Rockford, Illinois, USA
February 05
I'm a regular middle aged guy, living in a regular middle class neighborhood, in a regular middle-sized community in the middle of America. I am an expatriate Texan transplanted to the Midwest, and wondering how I got here, and where I'm headed.

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JANUARY 21, 2011 12:34PM

Are We a Nation of Wimps?

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I was woken up at 5:00 AM this morning by an automated telephone call letting me know that the local schools would be closed today due to extreme weather conditions.  Expecting to see a raging blizzard outside, I was rather surprised to notice that my sidewalk was still well cleared of snow, and not a single snowflake was falling.  It turns out the extreme weather was the temperature:  -8 Farenheit. 

Granted, -8 is cold.  There may be a few readers of my blog who have never experienced that temperature before.  I should add as well that there was a little breeze this morning, too, which brought the wind chill down to -25.  So yes, it was cold this morning.  But was it really so cold that schools should be closed for the day?  After all, -8 was simply the low for the day.  Temperatures will rise to 0 by noon, with the afternoon high expected to be around 4.  Sure, that’s cold, but is it really dangerously cold for children in their Gore-Tex and down jackets?  Aren’t those modern items of winter apparel rated for sub-zero temperatures?

As I pondered these questions it occurred to me that we have become a nation of wimps.  I mean, really, when did sub-zero weather first warrant a day off from school?  I’m talking about Northern Illinois, not Miami or Brownsville or San Diego.  I’m talking about schools that are only about 10 miles from the border of Wisconsin.  We’re supposed to be able to handle cold weather around here.

We weren’t always so wimpy.  During the first winter of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the explorers wintered in what is now North Dakota.  The morning of January 10, 1805, Captain Clark’s thermometer recorded a temperature of -40 Farenheit (also -40 Celsius).   They were staying in log cabins they had rushed to build the previous November.  I don’t think they had any insulation or central heating.  Conditions weren’t much better 70 years later when the Dakota Territory began attracting settlers in large numbers.  These men and women – and children – persevered in their dugouts and log cabins.  They built schools and churches and managed to attend them, even in the winter.

Cold climes aren’t the only places that produced remarkably tough people.  Lyndon Johnson owed much of his early political success to his efforts to bring electricity to the people of rural Central Texas.  Imagine life before electricity in that rough, relatively infertile landscape during the long months of summer.  Imagine hauling hundreds of pounds of firewood and water into the house every day.  Since refrigerators did not yet exist, and would have been useless even if they did in a place without electricity, housewives were forced to spend countless hours during hot summer days bending over the wood-burning stove, boiling huge pots of water to can enough vegetables and fruits to last through the winter and spring.  Imagine bending over a washtub of scalding hot water, scrubbing the clothes of seven, eight, nine, or more children and grown-ups in 100 degree heat.  Then, imagine how meager the evening relief would be after the sun set, with temperatures remaining above 90 well into the night, and possibly never falling below 80 for weeks on end.  By making rural electrification his signature issue, it’s little wonder Lyndon Johnson achieved success as a young, progressive New Dealer in the 1930’s.

You don’t have to go that far back in time, either.  My mother and father lived without airconditioning for the first several years of their marriage.  They would dampen their sheets each night before bed in order to get enough cooling relief to make sleep possible. 

For that matter, I remember attending an un-airconditioned school in Texas during the first three years of my formal education.  In North Texas, school started in late August, a month that is frequently the hottest of the year.  100+ degree temperatures are common well into September.  It may not have been pleasant, but I clearly remember sitting in a classroom cooled only be a large, oscillating pedestal fan.  As far as I know, every school in my hometown is now equipped with central airconditioning.  I’m glad for that.  I’m sure it makes the learning experience much more effective.  Still, how would those kids and teachers cope in a classroom where interior temperatures must have approached 90 degrees?

Yes, I’m afraid we’ve become a nation of wimps.  But you know what?  I’d rather be a wimp in my comfortably cool 68 degree house than a tough SOB in a cold, drafty log cabin on a -8 degree morning. 

Now, where did I leave my Cabela’s slippers?  My toes are a little chilly.

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I think we've all become spoiled. There were times in my younger years I'd take on the great outdoors with gusto. I still love an occasional campout in the wilderness. My former years of memberships in the 4H and scouts helped with life skills.
As a kid I remember delivering newspapers at -20°. Par for the course.
The other night, while I was taking the garbage out to the road, it was probably about 10F, with a bit of a breeze, as we like to say.

