The Rules: Weathering a New England Winter

It seems that every year, despite being born, raised and nearly-ready to die here, too many people forget some of the basic rules for winter in New England. An educator at heart, I’m going do my best to remind the forgetful and inform the newer folks to the area. I’ll be breaking this down into a few main categories for easier reading.

Majah disclaimah: Some of these rules will not apply to you if you are disabled or have a Sherman Tank of a car.

The situation:
Every year, there will be one, first, “big” storm. How will you know? BECAUSE NO ONE WILL SHUT UP ABOUT IT. It will be on the news, radio, all over Facebook. Everywhere you look, people will be talking about the “big storm” that’s coming. Still not sure? Listen for words like, “wollop,” “pound,” “blanketed,” and words with the suffix “-pocalypse” added for no good reason. Sometimes this happens as early as November or as late as March, there’s no set schedule.

Everyone will panic and head to the grocery store, scrambling to gather up absolutely necessary food items. Like bean sprouts, cherry ripple ice cream, bologna slices, and lemons. Likewise, all the hardware stores will either be full of people buying shovels, ice melt, and snow blowers or empty of people and any of those items in stock.

The rules:
1) After Christmas, start keeping a small supply of non-perishable items on hand. If you have a gas stove and don’t have to worry about a power outage, keep a frozen pizza or leftovers (chili is a good idea) in the freezer. Cans of soup, some rice, basic easy-to-make food that lasts a while. If you have an electric stove, stock up on a few things you can eat that require no cooking (like cereal and shelf-stable milk). Remember, you are not prepping a fallout bunker, you’re just buying a few meals to have on hand should it be hard to get out and about.

2) Don’t get to empty. Fill up your gas tank when you’re half out, not when the gas light is blinking. If you drink coffee or tea, keep a pound or a box in the house. Just like the plain act of “going outside” is more inconvenient in winter than summer, so is running out of anything. It will always be a bad time to run out, so keep yourself stocked on daily necessities. Don’t get too empty on clothes; don’t let laundry pile up – drawers and closets full of clean clothes are handy if the power goes out.

3) Shovels make excellent holiday gifts. Seriously, as soon as stores put the shovels and ice melt out, buy some. They’re not going to go on sale. The longer you wait, the more likely you will be choosing 1 out of the 2 remaining shovel models. That no one else wanted. Is this the year you spring for a snow blower? Buy it in September for maximum choice and lower prices. It’s actually not a bad idea to have three shovels: a really wide one (for moving large amounts of fluffy, lighter snow efficiently and quickly), a narrower one (for heavier, wetter snow and for stairs/narrower pathways), a tough metal one (in case you need to chip/break up ice).

Also, bring your shovels inside before a storm. Most of the time, you want to keep them outside (a warm shovel from inside causes snow to melt and then stick to your shovel while a cold shovel doesn’t cause you that same amount of grief) but if there’s a really big storm, you may need the shovels inside so you can shovel your way out.

4) Invest in proper outwear. At a minimum, you need a coat, hat, gloves and boots that are: washable, waterproof, and warm (and preferably, windproof). Either get it early or at the end of the season. The night before the blizzard is not the night to be raiding the racks at L.L. Bean.

5) Check your lights-out kit and re-stock as necessary. What is your plan if the power goes out? Flashlights? Lanterns? Candles? Sitting alone in the dark? Make sure you have everything you need in the lighting department, test it out and re-stock what you need.

How will you pass the time? Do you have kids? Have puzzles, board games, toys, etc. handy to keep everyone from freaking out over a lack of Phineas and Ferb.

Sex is an excellent way to weather a power outage, make sure you have everything you need for that.

Will a power outage mean losing heat? Short-term, make sure you have warm clothes and blankets, clean and ready. More than a couple days? Line up a place to stay that has heat.

Don’t open the fridge or freezer unless you absolutely must. With the power out, they can stay cold for a pretty long time. If the outage really lasts, eat all the ice cream. Start cooking something meaty. Put other stuff in a hard-sided cooler and bury it out in the snow. It’s not guaranteed to be food-safe but it’s better than doing nothing. Most of the stuff in the fridge (condiments, beverages) will be OK if you keep the door shut. Except leftovers and any open dairy/meat/eggs, those probably gotta go.

6) Take out the trash and recycling now, before your barrels get buried. Then you have until trash pick up day to un-bury them. And that day will probably be delayed, make sure to check.

7) Last, relax. After that one, first, big storm, everything else is just a storm. 10 inches after a 2-foot blizzard is just, “snow on Thursday” at this point. Grocery stores will never be as crowded as they were the day before the first, big storm or as empty as they were the day after. With a little preparation, you’ll be ready for that first storm and you won’t need to deal with any going out beforehand.

The situation: There’s too much snow, nowhere to put it and you are tired of shoveling.

The rules:
1) Prepare by buying a shovel that works well for you. Or, a snow blower.

2) Shovel early and often. It doesn’t generally get any easier if you wait.

3) Don’t move snow more than once. Other neat specific advice on the technical aspects of snow shoveling here.

4) Yes, you have to shovel the sidewalk in front of you house. Yes, even if you live on a side street. Yes, even if you don’t personally use it. No, shoveling only the part that connects your front door to your driveway does not count. Yes, the fire hydrant too. And also the storm drains. Cities and towns have different laws on how long you have to do this work after the snow falls but I don’t know of any towns that let you off the hook for shoveling the sidewalk.

5) With very specific exceptions, you are not allowed to shovel snow into the street. Ever. Or onto the sidewalk. Or onto parked cars.

6) Don’t pile snow against the foundation of your house, the rest of the yard is fair game. If you live in a city or town that does single-side parking only, piling snow on the “parking not allowed” side of the street is also fair game.

