The Birdhouse

When I was in 8th grade, my science class focused on the life and environmental sciences. The teacher offered one opportunity for extra credit: she had packets of projects we could do at home and, once completed, we could bring in the project and (ideally) receive some extra credit points.

Thumbing through the packet, I found simple plans for a bird house. Of course, being only 13 years old, I needed some assistance. So, one spring weekend in 1989, my father and I worked in our little shed building a birdhouse.

After accruing the coveted extra credit, my dad affixed the bird house to the post, and stuck the post in our front yard, just a few feet from my bedroom window. Within a few weeks, chickadees built a nest in it. I loved watching them from my window that summer! For a few days, I even kept my blinds closed so as not to scare off the birds who hadn’t yet put down roots.

Then, that winter, we moved. A few days before we were all packed up, I asked my dad if we could take the birdhouse. Of course, he was busy with a thousand other things regarding the move, but he complied. Actually, it was tougher than you might think, because he couldn’t just pull the post out of the frozen ground. He had to saw it off near ground level.

Then we moved in with my grandparents…then we moved into a townhouse…then I moved out of the house. First, I lived in a rented duplex. Then, I lived in an apartment, then another townhome. Finally, over 14 years after moving out of the home where my birdhouse had last been set up, I was living in a place with property. Jennifer and I moved in near the end of summer, so I didn’t bother with the birdhouse that year. That winter, though, I told my mom I wanted my birdhouse. At first, she didn’t know what I meant. I assured here there was a birdhouse, affixed to a six-foot long post, laying on the floor in the back of her garage. She was surprised to discover I was correct, and she brought the birdhouse to my house the next time she visited.

I sanded the birdhouse, buffing off the blue paint, and painted it yellow. I then inserted a new perch as the original one had broken.

That spring, sparrows came and nested in it. It was the first time in 16 years that it was in use.  And they came the next year, in 2006. And again in 2007.

But then Jennifer, Owen, and I moved out of that house. In March 2008, on the day we moved out, I called my mom (who was on her way to pick up Owen) and asked her to bring a long extension cord. She did and, just as my dad had done 18 years earlier, I plugged in my saw and trudged out into the snow and sawed off the post as low to the ground as I could.

Then we moved into an apartment, so I gave the birdhouse to my sister. She and her husband owned a house, and they set it up on the side of their driveway where birds frequently nested in it, even as recently as this summer.

But then my sister moved. I forgot about the birdhouse until the last minute and, unlike previous moves, this one was in the dead of summer instead of the heart of winter. The week before she moved, she told me there might be birds nesting in there. I was worried, because I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to disturb the birds, but I also didn’t want to lose the bird house. Thankfully, she called that same evening to say the birdhouse was empty.

I picked it up from her that weekend, and here’s what it looked like…

Bird House 1Brid House SideBird House OpenNotice that the years on my sister’s property (where it lived for 6 years), weathered away almost all of the yellow paint, even to the point of revealing the original blue paint. Notice, too, that the wood is splitting in several areas. And though it’s not very apparent in the photos, the perch is broken and the nails are all either missing or rusted.

So, for the rest of July, the birdhouse spent some time on my workbench. In between other, more pressing and larger projects, I spent a little bit of time showing the 26-year-old bird house some love.
Bird House painted
Bird House side painted
Bird house open painted
Okay, so it’s not yet set up in my yard for birds to nest in (but that’s not terribly urgent in mid-August), but otherwise, it’s all set to go. I have, once again, replaced the perch with a secure, solid dowel. I removed every single nail and replaced them with stainless steel nails. I also replaced the two side screws that allow the front to be swung open (as you can see in the lowest picture). I sanded the wood to remove all old paint, then used wood putty to fill in the worst-worn sections. I used wood glue to firm up some of the split areas. Then I sanded again. Then I spray painted with the same blue color as our deck chairs – a color very similar to the original that my Dad and I used back in the spring of ’89. Finally, I applied a couple coats of polyurethane to keep the precipitation at bay.

