DETROIT LAKES - When preparing to meet somebody new, it is customary to ask, "So, what's this person like?"
"Oh, he's nice," is a typical, meaningless response.
Frankly, the older I get, the less I want to meet nice people. Nice is better than nasty, I suppose. But all too often, nice is actually pretty close to nasty.
We've all heard of Minnesota Nice. It is the notion that Minnesotans will smile and be pleasant to your face at all costs, but when you're out of sight, out come the knives and they'll carve you up good.
Nice, in this context, is forced, fake friendliness, like the waitress at the chain restaurant who treats you like a long lost friend, but forgets to bring the catsup.
Nice people are useful when your car needs a jump at thirty below, but not interesting enough to justify forming a new friendship.
So, I want interesting people, is that it?
Well, interesting isn't all good, either. "Oh, you'll enjoy him," they say. "He's interesting."
Look out. Interesting can be another word for weird, even just plain nuts. Somebody who talks at length about the JFK assassination is probably interesting -- as long as you aren't the one he's got trapped in a corner defending the Warren Commission.
"Have you met Ellen? Well, she's... interesting."
In other words, two sentences into your friendship, she's going to tell you about her pet python puking on her pajamas.
Interesting, maybe. But I'm not interested.
Then there are the great guys. As in, "oh, he's just a great guy!"
If my experience is any indicator, the standards for achieving Great Guy status are pretty low.
I have known some real Great Guys. They like to go out with the boys, have a good time, watch football, hunt, fish, shoot the breeze. Great Guys.
Nothing wrong with that, except when the Great Guy also likes to lie, cheat, steal and beat his wife -- and, amazingly, he's still considered a Great Guy!
"He's a great guy, but he just got in with the wrong crowd," they say. "He's a great guy, but he just doesn't know when to stop."
Look out for Great Guys. They're a dime a dozen.
"She's great!" That's another one to look out for. Those are Great Gals who use their sweet smile to pump you for your deepest secrets, while sharing with you the deep secrets they know about everybody else.
Only later do you realize that once Great Gal's got your secrets, she uses them to get secrets out of her next best friend. Yes, avoid the Great Gals.
Then there's the "real go-getter." I used to like go-getters, but then two of them tried to get me to distribute cleaning products under them, in an organization that looked suspiciously like a pyramid as they drew it out on the napkin in front of me.
No more real go-getters for me.
So, just what words might describe somebody who is actually worth meeting?
I have reduced the list to one. There is one word which, when it is used to describe somebody I am about to meet, perks my ears up. Only one word assures me that I am about to meet a potential kindred spirit.
That word is "cranky."
I always end up loving people others have described as cranky.
My favorite professors in college were ones other students described as cranky. Cranky, I found, merely meant that a teacher had standards and stuck to them. I liked that.
Cranky people have an impatient zest for truth. They are sick to death of the saccharine insincerity that passes for friendliness these days.
When I visited my grandmother in the nursing home and asked how she was, if she said, "I'm cranky!" I knew we could talk.
Cranky is not nasty. Cranky is not evil. Cranky is not unkind. Cranky is not heartless. Cranky is merely caring too much for reality to put up with nonsense and fakery.
In fact, I find that underneath the sour veneer of every cranky person I've met is a heart of gold.
So here's to the world's cranky people. May they never turn nice.