Today would have been my father ‘s 85th birthday … Chris Blei

24 08 2020

Sidewalks by Rick Kogan / Chicago Tribune

15 06 2020
Shadows of the “L” tracks and CTA platforms overhead cover Wabash Avenue in the Loop on Wednesday. Many of Chicago’s downtown elevated tracks were built around the turn of the last century. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune )

Shadows of the “L” tracks and CTA platforms overhead cover Wabash Avenue in the Loop on Wednesday. Many of Chicago’s downtown elevated tracks were built around the turn of the last century. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune )



I have had many walks in this city but none as weirdly wonderful as one last week.

I could have walked any number of city streets but chose one that carried the wounds inflicted by recent frustration and anger.

I have watched protesters on many streets over the last weeks and there was a sense of pain and urgency among the marchers. There was time given to shouting but there was little time in these journeys for quiet observation.

I needed to walk alone and chose Wabash Avenue. I needed memories in the face of an uncertain future. Wabash is not the street on which I grew up and spent most of my life. That street is tucked sedately inside Old Town. But Wabash has been a street I have known well.

The past, its images and sounds, can, even in the face of the world’s many troubles, give comfort. Pick a street you have known and walked and walk it now. No matter how savaged, it can evoke memories for you and maybe hope.

I believe this because when I start to walk I hear Jim Morrison at the corner of Wabash and Congress, thrown back nearly 50 years to a June 14, 1969, concert at the Auditorium Theatre where I saw Morrison and the Doors perform. He wrapped himself in his microphone cord and rolled across the stage as he sang “Light My Fire.”

All along this walk, the past came crashing into the all too real present.

It was a Friday, the weather hot and heavy, even in the shade cast by the “L” tracks overhead, which have been hanging above this street since I was a child, holding it in darkness and shadows on even the most sun-splashed days. I recall that writer Nelson Algren called the “L” “the city’s rusty heart” but think of this city now as slashed and burned.

I know that many of the business on Wabash will bounce back but how high I can only guess. Other businesses on other streets will not be as fortunate. They are already dead and gone.

Central Camera Co. here is badly damaged, but its neon sign remains, reminding people that it has been here since 1899. The store vows rebirth, telling its many Facebook followers: “We will rebuild, and we look forward to seeing all of your faces once we reopen.”

Then comes a voice and it is the voice of Mike Royko, who understood this city as well as any and who wrote, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, and the ensuing fires that leveled much of the West Side, “Hypocrites all over this country would kneel every Sunday morning and mouth messages to Jesus Christ. Then they would come out and tell each other, after reading the papers, that somebody should string up King, who was living Christianity like few Americans ever have.”

I can see Mike too. It is the early 1980s and he and I are sitting inside Miller’s Pub and we are with Bill Veeck, who twice owned the White Sox. I did not say a word this night as the two older men talked and drank and laughed and smoked. I remember that is was Veeck who integrated the American League when he owned the Cleveland Indians and hired and played Larry Doby in 1947 and, in time, also put to work baseball’s first black public relations man, trainer and scout.

Soon, the Palmer House is offering me the knowledge that inside its locked doors is its Palmer House Museum, fitting because it is Chicago’s oldest (1873) hotel and the first so-called fireproof hotel in the U.S.

Walking, I remembered too that Veeck claimed to read a book a day and now I am passing on the other side of the street the site of what was once Kroch’s & Brentano’s. It was a paper-on-ink playground, 31/2 floors and the centerpiece of a nationwide chain of bookstores. But it died in 1995, bankruptcy the cause, but hope comes in the many independent bookstores that dot the area, most struggling for the moment but determined to carry on, and when that happens I will buy books at each.

To the west are the windows of Macy’s, all covered in boards. This was once the flagship store of Marshall Field & Co. I remember the picketing and boycott threats that took place when Macy’s purchased Field’s in 2005. That always confounded me. The State Street building was not being torn down. It and the other Field’s stores were not being converted into discount centers. I have a certain historical stake in this matter. My father, Herman Kogan, and Lloyd Wendt wrote the definitive history of the company in their 1952 “Give the Lady What She Wants,” and so I was from my earliest years imbued with the store’s history and the meaning of it all and the memories are too vast to calculate.

The city is, I remind myself, an organic thing, ever-changing, remolding itself in the visions of developers and architects and politicians. And now perhaps the people will get in on the game.

Just before Randolph, I remember the Blackhawk and its fine food and know that older folks walking here might remember its earlier years when it hosted all the big bands/big names of a bygone time: Benny Goodman, Kay Kyser, Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby and Louis Prima and Les Brown.

