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TODAY

Monday, April 22

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Airbags

I'm not normally one to get all down about grey skies, cold weather, snow and ice. This is not normal though. Maybe I just have a short memory, but this February seems like it has a lot more than just one extra day. It's been too icy and cold to even think about playing outside this week. We are in the long dark home stretch of winter, and the only bright spot — aside from the occasional sunny day — has been following Barack Obama's campaign. We've been fairly content to stay home for the most part. The problem is that no one is getting enough excercise. There is only so much running around indoors that kids can do before the adult on site goes off the deep end. Both boys were given scooters for Christmas and have been wearing a groove around the living room, into the kitchen, through the dining room and back to the living room. Wrestling uses a lot of boy energy, but not always enough. Sometimes wrestling only creates a pent-up energy vortex, and can lead to real fighting. Jumping jacks are good, but no one is all that gung ho for the organized calisthenics. Dancing is fun, but no one ever wants to dance with me. So we have come here, to Monkey Island. Both boys, and their friend, are red faced, sweating, swilling water and panting. Mission accomplished.

Monkey Island is a bizarre place. 41,000 square feet of former warehouse, out in the no-man's land industrial zone way out west in Melrose Park. There is no sign, no gaily painted facade, or giant waving themed character, just a printed vinyl banner hanging off of the side of a nondescript building at the end of a long passageway through offices, storage facilities and wearhouses. One would never guess that inside the cavernous building there are all manner of blow up, jump on, climb on equipment. Supposedly there is a velcro wall, and velcro suits that you can put on and jump onto the wall and stick. It's out for repairs at the moment. There is a blow up soccer field, a toddler playground and an enormous human habitrail with tubes and ladders and lookouts. The sound of a thundering blower furnace kills the noise of the kids yelling and laughing. I've stationed myself as close as possible to the heat, but it's freezing in here, I'm wearing my winter coat, hat and scarf.

Right now, I am seated at a metal table in the eating area, designated by the brown astro turf in a sea of green. The boys are somewhere behind me running around like mad with about 50 other kids. It's not crowded at all in here, and in fact, I can't imagine how this place makes money. I'm sure it's a different story on weekends, and I hope to never find out. Supposedly, according to the website, there is a coffee bar. That sounded appealing, but the coffee is sitting in a thermos, with cylindrical container of non-dairy creamer and some Sweet'n'Low sitting next to it. Not exactly a coffee bar, it's not even as nice as the coffee offered to me at the Jiffy Lube. There is the usual round of snacks: pizza, luke warm hot dogs, candy, Gatorade. No outside food is allowed, though looking around I'm seeing plenty of sippy cups and tupperware, so I know I'm not the only one who snuck in some pistachios, pretzels and water. This applies to all places of this ilk: if we can't bring in our own food, could you please offer something remotely not gross? I don't even need a fancy coffee, but how about tea? Hot water? Some Tea bags? That's not unreasonable, is it?

All of the kids here seem to be named Tyson and Brody and Pierce, MacKenzie and Mikayla. One boy, Pierce, is sitting next to me, in time out for hitting his friend Tyler. His mother seems unable to let it go, and I can see that this routine is old hat for young Pierce. He is agreeing with everything his mother is saying; she is leading him. "Did Tyler hit you first?" Objection, your honor. Get that monkey back to the island.

Looking over I see a kindred spirit, a lone woman, huddled for warmth on her picnic bench, head in a book. The lights, enormous halogen spots, barely make a dent; the room is shadowy, half lit, dreamy. The windows along the front wall offer a view of gray suburban sky, enormous rectangular buildings and semi trailers lined up to recieve and unload at the neighboring wear houses.

A year ago I wouldn't have set foot in this place because I would have had to spend all of my time locating a wayward 3-year-old. Now, at almost 5, he is out there on his own, running with the pack. He only got in one fight today, with a girl — wouldn't tell me what the problem was, but they solved it the old fashioned way, with bare-fisted boxing.

