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.


Wanted: An App for Commuting

I’m on a lot of emailing lists that I don’t remember signing up for. This problem has plagued us all since the mid-90s when emailing from work was first invented. Like everybody else, I quickly learned how to not get sucked into the email marketing scam. I said no to everything, changed my subscriptions regularly, and declined all invitations. I ran a pretty clean ship for a while, but lately I’ve become lax. Sure, sign me up, I say. Yeah, what the heck, I like you, I’ll take your newsletter. How hard is it to delete email?

As a result I’ve been seeing some pretty weird stuff in my in-box. The most annoying comes from the company I work for. There’s one notification some entity in this outfit regularly sends out. Whoever it is won’t let you opt out of it, either. Required reading or something. Comes to me once a week with the subject “If you’re wondering where your paycheck is…”

I ignore it. At my own peril, sure, but some things are better left unknown. My paycheck is hooked directly to my bank account which is hooked directly to the bank accounts of my creditors. I have no idea how much money I make or how much I spend. Someday I will declare bankruptcy, but I won’t know about that either. My accountant and my lawyer are in regular contact with each other and I trust both of them with the handling of my estate. They’re good guys and both play a mean round of golf. Or so I’m told. I play racquetball and never meet up with them on the playing field. Good. Ignorance is bliss. I trust somebody at some point will tell me when I need to stop making all those shopping trips to Philly.

Getting back to the email newsletters. I think everyone should follow my example. Keep the weird stuff coming. Don’t get off those mailing lists somebody else probably signed you up for. It’s fun and great entertainment. You’ll see junk you’ll never find in your micro-managed Twitterfeed. You can’t imagine the corners of the world I’m now privy to just because I don’t opt out of email newsletters. Places I don’t really belong, but now are a big part of.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I got a press release from some entity called Latitude. This group “provides creative research and unexpected knowledge for leaders in content, technology and learning.” I don’t know what unexpected knowledge is. Further, I would never, under normal circumstances, be invited to the places leaders of content, technology, and learning hang out. But here I am receiving Latitude’s spam as if I was on the porch with the big dogs. The democracy of the Internet in action.

The press release Latitude sent me was about their recent study entitled “Tech for Transit: Designing a Future System.” Basically they wanted to see how mobile phone apps can help solve the global warming/energy crisis. I might be paraphrasing. In essence, they asked 10 volunteers to not drive their cars for one week. After that week the volunteers filled out questionnaires with questions like: “How can information access encourage people to make more sustainable transit choices?” and “Can tech help transit make us feel more connected to each other—and what lessons can businesses in other industries apply?”

Apparently they only needed 10 random people to answer these questions and thus solve our little greenhouse faux pas. Efficient.

Yes, I jest. What I think they were actually tracking was how cellular communication contributes to finding a ride to work. And shopping, of course.

I’m not overly familiar with social research. I look at the covers of Psychology Today, that’s about it. I don’t know what makes for a good study, but somehow this one seemed a little devoid of substance. I downloaded their PR material to get some details to make sure I was getting it right. Somewhere in the middle of the details, I found this interesting quote from volunteer, Keren S, from Boston: “I’d want to see a Web site or app that allows you to compare options for getting to different places, and maybe adds information like carbon emissions, calories burned, and so on, for each option. If you have a lot of places to go, it could also offer to ’plot your route,’ which would offer the most time-efficient way to do it.”

I like this Keren S. Yes, this would be an app I might consider downloading. At some point I’m going to get out and kick some ‘droid butt (i.e. turn my cell phone on). I’m going to need an app or two if I intend to stay in the mainstream of our current cultural revolution. Keren S.’ idea would be a good one for me to start with.

The Latitude study got me thinking. We should seriously start coming up with a plan to stop driving so much. We need something beyond a mere app, though. We need a radical new idea. I have one. It’s totally off the wall and I’m sure when people hear about it they’ll question my higher brain function, but I’m going to lay it on you anyway: mass transit. I know, sounds about as helpful as 10 people arranging a commute via texting, but hang on. Contrary to what a small group of wealthy people that used to headquarter in Detroit would have you believe, train travel is not bad for you. I used to do it every day and look at me I’m still here despite my lack of higher brain function.

This past weekend, I was inspired by a mashup of Latitude’s PR materials and the details of my radical new idea. I decided to take the train. Now, in spite of the fact that I live in Reading, PA which has its own rail system in Monopoly, there is no working train in my town. It’s not far from Reading to Baltimore, Philly, DC, New York, Pittsburgh, or Cleveland. Yet there is no rail system from Reading to anywhere. You can’t get to Park Place, Boardwalk, or Marvin Gardens on the Reading Railroad.

Since it was time for a shopping trip to New York City, the center of rail transportation in the U.S., that’s where I headed. I had to drive an hour to the Somerville station on the Raritan line of NJ Transit just to get to the train, but once I got there, I relaxed into the eye-glazing comfort only the passing swamps of New Jersey can provide. I joke, only because I know people don’t like swamps. I happen to like them. Even the ones in Jersey that aren’t part of any nature preserve as far as I can tell. Most of the wildlife you see in Jersey is in the form of old telegraph poles listing tragically while their electrical lines to dip into the water. It looks in places like Godzilla had recently been through. But I love it. Someday I’m going to rent a canoe and paddle through the area. Kick up a few dead tires or something.

The point is, train ride is fabulous. You don’t have to drive and more importantly, you don’t have to park. In Manhattan that is no small matter.

The train dropped me at 34th Street. From there it was a 20 minute walk down to 14th Street where I finally hit my stride. Fabulous lunch, trees in bloom, great matinee performance (Laurie Metcalf of Rosie fame doing an outstanding, practically one woman show, at the Lucille Lortel Theater). Ah, New York in the springtime.

If you want to go somewhere more exotic than Chelsea or the Village, say East New York, Bed Stuy, Far Rockaway, or The Bronx, there’s more mass transit to take you. It’s just so easy. And you never have to find a parking spot.

How I miss that mass transit experience. The morning commute was annoying, sure. The closer you live to Manhattan the less chance you’ll have of getting a seat, but then your ride is shorter so you don’t really mind that much. And more important, you don’t have to park when you get there.

These are the things I’m sure the Latitude people are working day and night to effect. They’re connecting up the commuters who have silly ideas and outrageous opinions to the decision-makers, those with power and money that can do something about those silly ideas. If there’s one thing the Latitude people can pass on for me to the big dogs at their cocktail parties and soirees it’s this: The U.S. has had hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing, and central heating for how long? A few years anyway. When are we going to get our high-speed rail?

Sue Lange
Get more of Sue Lange’s silly ideas and outrageous opinions in UNCATEGORIZED her collection of short stories at Amazon.