Come on, little birds…there’ll be a nice nesting site for you this spring!

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The Unexpectedly Long Rocket Trip

Last June, Owen participated in a Star Base Camp at the military base near Fort Snelling. Each student had the opportunity to design their own rocket fins to go on their model rockets. The designs were then printed out on a 3D printer.

On the last day of class, it rained pretty heavily, so the class couldn’t launch their rockets. No worries, we launched Owen’s rocket at home at few months later…

Then, for Christmas, Jennifer gave Owen a pack of rocket fuel. Of course, December isn’t the best time to launch a rocket, so we waited until the weather was warmer.

On Sunday, June 14th, we attended a fundraising picnic at Wabun Picnic Area in Minneapolis sponsored by Camp Quest. Owen brought along his rocket set, eager to finally launch it for the first time this year. When we arrived at the picnic site, though, I told him there were too many trees around. He disagreed, and selected an open spot in the field. So, with about ten people looking on, we launched the rocket.

And it got stuck in a tree. A very, very tall tree. One of the guys standing nearby took his son’s football and threw it up at the rocket with all his might, but even he couldn’t get within 20 feet of the rocket.

I felt terrible for losing Owen’s rocket like that, especially since I was the one who had hit the trigger (Owen was having difficulty getting it to work). I apologized to him several times, but he didn’t seem to mind too much. He pointed out that he would be making another rocket later that same week, because he was enrolled in Star Base Camp again this summer.

And, yes, he was right: he and the other students did make rockets that week. But it wasn’t exactly the same. They didn’t get to custom design 3D-printed rocket fins this time. So…I still felt really bad.

That Monday, I stopped at the park after work. There was the rocket, still up in the tree. I searched online for ideas on how to get rockets out of trees, and the two main takeaway points were: 1) the ideas only work if the tree is in your yard and 2) just wait. Then I wrote to the Minneapolis Parks department and asked if they could let me know if a toy rocket found its way into their lost and found. They responded by saying they’d post it on their Facebook page, so that was nice of them, but I didn’t really hold out any hope of recovery.

The following Monday – about an hour before we had to be at the airport to fly to Massachusetts, Jennifer and I stopped at Wabun again. There had been a thunderstorm that morning, so I hoped it washed the rocket out of the tree. Well, no, it didn’t. It just washed the rocket about 5 feet lower than it had been. However, there were several larger sticks on the ground, and I whipped them up into the air (they’re actually easier to throw than footballs) and got close enough to rattle the correct branch but, still, no luck.

On Tuesday, June 30th, there was a beast of a thunderstorm in the early morning hours. I had to work from home that day but, during my lunch hour, I took Owen and Isla to Wabun yet again. Holding our hands up to block out the sun, all three of us stood under the trees trying to see if we could spot the rocket. Oddly, I couldn’t find it anywhere. “I guess it’s gone, buddy,” I told him. He suggested we look around on the ground, but not having seen it on our walk up to the picnic area, I wasn’t hopeful. Still, I marched due south to check out the area we hadn’t walked over yet.


11013327_10205876622453374_3035040991958877947_nThe parachute was destroyed, and the rocket’s body was a bit soggy and bent. Nevertheless, after 16 days and 2 hours, Model Rocket Kepler 4-B finally came back to Earth. It is now decommissioned and sitting on Owen’s shelf in his room.

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One House

When Owen was three years old, he began noticing that every building had a number on it. Especially while driving around in the car, he asked Jennifer and me what the numbers meant. He asked what the number on our apartment building was.

We explained that houses had unique numbers on them to help people find the house, like the mailman or other visitors.

Sometimes he commented on interesting numbers. When he saw a house with five digits on it, he found that very noteworthy. He also felt compelled to point out house number 1111 and house number 321.

It was inevitable that, eventually, he asked, “Where’s house number one?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m not exactly sure.”

He was under the impression that, somewhere in the word, there was a house numbered ‘1’, and all the other house numbers radiated out from there.

