What Does Winter Weather Have to Offer Milwaukee?

As you might guess, not everyone I talk to shares my affection for winter. So I find myself having to explain why my appreciation for the unusual experiences of snow and cold outweigh the legitimate challenges winter presents.

Winter is part of our cycle of seasons. I enjoy how Milwaukee experiences each of the four seasons – and I enjoy each season in its turn. I would find it hard to live in a place without those days when sweat drips off me and I feel hot, or the days when snow reshapes our landscape. Each is part of our place, and I think we should enjoy each part. I want to live in a place which has trees with flourishing leaves in summer, a variety of colors in fall, and branches draped with snow in winter! Milwaukee has a wonderful balance of seasons. We have the 2nd-coldest annual temperatures among the 50 largest cities in the US, so our experience of cold is greater than most cities have. And, thanks to the foresight of Charles Whitnall and earlier city officials, we also have a fine balance of residential areas and parkland, allowing us to enjoy the pleasures of each year-round, mixing the pleasures of city culture and open spaces. winter 003

For some, yes, winter poses great challenges. I hope that we will remember those people, particularly the poor who struggle to keep warm, and those who struggle to get to and from work, when older cars have difficulty in winter, and when good public transit is not always available.

But as for the rest of us; I hope we can reframe our experiences, to focus on the positives rather than the inconveniences. (A good attitude to take during any season, I feel.) So often in our daily lives we are insulated from weather – far unlike the experiences of most humans in world history, who were farmers whose lives were dominated throughout the year by what weather was like. It is a basic fact about modern winter for most Americans that we can take advantage of the discoveries of those who developed central heating, that as Adam Gopnik argues, a new kind of appreciation of winter is made possible by the fact that we can separate ourselves from the cold… and thus we can look to 1. enjoy winter while sitting inside, warm and cozy 2. venture outside to experience winter as a leisure-time pastime, and even an adventure.

And we can continue to enjoy the many  pleasures our city offers year-round. After sledding or snowshoeing, living in a city offers balanced possibilities for one’s evening – you can eat a diverse array of foods (Polish, Vietnamese, more, take your pick!), go to a Bucks game, catch a DJ, and so much more. And then look out on the snow, again, when you arrive home, in the peaceful moments before you head to bed. 2010 003

Why not embrace the fact that we live within nature, that weather varies, and that we can find pleasure by connecting with and observing the nature around us? Some take a boastful tack: Wisconsin writer Justin Isherwood, for instance, says that “Cold requires and spurs a variety of acts of genius to survive. Those who do, feel more worthwhile and more tenacious compared” with those who go South. “It’s character-building, same as temperature or changing underwear.” [From his essay “What cold is good for.”] I’m not necessarily expecting you to adopt his perspective… but I hope that you will, like him, seek to figure out what we can enjoy during cold weather, how it might be something to adopt as part of our identity. (Many in Wisconsin take pride in the ‘frozen tundra,’ for instance…)

Remember that winter can help us appreciate things. It can help us appreciate our neighbors, who we might not have talked to for a long time, but whom we might see out shoveling. It gives us the opportunity to be more friendly: to help others out, to remember how we can do favors for others; and to rediscover how they, too, can be willing to help us dig out, and to be patient with us. (Isherwood suggests that “cold is better for friendship than any other weather known.”)

Snow helps us appreciate our city, performing the artist’s task of helping to see it anew, as it drastically renovates the look of the city. (Like a large-scale public art project!) Winter can help us appreciate a child’s perspective on the world. They do not view snow through the perspectives that our frustrations can lead us to; children remind us how snow can be a source of new play activities, an adventure to encounter, something entertaining to watch! 2009 027

Think of winter in terms of what it has – not what it lacks. It has darkness and cold; it is not just a time of ‘less light’ and ‘less warmth.’ We can use the darkness as a time to provide perspective on our place in the world, as a time to take a breather, or the other possibilities which night provides. Cold can be a distinctive experience. We need to be cautious in cold, of course. But it allows us some unusual experiences not accessible to those living in warmer climates; different sensations on our skin, as we breathe, and the kind of overall sensory shift that some seek through riskier and more expensive activities.

We can also reorient our perspective on winter to focus on appreciating snow, when it comes. If we eagerly await snow… and look to observe it, and plan to spend extra time outside when there is snow, then our positive memories of experiencing it will become more of what we remember about winter. We can appreciate what our place has to offer, rather than taking treating other places as the ‘normal’ desired experiences, and wishing we were elsewhere. (How can one ‘escape the cold’ while staying in Milwaukee? Well, most of us can do so by going indoors. We don’t have to leave the city.)

So I hope that in the upcoming weeks, you will be able to spend less time thinking about things that frustrate you – and more time looking to enjoy the unusual possibilities, views and perspectives available at this time of year. I hope you will be able to take a little time, be patient, and handle the challenges you are presented with as part of the challenges life delivers; challenges which are accompanied by pleasures. The variety of the seasons is one of the great pleasures of living in a climate like ours; let us take advantage of what winter offers while it is here! Time to go out and enjoy our neighbors, our weather, and our city!Feb 2011 163b

About MilwaukeeSnow

Dr. Jeffrey Filipiak, Milwaukee's Ambassador of Snow, loves winter, Milwaukee, and environmental history! He has taught college courses on topics including history, writing, environmental ethics, food studies, the Great Lakes, and sustainability. You can contact him at ambassadorofsnow@gmail.com.
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4 Responses to What Does Winter Weather Have to Offer Milwaukee?

  1. Karen says:

    Great posting. I just said yesterday, well walking through the blistering 89degree rainforest in Malaysia, “I think I need to live somewhere where there are seasons.”

    Cyclical changes are good for so many reasons, as you pointed out. And one of my favorite things do to in winter is hike through the neighborhood during the snowstorm and before they plow. So excitement and great exercise trooping through the snow.

    Enjoy the snow when it finally comes MKE!

    • Thanks, Karen! I think Malaysia is a great place too, with a lot to offer. But I live in Milwaukee at present, so I want to spend my time here appreciating what it has to offer!

      It was fun to take advantage of the changes recently; hiking in the mid-50s temps on Wednesday offered a quite different experience from walking through the snow today. And yes, I enjoyed it 🙂

  2. Pingback: Milwaukee winter “sucks”? That opinion misses so much… | milwaukeesnow

  3. Pingback: An Eye for Winter: In Praise of Local Beauty - Edge Effects

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