A Guide to Minnesota Nice

21 Aug

Minnesotans have plenty of reason to be nice. We’re not in a rush to scrap for spots on ladders for power, as happens out East; we have more space than they do, and lack their extremes and intensity, despite the political affinity. We’re not haunted by history as in the South, or left with much of a Rust Belt legacy like most of our Midwestern brethren. We’ll always be more interesting than the Plains, and do not suffer from whatever it is that afflicts Texans and turns them into Texans. Nor are we restless strivers still on the frontier, like those out West; we’ve tamed the whole state, and like it as it is under our stewardship. Just look at our rather racist flag, with its settler beating off some native to claim his fields. That mostly forgotten episode in the Dakota Wars aside, our history has never been at the center of the American narrative, which spares us a judging past, but we’ve been around long enough to have a cultural legacy that can stand on its own. Things are, simply, nice.

Unless, of course, you dare to find fault in our niceness. A Washington Post article poking fun at some of the nation’s more geographically “boring” counties got zero flak from the other states with a bunch near the bottom of the list, but Minnesotans trashed it en masse, leading to a mea culpa from the author. Perhaps the lack of attention leaves us with an inferiority complex; more likely, we’re just quirky outsiders unaccustomed to much national interest, and ready to defend our turf when someone suddenly tries to drag us in with the rest of the country. For all the champions of progressive politics this state produces, there’s still a deep conservatism at the core here: Minnesotans are proud of what they’ve built, and would rather not mess with it too much.

And we have good reason. We’ve got a white-collar metropolis that has weathered some of the worst trends in cities fairly well. We combine a pretty friendly business climate with a functional state government that, until recently, operated quite independently from the national parties. We have an educational system on par with the nations of Scandinavia. Sure, the winters are cold, but we know how to have fun with them, and they build character. Our summers are gorgeous, our autumns sublime. (Any Minnesotan knows that the one indefensibly crappy season here is spring, that grey void between the end of the State Hockey Tournament and Memorial Day.) We have work-life balance: you’re certainly allowed to enjoy your job, but it does not define who you are, as people who are consumed by their jobs are often not nice. We’re very conscious about the work we do, but at the end of the day, we’d rather be on the lake than anywhere else.

“The lake” defines Minnesota life, and is the place where Minnesotans always go, that one platonic ideal standing in for all 11,842 of them within the state’s boundaries. We have an incredible diversity in lakes, but whether one prefers Calhoun or Kekakabic, Minnetonka or Vermillion, every lake inspires a certain ideal. But the most Minnesotan of lands is the northern realm of the state, where lake life reigns supreme, and even the biggest lovers of the big city will make their way North at least once a summer. Even as its population stagnates and economic role dwindles, the Twin Cities are happy to appropriate the North as theirs. Its appeal reaches both suburbanites in search of space and solitude and crunchy urbanites who have adopted its fashion wholesale. (There were bearded men in flannel drinking PBRs in Bemidji decades before they came to Brooklyn.) The North forever draws Minnesotans back with its more gradual pace of life, inviting one to think both deeply or of nothing. Either way, it cleanses the palette from incessant work and family life. Sit back on the pier, crack open a beer, gaze out across those sunny dancing waters, and lose yourself.

For Minnesotans raised on the sonorous voice of the high priest of Minnesota Nice, Garrison Keillor, that sentiment is never far away. There’s a fair amount of self-hate among Minnesotans of the Lake Wobegon idyll, and not without reason. But even Keillor’s critics often unwittingly embrace the foundations of his weekly news from the edge of the prairie: the need to stop amid the noise of life and succumb to nostalgia, the allure of a carefree childhood of exploration; the freedom to look back from old age and say that one has stayed true to something passed down from generation to generation. Call it the Minnesotan Dream: we may not be able to offer you power or riches, but we can offer you a safe, reasonably priced, spacious house and weekends on a lake. Do you really need much more than that?

For a majority of Minnesotans, this holds true. Not many people leave, and most who come tend to stay. People marry young and settle down, and the people we shared those lake weekends with as children stay friends for life. The result is a dense network of people; even in the Twin Cities, it’s hard to escape into anonymity, and we all know someone who knows someone. (I’ve heard the Twin Cities job market described as “pervasive low-grade nepotism.”) We share enough that we all know how to work together and live together, even if we may not like each other all that much. Hence the famed dark side of Minnesota Nice, the tendency to put on a good face and pretend to like people when, in fact, we hate their guts. It can be tiringly catty and erupt in spurts of passive-aggressiveness, but it also lets everyone get their jobs done with typical Minnesotan efficiency.

Minnesotans expect anyone who comes here to adopt Minnesotan standards: you can share in our nice state so long as you play by our nice rules. It’s a very Scandinavian ethos, which is no surprise in America’s most Scandinavian corner, forever putting the common good ahead individual quirks. This is probably why Minnesota attracts few immigrants save a few strong ethnic enclaves for Somalis and Hmong, and those (especially the Somalis) tend to live in their own separate worlds. It’s also probably why our efforts to educate Minnesotan children who do not look like us tend to suck. Our history with our Native Americans is dark and ugly. It’s easy to claim the high ground when everyone shares a common language, but as in Scandinavia, changing demographics may complicate the tale of Minnesotan exceptionalism.

There’s also the matter of Jante Law, a Scandinavian sentiment akin to that in Appalachia or inner cities in which people heap shame upon those who seem to rise above their perceived stations. (This ambitious, non-Scandinavian kid from the North remembers the two reactions that his college of choice, Georgetown, inspired from a number of local adults: “oh, where’s that?” and “that’s so far away.” Minnesota Nice translation: “you are making a stupid and selfish choice, leaving behind everything you know to go off to some mysterious, no doubt un-Minnesotan ivory tower on the East Coast.”) Foraging one’s own path in Minnesota, unless it is through a literal forest, is not always the easiest thing.

But it can be done. Minnesota transplants must learn to love the lake, and those who leave must show that they still remember it. It need not be the center of life, but it must be a part of it, and so long as we tend the roots of the Minnesota mystique, one will always be welcome. One can even retain some of those quirks learned in the great void beyond, and perhaps even chase some form of excellence. The lake may seem small at times, but its depths can be profound, and sometimes, that respite is something we all need.

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