Everyone's a Critic
The Observer's culture blogTuesday, February 13, 2018
SNOWBOUND LANGUAGE, by Stephen Hiltner
"Isn't it snice?" asked the snaughter, looking out the window at the latest principitation. "Looks like snizzle to me," answered her snaddy with a frown. His snack was still snurting from snoveling the sniveway the snay before.
As they gazed out over the snooftops of their beloved snown, the sunlight danced on the snazzeleen snowscape, all snapples and snazeycakes after sneeks and sneeks of snow.
Snay after snay, Snaddy had snoveled the snidewalk so the sneighbors could sneeze through with their stroller. First had come the snuff, which was pretty enough, but soon followed the snizzle, the snain, and the dreaded snice. The snaughters had been snappy not to have snhool, but as the snours turned to snays, and the snays to sneeks, and the snow rose towards the snooftops, they grew sneary of being snowbound.
"I can't snake it any snore!," said the snife, sneepless after another snight of her snusband's snoring. She had snuffered the snings and snarrows of outrageous snortune one snight too many. "I'm snorry, Snowcakes," offered the snusband sneepishly.
All power in the sneighborhood had been snost. "Snead as a snoornail," declared Snaddy when his snellphone finally snied. "Maybe we could snask the sneighbors to call," said a snaughter. "But we don't even snow their snames," answered Snaddy, snooking out at the snarkening sky.
"I better take the snog for a slog before we get any more snow," said Snaddy, climbing out the second floor window, snog in snand. The snog, too, was losing touch with other sneighborhood snogs, as each snay's p-mails became buried under new-fallen snow. Snavigating the snarrow, snow-lined snidewalk, the snog sniffed disappointedly, then snarled at a snogger snotting by.
Seeing the sneighbors approaching, Snaddy hastened to cross the sneet, snarrowly snissing being snit by a snar. "Snow down!", he snouted at the sniver. Just the other snay, the snog had snarked suddenly at the sneighbors, snaring the snickens out of the sniny snot in the stroller.
The trees had long since become snees, and snice had turned many a weak-trunked snee into a snoodle. "Once a snoodle, always a snoodle," worried Snaddy, snooking at a birch snee arched completely over in front of a snouse. Dodging the snool snipping from the snees, Snaddy wondered how he had ever become the designated snog-slogger.
Finally they returned snome, the snog's fur filthy from the snirty snow lining the sneets. That evening, as they snat down to sneat some leftover snoup, sneary beyond snords, Snaddy wondered if he'd ever snortle again.
"Is it possible to be blinded by the snight if it's snight-time?" asked one snaughter, confused by the new snowbound language. "Why are we snalking like this?" asked the other. "I don't snow," answered Snaddy, "but it has something to do with snimate snange. Just snink good snoughts, and snope it snoon will be snover."
posted by John Hilton at 1:04 p.m. | 0 comments
Thursday, February 1, 2018
LAUGHING MATTERS, by David Swain
In the early 1990s, when I was in my late 30s, I lived in Huntington Woods, a small suburb of Detroit near Royal Oak. I had lived in many parts of Detroit over the past dozen or so years (near the Algiers Motel just north of the New Center, by Harpo's on the east side, on Grand Circus Park next to where Comerica Park is now, and in the Grandmont #1 subdivision near Rosedale Park on the northwest side of the city), and I would soon move back to the Ann Arbor area. In addition to living by where I-696 was being built and by the City of Detroit’s Rackham Golf Course (where Joe Louis and many of the Motown artists had played), I was close enough to the Detroit Zoo that I could hear some of the animals (mostly seals) from my front yard.
For one year, I got an annual pass to the zoo which entitled me to free admission. I was a regular there during the quiet winter months. Attendance was sparse, compared to the summer months. When there are thousands of visitors at the zoo, most of the animals pretty much tune them out. When there are only a handful of people coming by during the day, the humans seem more interesting than they would be otherwise (one factor could be that with fewer homo sapiens present, the odds are better that one of them just might be the Bearer of Food). The cold weather also made some animals more active during the day. The arctic foxes were always capering about, looking like extra fierce pomeranians. Near the foxes were the hyenas, who always seemed to appreciate my visits.
