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The secret joys of suffering through winter

Maria Dorota

Maria Dorota

Winter has a bad rep. The weather is harsh, the days are dark, and the heating bills are high. Still, we choose to live like this, because on some level we kinda love it. Mother Nature is challenging us, and each time we conquer the game--by surviving another bike ride, walking to a rock show on a freezing night, or digging out a car before the plows come--we experience a warm rush of gratitude.

The following are some of our successes in mastering the harshest season.

 

The men with horns who roar like beasts

December 2010. The Snowpocalypse brings the Twin Cities 19 inches of snow, followed by subzero temperatures. Metro Transit has temporarily ceased operations. The roof of the Metrodome has collapsed.

I am inside my south Minneapolis apartment, freaking out about my car. Through the window, I see a white mound where it might be. I need to move it before the snowplows arrive, but I don’t own a shovel. So I improvise with a bucket and a broom.

Associated Press / Charlie Nye

Associated Press / Charlie Nye

Three hours later, my car is clear, but the snow surrounding it is up to my waist. I contemplate letting the city tow it.

Then I see them. A group of five men down the street, headed my way. They wear Minnesota Vikings hats, the kind with horns. They are equipped for battle, carrying shovels, kitty litter, and thermoses full of hot beverages (whiskey?).

“Do you need some help?”

They already have a plan: They’re going to push my car down the block, out to a snow emergency route that is already cleared for parking.

I hop in and rev the engine. They roar like beasts as they push, lift, and rock my car down the street. The smell of burned rubber wafts through the air. Somehow, we make it to the clear street. A wave of relief and gratitude washes over me.

They offer to help my neighbor, who is stuck in the middle of the road. I join them and we high-five after dislodging her Kia.

Frozen, I head back inside. The pack moves on and continues to help those in need. I hear engines roaring and their joyful howls well into the night.

The next morning, they are at it again. I fire up the stove and make some coffee and cocoa. I grab beer too, and head out to find the pack.

“Aren’t you frozen by now?” I ask.

“Naw,” one responds, cracking open a beer. “I’m having the best time. I’ve met so many people this weekend.”

I nod, understanding. It’s an odd way to meet your neighbors, but there’s something very Minnesotan about it. —Jessica Armbruster

The winter cyclist, unevolved species

A smarter species has adapted to use handy tools like heated seats and Hyundai Elantras in battling the winter commute. As temperatures drop, this more developed genus strategically times the punching of remote starters, the hustle from house to pre-warmed car, shrewdly minimizing exposure to the elements.

Meanwhile, my evolution stopped with the invention of the studded bike tire.

As days shorten, I double the length of my morning routine, adding layer after layer to brace for the ride ahead. If you saw me on the road, you could argue that I’m evolving backward—gleefully shooting snot rockets with the tact of a prehistoric cave-dweller, my fleece-lined lobster-claw gloves transforming me into a strange breed of Upper Midwest crustacean.

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It’s no accident that the word “cyclist” sounds a lot like “masochist.” There’s a perverse pleasure in suiting up when the temperature officially drops below “fuck you,” and the wind chill adds “right to hell.” The slap of cold against skin is a reminder that you’re alive, just as it’s a reminder that you won’t always be. Especially if you forget to pack an extra fleece for the night ride home, you moron.

No one has to live like this. And really, no adult should. That becomes evident each morning as I cram my salty-road-mush-caked self into the office elevator among suit jackets and skirts.

But there are plenty of stubborn bastards like me, whipping through the ice on two wheels, condemning themselves to chapped lips and dry skin that require military-grade Aquaphor to fix.

Maybe it seems lonely to an outsider, this frigid pursuit. To pedal solo as your light cuts a sliver through the dark. To arrive 20 minutes late to the bar, sweating but still cold, when you could be sharing a Lyft with friends.

But it isn’t.

There’s fellowship written into each tweet and Facebook post from other Twin Cities cyclists, whether it’s an exasperated update (“Day seven of uncleared, unusable bike lanes”) or a comment to commiserate (“That headwind this morning...”). There’s solidarity in the salute a rider issues from across the intersection, before we silently go our separate ways. There’s community in the thin band of visible road I angle my tires toward, left by someone who traversed this snow-dusted trail before me.

So I tell my friends to call a car. I don’t mind meeting them by bike. Today was tough, and I could use the ride to blow off some (literal) steam.

