Life's Roller-Coaster

Ideas are like wandering sons. They show up when you least expect them. - Bern Williams

It has been a very long time since I sat down to write. A long time, indeed. 1998 is more than half over. Last time I sat down to put my thoughts onto the electronic equivalent of paper was to review 1997. Half a year has sped by since then, pulling events, thoughts, ideas and feelings behind in its wake, depositing them in a black hole from which reclamation is nigh unto impossible.

When I began writing on a semi-regular basis a couple of years ago, it was as a creative outlet to tap into mental and creative resources going unused at work. Last September I began a new job in an entirely new field for me, and my creative juices have been focused on learning the skills and tools of the trade.

Lately I have been feeling a niggling inside to sit down and express myself in written form again. A friend of mine in Ohio recently sent me an email which simply said "Haven't read any stories from you in a long time. You're working too hard." Today I will not work too hard. Today I will attempt to let the words flow from my fingertips through the microchips and electronic components of this computer and be transformed into something which may hold your interest for a few moments.

Part of the reason I have been away from the keyboard is 17 years old now, a couple of inches taller than his dad, has a tuft of whiskers on his chin, an addiction to computer games (at least he now buys his own!), and the normal growing pains a young man experiences, all of which have the combined effect of less time for me on the family computer. Our son stands on the threshold of adulthood, and sometimes his feet edge over the line toward maturity, and sometimes he shuffles backwards to the safety of childhood. Luckily for his parents - who are both sprouting gray hairs now, thank you, son - the backward shuffle occurs less often than the forward movement. However, my wife has pointed out that she is experiencing labor pains all over again. We still have one more year as full-time shepherds for this ram/lamb, and as we try and look ahead and marshal our strength, we realize we have a task before us which may prove to be as difficult and painful as his initial appearance into the world, or may be as calm and effortless as a canoe gliding across a glassy lake at dusk. Of course, any parent who has raised children to adulthood knows the actual pain/irritation level will be somewhere in between. But we can hope for the latter, can't we?

Just before his 17th birthday in June, Adam was giving us the countdown of days until he could move out, informing us that for his birthday next year all he wants is for us to help him move out. I remember having similar thoughts when I was about his age, but I don't think I was as vocal about it as he is. That's part of the reason we butt heads as often as we do: we have tried to raise independent children, independent in thought and secure in being able to deal with life on their own. At times I feel like Shelby's Dr. Frankenstein: we've created a monster. It's a good thing he is still under our tutelage, so we can work on finesse. He has the basics, but he needs to work on technique. In simplest terms: he needs to learn when to shut up and keep his opinions to himself. There are times to speak up and times when silence works much better. He's still at the stage where he thinks the universe revolves around him, and so he should be allowed to express his opinion on everything. And not just express his opinion, but make everyone conform to it. He simply needs to pick his battles better, and allow some minor skirmishes to be lost in order to win the war with as few casualties as possible. Other people have survived raising teenagers, so I expect we will, too. I'm looking forward to the day when he comes home (about ten to fifteen years from now) and tells us we weren't as stupid as he once thought.

When we are in the throes of despair over being so stupid, I will occasionally remind my wife - tongue in cheek - that we still have another child, and maybe we should focus our efforts on molding her.

Too late.

I have begun to hear the scorn in her voice and see the disdain in her thirteen-year-old eyes. How could God have given her such stupid parents, and how did we manage to survive to adulthood? Obviously having such perfect children was a fluke. Usually you don't get such perfect offspring from such flawed breeding stock.

Oh, it's going to be fun. Like a roller-coaster ride. Hang on tight!


Copyright ©1998 Mike Zimmerli

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There's A Song in the Air

Memory feeds a culture, nourishes hope and makes a human, human. - Elie Wiesel

We heard the whine of cicadas in the trees all the way through town. We were on our way to Jackson, MN for my Grandma Zimmy's 100th birthday celebration. As we rolled through Hutchinson with the windows rolled down, I heard the sound start to wind up in the trees to my left and then follow us all through town. To me, it is a happy, summertime sound laced with memories. I used to hear it in the ancient black walnut trees right outside my second-story bedroom window in Redwood Falls, MN while I was growing up (Okay, the trees my not have been ancient, but they were old and stately compared to a little kid). I used to study bugs as a casual hobby when I was about ten or twelve, which is how I discovered the origin of the high-pitched whine I would hear every gloriously warm, lazy summer day. Summer afternoons when it was too hot to do anything but lie around I would hear the whine in the trees. Draped across an old overstuffed chair on the sun porch reading Ray Bradbury and Andre Norton, I would pause and listen as the cicadas would start their motors, beginning low and then rising in pitch until seeming to reach running speed, holding the pitch as long as possible then winding slowly down again. Sprawled in the grass behind my Grandma and Grandpa Zimmy's, deep blue sky overhead and golden sunlight filtering through the leaves of the oak trees, I would listen to the high-pitched, one-note song, soaking up the warmth while my parents, aunts and uncles rocked in green and yellow metal lawn chairs, drank iced tea and caught up on family news.