One of the neighbour kids was out playing road hockey by himself under a streetlight wearing his Montreal Canadiens jersey.

We chatted for a bit -- he's really a nice young man -- about school, his mom, and of course the weather. He just shrugged it off -- he's Canajun, eh? -- and went back to slap-shotting the ball back into the net. Me? I went straight into the house.

So I think the younger generation will be OK, as long as we let them be.
Yup. Still I hate the cold and the heat.
Belinda, regarding those campouts, good for you!

Alan, when was the last time they had -20 in Berlin?

Boanerges, glad to read about your neighbor. I see precious few kids outside in the neighborhood during the winter. To be fair, you do see them outside having the occasional snowball fight, or sledding down the hill in the park. I just hope the park doesn't close down the sledding hill out of liability concerns. You never know nowadays!

Janice, come on outside and play in the snow!
I completely agree with you, my friend. I am amazed at how much of a whimp I have become over the years. Like you I was born and raised in Texas...Southeast....where we had all the heat and twice the humidity as the rest of the state. Yet, growing up, I never had air conditioning and as a child I stayed out all day in that heat playing.

Was the heat any less back then than it is now? No, our bodies have just become accustomed to the comforts of climate control where the only times we have to face the real temps are in our mad rushes from the house to the car, from the car to the store, back to our car and on to our homes.

Like you, I remember a school cooled only with a large fan in each class room. I can not remember ever being uncomfortable in the heat either.
Out here, they cancel school when it drops to 56 degrees.
I'm always up for a good challenge, Pro. Kids in my neighborhood [mine included] adapt well regardless of weather. I laughed a few days ago when I heard a news reporter say something about her kid playing football barefooted, with only shorts and a t-shirt on when it was in the low teens that CPS might be calling her. ;)
laugh, we were going to go to the zoo today. I was all excited and said we'll bundle up and just run from building to building, and not do the pond. Yeah....ha! went out with the dogs to potty this morning, and oh that idea got thrown out real quick :D Forget how cold cold can be.
Besides it sets off Karen's asthma, which hasn't been a problem for years. She sounds like a balloon with a leak trying to suck in air in this weather.
Hope your family stays toasty today!
Torman, I must admit that I remember very clearly being uncomfortable in those September classrooms!

John B, you need to get back to your Yankee roots!

Belinda, I do wonder about those kids who wear shorts to school on sub-freezing days! They may not be wimps, but they have a screw loose somewhere!

Julie, that temperature-driven asthma is bad. I also feel sorry for the animals on days like this. Equatorial Africa it ain't.
Steve, you are talking about some cold temperatures in your area and our area might seem more like Florida in warm weather by comparison! I know in my area some of the schools often close on days that similar weather would have kept open when I was in the same local area and going to school. The buses used chains a lot back then for the snowy days.

There are certainly degrees of living in a rustic or more primitive way. Actually, when you consider the caves and simple huts of so long ago it's a wonder enough survived to have families, to feed them, etc. I think that basic wilderness camping is a good start towards having people get a feel for their comfortable life as compared with "roughing" it and to appreciate how much they can actually handle under such circumstances with the right guidance. Thanks for the thought provoking post on this!
Ah...the olden days, you make it sound so simple, almost nice, if indeed quite rugged. I'm always imagining that kind of life..."yeah, I could live in a cabin in the woods, grow our own food...wouldn't it be so peaceful without all the noise of the civilized world." Then, the cable goes out in a snowstorm and I'm beside myself. I'll own up...wimp.
Wimps, wusses. A kid's eyeballs thaw once they get to school. Your superintendent probably didn't want to go outside to warm up his/her car. The wimp.
that is the nature of social evolution, until you collapse things because of it.
dummies? see my post of today
Heh, Steve, I think we are a nation addicted to “comfort”. That’s not a judgment, just an observation. I remember a few times when I lived in the Oregon mountains, where it rarely gets as cold as what you’ve described here, but where it wasn’t uncommon for power to go out when it snowed or the wind blew a tree down on some power lines. Going days with no power certainly adjusted my outlook on some things. The one thing that got us through was the fact that we had a woodstove and plenty of firewood.

