What do you do?
It’s what people ask when they first meet as a way to identify each other, yet our jobs do not have to define us.
When I asked Jeff Kass this question, he answered with three jobs: a full-time English teacher at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, part-time pizza delivery person, and part-time director of literary programs at the Neutral Zone for a year in 2016-2017. During that time, he also worked on drafting the autobiographical poems about this experience that form his new collection, Teacher/Pizza Guy (Wayne State University Press).
Teacher/Pizza Guy reveals Kass’ experiences in the classroom and pizza place, including issues with service industry jobs, challenges of aging, and relationships with colleagues, youth, and family. Despite the possible mundanity of work, Kass offers poetic insights on the situations. The first poem in the collection, “Oh, Splotch of Blue Paint,” not only addresses the paint on the sidewalk outside of the school where Kass teaches but also ruminates about its origins:
…were you trying to paint the sea? A place
for you to float in? The breeze a lovely, reassuring
friend who brings you cookies and iced tea
and listens to you without judging…?
This speculative question, in turn, raises a question for me: Isn’t that what we’d all like, a pleasant place, a friend who shares treats, and good conversation? Another poem depicts colleagues crossing paths in the night as Kass returns to home from his pizza-slinging job to see a fellow pizza slinger working his other job of delivering newspapers.
Amidst dishwashing, disastrous delivery runs, and the grind of teaching students in class after class how to write essays, Kass pulls out moments of clarity that describe the working life. One poem describes a break during which he makes a pizza for himself, one that’s not on the menu, and writes, “Believe / for a moment / your time / belongs / to you. / Savor. / Chew.”
Within the drudgery of going from job to job, Kass is not all work; he observes and shows parallels between his jobs and life, recognizing and taking ownership of those moments rather than letting work consume him, almost as if he is both living his life and watching it from the outside. Kass finds meaning in those fleeting moments of entering and exiting customers’ lives to bring them pizza and also seeks respect as he makes ends meet.
Kass, who lives in Ann Arbor with his wife, Karen Smyte, and their children, Sam and Julius,
will read from his collection at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 10, at 7 pm. I interviewed him about his poetry and work.
Ann Arbor trio Towner created the terrific power-pop album "This Is Entertainment" during quarantine
The Ann Arbor trio of bassist Jason Horvath and guitarists Kris Ehrig and CT James recorded 12 songs for the LP and every tune could be single. Towner originally intended This Is Entertainment to be an EP, but the musicians were so happy with the results, they just kept recording at home, with Ehrig programming the drums. This Is Entertainment isn't exactly lo-fi, but there's a distinct bedroom-pop ambience to the record and that intimacy and warmth serves the band's songs perfectly.
"We had plans to record the 'normal' way in a studio in April," Ehrig wrote in an email, "but that got canceled for quarantine. At that point, I started recording a few songs on my own that weren't going to be on the record just to pass the time and keep myself sane. Then our drummer [Alex Molica] dipped to Vermont and everything got thrown out the window. Instead of scrapping it and starting over, or quitting altogether, we looked at a recording process that was working and switched to the material we had originally planned."
Towner's combined sound is reminiscent of the most melodic Guided By Voices songs, with Ehrig's tunes edging more toward those of The Only Ones -- mainly because of his slightly snarly singing, though he's a much stronger traditional crooner than Peter Perrett -- and James' compositions yanking out the catchier aspects of Weezer's music and leaning into them while discarding the annoying stuff (basically, being Weezer). I say this with peace and love as a Weezer non-fan and as someone who was knocked out by This Is Entertainment, but the way Towner plays with doo-wop-y harmonies and 1950s and 1960s rock 'n' roll vibes under its modern, hazy, indie-rock top layer frequently reminded me of the sorts of things Rivers Cuomo toys with in his songs.
Ehrig answered some questions about how Towner put together This Is Entertainment.
Like most musical groups, the Rob Crozier Jazz Ensemble spent much of 2020 in quarantine due to the pandemic.
