My Grand Canyon

I no longer have any need or desire to see the Grand Canyon. I have seen my driveway in late January, and I have to believe the two are very similar. Except for the colors in the steep sides of the Grand Canyon, I truly believe I have recreated this national treasure in my seventy feet of driveway. With over twice as much snow as usual by this time of year, the sides of the driveway stretch skyward, attaining a height of more than six feet in parts. And, like its larger cousin, you can see the passage of time in the strata.

"Here's the layer from the last week in December. Wasn't quite as cold and so the snow was wetter and compressed more. But if you look here at this layer from the last week of January, you can see that the snow was much drier, and crystalized more upon compaction. This darker vein is from a vicious cold snap in the middle of January when everyone was using their wood stoves, and that darkness is actually soot. 'Course, when spring comes - long about June or July - and some of this starts to melt, that soot will be carried back into the ground, returning to its origins, and eventually be sucked up the trunk of some other tree, bringing nutrients and life to that tree. But the really ironic thing is that that same tree will probably end up in a snowbank as soot someday, too."

It's easy to wax philosophic when you're spending two hours trying to throw fresh powder-snow up on top of the six-foot high banks and your whiskers have frozen and you look like an Arctic explorer minus his sled dogs. After all, what else do you have to do? One shovelful follows another, ad nauseum.

And have you ever noticed how a song gets stuck in your head when you're doing something very repetitive? And it' often a song you really don't like very much. Or something like Jambalaya or Suzie Q. One of the Creedence Clearwater Revival songs. Don't ask me why. Maybe we'll investigate that phenom more next time. Til then.


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli


I Should Have Raised Goldfish

The thought usually sneaks in late at night when the house is dark and quiet, dark and quiet except for the glow from Becca's nightlight in the hall and the steady gurgle-burble from the fish tank aerator. It comes in on silent, padded paws like a cat stalking its prey or walking around on the dining room table or kitchen counters. The thought comes in unbidden, starting somewhere deep in the darkest parts of your brain, slowly percolating up through the sleepy layers of thought until it hits the front of your brain where you can hear the voice inside your head that speaks your thoughts: If I had it to do over, I'd raise goldfish instead of children.

Don't get me wrong. I LOVE my children. I do. I love them with a fierceness only a father can know. I love them in a way they will never understand until they have children of their own. I truly love my children. And I know that someday they will be waiting for sleep to take them away from the stresses of the day and set them free to be stupid and irresponsible as we can only be in our dreams at night. And I know that someday the thought will come creeping in on tippy-toes to cast doubt on their love for their own children: If I had it to do all over again, I'd raise goldfish instead of children. Or maybe chinchillas.

What prompts the creation of this ugly thought? I never had thoughts like that when I was changing diapers, wiping up spilled baby "food", walking the floor at 2a.m. with a colicky infant, or enduring permanent spit-up stains on the shoulders of all my clothes. I never had these thoughts when I was helping them learn to ride a bike and I know I never had these thoughts when I watched them go off to school for the first time. But somewhere after sixth grade, sometime after the birthday party with twelve candles on the cake, somehow things changed and someone was different. Was it me? Or was it...him.

He's taller than me. His feet are bigger than mine (oh, wait...that's a good thing. I get to have all my own shoes again). His voice changed and now my own mother doesn't know if she's talking to her son or grandson on the phone. He shaves. He developed a physique that looks more like a man's than a boy's. He snickers when his parents share a double-entendre. He has girlfriends, a different one every few weeks. He'll be driving in six months.

Me? I'm just older. HE'S the one that changed so much. He turned into a teenager. A snarling, saber-toothed, bullheaded, independent teenager. How could he do this to me? He used to be such a happy little boy, so easy to please, so easy to handle. We had so much fun, even when he accidently broke my tooth with a swing. (OK. That was PARTLY my fault.) Even last summer when it was just the two of us, together on a camping trip for a week, we both came through it in one piece. Lately, though, a thought has been prowling around in my subconscious when I'm just drifting off to sleep: If I had it to do all over again, I'd raise goldfish. Or minks. Or even wolverines! Anything has to be easier than raising a teenage son!

My mother is a saint. She raised five boys (no girls). And she came through it unscathed (well, she does have a minor twitch...). I only had one boy, and he's really a fine young man deep down. He's just testing his wings, like we all did. Maybe this is all a test for me, not him. My daughter will be eleven at the end of March. Eleven going on sixty-four! Life will be throwing me some more curveballs, I'm afraid.

If I had it all to do over, I think I'd raise green beans.