I explained that it doesn’t work that way. “They can’t do it that way, because then when new houses are built, we wouldn’t have a number to give them. Like, if there’s a house number 2 and a house number 3, and every other number up to 10 million is taken up, then when a new house is built in between house 2 and 3…what would we call it?”

This then led to an explanation of odd and even numbered houses being on opposite sides of the street, and how house numbers radiated out from a central point in a city. I told him I used to live at a house numbered 14750, because it was about 14.7 miles south of Minneapolis, and it was an even number because we were on the east side of the street. Later, I lived at 6705: even though it was just as far south from Minneapolis as the other house, it had a much lower number because it was on a north/south street, and were we 6.7 miles east of Minneapolis.

Then, of course, Owen caught my mistake when he found very low numbered homes that were quite far from either downtown, and I had to then clarify that some cities grew up at the same time as Minneapolis and St. Paul and, therefore, started their own numbering systems instead of going in tandem with the metropolises. Such cities included Hastings, Stillwater, Shakopee, and South St. Paul.

But he still wanted to know where house number one was. Jennifer and I finally figured out that the numbers radiate out north/south from Summit Avenue in St. Paul. As we drove up and down streets like Snelling, Lexington, and Hamline, we pointed out to Owen that the house numbers were getting smaller and smaller. “Look Owen,” we’d say excitedly, “There’s house 23! There house 21! There’s 16!” Owen watched, enraptured in the descending numbers…and then it would stop.

“Where’s house number one?” he’d ask again, slightly disappointed.

“Well, technically, the numbers probably radiate out from the middle of Summit Avenue, so I suppose there is no number one, since there’s no house literally on Summit Avenue. So even a house planted directly on the corner of Summit and a cross street has a number of at least…6. And 6 was the lowest we found, though we were careful to point out any other time we spotted a house with a number lower than 10, regardless of which city were we in. Still, we never found Owen’s dream home. We never found #1.

Years passed and then, one day in May, I drove down to the city of West St. Paul to rent a tool from the local Menards. As always during the summer, road construction meant I couldn’t take the best route. I ended up snaking through some residential areas, trying to find the back road that led to Menards.

“These house numbers are really low,” Owen said. “Look! There’s number 11!”

“Oh, yeah, look at that!” I said, mirroring his excitement. “And there’s 7! And there’s 3! Could it be…?” I said, slowing down. “Woa! Look! There’s number one!”


“Yay!” Owen shouted. “We finally found it! Are we close to Summit?” he asked. “No,” I said, then realized that, of course, West St. Paul is another of those old cities that has its own numbering system.

We continued on our way to rent the tool I needed that day, but several hours later, Owen and Isla accompanied me to return the tool and, this time, we stopped to celebrate the completion of long-time search; the Oneness of Owen’s goal.



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Occurrence at NCUR

I haven’t posted too regularly lately, and I realize I’ve gotten behind on some interesting goings-on here at Zimmerscope. So, in short order, I will make four posts, each about an event from the most recent four months, starting with April…

On April 16th and 17th, I was at Eastern Washington University in Cheney (near Spokane), Washington. My university (Hamline) paid for my trip out there, along with some other students. There were thousands of students there that weekend from all over the country taking part in NCUR: The National Conference of Undergraduate Research. Basically, the best papers from the past school year were on display.NCUR 2015

On Friday the 17th, I presented by paper, titled “Jehovah’s Witnesses: Their Policy of Shunning.” My presentation, like all the others, was grouped with other presentations of similar topic and was in a classroom where students and faculty could sit in and listen. One of the rules of the conference was that if you did not arrive on time before the set of presenters began, you should not walk in during a presentation, but wait outside the classroom until you hear applause; then you’d know that the speaker was completed and you could enter in between presentations. I was the third of four students presenting their research (all were centered on religious history) during that session.

After the session, right as I exited the room, I was stopped by a short, smiley, smartly dressed young woman who said: “Excuse me, are you James Zimmerman?” Pointing to my badge, I confirmed that I was.

