Back from the crash essay by laura hulthen thomas: staying in michigan

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Crisis as Transformation, or Why I am Staying the Hell in Michigan
By Laura Hulthen Thomas
Date of publication: 
September 19, 2012

When are you going to get the hell out of Michigan? is the question I’ve been asked once or twice a year for the last twenty years since my brothers moved to Southern California, Houston, and Montreal in pursuit of stable jobs, hip lifestyles, and a hope of recession proofing away from the auto industry our parents made their livings by. My family was transplanted from New Hampshire to Michigan by Ford Motor. We kids grew up in Southeast Michigan, with our Ford dad and teacher mom. In our teens, our Ford dad was supplemented by a Ford stepmom and a Ford stepdad, so you can guess the make of car I drive to work. Around the time the Japanese automakers were giving Detroit hell, all three of my brothers got the hell out of Michigan, taking their Western Michigan and Michigan State University educations elsewhere. They’ve thrived, and have continued asking me why I have stayed in such a bleak state when there are such nicer, more lucrative, and just plain more festive places to live. I get the sense every time they ask that they are genuinely puzzled by my choosing to remain. Who would stay in Michigan if they didn’t have to?

I just wanted to get the hell out of Michigan was the pop star Madonna’s stock answer early in her career to questions about what motivated her to move to New York and on to superstardom. Was it a driving ambition, the call of the muse, a classic American “my way” quest for fame and fortune? No: by her own admission, her first motivation for success was to get the hell out of Michigan. Unlike my brothers, Madonna didn’t finish her University of Michigan education before leaving the state, so I don’t know if she can be counted as part of the brain drain. As it happens, my mid-eighties freshman dorm room was around the corner from the one Madonna had occupied for one semester. During her fast rise to fame, my hallmates and I would debate her flight from the dorm, from higher education, from Michigan. Suffering through calculus and economics and intensive Russian, we wondered if we weren’t the chumps, choosing not to get out of Michigan while we could.

Michigan seems like a dream to me now is of course from the Simon and Garfunkel classic, “America.” Remember the next lines of lyrics? “It took me four days to hitch-hike from Saginaw; I’ve come to look for America.” Paul Simon, the quintessential New Yorker, saw Michigan as a launching pad for his characters’ journey to claim the grand landscape of America. Simon’s lovers find the real America in New York via Pittsburgh and the New Jersey turnpike. After getting the hell out of Michigan.

Are you only going to write about Michigan? is a question author Bonnie Jo Campbell gets, as she related during a panel discussion on “Michigan Voices: A Sense of Place” at last year’s Kerrytown Bookfest in Ann Arbor. It was the weekend of the first week of classes at the University of Michigan, where I teach; the weekend of the Michigan Wolverine’s heart stopping win over Notre Dame; and, of course, the weekend of 9/11 10-year anniversary memorials. My freshmen were hoarse from shouting at the game.

My California brother, Gregg, flew to DC for the Pentagon memorial services. He’d had a meeting in the Pentagon the day before the attacks, in the very wing that was destroyed less than 24 hours later. Caught up in the emotional swing of celebrating one of our state’s great pastimes with mourning our great national tragedy, the question Bonnie Jo Campbell related as having been asked by a friend on the publication of her latest novel struck me as really asking the question—when are you going to write about someplace important? Did anyone ever ask Steinbeck when he was going to write about someplace more relevant than Depression-era Southern California? I wondered. Had anyone ever advised Faulkner or O’Conner that their Deep South milieu was dead end subject matter? As these quotes show, Michigan provokes a running theme in both native and outsider reactions to our state, and that is that the smart and savvy character who knows what’s good for them knows to get the hell out.

I have occasionally gotten the hell out of Michigan. The longest stretch of time I spent as a non-Michigan resident was attending graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where my Russian Literature studies led me to live in Moscow for several months, during, as it happened, the impending fall of the Soviet Union. Communist Moscow in the wintertime was not the festive place my brothers advocated. "Why the hell didn’t you study Italian?" Gregg asked when I told him I was taking this trip. Even I wondered what on earth I was thinking upon landing in Moscow under the most austere gray sky I have ever seen with a plane full of drunken embassy workers, fortifying their return with the mini-bottles of wine Alitalia handed out more liberally than the peanuts.

