Britain and Minnesota: taking the weather personally

A long time ago, when we were all still rolling stone tablets into our manual typewriters and I was trying to find an agent for my first book (Trip Sheets, she said so casually that no one would think she was promoting it, which in fact she may not be since it was her first book and, hey, she’s moved on), one agent turned it down in the friendly but critical way that, if you know how to read your literary tea leaves, lifts your spirits even while it depresses the hell out of you. She ended her critique by saying, “and then there’s all that weather.”

The book was set in fictionalized Minnesota city, and Minnesota—even fictionalized Minnesota—has a lot of weather. The central character was working her way through school as a cab driver, and cab drivers live with the weather—not to mention in it and by it. I’ve seldom been as hot or as cold as I was when I drove cab. I’ve lived in hotter weather, but it never made me as hot. And living by it? Rain meant good business. Snow and ice meant slow traffic and accidents. On a cold day with dry streets, you’d start counting your money before you even got to work. Everybody wanted a cab in cold weather.

Marginally relevant photo: These are cyclamen, which bloom in the winter.

Marginally relevant photo: These are cyclamen, which bloom in the winter.

Heat and cold and rain and snow meant I was out in heat and cold and rain and snow.

I wanted to write the agent back and say, “Life has a lot of weather.”

I didn’t. She’d made her point, I’d heard her point, and it made no sense to argue. That’s one of the laws of literary life. If an agent or editor doesn’t want your work, you don’t argue. You won’t win and even if you’re right you’ll look like a jerk. Besides, she might have been trying to tell me that the weather wasn’t moving the story forward. If that was true, it was a legitimate gripe, and once a publisher accepted it we did cut a snowstorm or two.

But in addition to being an agent, she was also a New Yorker, and when I lived in New York, even though I got (very) hot and what I then thought was cold (when I moved to Minnesota, I realized I hadn’t been cold at all, just the slightest bit chilly), I didn’t live with weather the way I did in Minnesota. In some places, weather doesn’t just happen, it happens very personally to you. Minnesota’s one of those places.

As is Britain, but for different reasons. It’s one of those cultural things. It you’re British, you believe the country is cold, gray, and rainy. You believe the weather’s terrible. It’s a form of patriotism.

You also believe that going someplace hot and sunny will solve your problems, whatever they happen to be. You’re also likely to believe that sunscreen is for other people and a raging sunburn is the perfect holiday souvenir.

I may get us thrown out of the country for saying this, but having moved here from Minnesota, Wild Thing and I still think we’ve moved to the tropics. In the winter, when we stop to commiserate with friends and neighbors about how cold it is (because it would be rude, not to mention unpatriotic, not to join in a short moan-fest), they sometimes say, “It’s freezing.” And it hit me this winter that when they say that, they mean it literally: It’s not a generalized word for cold; they mean the temperature has crossed over and is now below water’s freezing point.

Which in Minnesota terms means it’s spring. It’s just below freezing? Hooray! Go dig the lawnmower out of the snow bank, because we’ll need it soon. Take a long walk. Put a bet on how long it’ll be before you see a runner dressed in shorts and showing off frighteningly red legs.

Place a side bet on how long it’ll be before he—and in my experience it’s always a he, and he always has light enough skin for the red to show—ends up in the emergency room with frostbite.

Not long ago, here in the village we were all complaining to each other about how cold it was. Was that a week ago? Two weeks? Whenever it was, I joined in with fewer than usual reservations, because it was damp and windy, and that does have a way of cutting through you. On the other hand, I was wearing what’s known here as a winter raincoat.

I’d get my ass laughed out of Minnesota for talking about a winter raincoat, but in this climate it makes sense, because it’s going to rain and it’s going to get—compared to summer—chilly. So: lining; waterproofing. You’re set.

In Minnesota, you’d want a jacket roughly the same thickness as a futon. Forget rain because it’s too cold. I did see a winter rain once and it was almost apocalyptic. It got spookily warm and rained hard, then the temperature dropped faster than I would’ve thought possible and all that water froze in the drains, backing the water up onto the streets, which turned into skating rinks. Then a heavy snow fell on top of the ice and the city shut down. I drove cab the day after the storm, along with maybe half a dozen other drivers. Not because I was gung ho but because I wanted to use the cab to jump-start my car, my friend’s car, and her brother’s car, which had all decided it would be wise to sleep until spring.

It was too cold and none of them started, but by that time I was committed to putting in a day’s work. It was, in a skiddy sort of way, sublime. Everything happened in slow motion and near silence. I was so caught up in it that I don’t even remember what kind of money I made. Probably not much—it was all moving too slow.

But for all that I learned to take the weather personally, I was never a real Minnesotan, only a New Yorker who happened to live there for forty years. In the same way, I’m not really Cornish, I’m just someone who lives here. But the weather? I love it. I join in the moan-fests because it’s the only decent thing to do, but honestly? The weather’s great.

