall of 1979. I had a book contract and a National Geographic Magazine assignment, but would be broke until my literary ships came in. The habit continued the fall of 1997 when I returned to work for The Martha’s Vineyard Times, then again in 2004 when I returned to the Island after a few years off. Once more, I had a book contract and a National Geographic assignment. Once more, I was broke. Not much had changed.

In 1979 I had rented the Captain Silva House, which my old, now-departed friend Doug Parker had just bought on State Road on the outskirts of Vineyard Haven (eventually he turned the barn into a gallery called On the Vineyard, now the Trustees of Reservation offices).

The Captain Silva House sits at the bottom of a dip in the road, whether coming from up Island or down. To save on gas, whenever I returned home I would shift my ’72 Volkswagen Bug into neutral and, as my calculations and skills improved, could coast all the way into my driveway from the top of the hill — all of about half a mile — without ever stepping on the accelerator pedal.

It was my understanding, fact or not, that such a tactic, legal or not, safe or not, saved a few dear drops of fossil fuel, ergo protecting both my pocketbook and the Planet. If it was illegal, not to mention slightly dangerous, I defended it with the good old ends-and-means justification. (By the way, there’s no mention of it being illegal in the Commonwealth here: http://www.malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleXIV/Chapter90).

At the time we were in the throes of an oil crisis, so a gallon cost — gasp! — around 85 cents. It was not much compared to the approximately $4 one shells out today. But still, I reasoned unreasonably, a half mile here, a half mile there could add up by the time I’d reach the Pearly Gates – or got rich enough to buy a piece of Windy Gates.

There was another flaw in this strategy to save a few precious pennies on even more precious petrol. In case you have not noticed, Martha’s Vineyard is not exactly, say, Nepal. Hills are not plentiful. Downhill skiing is not our big tourist draw. Our poor incline-deprived kids are reduced to sledding down that paltry mound at Tashmoo Lookout from not-quite-nosebleed heights.

Yet, over time I discovered the hidden ups and downs, ebbs and flows, rises and falls — in short, the topographical sensuousness of the lady landmass named Martha.

For example, from just about in front of the Tisbury Farm Market on State Road in Tisbury, an ever so gentle incline begins to take a coaster all the way to Five Corners when there’s no traffic and if there’s a slight wind at your back.

From the intersection of the North Road and the Menemsha Crossroad, you can make it all the way to the Menemsha Galley and, if you’re not careful, right into the pond.

From the scenic Keith Farm overlook on Middle Road in Chilmark you can roll down to Beetlebung Corner. And then there’s that glorious roller coaster a half mile further east on Middle Road.

While I have not saved a fortune, in the process I found a greater value in the practice. It has taught me to slow down, to appreciate the scenery I sometimes forget to admire in the summer rush from farmers’ market to beach to fundraiser to cocktail party, or in the winter blahs when all I pay attention to is when summer will arrive.

Over many years of my own Island ups and downs, of brushes with literary immortality and love eternal (brushes regrettably avoided), and of jobs come and gone, I came to another realization: coasting on Martha’s Vineyard is not just a driving technique – it’s a way of life. In fact, it may be our defining lifestyle choice.

It’s very easy to coast through life here. You can cobble together a living, make enough money through the busy summer months – drive a tour bus by day, shuck oysters at parties by night, garden or hammer nails when called upon, sell a little real estate here and there, live off your trust-afarian inheritance, whatever it takes – and still disappear to Vieques for the winter with what disposable income you care to dispose of in any indiscriminate manner you choose. Then you can come home and do it all over again and again season after season. I know people who have lived that way for decades, well past the time when you may dismiss this modus operandi as the devil-may-care randomness of one’s 20s and 30s.

Then too, the landscape remains relatively the same. Oh, there is change: the sudden and complete disappearance of such beloved and iconic landmarks as Humphreys in North Tisbury one season, or the unsettling appearance of a trophy house that blocks a heretofore unobstructed view from your own trophy house on Osprey. But generally speaking, the scene stays reliably, dependably, beatifically just like it was last year, just like it will be next year.

The same can be said for people’s social landscape. From one year to the next, it’s the same old same old faces at the same old same old Fourth of July parties. As time goes by, in fact, those social circles become blessedly insular.

