Less than six months from now, Northern Express Weekly will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the paper.
Well trot out the old story of how my friend George and I launched the Express in my kitchen on Mission Peninsula with an investment on par with what youd pay for a 10-year-old used car, and reminisce about the glory days. But mostly I think well dwell on the past decade of the paper, since the first half of our adventure has grown rather mossy in the memory.
In fact, my own experience writing this column for the past 19 years keeps coming back to the story of Rip Van Winkle. Its a story thats far out of step with the legends of our times -- those of Jersey Shore or The Biggest Loser, but it bears repeating.
Rip Van Winkle was a young Dutch slacker in the Catskill Mountains back in the late 1700s who preferred goofing off and socializing to hard work. One day he went out for a walk and heard the sound of thunder in the mountains. He encountered the ghosts of explorer Henry Hudson and his lost crew playing a game of 9 pins down in a spooky hollow. Rip took a drink of their ale, fell under their spell, and slept for 20 years.
When he awoke, Rip found that the whole world had changed, and not for the better. Progress, Rip decided, was not always a good thing.
You find a similar story in J.R.R. Tolkiens Return of the King, in which the hobbits return to their homeland of the Shire after many adventures, only to find that industrialization, deforestation, strip mining and a version of urban sprawl have taken root, threatening to wreck their beloved home. The hobbits‘ last challenge is to drive out the sinister forces of modernity to make things right again.
Both stories are parables about getting old and the sensation that the world has taken a wrong turn somewhere while we were dozing.
Perhaps we all get fixated on how the world should be forever and ever when were in our early teens, and when the damn thing refuses to cooperate as the years roll by, we assume the world has gone to hell. For me, the ideal world will always be a sunny day on a dirt road in rural Michigan in 1967 -- plenty of jobs available, only 3.5 billion people on earth with room for everyone, and nothing but limitless potential waiting around the next corner.
So I‘ve found echoes of Rips antique legend in my own experience writing this column all these years, including the sound of distant thunder.
My very first column, written in 1992, involved a visit to Detroits Cass Corridor, where I interviewed an inner-city activist who was outraged over a plan to get rid of Americas welfare system.
Talk about an antique legend: what would people do without a safety net? he wondered. People living down in Detroit didnt have jobs, or even a way to reach them out in the suburbs. How would they survive without welfare?
Funny how that same question seems so relevant today in the Great Recession, when tens of millions depend on the mercy of Congress to appropriate the next round of unemployment benefits.
Ive had favorite themes in Random Thoughts through the years: the danger of outsourcing, for instance, and opposing NAFTA and the subsequent free trade agreements that have funneled jobs overseas. In the past 20 years we‘ve seen much of America‘s industry shuttled to Asia and south of the border, as in the case of Ford‘s new $3 billion plant in Mexico and GM‘s planned investment of $3.7 billion there at the expense of American workers. According to Bloomberg.com, those Mexican auto workers will earn just $26 per day to build the cars that we will buy, despite our own ruin. Add to that another favorite complaint heard here through the years: the folly of buying foreign-made stuff from the big box stores, or shopping over the Internet, putting ourselves out of our jobs, one dollar at a time.
Fortunately, enough of us are like-minded here in Northern Michigan to save our corner of America from the wreckage of modern times. Weve bought local, supported our independent shops and restaurants, and have made our downtowns a labor of love, with the result being a region unlike any youll find in the entire country, if not the world.
Its that independent spirit which has also kept Northern Express afloat all these years. You may have noticed that the so-called newspaper apocalypse of the 00s hasnt touched our paper. In fact, were thriving, in large part because we never had any support from the corporate world to begin with. Our success has been entirely due to people who still remember whats right with the world -- local, independent, and reflecting a love of their communities. In fact, we‘re one of the last independent newspapers in Michigan, and probably the largest.
More on that later, when we celebrate our big 2-0 on May 1, 2011.