Bats of America

Truth in Blogging Warning: This post contains no useful cross-cultural information and the incident described is in no way typical of American life.

And with that out of the way,  I’ll refer back, as bloggers do with a look of strained innocence as they post links that drive you deeper into their blogs, to an earlier post about some of the nuttier reasons people call the British emergency services and it reminded me of a time when Wild Thing and I made one of those calls in the U.S.

We lived at the time in Minneapolis, in the downstairs half of a two-family house. That’s in Minnesota. If you’re not sure where that is, take the map of the U.S., fold it in half and look more or less on the fold, just below the Canadian border. Minnesota’s the state curling sweetly around the westernmost of the Great Lakes.

Irrelevant photo: a sign on a public footpath. If you want to get to Sheepdip, turn right.

Irrelevant photo: Sign on a public footpath. If you want to get to Sheepdip, turn right.

The geography’s a side point, though. What matters for this story is that out house was wildlife friendly. That doesn’t mean we had cuddly otters stopping by for coffee or raccoons joining us for breakfast. We had urban wildlife. Every so often, we’d hear yelling upstairs and know that V. had her broom in hand and was killing a rat with it. I love V. and her kids dearly, and I never thought she meant me harm, but I want to put it on record that when she had that broom out I would not want to make her mad.

When I say we had rats, some of you will think the place was a dump, but really it was just a place to live. With great neighbors and a landlord who figured in the cost of the screws when he had to—very reluctantly—replace the back door. And with, you know, the occasional rat. But only sometimes.

This isn’t a tale about either landlords or rats, though, or the ways you can sometimes confuse one with the other. Here’s what it is about:

Every second or third week, I hosted a late-night radio call-in show, and on one particular night I got home at the usual ridiculous hour and before I had time to take off my raincoat a hand reached out of the bedroom, grabbed my collar, and pulled me in backwards.

Was I terrified? Did I think vampire zombies had taken over the house and were about to do whatever it is they do, which I didn’t know the specifics of because I hadn’t watched the movie? No. The only thing I remember thinking was something along the lines of this is strange.

Which was fine because it turned out to be Wild Thing’s hand pulling me backwards. She closed the door after me and said, “We have a bat.”

Wild Thing isn’t hysterical about wildlife. The time the rat came up the toilet, yes, we did what any two sane adults would do in that situation: We closed the lid and we went into the other room and we screamed. C’mon, tell me you wouldn’t. And she’s phobic about snakes. But otherwise, she’s the person you’d call if a bear lumbered into your living room. Because you’d want someone who could stay calm. Someone you could ask, “So what do you think I should do?” and who’d say, “I’d get my ass out of there if I was you,” and you’d say, “Right. I’d thought of that myself but I was afraid I might hurt its feelings.”

I should interrupt myself to say that she’s not a low-key person. It’s something she drops into when bears lumber into the living room.

So this was when we learned that she’s phobic about bats as well as snakes. You don’t know something like that until one starts swooping overhead.

I’d lived in a bat-prone apartment some ten years before and the only one that bothered me was the one that flew into the walls and presumably had rabies. But we had a caretaker there and he came and got the bats out. So I told Wild Thing, calmly, “They don’t land in your hair. That’s a myth.” Because we were hiding in the bedroom and that seemed like something she ought to know.

Having reassured her, I’d planted the image in my head, so I pulled the raincoat hood over my head to cover my hair, marched into the living room, and brought the phone back.

Which left us in the bedroom with the phone. The next question was what to do with it. Our apartment didn’t have a caretaker, it had a landlord who lived in the furthest suburbs and counted in the cost of the screws when he had to replace a door. He wasn’t someone you’d look to for help, even if the place had been on fire.

I seem to remember that we tried turning out the lights and opening the doors before we called anybody. I absolutely remember that it did no good—the bat swooped and circled and did bat things. Then we turned the lights back on and the bat went to roost.

In the end, Wild Thing called the cops. I mean, why not, right? And she talked to someone who said, “We’ll send the Batmobile.”

Strange to say, we weren’t the cops’ top priority that night. We sat on the front porch and waited an hour or so, until finally a cop car pulled up and two cops swaggered out.

Now if you’re not American, you have to understand something about the equipment American cops carry on their belts. It includes a gun, a club, handcuffs, spray deodorant, a large Coke, a donut, and a model of the Washington Monument in granite. All of which not only adds up to quite a bit of weight but pushes their elbows out when they walk. So even the least temperamentally swaggery of them swaggers like they’re headed for the gunfight at the OK Corral. They can’t help it.