In a manner, time here can effortlessly stand still, lulling us into the belief that we can coast not just in neutral, but almost with eyes closed, trusting that the curves and hills are right where we left them the last time we had to shift into gear.

And therein lies the final flaw in my coasting system, whether metaphorical or not. At some point you do have to shift into gear to move forward. You can’t coast uphill.

Nonetheless, for those few miles — or those few years — the thrill endures, luring us into the firm conviction that coasting, at least on Martha’s Vineyard, is a good thing.

Perry Garfinkel, a former editor of The Martha’s Vineyard Times Calendar section and the author of “Buddha or Bust” (http://www.perrygarfinkel.com) promises to shift into gear. Soon.

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Londoners Gerard and Sarah Griffin plan to remove these wires to improve their West Chop view. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

To view or not to view, that is the question agitating the hearts and minds of so many MV Times readers, whether to praise or blame Londoners Gerard and Sarah Griffin for spending a lot of money to get poles and wires out of their West Chop water view.

Taking down three poles and burying the cable along 300 feet of road, running them upwards of $100,000. That’s counting the cable, the conduit to run underneath the road, resurfacing the road, what with professional plans and permits, oh probably more than $300 a foot. Just to free their view of poles and wires.

Some Times readers applaud the Griffins, but some call them elitists, for spending so much money, just for a view.

All this foofaraw put me in mind of when I dealt in poles and wires and views. Five poles did not get taken down; they were never put up. A thousand feet of cable disappeared underground. The view, not just mine, but for neighbors then and to come, remained pristine. And not for $300 a foot, not for $100,000. No, for a measly $4,000, $4 a foot, tax and tips and plans and permits, not withstanding, just with digging.

And some mental agony.

This was back in 1974 (oh, I know prices have gone up since then), it was not in West Chop, it was in Gay Head, where Emmett Carroll was building me a little camp, in off Moshup Trail. It had a little, small, very small, blue ocean view. Without poles and wires.

The power company, not Nstar, Cape & Vineyard, would put up four or five poles along the Trail, from where their poles ended, two lots down from where my house was going up. Then they would put up one more pole on my road. Cable included. They’d pay for all that.

But that 600-foot stretch of road without poles and wires did look kind of nice.

Even if Cape & Vineyard was going to let me bury my own cable in their right of way along the Trail, which they were not going to do, I’d still need all kinds of permits.

Permits from Dukes County, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (after all, a project of regional impact), the Massachusetts Power Commission, the Department of Public Works, even the Gay Head board of health. It could and probably would be a federal case.

I was stubborn. No poles, no wires, no how.

It was my friend, Bill O’Gorman, who laid out the plan and got me the cable at a bargain price.

I’d go over private property. Two lots I didn’t own to cross, and then under my road to the house.

The first thing was the cable. We didn’t worry about conduit. Who needed conduit? What was conduit? We weren’t going under public road. We were going under private property, and our cable was the same as the power company was stringing from pole to pole in the view. We would be legal.

Bill had found a thousand feet of cable. Cape & Vineyard insisted on 25,000 volt cable. As Bill said, only 5,000 volts was going into Gay Head. But we’d be prepared for 25,000 volts, just in case, for the centuries to come.

That cable was thick as my wrist and weighed a ton wrapped around its spool, waiting at the house site. Bill had found it on sale, out of season. I think it was 87 cents a foot. Maybe $1.27. Still, a tidy sum. A thousand feet of cable, but nowhere yet to put it.

Had to get the right to cross two lots. They belonged to a woman in California. Had to be legal. I got upset when her lawyer on the Island laid out the legal problems. I pounded the table.

“No poles, no wires,” I shouted. “Her lots won’t have any poles or wires in front of them. The view will remain unsullied.”

The lawyer thought I was crazy. But I promised to cross along the bottom of her lots, where nobody would build and promised to save the vegetation, promised to let her tie on anytime in the future, for $500 a lot.

In the end, she didn’t charge me anything. But there was the fee for registering her grant of the right of way, and the lawyer’s fee for representing her and me. All in all, it was around $300. The Island way.

Now to tie onto a power line. A Gay Head neighbor had the line running up from Moshup Trail, on poles along his road to his house. But his ocean view was over the Vargas lots, and over the Trail where I was not going to have the power company put up poles and wires. If he’d just let me tie on to his pole.