By the end of my first day in the city, however, I was no longer questioning my choice of cultural fascination. Although I was a small town Michigander plunked down in a sprawling urban landscape, Moscow felt oddly familiar. Some familiarities were at once obvious to me. The weather, for one. I had very little trouble adjusting to bountiful heaps of snow and extreme wind chills with a childhood of Southeastern Michigan winters under my belt. And while downtown Moscow wasn’t like small town Michigan by a long shot, with pre-Revolutionary Baroque coexisting uneasily with Stalin’s overwrought show-‘em-who’s-boss architecture, the suburban neighborhoods I frequented were mid-western town scaled. Historic homes, resiliently lovely in their various states of repair, shared the narrow streets with flat-roofed shops just one evolutionary step removed from Michigan strip malls. The towering high-rise apartment buildings on the edge of town that had been built with the social-engineering goals of affordable mass housing reminded me of similar 1960s experiments in Chicago and Detroit, many of them in the same shambles of disrepair as their American urban sisters.

One would think the similarities ended with the landscape. All throughout the long months of hardship that accompanied the Soviet State’s wholesale collapse, I witnessed extremes of unfamiliarity. Vanishing groceries, for one, not the exotic fare, but basic staples of eggs, butter, and beef. Even the newly opened McDonald’s could no longer scavenge lettuce or tomato for Big Macs. Currency fluctuations made paupers of the middle class overnight. Government efficiency measures meant that for the first time in the lives of many workers, one’s job was not a given. Some workers were losing long-term jobs they’d held for thirty years or more, only to find that their pensions were also wiped out. And young people spent their days riding the subways, smoking on park benches, and plotting how to get in on lucrative joint ventures, the next generation of labor idled due to a novelty in the Soviet economy: a high unemployment rate. Although our Great Recession now draws obvious parallels between these late-term Soviet ills and our recent capitalist ills, seeing citizens riot on the street over apples and cigarettes, or young dispossessed men using rubles to blow their noses, did not at all remind me of home.

Despite the seismic shifting of the social and economic order, the longer I was in Moscow, the more like home it continued to seem. Does living in Michigan cultivate some strain of prideful attachment to hardship? I wondered. The answer lay in the people I befriended, people who, for economic or political reasons, would never get the hell out of Russia. Just about everyone I met cobbled together a living from a combination of employment and small-scale entrepreneurship. The engineer who lived down the hall from me, who lived with his wife and baby crammed into a single dorm room, blew glass figurines and sold them at the Moscow Bazaar. When he wasn’t arguing with me over the layered meanings of Run/DMC lyrics, a young poet, improbably named Igor, supplemented poetry with teaching while seeking funding for a map publishing venture. My best friend Irina, an economics student at Moscow State University studying Western marketing techniques, moonlighted as a distributor for a local heavy-metal label, selling CDs for bands with names like Menstrual Cramp and Spit. Everyone who could work put their creative energies towards multiple endeavors, blending a job that provided a certain level of subsistence income with an entrepreneurial enterprise, some practical, some pie in the sky.

Even the babushkas spent grueling days in menial labor, afternoons selling whatever produce they could grow in their window box gardens, and evenings cooking what they hadn’t sold for dinner. It was all very 1980s Michigan recession, a Michael Moore “Pets or Meat” resolute ingenuity, but ingenuity nonetheless. Moscow was in, all in, for the revolution ahead. There was a very real excitement that the economic collapse that by then everyone could see coming would create a climate where ventures that represented true creative commitment could thrive. The rules would change, in fact, be obliterated, and maybe this time around, the opportunity playing field would be, if not equalized, made a bit more level. For Muscovites, crisis was inevitable. But, so too was renewal.


Laura Hulthen Thomas heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan’s Residential College. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of journals, including Cimarron Review, Nimrod International Journal, Epiphany and Witness. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received an honorable mention in the 2009 Nimrod Literary Awards. She is a contributor to Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them, a collection of ghost stories by noted Michigan authors published by Wayne State University Press.

On her connection to the Great Lakes, she has this to say:

I grew up in the Ann Arbor area but was born on the East Coast, so my childhood summers were spent “back home” in Portsmouth and Boston where my grandparents lived, playing in white sand beaches and endless blue ocean, tasting the salt in the air that seemed to last all the way back to Michigan. I can’t exactly trace when “back home” began to mean Michigan. Over the years swimming in the Atlantic was replaced by swimming in the Great Lakes. Running the dunes came to mean at Sleeping Bear, not Hampton Beach. Digging for clams turned into luring trout on the Pigeon, the Au Sable, the Pere Marquette. But I think it was when the economic downturn sparked the question that inspired my essay — now will you finally get the hell out of there? — that I really understood that leaving Michigan meant leaving home.