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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Thursday, July 2, 2015

MICHIGAN'S WATERLOO CONNECTIONS, by Tim Athan

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

MAKING A PRAIRIE: OUR LOCAL POET LAUREATE'S COLLECTED WORDS, by R. B. Schmerl

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 (donthack@comcast.net) 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


Friday, June 12, 2015

MAKING A PRAIRIE: OUR LOCAL POET LAUREATE'S COLLECTED WORDS, by R. B. Schmerl

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 (donthack@comcast.net) 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 1:25 p.m. | 0 comments


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

MARCUS BELGRAVE IN BARBADOS, by Tom Rieke

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 http://www.sonicunity.com/blogs/iemanja/17886181-jazz-in-barbados.

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?"

"Definitely."

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


Monday, April 27, 2015

SPRING IN ANN ARBOR, by Margaret Bennett

Margaret Bennett at Gallup Park, Ann Arbor, MI, April 2015

We all love springtime in Ann Arbor, especially the usual things that remind us that spring has come—at last!

There is rain instead of snow. We need to get our umbrellas out in case rain comes when it's not expected, because sometimes the rain is more than a simple shower. At those times, an umbrella is our most prized possession. Occasionally as evening wears on, a few people even walk in the light rain.

The sun comes up earlier. It's warmer outdoors. The grass in lawns and other places along the roads and on the golf courses gets greener and greener.

People, especially seniors, are out walking instead of hurrying indoors to get to a warm place. Of course, their attire depends on the weather. If the weather is cool, on go the sweaters, warm hats, and wool sox. When it's raining, they walk inside one of the malls.

Dog-owners seem to enjoy walking their pets more in the more comfortable spring weather instead of hurrying along just to get the chore done.

Children are playing outdoors, and sometimes, just running around with their friends—enjoying their freedom. We see more bike riders—sometimes on weekends, whole families are out enjoying the lovely weather and observing their routes more closely. It's an attractive way to get exercise and spend time with others.

Those who ride bikes to work are less worrisome than in winter when they negotiate the snow and ice on our roads.

In spring, we see more of our neighbors as they emerge from their homes to clean up their yards and their gardens. Sometimes they tidy their garages. They may take time to visit with neighbors. Sometimes, al of us takes time to empty the fast food boxes and wrappers and other items that accumulated in our cars during the long winter.

There are flowering trees, lots of yellow daffodils and even low, blue flowers sprinkled in the grass in a few places. Many songbirds are singing during the day. They are especially loud on the sunniest days. Returning birds like the redwing blackbirds, arrive in a flash of color.

But there are some things that come with spring to Ann Arbor that you may not have noticed. There are green buds on the non-flowering hardwood trees. You see a soft green haze when you take time to look at them. But some of the other, big and small, trees have red buds—and not just the 'redbud' trees. These trees may be ones that have reddish leaves later in the year.

The sky is a lot like it is in winter. When the sun is out, the sky is a beautiful blue. Puffy white clouds float across it. But if the clouds turn dark gray, rain may be on the way.

And, of course, we often have a breeze. It moves the branches on the bare hardwood trees. It even moves some of the evergreen branches, especially those on the Michigan white pine trees.

Young people go outdoors in knee-length shorts (the men) or, sometimes in short skirts (the women). Their legs are bare even on days when the temperature is about 50 degrees.

As the weather warms up, groups of students gather on the steps of Angell Hall to listen to their group leaders provide information and directions.

As spring moves along, university students like to lounge on the lawns; but only when they are dry enough and when the weather is quite warm. It's a good place to visit with friends, or even to eat a snack, and drink something refreshing. Some students study on the grassy places around the university; but the weather has to be really comfortable.

It's easier to see the bird nests and the larger nests the squirrels build in the trees when the leaves are gone and the new leaves aren't large enough to hide things hidden in the branches. In summer when the trees are in full leaf—those nests, which seem to be built of dry leaves and perhaps other items the owners find are not visible.

It's easier to see the small stream behind my house when the leaves are off the trees, too. The stream always bubbles along. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, I can see the moon reflected in it some nights.

