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To each his own cup of paint: Paying homage to the Intellectually Notable Society of Amalgamated Nerds and Eccentrics

To each his own cup of paint: Paying homage to the Intellectually Notable Society of Amalgamated Nerds and Eccentrics

The Twin Cities metro: concrete jungle it ain't. But neither is it wild, untamed frontier. Our environs are stuck in the adolescence of urban development, poking fun at baby brother Duluth but envying sophisticated older sister Chicago. When we yearned for comfort in a cold downtown, we built a stadium reminiscent of a campfire marshmallow. When we wanted big-city glamour in the suburbs, we built a shopping/dining/entertainment complex with a Lake Superior-size parking garage. From prairie to riverbank, Twin Citizens are searching for the best of both worlds: a chance to get lost for a while, find one's way, and leave an imprint.

Sever's Corn Maze--the state's first such attraction--is located next to Canterbury Park, which explains the backed-up Labor Day traffic on Highway 169 on the last day of the live-racing season. The concept is a kind of mini-Outward Bound for families--practice your orienteering skills, learn to come to a consensus, and hike around outside. The Corn Maze certainly doesn't discourage people who don't have families, but when I arrive (accompanied, appropriately enough, by my mother and father) and fork over my seven bucks, there's only one vehicle in the parking lot that's neither a minivan nor an SUV. In the pre-maze area, kids are frolicking among piles of straw while moms and dads are tying shoes, assisting with roasted-corn-on-the-cob consumption, and negotiating quick forays through an added Corn Maze attraction, Miss Rosie's Petting Zoo. (Not much actual petting is going on, however; the small assortment of animals seems to be of uncertain temperament, and hygienewise the tent that surrounds the cages reeks of uncastrated goat.)

Before entering the maze, we're handed a map and told that should we glean the requisite information at the 23 numbered checkpoints within and record said poop on a ballot, Mom, Dad, and I are eligible for the Grand Prize Drawing--and $100.

Once we're inside the endless walls of corn, the sounds of Leroy's River Minstrels, the octogenarian ragtime band playing just outside the maze, do little to erase from my mind the image of the topiary-maze scene in The Shining. Freed of the confines of the petting zoo, our fellow explorers are exhibiting behavior that puts reality TV to shame. The prospect of a cash prize is like blood in a shark tank, pitting boys against girls, kids against parents, family against family. A blond pixie in sandals drags her ma and pa forward, one eye on her map and one on the ground in front of her. Two teen girls disagree on the best way to reach the next checkpoint, taking off in opposite directions, reconsidering, and nearly smacking into each other, Three Stooges-style. Even my own overprotective mother practically abandons me when I'm unable to keep pace.

Three young boys, engaged in serious combat with their female cousins, sink low in their attempt to get their opponents disqualified. "We're being honest," one sharply dressed preteen proclaims loudly, well within earshot of the grown-ups. "Don't ask us to cut through the corn, Laura. That's cheating!" His co-conspirators giggle wickedly. Those assaying the checkpoints in order politely remain a few courtesy paces behind one another, though a few mumbled insults about other navigators can be overheard at the helpfully placed water coolers.

Most explorers emerge from the maze looking relieved, rushing to the ballot box, the porta-johns, and the snack bar, usually in that order. Despite exhaustion, bug bites, muddy sneakers, and potential revision of wills, they've got nothing but kind words for Corn Maze staff (mostly Sever family members). One woman goes so far as to leave these immortal words in the guest book: "This was the most fun we've had together as a family for 45 minutes since I-don't-remember-when."


THE WASHINGTON AVENUE pedestrian bridge that connects the East and West Bank campuses of the University of Minnesota is more than a mere student transitway--it's a local landmark. Some years ago, in an attempt to control the largely political graffiti that typically covered the enclosed portion of the bridge, university officials decided to invite interested parties to paint a panel or two (under their watchful eye).

But all that was before Generation Y, a front-running Mark Dayton, and the new Starbucks: The turnout at the start of this year's Paint the Bridge Day makes the Corn Maze look like the New York City subway system at rush hour. Under the close scrutiny of their bespectacled, middle-aged supervisors, two fresh-faced go-getters are inscribing vital Residential Life info. The Man Upstairs is made flesh, in the persons of Campus Crusade for Christ and the Women of Virtue Bible Study group, not to mention a lone bald gentleman who looks suspiciously mature for a student. Ponytails, dreadlocks, and baseball caps linger intensely over stencils, rulers, and paper cups filled with paint, contemplating the most eye-catching way to display indecipherable acronyms, cryptic messages, and catchy slogans ("Engineers: We Don't Just Drive Trains Anymore").

Aside from the two women from a student cultural center who have tied plastic grocery bags around their shoes, few are dressed for painting. The rest have apparently dressed for the spectators, idle students who've come to catch some free paint fumes and check out the derrières of budding Picassos bent at the waist and leaning into their work.

A UPS recruiter sets up a small popcorn machine in hopes of attracting passersby, but most of the lightheaded are seeking refuge at the nearby Weisman Museum. "Here for the doughnuts?" asks a Weisman staffer, gesturing my compatriot and me toward a cluster of paint-speckled freshmen loading up on bagels. "You look like doughnut people."

To brave, in the space of a week, a university-sanctioned ritual of supervised self-expression and a suburban cropland scavenger hunt, and still to be acknowledged as one of the Doughnut People--what a perfect fusion of all that our Little Big Cities have to offer.