by David Erik Nelson

I remember Michigan fondly as the place I go
to be in Michigan. The right hand of America
waving from maps or the left
pressing into clay a mold to take home
from kindergarten to Mother.
from "A Primer," by Bob Hicok, The New Yorker, May 19, 2008

You'll be invited to your wife's Full Family Thanksgiving Feast in Michigan

Attending means driving to the hinterlands around the middle knuckles of the Mitten's middle finger. Shortly before leaving you'll learn that this Full Family Feast does not, in fact, exist. Instead you’ll be directed to a somewhat lesser Secondary Family Feast in a somewhat less remote part of the hinterlands, at your in-laws' cottage in a town mostly known for holding an annual ice fishing carnival on a frozen lake.

You've witnessed this carnival. You've ridden the ferris wheel atop the ice with your wife and young son, a ferris wheel you were told was unique for its age and direction of spin. You learned this from the man operating it, the man who proclaimed that he'd bolted it together himself, a man with something very clearly wrong with one side of his skull.

These are things you do in Michigan. These are the decisions you make by just letting things keep going the way they go in Michigan.

One way or another, getting to this Feast amounts to a lot of driving for you and your small family—wife, two small children, aging small poodle—in your small, efficient car.

It's a lot of driving, but not by Michigan standards. In Michigan, no amount of driving is too much driving, nor any distance too short to drive. In Michigan, nothing is close enough to walk to, even when it is within eye shot. In Michigan you might drive to the place you already are, in order to pick up the car and go back to where you never left. You can do that, in Michigan, even though the roads are crap and the legislature refuses to pay to fix them, because Michigan.

Pure Michigan.

Dave eats a deer heart

In Michigan you'll eat spiced, pickled deer heart. This won't be the first time. Your father-in-law will ask how you like it, almost challenging you to think less of it (and not for the first time).

The meat is firm and dense and good, and you'll joke that you "like it, because it is bitter and because it is my heart." Your wife—a poet and teacher familiar with the elemental verse of Stephen Crane—will smirk, and your father-in-law will earnestly scowl and say, "It isn't bitter."

This isn't the first time you've made this joke with him. It isn't the first time he's told you deer heart isn't bitter. It is, in fact, sweet, he'll insist. Again.

You can do that in Michigan: Dispute the taste in someone else's mouth.

In Michigan, even when things happen for the first time, they've happened to you over and over and over again.

We are all Sisyphus and Prometheus in Michigan, tearing out the deer's heart, only to have it grow back in some other deer.

Or maybe that makes us the eagle, the stone forever rolling back down the hill, and Michigan herself—her forests and lakes—are Prometheus: We tear part out, eat it, and it grows right back, only to have it torn out again.

In Michigan, this is called "resource management."

You'll be 15 minutes into that Lesser Family Feast in Michigan when your mother-in-law will turn to you and ask:

"What do Jews do on Thanksgiving?"

You should be prepared for this sort of thing in Michigan. But even though I'm warning you in advance, you still won't be prepared.

Later you'll wonder why this question, and why now—because you've known your mother-in-law for two decades, and have been a Jew the entire time. Has she quietly wondered for 20 years what it is Jews do on Thanksgiving, huddled in their dark and quiet lairs? Or did it just pop into her head and out of her mouth at that moment? Or was there something else she was avoiding saying—Why are our grandchildren by you so weird? Why don't you make more money? How is it that you make any money at all? How bad was your depression this summer when you went to the hospital?—and this question about Semitic Thanksgiving rites was the polite, alternative small talk?

A little nettled and caught flat-footed, you'll offer that, because your entire family have been grateful and patriotic US citizens ever since they fled to these soils a century ago, you enjoy Thanksgiving dinner for Thanksgiving—as all American Jews do.

In an attempt to bail you out, your wife will add that your family does tend to have rice pilaf—although you'd never specifically thought of that as Ashkenazic. Rice pilaf was such a staple where you grew up—in an an enormous Jewish population surrounded by similarly enormous Arab and Indian populations—that you were an adult, and had been cooking rice pilaf on your own for more than a decade, before you learned that pilaf was "ethnic cuisine."

