Norbert Blei | A Father’s Dilemma, Where Can My Son Grow Up Happy?

14 06 2014
Wedding-#2-Yanni's-225

Norbert Blei with son Christopher Blei and daughter Bridget Buff

A Father’s Dilemma, Where Can My Son Grow Up Happy?

YOU TAKE a kid away from an apartment house on the west-side of Chicago at the age of 5 and plunk him in the middle of 15 acres of woods and fields of Wisconsin and tell yourself, “There, now let nature do it’s work. Let the kid grow green and clean. Give him a boyhood of space and natural wonder that I never had. Save him, 0 Lord, from suburban abundance, a city’s compulsions.”

And in time, you begin to wonder in his wonder. By the age of 8, the kid knows some of the soft green machinery of earth, like the taste and private habitat of wild strawberries and blackberries; the temptation of tea made of wild roses; boiling milkweed ketis for vegetables, an old Menominee Indian secret.

AND HE can tell an English sparrow from a fox sparrow, and identify all manner of birds . . . chickadees, thrashers, towees, rose-breasted grosbeaks, purple finches, nut hatches, hawks, every kind of woodpecker. I could tell a robin from a sparrow, when I was a boy, in Chicago and had heard some talk of a blue jay.

Give him any season, and there’s sure to be something brewing in this earth.

Spring, and the tree swallows come back to nest in the houses on the birch trees out front; the towees take up their secret nesting sights in the bushes in the back. “Do the same birds come back every year? How do they find our house?” I don’t know, I don’t know. They just keep coming back.

SUMMER, and you plant a sunflower seed and see it plow five feet before your eyes, and watch it track the sun. Fall, and you catch black and white and yellow caterpillars on the underside of milkweed leaves, and you put them in a jar, and you watch the caterpillar move to the top, in time, and form a fantastic green house, about himself, and then watch for that house to turn transparent, and watch for the orange wings and old black patterns to glow brighter till the wings are free. And then you open the jar and set a monarch butterly free. Magic.

Winter, you keep the birds alive with sunflower seeds, you see the tracks of deer in a garden now under snow,  you see a red fox move across  a landscape in white  and,  maybe, you never forget a  picture like that. You hold onto that like a painting, ‘Fox in Snow’, the rest of your life.

But In time, you begin to  wonder in the wonder of it all. Is to be a father, to be in doubt? . . . “The  woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to  keep . . .and miles to go  before I sleep. . . .”

The kid can tell a birch from a maple, but does he  know what a corner lot is like, where you set traps and build forts and hold all manner of meetings in secret clubs with all the kids on the block? No. . . The kid knows perch from bass and is a better fisherman than his father ever will be, but does he know the summer games kids play in the dark, after the streetlamps have gone on? No.

DOES HE know how to chant “Ole, Ole, Ocean Free!”? No. Does he know how to lag pennies, play marbles, throw a rubber ball against concrete steps with just himself and a friend and play a whole nine inning ball game? No. Does he know how to win? Does he know how to lose?

And does he know what it means to grow up with a friend, the kid next door or  across the street? To go to school with him, to show with him, to work with him? To know his family as your own? To keep such a friendship [and many of them] alive for over 20 years? No. And very likely he never will. There is just too much distance between friends in the country.He has one or two, about three miles away. And so friendship is not an everyday, ever growing thing in the country.

AND HAS he ever been introduced to alleys? Those cracked concrete [asphalt, brick, or stone] runways that go on and on [north and south usually] and, lead to either more of the same, or great streets of business? No.

Alleys, for playing baseball, football, basketball, ice skating, roller skating, hop scotch, walking, running, chasing, throwing, hiding, junking, climbing trees and telephone poles, climbing fences, climbing garages.

Whatever your fancy, whatever your fantasy… it can be worked out in the alley.

“Do it in the alley!” … a Mother’s last resort.

And so, what for my son? I wonder, I wonder…

I can give him a bike, but I can’t give him a wire basket attached and a newspaper route. I can’t give him ten kids in the alley playing kick-the-can. I can give him a solitary swing tied to a magnificent maple, but I can’t give him a real playground. I can give him an occasional movie [80 miles away, round trip] but I can’t give him a Saturday afternoon matinee at the neighborhood show, fresh popcorn, and a carmel candy bar.

And zoos, museums, concerts, buses, trains, skyscrapers, freight yards, air ports, great bridges, department stores, elevators, escalators, neon lights, uncles, aunts, grandmas, grandpas, hot dog stands, and McDonald burgers are out of the question.

