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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Friday, October 8, 2021


Don Cameron and Jeff Stacey

This summer the University of Michigan / Ann Arbor family, just lost one of its greats: the legendary Professor of Great Books, Professor H.D. Cameron passed away. He was a stout 86 year old resident of the Glacier Hills retirement community, just a stone’s throw or so from where he lived for decades—hiding out on North Campus as it were, from Angell Hall and the Classics Department. The wily ol’ owl left us with his brilliant mind fully intact, if not quite the rest of this dear human being.

Don Cameron and his partner in crime—the equally legendary Ralph Williams—used to hold court in the cavernous lecture hall of the Modern Languages Building, in the shadow of the Bell Tower in back of Hill Auditorium. There, twice a week many a first-year honors student was treated to a journey back in time to the windswept steppes of ancient Greece via the prose and poetry of Homer, Plato, Socrates, Aeschylus, and so many other philosophs of yore. Ralph would prance around the aisles, beginning each memorable peroration with the words, “Yea Verily.” Whereas Don would stay put at the podium, relying on his resounding baritone to hold us so rapt, that right before spring break when he encouraged us to read our assigned Decameron—“surely you can fit in a little Boccaccio while lounging on the beach”—I was far from alone in actually completing the assignment precisely as instructed.

Don’s eyes simply sparkled, his speaking tone resonant of a beloved uncle. This avuncular humanist took prodigious time outside the classroom, a devoted listener always spare with his generous and unfailingly practical advice. As a 3rd and 4th year undergrad I would regularly meet him for lunch, at the Bella Ciao or the Red Hawk, where my lessons would continue. Taking my cues I too became fond of Italian food and wine; and when Don heard that I would be backpacking to Venice and Florence ahead of senior year he exclaimed, “Why Jeffrey Allen you lucky devil,” closing his eyes and waxing profound with the mysterious words: “You’ll traipse across the Arno, through the Ponte Vecchio, on forth to the Duomo. But once you arrive there you won’t be able to move, your eyes transfixed utterly by the beauty of the 13th Century bronze doors of Andrea Pisano before you.”

As an undergrad in Ann Arbor, you are convinced you know so much (which in reality, you’re only beginning to find out just how little you know). Don always spoke to us as equals, when in fact we were being schooled all the while. Our sessions would end invariably with a bear hug, and sometimes a pat on the head. Like so many, I felt completely invigorated in Don’s presence. “Much of life is in the passing,” he would say; it isn’t the destination, “rather the journey that makes us into who he we are.” In class he would act out the Melian Dialogue, and out on the town he would introduce us to pesto, Tia Maria, Super Tuscans, and Titian. By the time I donned a tuxedo to wait tables at the Lord Fox, the sommelier had less to teach me than he had assumed; all because of Don.

We stayed in touch over the years, the mark of Don Cameron on me the whole way. Privately I think he was dismayed that I planned to go to law school, then thrilled beyond belief when I took a job post graduation working in the Parliamentary office of former British Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath instead. It was due entirely to Don and the magic of a liberal education, Ann Arbor style. Before I set foot in the Uffizi that summer long ago, I had already spent 10 weeks in England, Wales, and Ireland with another U of M legend—the English professor Bert Hornback—following in the footsteps of Joyce, Yeats, and Hardy. We uber fortunate young souls really were in a rarified Dead Poet Society, compliments of a very special college town and university.

After graduation Don informed me of everything “you simply must do, my dear boy” upon landing in London. He required a full report when I was back in town to visit my family a year later, proud as a peach that I had spurned not the regular pub outing but any Hollywood movies that year, in order to take advantage of dirt cheap “student return” theater tickets to see plays in London’s West End—even when no Brit would get caught dead joining me. What tickled Don the most was hearing that I was roundly laughed at when I tried to get my British mates to attend a matinee performance of the “Wind in the Willows” at the National Theater (I discovered why, when I found myself in a sea of little children with nary an adult chaperone among them).

