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.

Do the British really talk about the weather?

Quick answer: Yes. Right now, the village is talking about the weather because it’s spring. Or summer. Or almost summer.

Is this different than what happens in the winter? It’s not. We always talk about the weather. Because we’re—.

Well, no, we’re not all British, but even those of us who aren’t live in Britain, and it doesn’t take long to learn that the way to make a bit of quick human contact it to talk about the weather. And we’re social beings. We need contact. So we talk about the weather.

What do we say? Well, saying a nice day’s nice is acceptable, but moaning’s got more punch. Because no matter how much the people I know glory in a beautiful day, underneath it all they live on a wet island and it would be unpatriotic to forget that. They believe in cloud, in rain, in damp. Anything else just flits across the windshield of life and is gone. Whatever replaces it will be water-based.

Besides, moaning allows for jokes, even if they’ve all been made before. A beautiful day? Happiness? Where’s the laugh there?

A rare relevant photo: people sitting outside Exeter Cathedral, in front of a statue of someone whose first name is Richard.

A rare relevant photo: people sitting outside on the Exeter Cathedral close, in front of a statue of someone whose first name is Richard. Oh, okay, it’s Richard Hooker (1554 – 1600). He was a priest. If he swings that foot, he’s going to kick someone.

According to Kate Fox, whose book Watching the English I haven’t quoted in entirely too long, moaning is an English (and by extension, and I hope I’m not wrong here, British) passion. She admits that the English aren’t the only people who moan but describes a form that she believes is uniquely English: “a sort of grumpy and apathetic stoicism; complaining…in a resigned manner, without any real expectation that things could be improved.”

And the weather’s perfect for that. We could complain about the government but we could—and surely we eventually will—dump the current one and complaining about it might nudge us toward action. But the weather? What can we do about that? Moan. Laugh. Put on a raincoat.

As Fox understands the way the English talk about the weather, people aren’t really talking about the weather when they’re talking about the weather. What they’re doing is talking. Finding a way to make contact. The weather’s an accepted channel but only borderline relevant to what’s really happening.

So moaning about the weather brings together two national passions. Or quirks. Or—well, I believe the technical term is whatever.

How does that work in practice?

The other day, G. and I saw each other on the road early in the morning. I was walking the dogs. She was walking herself. We traded a few words about how beautiful the day was, and what a gorgeous part of the day the early morning is. We were both happy, or at least we gave a damn good impression of it.

Before long, we were trading updates on our aches, our pains, the various ways we’re less able than we once were, and she mentioned the percentage of over-50s in Britain who have osteoarthritis. It might have been 70% or 85%. In fact, it might have been people over 60, not 50. But it involved numbers, that much I’m sure of, and they were ear-catching ones, even if they didn’t catch well enough to stay with me.

Don’t you just love how much you learn here?

Her point was—and I’m paraphrasing wildly, because she didn’t go all pseudo-poetic about it—that the damp draws arthritis out of human bones the way the sun draws sprouts out of seeds. So Britain breeds arthritis. We exchanged a few more bits of ache-and-pain news and went on our way fortified by the knowledge that we’re doomed. We were oddly cheery about it, and I suspect that’s a British thing as well.

Then I drove to Exeter, where I had some errands to run before I turned around and drove home without passing Go or dropping in on the friends Wild Thing and I usually see when we’re there. And I noticed something: This damp island is a place where people sit outside a good chunk of the year, and look forward to it. It’s a place where a sizable chunk of the population thinks of the outdoors as one of the places they live their lives, not just a place they hustle through between work, home, and grocery shopping.

To someone who spent forty years in Minnesota, that means the climate’s kind. Yes, it’s wet, but it’s not trying to kill you all winter. And while we’re at it, it’s not thinking about whether to give you heat stroke during a good part of the summer. I exaggerate very slightly, and only about the summer. The winter? It can kill you and if seasons had emotions it would be happy to. Leaving the house during a Minnesota winter is like suiting up to step out of the space station. I used to think I’d be a completely different person if I could just grab a jacket and walk out the door.

