Answer the Call!

I know people who are engaged in their own governance but, I never knew how many people were not!

I did an hour or so of phone banking for a local candidate the other night.

The technology is great: you have a script in front of you on the screen, various options to choose from depending on the response (or lack of response) and when you are through with each person on your list of likely voters it automatically moves to the next one.

You feel good, at least as you get started, because you’re kind of like a political Santa Claus: your bag is full of gifts for all the good boys and girls.

You can tell them their polling place, the date of the election, how to get a mail-in ballot and, if you’re up to it, you can engage in a polite conversation about why your candidate is the ‘obvious choice.’

Trouble is there’s nobody home.

To a large degree that’s just a fact of life: the same technology that lets you reach out to each of the people on your list has given them the right – and the ability – to shut you down before you’re started.

The line may be busy, often it has been disconnected, or they just don’t answer, letting their automated system ‘take a message.’

Afterall, there are only three types of calls: a family call (rare, but possible), a sales call (all too frequent and, all too frequently a recording disguised as a ‘real’ person), or – at this time of year – a political call.

Why would you answer?

After using this system for close to an hour and dialing several dozen numbers I spoke at length (meaning more than 5 seconds) to just one voter.

He was nice, was actually who I thought I was calling, was correctly identified in terms of his political affiliation and had absolutely no idea that there was an election this Tuesday.

And that, again, was the highlight of the evening’s calls.

A close second was a woman who, it turned out, was the mother of the voter I was trying to reach: her daughter however, had long ago moved out.

Third prize went to the woman who gruffly told me that she had already voted, and hung up before I could get another word in.

Fourth prize to the woman who did not speak English, didn’t live where I thought I was calling, and whose son politely dismissed me.

Slim pickins!

Yes, I know, it’s been like this, to a degree, for quite a time.

There are fewer Democrats out there, fewer Republicans, more un-enrolled and the majority of voting-age residents out there belong to the ‘don’t care – can’t be bothered – I’ve got better things to do’ party.

Want a sure-fire way to win a local election? Convince those folks that, if elected, no one will bother them again.

Plymouth regularly turns out a paltry 10% or so of its 40,000 registered voters for local elections.

Heck, even those who express their public dissatisfaction with the present system and have publicly proclaimed their desire to to see Plymouth adopt a Mayoral or City Council form of government, arguing it would be more efficient, couldn’t muster up enough signatures to move it forward.

Apparently even the angry are apathetic.

I remain, however, committed to our legacy form of government, our representative Town Meeting, and see in the growing apathy of the electorate an even stronger argument for its retention.

We are in danger, by our indifference and our over-reliance on the administrative end of local government, of losing our ability to govern ourselves entirely.

I see little difference, in terms of its effects on self-governance, between the pandemics of indifference and Covid-19.

The virus is a great excuse not to exercise self-rule. Anger at government that is largely seen as bloated and non-responsive is a great excuse for not to exercise self-rule. But both are just that, excuses.

If a child came to you and said, my teachers are mean, my classmates are bullies, I’m not going to school anymore would you say, ‘yes dear, you’re right. Stay home and play video games for the rest of your life?’

That is what we are doing by allowing flimsy excuses to keep us from taking hold of our own fate. And to do so in a community that practically invented this uniquely American form of government is inexcusable.

So… what I want you to do is, well, answer your phone when I call! (Just kidding).

I could say, out of self-interest, that I want you to go out at vote at this (May 19) and then the next (the one where I am on the ballot, June 20) election.

But all I really want you to do is to take another, perhaps closer look at how our local government operates, to see how it allows (actually needs) your participation, and to understand that there is satisfaction to be obtained by that participation.

Is the ‘normal’ that you are hoping to return to just a night out at a local restaurant? Don’t you want more?

Isn’t this a moment in history when participation in local government is, in the fullest sense of the word, “essential?”

The opposite of ka-ching!

Their flight’s been cancelled.

The Mayflower Society events they were planning to attend have been postponed.

They are older, more vulnerable, afraid to travel.

