Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Mere Christian-ness

C.S. Lewis wrote about our expectations of justice in this life, and where those expectations came from. If one doesn't believe in reincarnation and this is our only trip on Earth, what's our point of reference? What do we have to compare our life against? Where do we get concepts of fair or deserving?

Likewise, when I complain about Minneapolis, I have to stop and wonder: was it better anywhere else? I hear glowing reviews of certain aspects of other cities from friends who live there, especially if they've moved to their location from another state and are still drunk on the transition. I've lived in this city for almost 12 years, in this state a little longer than that, and so much of my previous life was spent moving around almost constantly, that I have to question where it is I got these ideas that things should be a certain way. Now I'll list my complaints about this city and try to recall where it was any different.

Eye Contact: Minnesotans dislike eye contact. In particular, women on the Skyway or in my own office stare determinedly ahead or down at the ground when they walk by me. I understand there's something strange about Minnesotan men that gives them to make inappropriate passes in bars and clubs, but are all the women so scarred that they can no longer exhibit basic human consideration? I take it very personally though I know I shouldn't. But where was it any better?

The Army. In the Army, we looked each other dead in the eye and said, "Good morning." We looked each other in the eye and inquired as to the other's well-being. We greeted complete strangers. It was highly unusual to fail to greet someone, and I'd heard soldiers grouse about someone not living up to this convention, and they sounded like I do now.

Door Holding: Minnesotans rarely hold doors open for anyone else. Men will sometimes hold the door open if they enter before me, but women do not. I happened to follow a middle-aged woman through a series of doors, and she let each one close on me. A young woman did the same with two doors, the last slamming so hard it threw me off balance when I tried to catch it, the floor being slippery from subzero temperatures and all, but she was too busy reading her little book and had no concept of a world around her.

When a door is open, on either side of the hallway, there's a 35% chance Minnesotans will make a dash for it to spare themselves the labor of having to open the door themselves. I had a stream of people block me from going through the appropriate door because they were flooding like rats (no exaggeration) to squeeze through my door, even as I stood just before them, glaring in judgment. Handicap buttons break down frequently from overuse, but there are very few handicapped individuals roaming Downtown. Just a bunch of lazy Minnesotans, both genders, all body types, all age groups, race indeterminate. But where was it better?

I don't know. I can't remember any point in my life that was characterized by people holding doors open for each other. I'm not from this state, so I always hold the door open for people right behind me, or give it a token polite push open for people far behind me. But where did I pick up this habit? No idea.

Traffic: There's only too much. A Minnesotan will never pass you in the left lane if the right is available. They pass on the shoulder to gain upcoming offramps. They activate their turn signal only as they are already turning; not one of them has spent any amount of time contemplating the purpose of a turn signal. Then again, many more don't use a signal at all, so the point is moot. And Minnesotans are notorious for cutting you off on the highway if you have signaled appropriately to change lanes! This is so ubiquitous an event and so characteristic of Minnesota that it should have been minted on our statehood quarter. If the speed limit is 55mph and everyone's clipping along at 62mph, and then you signal to change a lane, someone behind you is guaranteed - guaranteed - to accelerate to over 70mph to move up and prevent you from pulling in front of them. Once you're forced behind them, they will slow down to 50mph, amazingly. They just didn't want you in front of them, even if you are going demonstrably faster than they desire.

But where was it better? I barely started driving in high school, and then I learned military vehicles when I went into the Army. I drove the HMMWV in California and South Korea, as well as their Chevy Blazer, and when I returned to the States in '91 I was commuting to school in Minnesota. I really don't have a lot of driving experience outside of this state, except for my roadtrip to New Orleans (pre-Katrina). The driving was chaotic there, but it lacked all of the malice I find in Minnesota. Turn signals would appear and vanish, with no other attendant action; cars would shift and lunge without warning, yet somehow it all felt laid back, almost playful. Minnesotan traffic is an arbitrary, spiteful, often self-defeating experience.

So... I don't know where I get these high-falutin' ideas of courtesy and etiquette. They were instilled in me at some point, but gods only know where.

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