Buckley's blog

Toward a Creative Economy

“We do not have a housing problem.  We have an income problem.”

I was glad to hear this coming from Chatham Selectman Sean Summers recently.

In 2001, the first meeting I attended as a newly-minted selectman, outside my own board, was for the affordable housing committee.  I had always been proud of Chatham’s support for efforts to retain its working families.  It stood in such stark contrast to the out-of-town stereotyping that CHATHAM = RICH = CONSERVATIVE = HEARTLESS SNOBS.

However, over the years I’ve seen plenty of the housing for working people in town get redeveloped into high-end second homes, little by little, with little if any regard as to the cumulative effect on the community.  “What difference is just this going to make?” goes the argument.  This is how a town dies.

Meanwhile, as housing costs doubled, tripled, I saw wages stagnate and even fall.  More and more of the town was being covered in living space, and less and less of it was intended for or within reach of the people who lived and worked here.

I write this in the aftermath of our last town meeting.  But I raise this not to talk about the failure of affordable housing amendments to pass.  Rather, there’s a more important impact on Chatham’s housing that did pass – sewers.

Just as town water coming to a neighborhood allowed houses to be built on lots without regard to the proximity of a septic system to a well, by addressing our wastewater needs, we face some very serious side effects. With sewers, homes can now be built without worrying about the impact of their septic systems on the environment.

Yes, in years past we’ve seen a bylaw amendment enacted that would prohibit greater building on a lot that is newly sewered than was allowed prior to its sewering. But then, we’ve recently seen that Dunkin Donuts is not fast food, and an attempt to push poor families into our industrial zone (established because such uses were incompatible with residential areas).  There is a very human urge to fully exploit a public convenience when given the opportunity to make a private profit.

Hence, density will increase.  It is necessary to plan for the impacts, yet we seem stymied by a system that the public perceives as too closely affected by large property owners in town, and driven pell-mell towards a goal of 10 percent affordable housing so as to fit into a one-size-fits-all mandate by the state. In other words, not just doing the right thing for the wrong reason, but looking as if it was being done it for all the worst reasons.

There are many good reasons to assure that working people can live here.  Continuity.  Stability.  Fairness.  Hope.

But sadly we’ve continued to address just one side of the equation: lowering housing costs to match what our current local economy pays.  There seems to be no effort whatsoever to improve and diversify the economy.   Any talk of it seems to have the greatest thinking of the mid-20th century behind it, “General Motors is not going to build a factory here.”  That’s no news flash.  As if heavy industry is the only solution to improving a local economy.

Our national economy is changing.  We need to adapt.  We’ve heard time and time again that young people – whose education we’ve spent good money on — are leaving the Cape because they want more than waiting tables, swinging a hammer or making beds.  There are plenty of expensive, gorgeous places in this country where smart people move to start businesses because they are encouraged by these communities.

Meanwhile, there just seems something very wrong that two of the largest employers in town are Chatham Bars Inn and town government.

If asked, most people here would agree that any healthy town needs more balance in its economy and its people.  Educationally, we’re not a backward town by any measure, but there seems to be mulish unwillingness to look any further than addressing state mandates with short-term fixes.

We should not be looking to solve the problems others say we have.  We should be planning for what is inevitable (a rapid growth in density), and for what we all agree is a public priority (a way people can afford to live here).  If we start a public dialogue now, we might just be able to come up with some creative solutions, perhaps many small ideas, that can put us back in charge of our future.

Read this and Andy's other columns online at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

Lessons of the Craft

We finally hauled the new dory out from under the apple tree in the backyard today.  Well, “new” as in new to me.  The dory itself has been around for a few years.  The trailer tires were flat, vines had wrapped themselves around the shaft of the outboard and mold and moss covered much of the woodwork.  And lots and lots of last fall’s apples covered the floor of the boat.

So I have some work to do.

Just getting it up into the side yard was a bit of a task.  Had to use fix-a-flat to inflate one of the old tires, then get the jack out from under one side of the trailer so that it could be used to lift the even flatter tire on the other side up enough to inflate it.  But that meant taking a shovel and clearing enough space for the jack to fit under the trailer.

Much to my surprise, everything worked out OK.  The tires remained inflated enough long enough to get the trailer to the optimal place in the yard for fix-up.