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli


March Madness

It's never going to end, is it? Winter, I mean. It's never going to be warm here again. I am never going to experience the feeling of green grass beneath my bare feet again. I am never going to enjoy the breeze against my bare legs. Or the wobbliness that descends on you when your legs have turned to rubberbands from that last race uphill against your teenage son at the end of a family bike ride. Never again to enjoy the warmth of the sun on my face, the rich feeling of freshly-tilled garden dirt, the smell of a new-mown lawn. This is what I call March Madness.

Let the others call their sports dealies (pronounced dee-lees) March Madness. I know what real March Madness is. It's the feeling that you will never be warm again. That you will forever dress in so many layers of clothing that you look like a tick that's ready to pop. The hair on my legs will forever be stunted and irritated from wearing long-johns all year long.

For those of you unfamiliar with long-johns, let me say up front that they are a godsend. If someone had not invented them, they would have invented themselves. When you live in an arctic climate like we have here in northern Minnesota (ok, it's not really an arctic climate, but it's pretty darn arctic-like at times!) not even sturdy denim jeans like your mom bought you when you were eight-years-old will keep the cold from sneaking up under your cuffs and crawling up toward your thighs. And those were good jeans, too. I don't know when they quit making jeans like that but they shouldn't have.

Jeans use to be stronger than steel. These were jeans created in some Norse-legend forge like Thor's hammer. These jeans were indestructible. They had to be or my mom wouldn't buy them. She couldn't afford to be buying me pants every other week just because they wouldn't hold up in the knees to my rough-housing. She bought ones with extra fabric in the knees that were so well-made and of such heavy denim that they are still floating around at a rummage sale somewhere. An indestructible pair of jeans that never wear out. When your kid outgrows them, you sell them to someone else. I guess that's why the jeans-makers had to quit making them so good. They would have put themselves out of business. Once they had enough of each size made, they'd never have to make anymore. As kids grew out of their jeans, they'd get the ones that someone else's kids had outgrown, but not worn out. When someone would die, the family would come from the far reaches of the county, maybe even the far corners of the state, to see who would inherit Grandpa's jeans. Of course, you would still have to have one or two jeans manufacturers to replace jeans that someone got buried in, or were lost in a fire, or placed in a time capsule for a hundred or two hundred years, but you wouldn't need as many as we have now.

All of which is water under the bridge, since the Levi Strauss' of the world saw what was coming from turning out such a fine product, and quickly began making jeans that would wear out before you outgrew them. And it was at that point that long-johns became more than just a only-in-the-worst-part-of-winter addition. Jeans were no longer indestructible, and while they had never been completely impervious to the cold, they had been good protection against the wind. But no more. Now the wind had access to parts of your body that only you and your family doctor and your mother had seen in the first eighteen to twenty years of your life. Where could you turn for help in a time like that? Long-johns.

Thanks to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, John Glenn and Sally Ride, long-johns were no longer so bulky that you had to buy pants three sizes too large to wear over your long-johns. Now you could wear your space-age-polyfiber long-johns under polyester dress slacks without looking like those pictures in National geographic of people in India with that disease that made their limbs swell up like tree trunks or elephant legs or Mrs. Kreblick's arm (she was soooo big). I am wearing them right now.

And I know this: I am never taking them off again, because it is always going to be winter here in northern Minnesota. And that's March Madness.


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli


Frost Weevils

In some parts of the world, there are flies and wasps which lay their eggs on the bodies of unsuspecting caterpillars. The caterpillars are just minding their own business, munching on leaves and getting big and fat so they can spin a cocoon and turn into a beautiful butterfly. Caterpillars are kind of like the livestock of the bug world. Cows and pigs are not the most attractive creatures, and spend most of their time eating so they can get big and fat and be turned into butterfly pork chops and t-bone steaks. The caterpillar just continues blithely on, unaware he is hauling around some dangerous hitchhikers. He spins his winter hideaway, gets a good book and a cup of tea, pulls the afghan up around his feet and gets settled in a for a long, winter nap when suddenly, knock, knock,! Isn't that just the way it always is?And talk about rude company! Not only do they eat him out of house and home, they eat him! At the risk of being crude, let's just say an internal visit from the RotoRooter Man would be less traumatic.

Here in northern Minnesota we have a similar phenomenon, but one which is almost completely unknown to all but the most curious of locals. The reason: if news of these creatures was to get out, the tourist business would definitely take a nosedive, not to mention the impact this would have on the year-round population.

This is pothole and frost-heaval season. It comes just prior to road construction season, which is immediately followed by the cold and snow season again. For our friends in the southern part of the world who may never have experienced the kidney-wrenching agony of pothole/frost-heaval season, let me tell you: the only person who looks forward to it is the local mechanic, because it enables him to purchase new houses and boats from the income derived from this relatively short season. A vehicle which has just had all kinds of alignment work done will need it done again two days later. Small dogs and children have been known to disappear as a result of falling into potholes, and I even heard of a Volkswagon Beetle being swallowed up once. The frost-heavals make a Sunday drive seem more like a trip to Six Flags or Disneyworld. There aren't many rollercoasters which can compete with a stretch of road attacked by the frost weevils. Yes, I said weevils.

