The Silence of Our Friends

Friday, March 02, 2007

Living In Upper Michigan

I didn't live in the state of Michigan long, less than a year, but it was long enough for my first son to be born there. My husband is the one from Upper Michigan, born and raised there. When he got out of the Air Force, we weren't sure where to go or what to do, but I figured I had my chance; we spent the last several years living near all of my family, and I owed it to him to give the midwest a try to be near his friends and family. Unfortunately it didn't work out, my husband is an airframe and powerplant technician by trade (airplane mechanic) and there isn't alot of that kind of work in Upper Michigan.

My husband is a veteran of the first Gulf War, but we were lucky, his time was up and there were no stop loss orders yet. (I don't think they ever did have stop loss orders during the first Gulf War, but we didn't know that there wouldn't be either.) He actually had intended re-enlisting, but I wouldn't let him because I was afraid they would send him back, and I didn't want him gone from me ever again without any sort of time frame. Somehow it's easier to take when you know they will be back in a week, a month, even a few months. You can mark the time off on your calendar. During a war there is no way of knowing, even in the support positions outside of the war zone, like my husband was in.

So we drove to Michigan from New Brunswick, Canada. We were optimistic. He didn't have his A&P licence yet, but he could finish up the tests within a couple months while he collected unemployment. And he did, but he couldn't find work at the smaller airports in Upper Michigan, they simply weren't hiring. So we moved into a little trailer and he worked installing basements in Iron Mountain for $7 an hour while I, hugely pregnant, sat waiting to pop. Yes, we lived on one $7 an hour paycheck. We did have help from the gubmint though. We had WIC, food stamps, Medicaid, and a program for rural areas that partially pays the phone bill since it's necessary for emergencies. It was the most miserable time of our lives being that poor and feeling like there is no way out. We did also get some help from his family, but they are poor too, there is only so much help you can offer when you are having a hard time making ends meet yourself.

Once my son was born, I helped in my own way by taking him out in his borrowed stroller and collecting bottles and cans by the side of the road to cash in at the end of the month when the groceries from food stamps and WIC had run out. You see in Michigan the returnables are worth a whopping 10 cents each and it does add up when you need a loaf of bread or pound of hamburger.

But what is my impression of the state of Michigan? I have mixed feelings about the people in Upper Michigan, they can be very insular and I know that I felt like an outsider as did my brother-in-law from Missouri. You never really feel like you fit right in. At the same time after living on a reservation where everyone knows everyone else's business, I liked that the small town we were in was pretty much the same. You always knew who was who and what they were up to. I know my husband feels more or less like the entire town is his family, they care about him and what he is doing and where he is going.

Another thing about the people, it seemed like 99.9% were blonde haired and blue eyed. Most of the families originally immigrated from Scandinavian countries or Germany with a few Italians thrown in for that .1% with the darker hair and eyes. And if you have seen the movies Grumpy Old Men or Fargo, and heard the accents and the slow way of talking, that's not just Minnesota, Upper Michigan is like that too. My father-in-law had a friend who owned a little fishing resort up there with a bar to hang out at. I used to go there just to listen to him and his son talk because their accents were so thick I used to wonder if they were purposely doing an act to amuse the crowd.

I don't think there is anywhere in the United States where you won't find racism and Upper Michigan is no different, but it wasn't directed towards Native Americans, at least not in front of me. I did occasionally hear slurs againsts blacks, latinos, and gays. Mostly I would ask if they ever even met these different sort of people or otherwise point out the ignorance in what they were saying, but sometimes you gotta know when it's not worth engaging, give them a dirty look, and walk away. I do think it is mostly ignorance and not a burning deep down hatred, but I still wouldn't want to be black, latino, or gay in Upper Michigan. I felt like an outsider; those people would feel invisible.

I also never felt disrespected by the men for being a woman there. It's funny how we believe that rural people are backwards and suburban people are modern and civilized but I find that it's the opposite. Rural people tend to be poorer which means both men and women must work outside the home. This tends to blur the line and expectations between gender roles. It's in the suburbs that men can believe that their wives jobs are a whim and that they are still the real breadwinner. At least in my suburban Wisconsin neighborhood I have heard more comments like these from the men when they talk about their wives, "I didn't want her sitting around watching soap operas so I made her get a job."

If you're the outdoorsy type who likes hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, riding dirt bikes, swimming at the lake, spotlighting deer at night, or just getting together with some friends around a fire and shooting the breeze, then Upper Michigan is the place for you. Those are some of the things we did for fun. It is a beautiful part of the country that at least feels untouched, but it really isn't, unfortunately there are industries polluting the area with mining and forestry at the top of the list.

