Ellis' Island

Pilates — familiar to many, undecipherable to some.

jib-ellisJib Ellis writes from the wilds of Vineyard Haven, where he thinks, often, about how the Island is, was and could be, and helpfully decodes emerging vocabularies.

As it turns out, Pilates are not the obscure Polish potato dumplings I thought they were. It seems that they are quasi-civilized means of contortion and I actually did some in my exercise class today — who knew?

I remember the term first coming of age at a high-denim and potluck social event. They were on all the pouty lips. Pilates this and Pilates that … “Oh, I saw her at Pilates,” chirped from the perfect smile of many fit figures to other high and rosy cheekbones. Everyone seemed tuned in but me and I didn’t dare admit it was a completely new word to me.

I only knew that the most attractive and confident women of my relaxed congress of friends agreed on the providence of Pilates in their lives the way penicillin must have been greeted toward the end of WWII, or as with the promise of an end to locusts in biblical days.

And the way the circumstance was expressed made it difficult to determine if it were a computer function, a dietary trend or something involved with esoteric dance. I only knew that it required a class — hence technology, movement and cooking came to mind but it sounded familiar as food-oriented. Thus I nodded, smiled and pretended I knew all about Pilates, blindly linking them in my thoughts to a particular fragrance sifting away from a Polish friend’s pantry on a dinner best described as Hippie Goes Home for Family holidays.

My family, who often assume I am hip because I’ve failed at so many things and don’t seem to care, had once asked on a helpful note if I were vegan. I didn’t falter. Again, a new word to me but the root and usage made it clear it involved vegetables, ergo no meat.

The “pilat” root, beyond the name so buoyant in Easter rhetoric, lent me no hints so I remained at semantic sea. And the family, traditionally more interested in this year’s hypoglycemia than any exercise or gourmet themes, had never used the word so they would be spared any inquisition.

The gross under assumption was that, a society which hosts cookie decorating parties and classes, would also afford organized sessions to make Pilates. I was destined to fake it, as with so many things and mentioned Pilates in passing, to all energetic women, being careful to not be exposed by any undue facts.

I expected that use of a deep fryer might be the reason any instruction was needed or that there was room for only the smallest error in the timing of their preparation, making a class important in making the delicacies these mysteries were adored to be.

The frying bit did bring a few baffling moments as only thin waists and pink cheeks spoke of these queer treats but then I also had thought a “hashtag” was something like a “Sloppy Joe” until recently. A lot of data had escaped in the chasm where my education has failed me. So the frying enigma may have pointed to frying lite. That meant these babies were perhaps more sautéed than sunken in hot lard and I continued my ugly charade pretending to know of what I spoke.

Then my physical salvation, my strength and balance class, took a surprising turn. My compassionate and age-sensitive instructor went to wherever such gurus go on holiday and the substitute sprung in to lead us with the taut energy which almost demanded a full flip and 10-point landing before class.

He, a professional dancer, former trapeze artist and perhaps assassin, with a resilience to make Parris Island seem casual, introduced the assembled to proper breathing. He next lead us sheep through the predictable geriatric variations on push-ups and sit-ups, then announced we would do a few Pilates.

It was a stark shiver of awakening as I awaited, at last, a demonstration of what a Pilate might be. There wasn’t so much as a hot plate around. He did not have even a table-like surface or electrical outlet, so cooking would be out of the question. A bolt of tension surged in my soul.

The next thing I know, instructor was on the floor reaching for an untoward part of his body, exhibiting the sort of contortion which was totally foreign to me. After all, it was my generation of white men who invented the riding mower and remote control to facilitate everything and it has been us who would ride a golf cart for a mile to avoid any unwarranted steps. The thought of such sinewy exertion hit me like a giant salami. Pilates were — indeed — nothing mysterious, nothing charmingly starchy; they were a means of torture far kinder than waterboarding but similarly more cruel than oldster jumping jacks. I would have done much better with potato pancakes but at least I had been finally enlightened.

Now I speak of Pilates with a certain athletic homage and respect. They are in fact, nothing I can eat but rather something I cannot easily do.