Mary & I back at the scene of the crime: this is where we had our engagement picture taken 18 years ago in New Ulm, MN by the Herman the German statue. I grew up - as most people do - and got married, and one of the first summers after my wife and I were married I told her where the whine in the trees came from in the summer. Now, as we drove through Hutchinson with the sound of dozens of cicadas droning an accompaniment to the tune of our tires, my wife, who thrives on heat and humidity, took my hand, smiled and said "There's that hot, summer sound!"

We arrived at the Jackson American Legion just before one o'clock, a little late for the start of the potluck, but still able to fill a plate with good Midwestern hotdishes, jello salads, fresh rolls and bars. The next two hours were spent catching up with brothers, aunts and uncles and uncountable cousins and cousins' children. One family friend commented that my three brothers and I looked healthy, which I said was a nice way of saying we looked well-fed!

When Grandma arrived she was swamped with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and maybe even great-great-great-grandchildren, all clamoring to get a generational family picture with Grandma, so my brothers and I decided to go for a walk across the river and up the hill to our old neighborhood on Branch Street, now home to Zimmerli Park.

Brian, Kevin, me and Gary. Only Paul is missing. Last time all 5 of us were together: 1972. The park used to be Grandpa Zimmy's vegetable garden, but where corn stalks used to sway in the breeze swings and slides now grow. We walked down the street, actually just a gravel lane, and commented on how much shorter it had become with the passage of time. Dana and Dorothy's house looked so much smaller than we remembered, but our old house looked remarkably well-kept, courtesy of new siding and a new roof. Grandpa and Grandma's old house has been vacant for a number of years, and it wouldn't surprise me to find it torn down next time we make the long trip to Jackson. The old ravine behind Grandma's house is not nearly as Grand Canyon-like as I remembered, but the old washing machines and other wornout appliances deposited there in the forties, fifties and sixties are still visible here and there in the undergrowth and brush. Surprisingly, the old garage is still standing, but the chicken coop and rabbit pen have either been torn down or just collapsed. We could still make out a couple of rabbit hutches in the pile of rotten boards and chicken wire, though. We stood around for a few minutes and talked about Grandpa's rabbits and all the times we went to Grandma's for fried chicken and never noticed there were four drumsticks instead of two. As the sunlight filtered through the oak trees and the song of the cicadas floated on the breeze, I was glad the trees were still there, as towering and majestic as ever.

We walked back, recalling the many times we would make this same trip down the hill to the park by the river when we were young, forgoing the sidewalks in favor of the path through the brush and trees of the hillside, which fit much better with our army patrol fantasies.

Me with Grandma...and all the rest of us! Back at the Legion Hall, we had some more cake and bars and Kool-Aid, and finally gathered for our family picture with Grandma. I was surprised and pleased that she was able to make out my voice through the din of so many relatives catching up, and gave her a big hug and a kiss when she said "You're my Michael, and I love you." She was so happy to have four of the grandsons who used to live right next door to her so many years ago together and giving her hugs and kisses even though she doesn't bake cookies, pies and cakes for us anymore. My favorite quote of the day came from Grandma when my brother Kevin told her who he was and gave her a hug. She said "Kevin? Well, you sure grew up, didn't you?"
That night we stayed at my aunt and uncle's farm, sleeping in the same bedroom I had slept in twenty-five years before. My wife and I reveled in the peace and quiet, recharging our internal batteries as the crickets in the tall grass added their counterpoint to the cicada's melody playing through the oaks and maples.

Copyright ©1998 Mike Zimmerli

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Time to Catch Our Breath

Two weeks ago our son came home after spending two weeks in Russia. Last week the children went back to school, one in his last year in high school, the other in her last year in middle school. The crabapple in the front yard lost a branch this week. Next week I finish one career and start another. And the sun is setting far too early for my taste.

