Debt Takes a Holiday

IMG00074-20110131-1702Over the past several years I have had to find ever more inventive ways to become ever more frugal. Mind you, I have never been one to let money burn a hole in my pocket, but turning the heat down in the winter went to hardly ever turning it on; if only to avoid frozen pipes and the like. However, there does come a point when cutting back on spending begins to feel like a more extreme deprivation of little things that make one’s life worth living. When that point is reached, you really need to give yourself a little break and loosen the purse strings, if only for a short time.

As I have begun to regain my financial footing, the need to “live a little” has become not as worrisome as it was just last year. In fact, buying a few less basic items in the supermarket in exchange for some things that might cost more, but would greatly enhance mealtime were purchased more frequently. That being said, those occasions usually happened when I started entertaining again.

Being frugal to the point of excess might be acceptable when it is dinner for one, but to play host and expect others to also partake in your self-inflicted poverty would be considered absurd, especially when you extended an invitation to play host. Living on an island, as I do, you need to make the most of off island excursions and stock up at Trader Joe’s and other such stores; you just cannot find certain items on the rock.

Such was the case several times over the past year or so; every time I had an opportunity to fill my pantry with select morsels, I carefully did so. The fact that I happened to invite people over after that was no mere coincidence, rather thoughtfully planned. I must emphasize the planning aspect for the simple reason that my visiting guests are in fact visiting the island, so it adds a twist to playing host in that they are usually staying for longer than an evening, but rather an extended stay.

The ability to play host can make a simple meal into an event, given the proper perspective and vision. Many gatherings during the off season are potluck affairs here on Martha’s Vineyard. When guests are coming to visit from off island, they might bring a few items that travel well, but seldom do they bring “hot dish”. That leaves it to the host to prepare something decent, if not memorable. I have always taken a certain pride in being able to cook for my guests, but having a stocked pantry always makes the task a little easier.

There are few things in life that enrich one’s life more than good food and friends. The fact that it might take little extra money to make the meals and visits a little more memorable has, until quite recently, been sorely lacking in my life. The ability to turn a visit into a “holiday” for guests make the bleak days of winter a great deal more tolerable. If I can look past the debt I still owe for a few days to enjoy the company of friends, then I have, in fact, made it a holiday worth celebrating; essentially a holiday from debt.

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Long Time No Blog

ImageYes, it has been quite a long time since I posted a new blog item. As I recall, it was back sometime in the spring of this year. The time between then and now has been busy and exhausting in so many ways, as often it is when your life revolves around an island economy based on a summer season. The usual time of slowing down somehow came and went, for better or worse, depending on one’s perspective.

Even before the economy took a turn for the worse, the people with money started tightening their purse strings while summering here on Martha’s Vineyard. The summers of 2006 and 2007 were significantly slower for many businesses than in the heydays of what many refer to as “the Clinton Era” on the island. While many business owners got out while the getting was good, many others “doubled down”, expecting thing to come around in short order; little did they know what was to come.

This past season was the time when many clients I had not seen since the financial crisis started to show up again. Maybe it was a sign of the overall economy slowly recovering or possibly certain individuals just started to feel more comfortable spending a little extra again. For whatever reason, my schedule in the office was as full and as steady as I could endure. I say endure because there are no lunch breaks, days off or any down time to speak of; I have to make hay while the sun shines.

I usually equate my season to running a marathon; it may be long and arduous, but there is a finish line that will be crossed after a set distance. The finish line for most of the seasonal work on the island falls between Labor Day and Columbus Day, depending on the flow of tourist traffic and the business in question. Well, this year the finish line kept moving further down the road. As I write this blog, this is the second full day off since May. All and all, I would say that it was a financially successful season; in other ways it was certainly less so.

