December 1st, 2006

krazy koati

The plots were not what you'd call complicated

It would be quite silly to think the sport of ice skating has come down without the slightest change for tens of thousands of years. It's hard to say exactly how that idea even got into your head, though authorities have a few imaginary suspects, none of whom are talking. But while large, flat sheets of ice have been popular ways to fill space as well as to blockade traffic on lousy winter days when nobody really wants to go to work or school, it was only with the rise of the comic strip -- cartoonists saw the comic potential of dignified people on slippery, crack-prone surfaces -- that the idea of going out onto the ice deliberately took hold.

Before then, people knew of ice skating, but they thought it supposed to be something to do with skates, the fish-like rays, and they couldn't see how fish had anything to do with ice-covered surfaces. Even if you did explain to one of those old-timers that they had the wrong kind of skate, they'd be likely to simply say, ``Ah, that's the question.'' Then if you asked what question they were talking about, they'd point a finger at your nose and say, ``Exactly.'' Eventually you give up the conversation, which is what they were really after. It hardly seems worth it to have put fish to all that trouble for so long just for that, but times were different then, and they're more different now.

Even after going out on the ice was recognized as a hobby, specific activities on it were slow to develop. For decades people would just wander out on an ice-covered body and stand around in awkward groups making conversation in which they agreed it was cold and then asking ice rink operators if they could leave yet. They could not, until they had paid a nickel (ten cents at Jamaica Plain, Boston). The breakthrough came, according to legend, at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis, where one day, ice cream vendor Abe Doumar purchased a block of waffle-like zalabias, wrapped them around his feet, and jumped into the Honduran ice exhibit.

Friends and patrons immediately realized he'd had a bit too much of the Andrew B Sterling and Kerry Mills music. But Doumar argued with them (his friends), pointing out the ``waffles'' were just conveniently on foot, and asked them to imagine that they were sharp metal blades instead, which made his friends very concerned. As a Christmas present one friend bought him a pair of Acme brand ice skates, which the Nova Scotian John Forbes had started manufacturing in 1867. Forbes's heirs were very happy that someone had come up with an application for the skates, as sales had been sluggish ever since the initial ``buy a sharp, heavy object to be placed in your closet'' campaign.

With the modern popularity of ice skating many people would be surprised to learn that a skater is not actually moving over ice. Instead, when the skater -- call him ``Mister Fitzstephen'', although he's very shy and will not answer -- pushes the skate to one direction, it puts pressure on ice crystals, causing them to break down into simple polymer-like chains of proteins. These proteins are carried through the bloodstream in small buckets marked ``kibble'' until they are fitted against an enzyme, which uses them as ballast to press against the skate in the opposite direction but at the same magnitude. The result is actually the ice moves out from under Mister Fitzstephen -- all the while suspecting it has misspelled his name, and taking his shyness for dislike -- which is what makes it so slippery and, to hobbyists, such fun.

Trivia: The term ``Yule'' comes from the ``Giuli'' month of the Teuton calendar, as used by the Angles around AD 725. Source: Mapping Time: The Calendar and its History, EG Richards.

Currently Reading: The Story of P&O, David Howarth, Stephen Howarth.