It’s winter here, and it’s behaving the way winter does in Cornwall. I can’t bring myself to say it’s cold.
I lived through forty Minnesota winters, but through all that I never really was a Minnesotan, I was a transplanted New Yorker, but there’s nothing like transplanting myself again to let me know exactly how much of a Minnesotan I became. Because this isn’t cold. It’s chilly, yes, but that’s as far as I can go.
A quick break here for anyone who’s not sure where Minnesota is: Fold the US in half from north to south and it’s right there on the fold, up by the Canadian border. Okay, more or less on the fold. I haven’t actually tried this, but you get the idea. It’s inland, it’s north, and it’s cold beyond anything I ever imagined as a kid in New York City.
Minnesotans talk about Minnesota macho, and that doesn’t have anything to do with bullfights or bar fights or street fights, it has to do with the cold. The high school kids who wait bare headed for the bus at twenty below, their ears daring the frost to bite them? They’re an emblem of Minnesota macho. The auto mechanic I used to know who refused to own gloves (or a hat, while we’re at it), even when he had to work on a car outside in January? You got it. We all had our own version of it, even those of us who went out in so many layers of clothes that we couldn’t lower our arms to our sides. We might look like giant fire hydrants, but we all found some small way to defy the cold—or to tell ourselves we had. Some days, just getting to work qualifies you: You dig out the car; you start the car; you drive the car over ice or snow without having a wreck. Or you wait for the bus. It’s heroic, all of it. There are days when you’d be forty degrees warmer (that’s Fahrenheit) it you sat in your refrigerator. And you could have a snack while you were at it.
Minnesota winters drive people to all sorts of extremes. If you talk about getting cabin fever, everyone knows what you mean: You’ve been stuck inside too long and you’re getting a little strange. When I worked for a writers organization, we gave the winters credit for the number of writers the state produced. This year’s winter has driven P. to working literary jigsaw puzzles. He writes, “As Ezra Pound wrote, ‘Winter is icumen in. Lhude sing goddamn. Stoppeth bus and sloppeth us. Sing goddamn,’ etc.
“If April with his shoures soote pierces the drought of March, it’ll be a fooken miracle.”
Umm, yes. I guess that’s true. But I’m in Cornwall, and last night we had (gasp, wheeze) a frost. Yes, folks, the temperature dipped one or two horrifying degrees Fahrenheit below freezing. Not only that, some white stuff fell out of the sky in the late afternoon, and since it didn’t stick I’m willing to admit that it looked very pretty while it did it. And the weather folk on radio and TV were all cranked up about it: Cold! Snow!
Well, okay, north of here the weather may be doing something vaguely serious. I’m not there and I can’t say. Cornwall’s the southern bit of the UK, where Britain sticks its toe into the Atlantic, so it’s warmer than the rest of the country. But I listen to the weather forecasts and I swear, even after eight—almost nine—years, I fall for it. I’m ready to wrap myself in a quilt before I go out, since I gave away my winter coat when I left Minnesota and my current one would barely stand up to a Minnesota spring. Then I look at the numbers and realize I’ll be fine. Last night we slept with the window open (that’s for one of the cats; he campaigns all night if he’s locked in), and no heat, thanks. It was fine.
So when someone says, “It’s cold,” as surely they will at some point during the day, I’ll manage to say, “It is chilly.” And I’ll make it sound agreeable, almost as if I’m agreeing, but I’m not exactly.