Tales from the Polar Vortex

Funny to think, a week ago I had never heard of such a thing as a Polar Vortex (which also goes by other equally incredible names: polar cyclone or circumpolar whirl). Another funny-not-really-funny thing, who’d have thought all those winters in Chicago wouldn’t have shown me the toughest cold I’d ever felt? That Indy would earn that honor?



There had been warnings. Go to the store. Stock up! There may be outages. Eight to 12 inches, etc. The snow was falling thick and fast, like the kind of snow they try to recreate on movie sets.

Our power outage came early. Before four o’clock. Louie was hopeful we’d be back up and running in time for Downton Abbey by 9 p.m. I didn’t share such high hopes.

We walked the dogs. I shoveled the walk – round one, at least. Louie cleared out a path to the grill for a dinner of chicken and veggies (it was supposed to have been dumplings, but when you have just a grill to work with, you compromise).

Life lesson #1:
Things that work well by candlelight: dinner, a neck and neck game of Trivial Pursuit.
Things that don’t work so well by candlelight: washing dishes. Ah well, they got done. Close enough.

We took stock of our neat, small pile of firewood, decided to save it, in case we really needed it. With an extra sweater, it was still warm enough inside. We weren’t yet wearing hats and gloves. Early to bed.

Louie was resourceful, ground our beans with a mortar and pestle and made coffee on our camping stove. It was tough prying myself out from under the down blanket, but there was hot coffee, and it wasn’t that cold yet, not really. Before the power died, Louie had made a coffee cake. I begin to realize my survival odds, if things came down to that, are greatly improved thanks to him.

I needed to check in with work, and the only way to charge up our phones was to dig out the car. We piled on clothes until I felt absolutely Stay Puft – quadruple shirts, triple pants, double socks. I re-discovered the inferno that is this vest I knit long ago, had deemed too hot to wear inside. It’s a miracle my coat buttoned. Still…

Life lesson #2:
No amount of layering prepares you for negative fifteen degrees. And we’re not even getting into wind chill, which went into the minus forty range. Instant numb.


We started losing a degree per hour in the house. By 2 p.m. it was 38 degrees inside. Irrational fear of losing the indoor plants to frost set in. One of my two dogs actually started shivering. In the house. We’d been waiting, conserving, but gave in and built the fire.

All five of us, Louie and I, the two dogs and the cat, piled into a five by two foot space directly in front of the blaze, camped there all night. We played games, ate piping hot brats and kraut from the camp stove. It wasn’t half bad. We had each other, and that fire. It all felt like an adventure, one we knew would come to a close.

The temperature had mostly leveled out. When it was time for bed, we were down to 34 degrees inside. Truthfully, we fell to sleep, and deeply, between the quiet, the dark and the incredible power of down feathers.

I woke fitfully at 3 a.m., absolutely burning up. And, man, did that feel good. I ignored any notion of decorum and yelled: The power’s back! We were already up to a balmy sixty degrees. As I peeled off hat, mittens, wool sweater and vest, I realized the television was fuzzing away in the other room.

The rattle of the heater pushing hot air through the grates, the blue glow of the clock from the cable box, the low-grade hum of all that stuff that’s sucking electricity through the walls.

After de-layering and a quick trip around to turn off lights, the tv, we tried to get back to bed. But that blue glow, that clock we’d gotten used to. It seemed blindingly bright after two nights of dark. Louie yanked the cord.

Life lesson #3:
Unplug things. It’s incredible how hard silence is to come by. Finally, a bit more sleep, then back to normal.

Well, sort of.

Made it into work, and we all shared our own polar vortex stories. Some never lost power, but there were tales of 40 foot felled pines and burst pipes too. I heard someone say driving down College was like driving on the surface of the moon. There were stories of firemen knocking icicles off buildings downtown. Strange days, these.

First thought upon waking: We still have power! YES!

Life lesson #4:
I am, it seems, not as tough as I like to think, and I’m far more fortunate than I credit.