Friday, July 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #201: How To Talk Minnesotan by Howard Mohr

I'm mostly reading books I can be serious about for Book-A-Day this time. That's mildly surprising; when I've done this in the past, it's often turned into my reading the silliest and most frivolous books I had on hand and dashing off something quick about them so I could get back to whatever else was going on in my life at the time.

But today I don't think I can be all that serious. Because today the book I have is How to Talk Minnesotan by Howard Mohr, which seems to have grown out of the author's involvement with A Prairie Home Companion back in the '80s but turned into its own cottage industry once the first edition of the book was published in 1987. (What I read was an expanded anniversary edition from 2012.)

My excuse for reading it is that I'm spending a lot of time either in Minnesota or with Minnesotans these days; the "mothership" for my division of Thomson Reuters is in a Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb, and I'm out there several times a year. Most of my close colleagues are housed there, too -- I work with one person who sits next to me in Hoboken, another one who works from home in Connecticut, and then a whole bunch of Minnesotans.

So I clearly want to understand these strange people, right?

Well, there's two problems with that. First, they're not actually all that strange -- sure, they do care a lot more about the State Fair than anyone I've ever met on the east coast, and food plays a much larger part in office culture there than it does here. But those are pretty minor differences, and the others I've seen are on that level.

Second, Mohr's model Minnesotan is male and rural -- very specifically as opposed to those citified Twin Cities types -- and of a generation at least comfortably middle-aged in the mid-80s. We've all changed since then, and Minnesotans are no exception. Most of the people I work with are from later generations -- my own, and the ones after -- and most of them are women, as well. Now, Mohr does cover Minnesotan women here, but the bulk of his material is about that laconic, semi-rural Midwestern male with an origin sometime around WWII.

So this book was, not all that surprisingly, not a very good guide to the culture of my co-workers, even granting the usual exaggerations inherent in a book of humor. It actually reminded me more of the brief period when I was a fan of the Red Green Show -- it's that same kind of gentle real-guy humor, focused on fixing things, vaguely manly pursuits, and avoiding talking about emotions at all costs.

I'm sure the specific manifestations of Upper Midwest Manhood here are peculiar to Minnesota -- I'm not saying this is the same as the Canadian or Michigan or Wisconsin versions -- but they all rhyme to a certain degree. (And that familiarity, of course, is the basis of humor -- you only laugh at something you recognize.)

But How to Talk Minnesotan is a good example of that kind of gentle, self-deprecating male humor, with long disquisitions on how to wave while driving a car (the most advanced practitioners can use a single finger), what "a little lunch" is and how often you'll be eating it, and how to use those staples of conversation, "you bet" and "tell me about it."

You do not need to be Minnesotan to enjoy it, though the younger, more female, and/or more urban you are, the farther it will be from your experience of life. It is amusing rather than trying to be hit-you-over-the-head funny, with a lot of fake ads and other things some readers will find faintly redolent of the Dad Joke. And, in a sense, How to Talk Minnesotan is, at its heart, one long dad joke.

I am a dad, if not really this kind of dad, so that was OK with me.

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