I’ll go alone. Because the thing is, I’m not. Not really. —Emily Cassel

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A nighttime feast of spectacle and speculation

When you grow up a scared kid with an overactive imagination, you never feel alone in the dark.

Nighttime was when unseen things clustered in shadows, knotholes in the door became eyes. Even the popcorn ceiling seemed to edge closer, threatening to turn my room into a garlic press... and me into garlic.

Winter was when nighttime was king. The sun started going down at 3 p.m. I wouldn’t see it again until I was halfway to school the next morning, passing culs-de-sac of motionless houses with their black windows like dead eyes. In the dark, even a cookie-cutter suburban house is a hunching, hungry thing.

This is when I first learned to hate winter. I kept my little Christmas tree up, letting it blaze all night to stave off whatever unwelcome company waited in my closet, beneath my bed, behind my eyelids.

I didn’t learn to love winter nights until I moved to St. Paul. Darkness in the city is a different animal than its suburban cousin. It’s a feast for spectacle and speculation.

Every evening starting around 5 p.m., I can witness the scenes behind lighted windows: shadow boxes of humanity occupied with wonderfully mundane human things.

There’s the woman looking pensively out her office window, in a private world of her own private worries, seeming to float in midair inside a yellow rectangle 10 stories up. There’s the man on the elliptical at the gym, sweating bullets as I make my way to the Green Line. There’s the girl smiling to herself in a Patina store as she looks at a cardboard baby book—a gesture so totally unconscious and warm that it makes me smile too.

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She doesn’t know I can see her. She doesn’t know about the woman in her office or the man on the elliptical. Each is a separate universe unto themselves—each self-contained and distinct and beautiful, like snow globes.

The only one who knows they exist on the same block is me: a wide-eyed observer, in the snow, in the dark. If the sun were out, they’d be invisible. And I’d be alone.

A scared kid knows you’re never alone in the dark. It’s only later you learn how powerful that feeling can be. —Hannah Jones

They didn’t haul all that gear through a storm to put on a half-assed show

There’s a special warmth you feel as you step into a club on a snowy night. All you hear as you approach the doorway is the crunch of your footsteps on the gathering snow, the sound of music emanating through the walls—an inviting beacon amid the tranquil whiteout surrounding you.

The gathered are here because they want to be here. It wasn’t easy piloting their way through the storm. Getting home will be worse as the snow continues to fall. But for the next few hours, as the drinks flow and the music gets hot, these matters are discarded as we congregate in communal admiration of the uplifting power of song.

On these nights, the drinks taste a little better and the bartenders give an extra pour to reward the bravery of those who’ve found their way. Hugs and handshakes from old friends are warmer and linger a little longer than they do in summer, as we seek that personal connection within the cold’s isolation.

The local bands—during winter, they’re usually local, since national acts are afraid to tour due to nights just like this—sound better during snowstorms. They didn’t haul all that gear through a storm to put on a half-assed show. And the crowd huddled at the stage didn’t brave treacherous conditions to see a tame performance. They want to see and hear magic. The bands rise to the challenge.

As the final notes ring out and last call is announced, the protective veneer of the club fades as the house lights shine bright. We are snapped from our reverie, once again confronted by thoughts of how to make it safely home.

But the music still rings in our ears, as do conversations shared with friends. Our hearts and minds are renewed, recharged. We head out into the storm, fully prepared to handle anything it throws our way. —Erik Thompson

You, your dog, and 15 below

It’s 15 below. Gone are the funny white go-carts, the men who inadvisably left home that morning wearing yellow pants. Snow has driven them from this occupied land. The Como Golf Course has been liberated for you.

It’s not like you have anything against this elevated game of croquet. Except there’s no checking or tackling. And opposite field power is considered a bad thing.

When the weather’s warm, this luscious acreage of greenery and rolling hills—the largest open expanse in Como Park—is the golfer’s exclusive province. You walk past every day with your dog, nose pressed against the edge like a kid at a toy store window, longing for the cold to drive them away. Now they are gone.

You take the first steps off Chelsea Street, where the children have packed the snow from heavy sledding. You unleash the dog, who sprints into this wonderland of smells. Your guilt is assuaged—at least somewhat. You know it’s not right to own a dog in the city. That running aimlessly should be her natural state. Now, after months of walking leashed like some prison trustee, she has been paroled.

