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The Michigan Problem

This post is dedicated to my great friend Karyn Ridley whose passing on September 30th has left me with one less reason to go home.

PureMichiganMichigan has a problem: it has a bad self-image. It’s had a bad self-image for as long as I can remember. That’s why they keep changing the state slogan. They keep trying to perfect its image.

When I was a kid living somewhere in the northern section of the Lower Peninsula, the slogan was “Water, Winter, Wonderland.” That is a great slogan because, let’s face it, Michigan and winter go together like ski lodges and hot wine.

It was a great slogan, but when I was young I didn’t like it. I lived in the north of a northern state and winter represented the worst thing Earth offered. My shoes had holes, my boots were cracked, my coat cheaply padded and mostly torn. And I hated wintertime activities. I was scared of sleds and the aggressive children who rode them. Forget snowball fights. Snowballs are either pie-in-your-face slushy or ice hard. Either way they hurt. While other kids enjoyed the snow, making forts and igloos and snow mazes, I shivered in the doorway of the school, praying for the end of the day when my misery and recess would be over.

Spring brought the big thaw. It only made things worse. The schoolyard became blanketed in two inches of thick mud that would suck off your shoes, exposing the big toe in its holey sock to the jeers of your classmates—a group not known for its sensitivity.

Winter was unquestioningly evil, and yet in that slogan was an unapologetic depiction of a land full of magic and promise. Despite my narrow mind and frozen toes, I got it. I saw the beauty: light dancing off eaves-to-ground icicles; frost swirls of snow dust blowing into the air from harvest equipment stored for the season next to the barn; swarms of geese honking high above as they flew in formation to who knows where. Supposedly north in the spring or south in the fall, but to me they looked like they were just flying around in circles warning us of impending doom.

From the window of my parents’ basement home with its two oil burners for toasty heat, winter was truly a wonderland: beautiful, magical even. In wintertime you got spoiled with hot chocolate and apple cider. Mom and Dad seemed to cuddle more as the storms raged outside. Yup, winter could definitely be a lovely time.

But you wouldn’t want to be out in it, that’s for sure.

Halfway through childhood, my family’s lot improved. My dad got out of private education. He got a job in the public school system and we moved to the southern edge of the state, the hem of the mitt if you will, Chicagoish way. Not only was the pay better down south, so was the weather.

Oddly, the state slogan changed about that time to “The Great Lake State.” I didn’t then, and I don’t now, approve. What exactly does that say about our home? Nothing. Whoever came up with that was a mere armchair observer. They consulted a map, distilled the state’s character down to a simple statement, and sent the result over to the license plate factory in Jackson. What this person saw was a piece of geography that was almost, but not quite, surrounded on all sides by big bodies of inland water. “I got it,” he or she then said. “It’s a great lake state!”

Whatever that means.

Using this same technique we could help other illustrious states improve their slogans too. For instance:

Texas: The Large Misshapen State.
New York: The Big Place With a Long Spit of Land at the Bottom.
Pennsylvania: The Keystone State.

Oh, wait a sec. That is Pennsylvania’s slogan.

Anyway, the point is, while Missouri has always been the “Show Me State,” indicating the mood and character of the inhabitants there; and New York gets to be the “Empire State,” advertising its facility with grandeur, hyperbole, and horse patooie, Michigan was defined by a map.

Where was the relentless individualism with hints of a proud red neck bouquet and trashy finish I knew the inhabitants of my homeland to embody? Not in the slogan. There are no people in that slogan. Not like in Missouri’s or New York’s.

Sometime during that slogan’s tenure, the state’s economy went into free fall. The auto industry oxidized into the rust belt and people moved south for work to states like Kentucky and West Virginia. Places that historically had no employment whatsoever. For years the hicks of Appalachia and denizens of Chicago’s slums had moved to Detroit and Flint for high-paying jobs with benefits. The legacy of that great migration is evidenced in pockets throughout the mitt. To this day there are counties in Michigan where the entire population uses the word “y’all” and insists that the south gon’ do it agin.

The great migration had happened during Michigan’s salad days. A time of prosperity and optimism. Then, during my college years, it all came to a grinding halt and people left Michigan in droves for lucrative opportunities elsewhere. Our politicians and deep thinkers blamed it on the Great Lake State slogan. Rightly so. What kind of a state could possibly thrive with such a vacuous statement about itself?

