2017: The Last 100 Days

I attended the dinner and toast to graduating seniors.

My attendance was marginally fortuitous and rather abrupt. At 1:00 this afternoon, I learned that tonight’s recording of the cable show was cancelled due to the producer’s illness. Jennifer was out running errands, Owen was at school, and I was home with Isla, who was swiftly recovering from a quick succession of vomiting 36 hours earlier, and Emmett.

When Jennifer came home, Owen in tow, at 4:00, I said, “Would you mind if I went to the dinner at Hamline this evening?” I spun it as a benefit for her, because she wouldn’t have to concern herself with dinner for five. Just four.

Two hours later, I was the first student to arrive. A security officer at the door asked to see my ID. His hands stayed on his belt as I fumbled through my wallet. “I can’t believe I don’t have my license in here. Why isn’t it in here?” Finally, he just held up a hand and said, “It’s okay, sir, you’re good.”

I sat at a table in the back and watched as the other students filed in. One girl sat down right next to me – an odd choice considering I’d never met here before and there were six other chairs around the table. Then, almost as soon as she unzipped her coat, she got back up to get a drink, and I never saw her again. Finally a guy named Hunter sat next to me, and I broached the silence by asking him his major.

Later, the university president congratulated all of us on a job almost accomplished. She said we were the best group of students she’s had the privilege of working with, then added that, no, she doesn’t say that every time. Then I leaned to Hunter and said, “But she does say that every time.” She pointed out that we were the first class to use this very building we were sitting in, which was only true of those who started in 2013, by which time I had already been at the school for four years. She said something about an amendment, too, which I at first thought was a reference to the proposed anti-marriage amendment in 2012, but that was prior to most of these students’ college careers, so it couldn’t have been that. Anyway, the girl sitting in front of me had a big piece of black lint on her otherwise white sweater, so I was a bit distracted.

Then we drank champagne. I clinked glasses with Hunter, and thanked him for keeping me from being completely alone during dinner.

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2017: Form as Play

Today is the beginning of the end.

I walked into the classroom this evening – the first day of my final college course – and was immediately deluged with memories of my first day of my first college course.

It was over 17 years ago. I was not warm to the idea of attending college. I hated high school, deeming it the third least-appealing long-term activity I’d ever been forced to participate in – a conferral made all the more easy due to my parents blasé and Janus-faced view of compulsory education. But Jennifer and I – mostly Jennifer, really – reasoned that one of us needed to get some sort of certificate or degree lest we be stuck in low-wage, unsatisfactory jobs from now until Armageddon.

Despite arriving twelve minutes before the start of class time, I breathlessly entered a classroom on the lower level of Century College’s West Campus to find almost every desk taken. I was reduced to sitting in a seat exactly in the middle: two from the front, two from the back, two from the left, and two from the right. I quickly scanned the room as I nervously unzipped my bag and removed a notebook, a pen, and the two textbooks: about 25 students, a fair mix of boys and girls. Some looked about my age – I hoped no one would know that I was the advanced age of 24. There was an obese woman with sweatpants and acne sitting in the front left seat. She looked to be about 41 years old, embarrassingly old to in college, by my estimate.

I sat up and stared at the curly black hair of the young woman in front of me. My heart was beating fast. It had taken my longer than I’d hoped to drive to the campus and then find a parking spot. Should I be doing this? Jehovah’s Witnesses are discouraged from involvement in higher education. And though they’d weakened on that stance over the past half-decade, they still treated it as a last resort, a humiliating endeavor to warily engage only if all else had failed…sort of like begging for change on the streets.

The instructor walked in late. A thirty-something large-boned pregnant woman with taupe pants and long, straight brown hair. “Welcome to the semester,” she said smiling, then passed out a syllabus – a word I’d never heard before – and told us this was Public Speaking 1030, and if we hadn’t signed up for that, we were in the wrong class. One girl meekly got up, clutched her books against her ribs, and ducked out.

The instructor was quick to point out that, as per the schedule, we would be giving our first speech in class starting next Tuesday. “That’s right, you’ll be up here in front of the class one week from now.” She added that, for this first speech, she would be asking for volunteers to present in the order we’d like, but that if no one raised their hand, she’d randomly pick students. In short, I had to be ready next Tuesday. Either I’d have to raise my hand and present, or I’d risk being called on.

