Don't Let Winter Kill You 

How to shake off your misery and fight back in style

Yeah baby it's cold outside. The sky's a perpetual handsome shade of gray that unites in a monochromatic shitpile with the sludge accumulating alongside every sidewalk and parking lot. The days are short, commutes are long, and we've only just begun this somber slog. But hell, let's have some fun. Winter brings each of us a series of choices to be made. We can slug a few more pills and retreat under the covers — and indeed this can make Monday seem like Mardi Gras for a while, we can tell you from experience — or we can embrace it for the latent wonders each snowfall and freeze reveals.

Following are a few of our favorite ways to while away the winter. Try one on for yourself, or share you own sanity strategy at facebook.com/clevelandscene or tweet 'em out to @cleveland_scene.

We love this town through thick and thin. But a few reminders why never hurt.

Do Something Nice for People (Nobody Else Will)

Every December, we're bombarded with heart-wrenching stories about how you too can contribute coats or shoes or toys for tots, feed a needy family holiday dinner, or make some kid's Christmas wish come true. And you, dear Clevelander, come through like Brutus Beefcake with a folding chair every time, because we here in the epicenter of all that is just and humane know when to take care of a brother in need. And then January comes, and we get back to being emotionally needy bastards unto ourselves. Thing is, hunger pangs and bare shoulders and loneliness don't recede into 2011's footnotes once the calendar turns over. Food, clothing, and volunteers are still needed now — and all year 'round. The Volunteer Center at Business Volunteers Unlimited — a national group that pulls in thousands of volunteers to assist worthy nonprofits (find them at bvuvolunteers.org/volunteer-center.html) — has year-round opportunities no matter what kind of time or talent you have to offer. Or check with a local church or school to see what they need, now that the Christmas crush of volunteers has evaporated. Remember what the great prophet once said, or maybe it was Marty Schottenheimer: There are few better ways to lift your own spirits than by lifting those of others.

Take a Musical Adventure

Even the dark days of winter have a bright side all their own: Without all that lawn work, softball games, and yelling at neighborhood kids, you've got more time to conquer new cultural frontiers. Cleveland's astonishingly broad arts scene offers ample opportunities for musical Magellans. We all know this city rocks. But in a region that boasts a world-class symphony, a renowned institute of music, and music-centric programs in Oberlin and Berea, it's no surprise that classical versions of the art form are resounding from nearly every corner. Get off the beaten path and sample something you haven't heard before. Maybe some baroque music from Apollo's Fire or Les Delices. Blues, swing, gospel, and roots from the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, perhaps. A free violin recital at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Or for the true musical adventurer: Chart a course to the Cleveland Museum of Art for a Viva & Gala performance, its annual series devoted to sounds from around the globe. Feeling a little more lowbrow? Scope out a local club's eclectic weekly offerings (we can help!), and plan your aural escape. Music is a great way to travel, and this winter, your options are all over the map.

Be the Beer Man

Seasoned Clevelanders manage the chilly months exactly like they manage the warm ones: firmly tethered to a bottle of delicious alcohol, and preferably one of notable quality. The problem, of course: You must leave your house to procure such quaffable options. The solution: Brew your own beer in big honking batches, and let the experts idiot-proof the process for you. Start by selecting a day during which you will have to put on pants anyway, then head over to the Brew Kettle or the soon-to-open Bottlehouse Brewery in Cleveland Heights, pick out a recipe, and get to work learning about the fine art of intoxicants. After your session, say, at the Kettle, a hundred or so bucks gets you six cases of 22 oz. bottles — perhaps enough to last through the weekend! It's a fun and practical exercise in chemistry, and a sound way to ensure a safe home-bound hibernation till spring, by which time you should be sober enough to drive to the store.

Adopt a Live Footwarmer

If every kid wants a puppy for Christmas, very few puppies want a kid at that time. Pet experts warn against bringing a new animal into your house over the holidays, what with all the excitement and disrupted schedules and drunken uncles. But once the January doldrums set in and the poison-to-pets poinsettias have been composted, it's high time to bring a furball in out of the cold. Local shelters are teeming with homeless cats and dogs who'd jump at the opportunity to be your cuddling companion. Take one, or maybe even two — the Cleveland APL offers a discount for a second adult cat; ask for any more and they'll assume you're feeding a python. Science tells us that housepets know little of cabin fever and tax deadlines, so while you may have other miseries to keep at bay, your new little pal will remind you how to smile. Check out the Cleveland APL (1729 Willey Ave., clevelandapl.org), the Cleveland Kennel (2690 West 7th St., friendsoftheclevelandkennel.com), or the Cuyahoga County Animal Shelter (9500 Sweet Valley Dr., Valley View, cuyahogadogs.com). Many cities also have shelters; check your town's website.