I had a rather ratty (and smelly) green winter coat that I always wore and during those cold, quiet, and deserted months at the zoo, the hyenas and I developed a little game of hide and seek. I would try to sneak up on their enclosure, hiding behind benches and trash cans. But whether by sight, sound, or smell, my playmates were always able to sense my approach.
By early spring, more people were going to the zoo. There was a field trip of grade-school kids around the hyena enclosure, boisterously trying in vain to attract the animals' attention. When the Detroit Zoo was built in the 1920s, it was one of the first zoos to experiment with enclosures that didn’t have bars. The hyenas were in an area that was separated from the paying public by a moat and a low wall.
The hyenas were a study of boredom and nonchalance in the face of the children’s best efforts. That changed instantly when the hyenas got wind of their old playmate (me) wearing his trademark jacket. The hyenas went to battle stations, hunkering down and backing up with tiny steps as though they were preparing to leap. The hyenas were not the only ones whose affect underwent a sudden and profound transformation. There was panic and mass hysteria from the little children, who didn’t understand why the rules had changed so suddenly (and not in their favor). No one got hurt, and the young people were given the opportunity to learn an important lesson: Be careful what you wish for.
posted by John Hilton at 1:39 p.m. | 2 comments
Friday, October 27, 2017
REPRINT: ANN ARBORITE JOAN BLOS, by Eve Silberman
Joan Blos died on October 12, 2017. This profile originally appeared in the December, 1994 issue of the Ann Arbor Observer.
Author Joan BIos
Bucking the horror-story trend to produce thoughtful stories for children
"I don't expect books I write to be best-sellers, says Joan Blos matter-of-factly. A small, sixty-six-year- old woman with a curly mop of silver- dusted brown hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a perpetually thoughtful expression, BIos (rhymes with dose) is sipping tea at Zingerman's Next Door. Three of her fourteen books are spread on the table: the picture book The Heroine of the Titanic and two books for older children: A Gathering of Days and Brothers of the Heart.
BIos is hardly unknown: in 1980, A Gathering of Days won the John Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in American children's literature. The imagined diary of a young girl, it's currently in its eighteenth printing and has sold 350,000 copies to date. "I think they're in the process of making [A Gathering of Days] into an American classic," BIos admits.
But although she appreciates the stature the award gave her in the world of children's literature, she's a bit wistful that Gathering has overshadowed her other children's books. And sales of all of her books together are dwarfed by the hot new genre in kids' literature: horror paperbacks with titles like Say Cheese and Die and Monster Blood. A single scary series, Goosebumps, sells an incredible 1.2 million copies a month.
The idea of marketing horror books to kids is hotly disputed. With some warmth, BIos questions whether the publishing houses "are entertaining the children or exploiting them. I don't think those books are responsible for all the violence we see," she says. But she adds, "I can't help but wonder if it doesn't play into the [problem] simply by making these acts thinkable."
BIos's books are the exact opposite of the horror books: they're restrained, subtle explorations of the joys and sorrows of the human condition. A Gathering of Days is subtitled A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-32. It's the first-person story of thirteen-year-old Catherine Hall, who assists a fugitive slave, acquires a stepmother, and experiences the death of her best friend.
BIos has published two other books of historical fiction: Brothers of the Heart, a coming-of-age tale set in the Michigan wilderness of the late 1830's, and Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme, a collection of linked short stories about a sixth-grader growing up in Brooklyn before World War I. BIos's other books are picture books for young children - her particular passion, she explains, because of their "spareness and their theatrical nature."
What connects her picture books to her historical fiction for older children, BIos believes, "is my own feeling about life and the ways it is important to relate to other people." In The Heroine of the Titanic, BIos retells the true story of the legendary Molly Brown, the Denver socialite who helped save a lifeboat of survivors after the Titanic disaster.
