I call Chicago home because it’s the region where I was born and I identify with the midwestern, salt-of-the-earth character. Midwesterners are like their terrain, earthy, solid and level. They are less frenetic than the tirelessly ambitious east coasters, yet more resilient than the sunny-day-chasing west coasters.
The downside of this is earthiness is that midwesterners tend be fans of inactive activities: watching sports, watching TV, sitting long periods, drinking, eating. This inert disposition has many culprits. The weather sucks most of the time—frigid in the winter, blazing in the summer, with a perpetually grey, gauzy sky all four seasons. In Chicago, there are few compelling outdoor diversions aside from a lake that is swimmable for two weeks in August. You have to drive to get anywhere interesting as the city is huge and public transportation stinks. In the winter, when I typically go there, driving sucks too; you eyeball the heat gauge, waiting for the needle to go up so you can blast the heat; you then drive a half-hour to get to your destination, spend another fifteen minutes looking for parking, brave the cold again, only to do it all over again on the return ride home. Oftentimes, the effort doesn’t seem worth it. You figure you might as well stay home and watch Romancing the Stone for the umpteenth time.
I go back to this bastion of inactivity every Thanksgiving to stay with my mom for a few days. I do typical, emotionally retrogressive, going-home type things: hang out on the couch for countless hours, eat a lot, watch a lot of movies on her huge, digital-cabled TV, go to my brother’s for Thanksgiving dinner, where I eat too much, get sleepy and bored with dinner conversation, and end up in the basement watching Thomas the Tank movies with my nephew.
Whereas I used to think this time away from my day-to-day life was a respite, I now see how it unmasks my shadow midwesterner—not the friendly, hardworking, levelheaded midwesterner, but the tubby, lazy, don’t-want-to-go-outside midwesterner.
In New York City where I live, I’ve set up a life where I’m pretty much forced to deal with the proverbial weather. My home is not particularly comfortable. It’s drafty in the winter, hot in the summer. I don’t have cable or a real TV. I don’t have a cushy couch. I keep few snacks around, and if I want them, I have to walk to the bodega. Nor is my lifestyle built around staying in. I have an active social life. My friends are supportive, but not enabling. I have people who depend on me. I work out regularly.
But this life, while rewarding, can also get tiring—paying my credit card bill, health insurance, making money, keeping open communication with my girlfriend, showing up for friends, meditating, cleaning my dishes, folding laundry, flossing, showering, always moving forward, cleaning up as I go along. Sometimes, I just want to let my midwestern flag fly, wrap up in a Snuggie on the couch, flip on the TV and crack open a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
When I was a kid, I didn’t want to deal with the weather either. I didn’t want to face the fact that I was getting beat up in school, that I had few guy friends, no girlfriends, that I was the last to get picked for every conceivable team, and so on. I didn’t want to deal mom’s drinking, with getting shuttled between parents, getting beat up by my brother, and so on. The way I didn’t deal was by whiling away most of my childhood in front of a TV before graduating to drugs and alcohol as a teen.
Mercifully, today’s weather is far more tolerable than my childhood’s. The need to escape is not as strong. I have faced many of the demons that haunted me as a child. I now have friends. I sleep at night. Things are very cool with the family. Everyone’s sober. Yet despite these improvements, despite the fact that I feel like I choose most of the things in my life, there’s still a part of me that clings to the idea that avoiding my life will improve it, that if I just stay in long enough, if I just numb myself out with the right combo of food, TV (or internet) and inertia, I will find comfort.
Instead, what I’ve learned time and again is that the weather is the weather—i.e. reality is reality. And I can choose to deal with it or avoid it. Either way, it remains. Recent experience verified this truth again. I just returned from Chicago where I spend four days on a couch watching movies, eating cheese and crackers and generally zoning out. Now I’m back and life is waiting for me. I have an unpaid credit card bill. I have a health insurance bill. I have relationships to tend. I have laundry to fold. The only difference is it’s a week later and I’m a few pounds fatter.
This is not to undermine the importance of relaxation. Life always seems better met in a relaxed manner. The question is, where do we seek relaxation: through connecting with reality or avoiding it? Do we go for a long walk outside or watch the James Bond marathon with an bong and a bag of peanut butter-filled pretzels? One provides quiet and breathing room to connect with ourselves. The other dulls our senses sufficiently that we forget who we are.
What if I didn’t feel the need to avoid the weather? What if I didn’t hold up the idea that avoiding reality is somehow relaxing? What if reality, with whatever judgment I place on it—good or bad, hard or easy—lost its meaning? What if cold weather just meant I had to put on an extra layer? What if a bill was just a bill? What if a commitment was merely something to keep? What if the most relaxing thing I can possibly do is respond to the demands of life directly, immediately? I’ve a feeling if this were the case, I might not be compelled to watch Zack and Miri Make a Porno to the end, or polish off that tub of spreadable cheddar cheese. Just a hunch.