After fifteen seasons of chaos, I have begun to wonder how much longer I can sustain the pace. This was the year I truly felt the stress mentally and physically. It should be said that while my line of work tends to be less physically demanding than many of occupations available on the island, as a business owner that had based my personal expenditures such as mortgage, taxes, and insurance on an income of the “better” years of 2004 and 2005 and trying to remain current on all of those financial burdens can wear on one’s body as well as one’s mental state.

So push to the side all personal matters; relationships, health issues, social obligations. There was work that was there for the taking. Never mind the rude people that unceremoniously hung up on my receptionist if I was not available at a moment’s notice, or for late sessions, I had more than I could possibly handle for most of the season. As the season wore on, I found myself not doing any “extra” hours. It felt as if I could not form a free thought other than it was going to end.

Now, after the coaching of Cross Country has ended, the phone in the office has rung with less frequency; the end is nigh. Today I fussed with a car that has not run for six weeks, sifted through a dozen pages of accumulated emails, tried to make it through an hour of physical therapy on my hip, and finally posted a new blog entry. Huzzah!

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A Running Dialogue

2000 Boston MarathonMany years have passed since I ran the Boston Marathon. I used to work in the Boston Athletic Association’s hospitality suite for the sponsored runners as well. It was there I met Joan Benoit Samuelson, worked with Ernst van Dyk, and shook hands with Little Richard. I also met Jacqueline Gareau there, the actual woman that won the 1980 race, not Rosie Ruiz. It all seemed so long ago, until this past Monday, April 15th. I was driving out of Boston, not there for the race, when my phone started going berserk. I had checked the times of the few people I knew running the race that day and could not imagine what could be going on. Turns out, nobody could imagine what was going on would ever happen there.

Cities that play host to marathons find a cohesive bond that brings out the best in its citizens. With the exception of last year’s New York City Marathon debacle, a marathon has unprecedented support from the public. History has shown that the marathon is one of the only spectator sporting events that bystanders can be so close to the champions and that everyday runners can compete on the same course as those very champions. I have been in New York City for their Marathon, watched the throngs of people cheer on the runners and yell their support. Nearly every street was lined with people, in the bitter cold. They know that the runners are giving all they have to complete the course and the spectators want them all to do it.

The race on that Monday was one of those days made to run; the weather was near perfect. Everything seemed to have gone just as everyone had wished it could go, until that fateful moment. After that moment, everything before it was washed away. The anger and outrage that followed was there for many reasons, many of which you cannot understand unless you have been in Boston for the race, let alone run in it.

The Boston Marathon is the Mecca of running. I do not use that analogy haphazardly, but instead to put it in perspective for those that might not quite understand. I only trained for marathons so I could qualify to run in the Boston Marathon. I qualified on my first attempt, barely. Runners may run for charities to get a bib number, but those runners that are the obsessive, devout distance runners want to qualify; it validates their being there.

To run in Boston, to finish, is to reach the end of a religious journey. Once you have done it, no one can take that away from you. The race on Monday was defiled by a senseless act and the entire community responded by coming together to rebuke the attack.

While many other people around the world wondered why a community would be so outraged by an act that injured relatively few in the view of the world, the running community of the world understood. New York City understood. London ran its marathon the next weekend and they understood. It was not just an affront to a group of people running for 26.2 miles, it was a community coming together to support people running for various causes, fundraisers, and the memories of loved ones. It was a city supporting those people running for all of those reasons, whether the people watching and cheering knew the reasons or not. THAT was the reason for the anger and outrage.

What happened on that Monday was a despicable act, perpetrated by ignorant, hate-filled individuals. The people of Boston showed that they will not waiver in their support of that city’s marathon. The Boston Marathon is THE marathon, and that will never change.

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On Standby

Living on an island, you have to learn to accept certain aspects of daily life that are just facts. Getting a reservation for your vehicle on the boat going off island, for instance, is not always easy, especially when you wait until the last minute. If you are lucky, standby will be open. Now, standby does not mean you WILL get off the island, it just means there is a CHANCE you will get off the island. The days of “guaranteed standby” are long since gone. If you do get in the standby line, try to be driving a really small car; it will increase your chances of being tucked into an otherwise unusable spot on the freight deck. In any case, if the standby line is long, prepare to spend a while waiting your turn.

