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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

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

Friday, July 1, 2016


Gregory Lindsay Adkins

My father, Gregory Lindsay Adkins, died on June 8, 2016, in Durham, North Carolina. He was 69 years old. Eleven days earlier he had been in perfect health. He took no medications, other than a half-dose of baby Aspirin per day, and he was remarkably strong and fit. He had just returned from a relaxing week-long vacation filled with kayaking and leisurely beach combing with my mother, his wife of nearly fifty years, which had immediately followed a pleasurable visit to our temporary home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my family spent the year during my wife's fellowship at the Frankel Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. My last strong, good memory of him was sitting on our front walkway in Ann Arbor, having a beer, and talking about bicycles—he loved bicycling, although he had many other passions, too. My memories of him also involve him reading, building, hiking, and traveling, and many, many other things, of course. Anyway, with the help of the guys at Ann Arbor's Sic Transit Cycles, I had built a single-speed bicycle using an old road bike frame given to me by a long-lost friend from Chapel Hill, and components mostly from my dad's old bicycles. He took the bike for a spin down the street and announced afterwards that the brakes were terrible and that I should replace them immediately. I stared at him in amazement and replied that they were his old brakes, and that I had wanted a bicycle that used his old gear, about which I already had nostalgic sentiments. I would never get rid of them for they remind me of him and of all those times with him that now exist only in our memories.

I have spent much of my professional life writing and reading about Stoic philosophy in ancient and modern times, but I think my father was actually much more Stoic than I ever was. He took pleasure in his material possessions, true, but he was not entranced or enslaved by them as I realize I am, even though I may have fewer possessions than he did. My favorite Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, once said, "If you are fond of a jug, say you are fond of a jug; then you will not be disturbed if it is broken." Likewise, my dad kept his judgments about things more pure than I have, and did not allow his soul to become too entangled with that which was not really his own—for, I think, we never really own that which is outside of ourselves. We just take care of some things for a little while as best as we are able, and then we give them up when the time comes. But I have let my soul become entangled with that which is not my own, and it causes pain when it is torn loose. I may be a student of philosophy, but I am a bad philosopher. The bicycle I built is not just a bicycle; it is mixed up with me and with my father.

My dad was a good philosopher, for he was free. That's what philosophy is all about.

My dad crashed his bicycle the day after returning from his beach vacation. One moment he was strong and free; the next he was severely injured, but still free. His will remained his own, and he insisted that he not be forced to remain in his body when his body was no longer under his own care. Perhaps understanding that his injury was mortal, and before his brain injury significantly hindered his cognitive abilities, he fought to remove the medical equipment, and demanded he be taken home. Epictetus said, "Sickness is a hindrance to the body, not to the will." One of Epictetus' more enigmatic epigrams goes thus, but it really means the same thing: "When you are on a voyage, and your ship is at anchorage, and you disembark to get fresh water, you may pick up a small shellfish or a truffle by the way, but you must keep your attention fixed on the ship, and keep looking towards it constantly, to see if the Helmsman calls you; and if he does, you have to leave everything, or be bundled on board with your legs tied like a sheep." My father's Helmsman did not have to take him by force aboard the ship. He was always ready to board; his passport was in his pocket.

My last visit with my dad filled me with dread, and the memory of it haunts me now. He was standing in line to board his ship, and I wanted to hold him back, not to let him leave us. Like my mother and brother, I called to him to come back, and offered him a gift of a University of Michigan bucket hat that I had brought for him from Ann Arbor, something to cover his thinning hair and injured head. But he could not come back, and I finally said goodbye and told him that I had to return home to take care of my two daughters. I feel like I am forever walking out of that dreaded place, seeing my mother standing by his bedside and wiping away tears. Epictetus said, "Never say of anything, 'I lost it,' but say, 'I gave it back.'" I tell myself that now over and over: I did not lose him; I gave him back.

But what did I—what did we—give him back to? I think we gave back his particularity to the universal—for all that stuff that makes up each of us never really goes anywhere, does it? We are made up of the stuff of the earth, and that stuff is made up of the stuff of the cosmos. Our particular individuality comes into being, perhaps mysteriously, for a small time, always already with porous boundaries, and then it disperses to become bound up with new particularities. As my dad exhaled his breath in the hospital bed, I breathed in that air, and then he inhaled the breath of those who surrounded him. Ourselves are never, I suppose, entirely our own—we are always mixed up with each other and with everything else. So we gave him back to ourselves. His will remained his own until the end, and then he gave us everything.

