BOOKS: The Famine Plot

Book Cover

Could Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy have been prevented? ◆ by Brandon Cook

In 1996, almost 150 years after it occurred, Tony Blair issued the first apology on behalf of the British authorities for the part they played in Ireland’s Great Famine. “That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today,” the prime minister said.

Nowhere does one feel this pain more acutely then within the pages of Tim Pat Coogan’s most recent history The Famine Plot, which sets forth to describe “honestly, without either malice or cap touching, how [Irish] forbears died.”

It’s no surprise that the famed Irish historian has at last settled himself upon the Blight as his next subject. His 2001 book Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora contains early seeds of Coogan’s interest—it is probable that the diaspora itself would not exist if the famine had not displaced so many of Ireland’s natives.

But the tragedy, Coogan writes in The Famine Plot, has heretofore been treated with a “strange reluctance” by historians who seem either to subscribe to A.J.P. Taylor’s declaration that “all Ireland was a Belsen,” or else defer from chronicling the grimmer details of the Famine and, in so doing, embrace what the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith called a “colonial cringe” mentality.

Coogan’s book, a pastiche of scintillating research, theory, and vitriol, contains more of the former class than the latter, and yet the author is careful to try and play fair and objective. Like any good historian, he endeavors to let the facts speak for themselves.

For many readers, Ireland’s colorful and in many ways tragic early history will be more or less unknown. To these readers Coogan pays special attention in characterizing the struggles of the 18th century Irish natives, most of which were paupers, as a perennial uphill battle against British imperialism. Like the Americans just 25 years before, the Irish rebelled against their oppressive authorities in 1798, under the flagship of the incomparable Theobald Wolfe Tone. What resulted was not only calamitous for the Irish population (Coogan estimates that 30,000 were “shot down or blown like chaff”) but also for its leadership. Cheating the hangman’s noose, Wolfe Tone committed suicide before he was sentenced to execution. His death would prove to be a haunting precursor to Ireland’s future history of crippled, sovereign heroes (notably, Charles Parnell in 1890 and Michael Collins in 1922).

Great Britain responded to the 1798 Rebellion by extracting all organizational power from the nation that it could, causing a future “leadership deficit” whose harmful implications would be realized during the Famine when it was already much too late. Countrymen, flocking to relief efforts, would find only sporadic benefactors (namely, Quakers) and the clergy, whose circumstances were little better than the countrymen’s. This, combined with a sense of “backyardism,” (England’s belief that it could dictate the goings-on of its neighboring country) would later lead to legislative conflicts, external and internal.

For Ireland’s part, its citizens, particularly its peasantry, reacted to the British ruling with a psychological state known as “learned helplessness.” Cognizant and yet paralytic to their thralldom, their state was characterized by demoralization, a sense of primitivism, and a very real inability to advance their social status. People stayed where they were, inherited their ancestor’s land and their Catholicism, married young, and had children to alleviate their boredom. The effects resultant of “learned helplessness” can still be seen today. Irish citizens, particularly those in the west where the Famine hit hardest, suffer from some of the highest rates of schizophrenia and alcoholism in the world.

It is under this backdrop that Coogan’s “main players” finally enter onto the stage. There are five although only two really matter: the acting prime minister during the first year of the Famine: Sir Robert Peel and the infamous secretary to the Treasury: Sir Charles Trevelyan.

Peel is the only one who earns much sympathy. While his leadership during the Famine did not garner near enough resources to prevent calamity, his main battle was fought against a perverted English ideology of Laissez-faire. A quote from Adam Smith’s masterwork, The Wealth of Nations, provides the basis for these beliefs: “the natural effort of every individual to better his conditions…is so powerful a principle, that it alone…is only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity.”