Also, on Thanksgiving in your Jewish home, it wasn't just rice pilaf, it was wild rice pilaf, a melange of paddy-grown white rice and the rich, long, black kernels of true Northern wild rice. As a child this had always struck you as a deeply Midwestern food, because it is almost idiosyncratic to the aboriginal peoples of the Large Waters, who still wild-harvest it and sell it to packagers.

What you won't tell your mother-in-law is that Jews eat Thanksgiving "dinner" at dinner time, as opposed to 1 p.m., which is the time you'll be having this conversation. Because Jews are generally in the habit of beginning all ritual meals after sundown, because our ritual calendar is a lunar calendar, because that actually makes sense, as opposed to having "dinner" at lunch which has always struck you as a patently bizarre gentile aberration.

The nightfall answer would have been a good answer because it offers what she's asking for: an inconsequential yet meaningful difference, a thing that tells us, as Americans, that we are both diverse and yet the same. E Pluribus Unum, Amen. Also, it is a mild and boring answer, and once you get to the Talmudic minutia of three-stars-in-the-sky and blah, blah, blah, people zone out and remember why they don't ask you many questions.

In Michigan, being a bore can be a stable strategy for getting along.

[Michigan's] state bird
is a chained factory gate. The state flower
is Lake Superior, which sounds egotistical
though it is merely cold and deep as truth.

In Michigan, sometime during "dinner" prep, a partridge will break its neck crashing into the sun-room window

You'll point this out to your father-in-law, who will discover the bird still warm when he goes out to check. So he will skin and butcher it. He'll hold out the breast for your wife to feel. "It's still warm," he'll say admiringly. He'll likewise offer it to your son, who will shy from touching it. He will not offer it to you.

But you will fetch the severed wing from the yard, still intact, and you and your boy will marvel at the mechanism of it, the intricacy, and the beauty and diversity and perfection of its feathers. And then you'll throw it in the trash, because it's Michigan, and there are always more severed wild bird wings to be had in Michigan.

The next day's lunch is slated to be either the partridge or the whole deer neck setting on a mosaic of paper plates on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator.

In Michigan, it's hard to find any fault in the freshness the victuals. No antibiotics in this meat. No unethical practices; for most of that long weekend, the meat you will be served will be from animals that lived free up until the very moment they died.

You'll later take a walk with your father-in-law and tell him about something crazy you saw in Michigan about a month before

You were driving down a residential street in one of the state's largest cities, puttering past a big Catholic church and school, when you saw an old man using tin snips to cut the tail off of a dead squirrel. You caught him right in the act as he stooped, took hold of the tip of the roadkill's tail, snipped it off at the base with one long laborious squeeze, and then returned to his cluttered minivan, clearly giving not a care about who saw him doing what.

"Oh," your father-in-law will chuckle. "He's a fly fisherman."

You will be gobsmacked by this inductive leap, naturally falling into playing Watson to his Holmes: "What?"

"They like squirrel tail hairs for tying flies. Deer tails, too." Your father-in-law is a lifelong sportsman and outdoorsman. In his retirement, he's taken to competitive walleye fishing—although one does not fly fish for walleye. Over the years, you've learned more from this man than you ever thought you could know about fish and deer, bows and rifles, rabbit and quail, home and auto maintenance, appliance design and repair, DNR and DEQ policy, Democrat and UN plots to curtail private gun ownership—a whole range of remarkable stuff.

But you've never found out why it is he spends so much time going after walleye, which is an otherwise entirely unremarkable fish.

And he's never expressed any interest in fly fishing.

In Michigan, you flee the home following Thanksgiving dinner

In this case you flee to a local bar in a large log cabin. The bar is not rustic. Because not everything is a cliché in Michigan. The bar has many flat-panel TVs, each identical to the one you have at home, that you only have because of an exceptionally lucky open-box deal at Best Buy when your last TV—the most recent in a 20-year-string of half-broken freebie TVs given to you by pitying family and friends—finally finished dying.

