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Searching for Fun in the 'Chiberia' Polar Vortex

By Mark Konkol | January 7, 2014 10:16pm
 Mark Konkol and his dog, Stella, try to find fun in the deep freeze.
Konkol: End To Hibernation
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HUMBOLDT PARK — Having barely survived Snowmageddon 2011, I knew better than to test fate against the brutal elements when Chicago became known as #Chiberia on Twitter.

During the worst of the 40-below wind chill this week, I did not go to the office. I did not walk the dog. I did not drive my car. I did not take out the trash.

I resisted all urges to build an igloo, throw hot water into the frozen air to make "snow," and blow bubbles that turned into fragile, solid soap spheres and post video evidence on the Internet.

I went outside exactly once — for less than the five minutes it takes for frostbite to set in — to do just enough shoveling to complement the work some kind neighbor with a snow blower had done to clear a path down the sidewalk.

I proudly followed the lead of that Lincoln Park Zoo polar bear that, despite its cold-weather pedigree, decided to hide out indoors during the worst winter could muster, so far.

But on Tuesday, I couldn't stay in my Pullman cage any longer.

Hibernation made me stiff. The kitchen garbage can overflowed with trash and, frankly, the cat box stunk to high heaven.

Reluctantly, I threw on my hat and coat and trudged through a back porch snowdrift hauling three garbage bags and fell down the snow-covered stairs. Thankfully, more than a foot of powder broke my fall.

Before I could dust myself off and run back inside, Ol' Stella, my snow-loving dog, shoved her snow-covered nose in my face and gave me a lick.

Then, Stella dug out the deflated basketball buried in a drift, grabbed the frozen leather in her jaws and shook it playfully. "Don't Postpone Joy," the bumper sticker affixed to my garage door read.

It reminded me that even winter weather — even a polar vortex too cold for urban polar bears — can be fun if you've got the right attitude.

So, I wrapped Stella in her pink argyle sweater and ventured out into the final hours of below-zero weather to search for happy people playing in the cold. Chicagoans are hearty people. Certainly, this polar vortex couldn't keep everyone from enjoying some wintertime fun.

Stella's subzero obsession with that frozen basketball got me thinking about Murray Park — the Englewood court at 73rd and Hermitage where, legend has it, young Bulls star Derrick Rose would clear snow on the court to practice.

So, we headed there first, hoping to find a dedicated young hoopster braving the polar vortex to joyfully practice his jump shot to follow in Rose's footsteps.

I didn't even get a block away from home when I spotted a little bit of winter cheer — quite possibly the most polite "dibs" parking spot marker in Chicago. 

For a moment, I felt hopeful that the antique wooden chair marked with a note that read, "We worked hard to clear a spot. Please don't remove!" — complete with a hand-drawn smiley face — was a sign that my search for fun in frozen Chicago would be fruitful.

It took about two minutes — the time it took to snap a suitable photo — before my right hand was tingly and numb, and I wanted to go back home. While warming up in the car I read posts from pals reporting their epic polar vortex fails — broken-down cars and busted water pipes, among the maladies — and went searching for happy folks braving the cold, anyway.

We arrived at Murray Park, and of course, there wasn't a future Derrick Rose anywhere to be found. I tried to get Stella to run around on the snow-covered court, but she flatly refused and pulled me back toward the car. 

I couldn't give up, so I headed to the North Side where, allegedly, the happy people live.

I saw joggers, dog walkers and bike riders; none of them looked happy.

It wasn't until I got to Humboldt Park that I spotted a young boy — he couldn't have been more than 3 years old — joyfully walking alongside two men, one of them pulling a red sled.

"Did you guys have fun?" I asked the men as I snapped a few pictures.

"Fun lasted about four minutes," the boy's father said. "That's it."

Stella and I hiked to the top of the sledding hill, which offered quite a view of the city skyline awash in golden light. There, Stella chewed on bits of broken plastic sleds and sniffed out a couple bags of dog poop frozen in the snow. 

It was her kind of fun, not mine.

Just before sunset, we spotted a family blasting each other with snowballs at the bottom of the hill.

Marco Calispa watched as his son Christian and daughter Anett pelted each other — and their little cousin Ethan — with snowballs.

At the moment Christian declared victory, Anett pummeled him with a giant hunk of icy snow. They laughed and screamed.

"Not too cold for some fun?" I asked.

"Oh, no," Anett said. "Not bad at all."

I snapped a few photos as the Calispa kids took a few sled rides down the hill.

Then, my fingers started to freeze again. Stella started pulling me toward the car.

Fun time was over — it lasted about four minutes.