Jovial January Jaunts: The Winter Blues Are for the Birds!

Take a skate! (Photo by Karl Hornfeldt at

Every December 22nd, like clockwork, just hours after Earth’s North Pole has tiptoed a few inches back from its maximum annual tilt away from the Sun, I’ll get a text message from my uncle Sam.

“Notice how long the days are getting?”

Such an uncle joke. But it’s a hopeful thought, isn’t it? The darkness is already receding.

That said, when I glance away from the sky and back to my calendar, I can’t help but observe that I’m still in the throes of early winter, with a long slog to go until the ice melts, crocuses start breaking through the soil, and I can stop having the urge to drive home from work and just get right into bed.

Some of us need a little pizzazz besides our morning coffee and a good puzzle to keep us chipper in January. For me, the remedy for winter blahs—or blahs at any time of year—is to take a drive and do something new. Sure, it requires a little oomph to get off the couch and bundle up for a ride (making sure your winter emergency car kit is on hand, of course)—and sometimes it even takes a friend tapping their watch in your face before you’ll turn off the Netflix and leave the house. But you’ll be glad you did.

As the monthly editor of the Iowa Source calendar of events, highlighting entertaining happenings of note all around Eastern Iowa (see the monthly online calendar), whenever I hear someone say “there’s nothing going on around here,” I usually beg to differ. Just close your eyes and play a little game of pin the tail on the newspaper. Literally take a stab at those seven pages and you’re bound to jab at something cool or curious. A concert, a class, some comedy.

To those who say, “I don’t want to drive an hour to do that, it’s too far,” think of it this way: If you lived in, say, Chicago—a city packed with theaters and concert halls and museums and parks—whenever you embarked on a cultural outing, you’d likely have to plan for, on average, an hour’s travel time to get there by El train, bus, or car. Around here? Same commute time, just different scenery. And much better parking!

Let’s all be rural metropolitans this month—case studies for seasonal anti-depression.

North Liberty Lights

North Liberty Lights & Beat the Bitter

Every December I wipe a little tear away as I take my final glimpse of the veritable sea of sparkles that is the Festival of Lights in Mount Pleasant. If you ask me, after the holidays is when we need twinkling lights the most,which is why I was delighted to discover a lights display in North Liberty that opens this year on January 26 and doesn’t close until late February, replacing a seasonal gap of glacial gloom with a colorful lighted path around Liberty Centre Pond, flickering on every night at sundown. Featuring glowing orbs, tunnels, penguins, and ice-skating polar bears, the half-mile North Liberty Lights loop trail can be enjoyed at your leisure, for free, on foot or by bike. Feeling adventurous? Take part in the “5K-ish Glow Run” on opening night, or treat yourself to a rickshaw rollick on February 10, when you can get a free bicycle carriage ride around the lake. Hop in, Grandma!

North Liberty Lights is one of many offerings that are part of the town’s Beat the Bitter festival—brilliantly enticing its residents and visitors to “embrace winter with the passion of a Norseman” and join in the ongoing Winter Games & Good Cheer. Take a skate on the outdoor Scheel’s Ice Rink from January 8 to March 17. Bring the kids on a Winter StoryWalk featuring Angela H. Dale’s children’s book Bus Stop around Liberty Centre Pond through the end of February. Light up the night with the annual Fire & Ice spectacle that features fire spinners and jugglers, a bonfire and marshmallow roast, horse-drawn carriage rides, ice sculpture artistry, and fireworks on January 28. And boost your spirits with other free and ticketed events that spill into February—including the popular Snuggie Crawl for adults (which often sells out), a pondside Sip & Stroll wine-tasting walk, and a Polar Puzzle Sprint—a 500-piece puzzle race at the library.

Me? I’m still thinkin’ ’bout that rickshaw ride.

The winter months are perfect for watching bald eagles as they soar along Iowa’s rivers and streams to hunt. (Photo by Matthew Schwartz)

Eagles & Ivories

We feature this one in our calendar every January, and it just tickles my ivories. It’s a four-day bird-watching ragtime-music mashup! The 30th Annual Eagles & Ivories will be held this year from January 18–21 in Historic Muscatine, right on the river.

This event has brought in dozens of world-renowned pianists and musicians over the years to entertain ragtime, jazz, and classical music lovers from Iowa, Illinois, and beyond. Ivory & Gold—the versatile husband-and-wife team Jeff and Anne Barnhart, who’ve played for packed houses on six continents—are among the most popular recurring guests.