But Crozier managed to keep the creativity flowing by digging into live recordings the group made at Grosse Pointe’s Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in February 2019, and the result is the Ensemble's first live album.
Live is a nice mix of funky fusion, straight-ahead jazz, and world music, featuring tunes from Crozier's last two studio albums, Tall Trees (2017) and Ocean Blue (2018), plus a couple of new songs. For this album, the Ensemble consisted of bassist Crozier, Rafael Statin on reed instruments, pianist/keyboardist Keaton Royer, drummer Rob Avsharian.
Crozier and Co., who were always active playing area stages and festivals before the pandemic, recently started performing again to socially distanced crowds as part of the ongoing series Jazz After Dark at Weber’s Restaurant.
In advance of the album’s release concert at Weber's on September 5, I emailed with Crozier about Live and how he stays creative during the pandemic.
Jazz pianist, Juno Award winner, and U-M professor Andy Milne guides us through his new album, "The reMission"
When jazz pianist Andy Milne moved to Ann Arbor in 2018 to become an assistant professor of music, jazz, and contemporary improvisation at the University of Michigan, he didn't know he would win the 2019 Juno Award for Jazz Album of the Year by a group for The Seasons of Being record with his Dapp Theory ensemble.
But Milne did know he had survived prostate cancer in 2017, so winning Canada’s Grammy equivalent was a nice side note to, you know, being alive.
After recovering from cancer but before moving to Michigan, Toronto-area native Milne, who had lived in New York City since the early 1990s, also started the Unison trio featuring drummer Clarence Penn and bassist John Hébert, composing stripped-down music that is the opposite of Dapp Theory’s fractured-funk polyphony, which features a multitude of instruments and voices. The trio released its debut album, the contemplative The reMission, in April and had planned a tour for May, which the coronavirus pandemic wiped out.
While Milne was disappointed he wasn't able to promote The reMission, he's used the downtime to get acquainted with Ann Arbor now that his wife, the singer and Oberlin College and Conservatory educator La Tanya Hall, was finally able to join him in Michigan.
Plus, he looking forward to diving into what the University of Michigan has to offer in terms of combining his interests in pairing music with science and research.
“I realized when I came here, my primary focus was like, ‘Oh, I’m coming to Ann Arbor to take this teaching position and really embrace a role in the university community,’ both within [the school of] music, theater, and dance and just exploring where my path and where my place would be in the university,” Milne said. “So, I’ve been collaborating with faculty and researchers in different areas of the university for public health and these kinds of things. I’m finding where my zone will be inside of that.”
Combining music with other disciplines has long informed Milne’s work, including Dapp Theory’s The Seasons of Being, which coalesced around ideas he learned while treating his cancer with homeopathy, and the documentary soundtracks he’s composed for Capt. Kirk himself, William Shatner. (The reMission’s “Vertical on Opening Night” is named after something Shatner said in one doc.)
Being at a large research university like Michigan means Milne can continue to explore cross-disciplinary creativity, all in a town he finds welcoming and easy to navigate.
“I think it’s probably just the proximity of everything,” Milne says of Ann Arbor. “The fact that I’m living close to my work, and people are super-friendly here, and there’s great restaurants. I mean, it’s a really livable city, and I’ve been able to get out and enjoy riding my bike and exploring neighborhoods and things like that. I like the feeling here.”
While Milne wasn't able to go out and promote The reMission, he did give us a song-by-song tour of the new album, which you can listen to below on Spotify as you read his commentary.
Imagine being dropped off in the wilderness, uninhabited except for 19 people with you and rangers who patrol the land. Modern amenities are nonexistent, but the upside is that the air quality is much better than the polluted city. You live nomadically and hunt, fish, and gather to survive. This is not an extended camping trip. It is your new way of life.