She introduced herself and then said she had wanted to hear my presentation, but arrived just a little too late. And then…

SHE: So, I have to ask, what made you choose Jehovah’s Witnesses for your research topic?

ME: Well, I used to be one, so…

[PAUSE…her smile waned.]

ME: Are you a Witness?

SHE: Yeah. So, I wondering if you visited for your research.

ME: Yes.

SHE: Okay, good. ‘Cause, you know, it’s important to find out what an organization says about itself rather than reading false information or lies that are spread.

ME: Oh yeah, of course! That website’s the starting point, right? In fact, I mentioned that website during my presentation and I cited from it.

SHE: Oh, you did?

ME: Yeah. Here, you can have a copy of my paper, if you’d like. Then you can read what I discussed.

SHE: Oh, you have the paper with you?

ME: Yeah, do you want it? [I pulled it out of my folder as she tucked her business card back into hers.] I don’t need it anymore.

SHE: That’s okay. So, where are you from?

ME: I’m from St. Paul, in Minnesota. And I see you’re from [CITY OMITTED], Florida.

SHE: Yeah, I go to school there, but I live in [CITY OMITTED], Florida.

ME: Oh, is that near Port St. Lucie?

SHE: Uh…no…I mean, it’s about an from there. Why, have you been to Port St. Lucie?

ME: Oh yeah, I’ve been there several times. Everyone on my Dad’s side of the family lives there. Well, there and Fort Lauderdale. Of course, they all shun me.

SHE: Oh, okay. So you’re not a Witness anymore, then?

ME: No, I left after my son was born. I couldn’t pass on falsehoods to him.

SHE: Oh, okay. Well, you know, you’re always welcome back. You know, anytime you want, you can call up the local Hall and they’ll visit and start up a home bible study with you again.

ME: Oh, I know. I used to tell people the same thing. I was a Pioneer for over five years, and I’ve read the bible and studied probably more than any elder that would come to my door.

SHE: Okay, well it was nice talking to you.

ME: Yes, you too.

We shook hands again, and she pivoted 180 and walked down the hall. I went outside and joined my two fellow Hamliners who had attended my presentation.

Okay, so…three things:

FIRST: Notice that she asked – at a conference celebrating excellence in research – if my research on Jehovah’s Witnesses involved researching the Witnesses’ own documents. That’s a bit like saying, “Hey, I heard you researched the life of Frederick Douglas. Did you read his autobiography?” Yes: Of course I did. The question would be laughable if it wasn’t for the fact that it exposes the hubris of Witnesses: They truly believe that only they have the correct information about themselves and that all other sources are, in some way, flawed.

SECOND: Notice she encouraged me to study the bible with Witnesses? That’s another bit of hubris: The Witnesses believe that anyone who leaves their faith must be either ignoring or not fully comprehending the bible. Okay, first of all, no one fully comprehends the bible, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. Revelation alone is an incoherent mess of rambling contradictions…and that’s just one of 65 books. Second, an unbiased, impartial reading of the ‘decent’ chunks of the bible (and I use that term loosely) might – MIGHT! – lead you to Christianity or Judaism but, I’m sorry…no one becomes a Witness because they read the bible.

THIRD: Notice she said she wanted to attend my presentation but just missed it? Okay, I’m just gonna call bullshit on this one. For one thing, I was the third speaker, so even if she didn’t arrive at 1:00 sharp when the session began, she could have walked in after the first or second speech. I’m sure she saw the abstract about my presentation in the program and was intrigued, but attending would have put her in an awkward position: She knew a loyal Witness would not give a presentation about Witnesses, so she must’ve known the presentation would either be by an ex-Witness or someone who never was a Witness. Either way, she would be opening herself up to ideas about the Witnesses that she is forced to ignore as a loyal member. Had I said anything she found offensive (and I likely did within the first ten seconds of my presentation – see below), her Witness-carved conscience would have compelled her to get up and leave – a big no-no a the conference where they asked attendees to respect presentators and remain for the entire delivery.

