How to survive a Chicago winter

Dress in layers. Lots and lots of layers.

To go to the office today, I add a pair of wool tights under my slacks, and put on my warmest sweater (the one with both wool *and* Angora in the yarn) over a turtleneck. (Turtlenecks were very popular at the office today.) Over my tights, I put on a pair of thick wool hiking socks just for the commute. Before going outside, I add the outer layers: a wool/cashmere blend cowl pulled up over my mouth, 3/4 length down coat, shearling hunter’s hat with ear flaps down, and a pair of thrummed mittens. (If you’re allergic to warm animal fibers like wool, alpaca, and Angora, I feel very sorry for you.) Pull up your hood if you have one; you want to block out as much blowing cold air and snow as possible, but also be careful when walking with your hood up as it limits your peripheral vision. (And as a driver, be aware that people bundled up so much have issues seeing you, so slow down!)

Wear sturdy, water-resistant boots that cover your leg to mid-calf (at least).

Unless you are a small child and can be carried around, you will need to deal with this when you encounter it.

Slushy street

A minor bit of street slush.

Not all taxis or cars pull up flush with the curb. If you’re taking public transit or spend any time at all walking anywhere, you will undoubtedly ruin your expensive fashion boots in a month. Forget Uggs (or Ugg-like footwear) and dressy “riding boots.” Think Bogs, Kamik, or Sorel. Tuck your pants into your boots so they don’t get wet and salt stained. Stand back from the curb when there is a pool of slushy water near it. Passing cars and buses have been known to splash that junk over the lower portions of pedestrians who are standing close to it.

In the neighborhoods, beware the sidewalks.

Some property owners are jerks and don’t ever shovel their walks. (Yes, it is the law but there is no enforcement of the fines.) Others are not able to shovel early in the day, so you will likely need to slog through snow on your morning commute. Even attentive shovelers can’t always keep the sidewalk clean enough that it doesn’t have the occasional icy patch. Freshly fallen snow over ice can lead to some really ugly consequences, so learn to shorten your stride and distribute your weight more evenly over each step. In other words, walk like a duck.

I left the house at 6:30 this morning and only one place had its sidewalk clear at that hour. I mostly walked in the street, despite the traffic. Chicago’s major streets are *always* well attended because we kick people out of office if they don’t keep the streets clean in winter. (Too bad we are inured to corruption and don’t demand more honorable behavior from our politicians, just snow-free streets.)

In the business district, beware the buildings.

It’s uncommon to get hit with ice falling from the tall buildings, but there have been enough incidents that these signs spring up all over the Loop during winter.

Caution falling ice

Litigation deterrent…er, I mean warning sign.

Take enjoyment from simple outdoor activities, like shoveling.

Maybe you are a renter or live in a condo so you think you won’t need to clear snow. If you own a car, though, you will need to shovel at some point. Maybe you’re even lucky enough to have indoor parking. You can still get stuck driving down a side street before it’s been plowed or getting out of your garage into the alley. (The otherwise excellent street plowing crews deal with side streets last, and don’t do alleys at all. Chicago instead lets the garbage trucks “press” the snow down in the alley as they collect trash, which is the closest they come to plowing them.) Or maybe you’re tired of hearing someone spin their wheels helplessly over and over and over again as you’re trying to concentrate on a book or go to sleep, so you throw on your many layers and water-resistant boots, and go out to help. Either way, you may need some ibuprofen and Icy Hot (and perhaps a slug of whisky) at the end of the day.

Learn about “dibs” and be wary of those who tenaciously cling to it.

Yeah, it’s not legal but you don’t want to be the victim of retaliation. This could include getting chased by someone wielding a shovel if you so much as touch the stuff marking a dibs spot. More ominous things like a busted windshield have been known to happen.

Look for the “silver lining” in the weather.

“Six more inches of snow on the way? At least it’s warm enough to snow!” (An actual quote from a friend.)

“Single digits and below zero wind chills? At least it’s sunny!” (A quote from another friend.)

“The temperature is going to be 3 with a wind chill of only -20 tomorrow morning? I can deal with that.” (I said this to B last night.)

“It’s above freezing AND sunny? OMG, it’s a miracle!!” (Or it’s April…possibly both.)