84 thoughts on “Britain and Minnesota: taking the weather personally

  1. I try not to talk about the weather…because it makes me feel like a stereotype…
    I fail…because I am British and I live in England and it is unavoidable!

    I do confuse people though by answering their generic “isn’t it cold” statement with things like “well not really…I am outside without a coat so it can’t be that bad” and “well of course it is cold it is January”

    Then I remember I am British and I am supposed to be generic…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ever since bumping into (in an online way) my first Cornish person, and as he started sending photos and links to articles about Cornwall, I haven’t closed my mouth. This must be sub-equatorial Great Britain or something. The world’s best kept secret! And your theatre above the sea and the beaches and the colours… you could have fooled me into thinking it was Greece. So, well done for that move, and much respect for having been a taxi driver and sold manuscripts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • >This must be sub-equatorial Great Britain or something. The world’s best kept secret!
      When the sun does decide to shine and it’s warm and not too windy, the west coast of Britain can look positively Mediterranean. It’s like that pretty much all the way up Great Britain’s western coast: Cornwall, Devon, South Wales, West Wales, North Wales, the Lake District, Southwest Scotland, the Western Highlands, and the Inner and Outer Hebrides. I’ve got colour slides I took of a sea loch in the Western Scottish Highlands where the sea is an eye-watering brilliant turquoise green, and it looks for all the world like it could be on the Adriatic coast. Cornwall is very special though!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I agree with as much of that as I have actual knowledge of, which means I can confirm it as far as South Wales. The small print, however, is that we don’t get that kind of sun all that often. When we do, though? I sea’s so blue I can’t help wanting to eat it.

        Which is not recommended.


  3. I have a friend from Minnesota. We were at a meeting in Southern California. He was showing photos of his daughter, who had returned from a morning run just before he left for the airport. Her eyelashes and eyebrows had tiny icicles on them. A woman from California asked: “Oh, those are so cute, where did she get them done?”

    Nobody has weather like Minnesota. Some descriptions have to sound like fiction. I’ve never been there in the winter. I’ve been to Iowa, and I’ve experienced the temperature dropping farther and faster than I imagine it could, but probably not as far as you lived. It’s going to be almost 70 here in Connecticut today. Still February and 67°f – that’s not right.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank God for weather. Without it, certain people in my life would have sweet FA to talk about. (Like a distant neighbour who walks past my house each day and does weather mime at me through the window if I happen to be looking out when she goes by.)

    She is hilarious, she has a mime for practically every weather condition. But yesterday, she didn’t need to mime. She went flying past my house sideways at 90 miles an hour looking terrified. I smiled and waved as usual.

    Whenever anyone comments on the weather (like how cold it is in a month when it is SUPPOSED to be cold!) I just say, “It’s January. What were you expecting, bikini weather?” Then I laugh like I was joking. But really I’m not. I mean what DO people expect of the weather in the UK? It’s the UK for heaven’s sake. `

    And snow! Holy crap – when we have any HINT of it, people start going berserk with stocking up on canned soup. The week before last, I woke up to see a light dusting of snow on the roof of my car. But 10 am it was gone. But great excitement had broken out on Facebook by then as people spoke of winter finally arriving. After surviving 10 winters in Canada it really makes me scream with laughter. We close SCHOOLS if three or four flakes join up and don’t melt immediately.

    Well, there’s me talking about the weather, thus proving I am old and English. But you did start it with this lovely post which makes me want to visit Cornwall before I am too old to venture ‘all that way’ from Suffolk (as my mother would say :-))

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry to ignore you. This got lost in the spam folder and I only just thought to go through and free the real stuff that got trapped. Yes, do come to Cornwall. It’ll be here, waiting for you if we get through this afternoon without blowing away.


  5. A friend and I, on Facebook, talk about how the Brits can’t cope with a few millimetres of snow… and we’re both Brits. She frequently posts news items about railways that have stopped working because of less ice than you can see and so on…. I’m like another of your commenters who gives the ‘wrong’ answer to people… (Mostly because it’s fun and – like the weather – stops them in their tracks!)