The first week in May really is a little late to be addressing anything more than general maintenance issues for a boat.  But I have a good excuse – for the past nine months, I’ve been on the trail of the Columbia Expedition, the first American voyage ‘round the world.  The vessels of my concern have been a ship of 212 tons (Columbia Rediviva) and a sloop of 60 feet (Lady Washington).  Following the premiere of our film in Marshfield last week, I gladly welcomed the humble task of fixing up a 12-foot fiberglass dory.

My timing seems to be perfect, too.  May’s 40 days and 40 nights of rain have concluded, which means after a severe application of the power washer (who needs sandpaper and scrapers?), I can repaint the wooden seats and trim.  Before this, I’ll have to get replacement for the rotted rails.  And I’m expecting a visit from Christian Swenson, the Mobile Marine Mechanic, to get the old outboard humming for another season.

Then comes the all-important issue of paint.  Not whether to paint or not, but the color.  Blue being the favorite of greenheads (note the color of those traps in the marshes, my favorite is out.

On the other hand, Sofie’s persistence preference is also not within the realm of consideration:  pink.  Six-year-old little girl-loving pink.  Just no.  We’ll probably go with whatever is left in the garage, and if there’s not enough of one color, we’ll be our regular efficient Yankee selves, and see what can be mixed to make a non-seasick-inducing color.

Then it’s a simple matter of getting new oarlocks, locating a coil of line and maybe a bumper or two, and loading in the rakes and wire clam baskets.  With any luck, weather-willing, we’ll be able to launch by Memorial Day weekend.

The cost of all this is a low-entry fee for the ability to head out on the water with my daughter at a moment’s notice.  There are some now-familiar activities to revisit, like snorkeling on the Common Flats west of Monomoy, or camping out on the beach.  But we’ll also be pulling out the fishing poles, too, since Sofie’s never tried striped bass, certainly not fresh off the ocean.

I’m keenly aware it could be like a blink of an eye before my daughter heads off to do her own things with anyone other than her father.  So there’s a small window of opportunity to show her all these things:  to fix up something that by all accounts appears worn out, to have a goal to motivate you to return, day after day, to work at it, never mind the reward of fully enjoying the waterborne wonderland that surrounds us here in the summer.

Hopefully, some of these lessons will stick.  Then she can get her own boat someday.  That, I tell her, she can paint pink.

Read this and Andy's other columns online at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

HIT AND RUN HISTORY WOWS SOUTH SHORE


MARSHFIELD – It was standing-room-only at the Ventress Memorial Library this past Wednesday.  Like nothing we ever expected, the premiere of the first installment of Hit and Run History:  The Columbia Expedition went off with a bang.

The short documentary film is a pilot, meant to secure full-funding for a 13-episode series on the first American circumnavigation of the globe.  I've been on the trail of this story since 1995, beginning with research for my novel The Bostoner.

 Guest started to arrive at 6:40 PM, well before the show was to begin.  We started setting up more chairs than the original 30.  By 7 PM, my assistant director, Matt Griffin was giving me the "go" sign to start, but looking out the door, I saw more people coming.  More chairs.  More people.  Finally, at 7:10 Mark Schmidt, director of the the Historical Winslow House (co-sponsor of the event with the library) introduced me.  

Because we've done something different with Hit and Run, we thought it necessary to give our audience an idea of my background and what they should expect to see.  Not a purely polished, ready for broadcast gem, but rather a new approach to talking about history.  A lot of that has to do with the local connection.

Crowds at Hit and Run History premiere

In Marshfield, Hit and Run History spoke with Krusell and Bates, local experts about shipbuilding on the North River.  The ship Columbia was built in 1773 at Hobart’s Landing, on the Scituate side of the North River.  Rebuilt in 1787 and rechristened Columbia Rediviva (“Columbia Reborn”), it was purchased by a syndicate in Boston to be the flagship of this first global trading venture of the new American Republic.

After the film, Harwich's Kane Stanton read the letter of charge to Captain John Kendrick by Joseph Barrell, senior partner of the syndicate.  This then led into a very intense and rewarding question and answer session with the audience.  It also gave me a chance to introduce Don Ritz, chair of the Hull Historic District Commission, who so indulgently squired me around Nahant for filming last fall, as well as the rest of my crew there: Jay Sheehan and Alex Schwantner.

At the close of the program, Mark told us that the final tally was 62 in attendance - double our original projection, and more than the capacity of the room.  After many months of hard work and sacrifice, this incredible reception and response from the South Shore was a immensely gratifying.

We now look forward, after a brief hiatus, to our Cape Cod premiere at the Brooks Free Library on May 17th at 2 PM.  Then it is onto the Wareham Free Library on May 20th at 6 PM, and the Orleans Historical Society on the 24th at 7 PM.

