When I was preparing to leave my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri for college on the East Coast more than a decade ago, weather warnings came from everyone. “Get ready for that New England winter!” “I hope you have a great coat!” “Ooh, I hear it gets cold there!”
This warning from friends and neighbors confused me. In my 18 years in the Midwest, there were massive snowfalls, numerous stretches of subzero temperatures, and an ice storm that closed school for three blissful days. Winter for me in the midwest meant sledding on school cafeteria trays and hitting Duraflame logs in my pajamas with an extra packet of Miss Switzerland in my mug. The average winter temperature in Missouri is only 4 degrees warmer than in Massachusetts; other midwestern states such as Minnesota and North Dakota reliably sink to 12 degrees Fahrenheit in the colder months. What has changed in the thousand or so miles to make the season “brutal,” “punishing,” and even that serious warning?
After more than a decade living on the East Coast, I feel comfortable enough to say (with all the love in my heart for my new chosen home) that I know what makes winter here different: the complaint.
Of course, the Midwest is not a monolith. Many of us aren’t thrilled with the colder months – that is the midwest they hate it with a burning passion usually reserved for other sports teams. But many of us love winter, ice scrapers and all. And now climate change seems to be flipping the script on what, when, and even where It’s winter (welcome to the party, LA!), It could be coastal people of their colleagues through the plane window and check how to manage the so-called overpass country not only to survive the season, but to enjoy. Our attitude towards the cold months is quite similar to our attitude towards most things: accept reality, then decide to appreciate it.
Midwesterners occupy the middle ground in more ways than one. We spend a lot of time operating at the intersection of “what I want” and “what is possible.” This usually involves inconvenience, asking for favors, and giving up some things in the previous category. We don’t expect to have our hot dish and eat it too. Our culture of compromise knows we’re giving up easy international travel in exchange for big yards hosting summer barbecues. (A three-hour layover in Atlanta; Washington, DC; Houston; New York; or Boston is the midwestern prerequisite for any European vacation.) When it comes to weather, we know what we’re missing. and what we are getting. Will I be able to feel my toes? Am I at the end speeding down the hill outside the local high school on the sled I got for 70 percent off at Target last June? Yes I am.
The thing is, for every winter irritation, there is an equal and opposite elation. Cars stuck in the snow give the neighborhood kids a chance to earn a few extra bucks or the guy across the street a chance to show off his new snow blower. A football game in a 15 degree blizzard provides an opportunity to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to hiking. (We can’t show the people we love that they’re worth standing in the freezing cold if there’s no cold to stand in.)
Our focus on the bright side is rooted not in naivety or denial, but in an understanding of reality. We often defend the weather: a tentpole of midwestern winter conversation proclaims that it’s “not so bad without the wind” or “it’s not too cold as long as you’re standing in the sun.” We do not suffer delusions. We are simply choosing to focus our attention on the best possible version of our circumstances.
However, clearly embracing winter requires preparation. We perform a respectful ritual of exchanging summer clothes for winter clothes: Plastic bins are removed from under the beds, storage units in the basement are opened, and coats are moved from one closet to another closet closer to the door. We stock our cars with blankets, ice scrapers, and hand warmers to make sure even the worst case scenario isn’t too bad.
But the most important thing to our winter enjoyment is that we don’t spend nearly as much energy belting out the tough times as we do preparing for the terrible ones: basketball and football seasons, the holidays, and, for teenagers, the amount. -I hope Mom comes in at 6:45 am and says “School’s canceled” because of the snow, give them three or seven more hours of the best sleep of their lives.
The coasts, I think, are misunderstood as breaking out of the default state of the midwest. That midwesterners are stuck there. Moving away, as I did, is an act of escape rather than sacrifice. May those who endure the horrors of winter succeed by resiliency or imagining fun.
The truth is that many of us love the season, and our love comes not from pretending but from understanding. Amazing things happen because of the freezing temperatures and the precipitation and the wind, not in spite of them. Snow days call for snow. Cute gloves need cold hands. My midwestern advice? Think of this time as its own rich, wonderful destination—instead of that season you just fly your way to spring.