Move to California.

And although it’s not strictly about winter, there are many winter anecdotes on this list.

Home maintenance

I knew it had been a while since my last post, but it was a shock to open WordPress and see that I haven’t written in six weeks! Wow!

All I can say to account for the time is that I’ve been taking care of myself in the spare time outside of work. That self care did not include writing, obviously, but it was filled with many household chores such as meal prep, cleaning, gardening, and scheduling home repair projects. And it’s paid off. As I sit on my back porch sipping coffee this morning, I love seeing my perennial beds full, lush, and looking marvelous with all that costly mulch, and the general tidiness of the property is heartening.

The entire tax refund will be completely consumed by home maintenance, but that’s OK with me. The peeling paint on the garage was addressed, the rotten fence post replaced, and the flashing on the front of the house touched up. Landscaping took the biggest chunk of it: weed clean up and applying seven cubic yards of mulch is not cheap, even if it the mulch is not the high-end shredded bark. (The landscaping guy couldn’t believe I wanted the lower cost “playground mulch” applied to all perennial beds, but I insisted. It’s not just that I’m trying to save money; I actually like how it looks.) We’ve had so much rain this spring that the weeds were a bit crazy despite my careful hand pulling a few weeks ago.

Speaking of rain, I’m happy that the spot tuck-pointing and extra downspouts I sprang for last year seem to have done the trick: I found no small puddles in the basement after the heavy rains, and the dining room wall has remained dry. Within the next week or two I’ll use up the last of the tax refund repairing that plaster wall in the dining room. (Thank goodness the integrity of the plaster seems good and it is not loose; it will only require lots of scraping, skimming, and then re-painting.) I’ll just have to wait a few months to replace the ruined window treatments. (Let’s I hope I get a bonus this year, OK?)

At least the rain has not caused me huge problems as it did my neighbor next door. Poor Mila has been having a very hard time with all the rain this spring. Her basement (which she repeatedly said has been dry for the past 30 years she’s lived in the house) kept getting water in it after each rain. Every time the amount of water increased, and after a few weeks of this she said she was getting “black mud” coming in, too. I saw her one evening as I was dashing off to meet a friend after work and she looked tired and miserable. She was talking with two men about the basement problem.

I did not care for the way these guys talked to me in general and said that my own downspouts were part of the problem. “Who told you to put your downspouts like this?,” they said. “The city,” I responded. “Who?” “Um…the mayor?” What jerks. As a friend pointed out, a licensed contractor had done the actual work, following city guidelines to disconnect the downspouts from the sewer. For the past five years, those downspouts had been directing water into the four-foot wide perennial bed between my house and her sidewalk and this was the first time I’d heard of there being problems. (It’s common for older houses here in Chicago to have their downspouts directed into pipes that connect to the sewers. Several years ago the city asked that people correct this wherever possible and instead let the rain dissipate into the ground instead of sending it to the treatment facility.)

But what was going on here really was more an issue of perception: my elderly neighbor was exhausted and distressed and I would do whatever I could to help her. So, $200 of my tax refund went to the handyman to come out and reconnect the downspouts to the sewer. Of course, she still had water problems with her basement.

A week after my downspouts were changed, she found the source of the problem in a most dramatic way. After a rainy night, she went down to check her basement and found a significant portion of the floor covered with water. She also saw water bubbling up from the floor. And so the main problem was diagnosed: a broken sewer line. When her sewer pipe was replaced the next day, I saw a section of the pipe they had pulled out. It had a tree root the size of my wrist in it. I asked one of the workers about it, and he said it was the roots that had broken the pipe. “When was the last time you had your sewer rodded?” he asked me. Never. In the nearly 10 years I’ve lived in this house, I’d never had it done.

Another $800 from the tax refund went to pay the company to clean my catch basin, rod the sewer line, and clear the tree roots out of the drain near the basement door. I may have been able to shop around and drop that price a bit more, but I just wanted it done fast. The drain near the basement door definitely needed cleaning. After a very heavy rain a few days after her sewer work, some water came in under that door because the drain was running so slow. I didn’t want to wait another week or two as I made time to collect bids and schedule the work. I just wanted it done, so I found the card the worker had given me and called the company the very next day.

