Last Tuesday, while passing the Jolly Green Giant “Welcome to the Valley” sign on Highway 169 near Le Sueur, Minn., it occurred to me that I’ve become a real Minnesotan.
Here is what I was thinking the moment before my Minnesota epiphany: “Uh-oh. I’m not going to get my good parking spot if I hit that light in St. Peter.”
No, I’m not a Minnesotan by birth. I grew up in Wisconsin among yah der heys who liked to high-five strangers. If you didn’t know, yah der heys are Wisconsin people who attach the words yah, der and hey to sentences, as in: “Yah you left your beer bong out on the lawn der hey.”
Minnesotans don’t high-five strangers, generally. We’ve got too much work to get done over here.
How do I know I’m no longer a Wisconsinite? No more beer-soaked high-fives for this guy. I’m too busy. I have lunch to eat. I have good parking to get. I have to get my snowblower fixed before my driveway blows shut.
But sometimes I wonder if becoming a real Minnesotan was a good thing? Lately there has been a slew of opinion pieces in local media claiming that we Minnesotans are closed, passive-aggressive, uninviting.
Here’s my question: Why do all these newcomers want to get invited to my house anyway? Aren’t our exchanges at the grocery store painfully awkward enough?
I work at Minnesota State, Mankato. It was just before 7 a.m. when I passed the Jolly Green Giant sign that day. I was driving back to Mankato from the Twin Cities for a meeting, which was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. If you know the geography of Southern Minnesota, you know I was way early.
But here’s the truth: I wasn’t early enough, not if I wanted to nab one of the best parking spots on campus. Those fill up by 7 a.m. Minnesotans tend to get to work early and they tend to leave early, probably so they can get supper going and maybe do a little craftwork in front of the TV before bedtime (which is 9 p.m. or earlier).
I make that bedtime claim based on the habits of my maternal grandfather, a sturdy Lutheran fellow who immigrated to Austin, Minn., from Germany after World War I. I remember him best as a retiree in Florida, but he was the most stereotypically Minnesotan guy ever.
He didn’t like to talk. He liked to do. He would get us in the car at 4:30 a.m. for outings. He would cut off our outings at 10:45 a.m. for lunch, saying, “Might as well eat and get it over with.”
We’d beat traffic to whatever event we were attending. We’d beat traffic to Denny’s for food. We’d be home before New Yorkers even get out of their pajamas.
On Sundays we’d go to church 45 minutes early to get the parking spot closest to the exit. We sat in the back pew, which allowed us to leave the church first, so we could get back to that parking spot, so we could beat the traffic out and get home.
Why was Grandpa always in such a hurry for home? I believe it represented freedom from other people. At home he could do what he wanted instead of getting stuck in awkward conversations about politics, weather and sports.
At home Grandpa produced. He fixed lawn mowers, built sheds resembling country churches, dug into the earth to make goldfish ponds. The man didn’t have time to chat.
He didn’t have time for other kinds of B.S. either. I remember when President Clinton nominated Donna Shalala to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Somebody claimed she was a lesbian, which I guess might’ve discredited her at that time. A news story came on the TV where she denied having “lived an alternative lifestyle.”
Grandpa, who was over 80, who had farmed, labored in factories, and built whole houses with his hands, stood up and turned off the TV. “If she’s a good, smart worker, it’s nobody’s business,” he said.
Now, it’s true, he probably wouldn’t invite you over for beers. But he’d plow your walk. He’d mow your lawn. He’d dig you out of the ditch. He’d give you a jump. And he’d gladly dump money into the offering plate at church.
I always think of him when I see the amazing, diverse immigrant groups we have here in our state. A portion of all that money he gave to the Lutherans certainly went to fund our open arms. I like to think he’d be proud, too. Minnesota was his refuge from a war-torn Europe. Minnesota was his land of possibility.
As I get older and more settled into the Minnesota lifestyle, I’ve started to exhibit certain traits that remind me of Grandpa: My obsession with good parking, for one thing. The fact that what I look forward to most before any event is leaving. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy events. I just like it best when they end.
Also, I’ve started going places early to avoid too much chatter. I keep my office door closed (knock if you have something to say). I rarely invite people for dinner. I left my beer bong in Wisconsin, to avoid Wisconsin hangovers, so I can get my butt to the writing desk at the crack of dawn.
I’m sorry, you won’t find me entertaining a load of newbies in my home. If you guys need companionship, join a choir or something. Join a nonprofit board. Build something weird. How about an ice shanty? Have you seen one of those cool art shanties?
We Minnesotans will come out of our shells eventually as long as you’re doing something interesting, something productive.
How about this? If you like our government, schools, museums and businesses, then embrace them and help make them better. Or take advantage of our thriving economy and go build something of your own.
That’s what those who came to Minnesota before you did.
And finally: maybe some Minnesotans are passive-aggressive, like the online commenters say. But most of us aren’t. When I smile at you, it means I’m genuinely glad you’re here. I’m not faking it. I’m glad you showed.
I’m a little awkward, that’s all. OK, I’m pretty dang awkward. Also, I just want to get home to get some dishes done, or some reading, or some writing, or some laundry. I really just want to go home.
Geoff Herbach is the award-winning author of several novels for young adults, including the "Stupid Fast" series and "Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders." He lives in a log cabin, like pioneer (with central air-conditioning), and teaches creative writing at Minnesota State, Mankato.
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