Easily amused

In the cold northern climate where I grew up, kids learned to quietly amuse themselves in the winter months. It was a matter of survival not unlike eating whale blubber to stay warm. You take a family of five, place them in a small suburban ranch-style house with three bedrooms and one bath, add one blizzard after another, the inability to even get the car out of the driveway, and you better know how to not annoy the bezoozies out of each other.

Cabin fever is not a joke. According to the wonderful Online Etymology Dictionary the expression is first recorded in 1918, and it may have referred to being cooped up in the cabin of a ship. I bet it is older than that. What would it have been like to be a large pioneer family living in a one-room sodhouse on the Nebraska prairie in the famous blizzard of 1888?

I have some inkling because I possess a photocopy of the beautifully handwritten memoirs of my great-great-grandfather, August Sasse. He and his wife homesteaded in 1873, and he writes of their efforts to keep their children alive in a freak April blizzard before they had a chance to build their cabin. This was real life, not a computer game!

Remember Laura and Mary from the wonderful books of Laura Ingalls Wilder? What fantastic children! They weren't perfect angels. In fact, they were high-spirited, curious kids. I wish I could have them as art students. I wish all my art students could have the books read aloud to them by their parents. Pa and Ma Ingalls taught me many lessons in parenting when I read the books to my small boys.

A sod house can be built so they are real nice and comfortable. Build nice walls and then plaster and lay a floor above and below and then they are nice. Uriah is going to build one after that style this fall. The one we are in at present is 14 X 16 and a dirt floor. Uriah intends takeing [sic] it for a stable this fall. --letter of Mattie Oblinger to her family, June 16, 1873 Women of the West Museum

The average square footage of new construction homes continues to rise as the size of the household decreases. It is over 2300 square feet for a family of 2.59 persons, with McMansions in the Dallas area frequently over 4000 square feet. We rarely get snowed in here. Why do family members need so much space to spread out? Why do families need to heat that large a house? Is it because people don't learn how to get along in a small space? Is it because they don't learn to avoid annoying the bezoozies out of each other?

The Donner Party has been in the news this week. Scientists are still puzzling out whether the smaller camp of pioneers survived the winter of 1846-47 by practicing cannibalism. This always brings to mind my seventh grade English class at Millard Lefler Junior High School ("Sons of the Pink and Black"), taught by Miss Helen Madsen (who threw unabridged Websters Dictionaries when we annoyed the bezoozies out of her). I learned a lot in that class because I was mightily afeared not to! In the winter of 1967-68, we studied American short stories about freezing to death, being stoned to death, and being snowbound in a cabin with outlaws. It was pretty stark and scarring material, but we did evaluate whether being a sassy, aggravating early adolescent was a smart survival strategy:

Bret Harte's "Outcasts of Poker Flat"
Jack London's "To Build a Fire"
Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"

One of the things I learned was to entertain myself reading a dictionary. And so, today, I wonder whether Miss Madsen's class was "inflicting" or "inflecting". Was I tortured, or was I flexed and bent?

c.1425, "to bend inward," from L. inflectere (pp. inflexus) "to bend in, change," from in- "in" + flectere "to bend." Grammatical sense is attested 1668; pronunciation sense (in inflection) is c.1600. To turn from a course or alignment; to bend..to alter in tone or pitch .. to modulate...

1566, from L. inflictus, pp. of infligere "to strike or dash against," from in- "on, against" + fligere (pp. flictus) "to dash, strike" (see conflict). You inflict a plague on someone; you afflict someone with a plague. To impose.. "malignant Nature, who reserves the right to inflict upon her children the most terrifying jests" (Thornton Wilder).

Much thanks, as always, to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and to my trusty, not so very aerodynamic American Heritage Dictionary!

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