Not surprisingly, instead of practicing law my career turned toward foreign policy, and Don didn’t miss a beat. I actually called him from London for advice when Sir Edward asked me to ghost write three chapters of his memoir at the jejune age of just 22. “I don’t think I can manage this one, Professor” I said over the faint line; “but of course you can, and you will make us all proud” was the robust retort. Thereafter, over the years when I would turn up in Ann Arbor it was a couple of decades at least before we ever again broached an English or Classics dept. topic—all Don wanted to talk about was “what in the devil’s name” were presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden doing overseas?!

By the time Don retired, and eventually moved into Glacier Hills as his body (but explicitly not his mind) slowly began to deteriorate, he would request that I email him every piece of writing that I published. Then, months or years later, when I would return he would have a list of questions ready for discussion. My favorite, from this brilliant scholar and incredibly well read and informed emeritus professor, was “Would you be so kind to explain why President Obama approved sending a plane load of cash to the Iranian mullahs while negotiating the Iran Nuclear Deal?”

Every time I would turn up at Glacier Hills, we would dine at his behest at a table for two with candles alight. Don would invariably order a bottle of wine, and feast not so much on the quite good food there but on the cascading tangents of our conversations, transitioning endlessly from topic to topic. Don’s nickname at GH was “the Encyclopedia,” which was quite something, there amid so many other learned retires with titles galore. In mid sentence Don would pause ever so briefly, “So I’m reading the definitive biography of Grant…” and someone two tables over would call out, “could the Encyclopedia kindly enlighten as to what the real names of the Windsors actually comprise?” Then without missing a beat, Don would finish his sentence: “but I still prefer David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln.”

Don accomplished so much in his marvelous life, in scholarly terms of course, but also in teaching terms, and most valuable to him of course in personal relationship terms. His two sisters and many a niece and nephew were dear to him, colleagues and former students both grad and undergrad, and his myriad close friends. He was affectionate with all of them, loyal, and deeply loving and caring. How could we not respond in kind, caring deeply for this wondrous and beloved, stalwart gentleman of Michigan?

On one of my recent visits we actually spontaneously roll played the Melian Dialogue, with Don relishing the immortal words spoken by Athens to Melos, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” For some time I kept in touch with other undergrad professors, but eventually there was only Don. Over the last several years I would fret to my Mother my fear that Don might pass away before I could see him again. I thought Covid would kill him; not the disease in fact, but the sheer isolation enforced on him at the nursing home. Twice I visited and had to walk up to his window and look at him while we talked on our cell phones.

Thank the heavens that at long last I was able to see him two more times in person, with my pet Vizsla Gilbert in tow. As Rob Ketterer knows, Gilbert’s affection with Don made quite an impression. On the penultimate visit, he handed me a small monograph about Thucydides by a former student of his, Johanna Hanink, and said sotto voce, “Feast your eyes on the dedication.” Johanna prefaces her acclaimed work on the master historian, with a very special dedication to Don. Moved nearly to tears, when I looked up, Don’s were all over the floor—I gave him one of his long, tight, bear hugs and we cried a few tears of joy together, one last time.

Ah, but I had to hide my other tears at seeing him so frail, borne aloft at least by the ongoing health and inveterate imagination of his gorgeous mind. We just plain had so much fun together, even this last year. I know how much his own family misses him, and his Michigan family too. We all do, miss you Don, so very much indeed, you angel masquerading as a human all the while, down here among the arbors. I suspect I’m not the only one who sometimes thinks we see him, way up there among the stars, keeping watch over us, til one day we join him hither and yon.

Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey, student of Don’s in the fall and spring of 1987/1988, but a lifelong friend and admirer.

Posted by John Hilton at 4:49 p.m. | 1 comment Bookmark and Share

Friday, September 17, 2021


Mickey Rooney was marred eight times. He quipped, “Always get married early in the morning. That way, if it doesn’t work out, you haven’t wasted a whole day.”

His third wife, the model and actress Martha Vickers, was born in Ann Arbor in 1925. Her marriage to Rooney lasted two years and they had one child.

Her father, James MacVickar, was born in Ypsilanti in 1894 and spent his childhood there, living with his grandparents. After serving in the field artillery during WWI he worked as an automobile dealer, moving with his family to multiple locations – Martha didn’t remain in Ann Arbor long.

