One summer, a long time ago, I couldn’t sleep. I was maybe ten years old. That one summer gave me some insight into how terrifying insomnia is. It is singularly frustrating because drifting off should happen naturally, and the more you try to force it, the more unattainable sleep becomes. I would go to bed (when you’re ten, your parents don’t give you much choice in the matter) and lie awake for h o u r s. I would get hot. Or my back would be itchy. I would listen to the drone of a small mosquito that would instantly stop when I turned the light on. I don’t think my parents got much sleep that summer either because at about 3:00 a.m every night, I would helpfully let them know that I couldn’t sleep. They tried to help me, installing a big fan at the end of my bed, sitting with me so I wasn’t awake and alone, and encouraging me to mentally focus on images that might bring me some peace of mind. I don’t recall whether any of it really helped, but as the summer wound down, sleep returned. And since then I haven’t had any issues with it, which I’m extremely grateful for.
That was the last summer before we got central air conditioning installed. As anyone knows, trying to sleep in extreme heat presents all kinds of challenges. When flipping your pillow to the ‘cool’ side doesn’t work and the single, thin sheet becomes oppressively hot, it can be enough to make you rip out your own (sweaty) hair in frustration. A coworker’s unit gave out on her in the middle of the heat wave in late July and it was a Code Red situation. She worried about how to sleep, to cook, and if her dog would make it through the day. Air conditioning has become so central (heh) that we can’t live without it. Sometimes though, I think we overdo it. When I went to see Spider-man: Homecoming in July, I brought along a sweater and socks because the theatre is always frigid. Same thing with the office, no matter how cute my summer clothes are, I always end up wearing the same over-sized sweater at my desk. And I never shop as quickly as I do when I’m standing in shorts in the freezer section of Superstore. And yet, when the metal part of the seatbelt is hot enough to use as a brand, it’s hard not to let the Max A/C do it’s work. In our house, we set the thermostat to about 24 º Celsius. That way it’s cool enough to still be comfortable, but not so cold that in the middle of August I have to wear a hoodie and wool socks.
I know we’re all more comfortable being cold, or at least temperate, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing if we remind ourselves how to live with the heat. Provided that heatstroke isn’t imminent, being hot can be a good thing. Acclimatizing is preferable to trying to air condition the weather away. The environment would appreciate it, and so would our wallets. Why not use the weather as an excuse to slow down? Summer goes fast as it is, we should stop and take it all in. For one day, turn off the A/C. Enjoy an icy cold treat while spending the day lazing in the heat. Soon enough we’ll be missing the dog days of summer and the heat that we wait for all year. Let’s try not to let it get away.
As of this week, we are back into more normal February weather. Was anyone else weirded out by the amount of warm weather we’ve had this winter? It’s strange to see people at the bus stop in February with bare hands reading the paper or scrolling on their phones. Granted, every time that Festival du Voyageur starts up, we always have at least a couple of days that the weather warms up just enough to slightly melt the lovely ice sculptures around the city so they become an abstract version of the original. If you squint your eyes and turn your head just so, you can almost see what the artist’s vision was. I’m not complaining about the unseasonable warmth(because you can’t complain when the weather is nice in winter), but when it’s rained in both January and February, it feels odd. Like maybe we’re in Vancouver, but without the scenery and expensive housing.
In the midst of all this weird weather, I’ve been doing some really cool stuff around the city lately, like seeing the MTC play Black Coffee (a whodunit Agatha Christie mystery) and enjoying poutine at the Festival while wearing a classic 80’s one-piece snowsuit. That last part was owing to a friend who has a ton of 80’s snowsuit stock. Let me tell you, 15 people wearing matching 80’s ski suits do not go unnoticed. I had a blast and Festival always makes you appreciate both our local French community as well as winter. It says something about Winnipeg that Festival takes place in the middle of winter, when we’ve grown tired of shoveling, and the magic of snowflakes wears a little thin. Nevertheless, every year Festival brings out large crowds of people and often fills the grounds to capacity for late night. To me, the event is almost a perfect roundup of Winnipeg – laid-back, friendly, and full of good eating. Like if someone wanted to see the best of Winnipeg in the winter, Festival would be where I would direct them to go. Where else would you find hordes of people enjoying maple syrup on a stick or such a striking number of folks wearing lumberjack plaid. It may not be cosmopolitan, but it’s us.
Today I survived my annual bus stop cold weather initiation. It is a miserable, personal tradition that happens every year around this time. There’s one cold and windy (north wind, obvs) day where I’m on time to catch a bus that is unfortunately early. Fuck. Okay, I’ll wait for the next bus. It’s rush hour so the next one should arrive in ten minutes. Totally not that long to wait. Twenty minutes later I’m freezing, warmed only by the fires of my growing impatience, still waiting because the next bus is late. I’m chilled and annoyed so I climb onto the first bus I see. An express. The bus meanders its way out of downtown, filling up with an ungodly amount of commuters. I’m squashing down any feelings of claustrophobia because there is no way I am getting off of this bus until it’s at my stop. Twenty minutes later, there’s a mass exodus of people streaming out the back door. My foot gets stepped on and someone smacks their backpack into my face. But I’m halfway home and all I have to do is wait a couple minutes for my transfer bus – except it came and went already. Leaving me with a 25 minute wait. Awesome. I spend these 25 minutes watching a series of slow buses drive by across the street, stubbornly refusing to get on one because at this point that would mean giving in. A student at the bus stop, also not dressed for the weather, asks me if I know when the U of M bus is coming. I check the app and pass along the bad news that her bus isn’t coming for twenty minutes either. She looks at me and says sadly “But I’m really cold.” As am I. I have lost feeling in most of my fingers and some of my toes. I’m not impatient or annoyed anymore – I’ve settled into acceptance. I may never be warm again. Finally the bus shows up and I sit down for a few minutes to warm up. I power-walk the 2 minutes from the bus stop to the house, unlocking the door without any sort of dexterity. The cat comes to say hi so I scoop him up to warm my hands. He doesn’t appreciate this.
