Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Blizzard Syndrome and the Current Social Distancing

This morning our daughter Emily said we should make Prune Loaf.

I said, "Yes. We should."

We have a malady known as Blizzard Syndrome, and Blizzard Syndrome calls for Prune Loaf.

Back in 1975, we lived in Minnesota in an older house that didn't have any running water or indoor plumbing. The water came from a pump about a hundred feet from the house. We had an outhouse and also strategic buckets indoors when the weather was nasty.

That January a blizzard blew in. Even for Minnesota, it was extreme-- a storm for the history books. It brought tons of snow, bitter cold, and days of wild wind that, they said, lifted the topsoil off the Dakotas and blew it our way, piling huge drifts of gritty gray snow. We'd wake up in the morning to little drifts of snow on the windowsills that had blown through tiny cracks and crevices. If there was any opening at all, the wind found it.

Mom and us three girls, aged 13 (Rebecca), 12, (me), and 6 (Margaret),  were home alone for most of the blizzard. To stay warm, we curtained off the living room and cranked up the oil stove until the metal cylinder inside glowed red hot. We must have hauled enough water before the storm hit, because there would have been no pumping in that weather. We also had propane for the kitchen stove.

Blizzard Syndrome is a peculiar fidgety agitation that takes possession of the soul when you're stuck inside in a blizzard.

First there's a sense of excitement as you check supplies, watch the gathering storm, and make sure everyone is at a safe place to wait it out. Then, once the storm locks you inside, you pace the floor, look out the window, and call people to see how they're doing, such as your brother Fred who is over at his co-worker's house because he couldn't make it home.

You can't go anywhere. You are stuck here until the danger passes.

None of the normal recreations appeal. You don't feel like reading or playing games or painting your paint-by-number kit, all the things you'd love to do, normally, when there are dishes to wash.

We had a bad case of Blizzard Syndrome.

Finally, I believe it was Mom who suggested we bake something, so Rebecca and I poked around in our cold kitchen , looking for ingredients and leafing through a cookbook.
This isn't the actual recipe, but it was a cookbook from this era.
We didn't have a lot of ingredients to work with, and certainly nothing fancy, because we were poor and also because we were in the process of moving to another house, but we found a recipe for something we could make:Prune Loaf.

Dad liked to eat prunes, so they were kind of a mockable food. But this recipe lifted those humble fruits into something slightly exotic.

We steamed the prunes and mixed a sweet dough, then rolled out the dough and wrapped a circle of it around each prune. We rolled these balls in sugar and stacked them in a baking pan.

And baked the resulting loaf, of course, and proudly served it.

Blizzard Syndrome was staved off for an hour or so, at least.

I look back and think I would have been paralyzed with fear if I'd been Mom. Home alone with three daughters in a cold house, short on supplies and clean water, far from neighbors, and utterly unreachable in an emergency.

Later, she said she'd been most afraid that red-hot oil stove would burn the house down, but she didn't let us know. Instead, she gathered us around on Sunday morning, the third day of the storm, to hold a little church service in the sort-of-warm living room. And, of course, she encouraged us to keep busy.

When the storm passed, we found a door that wasn't drifted shut and went out into a bizarre world where we could walk on top of the hard-packed snow over drifts that were like swirling mountain ranges over the fields and up to the top of the chicken house.

A day or so later, the snow plow pushed through, backing up to take a run at the section in front of our house and piling up snowbanks that turned out to be as high as the school bus, when the school bus finally came again and we scrambled up and over to meet it.

We compared stories with everyone we knew and rejoiced that we had all survived.

And "making Prune Loaf" entered the family lore as a code for doing something about that strange and unique restlessness that hits when danger keeps you at home.

Today our world is restricted by coronavirus. The girls are home from college. Events are cancelled. Restaurants and coffee shops are closed. Paul and Jenny teach via the internet, because there are no children at school. All sorts of plans are indefinitely postponed.

Mostly, we stay home.

We are all feeling a mix of that peculiar fidgety excitement, apprehension, and agitation that takes possession of the soul at such times.

We have Blizzard Syndrome.

It's time for our own COVID-19-Quarantine version of Prune Loaf.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Stories, Soul-searching, and Such

We plan to remodel the downstairs bathroom before Matt and Phoebe's wedding in June.

I'll copy what I posted on Facebook last week:

Condensed version: What is the best, most durable and scrubbable, easiest to care for bathtub material?
Long version: An upcoming wedding makes for a great excuse to repair, replace, replenish, and even remodel.
Twenty years ago, we remodeled the downstairs bathroom before we moved into this house. The tiny bathroom that had served the house for probably fifty years, accessible only through Paul's parents' bedroom[!] remained a bathroom with the same configuration, but we took out the clawfoot tub [foolish foolish!!] and put in a fiberglass tub/shower combo.
We put in a different doorway.
The back porch next to the old bathroom, which had been a rough-hewn laundry room for about a hundred years, that became a bright room with a long counter, two sinks, lots of drawers, a big mirror, about 10,000 watts of light to please the husband, and plenty of room for a crowd of school kids to brush their teeth on a Monday morning.
In twenty years, the tub is tired, the edges around it are crumbling, the varnish on the cabinets is peeling, and the corners of the room are moldy.
Actually, the whole bathroom looks exhausted.
The wedding and lots of guests are coming.
The time has come.
This means decisions. Decisions about colors, styles, and accessories.
About components that ought to last for thirty years and others that can be easily changed in two.
Most of this falls on me.
It fills me with dread.
So. We begin with the tub. The current fiberglass is a delicate prissy material that gets scummy and dirty but hates to be scrubbed with anything a little bit gritty or effective.
Meanwhile, ten years ago I got a new kitchen sink that seemed as durable as a dump truck--enamel on cast iron after all--but it scratched sickeningly easily, right from the start. I couldn't get a refund because this is considered "normal wear and tear." [Two weeks after we got it, my sister-in-law said, 'I see you decided to get a secondhand sink.'] The injustice of it all.
So. What is the best material for the new tub? Porcelain? Enameled steel? Acrylic? Something else we haven't thought of?
Again: Long-lasting. Scrubbable. Impervious to wear and tear.
Thanks in advance.

