Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - December 18, 2020

"Blessed are the flexible ..."

The thought of not being able to get together with my gal-pals for our traditional first-Saturday-in-December IHOP meeting initially had me down. But we improvised by using the teleconferencing application Zoom. After our hour-long chat, I made pancakes for husband Art and me since that's what I would have ordered at the restaurant. It wasn't as much fun as our usual gab session, mainly because we couldn't hug each other at the end of it.

But it wasn't half bad either!

Just six days later, some of my colleagues were decked out in Santa hats, ugly Christmas sweaters, and red-and-green plaid suit coats. A few introduced us to their cats and dogs. Some had appetizer platters and other snacks. I was drinking wine and Lou was into eggnog.

Steve was nursing a Bud Light while he gave us a "tour" of his elegantly-decorated house. His holiday theme this year is "Baby, It's Cold Outside." He compared showing us his home with First Lady Jackie Kennedy's televised tour of the White House back in the 1960s.

His, "If you�re watching, Melania Trump, eat your heart out!" made us all laugh.

In past years, we work colleagues would have gathered at Steve's beautiful place for an annual holiday bash. But this year, rather than sharing ham, side dishes and way-too-many desserts, about two dozen of us met "virtually."

Vern, who retired a couple of years ago and is a ham radio aficionado, talked about rebuilding old radios and his new hobby - playing polkas on an accordion. Young faculty member Anan made us smile when she shared that it was her parents in China who convinced her to use TikTok, the social media platform usually used by kids. Huyen displayed her potted Christmas trees and bamboo plant. Tom, who recently finished chemo treatments, said he's feeling better than he has in a long time.

Near the end, Steve proclaimed it to be the best Zoom meeting he's attended. That's saying something because, as department head, he has had more than his share since the COVID-19 pandemic began. And some of what transpired - such as seeing the pets and Huyen's plants - wouldn't have happened in a normal year.

I prefer Christmas shopping at my favorite local stores and browsing their seasonal items, but I've switched to mostly online shopping this year. I'm trying to support local businesses by ordering items and paying for them by credit card and then picking them up so I don't have to be in the middle of crowds. While it's not the same, I like the fact it doesn't take nearly the energy I normally would use.

Art and I have always had a live Christmas tree. But a couple of our favorite tree farms closed in recent years. I decided to see what a local nursery and a few home-improvement and grocery stores had in stock. Spindly, scraggly remnants was what they had! I thought Art, whose family was in the tree business, would be disappointed. But he just laughed and said, "Well, I knew this year would be different!" He suggested maybe we should "adopt" the five-foot artificial tree daughter Mariya offered us.

By this time in December, we also would have attended any number of holiday music programs. Our friend Janie is a music teacher. Although her students won't have in-person concerts, they are uploading recordings to YouTube, and her sixth graders are going to carol in the hallways of the middle school.

Janie also directs the Flint Hills Children's Choir, and we watched their live-streaming performance a few weeks ago. We were quite impressed, despite all the performers wearing masks. Janie told me later some of the challenges the group faced.

We have 46 students in the Konza Choir, but no access to a space large enough to accommodate that number spread out 6-10 ft on a regular basis. So, we split the group into two groups (22 and 24) with as close to even split of altos and sopranos as possible. One group meets from 6:45-7:30 and the other meets from 7:45-8:30. We rehearsed the boys-only piece in the 7:30-7:45 gap in a separate room in order to allow the main space to circulate air. ... We found Zooming in did not work because the Wifi in the building was not strong enough and the sound became distorted.

She said she selected pieces that were about hope and courage as well as those that "spoke to the impact music can have on us right now in a time of uncertainty."

The holidays normally push people to find that elusive balance between what is new and exciting and that which is familiar and comforting. Adding an additional challenge as we face now is unlikely to be welcome. But Art has often said the things we look back on most fondly are those that were challenging at the time, but that we figured out a way to work around. This year's changes weren't what the people involved would have chosen if not forced to adapt. But they got the job done, and some even had aspects that were better.

I found a quote credited to author Robert Ludlum that seems to express my thoughts as well: "Blessed are the flexible for they will not allow themselves to become bent out of shape!" Perhaps that's a beatitude we can all embrace - especially during this very-different holiday season.

However, there are limits. When Art suggested we bake some white fish, cut it up, and then blend it into mashed potatoes to simulate the lutfisk we will not be getting because of the cancellation of Olsburg's annual Swedish supper, I thought, "OK, that's just a bit TOO different!"

Upper-left: "meeting" for our departmental Christmas party; upper-right: Janie behind the plexiglass mask leading the Flint Hills Children's Choir; lower-left: Mariya's invitation to family members to join us for Thanksgiving supper virtually; lower-right: Mariya, left, and wife Miriam finishing their Thanksgiving food while distant family members join them via the computer at Mariya's right.

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