The Middle Ages: A love note to my snow-washed hometown, in the depths of winter

At this time of year, the ponds are silver plate and the cold does something juicy and wonderful to the blue in people’s eyes.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

CHICAGO — I’m standing at the arrivals curb at O’Hare on a night of deep and brutal cold, counting down how many seconds I have left to live: 10, 9, 8 …

In midwinter, Chicago looks like it’s being held at gunpoint. The trees are stark against the sky, their hands up over their heads: 7, 6, 5, 4 …

Many of us have two homes — the ones where we grew up and the ones where we wind up. This is where I grew up, on the cold and unforgiving prairie, Land of Lincoln and Capone, Ernie Banks and Saul Bellow.

Let me tell you, it’s a (Ben) Hecht of a time to visit. It’s 10 degrees and dropping; my face burns as if freshly spanked.


I come back to visit family occasionally but rarely in February. I’d forgotten cold like this. I love cold like this. I find it invigorating, humbling. This kind of weather also stops the aging process, because, well, in a matter of minutes you’re merely a bag of store-bought frozen peas.

In another few weeks, everyone here will run for their lives to Sarasota or Naples, those sultry beach towns on the left coast of Florida that lure the snowbirds with golf, rum drinks and powdered-sugar beaches.

By April, they’ll be back in the Midwest, where it will begin to thaw out, flood a little, then snow thickly and without remorse one last soul-crushing time.

Chicago has 19 seasons, none very good. Fifteen of those seasons will come between now and Mother’s Day … winter, midwinter, slush, early spring, agony, hope, injustice, despair, acceptance and recovery, just to name a few. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross could’ve written a book.


In many respects, though, it’s an awesome time to visit my hometown out in the burbs. The plentiful ponds are silver-plated. The split-rail fences are frosted with snow, and cold like this does something juicy and wonderful to the blue in people’s eyes.

It is the only place where there is much life, in their Slurpee eyes, in their ebullient Midwestern spirit, in their handshakes and in their hugs.

We thud together like bears in our heavy winter coats. No one has sighted bare skin here in about five months. Mating season won’t begin again till June, preferably in darkened rooms, till they can all catch a little summer sun.

“Hi, how are ya?” they ask. “How’s life out der in California?”

I still feel very much at home here, even though I’ve been gone four decades. Isn’t that the weirdest thing, how your hometown grips you by the throat? It might be the fifth chamber of my heart, this charming little village, lacquered in ice and snow.

I have fled L.A., which I hold partly responsible for the current lack of wit and beauty in American pop culture, for a quick visit to the frozen-pond heartland.

My hometown of Barrington, in the northwest suburbs, holds annual town hall meetings in the rawest of winter as a way to roust residents from their cozy homes, to get them moving, to make sure everyone is still mostly alive.

I am here for that meeting and proud of my hometown for doing such an enlightened thing. It addresses the isolation inherent in suburban life, in the wide-lawned American Dream. As I’ve noted, we are pack animals at heart. We’re better when we get out a little. We need more town halls, discussion, hiking clubs and saloons.


Which reminds me, some poor dude on the flight out here ordered a vodka-Coke, and to the flight attendant’s credit, she refused to serve it to him.

It was something to witness: After he ordered it, a gasp went up among the other passengers, and the flight attendant got all maternal — adopting a scoldy yet mothering voice — ticking off all the nice things she could make the young man instead of gut-bombing vodka-Coke.

He finally settled on a bloody Mary, thank gawd. Or as they say out this way, “Thank gaaaaswwwwsh.”

Meanwhile, cough-cough, hack-hack … I think my lungs are beginning to bleed. Yet I’m still besotted by this blistering, beautiful, remarkable place.

Sentiment eats me alive sometimes — that’s no secret. I’m a dork and an old soul and probably look backward more than ahead.

But like an old crush, a hometown gets back into our heads a little, even though we likely have no future together.

Or do we?

Next week: The warming glow of a midwinter town hall.


Twitter: @erskinetimes