Friday, April 16, 2004

Oh, But I Could Never Live Somewhere That Didn’t Have A Change
of Seasons

Never really gave much thought to the weather when we were living in Berkeley other then the intermittent outburst occasioned by its magnificence. Friends of our living in Los Angeles wryly described the weather down there as being “relentlessly pleasant,” a description that could just as easily be applied to Berkeley and the Bay Area in general. There was a heartening consistency to the weather there, a contenting guarantee of wind, rain, sun, fog, warmth and cold in near perfect degrees of moderation.

Just the other night Cathy and I were having dinner with some old friends, one of whom remarked that she didn’t care for such meteorological consistency, that she rather enjoyed the change of the seasons, especially now, as the long Midwestern winter slowly gave itself up to the hard fought blooms of crocus’s and daffodils. And I’ve gotta admit, I share those sentiments as well, but not unequivocally. After living in Berkeley and enjoying its winters for 3 years, I came to view the much-heralded “But I love the change of the seasons” mantra as bunk. Because while the sight of those first crocus’s popping their psychedelically purple little heads up from wooly gardens on the cusp of bursting back onto the scene is always worthy of my attention and applause, it’s also not worth wading through nearly 6 months of winter just to magnify the intensity of their beauty.

I like the romance of the “I love the change of seasons,” camp. I don’t begrudge the sentiment either- it’s a hard fought one, made up of tolerance, grit and tough love. For 6 months of every year Chicago is a near tundra. Most of the Midwest is like this. A settlement of grey, the boney brittle of trees, windy malice and the continual irony of freshly fallen snow inevitably debased into the sleaziest of gingerbread slush’s. And the cold! The tripartite comedic attack of January through March topped off with the punch-line of April. Cold hands, the sting in the cheeks, the unrelenting pierce of the wind. I’ll muster whatever it takes to tolerate it, but I don’t know that I’m ever going to appreciate it with the same kind of ardor and skill that others manage.

Tom Skilling commands and disperses daily regiments of Chicago based meteorological gossip from the back page of the Chicago Tribune’s Metro section. Over the last month he’s been reminding readers that what we’re really seeing is a great battle for supremacy. Skilling is my daily porthole into the great and enduring mythological drama of the weather. With the entire back page of the Metro section as his canvas, Skilling has, with great assurance and zest, demonstrated the tactics of those sworn enemies, the Canadian Arctic and Gulf Stream winds. It’s a fight the Arctic can’t win (for now), but the fierceness of its resistance makes a mockery out of a seemingly disproportionate percentage of our Aprils.

April in the Midwest is a risk. Sometimes it’s the perfect balm, while in others it acts as winter’s cruel addendum. It’s here in April that you’ll sometimes find winter lingering in Skilling’s statistical announcements of “15 to 20 degrees below the average for this time of year!” and “unseasonably cold!” Each morning I lean forward over a spoonful of my current favorite cereal, Barbara’s Peanut Butter Puffins, and brace myself for what might be revealed, what stratagems uncovered.

The other day, walking through the Loop around 2:00 p.m., a bank thermometer read 34 degrees Fahrenheit and I felt winter’s stubbornness for the first time in 3 years and thought, “Oh, this is an unfortunate familiar!” It was, as I heard a woman remark to her husband on the Metra platform out in Naperville earlier in the day, “more like early March weather then early April weather.” But my 29 years of Midwestern winters are now factored into 3 years of Berkeley’s, and while I find that the condidtions we’re currently experiencing in Chicago to be ultimately tolerable (and offset by the many truly wonderful things this city has to offer) I don’t know if I can fully adhere to the claim of it all being worth it due solely to the idea that somehow it offers more by way of variety via its particular changes of season then another place might. There are, for example, just as many things “happening” in Berkeley by way of seasonal change then there are in Chicago. I mean, isn’t the argument that more diversity between the seasons offers more by way of natural beauty (and that’s what we’re really getting down to, isn’t it- how our environments effect our sense of well-being?) really just one of extremes? If you find more by way of natural splendor through having weathered the extremes of highs over a hundred and lows in the negatives, more power to you. If you’re afraid that you’ll grow to take relentlessly pleasant days for granted, or not fully appreciate the majesty of Spring and Summer and Fall without the knowledge that their sweet-spots will be fleeting, then go for it! I don’t buy it anymore. I didn’t need those extremes or fleeting beauty to feel fully compelled and overjoyed when I experience Magnolias blooming in January, the teeming green glow of rolling hills in March, plucking tomatoes from the garden until December or hiking Mt. Tam in a t-shirt on a February afternoon. What’s not to appreciate about that? What’s to be taken for granted? I’d argue that there’s just as much variety and splendor in the change of seasons in Berkeley, coupled with the benefit that it and the surrounding area are far more geographically diverse. All that consistency in the weather is necessary to fully appreciate it. Cathy and I managed to take a great many hikes, year-round, through some of the most idyllic landscapes (and what constitutes an “idyllic landscape” is quite an interesting can of worms) we’d ever experienced.

There are no nagging regrets about returning here to Chicago except for having left Berkeley’s weather behind.

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