What Smith’s economic ideology does not include, as indeed no ideology includes, is the human variable, or the means of making the ideology, as Peel fought for, “applicable to the real world.” Even the “natural effort of every individual” will not prove enough when he is harried by foreign despots, a lack of resources and education, and poor mental health. Unfortunately for the prime minster, his cries fell on deaf ears. The policymakers held staunchly to Smith’s ideology and believed erringly that a nation which could launch a rebellion could use those same energies to launch itself out of turmoil. The fact that the policymakers were also from Peel’s rival Whig party probably didn’t help much either.

These factors, coupled with his failing health, the burden of the Famine tragedy, and also the hatred he bore from his own Tory party, caused Peel to resign his post in 1846. Coogan chronicles the prime minister’s final broken years and his minor heroism pointedly.

With Peel’s resignation there was nothing to stop the implementation of Trevelyan’s economic policies, which combined both the misguided interpretations of Adam’s Laissez-faire with a blunt jingoism. Before the policies take root, Coogan presents Trevelyan in a few choice details, quoting Yeats in describing him as “a soul incapable of remorse or rest” and citing details found at the Trevelyan estate, where the civil servant kept a stained-glass window of himself depicted as “St. Michael the Archangel in golden armor” under the inscription by St. Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course.”

For Coogan, Trevelyan embodies the extremes of Irish racism and misguided belief, second, only to the idea of Laissez-faire, of which was that “poverty was the fault of the individual.” Yet Trevelyan serves also to embody Coogan’s more extreme dual thesis that “God sent the blight, but the English made the Famine,” and that the English executives used the Famine to propel a Hibernian genocide.

Tim Pat Coogan

As to the latter, much of Trevelyan’s records substantiate that possibility. His feelings towards an Irish free state were certainly indignant, as is expressed in one of his correspondences: “one of the greatest of the delusions which have been put into the heads of the peasantry is that they are a nation.” While this was technically true (Ireland would remain apart of the Union until 1922), his attendant letter, contained in the book’s excellent, though short, appendices, exemplifies not a small amount of British imperialistic ideologies as well as bigotry directed towards the peasantry and the Catholic clergy. One need see only the disturbing, anthropoid depictions of the Irishman in the early cartoons of Punch magazine to get a sense of this anti-Irish zeitgeist.

His policies for the distribution, or non-distribution, of relief rations, and for the exportation of good crop in Ireland despite the starving masses of over 3 million (it is important to note too that Ireland’s population in the mid 19th century was just over 8 million), also qualify a degree of sadism.

Coogan cites several stories of horror and misery to back this point up. Following through with his mission to render the history as true and objective as possible, he unflinchingly delivers pages of starving children, noisome workhouses, putrid disease, and obtuse government. One story, referenced in his Introduction, gives the account of Nora Connelly: a poor peasant woman who walked miles on foot to a food distributor so that she could feed her dying children. Turned away because her name was not on the list of those to be fed, she walked back to her home where she discovered that four of her children had starved to death. Only later was it realized that she should have been on the list but that a careless official had entered her name incorrectly.

While stories such as these are meant to signify governmental obliviousness and a lack of general human kindness, they do not prevent Coogan from implying that the blame should be placed directly upon Trevelyan. Such a maneuver is repeated in the later chapters on peasant evictions, workhouse conditions, and immigration.

Trevelyan certainly worsened the conditions of the Famine, yet much of this can be chalked up to basic incompetence, which Coogan himself acknowledges when he details the ineffectual Corn Laws, (laws that governed the importation of Indian maize) and posits that the British “literally did not know a great deal about corn,” or rather, enough about the corn to instruct the Irish on how it should be ground and digested, which was done in a series of lengthy and inaccurate articles that resulted in widespread deaths caused by dysentery and scurvy.

Coupled with this were other negligible reports that, flagrantly misleading, would be laughable if their results weren’t so tragic. At the height of the first year of the Famine and during the outbreak of corn-related diseases, Trevelyan was fed information stating that there were “ ‘scarcely any’ gastric complaints” and that “ ‘the general health of the people has wonderfully improved.’ ” How he managed this information with the thousands of gastric disease-related deaths can only be left up to conjecture.