"Molly Brown was different, eccentric," says BIos in her measured but emphatic manner. "She survived because she could help others to survive. [The Heroine of the Titanic] expresses the value of being concerned for other people."
Writing about children in contemporary times has never excited BIos. She's not sure why, although one answer may be her fascination with sniffing out, like a historian, the day-to-day experiences of another era. "It really feels as if I'm uncovering, not inventing, a story," she says, adding that she thrives on the hours she spends in the Bentley and other libraries poring over maps, diaries, and other old documents. Historical fiction is not as popular with children (or publishers) as are books with contemporary settings, BIos acknowledges. But, she says, "I don't think I can write differently than I do."
Blos was fifty-one when she published A Gathering of Days, her first book for youngsters old enough to read. Earlier in her career, however, she worked either with children or books for children, and she possesses extraordinarily vivid memories of her own childhood. In an essay for the Something About the Author Autobiography Series, she recalls going to the library at age four and watching the librarian stamp books "with a special pencil with a little outrigged stamp." In vivid detail, she goes on to describe her happy times at her progressive elementary school in New York City (City and Country School), where beyond the rigorous academics both boys and girls learned woodworking, cooking, and other practical skills.
BIos was the only child of a child psychiatrist and an educator, and her subsequent careers reflected their interests. She majored in physiology at Vassar College. After graduation, she worked as a class- room assistant in a special nursery school for disturbed children. Subsequently, she studied for a master's degree in psychology at New York's City College. She detoured at Yale to study child psychology, and there she met and married her husband, medical student Peter BIos Jr. Later, she returned to City College to get her master's; her thesis studied how children's responses to stories might be predicted.
Bios worked for several years in the publications division of New York's Bank Street College of Education, where she helped develop a pioneering reading series for inner-city children. In 1970, she moved with her family to Ann Arbor, where for several years she taught children's literature at the U-M School of Education. Then, in the late 1970's, came A Gathering of Days, inspired by family visits to her in-laws' old farmhouse in New Hampshire. Apart from teaching an occasional class or a workshop. she has spent her time since then writing for children.
As she gets older, BIos acknowledges, she has less patience for stereotypes about children's authors ("the little old lady image! Nah!") and children's books. She is further exasperated by people who assume that "we would rather be writing for adults."
The New Yorker in BIos enjoys living in downtown Ann Arbor and walking rather than driving. A member of the Downtown Development Authority's citizens' advisory council, she's passionate about efforts to get people living and shopping downtown. She wants to see more loft-style apartments filling up over storefronts. She also wants to see people living in the old Ann Arbor Inn - but she wants any plans to be shaped carefully and with great consideration for its inhabitants. "I don't want it to be just affordable," she says, "but enjoyable."
BIos gets back to New York City frequently for meetings with editors and visits with her daughter, a teacher. Her other child, a son, died of cancer several years ago at age thirty. BIos is private on the subject, but she wrote, in Something About the Author, "You do not get over such sadness, I have found, but you do get used to it."
BIos has recently experienced the joy of reading Old Henry to her two-year-old grandson; playfully, she reads it to him backward. She frequently reads to kids in schools, frontwards. Although she brings her Newbery Medal to schools when asked, BIos puts the emphasis on her books, not her prize. "There's really nothing you can do with a medal," she tells her young audiences, "except show it to people."
posted by John Hilton at 6:22 p.m. | 0 comments
Friday, September 22, 2017
A FAMILY STORY IN THE DIGITIZED MICHIGAN DAILY, by Tim Athan
The Michigan Daily was founded in 1890 as a voice for U-M students. Recently it was announced that its 125 years have been digitized. That means researchers can quickly search over 200,000 pages of information written for students living in Ann Arbor.