As I stood on the (covered) back porch one evening last week and watched another heavy downpour, I was glad to observe that all that water was being managed well. The drain near the basement door was working fine, all the gutters B and I had cleaned recently were draining, and all the downspouts were directing water properly. And the repairs I’d had done were a damn sight less than the money my poor neighbor had to scrape up to replace her sewer pipe.

As much as a I love my house and my garden, it’s discouraging to keep hearing about property values continuing to decline. Within the past week I heard one comment on the radio that home prices in Chicago are at 2001 levels. Damn. Mark and I bought this house in July 2001, and if it’s value is now about the same, I’ve lost a lot of home equity. I’m not underwater, but considering that I had to pay out half the value of the equity earned from 2001 to 2009 to Mark in our divorce settlement, the value of my part of the settlement (which was tied up in the house) has decreased substantially.

When I hear depressing reports like that I sometimes wonder why I continue to pay for things like exterior painting, landscaping, and fixing peeling plaster walls. But this is my home. One thing that that can’t have a value assigned to it is the pleasure I get living in comfortable house; a house where I can sit on the back porch on a cool, grey morning, dog at my side, sipping coffee as I admire the beauty and aroma of the Zepherine Drouhin roses on the side of the garage.

The blizzard post

Unless you’ve been out of the country over the past few days, you know that most of the U.S. experienced pretty severe weather recently. In Chicago we had the third worst blizzard ever (well, since weather records have been kept, at least).

View of blizzard in the morning

Morning of February 2, 2011

We get one of these big blizzards about every 10-15 years, so long time Chicagoans are prone to compare the blizzards and discuss how horrible they were. In Chicago, blizzards have had a huge impact on politics and elections so they are serious business. I’ve lived here most of my life so I have personal recollections of the blizzards of 1979 and 1999. (I was still in utero for the 1967 blizzard, the biggest of them all.)

What I remember most about 1979 was that the snow was up to my waist (of course, the height of my waist was a bit lower then it is now) and that we had a day or two off from school. There was some shoveling involved, but I don’t recall it being onerous. My dad was doing most of it, I’m sure. After that blizzard we bought a snowblower.

In 1999, I was scheduled to move from my apartment of the previous six years to a condo purchased by my husband and I. We had canceled our telephone service (and also our Internet service, since back then we had dial-up like most people…and were probably pretty lucky for having it in the first place), and had all of our possessions in boxes. We also had no fresh food in the fridge and minimal food provisions, in general. I think it’s obvious that our move was delayed. Luckily, I had some good neighbors in the apartment building who fed us and let us hang out with them in their much more hospitable apartment until the movers could get down our street.

For this blizzard, I was well prepared. I had plenty of provisions (even under normal circumstances, I have about a one month food supply on hand, it seems), two shovels, a new bag of ice melting compound, and a high speed Internet connection. My office closed early on Tuesday, but I had slipped out about an hour after the snow started and missed the big crush of commuters at the rail stations.

I actually worked through the beginning of the storm. I had to finish up something and deliver it to my boss, so I worked until about 8:30 pm. Then I sat back with some wine and enjoyed the social media blitz, monitoring the #snomg trend on Twitter. I experienced thundersnow for the first time. It was pretty fun, actually.

Shovel in the deep snow

The digging out begins

The next day when the snow stopped falling and the winds had died down (gusts were clocked at up to 70 mph in some areas) the clean up began. This is where neighbors helping each other becomes important. (Yes, its another instance where community has perks!) From my household, there were two folks with shovels: me and my roommate/tenant, Dave. We had to clear the following places of at least 20 inches of snow (more in some places because of drifting): front sidewalk, front steps, back steps, path to rear of yard (for trash removal), and driveway (so we could get the car out…not that it’s used every day, but it will be needed eventually).

It took us about 1.5 hours to do this. I had to go back inside to attend a conference call meeting (the office was still closed, but I still had to work *sigh*). About two hours later we got back out again because we realized we’d need to clear out a portion of the alley in order to get to the street with the car. At this time there are many others out clearing the sidewalks and digging out their cars before the sun sets.