This project was awarded Massachusetts Cultural Council Grants by the Marshfield Cultural Council and Wareham Cultural Council.  For more information, visit www.hitandrunhistory.com or the Hit and Run History fan page on facebook.

Spring Cleaning And The Dignity Of Work

With the first of the daffodil shoots foolishly poking out from the until-now frozen earth, Sofie and I have returned to the back yard for our major activities.  Clearing the sleds from under the blue spruce.  Trimming back the weaker of the branches on the pear trees.  Making a final decision on the location of that next thornless blackberry bush.  Picking up remnants of dog toys, and rescuing those still intact from the inevitable mower blade.

It is a time for spring cleaning.  Having spent the fall and winter on a creative project, I am faced with the myriad tasks that must be done — best be done now, than to be discovered in the summer in a panic.  Where is the tent?  I thought we had charcoal in this closet… somewhere.  The bicycle pump, you say?  I know we have two of them.  Try under the Christmas lights.

Not to even get into boat-prep issues.  That’s a column unto itself.

As described a few months ago, when working alone outside, podcasts like American Public Media’s Marketplace keep me company.  It has really kept me on top of business and economic issues just as they are at the forefront of public consciousness.  So it is an astounding contrast, too, the degrees to which some public officials seem to be far, far behind the curve.

There appears to be a complete unwillingness to see the current economic conditions as anything more than a departure from the norm.  Something that will “gotten over” in the matter of a few months, rather than a major correction — by that term meaning we now quickly return to the way things should have been all along.

This is not a departure down; rather the recent prosperity was a departure up.  Consumers stopped saving anything in the past decade and borrowed too much.  Optimism to spend, as recently prescribed by a sadly-misguided County Commissioner Bill Doherty, is not going to pull us out of this situation.  Toxic assets will become safer when all borrowers actually pay their debts off — first.

The sad reality is that plenty of service-based businesses were founded here and nationwide, based upon increasing affluence.  We have come to realize that much of this affluence was an illusion.  For example, buyers were willing to pay $2 million for a second home on the Cape because a) the value of their 401k was expected to only increase, b) the Cape house could always be rented seasonally at a high rate, and c) the buyer’s primary residence would fetch a high price when sold for the inevitable retirement here.

Now two of those legs have been kicked out from that three-legged stool (and the third may be just as illusory).  Optimism had brought the home price to a level as unsustainable as the rest of the economy.  As reality sets in, the price has dropped to a truer value set by that smaller pool of buyers who still possess the resources to purchase.

Yet too many of leaders in government, to varying degrees insulated from the gyrations of the private economy by the inviolate perks of public benefits, still fail to grasp three basic truths:

First, their constituents now have less money.

A mind-change needed

Second, that any money their constituents struggle to earn in these tough times should be saved.

And third, this is how it is going to be for a couple years, at least. As Olivier Blanchard, the IMF’s new Director of Research, told The Economist just last week, “We are closer to the beginning than we are to the end.”

Once this sort of mental spring cleaning — looking at what is actually around us, what we have and what we don’t, what still works and what is irreparably broken — hopefully will lead to some serious planning for the knock-on effects of what is being called our “Deprecession.”

For example, history tells us that in tough times, more shellfish permits are issued.  Yet the price of shellfish has stayed stagnant or even gone down, partly due to a lack of economic planning for increased supply.

Or with decreased household income, expect that many more local high school graduates will attending Cape Cod Community College (regardless of whether they were accepted to four-year schools off-Cape).  That means more 18 to 22 year olds here through the winter.  They will be needing jobs that provide a regular income.  Regular, as in a regular wage with regular hours, not seasonally tip-based gigs.

(Note:  They will not be needing housing.  They’ll be saving money by staying at home.)

These are but two examples, and are not the usual bad economy-homeless shelter-food pantry concerns.  The needs of middle class people who live here – yes, residents – are calling out to be addressed by our towns.  Now.

Nostalgia for the goods times won’t cut it, nor will unfounded optimism.  Spring is the time to re-assess.  And we need to get to work.

 Read this and Andy's other columns online at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

Bigger is always? Bigger

The most recent solution-in-search-of-a-problem championedby the local media is regionalization of government services.  Sewers.  Fire. Police.  Schools.

Now, I am sure there are some savings that can be found whenyou have over a dozen municipalities occupying an area roughly the same squaremileage and population as Jacksonville, Florida.

