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.

British bonding rituals: the weather

We had a string of sunny, frosty mornings in late November and early December—the kind of morning where we all greet each other by saying either how beautiful or how cold it is.

British law mandates that whichever statement you hear, you agree with it. Or if possible, amplify it.

When we first moved here, fools that we were, we’d sometimes play the Minnesota macho card. The front of the card is a scene of snow piled up past a car’s roof and the back is a list of wind-chill factors and absolute temperatures in International Falls, Minnesota, which (ignoring Alaska, where it gets colder) calls itself the icebox of the nation.

Relevant photo: These flower in the winter. That's how cold it gets. I'm pretty sure they're viburnam.

Relevant photo (it does happen sometimes): These flower in the winter. That’s how cold it gets. I’m pretty sure they’re viburnum.

International Falls is right across the Rainy River from Fort Frances, Ontario, and I’ve never been there. I lived in Minneapolis, which is 294.2 miles away. Pay attention to that .2, because it won’t come up again. Most of those miles run north/south, so weatherwise (and in many other ways) living in Minneapolis is not the same as living in International Falls. According to the great googlemaster, they’re a four hour and thirty-eight minute drive apart. If you don’t stop for coffee and pie. Or a hot beef sandwich.

Is anything more American than a hot beef sandwich?

But just because I’ve never been in International Falls, is that any reason not to claim its weather as my own? We shared a state. Mi temperature es su temperature, as people who know almost no Spanish occasionally say apropos of not very damn much, leaving me wondering what I’m supposed to say back, although they’re never talking about temperatures, they’re talking about casas.

When I explain where I used to live (because no one knows where Minnesota is, even when they think it’s rude to admit it), I usually say it’s in the middle of the U.S., right up on the Canadian border, and as I hear myself talk I think what a liar I am, although what I’m saying is both true and not true. Minnesota is on the Canadian border. Unfortunately, that’s not the same as me being on the Canadian border, although when that wind blew down off the Canadian prairies it felt like I was.

From this distance, though, 294 miles doesn’t seem like much. Minneapolis got cold enough to frost my eyelashes if I drove the warm air upwards by covering my nose and mouth with a scarf, which I usually did. (People who object to the niqab, take note, please.) The first time that happened, I had no idea why my lashes were clinging to each other when I blinked, and once I figured it out I was afraid they’d freeze together and I’d never see again.

That story’s an example of what Minnesota macho is not. Minnesota macho insists that in temperatures like those there’s no reason to wear a hat. Or gloves. Or to wear a jacket. Minnesota macho says it’s beautiful out, let’s go walk five miles because weather like this makes us who we are.

Weather like that did make me who I was: I was a failure as a Minnesotan. In January, I was just a small heap of clothes struggling to get back indoors as fast as I could. The only glimpse of human being you saw under all that cloth was my eyes with their frosted lashes.

When we first moved to Cornwall, though, it was hard not to turn ourselves into later-day Paul Bunyans.

“Cold?” we’d say. “In Minnesota, it’s like this in June.”

“Minnesota only has two seasons,” we’d say. “Winter followed by a week of bad sledding.”

“It got so cold,” we’d say, “that on a clear day the moisture would condense out and freeze so the air sparkled.”

That last statement is true. It was beautiful, in a horrifying sort of way.

J.’s still so traumatized by our bluster that she prefaces any complaint about the cold by saying, “I know you two are Minnesotans, but—.”

It’s a wonder she still talks to us.

Eventually we learned: Shut up about Minnesota. People are cold. Hearing that it’s colder in a state they never heard of before they met us won’t make them any warmer. And we were being invited to participate in the essential British bonding ritual, which is complaining about the weather. We should have been thrilled. What could be a more authentically British experience?

On Dec. 3, the Guardian wrote about weather alerts and “severe cold weather.” How bad was it expected to get? Why, below freezing.

So I’m going to play by the rules here and swear it’s been terrible. In fact, it got so cold the other day that I took my gloves out of my pockets. Then I put them on my hands.

All you Minnesotans, stop laughing.

Comparative weather

I was once stuck on a train next to a man whose idea of a conversation starter was to tell me that Britain has the most varied weather in the world. I’d only recently moved here from Minnesota, where the temperature ranges from unspeakably hot to unimaginably cold, with an unbearably beautiful week or three in the spring and fall, and I was still having trouble distinguishing the British winter from the British summer, so I nodded vaguely and opened my book. I mean, if I was going to argue, or even discuss this, where would I start?