The streetlights where I live come on before the sun has set and before we need them. As evening moves along, darkness comes and the lights are helpful and cheerful.

As the grass behind my house gets greener, some small brownish birds arrive. I never see them at other times of year. They have yellow beaks and spend their time pecking at something in the lawn; there must be something edible for them.

The swans are back on our lakes and ponds. They don't fly away to warmer places until January. The young ones can't fly until their feathers are white and they are mature enough for the long trips. But they come back about the same time as the other migrant birds.

Swans are much bigger than you can imagine. If you have not seen one up close, you will not appreciate their huge size. But it's hard to realize their size as they glide along on the surface of our ponds and lakes.

There are many robins these days. But they never eat at bird feeders; they seem to prefer to eat worms. Their breasts are not really red, of course, more of an orange color. And they look fat. They must have had plenty to eat when they were in warmer places during the winter.


posted by John Hilton at 2:42 p.m. | 0 comments


Thursday, January 29, 2015

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, by Eve Silberman

cover of the book All the Light We Cannot See

In his best-selling novel set in Europe during WWII, Anthony Doerr follows the fortunes of two adolescents as they struggle for survival, moral and physical. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind French girl who memorizes her village through an exquisitely designed miniature made by her father. German orphan Werner Pfennig, a math whiz with a gift for mechanics, chooses to attend a Nazi youth military camp rather than be sent to work in the mines. In alternating chapters, Doerr tells each young person's story.

Contrasts soon develop. Marie-Laure moves from a doll-like passivity to anti-Nazi activism; she delivers messages hidden in a loaf of bread from a nearby bakery, and later broadcasts for the Resistance on a forbidden radio. The reflective Werner becomes increasingly aware that in aligning his lot with the Nazis, he's crossed over to the dark side—but he sees no way out.

He doesn't openly rebel; his moral conflicts take the form of wistful reminiscences of his astute young sister and the gentle woman who ran the orphanage where he and his sister grew up. His gentle friend, Frederick, finds escape from the Nazi camp—a place where boys are asked to turn on the "weakest" among them—by scanning the skies for birds, using a pair of antique field glasses, but ultimately defies the Nazis at a terrible price. Werner, drafted into the Reich army, uses his technical ability to hunt down –what else?--Resistance wireless broadcasters.

A third story heightens the tension. When it's clear the Germans will take Paris, the director of the museum where Marie-Laure's father works decides he must find a hiding place for the museum's most valuable possession: a diamond named "The Sea of Flames." He enlists the senior LeBlanc in a scheme to hide the precious albeit scary stone—it's rumored that a curse will follow the owner––with the result that even while Germany slides into defeat, a Nazi officer is on the heels of Marie-Laure and family.

The "Sea of Flames" adds some needed suspense to a story that, though it has a lot of beautiful writing, sometimes drags under its reverential telling. Describing Marie-Laure's blindness (congenital cataracts that left her blind by age six), Doerr writes, 'In her imagination in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel . . . piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues . . . "

Regrettably, Doerr doesn't develop characters as skillfully as settings. Marie-Laure, her father, Werner, Frederick, even the surprisingly amicable Nazi Sergeant Major von Rumpel remain as lifeless as Marie-Laure's miniature house. A bit weirdly, the book comes most to life life when Marie reads aloud a Braille version of Jules Verne's watery adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When Captain Nemo and his guys are "flailing away with their axes" at sea monsters, it's like break dancing transforming a dance hall where you're tired of watching waltzes. Guess there's reasons some books are for the ages.


posted by John Hilton at 4:23 p.m. | 0 comments


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A FUTURE PHILOSPHER COMES OF AGE, by Tom Cudney

Tom Cudey, 1998

I was in the inaugural class of the Washtenaw Technical Middle College. Since 1997, the Middle College has let students take college classes while still in high school. When I came to the school, I had barely passed my freshman year at Lincoln High. At the time, I was fourteen years old and reading Darwin's Origin of Species.I enrolled my sophomore year, taking algebra, robotics, and some high school classes, which were easy and uninteresting.

