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Cabin Fever

Editor's Notes

The fever started during lunch at a friend’s cabin on the Wisconsin River this spring. Over sandwiches and homemade potato salad, my friend offered us an open-ended invitation to stay for a week at the cabin during the summer. Still in giddy shock at the generosity of the offer, my wife Liz and I requested a four-day stretch beginning on June 5, which happened to be the day of the recall vote.

After voting that morning and flinging around e-mails at the office for a few hours—and trying to ignore constant recall updates on Facebook—we jumped in the car and sped off toward the cabin. As we drove over the Highway 14 bridge near Spring Green, I imagined the river as a barrier between me and my worries back in Madison, as if the slow-churning water molecules could generate enough of an electric charge to somehow sever the crushing demands of work, anxiety over a divisive recall election, and all the other sources of stress responsible for the thrumming in my temple.

Upon arrival, Liz opened the cabin windows and made the bed while I read aloud a note from our host with a few operational instructions (TV, stove, water heater, etc.), a list of common birds, and a reminder for us to watch out for poison ivy. I fired up the water heater, swept the screened-in porch, and filled the bird feeders, making sure to hang a suet cake directly in front of two beckoning Adirondack chairs on the porch. Liz fixed the gin and tonics and we got down to the business of relaxing.

But I couldn’t do it. I got up to futz with a small tear in the screen. In the basement, looking for wire, I instead found a hammock. Maybe a nap was in order? So, I set it up—now too tight, now too loose—out back on the deck. Did you bring the earplugs? I yelled to Liz as I tromped back inside and began digging through my Dopp kit (as if my nap was to be on shoulder of Highway 94 rather than on the quiet bank of the Wisconsin River).

“Really, honey?” said Liz, pointing to my chair. “Relax.”

It seemed I was in the grip of a different kind of “cabin fever,” a condition that made me incapable of turning off the rapid-fire (re)search-and-destroy functions so critical for my job as an editor.

Only weeks later in a June 29 New York Times article by Matt Richtel did I find a metaphor that brought into sharper relief the neuropsychology behind this common vacation-based ailment:

Picture a sedan tearing down the autobahn, its engine redlining. The driver slams the brakes. The car skids, spins, slams into guardrails and finally stops. This is your brain starting a vacation.

According to Richtel, my case of cabin fever could be traced to the “constant cycle of stimulation and response” found in a modern office setting. “Click or swipe, and something happens. And responding to a ping, researchers say, delivers a ‘dopamine squirt’—a little burst of adrenaline. The brain gets used to this stimulation and then craves it in its absence.”

On day two of my vacation I found a dopamine replacement for Twitter: bird watching. Not only were they visually stimulating and ever changing, but I could spend hours looking up different kinds of woodpeckers, which satisfied my itch for research.

On the morning of our last day, the bird feeders were empty; the birds of the forest had gone home or to another destination. Hopefully, they found some nourishment and at least of moment of respite before moving on.

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From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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