Described as a “raving beauty,” she appeared in a number of Hollywood films. In 1946 ,Vickers played Carmen Sternwood, the promiscuous, drug-addicted younger sister of Lauren Bacall’s character in "The Big Sleep." She also starred in a musical, "The Time, the Place and the Girl." She had two more brief marriages and two more children before dying of esophageal cancer at age forty-six.

Posted by John Hilton at 1:52 a.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Monday, June 28, 2021


At the Sonic Lunch Concert Series

Ella Riot playing one day,

a band of five, all in their twenties, doing their thing,

electro, techno, funk, fusion, rock--

dont know exactly what to call it--

and people of all ages were there

digging the sounds,

swaying, clapping, dancing, singing, smiling--

in a word, grooving,

everyone having a good time--

but the ones having the best time by far

were some homeless geezers,

seven or eight of them in a cluster,

all dressed in scruffy, hand-me-down motley,

all gaunt and wrinkled from the wear and tear of time and the street,

from the cigarettes and booze and drugs that keep them going,

sustaining and killing them at the same time

(but hey, thats life, is it not?

consuming us as we go, until we go for good?),

and already buzzed they were, not wasted, mind you, but just a little high, it seemed, a little tipsy,

clapping their hands and waving their arms to the beat,

and at the climax of every crescendo jumping up and slapping each other on

their backs, hooting and hollering and laughing,

and dancing, too, in a stiff, hobbling sort of way,

shaking their booties,

gettindown, gettinsassy--

behavior most unseemly for men their age, to be sure,

but these guys were losers with nothing left to lose,

no appearances to keep up,

no dignity to maintain,

no reputation to keep intact,

no pride to go before a fall

for they had fallen already,

fallen about as far as a fellow can,

and therefore they were free to turn themselves loose,

to out-and-out lose themselves in the music,

to let themselves altogether go

and clap and dance and shout like the kids they once were,

and for a blessed hour or so like the kids they now were once again.

Posted by John Hilton at 11:14 p.m. | 2 comments Bookmark and Share

Thursday, March 18, 2021


Washtenaw County Health Department vaccination sticker

Like many Ann Arborites, I was frustrated this winter in securing an appointment to get a COVID-19 vaccine. I had no luck with Michigan Medicine or St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, never heard back from Meijer, and I couldn't nab a time at a local pharmacy.

But in early March, I obtained a vaccine appointment through the Washtenaw County Health Department. I was directed to show up at the EMU Convocation Center, where the health department operates a vast clinic (another has since been set up in Chelsea).

Here's how my experience went.

Appointment: I was assigned an 11:05 am time slot and told to arrive three minutes in advance. Since I'm a prompt person, I showed up 15 minutes early, only to find a line forming outside the center's south door.

A volunteer who was directing traffic sent me back to my car to wait. I wasn't alone. All around me, patients were arriving 30 minutes, even an hour sooner than their times.

There is no need to arrive early, and the clinic does not accept walk-ins. If you don't have an appointment, you will not be allowed in line.

The first line: At 11:05 am, I got back in line, with about a dozen people ahead of me. Soon, more people piled up behind me, with our volunteer arranging us by appointment time. It took about 10 minutes to get inside the door.

The second line: Inside the door, the line splits in two directions. The left side is for people who need assistance, such as wheelchair users or those with walkers. I went to the right, lining up to check in and get paperwork.

Across the arena: Here's where you realize that there will be a lot of walking involved. Patients travel across the mezzanine of the arena to a hallway on the other side (the EMU Women's Basketball team was practicing on the floor, which was fun to watch while we waited).

Fill out your form: In the second hallway, chairs are set up in a socially distant fashion so that you can sit down and fill out your paperwork. You answer a series of health questions, such as whether you are displaying any symptoms.

You sign the form, and signal to a staff member that you're ready. You are sent to a second check-in desk, and cleared to proceed.

Watch the video: Big screen monitors are set up with an informative video about the vaccine. Once you're finished, you head down the corridor to be dispatched to a vaccine station. Along the way, you may pass uniformed members of the Michigan National Guard.

Getting your shot: I counted about a dozen vaccine stations along the front corridor outside the arena. Mine was staffed by a nurse from the St. Joe's system. The shot itself is like any other flu shot or vaccine: it goes into the top part of your arm, and stings for a second, but it isn't otherwise painful.

