A Star Tribune essayist today reignited the debate that never ends in Minnesota: the face-off between transplants and the natives. It happens every year around this time and I’m pretty sure it’s related somehow to turning the clocks back an hour.
I read the piece while eating the last of the doughnuts that a colleague — a native, and a pretty warm one, thank you very much — brought in for her co-workers today. Someone had already cut it in half once, and then once more. And, I’m pretty sure, once more again.
So how you react to that, I suppose defines whether you’re a “hey someone brought doughnuts” type of person or a “hey some Minnesotan cut a doughnut in half in half in half” sort.
“We Minnesotans will come out of our shells eventually as long as you’re doing something interesting, something productive,” Geoff Herbach writes in his essay today.
“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.”
Herbach, by freak of birth, is a Wisconsin native but calls himself a Minnesotan now. And he pretty much nails it.
The headline on his essay asks transplants to “back off,” but, of course, nobody did. More than 100 people have reacted exactly the way you’d expect them to, if you’ve followed this decades-long back-and-forth
As I was reading the piece, of course, I tried to figure out which “side” I’m on. I’ve been here for 24 years now and when I’m flying the plane back from my ancestral homeland, I get a feeling when crossing the Mississippi south of La Crosse that can only be described as pride and relief. That tells me I’m home, even if I take a whole doughnut or say “hello” when passing colleagues in the hallway.
And I decided — again — I’m on Herbach’s side, just as I was when I wrote this letter to the East Coast five years ago this month, after a cultural leader fled for Chicago, unable to handle the Minnesotaness of Minnesota. He was from New York.
Dear East Coast:
So, you’re leaving, then. That’s it. You showed up with your “I’m from the East Coast and I’m made of tough,” and you couldn’t make it here. We’d like you to stay and let us give you another chance and I hope you’ll think about this before you go back to your comfort zone and talk about us. We know what you’ll say; we’ve heard it before. We’re willing to give you another shot, anyway. We don’t like people to miss out on a life-changing experience.
I was you, East Coast. I showed up here 20 years ago and before I unpacked I was already wondering where I went wrong. Minnesota? Who aspires to move to Minnesota? I was a little shot in New York once in a business which considers New York the capital and everything else flyover country. I get how easy it is to wonder whatever happened to your life, that the world was spinning somewhere else and you were missing out on the fun.
It wasn’t until I watched other East Coasters come here that I began to understand where people like you and I went wrong. We come here and we spend most of our early time looking for the East Coast — our comfort zone. We tell ourselves that the North Shore is like Martha’s Vineyard with different boats. We squint on Nicollet Mall and convince ourselves we’re in New York or Boston. We want to honk when a car goes by with an East Coast license plate and resist the urge to ask them to pull over to the side of the road so we can talk about the days when we could find decent pizza. I’d bring up the whole “merge on the highways” thing, but you probably take the bus.
It takes at least a year to even begin to work through those issues and understand the cultural riches here — not necessarily your kind of cultural, but cultural nonetheless. Like the arts, new experiences challenge what we think. Though uncomfortable, we grow to understand and appreciate the performance. We might even fall in love with it. That’s how we grow. Say, maybe that’s why they call it “culture.”
If you had stuck around for at least a year, however, you’d realize that the Minnesota culture isn’t about you, and that it’s OK to experience a little bit of life that isn’t about you. It’s another way you grow and become something you’re not now, and that’s a good thing.
You don’t like the culture? Grow a little.
We newcomers strut into our jobs as if we’re saviors from a more civilized land. We look at the natives funny when they ask questions like, “do you want to come with?” We invite the passive aggressive we get and then convince ourselves that it’s a backlash against our East Coastness. It’s not; it’s a backlash against us being full of ourselves. Trust me, East Coast, years from now you’ll think about how you approached your new land and bury your head in your hands in continuing embarrassment like the time Becky Slater rejected your invitation to the 8th grade dance. It never ends, kiddo.
It’s a cold state. And the weather’s pretty chilly, too. But until you begin to understand why you think it’s cold, you can’t begin to absorb the culture and appreciate where you are.
You’ve been here under a year, so you probably never really got to meet that many Minnesotans; you probably surrounded yourself with people who you thought were like you — and were disappointed when they didn’t turn out to be just like you. Maybe you had a run-in with a work colleague or two and determined it was an entire state’s culture.
The Minnesota culture? After 20 years, I’m still not sure what that is, East Coast. Where you come from, you don’t change as much as merely assimilate — you’ve been around for almost 400 years. Here, the culture is changing and watching it change is about the most exciting thing you can imagine. Minnesota will take the best of you; it just won’t tell you.
This is a land that can challenge everything you thought you knew about people and cultures. People go to vote in greater numbers here than anywhere you’ve lived — people who will put a wrestler in the governor’s office, a Republican in one Senate seat, and a Democrat in the other and then make sport out of all of them. This culture still gets upset at stories of corruption and wrongdoing because it’s a culture with a compass that points to right from wrong.
Sure, this joint has a massive inferiority complex thanks mostly to you, which is why we drool over all the surveys that show us as the best read, healthiest, and most educated state. But once you get past that, you know what? We’re the best read, healthiest, and most educated. That’s not a culture on which the truly smart and civilized turn their backs.
Mistakenly, we still think the term “Minnesota Nice” was a compliment and, sure, there are times that people who say “have a nice day” are actually saying, “get lost,” but it’s only a problem until you begin to speak the language of passive aggressive. Still, you can’t imagine the people you can meet in this culture who ooze goodness once you shed your issues.
But you probably never got out of the Twin Cities in your short stay here, so the reality is you never got to know the full range of the culture you’re defining and rejecting. If you had, you’d be like most East Coasters who think of Minnesota as home; you’d vow to spend the rest of your days soaking it in from one distinctive town to the next in every direction you can travel, silently kicking yourself for not moving here sooner. There comes a watershed moment when you start referring to yourself as “a Minnesotan.”
If you’re leaving, best of luck. This is a fishing state and sometimes we have to throw back those that are too puny, knowing we’re one fish closer to a “keeper.” So sorry you weren’t one of them.
Have a nice day,
Maybe Minnesotans won’t invite you to their home, as Herbach notes. But they’ll bring you doughnuts. What more can you want?