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Kat Dockery makes these beautiful Valentines, available at Rainy Day.

jib-ellisJib Ellis writes from the wilds of Vineyard Haven, where he thinks, often, about how the Island is, was and could be. Every so often Jib will digress on something on-Island that reminds him of the outside world. Or, in this case, vice versa.

The first established American Valentines officially came from Worcester in 1849 but at least one was sent on the Vineyard in that very same year.

valentine-2009Miss Caroline Osborn of Edgartown received a custom fashioned and  admirably over-written card in 1849 and another Yankee lass, one Esther Howland  of Worcester, began to make the first American cards on a manufactured scale.

The Valentine history actually dates back to ancient Rome. There was a Saint Valentine of that city and his day is both a religious feast day in many cultures and a massive industry here.

Celebrations of romantic love burgeoned in Chaucerian days and 18th Century England saw the first sending of ornate, cupid and heart embossed cards and assorted sweets for the … you know … but over here there were only glorified — if not grandly decorated — notes.

In 1849, one of those English cards found its way to Miss Esther Howland. She was familiar with the basic holiday theme. During her time at Mt. Holyoke Women’s Seminary, class of `47, the lasses informally exchanged little poems and light gifts, but no cards.

valentine-2006-bHowever, upon her graduation, the 19-year-old damsel received a lovely if not formal Valentine from a gentleman in England. That complimented and pleased her so that it even lent a moment of entrepreneurial inspiration.

Given that her father had a rather expansive paper, book and stationer’s store in Worcester she quite simply ordered frills, lace and flowers to adorn lavish European paper. She introduced affordable yet still elaborate cards for the American market. And the rest, as they say, is commerce.

Dubbed “The Mother of the American Valentine,” her business crept up into six-figures before she sold it to one George Whitney in 1881. She died at 78, unmarried and still in Worcester.

The George C. Whitney company, which began mass-produced mush, rose to become one of the largest valentine publishers in the U.S.

valentine-2008Mr. Whitney’s real competition began in with the rise of Hallmark Cards. In 1915 Joyce Clyde Hall and his brother Rollie had their Kansas City, Missouri picture post card business leveled by fire.

In the process of rebuilding their effort one of them saw an increasing desire for privacy in correspondence which led them to creating cards in mailing envelopes. They introduced their first Valentine cards in 1913 with a line of them by 1916.

In a pinch, one employer snatched the lining from a lavish French envelope to wrap a gift and wrapping paper was born. But the Hall family wasn’t nearly done. They were not the “Hallmark” of holiday tradition until the wonderful copy line of 1944. That was the year of their slogan: “When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best,” and the general consumer consensus had to go with that thinking.

valentine-2007Hallmark is a now $4 billion business with nearly 40,000 of their own stores in 100 countries around the world, yet remains family owned.

A local  friend snapped up a writing job many years ago, even though it was writing card copy for Hallmark in Kansas City. When he left after a year, he cited the displeasure with it not being his sort of writing.

Upon returning to Massachusetts, he recalled: “Guys out there had tattoos with things like, `Born to raise corn.’”

Kat Dockery of Edgartown, the creator of the cards illustrating this story,  started making cards about four years ago to help her daughter’s class raise money for a class trip. When the teachers began to buy up her inventory, she started making them regularly. Her Valentine’s Day cards are currently for sale at Rainy Day in Vineyard Haven.

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School football coach Donald Herman gets doused in Gatorade (or is it water?) at the 2013 Island Cup on Nantucket.

As Trader Fred and I settle comfortably into gentlemen’s recliner chairs to watch the Super Bowl*, we shall not place any bets on the Gatorade. In the quaint traditional shadows of Edgartown and seasonal sport we shall forego the gambling possibilities for drink, though it turns out that last year the peculiar electrolyte tradition stumped a lot of bookies.

In the hysterical if not maniacal final moments of the 2013 Super Bowl, field frenzy was such that the winning coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens was NOT doused with Gatorade … so a lot of money did not change hands. What?