But the justification for regionalization now seems to bethat this will help stem the tide of young adults leaving Cape Cod. Like maybelower taxes? Or better schools because they're bigger and cheaper? Sorry, I'mtrying to play devil's advocate here, but coming from a small town with a verylow tax rate, by this reasoning we should have tons of young families. Instead,we're the oldest town in the state. Maybe we're just not doing it BIG ENOUGH?

This is how I summed up a query on Facebook, posted tofriends who grew up on the Cape but have since moved away these twoquestions:  1) Why did you leave?and, 2) What would induce you to return?

The answers were not terribly surprising.  Not having any 4-year institution ofhigher learning in the area, many said they went away to school and then becameensconced wherever they were.  Theyliked what they found in the wider world.

It may sound heretical in this resort community, but yes,there are many, many other beautiful places in the world.  They are as much in competition with usfor tourists as for that most locally-undervalued person - the full-time,year-round, wage-earning 25-45 year-old resident.

But, greater, was a theme of opportunity.  Specifically, one respondent answeredwhy she left Cape Cod:

  • a) Nowhere towork
  • b) Nowhere towork in winter (yes, two things entirely)
  • c) No careeropportunities (see a and b)
  • d) Its oncecool austerity and grittiness has been replaced with cheesy gift shops and"quaint" cuteness imported from cities in an attempt to make itsomething it's not
  • e) Arts,shopping, etc.

She went onto explain, "I've lived in NYC for over 16 years.My living space is extremely small, my housing expenses astronomical and taxesare through the roof-BUT I have opportunity here -- to make money, work in anyindustry (almost) I choose. Almost everything is accessible. I sorely miss theocean, but the benefits outweigh the costs. Lowertaxes and better schools would never entice me to move back. Even ifhousing were free, it would still make more financial sense to pay $90 persquare foot and live some place where I could make a living. Simple as that."

As for what would get her to move back:  "Jobs, jobs and jobs."

Another friend who has worked both on and off-Cape (andlikes performing those small town self-services like bringing his own trash tothe dump), has the skills to earn much more elsewhere.  But the opportunities just aren't therefor his highly-trained spouse.

Talking directly to my concern, he observed, "Regionalizationof services is a partial solution to budget woes, but it's long-term andpainful, and it's not at all a reason someone moves to an area."

Now, certainly this is an unscientific sampling, and I donot pass this off as representative of a cross-section of the Cape CodDiaspora.  But they are for themost part well-educated, high earning, upstanding, responsible adults.  Just the sort of people you would wantliving next door, who on those rainy days when you get back from thesupermarket and are trying to get everything inside, offer to lend a hand.  Or when the power goes out.  Or to check on your house when you'reon vacation.

The media here on the Cape have failed its expatriatechildren by failing to ask them what THEY WANT.  Instead, powers-that-be have announced what they are willingto do: make local government more efficient by making it bigger.  I'm reminded of a quote from the movie"Contact" - "First rule in government spending: why build one when you can havetwo at twice the price?"

Specifically, and to its credit, The Chronicle has deflated the argument that there will be anyreduction of costs by regionalizing Chatham and Harwich schools.  That there would be a greater benefitto students by more educational programs is, however highly dubious.  Perhaps marginally, but no seriousclaims are being made that SAT scores will jump, or we'll be getting state ofthe art gymnasium or science lab.

Worse, the "big schools" idea flies in the face of reams ofstudies that suggest what parents and teachers want most, and the environmentin which students thrive best, are small, neighborhood schools with lowteacher-pupil ratios.  So even ifthe argument is that better schools will attract more families to move here,we're offering a Chevy Suburban when the customer clearly wants a ToyotaPrius.  They want smaller, notbigger.  More control, not less.

I am concerned that what really is going on is yet anotherlurch away from Town Meeting control of any budgetary issues.  When regionalized, a bill for theservice is simply rendered upon the Town. Voters on the floor of Town Meeting do not have the chance, as they dowith a purely-municipal budget item, to pick apart the budget,item-by-item.  Withregionalization, those who work for the larger bureaucracy serve a largerpopulation -- and thus, are accountable to virtually no one.

In essence, we would be going in the opposite direction ofwhat is most desired by those we so righteously protest to help.  But if we are serious about returningto a more balanced community, welcoming those of all ages, the answer bearsrepeating: "Jobs, jobs and jobs."