--14 June 2016, Ann Arbor, Michigan

posted by John Hilton at 3:10 p.m. | 0 comments

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


Nick Yocum as Tiny TIme in An A Capella Christmas Carol, the Performance Network, Ann Arbor, MI, Dec

The first words of Dickens' A Christmas Carol are "Marley was dead: to begin with." He lets us know right off the bat that this is going to be what its subtitle says, "A Ghost Story of Christmas," and that unless it is "distinctly understood" that poor Jacob is, or should be, no longer with us, "nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate."

In that spirit, nothing wonderful, or at least thought-provoking, will come from what I am going to relate unless you know right off the bat that I'm a little bit fanatical about Dickens' masterpiece, A Christmas Carol groupie/head/geek. I don't know how many times I've read it, maybe 40; it was an annual ritual of mine for at least that many years. And although I've seen very few movies more than once, I've watched the best-by-far film adaptation, the 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, at least that often. I own a facsimile of the first edition (itself now more than 50 years old), a facsimile of the manuscript, a variorum text, a book about how the book reinvented the Anglo-American practice of Christmas (the turkey that the redeemed Scrooge sends to the Cratchits supplanted their goose as the "traditional" holiday entree, for example), and several speculative novels in the form of prequels or sequels.

On the other hand, I scrupulously avoid the multitude of stage versions that materialize every Yuletide. I don't begrudge them their existence. No doubt these productions help some theatrical enterprises keep their noses above the waves, just like The Nutcracker does for dance companies and holiday shopping for retailers. But I soon wearied of seeing Scrooge portrayed as merely irritable, rather than inhuman, or a cadre of dancing Cratchits, scrubbed, coiffed and dressed in pretty pastel holiday apparel.

The Scrooge of the book is, seemingly irredeemably, evil. The Cratchits are, seemingly hopelessly and largely due to Scrooge and his ilk, dirt poor. As with Marley's mortality, nothing wonderful can come of this story unless these things are clear, but it's unclear by design in most stage versions, which aim instead to provide suitably merry seasonal entertainment.

So it seemed like a bit of a risk to buy a ticket to Performance Network's Dickens: An A Cappella Christmas Carol last December, but the fact that they put the author's name first, a la Bram Stoker's Dracula, raised the possibility of a more respectful approach, maybe even the "original instruments" Carol that I had long told my friends I dreamed of. My hopes rose along with the curtain when I saw a grubby alley peopled by a quartet of down-and-outers. A visitor of similar estate appears, and they ask him to tell them "that story."

There have been public readings of A Christmas Carol almost since it was first published. Dickens himself prepared a "reading version," and performing it provided a reliable revenue stream. Annual broadcasts by a bevy of stage and screen stars were a staple of radio's golden age.

To situate such a reading in such a setting struck me as genius. It also meant that most of the words in the script would be by Dickens. One major reason why the 1951 movie outstrips the rest is that much of the dialogue and narration is drawn verbatim from the text. Most other versions are diminished by their scenarists' apparent presumption that they could write better than Dickens did. As the afternoon progressed, my remaining doubts collapsed into ashes, from which arose that delicious immersion in an alternate world that characterizes the best times in the theater.

After the show, I collared the intern who was staffing the box office, briefly (relatively) explained how my passion for the work made this production a dream come true for me, and asked her to convey my thanks to the director, Suzi Regan. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that John Manfredi, her partner in running what proved to be the last iteration of the Network, conceived and authored this adaptation.

I was at another show the next afternoon, raving about what I had seen the day before, when I learned that PN was kaput, that the performance I saw was the third from the last in the theater's history. I didn't believe it at first, partly because my source is one who tends to favor the gloomiest scenarios, partly because it had "died" before and risen again, but mostly because I didn't want to.

When I got home, I used the email address that the intern had written on a sticky note for me ("Why don't you tell her yourself?") and composed a wrenching message meant to convey the unsettling stew of satisfaction and sadness in my heart. Confirmation shot back almost instantly, in the form of a mass message detailing PN's demise. That didn't bother me. If I were she, I would have had my email on auto-pilot, too.

