Cabin fever cures - and blessings

The wintry weather we’ve been having lately brings to mind a popular discussion topic at playgroups and mom forums back when I had young children: cabin fever – and how to cope with it.

In Pennsylvania, where we lived when my kids were small, there was no such thing as having too many ideas on how to liven up those long dreary days of indoor confinement. Not only were winters considerably longer and snowier than Richmond’s, but it was the 1980s, and there were fewer entertainment options around.

So the ideas we traded in our moms’ groups tended to revolve around old-fashioned board games, playing cards, building forts with sofa cushions, cookie baking, puzzles, Lego projects, and the old stand-by: reading chapter books aloud.

Those of us with houses roomy enough for movement (or in our case simply lacking in furniture) also had the option of holding an indoor olympics, featuring “snowball” fights and penguin races.

For snowball fights, contestants divide into two teams and use tissue paper or scrap paper to form an equal number of “snow” balls per team. Then they face off across a taped dividing line, set the timer, and fling and re-fling balls at each other till the timer goes off. Whoever has the least snowballs on their side of the tape emerges the victors – for that round.

For penguin races, kids imitate a penguin dad who protects the unhatched egg and keeps it from rolling away by carrying it on his feet. Except that bean bags or hacky sacks are used as “eggs,” and the kids are challenged to race while keeping the egg on their feet – achieved by adopting that peculiar penguin shuffle (and resulting in many laughs).

Another fun game for younger kids – especially if they have a good-sized menagerie of plush animals – is a stuffed animal safari. One person hides all the animals around the house, and the “hunters” gear up with compasses, flashlights, and binoculars to search them out.

As for quieter games and projects, baking has always been popular at our house. Some families I know hold regular days when they cook dinner themed to a book or foreign country. (Pippi Longstocking, anyone?)

Lenten suppers and caveman dinners
Now that it is almost Lent, a good project is planning a Lenten supper. Challenge your family to see how cheaply and modestly everyone can eat one night. Ideally, part of the challenge is making your own bread and soup. But it’s fine to cut corners and use prepared soups and frozen bread dough; the basic theme of sacrifice and frugality still comes across.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Lenten dinners are caveman dinners – which I want to go on record as saying were invented in the mid-1960s by myself and my brother, Tim. This is no relation at all to the paleo diet – it started spontaneously at an unsupervised meal when Tim and I might have been 10 or so, and decided to eat our mashed potatoes and meat with our hands. That led into coloring our milk disgusting shades of green, grunting caveman-style (oops, hope I have not offended any early hominids), and otherwise amusing and corrupting our younger siblings.

I suppose you had to be there (or be 10) to see the humor in this, but I have since passed the tradition on to my own children and my less-judgmental friends.

And I continue to recommend that parents toss a random caveman dinner into the mix sometime during that period when they are trying to teach table manners to their six-year-olds. It’s a great ice-breaker and antidote to the daily tension and tediousness of following the rules, and it can be educational (not to mention fun) to let your kids do all the things they are NOT supposed to do. Just be sure and make clear that cavemen conserved food and would never indulge in food fights!

‘Mid-winter meltdown’
Some families, I have heard, actually designate a “midwinter meltdown holiday.” Kids and parents wear Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops, play Jimmy Buffet, and serve island food tailgate- or picnic-style. If they venture outside, the uniform is shorts under (or over) their snowsuits.

Other families prefer a lazier holiday, and simply designate one day each winter Pajama Day – no one gets dressed, and everyone watches videos and eats popcorn. One dad in Ohio (no doubt inspired by a Pennsylvania-like winter) has actually made his family’s pajama day an official website, and declared Jammy Day at the end of March – a day to stay home, bake cookies, and generally vegetate.

Another variation on these pajama traditions (this one only works when you’re not snowed in) is known as PJ Rides. On a prearranged night, just after tucking the children into bed, parents march back into their rooms banging pots or other noisemakers and announce that it’s time for a PJ Ride. They pack the children into the car with popcorn, cookies or hot cocoa and ride around looking at holiday lights or constellations, or they park and watch for deer.

Finally, one simple winter project that I would like to mention – because I wish I had started it earlier -- is a family log consisting of 366 index cards, each containing a calendar date.

When my girls were in middle and high school, it took only a minute at the end of each day to write a one-line entry on that day’s card about something significant, interesting, or funny that had happened. This could be anything from “Leah made her first blood donation” to “Jackie’s soccer team won the tournament” to the memorable triple-crisis day when one daughter was taken to the doctor, another sent home sick from school, and the third was left stranded at her downtown school after early dismissal for 100-degree temperatures.

If the designated chronicler gets in the habit of recording something consistently each day, the family will end up with a small but precious bundle of memories, to be re-read, laughed over and re-enjoyed on the appropriate date each year.

I am so thankful that I kept this log, even if only for a few years. If I hadn’t, how else would we remember these seemingly mundane moments from the day Lanie got her braces off in 2002: that her teacher teased her to stop smiling so much (“it’s distracting!”) – and that our elderly neighbor demanded a smooch on the cheek so he could brag on being the first male recipient of her post-braces kiss?

Speaking of memories, by far my best cabin fever experience occurred the year that an ice storm knocked out power in Richmond for almost a week. Heating the house and fixing meals was a challenge, of course; but we simply cordoned off the kitchen and sun room with flannel sheets and warmed them using kerosene heaters.

Those minuses were far outweighed by the giant plus of forced family togetherness – and having as a captive audience my now-ex-husband.

Accustomed to a daily after-work ritual of tinkering in the garage followed by an evening TV ritual, my ex rarely participated in “family life” (the reason he is my ex). But during the power outage, he could not escape to his usual retreats – and the rest of us delighted in the novelty of having the whole family engaged in cards and board games. The cabin fever was all his, and for many winters afterwards I amused myself by telling him excitedly, “There might be an ice storm on the way!” – and watching him turn pale.

Which is why I was not surprised to hear about a family in upstate New York that had a similar week-without-power experience. While living with no lights or electricity was tough, they ended up having a blast playing games, telling stories, and reading by candlelight.

As a result, they created a monthly family ritual: turning out the lights and pretending there’s no power so they can re-live it all.

They call their ritual “Storm Night.”
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