Read this and Andy's other columns online at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

CREDIT CARD COMPANIES: WHY THE LAWS THEY LOBBIED SO HARD FOR WON?T HELP THEM NOW

Cape Codder Elizabeth Southworth, with over fourteen years experience working in the financial industry, offered the following to me, which I feel obliged to pass on:

Last week, Bernanke predicted the recession "could" end this year. Well, he's out of his mind. Let me re-phrase. He's lying. This is the same Bernanke who, less than a year ago, offered assurance there would be no recession while I jumped up and down pulling my hair out.

The IMF conducted a study on 124 banking crises over the last thirty years where massive debt overloaded the banking sector. Out of the six that occurred in wealthy nations, the speed of recovery varied from 2 (South Korea) to 10 (Japan) years. I think we can all agree that what's happening now ain't a typical banking crisis. Ending this year? No.

What was equally baffling was news that the market rallied on Bernanke's comments. This was just plain wrong. The market rallied on technicals. As the DOW hit its worst levels since 1997 the market panicked. The "it can't be this bad" panic actually created a rally and the DOW subsequently bounced off its 7100 level. And it happened again on Wednesday and again on Thursday. This had nothing to do with Bernanke.

I told a friend if the economy does show signs of strength in the next 6 months, to look out for hidden mine fields amongst the smoke and mirrors. In my mind, these will be the credit card companies. I suspect they won't be racking up interest charges on new purchases these days while the sheer number of credit card defaults could make sub-prime mortgages look like a blip on the radar screen.

As virtually every sector in the stock market plummets deeper into the abyss, one thing eludes me. The credit card companies have remained relatively strong. Mastercard and Visa have actually outperformed the Dow in the last month. This worries me greatly. And it should worry all of you. But don't be too concerned. Just like credit card debt, we will all simply pay for it later.

The average American household carries $10,700 in credit card debt. What was once a vehicle for emergencies, occasional purchases and travel expenses became a free for all "lay away plan." And what's even more outrageous is these companies can charge whatever interest rates they like. I consider their rates "usury" however, it seems the public disagrees given that they kept charging.

In 2005, credit card companies lobbied hard to change the bankruptcy laws in order to "protect" themselves. They won. This was really just an opportunity to eliminate massive amounts of risk while doling out $50,000 in credit to college students with zero credit history. In retrospect, they were just begging to be regulated. These laws won't help them now. The public will soon want their heads on the chopping block. And I have no doubt the Obama administration will be more than happy to oblige.

How credit cards assess their risk is their business. If they deem it suitable to give an 18-year-old $50,000 in credit, that's fine by me. However, don't cry when you don't get paid. And in turn, I don't want to hear the whines of consumers who can't pay their bills because they needed a new plasma TV. Leave me out of it. Cheap, easy credit is what caused the current banking crisis and what could soon create a credit card debt debacle. If you think consumer spending is at an all time low now, wait a few months. You'll be able to get that $40 sweater at the Gap for $9.99.

Now these companies are offering incentives to people with large balances. American Express is offering $300. $300? Was that the magic number the algorithm machine spat out in order to alleviate their risk? Are they so deluded that they actually believe people have the money? Are they reading the same papers I'm reading? So if I rub the $300 American Express genie, $10,700 will automatically appear in my checking account? Well, if that's the case, I'll be swiping like crazy this week at the 5th Avenue fire sales.

This past week reminded me of an old lesson: at the end of the day, from stock prices to consumer spending to credit card debt: something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it.

 

Snow Day, in verse

or,

“For What?”

 
At half past five the other night

After long work hours and sleeping tight

A call awoke me from sound sleep

To tell me news of snow too deep.

 

Too deep for school, so we must not

endanger all our tiny tots.

The voice of Dr. Lanzo said,

Read from a text pre-recor-ded.

 

Delayed, her message, school will be

To ease our morning misery.

Yet after only five hours slumber

I saw a test -- which was dumber:

 

To heed an off-Cape weatherman

And, like a gaped, unthinking fan

Take as gospel his frantic warning

Of drifts chest-high, come eight next morning,

 

Or, instead, remember here

In Chatham, with Gulf Stream so near

It is as sure to pull the mercury

above freezing, with no threat to me.

 

No threat to me, no threat to us,

No threat to children on a bus.

So, now, awake, I lay in bed,

And watched a sky, without fear or dread.

 

Concern, instead I felt for thee,

Who art compensated hourly.

Those parents who, with grit and grime

Make privately money with their time.

 

So when it rained, instead, this day

The pointlessness of the delay

Hit home most painfully, you know

By those who aren’t afraid of snow.

 

We are not scared, it does snow here.