You watch for errant cross-country skiers, lest she corral them like wayward sheep. She is large and black and barking. The skiers know not that her intentions are pure.

You stand atop the steep hill, the wind laying waste to your face. Your fingers and legs are nearing that oh shit point of freezing. Mother Nature has shown up in full regalia.

It is at these times that you understand your insignificance. And it is beautiful. Your bullshit worries about your bullshit life are battered away by the punishing gales barreling down from Manitoba and beyond. Mother Nature has asserted her rightful authority. It’s just you. The snow. The unchallenged primacy of the natural world.

There is something very freeing about this. You crunch across the course, the moon bright and the world silent, save for the Taste of the Artic Buffet delivered by those atmospheric caterers from Manitoba. There are so few moments like these in modern life. But they are abundant here in Minnesota, where the weather understands the import of solitude.

The dog runs and smells and digs until she’s tired. You attach the leash as you rejoin the sidewalk and the lives you must resume.

But you are happy, and you will return again tomorrow night. You just hope it stays cold. —Pete Kotz

Dim sum, Battlestar Galactica, and shapeless sweaters

Fish ruminate in their underwater caves. Bears snore in their north woods dens. The Loring Park squirrel mafia is enormous from all the Doritos they pilfered from unsuspecting basketball players, and now refuse to flinch for man or dog.

Likewise, I am emboldened by the calf-length maxi coat my mother found and the certainty that no one will see my true form for several long, lightless months.

I’m using this precious time to eat whatever the hell I want, rewatch the best episodes of all my favorite space operas, and revel in my complete transformation into an unapologetic lump of lard.

The roads are slush and there’s a hole in my boot. But intraversable roads means no hour-long wait at Yangtze, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as watching the world disappear in a blizzard while a terse Chinese auntie hurls tiny plates of shrimp dumplings and chicken feet from a metal cart.

The president of the United States was recently accused of being a Sith lord. But I’m heartened—as I dedicate my Sunday nights to sitting swathed in a giant comforter with a bowl of popcorn—that at some distant point in the cycle of time Mary McDonnell will be president of the human race, which will finally unite to defeat its common Cylon enemies.

There’s midnight ramen dressed with poached egg and bacon. Totino’s in bed with the Last Jedi novelization. Double-serving freeze-dried camping dinners for breakfast, and a bouquet of gas station jerky for lunch while standing in the security line of the Hennepin County Courthouse.

If I want it, I eat it. This is America, I’m an adult, and Minnesota winter brings out the animal that craves Arby’s and Mountain Dew in a hot bath. No sun, no shame. —Susan Du

Minnesota: Where the winter is fully committed

There’s something pitiful about a mid-Atlantic winter.

Children scramble to collect every stray flake after a dusting in the vain hope they can form something worth heaving at each other. The rare respectable snowfall is almost instantaneously reduced to a mucky slush that waits to engulf your pant leg when you step off the curb. Dreariest of all are those tepid days of 40-degree drizzle, indications of a meek winter that barely made an effort.

Each December, just as the cold threatens in earnest here, I head back to visit family in New Jersey, where the weather hems and haws. A cold snap may hint at genuine winter; a warm spell could taunt you with memories of comfort.

And always, there are those marrow-dampening, not-quite-freezing days I remember afterward, the ones I remember from my childhood. A New Jersey winter is a tiresome gnat, less a season than a nuisance.

A Minnesota winter commits. You may have to prepare every day for the cold, but you never have to wonder about it. Winter shows up here, leaves no room for doubt.

The eastern faux-winter makes me stupid and lazy and irritable. Worse, it makes me feel as though stupid and lazy and irritable is my natural state. A Minnesota winter reminds me that’s not true, sharpens my focus, keeps me moving, brings me to life.

Not that this newfound life is translated into “winter activities.” Skis and skates and snowshoes are not for me.

No, one reason I like winter is I get to spend much of it inside. For several months I have a retort for that tiresome parental voice telling me to go outside and play, and I can bask in the pleasures offered by antidotes to the cold. Guzzling warm liquids. Combining body heat. Burning things. And I look at the ice-embalmed branches stretching stiffly across the deceptively inviting blue skies the way they’re meant to be seen—through a window. —Keith Harris