And then it hit me. Not only had I been present, or nearly so, at PN's creation, but that presence had come full circle with its passing. I had long thought A Christmas Carol, in December 1981, was the first production in PN's original home on West Washington Street, but Davi Napoleon's praiseworthy piece in the Observer says otherwise, and she surely knows better than I. Perhaps it was the third. A few hours of scrolling through the December 1981 Ann Arbor News on microfiche revealed only that it carried nary a word about this production, which probably didn't help attendance. The run comprised 13 performances, and there were times when the cast members outnumbered the audience (although, in fairness, it's a pretty big cast). In any event, I played the Ghost of Christmas Past.

I appeared in two more PN shows: a quartet of Samuel Beckett one-acts plays directed by the late David Hunsberger (thanks to him, some of us have actually seen most of Beckett's works), and a misbegotten mishmash of pseudo-historical and quasi-mystical claptrap called Mother Lode. But that was the Network then: there was more room for risk. And people like me could participate as well as patronize.

I don't need to be visited by three spirits. The ghost of Performance Network past will always be with me.

posted by John Hilton at 4:40 p.m. | 0 comments

Monday, February 8, 2016


January 9, 2016: I arrived early for a powwow of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party (WCDP), dutifully signed in and then wrote my name in big, bold and blue capital letters on a HELLO MY NAME IS sticker. A smiling Chris Savage (WCDP Chair) and a joyful Tracy Van den Bergh (WCDP Vice-Chair for Resolutions, By-laws, and Policy) were standing just inside the room, positioned like the greeters at the Meijer supermarket on Jackson Rd. But food was first on my personal agenda so I made a beeline to the snack tables. While I ate, I surveyed the room's geography and acoustics to locate a seat where the background noise would be the least problematic (my hearing is impaired). With another bagel and a glass of apple juice in hand, I moved to the opposite end of the wide room.

I staked my claim to an empty table left of the podium, or 'stage right' theatrically speaking. A few minutes later the big, burly Jerry Clayton, the Washtenaw County Sheriff now in his second term in office, joined my table. A curly, red-haired woman, whose name tag was not visible, sat down between Mr. Clayton and me and my table for three was complete.

I'd attended WCDP meetings before. One memorable occasion was in the Pittsfield Township Hall in 1990. I was granted time to address the assembly so I could introduce myself as a candidate for County Commissioner. I was running in what constituted the 9th District, which included Burns Park at the time, where my home was located at the corner of Baldwin Avenue and Wells Street. Some of the Democrats were angry with me because I had aggressively and publicly been challenging the county's neglect of citizens with serious mental illnesses (e.g. paranoid schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar). I had been raising hell because I saw it as part of my job as the president of the county chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill (AMI). I had also raised a ruckus about the county's mistreatment of the homeless and/or destitute. Some of my complaints were published as letters to the editor in the Ann Arbor News. My disagreement with county board chair Meri Lou Murray's characterization of AMI as a "special interest group" was published in the AMI newsletter.

My disputes gave rise to suspicions among Democrats that I must be a Republican. Albert Wheeler, formerly the mayor of the City of Ann Arbor, openly shared his suspicions in a public meeting. I tried to reassure him that I was definitely not a Republican. I said that I was an ally of the Democrats, citing my volunteer work with Focus: Hope in Detroit as a teenager in 1971. In Ann Arbor, I said I helped establish an adult foster care home and a clubhouse for the chronically mentally ill.

Other Democrats participated in a bizarre whisper campaign which insinuated that I was a relative of the notorious KKK "Grand Wizard," David Duke. The ersatz logic of the smear seemed to boil down to this: If you criticize Democrats' policies, budget priorities or such like, then you must be an enemy. If A, then B. To no one's surprise, I was trounced in the August primary election by my rival, Christina Montague, in the race to replace Andrea Walsh.

Fortunately, twenty-six years later, the smoke had cleared. No ghosts from the past materialized to haunt yours truly. The tension in the air on this occasion struck me as appropriate considering the meeting was called to "fight hate and fear in the era of Trump." The vibe was politically positive and the attitude was 'can do'.

Chris Savage and Tracy Van den Bergh were upbeat as they called the meeting to order and introduced the ticklish issue of amending the bylaws. The thorniest amendment, which would prohibit the WCDP from endorsing any candidate during a primary, was vocally challenged and scrutinized, to be sure. But the amendment ultimately passed muster with mostly smiles all 'round.

