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Challenge: Cabin Fever

​The Cabin Fever Episode of 2014

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My kids are native Los Angelinos, having spent their early years in the sunny palm shade and beach sands of Southern California. Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s no cabin fever in LA. There certainly is but it’s a different beast. Instead of being stuck in our homes, unable to leave due to calamitous weather, we were routinely stuck in our cars unable to leave due to calamitous traffic.

“Why aren’t we MOVING??” my kids would holler from the backseat, aware that they’d been in the car for two hours, waiting to get to a restaurant that was five miles from our starting point.

“You’re just having a bit of cabin fever,” I’d assure them. “Don’t worry, we’ll move soon enough.” And, eight hours later, I was right.

In 2013 we moved to St. Louis and everyone assured me that the winters weren’t that bad. “Just a bit of snow here and there,” people confidently told me in chirpy, self-assured tones. And I believed them.

We took a big family trip to Florida that December, having timed the end of the trip to coincide perfectly with the end of Winter Break. We arrived back in Missouri on a Sunday -- the day before the start of school. By then I had had my share of lovely family bonding experiences and was really looking forward to sending my children to school the next morning. Then I got the phone call from the school district, announcing that a huge snowstorm was imminent and they were closing school for Monday.

Day 1

Before we left LA, my kids’ exposure to snow was limited to one day a year when we took them to the LA Zoo’s “Snow Days”. The zoo would put a device that looked like a fog machine in a wide open area, and the machine would churn out one snowflake a minute while frenzied toddlers stampeded each other to try to get a feel for what snow was like. It was kind of like watching Black Friday Walmart shoppers but with kids and snow instead.

“Don’t worry,” I assured my kids, when they invariably lost out to the bigger, more determined snow-obsessed kids. “One day you’ll see what real snow is like.”

And here it was, falling all around us – aggressively raining down from the sky, billowing, piling up on the ground. To my kids, it was like magic and we spent the day sledding and making snow angels, throwing snowballs and building igloos. It was everything I could have hoped for my kids’ one snow day – glad to have the time together but also eager to ship them off to school the next morning. And then I got the phone call. Well, I thought. My kids had such a fantastic experience in the snow today. I’m sure tomorrow will be the same.

Day 2

By now, my kids were over it. The snow was boring, it was turning slushy, and they’d already done everything. White powder was falling from the sky…who cares? Six years of snow-deprivation and they had their fill in one day. I firmly believe in the great outdoors so we went outside anyway and sledded, built and played despite their repeated objections.

At this point, the snow was melting so I was pretty sure there’d be school on Wednesday and I was quite ready to send them. But of course, I got the phone call later that afternoon. Since the temperature was supposed to drop to -4, and since the school buses had been idle for so long, there would be no school on Wednesday. And by the way, we were also advised to stay indoors due to the extreme cold.

Day 3

I should mention now that we are outdoor people. My family wasn’t made to spend all day inside our house. Day 3 we did everything that all the people with great ideas have suggested: hide and seek, makeshift forts, scavenger hunts, board games, endless rounds of Uno and dress-up. By evening, I was tired and bereft of any creativity. I did what any well-meaning parent who has spent the past 2.5 weeks bonding with her children would do. I opted for television.

Only, there was a problem. We weren’t used to sitting down in front of the television and we had no idea what the kids were watching these days. There were 750 channels to figure out in our new city and rather than scroll through the car chases, gun fights and love scenes while my kids – aged 2, 5 and 5 – absorbed everything from the couch, I popped in one of the only two videos we owned. Barney. Yes Barney. The big purple dinosaur. Please don’t judge. I have no idea how I came to own this. Surely I didn’t buy it from the store. I think some parent of grown children came across this in his or her basement and – in a fit of PTSD and cruelty – tossed it into our moving truck before we left LA.

But on the evening of Day 3, I was actually quite grateful for that big purple dinosaur with his mind-numbing ways and horrible songs. I watched this with my kids thinking: surely surely surely, this is the end of it. I made it through, I can see the other side, and my children will go to school tomorrow. Then I got the phone call. The call from the school district informing of school closures is purposely automated so that the fury of curses and screams you unleash in response falls on deaf ears rather than an actual person.

Day 4

By Day 4, I was actually thinking that Cabin Fever could be a veritable medical diagnosis, consisting of the shakes and the chills, occasional delirium, hallucinations about being outside, and unrealistic fantasies about stowing away in the cargo hold of a plane destined for South America.

On Day 4, we were still being told to stay indoors due to the cold. We all looked at each other and asked: what are we going to do? Since we’d already played every game, done every art project, run laps around the house and watched both Barney videos, I did a few things that I would highly recommend as an antidote to Cabin Fever:

1) Have your kids call their grandparents. My kids have 7 grandparents and 1 great grand-parent – none of whom live anywhere close to us. On Day 4, each grandparent got a lot of personal time with our kids, via Skype and regular phone calls. Those calls – usually 30 minutes on a weekend – lasted for hours in total. With the Skype sessions, my kids were able to see that sunshine really did still exist elsewhere in America, as the St. Louis weather was starting to resemble a dystopian Ray Bradbury novella.

2) Rearrange your playroom. I did this the night before Day 4. Toys that had been on higher shelves were moved to lower shelves. Toys that had been set aside and ignored were moved to more prominent positions. The rearrangement actually worked. My kids started playing with toys they had completely forgotten about as if they were new.

3) Cook anything. I didn’t even know that I had the ingredients for pumpkin pie but I did a cursory search of my pantry and found canned pumpkin, evaporated milk, and pie crust. Voila. What I’ve learned from this experience is that no matter what is in your kitchen, you probably have enough ingredients to kill an hour or two with the kids by whipping up something – even if it’s a milk-and-ketchup protein blend.

On Thursday night I got a different phone call. School was going to be in session on Friday. And so, after days of all of us being stuck inside, I sent my kids off to school in the morning. Once a few days had gone by and I had some time to reflect on the Cabin Fever Episode of 2014, I realized that even through the craziness, we all kind of had a good time.

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