Snowbound - A Winter's Tale

AS one major snowstorm after another has disrupted normal schedules in the Northeast this winter, complaints of ``cabin fever'' have echoed across the frosty landscape. Children stuck at home for yet another snow day whine that ``there's nothing to do.'' Adults, feeling similarly trapped, find excuses to make one more trip to the grocery store. Even cats are restless, meowing to go out but daunted by the mountains of icy whiteness beyond the door.

But never fear. To the rescue have come newspaper reporters, talk-show hosts, even anchors on the 6 o'clock news, all offering ideas on how to survive days and nights when the only sensible thing to do is throw another log on the fire and relax.

Relaxation is what stretched-thin Americans insist they want more of. But relaxation has apparently become a rusty skill, especially when it is involuntary and keeps too many people cooped up in too small a space for too long a time. And so expert suggestions abound: Clean the closets. Cook an unusual dish. Go for a walk. Do aerobics. If all else fails, watch another video.

One video-store owner measures the seasonal desperation by tallying rentals. On a single snowy day, he explains, 800 videos flew off the shelves and into suburban VCRs - twice as many as usual. But even videos can't keep at least one mother, interviewed at the supermarket by a TV reporter, from ``climbing the walls.'' She says, ``I just told my 10-year-old daughter I'm going to run away.''

For most winter-weary residents, running away involves nothing more dramatic than escaping to a nearby restaurant for dinner. One recent evening after another storm, the scene at a local pizza restaurant was comic as suburbanites crowded in and traded mock-heroic storm stories: who had endured the slowest and slipperiest commute, who had shoveled the longest driveway, who had entertained the largest number of children for the most hours.

This restless urge to flee the confines of well-equipped homes is a far cry from the activities John Greenleaf Whittier described more than a century ago in his famous poem ``Snow-Bound.'' Stranded in their lonely farmhouse for days by the ``swarm and whirl-dance of the blinding storm,'' Whittier's extended family had few resources to draw on: an almanac, a few books, a weekly newspaper.

Still, the group made do with simple pleasures: ``We sped the time with stories old,/ Wrought puzzles out, and riddles told,'' Whittier wrote. His father recounted his youthful adventures with Indians. His mother, spinning yarn and stories at the same time, told about her early years. The schoolmaster sang songs.

Finally, after a week of near-isolation, ``At last the floundering carrier bore/ The village paper to our door.'' Never mind that the news was a week old. What mattered was that ``Wide swung again our ice-locked door,/ And all the world was ours once more!''

As ice-locked doors have swung open across the East this week, life has returned to pre-storm routines. But the experience of being housebound may have given some Americans a new perspective on the plight of residents of Sarajevo, forced to remain indoors for extended periods to avoid snipers' bullets. A cease-fire last week enabled some children to play outdoors on a seesaw for the first time in nearly two years. Talk about ``cabin fever'' - and with not a Nintendo or video in sight. Their war-torn deprivation, in all its forms, makes trivial any other complaints.

Americans talk a good line about wanting solitude and less-busy schedules. Tranquility and time for reflection remain noble dreams. But put to the test, we modify our stance. We want our cars, our trips to the mall, our fast-food restaurants, our frenetic pace. No wonder the national motto sometimes seems to be: ``I'm overextended, therefore I am.''

For now, though, at least until March, snow slows the usual hurry-hurry pace. Snow spreads whiteness over the cityscape of aggressive colors and flashing lights. Snow muffles all of life's assertive noisiness in an insulating stillness. Snow, in short, challenges the very style of 1990s culture.

Digging out is a categorical imperative. But is there something freeing as well as imprisoning about being snowbound? It bears thinking about as the long-awaited thaw sets in.

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