One of the two asked, “What seems to be the problem, ma’am?”

Wild Thing said, “We have a bat.”

He froze mid-swagger.

“A bat,” he repeated blankly.

His partner headed up the walk, which shamed the rest of us into following.

The lights were on and the bat had gone to roost on top of the kitchen cabinets, so he said he’d try carrying it out the back door on the piece of wood it was on. Why (parenthetically) did we have a chunk of wood on the kitchen cabinets? Because I’d seen other people take similar things and make them look great. Mine looked like an old chunk of wood that had been dumped on top of a kitchen cabinet but I left it there to see if it wouldn’t look better if it had a year or two to settle in.

Anyway. He picked up the chunk of wood and the bat took off. The second cop made a dive for the bathroom and slammed the door, trapping Wild Thing and me out there with the bat, so we dove under the kitchen table, where we had time to think that someone armed with a gun and a club and spray deodorant and a model of the Washington Monument was hiding in our bathroom.

The first cop—the bat battler—asked where we kept our broom and explained to us, as we hid under the table, that bats fly in regular patterns. He watched briefly to establish what pattern this one was flying, then he whacked it out of the air with the broom and carried it outside.

When he came back in, he opened the bathroom door and poked the broom through the opening.

“Coming to get you,” he said. “Coming to get you.”

The second cop? That was over thirty years ago and they’re both retired, but he’s still hearing about it. I just know that. The first one? He didn’t get an award from the city but he should have. Because forget the pen being mightier than the sword. Our neighbor V. had it right: The broom is more powerful than the anything, and that cop was smart enough to know it.

How to be British

P. and S. sent me a clipping from their local paper, in which columnist Ericka Waller, moved by the refugee crisis, kindly offers newcomers an eight-point guide to being British. I won’t cover all her points—that dances on the border of copyright violation, not to mention bad manners—but I’ll paraphrase a couple of them. Read the rest for yourself, because you need to know this stuff, even if you’re not British and have no intention of being. And even if you’re already British. With the government’s emphasis on British values these days, you don’t want to give someone the wrong impression, do you?

Besides, it’s a good article.

It may be irrelevant, but it speaks for itself.

It may be irrelevant, but it speaks for itself.

Point number 1: To be British, you must greet people by asking, “How are you?” but if they ask you the same question the only possible answer is, “I’m fine, thanks.” If you say you’re wonderful, you’re being a showoff. If you say you’re terrible, you’re moaning.  If you follow that by going into the details of your toothache or unpaid bills, you’ll either scare people or embarrass them. Or both. People don’t ask because they want to know, they just want to seem polite. Emphasis on seem.

The how-are-you? rule shares a common root with American greeting rituals. We (that’s Americans) ask without remembering that it’s a real question, although we do allow room for someone to say, “Wonderful,” or, “Tired, thanks,” or something along those lines. We also appreciate an occasional twist in the answer—something along the lines of  “better than nothing.” But your toothache? Your unpaid bills? The thousand ways your life’s threatening to fall apart? Nope. We don’t want to know either.

When Wild Thing first started to work as a therapist, she’d occasionally run into clients out in the real world, and if they greeted her she greeted them back. (If they didn’t, she walked on. Being a therapist is—says me who’s never been one but was in a position to observe—deeply weird.) She had to learn not to ask, “How are you?” because in the relationship they’d established that it was a real question. Some people would actually answer. In the middle of a supermarket aisle.

On the flip side, I went to the doctor once about I can’t remember what, and when she walked in and asked how I was I automatically said, “Fine. You?”

She managed not to slap her forehead—or mine—but I expect she wanted to. Imagine that happening to you twenty times a day.

Point number 2: To be British, you must also tut and learn to respond to tutting. “Nothing says Brit like a disapproving tut,” Waller writes. “As you finish the tut, raise your head slightly and roll your eyes elaborately to the heavens for extra punch.” And if someone notices and asks what’s wrong, deny everything. You’re not allowed to explain a tut or say how you actually feel.

As a rule, Americans don’t tut. Or I don’t think we do. But my understanding of the subject is colored by—how am I going to explain this to you? I don’t do well with subtle. If you want to insult me, you need to be clear or it’ll go over my head and where’s the fun in that?

