You've probably seen the story about the Florida family that moved to Hazelton four years ago, lured by the promise of free lots and home purchase subsidies, and now has given up on North Dakota and plan to move back to Florida. Michael and Jeanette Tristani and their 12-year-old twins have had enough of us. Michael's conclusion: "No one really wants new people here." Jeanette: "People prejudge you without getting to know you."
Let's face it. North Dakota is an acquired taste. I know people who have moved from somewhere far away to Dickinson, Bismarck and Fargo, who find our Dakota cultural landscape frozen and forbidding. They quite literally talk about "culture shock," not in the "wow, they actually serve borscht in that restaurant" sense, but "it's not very comfortable to live here and frankly I don't feel very welcome" sense. They literally wonder if they are going to be able to tough it out here.
And those newcomers are living in our metropolises! Imagine moving from somewhere like San Diego to Osnabrock or Bowman or Hazelton. Before they began their 1,800-mile odyssey to the Great Plains, did the Tristanis read Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street"?-America's classical account of the smug saccharine suffocation of small town life? For that matter, did they listen to Garrison Keillor's more genial monologues about the whitebread clunkiness of Lake Wobegon?
If you suffer from agoraphobia (fear of wide open spaces), you might not want to move to North Dakota. Or ancraophobia (fear of wind), or psychrophobia (fear of cold) . . . not to mention treelessnessophobia, velveetaphobia, coupedupophobia.
I know a highly educated man who teaches at the University of North Dakota, who told me that after 10 years of living and working in North Dakota (if Grand Forks can really be called North Dakota), he now believes he has finally learned how to survive this place. Ten years. "You still cannot get a good bagel here," he concludes with a world-weary sigh.
Look folks: North Dakota is a low population, windswept, splayed out and seemingly featureless place, stuck up in the middle of nowhere, about as far away from the cultural hot spots of America as it is possible to get. Average annual temperature: 42 degrees. One of the five windiest places in America. If Los Angeles is the film capital of the United States and Nashville the music capital. and New York the financial capital, and San Jose-Palo Alto the high tech capital, then North Dakota is the .... (fill in the blank).
Oh, yeah, it's Eric Sevareid's "large rectangular blank spot in the nation's mind." Note to newcomers: You're going to want satellite TV.
When I travel, I sometimes tell people elsewhere that there are times when Applebee's is the best restaurant in my hometown. They howl with snobby derision at this, and they often say, solemnly, "I could never live in a place like that." Fair enough-that's good natural selection. What they don't understand, when they speak condescendingly about our amenities and our isolation, is that there are a hundred towns in North Dakota that would give anything to have an Applebee's.
What we need is a mandatory North Dakota Orientation Course (NDOC) for folks who are transferred here, stationed here, marooned here, incarcerated by marriage vows here, and for that anecdotal handful who actually choose to move here to "get away from the rat race."
Upon entering North Dakota airspace, every newcomer would get two handsomely laminated conversion charts. One chart redefines automobiles. If you want to fit in here, you need to know that in North Dakota the Chevrolet Impala and Ford Taurus are regarded as sub-compacts and the Suburban three-quarter ton a mid-size. The Ford F-150 is officially defined here as a "starter pickup." On the back of the card, we'd print the following bit of homespun wisdom: "If you don't like to buy gasoline, don't move here."
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The other card (personalized for Hazelton or Mott) would indicate distances. Nearest movie theater. Nearest Wal-Mart. Nearest bookstore. Nearest Thai food. Nearest "chain restaurant of any sort." And the 800 number for Allegiant Airlines.
Forget Larry Woiwode and Louise Erdrich. I'd make Mylo Hatzenbuhler the poet laureate and cultural czar of the NDOC project. Just so they know they're not in Florida or California anymore, for a solid week newcomers would be strapped into barcaloungers to listen to such Hatzenbuhler classics as "To All the Cows I've Milked Before," "Hens in Low Places," "I Feel Yucky," "Born to Be Wide" and "Oh, Little Town of Amidon."
The NDOC orientation program would consist of several broad subject categories:
Cuisine. Courses would include "666 Uses for Velveeta (Including Velveeta Fudge)," "The Tao of Hot Dish," and "Serving Bars at Weddings, Funerals, Baby Showers, Bridge Club, Graduations, Anniversaries, Family Reunions, Holidays, the Ballet, and a Few Other Occasions." Plus the graduate seminar on "The Twelve Month Grill on the Northern Plains."
Gadgets. Newcomers would first be taught to identify and later to use head-bolt heaters and remote car starters; and issued two sets of solid steel picnic tablecloth clover clips, cleverly shaped like giant paleo-mosquitoes, welded during the winter by the Welcome Wagon Farmers Auxiliary of Wishek. Each immigrant would memorize the recreation mottos of North Dakota: "Why sweat: It's a lot more fun with an internal combustion engine," and "Pinochle-The Game that God Plays."
Architecture. I haven't really worked out the details but I know the course begins with units on "The Four Car Garage: Best Practices," and "The Four Car Garage with the Extendo RV-Boat Port."
I think you begin to see the kind of the orientation I have in mind for new immigrants-to avoid another Hazelton-Tristani debacle. Optional non-credit courses would include, "Hey, That Gray Treeless Gale Force Lake is our Weekend Hideaway," "Why a Butte Is Called a Mountain," and "Yes, as a Matter of Fact, it IS Always This Windy."
What do you think?