So my recommendations are, if you are independently wealthy, like the outdoors, are of Northern European extraction, and diversity isn't especially important to you, then you will probably like Upper Michigan just fine. On the other hand, if you are looking for work, DON'T GO! Alot of Upper Michiganders have had to leave even though they didn't want to, because you can't make a living wage or get ahead at all. If you like the city for museums or other cultural pursuits, or even for mall shopping, you won't like Upper Michigan much. The same goes for if you aren't of Northern European ancestry unless you want to be a hermit, or if you are but like to be around a variety of people, probably not for you.

7 comment(s):

oooh, can i link this in the radical michigan carnival i'm trying to put together????

By Blogger brownfemipower, at 3/03/2007 12:45 AM  

oooh, two comments now that went through!!!! I feel like I should comment a thousand times just in case the system goes down again!!!

By Blogger brownfemipower, at 3/03/2007 12:46 AM  

I wrote this just for you and the carnival! Go ahead and link away!

By Blogger Donna, at 3/03/2007 1:48 AM  

I to, like your husband am from the U.P. I spent the first twenty years of my life there, and love it. Your comments about the UP are a little skewed in my mind, after all as you said you did not live there very long. However, it is a unique place in offers some very wonderful experiences. It sounds like life was tough when you moved back to Michigan. There are a lot of people who get along doing what they can, but do not consider themselves poor. Any way, It was nice to read another person's impressions of a land I so love.


By Blogger yoopertom, at 3/17/2007 4:11 PM  

I'll grant you that my husband wouldn't see things exactly the way that I do, he's the yooper. I'm also talking about a particular area, things may have a different feel in Sault Ste Marie, Houghton, Marquette, etc. Also, everyone in my husband's town isn't poor, although I may have given that impression. It happened to be a bad time for many of my husband's family members, his father was disabled but Social Security was fighting him on getting disability. He finally got it and all the back pay they owed him only months before he died. That really sucked that he had to struggle for the last years of his life to get the bills paid, when they owed him for working hard all his life and knew it. Only a few months of relative comfort before he passed. My nephew had been diagnosed with cancer too, so they were having a hard time because of medical bills and because they missed so much work for his appointments.

There really aren't that many jobs that pay well in the area (Channing, Sagola, Crystal Falls, Felch, Randville, Republic, Witch Lake), so most families are two earners and you hit the jackpot if you can get in at one of the bigger places like Louisiana Pacific. But... the cost of living is also low. You are right, I doubt that people there would call themselves poor, but I also bet if you compared their earnings with the national average they would come out on the low end.

By Blogger Donna, at 3/17/2007 7:17 PM  

I grew up here and was bullied my whole childhood with others chasing me around calling me fem,fag,queer,punched on all the time . I moved away when i was 18 depressed and confused , dove into drinking and drugs pretty heavy as well as being homeless and hustling the streets for money , im now 49 have been back a few times and just recently returned again . everyone kinows im gay up here because most just cannot mind there own business , now i have cars swerve at me if im out at the mailbox or the end of the driveway shoveling snow. people park in front of my house at night , truckers are the worst , i cannot be on the road without one coming at me or nearly sideswiping me . With so many doing this i wonder what is floating around on the internet. i never thought i would be bullied at 49 years of age and have to deal with such childish people with severe mental disorders . For people to go out of there way to 'literally "stock" me is sickening and they really must be miserable. They dont know me as a person only as a gay person . I will be pushed over the edge one day and all these people doing this will be acountable for my actions .

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/25/2012 11:52 AM  

We are just across the line in Florence County WI which is more UP than WI. We have been here ten years. I am retired but my wife is younger. With an MBA and a Masters in accounting and finance, she cannot even get a face to face interview in Iron Mountain the "banking center of the north". She works part time in retail. When we go into a business and they give us the "up north snub" (like your dinner takes an hour and half to come out of the kitchen and several locals have come and gone in the next booth) we take our money and leave. Forever. Then later we watch some of them go out of business. Don't these people realize you can get anything in Green Bay and that is also the place to get a Sammy's pizza. HA HA HA HA A friend has been here nearly thirty years and works in a very visible job in Florence. She says she is still waiting for the "locals" to talk to her. There are some nice folks here, and it will often turn out they moved here too. You will not change the locals but you don't have to give them your money either.

By Blogger Melissa Lison, at 10/28/2015 11:52 AM  

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