Not too long ago, Simon Smithson submitted a brief blog entry, seeking ideas about the best way to write about place.  I had nothing to say about it.  I was curious.  I wanted to know, too.  I waited.  No one had much to say.

Then I left my place to go to my cousin’s place in Chicago where I met Simon and Zara, who were not in their places, either.

I love Chicago.  Stormy, husky, brawling.  I fit in there well enough.  I’m comfortable there.

Most of the rules in Chicago are the same as here.  It’s a lovable, dirty old dog in a fancy coat–not glamorous, and not really trying to be.  Chicago is at home in its skin.  In that way, it’s similar to the Twin Cities.  Nevertheless, it’s not home, and in conversation with foreigners in a place to which I, too, was foreign, I became acutely aware of it. 

I am proud of Chicago like I’m proud of my sister’s kids.  They’re great.  I love them.  I marvel at them.  But they’re not mine.

Unlike most people from the Upper Midwest, I have never been in any particular hurry to leave.  I see no problem with it.  I can’t imagine what other people have that we don’t–at least in reasonable facsimile.  I like it.  Wherever you go, there you are.

Nevertheless, it’s particularly difficult to write about a place like Minnesota.  No matter how excellent I think it is, to most of the world, I’m talking up an ugly sister to a hapless friend in the hopes that her charming personality will win the day if I can just trick him into being in the same room with her.

It’s practically a con.

A siren song to the happy oblivious.

Never mind the crooked gait, the missing eye, the shoddy public transport, the Iron Range.  She’s a lamb.

So I’m going to try to be honest, here.  No tribal supremacy, no maudlin sentimentality.  I’m going to tell it like it is.

Technically speaking, it’s flyover country.  Home of nothing but lutefisk, mosquitoes, and fat farmers.  But we are a blue state, so as far as most people who live on either coast are concerned, we at least have that going for us.  We’re a strange hue of blue, having our own democratic party of a type found nowhere else in the nation.  I expect Canada to invade any day.  We’re the closest you can get (except maybe the UP) without actually passing through customs.  We’ve been sticking our nipple into Canada for over 150 years.

The running joke about MN politics is that any given person is probably a card-carrying member of both the NRA and the ACLU, and we are happy in our habits.  For nearly as long as I’ve been alive, our habit is to elect democratic presidents, republican governors, one each conservative and liberal national senators…

You get the idea.  We’re not sitting on the fence; we’re straddling it.  We deal with a political climate of extremes the same way we deal with our weather:  Use what’s available to make the situation as tolerable as possible.

For the most part, much of what the coastal supremacists say is true.  Our winter cold is at once hypodermic and searing.  It can, sometimes and if you’re not careful, freezer-burn the skin right off your face.

We do, indeed, have fat farmers.

Our summers are oppressively hot, stormy, and humid, too.  That’s what happens when 10,000 lakes get sucked into the dry Southwestern air that rides in on the jet stream.  Manic depressive weather.  The land of 10,000 natural extremes.

We have a lot of corn.  And livestock.  And water.  Water everywhere.  The water turns to ice, and we drive on it to get from igloo to igloo or state to state. Or just to whip shitties.

Our main defense against all of these accusations is, “Hey.  At least we’re not Wisconsin.”

But also in our defense, I know from experience that many major metropolitan areas smell like piss.  The Twin Cities do not.  We are a proud, clean people.  Little Mogadishu sometimes smells like curry and nag champa, but that’s just how they roll over there.  There is a store there that is the size of most Aldi supermarkets, and it specializes in batik and incense; it has been there for 50 years or something.  The smell is in the sidewalks.

On the West Bank, even the dirt smells like a foreign country.

If I wanted to attribute a sound to Minnesota, I would probably mention how it is possible to hear snow and ice melting (literally true; snow “breathes” and ice “sings”).

I’m not sure what Minnesota tastes like.  Probably like something on a stick.

We are Germans and Scandinavians primarily–traditionally, I should say.  This is changing.  We have some of the largest Hmong, Somali, Sierra Leonian, and Liberian immigrant demographics per capita in the nation.

As I said, we are a clean people.  We like  for things to be nice–not fancy or ostentatious, which would be rude.  Just nice.  Look nice, be nice; don’t make a scene.  That’s the state motto.

Actually, the motto is L’Etoile du Nord.   It is evidence that we once had French people hanging around here.   They were voyageurs and other unsavory, unwashed characters, no doubt.  We shooed them all into Canada and slammed the door.

We shooed them politely, though, I’m sure.  Minnesota Nice.

Minnesota Nice is not actually about BEING nice.  It’s about acting nice.  It’s about showing that you know how to do it.  It’s not unlike French politesse.  It has a lot to do with not imposing on others.  Not shouting, not invading others’ personal space (a Minnesotan’s personal space is half again as large as any other American’s), not invading their auditory or olfactory space, not turning up unannounced, not showing any emotion that may be disturbing to others, not invading ego space with braggadocio, returning calls and correspondence in a snappy fashion, saying “excuse me” when you sneeze…you know…in case you might have grossed someone out, and saying “bless you,” if someone else sneezes, so he or she knows you were not grossed out.

There is a lot of apologizing involved.

