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Sunday December 21, 2014
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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

HELEN HILL RETIRES, AGAIN, by John Knott

Helen Hill, retired English profession at EMU and memoir writing instruction at OLLI, Ann Arbor, MI

Helen Hill is retiring again, this time at the age of 99. At 2:30 p.m. on December 4, 2014, present and former students will gather at the Turner Senior Resource Center to celebrate her 20 years of teaching memoir writing for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Michigan. With toasts and presentations they will express their respect and affection for Helen and their appreciation of her role in encouraging and guiding their writing and nurturing a supportive community of writers. Many have remained with the group for years as it has continued to evolve with the addition of new members.

Helen's involvement with OLLI began almost by accident when her friend Jim Robertson persuaded her in 1993 to help him meet the demand for courses in memoir writing. She discovered that this was exactly what she wanted to do and has repeated her course in Memoirs and Personal Writing twice a year ever since. In 2001 she and members of the course published a collection of their writing as The Man Who Eats Snakes and Other Tales. One long-term member who contributed to the book, Donald Axon, suggests why the course has been so successful: "[Helen] enveloped us in an atmosphere of curiosity where judgments were suspended or reserved. We described and discussed incidents that had made living rich, exciting or amusing and others that had troubled us. There was no opprobrium in her class. Light and heavy both went over well, and as listeners we had time to say, 'Something like that happened to me…' and tell about it."

Helen retired for the first time in 1984 after teaching Children's Literature and Writing for 21 years at Eastern Michigan University, where she became Professor of English and co-edited several anthologies of poetry for children and young adults. In retirement Helen continued to research and edit the extensive journals of her seagoing grandfather, Captain Edward Baker of Duxbury, Massachusetts. A book combining excerpts from the journals with her own narrative, A Proud & Fiery Spirit, was published by the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society in 1995. Working with other parents of mentally ill children, Helen and her late husband Donald founded the Washtenaw County chapter of the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill and led the effort to establish Trailblazers, a clubhouse in Ann Arbor for the mentally ill. Due in large part to the efforts of the Hills, the state of Michigan in 1990 passed legislation requiring all of its mental health agencies to have clubhouse programs.

In mid-December Helen will move to San Diego to join her daughter Rebecca, after living in Ann Arbor since 1948. In January, OLLI member Eleanor Linn will assume responsibility for the memoir writing course Helen created, continuing to foster an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect in which those of any age can find their voices as writers.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Michigan offers the opportunity to remain active, intellectually engaged, and socially connected throughout midlife and beyond. Drawing on the resources of the university and area communities, OLLI offers its 1300 plus members more than 180 volunteer-led, high quality education, cultural, and social activities each year. OLLI at the University of Michigan also provides meaningful opportunities to volunteer in roles ranging from study group leaders to program planners. Under sponsorship from the Geriatrics Center at the University of Michigan Health System, and with funding from the Bernard Osher Foundation, OLLI at the University of Michigan is open to anyone over the age of 50.


posted by John Hilton at 10:38 a.m. | 0 comments


Monday, November 10, 2014

2014: SPACE ODDITY, by Tomas David

poster for the movie Intersteller

Earth to Christopher Nolan: "There's no crying in outer space!"

Roger that. Houston would have a real problem with the British director's latest magnum opus, Interstellar, which shoots high to put the science--and big ideas--back into the science-fiction movie.

Unpleasantly earthbound after his Oscar-earning turn in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey dimly stars as an astronaut given the lofty mission of saving humanity from imminent doom. Yes, In a World ... choked by killer sandstorms and dying agriculture, humanity has no hope but to seek out another home in the cosmos. As a corn farmer and former space pilot, McConaughey's Cooper fatefully lands in the driver's seat, prodded on by his feisty young daughter (Mackenzie Foy).

The helmsman behind a galaxy of pop-corn blockbusters including Inception and the Christian Bale Batman reboots, Nolan and co-writer and brother Christopher Nolan launch their multi-stage, multi-hour vehicle designed to reach the rarefied atmosphere of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and other sci-fi classics. The dramatic payload is heavy, often crushing, and the payoff will leave many gasping for air, and not in a good, Space Mountain way. You might say that Interstellar is the anti-Gravity, if it didn't implode soon after lift-off.

Sketchily post-apocalyptic, Nolan's star-crossed epic theorizes that the truth is out there--or at least a new Earth potentially is on the far side of a mysterious wormhole spinning off Saturn. A brain trust of stealthy NASA scientists drafts Cooper for the mission, along with a small crew that includes a young scientist (the anti-Sally Ride, Anne Hathaway) who's the daughter of the project's weary mission controller (a weary Michael Caine).

