Practical tips for enjoying the cold

I figured I’d offer something a little more practical this week. We’ll say it’s related to my books tangentially – so far they’re all set in New England, after all, and winter is most certainly coming in. (Also, all the houses in The Awful Mess are old and drafty.)

I had to learn all these techniques the hard way. I grew up in Florida, and that move to Massachusetts the week of Christmas 1976 just about killed me. I did not acclimate cheerfully. It took years, but at some point I actually began to appreciate winter. Here are some reasons why.

Reason #1: I acquired some key wardrobe items.

  1. ANGORA BLEND SOCKS.  Ah, bliss. I’ve found these wool-blend socks at TJ Maxx and Marshalls and online. They’re not the big heavy ones you buy in hiking stores, and they fit into regular shoes. I’m sensitive to wool and can usually never wear it next to my skin, but these blends don’t bother my feet, though I sometimes do pull them up my arm to make sure they won’t scratch too much before I invest. They’re not cheap (unless you manage to find them on clearance), but they usually last for years. I wash them in the washing machine with the other clothes, but hang them to dry. (Most survive drying just fine, though, as I’ve discovered by accident.) Don’t over-stuff your shoes, either. I got frostbite during my junior year abroad in the UK — which doesn’t even get that cold — because I over-stuffed warm socks in hiking boots that were probably too small. Remember: blood circulation is our friend.
  2. POLYESTER FLEECE.  I adore it on cold days, but it’s so warming I like to wear fleece I can easily take off in a classroom, like jackets and big shirts. One hazard: It melts, so I have to watch out for sparks from the fire or wood stove. At the thrift store/food pantry where I volunteer I keep my eye out for the rare work-acceptable fleece that doesn’t already have holes from wood stoves in it. Fleece can be washed in the machine and dries almost immediately, so I hang it instead of throwing it in the dryer. At home, once I’m in for the day, I usually change into fleece sweat pants and a fleece jacket. (We usually keep our thermostat at 65 degrees, so I need that for sitting at the computer.) Fleece throws are cozy to have around, too.
  3. BOILED WOOL. Same deal as fleece except for cleaning (don’t ever put one in the dryer, and even the washing machine is a risk.) They won’t melt from sparks, though they can get charred. They tend to look a little more professional and don’t get too hot as quickly as fleece does. They also don’t attract dirt as quickly as man-made fabrics like fleece do, so you can often get away with dry-cleaning only once or twice a season.
  4. LONG UNDERWEAR. When it’s really bone-chillingly cold (wind chills below zero), or I expect to be outdoors for a while, I add an under layer of silk or polypropylene. The trick is having layers and not letting anything next to your skin get wet and clammy. I buy all of mine in the thrift store, but L.L. Bean is a good source at full retail. I even have long underwear for my feet — thin silk or polypropylene sock liners.

Reason #2: I indulge in certain key creature comforts.

  1.  A PREHEATED BED. I fill a fairly long, old, tightly woven cotton sock with uncooked rice, tie a knot, and heat it in the microwave (usually about 2-1/2 minutes, but you’ll want to watch and feel carefully to figure out what’s safe for your microwave — it can burn and even burst into flames at too long a setting). Then I roll it up in an old flannel receiving blanket and stuff it in the bed while I’m brushing my teeth. It’s also good for warming up cold toes, or draping over a sore muscle. Usually I can reheat the same sock of whole grains all winter. (I used to use hot water bottles, but these days it seems they are all made in China and inevitably develop leaks. Wet beds are not warm.) By the way, I tried adding dried lavender to the rice once. Yuck! Maybe I just don’t like lavender enough, or maybe cooked lavender is obnoxious.
  2. LAYERS ON THE BED. I can’t use goose-down duvets – they’ve always made me sweat. (And these days, a lot of things can make me sweat.) So I layer fleece blankets and quilts on the bed to throw off (and pull back on) as needed.
  3. BABY OIL IN THE SHOWER. I do way too much thinking and luxuriating in the hot shower, and in winter this means my skin gets itchy and dry. I smooth baby oil on wet skin before I even towel off. It makes a huge difference.
  4. HOT DRINKS. I can’t have caffeine at night, but the herbal teas get a lot of use on cold, dark winter nights. If I could, I’d drink coffee. On cold weekend days, we also indulge in the occasional hot cocoa treat. (No packets! I like to melt Abuelita or Chocolate Cortes tablets in a little water in a double boiler and then add milk. Use whole milk or add some cream. Sometimes I put a little chili powder or hot sauce in the chocolate and stir before I add the milk. If you have a way to whisk it in, all the better. Mmm.)
  5. MODERATE HEAT. Unless we’re depending on it for the cost savings or suffering through one of our (fairly common) power outages, we only use the wood stove when it’s REALLY cold. That way we won’t dry out our nasal passages or our houseplants, and the rooms away from the stove won’t feel uncomfortably cold.

Reason #3. I made friends with winter.

This was not easy for me. I used to fantasize about Florida all through the winters in New England. I missed everything from the beach to the mostly-green grass and gardens to the already-tepid water coming from the tap. (Though, truth be told, cold fronts can come through and feel pretty darn cold in the Tampa area too, at times.) Here’s how I think I finally turned the corner and started to enjoy winter.

  1. I LEARNED TO SKI. I am awful at downhill, but being able to cross-country ski makes snow something I look forward to. I can go out the door and ski around the yard, or around the park across the street, or around lots of other places (groomed trails are nice, but not necessary to get out and have fun). This makes a good snowfall something I anticipate with pleasure. One of these days I want to take up snow-shoeing as well. One big plus with winter sports: no bugs.
  2. WE GOT SNOW TUBES after we bought a house with a little hill in frontOfficially this was for my son and his friends, but who says adults can’t enjoy an hour of tubing just as much as kids do? Tubes are much more forgiving of conditions than sleds, and also less likely to cause bodily harm (although we sometimes have to bail out to avoid trees).
  3. I STOPPED PINING. If you hate winter, avoid palm trees or beaches as screen savers — unless you’ll be there in the next week or two. Don’t torture yourself. Try to appreciate the beauty around you instead. After I got over my outrage at being transplanted from Florida to New England — granted, this took years — I finally began to appreciate the sheer beauty of the colder months. For example, yesterday I took a little hike to a local waterfall with a friend and got to see some woods along the way in a completely different way because most of the leaves are down. If I’d only gone up there during warm weather, I’d never have been able to see the dramatic terrain, or the contrast of a few remaining yellow leaves against all those grey tree trunks.

043The only other thing I would add is to consider supplementing your Vitamin D. (It made a big difference for me recently.) Here’s wishing you the best winter possible — as warm, dry, well-fed, and happy as you can manage. If you have other tips for surviving the season, feel free to share them!




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