Winter Survival Tips from a New Englander

(my presentation from the Media Lab’s Festival of Learning, where we all taught each other things)

I grew up outside of Boston and, for my first 18 years, learned winter the hard way. We got up at 6am, when it was still dark, and went to school, and when we got home by 6pm, it was dark again. We ran 8-mile workouts during actual blizzards. I got lost once on a course I knew like the back of my hand, because so much snow had fallen that the street’s landscape had been completely altered. This taught me an important lesson: your eyebrows can actually freeze. So much snow can attach to your face as to actually freeze to it.

The first few months are OK. Winter pairs nicely with Christmas and New Year’s, and it’s nice to see the year wind down and watch trees die and stuff. But the novelty fades, and the festivity gives way to another four months of straight winter. The darkness continues to surround you, and, in Boston, at least, freshly falling snowflakes give way to a curbside permafrost of dirt, sand, and ice.

My little brother had an epiphany one day, while shoveling heavy, wet snow off our driveway for the hundredth time. The thought struck him: wait, why are we doing this? Hasn’t man evolved to the point that we don’t actually need to choose to live in climates where this happens to us? Don’t we have planes, and relative mobility to start careers and families in places where the clouds don’t hate us?

And of course, the answer is yes, but Hawaii’s schools aren’t as good.

So, given that we’re here, let’s go through some survival strategies. Some combination of these will improve your bleak days and desperate nights. I’ve broken these tips into four categories, whose powers combined, can keep you happy: Light, moisture, warmth, and sanity.

I. LIGHT

Keep a Daylight-Oriented Schedule
I laughed, and then cried a little, when multiple consecutive speakers at MIT’s graduate student orientation implored us, for our own happiness, to maintain daylight-oriented schedules. As a biological night owl, I find this difficult sometimes. But when it gets dark out at 3:30pm, it’s really easy to sleep through the only hours the sun was actually out for. Right before New Year’s Eve, I was stuck in a cycle of working until 5am and sleeping until 2pm. Over the course of three or four days, I saw the sun for only a couple of hours. This has obvious implications for vitamin D levels (and general sanity). You don’t want to feel like you’re living in Bladerunner.

If you search Google for your ZIP code plus the word ‘sunrise,’ you’ll get tomorrow’s sunrise time. I recommend brute force here. Just keep setting your alarm clock for that time until you can wake up within a couple hours of it.


Get a Sunrise Alarm Clock. Yes, it looks hokey, but if you don’t have a window facing East, or any window at all, this thing is a lifesaver. I got it when I lived in an English basement apartment (realtor speak for a windowless deathtrap). The gradually increasing amount of daylight changed mornings immediately, so they no longer felt like someone had poured a bag of rice on my head at 4am.

In fact, use bright lights in general during daylight hours. Intense light is still the best known treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder. You don’t’ have to pay a ton of money for fancy lights. The magic number is 10,000 lumens. A lightbox this bright helps over 50% of people who use it. Check out the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University for more information.

Actually, just put lights everywhere. Pick up warm lamps of all kinds. My Dad’s annual Random Christmas Gift this year was a glowing orange ionic salt lamp from the Museum of Science gift shop. Use rope light and holiday lights under desks and beds and other hidden places to give a nice ambient glow, without a tacky string of plastic visible. Pick up some candles and try not to burn your house down.

II. MOISTURE
When it’s not hailing down on you from an angry God, moisture can be your friend in the winter months. You’re going to get sick, probably multiple times, with some stupid cold or flu, and your membranes are going to hate the dry air.

Shower Reliever Effervescent Vapor Tablets
I have no idea if these actually do anything. But when the best part of your day is a scalding hot shower, these make that shower smell like eucalyptus.

Air gets crazy dry, inside and outside, in winter. Noses bleed, nails crack, skin flakes. Plug in a Humidifier, and clean it frequently. Or, for way less work, get a bunch of plants. Their respiration will keep your room more humid, and suck up some of the indoor toxins you’re spending all winter bathing in.

Stock up on chapstick. Chapped lips are the worst. Even if you don’t care about chapped lips, the person kissing you might.

Take hot showers, but go easy on the shampoo and other drying soaps. You need that oil.

Cocoa butter: It’s like moisturizer, but thicker, and smells like chocolate.

III. WARMTH
Now, you probably have heat in your home and workplace, and for that, you’re extraordinarily lucky in the grand scheme of human history. But there are lots of other ways to be warm on crappy days like today.

Wicked Good Slippers from LL Bean. LL Bean is an outdoor clothing company based in Maine. Maine knows winter. They also have lifetime guarantees and wicked good slippers, AKA moccassins. I’ve had my pair for over ten years, and despite being soft and comfortable, they haven’t worn out at all.

Good flannel sheets. You think your bed is warm, but you don’t know warm until you get these.