We were a diverse group, so there were some odd ways we spent our time. There were only thirty seven of us, and we were closely-knit. There were no real cliques. Rich and poor kids blended without much emphasis on either polarity. Devout Muslims, skater punks, vague philosophers, and causeless rebels all mixed rather freely. The first student I talked to had bright blue hair, which impressed me, since I wasn't used to aesthetic freedom. There was at least one rock lifting contest in the woods, which I lost.

There was still time to wander around and cause trouble. A typical day that first semester included roaming the lawns and adjacent woods, and annoying people with pointless questions about reality. My friend lost his virginity in those same woods. There were some boulders by a break in the tree line, where we would give each other bear hugs until we fainted. Then there were the drugs. Lots of them.

The ski trip that December was a landmark of our achievement, though not exactly in a scholarly vein. I knew a girl whose boyfriend took all our liquor orders in advance. I personally brought two fifths of whiskey and a pint along in my suitcase. I was well-equipped, but I wasn't alone in that. Everyone had brought contraband to those two cottages, resting by the snowy hills in Michigan. I wonder if the tale is still recounted by students today.

The first night was our triumph. The boys' two-storey cottage had a balcony that looked out into the blackness, lighted over peaceful white. It invited us. There was no moderation in our impulses or appetite. Friends gambled, speculated, and got owned in GoldenEye 007. It was like I had stumbled into a palace of surreal possibility, alive with all my teenage fantasies of indulgence and popularity, a type of madhouse wherein we could be whatever we wanted, and we were all the more glad for it. A kind of existential insurrection through which there were no roles to play or desires to compromise. We were happy then. The girls' cottage was more subdued, though several groups crossed over as emissaries. While a bit more reserved, they partook in the fun, too, and were happy.

I remember standing by a bed amidst the clamor as I looked out past the crowded balcony. The boy next to me was rolling a marijuana blunt, a drug from which I had abstained for several months. I was drinking Canadian Mist whiskey, which is what I had drunk my first night in foster care, when I was eleven. It went down my throat uneventfully. I thought about smoking this blunt. All the conversations in the room weaved together in a whisper. I had a fleeting but clear premonition of myself as having failed and given in to something, somehow; but in the vision, I no longer cared. In that preview of a memory, I saw what it was like to no longer feel how I had in the past. Then I had smoked the blunt, and the experience was relegated to a memory.

We all went outside, up the hill, borrowing thick inner tubes, and were scarcely discreet or stealthy, even though we were quiet and sneaking along in the crunchy snow. We stood atop the hill. We sailed in those tubes, our chariots on a winding track of polished destiny, down to the surface of the everyday. But what a flight it was! We clung to one another, defying the momentum that would see us scattered, flakes gleaming as they danced along in the early morning air.The group did break apart, but my friend and I were stronger than the rest. We sustained our bond, and the force of our imbalanced weight thrust us clear off the hill, narrowly past a tree, and saw us land gingerly yet unfazed, still together in our tubes, ten feet out and below. Only one person was hurt: A chaperone whose reckoning was a bloody lip from the illicit tubing fray.

We went back to the cottage, and a few of us sat on the couches downstairs. I passed around the fifth of Jack Daniels I had brought. We didn't talk. One kid had locked himself in the bathroom. His friend was with him. We didn't care anyway. No one had bothered us. That's what happened.

I took my first philosophy class later that winter. I was fifteen, arrogantly inflated, and most of all, starving to find ideas that were meaningful to me. My philosophy instructor was somewhat of a Nietzschean iconoclast, film critic, and honors advisor at a university up the road. He had been teaching for fourteen years already, and he still does to this day. John was fiercely articulate, honest, and approachable, his lectures were dynamic and conversational. He once told us how he had sat on his car down in Texas, surrounded by coyote eyes that glowed out of the night. I was able to apply myself in the course, largely because I was challenged, and sometimes, clueless.

I ended up dropping out of the Middle College and getting my GED. I finished my associate's degree, earned a BA, learned three languages, and studied abroad before going to graduate school with full funding. I earned an MA in philosophy in 2010.

I came back to Washtenaw Community College and taught philosophy that same year. One or two of my own students were in the Middle College.


posted by John Hilton at 12:09 p.m. | 0 comments


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