White Christmas was a pleasant surprise, and most welcome. What followed was not. The last week of 2017 and the first week of 2018, temperatures never got within shouting distance of 20 degrees, and most of the time they were mired in single digits, one side or the other of dreaded zero.
You know things are bad when 15 degrees feels balmy.
Winter at the bottom of the Great Lakes is always accompanied by deep freezes, when Arctic air masses descend into the lower 48, sometimes creeping as far South as Florida. But always, mercifully, it lets up after three or four days. This freeze lasted 12.
I lived through the winter trifecta of ’77, ’78, and ’79, the three worst winters, consecutively, in Chicago meteorological history, when the following records were set:
43 straight days below freezing (32 degrees), Dec. 28, 1976 to Feb. 8, 1977.
100 days of snow cover, Nov. 26, 1978 to March 5, 1979.
29-inch snow depth, measured Jan. 14, 1979.
I was living elsewhere in 1985, when the record low temperature was set — 27 below on Jan. 20 — but I remember it made the national news.
This was worse. Bitter cold with wind chill, unrelenting, for almost two weeks. We tied the record. The last time this afflicted Chicago was 1936; before that, 1895.
Seems to me we used to get snowfalls that weren’t immediately followed by the Siberian Express, but that seems to be a thing of the pre-climate-change past. Now measurable snowfalls fill me with dread. In addition to the number of people who either don’t clear their sidewalks (or don’t arrange to have them cleared), we also have to endure a deep freeze. But never for this long (in my lifetime).
Not exactly the way one wants to end the old year and start the new.
For the most part, I stayed inside, one of the luxuries of being semi-retired. At first, that seemed like a blessing. I didn’t have to go out. I could sleep in, read, listen to music, watch DVDs on loan from the library, nap, meditate, tidy up after the holiday chaos, clean the bathroom and sundry other household chores, tally my receipts for Downtown Oak Park’s Shopping Rewards program.
Staying inside is a nice change of pace, I told myself. And indeed it was … for a while. Then it felt like house arrest, while simultaneously under siege by the elements outside. Too much time without distractions allows you to more thoroughly examine the cracks in the ceiling and walls and wonder about the structural integrity of your abode, just as the elephant herd — which turns out to be one young girl — thunders back and forth in the apartment overhead.
Everything has its challenges, even when you’re doing it voluntarily. You don’t get enough exercise, so restlessness sets in. The weather makes you feel as if you “can’t” go outside, and that restriction begins to chafe. Looking around your home, you see things you’ve been meaning to get done — for a long time. Now would be the time. It’s not as easy to put tasks off when you’re not living inside-out, outside-in. All those closets stuffed with crap, begging to be thinned out. The office you keep talking about taming. It’s a blessing and a curse, this golden opportunity to comb through the accumulations of life, to assess how much grist there might be for the creative mill. Re-examining your entire household “system” and wondering how it could be improved. How to awaken the domestic warrior — to battle chaos and reimpose order.
It’s not like you’re cut off. The computer beckons. The television calls. We have windows to the world, as WTTW acronyms it. Windows to many worlds.
And I did go out. My front right tire chose the Friday evening of a long New Year’s weekend to start a slow leak, which forced me to hunt for functional air machines at local gas stations. The claptrappiest contraptions in our high-tech age, most had hand-printed “Out of Order” signs taped to them.
Having a slow but manageable leak inspires visions of leaving your friends’ Old Year’s End get-together just shy of midnight to find a flat-flat tire, which would be the end because I would rather die than change a tire at midnight with the thermometer registering four degrees.
Though my survival instincts are questionable, I did survive and as week two of the deep freeze —and the year 2018 — began, I noticed something odd. Single digits no longer seemed quite so oppressive, as if the body, in spite of the complaining spirit residing within, had decided, well, it’s going to be this way forever, so might as well adjust. How single digits can begin to feel “normal” is mystifying, but I suppose we should be thankful for our built-in coping capacity.
And then, odder still, on Thursday night at the library, the group I belong to, the Gun Responsibility Advocates (our mantra is “With rights come responsibilities”) had planned a viewing of a short film on suicide using firearms (20,000 per year), followed by a discussion on how to reduce that awful number. We didn’t expect a large crowd, and with temperatures sinking and gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss holding a public event in the lobby below, we expected fewer still. Our expectations were met. With most of the progressives downstairs following their Biss, it began to feel as if we were just going through the motions. Then two women walked in, who had come all the way from West Chicago because they were “passionate about this topic.” They heard about the event on Facebook.
Midway through the film, another woman walked in — Sara Knizhnik, an organizer with the Illinois Council on Handgun Violence — who has been active in lobbying efforts in Springfield, and the discussion turned from the choir preaching to one another to active networking. What’s being done and what still needs to be done. Afterward, the West Chicago women caucused with Sarah while I stood back and marveled.
In the dark of January, in the deep freeze — even then a spark ignites.
For the first time in 10 days, I felt warm.