My father, Richard Athan, was a star fullback at Northwestern in 1950. A search immediately found this summary from a Big 10 game:
NU SINKS NAVY (October 8, 1950)
Baltimore. Navy was torpedoed by the smashing of Rich Athan and bombarded by Dick Flowers' passing in a 22-0 shellacking dealt out by Northwestern before 22,000 spectators yesterday…
Athan ripped through for two touchdowns after teaming with Dick Alban to tear the Navy line apart…
The busy and tireless Athan took the ball 25 times through Navy's line to gain 140 yards...
I sent an email to my 87-year-old father with this information, and soon he had found in a Daily a 67-year-old picture of his young self literally leaping over a fallen player on his way to major yardage against Michigan.
This digitization provides a treasure trove to researchers. It provided me with a glimpse into my family's past, and maybe you will find local history of interest to you.
posted by John Hilton at 5:22 p.m. | 0 comments
Friday, August 4, 2017
DEET DEETLE DEET, by Gene Gaunt
I'm at choir rehearsal. A “Brünhilde” soprano asks me, can I arrange piano accompaniment for her next concert? An unpublished John Denver tune? With three chords? C (deet deetle deet), F (deet deetle deet), G (deet deetle deet). I nod dismissively. “Outback Steakhouse gift card,” I say.
I retire to my studio. I play the John Denver video. I hear C (deet deetle deet), F (deet deetle deet), G (deet deetle deet). Shaky hands drift over my piano keyboard. What to do with C (deet deetle deet), F (deet deetle deet), G (deet deetle deet)? I launch MuseScore on my computer. I notate all the effing deet deetle deets onto a piano grand staff.
And then I worry the monotony of deet deetle deets will bore the audience.
I decide to improve on (cough) John Denver’s song. I improve on the C (deet deetle deet), on the F (deet deetle deet), and the G (deet deetle deet). I add tri-tone substitutions. Inversions. Split thirds. Parallel fourths. Seven-note chords. Diminished ninths. Dilapidated tenths. Augmented elevenths. Pregnant thirteenths. Rock me, Ludwig Van! This will win me a Grammy. I email my arrangement to Brünhilde.
She replies, she doesn’t know the right way to ask this, but, is there any way I can make it less chord-y and more note-y?
Brünhilde needs man-splaining. Like the philanthropic denouement of a dystopian Stanley Kubrick film, my computer speaks to me in a pleasant colonial British female voice: “Email failure.” I fall asleep. I dream of chord-y cyborgs battling note-y cyborgs on the plains of Armageddon. I awaken. I listen afresh to John Denver’s song. C (deet deetle deet). F (deet deetle deet). G (deet deetle deet). I meditate. I ask the prophets, “What perspective does Brünhilde bring to this song?” And the prophets answer me.
This is a bit of a stretch for me. Understand, I come from the piano player’s tradition. Pianists don’t breathe. But Brünhilde comes from the BREATHER tradition, where “All Breaths Matter.” Breath shapes lyric. Lyric shapes rhyme. Rhyme makes sense. Sense makes money. And I like capitalism.
Once again I listen to John Denver’s video. C (deet deetle deet). F (deet deetle deet). G (deet deetle deet). This time I listen for breath. For lyric. For rhyme. For sense. This time, John Denver’s lyrics begin to touch my heart. I get it now. The song is a lullaby for the Earth. The song is beautiful. Tears come. We’re all in this together. We are stewards. The Earth is all we have. Handle with care. Handle with tender, loving, precious, great care. Handle like a lullaby. Handle like . . . Handle like . . .
Handle like C (deet deetle deet). F (deet deetle deet). G (deet deetle deet).
Not like dilapidated thirteenths.
I re-open my MuseScore file. I delete all my brilliant dilapidated thirteenths and stuff. I re-notate John Denver’s song into: C (deet deetle deet). F (deet deetle deet). G (deet deetle deet). I email THIS version to Brünhilde with the comment, “You had good observations! I replaced the chunky piano chords with notes more like guitar strings.”
Brünhilde replies back. Thanks, she says. This is awesome.