So what’s the weather really like? I live in Cornwall, which is the southwest tip of the island, so I apologize to the rest of the British Isles if I’m misrepresenting them, but here’s how I know it’s winter: It rains and the sky’s gray. How do I know it’s summer? The tourists (who are called holidaymakers) show up, and they buy ice cream cones and dress up in hiking gear and drive our narrow roads slowly, looking terrified. Or they dress up in beach clothes and sit on the sand till their skin turns a painful shade of boiled lobster. It rains less but it’ll probably still be gray. Everything grows madly. I love the Cornish summer, but it’s basically an absence of winter, plus ice cream.

Vaguely related photo: the cliffs in summer. If you look closely, you'll see an ice cream cone just outside the frame, on the left.

Vaguely related photo: the cliffs in summer. If you look closely, you’ll see an ice cream cone just outside the frame, on the left.

When we left Minnesota, Wild Thing and I gave away our winter jackets. Talk about burning your bridges. They were good to a thousand below (Fahrenheit or Celsius; at that temperature, who cares?) and wearing them made us look like short versions of the Michelin Tire Man. What we wear as winter jackets now would get us through the early part of a Minnesota fall and after that would be about as useful against the cold as blue paint and wax paper.

I will admit that the Cornish summer is warmer than the winter, but a hot day gets into the 70s and it’s a rare day when the breeze doesn’t have a gorgeous cool undertone. If it gets into the 80s, everyone—including the papers—talks heat wave. I know it’s touched 90 when people around me wilt. Mostly it’s in the 60s, and I’m not complaining about that. In the winter, it rarely drops below freezing, and if it does it’s not likely to stay there once the sun comes up. And I’m not complaining about that either.

The biggest difference between winter and summer is the length of the days. Summer evenings go on forever. As do winter nights. Cornwall is further north than Minnesota, even if we think it’s the tropics. On the other hand, there’s lots of north to the north of us, so I don’t want to make it sound too extreme. The sun does come up in the winter, and it goes down in the summer.

Every so often in the winter, the local weather report will warn us, in a sobering sort of voice—the kind could induce controlled panic—that it’s going to get cold. Wild Thing and I get ready to sew the dogs into their long underwear. But before we have time to get out the sewing box, they put the three-day forecast on the screen and we realize that they’re talking about a five degree drop. Admittedly, that’s centigrade, but still, that’s something like ten degrees Fahrenheit. So it’ll be cooler, and it’ll probably be grayer and windier, but the dogs have fur and live indoors and they’ll be fine. We can leave the window open at night and not die of it. A fire will feel nice in the evening but once it goes out the house will be unheated and the pipes won’t going to freeze.

I’ve lost track of the number of times our pipes froze in Minnesota, in spite of central heating. I got to be good at thawing them out. For a long time we used the hair dryer, then we discovered electric paint strippers. They’re wonderful. Finally a plumber—clever man—moved the pipes away from the north wall and they never froze again. I don’t remember where the paint stripper ended up, but we didn’t dare give it away. Minnesota’s like that. You don’t want to be unprepared.

The weather I take seriously these days is rain. Here in Cornwall, we’re getting off lightly, by which I mean it’s nothing worse than wet, windy, and miserable, but the flooding in northern England and in Scotland is serious–people flooded out of their homes, bridges collapsed (okay, one bridge, but it was dramatic), power out, rescue services working like mad. I’ve been reading a lot recently about the value of flood abatement as opposed to flood defenses: letting rivers meander, the way they did before we clever little monkeys got in there and straightened them; planting trees on hillsides, which take major amounts of water out of the ground; letting fields flood, as they did before we clever little monkeys decided they shouldn’t, all of which (and more) could save cities. None of it is as sexy as big engineering projects, apparently, although speaking just for myself I never could keep sex and engineering in my mind at the same time. But to each his or her own, and if you’re a fan of engineering I won’t argue–except, just to contradict myself, to say that there does seem to be a whole side of flood prevention that we’re ignoring.

Winter in Cornwall, Winter in Minnesota

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.

Minneapolis after a 15-inch storm in 2010. The Metrodome roof collapsed under the weight of the snow. Again.

Not Cornwall. This is Minneapolis after a 15-inch storm in 2010. The Metrodome roof collapsed under the weight of the snow. Again. Photo by Kevin Jack

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.