Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Eleven Degrees

Royalty-free Image: Snowy road in snow storm
photo credit
We've had three snow storms in ten days and right now it's eleven degrees outside. This morning I felt reluctant to take off my flannel pajama bottoms and get dressed, but I had places to go so I managed to talk myself into jeans for about two hours. Now it's two o'clock in the afternoon and I'm back to flannel pajamas. These are trying times, I tell you.

I remember when I used to work full time how cold I'd get sitting in an office all day during the winter. By the time I got home it was always dark outside, any warmth from an afternoon sun long gone, and I'd crawl back into my pajamas like a moth to its cocoon. Let me just say that pajamas are underrated. When I invent my own city I'm going to name pajamas as the height of fashion so that people can wear them grocery shopping or to the movies and retain total dignity. None of that "why didn't she get dressed today" sort of frowning allowed. 

I imagine my friends and loved ones who still live in Arizona reading this post with a shudder and thinking, Eleven degrees? I couldn't live like that. And truly, I know how they feel. There were summer days when I lived in Arizona when my daughter's crayons melted into a pool of rainbow colored wax on the floor of my car and I burned my hands on my steering wheel. I used to rail against the desert climate and demand for someone to explain to me what sort of sickos decided to build a city in the desert before air conditioning was invented. Sometimes it's hard to fathom the conditions that other people recognize as home.

I just spent the last two weeks of November staying with family in Chicago and a part of me felt like I was measuring and interviewing the city the entire time? What are you all about? I mused as I drove toward downtown. It's mostly sad and sometimes a little comforting how homogeneous our big cities have become. The stores and restaurants appeared largely the same and I imagined the ever territorial Middle America Monster gripping Chicago by the nape of her neck whispering, I've gotcha! Don't start thinking your Magnificent Mile makes you special because now there's A Gap and A Subway restaurant squished between all those pretty little million dollar shops.

Downtown Chicago's "Magnificent Mile"
I didn't see Oprah. Since I spent a good amount of time in Naperville I looked for her at every corner, but to no avail. The closest I came was pulling up at a red light next to a fancy black town car with a black, female chauffeur. Now tell me, doesn't that sound like Oprah to you? A black, female driver? I waved from the window of my car, insisting to my dubious husband that I was certain Oprah Winfrey was seated behind the darkened glass of the backseat. You never know! 

But despite the blustering wind that takes your breath away and the boring chatter of retail chains I believe Chicago is not without her charms. In the same way that Phoenix carries sunsets and Mexican food in her jewel purse, and Denver stands behind the banner of the Rocky Mountains and three hundred days of blue sky each year, Chicago's got some good stuff of her own. I noticed mail carriers walking on foot, delivering letters to each individual house. The fire hydrants are orange. The trees are sometimes taller than the houses and spread their graceful arms over the residential lanes. I arrived too late to see the glory of their leaves but their crackling remains were constantly underfoot. 

The leaves. In Chicago, at least in Naperville, you're allowed to rake your leaves off your front lawn and into the gutter. Then city workers come along with bulldozers and street sweepers and carry them away to some predetermined leafy burial ground. My daughters were in awe of this system. Madeleine said to me, So you're telling me that just because these people are too lazy to rake up their own leaves they can just throw them in the street? And then someone else comes to take them away? This coming from the little girl who was made to help rake and bag all the leaves in her yard. Of course there was no mention of how much fun our family had together while raking and bagging the leaves, and it's good to know that she is revising our happy we-can-work-together memories into instances of grueling slave labor. That bodes well for me when she is a teenager and I should probably start practicing saying to her, You're right. You had a terrible childhood full of unjust manual labor.   

Right now my dad and his wife, my sister and her kids, and Jeremy's parents all live in the greater Chicago area. That's enough family in one city to leave me wondering if Jeremy and I could some day move there too, but the truth is that Chicago didn't feel as soulful and exotic as I'd hoped. The same mid-western suburban sprawl that makes a circle around Denver has wrapped itself around the trunk of Chicago's downtown. To me it appears east coast in its museums, train stations, brown stones and architecture, but not quite as impressive as the real thing. My dad made the comment that people who have lived in or near New York or London won't like Chicago. I don't know, maybe it's the people from Des Moines or Kansas City who are singing the praises of the windy city. Oprah's from Mississippi.

Yet I think the urban snobbery toward Chicago is a little unfair. I liked the Magnificent Mile. I liked the train depots in each suburban town, and how the river cuts right through the city. I liked the view of Lake Michigan from the Hancock Tower, and the well groomed coastline. I liked the museums. Let me stop at that reverent thought. I loved the museums. We only had an hour at the Chicago Art Institute but when I stepped into the Impressionist wing my eyes filled with tears in the very embarrassing way of someone who loves European art and lives in Denver. 

Gustave Caillebotte "Paris Street; Rainy Day"
Living in a smallish city has allowed me to better appreciate the stuff other cities have. I've got Pike's Peak and Estes Park, but Chicago has deep dish pizza. Phoenix has swimming in February. London has the National Gallery and Curly Wurly's.

One of the reasons I've tried harder to become a walker and a hiker and a runner these past few months is to better appreciate the best parts of living in Denver. These Colorado folks are not joking around about physical fitness. We have bike paths weaving all through our city and you wouldn't even believe me if I told you about some of the crazy ideas our local runners come up with. Hey, let's see who can run to the top of a fourteen thousand foot high mountain the fastest. And then back down again. There's no accounting for what other people interpret as leisure activities!

There is something uniquely fabulous about where you live, I'm sure of it. And that goes for all you folks living in Des Moines too! My feeling is that there's no point living in Chicago if you're not willing to try deep dish pizza. There's no point living in Arizona if you don't play with your kids in the pool. And for me, there's no point living in Colorado if you only ever see the Rockies from postcards other people mail to you. Ferreting out the very best of where you live seems to me a worthy lifelong goal.

I'd love to hear what you think represents the very best of your town?  

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