This was a problem in Minnesota, where the official language is Indirect English. Wild Thing was called into service periodically to interpret for me. So maybe I’ve been tutted at all my life and didn’t notice. But I don’t think so. I think we leave the tut, like the tea, to the British.

I’m only aware of British tutting because I’ve been reading about it, both in Waller’s article and in Kate Fox’s wonderful Watching the English. So this is a nation that not only tuts but writes about tutting and ponders the deep cultural meaning of tutting. It wouldn’t be too much to say, the philosophy of tutting. This is a nation that cares about tutting.

The tut is powerful here—or so Fox says. Someone jumped the queue? If they’re British, a lone tut will be enough to shame them back into place. And in case you’re American, you need to understand that a queue is a line, and standing in line is the real British national religion. The Church of England? That’s for show. So we’re talking about someone violating the country’s most sacred principle. And a tut will be enough to remind them of it.

It sounds as if Fox differs from Waller on the tut’s power, but underneath there somewhere I expect they’d agree that it’s power comes from not needing to be explained (or something along those lines—we’re getting into murky waters here) and it will be understood regardless of how much it’s denied.

It’s a wonder this country’s let me stay.

British weather: is everything bigger in the U.S.?

From the July 3 Western Morning News I learned that Americans call the July full moon the Thunder Moon.

We do? I never did. I checked with Wild Thing and she’d never heard of it either. The only moon I ever heard given a name was the harvest moon, and that was only because of the song, “Shine on, etc.” And the writer William Least Heat-Moon, and he’s a person, not a celestial body.

As you might guess, the Westy isn’t the most news-driven of papers, but unless Wild Thing and I are the only two Americans who never heard of a Thunder Moon I’d expect a bit more in the way of fact checking.

Having said that, we’d just had a thunderstorm here in North Cornwall and lost power for a few minutes, and it had led us to compare Midwestern thunderstorms to the ones we’ve seen in the U.K. which strike us as short on drama.

Irrelevant photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant photo by Ida Swearingen

I know, I know. I sound like one of those everything’s-bigger-in-America kind of Americans. I’m not, I swear. I could give you a list of things that weren’t any bigger, but maybe it’s enough to say that I wasn’t. The storms, though? They were. The thunder here rumbles instead of crashes. The lightning tends to stay in the clouds instead of striking down. Yes, we’ve seen lightning strikes since we moved here, but they’re rare, and because of that, memorable. We stood on the cliffs once, watching lightning strike down into the ocean. I was riveted and would have stayed longer but Wild Thing reminded me that we were the tallest things on the cliffs (which is a comment on how low the vegetation is, not on how tall we are) and we’d be the most likely targets when the storm got closer. I was tempted to argue that we had plenty of time but good sense and kindness got the better of me and I followed her to the car.

I do miss those Midwestern thunderstorms. They gather all the energy from half a continent’s heat, then let it loose.

The tornadoes, on the other hand, I wasn’t so crazy about. Wild Thing spent a lot of childhood summers in Oklahoma, in what’s called Tornado Alley, and since she’s lived through plenty of tornadoes she’s convinced she will again. I’ve never been as sure of that. Even after forty years of living with them, when the sirens went off, my body sent out panic signals that didn’t bother to consult my brain.

In spite of that, I never managed to memorize which siren meant this is an early warning and which one meant get to the basement and stay terrified till you hear from us again.

We only went to the basement once. We gathered up the dog and found the cats were already in place. They know. Our basement wasn’t—how can I say this and not sound panicky? It wasn’t a place you’d want to be trapped if the house collapsed on top of you. We believed that basements should be cleaned every twenty years, whether they need it or not, but this being year nineteen we were still coasting. So it would be us, the dog, the cats, the dirt, the junk, the litter boxes, the asbestos lining that was, back then, still in place on our old, old furnace, and who knew what else. On top of that, water leaked in through the walls in heavy storms. Our neighborhood was built—we found out after we bought the house—on what had once been a swamp and wanted to be a swamp again. After a heavy storm, you could walk the alleys and know who had a finished basement by the rolls of soaked carpet waiting to go to the dump. So I pictured the house collapsed on top of us and all our dirt, junk, kitty litter, and asbestos, with the water rising—

And I couldn’t remember which corner they advised hiding in. The southwest? The southeast? Or was it under the stairs?

I looked under the stairs. Some old storm windows were stashed there, so add broken glass to the list.

I was tempted to take my chances upstairs. At least I’d die clean. Then the all clear went off and it all became a funny story.

