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Pardon Me While I Talk

I spent the pandemic in New York where I don’t know anybody except my wife so quarantine was no problem and after I got vaccinated I went home to Minnesota and had dinner with five people I’ve known forever or more, and it was a pleasure that’s worth getting old for. With old friends, conversation is simple: you open your mouth and there’s a big balloon full of words. With new people, it’s like a job interview. So I love Minnesota where those old friends are. And it’s a state that needs to be loved.

Minnesota is flyover land and no matter what greatness we produce — Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Hubert, Jessica Lange, Prince, Al Franken, Bob Zimmerman — all that people know about us is that it gets cold there.

I was in Paris one January years ago on a bitterly cold day, sitting in a bistro, La Ponpon, packed with gaunt young people all dressed in black and elderly communists with enormous eyebrows and embittered poets writing in tiny black notebooks, everybody chain-smoking Gauloises and drinking vials of acidic black coffee and tumblers of absinthe, and a skinny woman across the table from me, reading Albert Camus in French, stared at me and finally asked, “Where are you from?” and I said, “Je viens du Minnesota” and she said, “So this cold weather must be nothing to you.”

Minnesota is overlooked because we were brought up not to brag, not toot our horn, not dance in the end zone.

Minnesota is overlooked because we were brought up not to brag, not toot our horn, not dance in the end zone. When a Minnesotan hits a grand-slam homer in the ninth to come from behind and win the championship, he trots around the bases, ignoring the roar of the crowd, and crosses home plate and walks, head down, to the dugout, and sits down, no waving his cap to the crowd, and afterward he autographs a hundred caps for hospitalized children and goes home, and mows his lawn.

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My favorite Minnesota hero is Stan Nelson, who made me do chin-ups in phy-ed class at Anoka High School in 1957. I couldn’t do them but he made me try. I didn’t know until Stan’s 100th birthday celebration that Stan had piloted an LCI 492 landing craft at Normandy Beach on D-Day, making four separate landings, dropping four bands of troops. He had been in danger but he knew that the men he ferried in were in greater danger and many would die and so he wore his honors privately.

I once visited Harry Blackmun of St. Paul at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington where he was employed as an associate justice and we went for a walk around the block. He had written the decision in Roe v. Wade that made abortion legal and there were protesters in the Court plaza who would gladly have swarmed him and stoned him but nobody noticed him because, like a true Minnesotan, he was good at being nondescript.

I grew up wanting to be a satirist, as most teenagers did, but soon realized that my people were extremely sensitive to ridicule, and if I made fun of northern hospitality, Minnesota cuisine, systemic modesty, or January, it felt like treason — it amused outsiders but my people were hurt as if I had yanked out their toenails with pliers, and so I limited myself to gentle satire, which is to say “not all that funny,” to the detriment of my career. I never won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, but then neither did Seinfeld or Johnny Carson, so who cares? And instead of major awards, I have these old friends. Some luck lies not in getting what you want but getting what you have, which — once you take a good look — you may realize is what you would’ve wanted if you had only known. I’m not sure that sentence is grammatically correct but it’s true.

I wanted to escape when I was 17 and move to New York but I was broke so I stayed home and now that I’m married to a New Yorker who loves me, I miss Minnesota. I miss the culture of small talk. My dad never went into a gas station or shop without striking up a conversation about the weather or whatever, which shows our respect for each other. Asian, Black, Latino, he made conversation with everyone.


The woman behind the convenience store counter wears a name tag, “Efthimiatou,” and I say, as my dad would’ve, “How do you pronounce that? It’s a lovely name. Beautiful day today. It’s definitely getting warmer. Spring is on the way. As long as I’m here, why don’t I buy some of those daffodils.”

Garrison Keillor