There is a wealth of TVs in the log cabin bar, at least a dozen, all tuned to the same football game that you hardly notice. The log cabin has a new old-fashioned jukebox. You overhear a patron ask if you can control it from your phone, or if you have to get up, and the bartender scoffs. Of course you can do it from your phone! The jukebox is four long strides away. Normally, you'd drive such a distance in Michigan, if you could.

The bar also has a surprisingly well appointed stage strategically tucked into the front corner. From the theater lighting work you did in your 20s you can tell when a bar owner is serious about live music. This bar's owner is serious.

You'll want a drink, but will instead have homemade potato chips and onion dip, because sometimes bourbon hits you hard—now that you're on meds. And your wife needs a drink, because in Michigan you need a drink after having Thanksgiving dinner with your family. In Michigan you need solitude and alcohol to lance the suppurating boil swollen with all of the opinions and observations you've been keeping your lips buttoned around.

You're being a responsible citizen by eating the house-special chip-&-dip instead of pouring booze on top of SSRIs and then driving. It's a level of responsibility that is fairly unusual in Michigan, the seventh drunk-drivingest state in the Union. When surveyed, almost 70 percent of the people of Michigan admit to drunk driving now and again.

A few years back your pal Mike—a tow truck driver—was killed by a drunk driver in Michigan. He was at the side of his truck, pulling a drunk out of a ditch when a second drunk barreled past the police and the road flares and crushed Mike. Mike was himself a heavy drinker, and as you commiserated with his friends and family, they all kept saying the same thing: On the one hand, you're so angry with this driver, but on the other, it's hard to be too angry; who among us hasn't driven blind drunk?

And the thing you never said was: Me. I have not, you fucking assholes. Because it's obviously a stupid fucking thing to do, seeing as how we are at the funeral of our friend killed by a drunk driver.

But that funeral was in Michigan. And in Michigan you can drink a beer at the funeral of a man killed by a drunk driver, a funeral that's closed-casket because all the king's horses and all the king's men simply could not put Mike together again.

There is no irony in Michigan. Michiganders are an earnest lot, and know the truth:

God is sort of an asshole.

A Midwesterner can use the word "truth,"
can sincerely use the word "sincere."

Leaving the technologically advanced log cabin bar you'll be distracted by a guitar hanging on the wall

The guitar is autographed.

The guitar is autographed by Freedom Williams. He has Prince's penchant for swapping numbers for words, and the rounded letterforms of a middle school girl.

The guitar is also autographed by all of Freedom's band—C + C Music Factory—who you'll recall is "gonna make you sweat." The messages on the guitar are addressed directly to "Bob" and his bar.

Based on the enthusiastic notes on the guitar, it's safe to say that C + C Music Factory loved playing a show in a technologically advanced log cabin in Michigan.

These messages are dated 2000—which seems both impossibly long ago, and also impossibly near to C + C Music Factory's 1990 heyday. They scored their big hit in 1991. It was played at every bar mitzvah you ever attended, and did indeed make everybody dance then as now. By the late 1990s the song was still a club staple and immediately recognizable metonym for gay America ("Dad, why did you bring me to a gay steel mill?"), on par with the rainbow flag.

And yet, a few years later, C + C Music Factory was playing Michigan bars that are, literally, on the way to nowhere, three hours up into a peninsula mostly famous for its post-Industrial wastelands.

You'll marvel at this, and decide there are only two possible explanations:

  1. The owner of this log cabin is a huge C + C Music Factory fan, or
  2. C + C Music Factory's manager was, by 2000, openly antagonistic to the band's success, or even physical survival

You'll be drawn from your thoughts by a hardbitten blonde lady arguing with you. Maybe. She might be arguing with you. She's arguing with someone, and you are the only person in the hall, and she isn't wearing a Bluetooth earpiece, and you are still sort of disoriented by the C + C Music Factory revelation and all it implies.

