President Obama and his family are hanging out "on the island," as they like to say over on the beguiling blue vision just across Nantucket Sound from Cape Cod. Martha's Vineyard, named for the daughter of the English sea captain who found and charted it, is not just an enviable state of mind--though it is that in late, lazy summertime when the water's warm enough to swim and scavenge for smooth sea glass on the beach all afternoon.
There's a lot to learn from the table Martha has set, dare I say, for all of us off-islanders. This is especially true for some of our fellow Americans having "tea parties" over immigrants and quarrels over September 11 (not 9/11) that exclude and divide "us" and "them." The shaken, rattled, and roiled mainland isn't the best place to discover America right now, folks.
Take me to the Vineyard, a vibrant tableau of the nation, not simply an elite playground. Each town or village has a distinct ethnic character. For example, Oak Bluffs, where the famed gingerbread houses rise and loom over the water as you approach by ferry, is historically African-American and an old Methodist campground for revivals. Pristine Edgartown, with the New England white church steeples and houses with "widow's walks" on the the roofs, is historically WASP, with the oldest New England last names. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
To the contrary, the peaceful co-existence of all the enclaves is exemplary. Obama would serve himself better by putting down his rarefied reading of the latest novel by Jonathan Franzen, Freedom, and taking a good look at the diverse fusion Martha cooked up over a couple centuries.
The native Wampanoag Indians whom English seafarers and settlers encountered are still there up by the cliffs in Aquinnah, where a stark lighthouse stands. In the community of year-round residents are farmers right in the middle of the island, where the arable soil is best, in and around West Tisbury. My favorite street name lies there: Music Street. The sunflowers practically sing to you this time of year, starting around the Fourth of July.
True, you might see Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg taking part in a Saturday long-distance swim that begins with a short Shakespearean reading from Henry V before the battle at Agincourt. Yes, the Clintons had a coterie of friends they liked to party and dance with. So what if Obama is seeking to rub off a little Democratic luster? If you ask me, Obama should embrace political lineage more than a little, along with his several scoops of pomegranate acai blueberry ice cream. Subtlety and suggestion are bit players on the stage in American politics. Forget Franzen (who stood out as an intellectual snob at alma mater Swarthmore, quite a feat) and read Henry V again--yes, the kingly lines about we happy few, we band of brothers. The same spirit of urgency would pick up an unhappy many of us. Like my liberal friends of all ages, I wish the guy we fell for would call more often.
Chilmark, a charming up-Island destination with chocolates worth fighting for, seems to be where Jewish summer residents feel most at home on the island--and Californians, too, another subculture. The beauty of all this is the elasticity--the boundaries are always crossable and stretchable. Everyone is welcome everywhere on the island. People are generally congenial to visitors and glad to be alive (with the possible exception of Larry David). My favorite is Oak Bluffs, its festive flair topped off with fireworks in August. What's more American than fireworks?
These impressions are mine alone. I might add that Vineyard Haven is awfully pretty, with a playhouse, but perhaps the most vanilla in terms of personality.
President Obama, get thee to the feast on Martha's Vineyard. Don't tarry long.