At Randolph I can see to the east the Prudential Building that now houses the offices of the Tribune and in a couple of more blocks I can see where the Tribune once was, in a Tower now turning slowly into million-dollar condominiums.

Across the river I see not what is there now but what was once there, the squat building that announced its resident in large letters facing south: CHICAGO SUN-TIMES.

I worked for both papers. The Daily News died in 1978 and the Sun-Times lives in the West Loop. The tall building that now sits on the spot has new lettering: T-R-U-M-P.

Ernest Hemingway, a child of Oak Park, once wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Chicago now has many broken places, some healing faster than others. Will we collectively be stronger at those broken places? I wonder and hope.

The bridge was raised. My route was blocked. This walk was over. The river flowed.

Rck Kogan / 2020 / Chicago Tribune

Gibraltar Schools graduate wins Norbert Blei scholarship, will major in journalism / Green Bay Press Gazette

7 06 2020
FISH CREEK - Solomon Lindenberg, a 2020 graduate of Gibraltar Area Schools, was awarded the seventh annual Norbert Blei Memorial Scholarship, named in honor of the late, well-known Door County writer. Photo: Lucas Smith/Courtesy Door Guide Publishing

FISH CREEK – Solomon Lindenberg, a 2020 graduate of Gibraltar Area Schools, was awarded the seventh annual Norbert Blei Memorial Scholarship, named in honor of the late, well-known Door County writer. Photo: Lucas Smith/Courtesy Door Guide Publishing

Lindenberg plans to move to Chicago this fall to pursue a degree in journalism from DePaul University with a minor in music. He was presented with the award during Gibraltar’s virtual senior banquet May 27 by guidance counselor Chelsea Roberts. It normally is presented in person, but this year it became a virtual affair because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Blei award is a $1,000 scholarship offered to a graduating Gibraltar senior in memory of Blei, a lifelong writing teacher, writer and author, and lover of words and the literary arts. Lindenberg has been writing for the school newspaper, The Viking Voice, since his freshman year and was editor-in-chief during his senior year, when it received a third-place award in the General Excellence category from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. In collaboration with English teacher Linda Fey, he began a program that made student essays and opinion pieces eligible for publication in the student publication.

The school newspaper experience gave him a taste of many aspects of the newspaper profession.

“I learned so much about not only writing content from scratch, but also the world of copy editing, advertising and publishing,” Lindenberg said in a press release.

In October, Lindenberg became an intern with the weekly publication Peninsula Pulse, gaining real-world experience in writing stories and columns of local impact, editing and website design.

His desire is to provide knowledge, insight and entertainment through his writing.

“I believe that as a writer, I will be able to create work that will profoundly affect people, create awareness, and potentially bring about change,” Lindenberg wrote.

Blei’s career began in Chicago, where he was a contemporary and friend of urban writers, newspaper columnists and media figures like Mike Royko and Studs Terkel.

He moved to Door County in 1969 and famously wrote his many books in a converted chicken coop, including his seminal Door County nonfiction book, “Door Way.”

After Blei’s death on April 23, 2013, his chicken coop/writing studio was moved to Write On, Door County, a writing arts organization in Juddville, where it is used as a meeting place for writing seminars and other gatherings.

In the essay he submitted for the scholarship, Lindenberg wrote about growing up in Door County and his newfound appreciation for it.

“I’ve considered Door County to be the comfort zone that I needed to break out of in order to reach my standards of leading a successful life,” he wrote. “I’ve always had my eyes set on living in a big, densely populated area where the vastness of opportunities is immeasurable. As a result of putting myself in this frame of mind, I unknowingly shut out the similar vastness of opportunities Door County had to offer.”

Asked if he had a favorite Blei quote, Lindenberg said, “While I’ve only scratched the surface of Norb’s writing, I like his views on the Door County Advocate … and his column ‘Shut the Damn Door.’

“My favorite quote is, ‘You write to find out about yourself. If you’re in areas where you’re not finding out about yourself, it’s futile. You’re wasting your time.’”

Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or Christopher Clough Green Bay Press-Gazette / Published 2:41 PM EDT Jun 4, 2020

What’s Not to Love ? by Jude Genereaux

23 04 2020

What’s Not to Love ? 

In a humorous essay titled “Fifty Reasons Not to Love a Poet” I recognized a whole shock of proclivities clearly fitting Norbert. The one that immediately made me laugh:

“All of their furniture is positioned around windows, for them to stare out for hours at a time.”