Whether Trevelyan chose to believe any of what he was told doesn’t seem to matter to the author, who focuses more or less only on how the man reacted. And yet it doesn’t appear to be too far a stretch to assert that Trevelyan, already proving himself highly delusional in his self-depiction as archangel Michael, caved again to willful delusion and chose his policies not as a means of genocide but in the interests of self-preservation.

Although this theory might not hold during Trevelyan’s later moments, such as when he learned of the massive farmer deportation: “I am not at all appalled…that seems to me to be a necessary part of the process,” or when he presided over the relief efforts during the Famine’s worst year (“Black ‘47”): “with the smallest amount of abuse [we will] encourage such principles of feeding and action…to improvement of the social system,” it is still a possible avenue the reader wishes the author didn’t leave unexplored.

Though a study of anti-Irish psychology could very well encompass its own book, room could have been made had the author chosen to cut his chapter on immigration, which is a brilliantly treated topic in Wherever Green is Worn but which meanders here.

Even so, the unsparing depiction combined with his laboriously conducted research mark The Famine Plot as fine a work as any in the chronicles of Famine books. Should the reader choose to disagree with the contention that England’s role was one of extermination, he will nevertheless yield to Coogan’s evidence that historians have long undermined the tragedy’s shocking reality. What’s most important is not that we place the blame on all those responsible, but that we honor and remember all those who suffered.

The Ryder, March 2013

TV: House Of Cards

Kevin Spacey stars as an amoral schemer in the new series produced by Netflix ◆ by Ben Atkinson

Television has blurred the line between pro-and-antagonist for a number of years. Frank Underwood, the central character and foundation for Netflix’s House of Cards, is the latest example of a bad guy we care about. Underwood, the embodiment of villainy, destroys careers and lives, and back-stabs colleagues who trust him, all for the noble goal of personal political advancement. Any thought for the causes he had hoped to champion were forgotten long ago. Denied the cabinet post he feels is his due, he drops all loyalty to friends and political party and uses his position as House Majority Whip to launch a tightly orchestrated campaign to weaken his personal enemies and position himself for an endgame that is revealed gradually throughout the premier season. Along the way he breaks ethics codes, laws, and anyone who stands in his way. And along the way, though we might not root for him, we inevitably start caring about what happens to him.

Kevin Spacey In “House Of Cards”

David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) brings his Hollywood director sensibilities to the show, blurring the lines between television and film. House of Cards shares its name with the early 90’s BBC miniseries and original novel by Michael Dobbs on which it is based. Netflix has released House of Cards in 13 “chapters” of about 50 minutes each. They function more or less as standard one-hour television episodes, with most episodes paired with its neighbor and sharing the same director. The result is basically 6 two-hour movies, and, like movies, the directors have far more influence than the usual television day-worker director. Netflix released all the chapters at once, knowing that many of its users prefer to immerse themselves in a series. The “Netflix Effect” has even become a euphemism for binge-watching entire seasons of television shows, often leaving viewers a season behind the actual airing of the show. Technology has made it easy to watch many episodes together, which has had a huge impact on the production of shows. Viewing several episodes immediately and sequentially allows for a cohesian not possible when a series is doled out weekly over the course of seven or eight months. With around 11 hours of material, season one of House of Cards achieves epic length akin to the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, while still being broken down into digestible amounts. Look for the release of more shows using this format. The recent doubling of Netflix’s stock price won’t go unnoticed by its industry competitors, and Fincher won’t be the only one marrying film and television.

This is a show that values directors and uses the visual medium to great effect. It does not rely on an uplifting story arc or an idealistic hero who stands up to corporate and political corruption. There are no stirring speeches or fast-paced witty dialogue. A great deal of House of Cards’ power comes from visual cues and subtext. For instance, in one episode Frank returns to his district to deal with a potential lawsuit. Outside of Washington, he shows a completely different face to his friends back “home” in South Carolina. After showcasing so much of their wholesome South Carolina home with its flowerbed, welcoming front porch and homey living room, the exit shot for the episode is the stark sterility of the Underwood’s Washington brownstone.

