Friday, August 1, 2008

Minnesota report

Just back from what was only my second visit to Minnesota, where Karen's father was from and where she went to college. Lots of time spent visiting relatives (some of whom I don't have anything in common with and some of whom are pretty cool), but we also had time for geocaching and sightseeing.

We spent the Monday night in Northfield, home of Carleton College. Karen (class of 1985) showed me around campus, and we stayed at the Archer House, built in 1877. It was built as Northfield's grand hotel, went downhill over the years, and is on the way up - it was fairly nice, but still a little seedy around the edges. We had a great view of the Cannon River. Northfield reminds me of an upper Midwestern version of Stratford-upon-Avon: lots of historic old buildings with a nice river running through the middle. Of course, Northfield's old buildings are 100-150 years old, as opposed to Stratford's 350-400 years old. We had dinner at the Rueb 'N' Stein, one of Karen's college hangouts. They were even playing eighties music. Before leaving town the next morning, I insisted that we visited the Historical Society Museum, housed in the bank building that the James Gang attempted to rob in 1876. The bank employees and other citizens fought back, much to the James and Younger boy's surprise, and soon the gang was history.

Most of Tuesday was spent visiting Karen's cousins outside of Morristown, where they run two campgrounds on opposite sides of the Cannon River. Then on to St. Paul, where we spent the night with cousin Judy and her husband Alan. They live in a great 96-year-old house in an amazing neighborhood. In the evening, we took a walk, mostly on Summit Avenue, which is only a couple of blocks from their house. Apparently it's like Beacon Hill in Boston - the area where the richest of the rich lived. There were some amazing houses, and a couple of caches on our route. Judy and Alan were pretty interested in the hidden boxes we hunted along the way.

One interesting thing about our visit was seeing political commercials for MN senator Norm Coleman and his challenger, Al Franken. Coleman's ad, which I saw twice, was intended to be funny. It showed three regular Minnesota guys sitting at a bowling alley discussing Franken's real or imagined character flaws. To me it was creepily condescending to the middle class voters Coleman was trying to appeal to. Franken's ad was straightforward and intelligent - he addressed the camera and pointed out how his policies would differ from Coleman's. It was an interesting contrast.

The next day was the real reason for the trip. The American Phytopathological Society dedicated a session to Karen's father, Myron, who died last summer. It's hard to remember that this modest, gentle man was a brilliant scientist who changed the course of microbiology. The packed house at the session had not forgotten though, and before and after everyone had Myron Brakke stories to share. It was kind of humbling to realize the awe and esteem his colleagues held him in. My favorite story involved him looking over the shoulder of a colleague who had isolated a previously unknown variety of plant virus without realizing what he had. Myron dropped several hints over three days ("You know, there is not any known plant virus with a double strand of RNA...."), but would not take any credit, or even allow the colleague to list him as co-author on the subsequent paper.

We spent the last night at a hotel near the airport, which means it was also near the Mall of America. So of course we went. It's a huge, garish, overwhelming, ultra-American place. I want to make fun of it, but I kind of enjoyed it. Not that I would want to visit it very often (once every ten years might be enough), but it was fascinating. We ate at a very nice upscale restaurant, and I even bought something - a cutout Cannonball Adderley CD. The next morning we raced a line of storms out of the state - it was one of the roughest plane rides I remember.

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