Indulge Your Inner Geek

Come wintertime, the rest of us learn what homeless folks have known for years: The library is one hell of a welcome refuge from the storm outside. But never have they been this good. The Cleveland Public Library was recently named one of the country's top four libraries, and you can bet the other three bribed the judges. The Cuyahoga County Library — which serves no fewer than 52 communities — is also consistently rated near the top. Even local communities that run their own shops — say, Lakewood, for one — are raising libraries to a form of public art. So stop crying over bankrupt bookstores and jacked-up Netflix prices, and get to know your local repositories of heightened knowledge and mindless Nicolas Cage movies. These days, libraries are about way more than just books, music, and movies: You can check out computer software and games and even children's toys, or be enlightened by guest speakers and enrichment programs. Your tax dollars created these wonderful monsters; time to get out there and reap the rewards of your investment. Connect with the county library at cuyahoga.lib.oh.us; find the Cleveland Public Library at cpl.org. Chances are, everything you're craving resides in one branch or another, and they're happy to schlep it to the location nearest you.

Find An Easy Equatorial Escape

Slush may cover everything in sight, but lush green foliage is only minutes away. The Cleveland Botanical Garden's glass house features twin sections that sample the vegetation of the warmer climes of Costa Rica and Madagascar. Meanwhile, the two-acre RainForest at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo offers an even more exotic experience: more than 10,000 plants (not that you'll need that many) and 600 animals, plus a 25-foot waterfall across two levels. It's one of the largest exhibits of its kind, and the soft pretzels at the snack bar ain't bad either. Call it the ideal cheap immersive anti-winter inoculation — and call it yours year-round for the cost of a $72 zoo & RainForest family pass that comes with membership in the Cleveland Zoological Society. Daily rates run less than $10 bucks too, but we're guessing you'll crave a return trip.

Start Playing Around

There's good reason why "theater season" occupies the winter months: What better way to pass a frigid evening than snuggled down in a warm, dark room while talented performers spin tales around the footlights? Like McCluhan said: The medium is the message — and a "hot" medium like live theater is a message of renewal for winter-weary brains. Among the current options on area stages: Hair at the Palace Theatre, Antebellum at Cleveland Public Theatre, Spring Awakening at Beck Center, Ten Chimneys at Cleveland Play House ... hell, even the names are defrosting our toes. And before you rule out theater as too pricey an option, know that many companies offer discounts for students and seniors, along with reduced-rate previews and "pay what you can" performances. Among the best bargains: The Smart Seats program at Playhouse Square that lets you snag $10 tickets for shows that otherwise could set you back as much as $70. Check it out at playhousesquare.org.

Freeze Your Ass Off for Fish

Seasoned anglers and occasional fisherman alike sing the praises of Lake Erie's succulent walleye and tasty perch — and both species are horny for your hook this time of year. That's why so many take advantage of our backyard lake year-round. Yep, that means ice fishing — and it means partnering up for the adventure. When the lake freezes (and that won't happen till February this year, thanks to global warming that eventually will spell the death of virtually all living species, except for television news anchors), plenty of ice-fishing guides will be revving up the snowmobiles, hauling shanties, and packing up jigging lures and spreaders just so newly adventuresome folk like you can experience the peace and quiet — and delicious canned beer, and fish — to be found among the frozen waves. The area between Green and Rattlesnake islands, west of South Bass, offers some of the safest ice on the entire lake, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' winter ice-fishing guide. The ODNR website offers handy tips on how not to die fishing, as well as answers to common ice-fishing questions (e.g., no, you cannot get lake walleye and perch at Giant Eagle this time of year). It also maintains a verified list of competent ice-fishing guides. Because this should not be a jackass endeavor. An overnight trip including all gear, lodging, and a day and a half on the ice averages less than $125 per person. At prices like that, you can afford to take Mom too! Learn more at odnr.com.

Get Groped by an Islander

If you're like us — and here's hoping you aren't — you probably can't get your ass to Honolulu like you need to this time of year. But you can imbibe the spirit of the islands with a round of lomi lomi, an indigenous Hawaiian deep-tissue massage performed to traditional Hawaiian folk music. The term "lomi" means to massage and work in and out like the claws of a contented cat, which means "lomi lomi" is like two frisky felines going to town on you! Also referred to as "Loving Hands" (get yo' mind out the gutter!), the masseuse uses her arms, elbows, forearms, fingers, knees, feet, and sometimes bamboo or stones for greater leverage, the better to knead you out like fresh pizza dough in long, continuous strokes. The goal is to balance and harmonize your body's energy, and it's available locally from a variety of spas and massage therapists. Need a recommendation? Try Essence of Tranquility in lovely Fairview Park, which if you squint just right looks like Maui.

