It is a cloudless, wild-blue-yonder kind of day and the sunlight reflecting off the fresh snow is blindingly bright. But the dog park is empty, save for Maisie and me, and with a windchill of -5°, I guess I can understand why. January has arrived even though it is only mid-November. Even thought the first day of winter is still 34 days away. Even though exactly one week ago it was 72°.
Maisie is wearing her new sweater, a gift from a neighbor who bought it for her own dog and found it to be too small. It is a little too long on Maisie, so it scrunches up a bit at the neck and the back gradually curls up, her upright and attentive tail pushing it forward. She seems to hate it. The first time I put it on her I felt like I had suddenly and completely deflated a happy, soaring party balloon. But when it is as cold as it is today, I feel I cannot in good conscience take her out without it.
We had been hoping to run into one of her buddies at the park, but it is just us. All the sane people are inside. When she tires of chasing tennis balls, I start running, to see if she will chase me. That is how I begin to impersonate another dog, running and chasing her and trying not to trip over her, trying not to wipe out in the snow. (Truthfully, though, if I really was interested in impersonating a dog, trying not to wipe out would not be on my radar.) Sometimes she runs and I chase her, sometimes she chases me, though this doesn’t last very long because I will never be able to outrun that little dog.
Soon I am warm and almost — but not quite — ready to take off my hat. I am also smiling and laughing and remembering what it was like when I was seven and the first snowfall of the season was a huge event, something to be celebrated, something in which to revel. Not something to curse while scraping the concrete impeccably clean with a shovel. (Shoveling snow is an activity that reveals all my latent OCD tendencies which, apparently, are not revealed by housework. But I digress.)
Inevitably there seems to be a lot of grumbling when the weather turns bitter cold. The grumbling is amplified when it feels like we have been shocked into it, when Mother Nature turns on us like a moody and volatile parent slapping us with a cruel and undeserved punishment. But I have always loved winter, have always maintained it’s a lot easier to deal with extreme cold than it is to deal with extreme heat. In this regard, I am true to my Canadian bloodline.
So in that spirit I’ve decided to offer my favorite ways for dealing with, and hopefully actually thriving in, an Iowa Winter. (This exercise is mostly to give myself something to read, a reminder for myself, when February rolls around and the biting wind isn’t so much fun anymore.)
#1. Adopt a dog. Dogs love the snow, they love playing in it, walking in it, biting it, running after snowballs that disintegrate when they hit the ground. They are happy to be outside when it is snowing. Not only that, they need to get outside whether or not we want to go with them, and so we have no choice but to witness how much they love the snow and the cold. Which makes us smile more. They also are wonderful lap warmers (the smaller varieties) or feet warmers (larger varieties) when you are sitting in front of the wood stove (see #5). If you cannot get a dog, become friends with someone who has a dog and ask to borrow her. The colder it is the, greater your friend’s gratitude will be.
#2. Move around. A lot. Preferably with your dog (see #1 above). When she has to go out, don’t open the back door, let her out, and then quickly close the door so as to not let any cold air inside. Bundle up and go with her. Once you get moving, it’s amazing how warm you get. Which makes you wonder why you were sitting inside all that time while your dog looked longingly out the back door at the unbelievably inviting winter wonderland.
#3. Eschew fashion and vanity, and dress for the weather. If your dog (see #1) has to have any semblance of dignity removed by wearing her preppy little sweater, the least you can do is look as ridiculous in solidarity. (If you are so inclined, get matching sweaters; you will make quite the adorable pair walking through town.) One woman I know, who has lived in Iowa all her life, complains constantly about the cold. I have never seen her wear a hat. Not once. The more skin you cover up, the less it will sting when the wind picks up and slaps you across the face.
#4. And while we’re on the topic of warm clothing, take your cue from animals. Synthetics will never surpass silk, down, wool, and sheepskin when it comes to keeping warm. I’m sure the Ioway Tribe knew what they were doing using those buffalo skins to survive the winter. (If you are a vegan and object to this line of thinking, I hear Florida is lovely in the winter.) Most of my winter clothes have been acquired piecemeal: on sale, free, discounted, or, on the rare occasion, splurged on. This makes for a decided lack of outfit coordination, but my guess is that the fashionistas will not be walking on the trails when the temperatures dip into the single digits.
#5. Get a wood stove and park yourself in front of it with your dog (see #1) when you come back inside. Plan to set up camp in the room with the stove from November through March. If you cannot afford a stove, or your landlord won’t put one in, or you don’t like the hard work of hauling, splitting, and stacking firewood (warms you twice!) make friends with someone who has one. Be nice to them and bring them cookies or bourbon and I’m sure they will welcome you in to sit by the fire. Borrow their dog to sit in front of the fire with you for added warmth.
#6. Practice the fine art of homemade soup and simmer it all day on the wood stove (see #5). Homemade chicken stock is a staple in our house and the basis for many, many lovely soups all winter. Mix some of the chicken stock in your dog’s (see #1) food. She will love you for it. (If you are a vegan and haven’t yet moved to Florida, homemade vegetable stock — made from all of those vegetable scraps it’s too cold to compost — is a passable substitute. Your dog may not, however, love you quite as much.)
#7. Get yourself some thick flannel sheets. Save your pennies for the extra long, extra thick variety and then find someone with whom you can burrow under said sheets. Dogs (see #1) make excellent cuddle companions and if you train them properly, they will warm your side of the bed before you even get in. (If you don’t train them properly, they will always warm your spouse’s side.)
#8. Before you burrow into your flannel-clad bed (see #7) with your dog (see #1), make one last trip outside with your dog (see #2). Gripe and bitch and wonder why you don’t have a cat as you layer up like you are going to the Arctic Circle, just for one last pee break. And then have your breath taken away by stars that always seem more brilliant in the winter sky. Delight in snow so cold under your boots that it squeaks and crunches as you walk. Marvel at the silence, how still and peaceful and so much quieter it is than any other season, and thank your little dog for giving you the opportunity, once again, to take in the beauty that is there, right there, for the taking — no matter how damn cold it is.
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So dear readers, how do you survive the winter months? Do you love winter as much as Maisie and I do? Or do you fantasize about heading south — or actually head south? What’s your favorite I-can’t-get-through-winter-without thing? I love hearing from you, so please feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section below. (If you are currently living in Buffalo, feel free to curse at me and my silly little suggestions. I am sure you are not really loving winter right now.)