Beyond the hassles of the Steamship Authority, it seems there are other aspects unique to island living that are fixtures on Martha’s Vineyard. Ever try to get a return call from a contractor? Yeah, if you do, it is from the boat, leaving the island, not returning for two weeks. Last February I emailed my contractor regarding finishing a punch list, from 2008. He stopped over a week or so later and said, “I should be able to get some guys over here next month…” I bumped into him in December and he said, “I haven’t forgotten about you, we have a job coming up in your neighborhood soon…” When I saw him in January he asked, “Are you going to be around in February…?” Now that it is March, it occurs to me I should have asked him if he meant February of THIS year.

Many times over the past couple of summers, I have had clients ask me if I knew what happened to the smoothie shop across the street, as the door was locked and it was within the shop’s usual hours of operation. I shrugged and said I had not a clue as to what the story was. Perhaps there was some personal emergency once or twice, but half a dozen times in a week, for several weeks “in season” does not bode well for the reputation of the business.

The epidemic of being kept on standby might not be strictly an island curse, but it does seem to be more prevalent here. I might need to call, text, email, and eventually stop by an office or worksite in order to get the attention of certain individuals. Even when there is a verbal agreement, there is no guarantee they will follow through, even when doing so would mean either immediate financial gain or future prospects for financial gain. As a business owner, it is difficult for me to comprehend how that business model could possibly lead to success. If I used a similar practice in my office, I would not have very many clients, let alone a business.

While a few summer visitors sometimes think it quaint that small island shops close on short notice for quirky reasons, to have to deal with such annoyances on a daily basis tends to try one’s patience, if not one’s patronage. When I saw a contractor in the grocery store eighteen months after he was supposed to write up a quote for a landscape project on my property, he apologized and said he could stop by next week. “No need,” I replied, “it was done a year ago.” He stared at me blankly and mentioned needing the work. I needed it, too; so I did it myself. I left him standing there, saying I had a reservation on the next boat. He called after me, complaining he was on standby. “Good luck with that,” I thought to myself.short staff

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The Art of Running in the Rain

I woke up today at the usual ungodly hour. After silencing one of my many alarms, I heard the hushed sound of falling rain outside. It was a scheduled day for a run. As I began going through the daily morning routine, I weighed my options. Yes, I have run in everything from blizzards to hurricanes, but with the current pandemic of flu circulating, I preferred to reduce my risk of lowering my immune system and tempting fate. After further consideration, I decided to go out for the run.

For the twenty plus years I have been actively running, some of my best runs have been in the rain. I really cannot point to one reason why, it is just the way it usually works out. People who are not avid (read fanatic) runners often ask why anyone would go for a run in the rain during near freezing temperatures, while the runners just smile and nod. Perhaps it is my knowing that during those days I will only see the most diehard runners out there and we will nod and wave in a mutual understanding; or maybe it is more that I know that I will rediscover the reason or reasons I run.

Over the past few years I have been dealing with a few nagging injuries, the latest one sidelined my running for several months. Recently, I have begun slowly working back up to the speed and mileage that I had prior to the injury. It has literally been a process of re-education on the basics of running; mentally and physically. Running in the rain presents additional challenges like avoiding puddles, potholes, and drive-by tsunamis. Throw in the fact that at this time of year I run before daylight and the logistics can be more than a little disconcerting while recovering from an injury.

Still, I embraced the challenge. As I set out on the run, the rain fell lightly, without any discernable breeze to complement it. The temperature was well above freezing, so ice was not an issue. Out on the road, I had to plan my steps well ahead of time, avoiding all that I could without the benefit of ambient light. Only two cars passed me around West Chop, normal for this season. I began to get a feel for where to step and where to avoid, even while correcting my stride and pace for my still recovering injury. While the run was challenging, I felt more confident with every passing mile.

