NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Warming Up To Winter

We finally turned our furnace on last Friday. It wasn’t the 32-degree high that did it; it was the 40-mile-per-hour gusts the night before that convinced us to start burning wattage in a more significant way.

Thirty-two degrees? Ha! In March, that would warrant running outside without a coat. The fully acclimated Minnesotan laughs at such measly reports after surviving many a winter. But now, after a warmer-than-average summer and an October of unearthly sweat-inducing days, the story’s a bit different.

That little boost of artificial warmth did feel — I admit it — pretty good. I’m so ashamed.

For one whose veins run with Viking blood, flipping that switch so early hints at weakness. Not for us, the sheepish donning of jackets when a random breeze blows on a run-of-the-mill day in autumn. Not for us, the breaking out wooly knitted hats when we can still see bare pavement. Though the first nippy clues to the coming season may redden our cheeks, we thrust icy fingers into our pockets and soldier on.

The first whiff of impending winter is a tonic for the Minnesota or North Dakota soul. Weird, right? Transplants who grew up where water in the bird bath doesn’t even freeze in February may gasp in shock and awe at their first taste of what’s to come. Oddly, though we North Country natives may complain, we privately revel in it. We were bred for times like these.

That’s why neither Russ nor I had touched the thermostat since August, when we wrapped up our — shall we say “heated” — summer-long battle over air conditioning, pitting subarctic comfort against common sense. We hadn’t given it another thought until that cheeky little Canadian clipper rattled the roof and shivered the siding late last week.

I was the first to cry “uncle.” I’d begun to waver the night before, when the speed-limit-exceeding breeze rattled the windows and puffed the wooden blinds out almost parallel with the floor. The next morning, when my breath fogged the bathroom mirror, I knew that it was time. Without warning my stalwart Nordic husband of my intent, I crept into the bedroom, which faces north, and … closed the window.

Does this sound like an epic surrender? Maybe not to you, if your genes encode tender memories of the tropics. For Russ and me, though, it was radical. That window, selected for energy efficiency and insulating power, hadn’t been slammed since it was first installed. Oh, it might have been angled now and then to keep out summer rains blown horizontally by a passing tsunami. But closed? Never! Until now.

We were, after all, raised in the true Nordic tradition of bracing fresh air. Especially at night, it was an article of faith in the houses where both of us grew up that the best sleeping took place igloo-style, in between flannel sheets deep under an Everest of bedding. If you’d peeked at the bunkbed where I slept away my youth, all you’d have seen was a human caterpillar wrapped within a cocoon of quilts and itchy wool blankets and, perhaps, a nose rising like a periscope from the pillow.

My grandparents brought their mystical Scandinavian faith in the curative power of fresh air when they arrived from Norway. It seemed to serve their iron constitutions well, while also providing a convenient rationale for the drafty homes of their day. Deep breaths of frigid air are good for you! Fresh! Cleansing!

Their faith in Nature didn’t quite rule out the comfort of gathering around the red-hot oil burner steaming in the central room, as it struggled mightily to heat an entire house. But it did keep you from dawdling while hopping over polar-cold linoleum to choose school clothes from the uninsulated closet … the true, original meaning of teen “cool.”

Today, those memories are (literally) frozen in time. Central heating has stripped away the “brisk” from breakfast on these dark near-winter morns. Eddie Bauer and Cabela’s have armed us to beat back the fiercest weather wrapped in uniforms of manmade fibers and goose-made down. Our cars not only start the first time we turn the key; they wrap us in computer-monitored year-round comfort as we sit on our heated seats, peer through frost-free glass and listen to hot music beamed down by satellite.

And yet, the call of that Viking blood whispers in our ears. Here in the southern reaches of Moorhead, our thermostat rarely breaks the 65-degree mark. We wear slippers and sweatshirts around the house. Now that the wind has moderated, the windows are open again. Otherwise, sound sleep is merely a dream.

The wisdom of our forebears still calls to us today: “There’s no bad weather — only bad clothes.” We keep it cool around here. Even our supersoft, comfort-craving modern social habits reflect what they understood so well. You can always put on a sweater when you’re chilly. But if the opposite is true, people look at you funny if you decide to rip off your shirt.

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