They were coming for the weekend but, heck, everything’s shut down.

No parade.

No fireworks.

No business.

What’s the opposite of ‘ka-ching?’

Gulp?

2019 was a great year for our Airbnb.

2020 looked to be even better.

By February we already had bookings through October.

Then every reservation we had for March was canceled.

Then every reservation for April was canceled.

So far May is following suit, and we have already begun to receive cancellations for June, July, August and beyond.

It used to be that when a certain chime sounded on our phones we knew it meant, ‘a new reservation.’

Now that same chime means a new cancellation.

I’m not complaining.

I understand.

But more than that, I understand that if it is bad for us it is just as bad for Plymouth, actually worse.

Businesses come and go, and the reasons for that are often outside of our control: competition, poor planning, ineffective strategies, and yes, the overall economy are all factors that affect businesses, large and small.

But this is different.

This time the culprit has a name.

We can point a finger, we can assign blame.

Covid-19.

And this time Plymouth itself, our community as a whole, is particularly vulnerable.

We are a community that thrives on visitors, from near and far, and whether they come for the history, the scenery, the restaurants or the entertainment venues they are all vulnerable to the virus.

Even if we open up every business tomorrow it is very likely that we will not see the numbers we saw before.

Many businesses operate on a very thin margin.

Is there any doubt that 2021 will be a very bad year for tourists?

Most travelers are older, and the older they are the more susceptible they are to illness.

Why should they come to Plymouth, even given our 400 (+1) commemoration, even given our beaches and our state forest and our 430 ponds?

We need to give them a good reason.

We need to assure potential visitors that our entire community is going above and beyond in our efforts to provide a safe environment.

  • There will be state guidelines which businesses and places where people congregate will be asked to adhere to, for the safety of everyone.
    • We need to be first to implement more thorough, specific guidelines.
  • There will be testing, and contact tracing, to assure everyone that the ‘curve’ has been flattened and will remain so.
    • We need to test everyone who works with the public – even if they work in the kitchen, the back room or the warehouse – so that we can “certify” that a business is, like Caesars wife – above suspicion.

We cannot require that these special community standards are adhered to, but we can certify those that do.

We can wait to see what the state will do, but can we afford to wait?

Permanent vacation?

It’s hard to be reasonable, for an extended period of time.

The American ethos is built on weekends, on summer vacations, on relatively short bursts of unreasonable behavior, followed by an almost absurdly conservative work ethic.

We work when we are tired, sick, pregnant, grieving.. We work longer hours, have fewer vacation days than, as I understand it, any other industrialized nation and so – we are having a very difficult time just hanging out, even given the need to do so to save lives.

So I empathize with those who on hearing, however predictable it was, that the shutdown has been extended, facemasks are required, fireworks have been canceled, empathize with those who feel a sense of frustration, even anger, at taking more ‘vacation time.’ But our cruise to nowhere continues, and we need to continue to find creative ways to deal with it.

New ways, I should say. Netflix has run dry (notice all the dubbed series that they are promoting now). NBC has launched a rather flightless bird they call the Peacock Network. Puzzles chew time the way that a cow chews his cud. But we can do this!

Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny and in the frickin ’60s! Neil Young is forever young and, if you search about, you’ll find a number of recent home performances that are amazing. Our own local artists – Hitch and Friends – are often online playing for free. We had oysters from Woods. We’ve re-discovered the classic Pimm’s cocktail. I’m trying to remember how to play the saxophone. After breakfast every morning I read poems from… well, this week it’s Nikky Finney.

Yes, I am going to miss the fireworks, and July 3rd at White Horse Beach, but maybe we can all step out onto the front steps at 9 that night and – like our grandparents – beat on a pot with a spoon, howl at the moon or simply drink in what I hope will be a lovely, dry, hot summer night.

I remember, I really do, a time when I wanted nothing more than to take a break from the everyday. You know what they say, be careful what you ask for.