This WCDP was better at holding a conversation in 2016 than the one I knew in 1990. Bernie Sanders, immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, Buddhists, indebted students, single moms, the LGBT community, the women and men serving in the armed forces, "potheads," the National Institutes of Health and especially Obama were all feeling the love. The WCDP was moving to embrace diversity that defies categorization. It was safe for me to come out of the closet.

Meanwhile, the Republicans were being pressured by headlines focused on the toxic water in Flint. Governor Snyder somehow lit a fire under Michigan Republicans with his own box of matches. The WCDP party was already riding high on the prospect that Gretchen Driskell could win the 7th Congressional District. Now, with Republicans shooting themselves in the foot, Driskell's showdown with Tim Walberg (R- Tipton) may get an unexpected boost. Likewise, Melissa Gilbert's bid to beat Mike Bishop in 8th District may be similarly supercharged.

With the bylaws business concluded, Chris Savage turned the podium over to U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell (D- 12th Congressional District). The Congresswoman from Dearborn pounced on the opportunity to underscore how she differed from people who calibrate their positions to score points with contributors. "I vote the way I do because I believe in something, not because I might win an endorsement from the National Wildlife Federation" she said in full voice, after pointing out that the NWF rated her 100% in agreement with their positions on various votes in the U.S. House of Representatives.

She then skewered the distorting impact gerrymandering was having on congressional districts. She said gerrymandering had made many districts so politically lopsided, or "safe," that it was a foregone conclusion which party would win, adding that many voters are so alienated by the situation they skip voting altogether because the results are predetermined.

Dingell then focused on some Republicans' habit of smearing everyone of the Islamic faith whenever some terrorist atrocity provides them an opportunity. She pointed out that a Michigan resident took part in one the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the 1994 Oklahoma City bombing, but no one painted Michiganders as a population of terrorists.

Intentionally or not, Dingell's remark echoed Bernie Sanders. In The Guardian, Trevor Timm wrote, "[Sanders] has proven false the idea that candidates have to drop everything to treat Isis as a threat to America's existence requiring 24/7 hand wringing, rather than what they really are: a comparatively small problem in the day-to-day lives of Americans that we only exacerbate by doing the terrorists' PR work for them and upending our rights to supposedly "defeat" them..."

But forget Sanders—the crowd loved the way their homegrown Democratic diva cooked issues down into yummy sound bites. Dingell's speech was punctuated again and again by energetic applause and shouts of agreement from the floor.

When Congresswoman Dingell finished warming up the room, a panel of four speakers was introduced to discuss how vital tapping into "social media" was to the Democrats' battle plan to identify young voters and then motivate them to turn out at election time to vote for candidates who embraced their issues.

The panel included Simone Lightfoot, a civil rights advocate and Ann Arbor School Board Trustee; Layali Alsadah, President, EMU Middle Eastern Student Association; William Lopez, immigrant rights activist; and student Isabel Van den Bergh (Tracy's daughter). Bankole Thompson Op-Ed columnist for the Detroit News, moderated the discussion while providing more than a little comic relief. I should mention here that Nathan Catey, an Oakland University student and social media political activist whom President Obama honored with a meeting at the White House, was also in the room. An Internet phenomenon, Catey punches well above his weight. More importantly, he is also a member of the WCDP social media committee.

'Social media' and the 'online community' are in many ways interchangeable terms which refer to the worldwide web that is the home away from home of today's youth—many of whom don't vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau: "...Overall, America's youngest voters have moved towards less engagement over time, as 18– through 24-year-olds' voting rates dropped from 50.9 percent in 1964 to 38.0 percent in 2012..." In contrast, Census data shows that the 45– through 64-year-olds' voting rates dropped from 75.9 percent in 1964 to 69.7 percent in 2012.

The WCDP hopes to connect with young voters' social networks via the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat apps that carry their conversations. The election of Justin Trudeau in Canada was won in no small part by such a campaign that hammered the Internet during the two weeks preceding the voting—but only after Trudeau made it clear that he embraced their issues.

Some Republicans may also succeed at replicating Trudeau's success. And I'm not the only Democrat who believes some Republicans are worthy of election. I hope the kinder, gentler ones win, whatever their party affiliation. This country needs a diverse Congress that can talk turkey. It would be an improvement over a Congress with far too many turkeys.

posted by John Hilton at 5:18 p.m. | 0 comments

Thursday, July 2, 2015


June's bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo passed largely unnoticed in Michigan. But the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and the site of his final defeat, are still remembered in the names of Napoleon and Waterloo townships, as well as the Waterloo Recreation Area.