A weightless hero, McConaughey delivers his lines in a mumbled, over-naturalistic monotone that's the wrong stuff in a spacey movie that comes equipped with the pace of suspended animation. Nolan overloads the script with so many clunky scientific terms ("singularity," "time-shift," ad infinitum.) that they might even make Stephen Hawking's head spin. When Nolan needs a melodramatic booster, he has his actors jettison Kubrickian coolness and lurch into hyper-crying, including Hathaway, the Les Miz Oscar winner who's miserably cast in a retro female role beamed back from 1950s B-grade sci-fi. Where have you gone, Sigourney Weaver?

For all its modern trappings, yawning length and astronomical pretensions, Interstellar is a dismal, fizzling blast from the past--George Pal's When Worlds Collide bogged down with cornball philosophy and an extra hour of unfunny outtakes and overwrought suspense. Rather than 2001, Nolan should have explored the grim fate of Disney's 1979 The Black Hole, which charted nebulously similar territory and quickly vanished into box-office hell.


posted by John Hilton at 5:07 p.m. | 0 comments


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

LEO KOTTKE: ARCHITECTURAL SOUNDSCAPES, by Ray Chalmers

musician Leo Kotke

Informally surveying the line of patient Ark concert-goers in a drizzling October night revealed a number of experienced Leo Kottke viewers. Some were there for the stories, some were there for the singing, but it was beyond a given that all were there for the playing.

Taking the stage with six- and 12-string guitars in hand, Kottke acknowledged his introduction of his regular stop at Ann Arbor's intimate 400-seat listening room with a rueful grin and a muttered "Too close." Launching into the delicate "Ojo", Kottke stopped with a grimace 30 seconds in, saying "That's what I get for making eye contact. Over there."

Hiccups such as these at a Leo Kottke concert are not so much mistakes as more splashes of color on a sound canvas unique at each listening. At 69, Kottke's comfort on stage and comfort in his own skin is as much a presence as his musicianship. Duane Allman's "Little Martha" sang with a sweet innocence from veteran hands, while the dense 12-string "The Driving of the Year Nail" from his Takoma Records debut in 1969 was followed by a declarative "I was a whole other head back then."

Interlaced with stories about everything from best friends drinking their way into their third nursing home to Doc Watson's theory of guitar tuning, Kottke's songs, instrumental and sung, are short stories in themselves, stories read by a respectful crowd that turned each page with anticipation. Indeed, Kotke's soundscapes approach the architectural -- an as-yet unrecorded song from Kottke's new head conjures a vision of sitting in an underground bodega with a very attractive barmaid inquiring how you like the rioja; while a Bert Kaempfert instrumental was as clean '60s cool as a Mad Men cocktail party.

Chekhov famously advised: "Don't tell me the moon is shining: show me the glint of light on broken glass." A Leo Kottke ticket is a guided tour over a much-loved landscape with a tour guide you trust, who then slaps you a hard left and takes you someplace new.


posted by John Hilton at 12:45 p.m. | 0 comments


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

BRING BACK OUR GIRLS, by Fatimah Oumar Ribier

photo of rally in Detroit supporting girls kidnapped in Nigeria, May, 2014

I am 42 and was born in Madagascar. Since 2008, my family and I live in Ann Arbor.

Last Saturday May 10th, I joined the rally for a community awareness and prayers to help bring home the 200+ girls that were abducted from their boarding schools in Northeastern Nigeria.

It was a beautiful crowd that stood up and gathered together. Once home, I wrote this poem that I want to share with our community.

Bring Back Our Girls

There are many women in me

And today, they are crying.

But their tears are not of despair

Their tears are rage, indignation, sadness and compassion.

I cried, but I also prayed.

God help us.

We failed....

The heart of the grandmother cries

My little girls don't come to dance around me anymore;

My little girls are not here for their favorite bedtime stories.

The heart of the mom cries,

My girls have disappeared

My womb is bleeding while remembering these 9 months

9 months creating this unique relationship , blessed by the Creator .

The heart of the sister cries

My confidant, my best friend is no longer here to play

She is not here to make me laugh, and share my dreams.

I am the friend who runs lonely because the others had disappeared from the playground.

I am the woman who cries

For our daughters away from home.

I cry.

For mothers and fathers and families who suffer from their absence.

I am suffering.

I am the Human crying

Afflicted by the society that still today, in the 21st century, continues to create men capable of the worst.

We failed.

Our society keeps creating monsters.

Men who forget that they come from the womb of a woman

Men who forget that women fed them, took care of them, comfort them when they cried or were hurt.

Men who have mothers who sang for them, cared for them, love them.

Men who today are kidnapping, raping, beating, harassing insulting, destroying the life of girls and women everywhere in the world.

Our society is not learning from her History

Our society is missing Unity

Our society is ruled by jungle laws

Ignorance, confusion, and violence.

The dark side is so deep that some men dive into it with passion and faith.