This intense scenario forms the premise of Diane Cook’s new book, The New Wilderness, a speculative novel involving relationships and the environment—and how the latter influences the former. The novel has landed on the long list for the Booker Prize. Cook has taught for the University of Michigan, is a U-M alum, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
In a joint virtual event, both Cook and Karolina Waclawiak, whose new novel Life Events was just published, will read and discuss their new books through the At Home with Literati series Monday, August 31, at 7 pm.
The characters of The New Wilderness, including Agnes, her mother Bea, and her mother’s husband Glen, go to the wilderness as part of a research experiment to determine whether this lifestyle is sustainable. Bea joined to save Agnes’ life. Agnes was five years old when they arrived and gravely ill from the effects of pollution. Despite learning how to stay alive in the wild and improving Agnes’ health, the characters’ memories of their former life, their love for one another in all its forms, and the burden of subsisting clash and inform their individual choices.
Early on, Bea’s concerns emerge when considering their next journey to a ranger post farther than they’ve had to go before:
Glen hooked his arm around her neck and pulled her close. “Now, now,” he murmured. “This will be fun.”
She knew that a big part of Glen believed this. But no part of Bea did. She pictured the map in her head again and saw all that unknown land, that beige parchment, all that nothing. They would be changed on the other side of it, that much she knew. Not knowing how was only one of the things that scared her.
The New Wilderness calls into question what the natural world is and should be, while also showing how vast the wilderness within and between people can be.
I interviewed Cook about this book and her writing.
Innovation & Education: "Welcome to Commie High" documents the history and influence of Ann Arbor's legendary school
This article originally ran March 25, 2020.
We're rerunning the story to highlight the launch of the "Commie High" archive at aadl.org/commiehigh:
This site serves as a supplement to the independent, feature-length documentary about Community High School in Ann Arbor, MI—produced by 7 Cylinders Studio—providing extensive extra content available for public viewing and research. Additional materials and development are anticipated in future editions.
There are video extras, historical and making-of-the-film photos, a music database documenting the school's numerous bands and musicians, digitized yearbooks, and news articles.
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing teachers and administrators to improvise ways to serve their pupils academically, mostly through virtual learning and online academies. Other imaginative approaches will be introduced as the pandemic drags on, spotlighting the skills of educators and showing how resourceful they can be when not stuck on a treadmill of prepping kids for standardized tests.
But one school in Ann Arbor has been using innovative educational approaches for nearly 50 years.
Ann Arbor's Community High School started in 1972 with a "school without walls" concept. A handful of other schools across the country adopted similar approaches, where structured curricula were abandoned in favor of flexible programs that best fit individual students' needs, with a focus on real-world education.
But the Community model never expanded deeply into the mainstream.
Until now. (Kinda.)
A heavily modified variation of Community's wall-free education approach is being tested during the coronavirus pandemic, and it seems inevitable that some of these outside-the-box ideas will be incorporated into schools once this over and society deals with our new normal.
Welcome to Commie High, a new documentary by Ypsilanti-based filmmaker Donald Harrison, shows the school's unique approach to education, from its hippie-era beginnings to its place in the modern landscape, talking to students and teachers from the past and present about what makes Community special -- and effective.
The movie was to premiere as part of the 58th Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF). But with the entire event being moved to a livestream on Vimeo due to the lockdown, Harrison and the AAFF are are offering Welcome to Commie High as fundraising rental. The movie will be available to rent for $9.99 from 10 am, March 30 to 10 am, April 1; each rental will be active for 48 hours. The rental fee will be split two ways: 50 percent of the proceeds will go to the AAFF to help offset costs and the rest will be put toward the distribution of the documentary. Click here to pre-order the rental.
Harrison answered some questions via email about Welcome to Commie High.
Jesse Kramer's "Antinous as Osiris" interprets Roman passion and New York jazz through the lens of a Washtenaw County upbringing
This story originally ran June 12, 2019.
For roughly half a decade, the Roman emperor Hadrian was in love with a man who was not his spouse. Between 125 CE and 130 CE, the Greek youth Antinous became a favorite of Hadrian, and for the final two years of the latter's life they were side by side touring the Roman empire.
