Saturday, September 21, 2013

Michigan: Always Rolling forward

My wife was a Navy brat and grew up mostly on the East and West Coasts, but luckily for me, my father-in-law was briefly stationed at Selfridge Air National Guard base during the early 1990s. She ended up spending her last three years of high school at Mt. Clemens High and then ended up enrolling at the University of Michigan, where I met her.

Until I went to college and met people like my wife who had not spent their whole lives in Michigan, I did not realize how many things that I took for granted as "normal," such as Michigan lefts, Devil’s Night and Sweetest Day, were uncommon or nonexistent outside of Michigan.

My favorite story of my in-laws' introduction to Michigan life involves their first dinner they had in their new state. After a tiring day of moving into their new home on base, they went out to eat and asked the waitress what drinks the restaurant had. The waitress rattled off the usual Coke or Pepsi products and then Vernors. My in-laws, having never heard of Vernors, asked what it was, and the waitress, with a befuddled look on her face, said, "It's Vernors." My perplexed in-laws asked again and only to get the same reply: "It's Vernors." After several rounds of this, someone finally asked if it was like Coke or 7-Up. The waitress, probably still in shock that my in-laws did not know what Vernors was, explained, "It's kind of like ginger ale." My mother-in-law tried it and has been a Vernors devotee ever since.

I sometimes like to explain to others that one of the things I love about Michigan (besides Vernors) compared to the DC area is the more laid back and slower way of life. However, the slower way of life does not apply to driving. Visitors and new Michiganders must adjust to the "rolling forward" that Michigan drivers do at red lights. Despite my wife's insistence that she did not see this in the other states she lived in, I did not believe this was a Michigan thing until I moved to the East Coast and came back for a visit.

In Michigan, it is customary while stopped at a red light and as the light turns yellow (or sooner), to creep forward into the intersection in anticipation of a green light. It is not unusual to see a car halfway into the intersection when the light actually turns green. It must be a vestige of Michigan's muscle car/drag racing days of the 1950s through 1970s because even the rare Toyota Prius driver in Michigan will inch forward, even though a Prius is not going win many drag races.

It was not until I moved out east that I realized no one else does this. On the rare occasion I see someone rolling forward at a Virginia or DC intersection, the car almost always has a Michigan license plate or some kind of Michigan identifier like a U of M or MSU license plate frame. When next to the Michigan transplants, I find myself inching forward and watching for the cross light to turn yellow then red. My car might not have as much horsepower as the car next to it and it might not beat it in a flat out race, but the goal of this game is to be the first off the line and to gain whatever lead I can. The key is to have the car slightly in motion when my light turns green so that I have some momentum to beat the car next to me out of the starting blocks. When driving next to a Michigander, you cannot be content to stand still.

With the hard times Michigan has faced, its residents are not content to stand still and live their lives blindly in awe of their past glory. Michiganders should be proud of the products and corporations that employed its people and made it strong, such as the auto industry and Vernors, but Michiganders young and old are finding new and creative ways to save their cities and their economy from the setback of the last few decades.

New startups are revitalizing Detroit, vintners and brewers are producing exceptional products, and young engineers and techies are bringing technological advancements to the way Michigan companies do business. They are not waiting for a green light to come up with solutions. Michiganders are doing what they were born to do; they are rolling forward.

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