How to Survive the Off-Season on Martha’s Vineyard in Three Easy Steps ...or Possibly Twelve

Brave survivor Jen Zern is here to help you get through your first Vineyard winter without needing an intervention.


Hey everybody, summer's here!

“But Jen,” you say, pointing at your calendar, which I envision features photographs of small dogs in sweaters. “It is clearly spring.”

You and your sweater-dog calendar are wrong. Here on Martha’s Vineyard, I’ve learned, there are only two seasons: “High” and “Off”. The high season is synonymous with summer, while the off season is synonymous with winter. There is no inbetween.

Sure, year-rounders are aware there is such a thing as spring and fall, but these seasons are mere transitional bridges. On the Vineyard, they barely register.

About a week before Labor Day, the locals start whispering about winter, like it’s a plague or an inevitable famine or, you know, Winter in Westeros.* That’s because for business owners and seasonal workers, it kind of is: when the tourists leave, all of their fat vacation cash leaves with them. Most businesses have no choice but to shut their doors until they return.

Conversely, now that spring has sprung, shops are prematurely fanfaring their grand reopenings – Countdown to Memorial Day weekend!, their Facebook pages shout – and the locals are excitedly buzzing about summer. Last month, I heard someone say (without irony), “Summer's here!” So I mean, I’m not making this up.

“That's fascinating, Jen,” you say while noisily flipping back four pages on your calendar, pausing at a pug in a smoking jacket seated in a tiny armchair by a fireplace. (Awww.) “But what does everyone do in the long, bleak winter?”

What an excellent question you didn’t actually ask me! The answer is, they LIVE THROUGH IT.

Or, they don’t. I've found that an alarming number of residents fly south for the winter, like birds. When I moved here last summer and informed the locals that I would be enduring My First Vineyard Winter, they would gasp, eyes wide with horror – then, they’d close their gawping mouths and say, “You’ll be okay.”

I wasn’t convinced.

Luckily, Vineyarders are a helpful bunch, quick to impart sage nuggets of advice for surviving the off-season. And invariably, no matter who I spoke to, it came down to these three simple steps:

1) You’d better have a hobby – or really enjoy your alone time.

Upon hearing that I was a writer, locals would relax and wave their hand, all, “Oh, you’ll keep yourself plenty busy in the cold, lonely nights ahead! I’m no longer worried about you turning to prescription painkillers and/or a life of crime.” But have any of these people seen The Shining? Because there were several times that I found myself in danger of humming ‘Dies Irae’ while typing ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JEN A DULL GIRL on five hundred sheets of paper. Just sayin’.

2) If not, you’d better find yourself a winter boyfriend/girlfriend.

I’m convinced this is a phenomenon totally unique to Martha’s Vineyard and its bi-seasonality (and if that's not a real word, it should be). If you’re single, this practice is totally acceptable and fully encouraged: cozy up with someone for the winter, then free-agent again when the snow melts. Everything else is seasonal here, why not relationships? Summer is for mixing it up; winter is for cuddling under the duvet with someone you can stand for four months straight. Personally, I can’t stand anyone for more than a few days, so that means I’m left with tip #3, which is:

3) When all else fails, embrace alcoholism. [Not recommended.]

While this is no joke for a lot of people, there was a lot of good-natured ribbing about this with the locals I talked to, and it was always the third bullet point. Admittedly, hitting the sauce does look attractive by week two. Last November, I openly announced that I was making a real go of becoming a drunk. Problem is, I only drink wine, and more than one glass just makes me sleepy. That’s right, I failed at alcoholism. Pity me.

Clearly this blueprint, though well-meaning, was faulty. And now that I’VE lived through my first off-season, and am therefore a self-proclaimed expert on the subject, I can dole out advice like a native! [Natives, feel free to yell at me in comments below.]

First, I should disclaim that this was one of the mildest winters on record for the island. It only snowed twice, and the thermometer hovered around 50 for a good while. So I wasn’t stuck at home, buried under blankets of snow. I also had a job. These two things helped a lot. But here’s what else helped me:

1) Make friends, and then actually hang out with them.

Back when I was living in the big city, I took my pals for granted. I was all about writing at home and snuggling with my (sometimes sweater-clad) dogs while my outgoing significant other did enough socializing for the both of us; I ventured out maybe three times a month. I forgot how awesome friendships could be when you don’t neglect them. And here, particularly in the nothing to do off-season, it’s imperative to have a (non-virtual!) social network. Dinner parties, winter walks, coffee shop catch-ups and game nights become a grave necessity.

