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These things were not so clear to me when I was young and immortal, but now I am part of the democracy of old age, impressed on me in 2001 when my mitral valve came loose and I was wheeled into a bright blue industrial room at Mayo and masked and eight hours later my little boat bumped up on a foggy shore and a young woman named Erinn said I would be okay and the next day my catheter was removed and that night a nurse in a blue uniform with a pager clipped to her lapel bent down to take my blood pressure and the weight of the pager opened the fabulous landscape of her breasts and my libido awakened, but I digress. I grew up among Bible-believing people in Minnesota, a cold weather state when the jet stream slips and the wind blows steadily from Manitoba; it gets so cold your skin hurts, your innards clench up, and a man’s testes shrink to the size of garden peas, but—Everyone else is just as cold as you are so don’t complain about it, this is not a personal experience, that’s what we say, and you comfort yourself with fried eggs and bacon and you bulk up a good deal by spring, but then everyone else is fat too, so it’s not a problem.
Here we have the democracy of flatness: there simply aren’t so many hills for rich people to live on top of. We suffer less from the self-esteem issues that make people call on their cell phones and announce their whereabouts. There was no radio in The Spirit of St. Louis and nobody knew where Lindbergh was as he flew the Atlantic until some fishermen spotted him off the Irish coast, but a man on a train from New York to Boston must furnish frequent updates on his progress. In Minnesota, we get home when we get home, no big deal. And if we’re caught in traffic and miss the sales meeting, it won’t matter that much in the end. The marketing of widgets will go on, our impact on the world is slight, so take life as a comedy and play it for laughs. You die, there is a sort of decent grief and a few people really do suffer from your absence, but the impact on the greater world is negligible. You do not leave a big hole. They dig a hole and put you in it.
The state was settled by no-nonsense socialists from Germany and Sweden and Norway who unpacked their trunks and planted corn and set about organizing schools; churches; libraries; lodges; societies and benevolent associations; brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and raised their children to Mind Your Manners, Be Useful, Pay Attention, Make Something of Yourself, Turn Down the Thermostat (If You’re Cold, Go Put on a Sweater), Share and Share Alike, Be Satisfied with What You Have—a green Jell-O salad with mandarin oranges, miniature marshmallows, walnuts, and Miracle Whip is by God good enough for anybody. I grew up in the pure democracy of a public grade school where everybody brought a valentine for everybody on Valentine’s Day so we should feel equally loved though of course some valentines are more equal than others, some have lace and little flaps under which special endearments are written, and others are generic, printed six to a page with bumpy edges where they were torn on the dotted line. But you should be happy with what you get and Don’t Think You’re Special Because You’re Not. (Those people on daytime TV talking about how their parents never gave them the positive feedback they needed and that’s why they shot them—those are not Minnesotans. Nor are the people who go to court to win their children the right to not say the Pledge of Allegiance or not be in the room when other children are saying it.) We take pains to not be Special. If there is one meatball left on the platter, you do not take it, you take half of it, and someone else takes half of that and so it is endlessly divided down to the last crumb. Not a state of showboats or motormouths. We tend not to be uncomfortable about silence and can sit in the company of others and eat and not a word is said and it’s okay by us. Silence, the purest democracy. The sweetest part of Sunday morning: when the organ stops and nobody speaks and we look at the light streaming in the windows.
I live in Minnesota for the plain and simple reason that I am not so different from these people and also because the social compact is still intact here, despite Republicans trying to pound it out of us.
Here in St. Paul, I live a few blocks from where my mother lived back in the Dirty Thirties when she was a slim, shy, lovely teenager attending St. Paul Central and hoping to become a registered nurse and earning her keep by going door-to-door in the neighborhood selling freshly baked peanut-butter cookies in little brown paper bags. It’s also the neighborhood of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s boyhood, who wrote plays and got his chums to perform them, with himself in the starring role. For all that’s changed since then, a good deal has not—people still say Please and Excuse me and Good morning and hold the door open for you and indulge the free spirits among us though it’s irksome when their dandelions go to seed and blow onto our land. If you’re in the mood, you can make small talk with us and we will make small talk back. The art of small talk is beautiful and intricate and hard for foreigners to learn. It does not preclude large talk. You could be waiting for the Grand Avenue bus with a man you’ve seen around the neighborhood over the years, at the dry cleaner’s and Kowalski’s and Tom the Tailor’s and La Cucaracha and ask him how he’s doing and he’ll tell you about the death of his father in the hospital the night before and you will listen to his spontaneous monologue and ease his loneliness a little. An utterly common occurrence in a society that isn’t hung up on social status—people turning to each other and dishing up a story of astonishing frankness and intimacy.
In the new privatized low-tax minimal-services society the Republicans are striving to lay on us, public transportation will offer no pleasure whatsoever. The bus will be for losers and dopes. The driver will sit in a bullet-proof box and there will be no conversation with him. The bus will be full of angry and sullen people who have lost hope that their kids can rise in the world and have a better life, which is the hope that makes it possible for me to turn to you and say something about the weather. Civility leads to civilities. In Republican America, you will not enjoy public life period. The public library, that great democratic temple, will become a waiting room for desperate and broken people, the alkies, the wacked- out, the unemployables, and the public schools will become holding tanks for children whose parents were too unresourceful to find good schools for them, and politics will be so ugly and rancid that decent people will avoid expressing an opinion for fear of being screeched at and hectored and spat on.