Tornadoes are strange beasts. They can drive a piece of straw through a tree. They can lift up a house, drop a car in the basement, then put the house back down more or less on top of it. Not undamaged, mind you, but still in place. One that touched down in the Twin Cities picked a bunch of fish out of a Minneapolis lake and dropped them in a St. Paul suburban mall’s parking lot. You could almost think the storms have a sense of humor, although the fish weren’t amused.

Last January, a tornado touched down in London. No, make that a suspected tornado. The damage was minimal (I wouldn’t say that if my garage that been hit, but still, given what’s possible, yes, it was minor) and it wouldn’t have been national news if they weren’t so rare.

The storms you’re used to set your expectations of what storms are. Any tornado in Britain is newsworthy. And the thunderstorm that got us talking about how mild they are here? A couple of friends commented on how wild it had been.

Which brings me back to the Westy and its conviction that Americans call the July moon the Thunder Moon. If anyone’s ever heard it called that, I’d love to know.

How Minnesotans call their kids: an extra

After reading my comment on how differently Minnesotans and New Yorkers call their kids, P. wrote to say, “You may be right about Minnesota nowadays, but in the late forties my mom called to me down the block in south Minneapolis. Other moms did the same thing.”

But sometime in the fifties, he writes, “a seismic shift  occurred, and the practice suddenly vanished. I like to think that Minneapolis was more like a big small town before then, and many houses in the neighborhood were owned by people who were fresh off the farm and spoke in heavy Scandinavian accents, now nostalgically recalled by Garrison Keillor and parodied by the Coen brothers. They used to call their children as if they were calling them across eighty acres of corn. They also mostly drove Chevies, while my Father drove Frazers, which they stopped making in 1952. Then Minnesotans decided they needed to become respectable and they elected Eisenhower. The shouting is gone now, and they switched to Buicks.”

British stereotypes of Americans–and my own

In the U.K., Americans have a reputation for bluntness, but do we live up to the stereotype?

In my last post, without even noticing it I went along with the stereotype, and Belladonna Took wrote, “It absolutely fascinates me that you consider Americans ‘blunt and to the point.’ Maybe that’s true over on the East Coast, but here in the Pacific Northwest? Oh dear, hmmm, I think perhaps it may be a little different. (Note: Everything in the preceding sentence after ‘Oh dear’ is Pacific Northwestese for ‘Oh hell no.’ And it’s pronounced in a lilting smiley voice, so I should probably insert lots of smiley faces. Only stuff it, I won’t, because I’m from Johannesburg.)

“…I had lived here two years before it finally dawned on me that when smiling women remarked, “You’re very direct, aren’t you?” they weren’t actually complimenting me.”

Irrelevant photo: flowers growing in a drystone wall

Irrelevant photo: flowers growing in a drystone wall

Well, damn, it’s amazing what I can learn when I listen to people.

Although I lived in Minnesota for forty years, I’m a New Yorker by birth,by accent, and by attitude, and I don’t think I’m the only New Yorker who’s blunt, but having fallen for one stereotype I’m starting to question everything I take for granted. Still, I think that’s what we’re generally like. Not all of us, but enough to set a pattern.

For years after I moved to Minnesota, I felt like a steamroller. With no particular effort and no intention at all, I seemed to leave people flattened on the pavement, and hell, all I was doing was talking. It’s not that I like an argument, but I do like a good, spirited discussion, and to the people I was now around in Minnesota that sounded like an argument. I guess. You’d have to ask them what it was really about, although they might be too polite to tell you, because if New York’s known for its directness, Minnesota’s known for Minnesota Nice: a relentless effort to keep things bland. Smooth that surface, folks, because it’s all that matters.

Years ago on A Prairie Home Companion (and the link’s to the show’s general website, not the specific shows I’m about to mention), Garrison Keillor did some bits about how Minnesotans talk. They were, I think, from Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan. One that stayed with me was what a Minnesotan would say to someone using a welding torch on a full gas tank. It was, more or less, “Y’know, most fellas wouldn’t want to do that.”

In Minnesota when you’re making people uneasy, they’re likely to say either “that’s different” or “that’s interesting.” Ditto if you’ve thoroughly pissed them off. It took me a long, long time to understand what the phrases meant.

So I had a hard time those first few years. Or was that the first few decades? From this distance, it seems like no time at all. For a while, I tried toning myself down and ended up furious at everyone. Eventually I gave that up and let people look after their own welfare. They lived through the experience and I was happier, which it made me easier to be around, so I’m guessing everyone benefited. I was never going to blend in, so the only question was to handle my difference.