7) You need to move your car out a little bit so you can truly shovel around it, I get it. But you can’t double-park it in the middle of the street which is down to single-car width due to the snow. You’ll just have to figure it out without blocking all the traffic on the street.

8) Start by making a proper “bank.” When you shovel snow aside, it will naturally form itself into a peaked mountain. Smush the top down, giving it a flat, rectangular top. Keep doing this and you can pile more snow into a smaller space. Fail to do this and it won’t be long before the snow pile is above your head and everything you hurl up top slides right back down, audibly laughing at your Sisyphean effort as it hits your feet.

9) Dress in layers, wear fewer clothes than you think you’ll need but still enough to protect your skin from the cold air. It’s hard work and you’ll be sweaty before long. This is an endurance sport, not a sprint. Take your time, take breaks, lift with your knees, drink water. When you come in from outside, take a hot shower rather than snuggling under a blanket. It will warm you up more effectively, and plus, you are probably smelly from all of the shoveling.

10) Forget Christmas, snow season is the real season of giving. If you can, offer to help shovel out friends and family and neighbors who are disabled, can’t shovel themselves, or just plain need a hand. I swear you’ll never know a real sigh of relief until you’ve been shoveling for a couple hours and see someone walking toward you with a smile and a shovel and an offer to help. It also feels pretty great to be the person making the offer.

before_shoveling_firstYeah, this is totally how I wanted to spend my Sunday. ON OPPOSITE DAY.

The situation: Snow and ice have made driving anywhere more difficult and time-consuming.

The rules:
1) No matter who has the right of way, the pedestrian and cyclist always have the right of way. They are outside and you are sitting down in a warm, cozy steel cage. You can wait a few minutes to let them go.

2) Slow down. Slower than you think is necessary. From now until all the snow melts, leave yourself 50% more time to get anywhere. It’s not just that the driving is slower. It takes longer to leave the house: you’re wearing more clothes, shoes/boots take longer to get on than flip-flops, then there’s a coat, hat, gloves, etc. (if you have kids, you should really be leaving yourself double the regular amount of time). Once you’re at the car, you may need to brush it off or scrape some ice. Winter is nothing if not time consuming.

3) All your favorite shortcuts are dead to you. The side streets will not be plowed. You may get stuck or stranded which is the exact opposite of a time-saver. The main roads are clogged, frustratingly slow, and you are clever enough to know a way around it – don’t. Just don’t. I know you want to but trust me on this one.

4) Speaking of shortcuts, all of your offensive tactical maneuvers are also dead to you. You will not be “banging a u-ey,” taking a “Boston left,” or “going on yellow.” That stuff is just too dangerous now. There isn’t enough room, the roads are too slippery and cars take longer to come to a stop.

5) Don’t forget regular maintenance. Just because the roads are shitty doesn’t mean your car doesn’t need oil changes, car inspections, fluid refills, new wiper blades, the occasional car wash – keep an eye on that stuff.

6) How much alcohol can you drink and be a safe driver? NONE. But say you’re that “I can have 2 beers and be fine” guy. Whatever your established limit is, cut it in half and then cut it in half again. Difficulty is up which means your self-inflicted impairment has to go down.

7) PUT DOWN YOUR FUCKING PHONE. Unless you are broken down, pulled over, calling for help – that’s OK. Well, it’s pretty damn lousy but you’re allowed to make a phone call.

The situation: Winter weather can bring out some of the worst in us because we go straight into self-preservation, survival mode and can easily forget about everyone else.

The rules:
1) If you shovel out a street parking space, you can reserve it with a “marker” only if you actually shoveled out the space (driving over the snow, leaving huge tread marks does not count) for a max of 3 days. After that, people in your neighborhood should have all “settled” on spaces and not need markers. Let guests know the best places to park when visiting.

2) If you call for delivery and the thought of going out “in that weather” makes you want to put a fork in your eyeball, then your minimum tip is $5 or 30% whichever is more. If you can’t afford that, then unless you are literally starving, you cannot afford delivered food.

3) Remember that shouting rarely solves any problem. The guy at Home Depot can’t make more rock salt appear because you tell him that it’s stupid that they’re all out. The counter agent at the airport can’t de-ice the planes any faster if the volume and hostility in your voice increase. Get to the root of the problem and try to get help with that – maybe Home Depot guy knows where they aren’t sold out of rock salt and maybe the counter agent might have some useful advice on how to re-route yourself.

4) If you don’t shovel a clear path to your front door, you aren’t getting mail. Don’t think about calling the post office to complain.

5) If you are sick, stay home. Yeah, it’s hard to have to do the work of 6 people when only 5 show up. Yeah, it’s a drag to have fewer people at your party, or to have to someone cancel fun social plans last minute. But being sick is the worst. Sometimes staying home is the very definition of being a good friend.

6) Yes, you have to cancel your appointments. Don’t assume that the doctor, dentist, hair salon, etc. are “obviously closed.” Be courteous and call to officially cancel if you can’t make it out. You may be the only morning appointment and the reason someone trudged into work as early as they did; you may be the last appointment and the reason someone is staying late. It’s OK to cancel; being a no-show is an asshole move.

7) If you love snow, don’t go around waxing poetic about how great it is to friends who you know hate it. If you hate it, don’t tell all your snow-loving friends about how stupid it is to like snow. Just let each other like what you like.

8) I don’t care what you saw on TV, wearing shorts in single-digit temps is not cool. Be comfortable enough in your masculinity or Yankee toughness or whatever to dress appropriately for the weather.

9) Patience is key. Cultivate a walking kindness that can tolerate long lines, traffic delays, and people getting in your way.

10) Remember, this will all be over soon and we can go back to complaining about the too much/not enough Spring rain and then fight over who gets to buy the last air conditioner on the first 90+ degree day.


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