The Current

10 Ways to Beat the Dog-Days-of-Winter Blues

Embrace the season between.

Start looking forward to spring by growing herbs on your kitchen windowsill.     Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

If winter seems to be taking a break from your neck of the woods, embrace the warm weather by biking to work or school.

Warning: If you just got in from shoveling a foot of fresh snow for the third time this week, or haven't seen the sun in months, or are bracing for the imminent return of the polar vortex, skip the next paragraph (salt in the wounds). 

The warmest winter Olympics in history just wrapped up in Russia, where alpine skiers and freestyle riders were plowing through slush, and spectators cooled off with a dip in the Black Seas. In California, the Sierra snowpack is down by nearly 75 percent. The jet stream is parked over the northern Rockies, and trails in southern Colorado are bone dry. And here in Santa Fe, the mountains are melting out at an alarming rate.

Meanwhile, there have been so many snow storms back East this month that I've lost track. My friend in Minnesota, land of ice tsunamis, reports that she can step out of her SUV straight onto snowbanks. Her DIY backyard ice rink is in primo skating condition. My stepmother has spent the last two weeks on her Virginia farm digging out her horses.  

Does anyone else have weather whiplash? It seems the extremes are all anyone can talk about these days. Instead of fires versus floods (don't worry, that's coming), it's drought vs dumps, and it seems almost no one's happy. Too much snow in the wrong places, too little snow where it's needed—and wanted most. The most stalwart of seasons has gone haywire on us, but spring break is still weeks away. 

Sure, you can start scheming and dreaming about a beach vacation, but winter's also a terrific time to practice being where you are. I know I'm restless when I start feverishly planning our next family adventure. For the past few weeks, though, I've being trying something different; the best way to describe it is chilling out and resting in my regular life. This doesn't mean doing nothing, but being happy with what I'm doing, when I'm doing it. In her book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, Zen teacher Karen Maezen Miller writes about finding beauty and meaning in the most mundane of family tasks, and her motto for letting life play out: Let's just see how it goes. 

Whether you're inundated with snow or desperate for more, here are ten ways to make the most of the last six weeks of winter, without leaving home or putting out a lot of cash. See how it goes. 

