Ellis Island: Pilates, deep fried

Pilates — familiar to many, undecipherable to some. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Jib 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.