But with apologies to those who are really suffering, I have to say that I am grateful for the quiet, for conversations, for a slowing of the pace of life and for the opportunity to recognize that to make any community truly effective requires the quiet heroism of nearly everyone.

Sorry to go on like this but, it’s just another way that I am dealing with this…

Resiliency

I read the Camus’ novel, ‘The Plague,’ when I was in high school – that’s nearly 50 years ago, but it stuck with me. I often reference it when I feel things getting out of hand, paraphrasing one of its lead characters who pleaded with the populace of the Algerian city where he was quarantined to, ‘at the very least, not make things worse.’

I never thought it would have such direct relevance: it was written, I believe, as an allegory about the spread of fascism. But perhaps we are facing two kinds of infestation at this moment: one in regards to a diabolical but real microbe, and the other a more insidious and potentially more dangerous cultural disease.

There are moments in every day when I see the positive: the affirmation of community represented by selfless acts, humor in the face of boredom, the diligence of our essential workers, the recognition that we need to expand our definition of ‘essential’ to most if not all of those who toil daily to provide us with some semblance of normalcy.

In the past week, however, I have seen indications that are our transition back to that normalcy may be a more nauseating road to travel than the roller coaster we traveled to get here, indications that instead of preparing to venture out into the community with a new sense of connection many people are choosing this moment to dig deeper and deeper foxholes (no pun intended.)

With the exception of those who have been directly impacted by the virus, who have suffered through its symptoms or lost loved ones and the like, I would assert that most of us have not been harshly treated by this microbe. Our parents who lived through the depression or endured the bloodshed and deprivation of World War Two or those who lived in the shadow of the World Trade Center or soon after 9/11 found themselves on a mountain plateau in Afghanistan or fighting house to house in Iraq – those people truly suffered.

Most of us, I believe, have only been inconvenienced. We will not only survive but if we just hold on and practice – as the Camus quote suggests – common decency, we will soon forget the worst of this pandemic as we go about our lives.

If.

If we practice common decency, that’s all.

But if we do not. If we rage against these inconveniences, disregard the concerns of the many, demean the fears of our neighbors and, instead of friendly faces, search for scapegoats then, regardless of the death toll, the virus will have done us irreparable harm.

I have, of course, my own critique of the way that we, as a nation, have handled this challenge to date. I believe that the only truly effective limitations are those we impose upon ourselves but, I understand as well, that we are often called upon to lower the tone and volume of our individual voices so that the community can find harmony.

This is, I believe, just such a moment. We can retain our skepticism, or acknowledge our fears, and at the same time join hands – figuratively speaking – and walk forward. Or we can contribute to the further erosion of our civic principles.

Covid-19 is testing the capacity of our systems and science and, even more so, the resilience of our beliefs.

Word of the Day

The Word of the Day ‘Zoomotional.’

That feeling of surprise, and embarrassment, when you realize that what people are saying during your Zoom session, is authentic, moving, insightful – all of the above.

We are at a particularly interesting moment in our culture, perhaps in history. The virus is not only transforming institutions, it is changing lives.

We are being – choose one: forced, enticed, required, convinced – to use technology that we may have never used before to accomplish things we never thought possible and, we are finding that our humanity is not being entirely filtered out in the process.

I am certainly someone who prizes personal interaction. Someone who extolls live music – as opposed to recorded or ‘pre-recorded.’ Someone who likes to cook as much as I like to dine out, to read much more than I like to listen to others reading, who finds sitting in a theatre close to the screen far more appealing than reclining in bed watching great dramas reduced in scope and impact. But last week I participated in a Zoom session – with a dozen miniature screens before me on my laptop – and I heard what I am sure was an authentic, adult and ultimately moving conversation.

I am not selling Zoom: they don’t need me to promote their service.

Perhaps though, I am selling resiliency?

We are a remarkably adaptable species.Yes, yes, some of you – mostly younger people – are saying, this is nothing new. And now that I think of it, for several years now I have watched my sons playing video games through the internet: watched them interact and cooperate, both as regards the game and its objectives, and at the same time converse, cajole, connect with friends and foes.