Frost-heaval is the Department of Transportation's word. It was created by a terrified worker who once saw a frost weevil. They couldn't understand his terror-driven ramblings, and thought he said the road was heaving up from the expansion of frost and moisture under the road bed. But what he really said was frost WEEVILS. The potholes are the places where the frost weevils have accidentally broken through to the light as they happily chew up the asphalt, gravel and pea-rock from underneath. They usually come through at night, when they won't be bothered by the light. That's why a stretch of road that was fine yesterday is completely broken up today. The weevils enter a region of tasty road bed, eat their fill, and bloated and swollen from their feast, move on to another area, causing the tar on top of their tunnels to bulge up (like a mole's tunnel), and thus cause the rollercoaster effect.

Why are they so plentiful here in northern Minnesota? Unlike many other places, we don't use salt on our roads due to concern about it leaching into the water table, and causing soft water for everyone with their own wells. And then where would the Culligan man be? Out of work, that's where! So we don't use salt on the roads. In other parts of the midwest where salt is used in the winter, they have far fewer frost weevils, because the salt leaches down through the asphalt and gets ingested by the weevils causing high blood pressure and death. But up here in the northern woods, we don't use salt on our roads, and we don't tell people about the frost weevils. We just go on patching the holes and smoothing out the rollercoaster stretches with whole new sections of roadway with new asphalt. Tender new asphalt. Tasty new asphalt. Just the thing the frost weevils love.

Oh sure. We could use salt on the roads. We could kill off most of the frost weevils. But then we'd have to go all the way to Valleyfair or Disneyland for a thrilling ride.


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli


The Picture

Ok. So maybe I was wrong when I said that winter would never end, but it sure seemed that way. Of course, every year it seems as though winter will never end. Winters just seem to drag on for at least half a year. Hey, wait a minute...snow in October, November, December, January, February, March and April...HEY! That's SEVEN months! No wonder it seems like winter is so long.

But now, all is well. Bob and Roberta (our recurring robins) have come back to build a new nest in the crabapple tree out back (maybe this year they'll build it high enough so the cat can't reach it!), my rhubarb at the edge of the garden is crowning (I can see the head! Breathe! OK. Now push!!), the chives has snuck out from under the coverlet of snow and is showing its spikey head of green (my teenage son's hair looked just like that once...the one time he went and got his haircut alone), the crocuses (crocusi?) are flexing their muscles and pushing aside snow and leaves to reach for the sky (Your blossoms or your life! Now reach for the sky, mister!), and Jack Frost's twin brother, Chester Chlorophyll, has been making the rounds among the pines and other evergreens (Oh, a little dab of green right there would be divine).

Is it not amazing what a few days with temperatures in the fifties and sixties can do for your outlook?!? Suddenly everything is better. Even Mom couldn't make things this much better when she'd kiss a boo-boo. Of course, my Mom had a sadistic streak. When my little brother was about three and he tipped over the stool he was sitting on and went crashing down and lay there screaming and red-faced, did Mom pick him up and kiss his boo-boo? OK. I admit. She did. BUT...first she went and got the camera and took a picture of my brother in all his three-year-old agony. I was five. I was in school. I did not see this happen. At the ancient age of thirty-nine I certainly don't remember it happening (I don't remember what I had for lunch today, let alone something that happened thirty-four years ago!). How do I know about this little piece of family history? The picture. The smoking gun to this little mystery.

The photograph. Here's a picture of my poor baby brother, his feet up in the air, his eyes scrunched closed, his mouth wide open...why, I can almost hear the wails .....ooops. That's MY kids, upstairs. Be right back! OK. Let's see..... oh yeah. His mouth wide open and a look of real anger on his face. He was really ticked off! And where is his doting mother? Taking the picture. (In all fairness, she checked to make sure he was ok, and then went and got the camera. At least that's HER story.) When did this happen? In the "Spring".
Note: Spring in quotation marks means: that period when, technically, Spring has arrived, via virtue of some ancient Roman calendar, but outside the snow is six feet deep and daily high temperatures often don't break the freezing mark.

