Marking Myself ‘Happy’ During the Polar Vortex

It’s 3 degrees outside and dropping. They’re calling this the Polar Vortex, the Arctic Blast, or maybe it’s just Hell Freezing Over. News reports say that Midwest temperatures will be the lowest they’ve been in a generation, that it will be colder in Chicago than in Antarctica.

To think I could be in Florida right now.

I was in Florida until a few days ago. I could have stayed an extra week. But I chose to drive home before the Big Freeze.

I chose this?! I willingly came back to Iowa when the forecast is for 20 below zero with a wind chill of minus 50? I have been suffering from a severe case of S.A.D. and still I chose to come back?

The Weather Channel is scarier than a horror movie.

I knew it was going to be cold if I came back to Iowa. But I also knew I had survived New Year’s Eve of 2018, when Doug, my boyfriend, had his annual bonfire party outside in the woods—even though it was 14 below! (I had also survived waking up the following morning, starting off 2018 with a thermometer reading of negative 19. Happy F**king New Year!)

Doug’s wood pile. That’s going
 to be one big-ass bonfire.

Doug’s bonfire party tradition spans more than three decades, and he and his farmer friends and family members carry on with it regardless of the weather, such hardy folk are they. That brutal year as 2017 gave way to 2018 everyone joked about how in all the times they’d been to this gathering they had never stood this close to the flames, an inferno so towering it could melt your boots along with your brains. The blaze was so big it could have been used as a funeral pyre, a description that isn’t far off as Doug, in the early years of the party, used to build Burning Man-esque effigies and set them alight.

On that oh-so-festive occasion, our group—there were a dozen of us—huddled precariously close to the fire, holding out our mittened hands toward the heat, continuously rotating our bodies like chickens on a rotisserie to warm all sides evenly. We roasted hot dogs (using 10-foot-long branches Doug had whittled) and drank beer and wine out of thermoses so our drinks wouldn’t freeze. We nibbled on homemade cookies so hardened by the cold they could chip your teeth.

This is what Iowa farmers do for fun?!

Can you feel the heat?

I was only there because my boyfriend hosts the soirée. I would prefer to spend New Year’s Eve—or any long winter’s night—in my bathtub reading a book or under my down comforter watching Netflix. I tried to be a good and dutiful girlfriend, but I bailed on the party before midnight. Sometime before 11, my friend Carolyn and I announced we were walking home, a distance of a quarter mile away from the fire site, even though there was a fleet of pickup trucks parked nearby and we probably could have taken one. We were tough women. We would brave the elements.

Carolyn and I cinched our coats tighter and wrapped our scarves higher around our faces. We tore ourselves away from the pull of the fire’s seductive heat, turned on a flashlight, and set off across the soybean field toward the house. We trudged over the plowed black soil and ice, taking care not to trip on the dirt clods and snow drifts.

Carolyn and me

As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we could see more of the sky. It was so black and wide, the air so chilled it was crystalline, the stars appeared both closer and more infinite, millions of them illuminated like the dust of crushed diamonds. The night was so serene and surreal it begged the question “Is this heaven?” Carolyn and I, like a pair of baseball players stepping out of the past onto a frozen farm, had to remind ourselves, “It’s Iowa.” We walked in silence, with reverence, as if this were a religious experience or the rapture, as if we were not just communing with the Universe but we were the Universe. No, we weren’t drunk. More importantly, we weren’t cold! And those 20 minutes—outdoors in Ice Age conditions that could kill you—turned out to be the highlight of my holiday.

I wasn’t thinking about this when I left Florida and returned to Iowa of my own volition. Nor was I thinking about my boyfriend and how much I missed him, along with my dogs and cats and goats. Sadly, selfishly, my motivation to go north was based on Florida’s forecast. The Gulf States were going to get a whiff of this Arctic Blast too. If I stayed in the South there would be no dips in the sea or barefoot walks on the beach or margaritas sipped at outdoor cafes because Florida, the Weather Channel declared, might even get snow! Still, I checked my Weather Underground app and Google maps obsessively, toggling back and forth between the two, to see if there was somewhere, anywhere I could go within a day’s driving distance that was warm, or at least warmer. Alas, I wouldn’t be able to reach anyplace summery without getting on an airplane.