Pardon my reach, excuse me, thank you, I don’t want to impose, which floor would you like, I’m sorry, excuse me, my mistake, pardon me, I’m sorry it’s so late, I’m sorry it’s so early…

And if you’re doing nice right, no matter how evil you are in fact, no one will ever, ever know about it.  Some people find this off-putting or problematic or unpalatable.  I don’t see what the difference is between actually being nice and only being nice as far as anyone you ever encounter knows.

I mean, the net effect is the same.

We are adept at getting along.  Feel free to cuss someone out behind his back, but make nice in person.  Do not upset things.  No one wants to deal with that.  Don’t make a scene.

Immigrants from Africa, however, struggle with this aspect of northern culture.  Many come from more outspoken, straightforward speech cultures and are widely regarded as rude or aggressive by Minnesota natives.  Cultural confusion.  Conversely, many Asian immigrants who come from more reserved cultures assimilate fairly easily in this respect.

Our accent–or alleged accent–is legendary.  Most Minnesotans, especially those living in cosmopolitan areas of the state, will erupt in clenched-jaw, terse-lipped, low-voiced, and inappropriately (however reservedly) offended derisions if you tell them that they sound like Fargo.

And rightly so.  The accents represented in that film are caricatures and, even then, caricatures of some of the most extreme accents in the state.  Nevertheless, I discovered that some things just aren’t fit for denial.  “Ya shuur” escaped my lips at least three times in the roughly eight hours we spent with Simon and Zara that weekend in Chicago.  I’d repeat it every time.  To myself, near myself.  To punish myself for having said it.

So, what has already happened, what has already been said, who has already been here?

James Wright, John Berryman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Hampl, Ray Gonzales, Winona Ryder, Judy Garland, Steve Zahn, That-Guy-Who-Played-Hellboy, Bob Dylan, Soul Asylum, the Replacements, The Suburbs, Husker Du, The Jayhawks, Bob Mould, Semisonic, The Hold Steady, Atmosphere, and The Artist Known, Then Not Known, and Now Known Again, as Prince.

These people all have formidable Minnesota connections.  I’m sure I’m forgetting some.

John Berryman died less than 2,000 feet from my cubicle at work.

No.  He did not die of boredom.  And not of polar bears, either.

F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in my hometown briefly.

A reporter in the 19th century once said St. Paul, our capital city, was “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation.”  So we threw a street party and a parade in the dead of winter–and continue to, annually, without fail.

Fame and respect outside of Minnesota are hard to come by while you’re in Minnesota, but that’s changing somewhat.  The Twin Cities’ arts scene (performing, visual, and literary), which Minnesotans have been shouting about for decades, is formidable–in many ways ridiculous–relative to our population.  It continues to grow, maybe from the realization that, being where we are, talking funny like we do, we have to work twice as hard to  be considered even half as good.

Minnesota has a tradition of sharing its collections of stuff, be it art or animals, free of charge.

The animals.  The wildlife.  We have wildlife.

But in exchange for cursing us with the coldest major metropolitan area in the nation, The Guy has seen fit to grant us a few boons.

A major one is that Minnesota is 99.9% free of poisonous things.  It’s too cold here for poison.

We do have wolves, bear, puma, moose, and an inexplicably robust (suddenly resurgent) wild turkey population.  I don’t know if you know this, but wild turkeys are mean as fuck.

And stupid.  So stupid.  I wouldn’t normally shoot a living thing, but I might shoot a turkey if properly armed and even mildly provoked.

Come to think of it, our birds are pretty mean in general.  Bald Eagles and Red-Tailed Hawks, especially, may abscond with your Pomeranian or preemie if you don’t keep an eye on it.  Death from above.  For real.

A raptor ate your baby.

Okay.  They don’t take babies.  Please don’t go to your urban condo coastal dinner parties and make wide eyes at people over your martini, telling everyone you heard that the hillbilly Minnesotans sacrifice babies to the national bird.

It’s the June Bugs that take babies.

Another boon and, really, the bottom line:  Unlike our turkeys, our people are smart.  We are among the best-educated states in the country.

Suck on that, coasters.  Take that to your dinner party.

Our winter comes and goes, but your stupid is forever.

Er. I mean.  Um.  Sorry.

Pardon my braggadocio.

What I meant to say was:

  • Wi nøt trei a høliday in [Minnesota] this yër?
  • See the løveli lakes
  • The wøndërful telephøne system
  • And mäni interesting furry animals...
  • Including the majestik møøse
  • A Møøse once bit my sister...
  • No realli! She was Karving her initials on the møøse
    with the sharpened end of an interspace tøøthbrush given
    her by Svenge - her brother-in-law - an Oslo dentist and
    star of many Norwegian møvies: "The Høt Hands of an Oslo
    Dentist", "Fillings of Passion", "The Huge Mølars of Horst


I’ve been thinking about place recently.

How setting can affect pieces in fiction and non-fiction, short pieces and longer works.

I sat and waited for someone one night, a long time ago, and I was taken by the way the streetlights and the storm that was moving over the streets reflected off the wall of bottles behind the bar. I figured it was probably important to remember the way it looked, in case I wanted to write it into something someday.

And lately, I’ve been thinking about the places that I grew up in, and how they might affect future narratives – or even how future narratives might be entirely about them.

Place, you know? How does place figure into things? What makes for a good description of place? Who are the authors who are good at doing this?

Aside from Brin Friesen, that is?

What’s the best way to evoke the spirit of a place? To call it forth? Should place become a character? Is it that important? Does it depend on the place?