There was no Ann Arbor in 1815. Detroit had been established as a trading post in 1701, but still had fewer than 1,000 people. In 1817 the cornerstone was laid there for the Catholepistemiad, which was the start of the U-M. "Annarbour" was platted in 1824. With the opening of the Erie Canal the following year, settlers flooded in—including veterans who fought on both sides in the battle.

Detroit's first Catholic bishop, John Frederic Reze, was born in Hanover and served under Prussian commander Blucher in the Battle of Waterloo. William F. Orins (alternatively Osius) arrived in Washtenaw County from the Grand Duchy of Hesse in 1832, after fighting against Napoleon (not in the Battle of Waterloo, though he claimed to be within hearing distance of it). He served for nine years as supervisor for Freedom Township, and twenty as justice of the peace, before moving to Pittsfield, where he died in 1864.

Born in Prussia, Aaron L. Feldcamp served as a corporal under Blucher, and was present at the surrender of Napoleon. He came to America in 1836, and settled in Washtenaw County, where he died in 1846.

William Wilson was born near London. He tried to visit Napoleon in exile after the battle, on the island of St. Helena, but was kept from the house by sentries. In 1823 Mr. Wilson moved to the United States, and eventually prospered in Ypsilanti.

There's another nearby Waterloo in Ontario, and another Napoleon in Ohio. There used to be a Bonaparte Road near Detroit, but in 1929 it was merged with Joy Road.

posted by John Hilton at 2:47 p.m. | 0 comments

Friday, June 12, 2015


Cover of Making a Prairie, poems by Don Thackrey

Don Thackrey, for many years a resident of Ann Arbor and now of Dexter, has long published his poems in some fifty or more "little" poetry magazines, justly acquiring a reputation as a gifted poet who has combined adherence to rhyme, meter, and traditional form with insight, clarity, and occasional humor. He has just published a collection of over a hundred of his poems in a beautiful book he calls Making A Prairie, complete with drawings, photographs, prose comments, and a map of his native Nebraska, showing the areas in which he grew up. The book's organization reflects the chronology of the poet's life, but the content is biofiction rather than autobiography, combining verifiable fact with the truths of fantasy and imagination.

Don, an editor, writer, and research administrator at the University of Michigan for many years, is now in the second half of his ninth decade, and thus has had time to see what life brings at its very different stages. That include serious illness, and the poet does not shrink from his description of his cancer and its effects. Readers of his generation, including this reviewer, may linger in particular over a sonnet like "Funereal Meditation":

He mourns his friends and kinfolk as they die, But, grieving, he can't help but feel relieved That sins known only by these dead will lie

In graves where they can never be retrieved

By snoops, historians, or local press.

Thus doting grandchildren, neighbors, new friends, The pastor, sheriff, councilmen ... none guess

That he is not as pure as he pretends.

He's not convinced that others also hide

A shameful past and that he's not alone

In struggling with those growing aches inside

From youthful acts that old age can't atone.

He knows the Lord forgives ... and that's a start ... But how forgive himself, the hardest part?

But this poem comes late in the book, in a section called "Harvest": first there are poems about the prairie, his family (particularly his parents), his youth, the farm and then the ranch on which he worked. That work occurred before rural electrification, motorized irrigation, and modern household conveniences. Many of these poems mingle keen observations of the natural world with astute perceptions of our own. And poetry itself, and its fashions, are also subjects of his verse, as in "Learning to Be an Edgy Poet." His introduction to this delightful little satire correctly notes that "anyone writing poetry today in traditional forms is apt to be stymied by the almost universal expectation that poetry is to be free from form and tradition." Don was not stymied in this manner, and we are the beneficiaries. But for those among us whose memories of prosody have faded, he has, most helpfully, provided an appendix elucidating the forms he has used.

Making a Prairie is privately printed but is available from the author ( and local libraries in Chelsea, Dexter, and Saline. An online version is on Google at "Eleanor Suderman's Bookstore." Prices range from $39.99 for a paperback edition to $51.99 for a hardcover image wrap.

posted by John Hilton at 1:26 p.m. | 0 comments

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


Marcus Belgrave plays with the Royal Barbados Police Force Band, January 2012

Written on 17 January, 2012. Marcus Belgrave died on May 24, 2015. Reblogged from

A few sunny mornings ago, I drove 30 minutes to the east coast listening to classic calypso tunes on my favorite radio station (Q FM), bought a bottle of water, and ran a few kilometers along an empty beach. Then I drove past a big rock, up a long hill, and down a steep one-lane path to Naniki for lunch.