As for canceling school because of the cold, I don’t quite know what to make of that. It seems like that temperature might not be a health threat, but maybe it just wasn’t considered worth the discomfort. I don’t know …
People aren't wimps today, but we have a lot more conveniences than people did in the past, so we expect a lot more. If you go back even further, another hundred years, people didn't even have heat, they had to start a fire every morning in a stove to keep warm, and draw water from a well. If you go back another few hundred years, things were even more difficult. So maybe the people you knew when you were young would have seemed like wimps to someone in the distant past. But then, so?
i was expecting to read about the wimps of thought and of rational behaviour, you know the simple minded " i want my country back.. obama socialism, obama nazi, death panels...etc.", the right doing what the left did with bush....simple minded folks unable to express in ten words or more the cause of their discomfort and letting their mind go wimp with a couple of slogans here and there, aided and abetted by the solons of the media the make millions out of them

as nicely closed the article shows preference for 68 degrees rather than the physical manly humans of about some mentally anti-wimp of modern times?
When I was a boy we had to walk six miles to school no matter how bad the weather and sometimes it got so cold icicles formed from our noses and we had to beat each other with our bookbags to keep from freezing to death and some of us did freeze to death but we kept doing it over and over day after day until we were old enuf to get jobs hauling coal in the foundry...and we liked it.
Those kids who froze to death that Matt was talking about stayed dead and became green bay fans.
I don't have a block heater for my truck or car and, since the truck grew up in WI, it just starts right up.
I use it for work and, instead of wimpily starting it up & sashaying back into the house to wait for it to warm up, I just sit there while it warms.
We used to play hockey outside all winter.
A couple of the polack kids tried to play hockey out on the lake in summer. We never saw them again.
It will be well below 0 tonight and the next night.
I even grill outside all year.
John, I think everyone needs to go camping...just not in the winter, however.

Kate, we all have some wimpiness in our system. You're not alone.

Stim, don't get me started on our superintendent.

Don, the question is, which way are we evolving? Forward or backward?

Elijah, it worked. I read it.

Rick, I once went without power for several days on the beach in Belize. I suspect that was a lot more tolerable than going powerless in the Cascades during the winter!

Sam, perhaps you're right. Although the difference in the level of comfort available to us today vs. our forefathers of a hundred years ago is, I suspect, a lot greater than the difference between a hundred years ago and a hundred years before that. Something to think about.

roberto, I just didn't have it in me today to get into mental wimpiness.

Matt, the amazing thing was that it was uphill both ways!

XJS and you, it's never too cold to grill. I'm thinking about salmon this weekend.
I don't get it.

I live in a Canadian border town with the USA--our temps and weather conditions are EXACTLY alike.

Yet, the USA schools close ALL the time and we seem to have zero snow days where we shut down.

I always found this so odd.
I wish all of the children were wearing Gore-Tex and down jackets. Unfortunately, some parents do not dress their children appropriately for such extreme conditions. This is a factor to consider as well.
It occurs to me that the more poor children in your district, the ones waiting for the bus and not being driven to school by mom and dad, may not be able to afford goretex and down. Perhaps they're in a hand-me-down charity coat; as you know, windchills of -25 will cause frostbite on exposed parts of the body fairly quickly.
I agree that around here, those temps are to be expected, and we're due for that weather this weekend and Monday, when our windchills are expected to be -30, but not everyone can afford to equip themselves for these temps.
I wonder if, with so many teetering on the edge of survival, 16% of the American population living below the poverty level, we've developed a cultural archetype of doing whatever it takes to isolate ourselves and survive and pamper. And sometimes that means grabbing what comfort you can, whenever you can. Something that looks a LOT like being a wimp.

Just a thought. Because I think so much does look like we're wimps. But I can't help but wonder if there is more going on under that.
Yeah, uphill. How could I forget that part. And we liked that too.

And, no, XJS, they froze to death because we left them behind because they were Bearce fans.
I'm a lot wimpier than I used to be. My favorite possessions right now are flannel sheets and a down comforter. But I did go snowshoeing last Sunday, and at 8,800 feet in January, -8F is a mid-afternoon high.
And if you go back even further, things actually get easier! The Romans had running water. Nobody did in the Middle Ages. Something to think about. ;)
I'm glad that you ended this piece with a wink, Mr. Wimpy, because until then, I was going to comment that you had my Grandpa's speech about when he was a kid walking twenty miles to school in three feet of snow speech down perfectly.