This isn’t snow, but it felt like it! It’s a white sugar sand in Navarre Beach,
Florida, and the wind chill was about 28 degrees when I took this photo.

In the midst of agonizing over a tempting invitation to South Carolina (unseasonably cold, but warmer than the Heartland), I had a phone consultation with my friend Kee Kee. After confessing to her that I already had a trip booked to Arizona for 10 days in February, I came to the conclusion that home is where I needed to be. No matter how low the temperatures would go.

And they will be dangerously low. According to media reports, it will be so cold they are advising you should not talk, let alone breathe when you’re outside.

Is this the Arctic? No, it’s Iowa.

Oh, Florida…why did I ever leave you?!

No matter how cold, how uncomfortable, how life-threatening, I promised myself I would not complain about the weather when I got back to Iowa. (Doug—or anyone who knows me—will confirm that my proclivity to grumble increases by 99 percent in winter.) And as the temps continue to plummet—it has already dropped to 6 below in the past hour—and the winds howl, their speeds gaining force, I have yet to utter one negative word about Mother Nature’s deadly assault. Because the forecast indicates it will be in the mid-40s by Saturday. In other words, this too shall pass.

In the meantime, I have the means to endure as I am heavily armed with the essential tools. I have a thick suit of armor, created out of multiple layers of fleece, wool, and down. I have a warm house with a trustworthy furnace, a deep soaking bathtub, and an on-demand water heater to fill it. I have cupboards well-stocked with hot chocolate and red wine. I have flannel sheets on my bed, a down comforter and, best of all, a steaming hot potato of a farmer I can snuggle with underneath it.

I consider my return home something like The Hero’s Journey, because avoidable as coming back may have been, there is something that feels noble and right about joining in the battle of survival, not running from it but facing it head on, and going through the test of endurance together. It’s like Tea Leoni’s character in Deep Impact (the doomsday film about a killer meteor on a collision course with Earth that will wipe out humanity) when she sacrifices her spot in the shelter, giving up her chance to live, to be with her dad, her family. Doug and our animals are my family. And whether it’s a meteor hurling toward the earth or, as is the case, a dangerous but far-less life-threatening winter storm blowing across the Great Plains, I wouldn’t want to be alone in a Florida motel room. I would want to be—and am—with family.

So, yes, I may be in Iowa in this torturous, record-shattering weather, yet I’m feeling triumphant. Because whether this is heaven—or hell—freezing over, no matter how bad this Polar Vortex gets, I am safe, I am warm, I am home—and I’m very happy to be here.

Stay safe and warm, everyone!

What To Do With All That Privilege

This essay also appears on Huffington Post. 
 


 

On Saturday night I dreamed I was in the elegant living room of an older wealthy woman. I stood next to her delivering an emphatic, tearful plea, insisting, “When you are born into privilege it is your responsibility to help others less fortunate than you.” Man, I was really crying. The scene was so vivid and visceral—from the walnut paneled-walls and red leather Chesterfield armchair to the woman’s gray hair in a neatly trimmed bob, to the dramatic and forceful delivery of my statement—that, unlike most dreams, I remembered every detail of it when I woke up.

“Pay your civic rent” with a gift card with
the request it be regifted to someone in need.

Shaking off the heaviness left by the dream, I went downstairs to have coffee and read the Sunday paper. One of the first articles I read was the “One Nation: I am an American” column, syndicated by the USA Today Network. The person-of-the-week interviewed was Gregg Rochman, a developer in Louisville, Kentucky, and in the first paragraph he said, “I grew up in an affluent area and I could have done anything I wanted. But, because of that privilege, I have a duty to share and to give back.”

Oh, snap! His comments were my dream verbatim. In Rochman’s case, he renovates historic properties into affordable housing. “We have a land with vast resources and a people capable of anything. Our advantages are used of the good of the planet and all its creatures—all people, all living things,” he said, before adding a sobering caveat. “Currently, Americans are divided from one another. We do not do everything in our power to house the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the cold, educate the poor and support each other with the goal of the betterment of everyone—even though it is within our reach.”

