Winter grinds on. The best of you find brilliant, creative ways to cope, including memoir – recalling in wonderful, evocative detail how things used to be, including winter.
Like many of you, I’m trying to read my way through the pandemic, filling the indoor aloneness with the company of favorite authors and new works suggested by friends. While they have been timely and fascinating, the latest books to come up off the to-read pile haven’t exactly brightened my mood: “Plagues in World History,” by John Aberth. “American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” by Nancy K. Bristow. And “The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease,” by Steven Taylor.
Visceral accounts of disease and arbitrary suffering, even when presented as cautionary lessons for “next time,” don’t settle me like a good novel. But Taylor’s “The Psychology of Pandemics” is remarkably applicable to what we’re going through today. For 30 years, this guy has researched health anxiety – the way we, the public, respond to the threat of infection. Most of his work has been on influenza, SARS and Ebola, and his pandemic book was published just before COVID-19 was first reported in China.
In a June 2020 update interview in the American Psychological Association, Taylor urged treating this novel coronavirus as a chance to prepare for the inevitable next pandemic or natural disaster.
An important part of preparation is learning how to deal with panic, anxiety and other behavioral responses to global threats, he says. People with pre-existing mental health issues may lose access to their providers. “But long-term issues will not be limited to those with pre-existing issues. People will lose their marriages, their jobs, their houses and their finances. The upheaval and stress of being in close confines can have lasting effects on people’s mental health and well-being.”
Taylor emphasizes the importance of “risk communication” – officials must gain the public’s trust with honest, early information and be open about uncertainties. Also, “many countries did not prepare as well as they could have for the predictable rise in racism, the surge of the worried well into hospitals and the panic buying.” We need to do a better job of persuading more people to accept vaccines as good and safe, the best way to herd immunity.
As COVID-19 continues to mess with our national psyche, Taylor studies how we handle self-isolation. “We’re also investigating people’s varying coping strategies, both adaptive behaviors such as finding creative ways to connect with friends and maladaptive strategies such as substance abuse.”
I’ve been staring at winter out a window and recalling the sounds and smells of a skating rink warming house, the clanking of steam heat radiators, the warming fragrance of a beef stew simmering indoors. I remember, a bit wistfully, the thrill of sledding, the purposefulness of shoveling to clear the mail carrier’s path, the beauty of rosy-cheeked girls with their fluffy white mittens and scarves. Good winter.
Friend Laurie Hertzel, books editor at the Star Tribune, remembers winters of her youth in Duluth, where her family had moved from Missouri.
“The move from the South to the North took years to adjust to. My mother wore a silk scarf over her head in the bitterness of January. The older kids refused to wear hats, worried about mussing their overly complicated hair. The house was not well-insulated: the windows grew thick with hairy white frost, and I pressed my index finger against the glass to make patterns and, as the frost melted, the water ran down the pane and into the sill, where it re-froze in hard opaque lumps. The radiators clanked and clanged as the furnace pushed out heat night and day – heat that flew out the open bedroom windows, leaked under the door jambs and cracked window sills, rose through the attic roof, leached through the gray clapboard walls.
" ‘Listen to that,’ Guv (Laurie’s father) would say. ‘Listen to how hard that furnace is working.’ He'd look around for a culprit: ‘For God's sake, shut that door!’ But to me, the noise was a comfort, a background that meant security and warmth. When the furnace was silent, the house did not sound right, and I worried. I would quietly open a window to make it kick up again.
“The radiators steamed with wet mittens, usually drying inside out because when you pulled them off after coming in from playing in the snow the wet fibers stuck to your skin and turned wrong-way-out and you never could get the thumbs quite right again no matter how diligently you poked.”
I am not insensitive to the plight of people in Texas, who will not remember this winter fondly. But I share my friend’s memories – the clingy mittens after snowball fights, the frosty window panes turned art projects, the fun outside and the clanging, aromatic security indoors. Good winter.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.