I CAN GIVE him books and music and paints, and everything nature has to offer beyond our kitchen door . . . the geese now flying overhead, the purple asters starred along the roadside, the sugar maples turning radically red by the hour.

I can give him all this, but what will it all add up to for him? And when? I’m afraid he does not know black from white. Is this good? I’m afraid he does not know the machinery of a city, the poetry, and tragedy of streets. Is this bad? He saw poverty once in a camp of migrant cherry pickers and said, “Dad, I don’t like what poor is. Dad, I don’t ever want to be poor.” Is this good?

I can give him a morning so blue and gold he can taste it. I can give him a night with such a moon and so many stars, he can touch them. I can give him all this for the time being, and only hope it will stay with him forever . . . or 20 years from now, when , he may need such luxuries.

I can give him all the time in the world to be alone, in the silence of it all.

But I can’t give him a friend from next door, standing on the sidewalk, calling for him to come out and play. And that is the sound I remember most, and the way it was with me. And I can only wonder how it will be for him.

Chicago Tribune, Sunday, December 10, 1972 BY NORBERT BLEI





Rick Kogan | Norbert Blei, 1935-2013 | Writer chronicled Chicago with the ‘soul of a poet’

23 04 2014
Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei | 1935 – 2013

Though much of his writing — gritty, urban and urbane, filled with humanity and lively characters — ranks with the best ever published about Chicago, Norbert Blei spent the last four decades in the relative peace and calm of Door County, Wisconsin, teaching, painting and, as if he could have ever stopped, writing.

He once defined his life by saying, “I am a storyteller. I am called to the page.”

Mr. Blei, 77, died Tuesday, April 23, at Scandia Village, a rehabilitation facility in Sister Bay, Wis. He had been battling cancer for more than two years.

“Norb was first and foremost a writer,” said Mr. Blei’s former student and longtime friend Albert DeGenova, a poet and publisher of Oak Park-based After Hours Press. “His books are alive with people, neighborhoods, the sights, sounds, smells of real living.”

Norbert George Blei was born in Chicago in 1935, the only child of Emily and George Blei, and grew up on the West Side before moving to Cicero in grade school.

After graduating from Illinois State University in 1956 with a degree in English, he taught that subject in high school before going to work for the City News Bureau, that bygone training ground for journalists.

He soon fashioned a successful nonfiction freelance career here but after a few years the local magazines that were a welcoming home to his stories about the city began to vanish. He was increasingly compelled to use material he once would have put into what he charmingly called “pieces of journalism” for his efforts in fiction.

Without bitterness or rancor but rather with a sense of adventure, he and his then-wife and two young children moved to Ellison Bay in 1968, where he lived his passion and joy as a writer, teacher and artist.

He became the “writer in residence” at The Clearing Folk School, a position he held for 40 years; edited a Door County arts newspaper and was the editor and publisher of CROSS+ROADS PRESS, which was devoted to emerging and accomplished poets, short story writers, essayists, novelists, artists and photographers.

Mr. Blei wrote 17 books, including those that many refer to as his Chicago trilogy: “Neighborhood,” “Chi Town” and “The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog.”

Of “Neighborhood,” the writer and critic Laurie Levy wrote in the Tribune: “There is the soul of a poet as well as a journalist at large in these pages, recalling for the less articulate those lost moments we try so hard to remember.”

Mr. Blei called “Chi Town” his “love letter to a city that has meant so much to me.” In it, one can feel his passion for this place as he writes about familiar characters like Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, as well less famous folks.

“The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog” is a sort of prose poem in honor of one of his greatest influences.

Mr. Blei also gave his adopted home in Wisconsin its due in such books as “Door Steps,” “Door to Door” and “Door Way.”

His stories appeared in The New Yorker, Chicago Magazine, Utne Reader, Tri-Quarterly, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. He was a popular speaker and a frequent guest on Wisconsin Public Radio.

He was the recipient of many awards, including the Gordon MacQuarrie Award from the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters; Pushcart Press Award in fiction; and the Bradley Major Achievement Award from the Council of Wisconsin Writers.

He also inspired a couple generations of writers, both would-be and published.

“Since my first class in 1996, he has become a true mentor in my writing life,” DeGenova told the Tribune early this year. “His passion for the literary subjects he chooses to teach, his dedication to the writing life, to the purity of the word, to the flow of feeling to thought to words on the page … A powerful fire Norb (was) …”

Mr. Blei is survived by his longtime partner, Jude Genereaux; his former wife, Barbara Blei; a son, Christopher; a daughter, Bridget Buff; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned.