2) Find little things to look forward to (i.e., compelling reasons not to slit your wrists).

a) Television. Are you one of those holier-than-thou intellectuals who likes to brag about not owning a TV? That’s too bad, because you’re missing some quality entertainment that could singlehandedly keep you from drowning in a pool of Jim Beam next winter. If you’re not emotionally ready for hour-long scripted serial fare, I suggest getting your feet wet with docudramas like A&E’s “Intervention” and “Hoarders”. These shows will keep you clean (in both senses of the word) and on the straight and narrow – or, at the very least, they’ll make you feel much better about your situation. “At least I’m not a junkie!” you can proudly proclaim. Or, my personal go-to, “At least I don’t have to clean my house with a shovel!” (Seriously. That’s a real thing.)

b) Bargain shopping. Winter on Martha’s Vineyard got me obsessed with second-hand shopping. That’s right, I blame you, Martha V. How could I not? Every day there’s a different type of half-off sale at the Chicken Alley thrift shop in Vineyard Haven; add to that the ever-fabulous Martha’s Closet (the belts! the bags! the jackets!), FREE treasures at the West Tisbury Dumptique (more on that in a future post, oh my god, I can’t even believe how great that place is), not to mention the weekend yard sales, shopping via the MV Times Bargain Box or the Facebook group ‘MV Stuff For Sale’... I’m not a shopaholic (I can stop any time!), but these outlets helped to make my winter-dreary life worth living.

c) I suppose there’s more to life than TV and shopping, so reluctantly I will list other stuff, like community potlucks and music events, karaoke and trivia nights, classes at the ACE, crafting, cooking, reading... My big undertaking this winter was learning Brazilian Portuguese via audio CD. It gave me something to look forward to everytime I got in my car, and now I can communicate (badly) with Brazilian customers. Bonus!

3) Break an occasional sweat; take an occasional breath.

I didn’t hit the gym nearly as often as my superhumanly-dedicated friend Jess (who is basically there every single day, kudos to her and her resulting perfect-10 body), but when I did make it, it was always an excellent cure for the winter blahs. (Plus, almost everyone on the island has a Y membership, so you’re bound to see someone you know** while you hop on the elliptical or wrestle with the lat machine.) However, my favorite remedy was yoga – there is nothing more exhilarating than therapeutic movement coupled with spiritual reflection and meditation. I spent many a chilly Sunday morning at the Yoga Barn, gazing out of those big beautiful windows at the trees and pond and ducks beyond, focusing on my breath and finding inner peace. (Or at least clearing my mind of random superfluous data for a few precious minutes.)

Now that winter's over, I feel a little tougher, a little wiser... and a lot curvier. (Winter fat layer. When does that go away, locals? I'm ready for it to be gone now.) In a two-season town like MV, you've gotta take on the Off to fully appreciate the High.

Happy summer!


P.S. How do you survive the off-season? Let's compare notes.


For more on my journey as a new year-rounder, see my previous blog post,


*If you’re not reading or watching Game of Thrones, you’re not utilizing the tools available to you to survive the off-season. Get on it ASAP.

**Not so good if you’re trying to avoid that person. Try pretending you're really into the Bruins game – that's what I do.

