Man In A Suitcase

Eagan, Minnesota

I spent a few years during the 80s at Symbolics, a computer company that was based half in Cambridge, Massachusetts and half in the San Fernando Valley. I won't say that's the dumbest possible way to set up an organization, although if anyone else were to say it I wouldn't argue. And it did have a certain entertainment value when the email would heat up during the regular championship battles between the Lakers and the Celtics. But if I were running a company, the last thing I'd do is spread its vital functions across multiple timezones.

Now fast forward a dozen years, to the Silicon Graphics acquisition of Cray Research, the Minnesota-based maker of incredibly powerful (and incredibly expensive) computers. Somehow the acquired ended up in charge of the acquirer; I was one of a group of California-based engineers reporting to managers in Minnesota who reported back to a Vice President in California. Makes getting expense reports signed something of a challenge, I can tell you. But it also led to my first visit to their our campus in Eagan, a southeastern suburb of the Twin Cities.

It's clear we aren't in California any more, at least not the Bay Area. For one thing it's far too flat. We don't get this kind of view around San Francisco; there are always mountains in the way. To say nothing of the riot of color that comes with autumn. (Living in California, I've learned to look for subtler signs of the seasons, like the increased hit counts on my Java pages when the colleges are back in full swing.) And nobody in Silicon Valley can afford to waste land the way they do around here. The only people in the Valley with an unobstructed view of nature are at risk of falling into the bay!

Maybe it's having grown up in New York City and lived in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, but I'm fascinated by any place with the comforts of a real city and room for a bit of nature. And there's something particularly magical about the Mississippi River, the way it twists back on itself again and again almost in defiance of the rules of plane geometry, the way it evokes the memory of Mark Twain. After the concrete-lined rivers of L.A. it's nice to see something less manicured, with civilization kept at a safe distance. It helped that I arrived at a perfect time: too late in the season for the mosquitos and too soon for the numbing cold and blistering winds that I just know are on the way. And the colors, of course, the common complaint of the California immigrant. (A former officemate in L.A. once remarked that the one thing she missed about New England was her friends. And the fall. Which led a coworker to ask if her friends started dropping off in October. She didn't get it.)

Eagan is also just a few miles from the Mall of America, one of the wonders of the mercantile world. Although not quite as large as the one in Edmonton, Alberta, it's still a remarkable achievement for capitalism. The core of the mall is Knott's Camp Snoopy, a full sized amusement park with a roller coaster, ferris wheel, log flume and a dozen other ways to lose the lunch you just got at the food court. And it's all laid out so you can almost forget you're inside a shopping center, with plenty of light and a feeling of space that Edmonton can't quite match.

The rest of the mall has a remarkable collection of shops and restaurants. It must be quite a challenge to keep so much retail space filled. There's something for everyone here, from the geometric and brightly colored world of Lego blocks that appeal to our inner child to the soporific offerings of the Lake Wobegon store, Garrison Keillor's homage to the old fogey in each of us. So does my affection for both locations mean that I'm immature and crotchety? Does this make me well rounded or just borderline senile? (The jury's still out on that one...)

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