I promised I’d do everything in my power to keep poles and wires out from his view. Bill O’Gorman had said we could put down concrete boxes at the intersection of the lot lines, so anyone could tie on. I promised to put down the boxes.

My neighbor gave me the right to tie on to his pole. He even gave me $400 toward what the project was costing. The costs were mounting. The cable. The lawyer. The concrete boxes. The hardware to connect the cable to the pole. The ditching.

It was turning into the Gay Head & Ochsmark Power Company (GH&OP). Maybe I could sell stock.

On the ferry, I ran into an electrical engineer who told me the exact gizmo I needed to connect my cable to the last pole. Only $80 or so.

The ditching. We got Joe King, with his backhoe. The ditch had to be three feet deep, clear of stones. We led him along the bottom of the next-door lots, dodging around the bushes. Not too crooked, because we had only the one thousand feet of the 25,000-volt cable. We didn’t take out one bush.

Joe dug out holes for the concrete boxes. One for each lot line intersection. Goodale brought the concrete boxes. One was not cured properly, and it started to collapse in the hole.

I raced out in my ancient BMW and caught up with the Goodale truck at Alley’s. They came back and took out the bad box. They brought a new one the next day.

Brad, our own, young off-Island electrician – we called him Brad Electric – connected the cable to the pole. Joe unspooled the cable into the ditch he’d dug, making a loop inside each of the concrete boxes. Across the neighbor’s lots, up my road through Leonard Vanderhoop’s lot, and up to the house. Cape & Vineyard would put in the big transformer, to get the 5,000 volts down to house current.

The 1,000 feet of cable was just enough. We had less than 30 feet left over up at the house.

Verizon came and put the phone line in next to the cable. A dozen pairs, enough for future users.

Then we had to fill the ditch. We filled the first foot down by hand. Bill, his son Rick, Brad, and me. Then Joe pushed the rest of the dirt down. No stones. When the land freezes, stones move. If they move against the cable, bruise it, the cable shorts, and we have no electricity. Then, you have to find the fault and fix it. That’s why the concrete boxes are good. The fault will be between two boxes, not anywhere along the line. And, the power company doesn’t pay to fix it. It’s not their cable. I’d have to pay.

Finally, no poles, no wires. Just air and sky, between my neighbors and me, and all who pass on Moshup Trail.

All added up — cable, boxes, ditch, the lawyer, filing fees — it came out to just under $4,000. Four dollars a foot for five poles that didn’t get built.

I think the Griffins did just right. For me, that $4,000 was the best money I ever spent. That view, still there, priceless.

Peter Ochs, long-retired from NBC, is a veteran Gay Head hand, from before Gay Head became Aquinnah. He’s still on Gay Head time. Mr. Ochs owned a summer house off Moshup Trail for years, and now he rents for several months annually, near where he used to own. The rest of the year, he lives in Vienna.

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A dozen bluebirds wintered over in the field next to our house. Whenever I walked the path edging James Pond to the Lambert’s Cove beach, they were moving from tree to tree. One February morning I lay in bed and watched a sapphire blue back emerge from the bird box nailed to the big oak next door. Another followed and then another, until finally all 12 bluebirds had come through the small opening. I pictured them sleeping in a pile of fluffed feathers: would the nest box be warm if I touched it?

By mid-March, only two bluebirds lingered. The male, orange breast swelling, sang his liquid song from a nearby sassafras. One afternoon, a friend and I called back by playing the recording of a bluebird’s song from Bird Songs. He flew closer and sang louder. Since we had no idea what message we were communicating, we stopped after the second time. Mesmerized by such arresting beauty, I wanted this bird to feel safe and at home.

To further encourage this pair to stay, I bought an Audubon bluebird box that my husband, Whit, put up on the edge of our yard next to the old stone wall. One afternoon I saw the dusky female land on the roof, but I never saw her go in. A few days later, a tree swallow swooped down and entered the nest box, but after a brief inspection she moved on. Twice, I gently opened the door of the box and peeked inside, but except for a few bugs, it remained empty.