This is New England, which is most clear.

We have the smarts, we have the tools,

To keep the roads up for our schools.

 

This timidity runs counter to

A tougher people here who grew

Up bearing skiffs into the sea

With every bit of dignity.

 

The safety argument does not fly

We had snow here in days gone by

But then, no antilock brakes, no air bags

And still school commenced, without these lags.

 

Please, let us be a town that works

Instead of where suspicion lurks,

For in dire times you come to ask

Us to fund your educational tasks.

 

In budget times this spring you’ll say

You need still more cash to pay

For programs and the salaries

Of you and your employees.

 

So here’s a fact of school delayed:

If we don’t work, we don’t get paid.

 

That you cancel school in this season,

For mere threat of snow is beyond reason.

You waste our money, you waste our time

So we may not be able to spare a dime.

 

Every public servant should be awares

Of their constituency’s needs and cares.

But still, if you must heed the forecaster’s lies,

Set a good example and apologize.


Read this and Andy's other columns online at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

Doggy Togs

Ginger likes her sweater.  I think. Now, I’ve never been one of those dog people whodressed up their dogs to look like little versions of themselves.  No leather jackets.  No sweatsuits emblazoned with a sportsteam logo. No doggy raincoats, with matching rain hat and rubber boots.  Come to think of it, since the buttonsof the last one rusted off, I haven’t even owned a raincoat.  So that’s not exactly an accurate comparison.

But last Christmas, Sofie asked about a present for our twoCardigan Welsh Corgis, Ginger and Colby.  They are sister and brother, but from different litters, and have servednot only as surrogate siblings to Sofie, but as comedy team, always ready forher amusement.  Used for herdingcattle and ponies in Wales, the breed are working dogs that get a little antsywhen they can’t keep an eye on us.  When Sofie was just learning to use a real bed, Ginger slept on the bedwhile Colby slept underneath.Sofie & Ginger

So when Sofie expressed a desire – no, the expectation –that she should give them a gift for Christmas, it only seemed right.  Standing there, in PetSmart in Hyannis,faced by all sorts of dress-up gear for the latest fashionable toy breed.

Oh, sure, they have short legs, but they are otherwisemedium-sized dogs.  Colby’s head isalmost as big as a German Shepherd and I’ve seen him turn things like femursand brake handles into tiny bits in the blink of an eye.  So they clothing that caught Sofie’seye were on the disappointingly small size.

The only thing we could be certain of was a pink and purplestriped sweater.  Fully aware ofGinger’s gender, Sofie agreed this was just the thing. Colby could have anextra cow hoof in his stocking, to make up for it.  Nature provided him with a much heavier coat, anyway.

So on Christmas Day last year, Ibecame A Guy Who Dresses Up His Dog.  It fit, which was a relief, I suppose -- not like there was any otherclothing we could exchange it for.  Ginger didn’t try to get out of it, she didn’t carry in mud and leavesfrom outside (any more than on her feet), and it didn’t shrink.  In fact, she seemed less agitated andmore restful, which I chalk up to drowsiness – always a good thing in the otheroccupants of a writer’s home.

And then a couple weeks ago, we took a walk down to theChatham Bakery, with Sofie handling Ginger’s leash like a pro. Because of thedog, we ate our Gingerbread cookies at the picnic table out front.  With all eyes at the booths inside thebakery looking out at us, it was clear I had become THE Guy Who Dresses Up HisDog.

Oh, the shame of it all.

It is just a long, slow descent into a world of rhinestoneleash with matching collar and tiara, patent-leather Mary Janes, andfancifully-flowered sunhats.  Iflash-forward to a day not too long from now, when I would be clipping Ginger’sclaws and wonder if it would ruin her French manicure.

Really, this anxiety is all after-the-fact, of course.  As a father’s indulgence to his fiveyear-old, the cost to my male pride was fairly insignificant.  You pretty much have to set aside all pretensewhen you have a child, more so with a daughter.  Even more so as the single father of a little girl.  I can’t tell you the number of timesI’ve left the house forgetting that just a little while earlier I’d had my hairdone up.  Sofie’s insistence notwithstanding,pink barrettes apparently do NOT complement my eyes.

Still, I’m looking for Colby to redeem the male-ness aroundhere.  Christmas may have come andgone, but the sales are just beginning.  Big black leather collar with plenty of spikes should do it -- somethingcoyote-busting.