After Antinous' surprise death on the Nile, Hadrian was devastated and, in his grief, proclaimed his lover a deity, In turn, priests connected Antinous to the Egyptian god Osiris, lord of the underworld, afterworld, and rebirth.
Nearly 2,000 years later we have Antinous as Osiris, the latest album by Ann Arbor jazz drummer Jesse Kramer.
Not a Fake Ad: I Spy two new books from the Ann Arbor Observer highlighting its beloved monthly contests
If you live in the Ann Arbor school district, you are a recipient of the Ann Arbor Observer. The monthly magazine offers in-depth reporting on local issues and residents, a robust calendar of area events, and two long-running contests that are often the first things to which readers turn: "Fake Ad" and "I Spy."
If you're a superfan of these challenges, you won't have to wait until the next Observer arrives because the magazine is publishing two books of highlights from the contests: I Spy…Architecture: Photo Puzzles From the Ann Arbor Observer, Vol. 1 by Sally Bjork and The Fake Ad Book: 47 of the Best Fake Ads of All Time by Jay Forstner.
Forstner has worked on "Fake Ad" since the early 1990s when he had his “dream job” of being a staff writer for the Observer.
“I came up with the 'Fake Ad' as a way of trying to contribute more to the Observer because I loved the publication and the people I worked with," Forstner says. "The funny thing is that in the first years after I started writing the 'Fake Ad,' I also wrote some of my best articles for the magazine. I think the 'Fake Ad' was my way of connecting with my work.”
Bjork proposed the "I Spy" feature to editor John Hilton in late 1998.
“It originally focused on historic architecture and eventually expanded to include other things," Bjork says. "It began in February of 1999 and, thankfully, it has been going ever since."
Picking favorites from these beloved features proved difficult for both writers. Forstner recalls the fake ad for the Victorious Egret lingerie shop for ornithologists. “It combines three of my passions: wordplay, sexy lingerie, and bird watching," Forstner jokes, "which are very difficult to pursue all at the same time, sadly.”
What you have. What you want. What you hang on to. What you give up.
Jeans. A house. A spouse. Drawings. Places. Jobs. A fantasy.
Sara Schaff’s second collection of short stories, The Invention of Love, invests in these questions of possession and ownership, of affiliation and surprising loss. The best way to understand the characters’ distinct circumstances and the fine lines between one version of their life or another that they choose, or that gets chosen for them, is by looking at the plots themselves. For example, two half-sisters lose their mother, and both covet her pair of jeans used for dancing in “Our Lady of Guazá.” In another story called “Noreen O’Malley at the Sunset Pool,” Noreen must let go of the narratives about her friends and lovers that she hoped for as she cares for her new baby.
Still, a character may make a delightful discovery amidst a seemingly unbearable situation, such as a woman eventually becoming enthralled by Anna Karenina despite the fact that her ex-husband’s new wife (and their family friend) had been the one who recommended the book. These observant views of these women show their realizations and complicated hardships as they navigate life and its turns.
Schaff will speak with Greg Schutz, writer and lecturer at the University of Michigan, in an At Home with Literati virtual event on Tuesday, July 21, at 7 pm. Schaff and Schutz are friends and fellow graduates of the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Information to join via Zoom is on the event webpage. We corresponded via email beforehand, and here are my questions and Schaff’s responses.
Michigan natives Chris Erickson and Hadley Robinson have been friends since birth.
“Before birth, actually," Erickson says. "Our dads grew up together, our grandmothers went to college together and they lived on the same street in Midland.”
The two stayed in touch through adulthood as each became artists in different ways.
Robinson is a video producer based in Brooklyn: “My background is in journalism, I used to be a newspaper writer. I’ve worked in video full time for the past five years while dabbling in audio, which has been helpful with this endeavor.”
Erickson teaches in the IB program at Huron High School where he also serves as the creative activity service coordinator, guiding students to find and pursue their creative interests.