The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods.
– Thomas Paine
Chicago is a bipolar city. For seven months, we hibernate. We endure. We struggle. And from Memorial Day til Labor Day, we celebrate making it through another winter. Festivals. Beer gardens. Movies in the Park. Baseball. Beach volleyball. The lake front.
When I first moved to Chicago nine years ago, I hated the winter. When I started working at Table XI, I lived a block away from CEO Josh Golden, and we’d ride into work together. Every morning, I’d complain. Winter was painful for me. Physically painful. Emotionally painful.
Josh, being from Canada, would tell me that the winter isn’t too bad if you dress properly. He’d say that to get through the winter, you need two adjustments: an adjustment of your gear, and an adjustment of your attitude.
For the gear, I learned to treat getting dressed as putting on a suit of armor to go out to battle. Next to a good wife and mood stabilizers, long underwear is the third most important contributor to my general happiness during the winter.
I grew up in Indianapolis, and while our climates are similar, in Indy you’re afforded more margin to not take the winter seriously. It’s a commuter culture — you get into your car that’s been sitting in your garage, drive to the plowed parking lot, and walk fifty feet to the front door of your office, grocery store, or Applebees.
In Chicago, you’re more exposed. Even if you drive, you probably parked overnight on the street, and you’re probably going to park a couple blocks from your destination and trudge through a quarter-mile of unshoveled sidewalks to get there. If you’re lucky, you’ve arranged your life so that you don’t have to drive much, but now you’re walking to the train and waiting for the bus and, for an hour every day, winter is actively trying to kill you.
So, you get yourself a heavy pair of gloves, and a hat that covers your ears. You layer up — long sleeve t-shirt, fleece or a sweater, and a well-insulated coat with a hood. Get a pair of waterproof boots, put on wicking socks, maybe two pair. Tie a scarf to protect your neck, and on the really cold days, pull it over your mouth so you can still breath.
And then, go make Winter your bitch.
In warm climates, it’s too easy to take shit for granted. But in single digit temperatures, six inches of snow, and blinding, breathtaking wind, going to the grocery store becomes a worthy accomplishment. If you can manage to leave the house, make it to work, and feed yourself in the middle of a Chicago February, that’s a day you can feel good about.
This has been a particularly tough winter. When it started, we’d look at the forecast and say, “Oh man, it’s going to get down to single digits next week…” Now, we just call those days “Wednesday,” and we’ve still got three more months to go.1
In his 2008 essay on Cities and Ambition, Paul Graham wrote:
Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.
The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money… What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter…
As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful… The big thing in LA seems to be fame… In DC the message seems to be that the most important thing is who you know. At the moment, San Francisco’s message seems to be the same as Berkeley’s: you should live better.
Chicago was absent from Graham’s musings, but I propose that her message is: “You should earn it.”2
There will be a day soon in March or April when temperatures will rise to the low 50s. The sun will shine, the snow will melt. It won’t last — it will be just a glimpse of what’s to come later on in May or June. But on that day, Chicagoans will emerge onto the streets, and strangers will high-five each other, rejoicing in the reprieve from their collective struggle. In San Francisco, that day would be just another Wednesday.
We earn our summers here. Every clear day above 70 is so much sweeter because of the frigid grayness that came before it. There is a cost of admission to be a citizen of this great city, and Chicago knows how to put a proper price upon her goods.3
To borrow from JFK, we choose to live in Chicago not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
Rachel and I moved this year and found that rent had jumped 20% in two years. I partially blame our recent mild winters and am hoping that this year’s brutality will stabilize rent via lowered demand. There are people who, because of this winter, will leave Chicago and never live here again.↩