The bluebirds took off for somewhere else and, for a while, I forgot about the nest box. I love those long spring days when every living thing scrambles for space. Mornings are loud with the bickering of swans and geese squabbling over nesting sites. Nine kittens, all but one orange, have been born to calico sisters in the hayloft of Blackwater Farm across the road. Four signets now trail behind the swans and the goose pair still has all three goslings. Whit found a painted turtle the size of a 50-cent piece on the path. Later that same day we stood side by side on the beach and watched a pair of piping plovers perform their earnest mating dance. Any eggs, laid in a shallow scrape of sand, would have to withstand the clumsy feet of dogs and people, the wily eyes of crows, and full moon tides.

One early May afternoon, I opened the latch and looked inside the bluebird box. There was a nest! Moss and twigs shaped the cup. Inside it was lined with a pillow of our dog Pal’s soft under coat. When I had combed her out a few days earlier, I’d carelessly tossed the clump of fur by the lilac. Almost immediately a chickadee had flown away with some fur in its mouth. Was this a chickadee’s nest?

When Debby, the farmer from across the road stopped by, I told her about the nest. She immediately climbed up onto a plastic chair, felt inside the nest, and pulled up a tiny white egg the size of a jellybean. I was horrified. I’d been taught never to touch a bird’s eggs because the mother might abandon the nest. Debby assured me this was an old wives’ tale. Most birds have a limited sense of smell, and it takes a lot of disturbance for them to abandon their families.

One thing was certain. This was not a bluebird nest. Bluebirds build with fine grasses and pine needles and their eggs are pale blue. I’ve read about the work of amateurs, like me, who have been instrumental in helping this glorious songbird make a comeback. To be a real friend of the bluebird, I needed to throw this nest away and let the process begin again. But I couldn’t. Whoever had built this nest had labored. I am a mother too. I left the nest alone.

A week later I checked the nest box again. Not only had the nest material altered, even the eggs were different. Now the nest sides were reinforced with sturdy twigs, and a pile of white downy feathers had been added. Emboldened by Debby, I carefully reached inside and touched six warm much larger eggs. When I removed one to examined it, this new egg was white with dark brown speckles. House sparrows had ousted the chickadees and moved in.

House sparrows are not native birds. Imported from Europe in 1851, they were originally released in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the hopes they’d eat the caterpillars that were harming large shade trees. No one imagined they’d push aside bluebirds, swallows, and martins to become our most successful resident bird.

I’ve never paid attention to house sparrows, but now that I’m watching these homely birds more closely, I find them quite beautiful. They may not be glamorous, like bluebirds and summer people, but they’re sturdy residents, not unlike us year-rounders. Confident that these parents will not leave this nest, I’m now comfortable checking the box every few days. This morning when I peered in, the eggs had hatched. I didn’t even try to count the gawky nestlings. They were still, and I closed the box as quickly as I could.

Terry Tempest Williams, a writer and environmental activist, was asked in an interview if she had a daily practice. Her answer was that she tried to make eye contact with another species each day. This made sense, so I’ve been trying to do it too. Eye contact in Western culture signifies interest, even affection, but it can also be an assertion of dominance. When I gaze into my beloved dog’s brown eyes or the fixed eyes of a garter snake or a brown house sparrow I’m reminded that eye contact can be as much about power as it is about recognition. If I want to see more than my own reflection and remember that we humans are just one piece of our wild planet, I need to connect with care.

House sparrows are one of the world’s most widespread and well-known birds. When I read more about nest boxes on line, I get scolded for being part of the problem. By letting sparrows take over the nest box, I’m encouraging the growth of the very species I’m meant to hold at bay. At first a solution seemed simple. I’d let this brood fledge and then remove the nest. Dislocation is a common part of Vineyard life for many Islanders who only survive here year-round by renting their homes in the summer months. But what I’ve learned about house sparrows in the meantime makes it more complicated. Monogamous, they usually mate for life. In spring and summer they’ll raise up to four broods. Then in the fall and winter they’ll rest and roost in groups — like the bluebirds did next door. Will there ever be a right time to push these birds out?

Laura Wainwright is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury. Her book of essays, “Home Bird: Four Seasons on Martha’s Vineyard,” was published this month by Vineyard Stories. Hear her read at the West Tisbury Library on June 28 at 5 pm, or meet her at a book signing on Saturday, June 30, from 5 to 7 pm, at the Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven.

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Welcome to one of the scariest moments you’ll ever live through.

The day you were born was probably scary, but at least you didn’t see it coming. Your wedding day will be scary, but at least it’s voluntary — and people back out of marriages all the time, as we know.

