It's a lovely place to live if you like winter, which lasts about five months. A famous postcard shows the city at dawn, with the temp at -37F (-38C); once in a while it gets really cold here! Mind you, we're on the 43rd parallel, the same latitude as Rome, Italy! Weather is part of the Madison experience, for most of us.
210 miles to the north, Madison is dramatically different. Spring is usually very brief, sometimes virtually absent. But fall is almost always glorious and prolonged. Summer is seldom really hot (1995 was an exception), though there's often a period of about two weeks in July when it gets warm and sticky. We do have a terrible mosquito problem here, abetted by having a lot of wetlands right in the town. But it must be admitted that compared to many parts of the country, winter in the upper Midwest is no joke; it can really hurt you.
The coldest times ordinarily occur during extremely clear, high-pressure weather, in January and February. This means bright sun in the daytime and snow that crackles and crunches when you walk on it at night.
The ticket to actually enjoying winter here, I'm convinced, is getting the right clothing so you can be outdoors without getting hurt, then doing something wonderfully fun and active, like skating or cross-country skiing. Downhill skiing is hampered by the absence of significant hills: 450 feet of vertical drop is about the best we can offer, and less than that within easy driving distance of Madison. Despite precautions, however, it's fairly easy to get frostbite on a windy day.
I remember one time skiing about 30 miles north of Madison fairly early in the morning. It was about -10F (-23C). My friend and I were already cold after just one run, but we decided to do a second one right away. There was a vicious cross-wind at the top of the lift.
Arriving again at the bottom of the hill, I went in the warming house right away, but the damage to my hands had already been done: all I could do was hold them up and whimper. Frostbitten hands feel like they're clamped in an inexorably tightening vise, I mean, really painful!
I go on about the weather because I'm so susceptible to it. If it's gloomy, I'm really down. If it's bright, I'm fully energized. I've never spent a winter in Europe, but I'm told that in the north, especially in areas that have a coastal climate, it's cloudy for literally weeks at a time. I guess the Pacific Northwest, New England and Britain have these endless winter clouds too. I'd die, it's as simple as that. Of course, there are people who would say the same of our cold, sun or no sun.
After being here over 50 years, I think I've seen the full range of our climate. A few hot, sticky summers, quite a few very cold winters, an occasional lovely spring, and many glorious autumns. In 1997 we had a cold snap in the middle of October and even two inches of snow near the end of the month. But the winter was mild overall. The average temperature at the end of October is 54 F. (12 C.).
Along about March, people begin to get a little crazy about the winter, especially if it has been very cold. In the worst part of the cold, people don't go out unless it's necessary or unless they're doing an outdoor sport, especially if it's windy, which it often is, howling down from the north or northwest.
It's not like Alaska, nevertheless, where the parking meters have electrical connections for engine heaters. And it's darker in Europe in mid-winter, since it's almost all north of us.
Since it's a major university town, students coming here from urban centers often complain there isn't enough to do. It takes a while to learn that there's a flip side to that issue. In New York, where I've been many times, attending a public event requires a major investment of energy: going anywhere or doing anything is a real project. Here it's all much more casual; hop in the car, drive 5-10 minutes, park (you can park, you see) and you're there.
And there really are enough events for me. When I was a lot younger there were times when I wanted to go out almost every night, to eat, see a movie, go to a concert or whatever. Now I'm by comparison a recluse: I seldom go to the movies, I try to avoid the expense of restaurants, I rarely drink, and I socialize with friends only occasionally. It's concerts, plays, and events like that that get me out of the house a couple evenings a week.
From the early 70s to the end of 2001 I wrote about these events for a local paper (see Writings), primarily about the classical music scene.
One thing we do not have is sufficient ethnic diversity. Were it not for the University, we would have even less. Madison is probably over 90% white, overwhelmingly middle-class, and mostly white-collar. There is very little industry. Government and the University are the major employers.
The largest industrial enterprise is Oscar Mayer, the wiener works. Originally, Oscar Mayer was a local, family-owned business. Now it's part of the Kraft Foods conglomerate. Other business concerns of note are insurance and high technology.
People raising families like Madison because we have good schools (but high taxes to go with them). Housing is plentiful and most of it is of decent quality. The streets are clean, there are good police and fire departments, and a relatively low incidence of serious crime. As everywhere, unfortunately, women have to be wary of being assaulted.
Politically, it's the most liberal town in the state, probably in the whole Midwest, but we have fundamentalist crazies here too, the "AIDS is God's wrath" morons.
Health care, including mental health, is one of our strongest assets, with excellent hospitals and clinics, a lot of leading-edge research, and excellent surgical facilities.
All in all
I've done a certain amount of traveling -- to Japan once, to Europe several times, all over southern Canada from coast to coast, and 49 of the 50 United States, including Alaska and Hawaii (not Louisiana, for some reason). Most of the places I've visited I found entrancing, but in only very few of them did I ever have the feeling I could live there indefinitely. I keep wanting to come home, after a while.
Perhaps paradoxically, I discovered during a six-week camping trip all over eastern Canada (including Newfoundland, which was very exotic and remote) that I probably could be on the road for months at a time, staying mostly in a tent, as long as a suitable level of financial security were assured -- not luxury, by any means, but enough for food and other supplies, occasional motels, vehicle maintenance, that sort of thing. Even then, however, it seems to be a constitutional part of me to know that there's a place to come home to. And Madison has been that place for me lo these many years.