But today in Detroit

My tears were also joy

Today my community embrace Unity

Brothers and sister were shining

Together as One,

I am happy and proud

Our society is also able to bring out the best in US.

Today we stood up,

Today we spoke loud and used our words

Today we said No more.

Today we were the mountain

Rising in the sky.


posted by John Hilton at 2:34 p.m. | 0 comments


Saturday, March 1, 2014

THE INTERESTINGS, by Eve Silberman

Cover of The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

In her new novel The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer dances between two time-tested tropes. It's a tale of artistically ambitious young people who will have to reshuffle their career cards in adulthood. It's also a study of what happens to a group of close friends when some are visited by great wealth and fame.

It all begins in the summer of 1974. Six teenagers at the artsy camp Spirit In the Woods express mild contempt for president Richard Nixon, then departing the White House in disgrace, but spend most of their time preening: "We could be called the Unbelievably Interestings Ones," says Ethan Figman, talented animator. Beautiful Ashley--known as Ash--suggests just "The Interestings." Plain, less-talented suburbanite Julie Jacobson, who can't believe her good fortune to be accepted into this group of New York sophisticates, is delighted to be renamed "Jules."

Most members of the group will remain friends for the next four decades, but its tightness cracks early on when would be-dancer Cathy accuses Ash's brother Goodman (really) of rape. He flees to Iceland, only to reemerge decades later--at still-functioning Spirit-in-the-Woods.

This ugly drama is peripheral to the long, complicated friendship between Jules, who, failing to land work as a comic actress, becomes a not very effective therapist, and Ash and Ethan, who marry each other, though Ethan has buried feelings for Jules. Thanks to his animated TV series, "Figland," Ethan becomes an international success, both famous and wealthy. In one of the book's most telling scenes, Jules sends her husband to pick up a magazine that lists the 100 most powerful people in media. Ethan just barely makes the list, at number 98, but that's small comfort to Jules, who loves and resents the Ash-and-Ethan team in equal measure. "They act like they're in the same world we are," she complains to her husband, "but they're not." Despite, or maybe because of her resentment, Jules is the best-developed and most appealing character in the book.

Wolitzer is a smart, perceptive writer, and the book is a good read, but it's got a couple of annoying lapses of plausibility, especially in its portrayal of filthy rich Ethan. At one point, he has to beg Jules to accept a $100,000 check so she can move her family out of their crummy walk-up. (I guess there might be people so noble.) Then there's the occasion when Ethan visits a factory in Indonesia that manufactures "Figland" T-shirts and other products tied in with his cartoon show. He is shocked--shocked--to find kids working in the factory. Ashamed, he makes a phone call or two, and presto, some of the work done there is transferred to "struggling factories in upstate New York," where presumably, kids aren't exploited.

Garment factories moving from Indonesia to New York? That's a headline I'd expect to see in the Onion.


posted by John Hilton at 3:23 p.m. | 1 comment


Sunday, February 9, 2014

BLUE FRONT MEMORIES, by Mike Gould

Ann Arbor Observer cover of the Blue Front by Ann Goetz, December 1991

Back in the early sixties, the Blue Front Cigar Store was my home away from home.

Our Saturday morning ritual was to load us kids into the family station wagon and "Let's go trade in bottles at the Blue Front!" After a short drive down Hill St., we unloaded a week's worth of pop bottles into the little area next to the door, and went deeper into the store to spend deposit money (and allowances) on comic books and candy.

Growing up in that era, I also spent a lot of time biking to the store to peruse their fairly large selection of science fiction paperbacks. After becoming a familiar face in the place, I was finally able to score my very first summer job there in 1965, working as stock boy, janitor, and occasional cashier. I think I made around $1.75 an hour or so.

My duties were to haul in the morning news papers, unclip the heavy wires bundling them together, and set them out in their places to the right of the door. In those days, the store was one of the few places selling the New York Times, and we got a lot of early morning traffic due to that. I also remember that the NY Times was delivered out front very early Sunday morning, and early-rising readers desperate for their fix would dig the papers out of their bundles and leave money on top, or scattered around on the ground.

The Daily Racing Form was also popular; I vaguely recall it was printed on pink or green paper or something, and we sold five or ten of these every day.

We were also one of the few places in town where you could get out-of-town papers, and we stocked several international magazines: Der Zeit, La Monde, USSR Magazine, and the like. Even some Chinese propaganda magazines, which I found fascinating as I had just studied their revolution in High School.

My boss was Ray Collins, and he was a crusty little guy, who in later years made me think of Danny DeVito. There was also an older lady who worked the cash register and spent most of her time chain-smoking and reading the German magazines.

Back to my routine: after setting out the new papers and moving the older issues to the back of the stacks for eventual culling, I would straighten out the comic book section and clean up the candy area, re-filling boxes of bars and gum as needed. Then I got the interesting duty of tidying up the porn area.