There are three employees. One has spent the entire three hours that we've been here vacumming, and I may be hallucinating, but I swear she has been vacumming the same spot over and over. One works behind the snack bar, lazily fishing hot dogs out of the steamer. The third, an athletic looking and extremely energetic man is in perpetual motion, but, as far as I can tell, isn't really doing anything besides walking around alot, talking on the phone. I imagine that the money being lost every weekday rests on his shoulders. Heating this place on a subzero afternoon has got to cost more than the $500 or so the crowd has brought in today — $8 a kid, $4 per adult. They are open until 9pm. I can't imagine a more desolate place than the Monkey Island parking lot at 9.

The indoor playground phenomena is not new, they seem to be popping up everywhere. I suppose it all started with The McDonald's play place phenomena. We've availed ourselves of the roadside play place from time to time on long road trips. It's a great idea — kids have a place to run around and get their energy out, for the cost of a milkshake, or nothing at all. Paying to play (especially at $8 per kid and $4 per adult) isn't something I am normally willing to do, but extreme weather calls for extreme measures. They're getting exercise, I know I'll have some tired kids, and baby it's cold outside.

Three hours later, when I'm feeling more and more like I am in a waking dream or a Samuel Beckett play, I declare that it's time to leave the island and head back to the mainland. The boys are happy and exhausted, and for once don't express any sort of reluctance to go along with my plan. We head out of the parking lot, into a dreary, snowy, late afternoon, and it is all I can do to keep the 4-year-old awake until we get home. I didn't move much while I was on the island but I am exhausted; more exhausted than I have been in months, and so chilled that the only thing for me is a hot bath and bed. I feel like Shackleton, safe at last, home. How good it must have felt, to climb into bed and pull up the blankets, knowing that in the morning there would be tea, and fire.

All I can think about is spring. And summer. I imagine all of this ice melting, and I imagine the beginnings of green. First we'll see the green shoots coming up, the first signs of spring. The forsythia will be the first to bloom, bright yellow! And then the tulips, and the daffodils, and grape hyacinth, and after that it's just one thing after the next, until it's all leggy and weedy and there are kids running around spraying each other with hoses. Somewhere in there we'll get the urge to turn over the vegetable patch and set some seeds and seedlings into the ground. Maybe this summer will be the one where I don't let it all get too wild, and forget about the carrots. I like to forget about the carrots though, because then in November, when we will all hopefully be happy and rejoicing and not feeling like we got sucker punched, we'll be able to dig up some carrots, out of the almost frozen ground, and put them in a salad, or bake them with some brown sugar.

The beach, picnicing, playing at parks again. Getting soaking wet on a hot afternoon, making a giant mud puddle under the swing. The building of the treehouse, the eventual ripening of the mulberries, which will keep us off of the back porch and have me plotting to chop down the mulberry tree for most of June and July. We'll see our neighbors again, we'll eat popsicles. We will ride our bikes. We will camp and travel and go down to the Crown Fountain and hopefully see some movies in the parks. Barbecueing, the fourth of July, going out on boats. Getting super hot at the zoo and spending the afternoon in the little river out back in the Hamill Family Play Zoo. Tie dye parties. Mornings on the porch swing with the paper and books and coffee. Ice, gray skies, snow, sub zero temperatures will all fade into the past and we'll be able to say, on the hottest hot day of August, "Well, at least it's not February."

For a complete list of indoor playgrounds, visit GoCityKids. Indoor playground pricing varies; none of them are cheap, though many offer sibling discounts and punch cards.

We'll be taking the bus over to The Nature Museum to check out a cool sounding exhibit, "Wild Music, Songs and Sounds of Life," that is running through April 27. While there, we'll stop in and visit with the butterflies and check out the frozen pond. Winter is definitely easier to take if you get out and stomp around in nature, frozen as it may be.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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