I see Brünhilde again at the next choir rehearsal. She hands me a gift card to Outback Steakhouse. Smoothly, and graciously, I slip the card into my pants pocket, without looking at the dollar amount on the card. This is typical of my good manners.
Next day, I dine at Outback Steakhouse. Fine meal. Check comes. I unwrap my gift card. I look my gift horse in the mouth. And I see the gift card is worth a FRANKLIN.
Cool! Franklin’s my bro!
posted by John Hilton at 10:06 a.m. | 0 comments
Friday, July 14, 2017
GHOST STORY, by David Swain
John Cain played trumpet in my big band, the II-V-I Orchestra, for about 20 years. He died unexpectedly in 2015 of undiagnosed cancer. The cancer was making his heart beat irregular, and it was that symptom that was being treated, rather than the underlying cause.
John and his wife, Keely, first met at the band's regular weekly Sunday night gig at the Heidelberg during the 1990s. Keely was a waitress there, and one of her tasks at the end of the performance was to fold up the tablecloths that were still relatively clean, so they could be used again the next week. My parents were quite fond of both John and Keely, and as I sat with my folks at the end of the show one night, my mom and pop exchanged meaningful glances of approval as John stayed after to help Keely with her chores. One thing led to the next, and before too long, the band was playing at their wedding reception.
After John's death, Keely asked me to have the big band play at his memorial service. She asked us to play the song "Blackbird" by the Beatles at the end of the service, as it was the song that John would always sing to their daughter Sophie at bedtime.
Some Beatles' songs are harder to play than others, but Blackbird is as challenging as any of their tunes that get played in public. Like "Stairway to Heaven" and "Dust in the Wind", Blackbird gets worked on by aspiring guitarists far more often than it is actually performed. As an exercise or etude-type study it is fun to work on and pleasant to hear. But to fit all the parts together and get the intricate finger-picking patterns up to a speed that will fit the words is a daunting task.
The II-V-I Orchestra has been playing locally since the mid-1970s with an ever-changing lineup of musicians. As a result, we have an extensive "alumni association" of people who used to play in the band. I was extremely fortunate to be able to call upon the services of multi-instrumentalist Dave Roof (whose father was a CPA in the legendary firm Gross, Puckey, Gruel, and Roof!). Dave played trumpet in the band during the big swing fad of the 1990s. He went on to play in the Imperial Swing Orchestra, where he picked up the stand-up bass when the ISO lost their bass player. He was also in Dan Mulholland's popular combo, the Vibratrons; Dick Siegel's Brandos; the excellent 60s-English-rock band, the Invasion; and many others. He is also an accomplished producer and audio engineer at his combination vintage and high-tech studio at his home in Grand Blanc.
Dave's role at John's memorial service was to play trumpet in the big band before the service, and then, as the minister finished speaking, he was to immediately sing John's daughter Sophie's special song, accompanying himself on guitar.
The band's part went fine, and then the minister began to speak. The rest of the band spent much of the time engulfed in tears, but Dave had to stay focused on his upcoming obligations. When the time came, he launched into an exquisite version of the song John would sing at the end of the day for his daughter. It was an extraordinary display of grace under pressure.
Fast forward a couple of years. Keely hasn't gone out to hear live music since John died, but it is the last night for Top of the Park, so Keely and Sophie come out. I spot Keely and greet her.
After I get my crying somewhat under control, I realize that there are several other musicians in the crowd who played with John in other bands (Luddites, Jive Colossus, Naked Ace, etc.). I round them up and they tell Keely and Sophie how much they enjoyed playing with John, what a fine fellow he was, and how much they miss him.
Seeing all of us is a bit overwhelming for Keely, but the best part is yet to come. The headlining band is George Bedard and the Kingpins, but at this point, a rockabilly trio from Redford called Nobody's Business is playing.