People with shovels, snowblowers, and a frontend loader

The many ways to clean up after a blizzard

Another hour of shoveling goes by. Then a guy with a small front-end loader just shows up. Really. No one knows exactly why he was out there, but people started approaching him and offering cash for him to clear some the snow. A portion of our street was cleared, the parking lot of the neighboring condo building gets cleared, and part of the alley gets cleared, too. By the time he was done (at least $250 richer) those of us living on the east half of the block were able to access the main arterial street (which the city was keeping clear of snow as a priority).

I headed back into the house, shared with my roommate some of the beef stew I had started earlier, and had a bit more wine. Then I took a hot bath with lots of Epsom salts and went to bed.

Things could have been much worse. And the city really did a great job warning people and keeping the main streets clear, overall. We had power (and Internet!) throughout the entire storm and helped each other out. I got lots of exercise shoveling, and am only a bit sore. Not a bad experience, over all.

Car buried under lots of snow

Really, really buried

(If you’d like to view more photos, go to my Flickr album!)

Things I don’t like: driving

Welcome to a new feature: things I don’t like. Yeah, it doesn’t sound buoyantly positive, but let’s be honest, everyone has their likes and dislikes.

I just recently came to the realization that I don’t like driving. There are exceptions, of course. I don’t mind driving during vacation on a wide open expressway with a fun companion in my car, but how often does that happen? No, I really don’t like being in the driver’s seat of a car at all.

I grew up in the suburbs where it was essential that one have a car. Getting from home to a job, a movie theater, or a friend’s house, required a driver’s license and a car. In my mid-twenties I moved from the suburbs to the city and starting taking public transit to work every day, and taking care of most of my chores via walking. I loved it.

Considering the statistics about commuting via car in Chicago, I’m sure I’m not alone. One of my friends lives in the city but has to commute via car to her job in the suburbs. This reverse commute is pretty common in our area these days, but it’s also miserable.

Commuting is not the only hardship. Parking in Chicago can be very problematic and expensive. And then there are the red light cameras to contend with, too. It’s like driving has become a sport where it’s nearly impossible to win; it’s downright discouraging, to say the least.

So I take public transit a lot, and when the weather is good I ride my bike a lot, too. If I have to pick up a prescription, a library book, or a standard load of groceries, I prefer to do it by bike when the weather is favorable. If I had more flexibility in my schedule, I’d be happy to do many of these tasks just by walking. But for many months out of the year, that’s a challenge here in the cold north.

Even though I continue to live in the city, there are certainly times when it is useful to have a car. My parents and some of my friends still live in the suburbs and it would be hard to live without a car for that reason alone. When loading up on groceries and heavier essentials (such as laundry detergent and lots of food in cans), using a car is very convenient. So I do have a car and I do drive it. But it’s a dreaded chore.

One thing I am glad for is that my guy doesn’t seem to mind driving. So when there are chores that require driving, I’m happy to schedule those for times when he’s available to occupy the driver’s seat.

How do you feel about driving? Do you like it in general, or only under certain circumstances?


When you read this, you’ll realize why I couldn’t even think about it until today, much less record it.

6:00 – 7:30 AM — Get out of bed; head outside with dogs to open coop and feed/water chickens; shower and dress; feed dogs; pack lunch and afternoon snack; make coffee and eat some breakfast.

7:30 – 8:00 AM — Conference call with India team reviewing work done in past 24 hours, and assigning priorities for next 24 hours.

8:12 AM — Walk to train.

8:30 – 9:15 AM — Commuting to office on the train while on a conference call about resourses/staffing in India.

9:15 – 10:00 AM — Catching up on email and fielding IMs.

10:00 – 10:30 AM — Conference call about status of an open project; have to juggle the deadline due to higher priority, “all-consuming project.”

10:30 – 12:30 PM — Catching up on email and fielding IMs; meeting with a local team member to provide feedback on her deliverable; working on deliverables to send to India; heating up and eating lunch.

12:30 – 1:00 PM — Conference call discussing several open projects; multi-task by continuing to work on deliverables.

1:00 – 2:00 PM — Continue to work on deliverables and review the re-work of local team member.

2:00 – 3:00 PM — Project status checkpoint meeting. Continue to work on deliverables while meeting going on.

3:00 – 4:00 PM — Review/assign work to local team members, making sure all is clear and accountability/timelines established.