Red Square - MoscowOur son was given a wondrous gift this summer in the form of an all-expenses-paid trip to Russia for two weeks, courtesy of a grant his high school Russian class received. Our whole family spent the summer learning how to get a passport, apply for a visa, reapply for a visa, and worry about the economy of a foreign country. Saturday, August 15th, along with three other classmates and three adult chaperones, he boarded a 747 in the Twin Cities and took his first plane trip, not just to another part of the U.S., but halfway around the world, over the Atlantic Ocean and everything!

He had no trouble on the flight over, making his connection in Amsterdam and arriving in Moscow about thirteen hours later in real time but almost a whole day after leaving home because of crossing time zones. You or I would most likely have needed at least a day to try and adjust. Not Adam. No jet lag at all. Youth truly is wasted on the young!

His first part of the week was spent in Moscow in a hotel, then they traveled to Petrozavodsk and St. Petersburg, staying with host families. We had one phone call from him and one e-mail. He called home the day after he arrived to let us know he made it safe and sound, and emailed us about halfway through his trip.

I envy him the opportunity he was given, and I hope he realizes what a special gift it was, but I fear he won't really understand the magnitude of what he received until about ten years from now. I am afraid he will take opportunities such as this for granted, or worse: thinking he deserves them.

We picked him up at the airport on Saturday, August 29th, the first day of the strike by Northwest Airlines. His flight home was supposed to have been a NWA flight, but the day before, when my wife called to check the status of that flight, she was told it had been changed from NWA to their European counterpart KLM. Her co-workers were treated to the sight of my lovely bride doing handsprings down the hall. Okay; all they were really treated to was a loud "YES!" from her cubicle.

The GraduateJust a few days after leaving Russia, he was starting his senior year at Greenway High School. Back to the business of readin', ritin', and rithmetic. The same routine for his sister Becca, who is an eighth-grader this year. While he was jetting off to the Red Square, she was trying out her role as an only child. I'm not sure who enjoyed the quiet of his absence more, his sister or his parents, who were given a foretaste of what's ahead. It was a nice respite from being referees, but it was a bittersweet vacation, too. We had our first real practice at having to give up control of a child, hoping he's making good decisions and wondering if we equipped him well enough to handle what life is throwing at him. Becca watches from the sidelines, and I can see her mentally making notes, filing tidbits of info away until her chance at the brass ring comes along.

I am convinced she will have good doors opened for her, too. She studies hard, and was on the "B" honor roll the first three quarters of last year and made the "A" honor roll the fourth quarter. She earns each and every good grade she gets, and understands the connection between study and grades.

Build your own nightie!! Watermelon seed spitting
Water baloon tossMore waterballoons
Labor Day weekend we visited my wife's family for a "Welcome to the Family" party for Matt and Julia. Matt is getting married to my wife's sister Susan in October, and Julia will wed my wife's brother Peter in November. We each wrote down some words of advice for the happy couples, ranging from "Don't Get Married!!" to "Don't make out in front of your kids!" to "Act like you're having fun!" and gave them gag gifts.

Food was wonderful as usual, and, as always happens when that family gets together, silly games were played. The Dreaded Water Balloon Toss. A Watermelon Seed Spitting contest. Finding the most words you can make out of Matt's name and then the same from Julia's name (I would have won, but they gave me bad pens that wouldn't write, and by the time I got one that worked half the allotted time had elapsed!). A bonfire. More food. Talking, talking, talking. Just plain fun.

September first I gave my two week notice at Arrow Sports Screenprinting and Embroidery. On the sixteenth I will start working for Murphy McGinnis Media. They own a chain of newspapers in the Upper Midwest, and I will be working with their computer network and doing internet design and database development. It's the job I was looking for a year ago when I started with Arrow Sports, but it hadn't been created yet.
Arrow Sports in our new building shared with Photo Express
Our crabapple tree lost a large branch this week. It was so laden with fruit that it just broke off. We need the bears to come and harvest some of the excess, but they had good crops of berries, cherries, plums and other fruit this summer and don't seem to be in a hurry to prepare for their long winter nap. We enjoyed a plentiful bounty from our garden this summer, including lots of tomatoes and green beans. Now we're looking forward to feasting on large, red potatoes waiting under the crumbly soil. Then it'll be time to put the garden to bed.

When the snow piles up outside, and the wind sings its mournful tune through the naked, sleeping branches of the trees, we'll enjoy raspberries picked from our garden when the sun was hot and we'll remember. A trip to the other side of the world. A new job and the exciting uncertainties it brings. A branch so heavy with fruit it lost the battle with gravity. The whine of cicadas in the trees. A million billion stars in the summer night sky.


Copyright ©1998 Mike Zimmerli

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