Sidewalks: The Cure for Cabin Fever

[A rough sketch of me talking about sidewalks.]
Being a sidewalk blogger, I am quite used to inducing near-catatonic states of boredom in people that I meet. It's almost like one of Mesmer's parlor tricks. I only have to start mentioning semi-permeable pavers or minimum parking requirements in the zoning code, and my interlocutor will develop a glossy look in their eyes. They start to rock slightly back and forth on the balls of their feet. Usually, their instinct for self-preservation kicks in, they panic and scan the room for a lifeline of sensory stimulation, like a flickering TV or an indie rock musician. That's pretty typical.

Pretty much the only topic that will reliably pique people's interest is the Minneapolis skyway system, and why I don't like it. This will almost always generate an expression of shock or surprise, and lead to an argument about the weather, and how wonderful it is that people can walk through downtown without a coat in January.

At this point, a skyway argument has become the "old chestnut" of sidewalk blogging, and I've not made much progress convincing people to adopt my point of view. For example, here's a recent comment from a Streets.mn post about skyways, probably the most thoughtful skyway discussion I've had in some time:
In winter, I would walk to the Convention Center, and hop into the skyway to get to my bus stop. I’d see the some of the same people every day making their last-mile commutes, pouring into the skyways from the parking ramps, or jumping in after a bus ride.

Rather than people keeping their heads down and fighting the cold winds and ice, they were getting coffee and talking to each other. Sure, it’s not like being outside in the summer, but we have six months of winter in this town and skyways are a great alternative to fighting the elements.

I want to focus here on the part at the end. It's a phrase I've heard this over and over again, and not just about skyways. People say this about patios, bike lanes, sidewalks, and ice cream.

"Oh, it makes no sense to build a sidewalk patio there, we have six months of winter, " they say.

"Bicycling isn't practical here in Minnesota, we have six months of winter," they say.

I'm not a doctor, but I know a thing or two, but I'm beginning to think that something is rotten in the state of Minnesota. There are plenty of people who seem to be suffering from a common malady around these parts. Read again the key phrase: "We have six months of winter in this town and skyways are a great alternative to fighting the elements."

That, friends, is a telltale symptom of what's commonly known as cabin fever.

The Cabin Fever Epidemic

[One of the thousands of victims of cabin fever.]
The dominant strain of cabin fever (l. domesticus winterphobius) emerged following World War II particularly in the US, spreading through cities and suburbs across primarily northern cities of the middle west and east coast. It's a psychological state generated from lack of prolonged exposure to the outside world. The environmental experience deficit causes a pernicious complex of cross-bred agoraphobia and misanthropy whose symptoms can include instinctual aversion to the out-of-doors, pseudo-domesticity manifesting as self loathing, various forms of obesity, and persistent stuck-in-rut syndrome. People suffering from cabin fever will often look out windows in bewilderment, and refuse to leave their homes, cars, or office buildings.

This ailment has become particularly wide-spread in places like the Twin Cities, where alienation triggered by cabin fever has led many to develop a strain called "Minnesota Modernism," a tendency to build large enclosed structures festooned with the false accoutrements of the outside world. For example, indoor malls designed to look like city streets, massive enclosed domes with fake green grass within which one plays sports (even during summer months), underground tunnels patterned after subterranean rodents, and sealed carpeted tubes with windows looking out over parking ramp exits.

What is to be done? Is there no cure?

Are There Really Six Months of Winter?

[November 2012 temps. Daily highs are in green.]
I write these words on the coldest day / night in four years, but its worth noting that there are not six months of winter in Minneapolis.

I suppose it depends on what you mean by winter. Strictly speaking, according to climatological theory, there are three months of winter. But if you're talking about temperatures that are cold enough to keep you from comfortably going outside, I'd say that you might have (on average) six days of winter.

Yes, that's correct. Six days. 2012 is an extreme example, but let's look at it for a second. One year ago, we had a week in January where the daily highs were 32, 40, 36, 28, 40, and 45. For twelve days in March, the high temp never went below 63 degrees (!).  Two months ago, it was 62 degrees on November 21st and 60 degrees on the 22nd.

Of course, I'm cherry-picking the warmest days, and the warmest year. But you could look through 2011, 2010, 2009, or just about any of the past 5-10 years to find scores of lovely wintertime days.  In these changing times, every year is the warmest year. These days, for most of the Minnesota wintertime the sun is shining, temps are in the 20s or 30s or 40s, and anyone with a decent coat can enjoy themselves in the outside world. I had two friends email me yesterday to let me know that they went on a walk outside. I'm not sure if they enjoyed it, but at least they got out there and gave it a shot.

The Cure for Cabin Fever

[Take two of these and call me in the morning.]
Here is your prescription. Get out your coat and hat, put on your shoes, and go for a stroll. (Warning: You might want to wait a day or two.) Find your nearest sidewalk, and learn to enjoy the way that wintertime sunshine warms you like a refrigerator light. It's like my grandma always said, up on the Canadian prairie:

"A sidewalk a day keeps the skyway away."

In fact, with the St Paul Winter Carnival coming up, this would be the perfect time to get your cabin fever vaccine. The Winter Carnival is the best example of our rich tradition of going outside in the wintertime. People used to do this all the time: walking around outside, sledding, skating, skiing, snowmen making, walking to buses, walking to stores, walking their dogs, watching their breath billow out while wearing dashing wool coats, knitten hats and warm woolen mittens.

The latest winter carnival treasure hunt clue says it all:
Walk your dog or jog a bit.
Grab your honey, park and sit.
Ride a bike; exercise the kids;
Winter allows what summer forbids.

The next time you're talking to a friend in Florida, traveling through Texas, or lounging in LA, and someone says something like, "Brrr, it's so cold!" when its 60 outside, and you're tempted to puff out your chest and scoff in their faces and say, "What are you talking about? Back where I come from, its -13 below on a warm day..." The next time you do that, remember these words and get outside. Walk the walk, and you just might realize that the unbreachable winter is a scarce commodity, rapidly fading. Remember that (as an ice fishing friend of mine likes to say), there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Remember that there aren't six months of winter, that it's 70 degrees in April and 80 in October.  Remember that 95% of the time you will enjoy walking outside, and that winter is no excuse for spending all your time in shopping malls or playing baseball indoors. Let's re-claim our proud Twin Cities' tradition of not shunning, but embracing our continental clime.


Alex said...

Your gramma is the coolest canadian ever!

Also, the walk yesterday was good, if somewhat painful.

Anonymous said...

Cabin fever's not what I thought it was ... I've usually heard it used to describe that climbing the walls feeling you get when you start thinking that if you don't get OUT, NOW, you'll go insane.

But I recognize the symptoms you described: instinctual aversion to the out-of-doors, pseudo-domesticity manifesting as self loathing, various forms of obesity, and persistent stuck-in-rut syndrome.

In places like southwestern NM (where we typically have WAY more than six months of summer every year,) it's worse when the weather's hot,

Bill Lindeke said...

Actually, what you're describing is a dangerous form of late-stage domesticus winterphobicus, where the condition has progressed to a point that's almost beyond remediation. If you have a patient who is displaying those symptoms, it is best to handle with care, bundle them up, and place them on the nearest porch for up to 30 minutes. A popular home remedy is to put them on a sled and let gravity do the rest.