Don’t Be a Sissy: Garrison Keillor’s Rules to Surviving a Minnesota Winter

The humorist makes a compelling case for embracing the cold.

garrison keillor illustration
John Cuneo for Reader’s Digest

I live in Minnesota, which is unjustly famous for miserable winters. Buffalo is far more wintry, whereas Seattle can bestow a purer, deeper misery than Minnesota has available. Our winters tend to be brilliantly sunny, cheerful, and aesthetically stunning. The tree branches glitter like diamonds, the glazed snowdrifts glow from below … but, of course, it’s different for a visitor. If you flew into St. Paul in January from Boca Raton to, say, scatter Aunt Bertha’s ashes after her tragic death in the jaws of an alligator, you would need to take precautions.

Lightweight thermal wear is good. Back in the day, we wore layers and layers of heavy woolens and kept warm by the exertion of carrying it. A boy of 13 hauling 35 pounds of wet wool on his back does not feel chilly. Today you can buy outfits filled with gosling feathers as well as thermal boots and caps to keep you toasty warm. But you know this.

Now that you are garbed appropriately, don’t be a sissy. Get out of the car and brave the elements. Feel the wind on your skin; feel the mucus freeze in your nostrils. You will not need a signal beacon, compass, rappelling rope, fire-starting kit, any of that. If Minnesotans see you trembling and whimpering on the sidewalk, they will rush to your
assistance. The rescue urge is strong here: Sneeze three times in a row, and you’ll be set upon by burly EMTs who will lash you to a gurney, take your blood pressure, start an IV, and blow your nose.

Most important, keep repeating the words: It could be worse. And that is the simple truth. Once it was much, much worse, and I am old enough to know about it. Today’s winters pale in comparison with ones I knew. That is why I am so white. The skin remembers bitter cold. Blood does not flow where it does not feel wanted.

When I was a youth and blizzards raged daily across the prairie and cars were inevitably dead in the morning and icicles hung like Sidewinder missiles from the eaves and cougars lurked in the trees and preyed on the timid, there was no such phrase as global warming. We never got warm, not even at night, when we slept under heaps of blankets because Dad believed that if you couldn’t see your breath when you talked, then the thermostat was turned up too high and you were wasting fuel. So 45 degrees was room temperature, and we wore long woolens to bed. As for bed-wetting—we never dared consider it an option.

We arose in the cold, dark dawn, ate our Malt-O-Meal, pulled on parkas and four-buckle overshoes, and trudged forth into the blizzard to catch the school bus. School was never canceled back then in Minnesota—once you start down that road, where do you stop? Pretty soon you wind up keeping kids home if you see frost on the windowpane, as they do down South. So we huddled by the highway, praying for the bus to come, while coyotes slunk around eyeballing us for signs of sleepiness. When you have survived coyotes, then the winters of today are a walk in the park.

Enduring winter is only a start—embracing winter is what you should strive for. Winter gives a sense of purpose and saves one from a life of hedonistic self-gratification, lying around on a palm-shaded patio nibbling ladyfingers and posting selfies on Facebook. You have promises to keep. Miles to go before you sleep. Also, a sidewalk to shovel. Two inches of compacted snow over a layer of ice—you may as well set a leg trap for the elderly as leave the walk unshoveled.

You have children to raise. Pry their fingers from their smartphones, and lead them outdoors so they can absorb the wisdom of winter. We are mammals. Life is not mainly about self-expression. It is about finding food and clothing and shelter, about staying warm in the face of adversity, about sticking with the herd, the pack, the pod, and not wandering off. That means you. And everyone else is just as cold as you are. No complaining.

Garrison Keillor is a humorist, an author, a storyteller, and the host of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. His latest book is The Keillor Reader

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