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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Friday, October 27, 2017


Author Joan Blos photographed by Peter Yates, 1994

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


Northwestern University fullback Rich Athan, 1950

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


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

Dave Roof (center) playing trumpet with the II-V-I Orchestra.

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


Collaged images by Jim Cogswell at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, July 2017.

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


Old home in Manchester, Michigan

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

Monday, January 9, 2017


Remember 2016 was hard. If you are a Hillary fan, a democracy fan, a fan of this country, a Wolverines fan, a Tigers fan, a Lions fan – just about everything you could root for lost. Defeat after defeat after defeat. But what about Christmas 2016? Well, that was hard, too. Some of it. Remember these things; notes to self:

Ask questions of your returning children early. You will think you have time, but the moment will have passed.

Have lots of food available.

Gas in the car.

Try not to take personally the crabby moods, the silence. You no longer know how to breach these things. They never let you anyway.

It's just the way it grew, the way it stayed. Will it be this way always? You don't know, so try not to dwell on it. The Christmas break will morph – the first few days to the next few days to days with their dad to days upon their return. It will feel like defeat. But it is not the same as Hillary or the Tigers. It is defeat and it isn't. Try to dwell on how it isn't. This is the way things are. Your sons are 18 and 20 years old. You are their mother. It's a big role, a starring role, but the character is required to sit upstage left in a straight-back chair and never say a word. It's kind of like that. It makes you sad, and that is a large part of Christmas, or was in 2016. We can blame so many things. The ways of love top the list, though you forgot to mention it initially. The ways of love.

Happy 2017.

posted by John Hilton at 5:42 p.m. | 0 comments

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


author Ahmad Zubairi

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defined the stages of grief in her landmark paper on death and dying. Even though the 2016 presidential election is not death and dying, as I reflect back I find many similarities in how I finally started to accept and live with the result.

As an American Muslim, I felt my identity was under the radar in past election cycles. This year was different. I was given an Un-American Muslim identity by some.

Identity forms the core of each one of us and an attack on it causes many different reactions. My initial reaction was of denial - I could not believe someone can be so negative towards others and reject being civil as being politically correct.

I knew that some people had concerns about American Muslims, but I always appreciated the accepting nature of this adoptive country of mine. I found that acceptance in liberal New York where I trained, and in deeply conservative rural Missouri, where I spent six years.

I continued in my denial phase, relying upon poll after poll showing what I wanted to see - that Donald Trump would not win the election. On the evening of Nov. 8th, as results started to pour in, I waited for those elusive urban voters. But my denial finally faced a reality that was hard to swallow - not because I did not support Mr. Trump, but because I felt all that I believed America is about was shaking.

For the first time, I briefly started to question whether it was a correct decision to call America my adoptive country. Not only I was made to feel unaccepted by a large part of America, but I also had some teasing from family in my native country, who taunted that there may be some room for US refugees in Pakistan.

This lead me to second stage of grief, anger. I was seething inside at people who voted differently, people in my native country who teased me, and eventually at myself.

Yes, I started to get angry at myself. I asked many questions: Should I have done more? Was I passive and just assumed that the election would go the way I liked? Did I not understand something about this election?

Then I started to transition into third stage of grief, which is bargaining. I told myself I could just enjoy tax breaks for the next four years, and now the Republicans would have no excuse - people who voted for them would see the impact of their extreme policies. It helped only little, and I entered the 4th stage: depression.

Then I started to think about how to accept this result. I came across a quote from the famous physicist Marie Curie: "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood."

So did I not understand people who voted differently than I did? Were they all really bigoted, misogynistic and racist? If they were, it went against everything I thought I knew about people, especially in America.

Now I was not only sad, but my core identity was vulnerable: I thought I did not understand human nature, even though I am a psychiatrist, have always been a keen student of human behavior and have been blessed with a multicultural experience in life.

I have needed to quickly understand people and acculturate many times. I grew up in relatively liberal Pakistan of 1970s, but with my father working in Saudi Arabia I lived there for few years as a teenager. From there I moved to the Dominican Republic to attend medical school, and arrived in the US more than 20 years ago.

I always thought that with my training and life experience, I knew about the diversity of people's thought processes. After the election, though, I realized, that I had forgetten a fundamental principal: when we get stressed emotionally, we regress in our emotional functioning to much more immature coping mechanisms.

When I felt my own identity was threatened, I started to go into my safe zone, into my bubble. I needed to feel emotionally secure, and I did that by listening to and seeing only what I wanted to believe. I surrounded myself with people who were like-minded and started to define others by use of the immature defensive mechanism of projection, blaming all negativity on others. It was easy to regard Trump supporters as uneducated, racist, bigoted and depolrables.

Once I realized this unconscious emotional journey, acceptance, the last stage of grief, became easier. My first step was to understand the so-called basket of deplorables.

I started to recall my experiences in America, especialy the ones that reminded me of the inclusive nature of this country. I remembered the prison chaplain who came to my mosque to ask us to come to the prison to conduct Friday night prayers. When I went there, prisoners told me this chaplain went out of his way to find a Quran for each and every Muslim prisoner.

I realized that in my work as a psychiatrist, people come to my office and break out of their bubbles. Every day, they let me look into their innermost fears and desires. They are almost always similar, whether in liberal NYC or conservative Missouri, whether my patients are black, white, Muslim, Jew or Christian. They all have financial struggles, worry about the future and the safety of their children, and face sadness and loneliness.

Most importantly, a lot of them are unable to cope with a rapidly changing society. I realized that as their anxieties increased, they, like me were going in their bubbles. They felt threatened by anything that they could not relate to, whether it was China taking jobs, terrorism by some Muslims or societal changes that seemed foreign to them.

Though we are different in many ways, we utilize the same psychological process to blame each other and became more emotional and less rational. Unfortunately, fear won in this election because it was closer to the reality of how many people were feeling in some parts of the country.

I have accepted the election results - not by understanding Donald Trump, but by understanding the people who voted for him. This is just the beginning. I wrote this article to let you into my bubble. I hope you will look into your own bubble, and share what's there with someone different.

Mutual understanding can lead to a better world, because our fears, desires and wishes are not much different. By uniting we isolate the minority of dividers who prey on our emotional vulnerabilities for their gain.

posted by John Hilton at 5:40 p.m. | 3 comments

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