Become an Art Snob

Fresh research contradicts the long-held notion that lovers of the arts must also love clove cigarettes and Kerouac novels. These days, people who look and act strikingly close to normal are seen contentedly milling about the galleries and museums that dot our region like sprinkles on a cupcake. From East Side institutions like MOCA to hip West Side collectives like the 78th Street Studios, wandering among artwork is a fine way to add color to a drab Cleveland winter and make you feel one with your community. The options are almost endless: Spend the day strolling the galleries of Tremont. Visit the Old Masters at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Check out the local talent at Lakewood's Breakneck Gallery. Catch a rising star at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Or take advantage of a weekend opening celebration, not least for its free wine, cheese, and chances to hobnob with people who are way better than you at looking content with their lives. (Third Fridays at 78th Street Studios — coming up this week — are a particularly fine way to dine and opine on the Merlot and melba toast supplied by the studios' many gallery owners.) Our weekly Art page bursts with exhibitions, openings, and receptions: Visit a new spot each week, and by spring you'll know more than the critics.

Learn to Cook Something Already

On a biological level, we humans sequestered in winter climates crave substantial soul food: the warming, fat-building morsels of tastiness that double as exercises in passing the boredom away until the sun comes out again in a few years. But that ain't no reason to go heavy on the KFC. Maybe take the time you would otherwise spend giving snowmen the finger and channel it into learning how to cook something that takes longer to put together than a rerun of The Office. One meal. A handful of meals. It doesn't matter. You'll feel something as a result — perhaps gratification, maybe a little healthier, could be the sensuous hands of the significant other you just cooked for. Not to mention, it's cheaper than doling out cash at restaurants every night, and plentiful leftovers means better lunches tomorrow. You're a Clevelander who wants to cook? Take a cue from one of your brethren: Celebrated Cleveland culinary writer and curator of what could be the finest head of hair on any local foodie, Michael Ruhlman just released Ruhlman's Twenty: 20 Techniques 100 Recipes, a Cook's Manifesto. It's a great way to take some baby steps toward giant improvement in your kitchen.

Get a Room!

We really don't require palm trees and iguana guano to transport us from our icy existence. At times like these, there's nothing more available — and hell, economical — than a simple winter getaway. And there's a nearby one for every taste. For an instant splash of summertime, we're the nexus of a world of tropically themed indoor water parks that sit no more than about an hour away. And there's one for every tot you've got: At Great Wolf Lodge (greatwolf.com/sandusky), overnight packages that include park passes can be had for just a splash over a hundred bucks. With its wave pool and racier slides, Cedar Point's Castaway Bay (castawaybay.com) is the junior high of water parks, and it runs specials as low as $99 a night for room and park passes. The largest and most daring of Sandusky's toweled trinity is Kalahari (kalahariresorts.com/oh/deals/specials/), where a room, passes, and breakfast for four go for just $129 on some dates. And to explore the wonders of water in all its glorious phases, look east to Erie's Splash Lagoon, which offers combo packages for its indoor water park and nearby Peek 'n' Peak ski resort. For woodsy types and romantics, a Hocking Hills cabin complete with a snuggle in front of the fireplace can be had for a song. Winter price specials can dip as low as $35 a night for a nicely appointed yet rustic wilderness retreat for two. A comprehensive list can be found at hockinghills.com. Ohio's State Parks (dnr.state.oh.us/tabid/702/default.aspx) offer affordable escapes throughout the state, and there's a whole world of action all year long down in Holmes County Amish country. During cold-weather months, Berlin and Millersburg locals outnumber tourists who frequent their fine retail establishments to check out furniture, baskets, and cheeses, and you can join them — at much better overnight lodging rates than you'll find during the summer and autumn rush. Even the most popular inns and bed & breakfasts offer winter specials. Find yours at visitamishcountry.com.

Flick It Old-School

What's a movie fan to do during these earliest weeks of the new year, when the multiplexes are stockpiled with the government cheese of Hollywood cinema? Check out the Hollywood your great-grandfather grew up on: The Cinematheque's two-month Artists of the Silent Screen series fondly recalls cinema's first couple of decades, back when men were men — wildly gesticulating, voiceless men who woke each morning shrouded in the unyielding terror that talking films would be the death of them someday. But hey, that's not your problem! With The Artist (a contemporary spin on classic silent films) earning audience raves and Academy Award buzz, there's no better time to get to know the great movies that inspired it. We're now just one weekend into the Cinematheque's series, and upcoming screenings feature more than a dozen old-school classics like The Big Parade, Queen Kelly, Faust, and The Gold Rush. Visit cia.edu for a complete schedule, and get your conversations out of the way in the lobby.