Here In Cornwall, even in the winter, people will sit outside. Not as many of them as in summer and not as often, but on a dry day it’s possible and people do it. One of the cafes in the village sets out a stack of blankets for people to wrap up in, and even if we look like patients at a pre-antibiotic TB sanitarium, we soak up some sun—or at least some not-rain—and feel better for it.

And still, the nation’s core belief is that the climate’s miserable. And bad for us.

I get swept into that, even though I don’t really believe it. Because at the same time I sort of do. We’re social creatures. I’ve been captured by the thinking around me. But for someone who’s officially miserable about the weather, I’m surprisingly happy. I’ve turned out to be the same person I was in Minnesota, but in some non-weight-related way I’m a lighter version of her.

Naming storms in Britain and Ireland

The Met Office, weather forecasters to the U.K., has started naming storms. We’re not talking about hurricanes, just storms big enough to stand out. The idea is that if they have names the public will take more notice of them, and presumably of the danger they pose, and I’d love to make fun of that but as far as I can tell it works. Sad, isn’t it, not to make fun of something just because it’s sensible?

Here’s my evidence that naming works:

When I started writing this, we were waiting for storm Frank to hit. That means I wasn’t just sitting around waiting for some nameless storm, I was waiting for something with more definition than a bunch of unnamed isobars, however tightly packed, on a weather graphic. Frank didn’t pose any particular threat this far south, but we were expecting a bit of drama and I’m a sucker for finding out what’s going to happen next. Without the name, though, I’m not sure I’d have been so consciously keeping an eye out for it.

Borderline relevant photo: Boscastle in the evening--and more to the point summer--light.

Borderline relevant photo: Boscastle in the evening–and more to the point summer–light.

Back when I lived in Minnesota, we didn’t have an official naming system for storms, but a few got themselves named anyway, and those names give me a hook to hang my memories on.

The Superbowl Blizzard hit during a major football game. I never watch football—I have a serious sports allergy and, sorry folks, I just can’t—but the name means the storm has stayed well defined in my memory. I doubt an unnamed storm would be. The weather had been spookily warm just before the blizzard, and it rained. Then the temperature dropped so quickly that water froze in the storm drains and on the streets. That was followed by a heavy snow, which (do I even need to say this? oh, why not?) fell on top of the ice. The driving was lethal and the walking wasn’t much better.

I was driving cab at the time and had a sort of roommate (we rented a house that split neatly into two apartments, hence the sort of) whose brother came over to get snowed in with us. Minnesotans do that, at least at a certain age. In the morning, none of our cars started—it was too cold. let’s say it was 30 below, but understand that I’m inventing the number. Think of it as a poetic way to say it was brutally cold. I caught a cab to work so I could drive a different cab back and jump all three cars.

That’s one of the things about driving cab. No one really knows what you’re doing once you leave the garage.

Jumping the cars didn’t help—that’s how cold it was. But by then I’d taken the cab out and there was nothing for it but to put in a day’s work. I don’t remember if I made much money—probably not, because although almost no cabs were on the road and every third person in town wanted to get somewhere without risking their own car, the driving was slow, and you can’t make much if the driving’s slow. Still, I remember that day’s work as sublime. Snow brings a special kind of silence to a city, and a sense of gentleness. I passed a man skiing down Cedar Avenue near Lake Street. Almost no one was around except for him and me and one car, stopped at a red light.

In a heavy storm, Minneapolis normally begins clearing and salting the major streets even before the snow stops falling, but the storm had overwhelmed them. The streets that had been plowed were as icy as the ones that hadn’t been. The few cars that were on the streets moved in slow motion, because the only way to stop on ice is very, very slowly. What accidents I saw happened equally slowly, almost as if we were all wrapped in cotton wool.

Would I remember that as clearly if the storm didn’t have a name? The images would still in my head, but I doubt I’d remember that they were from that same storm.

