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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Monday, March 4, 2019


Artwork New World, from the Hear Us! exhibition at Riverside Arts Center, March 2019

For unintended reasons, the visual exhibition "Hear Us!" at the Off-Center Gallery next to Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti offers a perfect example for Women's History Month. Among the many excellent works there can be seen a piece entitled New World, which has been hung above a doorway in the gallery. The placement is odd, at best. But there's a terribly familiar, unspoken message there. By hanging it above the doorway it has effectively lost it's power – it's been domesticated like interior decoration. It's not only that the viewer can't see the details in the piece – the PERSIST index card perched on The Thinker's foot, and the particulars of each individual representation – but this remove has reduced it to it's colors and the frilly frame. It's become simply pretty. It's eye candy. But useful – see how it bridges the space between the two walls? Yes, it 'made sense' visually, superficially, to place it there. Just as women's usefulness has made complete sense to the patriarchy. The reason the piece was made has been taken from it. The power it was meant to have has been diverted. There is no "hearing us" in the choice to hang it there – there is only confirmation that stealing our power can be a sneaky, subtle thing at times. It can happen even within a women's empowerment exhibition.

The Arts As Healing Foundation Inc. show Hear Us! runs through March 2019, Thurs.-Sat. 3-8:00 p.m., 64 N. Huron, Ypsilanti

Posted by John Hilton at 3:08 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, May 22, 2018


drawing of Henry David Thoreau

One May 21, 1861, Henry David Thoreau passed through Ann Arbor on the Michigan Central Railroad. The poet and naturalist didn't disembark (he was en route to Minnesota), but in his journal, he jotted down a few observations:

Detroit to Chicago. Very level to [Ypsilanti], then hilly to Ann Arbor, then less hilly to Lake Michigan. All hard wood or no evergreen except some white pine, when we struck Lake Michigan, on the sands from the lake partly & some larch before. Phlox varying from white to bluish & painted cup: deep scarlet & also yellow ? or was this wall flower? All very very common thru' Michigan & the former, at least, earlier.

An Amtrak rider today would see the same landscape, but our springs come earlier. By now, the phlox has blossomed and faded.

Thoreau returned home in Concord, where he died of tuberculosis the following May. He was forty-four.

Posted by John Hilton at 11:40 a.m. | 1 comment Bookmark and Share

Monday, April 23, 2018


Terry Heck Seibert

"I believe that Terry has gained a kind of immortality through the people she influenced"

-- Todd Sheets

The news sent shock waves through the Southeast Michigan theater community. For many, it started on Facebook, when the actor John Seibert changed his profile picture to a photo of his wife. Many simply clicked "like" on the photo of one of their favorite performers and people. Others already knew that the unidentified victim in an accident reported in the Ann Arbor News was Terry Heck Seibert, 61, co-chair of the theater department at Eastern, a fine performer who appeared at professional theaters in and out of Michigan, including the Purple Rose and the Performance Network. Terry had been hit by a car while walking her dog on April 13, and she didn't make it.

Terry didn't have a Facebook page, so friends and colleagues created one. It's been a place to offer condolences to John and their son, Joseph, for people to commiserate and post announcements-- there will be a memorial for Terry in June, open to the public, after the recent private service the family held at St Francis of Assisi Parish; a group of former students now living in New York are meeting at a bar to remember her. And most of all, it's become a repositorie of memories. Former students, colleagues, and friends have been been sharing stories of her life in education and art, and its impact on them, including these:

"I'm still in shock, still processing this. When it starts to get too heavy for me, I picture her in her office, surrounded by her books, papers, and sticky notes. She'll set her pencil down, lean back in her chair, cross her arms and say: 'Now Joseph, what happened was terrible. But you can't let yourself dwell on it. The best way to honor a life is to keep living yours.' This little constructed thought is somewhat comforting. Terry will continue to teach lessons to her students for many years to come." Joseph Fournier