    By way, you might like my recent post Reservoir Cats, which, while nothing to do with the weather, is a psuedo-American piece… :)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t been here in a while (sorry about that… for me, because I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of great posts!) I thought Montreal was bad. Now I’m thinking maybe Minnesota gives us a run for our money?
    I think bitching and moaning about the weather is universal – in places where it is an issue. Which for everyone in different ways it is, I’m thinking!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I worked as a letter carrier for about a year and a half. It just happened to be during two of the coldest winters on record up to that point. It kind of did something to my mind being at the mercy of the weather like that. Once you’re on the street that’s about it for five hours. One of my last days as a carrier it was below zero. By the end of the day I was running from house to house throwing the mail into any corner I could find where it wouldn’t blow away. My fingers were frozen and I thought I might have frostbite. I was crying. Then I got back to the office and it was so warm and bright that I was just laughing for no reason. I love being outdoors but it’s on MY terms from now on, lol!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. NE Ohio here – it is in the 70s (F) today (set to break a record set in the 1960s) and sunny. So our usual comments of “Well, what can you expect – it’s February !” are even more irrelevant than usual. Tonight there will be winds in excess of 50 mph as a cold front comes in. I can only imagine what the maple syrup makers are thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My instinct it to say yes, it is, but the truth is I don’t really know Michigan’s weather. And, of course, it’ll depend on whether we’re talking about the Upper Peninsula (how much is it moderated by the lakes?) or, say, Detroit, which is a lot further south.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Seriously, Midwestern winters are a character too important to ignore, and I don’t know that I believe books without weather. In fact, many of my favorites include relatable weather…
    I live in Indiana, which I know is not crazy cold like Minnesota most of the time, but we have real weather here. I have friends who live in Canada and northernmost Wisconsin, and I do not pretend my winters match, we’re more like Winter-Lite in comparison. BUT! I have lived in The Deep South, where they have Golf Weather for 10 months of the year, which you and I both know is not weather. They lose their minds when it falls below 70 and when it rains, people don’t even go out.
    Not only did I hate every hot, humid, sunny day, but I faced real dilemmas when I went home to visit in the winter. They don’t even have proper warm clothing in southeast Georgia.
    I strongly support your belief that you live in a most temperate region due to your lack of futon-thick parkas.
    My ability to write at length about the weather is suddenly alarming me, as though my internal editor is cautioning me, but still —
    It was 70 when the dog and I took our walk around noon, and it got up to 74. Unreal in February. Tonight is cold and wet and it will freeze overnight leading to possible snow in the morning. THAT is weather.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 74? In February? Of course that’d be followed by a rain and a freeze and–oops, there went the neighbor’s kid, sliding down the sidewalk toward the school bus stop.

      We did have Storm Doris hit just before this automatically posted itself. If I were a more serious blogger I’d have updated it but I couldn’t be arsed, as they say here. So we do get a bit of real weather. Mostly this one was just wind, but it was enough wind that I involuntarily ran partway to the store, then battled my way back. And, of course, we all got to talk about it.

      And I can’t help adding that I like what you said about not trusting books without weather. That’ll stay with me. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I am still looking for my ideal temperature Ellen which is 72 degrees. I don’t know what that is in Celsius at the moment. Currently I am living in the South which I hope to remedy soon. The summers are ridiculous with the humidity and well, they don’t have winters here anymore. Unless you count one day it is 30 degrees the next day it is 80. Weather. Bah Humbug! ;)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I found all of this totally fascinating. Really cold weather sounds like something from another planet. Here people say it’s “freezing” round 7° or 8° Celcius, and moan if it rains more than two straight days. When it snowed a couple of centimetres some years ago, schools closed for a whole week. I’ll probably read Trip Sheets :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • After we had an inch or two of snow a few years back, all the kids took their boogie boards (a cheaper, finless form of surf board) out to go sledding. And broke them, since they weren’t designed for that. They were all set out with the trash the next week.

      And thanks for wanting to read more of my fiction. I’m flattered.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Living on the tropic of cancers makes me wonder what living in a cold place with temperatures you have mentioned would be like. I would want to experience such cold weathers for a few days sometime. Thanks for joining the Bloggers Pit Stop

    Liked by 1 person

    • And thanks for all the work you put in to keep the Pit Stop going.

      Cold weather like that can be–well, a few days sounds like a wise choice. I’ve known people who love it, but honestly, it causes physical pain. I never learned to like it, never mind love it.


  13. On language:
    In Devon, in the good old days before we leant ‘ow tuh talk proper, we used to say, “Ow be ‘ee?” (trans.: Arright?)
    Your response would be “I’s unner the doctor wi’ me knees, but udder ‘n ‘at, I’m knackin’ on fine.” (trans.: I am under the doctor with my knees, but other than that I am getting on fine. Further translation: I am in consultation with the doctor, as my knees have been giving me trouble, but blah blah.)

    On weather:
    As ole Shaky once remarked: –
    Weather: ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
    Which I take to mean we should keep our gobs shut about the heat and cold.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Ellen, I must apologise; I’m terribly embarased to have to admit that I gave you false information concerning the Devon dialect. We never said “udder ‘n at,” as it requires the tongue to carry out one extra manoeuvre. We said “uvvranat.”
    I do hope you haven’t yet attempted to use my mis-pronounced phrase – oh, and a warning about speaking Devonshire to the Cornish; don’t. Devonians are their mortal enemies.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Pingback: British storms | Notes from the U.K.

    • As I wrote it, I thought I was being funny. The realization that I was serious crept up on me slowly.

      Thanks for the tweet. I tweeted you both a different link, because the one you tweeted was to the About page.


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