Anyone who ever visited Norbert in the Coop will testify to the fact that his desk was positioned smack in the middle of a bank of windows that looked out into the woods and beyond to the road, another window at his left allowed him to not miss anything moving over by his first neighbor, Charlie Root’s.

The same pattern was established inside our home: the living room was arranged as a sort of command center. The stereo components were stacked at the right of his lazy boy chair for immediate access to music and public radio; a modest TV sat just beyond, for easy viewing and handy remote control; a pair of head phones were within reach if he chose to see/hear all or both at once. Tall stacks of books fairly toppling over in height, stood in rows around the chair, which was squarely centered in the middle of all this. Most important – that chair sat directly in front of a row of windows facing Europe Lake Road.

Norb’s unending curiosity sometimes drove him to listen to programs on NPR at the same time he’d be reading a book, maybe even while watching the PBS Newshour. Not missing a thing, he would take note of a neighbor’s car returning at the end of the day or a pack of wild turkeys mincing their way through the front yard. He took it all in, the windows a crucial part in framing his observance of Life as it happened. Always close at hand were his notebooks and pens (this too is listed in the “50 Reasons” list of habits), for at all times, Norb was watching, recording, imagining.

What so captivated his imagination in this rural setting, where not all that much went out out there? Observing the rhythm of life as it happened outside the security of walls enhanced his peace of mind, his stoking a sense of the natural world as the changes and beauty of the seasons passed before his eyes. Anyone reading DOOR STEPS can see the progression of emotion in the word scenes he captured of the woods and garden, the sky, the weather itself brought to the page – he watched it all through those windows.

Walking the roads fed his imagination, clarified thoughts … but the simple ability to observe the passages from the geography of a chair, brought a richness of thought few of us experience. Through his words we are able.

The return of spring and warmth and growth and green clearly brought on Norb’s most buoyant bursts of joie de’ vivre. It will always be doubly crushing that he had to leave us in April. April 23rd this year marks the seventh year he has been gone from our lives. But not our hearts.

All of which I would list within an essay on “Fifty Reasons to Love a Poet.” ~Jude Genereaux April 23, 2020

These are for YOU NorbertO’, with all our love.

23 08 2019

As Norb’s birthday rolls into view, I am compelled wanting to say something to him / about him (like: you should be here … ) to share on his Poetry Dispatch post. He would be 84 this August 23rd.

It occurs to me that I and the family are not the only ones who love him, miss him … I asked a few of his closest friends and members of “the Blei tribe” if they’d like to make a comment? A sentence or two … an experience, a thought of him, a lingering memory?

These are for YOU NorbertO’, with all our love. ~ Jude

“In an old journal recently found, I talked of how I loved Norb and my early days at the Clearing. I remember his sort of talking me into playing my guitar on a Friday night, and I was paralyzed and not only splatted all the chords but couldn’t sing a note. Fortunately, his big voice boomed out “Those Were the Days, My Friend,” and they really were.” ~Jackie Langetieg

“Ah – there he is – teacher, mentor, inspiration, friend! Our birthdays were just 5 months apart (1935 was a good year.) Without his encouragement I wouldn’t have figured out I could write poetry; I wouldn’t have a single book. I’ll be eternally grateful!” ~ Alice D’Alessio

“The way to do is to be – Lao Tzu. The way to write is to write – Norber Blei

This is the quote and mindset that began and shaped Norb’s annual class at The Clearing Folk School, the class he led for over 40 years. I first attended that class in 1996, in 2001 Norb published my first book under his Cross+Roads Press, and this year, 6 years after Norb’s passing, I have the privilege and honor to still be teaching Norb’s Writing Workshop at The Clearing. Yes, I miss his presence and wisdom, but through his writing, I can regularly share a visit with him and his no-nonsense ways, “If you are not quietly writing who you are, where you are, at the time you are, you are not writing the fictional truth, but living the transparent lie” (The Winter Book). Each year as I prepare my Clearing writing class, I am visited by Norb’s influence -and maybe it’s his spirit or energy or dare I say ghost? that points me toward just the right passage, whether from his own writing or someone else’s. After seven summer workshops, the class has taken on my own personal touch, but I do my best to maintain Norb’s approach and teaching style. And every year I find more of his words to share with my students. Words to live and write by: “Don’t live second-handedly! The poetry of other people is good for only a beginning. But it’s nothing compared to the poems you hold inside yourself.” (Adventures in An American’s Literature) Happy 84th Birthday, Norb, you’re still with us! ~Al DeGenova