"There was a day I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed, overbooked, a bit stressed and emotionally destroyed as my grandmother just passed away the day or so before. Terry passed me in the hall…She stopped me, reached out and grabbed my hand and asked what was wrong…. I told her everything and she listened to every word...I explained to her that I was on the verge of taking a semester off, but I feared if I did I would never come back and finish my degree. She looked me in the eye, smiled and said that whatever I need to do, I need to do...but if I was strong enough to make it through this, the next challenge won't seem as hard….I think if this meeting hadn't happened, I would not be where I am, doing what I'm doing, and tackling the challenges that have come my way." Dustin D. Miller

"Terry constantly made fun of me. I mean just murdered me every chance she got. I loved it. She…prepared me for the profession. To this day I use tools she gave me…. I think of her when I teach my students. I think of her when I'm on stage. I will continue to keep her and her godamn laugh in my heart. That godamn laugh." William Coelius

"It was the morning after George W. Bush was re-elected…while I don't recall her exact words, she said something along the lines of 'now art is more important than ever,' and, after years of limited perspective, I began to shed egocentric views of what we were studying and look at larger impacts and purposes of why theatre exists and thrives." Jeff Luttermoser

"Terry was undoubtedly a wonderful teacher and mentor for so many students, but she also took care of her colleagues. She was a mentor to me when I began at EMU, and she continued to work to make sure things are healthy and happy for us in our area. She was my staunch advocate on the topic of maternity leave this semester, and I regret that she never got to meet my new son…I will miss her sardonic, dry wit, her epic snark, and her wonderful laugh. I loved watching her perform on stage, and I enjoyed working with her as a designer when she directed, which she did with sensitivity and a fine collaborative spirit. She was always open to hearing new ideas, and you could see her spirit flare up when she got inspired by something." Melanie Schuessler Bond

"Terry was my colleague and my friend. She was funny, sardonic, thoughtful, fiercely smart and supportive. She was what a university professor is supposed to be, and I am going to miss her beyond words. I could always depend on her to see the gist of an issue and to force proper focus. She tolerated little obfuscation…For several years we co-taught a course…I loved listening to her work with her folks who were enamored with seeing themselves on camera. 'Being on camera isn't the big thing,' she would say. 'Being honest is the thing.'" Geoffrey Hammill

"I remember one of our very first rehearsals for Circle Mirror Transformation. John was directing. [and] gave Terry a character note. Terry immediately shot back with an argument for why she made the choice she did…unlike the typical bickering argument, each word that was coming out of their mouths was genius…. they obviously loved each other so much, but because they were both so good what they did, they weren't afraid to challenge each other. I was a better actor after witnessing that exchange." Sarah Ann Leahy

"Terry was the Mr. Rogers of Michigan theatre. She made me feel smart, capable, funny, and likable. When someone as great as her sees the best in you - you believe what they see. …She was a true role model. The Michigan theatre community adored Terry, and the feeling was mutual." Marissa Conniff

"I would not have graduated without Terry. I would not have found the motivation to stick with theatre after my mom died. I would not have been able to go onstage the week after despite feeling like an empty shell of a human. Terry Heck Seibert gave each of us the courage to be real - onstage and off." Luna Alexander

"There is an incredible bond among people that do a Terry show…Actors fought to work crew on Terry shows just to be around her more. I offered to cook for one of her casts just as an attempt to impress Terry…God how I wish this group was for Terry's retirement." Michael Jaworski

"Losing Terry hurts. She was my first collegiate acting professor. She coached me in my first professional acting gig. She was a thesis advisor for me…She showered me with support and love when I needed it. She kicked my ass when I needed it. She smiled. She laughed. She was more than a mentor to me. She made me a better theatre professional. She made me a better person…Terry will live on in me, because she made me better, and I know I'm not the only one." Rick Eva

"We worked together many many times.... she acted in my plays, she directed my plays, I directed her…When I first started [teaching] at EMU 13 years ago, she became a permanent fixture in my life. I started coming early to make sure I had time to chat with her before classes." Joseph Zettelmaier

"When I teach theatre, I lift some of my best stuff straight from the notes I've taken in her classes…I believe that Terry has gained a kind of immortality through the people she influenced as an actor, director, teacher...human being." Todd Sheets

Posted by John Hilton at 11:43 a.m. | 2 comments Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

SNOWBOUND LANGUAGE, by Stephen Hiltner

photo of snowy landscape


"Isn't it snice?" asked the snaughter, looking out the window at the latest principitation. "Looks like snizzle to me," answered her snaddy with a frown. His snack was still snurting from snoveling the sniveway the snay before.