Yet, it is not that easy, when considering Sofie.  Such an accessory would put an end toher near-hourly hugs that squeeze the pulse out of him. I’m more worried aboutthe underside of her mattress getting torn up.  We might have to pull it back a little.  Aviator sunglasses?  Nah.  A shoulder holster?  Might work.  A black LedZeppelin T-shirt?  Not bad.  But I draw the line at rhinestones.

Read this and Andy's other columns online at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

 

Storytelling

Oyster River shanties, Chatham

A cold, dark little land

Over a dozen years ago, when I was on a research trip to Vancouver, BC for "The Bostoner," friends invited me to a dinner party. At some point in the evening, I looked down and realized I was the person out of the six seated at the table who still had food on my plate. While everyone else had been eating, I'd been talking.

Quickly, I apologized for gabbing on so, and dug into my food. Our hostess quickly dismissed this by saying, "Oh, no, it is all very entertaining." Then she turned to her other guests, explaining, "You see, he comes from a cold, dark little land where all the people have to get them through their miserable winters is to tell stories to each other. They've developed quite a gift for it."

How's that for an image of the Cape? I would have nearly bit my fork in half if there hadn't been a fair bit of truth to this. Spinning yarns, fish stories and more than good-natured ribbing are hallmarks of those who have spent a good deal of time here.

Part of it is that history goes back a long way here, relative to the rest of the country. Some families have been here for well over 300 years. The first hundred would have been accompanied by a single book, the bible, for diversion. That leads to a great deal of invention outside of that medium.

Then there's the relationship with the sea. There's always something unexpected happening out on the water, which means something to talk about. On the other hand, while one is working, talking can make the time go faster. When clamming with Jamie Bassett, we'd get to analyzing some movie or changing the lyrics of popular tunes to reflect clamming culture, when all of a sudden Scott Eldredge, our patron, would forbid us from speaking another word.

We would look up and realize our chatter was causing other diggers to creep closer, to hear what we were saying. That's a compliment to our entertainment value, but when you're working a productive flat, the last thing you want is close company. This pre-dated waterproof headsets and iPods.

Then, of course, there's the fact that when the world comes to stay with you for the summer, they want to know about the place. That can lead to stories. Many is the young local who has found himself invited to a rather posh cocktail party with his survival dependent upon his ability to talk entertainingly about what growing up here was like. More than likely, our real estate industry seems to have used this approach as a business model.

We tell good stories. For the most part, we don't need to make anything up, either.

Matthew Griffin and Andrew Buckley with Justin Demetri at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum

I was reminded of this yet again during a documentary scouting trip to the North Shore. Returning to the subject of "The Bostoner" - the Columbia Expedition of 1787 - it begins with another great storyteller, Captain John Kendrick, who grew up on the shores of Pleasant Bay.

One of the expedition's two vessels, the sloop Lady Washington, was supposedly built on the Essex River. So I found myself at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, interviewing their researcher, Justin Demetri, while two other of Chatham's native sons were working at telling the story. Even though they are using the latest technology, Matt Griffin as cameraman and Chris LeClaire as set photographer were doing no different than generations before them.

Setting the scene. Telling stories about the sea, ships and the people who sailed them. Me, I just yak away with whomever is put in front of me. It takes real talent to step back, assess the situation, and focus on exactly the best way to convey what is really going on.

The technology of digital imaging, through still images or video, certainly allows users to go from neophyte to semi-pro in the matter of weeks. But there is no software program for talent. There is no hi-tech gadget or web site that confers creativity upon the user.

This homegrown resource is unique, and for the most part, completely overlooked and uncultivated. At best, young, talented and creative people are told they should leave to pursue their craft. Any other place this side of the Middle Ages would be falling all over themselves to find ways to staunch the brain drain. Yet a few hang on.

Let's not kid ourselves, though. They remain for their own reasons, not ours. Our storytellers are willing to continue here not because of how we have preserved this place, but despite our inability to do so.

 Read Andy's other columns at this blog or at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

Choosing Change

Here's a practical lesson thatthe current incarnation of our Charter Review Committee can take from lastweek's election:

The first time I ran for officeI realized that in Chatham, Precinct 1 always carried the election.  No matter what the issue or office, ofthe two co-equal parts of town, the higher number of votes always came from thearea north of Old Queen Anne and Main Street.  Turnout was higher, too.

At the time, I was a freshly-mintedpolitical science grad and could see what was going on.  There are three factors that reliablypredict a person's casting a ballot. In order of importance, they are 3) age, 2) income, and 1) education.