While the musicians don’t perform jazz for the actual birds—winter on the riverfront is a frigid affair for bare hands and tuned instruments—you yourself can bundle up for some memorable (and free) Saturday eagle viewing at the Pearl City Station and Lock & Dam 16. In January, the conjugations of our nation’s favorite raptor along the river are rather impressive. The frothy turbulence created on the business end of the Mississippi’s dams provides patches of unfrozen water and a dishevelment of dizzy fish who barely know what got ’em. Swoop and dive, jump and jive. When you’ve had your fill of feathered baldies, thaw out with more concerts, cabarets, and silent-movie music at various cozy indoor venues across town.

Richard Thomas in To Kill a Mockingbird (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

This Mockingbird Is Killing It

Speaking of birds, I am beyond excited to see Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork To Kill a Mockingbird, coming to Iowa City for a five-show run between January 19–21 as a part of Hancher Auditorium’s Broadway series. Starring Richard Thomas (first known as John-Boy in The Waltons) as Atticus Finch and directed by Bartlett Sher, this production is “a real phenomenon, majestic and incandescent … filled with breath and nuance and soul” (New York Magazine). Rolling Stone gives it five stars. Word-class theater at our doorstep.

I’ve neither read nor seen any version of Harper Lee’s story that I didn’t love. And I’m sure the curious spirit of Scout has informed my own written characters from time to time; I’ve been accused of that anyway, and I take it as a compliment. I’m counting the days ’til the play. I might treat myself to a cozy nibble at Le Creperie first. It’ll make for a great “artist date.”

Chowdown improv of Des Moines

Improv & Comedy, Iowa Style

If you love live theater but can’t do “heavy” right now, maybe it’s the moment to take a mini tour of Iowa’s comedy stages and improv outfits. Paula Poundstone and Demitri Martin are busting some funnies at the Englert Theatre this month; maybe I’ll go point my face at that. (Sorry. Demitri Martin joke.) But I’m also feeling the call to support some of the smaller clubs and improv ensembles that have been chugging—and chuckling—along for quite some time now.

Maybe I’ll catch Chowdown Improv Comedy at xBk Live in Des Moines on January 6. These fast-paced seasoned improv artists purport to “seamlessly weave together jokes, characters, and stories on the fly, leaving you in stitches.” That sounds pretty all right. Des Moines is also home to Teehee’s and Funny Bone comedy clubs.

ComedySportz in the Quad Cities hosts competitive improv “matches” on Friday and Saturday nights. Joystick Comedy Arcade in Iowa City presents Joke-E-Oke (comedy and karaoke) on Thursdays and hosts a regular Sunday Comedy Open Mic. Burlington Auditorium presents its BRE Comedy Thursdays each month (no show in January, but there is one on February 1st). Or maybe you wanna take an improv class, catch an act, or try the comedy open mic at the Lucky Cat in Cedar Rapids. Speaking of the Rapids, you might find me at CSPS Hall on February 2nd watching Living Improverty, an improv team whose moniker itself makes me laugh out loud.

Meanwhile, Thursdays bring the Tomato-Throw Show to the Comedy Bar in Dubuque—where audiences decide who’s funniest with (fake) tomatoes! I mean, how tempting is that?

More January comedy shows have surely been announced since I penned this, so check online for updates about a few more board-trodders on my shortlist: Comedy Xperiment, Des Moines’s longest-running improv troupe, is approaching legendary status; and Iowa City’s “only professional long-form improv team” Lady Franklyn at Willow Creek Theatre Company sounds terrifically tempting. Also stay tuned for news of Willow Creek’s upcoming 2 Important, 2 Earnest spoof. Classic Oscar Wilde meets a car-chase musical? Comedy writers and innovative Iowa theater artists, I slap a knee in your general direction!

Take a Skate

Winter’s conditions didn’t make good ice this year on your uncle’s pond? Find ice elsewhere! Try the Brenton Skating Plaza in Des Moines, open from November to March, offering open-air skating at the scenic Riverwalk downtown. There’s always the year-round rink at the Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville, as well as Scheels’ Ice Rink in North Liberty, mentioned above, open until spring thaw.

Prefer an iceless rink? Burlington Auditorium invites you to try The Rink for a great skate on artificial ice! On Fridays and Saturdays, bring your own blades to this newish indoor venue, or rent a pair. Burlington is also home to another kind of classic, on wheels, open weekends. I’ve witnessed some stunts over there that stunned me.

I mean, have you ever seen someone gather speed, slip off a skate, sit down on it, lean back, and coast—totally prone—right under the limbo bar? Why waste your time with TikTok when you can see the real thing at Kenny’s Roller Ranch?

Meredith Siemsen

Meredith, an Iowa native, was baffled when she earned her high school's writing award in 1993. It wasn't until twenty years later that she discovered she actually enjoyed wordcraft. (Too bad she's still a two-fingered typist.) Thanks for reading, friends!