As they gazed out over the snooftops of their beloved snown, the sunlight danced on the snazzeleen snowscape, all snapples and snazeycakes after sneeks and sneeks of snow.

Snay after snay, Snaddy had snoveled the snidewalk so the sneighbors could sneeze through with their stroller. First had come the snuff, which was pretty enough, but soon followed the snizzle, the snain, and the dreaded snice. The snaughters had been snappy not to have snhool, but as the snours turned to snays, and the snays to sneeks, and the snow rose towards the snooftops, they grew sneary of being snowbound.

"I can't snake it any snore!," said the snife, sneepless after another snight of her snusband's snoring. She had snuffered the snings and snarrows of outrageous snortune one snight too many. "I'm snorry, Snowcakes," offered the snusband sneepishly.

All power in the sneighborhood had been snost. "Snead as a snoornail," declared Snaddy when his snellphone finally snied. "Maybe we could snask the sneighbors to call," said a snaughter. "But we don't even snow their snames," answered Snaddy, snooking out at the snarkening sky.

"I better take the snog for a slog before we get any more snow," said Snaddy, climbing out the second floor window, snog in snand. The snog, too, was losing touch with other sneighborhood snogs, as each snay's p-mails became buried under new-fallen snow. Snavigating the snarrow, snow-lined snidewalk, the snog sniffed disappointedly, then snarled at a snogger snotting by.

Seeing the sneighbors approaching, Snaddy hastened to cross the sneet, snarrowly snissing being snit by a snar. "Snow down!", he snouted at the sniver. Just the other snay, the snog had snarked suddenly at the sneighbors, snaring the snickens out of the sniny snot in the stroller.

The trees had long since become snees, and snice had turned many a weak-trunked snee into a snoodle. "Once a snoodle, always a snoodle," worried Snaddy, snooking at a birch snee arched completely over in front of a snouse. Dodging the snool snipping from the snees, Snaddy wondered how he had ever become the designated snog-slogger.

Finally they returned snome, the snog's fur filthy from the snirty snow lining the sneets. That evening, as they snat down to sneat some leftover snoup, sneary beyond snords, Snaddy wondered if he'd ever snortle again.

"Is it possible to be blinded by the snight if it's snight-time?" asked one snaughter, confused by the new snowbound language. "Why are we snalking like this?" asked the other. "I don't snow," answered Snaddy, "but it has something to do with snimate snange. Just snink good snoughts, and snope it snoon will be snover."

Posted by John Hilton at 1:04 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Thursday, February 1, 2018


Detroit Zoo water tower

In the early 1990s, when I was in my late 30s, I lived in Huntington Woods, a small suburb of Detroit near Royal Oak. I had lived in many parts of Detroit over the past dozen or so years (near the Algiers Motel just north of the New Center, by Harpo's on the east side, on Grand Circus Park next to where Comerica Park is now, and in the Grandmont #1 subdivision near Rosedale Park on the northwest side of the city), and I would soon move back to the Ann Arbor area. In addition to living by where I-696 was being built and by the City of Detroit’s Rackham Golf Course (where Joe Louis and many of the Motown artists had played), I was close enough to the Detroit Zoo that I could hear some of the animals (mostly seals) from my front yard.

For one year, I got an annual pass to the zoo which entitled me to free admission. I was a regular there during the quiet winter months. Attendance was sparse, compared to the summer months. When there are thousands of visitors at the zoo, most of the animals pretty much tune them out. When there are only a handful of people coming by during the day, the humans seem more interesting than they would be otherwise (one factor could be that with fewer homo sapiens present, the odds are better that one of them just might be the Bearer of Food). The cold weather also made some animals more active during the day. The arctic foxes were always capering about, looking like extra fierce pomeranians. Near the foxes were the hyenas, who always seemed to appreciate my visits.

