By Mark Pontoni | Feb. 2, 2019
Back in 2008, I moved to northern Michigan to take a teaching job. Well, actually, I moved to northern Michigan so I could live with my new wife, who had been teaching in Petoskey for several years. The teaching job was a bonus. Now, just over 10 years later, I’m moving back downstate for a different teaching job … and the not-so-new wife is coming with me.
As such, after several years, this is my final column in Northern Express. The final few boxes will be packed by the time this column is printed, so I believe it is appropriate for me to reflect on what I learned by living in northern Michigan.
As a progressive in an area dominated by many who find my views odd at best, and reprehensible at worst, I learned not to take every insult, snub, death threat, and attack personally. This did not come easy. When I first started writing, I made every effort to engage in dialogue with every person who reached out to me in disagreement. I used to respect the process by which folks who disagreed could at least talk with each other in the hope of finding some understanding.
I realized I lived and worked in towns where the “good ol’ boys” had dominated politics for many years. And I learned to respect many of these men because they were solid advocates for what they believed was good for northern Michigan. Jack Waldvogel of Petoskey comes to mind as a man with whom I often disagreed. In the couple of times we interacted, I never once doubted his sincerity and confidence in what he believed. This was one man among many who had great hopes for our region and for our country, and that was worthy of my respect.
But look how far we have fallen during the last 10 years. I’d love to name names, but I can’t really see the point in adding to the woes of those who can’t hold a candle to men like Waldvogel. These men (and women) no longer have great hopes for our region. All they have left are fears. The country is changing in many ways: demographically, ideologically, and politically. All of these changes are threats to their reactionary lifestyles, and there is no hope they can reverse the good things happening all around them. So now they’re just afraid.
This situation reminds me a lot of how I thought about my mother as she raised her family in an America that was very new to her. She was born in this country to Italian immigrants. Her mother and her grandmother were the prototypical Italian matriarchs. These two women, who wouldn’t reach nine feet if you stacked them on top of each other, ruled the family in the traditional way. When they issued their edicts, no one even thought of questioning them. All decisions about dating, school, work, clothing, food, holidays, etc. were under their aegis.
As my great-grandmother and grandmother passed, my mother seemed poised to assume her rightful place as matriarch. But then came the ’60s and the ’70s. Second-generation Italian-Americans were so far removed from the life my mother lived that my mother never got to wear the crown she had waited so long to wear. Rebellion, change, and challenges to authority were the new playbook, and our country was far better because of it. For my mother, however, it was a source of despair and bitterness.
Like today’s Good Ol’ Boy wannabes, my mother spent most of her middle-age years angry at things that were far beyond her abilities to alter. The country is changing … and for the better. We decided that a person of color was worthy of leading the country. Twice. We decided that people had the right to marry whomever they loved, regardless of what it might say in Leviticus. We have resoundingly rejected the notion that the National Rifle Association is the fourth branch of government. All of these changes are good for us, both now and going forward … except of course for the racists and haters that make up Trump’s “base.” As it begins to sink in to them that making America really great is the exact opposite of what they believe it to be, their hope of stewarding the next generation has disappeared. And now they’re afraid and bitter.
One final note. After I announced that I was leaving my job here in the Great White North for an opportunity downstate, I received many letters from current and former students and their parents. There was genuine disappointment that someone who had made critical thinking an integral part of their daily lives was leaving. They wanted to know who to blame. It would be easy to blame the Trump supporters who were challenged and embarrassed by my columns. After all, they were the ones who tried to make my life miserable by attacking me, threatening me, and trying to get me fired. But don’t blame them; they are simply angry, bitter folks who know their world is changing far beyond their capacity to understand and accept it. Blame those instead who had the authority and were in positions to stand up to them and defend the First Amendment but lacked the spine to do so. Blame them.
You can read more of Mark Pontoni's thoughts on education, politics, sports, and family at www.thegrumblings.com.