The one with the coldest feet wins

It's that time of year when it seems as though there's one rainy day after another. The trees have lost their color, and the once-pretty leaves now plaster wet driveways and fill up the gutters. The patio furniture is perched precariously in its winter home at the back of the garage. The porch swing, inviting on a summer day, now hangs up high.

During this gloomy time, we Midwesterners help pass the time by taking part in the unofficial annual Midwest Furnace Tournament.

No one fully understands why we get this unexplainable thrill out of not turning on our furnaces. Some might say suffering through frosty nights gives those of us who aren't necessarily good at sports a way to show our grit.

But whatever the reason - pride, thriftiness, or tradition - the furnace tournament seems to consume nearly all of us. My 95-year-old Nana in her drafty old farmhouse enjoys telling us when her bedside water glass sprouts a thin film of floating ice.

Small talk after church and in elevators revolves around the sport. "Have you turned your furnace on yet?" "I heard we're supposed to get a hard frost tonight; this might be it for us."

My husband, Erich, and I are experienced players; a little frost won't scare us. We did have to make adjustments when our daughter, Emily, was first born. But now she's old enough that we simply swaddle her in blankets and footie pajamas and send her off to her wallpapered icebox, where clowns look down on her with frozen smiles.

Erich and I both grew up in "tourney" families, so we're privy to some of the staying-warm secrets passed down through the generations. In the old days, when people played this game out of necessity, my grandmother put hot potatoes in her pockets and slept with a soapstone fresh from the fire.

My personal solutions to the cold aren't always so welcome. I still remember Erich's horror when he discovered I wear old sweatshirts and men's long underwear to bed before we turn the furnace on. In extremely cold weather, I sleep with my childhood baby blanket wrapped around my shoulders and neck to keep the breezes out. In the interest of love and to help balance the shock of my appearance, I've taken to prewarming my feet with the hair dryer before jumping into bed.

Eventually, though, we come to the realization that it's finally time. In quiet submission, we listen to the furnace rumble and belch its unmistakable first-use-of-the- season smell. We watch as the hot, bitter air scatters dust bunnies into dark corners.

We console ourselves with thoughts of the upcoming holidays and congratulate one another on making it through another November. We think of springtime, when leaves will once again fill out the trees, gutters will flow with showers, patio furniture will return to the deck, and the porch swing will be lowered to its normal height - inviting neighbors to stop by to share their family's adventures in the previous winter's Great Midwest Furnace Tournament.

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