I had a rather ratty (and smelly) green winter coat that I always wore and during those cold, quiet, and deserted months at the zoo, the hyenas and I developed a little game of hide and seek. I would try to sneak up on their enclosure, hiding behind benches and trash cans. But whether by sight, sound, or smell, my playmates were always able to sense my approach.

By early spring, more people were going to the zoo. There was a field trip of grade-school kids around the hyena enclosure, boisterously trying in vain to attract the animals' attention. When the Detroit Zoo was built in the 1920s, it was one of the first zoos to experiment with enclosures that didn’t have bars. The hyenas were in an area that was separated from the paying public by a moat and a low wall.

The hyenas were a study of boredom and nonchalance in the face of the children’s best efforts. That changed instantly when the hyenas got wind of their old playmate (me) wearing his trademark jacket. The hyenas went to battle stations, hunkering down and backing up with tiny steps as though they were preparing to leap. The hyenas were not the only ones whose affect underwent a sudden and profound transformation. There was panic and mass hysteria from the little children, who didn’t understand why the rules had changed so suddenly (and not in their favor). No one got hurt, and the young people were given the opportunity to learn an important lesson: Be careful what you wish for.

Posted by John Hilton at 1:39 p.m. | 2 comments Bookmark and Share

Friday, October 27, 2017


Author Joan Blos photographed by Peter Yates, 1994

Joan Blos died on October 12, 2017. This profile originally appeared in the December, 1994 issue of the Ann Arbor Observer.

Author Joan BIos

Bucking the horror-story trend to produce thoughtful stories for children

"I don't expect books I write to be best-sellers, says Joan Blos matter-of-factly. A small, sixty-six-year- old woman with a curly mop of silver- dusted brown hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a perpetually thoughtful expression, BIos (rhymes with dose) is sipping tea at Zingerman's Next Door. Three of her fourteen books are spread on the table: the picture book The Heroine of the Titanic and two books for older children: A Gathering of Days and Brothers of the Heart.

BIos is hardly unknown: in 1980, A Gathering of Days won the John Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in American children's literature. The imagined diary of a young girl, it's currently in its eighteenth printing and has sold 350,000 copies to date. "I think they're in the process of making [A Gathering of Days] into an American classic," BIos admits.

But although she appreciates the stature the award gave her in the world of children's literature, she's a bit wistful that Gathering has overshadowed her other children's books. And sales of all of her books together are dwarfed by the hot new genre in kids' literature: horror paperbacks with titles like Say Cheese and Die and Monster Blood. A single scary series, Goosebumps, sells an incredible 1.2 million copies a month.

The idea of marketing horror books to kids is hotly disputed. With some warmth, BIos questions whether the publishing houses "are entertaining the children or exploiting them. I don't think those books are responsible for all the violence we see," she says. But she adds, "I can't help but wonder if it doesn't play into the [problem] simply by making these acts thinkable."

BIos's books are the exact opposite of the horror books: they're restrained, subtle explorations of the joys and sorrows of the human condition. A Gathering of Days is subtitled A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-32. It's the first-person story of thirteen-year-old Catherine Hall, who assists a fugitive slave, acquires a stepmother, and experiences the death of her best friend.

BIos has published two other books of historical fiction: Brothers of the Heart, a coming-of-age tale set in the Michigan wilderness of the late 1830's, and Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme, a collection of linked short stories about a sixth-grader growing up in Brooklyn before World War I. BIos's other books are picture books for young children - her particular passion, she explains, because of their "spareness and their theatrical nature."

What connects her picture books to her historical fiction for older children, BIos believes, "is my own feeling about life and the ways it is important to relate to other people." In The Heroine of the Titanic, BIos retells the true story of the legendary Molly Brown, the Denver socialite who helped save a lifeboat of survivors after the Titanic disaster.