I continued to run past my initial turn that would have ended my usual loop. With my confidence bolstered and my stride having become quite comfortable, I decided to extend the distance just a bit. When I did turn to begin the final leg of the run, I had the energy and rhythm to increase my pace ever so slightly; something that had not been the case for quite some time while recuperating. At the end, I felt tired, but not spent. The rain continued to fall as I went inside the house to stretch and cool down.

Once again, one of my best runs happened as rain fell consistently, challenging conventional thoughts otherwise. As I reflect on that run, I find the parallels to my life of the past several years, persevering through conditions that many others might falter or concede. The fact that I (or anyone) simply continues on and deals with whatever life doles out is a testament of the human spirit. Sometimes we can sidestep the puddles, other times we just need to splash right through them in order to reach the other side. Whatever it takes, just keep running.

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Where Do The Summer Neighbors Go?

It happens every year on the island. The house next door, after a winter of inactivity and devoid of inhabitants, suddenly has a flurry of people scurrying about. This usually begins as the weather warms, late in May or early in June. Sometimes I recognize the people, older and often more rotund, but often they are completely new to the house. They arrive by the carload over the weekend, unloading beach gear, bikes, and coolers. They laugh and yell loudly, as if forcing their joy and happiness at their mere existence of being on island. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, the new hoard of revelers disappears.

Now there are those that I witness packing their vehicle after a week or two of stay, yet others seem to vanish under the cover of night, before even the first ferry of the day has left the dock. During the summer season I am too busy to actually interact or converse with any of the summer neighbors, often only catching glimpses of their arrivals and daily adventures. Often they party long into the night, hooting and bellowing their apparent joy, oblivious to the neighbors that actually reside and work in the community they view as their playground.

So it is often that I wonder how they could so often execute such a stealthy escape. There have been hints and clues over the years, but no definitive answers. They vehicles that I have seen the revelers arriving in often later appear for sale at McCurdy’s lot for sale; their bikes sometimes end up at the thrift store. One can surmise that they left without the encumbrances and reminders of excess in order to avoid cluttering their off island homes. I harbor another theory.

You see, as someone that has been a member of the community for so many years, I know the locals. We are frugal New Englanders, never wanting to waste a single resource that could prove valuable in one way or another. Did I mention that the island will soon have a proper slaughterhouse? Haven’t you even wondered why the island has a much celebrated chili festival in the middle of winter? Yes, I once chuckled at what I thought was just a flippant response to a summer visitor’s query as to “what in heaven’s name we islanders do all winter”. The response, “oh we revert back to cannibalism.” Gives new meaning to “eat local”, eh?

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Buy Local. Buy Lemonade.

Not too long ago I was walking to the post office and found some young entrepreneurs hawking their wares on the public square. Yes four girls were selling lemonade on a bright, sunny late summer day. Their chaperone was standing a few feet away, supervising their capitalistic endeavor. I had the privilege to be their first customer, gladly paying the sum of fifty cents for a refreshing taste of their product.

The girls had beckoned me to their stand like a barker at the fairgrounds. The fact that I stopped sent them into a near frenzy. Apparently the prospect that they could actually make some money had not really occurred to them. They scurried to decide who would do what: pour the lemonade, hold the cup, and collect the money. For their first sale, it came together quite quickly, with a little help from their supervisor.

Following the transaction, I posted a picture of their “pop-up” to twitter, just to aid their cause. I have no idea how the rest of their day went, but I know I got my money’s worth. I was only too happy to let the world of social media in on my little discovery.

Now granted, I was not thirsty. There are times in life where we all do things just because it is the right thing to do; supporting a youth sport, helping a stranger in distress, offering a kind word to brighten someone’s day. The fact is, if I can make four kids giddy over setting up a lemonade stand to earn a little money and make memories that will last a lifetime, my fifty cents spent that day was possibly the best fifty cents I had spent in many years.

Lemonade

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