My house is 229 years old, and as I sit snug and warm with my robust but costly forced hot air furnace blowing away in the cellar, I can't help but imagine the earliest stewards tending the fireplace, coughing with consumption and chilblains and absent certain toes sacrificed to frostbite. Call me Wimpy too.
HowSoon, wimpiness hasn't reached north of the border yet, apparently.

Donna, you may be right about that. Then again, they didn't have Gore-Tex 50 years ago when kids still made it to school on days colder than this one.

flwanderer, I'm pretty sure the reason they cancelled schools is for the reason you give -- they don't want kids standing outside waiting for buses in a wind chill of -25. Maybe that's the correct course of action. Still, kids waited outside in weather that cold 20 or 30 years ago. What changed?

TravelLight32, good points. Maybe perceived wimpiness is merely a superficial aspect of something much more.

High Lonesome, I'm a big fan of flannel sheets!

Sam, good point!

Flower Child, I think it's the adults' reluctance to deal with the cold weather that is the main culprit.

greenheron, I try really hard not to be an old curmudgeon waxing about the hardships of my childhood. But sometimes curmudgeondome wins out. I tread a fine line today with this post!
I've noticed that in general there are more school closures for weather reasons than in Canada. Perhaps living in the great white North has toughened us to what our neighbors consider 'dangerous', but I know that in my years of teaching we had less and less school closings due to weather.
Steve, You are right. we are.
My Grandma was always insistent about not having air conditioning in her house. She was tough, never complaining.
We had fans in our grade-school. We walked to school in all weather. Snow days were rare, only happening when the snow reached midway up a car door. We were without air conditioning for most of my childhood..didn't know what it was. Kansas gets very hot: 100+ in July with days of cloudless skies. We just moved slower during the daytime.

But the Springtime and Fall were bits of paradise
They did that in MN today too. Outrageous. I went to school in MN between 1954 & 1967 and the schools closed a total of one day when it snowed 36" overnight. (My memory may have exaggerated that.)

And we didn't have no stinkin school buses, we walked or took the city bus and because I was a girl I wore short skirts, nylons and skimpy little ballet slipper like shoes because I had to be cool. Dressing warm was NOT cool. Hats and scarves were not cool. And 68 is way too hot to keep a house. (Insert guttural growl of extreme toughness.)

Maybe school buses are the problem.
The funny thing is, when we were kids, we all walked to school, although I do remember the school bus driver having pity on me, a kid who lived within walking distance, on really cold days.

Now, most kids in my town are driven by their parents. And no one's requiring the girls to wear skirts, either. Although when the rules were relaxing, I loved cold days because I got to wear pants.
I think the answer to your question is self-evident. I would also add the adjective "cowardly."
FusunA, all those Canadians must be smirking.

Gary, I think I would have liked your grandma, althouth I probably would have avoided her house on a hot Kansas summer day!

nerd cred, you've destroyed all my stereotypes about those tough Minnesotans.

Malusinka, are you saying there are nice school bus drivers?

Brassawe, sounds like you have the subject for your next OS post!
They closed the schools here yesterday for 3 inches of snow. I was amazed. (But warm inside is definitely better!)
I live in Peotone, IL, and on Friday they closed the schools too...because it was too cold. I didn't realize my children were being taught out of doors in the middle of winter. r
I think it all goes back to fear of litigation. Fear of some doctor's kid getting frostbite and suing the district.
Maybe you're right we are getting wimpier. I guess spending the past decade and a half in South Florida, where people are running around complaining when the temps dip into the 50s has sort of spoiled me. I grew up in rural Iowa though, and went to school in the 50s/60s era. I don't recall schools closing because it was too cold, although we did close because of snow and ice. Mostly because it was too dangerous to run school buses on some of the roads. Still, I don't think we had off nearly as many days 'as kids get today' (I said shaking my cane). My grandparents who lived up into their 90s used to tell stories about how things were back around the turn of the century. Probably very few of us would last long if we had to live like that. I enjoyed your post!
Pilgrim, when I was a kid they closed school for 3 inches of snow. But that was in Ft Worth, Texas , where we got snow about once every other year. No excuse for that north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Olivia, looks like Peotone has joined the ranks of the wimp.

Zinnia, you may be right.

