Thursday, February 28, 2008


Minnesota, Cold

Originally published in the New York Mills Herald on 1/23/08 and credited to my alternate identity, Elisa Korentayer.

You know those psychological association games where someone says a word, and you’re supposed to say the first thing that pops into your head after hearing it? Like, I say “horse,” and you say “carriage.” Or I say “cereal,” and you say “milk.” Well, when I say “Minnesota” to almost any non-Minnesotan, the first thing that pops into his or her head almost inevitably has something to do with cold, if not the word “cold” itself. Mental associations might include: ice, snow, winter, ice-fishing, frigid, freezing, below zero, negative temperatures, dog sledding, frozen wasteland, freeze-to-death, gotta-wear-furs, keep-your-hat-on, don’t-let-your-fingers-freeze, frostbite, and fishing houses.

The first thing people said to me when I told them I was moving to Minnesota was: “You know it’s cold there, right?” Even locals suggested that, until I experienced winter, I shouldn’t commit to a 56567 address. My family spent most of the last year expecting me to run screaming as soon as the temperature dipped below 20 degrees. Well, folks, I’d like to tell you now, it’s official: Winter is here, and so am I. I went out the other morning in negative twenty-four degrees to walk the dog and start my car… without a coat.

One thing that has surprised me about winter in Minnesota is that the cold feels different here than I expected it to. I always used to associate the discomfort of cold with a sense of weakness from the inside. A sense of something missing—the missingness of heat. Cold at the level of negative twenty degrees is an entirely different experience. It’s more like pain. I feel it first and immediately in any area of exposed skin. The exposed skin begins to hurt upon contact with the air. It aches and burns. Then I notice it in my eyeballs as they start to sear. Then my nostrils, as the moisture that generally remains unnoticed there tightens and hardens, pulling at the hairs of my nose and blocking the airflow. Finally, I notice my lungs struggling to adjust to the temperature of the air, icy and frigid and hard, like breathing glass.

I probably wear more layers than most of the rest of the New York Mills population. On top: a long-sleeve silk long-underwear shirt, then a polyester-cotton-blend long-sleeve T-shirt, then a wool turtleneck, and a wool sweater. On the bottom: silk or polyester long underwear, leg warmers, and a pair of thick corduroy or wool pants. My feet need wool socks—nothing else will do—and a pair of sheepskin or thinsulate boots, rated to -40. Before heading outdoors for any extended length of time, I put on my ankle-length down coat. It’s a mustard-yellow color and leaves me looking vaguely like Big Bird. I slip on a wool hat, and then surround myself with a wide wool or cashmere scarf to cover my neck and chin.

For shorter ventures, I run outside in only my indoor gear, gleefully triumphant that I, an east coaster, have managed to go outside in a Minnesota winter without a coat. As the temperature gets colder, the consequences of my uncoated forays into the frigid outdoors become more severe. In single-digit temperatures, I am able to go outside, start the car, wait the long minutes while the dog sidles up to every post and mound—taking his jolly old time sniffing and deliberating over whether this is the post or mound for today’s morning activities—and then return to the house, feeling invigorated by the cold, but still warm enough. Once the temperature drops to negative single digits, I notice that my hands will not tolerate time outside my sleeves, and my inner core cools to levels of discomfort I would otherwise choose to avoid. In the negative teens and twenties, I find that within seconds of being outside without a coat, my body begins to shiver. The searing skin pain moves quickly to numbness, and the inside of my body quakes in protest as it yearns for more heat and seeks any reserve of warmth there is to be had. It is not possible to touch metal with bare hands at these temperatures, and I only remember that once the moisture on my skin begins to bond with the doorknobs. I never knew how many pieces of metal I touched without thinking about it till this weekend when doorhandles became obstacles and car doors became weapons.

I will not pretend that I’m impervious to cold. Far from it. I find continuous cold unbearably uncomfortable. Thank goodness for furnaces, which make indoor room temperatures more tolerable. Since indoor temperatures don’t differ much from place to place, changing winter temperatures mostly seem to affect the amount of time needed to get the car warmed up and the number of layers I need to put on between the car and the store. I have to say that I’m still not too pleased about the outdoor nature of gas stations. Why hasn’t anyone invented indoor filling areas for Minnesota gas stations? The wind coming off of the Red River Valley flats can really mess up a person’s hands when filling up the car. Speaking of hands, it’s in my hands that I feel winter’s rigors most. Today my hands sport three bandaids from winter-related injuries including cracks in overdry skin and inadvertent scrapes unnoticed due to numbness.

I understand, from other transplants to Minnesota that one becomes more and more comfortable in lower temperatures over the years. A woman I spoke to in Fargo told me that only transplants wear long underwear. “Give it another year,” she said. A friend who has been here longer than me, but who spent much of her time in deserts in Arizona and the Middle East prior to Minnesota, told me that she leaves her down coat in the car these days to be used only in emergencies. I hope that in years to come it will be me walking outside in short sleeves when the temperature hits the high twenties. That one day I’ll be able to keep my house at 60 degrees and be comfortable. I write you this as I sit here in my 70 degree house, wearing multiple layers, and enjoying the ceramic space heater at my feet.

I am pleased to be surviving the Minnesota winter with only a few minor scrapes to speak of, but I sure am looking forward to the glorious time in June when you can say “Minnesota” and I can say “swim.”

I think "lakes". But I've only been there in the summer.

Also, Lake Wobegon. Is this not accurate?
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