ST. PAUL THERE'S A CERTAIN kind of attitude that permeates life up here in the North Star State, and I'm having it explained to me in a book I'm reading in a store called "Lake Wobegon USA" that is located smack in the middle of the biggest mall in America.
The book is called "How to Talk Minnesotan" and it says, "Get all excited about something in Minnesota and you might as well put a bumper sticker on your forehead that says 'I'm Not From Around Here."'
Useful local phrases that will help you assimilate into the prevailing culture include the noncommittal and interchangeable "Not too bad," "Not so bad," "Yeah, well, boy," "Heckuva," and "Pretty good," along with the ever versatile "It could be worse," "You bet," "whatever" and "that's different."
Someone asks how you liked a movie, you say, "It sure beats some of the other stuff they're charging us seven bucks to watch."
In other words, what better place for the Republican Party to bring its 2008 national convention?
The convention kicks off today amid the following subplots:
• Hurricane Gustav is threatening to blow New Orleans off the map, again, and RNC coverage off the air.
• After their smooth-as-a-moon-launching convention last week in Denver, the Democrats and the Obama-Biden ticket have a 3 to 7 percentage point lead in the national polls.
• A massive protest coalition called "RNC Welcoming Committee" is threatening to take advantage of the perfect local weather and disrupt today's proceedings with a march through the streets that could number as many as 50,000 strong.
• President Bush has already canceled his visit because of Gustav, as have several other governors from the South; California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, another scheduled speaker, reportedly now won't attend because of budget problems back home.
Other places might go into major depression after planning for nearly two years. But this isn't other places. This is a place that has a phrase to cover all of the above: "Uff da."
Uff da is a Scandinavian term that means, roughly, "Oh boy" and can convey surprise, compassion and/or condolences, depending on how you say it.
The convention starts today and Bush won't be speaking. Uff da.
Sarah Palin is John McCain's vice presidential pick. Uff da.
Michelle Obama is picking out carpet colors for the White House. Uff da.
I know about Uff da because it is on numerous T-shirts throughout "Lake Wobegon USA," for sale alongside other such gems as "What do you call 40 guys watching the Super Bowl on TV? The Minnesota Vikings," and "When all else fails ... manipulate the data." (Lake Wobegon, by the way, is a lake that doesn't exist in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, a figment of the fertile imagination of Garrison Keillor, a pretty good local writer.)
I get the Vikings joke and the one about the data, but have to ask Carla Sand, the woman working the cash register, about Uff da.
I might as well put a sticker on my forehead that says I'm not from around here.
Carla cheerfully explains and points to a sign near the cash register that says "GOParty Participant."
"If you're with the convention, you get 20 percent off," she says.
That deal's not too bad in a mall that has 520 stores, 81 places to eat, its own amusement park, a wedding chapel, mini golf putting course, teeth whitening and go-carts (but no bankruptcy court).
It sure beats some of the other economic incentive stuff they're coming up with in Washington.
I ask Carla how they tell if you're with the convention.
"Would you say you're a Republican if you weren't?" she asks.
Lee Benson is filing columns daily from the Republican National Convention. You can e-mail him at [email protected].