Illustration by Kelly Sutherland


Let It Snow

It’s winter. It’s supposed to be cold, and I’ve finally learned to like it

By Curtis Gillespie, ’85 BA(Spec)

January 20, 2022 •

One of my favourite seasonal movies is A Christmas Story, in which nine-year-old Ralphie Parker pines for the gift of a Red Ryder BB gun. It’s a simple and hilarious movie about 1940s family life in the white American suburbs, though many scenes were shot in southern Ontario. One scene that always makes me laugh is when Ralphie’s mother swaddles his younger brother, Randy, in so many layers of winter clothing that he cannot lower his arms to his sides. On his way to school he falls in a snowdrift, can’t get up and has to be righted by Ralphie and his pals.

Most winters I feel a bit like little Randy Parker.

One afternoon last winter during an Edmonton cold snap caused by a polar vortex, I decided to take the dog for a walk. First, I put on long underwear, then jeans. Then I added a wool sweater to the one I was already wearing. Then I pulled on ski pants. Then I slipped my feet into boots. Then I donned my Arctic-rated down parka. After that, I drew a balaclava over my head and added another tuque on top of that. Finally, I pulled on my down-filled mittens and tightened their straps over my forearms. I glanced in the mirror and saw what resembled a cross between a moon walker and a deep-sea diver.

Or little Randy Parker.

My arms jutted out at my sides at 60-degree angles. The dog was sitting by the front door staring at this strange creature who had taken 15 minutes to get ready for a walk. I waddled towards him and he gave me a confused look, unsure whether I was about to take him outside or smother him in pillowy hugs. Only then I realized I had to take off one of my gloves to get his leash secured and lock the door behind us, a process that took another couple of minutes.

Outside, the cold hit us like a knife. The icy air needled its way to the tips of my lungs. It felt good only because every other part of my body was cosy and warm. We trundled around the neighbourhood and returned after only 15 minutes because the poor dog began to hop from foot to foot to avoid contact with the frozen turf. We got back inside the house and as I began to unlayer, a strange sensation overtook me. It was like I was being inhabited by a presence while remaining totally conscious of it, the way alien abductees talk about their experiences.

I realized, almost with horror, that I kind of like winter. High time, because there are only two seasons in Edmonton: winter and waiting for winter.

It’s fair to say that I went through a phase — a four-decade phase — where I didn’t really like winter. It was more a slow escalation than a sudden dislike. First it was irritation with the end of golf season and November being a blah month. Then it became the post-Christmas “three more months of this?” blues. Then it was the feeling of being trapped in February, the shortest month, which has always felt the longest. At some point, I began to despise March for the way it threw us a wintry curveball just as we were desperate for spring.

But then about seven or eight years ago I started playing hockey with some friends at the local outdoor rink. We play on nice evenings once a week. Some nights it’s simply magical, being able to look up at the stars as you lie flat on your back after being hacked to the ice by a friend you’ll be spearing in the ribs five minutes hence.

Then my wife began to encourage me to cross-country ski more often. We started making trips to Jasper and Hinton just to cross-country ski. I still measure the success of any such outing by only one metric, which is whether I fall or not. I’m the only person I know who has broken a cross‑country ski pole — twice — through sheer clumsiness. As I’ve become less dangerous to myself and others, I’ve begun to enjoy the beauty of nature in winter. The silence of the winter forest holds a hush, a waiting, a husbanding of energy. The dark green is intensely beautiful against the white backdrop of the winter.

The tagline for Game of Thrones was “Winter is coming.” Yeah, tell me about it. What’s the big deal? White walkers? Please. I see worse than that every time I take the dog out. I’m ready and eager for it. There are two specific events that tipped the scales, that forever changed the winter equation from endurance to enjoyment. I can precisely identify each event, to the moment.

I even have the receipts.

The first came two years ago when I bought a pair of serious, big, tall, pull-on, waterproof, insulated winter boots. It probably doesn’t matter what kind you buy, but mine are a well-known brand. (I really want to tell you what brand — but blame the editors, who won’t let me!) You’ll just have to take my word for it when I say that they have revolutionized my relationship with winter.

Perhaps it’s the nadir of my writing career that I have come to the stage where I’m using this platform to wax poetic about winter boots, but here we are. I can live with it. I mean, Marcel Proust wrote a 1,300-page book about a cookie. Whereas once I didn’t like to walk the dog in the winter, now I can’t wait to get out and kick my way through snowdrifts. I’ve even started to enjoy shovelling snow, though I’ll hide this column from my wife, otherwise she’ll be quoting me after future massive snow dumps. “I thought you said you enjoyed it?!”

Before Christmas last year I had my second Damascene experience, which while not a religious revelation was nevertheless powerful. I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me nearly three decades of marriage to figure it out. My wife likes to keep the bedroom window open to allow for the passage of fresh air. This is logical and healthy, except for the fact that she follows this principle 365 days a year. During last February’s cold snap, when the nightly wind chill was hitting -50 C, our bedroom window remained open. There were mornings I’d be able to see my breath. Getting undressed and into bed at night had become a kind of game to see how few seconds it took me to doff my clothes and get between the sheets to avoid succumbing to frostbite.

In December 2019, I happened to be shopping online when I saw an ad for electric blankets. A light bulb went off, an electric bulb. I could buy an electric blanket! I could put it on our bed! I could be warm at night!

As discoveries go, it’s not quite stumbling upon the lost tombs of the pharaohs, but it has changed my life. Now I switch on the blanket before bed and by the time I slide under the cover it’s so warm and cosy that I’ll just lie there, grinning blissfully. Why it took me decades to realize that there were such things as electric blankets I cannot explain. But the result is revelatory. Freezing cold bedroom? Bring it on. In fact, the colder the better, I say. I’m now armed against it.

I know as I get older, I’m supposed to want to retire to Palm Springs or Scottsdale for three or four months every winter to avoid slippery sidewalks and car seats that feel like ice-cave benches. I’m supposed to want to have a condo in a gated community and a golf cart to drive from my garage to the course. I’m supposed to sit on a patio where I can nap in the late afternoon before awaking to a cocktail and the setting sun over the desert horizon …

OK, I’ll stop because that’s actually starting to sound pretty good. 

But I think all of the above has to do with something broader than feeling insulated for a change. It’s about feeling a sense of order to the world, ephemeral as that might be. I don’t like it when it’s above freezing in January. That isn’t what my part of the planet should feel like. It’s supposed to be cold. We’re supposed to bundle up. We’re supposed to feel our nasal hairs cracking. We’re supposed to listen to weather forecasters tell us how little time it will take for exposed flesh to freeze. That’s winter. People cycling in shorts in January is not winter. Although I don’t think “enjoyment” is the right word to describe living and thriving in a cold-weather environment, it at least seems normal. And normal feels pretty good these days.

Maybe it’s about childhood. We all feel a certain nostalgia and even comfort for the times and emotions of our childhood. Mine was all about hot, dry summers and cold, snowbound winters. Climate change has altered that equation such that we now have milder, less snowy winters in Edmonton, coupled with more humid, stormier summers. 

That’s not a climate change trade-off I love. I want the climate to change back. Because there’s nothing wrong with winter and I don’t know what I had against it for so long. And all it really took in the end to bring about the transformation was a good pair of boots and a cheap electric blanket.

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