But this is different. Or it feels different, to me.

This was a discussion of politics, and medicine, and the inequities of our society, the challenges of maintaining community and the personal and often emotional reaction of those on this Zoom session to the effects of the pandemic on every aspect of those issues, on our lives.

It was, as my sons were fond of telling me about their video games, ‘so realistic.’ It was supposed to be a campaign event, a chance to connect with friends and supporters about my candidacy for a seat on the Select Board, but the invited guests were remarkably candid.

What I had assumed would happen, or should happen, did not.

There was little need to prompt the guests. I asked, at first, simply, how they were feeling and if they had given any thought to how their lives might be different in a post-virus world. They certainly could have given, for want of a better phrase, academic answers. They did not.

Many acknowledged that the isolation, the quarantine, the slow-down and the lockdown had been, for them, an opportunity. An opportunity to ‘catch up on their reading,’ reconnect with family, get to those long postponed chores, repairs, renovations or – just catch up on sleep.

It was also an opportunity, many noted, to work to generate new interest on the part of the public in the charities that they volunteered with, to raise funds for those organizations, to plan for the future.

Yes but, one Zoomer added, those opportunities were there because, for the most part, the faces gathered on my screen were people of privilege: they had, at the very least, homes, heat, food and friends that visited – via their smartphones – regularly. If they were tending long-neglected gardens they had the space to garden in the first place. Their new books arrived via Amazon and, for many, their meals were delivered to their doors as well. She had all those fruits of privilege herself and yet said she woke every morning with a chest tightened by concerns for all those who did not.

“The coronavirus has been anything but a great equalizer,” a commentary in the Washington Post declared. ‘it’s been the great revealer, pulling the curtain back on the class divide, exposing how deeply unequal this country is…” The very old are dying, but the young, the poor, often people of color who are already crammed into densely populated urban environments or working in factories or meat-packing plants or side-by-side in orchards or vegetable farms, those newly discovered essential workers have lost their health, their meager earnings, lost everything.

We can come out of this, the discussion went on, we can regain some level of economic stability, the restaurants and theatres and factories can open up again, but can we struggle to regain what was lost without fighting for what others have never had?

Another revelation, or perhaps confirmation, that came out of the conversation was that by our muddled response to the virus America may have suffered a fatal blow to its stature, its authority in the world. “I am embarrassed by how we appear to the rest of the world,” a long-time Town Meeting member admitted.

Local leaders were praised for their level-headedness, and criticized for the same. The consensus was that while our elected and appointed leaders have presented a calm, professional face to the public, have disseminated data efficiently – all important and necessary achievements – that they have been unable or unwilling to articulate a vision for what comes next.

The consensus is that normal is gone, forever.

The question is, what will the new normal be?

The fear is that, without a concerted and creative effort, that new normal will be a shadow of our comfortable past. Will Plimoth Plantation re-open, and if so under what conditions? Will tourism rebound, or will travel be reserved for specific audiences, at significantly lesser amounts?

Plymouth’s surfeit of restaurants is itself a major attraction for visitors from the region but who will be able to survive the economic downturn, and how will they operate safely? What of our green and open spaces, our beaches and ponds, our unblemished forests and our teeming vernal pools? Will we fight to retain their purity, remember the sanctuary they have provided, understand how integral they are to our sense of well-being?

Our town meeting form of government itself, our legacy of self-rule, will it survive? Can 135 Town Meeting members ‘zoom’ at once? What is the value of the personal interactions, the spontaneous speeches, the discussions that take place in line during the lunch break? Will the lack of crowded precinct caucus meetings, the board meetings where citizen participation is now only possible if questions are submitted ahead of time, or phoned in by patient citizens – will these limitations rob our historic form of government of oxygen?

My sense is that we need to anticipate these problems, pro-actively seek remedies, go beyond what we are asked to do as regards protecting the health of our residents and those who frequent might consider visiting us during our 400+1 year.

I am getting all ‘zoomotional’ about this.