Remodeling is a big and potentially overwhelming deal for me. Last week Paul and I went to Jerry's, the enormous home-supply store in Eugene, one evening to look at bathtubs and countertops.

Oddly, there weren't a lot of choices in tubs, but there were hundreds, if not thousands, of options in tile and countertops.

Paul, who is becoming wiser every year, briefly mentioned a few potentials and options, but also spent time not talking so I could think. Well, he maybe got a bit carried away with the big nearsighted red-aproned salesman that one time, but other than that.

Ten years ago, we went shopping at that very same Jerry's for kitchen cupboards and counters, and both Paul and the helpful salesperson talked at me the whole entire time, pointing out the advantages of this and what did I think of that and wouldn't this feature be nice and oh no, I don't want that because it'll be hard to clean.

It felt, as Stephen King says in his wonderful book on writing, that I had had jumper cables attached to my head for two hours, but in the moment I didn't have the skills to put into words why I was losing my mind. Also, I didn't want to tell Paul or the salesperson to JUST STOP TALKING, because that's dramatic and rude, so it all ended with tears and a slow hashing out in the car on the way home of what was going on and what I need and other terrible, dreadful, laborious cracking of the mental walnuts and picking out the meats.

If you're an INFP married to an ESTJ, which is the COMPLETE OPPOSITE personality, these conversations are necessary but oh so exhausting.

BUT. This time we went shopping and Paul didn't talk! I could browse in peace.

See? We are getting somewhere. He knows what I need and is happy to provide it. I have the skills to recognize that I need quiet, and to ask for it.

I was surprised at how many people commented on Facebook that actually we shouldn't get a tub; we should get a roll-in shower. Because [cough] we are getting older and all.

Paul said, and I agreed, "This is a home for a family. If we need a roll-in shower, we're moving to a Daudi Haus*."

Happily, enough people shared their specific experiences that I got a good idea of what we want. There's nothing like the experience of a cleaning lady, a plumber's wife, and others who remodeled their bathrooms and survived.

But I am still open to suggestions.

Speaking of Stephen King: I would never read his novels. Not if you paid me. I hate creepy, dark, horror novels. But his writing how-to and memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is excellent. I read slowly and underline. I'm not sure how that works.

He is very big on authenticity. The hard-drinking miner isn't going to say, "Oh dearie me," if he hits his thumb with a hammer. So he writes what the guy actually says.

Cussing hasn't been an issue for me in my laborious fiction attempts, because I don't know too many Mennonites who use "bad words." 

I've found, though, that the Mennonite world is full of nervous readers who do not like anything about the culture to be portrayed negatively. At all, in any form. You can be as authentic and real as a rainy day in Oregon, and everyone knows that this is true to life, but they won't be ok with it. We all have difficult people in our lives, if we are anywhere near normal. If we are Mennonite, at least some of those annoying people will also be Mennonite. Also, some of us don't have our acts together. We are discouraged, we talk too much or too little, and we wonder if we were actually at peace with God and man last communion.

But we seem to have a cultural taboo about being realistic about this. I wonder why this is so, because most of us are drawn to people who have a few good honest flaws.

In a story I just started for my writing group, we have two teenage girls and their great-aunt:

“Have you girls thought about teaching the Kindergarten One class?”
Aunt Martha’s shrill voice was right in our ears, startling us both. Allison and I turned from the bulletin board in the church foyer where we’d been inspecting the signup sheet for vacation Bible school teachers.
“Oh hi, Aunt Martha!” Allison said. “We were just talking about maybe signing up. Maybe Jenny could take the littlest class and I could take the next one.”
Aunt Martha tucked her black leather clutch and three Sunday school papers under her left elbow. “Oh, I don’t know. That’s a lot of responsibility for a young person, and the truth is neither of you is very responsible, you know, but we do need teachers.” She chuckled. “I think you two should teach one of the kindergarten classes together! That way, what one forgets, the other one can remember.”
Aunt Martha always made me feel like I was about six years old, trying to be grownup but actually silly and ridiculous. I looked at Allison. She raised her eyebrows just a bit, and the corner of her mouth twitched. I knew she wanted to roll her eyes as badly as I did.
I smiled and patted Aunt Martha’s arm. “We’ll make it a matter of prayer.” If that line didn’t impress her, nothing would.

Now. When you were a teenager, you had an Aunt Martha in your life. I would almost bet money on this.

But if this story ever sees the light of day, I will get letters telling me that I'm bitter and unforgiving toward someone who was an Aunt Martha to me.

Stephen King says he gets this sort of letter all the time when he writes the things that people say and do. He's learned to disregard them.

I was thinking a lot about this oversized fear of accusation if and when I ever publish fiction. I realized it came from a long history of believing that other people get to define me, and whatever they say about me is true.

That is a terrifying way to live.

So I had to make that a matter of prayer, and the Holy Spirit had some things to tell me about who gets to see and define what's in my heart, and who does not.

So between remodeling the bathroom and writing, there is no end of soul-searching and growth.

*a traditional Amish house for grandparents