Instead of dry, long conversations about morbidity, we get to see Frank’s middle-aged wife Claire experience jarring interactions while jogging through a cemetery, having to wait for her coffee while an older barista gets help with the digital cash register by a younger barista, and extended moments standing in front of an open refrigerator. She is more than a Lady Macbeth and heads her own non-profit organization. Frequently, she and Frank use each other’s positions to gain influence for themselves, and in many ways it seems a marriage of convenience, as indicated by the extra-marital affairs both enjoy. But like everything else in this show, it’s just not that simple. There are many moments of genuine love and compassion between them and a mutual respect and admiration, and each honestly hopes the other will succeed. Many couples know there is much more to marriage than dewy-eyed romance, and to find a television series in which a long-term relationship is built on something other than children or nostalgia is refreshing. While Claire plays the good wife often enough, when push comes to shove she looks out for her own interests and knows that partnership does not mean subjugation.

Ultimately, it is acting that carries the show home. There are no “good guys.” There are political characters, like Frank and Claire, who care mostly for personal advancement. But even the characters of pure heart and sweet intention either struggle to overcome personal demons. Surrounded by the overwhelming temptations of power and wealth, the characters in House of Cards succumb to the dark side of Washington politics. This isn’t an idealistic portrayal of government or people. Neither is it a condemnation. The characters are real, and the acting is superb. Corey Stoll plays Peter Russo, a congressman compromised by substance abuse, who wants to do right by his constituents but finds the glitter of power too alluring, and once he becomes Frank’s puppet we get to witness some of the personal consequences to Frank’s Machiavellian schemes. Robin Wright (Claire Underwood) and Kate Mara (reporter Zoe Barnes) portray the difficulties their characters face trying to satisfy their professional ambitions without sacrificing their personal lives.

Kevin Spacey is the keystone. Netflix used the vast data collected from users to know that Spacey is a name that would attract a large and specific audience. Like a successful politician he is all things to all people, and it takes a brilliant acting job to pull it off. We see an amoral schemer, a good ol’ southern boy, and a gregarious colleague, all wrapped up into one. The viewer gets a special glimpse of Underwood during his asides. Breaking the fourth wall is an old stage tradition that allows the audience to share the innermost thoughts of characters. The camera adds another dimension. Underwood, instead of merely achieving distance from the action to address the audience, addresses us directly through the camera. These private moments in the spotlight are when Spacey truly shines. And instead of being fooled like Frank’s family, friends, and colleagues, viewers are in the know, privy to the dark inner secrets of this enigmatic mastermind. Ultimately, House of Cards is the story about the variety of stories Frank tells his targets and co-conspirators as he cons his way through Washington. Frank’s asides to the audience are another story, perhaps the story he is telling us, or perhaps the story he is telling himself.

The Ryder, March 2013

A Tale Of Two Brothers

Jigme Norbu

When the Buddha Came to Bloomington ◆ by Filiz Cicek

Jigme Norbu walked alone along the edge of the Florida highway. It was a dark night and the white line along the road was his only means of navigation. Jigme had already logged 7,800 miles to free Tibet from Chinese occupation. His father, Thubten Jigme Norbu, the elder brother of the 14th Dalai Lama, had initiated these Independence Walks across America for peace and freedom.

Thubten Norbu (Left) With His Brother, The Dalai Lama

It had been a long day in the hot Florida sun. But in a few minutes Jigme would arrive at his rendezvous point, where he would meet his traveling companions.

There were no streetlights and the little natural light that filtered down from the moon and stars was obscured by trees that lined the side of the road. Consequently the driver of the dark grey Kia could not see Jigme; he was pronounced dead at the scene at 7:30 p.m. on February 14th, 2011. He was 45 years old.