No, graduation is pretty much unique on the scariness scale. It’s a terrifying one-way ticket into the unknown. Here you are, fully conscious of everything you’re leaving behind forever, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.

Right now everybody around you is dressed up, but do they really know what they’re celebrating? The air is full of words, but does anybody really know what comes next?

I’ve been in your shoes, and I know what I sound like. I’m one more idiot telling you how to live. But I want to tell you something that I know to be true, that will help you survive and even enjoy whatever comes next for you. Even if it doesn’t make much sense right now, it’s something you’ll want to remember for years down the road.

My advice comes down to this: Always, always be kind.

Every day the news is full of terrible stories. There are forces in the world that want to destroy, or else dominate, everything that’s good. But you can change the rules of this game and tell a completely different story.

Reach outside yourself. Get involved. Help somebody else.

Be kind.

Do you really want to beat destruction at its own game? Move back in and rebuild. Do you really want to undermine greed and selfishness? Give, and give, and give. Put others first. It surprises the pants off everybody.

Helping and building and giving: these are not acts of futility. Even if you build till you’re exhausted, even if you give till you have nothing left — you will affect others in ways you can not imagine.

Learn to listen. Really pay attention to somebody’s story. Spend time. Let them know you heard. It’s all anyone really wants from us. That, and to be respected.

Helping other people is not just worth doing; it’s the only thing worth doing. The good news is that every day we have an almost infinite number of opportunities to change someone else’s life for the better.

College is expensive. The economy is in terrible shape. Jobs are scarce, so let me offer some career advice: Treat others as you would be treated. You’ll be a better co-worker and a better employer. Make it your career to be kind and honest and forgiving. Make it what you’re known for as a parent and a friend and a neighbor. Bad times are a great time to create good will and inspire it all around you: it’s the last thing people expect.

Senseless acts of generosity make the world question all its assumptions. You’ll know you’re succeeding when people ask, Why are you doing this? (You don’t have to answer.)

Does helping people go wrong? All the time. Do it anyway, because no kindness you do with a clean conscience and an open heart is ever wasted. If all that comes out of it is a funny story, guess what: you’re writing your autobiography every minute of every day. So be the comic hero — but be a hero to somebody.

Help those younger than you, and you’ll never forget what it means to be young. Help those older than you, and you’ll always be wiser than your years. The family you’re born to is just a starter kit. The best families are the ones you build from scratch.

Sir Christopher Wren designed St. Paul’s cathedral in London. When he died in 1723, he was buried in the crypt there, and to this day you can see the inscription on his tomb. In Latin, it says “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.” When you change things for the better, the lives you touched become your monument, and that monument outlives you because kindness learns by example and gets repeated over and over.

By the way, the inverse of this principle is also true. To ask someone to help you is one of the most precious gifts you can offer, because it gives that person the chance to mean something, to be valuable.

The Charter School teaches this lesson particularly well. As a student here, you learned to ask for help. You reached into the community and brought back teachers and mentors and project advisors and other volunteers. You know firsthand about involvement.

I was told I’m the first “off-campus” person to be a commencement speaker. That made me laugh, because to the Charter School, the whole Island is the campus. The whole world is.

I’m grateful to the Charter School, even though of course I was never a student here. I’ve forgotten many things in my life, but I’ll never forget the names and faces of the young people I worked with here. They changed my life.

Out in the real world there will be some folks, very sure of themselves, who will tell you “Kindness is fine, but at the end of the day, you can’t take it to the bank.”

Well, banks keep very funny hours. In the middle of a long, dark night, when money doesn’t matter and you’re facing your own worst demons, nothing will carry you through till morning like the knowledge that you did the right thing by someone. That you stuck up for a person when it was the right thing to do, even when it was unpopular, even when everybody thought you were crazy.

Nobody can ever undo that, or take it away from you. That’s the only bank that counts.

So I want to leave you with these words: As you go out into the world, continue to be involved. Even if your journey takes you half way around the planet, look around and find something to make better. Even if you settle down just a few miles from here and never live off Island, help others — and ask for help.

Always be kind, and you’ll have very few regrets.

Good luck to you all.

Dan Waters of West Tisbury, a poet and printer, delivered this commencement address to the 2012 senior class of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.