So the deep thinkers changed it again. They were inventing a tourist industry and thought the slogan would be the centerpiece of their efforts. Unfortunately they didn’t return to Michigan’s greatest asset and use “Water, Winter, Wonderland.” Michigan has always attracted droves of ice fishermen, who, while never known for their extravagant vacation allowances, are consistent. You can always count on them as soon as the lakes and ponds freeze over hard enough to hold a shanty. Despite whatever privation the southern half of Michigan endures, the bait shop owners of northern Michigan always remain flush.

But the deep thinkers had more than a group of crusty cold weather fish eaters to chase after. They wanted the big buck spenders. The Chicago boat owners, the Toledo elk hunters, the people that shopped at boutique stores while on vacation buying junk they wouldn’t look twice at if they were at home. They thought and thought and hired experts and came up with an exciting marketing campaign complete with a sparkly new slogan: “Say Yes! To Michigan.”

Wow. I couldn’t imagine that they’d come up with something less descriptive of Michigan than “The Great Lake State,” but they did it. I was never sure what question Michigan asked that needed to be answered so emphatically in the affirmative. The only thing I ever witnessed Michigan ask about was for help.

And I never understood Michigan’s attraction to a tourist. I’ve travelled all over this country and seen the same sorts of things Michigan has elsewhere. We have big lakes sure, but so does Wisconsin, Ohio, and Canada. The same big lakes, actually. As far as I can see, the skiing is better in Colorado and Vermont. The mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina dwarf the Porcupines. And those in Montana and Colorado dwarf the Smokies. There’s more snow in Alaska, more flowers in Hawaii, more guns in Texas. Berkeley and NYU are more radical than U of M, Chicago’s bigger than Detroit, the rivers are wilder and cleaner out west. And the famous auto industry? There are no more cars in Michigan anymore. Even Motown, the record company named after that industry, moved. There’s no more Dancing in the Streets in Michigan. Why would anyone say yes to us now?

But that’s just my opinion. Fifty million tourists buying up lakefront property and forcing nature to higher ground beg to differ.

The state’s slogan today is “Pure Michigan,” which I refuse to comment on. I have no idea why or when it changed. From what I understand, the state rallied after the Say Yes! Campaign. Of course then it bottomed out again. People can only take so much cute. Saugatuck isn’t the Jersey Shore after all. There’s such a thing as being too far north, and Traverse City, despite it’s amenities, good taste, and fine restaurants, is just that: too far north. The UP? Ugh. Still full of trappers, hunters, and college students. You really don’t want to get caught out with that bunch after sun down.

It’s been a while since I left Michigan. I’ve lost track of unemployment, the car companies, and people from Chicago that come up and despoil the dunes. I left a bad marriage back there right along with about five pairs of child sized shoes in the hardened muck of the Northern Michigan Christian Elementary schoolyard. They’re probably about twenty feet down by now, preserved for a future archaeologist curious about our life and times.

My best friends in the world are still there in Michigan. I hear they get great Internet service. I might go back some day. With global warming being what it is, it won’t be water, winter, wonderland, though. Water, sure: the lakes will abide, but winter? Nah. That might be it for the wonder too.

Sue Lange

Get Sue Lange’s latest book of scathing satire, The Perpetual Motion Club, at your closest Amazon outlet.

This essay was first posted at the BookViewCafe blog on October 4, 2013.


6 thoughts on “The Michigan Problem

  1. I loved your piece, but you grew up at the wrong time in the wrong part of Michigan. Growing up in the forties and fifties in the thriving [yes, at one time it was] Benton Harbor area, I have such different memories of my home state.. Summers at Jean Klock Park lounging on the beach until we were hot enough to brave the chill of Lake Michigan. Fishing on the North and South piers with their iconic lighthouses and where we caught long stringers of perch. The rides at Silver Beach Amusement Park where at night our parents danced in Shadowland Ballroom. Spending Wednesday nights at the House of David applauding the brave of heart on stage in the beer garden performing on amateur night. Winters were truly a wonderland, orchards of fruit trees their branches ladened with snow. Cold winter nights skating at Witelsey Park, or weekends spent sledding down Morton Hill while icebergs etched the shore of Lake Michigan. I could even mention the Blossom Parade held each spring, floats adorned with blossoms from the surrounding orchards, an amazing thing to see in those days. Sue, I wish I could have invited you into my childhood because even though my family had no money we were rich in the beauty of our surroundings and the opportunities to enjoy our lives in Michigan.

    • I actually have some of those memories, too. I loved Jean Klock Park park and the Shadowland ballroom even when it was old and crumbling. I remember Silver Beach. I went the last year it was open in 1969, 70, maybe? It had a real funhouse like the old days. I always wished it could come back. Even remodeled as it is, it’s nothing like it’s former glory. But then what is.

      Thanks for sharing all these wonderful memories.

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