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 big coat!” “Oh, I hear it’s cold up there!”
This warning from friends and neighbors confused me. In my 18 years in the Midwest, I had experienced massive snowfalls, multiple sub-zero temperatures, and an ice storm that closed school for three blissful days. Winter for my Midwestern self meant sledding to school cafeteria trays and putting on Duraflame logs while wearing my pajamas and sneaking an extra pack of Swiss Miss in my mug. The average winter temperature in Missouri is only 4 degrees warmer than that in Massachusetts. other Midwestern states like Minnesota and North Dakota reliably dip to 12 degrees Fahrenheit in the colder months. What changed in those thousand or so miles to make the season “brutal”, “punishing” and worthy of such severe warnings?
After more than a decade living on the East Coast, I’m very comfortable saying (with all the love in my heart for my new home) that I know what makes winter here different: the complaining.
Of course, the Midwest is not a monolith. Many of us are not in love with the colder months – which is the Midwest they hate them with a burning passion usually reserved for rival sports teams. But many of us unabashedly love winter, ice scrapers and all. And now that climate change seems to be flipping the script on what, when and even where It’s winter (welcome to the party, Los Angeles!), so perhaps coastal folks should look out their airplane windows and see how the so-called flying country manages to not just endure the season, but enjoy it. Our attitude towards the cold months is quite similar to our attitude towards most things: accept reality and then decide to appreciate it.
Midwesterners inhabit 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 suffering, asking for favors, and giving up certain things in this former category. We don’t wait to have our hot dish and eat it too. Our culture of compromise knows that in exchange for big backyards that host summer barbecues, we give up easy international travel. (A three-hour layover in Atlanta, Washington, DC, Houston, New York, or Boston is the Midwest requisite for any European vacation.) When it comes to weather, we know what we’re missing and what we’re getting. Will I be able to feel my toes? No after all will I speed down the hill outside the local high school in the sled I got for 70% off at Target last June? Yes I am.
The thing is, for every winter irritation, there’s an equal and opposite exhilaration. Cars trapped 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 machine. A football game in a 15-degree blizzard provides an opportunity to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to fandom. (We can’t show the people we love that they’re worth standing in the freezing cold if there’s no freezing cold to stand in.)
Our focus on the bright side is not rooted in naivety or denial, but in understanding reality. We often find ourselves defending the weather: a stretch of winter conversation announces that “it’s not so bad without the wind” or “it’s not too cold standing in the sun.” We have no illusions. We simply choose to focus our attention on the best possible version of our circumstances.
However, a clear acceptance of winter requires preparation. We perform a reverent ritual of changing summer clothes into 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 the closet closest to the door. We stock our car trunks with blankets, ice scrapers and hand warmers to make sure even the worst case scenario isn’t too bad.
But the key to our winter enjoyment is that we don’t spend nearly as much energy bracing for the hard times as we do preparing for the awesome ones: basketball and football season, vacations, and, for teenagers, always. -Have hope that mom will come at 6:45 am. and will say “School is canceled” because of snow, giving them three to seven more hours of the best sleep of their lives.
There’s a misconception on the coasts, I think, that the default state of a Midwesterner is one of resignation. That midwesterners are stuck there. This removal, as I have done, is an act of escape rather than sacrifice. That those who stay make it through the horrors of winter by performing stunts or imagining fun.
The truth is that many of us love the season and our love comes not from pretense but from understanding. Wonderful things happen because of cold temperatures and rain and wind, not in spite of them. Snow days require snow. Cute gloves need cold hands. My advice for the Midwest? Think of this time as its own rich, wonderful destination—instead of that season you just have to fly on your way to spring.