The funny thing about my bus ordeal is that they are oddly invigorating. It’s a big shock to the system. Which I think I’ve needed. October doldrums have been hitting me hard this year. They sneak up on me every year around this time. It could be the cloudiness, the temperature dropping or the realization that winter will inevitably be upon us, but I have been struggling to get out of bed and to function in general. I try to figure out the cause – it’s probably that I’m too busy. I might need some me time and a long weekend to put me back to normal. Maybe it’s my diet. I’ll start taking a multivitamin and make sure I get more fruits and veggies in my diet. After a while though it becomes clear that I’m in a slump. And I think the problem is that I forget how to winter.
The problem with being in a slump is that it becomes so hard to push yourself out of it. It doesn’t help that both Mike and I have been sick. It’s tiring enough to get through the work day when you’re feeling ill, never mind trying to actively cheer yourself up. Every time I go out of the house, it takes actual mental effort to do it. My inner monologue is a variation of: “Go, it will be fun. You LIKE this person. They’ll probably even cheer you up. Just put your pants on and go.” Eventually after procrastinating as long as possible, I drag myself from my warm, blanketed couch-fort and venture out. As I was looking for ways to motivate myself, I came across someone’s advice. Get up, dress up, and show up. So I’m going to keep it simple and keep saying that mantra to myself. And for the days that I don’t get out of the house, I’m back into knitting. I’ve already made a small blanket. My next project should be mittens – at least if I’m not leaving the house today, I can prepare myself for tomorrow.
If you feel like it, I’d love to hear how you’re doing at this time of year. You can reach me on Twitter
or leave a comment here. Stay warm, friends.
Proof that tourists are out there
Whenever tourists visit Winnipeg, the instinctive reaction is always “Here?” in a shocked tone. As though we’re some out of the way town hundreds of kilometres from any other metropolis. The follow up question is always “But, why?” as if we’re some kind of desolate arctic landscape devoid of anything except dirty brown snow as far as the eye can see. Seemingly as rare as a swallow-tailed kite, people do come to visit our fair city. By choice. And I have anecdotal proof. An Aussie cousin stayed with us over her school break. She was here for about a month and…she liked it. She really, really liked it. Somehow she formed her own (positive!) opinion despite the entire family’s attempt to undermine her experience. Every day was filled with reminders that “you’re so lucky it hasn’t been too cold” and “If you think THIS is a lot of snow…” etc. As if to an Aussie on her summer break -20ºC wasn’t a full 60º colder than it was at home. She took it all in stride. And good thing too, because as soon as anyone shows weakness in the face of a Winnipeg winter, you’re absolutely done for. Apparently this attitude isn’t a modern thing. I was reading through The Imagined City: A Literary History of Winnipeg and came across a piece by David Currie where he discusses a group of local people he called ‘Puffers.’
“When one of these puffers overhears an immigrant complaining of the excessive charges, or any other inconvenience arising from the people, country, climate, or water, Mr. Puffer begins to taunt him with cowardice, and tells him he had better go back to Ontario, as he is too much of a green-horn to get along in Manitoba, where he “will likely be lost in the mud or eaten up by mosquitos.”
Replace ‘mud’ with ‘pothole’ and you could be overhearing a citizen in 2016; boasting of their own miseries. Living these challenges and taunting anyone who questions it gives us a sick pleasure. It’s basically on par with that one friend you have with all the medical ailments that enjoys detailing how their mesh was inserted. Anyway.
This got me thinking about our attitude toward winter. It’s something like a drawn out battle where we batten down the hatches in October and by February and March the quiet soldier starts to lose their mind. Except we’re all the quiet soldier. We don’t live through the winter; we survive it. How can we introduce elements of living that we all love and miss during the winter. Everyone loves a drink outdoors so how can we extend patio season? Norwegians do exactly this with heat lamps, fleeces and furs. Sure we won’t be out there in -40º windchills, but in a winter like this, we could have been out there more often than not. What about sunshine? My personal strategy is feline-inspired; I curl up in a fetal position in front of every sunny window I find and dream of summer. Unfortunately my boss made it clear that this approach is not always socially acceptable when she found me in her office. Sorry, Sarah! Another solution could be incorporating light boxes into our lives to fill in the gaps left my mother nature. Changing the way we live with winter could in turn help us seem a lot more welcoming to newcomers. And that would be something to be puffed up about.
Note: The Imagined City: A Literary History of Winnipeg by David Arnason and Mhari Mackintosh is a fascinating lens through which to view Winnipeg’s history. The quote above is from David Currie’s letters as published in The Imagined City.