I’d lived there for several decades when my supervisor at work pulled me aside to tell me I was intimidating other (unnamed) staff members. Not by anything specific I’d said or done, just by my way of being in the world. If it had been something specific, I’m pretty sure I’d have reacted differently, but since this was about who and how I was, I surprised us both by laughing. She was twenty years too late, I told her, because I’d stopped thinking it was something I could change and anyway I’d stopped wanting to change it .

Twenty was a random grab for a largish number, but the rest of it was as true as anything can be in this complicated world of ours.

If you’re looking for a nifty strategy to help you get along with your supervisor, I don’t recommend that one, but to her credit she dropped the issue, and if she held it against me she kept it to herself. She wasn’t a native Minnesotan, but she’d adapted better than I had. So how did she really feel? I had no way of knowing and I was happy enough to leave it there.

At times when we lived in MInnesota, Wild Thing’s translated for me, because indirection isn’t a language I’m ever going to understand well. But she grew up in Texas and indirection is as natural to her as what other people think is an argument and I think is a discussion is to me. When her mother was bone-deep furious at someone, she’d do what she called heaping coals of fire on their head, which meant smiling and being nice to them to prove how angry she was. And, I’m guessing, how much better than them she was.

So, yeah, Wild Thing made a great translator.

One time we’d gotten a—no, I can’t resist it—whole shitload of manure for the garden and it was sitting in a pile by the alley, where I usually parked. And being the let’s-do-it-later kind of gardeners that we are, it sat there long enough that a neighbor said something about it. I don’t remember exactly what, but it had to do with there being a lot of it. Or how long it had been there. And I smiled and nodded and said yes it was a lot and yes it had been a while.

I’m clueless but I’m not unfriendly.

Then Wild Thing explained: The neighbor wanted some, and wanted to be invited to take it. And wasn’t going to ask. Ever. So we invited and she took and we all lived happily ever after.

I’m not sure how much of the U.S., geographically speaking, values directness and how much values indirectness. I’ve only lived in New York and Minnesota. If some of you want to fill in from your own experiences, it would be fascinating.

I can say two things, though. One is that stereotypes are powerful. If they match any tiny breath of experience in your head, as this one did in mine, you can find yourself blown right into a wall on a full-out storm wind. So thanks to Belladonna for providing the wall. I’m grateful.

The other is about the grain of truth in the stereotype. What I think gives rise to the impression of American bluntness is a sort of surface openness. In public, we take up more physical, emotional, and auditory space than the British. I wouldn’t say we’re uninhibited, but we can give that impression. And we recognize different rules of politeness. It’s easy to mistake all that for bluntness.

I offer than last piece especially as a theory, and I’d love to hear what you think of it. Am I anywhere near the mark?

Cross-cultural adventures: Two Americans call a cat in Britain

Fast Eddie went over the fence for the first time this week. We knew the day was coming, but we’d hoped it wouldn’t come quite so soon. He’s still a very small cat in a very large world. He’s built for climbing, though, and climb he did.

The first we knew about it was when we heard a bird doing what Wild Thing calls checking and our neighbor calls alarming.

Fast Eddie, the fiercest kitten for 10 yards in any direction

Fast Eddie, the fiercest kitten for 10 yards in any direction

Americans and Brits agree on what the noun alarm means, but use it any other way and we get into that odd stuff that happens when we think we share a language. In the U.S., if you’re alarmed, you’re moving in the direction of panic. It’s a feeling. Once you cross the Atlantic, though, being alarmed is more likely to involve wiring, as is demonstrated by the signs that say, “This door is alarmed.”

And there I was thinking the door was an inanimate object. So now I’m alarmed myself. The announcement seriously destabilized my world view.

Alarm can also involve actions—for example, the bird we heard was alarming, as in making an alarm call, not as in scaring the hell out of us.

So, with today’s language lesson out of the way, let’s go back to the bird. We heard it making a checking / alarming sound, and Wild Thing asked if I knew where Eddie was.

Insert a moment of, ahem, alarm here, because he was nowhere in the house. We went outside and called. He still wasn’t in the habit of coming when we called (we’re working on it), but we did it anyway because, what the hell, humans are a very strange species and it was something we knew how to do.

I need to interrupt myself for a minute here to talk about cross-cultural cat calling. I can’t swear that this is universal, but the Brits I’ve noticed calling cats tend to bend over, rub their fingers together, and say something quiet, like “puss, puss, puss.”