Catch Some Grassroots Basketball

Former Cleveland State star Norris Cole might have taken his talents to South Beach, but Viking basketball is still well worth your dollars and an evening spent awash in college spirit. Especially because it takes so few dollars to enjoy Viking hoops. Coach Gary Waters doesn't have a single star this year, but he's got a team that's playing like it anyway, including last week's dismantling of mighty Butler on the road. There's no reason not to believe the Vikes can roll through the Horizon League tournament to earn its customary lone spot in the March Madness field. And from there, anything can happen. Secure a ridiculously affordable ticket to the Wolstein Center, and catch them on the road to madness. Better yet: Every weekday home game features "Hoopy Hour" — that's code for $2 draft beers for two solid hours prior to game time; come tipoff, you too will feel like a burly Viking. The regular season runs through February 25; get tickets online at wolsteincenter.com.

Go Snow Schlepping

Sometimes all it takes to best Old Man Winter is a willingness to laugh in his face. Bonus points for giggles that erupt as you ka-lumph around on snowshoes in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Turns out, nature looks lovely with a layer of snow, and modern, lightweight snowshoes give you easy access to places that would defeat even the sturdiest of boots. As long as the snow is at least four inches deep, you can rent a pair at two Peninsula park locations: The Winter Sports Center — where you'll also find a 1930s-era stone shelter with a warming hearth — is at 1000 Truxell Road; and the Boston Store Visitors Center is at 1548 Boston Mills Road. Rental cost is an affordable $5, but bring a driver's license or credit card as a deposit. For operating hours, dates, and snow-depth reports, call 800-257-9477 or visit nps.gov/cuv. If sledding or cross-country skiing is your preferred means of cold-weather commuting, the golf courses and other wide-open spaces of the Cleveland Metroparks offer all the free fresh air you can breathe — and they go so far as to point you to the best inclines they have to offer: clemetparks.com/visit/index.asp?action=featurelist&featuretype_id=1021. Of course, all of this assumes that your idea of cold-weather frolicking includes seasonal-appropriate attire. For the rest of us, it's time to skip straight to ...

Be a Polar Bear

Indeed, there may be no finer way to give Old Man Winter a wedgie than to brazenly plop your carcass into his waters. Polar bear plunges — those refreshing group dips into welcoming, 35-degree Lake Erie — deliver a big middle finger (and very shriveled other body parts) to the elements, and they do it for the most righteous of causes: Special Olympics. You've missed the big New Year's Day Polar Bear festivities, but the weather that day was so warm that even toddlers were joining in. Real polar bearers wait for winter's worst punch. And luckily, the coming months are littered with Polar Bear days across Ohio. Your two closest options are in Sandusky on January 28 and Geneva on February 26. So jump in, get out, revel in a job well done, and then get a damn towel. A big-ass, thick as hell towel. Check polarbearplunge.org for more info.

Chase the White Ball

Yeah, you can practice your swing at indoor golf clinics all over town, but why not best your summer buds and get out on a real course. "If you can see grass, there's a good chance we're open," says Lloyd Smith, clubhouse manager at Big Met in Fairview Park. In fact, each of the Metroparks' five 18-hole courses average 10 to 20 playable days during the winter — maybe more, the way this season's going. Expect to see a crowd on 45-degree days, but even when temperatures dip to the lower 30s, a few dozen golfers show up. "They get cabin fever," Smith says. Other options include Emerald Woods in Columbia Station, which unleashes arctic duffers on its 36 holes whenever weather permits. If it's a more carbohydrate-intensive round of golf you seek, don't forget Strongsville Rotary's annual Chili Open fund-raiser (chiliopen.com/). It's slated for February 25 at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds and offers a full day of raffles, contests, gobs of chili and beer — plus, the most charmingly makeshift round of golf you're ever likely to play.

Find a New Sport

We're in the doldrums of the Cleveland sports calendar: The Browns? Turning last year's "not good enough" into this year's even worse. The Cavs? Perfecting the art of the rebuilding year. The Indians? Hope springs eternal, but not for another two months. Happily, there are sporting options beyond the flat screen. For a longer time than most folks know, Northeast Ohio has been a hotbed of high school hockey. There are, of course, the private-school powerhouses such as St. Edward and Ignatius and University and Gilmour. But more and more public schools from east to west to south have developed strong squads of their own over the past decade. As a result, Cleveland teams make up the bulk of the competition in March's state tournament, and this year looks no different: According to the latest state polls, 6 of Ohio's top 10 teams hail from the righteous corner of the state. Games are played every week at local rinks on both sides of town, and the price of admission is small change compared to what it costs to get into any of our big-league factories of sadness. Never thought you were a hockey fan? Maybe it's time you should be.

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