Though the meeting rooms are closed my ‘virtual’ neighbors have allowed me to see the possibilities of technology, the responsibility of the privileged, the opportunity to reshape our future and the failure that awaits us if we are content to allow others to define that “new normal.”

When the internet was new futurists proclaimed a new dawn for democracy, for direct engagement and personal expression but within moments of that proclamation pornography and other pretenders seized the day. Perhaps now, as we awaken from our self-isolation and look to re-engage with each other the potential of these tools may finally be realized.

Will fully utilizing these tools be enough to move forward, to not only regain lost ground but to claim the high ground and reawaken our sense of fairness?

With all that has been revealed, can we be content with less?

Posted on Facebook in mid-March, as the virus began to ramp up but communities reactions were varied.

Hide & Seek

It’s impossible to say what the outcome will be, from a health perspective: how many will be infected, how many will die. But it’s already clear that, from a social and economic perspective the virus is wreaking havoc.

Imagine how the folks from the Plymouth 400 feel. Nearly a decade of planning and then, this.

Imagine the potential effect on restaurants and bars, businesses that have played a key role in the resurgence of downtown Plymouth over the last decade.

We run an Airbnb, three suites in our downtown waterfront home. In less than a week we have had close to $2,000 in cancellations.

And yet I feel, if not exactly optimistic, confident.

I know we have what it takes to do more than survive: to move forward, even as we are ‘hunkering down.’

No one can do it alone, of course. Government needs to support us. Neighbors need to have our backs. Community members need to fight through the isolation and see that they can win at a game of hide and seek: hide from the virus but seek out ways to support their community.

Hitch, an honorary member of Plymouth’s imaginary musical hall of fame, inspired me here.

I recently read a post of his noting, first, how he had lost work (no restaurants or bars, no musical entertainment) and secondly, how he had yet to hear of one friend (personal, Facebook, Instagram or other) that had died from the virus.

He was honestly expressing his confusion, and frustration, and my first response was to rationalize the decisions that have been made closing down venues and prohibiting gatherings. But later I thought, the time has passed for arguing (or even discussing) the science or the statistics.

This the time to do whatever we can to mitigate the effects on our daily lives.

Easier said than done of course, but I believe we have the imagination, will and commitment to work our way out of this fix we are in.

The Chamber of Commerce should – might already be – working to devise ways to support those restaurants that have to close their doors tomorrow. What can they do? I’m not an expert, but perhaps delivery trucks might be mobilized to allow a greater number of establishments to carry on with take-out service. Perhaps two or three restaurants could be highlighted every night?

Musicians like Hitch? They have no place to play but, perhaps, they could play… everywhere.

I’d love to see Hitch and his guitar on my doorstep, serenading me with a few songs, then moving to the next house and the next. I’d gladly add to his tip jar. Maybe PACTV could have live broadcasts of musicians for an hour or so every night – donations appreciated.

I offer “insider Tours” of the downtown and, though walking tours are not particularly popular during the colder months, the few I had for this month have already cancelled. Okay, so how about free tours for any Plymouth residents (small family groups or close friends, 6 or less at a time) just to get out of the house.

Just before the restrictions were put in place our environmental group had scheduled a talk by a local historian on ‘The Rock’ and the abuse it has taken for decades. We had 30 tickets ‘sold” (they were free) and then we had to cancel the gathering. Instead, we rescheduled for April 5 and will put the presentation online.

If you have a book group, why not hold your meeting live on Facebook, or use a conference software like Zoom.

We have to stay connected. We have to fight against the isolation.

Here’s another self-serving idea. I am responsible for CommuniTREE, the decoration of the town’s Christmas Tree with oversized ornaments representing the hundreds of community non-profits that are especially important at this historic moment. If you have a favorite local non-profit consider sponsoring (or making) an ornament that represents that organization.