Their bass player is none other than our hero, Dave Roof! After a gap of more two years, the last live music Keely heard had been from Dave Roof, and here he is again.
posted by John Hilton at 5:50 p.m. | 1 comment
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
JIM COGSWELL'S ARTS AND ANTIQUITIES, by Lois Kane
Many of the huge windows at the University Museum of Modern Art and the Kelsey Museum look like they've been attacked, top to bottom, by a child with a truckload of giant stickers.
That is sort of what happened. U-M art professor Jim Cogswell seems to have retained a child's ability for non-linear thinking, a teenager's delight in desecration, and an adult's profound intellect. Let loose with permission of the museums, he has spent the last five years creating a timeless epic with a quixotic logic based on objects ranging from the antiquities of the Kelsey through modern icons at the UMMA.
In June, Jim led 100 or so people on a tour of the windows, the objects on the other side of the windows, the stickers on the windows, the stories, and interpretations of the stories.
I've known Jim a while. I knew him as a kind, funny, imaginative, generous, person who made art. That day, it seemed as if the art made him. He is an awesome inspiring modern day Homer of the visual arts. He talks in riddles and rhymes, too, as he explains the reasoning, or suspension of reasoning, behind the thousands of separate images that merge in a gigantic whole.
Maybe this is a Greek goddess with a horse's head and wheels instead of feet; it's hard to be sure because it's upside down. This is a definitely a terrifying hurricane, and this is almost surely a Roman army having big troubles.
Many images reflect Jim's interest in how real objects, now and historically, get moved from place to place (theft is one of the reasons).
The walking lecture—literally a moving experience—ends ("begins, maybe", he says) at the west door of Kelsey which he says is his favorite spot in the afternoon with the sun shining so the decals shine like gold. Then he sends us on our way with his permission to, as he does, interpret all this in our own way. Like all oracles, he is handing out permission and encouragement to figure it out for and about our own creative selves. The sun is shining on him. He is radiant.
posted by John Hilton at 3:03 p.m. | 0 comments
Tuesday, April 4, 2017
MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, by Tim Athan
Some suspect that the slogan "Make America Great Again" is a wish for a return to a time when white men ruled America. Undermining this suspicion are reports that some of Donald Trump's votes came from people who had voted twice for Barack Obama.
A Midwest road trip finds many towns and cities that have seen greater times. The once-impressive homes on their main streets have gone too long without painting and repair. Ann Arbor is an exception; the city has thrived decade after decade, with an occasional stall. In contrast, Jackson's population peaked in 1930, with its current population about 60% of that peak.
Manchester's population peaked in 2000. Adrian's, and the Village of Clinton's, in 1990. The populations of Kalamazoo, Toledo, Plymouth, and Ypsilanti peaked in 1970. Flint's population peaked in 1960. Detroit's population peaked in 1950.
Older residents of these towns can recall a past in which they had much to be proud of. Their hometowns were humming. Tecumseh thought of itself as the "Refrigeration Capital of the World." Kalamazoo was known as "the Celery Capital of the World," and was once known for Checker Cab and Gibson guitars. Jackson Corset Company was the largest manufacturer of corsets in the country, and Jackson at one time was the home of 16 corset manufacturers.
A hundred years ago Adrian was known as "the Fence Capital of the World." Toledo is still referred to as "Glass City," though its glass production has been eclipsed by that of the southern Chinese city Shenzhen.
The decline in each of these towns is similar: business withered or moved away. Tecumseh Products, manufacturer of refrigerator compressors, moved its manufacturing to Mississippi in 2008 (and its headquarters to Ann Arbor). Checker Cab stopped production in 1983. BB gun maker Daisy Outdoor Products, founded in Plymouth, moved to Arkansas in 1958. La-z-Boy is still headquartered in Monroe, but with a much reduced workforce.
When businesses quit, personal incomes and public funds dropped. While in 2000 the per capita income for Ann Arbor was $26,419, it was $16,528 for Adrian and $15,230 for Jackson.
During the election season, Trump's "Make America Great Again" signs were a common sight in these declining towns.
posted by John Hilton at 3:05 p.m. | 3 comments
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