4:00 – 5:15 PM — Continue to work on deliverables, emails, IMs and field questions from local team members.

5:15 – 6:15 PM — Catch train home and use the downtime to do a bit of knitting; let dogs out in yard; set up laptop and get on the phone with my boss to review status of “all-consuming project.”

6:15 – 8:08 PM — Discuss deliverables, resources, record feedback for priority setting with India, and troubleshoot problems with boss; mix up a double martini as we talk since I *really* need it; feed dogs; eat some peanuts as I drink.

8:15 – 9:30 PM — Change out of work clothes; shut up chickens for the night and collect eggs (a 4 egg day! woot!); fix some dinner (bagged salad and homemade salmon patties from the freezer); sit down at laptop to eat and write up notes; take a bit of extra time away from laptop screen to watch 30 Rock (funny!), but otherwise just leave TV on as background noise.

9:30 – 10:30 PM — Decide have done enough work for the day and stop; wash dishes and clean up kitchen; knit for about 20 minutes as I decompress in front of TV and listen/watch local news; go to bed.

10:45 PM — Thunderstorms start outside; Hannah dog begins quivering/quaking, shaking the bed as I fall off to sleep, exhausted.

If I wrote one of these up every day, it could certainly help me with my time report…

Good things and impermanence

Today is a day of good things so far!

First, I got to enjoy an evening out with Betsy last night at The Matchbox. We went straight from work and got the good seats near the front door where all the regulars congregate. About 3 hours and 3 margaritas later, we had to head out ’cause I was hungry and Betsy was at her limit as a driver. And even though I hadn’t been primped to go out last night and had no makeup on, I got asked for my phone number. I had to politely decline as the guy wasn’t really the type I want to date, but it was flattering nonetheless.

My original plans for last night (before Betsy called me up at the office and proposed an impromptu outing) were to do a bit of shopping. I had some stuff to return and wanted to check out the jeans at Old Navy. Annette had recommended a particular kind, and I really need to get some smaller jeans. Since I went out last night, though, I had to run the errands this AM instead.

I did not like the jeans at Old Navy, though. I don’t think they fit me very well and I didn’t want to buy something that I wasn’t liking very much. So, instead I drove a bit further to Kohls and hit the jackpot: Levi’s Curvy Boot Cut 529s.

These are the PERFECT jeans for me. I was able to find 2 pairs in my size in different washes: a dark wash and a medium wash. And they were on sale, too.

Not only did I find that Levi’s has *finally* paid attention to the fact that some of us women actually have curves and booties, but I found some Dockers cut this same way. (Actually, I think Dockers is owned by Levi’s so that would make sense.) I went a little overboard and bought a pair of full length Dockers chinos, a pair of capris, and a pair of shorts. All on sale, too. I had to do it because I’ll likely never find these things again, of course!

Then, as I was finally heading home, I took a route that brought me along the edge of the forest preserve. And what do I spot dotting the ground under the still naked trees? Ramps. Lots and lots of ramps, people!

Ramps are a perfect example of the fleeting delights of spring. Here one day, gone the next. So, even though I think I’m technically not supposed to do so, I’m going back out shortly with my long weeding tool to get a bunch of ramps. I’ll figure out a suitable recipe once I have them in hand.

The most recent chapter of When Things Fall Apart I’ve read covered impermanence and egolessness. I think finding the perfect jeans today and spotting ramps in the forest preserve are excellent examples of impermance: neither will be around for very long, and so I will enjoy them while I can.

A missed connection

Sometimes I spend too much time trolling around Craigslist. It’s almost like a nervous tic or something and is one way I sort of fill in time on conference calls that are not catching my attention.

I like to look at the different categories to see what sort of stuff is available (farm+garden and free are favorites since they feature so many things I envision uses for in the garden/yard), and just to see what the “market” is like for used items. After all, I have a few odds and ends around that I just may want to sell or barter some day soon.

One of my favorite sections to scroll through just for the hell of it is “missed connections.” The Chicago Reader has had this feature for years, too, but I don’t necessarily get a print copy of the Reader every week and I feel the need to look at the Reader stuff the old-fashioned way (in other words: not online). This is obviously not the case with Craigslist which is only available online.