“Norb: a writer, a philosopher, a mentor, a friend, a baker, a lover of Door County, a drinker of good scotch, and a defender of the Bridge.” ~ Rev Michael Brecke

“Having come from similar backgrounds, I felt I had good insights into Norb’s reactions to life here and now, that is to beautiful Door County in the late 20th Century. And I was absolutely delighted when he began asking me to illustrate his wonderful writings.” ~Chick Peterson

“Without Norb, I would not have become anything more than scribbler of words. I learned that poetry can be seriously pursued. Miss ya, man.” ~Michael Koehler

“Norb was a very gifted teacher and I thank Phyllis Ingwersen for dragging me out of the weaving class at the Clearing In Winter one day saying “you belong in this writing class! Norb’s first words to the class were, “write something, any thing, about the color red.” It was my introduction to writing and a fine teacher. “ ~Sue Peterson

“I miss Norb… I REALLY miss Norb! I first found Norb in the Reminder… that followed up with my very first NorbTOON that Lonnie printed in his paper THREE times… I know that rubbed Norb the wrong way. Then, I met him for the first time outside a bookstore (imagine that) on Thrid in Sturgeon Bay. He knew of me and said he “LOVED that toon! Lonnie didn’t need to print it in the same paper THREE times though…” followed by a guffaw! Made me smile out loud : ). We became best buds. I really miss his serendipitous phone calls/ dropping in always unannounced and ALWAYS welcome/ his huge guffaws! His stories/ his ideas/ his manila envelopes with rubber stamped icons and stickers and hand typed (old fashioned typewriter) address. … inside, newspaper clippings he thought were of importance/ interest to me; I missed him ALWAYS asking about the kids, and Dede. I miss the coffee houses / trip to Bayfield with Jude and Dede / concerts / dinners / lunches; I miss just stopping by his house followed by that warm smile wider than his mustache! The very last time I went to see Norb, at Scandia, just days prior to him leaving us all … I could see he was trying to conceal horrendous pain -Norb says “How’re the kids, what are they up to? How’s Dede, How’s her shop doing?” Whew… choker : / .
Love you Norb. Happy Birthday! ~Mike McCartney

“Love … is not simply a recollection of a bygone past,
but a living force sustaining us in the present …
love that transcend the limits of time
and offers hope in all moments of our lives.”
~ Henri Nouwen

“You are there; I here; worlds separate us
Death’s angels, the void of space . . .
Yet I say your name and waves of light
Wash to me silently from your Heart.”

Jude Genereaux / Leaving in April Breaks the Rules

22 04 2019

Norbert Blei / Portrait by Emmett Johns

Leaving in April Breaks the Rules

As if there are “rules” in life – my sensibilities are outraged when one we love takes that bridge in the spring of a year; it just seems ultimately UNFAIR! Especially those of us who live in the rugged North, through months of gloom and challenging weather, we cling to that time in spring to renew our zest for life. November 1st might be an appropriate date for leaving? Or maybe just after the holidays … but not, no never, in April.

What we thought we had on the horizon, that grim March of 2013, Norb & I “thought” we’d made it through not only the trough of winter, but also naively believed he was finally on the rise and road to wellness. The ugly “C” thing never returned. But we learned the hard way that sometimes the cure takes an exacting toll as well. The continuing challenges of “getting well” itself, became a hill too far … so late in April of 2013, after re-bounding and giving us weeks of hope, he let go, to wait for us in peace on the other side.

So much we wish he was here to share with us — and this 2019 winter brought an especially treasured renewal to his circle. Enter Norbert’s second grandson, fourth grandchild: Connor George Blei. O! how Norb would have treasured seeing his own son Christopher and his beautiful wife Nia cradling this beautiful little boy in their arms, in this rising, renewed spring … blooming and beaming in their love and the bounteous good fortune of new life. What could be more grand? a baby … the miracle of life, returned.

A baby. With Norbert’s broad forehead and brown eyes, carrying the name “George” for both sides of his family; such a precious gift insists that we honor the basic reminders of each day: life goes on. Treasure your days – and time with each other. Don’t waste it fussing or on frivolity: Live it! And mostly remember that: Love never dies.

For those of us who loved Norbert Blei – his family, his circle, myself, this is most true: our love for you will never die.

Remember to say his name out loud this day. Write on, Norbert.

“Even from far away, I still feel you smile
and my body reaches for you without
thinking, singing songs of love it knows that
you can hear.” ~Quiet Songs / Brian Andreas