Take a walk in the woods. As we near spring I am sure that there are dozens of volunteers from the dozens of environmental non-profits in town that would gladly lead small groups through Myles Standish or down Town Brook or into Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary or…

Hide and seek! Hide from the virus but actively seek out ways to continue to support the individuals, organizations and small businesses that represent the backbone of this community.

The shutdown begins

(One of my first public comments, in early March, on the the first venues/organizations to cancel events…)

Setting an example…

If you remove the extreme reactions and commentary I think there is a lot to be proud of in Plymouth today.

The 400 and Philharmonic and Wildlands Trust and others seeing through the tangle of information and dis-information and canceling or postponing long-planned events is an example that many should follow.

We all need to act for the benefit of others and trust that when this critical moment is behind us we will receive support from government and community.

I’d suggest that for organizations like the Phil that we commit now to supporting them in the future and – if we are ticket holders that regardless of whether we can attend the postponed concerts we do not ask for refunds.

We should act now to develop ways to encourage residents and visitors to frequent our many fine restaurants through this period.

On a self-serving note I would encourage people to take this opportunity to familiarize themselves with our wealth of natural resources – hike or bike through our ponds, trails, beaches, woods, wildlands and the like – healthy activity that is good for the body and soul and offers a respite from the onslaught of troubling news and statistics.

We are better equipped to deal with this situation than most communities and, again, I am proud of the organizations that have demonstrated leadership when it really counts.

I would emphasize that we all need to get on board. Memorial Hall – which has three big events in the next 10 days – has made no changes, and refers visitors to their website to a link that takes you to the town’s notice on the virus, which hasn’t been updated since March 5 and/or refers you to the state’s DPH.

Memorial Hall is a town-owned facility.

The schools not only remain in session, but they are holding theatrical events at night.

Meanwhile, as an example of another venue with a different take on this – the Boston Symphony Orchestra has temporarily canceled all events through the end of this month.

A fitting punishment

This was written after last February’s ‘tagging’ of Plymouth Rock and other monuments, in reaction to the call for corporal punishment for the teenage vandal.

I’m pondering the penalty.

You too?

They caught the criminal, the one that defaced the places we love, a person indifferent to the beauty around them.

We were dismayed when we saw the damage.

We were angry at this malicious indifference.

We wondered aloud who, who would do such a thing?

And now we’re delighting in devising the proper punishment.

I’ve got it!

A mirror.

We issue everyone a mirror with the words, “Caught in the Act!” stenciled above.

I’m not leaving myself out.

I think it probably took me 50 years before I developed the slightest awareness of the beauty and fragility of the world around me.

I thought nothing of the waste, the thousands of tons of trash I was generating, or the mountain that I was building one trip to the dump at a time.

For my first house the developer cut down fifty 50-foot trees: white pines, pitch pines, an oak or two, just to make it easier to get the trucks in.

The house came with a thousand square feet of sod, 10 hardy shrubs, and a driveway built right through a wetland.

I have probably thrown away a thousand plastic water bottles.

How about you?

You live in a rare and unique ecosystem, perhaps with a pond in your backyard.

How many tons of fertilizer have you dumped on it?

Does your septic system drain into the pond?

How many trees did you cut down to improve your view?

Yeah, this seventeen year old did a bad thing, and he or she should be punished for it.

Think hard about what a fitting punishment might be.

• He or she might be asked to spend the summer cleaning invasive species from a conservation area.
• Build a boardwalk along a low-lying stretch of a popular trail.
• Maybe they should learn about the history behind the monuments they defaced, and then give free historic tours.
• They should have to learn the names of native flowers, and birds, and how to stop polluting our ponds, and the story of Massasoit and his son Metacomet, and how Plymouth Rock was broken, moved, reassembled…

The more we know about the place we call home the more likely we will treat it with respect and care and seek to conserve it for the future.

They caught the criminal, the one that defaced the places we love, a person indifferent to the beauty around them.

We were dismayed when we saw the damage.

We were angry at this malicious indifference.

We wondered aloud who, who would do such a thing?

Now all we need to do is find a fit punishment.

I know it will be painful but, look in the mirror, we deserve it.