These “missed connections” are often very sweet and touching. Here’s one I spotted today:

You were knitting and we made eye contact and smiled at one another as I got off the redline at loyola at around 8:50 this morning. I thought you were cute.


I like it because it is charming and not pushy, but also because it shows that knitters can too get noticed as objects of attraction and not “grannies.” Yep, amongst us knitters there are many that are “cute.” Here’s hoping this “missed connection” works out.

All’s well

When I opened up the coop this morning, all but Speedy came out for their warm mash. Speedy was too pre-occupied with finding a good angle to enter the nest box, which hopefully means I will get at least one egg today. All looked well with no signs of frostbite and they were eating quite greedily.

Last night I left the water on a trickle through the faucets of the bathroom upstairs and the kitchen sink. Both have pipes running along or very near the outside walls of the house, so it was a good pre-caution. Both taps were working well this morning, too.

My digital thermometer wasn’t even providing a reading this AM, but on the radio they said it was -17F with a -30F to -35F  wind chill. Amazing.

Hanging in there

Wow. It is C-O-L-D outside. I didn’t put on quite as many layers as Adrienne while commuting this morning, but I was OK. When the weather gets like this, I pull out my sheepskin hat (the one with the earflaps) and mittens, and put on my thermals under my work clothes.

I also wear my Lands’ End Commuter Coat which I *highly* recommend to anyone who has to spend any amount of time outdoors. When I wore it in Manhattan last winter during a work trip that coincided with bitter cold (unusually there were very few people in Times Square that night) one person commented on my “sleeping bag…Oh, I mean coat.” But I was toasty as I headed outside to walk back to my hotel while the jokester shivered on the way to hers.

When I woke up this morning, the thermometer outside my window said it was -9F. When the weather report came on the radio, they said the windchill was -25F. The day didn’t get much better, either. We got up to a high of -1F, and tonight’s temps will be down to -14 (not counting wind chill). It hopefully will get up to a high of 7 tomorrow. Yikes!

I gave the chickens their warm mash this morning, but they didn’t get their afternoon scratch. I had to go downtown today to work in the office and visit the dentist so I wasn’t home before dark. They seemed OK when I closed up the coop tonight, although there were 0 eggs today. I guess I don’t blame them.

I’m hoping this is our last arctic blast of the year. We had bitter cold in December already. Typically, we get maybe one or two weeks like this each winter, but no more than that. Let this be the end. Please?

A typical snow day

The snow finally stopped yesterday in the late afternoon. The official tally was 12 inches up here on the north side. All I can say is, it’s a lot.

I didn’t spend the day inside like most sensible people, though. Mark was around the house so I took Rachael up on her offer to meet in Andersonville for lunch and then a visit to the Philippino grocery store.

I rode the Foster Ave bus to meet her and took my camera with me. I got a few interesting shots along the way.

Gimme shelter

Gimme shelter

A bus shelter along the route. Getting and off the bus often entailed stepping into more than foot high piles of snow pushed to the side of the road by the snow plows.

I need a walk!

I need a walk!

Dogs still need to be walked on a snow day.

Slow going

Slow going

Cars have to struggle along unplowed side streets. The plows don’t venture down the side streets until the snow stops and all the major roads are completely cleared.


But before you can drive anywhere you have to dig out your car. The situation actually gets worse after the plow goes by since it piles up more snow around it.

We had lunch (or brunch depending on your ordering preference) at Kopi Cafe where I was also able to pick up a copy of Lonely Planet’s guide to Iceland. (I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford a trip to Iceland this summer, but it’s OK to dream.)

The Philippino grocery store was delightfully pungent and intriguing. Rachael was able to get the obscure ingredients she needed to make some of the childhood dishes she fondly recalls. And then I had her drop me at the Foster bus stop so I could head home.

Although it was Saturday night, I needed a night of real rest and I knew Mark would be gone by the time I got home. The headcold that had bugged me earlier in the week was threatening to return and I needed to replenish the sleep reserves depleted by 2 nights of interrupted sleep.

So, I settled down with a hot cup of herbal tea and my knitting for a bit, then indulged in a hot bath. By the time Mark returned to the house, I had already taken a Nyquil caplet and was ready to snuggle into bed for the night. Ah, the simple joys of home.