  1. Stop whining
    Weather is a lot like dogs: usually fairly uncontroversial and a safe conversation starter. Even if you have nothing in common with someone, you both share the weather. No wonder then that we love to moan about it; the weirder the weather, the more animated our discussions (guilty). My husband can easily spend the first five minutes on the phone with his parents in Florida comparing notes about local temperature, forecasts, and precipitation. Idle small talk is one thing, but reflexive, habitual whining is a downer for all involved. I'm not suggesting you be passive, just that you pay attention and try to stop generating pointless negativity that doesn't change anything; with the energy you save from futile whining, you can actually do something to be part of the solution (see No. 3) or get creative and find a way to enjoy the weather that is (see No. 4).
  2. Do less, plan less
    The other day I picked up my daughters from school; it was a Tuesday, with no organized activities, and I was wracking my brain for something we could do. Turns out I didn't have to figure it out. All the girls wanted to do was play on the playground in the school yard. I thought about calling a friend to invite her to join us for an impromptu play date, but I'd left my phone in the car, so it was just the three of us and a couple of second graders in corduroy bellbottoms. The girls goofed around on the monkey bars, swung on the jungle gym, and shimmied like firemen down a ten-foot high pole. It was mild enough to take our coats off, and we had nowhere to be until dark, so we just hung out, while the girls made their own fun. It was simple, the way my sister and I used to play when we were little, before children's lives became so scheduled they required calendars of their own, and it felt fantastic. The lesson: Stop trying so hard and just wing it every once in a while. 
  3. Save the snow
    I'm generally an optimist, but the past few weeks of mild, dry weather in the Sangre de Cristos—make that the past four years—are making me wonder if winter is dying in New Mexico. Will our daughters, who learned to ski in the Sangres, still be able to ski here in 20 years? If the non-profit Protect Our Winters has anything to say about it, yes. Founded by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones in 2007, POW is a collective of athletes, entrepreneurs, ski resorts, and corporations committed to combating climate change, mobilizing America's more than 21 million snow sports enthusiasts, and saving winter as we know it. Join POW and your contribution will go toward supporting snow sports advocacy on Capitol Hill and grassroots efforts at mountain playgrounds around the country. POW has partnered with The North Face to create "Hot Planet Cool Athletes" assemblies geared toward middle- and high-school students, an inspiring way to bring climate change curriculum to the classroom. The multimedia assemblies are free and ready to roll. Check out protectourwinters.org for more info on how to engage your kids in the issue and bring the program to your child's school. Keep the conversation going by picking up a copy Porter Fox's illuminating new book, Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow
  4. DIY backyard Olympics 
    Make a backyard snow cave or flood your lawn to build an ice rink. Turn that head-high snowbank into a kicker and invite the neighbors over for a shovel-sledding Olympics. Small, collapsible avalanche shovels from G3 and Backcountry Access are perfectly bum-shaped sized for adults and kids alike, and the short handles are less likely to smack you in the face. Or try the lightweight, super-portable Quickie shovel sled from TSL Outdoor made in France of durable plastic; it weighs half a pound and costs $5. For putting down a fast sledding track at the park, we're partial to the handmade wooden flyers from Colorado-based Mountain Boy Sleds.
  5. Family digital detox
    If your family is like ours, screen time tends to skyrocket during the colder months, when we spend less time outside. Curb constant distractions and winter ennui by giving up cell phones, tablets, and mobile devices for a week. This means no more obsessively checking the weather forecast on your phone, wasting time whining on Facebook, posting pictures to Instagram, or sticking your kids in front of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on Youtube while you make dinner. Unless you really do want to fall into a black hole, you'll need to lay the groundwork with your friends, family, and colleagues before hand: where to reach you and when you'll respond to email (this New York Times story suggests no more than twice a day). Seven days of simply being where you are with the people you're with just may be the late-winter reboot you need. With the time you save on mindless internet trolling, you can mindfully focus on numbers one through nine. 
  6. Get rid of ten things this week
    If you're house-bound and antsy, take the opportunity to clear away some of the clutter and create more physical and mental space. Make piles of outgrown outdoor gear, clothes, books to pass along to friends' kids or donate to your local shelter (call ahead to see what they accept). Enlist your children's help in thinning their herd of stuffed animals and other toys they've long since forgotten. You'll get a clean slate and a jump on spring. 
  7. Break out the bikes
    Weather's not cooperating? Switch seasons. If the streets are clear, break out the bikes and ride to school, like we've been doing the past week. If the mornings are still cold, the kids will need gloves and buffs under their helmets. Or take them to the park to polish their skills before hitting the trails or the pump track. Check bikes for soft tires and brake levers that actually work, or bring them into your local shop for a safety once-over.
  8. Swim
    There's something inherently cozy about plunging into a chlorinated pool when it's 30 degrees outside: the reassuring chemical smell, the echoey shouts of the high school swim coach, the utter silence underwater. If your children don't know how to swim, winter's a great time for lessons at the local Y or community center. By the time summer, you'll both have more confidence around open water.  
  9. Plant something
    With the sun getting stronger, it's a great time to grow a windowsill garden. Herbs such as thyme, rosemary, basil, and dill love a bright, south-facing kitchen sill. Sow seeds in potting soil in small terra-cotta planters (or any small container with drain holes and a a saucer) or buy small plants at your local nursery. They can be transplanted to outdoor pots or the garden after the last frost. Put your kids in charge of watering (they should be damp but not drowning). Every winter, we like to nestle paper white bulbs in pots full of gravel and place them in a dark, cool place for a week or so until they start sprouting; once they're in full bloom—and sweetly fragrant—we move them to the kitchen. A good reminder that winter is a time to grow, too. 
  10. Document the season
    Encourage your children to take photos, write poems, or draw pictures of winter on its way out. The birdseed-encrusted pinecone dangling from the bare crabapple, the sleeping dog with muddy paws in the air—anything that captures the season is fair game. With images and words and items you forage outside, you can assemble a family scrapbook—not an online gallery that you never look at, but a real, 3-D, old-fashioned album that you can pull off the shelf and flip through, and keep filling as the weeks go by. Kolo makes a terrific range of cloth and leather albums and binders, with protective pocket pages to display all the goodies. If your kids are multimedia whizzes, arm them with a GoPro or a cell phone video camera to make their own documentary. Open your eyes to what's around you—there's beauty in all kinds of weather. 

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