After the second day of class, that Thursday, I still hadn’t come up with a suitable topic to go with the persuasive speech I was slated to deliver.

I sat in front of my desktop computer for a long time, constantly walking away to work on my homework from History and Chemistry, my other two courses that semester.

By Monday night, I had a skeleton of a speech, but I didn’t want to give it. “I just want to quit,” I whined to Jennifer, “This is too stressful. Nana’s right, I’m not smart enough to do a good job.” This was a reference to my paternal grandmother. She rolled her eyes and said “Of course” when I was in elementary school and I was getting such good grades there was talk of me skipping a grade. But then, mid-way through my first year of Junior High School, I gave up. Well, sort of. I committed myself to never failing any classes, and either doing all the work or ensuring my parents wouldn’t find out that I hadn’t done all the work. But that was it. I wasn’t going to expend any effort or time on any classwork I didn’t assuredly enjoy. And that, as it turns out, was hardly anything outside of wood shop or videography.

Nana often compared me to Amy, my straight-A cousin who was a mere 60 days my senior. “Amy called me from Florida yesterday,” Nana said, sitting in her rocking chair that was, as always, turned to face the television. “She got all A’s in school again.”

“I could do that,” I said.

“Well then why don’t you, Jimmy?”

“Because I don’t care.”

“Hm.” She looked at me over her glasses. “I think if you could do it, you would do it.”

“I would if I cared.”

But maybe, after all, she was right. Unlike junior high and senior high, I had deliberately chosen to attend Century College. More than that, I was paying for it.

“You’re not quitting!” Jennifer yelled. “We arranged too many things in our life to make it so you can go to college. And now you’re gonna do it.”


“What’s wrong with your speech? Let’s hear it.”

“Right now? You want me to give it to you?”

“Yeah right now. You’re supposed to practice it out loud, right?’


“Then do it.”

So, there in the living room of our tiny apartment, I got up from the floor and stood in front of the coffee table. Jennifer sat on the futon and listened to my speech about Why Humans Should Explore Mars. I cringed as I spoke each forced line. I kept looking up from my note card with it’s assigned limit of 30 words and staring at Jennifer, my eyes pleading with her to let this be done. During each protracted, unnatural pause, I gave a belabored sigh, sighing that seventh through eleventh grade had already proven sufficiently that formal schooling was bunk, so why this delayed, tertiary blip on my life? When it was done, deflated, I sat back on the floor with my elbows on the table.

“What was wrong with that?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s just not very good.”

Jennifer said it was, but she was wrong. If someone walked into my Toastmasters Club this week and gave the exact same presentation in the exact same way, I would think it’s a good thing they’re in Toastmasters because, damn, they suck.

The next morning, I didn’t raise my hand at first. As I told Jennifer the night before, I wanted to hear at least one other speech before I gave mine, to establish a baseline.

The old woman in her 40s went first. And she did…pretty well, actually. Then I raised my hand, but the instructor call on the redhead who appeared smartly dressed for the occasion. She did really well. Then it was my turn.

Then I relaxed, and it was only over the rest of that class period and the next two days of class that my confidence rose. One guy just didn’t prepare. The instructor called on him, and he said he wasn’t ready. “Well, you’re supposed to be ready,” she gently reminded him. She then asked if he wanted to stand up and say what he had so far, or if he wanted a zero. He got up an delivered a laughable quasi-speech on the importance of Tupac Shakur. It wasn’t persuasive. “Tupac was very important to the rap scene,” the student said, “he made good music that people still listen to today, even though he got killed.”

Then another student tried to persuade us that there should be stricter control over teachers due to the pervasiveness of child abuse between teachers and students, and cited one example of a high school gym teacher in California who molested 1.4 million students over his 30-year tenure. I spent the rest of his speech calculating the ridiculousness of that number so that, when it was time for Q&A, I was able to raise my hand and ask clarification. Actually, he called on the girl sitting to my left first, and she said, “Are you sure about that number?” His eyes grew wide and he nodded deliberately, saying, “I know, isn’t that terrible?” Then I was able to call out, “What? Did he have the kids line up so he could molest one a minute for three years?” He didn’t understand, but it got a good laugh out of most of the class. The teacher covered her mouth with the back of her hand, stifling a giggle.

