Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Curmudgeon swirling in the Polar Vortex with mixed opinions

The Chicago Public Schools are closed again today, for a second day in a row, because of the killer cold snap that's gripping the Midwest and much of the rest of the country besides.

All the Archdiocesan grammar schools were closed in Cook and Lake Counties yesterday, and most of the high schools as well. Local colleges and universities canceled classes. Most local museums were closed. The Lincoln Park Zoo was open, but planned to close early; Brookfield Zoo was closed entirely. (The polar bears and American bison can stand these temperatures, a zoo official explained, but most of the rest of the animals could not.) Most local officials were encouraging people to stay home yesterday. Except for those angling for face time on the local newscasts, many public servants stayed home yesterday, too.

Long Suffering Spouse was supposed to start school yesterday -- but, as noted, school was closed. No 8th grader was more giddy than my bride at the prospect of extending Christmas break another day.

"It's a mistake," I harrumphed.

"Why?" my wife asked.

"They're all closing down for the wrong reason," I said. We haven't had this kind of really cold weather here in Chicago for a long time -- but it is not unprecedented. As I told the kids, Long Suffering Spouse and I had been out at the bar on January 10, 1982, when the temperature sank to -26̊ F. The radio was on at the bar, as I recall, and when the announcer recited the temperature all of us stupid enough to be out started cheering like we'd accomplished some great feat. Of course, I was 32 years younger then. I continued explaining things to my wife. "If they're going to close everything just because it's too cold, they'll have to do it again tomorrow."

"Why? The temperature is supposed to get above zero on Tuesday."

"But it won't start there. It'll be ten below again, at least, when the kids are supposed to be going to school. If it's too cold for them to venture out today, why will tomorrow morning be different?"

Sure enough, darn near everything that was closed yesterday is closed again this morning. They'd kind of painted themselves into a corner on this.

And it's not the dumbest idea to close down in these extreme conditions, especially in the modern world when we can do (or allegedly do) so much from home. Road salt doesn't work so well when the temperature gets down below 10̊ F. Brave, but ignorant souls who started to drive to work this morning spun out in sufficient numbers on bridges and ramps to thoroughly clog our expressway system despite the reduced volume of cars.

But not everything was closed, even yesterday. I had court yesterday morning. Courts were open. (The Cook County Sheriff decided it was too cold to bring prisoners to court, but that wouldn't affect the operation of the civil courts where I practice.)

I was supposed to be out in the suburbs yesterday so I had to drive. I gave the family van a long time to warm up before forcing it into action. It still wasn't very pleased with me. The thermometer inside the car said the temperature outside was as cold as -18̊ -- and never warmer than -14̊ F. Still, the Tollway was passable. Even with the strong breezes yesterday there were at least ruts of pavement showing in every lane. Of course, one did have to get to the Tollway. The ramps were treacherous. And every stop sign, every stop light on the way to and from the Tollway was an adventure: The van wanted to fishtail every time I started or stopped, but I kept it largely under control.

Perhaps surprisingly, everyone who was supposed to be at court on my matters yesterday was present and accounted for. Like the much younger Curmudgeon in the bar in 1982, I felt like I'd accomplished something, just by getting there too.

The reason that driving was (and remains) so challenging (and, in particular, the reason that I am so concerned about the melting properties of road salt) was that, in addition to the cold, we were still digging out from two feet of snow that fell in the Chicago area since Tuesday afternoon. The first foot fell Tuesday and Wednesday; the other foot dropped Saturday evening and Sunday.

If I'd been made philosopher king for the day, I might have canceled everything on Monday -- but Monday only -- because of the snow clean-up. A foot of snow, particularly if it comes at rush hour, can shut Chicago down. The clean-up of this latest snowfall, even though it fell on the weekend, would understandably take longer because of the extreme cold that followed the snow, and it has, as the drivers spinning out this morning can attest.

But this business of shutting down schools and some businesses and government offices but not the courts and a lot of other businesses is just plain aggravating. I finished my business in court yesterday and went home for lunch; I didn't bother trying to go downtown after that. I figured I could work from home. I retrieved my phone calls and even connected -- eventually -- with most of the people who'd called and emailed me during the day.

But I missed the one call I really needed to get. He called around 4:00 p.m. I probably last checked my office voice mail about five minutes before he called. I was still working my cell phone, though, returning the calls I'd already retrieved. At 5:00 p.m., I was, I thought, the good man, at rest at last from his labors. It was around this time, also, that the call finally came for my wife advising (as I knew would have to be the case, given the pretext offered Monday) that school would not be open tomorrow either. Again, she was giddy. I'm happy for her -- but the courts are open again today, too.

I was not a happy camper weighed down by my Zero King this morning. But I made it to court on time this morning and, thereafter, to the Undisclosed Location. I spoke -- too late! -- with the man who called at 4:00 p.m. I'll be screwing around the rest of the day trying to straighten that out. But the Holidaze, two feet of snow and temperatures of nearly 20 below can undermine even well-formed plans.

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