William, I wish I had a cane to shake!
I just remembered this about when my kids were in elementary school, in the late 1970's. The rule at their school was that you had to go outside for recess as long as the wind chill temp was above -20. I'm almost sure that's accurate though it seems impossible from the vantage point of this day and age. They only had to be out for a few minutes but they had to get out. My kids annoyed the teachers because they insisted on going out and staying out no matter how cold it was and a teacher had to go out with them. Maybe I should post about that day I locked them outside after we moved back here from VA and they thought it was too cold to be out. Is there a statute of limitations on that sort of thing?
I used to have to walk uphill to get to school and to walk uphill to get home.

I have been in -40 conditions and it was as if God had sent me straight to hell but forgot to kill me first.

I won't talk about the bad dates.

But now, I am old and entitled to avoid the great adventures.

One thing that bothers me: the number of kids who are being taken, murdered and dumped. There are a lot of predators out there and I understand the trend toward being more protective.

Is being obsessed with having the purest, most perfect and meatless food a form of wimpdom? I think so.

This is well done and thought provoking. Late Zumapick.
Follow the money, it's just cheaper/more profitable for most to just outwait the weather than to fight it!
As a Canadian, this doesn't surprise me. I remember being in L.A. and listening to the weather report. According to the blow-dried Ken doll, it was windy and cold outside. I briefly re-considered going to the pool but decided to go anyway since it was sunny outside and didn't seem cold in the room. At the pool, it was warm -- in the high 60s -- and nary a tree was moving. And yet hardly anyone was there except a few other intrepid Canucks. Later that day I saw a woman wearing a fur coat!

When I was a kid in the prairies, we were chucked out in the cold. Temps routinely reached -40 and girls were not allowed to wear pants to school. Somehow we survived. But now that I love on the west coast, my blood has thinned and like you, I like it cozy.
Er, that should be "live" on the west coast.
A nation of wimps? Got that right.

In the late 1970s, when we had some of the coldest, snowiest winters in Chicago history, the only time my school was closed was ONE day during a blizzard - due to a power outage. It was just as cold and snowy the next day, but the power was back on, so we went to school. In the early 1980s, on some days of record cold temps (lowest temp -26, with -80 wind chill), we went to school every day. It was a half mile walk to the high school. And I did walk every day. In college, I walked as far as a mile at a time. I survived it just fine.

Kids can certainly handle cold weather, as long as they're within reasonable walking distance of school. Too many of them get spoiled now.
We've become a nation of fearful people, endlessly obsessing over tiny risks.
I sometimes wonder if part of our national crisis in healthcare, including but not limited to diabetes, is that we no longer shiver for long, no longer sweat to cool down, chop our own wood, carry our own water, etc. All our mechanisms are suited for a much sturdier life, and we have become a nation of boneless, minced chicken patties. We don't even need to chew our own food if we don't want to.
xenon, thanks for your zumalicious comment!

Fred, filthy lucre always gets its hands in there somehow, I guess.

Miss Peel, I suspect you've done some lovin' out there on the West Coast, too.

bikepsycho, you're right, the kids can handle it. That narrows it down to wimpy adults.

David, ha! (although I must say the kids who play soccer will play in some pretty awful springtime weather in this part of the country.)

Patrick, you've said in 12 words what it took me about 12 paragraphs to say.

Oriyoki, I don't wonder about that at all. I think it's pretty well proven.
About 20 years ago, I was teaching at Virginia Tech when the temperature one morning hit -10 degrees Farenheit. That was the first time Virginia Tech had closed for bad weather since I had been there since 1980. But, the problem was that buses had been implemented a couple of years before. The student health director said that students would get frostbite in a few minutes at that temperature while they waited for the bus. I suspect your schools had a similar situation.

When I see college students in flip-flops and shorts in 30 degree weather sometimes, don't see them as wimps but a little stupid. But then, maybe I sound a little old! They don't seem to mind the cold weather.
-8? That's not cold. I went to high school and college in Grand Forks, North Dakota. There were times when we were tickled to death when it would warm up to -8. People would go out and stoke up the grill and cook burgers outdoors. I remember having a "rule"--we wouldn't go out cross country skiing if the windchill were colder than -60.
Buncha wimps in Rockford!
Joan, what's interesting is that the school administrators gave conflicting reasons for the closure - first they said it was due to the extreme temperature, but then they said it was due to some busses not starting. Frankly, I'm skeptical about the bus story. And don't get me started about kids who wear shorts on sub-freezing days.

Walter, sadly, you may be correct.