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Thursday, Dec. 11, 2003 02:20 pm

Grace about town

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The only family Christmas tradition I remember vividly from my childhood is piling into the car and driving around looking at lights while my brother and I fought in the back seat. I can't remember what we were fighting about, but I'm sure it was all his fault.

We've never been so big on tradition in my family, but we did start a new one a few years ago. Christmas Karaoke.

It began with traditional Christmas disco-dancing. After one Christmas dinner we sat around the fire trying to stay awake, and somebody replaced the Christmas music with a disco CD. Pretty soon everybody was shaking and gyrating all over the living room.

This naturally evolved into Christmas Karaoke. We have gobs of funny hats, musical instruments like castanets and kazoos, plus random silly pieces of clothing. Everybody put together an outfit and performed his or her favorite song.

My brother David belted out a show-stopping "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" by the Gap Band. He wore a silver hat with a feather, a green cape, and mirrored sunglasses. My Aunt Sandy, an enormous styrofoam wig on her head, poured out "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" to a Pee Wee Herman doll. Mom, resplendent in a Carmen Miranda hat and pink Chinese jacket, boogied to "Lovely Rita, Meter Maid." Sister-in-law Vivian and niece Mercedes did a rousing duet of "I Will Survive."

At various points throughout the night, everybody jumped up to dance along with whoever was singing. We videotaped the show, and adding to the high-quality production value is Gizmo the dog, barking furiously throughout.

But on to more grave and pressing issues -- Christmas is really looming now, and I haven't bought one gift yet. I have, however, added to last week's fabulous shopping opportunities:

First, Big R, out on Dirksen Parkway, past the new Super Wal-Mart. Big R is great all year 'round, with lots of overalls and outdoor stuff, but they've also got a cool collection of toys. What child wouldn't want a toy hedge and weed trimmer? And twenty bucks will get you a die cast metal hay elevator (for ages three and up). But what really fascinates me about Big R is the stuff I never thought about, like baby pig feeders and automatic egg timers. Even if you don't actually need a salt lick, it's good to know where to find them.

For gifts of a more shiny nature, at 1716 MacArthur Blvd. you'll find Once in a Blue Moon. Unfortunately, it's only open for a few holiday months, but it's crammed with everything sparkly and glittery. Jewelry, ornaments, clocks, wall hangings, mirrors, and old-fashioned looking wooden signs with sayings on them. I'm not a fan of such things generally, but I liked one in particular that read "if you are smoking in bed, you had better be on fire." I've been there three times so far, and next time I'm definitely going to buy something for somebody besides me.

Farther down MacArthur, before the Wabash curve, is Penny Lane. I don't know what your impression of Penny Lane might be, but they've got fantastic stuff. Right when you enter are metal wind chimes and hanging sun catchers, all ornamented with colorful glass balls. They're a steal, at $9 to $23. I own three of them, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to give at least one away.

I just found a poster room there that I never knew existed. Everything from cartoons to rock, most of them only ten bucks. They've got jewelry for your whole body, including any part that might be pierced, everything incense, and all kinds of clothing. One rack isn't divided by sizes, but by names -- Bob Marley, Phish, Pink Floyd, the Beatles.

And finally, a couple of downtown stores on 6th Street you can't miss -- the Cardologist, where fifty pennies will get you a rubber chicken, the perfect stocking stuffer. They have the most extensive collection of action figures I've seen, including Einstein, Shakespeare, Jesus, Rosie the Riveter, and Moses. The place is chock-full of funny little items that will bring a smile to anybody's face (Sigmund Freud bobble-head, anyone?).

Next door is Springfield Novelties and Gifts. Every time we go there, Mom says, "This place is just like the dime store." And it is, with everything from Lincoln shot glasses to the original Slinky. All kinds of games from when you were a kid, like Tiddly-Winks, and a fabulous assortment of paint-by-number kits. And if you're out of hair spray, gold doilies, or brown gravy mix, they've got you covered.

Shop, shop, shop, to make time for what truly matters. Like Christmas Karaoke -- I highly recommend karaoke for you and yours. It's fun for all, requires no shopping or wrapping, and it beats sitting around eating too many Christmas cookies.

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