Well, Precinct 1 is Shore Road,North Chatham, Chathamport and Riverbay. For the most part, old people with money and advanced degrees.  So their higher turnout madesense.  Those also tend to beindicators for being a Republican. So during an election, even non-partisan local elections, it was clearhow things were going to swing.

Hence, there may have developeda tilt in town politics (perhaps unconscious) towards the residents of thenorthern precinct. 

The less important the electionhas been perceived - meaning, the more local - the lower the turnout and, andso the greater the influence of those who actually did show up.  It would be interesting to look at townmeeting attendance and makeup of town boards to see if this rule follows.

However, in last week'selection, more people from Precinct 2 showed up in force.  The voters from South Chatham and WestChatham carried the day, then (I would have mentioned the Neck, Lower MainStreet and Morris Island, but most of the houses there are typically empty thistime of year).

That's not to suggest that thisis more Democratic.  Rather,Precinct 2 residents, compared to Precinct 1, are younger, less affluent and(perhaps therefore) less educated. But everything is relative. Residents in Precinct 1 are, for example, typically younger thanresidents of Union Cemetery on Main Street.

As a curious aside, the threelargest cemeteries in town are in Precinct 1.  Union, Seaside and People's.  But not four -- due to a few friends with young children nowliving there, I cannot in good conscience repeat the suggestion of anotherhomeowner in the neighborhood that "Riverbay is a cemetery with the lights on."

On the other hand, Precinct 2has the dump, the sewer plant, the most-polluted estuaries in town, and by farmost of the commercial areas.

Chatham is still referred to asthe most conservative town on the Cape. I've always had a problem with that description.  Our tax rate is low, which is mostly alegacy of Prop. 2½, but the support for affordable housing and environmentalprotection is much more solid than towns considered more politically orculturally diverse than ours.  Consider that Chatham gave roughly the same percentages toMcCain and Obama as did Sandwich, Mashpee, Bourne and Barnstable.

Unless you are using the verypurest sense of "conservative", as in wishing to "conserve" certain positive aspects.  Or simply don't like things tochange.  Then that term would befairly accurate.

Whichever the case, myinterpretation of the election in Chatham shows there are about 1,400 hard-coreRepublicans and a similar number of Democrats.  So there's parity between 2,800 voters.  With 4,800 voters motivated to show upfor this presidential election, that means there might be 2,000 up for grabs.  In theory, in a similar turnout.

Any of these figures dwarfturnout at a town election (never mind a Town Meeting).  All of the most conservative peoplehere could show up and elect and pass whatever they wanted.  Likewise, with their counterparts atthe other end of the spectrum. Perhaps, to a certain degree, that has beenhappening.

Looking at the people who wentto the polls on November 4, and knowing that only one out of every four willshow up, it is unlikely they would be a representative sample.  It makes me cringe when any elected publicfigure in town presumes to know what the whole town believes.  As a Selectman, I might have had a goodhandle on those who elected me, and understood that other members of the boardwere elected by constituencies differing from my own.

That's all well and good, butthere's a threat that the people we are electing are not representing the residentsas a whole.  Instead, we shouldtake advantage of the opportunity of a higher turnout at federal and stateelection time and to have municipal officers elected simultaneously.

This could prove to be a realadvantage to the electorate and those they elect.  For example, the town's budget cycle begins in January andends with the annual town meeting in May. This can result in a new Selectman coming on board just a few days aftera budget has been passed that they have had no input on.  Instead, they'll have to wait over sixmonths to begin to be heard on the next one.  Being elected in November would mean the public's will wouldbe expressed within weeks, rather than dissipated over half a year.

But really, there's no goodreason not to employ better methods to encourage more people to vote in everyelection held in Chatham.  Othermunicipalities in Massachusetts hold their elections in the November.  Often, we have a special town meetingaround this time anyway, so having an election somewhat coincident could bejust advantageous as not.

Right now we have a CharterReview Committee, and it is their job make suggestions to improve the structureof our town government.  By law,they emerge every seven years to do their work, with their recommended changesto the charter going to the voters. Then they expire, and we forget about them until the next time, like agang of government cicadas.  So ifsomething like the change of an election date is to made, it has to bediscussed now - right now.

There are some reasons not tochange.  Because it isdifferent.  Because we never did itthat way before.  Because we are comfortablewith who shows up at town elections. Because we are afraid of what more voters might do.  Because it is too hard.  Because, regardless of our partyaffiliation or the outcome of our recent election, we really are just tooconservative.

Read Andy's other columns at this blog or at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

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