I felt bad for her. There, at a conference to expand her mind, instead of listening in on a presentation that could have done just that, she felt duty-bound to wait outside and tell me about what I should have said. Oh well, at least she’s in college, which is a rarity for Witnesses. At least she’s got a chance.

Finally, look what I saw right outside the building where my presentation was. I grabbed a couple of their magazines and, before beginning my presentation, held them up and said, “Just so everyone knows, there are a couple of Witnesses right outside this building, so if anyone has
NCUR1 any questions for them, or if my presentation makes you want to join them, they’re right out there.” I talked to them after my presentation for a half hour. I asked them what they read in the bible that convinced them it was divinely inspired. Pretty much their bottom line was: In Leviticus, the Israelites were commanded to go outside the camp to bury their excrement, and that was NCUR2really advanced. I told them that was pretty impressive – but since excrement smells bad and (presumably) literally tastes like shit…that such a command isn’t quite enough to make me want to worship the person who penned the command.


Stay tuned – I will be posting about other recent events soon:

May’s event is “One House”

June’s event is “The Unexpectedly Long Rocket Trip”

July’s event is “The Birdhouse”

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Happy Pluto Day!

After over nine years and five months, New Horizons space probe finally made it to Pluto today.New Horizons

After a few aborted missions – most notable the Pluto-Kuiper Express - New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006 with the express purpose of exploring the one last planet in our solar system that had not yet been explored.

Of course, later that year, the International Astronomical Union redefined the word “planet” to purposely exclude Pluto from the official roster of nine. Pluto is still a planet…it’s just a dwarf planet now. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

For many years, this was the best picture we had of Pluto.

For many years, this was the best picture we had of Pluto.

Here's the best picture we had as of last month.

Here’s the best picture we had as of last month.

Here's the best picture we have of Pluto as of a few days ago.

Here’s the best picture we have of Pluto as of a few days ago.

Through the nine-plus years of New Horizons’ journey, I’ve been tracking it’s progress. I’ve frequently visited NASA’s New Horizons page to see how long the journey has been, how far it has traveled, and how much longer until its closest approach to Pluto. Of course, I had a personal interest in the probe, since my name is on it (it’s true – type in my name here and you’ll see I’m listed).

By the time New Horizons had been traveling for a thousand days, Owen was also interested in the progress, and we tracked it on a wooden board we made together – every few months, he’d gently nudge the little probe-on-a-sting another half inch or so toward its destination.

Owen Holding It

Here’s Owen as a mere 6 yr. old demonstrating the probe’s progress.

12. All done


And here he is just a few months ago, showing that now his model probe is practically right on top of Pluto.

And here he is just a few months ago, showing that now his model probe is practically right on top of Pluto.

This morning, I walked into Owen’s room and woke him up. He looked at me and said, “What?” and, without saying a word, I held up my laptop and showed him NASA’s countdown to the closest encounter – it read just over 5 minutes. “Oh, cool,” he said, and I gestured for him to move over and I sat on his bed next to him. We watched as the counter ran down to zero, then clicked over to watch a live newsfeed at NASA that included Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 5.12.57 PMinterviews with some of the leading astronomers in charge of the project. I then told Owen that New Horizons is so far away that, even traveling at the speed of light, the pictures it is taking right this moment won’t be seen by anyone for over 14 hours. I told him I had to go to work, but we’d check on it again tonight.

I wore my Pluto t-shirt to work today. Even though it’s 9 years old and very ratty. Who cares? Today is a special day.

Last night, Owen, Isla, and I tried to take a picture of ourselves at Pluto Time , but I didn’t think we did it right. Owen was upset, but I consoled him by telling him that today is the special day to do it, since today is the day of the closest encounter. Isla pat Owen on the back and said, “It’s okay Owen, tomorrow is Pluto Day.” But actually, we got a pretty decent photo…


Regardless, we tried again today…

IMG_3477Regarding the deluge of information received today, Owen says: “This is awesome, I’ve been waiting for pictures of Pluto my whole life!”

I say: “Me too, son. Me too.”

Happy Pluto Day everyone!

DSCN1566 DSCN1565

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