The other named storm that hit Minnesota while I lived there was the Great Halloween Blizzard, which hit before any small storms had given the city a reason to salt the streets. That meant the pavement hadn’t built up a salty residue. (I should admit that the city stopped using actual salt years before this period, but let’s call it salt. It sounds better than non-specific ice-melting chemicals.) So we had a wet, heavy snow hitting bare asphalt and welding itself to it. The first layer of snow packed down to a thick layer of ice, then more snow piled up on top of it. Again, the city was overwhelmed by the storm. And again, the temperature dropped dramatically.

Coming so early in the season, the whole thing took people by surprise. A student in a writing class I taught told me he lost two lawn chairs and a lawnmower under the snow. He’d taken a break in his mowing and—well, I don’t know how long the break was but by the time he went back out it was pretty clear that he wasn’t going to finish the lawn until spring. By which time I doubt he’d be using the mower he started with.

Trick or treaters came to our door that year wearing winter jackets over their costumes.Plus snow boots and gloves and hats and gloves. Unless they had a mask, you had to take it on faith that they’d put on a costume. But not many ventured out. Around 8, a small knot of teenagers showed up, saying, “We’re the last ones. Why don’t you give us whatever you have left?”

They were so outrageous about it, and so damned cheery, that I gave them almost all the candy in the bowl, keeping only a few bits of in case they were wrong.

When the city finally plowed and salted, instead of clearing the streets they made potholes in the ice, and cars crept and bounced through rush hour after rush hour. It was weeks before traffic started moving normally.

I’d remember the storm even without a name because it hit the same day that my 90-year-old father was hospitalized in New York with meningitis. It was days before I could get out of Minneapolis to see him. (He did recover.) But if the storm hadn’t found its own name, I’d have remembered it with a more private name—the Storm When Dad Got Meningitis. That’s a testimonial to the power of names, and to our need for them.

Which brings us back to this current naming project. The U.K. and Ireland are collaborating on it, since the two countries are parked in the Atlantic like a car and a truck, and if a storm hits one it’s likely to hit the other next. Collaboration strikes me as significant, because British weather forecasts ignore the Republic of Ireland. They tell us what the weather will be for Northern Ireland, but across that border into the Republic? Silence. It’s as if Britain’s still sulking that Ireland went independent and by god it’s not going to acknowledge any Irish weather. I don’t notice this so much when I’m listening to the radio. The various regions of Britain get mentioned and I almost never catch the one I’m listening for because either my mind wanders or the puppy starts barking or the oven explodes or the phone rings or, you know, life interferes in one of the many glorious ways it has. But it is noticeable on TV because Ireland’s right there on the BBC weather map but no weather ever touches it. Northern Ireland? Yes, it gets wind, sun, rain, all that stuff. But the republic? Nope. It doesn’t have weather.

I know the Irish aren’t the BBC’s target audience, but still. I’ve heard France mentioned in weather forecasts. I’ve heard the word Spain. But Ireland? Silence.

That must make this collaboration over storm names interesting. Or maybe the word I’m looking for it tense.

But even without the BBC’s ban on Irish weather, the politics of naming storms would have to be tricky. How many names will be Gaelic and how many English? Does each country get so many names per head? Do they have to take account of the number of Irish names that are of English instead of Gaelic origin? Or does each country get to pick the same number of names? Will either country acknowledge the presence of immigrants by picking a name from some third or fourth language group?

Listen, everything’s political. Breakfast cereal is political. A length of blue ribbon is political. My fingernails are political.

Here in Cornwall, Frank didn’t turn out to be anything special. We’ve had so much rain lately that it’s hard to tell one storm from the others. Even the named ones are basically water landing on top of more water. Mercifully, none of them have done worse than leave us wet and wind-blown. But farther north it brought flooding and misery to places that hadn’t recovered from earlier flooding and misery. I’ll have to hear from someone up there to know whether having a name for the storm made them any more aware of it ahead of time or if it only gave them a better way to talk about it.

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.