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The steamship Nobska was my all-time favorite boat. She served Nantucket from 1925 until 1973. Thanks to the Steamship Authority, you can hear her whistle during the arrivals and departures of the motor vessel Eagle in Nantucket (but not in Hyannis).

My first trip on the Nobska occurred before I was born, in the summer of 1934. My family lived in New Jersey and had been coming to Nantucket since 1915. For a number of years, they would take the train into New York from Morristown, and take an overnight steamer of the Fall River Line, arriving in New Bedford the next morning. Rounding Point Judith in Rhode Island was usually quite rough, and I was told that as a baby I was put in the stateroom bathtub so as not to roll off the bed. Arriving in New Bedford, they would walk across the dock, board the Nobska (or occasionally her sister ship, the steamship Martha’s Vineyard), and enjoy the relaxing five-hour trip to Nantucket, with a brief stop at Oak Bluffs.

During World War II, the boats were all painted grey, in fear of German submarines attacking them. Perhaps it was thought that they would blend into the frequent summertime fogs that blanketed Nantucket Sound.

While I was growing up, we started taking the Cape Codder from Grand Central Station all the way to Woods Hole, where the track ended about 50 feet from the boat. During the three and a half hour trip from Woods Hole, always including that Oak Bluffs stop, my sister and I would sometimes fill a Coke bottle with water, find some string, and dangle the bottle over the bow, swinging it back and forth until it broke in our little christening ceremony. It was fun to stand at the bow with the wind blowing in our faces, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the Titanic movie, trying to be the first to see the black standpipe. When going home after Labor Day, we would always toss pennies overboard at Brant Point to guarantee our return the next year.

Later on, we would drive up through Connecticut and Rhode Island on US Route 1, and hope to get to the Jamestown ferry in time to avoid a two-hour wait. The alternative was to drive through a congested Providence, after which we knew it was three hours to Woods Hole. Driving a car onto the Nobska was a challenge: you drove up a gangplank not much wider than the car into the dark freight deck. Once there you had to turn right and then back down the lane with the other cars. It was always best to follow the deck crew’s directions on which way to turn the steering wheel, even though they seemed to be backwards.

From the freight deck you could look right down into the engine room and watch the steam engine pistons go up and down turning the propeller shaft. A crewman would put his hand near the pistons, moving it in sync with the action, and squirt oil onto the bearings. I remember seeing a digital counter showing the number of revolutions of the shaft as we steamed across the Nantucket Sound.

When not wandering around the boat, we would sit in those canvas back chairs that you could pick up and move so you could sit where you wanted. There wasn’t much inside seating. I don’t remember the boat ever being full.

July 1948 was a very foggy month, and recalling the Nobska’s whistle sounding frequently as she entered Nantucket harbor brings back memories of a simpler life on Nantucket, before all the boom and bustle.

New Bedford was dropped as a port in 1960. After 1965, my wife Corky and I lived in California and would fly East every summer, sometimes trekking to Woods Hole to board the Nobska. After we started having children, we would rent a stateroom for $5 and let them nap on the bunks. Kind of small, but quiet, the staterooms had wooden doors using a neat large brass key that you picked up from the purser, and there was a sink that provided water of questionable taste.

The steamship Nantucket, renamed Naushon, came on line in 1957. She was ugly, had a most anti-nostalgia sounding horn, and was never very popular, even to her end in 1987. With the ability to carry trailer trucks, not possible on the Nobska, she brought irreversible changes to Nantucket.

Nowadays, does anyone even toss pennies overboard? All that copper on the bottom of the harbor.

H. Flint Ranney, a real estate broker, is the Nantucket member of the Steamship Authority. This article appeared on Nantucket.net on March 19. Mr. Ranney is described on Nantucket.net as a “guest blogger.”

Nobska and her whistle were part of Vineyard life too, carrying passengers between Woods Hole and Oak Bluffs and spending winters moored on the south side of the old Vineyard Haven Steamship Authority wharf. In the 1970s, Nobska, her course apparently set for the Ocean Park gazebo, went aground on the south side of the Oak Bluffs wharf one foggy fall day. The Vineyard Haven based tug Whitefoot freed her. DAC

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Beginning next week, five towns in turn will vote at their annual town elections on a non-binding ballot question asking if a roundabout should be built at the Blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs. A warrant article in Oak Bluffs asking essentially the same question will be addressed at its annual town meeting, although curiously, there is no ballot question for voters at the subsequent election. Effectively, these ballot questions are a much needed and delayed Island-wide survey of public opinion on this long-standing divisive issue.

