Smile Politely

Hope for the Dead Days

So little of what could happen does happen.” –Salvador Dali

In the next room, my kids are listening to a book on CD about the “dead days of winter” – those days between Christmas and New Year’s – and I’m lying on the couch reading an Andrew Porter short story about a kid who disappears into a backyard hole. Christmas is only ten days away, it’s cold and dark outside, and really I just want to hunker down inside my house and read another story, or watch that documentary on the table about folks who attend balloon-twisting conventions (or “twist-jams” as they’re called).

I’m absolutely serious. These kinds of things give me hope for humanity, the way spotting a whirlygig collection in someone’s yard while on a road trip gives me hope. Yep, what really gets me through the “dead days” of winter is the knowledge that what could happen, sometimes really does, in spite of what Dali says.

So if I have to go out, then bring on the quirky, the uncanny, the spontaneous, the delightful, the unexpected. After the jump is a list of events and outings that have the capacity to get me out of the house and plug me into the alternative holiday grid.

1. Redmoon Theater’s “Winter Pageant.” This family-friendly Chicago show is part performance-art, part puppetry, part dance, part inexplicable experiential happening. There is only a week left (tickets are inexpensive, but call ahead for reservations), so if you are in Chicago next weekend and are looking for off-beat entertainment, then this would have to be it, unless of course you want to head over to the Hideout for:

2. The Hideout’s Christmas Dinosaur Panto: “Mutiny on the Beagle: A Darwinian Romp on the Open Seas in Search of the Jurassic Origins of Christmas.” One of my favorite Chicago bars hosts a family-friendly (early shows) pantomime show that inspires antics and audience participation. Female characters are played by males and vice-verse. If you’re looking for a smooth, highly-produced “Wicked”-esque musical event, this ain’t it, but if you want kooky casual, order up another Leinie and kick back for some fun here.

3. Please do the human race a big favor and, if you haven’t already done so, get down to St. Louis’ City Museum. The place gives me mouth-agape syndrome every time. And I love how the artists are randomly on-site, soldering rebar or plastering a stalactite. Art is process here with a capital P. And it reaffirms my faith in the fearless realization of our creative potential.

4. The Department of Chemistry’s Holiday Magic Chemistry Show at the University of Illinois’ Noyes hall. Yes, it’s over for this year, but put it on your radar for 2009. Nothing better than grad students and faculty in white coats setting Frosty on fire and imploding a marshmallow Santa. Free earplugs distributed to all.

5. Stake out the Alma Mater on Christmas Eve to find out who is putting all those Santa hats on structures and statues around town. Better yet, confuse everyone by getting there first and doing the same.

6. Ski dirt-cheap by piling in the car at 7 a.m. and driving 3 hours to Ski Snowstar where lift tickets will cost you ten bucks (15 on the weekend) until December 24th with a food pantry donation. The kids won’t notice there’s only something like 8 runs ‘cause it will take them at least an hour to tumble down the first one. I especially like this area because the hordes from Chicago are all up at Chestnut Mountain.

7. Or ski for a little more than dirt-cheap by taking advantage of 100-buck roundtrip fares to Denver from Indy on Southwest in January. Buy a 10 buck Gems card that will get you 2 for 1 lift tickets at the less “touristy” ski areas like Eldora or Wolf Creek. As a brief aside, I highly recommend these kinds of “under the radar” western ski areas that aren’t often marketed in the glossy ski magazines. Many of these areas, like Sipapu and Pajarito in New Mexico, Ski Cooper and Monarch Mountain in Colorado, and to a lesser extent, Shweitzer in Idaho, are great family areas that local working and middle class families prefer to the high-prices and crowds of the big name resorts. And even better, most of the smaller areas are locally owned and operated.

8. Much closer to home, there are the teppanyaki tables at Kamakura or Miko. It’s always entertaining to watch your chef balance an egg on his head or turn a tower of onion rings into a choo-choo train. And it’s warm.

9. Take the kids to Dallas and Company and buy some inexpensive magic tricks in the back room. The guy behind the magic room counter may show you one of his own tricks, or two, or three. We’ve even had Andy step up and do a trick for us. Mucho better than an instructional video!

10. Rent the golf cart at what used to be the Ridge Road Tree Farm, now Moore’s Trees, and go for a joy ride through the fields of pines, firs and spruces. Alas, the place is not what it used to be when the Schumaker’s owned it as a hobby farm, but a few traditions remain: the golf cart rental and the free hot chocolate on weekends. But now you have to sign a waiver…for the golf cart that is, not the hot chocolate.

So, bring on the waivers to sign and I’ll be first in line with a pen. Risky? You bet! But the payoff is always worth it when what could happen actually does.

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