Back in that day, the Blue Front was one of the few places in town where you could get that era's soft porn magazines such as "Stag", "Spy" and "Real Balls". I may have made that last one up, but you get the gist. We even had gay mags involving beefy guys dressed as sailors and such. Not much for the ladies, as I recall. Anyway, it was my job to straighten up these gems and then get out of the way for the crowds bustling in and out to browse and buy.

Continuing on to the back of the store, we had racks and racks of paperback books of all genres and descriptions. Big sellers I remember from back then were "Cybernetics", "Valley of the Dolls", and the various joke/cartoon books put out by Price Stern and Sloan: "Elephant Jokes", "MadLibs", and the various "Happiness is Dry Martini" parodies. These last were kept up at the register and sold pretty well.

Porn paperbacks were also available, and I have vivid memories of a local pervert claiming he had forgotten his glasses and could I read a chapter of "Leather Lads" to him. I declined.

I did all the processing of pop bottles, hauling them down the back stairs for storage until the monthly deliveries brought in new stock, and the empties went back up the stairs to the truck.

The place was a pit. There was dust and cobwebs everywhere, and my boss never had me do any cleaning. Finally, I got fed up and brought in a vacuum cleaner from home and had at it for a couple of days while home from my first year of college on Christmas break. Ray begrudgingly let me do this and grumpily acknowledged its effect. He had a theory that people were attracted to this level of funkiness, part of the "charm" of the place. He did have me wash the windows occasionally and put newer books on display out there for passersby to admire.

Most of my afternoon time was spent sitting on a crushed cardboard box of old magazines at the back of the store, reading through the pulp paperbacks. Shell Scott books were a favorite. When a customer wanted a particular book, Ray would ding the little bell he had and I would come trotting out to find what was needed. It was summer and there was no air conditioning. It got very hot in there.

I was also called in to run the cash register from time to time. I remember selling condoms to a local car mechanic, which was awkward to my teenage sensibilities.

Much later, in the eighties, I wrote a song about this for my band, Mike Gould and the Gene Pool Band. This was a pastiche of the tune Born in Chicago. My song was called Born in Ann Arbor, and the relevant verse goes:

My first job went down

At the Blue Front Cigar Store...

Selling gum and porn and papers,

Wash the windows, sweep the floor.

We should also remember the fine jump blues band, the Blue Front Persuaders, that was active around the time I was running my band. As I recall band leader Steve Wethy described the name as a combination of the funkiness of the store and the slang term for a honking big wrench. Great band.

All in all, a pretty good first shot at the job scene for high schooler. Good times. I'll miss it.


posted by John Hilton at 11:59 a.m. | 0 comments


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

BUMPED FOR JUDY COLLINS, by Bert Stratton

Bert Stratton, leader of YIddishe Cup klezmer band

Last year at The Ark, my klezmer show got bumped for Judy Collins. She took our slot.

Ann Arbor's ukulele-master Gerald Ross, who was a sideman emailed me then: "I saw The Ark schedule. I don't think we're playing Feb. 9 [2013], because you're not Judy Collins."

I had a lock on that date! I emailed The Ark. The Ark said how about another date? I suggested a couple more Saturday nights. The Ark said how about a Friday night.

I don't play Friday nights if I can help it. I like to stay home for Friday nights - the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat). Sometimes my Shabbats are just a couple hours, but they're always on Friday night! I once heard a Reform rabbi say, "Say a prayer over your pizza if you're out with your kids on Friday night." I'm all for that. I "hold" by that. ("Hold" is a Jewish verb for "I follow that custom.")

I reluctantly took the Friday night slot last year, but didn't put "Friday" in my publicity.

I got up to Ann Arbor on Friday afternoon and met up with an old college friend, Charlie Burch. He had just donated his 196070s political buttons (No!/Nein/Nyet/Non/Lo, March on Washington, Go Michigan Beat Thailand) to an archive in the Graduate Library. I wondered who still used the library. The answer: Charlie.

He pointed out where various buildings don't exist anymore. Like Centicore Books, Borders Books, Orange Julius and Miller's Ice Cream.

I like touring Ann Arbor. It's the only place I've lived other than Cleveland. I graduated U-M in 1973.

I said a private Shabbat prayer in a Mexican restaurant, Sabor Latino, before my gig. I opened the gig with "Shalom Aleykhem," a well-known Friday night song, and I wished the Jews at The Ark a "Shabbat shalom."

I had a good one - a good Shabbat. But playing publicly on Friday night is not optimal for me.

Yiddishe Cup is playing on a Saturday this year Feb. 8 [2014]. Praise the Lord!


posted by John Hilton at 5:58 p.m. | 0 comments


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