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Carol Lashnits April 11, 2012 at 05:38 PM
Oh, Jen. We have always said that if you make it through the first winter, you'll be fine. So you'll be fine. However, next year you can update this article because fall is absolutely our favorite season here. We don't tell the summer people or tourists but it is definitely the BEST time on the Island. Most stores and restaurants are still open and the weather is great. And you can swim up until Thanksgiving some years. And you see familiar faces again. So that makes 3 seasons. And don't forget that we all have dogs and if they're labs or other water loving dogs they swim all year round while we walk the beaches. So lots of us LOVE the off season. No cars, no people in the grocery stores, the ability to trespass, the ease of getting boat tickets, and quiet. Spring we have our pinkletinks and birdsong and flowers that bloom first in VH and eventually make it upisland. I could say more but you will learn by living here. There's a lot more to MV than winter and summer!!!
Kristin Zern April 11, 2012 at 05:44 PM
Love your description! The key for us is get togethers at friends houses. The thrift shops are a way to stay sane in winter as they are so welcoming and there is always someone to chat with. Movies and TV shows a must and then there is the excitement of an occasional day trip off island. This is an absolute must even if it's to visit the dentist!
jmad April 11, 2012 at 05:46 PM
nice article. will you stay another year?
Jen Zern April 11, 2012 at 07:17 PM
Oh, don't get me wrong, Carol, I appreciate every great thing the off season has to offer! In fact, I haven't been here in summer since I was a teenager -- I loved writing my book here when I visited in spring and fall, and the summer, when I finally experienced it again last year, was way too populated for me. What I'm talking about here (cheekily) is a very generalized two-season view of life (and a dread of winter) that I'd never been privy to until I moved here. But I definitely share your view: I heard the pinkletinks a couple of weeks ago and almost died of happiness!
Jen Zern April 11, 2012 at 07:18 PM
Oh, I'm here for the long haul!
Jen Zern April 11, 2012 at 07:20 PM
Yes -- that reminds me, a future post should be all about going off island!
Maggie Dempsey April 12, 2012 at 02:12 PM
Haha, I love your comparison to Game of Thrones. It's true, everyone seems to whisper - WINTER IS COMING! But not this year. The mild weather seemed to last well through November. I had flowers still blooming in my planters up until December 15. Seems like every time I was at Menemsha enjoying the sunset, or some other beach venue basking in the temperate weather, the people I would run into always said (basically the same thing) - "Indian summer we had and a mild fall too, winter must really have it in for us huh?" Except the threat of winter never really came. Between the booming tick population and the triumphant return of my herb garden with very few casualties (R.I.P. basil, you never make it past that first hard frost) speaks volumes - our winter was an easy one this time 'round. No complaints here, though. :) Maybe in Westeros they'd call this a long summer! One addition to your list, though - reading! Seems like I spend all summer and fall making a to-do list, and I spend most of the colder months tucked into a book. With all the fun of the summer, there's no time to really crack the pages the way I like. I have to wait until January, in front of a nice cup of tea, to really get started.
Rachelle Johnson April 15, 2012 at 01:30 AM
Right on....May God speed ...Winter is tough and on the Island it seems to be tougher....
Jen Zern April 23, 2012 at 12:18 AM
Yes, now I keep hearing, "I hope we won't have to pay for [the warm winter] this summer!", as if Mother Nature is out to get us. OR IS SHE. Anyway, books and winter absolutely do go hand in hand! Was that not implied by the pug in the smoking jacket? I mean, what else would he be doing? ;D
Jordan Michael Blake December 20, 2012 at 11:26 AM
I know this article is a little old, but I read it because I'm thinking about shooting a short film in Martha's vineyard and was wondering when that shift you talk about takes place. I visited last year in the middle of March and the emptiness was absolutely beautiful. If I came out again this April (probably towards the end of the month) would it be completely different?
BeccaClaire December 27, 2012 at 05:08 PM
Getting through my first winter as we speak.... And im loving this entire piece! You made me crack up Jen. I have done (or at least talked on and on about) doing each of these things. Knitting is now my expertise.....yes, thats right, I just flinished my first and only cowell scarf and it is simply beautiful thank you very much. And I literally have to limit my showtime and hbo -ing so that I don't run out, but I could really spend days watching game of thrones. After months of deliberation (procrastinstion) I have finally decided on a yoga pass to get myself out of the house and socializing while gettin' my sweat on. My boyfriend and I are on day two of cooking our way through a cookbook xmas present. And what I really need to work on for myself with my enabling boyfriend that I live with is ACTUALLY getting out of the house to get together with girl friends to have however brief but necessary girl time. This friend time has also been hindered by my poor alcoholic skills. Oh well, practice makes perfect right!? Thanks for sharing Jen! Pot luck soon? Haha
BeccaClaire December 27, 2012 at 05:13 PM
Oh and I wouldn't be able to live without good Ole' chicken alley! I always feel right at home when I walk through that ever-changing hall of trinkets ans fine china sets :)
Jen Zern December 28, 2012 at 04:41 PM
It's definitely not as empty as mid-March, but late April (and spring in general) is undoubtedly one of the best times to be here (fall is the other) - still quiet, but enough local flavor to feel like there's something going on. Plus, you get flowers and foliage and warmth - and lots of wild baby turkeys.
Jen Zern December 28, 2012 at 04:42 PM
Haha, yes, keep practicing, you'll get there! Are we facebook friends? If not, we should be...


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