On the way out of class that day, I received my grade for the presentation. Ninety percent; the lowest I received of the five speeches I gave in that class.

I didn’t quit. And now I’m here.

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2017: The World We Live In

On this, the 58th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, I finished reading The World We Live In.

My great-grandmother, who had owned the book for over thirty years, gifted me the large, heavy, rust-colored book on this day in 1991. She was visiting from her home on Long Island, and she had gifts for her great-grandchildren, all twelve of them.

I still remember the rush of all the kids – of which I was oldest – and adults. Her visits to Minnesota always brought my mom’s entire family together at my grandparents. And I can still remember her curly white hair and her scent when we hugged – a slight mothball aroma infused with a strong tea. “Here you go, dear,” she said, handing me the big book. She always called me dear, though, come to think of it, she called everyone dear. She had an eastern accent – the kind my mom, and even I – had when I was little. So the dear was more like deaaa. Like most of my New Yorker family, she tended to erase Rs that were supposed to be spoken, and then insert them into words that didn’t otherwise have them.

Her mannerisms and accent actually reminded my sister and me of someone we saw regularly on TV. Diane and I often compared our family members to famous people, usually on account of looks, but sometimes we ascribed a doppelgänger based on mannerisms, too. One uncle reminded us of Brian Wilson. Steven Tyler inexplicably looked like one of our aunts. But our great-grandma, whom we called Grandma Kopp (since that was her last name, after all), embodied Jean Stapleton.

“I wrote your name in it,” she added, as I kissed and thanked her. I opened the front cover and, true to her word, she had written “To James D. Zimmerman • Love Grand Ma • 2/3/91.”

For years, the odd-sized book languished on my shelf. Once the computer age was in full swing, I recruited it as a laptop desk. At the approaching of the twentieth anniversary since I was granted possession of it, I contemplated finally reading it cover to cover. Its very size posed a challenge; I couldn’t lug it work to read during break, and I couldn’t leave it sitting on the toilet tank for that other time I devote to reading. As the date approached and I realized I was too busy with a six-month old child and a new college course beginning that very day, I satisfied myself with simply reading the introduction.

Over the next five years, I read about five percent of the book. Then I hit upon the idea of finishing it on the 25th anniversary, but that eclipsed, too.

During my holiday break in December, I pulled it off its shelf – a narrow shelf on which it sits horizontally with two other unwieldy tomes – and committed myself to at last reaching the back cover by the marginally remarkable 26th anniversary since Grandma Kopp put pen to front free endpaper.


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2017: Surprise. It’s Spring.

February is a better month than January. Mostly because it’s around ten percent shorter.

At least February is honest with us. January sneaks in with duplicitous joviality – kicking off with a party and then spending the first day as a holiday. The segue is appreciated, I suppose, but it also leaves me off kilter, like I wake up on the second or third with a hangover wondering where the year and my time off went.

But February starts right in. This year, it begins mid-week. I held off February as long as I could, setting my alarm for an hour later than usual, but that extra sleep was paid for with a worse commute. Heavy traffic. Still dark. Still cold. Still dead – the trees remind me of the circulatory brachiating they put up on the big screens at work to demonstrate the tortuous path of our catheters.

At least our Christmas tree still looks nice. As of two weeks ago, I stripped it of its ornamentation and removed it from the house. But it now decorates our deck, just outside the kitchen windows. Birds sit in it and it rests for now until its next step on its year long journey going from living tree to becoming a single ornament on next year’s tree.

The other thing February brings is spring semester at the university. It doesn’t feel like spring, but that’s what they call the semester, regardless of the windchill. For six out of the last seven Februarys, I started a class at Hamline University. The only spring semester I missed was in 2014, and that was because Jennifer was due to give birth during finals week. It’s already crappy enough that Owen’s birthday coincides with finals week, I didn’t want to complicate things by being in class at the same time kid number three came aboard and, anyway, I made up for missing that spring semester by taking a summer course. I start a class at Hamline in five days. An email from the school invited me to a reception next Thursday toasting 100 days until graduation. Like usual, I probably won’t attend the celebration, but I’ll silently celebrate the milestone. It’s been a long time in coming.