He is certainly right about that!

In addition to creating low-income housing, Rochman volunteers for New Roots, a nonprofit food justice organization that brings farm-fresh fruits and vegetables to food insecure communities. Essentially, it’s an affordable farmers market created because, according to the New Roots website, “Just like air and water, everyone has a right to fresh food” in order to be healthy and happy.

Then, in the business section of the paper, in between the outrage over the GOP tax bill and the Great Recession’s impact on economic disparity between urban and rural areas, there was an article about Suku Radia, the CEO of Bankers Trust, who is retiring. Based in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. Radia is an Indian who was born and raised in Uganda and came to the U.S. as a young immigrant. While attending Iowa State University, his family fled Uganda after Idi Amin’s coup d’état leaving Radia with no home to return to. He stayed in Iowa, completed his education, and worked his way up to the C suite, achieving the status of “privileged.” The article was a tribute to how he used that privilege to help others. “Pay your civic rent,” Radia said, but not by simply writing a check. A philanthropist long before he had money, he understood the value of volunteering and, in 1976, began giving his time to help United Way. From there, “my feelings of duty, compassion and gratitude have only spiraled,” he said. As a board member in 2010, he visited 51 local agencies that received funding from United Way, with some of those visits causing him to weep in his car after seeing the vulnerable populations first-hand. He is quoted saying, “How can I be so lucky? I’m sitting there in a Lexus and my car’s probably worth more than the building in which the agency is housed. It was very difficult. Your heart just goes out to these folks.” Radia doesn’t only support United Way, he fundraises for numerous nonprofits—from Habitat for Humanity to the American Diabetes Association—and mentors 40 individuals to help them achieve their goals, and to pass along his message about the importance of giving back to the community, particularly to those in need.

 It felt a little eerie to read two articles in a row about using privilege to help others less fortunate—living examples portraying the exact sentiment of my dream immediately upon waking. Was it some kind of psychic message? A call to action? Or was it the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon—also known as frequency illusion—when, say, you buy a silver Volkswagen and suddenly you see silver Volkswagens everywhere you look?

The examples kept coming. Later in the day I stumbled upon an article online about a Korean couple in Salem, Oregon, who own a restaurant called Happy BiBim Bap House. Hillary Park and her husband close early on Mondays to cook for the homeless, paying for the ingredients themselves. They load their van with vats of prepared food, set up a buffet line underneath a concrete bridge, and serve hot meals of curry, yakisoba noodles, and corn dogs to up to 200 hungry people. Every week.

Another example showed up—in my own house.

I had been in a quandary over holiday gifts for my boyfriend’s family. They always have something wrapped up for us and I feel obligated to reciprocate in kind. Doug, my boyfriend, insists, “I don’t want to spend money on things they don’t need. I always give $500 to Camp Courageous in my family’s name. That’s my gift.” (Camp Courageous is a year-round camp with recreational activities and respite care for the disabled of all ages.)

“I know,” I replied, “but it’s awkward to not have any presents for them to open.”

While I scoured the internet for gift ideas, Doug came up with a solution. “You’re going to Aldi for groceries today, right? Here’s $100. Buy four $25 gift certificates. We’ll give them each one.” I wasn’t sold on the idea until he added, “We’ll tell them to give it to someone else in need. To pay their civic rent.” He smiled, acknowledging that he, too, had read the Sunday paper.

The words of my dream have stuck with me. When you are born into privilege it is your responsibility to help others less fortunate than you. I don’t earn much money, but I recognize my abundance of privilege—my college education, my comfortable home, my well-stocked refrigerator, my closet full of warm clothes, my lack of debt, and yes, my skin color. As we go forward into a new year, let’s all check our privilege by counting our blessings—and then share them. Let’s make a single resolution to take responsibility for helping others less fortunate and look for ways to give back, to improve our communities and our relationships within them. If we all do our part, we can begin to repair some of our divisions in the process. Like Gregg Rochman said, “We are privileged to live in this country. We are capable of anything.” There are positive examples to follow everywhere; all you have to do is look.