Free Love

The four boys wore board shorts and flip-flops. One sported a baseball cap while another went shirtless. They looked to be roughly 14 years old, and they were stationed between the bike path and the running trail as people passed around Lake Harriet, all of us enjoying the warmth of early summer. Two of the boys sat on a bench, holding a sign. As I jogged past, I heard one of them call out: “Free hugs!”

I laughed and kept going, quickening my pace. Something for nothing? They must be proselytizing. A hug from a teenage boy? I pictured undercover cops and news photographers leaping out from behind the bushes, accusing me of unspeakable things. Raised Lutheran, I still freeze up during the passing of the peace at church. Never talk to strangers.

But midway through my second lap around the lake, I realized my reaction was uniquely Minnesotan. Too often, we’re suspicious. We avoid engagement and embraces. Somehow our forebears’ polite respect for emotional boundaries—looking the other way when someone teared up or was embarrassed—has hardened into something icy and aloof. Now we look away to save ourselves the embarrassment of seeing others’ emotions.

I found myself wondering, too, what it would’ve been like if the boys had visited St. Paul this past spring, strolling the corridors of the capitol, offering hugs to lawmakers. What if “Free Hugs” signs had sprouted up alongside the “Protect Marriage” and “Vote No on Hate” placards during the debate over the same-sex marriage ban? What if Governor Dayton and Republican legislators began each round of budget discussions with hugs rather than handshakes? And not just a quick squeeze—a full four-second embrace. Things would’ve turned out differently. Prove me wrong.

The boys jumped up as I approached and took them up on their offer. “You’re Number 20!” they shouted. “We’re just spreading the love. We even got three cars!” They’d been there nearly two hours.

A couple stopped and asked for an embrace. “Number 21 and 22!” the boys cried out. Three of them raced over to deliver the payout. The fourth jumped on his bike. “I’ve got to go,” he said, “to make another sign!”


Minnesota Monthly’s newest staff member, Gregory J. Scott, grew up in St. Louis. But he has imbibed enough Minnesota culture to make him one of us, attending the University of Minnesota, mastering a lefse recipe, and learning how to spot offsides in a hockey game. Before joining our staff in April, he freelanced for and Metro, and served as a reporter for the Journal in downtown Minneapolis.

Award-winning food-and-beverage photographer Terry Brennan, who shot this month’s cover, has worked with a slew of major clients, including General Mills, Target, Pillsbury, and Budweiser, as well as several national advertising agencies. But his real passion, he says, is editorial work, where “the photographer’s freedom to create a story through the photograph is so much greater.”

Interior designer Barbara Schmidt, who styled the outdoor spread for “Polished Picnic,” has been creating stunning residential spaces for over 20 years. As founder and principal of bstyle, inc., a boutique firm with operations in both New York and Minneapolis, Schmidt has worked with manufacturers, retail stores, and homeowners. She also writes about kitchen design in the “Design Blog” at