The buildings are duplex cottages, $US 75 per night and up. The horizon is the Atlantic Ocean. On the other side: Senegal.

There was groovy American jazz on the sound system, just the right volume. Very few bars and restaurants in Barbados play jazz in the background. Four places offer live jazz a few times a week. Naniki is one of them. The owner, Tom Hinds, introduced himself and gave me the good news that he has live jazz most Sunday after- noons. "Last Sunday was really special. A great trumpet player."

Naniki was quiet. I selected a table two tables away from a British couple. After I ordered, a group of four sat down at a table two away from them on the other side. Mr. Hinds stopped by to tell me more about the music schedule, and he surprised me: "Last Sunday was the best. The trumpet player was Marcus Belgrave."

Amazing. One of the world's best trumpet players, a legend from Deroit, where he still lives and plays and teaches when he's not traveling. He played with Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, all the Motown stars, Tony Bennet, and Aretha Franklin. He came to Barbados, and he played here?

Mr. Hinds said: "That's Marcus Belgrave over there." "Where?"

"The fella in the hat."

"That's Marcus Belgrave?"


And he invited me over to meet the people at the end of the deck: Marcus Belgrave, his wife Joan (an excellent singer), Mr. Belgrave's Barbadian cousin, and a British woman. The Belgraves are also refugees from winter. They're thinking about settling in Barbados for a good part of the year. His father was from here, one of the thousands of Barbadians who moved to Panamá a century ago to build the canal. He was one of the lucky survivors, and after the canal opened in 1914, he moved to the US. This week, the Belgraves spent a lot many hours tracing the family history in the Barbados Archives.

I said somebody should create a major exhibit (plus an e-book, and a fascinating web site, and a television series, and a documentary film, but I didn't mention all that) about the Barbadians who suffered in Panamá and to construct one of the most important projects in world history. We all agreed that it's a good idea, and Mr. Hinds said: "Mr. Watson at the Barbados Musuem is working on a similar idea, so you should talk with him if you think you can help in any way at all."

Joan said that Marcus was planning to play with the Royal Barbados Police Force Band later that afternoon, at Hastings Rocks, which is directly across the street from my bedroom balcony. Eventually, I excused myself and left them in peace from all my fan talk.

Lunch was grilled marlin, rice and peas, pickled bananas, and a salad. Mr. Hinds showed me the CD covers of the music he was playing today, so far: Monty Alexander, Oscar Peterson's Canadian Suite, and Grover Washington. A totally crisp complement to the easy breeze from Africa. He said:

"Oscar Peterson sat right over there a few years before he died and just chatted all afternoon." I told him about the Jazz Foundation of America. He knew about it, and he knows some musicians in New York who are involved in that work.

When I left, I mentioned the Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp. The Belgraves knew all about the camp in New Orleans, because Marcus is a jazz educator in Detroit and elsewhere. In 2009, he received the Kresge Eminent Artist Prize ($50,000) for his lifetime achievements.They played movie-music medlies, a few Caribbean tunes, and a tribute to Michael Jackson.

As I drove back toward the west coast and turned south, Joanne Sealey on Q FM was hosting her Saturday reggae hour and taking phone calls from New York and Vancouver After I stopped at the supermarket, the new Q FM theme was classic R&B: The Best of Your Love, The Temptations.

At exactly 4:00, the Barbados Royal Police Force Band (founded in 1889) greeted a few hundred Barbadians and tourists with a Sousa march in a historic gazebo overlooking the Caribbean. They played movie-music medleys, a few Caribbean tunes, and a tribute to Michael Jackson.

The conductor announced Marcus, who consulted with Joan and a senior police officer. Then he joined the band for some Latino and jazz numbers, and he played a few solos.

During lunch, Tom Hinds, told me that he learned to love jazz from his father, who collected American records. When I asked him about jazz in Barbados, he said: "Too many people here think that jazz is an elitist thing, only for the intelligentsia. They're wrong. It's exactly the opposite. Those people don't know where jazz came from."

Among many other places, it came from Senegal and Barbados and Panamá and Detroit.

posted by John Hilton at 6:32 p.m. | 0 comments

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