She is the drunkest ambulatory drunk you've ever seen in Michigan, and that is an achievement. You've interacted with stroke survivors and traumatic brain-injury patients who were more coherent. One time, in Michigan, there was a four-car pile up literally at your toes as you waited to cross at the crosswalk. Those rattled, disoriented folks you helped from their cars and coached through dialing 911, they were more coherent than this lady.

For the most part, the only words she can articulate are conjugations of "fuck." It's unclear if she's beefing with you, or recounting some past beef. Eventually it becomes clear that, among other things, she's asking you to help her find her way out to the parking lot so she can smoke.

The bar is not crowded, nor particularly dim.

You can actually see the exit from where you two are standing. It's straight down a six-foot-wide hallway, and less than ten feet away, which is, again, a drivable distance in Michigan, although you think you two can make it on foot, despite her intoxication.

You offer her your arm and lead her out. She props herself against the outer wall, next to a decorative sheaf of dried corn stalks, and lights her cigarette in under five attempts. This is a Michigan sobriety test, and she's passed. You feel basically OK leaving her there; it isn't like she could find her car in the unlit parking lot, or her way back to the bar to drink herself to death.

In Michigan, this is a sort of stable equilibrium: Drunk enough that you are no longer capable of doing harm to yourself or others, not so drunk that you are likely to be victimized or die by misadventure, not so cold out that you'll freeze to death if you pass out in a dark cubby outside the bar.

is thirteen months long in Michigan.
We are a people who by February
want to kill the sky for being so gray
and angry at us. "What did we do?"
is the state motto.

You'll head to an indoor water park in an Indian casino

No one seems to see the irony of visiting an Indian casino on Thanksgiving weekend—but then again, you aren't even certain it's ironic. Maybe it's a cliché?

You just don't know. You're in Michigan, and often enough, in Michigan, your options are either to roll along passively and go where the current sweeps you, or to drive yourself completely batshit crazy trying to make things make sense.

On the way to the casino your mother-in-law will abruptly exit the freeway in order to go to a famous donut shop run by cops. On the way to the donut shop you'll pass Al Capone's grand cottage ("It's got all sorts of tunnels, they say.") You'll be a little dubious about "Al Capone's cottage," because Michigan is lousy with cottages purportedly owned by the infamous Chicagoland gangster, bars he purportedly drank in, chairs on which he purportedly sat.

But you won't say anything, because you'll be distracted by a Hasidic-looking Amish man running his buggy at breakneck speed down Old US-27 while evidently arguing with his black-velvet mare, the horse craning around, moving its head as though totally bitching out the stoney-faced man. The black-hat's jaw is set, his beard whipped back by the the artificial breeze of their velocity, a flag indicating gale-force winds. You wonder if the horse might be drunk, or wearing a Bluetooth headset, or just jonesing for a smoke.

The cops' donut shop is large and prosperous, having expanded to take over several adjacent storefronts

It is indeed owned by police officers—as countless pieces of signage and framed pictures and certificates attest—but none of these cops are in evidence. Every single counter worker is an attractive young White woman. This, in and of itself, isn't that surprising to you: Your first job was washing dishes in a family-owned commercial bakery; posting attractive young women at the bakery counter is standard operating procedure. The front of house staff where you worked as a kid were all slim, squeaky clean White gals required to wear two pairs of pantyhose (for propriety) and white smocks (for branding). The bakers themselves (including the owners, a family of Jews with the unlikely surname of "Christ") were all more plausible as longshoremen than bakers: Shaggy and stubbled, foul-mouthed, barrel-chested, hard-handed. Commercial baking is no dainty task; the empty mixing bowls for the industrial Hobart mixers easily outweighed any single counter girl at the Christ's Jewish bakery.

