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Michigan? Here's what I think of it


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SUSAN AGER: Michigan? Here's what I think of it

September 28, 2004



Late last year, on a tight deadline, I asked for your help.

More than 1,000 of you sent ideas I borrowed to write an essay, about as long as this column, on what makes Michigan special. It would appear in a book of photos shot throughout the state by pros and amateurs.

"Michigan 24/7" (DK Publishing, $24.95) is out this week. Now I can share with you the essay that, at the last minute, I had to painfully trim by one-third.

I hope my handful of words might reflect the state we love.

"I live at the tip of Michigan's little finger, proud that my state is shaped like a body part. We are the handprint of America, although some say we resemble an oven mitt. We point to where we live on our palms. Glance at any map -- or look at the planet from space -- and you'll spot us there in the middle of the continent, nearly surrounded by water.

"But whoa! We're a state with two parts, joined by the 5-mile Mackinac Bridge, which we pronounce 'Mackinaw.' The ornery residents of the Upper Peninsula, or UP, call themselves Yoopers and refer to the rest of us as trolls: We live beneath the bridge.

"We're descendents of miners and trappers, lumberjacks and Ojibway natives, runaway slaves and soybean farmers, auto barons and men who came from Poland and Kentucky to work on Henry Ford's assembly line for five bucks a day. Rosie the Riveter was born here.

Water and snow

"Yeah, we're tough. We've got to be. We swim in Lake Superior. We grill steaks in the snow.

"Fresh water defines us. Our map is speckled with lakes so small you can swim across, while our shores border four of the five Great Lakes, too big to see across.

"That gives us big ideas.

"Water may define us, but gasoline pumps through our veins. We gave birth to the auto industry and pay it strict homage. We drive everywhere. You won't find subways here or carpool lanes. We drive even when we should walk, making us one of the heaviest states. At doughnut shops, clerks say, 'You only want one?'

"We drive to Canada for dinner. Most weekends, we fall in line on I-75 to drive Up North to sand dunes, Petoskey stones and lighthouses, to U-pick apples and cherries, to rented cabins, second homes and more than a million boats Michiganders afford on union wages.

We disagree -- a lot

"Michiganders? That's my choice but, oh my, some of us insist on Michiganians.

"That we can't agree on what to call ourselves doesn't mean a thing. We can't agree on what 'opening day' means either. Baseball? Trout season? The auto show? This is telling: On Nov. 15, when deer season opens, many Up North schools close for the day.

"Clearly, we respect our instincts.

"We disagree but mostly peaceably. As you'll see in these pages, we're a thickening stew of histories and ethnicities. When you work in Detroit you're likely to share the photocopier with Chaldeans, Armenians, Nigerians, Germans and Mexicans. Detroit's supersized mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is barely in his 30s, wears an earring and is energizing a city many Americans think is dull and dying. We may wish for more from Detroit but don't diss it. It's ours and it feeds us, music and coney dogs, music and paczki.

"We see the life. We feel the spirit. You can spot a Michigander anywhere. They're rolling their shoulders and singing along with 'Baby Love,' 'My Girl' and 'R.E.S.P.E.C.T.'

"We know the words. We know ourselves. What's not to respect?"

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