A week ago, I drove past a kid chopping the ice from the driveway. His expression was not entirely suffused with joy. All of his features seemed drawn together, like the nozzle of a tied-off balloon.
This was a few days before the thaw, so chopping ice took brawn. The only time anyone likes breaking ice is when the war obviously is over, and you’re like a vengeful soldier bayoneting the wounded. When the ice is so weak you can crack a floe with one blow, all your leftover winter angst is channeled into the swing.
But that was not this day. The ice was still dense enough to laugh at the assault. It’s possible the kid volunteered, but it’s more likely he was sent out with the phrase that made my generation grind their teeth to twinging stumps: “It’ll build character.”
We’ve been told over the years that winters make us sterner and stronger, and a child who grows up smashing ice with a vengeful face will have so much character it will shoot out of his ears.
Mom might have worried: “Dear, don’t you think he has enough character by now? What if he’s got too much? Yoo-hoo! Come inside, sit down and think indolent thoughts of cheating people at card games, so you can bleed off some of this excess character.”
Dad looks skeptical; Mom explains: “Well, we don’t want him to qualify for sainthood before he gets to middle school. Look how miserable he seems, chopping that ice. I’ve never seen anyone his age with that much character.”
We all know the lessons of winter. Every time our molars clatter when we hit a pothole, we remember: This we endure, and additional rations of character are our reward.
Personally, I believe that every character-building winter makes me 37 percent more likely to help old ladies across the street, whether they want to go across or not. After this winter I have so much character I am going to animal rescue shelters to assure the dogs that a family will pick them soon. And I am counting the items in the basket of people in the express lane, and if they’re over 10, I will follow them to their car and have a sincere discussion about how society requires that we follow the rules, even the small ones.
This winter gave me so much character, I now come to a full stop at a four-way intersection when it’s 2 a.m.
I feel as if the rest of the country should come to us for guidance on moral issues, because we now have character like North Dakota has oil. We should send ambassadors out to other places, wearing large plastic foam hats shaped like Minnesota, and make people behave better just by radiating all that built-up surplus concentrated character.
If we could send a Minnesotan in a foam hat to stand in the corner of every corporate board meeting, they might start out by discussing how to evade some taxes, but one soft look of disappointment from the living embodiment of character accumulated by chopping ice and not swearing when your blisters start to bleed and they’ll rethink it.
So hail to that kid out there chopping ice that was going to melt in a few days. Sure, his parents made him do it. But he’ll thank them some day.
Fast forward 30 years: The kid’s got character all right. And it’s the name of the boat he sails around Florida.