Just a few years ago, I had no idea what cold felt like, and no way to know how to prepare for it. I didn’t know my limit.
Zero degrees. No degrees. None of them. Personally, that’s when I start to lose it. In this range, anyone’s capacity to describe what they are feeling—already a pretty fraught prospect—collapses into mutterings about “hanging in there.”
And then the wind comes off the lake.
February in Chicago: four weeks when it’s acceptable to shower in a hoodie and sleep in a balaclava, wool turtleneck sweater, and thermal socks. Anyone who says they’re not wearing long underwear is either lying or an idiot. I’m wearing one of my three pairs right now, and I’m sitting in my apartment. If I lean forward over the keyboard, I can feel the sun through my bay window on my face.
It’s colder elsewhere, sure. Mostly in the settings of nineteenth-century Russian novels. And as we get toward March, I keep the weather for Duluth in my iPhone rotation, just to stay humble.
But—as anyone around here will remind you over a Schlitz, or eight—Chicago is the largest American city that deals with negative-twenty-degree wind chills on a regular basis.
The wind chill last week got down to negative twenty. In this range, we all become characters in a Jack London story, fighting to keep the blood in extremities we didn’t know we had. And I start to wonder: If I needed to build a fire and all I had was an iPhone, how long would it take for me to freeze to death?
It’s a tenuous period during which one skates between euphoric invigoration (induced by the body’s deployment of emergency reserves of natural stimulants to keep one’s system from shutting down) and cataclysmic despair. To survive it requires the assignment of some kind of meaning to the weather: to consider it not in the idiom of ordinary conversation (“Boy, it sure is cold out there today!”), but rather as a philosophical problem, an existential threat, a constant companion on otherwise lonely nights. Only in this way can we take something useful from winter.
I’ve been thinking about what the cold actually teaches anyone who, by virtue of conscious decisions, accidents, economic or romantic exigencies, survivalist mentality, or plain madness lives in a place where it can get and stay this cold. Or more simply: What am I doing here? What are any of us doing here?
We have all of these clichés about waiting for spring in our arsenals. About not being able to appreciate the warmth without the cold. We tell ourselves stories about the weak constitutions of everyone in Los Angeles. We tell people who don’t like the cold, “Good, stay out.” But when the wind knocks into my face as I angle my way east on Madison Street in the Loop, the emptiness of the familiar refrains about the cold leaves me with nothing to hold onto.
So I’ve spent some time this month thinking about the lessons of cold. I’ve tried to get inside them and luxuriate in them on snowy days, frigid commutes, late-night walks home in search of hot dogs. For one thing, the cold reminds us of our bodiliness. “There’s so much goop inside of us, man,” Denis Johnson says, “and it all just wants to get out.” Chicagoans in February live under a set of conditions in which the opposite proposition becomes a matter of basic survival. We are full of juice that not only can flow out of us, but can stiffen in our plumbing until we perish. We can freeze until we die. So keep moving, the cold impels us. Keep on.
You can see the effects of this imperative in the crooked posture of girls visibly shaking in their sleeping-bag coats, and in the frantically expelled clouds of warm breath on el platforms. Banging our mittened hands together to restore something like sensation to our fingers. Translating ourselves into balls of kinetic energy. Repeating that we just need to keep breathing.
The outdoor el stations have heat lamps—human-sized chicken-nugget warmers whose comic ineffectiveness would require the invention of new vocabulary to describe. Maybe a German word that communicates unfairness, uselessness, naïve hope, and flawed design all at once. Ungerechtigkeitbrauchbarhoffschlectenwurf. Or something.
If one stands really still and stare directly at the bulbs, I guess it’s possible to feel a tingle of warmth on the end of one’s nose or in the semicircles under exposed eyes. But any actual relief from the cold comes from the collective body heat and exhalations of the pigeons, Chinese tourists (clearly in over their head), and whoever else wants to huddle next to fifteen people fighting the flu. When it gets below zero, the lamps provide no warmth whatsoever, and instead constitute a physical space in which one is invited to imagine the sensation of heat, while privately retreating further into some private mental beach. The yellow glow marks off a zone of fantasy: an unfulfilled and unfullfillable promise of relief from the world’s general misery.
A few weeks ago, I started thinking that the lamps maybe embody one of the central lessons of psychoanalysis. (These are the things I think about on train platforms in the cold). For example, their constant lack of fulfilling our desire for warmth, the lamps serve as a perfect metaphor for the way that Lacan describes love. If the cold has anything to teach us from a psychoanalytic perspective, it relates to the doomed desire for the warmth that we provide each other.
For Lacan, to hold out the hope of love is to chase an elusive, imaginary projection of one’s own ego. Love is inherently narcissistic: the result of our constant desire to locate ourselves in the desire of another person. According to Lacan, what we love in another person is what we think we can locate of ourselves in them. In its most benign form, this is a variation on the old cliché “If you didn’t exist, I would make you up.” In other words, the reason it’s even possible for us to find someone to love comes from a constant effort to find ourselves out there in the world. Which—if you’re willing to put aside the bad rap that narcissism gets—can sound almost sweet.