My answer to the ballot question is, of course, no. A roundabout should not be built there, and it is quite likely, given the widespread grassroots opposition, that many Island voters will agree.

Whether you support construction of the roundabout or oppose it, voting on the question is important, and I for one hope the turnout is high, regardless of the outcome. Whether a substantial no vote will change the plans remains, of course, a major issue. However, the larger issue is, and has been all along, that despite the Balkanization our six-town governance structure represents, we do all live on the same Island, and just about everyone uses the Blinker intersection, many on a daily basis. No matter where we live, what happens at this intersection affects us all. So, we should all have a say.

The arguments for and against have not changed much over the last eight years. Most Islanders know them well by now, and people seem to have made up their minds on where they stand. However, from the anti-roundabout side a one-sentence summary goes like this:

A roundabout, rotary or traffic circle (you choose) is an expensive and unnecessary (and largely unwanted) response to an almost non-existent problem that could easily be fixed with a much cheaper, programmable, seasonal traffic signal. Or cheaper still, a traffic control officer for the few hours during those summer days when traffic is heavy. Such simpler, more sensible solutions have gotten short shrift, and that along with the heavy and high-handed process that pushed approval for the roundabout through the MVC last fall has left many Islanders not only angry, but scratching their heads, and wondering, “What’s really going on here?”

The run-around on the issues of safety and traffic flow are a perfect example, and reminiscent of an Abbot & Costello comedy routine. Initially there was a major push to make safety at the intersection the justification for building the roundabout. When the arguments for improved safety were demolished — the accident rate now with a four-way stop is miniscule with only a few fender-benders a year with no personal injury, and there being no real data on changes in safety when a four-way stop is converted to a roundabout — the official justification suddenly became a need to improve traffic flow.

This is code for essentially speeding things up along the Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road axis. Speeding traffic up, of course, reduces safety not only to motorists, but to pedestrians, cyclists and mopeders. Moreover, roundabouts are designed to slow things down, not speed them up. But never mind the contradictions.

With the traffic flow arguments demolished, the state Department of Transportation suddenly decided (as stated in the Boston Globe) that the real reason for building a roundabout was… wait for it… safety. Evidently the DOT never got the change memo.

Now with ballot questions in place, we hear from some roundabout proponents that the Island-wide referendum is somehow inappropriate, that the results aren’t representative, or that, unbelievably, voters are somehow unqualified to weigh in on the roundabout. How can such insults not lead to more head scratching and wonder? And quite probably more anger.

While I would be the first to agree that government by referendum frequently doesn’t lead to good policy or good results, a non-binding opinion survey, a poll, which is what we’re talking about, is a legitimate measure of how people feel. Precisely what is wrong with finally finding out how a large sample of year-round residents feel about the roundabout? What are these proponents afraid of? And why?

Yes, the “experts” have told us repeatedly, “Trust us, don’t worry, we know what we’re doing, you’ll like the roundabout after it’s built.” Never mind the arrogance, condescension, and paternalism such statements imply. The five petition-driven ballot questions and the warrant article in Oak Bluffs themselves are an expression of the frustration and anger felt by many. Literally thousands of Islanders have lined up to sign anti-roundabout citizen petitions repeatedly over the last eight years, only to see them repeatedly ignored by elected and regulatory officials. The deafness to public sentiment on this issue has been astounding, and now we’re being told an opinion poll has no meaning? On the Vineyard? Where everyone has an opinion and expects it to be heard and considered? Really.

Cynicism about government in general is rampant, and the manner in which the roundabout issue has been mishandled from day one can only feed the local beast. I would urge everyone to suppress that cynical impulse, come out and vote your opinion at your town election. Perhaps a high turnout, and a clear result, if it is “no roundabout,” will finally improve the hearing deficit that seems to be epidemic among our elected and appointed officials in Oak Bluffs, the MVC, and the DOT.

Richard Knabel is a West Tisbury selectman.

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A referendum asking only whether one is for or against the roundabout cannot provide a reliable gauge regarding the project. Simple yes-no votes are almost always biased towards the negative responses, regardless of the merits of the issue. A similar vote on a traffic light at the Blinker intersection would meet the same fate.

