GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
 

Lake Effect
WRITTEN BY AMANDA SNOW CONANT, '03
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN DRY
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In its third annual future alumni essay contest the Magazine invited graduating fourth-years to reflect on their College experience. Economics concentrator Amanda Snow Conant took the plunge—and won.

Only a few scraggly old trees interfere with the view of the giant thermometer that’s attached to a bank just across the street from this year’s apartment. During the summer months I paid it no mind as the foliage obscured it from view—and who particularly cares about the recorded difference between a balmy 85 and a balmy 86, anyway? However, this winter it became a key fixture in my daily life for exactly two reasons. First, more obviously, it served as a fairly apt cruel-o-meter, providing down-to-the-minute readings of precisely what a bitter and unfair hand life had dealt me on any given morning. Second, and more dangerously, as soon as that old codger ticked up over the 32-degree mark—clearly signaling a major heat wave worthy of some sort of ritualistic celebration—it was high time for a dip in the lake.

I’m not trying to argue that a machine was in any way responsible for such behavior, merely that it metered out the subtle psychological gray area between a jolly old time and certain death. At least once every month since I was a fall quarter first-year, a close friend and I have been in that water, noting vaguely the passage of seasons by the lake’s rim of ice and snow that heaps up then melts away as fall becomes winter and winter in turn becomes spring. And so around 10 p.m. on those rare February nights when the temperature has not plummeted into the negative 50s, inevitably the phone will ring.

“Your savior speaking. Where are you RIGHT NOW?”

“In the Reg. Doing homework, something, I don’t know. Trying to squeeze out the last few drops of productivity.”

“Let’s go swimming. You know, it’s warm.”

“Hmmmmm, yeah, 33 degrees—downright tropical. We’d better go before we overheat or something. Yeah, I’ve been sweating all day. Stupid heat wave, we’ll show IT.”

“Yeah, I know—CLEARLY time to go in.”

“I’m packing my stuff.”

As soon as executive decision has been made and supplies necessary for survival (towel, extra underwear, whiskey) have been scrounged, the fixed routine is to walk—quickly enough to fool our bodies into generating the aforementioned tropical-esque heat, yet slowly enough to appear inconspicuous—directly towards the Point. The platonic ideal of a midwinter lake plunge involves diving off the northernmost Point rocks to maximize the contrast between our warm, bundled selves and that awe-inspiring death tingle once submerged in the midnight lake. A more logical justification of our preference for diving is that the instant body leaves rock, body is then committed to full submersion; none of this toe-dipping, wimping-out malarkey for us.

This winter was particularly frigid, and on our February excursion we were confronted by a precariously wide rim of ice, crystallized about the rocky edges of the Point. After a somewhat extensive survey of the perimeter, it became clear that there was no guaranteed way to clamber back OUT of the water. As the prospect of entry without exit was somewhat unsavory, we were forced to resort to wading in from the 57th Street beach.

The beach, at first inspection, appeared to be flanked by the same ice shelf as the Point, but some research involving a piece of driftwood allowed us to determine that the water curling about said shelf was only knee deep. Exit feasibility assured, my companion began shivering out of his clothes. One, two steps of bare feet on black ice and SPLASH! Far from harboring any particular desire to sit around pondering the exact temperature of the water, or worse, have him later regale me in exaggerated detail, I jumped in at his heels.

Unused to forcing myself in gradually, I still re-experience a bit of the mental anguish of the whole ordeal when I think about it now, months later:

I go in hollering. At first contact with water and frozen sand, my legs appeal to any remaining shreds of common sense. “You MUST be joking,” they balk, refusing to move any farther. However, the brain in charge of my extremity sensors force those protesting legs to keep moving. Water churning at my waist, my breaths begin to come in forced spurts, warning me that it’s time to do the deed and then hightail it the heck out of there. Plunge! With eyes squeezed shut, the brackish water agitates my arms and legs; my toes and neck feel as if they’re being licked by a frozen cat. “It stings!” scream me and every one of my nerves simultaneously. “Escape!” responds brain. I turn around and charge for the shore; my friend is already hauling himself up over the shelf of ice. I begin to sense triumph at having survived it once again. Take THAT, elements; take THAT, Chicago winter; take THAT, Regenstein Library!

The process of returning to dry land is much like the process of going in the lake, but quicker and more scramble-y and infinitely more jubilant. A hot shower and a visit to Jimmy’s generally take care of any immediate physical and mental side effects of such an excursion. However, the monthly combination of cold-induced pain and survival-induced triumph have left me with longer lasting side effects: an adrenaline craving every time I think about a wintry lake, and, perhaps more significantly, a way to meter out my memories gathered here in Hyde Park by a series of systematic shocks.

I wish I could chart the path to the enlightenment I once presumed I would acquire at Chicago in such an exciting manner—a tale starring ME, the green but cocky first-year diving headfirst into a track of academic rigor, emerging only to resubmerge myself in a never-ending battle against my own idiocy. Or another, more cynical but equally trite summation of my Chicago experience would be a tale starring our hero, ME, the green and cocky first-year, wading numbly this time, into a harsh and unforgiving academic realm, reemerging four years later, triumphant and ever so much more brilliant.

Thankfully, my time here has been too varied and unpredictable to be reduced to a couple of choking metaphors or to be measured by things like the air temperature on a given evening. Perhaps enlightenment is lurking in some cloister in Harper Library or under some rock out on the quads, but I’m pretty sure I never happened upon it. I often wonder what lasting physical and mental side effects four years here did leave me, other than the obstinate attitude that nothing should be satisfying unless it has involved a serious personal commitment—and a fetish for cold water. Yet lately as I witness that thermometer through the trees tick up, up, and up toward summer swelter and swimming every day, I’ve begun to realize that the University and its surrounding community have fostered in me an ability to associate even the monotonous and mundane with the prospect of extreme experience.


Amanda Snow Conant, ’03, an economics concentrator who spent much of her time at Chicago studying East Asian languages, is from Barnet, Vermont. Post-June she plans to travel to China to work and learn more Chinese, make a return visit to Japan, and “eventually” go to graduate school.

 

 


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