Here’s the cruel part. The other—the one we love—always recedes in front of us. We chase it/him/her and it/him/her gets further away, or, in the very best scenario, remains only the same distance away. The fantasy of connection, forever as out of reach as the heat from a heat lamp on a five-degree day in Chicago in February, proves the cause of most psychosis. In Lacan’s words: “Passionate love, as we concretely live it, [is] a sort of psychological catastrophe.”
We destroy ourselves in pursuit of love. And to make the whole deal even rawer—I think, as I jump up and down on the platform, alarmed that I can’t feel my toes— we’re constantly deluding ourselves about what kind of fantasy of desire we’re pursuing. Our fantasy changes even as we fantasize it. The cause of love’s constant retreat resides in our own misrecognition of what we want. Yet we go on generating unattainable ideas about what we want from another person anyway. Or: we’re always chasing something that we will never actually turn out to want. So anyone that claims to be in love is deluding themselves into identifying someone else as the location of their fantasy. The kicker is that this is what it means to be normal. So a Lacanian valentine might go something like this: “Darling, the way that you misarticulate your desires to yourself leaves me wanting to be one of those desires all the more.”
OkCupid in February in Chicago is a minefield of folks wrecked by catastrophic hope, locked inside their apartments, shivering. Valentine’s Day is a special type of hell and solidarity for single people in this town. Of course, the alternative feels like unending solitude. And cold is an especially effective teacher when it comes to the topic of solitude.
February amplifies ordinary low-grade urban loneliness to a kind of ur-loneliness. It lengthens the distance between us, heaping physical impediments to human interaction on top of all the usual emotional obstacles that we erect between each other. The air changes the way our voices sound to each other. We get fatter, rounder, paler, our voices mucousy. We get the flu from huddling close to each other on el platforms.
At a very basic level, I feel less inclined to go out and try to meet someone new, given I might die on the way to wherever we agree to meet. Not to mention, the whole process of putting on a second sweater/coat/hat/scarf/gloves/galoshes and then having to take off same upon arrival gets tedious about as quickly as one can imagine. Forget about barhopping. In this town, one picks a place and a group of friends and endures the cold night together. Every time I leave the house in hopes of human contact, I have to ask myself, “Is it really worth all of this labor? Is it really worth risking my life?”
Should it be any different during the warmer parts of the year? I think about how much affective energy it takes to put oneself “out there.” To broadcast one’s hopes and desires to strangers, most of the time without guarantee of reciprocity, and I can’t help but think that it’s only thanks to the cold that we can value how much effort goes into the pleasure of human contact.
Yesterday, I met up with a friend for a late afternoon beer. The weather has started to enter a fickle period of freeze and thaw, as the sun flickers back into existence. Ice sheets cover a lot of the sidewalks around certain parts of town, and you have to kind of shuffle/walk/slide/skip to get from place to place. I watched Gina’s feet as they moved over the ice and was struck by how amazing it was. This special dexterity, useful in only extremely limited contexts. A skill that we both learned just by being in this city and having to get outside to see other people. That we could talk and navigate this terrain together felt like something small, maybe silly, but special in a way that I couldn’t articulate.
I arrived here just before the winter of 2009, the only other year I’ve experienced so far that has plunged into the really hard stuff. I’m talking “Welcome to the desert of the real” weather; the real fucking shit, man; where people who ask “Cold enough fer ya?” get murdered. We walk around oscillating between that endorphin-fueled joy and the doe-eyed loneliness of folks who have spent some deep lonely time watching Netflix.
On the first day it got below ten, I wore ski pants to the office. I thought it was an event. Like I was a nine-year-old on a snow day. But when it didn’t get above ten for the next eight days, I realized that my new hometown demanded something more of me than heavy apparel. It demanded a kind of physical and emotional rewiring. I think maybe this is the first winter where that emotional rewiring feels complete. I’ve learned to lament warm winters. I’ve learned to fear the apocalypse if it breaks forty. I’ve learned to scoff at New York blizzards.
The fact is that most of the people in this world will never know what the weather in February here feels like. We own that here. We’re proud of it. It’s what seems to set us apart. And every year there comes one morning when I realize the coldest part of the winter is behind us. And it’s as though one of the things that makes Chicago truly hearty, special, different is behind us. I’ll wake up one night and hear a dripping sound and realize that it’s rain. Liquid water falling from the sky. It feels like a loss.
It’s a small miracle. We use winter to mark the time. We huddle together. We keep on.
A-J Aronstein teaches at the University of Chicago. He lives on the city’s Northwest Side. Follow him at @tastyspoonful.
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