But at the cops' donut shop all the counter girls are obliged to wear blaze-orange t-shirts with INMATE stamped across them. Perhaps it's the steady drumbeat of the news—this same weekend footage will be released of several White police officers shooting a young black man 16 times—but this strikes you as moderately awful.

You'll ask the girls how they feel about this—the uniform, the cops, the gendered hierarchy—and they'll look at you quizzically and smile. Your questions just don't make any sense, not in Michigan.

Besides, the donuts are really damn good, which strikes you as a cliché—except that it isn't actually a cliché, is it? There's no cliché about cops making donuts, is there? Or even particularly seeking out good donuts? Just indiscriminately eating them—and, frankly, it's sort of a dumb stereotype: Everyone eats donuts. It's Michigan. That very morning you're father-in-law had presented you with a huge box of mixed donuts for breakfast, in preparation for a drive out to a donut shop.

You'll text a friend about all this

The Flying Dutchman Thanksgiving Feast, that what-do-Jews-do?, the partridge and deer, Capone's cottage and the Amish speed racer, C + C Music Factory, the cops and donuts—and he'll reply:

Somehow you always manage to find the Pynchon-esque parts of Michigan to travel to. What the hell dude? If you put this stuff in a book no one would believe it. "The humor is too broad. Tone it down a little."

This friend, while born in California, is a son of Michigan, raised there, educated there. He moved back to California 15 years ago, and he and his wife (also from Michigan) now have their own California-born son.

Perhaps he's been gone too long and forgotten the Fundamental Truth:

In Michigan, the Pynchon-esque finds you.

You'll arrive at the Indian casino/indoor waterpark and discover that the racist stereotype is true: Native Americans operate really, really nice casino/indoor waterparks

It will not dawn on you until later that this is ironic, seeing as how showing an excess of hospitality is what got them into the mess they're in. In Michigan, at least. That, and making deals with the French.

Or maybe it isn't irony; maybe it's a cliché. Maybe it isn't even that. Maybe it's just Michigan.

In the lobby of the Indian casino/indoor waterpark there is a startlingly lifelike wax statue of Nokomis—a name which, if it rings any bells at all for the patrons, does so because of Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha," which Michigan schoolchildren are often made to copy out, even though Longfellow never came to Michigan, and his account of the myths and legends of Michigan's aboriginal Ojibwa peoples is roughly as accurate, ethnographically speaking, as that episode of the 1960s Batman TV show featuring Chief Screaming Chicken.

On the one hand—the right hand, waving at you from the map of the US—this statue of Nokomis is whack, standing as it is 230 miles south of the shores of Gitche Gume. On the other hand—this being the left, the one Paul Bunyan set down to catch his fall when he stumbled plowing the Great Plains—you are in an Ojibwa Casino.

A sign informs you that twice a day they tell Native American myths on the sofas gathered around Nokomis, and also not to touch Nokomis or cross the line to stand behind her for photo ops. During off times, they screen Golden Girls reruns on the flat panel TV next to Nokomis—which, again, is the same model TV you have at home, the same model which adorned the log cabin bar that C + C Music Factory made sweat and groove back in 2000.

You text this to your friend, the Californian Ex-Michigander, and he asks if it's awkward being in an Indian casino/indoor waterpark on Thanksgiving weekend:

Are they just mad shooting you the evil eye?

You were going to text back that there were no actual live Indians in evidence—you'd sort of assumed that the "Indians" in Indian casinos were mostly straw dogs and silent partners, the casinos themselves operated by big multi-nationals. But then you had to go up to the front desk to sort out a problem with the RFID bracelet thing that gets you and your family through the double-locked doors into the waterpark, and you discovered that Native People staffed all the good desk jobs. You'd only seen white workers to that point—sullen or detached, pleasant if basically uninterested—because Whites were stuck with the crappy pool duty and janitorial jobs.

