Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Minnesota Tough

Minnesota endured two polar vortexes this last winter. It was hardly a new phenomenon; just another Minnesota season with a new label and dire warnings of impending doom. Call it the enthusiastic effort of news directors to get as many eyeballs glued to the television screen as possible…media rating wars and all that. Why not be honest and just say it was another cold winter with a polar ice cap nestled snuggly over Minnesota’s crown. Any veteran of the cold wars will tell you there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. It was hardly the first harsh winter and certainly not the last that Minnesotans have endured.

For the uninitiated, the polar vortex is a persistent, large-scale cyclone located near either one of the planet’s geographical poles. They usually span less than 620 miles in which the air circulates in a counter-clockwise fashion. They’ve been around forever but are a bit of a headache when they spill down over the states. I think it’s their length and the depth of their freezing temperatures that rankles even the toughest of Minnesotans. Combine those serious below-zero temps with constant snowfalls and it was a very tough time for most Minnesotans this last winter.

As a friend back home described the weather to me, he simply stated with a shrug: “It was either snowing or it was below-zero. Those seemed to be our only two weather options all winter long.”

Of course, everyone bitched and complained about the brutal weather because that’s what most Minnesotans do during the heart of winter’s assault. But they endured and persevered and survived the cold and white-outs and accumulating snow. And they will do so once again starting next December.

I endured Minnesota winters for almost seventy years and wouldn’t want anything less for my own children and grandchildren. It’s what makes Minnesotans…Minnesota tough. I love Southern California during the winter months but four seasons beat plain vanilla temps every time.

When I was younger I’d heard the cliché that where you are born and raised leaves an indelible mark on your consciousness no matter where you end spending the rest of your life. I personally experienced that phenomena first hand when I was in the service.

Back in 1964, San Francisco was a pretty spectacular place for a young, untraveled, hungry soldier stationed just outside of civilization. Not far beyond those military gates were more than the Seven Wonders of the World. It was the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, North Beach, Stanford, Sausalito, the North Coast, Half Moon Bay and Big Sur....just to name a few.

I was forever struck through conversations that where a person is raised imprints a pull back home no matter how strong their wanderlust might be. Many a night over pizza and beer my comrades and I would reminisce about our ‘life back home.’ It was nostalgic, exaggerated and ripe with fond memories, real and imagined.

If given a choice, I would have returned to Minnesota in a heartbeat. My buddy Danny wanted to go back to standing on a street corner in Brooklyn; not doing much of anything except just watching his life passing by. Joe wanted to go back to the Southside of Chicago where he and his buddies would also just ‘hang out.’ Johnson wanted to go back to Mississippi to be with his family. Cruz wanted to go back to East L.A. So there we all were in this glorious cornucopia of entertainment but like sailors on shore leave every man one of us would rather have been back home.

Certainly part of it was homesickness, missing our girlfriends, missing out on what our friends were doing. For me, it was a combination of a girlfriend back home and college which I left as a dropout; both now out of reach for at least two more years.

But what was it that was drawing my mind back to that hinterland of snow and ice and cold and long winter nights. Simply stated, I guess it was my origins. It was what I knew best and what ultimately had and still does define me. 

Growing up in Minnesota wasn’t so much an exercise in toughness as it was simple survival. You did what you had to do to earn, learn and play. And you don’t let the stupid weather get in your way. Earning was a paper route starting in seventh grade that included sub-zero winter weather at 4:30 in the morning, wearing galoshes and walking uphill both ways. Learning was shuffling across campus during a white out without hat and gloves because it wasn’t cool to wear them. Play was the pure pleasure was hiking the woods for the serenity there. 

I got a harsh reminder of Minnesota winters three times this season. We were drawn back home to help Melanie with her campaign for State Representative. It was truly Four Weeks in Purgatory.

We first returned in December for Christmas which wasn’t too bad, weather-wise. Then in January in the midst of their polar vortex and again in March for more cold weather and snow storms. Even the birds and squirrels were on hiatus during the coldest days. It was a cruel adjustment from t-shirts and flip-flops to layered clothing and hats and mittens.

So this year I was once again greeted with that old familiar chorus of complaints about record-breaking snowfalls and 60 plus days of below-zero weather. The polar vortex was camping overhead for days on end and the darkness of winter days was playing havoc with one’s mindset. 

On the flip side of that frozen coin, the first day of 30-degree weather brought out the t shirts, an abundance of runners, bikers and convertibles with their tops down. It’s what Minnesotans do when the sun comes out and the temp is above freezing. It’s seen a taste of spring even in February.
Both my kids have grown up in Minnesota. Melanie still runs outdoors year round and Brian, having moved to Colorado, is usually on some mountain top, skiing or climbing almost every winter weekend…with his family following right behind him.

The grandkids in Colorado are as comfortable on a mountaintop as are the Minnesota grandchildren sledding in sub-zero weather or playing king of the hill when Papa is back in town.

Forget the lame attempts of ‘Fargo’ clichés such as ‘yeah, you betcha’ and other Scandinavian accents to define a Minnesotan. If you were born and raised here and even if you’ve moved away, the toughness that helped Minnesotans endure Minnesota winters is ingrained in your very psyche. 

Once Minnesota Tough always Minnesota Tough.

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