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Review of Northern Spirits Distilled
by Mark Smith
Northern Spirits Distilled by Jack Ozegovich is a collection of essays -- eulogies might be a better word -- dealing with life in northwest lower Michigan in the "good old days". The "good old days" are here defined as that time commencing when the author moved to Traverse City to take up a position at Northwestern Michigan College as an art instructor in 1968. The good old days seem to peter out sometime in the early 80's, causing the author to quit the scene by 1988 or so. What we have here then is a collection of backward looking essays about local characters that Ozegovic got to know during his time here. The characters in Ozegovic's circle are depicted as larger than life, and seem ultimately constrained by a later wave of less individualistic migrants to the area. These newcomers bring with them their own conventional notions of progress, along with the attendant commercialism and conformity which accompany progress.

Northern Spirits Distilled is valuable insofar as it serves to remind us of the remnants of the wide open pioneer spirit which still existed here, even as late as the seventies. Development had kicked in, but had not become the driving force which it now is in the area. Ozegovic is honest in admitting the possibility that he may be looking through rose colored lenses at the past, but insists that a truly perceptible qualitative change occurred in the region at some unspecified time in the early 80's, which irrevocably affected life in the area:
One is prone to remembering the old days with an exaggerated and sometimes overly sympathetic tone, as if in some way, back when we were younger and more able to defend ourselves against change things were better, clearer, easier, certainly more fun... However, I truly believe that the world I enjoyed in northern Michigan changed in an uncontrollable fashion with the increased arrival of short-term, summer tourists.
The arrival of the "tin can tourist" (as we referred to them in my youth) does indeed mark a watershed for the area. But Ozegovic overstates his case somewhat when he maintains that the bad coinage has somehow driven out the good, if my metaphor applies. In Ozegovic's view:
One rarely encounters the old time, genteel, summer resident -- entertaining visitors and family members in lake front cottages, summer after summer. Not to mention entertaining their fantasy wonderland imaginations summer after summer in a reflecting pool beneath large and aging trees.
Apart from the fact that this is simply not true -- witness Leland, Northport Point, Harbor Point, Bay View, Wequetonsing, Walloon Lake, etc, -- it seems largely misguided to praise the early resorters merely for their wealth. If the "short-term" summer visitors could afford to stay longer, I'm sure they too, in time, would construct pleasant paternalistic "fantasy wonderland imaginations" about the area. The money would enable the fantastic genteel worldview. That's what made Jay Gatsby such a romantic. That's what Nick heard in Daisy's voice: money.

The problem is, many of the short term summer tourists and long time summer resorters are now settling out in the area. Ozegovic rightly points out the adverse effects which lifestyle migrants have on a local community, especially now that we live in an increasingly mobile and "connected" world:
They search for smaller communities where schools are safer for their children, the life-style less frantic, where there is a cleaner and more beautiful environment, or all of the above... The newcomers, while claiming to search for a more tranquil life, can actually transport with them the aggressive and arrogant actions they claim to be retreating from... With the advantage of great wealth, they can also inflate local real estate values, creating pricey homes which the native resident can not afford.
Of course, all of this is true, and Ozegovic is hardly the first one to point it out, but what he does best in the book is to depict a looser, friendlier lifestyle which existed, at least for him, when he first came to the area. Ozegovic sees a pattern in things -- a generic closing in of freedoms, academic and otherwise, which results in part from loss of community. Much of the book consists of recountings of booze-ups and beach parties, along with depictions of fellow artistically inclined migrants to the area. There is a sense of free wheeling bonhomie in each chapter. What emerges is a feeling -- but not a precise feeling. This is largely due to Ozegovic's decision to invent names for everyone and everything. For example, Traverse City is Chippewa Harbor, Leelanau County is Benedict County, Northwestern Michigan College is Tamarack College, Bernie Rink is Ernie Bickel, Sleder's Tavern is Sladek's Tavern, etc, etc, etc. Perhaps Ozegovic wanted to protect himself against libel, or perhaps create some sort of mythological timeless place. I don't know. But the overall effect is like being enclosed in Tupperware. Names and dates are omitted and fogginess ensues. It seems coy and arbitrary, especially when references to Petoskey stones occur (why not change it to Parquet stones?) and a photograph of Sleder's Tavern is included with the name "Sleder" (not Sladek) clearly visible on the building. I must say, I just don't get it, but perhaps it's part of the charm for those who deserve a mention in the book.

The many drinking buddies and colleagues who are depicted in the book include a large assortment of fellow staff at the college. What a colorful group. In those halcyon "good old days" of what we then termed "junior colleges" there were indeed many characters who inspired students through their individuality. There was freedom then, and administrators and bean counters had not yet effected their stranglehold on the workings of education. But in my experience there were also plenty of rogues and charlatans and "big frogs in small ponds" who liked to impress young students with their erudition. Ozegovic is successful in capturing the family feeling which used to exist at "Tamarack College" and resentful, ultimately, that the college has eliminated the larger than life characters from its ranks.

Having attended a community college in my youth, and being a part time instructor at one now, I can sympathize with Ozegovic's view, but still maintain that the general level of instruction has improved. There is a workaday atmosphere in the writing lab now, and at least an attempt at focus, and accountability. Many old timers lament this new utilitarian focus, but the quality of instruction has indeed increased, on the whole, even as the quality of the students has decreased. It is still possible for a college instructor at a local college to "play possum" with his job, but at least he has to appear efficient, and this effort is usually enough to eliminate some of the big blowhards who would pass for teachers. Unfortunately, as a by product of this purge, the genuinely hard working, compassionate, but quirky individual tends to feel unwanted and undervalued. The seemingly logical conclusion would be that nowadays the philistines are running the asylum. Actually the philistines were always running the asylum. It's just that they got much better at it.

Ultimately, then, Northern Spirits Distilled is heartwarming but not heartening. It is not a hopeful book. The world Ozegovic describes had a tolerance for bohemian excess which our politically correct sensibilities have sought to eradicate. Part of this backlash occurred when the sixties waned and our latent Puritanism kicked in again. But in our own area the loss of community due to development and growth has dealt a double blow to the good life we used to enjoy. We will always look back to the halcyon days of our youthful excesses with fond memories. The problem is, as Ozegovic rightly shows us, the opportunities for youthful merriment in "Chippewa Harbor" have been even more severely reduced due to environmental degradation, overcrowding, and rampant commercialism. I am afraid I have to agree with him.


Copyright 2000 Manitou Publishing Co. & Mark Smith • All Rights Reserved.

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