The winter of our political discontent brought Chicago some incongruously mild weather. The National Weather Service logged no measurable snowfall in the city during the months of January and February for the first time in the 146 years it’s been keeping such records. In place of regular seasonal flurries, a shitstorm of turmoil swept the country. Russia had effectively shoveled out a spot in the U.S. electoral system and plunked down an orange traffic cone with a bad combover into the White House, as if Vladimir Putin were a neighborhood jagoff calling “dibs” on our democracy. While one blandly chilly day bled into the next, the relentless blizzard of scandals emerging from the inchoate presidential administration intensified the season’s slate-gray gloom, giving otherwise temperate afternoons a forbidding atmosphere. Sooner, it seemed, would society collapse than we’d live to see the dark cloud of winter lift.
But just as the Senate pulled the nation deeper into the twilight zone by confirming climate-change denialist Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a hopeful glimmer of light flashed briefly at the end of the pitch-black tunnel: that first warm day. On a Friday in mid-February, the high temperature brushed up against 70 degrees. This event was received by Chicagoans as nothing less than a miracle, a temporary reprieve handed down by the weather gods as recompense for our collective suffering.
Emerging from the subway after sweating through that morning’s commute, I shed the jacket and sweater that had become my winter skin and stuffed them into my shoulder bag with the gleeful abandon of a bank robber filling a sack with unmarked bills. All around town, shorts and tank tops, their hibernation in closets and drawers suddenly interrupted, made appearances on not-yet-beach-ready bodies—but even pallid patches of flesh radiated seductiveness after months in hiding. Instagram users flooded their feeds with photos of the sky as if the sun’s appearance was a mass UFO sighting. From an open car window, a cranked stereo carried the voice of Bruno Mars, who alerted anyone within earshot that there was 24-karat magic in the air. And he was right: the city had thawed and come back to life, and it felt positively supernatural. Political dangers lurked as ever. But all we could do was smile.
A sudden unseasonable temperature spike always feels like a balm for winter wounds. Especially this year, as the trauma may have been deeper—mental, emotional, and intellectual, as well as physical. Turns out there’s a fairly straightforward biological reason why, even with a full-spectrum “happy lamp” helping to curb the ill effects of premature darkness, the earliest intensely sunny day is such a profound experience: sunlight triggers the synthesis of vitamin D, enabling calcium absorption. You can feel that first warm day in your bones.
In a city such as Chicago, where a willingness to endure winter is seen as a sign of virtue and nice weather is thought of as a hard-earned reward, that first warm day deserves to be designated an official municipal holiday. Of course, that’s impossible due to its unpredictable nature, which is also precisely what makes it such a gift—a fleeting reminder of what your life was, and what it soon will be again. v