The First Nation's folks in the ergonomically appropriate rolling chairs are sunny and welcoming, despite being frustrated with their glitchy access management software. The man most able to wrangle the software is emphatically gay, gelled and festooned with bangles and rainbows. It doesn't occur to you until you write this very sentence that you should have asked him about C + C Music Factory and the log cabin—before it occurs to you that 15 years is a long time, and this man was probably still in grade school when Freedom Williams signed that guitar.

Still, you could have asked, and he almost certainly would have done his level best to figure out just what the hell it was you were trying to ask, because you are a middle-aged, bald white man in Michigan, which is sort of like being King Lear: You are at once respected for no decent reason, and dismissed as inconvenient despite not having really done anything to bother anyone.

If you are a mild middle-aged white father in Michigan, teens call you "sir" and children in parks address you as "Dad"—and not just kids who look like they could reasonably believe themselves to be yours. Kids in general. People assume you work at the stores you are yourself lost in. People stop you to ask you for directions as you wander around towns you've never been to before, or stand in a lot trying to remember where the hell you parked.

You catch your own reflection after these things happen and wonder: Why?

You aren't doing that great. But you are a White guy in Michigan with kids and no visible tattoos, no holes in your pants, no half-drank two-liter in your mitt, no cigarette perched in your mouth, no open look of befuddlement at the confused shanda of your personal finances. You are not publicly intoxicated, not shouting at a child or hectoring your wife or girlfriend or baby mamma, not stiffing a waitress or calling anyone a bitch for any reason. Maybe they ask because by Michigan standards you are steadily cruising toward upper class. And you do have glasses.

But the point isn't about White men in Michigan. White men in Michigan are, literally, a dime a dozen. This is about the Saginaw Chippewa who staff the desk at the waterpark: Excellent hospitality; four stars, would come again.

Well, maybe three stars. The restaurant nearest the pool seemed nice enough, but their reuben turns out to be thoroughly mediocre. Of course, what the hell were you expecting. Indian casinos are known for a lot of things, but their Jewish-American casual cuisine isn't among them.

This may be a casino, but you still aren't in Vegas, baby; you're in Michigan.

In Michigan you'll bowl 110 in a log cabin while drinking a really good Michigan craft beer served by a very nice woman with blurry knuckle tattoos

This is a different log cabin bar form the one C + C Music Factory sweated and grooved in 2000, but also technologically advanced.

In Michigan the hostess routinely asks what beer you want, even though it's only 10 a.m. In Michigan, in a nearly empty technologically advanced log cabin bar/bowling alley, you will not be the only middle-aged White man drinking a beer before noon.

This is how the nice hostess with the blurry prison tattoos will type your names into the automated score-keeping software:

Otto-mobile, get in the Carra!

While you are indeed a "Dave," your son is not a car, and your wife's name doesn't sound like "car" or have a double-anything in it. Maybe the confusion is a result of your speaking voice—which is affected and stagey as a result of the tutoring that broke you of a speech impediment at an early age, compounded by coaching by your family and prep school to sound like those around you. The result: An accent and diction that are incoherent in their near-boundless permeability. Devoid of form, your speech readily absorbs odd pronunciations and grammatical structures that catch in your ear for their musicality. When you aren't consciously choosing to perform the "professional"—that is, White—voice you were trained to speak, you swear with a Newfie burr or in Yiddish, greet people with an NYC Italian's purr, elide trailing "g"s, "t"s, and "d"s, embrace "ain't" and double negatives and the "habitual be", end sentences with prepositions in order to even their meter, use superlatives from Boston and the Bay, sing with a backcountry twang, reduce your diphthongs to monophthongs, and let your fricatives collapse to "d"s and "f"s.

Subsequently, in Michigan, you're peppered with mistaken identities. Being mistaken for local, mistaken for foreign-born, mistaken for biracial, mistaken for not a Jew. On the phone you've been mistaken for your father since you were 13. As a younger man, when your cheeks were smooth and hair full, you were regularly mistaken for a woman.

Or maybe the scoring software FUBAR isn't the result of your jumbled-and-jivey voice. Maybe it was the rarity of the names themselves, at least in Michigan, where the automobile jumps to mind much more nimbly than Otto Dix or Otto von Bismarck.