In addition, a no vote can mean a variety of views. It can mean that the voters see no need to modify the Blinker intersection, because they can live with any future delays and backups that might occur, or that they do not believe that there will be any appreciable growth in future traffic. Those who believe that growth is avoidable are deluding themselves.

Traffic growth. While there has been virtually no growth in traffic in recent years, it will start increasing with an economic recovery, whenever that might occur. Construction of new homes continues, employing many Vineyarders, and more and more seasonal residents retire here full-time. There is nothing to indicate that the long-term upward trend will not resume.

There have been many comments that growth on the Vineyard can be contained with improved alternative transportation and restrictions on the ferry capacity. Actually, the Vineyard has done an excellent job over the years in improving bus service (there are now over a million riders a year) and expanding bicycle paths. Some years ago, restrictions were put on the number of cars that the ferry could bring to the Island, and these restrictions essentially continue as reservations are at a premium during the peak months. In spite of all the actions, traffic on the Vineyard has grown substantially during the last several decades, as more and more seasonal residents keep their vehicle here rather than bring them on the ferry. Local car registration now exceeds 25,000, or 1.6 vehicles for each year-round resident, including children.

While efforts are under way to continue to expand bike paths and bus service, it becomes harder and harder to do this as the more feasible improvements have already been done, and further improvements often require land takings and substantial funding. We need to do all we can to improve alternative means of transportation, but we really need to brace ourselves for more traffic. We cannot keep our heads in the sand.

A no vote may mean that the voters see no need for immediate action, but believe that in the future, when backups become more severe, some modification should be made. A no vote, alternatively, may mean that those voters believe that some modification is required at this time, but do not think that the roundabout is the best solution. It is easy to say no to one proposal, if you don’t have to justify an alternative. A responsible voter should have the following facts available regarding the roundabout and the alternatives.

Traffic impacts at the road end. The purpose of the intersection modification is to minimize backups by increasing the intersection capacity. As all alternatives, not just the roundabout, are designed to reduce congestion, they will have similar impacts on traffic at the ends of the Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road.

Large trucks. Local truckers have made the point that their large trucks cannot go through the roundabout and stay on the designated pavement. They are correct, as the roundabout is designed to have a minimum size. However, the design includes a truck apron, which provides an area for the truck wheels to travel safely over the outer edge of the circle. This is a standard design for small roundabouts.

Bus stops, sidewalks, and crossing. MassDOT has gotten fully on board with a program to improve public transportation, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and safety. The proposed plans for the roundabout, therefore, include enhanced bus stops, sidewalks, and pedestrian crossings, which add to the size of the project and may make it more “suburbanized.” Such improvements will be required for any proposed alternative.

The remaining two issues that realistically differentiate the roundabout from other potential physical solutions are the accident potential and the impact on the Vineyard character.

Accident potential. Comparative studies of roundabouts and intersections with traffic signals or stop signs, clearly show that roundabouts are much safer for bicyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles. The principal reason for this is that the number of potential conflicts is minimized.

Impact on Vineyard character. This is a subjective issue, but a very important one. Some people feel very strongly that the introduction of a roundabout will substantially degrade the rural character of the Island. There is a similar reaction to a signalized interchange. The roundabout will occupy a space only slightly larger than the existing interchange, but will have a landscaped area in the center of the circle. In evaluating the impact of the roundabout, it is important to consider the character of the existing highway, as the Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road can hardly be considered a picturesque rural road.

As the Vineyard has developed, changes have had to be made to accommodate the continued growth. Many of us have fond memories of a more rural Vineyard, when Old County Road was unpaved, when one walked to Menemsha beach, because there was no road or parking lot, and when the shopping areas were confined to downtown Vineyard Haven and Edgartown.

While we might like to say, “Stop! No more growth,” this is not an option. Therefore, we have to take measures to minimize the impacts of continued growth. In terms of traffic, if we are to avoid severe future congestion, occasionally we have to modify our roadway system. At the Blinker intersection, the safest way to do this is to install a roundabout.

A simplistic yes/no referendum is not at all useful in helping us to understand these issues and in reaching a thoughtful and practical solution.

Mr. Greenbaum, a retired traffic engineer, is a Chilmark resident and the town’s representative on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s joint transportation committee.