Online wagering sites actually gave odds for what color Gatorade would anoint the winning coach … and then there was none. When that has happened three times in the past — nothing is dumped on the winning coach — all bets are off. It is ruled “No action.” The suspense of the power drink’s hue is still in the wind. Unspilled, the color remains coded and a lot of folks were disappointed.

This year, online oddsmakers at Bovada  say “Clear/Water” is the popular choice, having opened as a 2/1 favorite, followed by “Orange” and “Yellow,” which were listed at 3/1 when Bovada posted Super Bowl prop bets on Thursday. While I generally think of the traditional drink as orange or green, the clear dunk was picked four years in a row, `03 to `06. In other years yellow, orange, and purple have each had double douses dating back to Bowl 35 —  yellow and Baltimore being that year’s winners.

Watching games, Fred and I have joked about ideas like having a Quahog Bowl to boost our local economy. But we must consider now dousing a coach in chowder — and it would have to be quahog chowder — none of this clam business to keep this Vineyard true.

That opened the conversation to the commercialization of Gatorade. Think of the gallons of Gatorade which are dumped on coaches every Saturday during football season. Every team, from peewee on up to the super pros had Gatorade to replenish and then an additional five gallons per team to dump on the winning coach.

That’s a terrific lateral marketing effort. The electrolyte-filled drink was conceived and delivered by the University of Florida to their dehydrated football players in 1966. While there is some dissent on the first time it doused a coach — Bill Parcells or Mike Ditka, both in 1984**, whichever one was first set off a tidal wave of such baptisms, thereby selling every football team in America — or the world for all we know — enough of the stuff to drink and then spill.

Granted quahog chowder would be a bit more untidy than Gatorade, but we think far more comforting, if not soothing, as the full winter sets in, and by designating the quahog part, we could corner the market. Can you see Net Result tank trucks heading off on the ferry to more local venues while C-141s load up at the airport? Barbie Fenner and Jackie Flynn-Morgan taking over the high school kitchens on Friday nights to create fresh batches for game day America? Besides, we need some Yankee interjection since the National Anthem has been usurped into alternating soul, country and Wayne-Newton-esque versions. We New Englanders need our presence known and I think chowder just might do it.

Maybe the Chowder Company could come out with the first glass-lined tank car, Fella Cecillo would have a diamond headed walking stick from his quahog consulting. The Net Result would be shipping bags of the stuff to Seattle. Petey Berndt would be pitching his lobster bisque as a more easily transported ritual puree…but the point here is that we would have made the transition from power drink to porridge. Think how many steam tables each team would need, think how much healthier a nation we would be if cold and flu season boasted an additional flagon of chicken soup.

I sat there watching giant men scramble for the ball, rambling on about soup and could almost hear Trader Fred’s head-wheels turning, could he make chowder in vast quantities in one of the Island’s lesser ponds? Watching football with Fred and me should almost be a business school program.

Perhaps then the bets could be on the Menemsha Galley’s brothier over the creamier chowder from The Bite. In any case, there would be room for an even newer product to remove quahog stains from coaches’ coats and somehow I think Trader Fred might find some way into this merchandizing fiesta.

* In 1964 chemist Norman Stingley created the first Super Ball a small orb of synthetic rubber called Zectron which bounced to within 92% of its drop height. Super indeed.

By the end of 1965, more than 6-million of the things were bouncing around the world and the term “super,” gained a fluency in our vocabulary which would accelerate all events and motions of success.  We hadn’t “super-sized” anything yet but the 1967 national pro football championship came to be known as the Super Bowl. Decent legend has it that football visionary and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, Lamar Hunt, while fiddling with his daughter’s Super Ball, was inspired by the toy and its name and opted to name the national championship game for it, thus the first Super Bowl.

** This is some discrepancy on the very first such lavatation — New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells  after they beat the Denver Broncos 39-20, or did Jim Burt of the Giants first dump Gatorade on Parcells after a 37-13 win over the Washington Redskins on October 28, 1984. Some versions of history have that it was not Bill at all but Mike Ditka and that Chicago Bears Defensive tackle Dan Hampton soaked coach Mike after his team copped their division title, also in `84.

Jib Ellis writes from the wilds of Vineyard Haven, where he thinks, often, about how the Island is, was and could be.