Still, while teaching in Michigan your wife (who is not "CAR-ra") has schooled more than a few Porsches, Lexuses, and Sierras, but never a single Auto of any spelling.

In Michigan a baby wears hunter camo overalls while her parents discuss how to best remove a deer's rectum

The night before, this same couple—your brother-in-law and his wife—mentioned that where they live in West Michigan women sell breast milk on Craigslist for $1 per ounce. The buyers. Body builders.

Your brother-in-law is a body builder; even he thinks this is insane. He's traveling with at least three guns—a new Winchester shotgun, a Ruger .45 revolver, and a Browning Buckmark .22. An avid hunter, he's just bought the Winchester, and is going squirrel hunting with the .22 later that day (he's already bagged his deer for the year). You have no idea why he has the Ruger .45, but he always seems to travel with it, cased and unloaded. He's an incredible shot with the thing.

You yourself own a Browning Challenger, the grandaddy of that same Buckmark; it is a quite remarkably good .22. Yours is back home, in your gun locker, cased and triple locked. Over the summer—after you went to the hospital for a twisted ankle and lied when asked if you'd been experiencing thoughts of hurting yourself—you started feeling oddly about the pistol, distrustful. You took the keys to the locker and locked them in a different locker, three miles away. The gun's been in its case ever since. But you fetched the keys a month or so back, because since you've been on meds the gun is less frightening.

But still, you haven't unlocked its case. Not yet.

While you're staying at your in-laws' cottage you'll start seeing tweets about the civil massacre at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado. Less than a week later there'll be a civil massacre in San Bernardino. Michigan has more than its share of guns: 40 percent of all Michiganders have guns—which exceeds the national average. And male Michiganders use those guns to kill each other at a slightly higher rate than the national average. More than half of Michigan gun deaths are suicides. In Michigan, you are more likely to be killed by a bullet than a car, and you are most likely to be the one that fired the bullet that killed you. Especially if you are a mild, middle-aged White man.

But in Michigan, you don't really see civil massacres. Michigan's last civil massacre wasn't even a mass shooting: It was the "Bath School Disaster" in 1927, when a disgruntled school board treasurer murdered his wife, set fire to his farm, and then bombed a school before committing suicide; he killed 38 children and six adults, injuring another 58 people—all in, he killed or hurt roughly one-third of the town's population.

But in this cottage full of guns and NRA members, you won't talk about any of that during Thanksgiving weekend, or any weekend. The only safe gun topic in Michigan is what a pain in the ass it is to find .22 long ammo, because of the stupid buying frenzy. Left, right, and center, Jew and gentile, you can all agree: People are being dumbasses about hoarding .22LR, and it's making a it a pain for normal people to go plinking.

At any rate, $1/oz for breastmilk strikes you as pretty cheap, but you'll feel weird saying so, because your brother-in-law's wife is breastfeeding, and the only way you can think to phrase this is in terms of a "flooded market," and you don't want it to come off as a pun. Or a cliché. You don't know. You just don't know.

One time, in Michigan—and this was at least a 15 years ago, back before you and your wife were even married, let alone had any kids—you sat in an icy small town's single "family style restaurant." It was in a disused industrial building. You watched a woman in a cheetah-print top breastfeed while drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. You'd never see that in Michigan today, because you can no longer smoke within 15 feet of a building in Michigan, and who's gonna breastfeed in an icy parking lot?

In Michigan, you can open-carry a loaded gun in a school, but you cannot smoke in a bar. You know, for health reasons. Smoking kills, man.

Sometime before Thanksgiving weekend your mother-in-law will receive a hand-me-down Kindle from her sister, and on the final day of your long Thanksgiving weekend she will inadvertently discover erotica

She'll download her first book for Kindle on her sister's Amazon Prime account, choosing this book entirely based on what Amazon advises her is most popular among Kindle owners who've read the things that her Kindle has read.