Those last few weeks can be the longest of your life. You've had it up to here with snow and cold and plugging your car in and scraping your windshield and wearing so many layers of clothes you look like a tick on a dog's ear, so bloated and huge from gorging itself at Fido's Auditory Cafe that it's nearly ready to explode. (Eeeyyyeeeewwww! Grosssss!) You're so tired of the weather and being inside and looking at the same four walls and the same people and smelling the same air that's been trapped within those four wall for SEVEN LONG MONTHS, that sometimes, you crack a little bit. Most of us don't go over the edge, around the bend, or even over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house, but we do sometimes get a tad goofy and have a hard time making rational decisions about normal things. That's why, instead of immediately picking up the baby and kissing his boo-boo, you grab a camera, fumble with aperatures, f-stops, lenses, filters, load a different kind of film because the light's not quite right in here, just let me set up this backlighting over here, drape this here, look to the right, put your hand on your chin, tilt your head a little more, a little more, now look right at the camera, and take the kid's picture.

Why do we do things like this? Thirty-four years later, she pulls out the photo album, looks at the picture of Brian all akimbo on the floor, laughs maniacally for a couple minutes, and remembers. Spring came the day after she took that picture. The real Spring (no quotes). The sky was a deeper shade of blue. The air smelled cleaner. She saw a robin in the backyard near the clothesline. Buds began popping out on tree branches. The cat wanted to go outside again instead of whorfing up hairballs behind the couch. Kids could play outside with fewer layers of clothes, which meant if they fell down, they could actually get up again, instead of laying there like a turtle on its back. Crocuses (crocusi?) pushed their way up to the light, which was getting stronger as the earth tilted on its axis and the sun came closer to our part of the world. And all was well.

And all is well, now that Spring has arrived in northern Minnesota. Now if I could just stop that niggling little voice that emanates from somewhere in my cerebral cortex saying "Five months! Five short months, and we're going to do it ALL OVER AGAIN!"


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli

The Time of Firsts

Until you've lived somewhere you can walk on water four or five months out of the year, you can't understand the excitement of seeing open water again. When you go ice fishing Thanksgiving day through St. Patrick's day or even April Fools Day, the day the lake opens up again is a big deal.

I have a friend in Dallas, Texas who has never experienced the thrill (or is that "chill"?) of below-zero temperatures. I talked to him this past winter when our temps were hovering around twenty-five degrees-below-zero, and he told me the coldest weather he had ever personally been in was eight degrees above zero. He was an army brat when growing up, and his father had always been stationed in warm climates. When they settled in Texas, he finally experienced what he calls "real cold", pronounced "ray-all cold." One time, they had temperatures below freezing for a whole week, and the ice on his parents' swimming pool froze, and he was actually able to walk on it! Amazing!

I said, "Scott, up here they drive semi's across the ice in the winter."
I could hear his jaw hitting the floor.

Until you live in it, you just don't know. That's why the arrival of open water is such a big deal. Granted, it's late this year, even by our time tables, which may contribute to the excitement, but certainly not the first time we have been threatened with the prospect of using ice augers on the May fishing opener. Luckily the ice has begun going out on the lakes with a generous one-week cushion before the opener. I can remember fishing in the spring with ice chunks clunking against the side of the boat. It really makes you appreciate the summer months, stunted though they may be.

The firsts of spring become very special. Notable, even. The crocuses (crocusi?) coming up through the snow. The first patch of lawn to show through. The first robin you see frozen in a snow bank (there's always one or two fools who come back too early). The first bears at the landfill. The first skunk or raccoon dead on the highway, soon to be followed by the hundreds of miniture bear-rugs plastered on the roads as the pocket gophers get back into practice for dodging summer tourist-traffic. The first walleye tapping on the end of your line on fishing opener. The first satisfied grins after landing a nice three-pounder with googley-eyes that almost glow in the dark. The high-fives and backpats as you drop the stringer over the side with your first nice walleye of the season. The second walleye on the stringer, this time actually attached to the boat (if you catch a walleye with a yellow, nylon rope-stringer through its mouth, it's mine). The emergence of frogs from the mud of swamps, ponds and lakes, all joining voices in a loud chorus of "Hey, baby! Let's get together and make some tadpoles before we're used for bass bait!" The return of the seagulls to the Walmart parking lot, their resting place between sorties over McDonald's. The heady aroma of charcoal and lighter fluid. The not-so-heady smell of burnt eyebrows and singed arm hairs. The smell of two-cycle oil and gas in the air as gardens get tilled. The sound of wives shrieking at their husbands, who should have know she had bulbs planted there (soon to be followed by the sound of lawn mowers, which is closely associated with the sound of wives screeching at husbands who should know the difference between grass and flowers without blooms).

It's an exciting time of the year, made even more exciting by the reminder that "the boy" is doing the lawn, and he can take the heat for the flowers that get mowed under this year. As for me, I have a fifty-nine-cent stringer to try to recatch.


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli



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