Boots you like make crappy weather something to look forward to. Some friends and I started noticing that, on rainy days such as today, the women among us were wearing fun, colorful boots, and smiles. They’d even remark that they were excited on rainy days, because it meant they could put on their big pink or yellow boots. Do yourself a favor and buy yourself a nice pair of boots that you actually look forward to wearing.

Guys, check out Tretorn. Ladies, a tip from Kate: You can get warm liners to go in your rubber boots.

I wish I was kidding. For the longest time, I didn’t know that real companies outside of Acme Supply, Inc. sold these man-boy suits. But it turns out that having a pair of long johns on under your jeans drastically improves being outside and being in a cold office. Plus, you can get a full red Union suit that doubles as a holiday party outfit.

Winter biking tips from Pablo, myself, and others (although I usually just avoid it in the winter, rather than ruin my bike with road salt):
You can pick up liquid coating to de-fog your biking glasses. A balaclava is well worth it. You can outfit your bike with snow tires, or any wider tires.

Coffee pot, with timer. If you’re not a morning person, it can be a lot of fun to take care of certain morning tasks the night before, and then let the robots execute the tasks in the AM. This tip shows up in a lot of “become a morning person” lists, because, the theory goes, if you smell the coffee and know the coffeepot is on, you won’t stay in bed. I’ve proven that theory wrong several times, so be sure your coffeepot also has automatic shut-off.

Drink tea, in general. Coffee’s probably what you need in the morning, but you should stop drinking it for those 8-10 hours of darkness before actual bedtime arrives (lest you ruin your Daylight-Oriented Schedule). Splurge on a few different boxes of tea. At ~10 cents a serving, you can fill many a cup of delicious warmth.

Celestial Seasonings’s Bengal Spice tea is particularly warming. The cinnamon, ginger, and cloves will warm you on so many levels. And it tastes sweet, like there’s already sugar in it.

IV. SANITY

If you haven’t noticed yet, you’re going to be inside a lot. Double down on friends. Drop the silly resolution and go to a bar and have some beers. Call someone on a telephone – they’re probably as in need of a fun conversation as you are. You might be independent in the summertime, but you need to find alternative sources of joy in the bleaker months.

Here are four mental strategies to get through winter. You can combine these as you like.

This is the kind of tip you’ll find on eHow.

Find at least one winter activity you enjoy, and that’s really best done in winter, whether it’s curling or drinking hot cocoa by the gallon. My friend looks forward to winter because she loves skiing, and skiing is an expensive enough hobby without having to fly to where the snow is.

My mother claims to love winter in New England, because it gives you every excuse you need to stay inside, cook a big meal, and be cozy. You can read the newspaper guilt-free, knowing that it’s absolutely awful outside and that there’s nowhere better to be than where you are right now. Winter kills Fear of Missing Out.

The more fun way to go is straight denial. Stock up on frozen mangos, coconut milk, and other tropical fruit to get your vitamins, and remind your taste buds that there are places in the world that aren’t dead. Yes, it breaks your localavore diet. But no, you’re not a Pilgrim, and you don’t really need to eat nothing but root vegetables for 6 months a year.

Make some tiki drinks and put a movie like Endless Summer on a projector or large TV screen.

The more likely strategy, for this MIT crowd, is to understand that while you’re more miserable than people in warmer climates, you also have no excuse to get a lot of great work done.

One benefit of staying inside is that genius goes uninterrupted, and almost-genius doesn’t have rooftop happy hours calling it away. It’s the one time of year when the warm glow of your LCD is preferable to being outside. Hunker down these next few months and go at it with all you’ve got until spring relieves you of your duties.

Lastly, we’re past the darkest day of the year, and a final great method for staying sane is to take joy in every little sign of spring you see emerging.

As of last Friday, this was the number of days remaining until the Vernal Equinox, that wonderful first day of Spring. It’s even less now!

You might notice that this is half of our previous number. Do you know what’s in 23 days?

This is the number of days until pitchers and catchers report. You know that New Englanders love the Red Sox. What you may not know is that part of this obsession with the Red Sox over the winter months, this hope, this faith, is based not in a love for the sport of baseball, which is admittedly, the slowest American sport, but because it is gone in winter, like other pleasures, and like the green grass at Fenway itself, it comes peeking back into town with the first blooms.

Pitchers and catchers report is more symbolic than meaningful; we imbued this almost random sports day with all sorts of hope and celebration, not just because we love the Red Sox (we do), but also because it serves as a “halfway to spring” party. It means things are underway, that, in a reasonable amount of time, you’ll be sitting outside in the sun somewhere with your friends and a baseball game on the radio.

This is the number of days until the spring beers come out. ‘ESB’ in this photo stands for Early Spring Beer, and others like Sam Adams’s new Alpine Spring are avaiable now, too.

Photo credits:

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