That isn’t the country I grew up in, dear hearts.
I grew up in a sweet country that was one country and so there were certain points where all roads led and everybody came together, nabob and yahoo, poet and redneck, Baptist and Catholic, and the public school was one of those places. In Anoka, Minnesota, some children wound up attending Dartmouth and Stanford and Carleton and Princeton but they spent their formative years in the public school system with the children of farmers and carpenters and cops and firemen. They all rode together on the big yellow schoolbus and cheered for the Tornadoes and ate macaroni and cheese in the lunchroom. This experience is valuable. It gives you a tribal feeling. Everybody else knows the same songs you do, including Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms and Did you ever think as the hearse rolls by that you may be the next to die? And the one about the doctor and the nurse and the lady with the alligator purse. And Minnesota, hats off to thee, to your colors true we shall ever be and maybe All Glory Laud and Honor to Thee O Saviour King, to Whom the Lips of Children Made Sweet Hosannas Ring—or maybe not, there’s room for diversity here—but we all grew up on the same playground and skipped rope to Mable, Mable, set the table, she put on the red hot pepper and played Rover Red Rover and Prisoner’s Base and Run Sheep Run and Fox and Geese and we all knew what liverwurst was and Cheez Whiz and Spam and we all knew the story of Daniel in the lion’s den and Noah’s Ark and the Prodigal Son and a couple hundred other basic tales—I’d hate to think that little Hmong and Mexican children might go through the St. Paul public schools and not learn O say can you see any bedbugs on me and On top of Old Smokey all covered with sand I shot my poor teacher with a big rubber band and Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school. And of course Step on a crack and break your mother’s back. Thanks to this wise saying, millions of youngsters have learned something about mercy and also avoided tripping on cracks and skinning their knees.
My wife and I lived in New York City for a while, a gorgeous place if you enjoy humanity, but then we begat a little girl, and we brought her home to Minnesota so she could enjoy her aunts and grow up among slow-spoken enigmatic people. (Are they—a. resolute, b. bored, c. thoughtful, d. drugged?) These are My People. I attended the University of Minnesota and remember how the marching band came blazing down University Avenue, flags snapping in the wind, the shap-shap-shap of their shoes, drums pounding out the cadence, and wheeled into Memorial Stadium packed with 61,000 people and when they stood and sang “firm and strong, united are we,” you could feel that union in your shoes as thousands of gold balloons rose in the October air and you felt blessed to be one of this hardy northern tribe, honest and true, camped along the Mississippi River and the world’s largest freshwater lake, the state that produced Fitzgerald and the Mayo Clinic and Lindbergh, and Sinclair Lewis and Hubert Humphrey. I want my daughter to be from here too. As the song says, Like the stream that bends to sea, like the pine that seeks the blue, Minnesota still for thee, thy sons and daughters true. When I stand at a urinal, it’s the thought of Minnehaha Falls that loosens up my plumbing, and when I need to sleep at night, it’s the 87 counties of Minnesota that I slowly recite and I drop off around Pennington, Pipestone, Polk, Pope, Ramsey. Which is where St. Paul is, a civil place in which to bring up a child. A city of yellow-dog Democrats—not even one (1) precinct in St. Paul voted for our current Republican U.S. senator even though in his days as a Democrat he was mayor of St. Paul, that’s how Democratic we are—so there is a high value placed on public services. If you call 911 in St. Paul, the cops or the EMTs will arrive within four minutes. In the Republican suburbs, where No New Taxes is the beginning and end of politics and emergency services depend on volunteers, the response time can be anywhere between ten or fifteen and thirty minutes.
This is the difference between Democrats and Republicans in 2004, when it comes right down to it. Republicans are all about Old Glory and school prayer and the sanctity of marriage and the Fatherhood of God but when it comes to actually needing help from them, you shouldn’t get your hopes up. They might send an ambulance or they might just send a Get Well card. In yellow-dog St. Paul, you will be rescued by the St. Paul fire department and there is no better emergency service anywhere in the civilized world. You may be flat on the floor feeling as if an elephant stepped on your chest, or your child may have swallowed a fistful of God knows what medication, or your grandma may have slipped on the ice and banged her noggin and she insists she’s okay but in Swedish—whatever your dilemma, the St. Paul rescue squad will deal with it in swift and professional fashion. Because we Democrats feel that the people of St. Paul are entitled to the best when it comes to what’s crucial. You can be a Christian, atheist, Buddhist, nudist, and the rescue squad will be there for you within four minutes.
Republicans have perfectly nice manners, normal hair, pleasant smiles, good deodorants, but when it comes down to cases, you do not want them to be monitoring your oxygen flow: they will set it to the minimum required to sustain basic brain function, and then they will recite a little prayer for you. They are a party that is all about perceptions, the Christian party that conceals enormous glittering malice and is led by brilliant bandits who are dividing and conquering the sweet land I grew up in. I don’t accept this.
We Democrats are deciduous. We fade, lose heart, become torpid, languish, then the sap rises again, and we are passionate. This is a year for passion.