Information: After your shot, you receive several pages of information about possible side effects, and a piece of paper with a QC code that you aim at with your smartphone so that you can make your second appointment.

Since I received a Pfizer shot, my appointment was scheduled for three weeks later. For this shot, you can choose a different time than the one you were originally assigned.

The last stop: Finally, you wind up in a large waiting area outside the arena, with socially distanced seats for about 100 people. You're advised to wait 15 minutes, in case you have an adverse reaction.

It was the largest crowd I'd been in since the pandemic began, and even though we'd all been vaccinated, I felt some anxiety at being in a group that big. But there is a booth staffed by EMS technicians, in case anyone falls ill (an ambulance is parked outside).

I was discouraged from taking a selfie during my shot, but the waiting area has a selfie spot, where you can pose to capture the moment for your social media accounts. It's a festive atmosphere, with people laughing, and presumably smiling under their masks.

Just like at a polling place, you can pick up a sticker. This one reads, "I got my COVID-19 vaccine!" and "Protect yourself, protect others." My fifteen minutes over, I walked back to my car.

Side effects: I felt just fine on the day of my shot. Fatigue set in the day afterwards. I'm normally not a nap taker, but I needed a two-hour lie down to get my energy back. I'm told that people feel even more tired after shot number two, so I am factoring that into my schedule.

Conclusion: dress according to the weather for your outside wait. Wear comfortable shoes (my counter showed that I covered about 1,200 steps). If you can't stand or walk, ask to use the assistance line. Plan on spending about an hour, start to finish, including the 15 minutes of post-shot waiting.

Posted by John Hilton at 3:47 p.m. | 1 comment Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

SHOPPING IN MY CLOSET by Nancy Harrington

photo of closet

After a trip to the basement to store my summer clothes, I realized that most of them had not even been worn this year. Some were on hangers with tags still attached from shopping trips last March before the shutdown.

It has been a summer like no other with us socially distancing, quarantining and ordering our food online. Since we were eating mostly at home, not going to restaurants, gyms, or visiting friends’ homes, my lounge or exercise clothes have been my outfits of the day.

As life begins to normalize hopefully in the new year, I realize that my weekly shopping excursions will not be necessary. My closet looks like it contains everything I need for various life functions. I’m now treating it like a store and asking if I really do love a piece of clothing ala Marie Kondo. Supposedly we only wear 20% of our wardrobe 80% of the time. So I’ll be donating many of the rejects to the Salvation Army, the Ann Arbor Thrift Shop or a local charitable group.

Another idea which has been successful in the past is a Clothing Swap Party. Friends will be Invited and encouraged to bring items to swap in a party atmosphere. Refreshments will be served and everyone will go home with something new. Leftover items can be donated to charity.

Shopping will be on my to do list and I will still visit the mall and favorite stores. I’m now looking at my closet as not just a storage place but as a whole new experience into fashion. It’s a treasure trove of my own preferences and tastes, and I will be able to browse to my heart’s content. Some of us haven’t exercised as much as usual during the shutdown, so we hopefully haven’t changed sizes. But that’s a whole other story.

Posted by John Hilton at 2:40 p.m. | 7 comments Bookmark and Share

Sunday, August 30, 2020

B-17: A FLYING FORTRESS, by Meghan Prindle

B-17 Yankee Lady Yankee Air Museum

She's beautiful, our Yankee Lady.

Her wings huge and wide and low,

Chrome that shines on a clear fall day,

And a four-engine hum - distant, rumbling, penetrating, exhilarating.

We run eager to the yard, the deck, the window - anywhere - to catch a glimpse as she soars overheard.

But what horror she once delivered to those on the ground or those releasing her rounds.

How could something so brutal, so calculatingly crafted, be so beautiful?

And how can the sun dance and reflect on her chrome and our ears delight in her hum?

I don't know.

But as I sit here quietly alone, I find refuge in her peaceful path;

For are we not all part of history's one long and imperfect and unbroken chain?

And in our own time we'll learn lessons hard and sacrifice to earn our part.