How do Wild Thing and I call our cats? With a two-note call that’s approaches a yodel: “kitt-TEEEE. KITT-teeee” You can hear us most of the way to Devon. Even in Minnesota, it marked us as not being local.

Okay, it wasn’t the only thing that let people know that, but I do remember standing on our open front porch one night when the air was so cold I thought my lungs would shatter and calling our cat by yodeling, “FUZZbucket, KITT-teeee.” (Go ahead, laugh at the name. Everyone else did. A friend used to call him Fuzzbuster and Fuzzduster, with the occasional Fussbudget thrown in for luck. I still think it was a great name.) From the far end of the dark street, a man’s voice echoed, word for word and note for note, “FUZZbucket, KITT-teeee.” I’d call, he’d call, I’d call, he’d call. He had the notes and the tone down perfectly, and I figured if Fuzz had any intention of coming in the echo wouldn’t hurt.

He didn’t, of course. He was a cat. And an old lady down the street used to feed him canned shrimp and keep him with her during the coldest weather. I’m sure he told her he had nowhere else to go.

But that’s a different story and a different place. In this place, I was worried that Eddie might have gone over a fence and discovered that the other side didn’t offer him a way to climb back, and there he’d be, a very small kitten on the wrong side of a tall wall.

So Wild Thing went to our over-the-tallest-fence neighbors. They don’t live on our street and to get to them you more or less have to run up to London, then Hamburg, and then come back to Cornwall to our village to a different street and go through their front gate, which sometimes sticks so badly that you need a chisel and a hammer to get through, and all of that is necessary because, unlike Minneapolis, the neighborhoods here don’t have alleys and the yards here don’t have back gates. In fact, they’re not yards at all, they’re called gardens, and if they’re close together they have barricade-like fences or hedges meant to screen you and your thoughts from any awareness that you have neighbors. It gives back yards (sorry—they’ll always be yards to me) a sense of privacy and quiet, but it could strike someone used to American yards as unfriendly. (I’m not one of them. I like that sense of quiet.)

So Wild Thing was gone for a while, hiking to London and Hamburg and Cornwall and then through the neighbors’ gate, which didn’t happen to stick that day, and I couldn’t think of anything useful to do with myself so I worked on the bread I was making, which was ready to shape into loaves. And at some point something almost weightless brushed against my ankles and I looked down and found Eddie, who hadn’t a clue in the world that he’d just caused an uproar and wouldn’t have minded much if he had known.

So I did what any dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker would do: I went out back and bellowed for Wild Thing. When I was a kid, that’s how the mothers in our neighborhood called us—they leaned out the windows and bellowed our names. (What the ones whose apartments didn’t have windows on the street did I never stopped to wonder. Chose not to reproduce? Lost their kids forever? Waited till they got hungry enough to wander home? I just don’t know.) That was also how we called our mothers: We stood on the sidewalk, tipped our heads back, and bellowed up. To this day, my voice–well, no one who hears me is left with the impression that I’m shy. If you want to bring down the walls of Jericho, leave the trumpets at home and convince me that they need to come down.

Back in New York, every mother somehow knew her own kids’ voices well enough that they didn’t all pop their heads out in unison when one of us bellowed, even though we all yelled the same word, “Mom.”

Oh, damn, I’m getting teary. Thanks for being able to pick my voice out of the maelstrom, Mom. I miss you.

Minnesotans never seemed to bellow for their kids. I don’t know how they got them home. Compared to New Yorkers, Minnesotans are indirect. Or repressed, if you prefer. Or well behaved. It’s all in how you see it. Maybe the intensity of their frustration sends out a vibe that the kids pick up.

But however long I’ve been away from Manhattan, I’m still a New Yorker, so I bellowed. And Wild Thing, who’d just gotten into the neighbors’ yard, answered in true New York fashion (she lived there for ten years and picked up the important skills).

She started the long trek home, and our neighbor, G., who’d somehow managed to hear all this (damn, that man has good ears) popped up on his side of a different fence (we have three immediate neighbors), which is about shoulder height, even on me, and said he’d heard the bird alarming, then seen Eddie running along the top of the fences. The fences make a fine highway if you’re a cat.

Then, G. said, he heard us calling Eddie.

And no doubt laughed his ass off at the volume and sheer uselessness of it all, but he was far too kind–or maybe that’s well behaved–to say so.

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.