"Molly Brown was different, eccentric," says BIos in her measured but emphatic manner. "She survived because she could help others to survive. [The Heroine of the Titanic] expresses the value of being concerned for other people."

Writing about children in contemporary times has never excited BIos. She's not sure why, although one answer may be her fascination with sniffing out, like a historian, the day-to-day experiences of another era. "It really feels as if I'm uncovering, not inventing, a story," she says, adding that she thrives on the hours she spends in the Bentley and other libraries poring over maps, diaries, and other old documents. Historical fiction is not as popular with children (or publishers) as are books with contemporary settings, BIos acknowledges. But, she says, "I don't think I can write differently than I do."

Blos was fifty-one when she published A Gathering of Days, her first book for youngsters old enough to read. Earlier in her career, however, she worked either with children or books for children, and she possesses extraordinarily vivid memories of her own childhood. In an essay for the Something About the Author Autobiography Series, she recalls going to the library at age four and watching the librarian stamp books "with a special pencil with a little outrigged stamp." In vivid detail, she goes on to describe her happy times at her progressive elementary school in New York City (City and Country School), where beyond the rigorous academics both boys and girls learned woodworking, cooking, and other practical skills.

BIos was the only child of a child psychiatrist and an educator, and her subsequent careers reflected their interests. She majored in physiology at Vassar College. After graduation, she worked as a class- room assistant in a special nursery school for disturbed children. Subsequently, she studied for a master's degree in psychology at New York's City College. She detoured at Yale to study child psychology, and there she met and married her husband, medical student Peter BIos Jr. Later, she returned to City College to get her master's; her thesis studied how children's responses to stories might be predicted.

Bios worked for several years in the publications division of New York's Bank Street College of Education, where she helped develop a pioneering reading series for inner-city children. In 1970, she moved with her family to Ann Arbor, where for several years she taught children's literature at the U-M School of Education. Then, in the late 1970's, came A Gathering of Days, inspired by family visits to her in-laws' old farmhouse in New Hampshire. Apart from teaching an occasional class or a workshop. she has spent her time since then writing for children.

As she gets older, BIos acknowledges, she has less patience for stereotypes about children's authors ("the little old lady image! Nah!") and children's books. She is further exasperated by people who assume that "we would rather be writing for adults."

The New Yorker in BIos enjoys living in downtown Ann Arbor and walking rather than driving. A member of the Downtown Development Authority's citizens' advisory council, she's passionate about efforts to get people living and shopping downtown. She wants to see more loft-style apartments filling up over storefronts. She also wants to see people living in the old Ann Arbor Inn - but she wants any plans to be shaped carefully and with great consideration for its inhabitants. "I don't want it to be just affordable," she says, "but enjoyable."

BIos gets back to New York City frequently for meetings with editors and visits with her daughter, a teacher. Her other child, a son, died of cancer several years ago at age thirty. BIos is private on the subject, but she wrote, in Something About the Author, "You do not get over such sadness, I have found, but you do get used to it."

BIos has recently experienced the joy of reading Old Henry to her two-year-old grandson; playfully, she reads it to him backward. She frequently reads to kids in schools, frontwards. Although she brings her Newbery Medal to schools when asked, BIos puts the emphasis on her books, not her prize. "There's really nothing you can do with a medal," she tells her young audiences, "except show it to people."

Posted by John Hilton at 6:22 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Friday, September 22, 2017


Northwestern University fullback Rich Athan, 1950

The Michigan Daily was founded in 1890 as a voice for U-M students. Recently it was announced that its 125 years have been digitized. That means researchers can quickly search over 200,000 pages of information written for students living in Ann Arbor.

My father, Richard Athan, was a star fullback at Northwestern in 1950. A search immediately found this summary from a Big 10 game:

NU SINKS NAVY (October 8, 1950)

Baltimore. Navy was torpedoed by the smashing of Rich Athan and bombarded by Dick Flowers' passing in a 22-0 shellacking dealt out by Northwestern before 22,000 spectators yesterday…

Athan ripped through for two touchdowns after teaming with Dick Alban to tear the Navy line apart…

The busy and tireless Athan took the ball 25 times through Navy's line to gain 140 yards...