So take heart, have courage, and look up;

The Flying Fortress, here she comes 'round again.

Posted by John Hilton at 3:40 p.m. | 1 comment Bookmark and Share

Thursday, July 2, 2020

DANGER AT THE DOG PARK: What Every Visitor Needs to Know.

Swift Run Dog Park sign
Inspired by Kathleen Perry and written by Nancy Drubel

Let me first say that we’re PRO dog parks. The Swift Run Dog Park (corner of Ellsworth and Platt roads in Ann Arbor) is 10 acres of fenced grassland where dogs can run and play in a protected environment. It’s a great place to take your dog for exercise and social interaction.

The five of us have been meeting at Swift Run for over 10 years. We are older women, from very different backgrounds, who have bonded over conversation and the mile walk we take each morning with our dogs.

A founding member of this women’s walking group is Kathy, a 71-year-old great grandmother who’s raising three small children under the age of 10. Frail and helpless she is NOT, in fact she’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.

All that said, this article is about a hidden danger of the dog park and what happened early one morning.

Kathy never saw him coming (none of us did). In an instant, an 80-pound dog running at full speed plowed into her body from behind, tossing her into the air and throwing her to the ground. She was hit so hard that the fall fractured and dislocated her right ankle.

With Kathy writhing in pain on the ground, we called 911 and waited for the EMTs to enter the park and carry Kathy out on a stretcher. After an ambulance ride and a trip to the emergency room, she eventually had to have surgery to put a plate and pins into her ankle and she’s looking at months of pain and rehabilitation.

This was supposed to be a fun visit to the dog park, just like the ones we’ve been making every day for years. Who knew something like this could happen?

Yet in all probability, the dog that hit Kathy has done this before. There are dogs who use people’s body parts (e.g., shins, knees) to stop themselves. It is sometimes called "charging."

I used to have a sweet, gentle, 60-pound-dog, aptly named Teddy Bear, who had a nasty habit of running into the back of my legs. If you think that a dog running full force will veer off before hitting you, think again. Some don’t.

If your dog has been known to charge people, think twice before bringing them to a dog park. If you do go, watch your dog carefully and alert others to his/her charging habits. (I used to yell out frequently: "Teddy’s here, watch your knees!")

As a responsible owner, you have an obligation to let people know what to be on the lookout for, similar to letting people know if your dog has been known to bite. A dog does not charge once and then stop – most have a history of the behavior.

Here are a few suggestions to make the dog parks safer for all:

1) Be aware that some dogs charge.
2) If your dog charges people, you should consider skipping the dog park.
3) If your dog charges and you’ve still decided to go to the dog park, don’t go during high-use times (go early or late instead) and stay with your dog so you can announce the danger and intervene if necessary.
4) If a dog charges you, try and move to the fence line (though too frequently the dog comes out of nowhere and there’s no escape).
5) Do not bring small children to the dog park; if Kathy had been a child, the blow she took could have killed her.
6) Do not put your children on your shoulders – if you go down, they will fall far and hard. And remember, sometimes you just don’t see it coming.
7) If your dog charges someone and that person gets hurt, offer to pay medical expenses.If your dog bites someone, you should offer financial support; charging casualties are no different.While the owner of the dog that knocked Kathy down was distraught, we didn’t get his name and haven’t seen him since.

This accident has changed the trajectory of Kathy’s life. It could have been avoided had we known the dog was prone to charging.

Who knew something like this could happen? Now you do.

Posted by John Hilton at 9:55 a.m. | 4 comments Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

A DAY IN A MASK, by Erin Fedeson

barista Erin Fedeson wearing a mask at work, Ann Arbor, MI, May, 2020

What is it like

A day in a mask

At a coffee

Shop in this crisis?

We fill our day

With daily tasks and

Waiting out time

From clock in to out.

We smile behind

Our masks, hoping it

Reaches our eyes.

Music fills silence

But not the void,

Missing our friends,

Our families,

And our regulars.

We miss seeing

New faces coming

In with wonder

Shining in their eyes.

So we stay strong.

We put on our masks.

We brew coffee.

We await the day

The masks come off,

So we smile once more

With whole faces.

Posted by John Hilton at 11:56 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

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