Sunday, January 26, 2014

To survive it at all is a triumph of the heart

Extra clothing I wore to go out into the cold last week:

Keen hiking boots

SmartWool socks
Under Armour long underwear 
Fleece lined spandex long underwear top
Eddie Bauer Ridgeline Parka
REI Fleece
Polo undergloves
Ski gloves
Spandex skullcap
Polarctic hood
Ear muffs

Extra clothing my 16-year-old son wore:


     The realization hit me as he blew past with a "Bye pop!" I was on the curb, dressed for the South Pole, walking the dog, in her own little blonde fur coat. My boy was being picked up by our neighbors, carpooling. He had a backpack slung rakishly over his shoulder. But no gloves. No hat. No boots. A grey t-shirt under a Patagonia spandex long-sleeved top. Jeans. White sneakers. 

     "Have a good day at school," I called after him.
     My wife would have ordered him to wear a coat, pointlessly, even as he was driven away. But I gave that battle up long ago. Suffer the consequences of your actions. Be cold then.
     He obviously feels it is a small price to pay for whatever psychic warmth he gets from being underdressed.
     Maybe the joy of not being like me. That must be part of it. 
     Yes, there is a practical difference in what we are dressing for. The day is the same. But I have to walk, not just the dog, but later the 12 minutes across the Loop, from Union Station to the Sun-Times. When the wind chill is 20 below, that can be a very long 12 minutes. He only has to stumble the few feet from the house to the curb, the car to the school. My trip is like the ordeal in a Jack London story; his, a frigid flash, like a helmetless Dr. David Bowman blasting through the emergency airlock in "2001: A Space Odyssey." He isn't outside for 15 seconds.
      But there is also a deeper philosophical difference. I think he would walk the mile to school like that. In fact, he has, not quite in this weather, but nearly. And at Glenbrook North, all the boys dress like him. I see them, standing outside the school, hands thrust in jeans, hunched over, waiting for their rides. They would die before they would put on a puffy parka like mine. 
     Why? Trying to be tough. To be cool. Defying the cold, challenging it.
     To be young, which means challenging life, where you can. Making yourself cold is a perfect example—a test without true consequences. They don't really freeze. It only feels that way.
     Me, I don't want to be cold anymore. Been there, done that. Trying to be cool is like making faces at a tree. There's nobody to impress. And I see the true cold awaiting me, the eternal cold that awaits us all. No need to rush to meet it early. The people I see downtown gloveless, hatless, benumbed, are careless. "It's never too cold in Chicago," I rebuke them, when they complain on the elevator. "You're just underdressed."
     That said,. teens have a different code. I can admire the resolve that my boy shows -- I don't argue with him, I've spent too many years doing that. He's 16, he can dress as he pleases. 
     Standing at the curb, bundled thickly, watching the car drive off, holding the leash to a ridiculous little dog, I thought — my apologies — of a few lines from Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus:

                                Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened
                                like winter, which even now is passing.
                                For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
                                that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.

     "Like winter, which even now is passing." Now that's a cheery thought in this deep freeze. And the days are getting longer -- people remark upon it. No more midnight murk at 5 p.m. It doesn't descend until 5:30 p.m.
     Though it's still cold as hell. Well, not quite. I expect hell to be colder. Until then, the cold is a challenge to us all, to keep going, as if it weren't happening. A challenge to adults dressed for it, and to the younger folk who are not, but instead defy the cold, out of pride, and as practice, to hone their ability to face a cold world, a hard world that will certainly crumple them up too, and leave them old, in layers of wool and fleece and cotton, shuffling stiffly through the frozen Chicago winter, savoring it, or trying to, even the coldest winter in 20 years, knowing that that with all its depth and length, the cold will not last—nothing lasts—and the winter of 2014 is neither cold nor long, not compared to the endless winters lying in wait for all of us, young and old. Let's enjoy it, best we can, if we can, while we can.

Postscript: Sunday morning, bagels and cream cheese,  orange juice and smoked fish. Mozart on the stereo. My wife and younger son — the older still asleep of course. Son II and I get up to shovel and, getting dressed, I mention that today's blog post is, in part, about getting dressed for the cold.  It isn't as if he'd ever read it. My wife says something along the lines of: we adults have more experience, more savvy.
     "That's only part of it," I say to her. "He's testing himself against the world. I've already tested myself against the world, and..."
     "Lost," my 16-year-old interjects. 
     Another dad might go for his belt. That's not the kind of ship I run. Besides, we all know where he gets it from. "Yes," I reply. "Exactly."



  1. Rilke, then. I'll have to re-read that one, and, as I do with Stevens, simultaneously marvel at the strange beauty AND wonder what ON EARTH he's talking about, for the most part. I always fall back to "The Snow Man," (seems corny compared to Rilke) where Uncle Wallace muses that one has to have "a mind of winter...and been cold a long time...not to think of any misery" in the sights and sounds of the deep freeze. That's what it takes around here, I think. There is misery but, to me, no more than any other time of year. And: kids are perhaps challenging nature but they also just want to look cool.

  2. Neil,

    I hate to bring to anyone's attention their increasingly soon appointment with death but your son's body is far more capable than your much older body at dealing with the cold.

  3. So, do you expect any free stuff from the various brands you mentioned in that list? ;)

  4. Nice post. I've noticed this phenomenon at Chicago's Christkindlmarkt where the high school field trip classes eat their sausages and potato pancakes at picnic tables in 10 degree weather, laughing and chatting away - oblivious to the cold. Meanwhile, the stoic business people cram into the warming huts to eat.

  5. I grew up in Salt Lake City. We had cold winters and hot summers. There were no puffy down coats. I have no memories of being too cold OR too hot. I worked in our large yard in the summer, watering plants, weeding, more weeding, picking apples, pears and raspberries (child slave labor) and no memories of being too hot, just feeling overworked.

  6. My kids did this too when they were teenagers. It is what you say it is; of course, they risk frostbite in conditions like these, which is a permanent condition. You'll never be able to convince them of that, though.

  7. Commuting to De Paul by El in the 60's, when girls were forbidden to wear pants to class, I do remember being very cold as a teenager. Apparently, I was not clever enough to have a commuting outfit and then a class outfit. ……Interesting winter rainbow this morning around 7:30 AM. Is it still a rainbow if it is just various shades of gold and brown?

  8. Teenagers also have better circulation than their middle-aged parents. It's not all attitude. They don't feel the cold as sharply as we do.


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