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2107: The Persistence of Forgetfulness

As part of my efforts to be viewed as a non-shitty parent, I walk with Owen to his jiu jitsu class on Monday evenings. It’s only three blocks from the Zimmerman Compound and, when he first enrolled, he walked there himself. But that was September, and our slice of the planet hadn’t turned away from the sun by 6:00PM. But in January, it’s already dark. It’s dark all the time. January is the worst month.

In the brief time it took us to cover the distance, Owen said, “Know a funny thing? I can remember the first day of fourth grade, but not fifth grade or sixth grade! Isn’t that weird?”

Hm. I considered this for a moment. It was indeed weird. Owen’s fourth grade was neither the first nor the last year at his school. It wasn’t his first woman teacher (it was his fifth one in a row), nor was it his most recent school year.

“Really?” I said, incredulous. “You sure you don’t remember the first day of sixth grade? That was just a few months ago.”

“I can’t think of it,” he said, noticing that the memory was somewhere in his brain, like a lost book shoved behind other books on a shelf, but that he simply couldn’t access it.

“What was so special about fourth grade? What happened on that first day?”

“You know. The teacher just said hi and talked and stuff.”


“And then she had us all sit in a circle on the floor,” he explained, and then noted that this was the teacher’s method of introducing everyone to everyone else.

Of course, Owen had sat in a circle lots of times before, most notably in preschool and kindergarten. But by fourth grade, such circular kumbaya-ing seemed to juvenile for Owen and the other nine-year-olds, so the action of doing something unexpected created a solid pattern in Owen’s neurons that he can still easily recall over two years later.

He asked if I could recall any first days of school. My mind scrambled to recall which school I attended for which grade. I quickly thought about seventh, my first year of junior high, and twelfth, the most recent year of public school I had in my mind. where did those memories go? Why couldn’t I access them? What happened in the interim that caused thirteen first days to merge with the hundred other regular school days from each year. Yes, I could picture my science teacher from seventh grade, who gave me a pencil sharpener I still had mounted on my wall, I could remember that paunchy, bearded biologist from eleventh grade that uncomfortably asserted evolution was true, and I could recall the beautiful student teacher from second grade, who smelled of flowers ( a pleasant juxtaposition from the rest of the staff, who incessantly reeked of coffee), always wore cowgirl boots, had flowing blonde hair, and no thumbs. But considering kindergarten through twelfth grade for a moment, I could really only remember one: tenth grade.

“Really? Tenth? Why?”

I explained that that was my first day in a new school district. It was also my first day of high school. I didn’t know anyone. What’s more, the bus dropped me off at the doors a full half hour prior to the first bell. While other students convivially hobnobbed, or smoked in the parking lot, or slept on the floor in the library, I merely stopped at my locker, dropped off what I didn’t need right away, then walked to my first class. I turned on the lights, sat at a desk in the back row, and stared off at the bland room for ten minutes, until another student arrived. She didn’t even nod in my direction. Just sat in a seat a decent distance from me, opened a compact, checked her hair, and flipped through a notebook.

“Why were you so early?” Owen wanted to know.

“I don’t know. The bus came early all through tenth and eleventh grade. After a while, I learned to go hang out in the library and I scrambled to finish my homework or I just looked at the books, and there was this other guy I would sit and talk to for a while.”

“Do you remember any other years?”

“Well, I remember the first day of college, but that was a lot more recent. That was in 2000.”

“What!” he blurted. “You’ve been going to college since 2000?”

“Well, no. Remember, first I went to Century College. I went there from 2000 to 2002, then after I got my degree I didn’t go to college again until 2009. So that whole time we lived in Big Lake – back when you were born, I didn’t go. Even once we moved to St. Paul, it was still over a year before I started at Hamline.”

“Still, that’s a long time.”

“I know. But I’m taking it slow.”

Then Owen ran off into the rec center to attend jiu jitsu, and I was left trying to recall my first day of kindergarten. I can remember certain images, certain features, and vague recollection of a class discussion on December ninth of my kindergarten year. I know my teacher’s name and, if you dropped me in the foyer of my elementary school, I could walk assuredly to my former classroom. After all, I was at that school for five years, seeing my kindergarten teacher in the hall and passing by her room long after I’d moved on to higher grades, all the way up to fourth grade.

And then it hit me, I remember my first day of fourth grade, too.

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