She'll read for a moment, then look up at you and ask:

"David, what's 'johnsons'?"

Oddly, you are constitutionally better prepared for this question than you were for What do Jews do on Thanksgiving?

You are 100% certain this moment says more about you than anyone in that house in Michigan.

"It's usually slang for 'penises,'" you'll reply.

"OK," she'll say absently, scanning down the page. "So she goes into this gym, and here," she begins to read aloud, "'Boobs and johnsons jostling'—Yes, that sounds right."

She goes on reading, humming a meandering tune under her breath, rhythmically patting her knee.

Yes, that sounds right.

In Michigan.

You never forget
how to be from Michigan when you're from Michigan.
It's like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing.

Here's the thing:

Despite how all this sounds, you yourself are one of Michigan's native sons. You were born and raised and educated in Michigan. You've lived your entire life 45 minutes from the hospital where you squalled and farted your way into this Vale of Tears, this Pleasant Peninsula surmounted by Gitche Gume.

This is where you belong.

In Michigan we are all wolverines—not because wolverines are native to this place (they are not), but because we are tenacious and opportunistic and moderately foul and senselessly aggressive, and we need vast territories to roam alone, lest we drive ourselves mad pacing the perimeter of whatever cage we feel we're locked in.

And yet you have somehow always been a foreigner in Michigan. When people think of "Michigan," they do not think of you, because you are neither a Black man stealing the copper pipes from an abandoned house in Detroit, nor a White man in camo, gun in one hand, beer in the other, waiting—for a deer, or for a federal agent, or for a creditor, or for himself to press that gun beneath the shelf of his own chin, and with a squeeze slough of this mortal coil and beat feet for that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller writes or calls, let alone returns.

You are not one of those.

You are a moderately mentally ill, middle-aged Jew with kids, living in a college town run by a college to which you have no connection, like a mouse living at the back of a tool-and-die shop kitchenette cupboard.

You wander around Michigan, your brain's re-uptake of serotonin selectively inhibited, and you are full of wonder at this place. In Michigan a hawk snatches a starling from the air over your head, dusting you with a flurry of down. In Michigan deer gallop down the asphalt in front of your little brick ranch in one of the state's largest cities, a city that's home to a world-renowned university, those victor's valiant, those conquering heroes, those Champions of the West. In Michigan you can live on a road named for a British palace where most of your neighbors are immigrants, all of their children bilingual, all of their parties long and foodful. In Michigan eagles perch in spindly jack pines towering over repurposed industrial buildings in Southwest Detroit. In Michigan you can buy a house for less than a Honda. In Michigan owning a pickup truck is a business plan. No town in Michigan is too small to have a decent brewery or large enough to have decent public transit. The sun here rises in gorgeous fury, and sets blazing and spitting, fighting the coming dark like a wolverine in a leg-hold trap. You get all four seasons in Michigan, often on the same day. There is no farmer's market where they won't cut you a deal, no dealership where they won't rip you off, no contractor who won't "level with you about this situation."

In Michigan they say, "Buddy, if I had a nickel for every water heater I'd installed, I wouldn't be installing water heaters." If they work for the Ford Motor Company, they say "I work at Ford's." They grouse endlessly about how China is stealing our manufacturing jobs and Wal-Mart destroying our towns, and then buy doodads made in China at Wal-Mart, because it's what they can afford on their Wal-Mart paycheck.

You stay in Michigan because Michigan is the place one must go to be in Michigan, because you yourself are the right hand of America quietly bending the arc of history toward justice. And you are also the left hand of America smacking your own face with a laughing rebuke: "Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!"

You are in Michigan, because if you lived here you'd be home already.

And you do, so you are.

Because you think fondly of Michigan as the place you go to be in Michigan.

Let us all be from somewhere.
Let us tell each other everything we can.
from "A Primer," by Bob Hicok, The New Yorker, May 19, 2008

original art and design by Chris Salzman: