Some Cheers for Winter

Winter Carnival. Source: Minnesota Historical Society

My sister phones. "Storm!" she says, disgusted. "They're calling this a storm. No wind, maybe an inch of snow. It's winter, for Pete's sake, we're supposed to have snow. Get a grip!" My sister is not one of your hardy outdoors types, but we're Iron Rangers, and even though between us we've spent six decades in Saint Paul, we retain the Ranger's right to scorn urban wimpiness. It's the TV weather people who have set her off. "They are trying to brainwash us into weather wimps."

Up North, people take some pride in cold. My cousin who lives in the Embarrass bog country, where it really does get to 40 below pretty often, cheerfully argues about a late July frost they had—was that their earliest or latest killing frost on record?

But how is it that all Minnesota gets tagged as the Abode of Winter, even in these days of climate change and a lot of, frankly, substandard winters?

Here's my theory: meteorologists, nationwide, must include a lot of Minnesotans. (Who else talks so much about weather?) They value our quality of life—and know that overpopulation is the quickest way to wreck it. So, I figure, enthusiastic loyal Minnesotans who love weather, and cross-country skiing, and maybe even ice fishing, take temporary posts in exile, where they deliberately slander our state. "Mosquitoes in summer and 40 below keeps out the riffraff" is their battle cry.

They report on the Icebox of the Nation, and every cold day in the Embarrass bog—any fragment of bad weather news. Like the summer a friend's mother called from Maryland, frantic: "Are you OK?" "Sure. Why wouldn't I be?" "But the Tornado!" (She says "tor-nah-do!") We thought hard. Oh, yeah, there was a little one—took the roof off a barn, no cows hurt. But it made the news in Baltimore and Washington.

The problem is this new generation of local TV weather people, who seem to believe the hype about terrible weather. Their standard is tropical beaches: sunny and hot is good. In steamy 95-degree August, they chirp about "gorgeous weather," even if we're in a drought. "Plagued by rain," I heard one say, predicting half an inch. Any cold, and some low-seniority reporter gets sent outside, wrapped in a muffler, to warn us about wind chill. It's probably a ratings thing: our station has the most exciting weather.

Saint Paulites have not all been brainwashed by the winter-haters. Right after a good snow, Como Park, Highland, and Crosby Farm are covered with ski tracks. A lot of people play hooky or leave work early to catch the snow before the thaw ruins it. People smile: "Finally, a real old Minnesota winter!" Neighbors I never see give each other a hand shoveling out, or just meet in the alley, appreciating the new plow guy we've hired.

Heating bills aside, we could use more consistent cold, not these damn thaws and black ice. The friend who most recently broke her leg on black ice celebrated recovery by a skating party on the anniversary—that is Minnesota style. My niece credits her safety to our winter neighborliness; driving through one of Saint Paul's tonier neighborhoods, she spotted a cardboard sign tacked to a tree. "SLOW DOWN! ICE AHEAD! SLICKER THAN SNOT!"

And the Winter Carnival—any city can celebrate lakes and summer—it takes more spirit to celebrate winter. So what if these days ice sculptures are in danger of premature melt? Famous artists have made careers of ephemeral art. And in a bottom-line, tight-fisted age, building an Ice Palace is a lovely, extravagant gesture. Traveling in the Amazon, I once brought, along with photos of family and home to ease conversations with local people, Saint Paul postcards, including old ice palaces. Nothing could have impressed and delighted people more.

"Turn off the TV," I told my sister. "You'll get high blood pressure." While the weather news was on, I went for a short walk in the "storm." The lightly falling snow was very pretty under the streetlights.

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