Rick Kogan, April 30, 2013| Chicago Tribune





Norbert Blei | Christmas Eve in Door

20 12 2013

Norbert Blei

All roads lead,

eventually, to Ellison Bay from here, including Mink River Road which takes me past the house of old Oscar Dysterud, moving slowly through the living room this night, past Gust Klenke’s garage once again, the blue-white neon clock glowing in the window forever, it seems, 8:45 . . . more or less.

The pavement almost dry from the wind by now. But no clearing. No moon. No stars. Just an ever deepening night. The only snow to be seen, patches of it from weeks ago, still clinging to the roadside ditch past the Hartman place and Johnny Fitzgerald, Approaching Timberline, a string of colored Christmas lights brightens the front porch of Loco’s (Robert Cuellar) place. A light, always on, at Uncle Tom’s old Newport School. Turning left . . . darkness … turning right… home.

I make coffee, cut the apple pie, slice some cheddar cheese, light the Christmas tree, put on three albums of classical guitar, sip wine, and open a present I have given to myself: The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. “The great thing is to love—therein lies the excitement, the fundamental vibration of the life force.”

I read in and around a stack of other books, listen to a Dylan Thomas recording of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” answer the phone (the Rausches, extending their greetings from Western Springs, Illinois), then turn on the TV to catch John Paul the II’s mass from Rome (for old time’s sake), to see St. Peter’s Basilica once again, to hear the Latin, the music, to witness the splendor of a ritual I celebrated as a child, a ritual which intrigues me still in different ways.

I think of my family in other places. I think of friends spread out in so many directions. I think of my own journey in place this Christmas Eve in Door.

I think not so much of Christmas as spirit, alive in everyone, in all seasons, in all places, and how it flickers in the darkest recesses imaginable. I think of my work: to find the people, the place, the time, the words and forms to say these things for all, yet make them mine.

Call it Christmas. Call it spirit. Call it love. Call it light.
In the midnight hours I read a Hopi incantation, and turn to sleep:

The day has risen.
Go I to behold the dawn,
Go behold the dawn!
The white rising!
The yellow rising!
It has become light.
And on Christmas morning, on the road, a clarity of sky, a gift of sun.

from the chapter: Christmas Eve in Door – Winter Book

Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei - Winter BookWinter Book is a mature performance with a satisfying sense of completion. The season is winter; the dominant theme is the acceptance of small wonders, including decay and obscurity. Like Blei himself, Winter Book is alternately nostalgic, angry, and amusing. It is in some respects a very public book, in others a very personal collection. The journalistic profiles are Blei’s own experiences and friends, including public figures like Chan Harris and Al Johnson, and Door County natives, poets, musicians, and artists. Blei’s fictions explore the Door landscape on a deeper level. Blei is an astute observer whose attitudes are shared by readers inside and outside the County. Once again the personal becomes the public, and Winter Book, like Door Way, records communal experience.
Norbert Blei’s Winter Book is available by clicking here… or just click the book cover on the left.

Norbert Blei





Norbert Blei | On Poetry

2 11 2013

Emily Dickinson Poetry Series, April 13th 2011. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County





Norbert Blei | The Courage to Create

2 11 2013

The “Courage to Create” is a four part speaking engagement featuring thoughts from a writer, an artist, a musician and a theologian. They respectively include: Norbert Blei, Chick Peterson, Katie Dahl and Phil Sweet.

Norb was the last of four individuals to address the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County in Ephraim, Wisconsin on Sunday, September 30, 2012. In essence, Blei is recounting the story of his life.

“The creative impulse is hardwired into everybody; it is not reserved for creative types like inventors and artists. Every moment the brain is connecting something known to something unknown, every moment holds a surprise.”

“Creativity,” Einstein said, “is the residue of time wasted.”

Production Credits: DesignWise Studios, Sturgeon Bay, WI http://DesignWise.net | Stephen Kastner, Video-journalist http://DesignWiseFilms.com | Alastair Cameron, Music http://www.cameronmusic.co.uk | Sheila Saperstein, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Recording Engineer http://uufdc.org





Norbert Blei Retrospective

2 11 2013

This is a compilation of three readings by Norb Blei, who passed away in 2013. He was an important writer of and in Door County, Wisconsin. Included are excerpts from his performances at Miller Art Gallery on 03-13-11 as part of a Frances May celebration, and two Christmas shows at Door Community Auditorium on 12-23-09 and 12-23-10.








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