I sent an email to my 87-year-old father with this information, and soon he had found in a Daily a 67-year-old picture of his young self literally leaping over a fallen player on his way to major yardage against Michigan.

This digitization provides a treasure trove to researchers. It provided me with a glimpse into my family's past, and maybe you will find local history of interest to you.

Posted by John Hilton at 5:22 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Friday, August 4, 2017


I'm at choir rehearsal. A “Brünhilde” soprano asks me, can I arrange piano accompaniment for her next concert? An unpublished John Denver tune? With three chords? C (deet deetle deet), F (deet deetle deet), G (deet deetle deet). I nod dismissively. “Outback Steakhouse gift card,” I say.

I retire to my studio. I play the John Denver video. I hear C (deet deetle deet), F (deet deetle deet), G (deet deetle deet). Shaky hands drift over my piano keyboard. What to do with C (deet deetle deet), F (deet deetle deet), G (deet deetle deet)? I launch MuseScore on my computer. I notate all the effing deet deetle deets onto a piano grand staff.

And then I worry the monotony of deet deetle deets will bore the audience.

I decide to improve on (cough) John Denver’s song. I improve on the C (deet deetle deet), on the F (deet deetle deet), and the G (deet deetle deet). I add tri-tone substitutions. Inversions. Split thirds. Parallel fourths. Seven-note chords. Diminished ninths. Dilapidated tenths. Augmented elevenths. Pregnant thirteenths. Rock me, Ludwig Van! This will win me a Grammy. I email my arrangement to Brünhilde.

She replies, she doesn’t know the right way to ask this, but, is there any way I can make it less chord-y and more note-y?


Brünhilde needs man-splaining. Like the philanthropic denouement of a dystopian Stanley Kubrick film, my computer speaks to me in a pleasant colonial British female voice: “Email failure.” I fall asleep. I dream of chord-y cyborgs battling note-y cyborgs on the plains of Armageddon. I awaken. I listen afresh to John Denver’s song. C (deet deetle deet). F (deet deetle deet). G (deet deetle deet). I meditate. I ask the prophets, “What perspective does Brünhilde bring to this song?” And the prophets answer me.


This is a bit of a stretch for me. Understand, I come from the piano player’s tradition. Pianists don’t breathe. But Brünhilde comes from the BREATHER tradition, where “All Breaths Matter.” Breath shapes lyric. Lyric shapes rhyme. Rhyme makes sense. Sense makes money. And I like capitalism.

Once again I listen to John Denver’s video. C (deet deetle deet). F (deet deetle deet). G (deet deetle deet). This time I listen for breath. For lyric. For rhyme. For sense. This time, John Denver’s lyrics begin to touch my heart. I get it now. The song is a lullaby for the Earth. The song is beautiful. Tears come. We’re all in this together. We are stewards. The Earth is all we have. Handle with care. Handle with tender, loving, precious, great care. Handle like a lullaby. Handle like . . . Handle like . . .

Handle like C (deet deetle deet). F (deet deetle deet). G (deet deetle deet).

Not like dilapidated thirteenths.

I re-open my MuseScore file. I delete all my brilliant dilapidated thirteenths and stuff. I re-notate John Denver’s song into: C (deet deetle deet). F (deet deetle deet). G (deet deetle deet). I email THIS version to Brünhilde with the comment, “You had good observations! I replaced the chunky piano chords with notes more like guitar strings.”

Brünhilde replies back. Thanks, she says. This is awesome.

I see Brünhilde again at the next choir rehearsal. She hands me a gift card to Outback Steakhouse. Smoothly, and graciously, I slip the card into my pants pocket, without looking at the dollar amount on the card. This is typical of my good manners.

Next day, I dine at Outback Steakhouse. Fine meal. Check comes. I unwrap my gift card. I look my gift horse in the mouth. And I see the gift card is worth a FRANKLIN.

Cool! Franklin’s my bro!

Posted by John Hilton at 10:06 a.m. | 1 comment Bookmark and Share

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