In 1949, Jigme’s father, Rinpoche Thubten Jigme Norbu, had been courted by the Chinese government to convince his brother, the14th Dalai Lama, to welcome the Chinese army into Tibet. If his younger brother could not be persuaded, he was told, more drastic methods would have to be considered. Pretending to comply, Norbu visited his brother as the Chinese asked, but only to warn him about their plans to assassinate him.

Norbu decided to flee and left Tibet in 1950. He traveled to the US with the help of the Church World Service and the CIA. His brother would later follow suit and leave Tibet in 1959 to Dharamsala, India, where he teaches and governs to this day.

From the moment  Norbu left Tibet, he became a “freedom fighter,” as his son Kunga puts it. First, however, Norbu had to learn English.  At a formal event a waiter in a tuxedo imitated a chicken for him in an effort to describe what would be served for dinner. Norbu then wrote the words “roasted chicken” on a scrap of paper and would present it in restaurants when ordering.  “He ate roasted chicken for a very long time,” notes Kunga, until he bettered his English skills. Eventually he would be fluent in six languages, teaching as a professor at Indiana University.

While in New York he held odd jobs to make ends meet. One of these was at Macy’s at Herald Square. He greeted customers as they came in, directing them to appropriate departments such as ladies undergarments or menswear. Later as a curator of Tibetan artifacts at the Museum of Natural History, he was able to travel around the world and raise awareness about the situation in Tibet.

When she left Tibet, Jigme’s mother, Kunyang, was eight years old. She was 16 when she arrived in the States. Her youngest son Jigme was one month old when she traveled to Bloomington, together with two older sons and her husband to make her future home in the cornfields. Had the baby been born earlier, the family would have settled in Geneva, Switzerland. “He wouldn’t pop out,” she says laughing.

Mrs. Norbu (Center) Arrives In The US

Mrs. Norbu would take up her husband’s cause, doing her part to fight for the Independent Tibet behind the scenes.  “You would never see me quoted in the newspapers. I never gave interviews then.”

Once in Bloomington Professor Norbu established the Tibetan Studies program, what was then known as Uralic Altaic Studies at Indiana University. After the Canada family, heirs to Eli Lilly, donated land, Norbu and his family went to work and together they started the Tibetan Cultural Center (TCC) in 1979, currently the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center (TMBCC).

“He had spent all his energy and all our little livelihood there, to preserve the Tibetan culture,”  Mrs. Norbu recounted. They planted trees, and slowly began to shape what today is the TMBCC. Kunga took up the responsibility of mowing the grass, which would take a few days given the size of the land.

The first Stupa was built as a memorial to the Tibetans who died during the uprising against the Chinese Occupation. It was the first of its kind in North America and later duplicated throughout the world. It is a very involved process, says Mrs. Norbu. It entails many rituals, precisely placed sacred relics, and hundreds of mantras. “We xeroxed thousands and thousands of pages of Tibetan books and transcripts,” Mrs. Norbu explains, which were then placed inside the dome. Also included in the dome were “the hair pieces, of all the Dalai Lamas, starting with the first Dalai Lama all the way to the 14th Dalai Lama…, “My father put them in there,” explains Kunga,  “as well as the ashes of my grandmother.”

Now sitting at Turkuaz Café on Third Street, one of Kunga’s and his brother Jigme’s favorite places to eat, Mrs. Norbu and her son remember those days fondly—how they planted each tree and transported water in milk cartons to water them. Later someone donated a little money, and a water line was installed. “We were so excited!” notes Mrs. Norbu. Then the buildings and temples were built with the help of volunteers and more donations. The Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple as well as the Center was intended mainly for His Holiness to have his private headquarters. “My husband had seen His Holiness travel all the time and stay in hotels and surrounded by many people, so he said ‘why don’t we build this little building, so he can come sometimes when he is traveling, quietly he can come and spend two or three days of relaxation, that was his aim.”

The Dalai Lama has visited Bloomington six times, most recently in 2010 to pay respects to his late brother, who passed away in 2008. During an earlier visit the Dalai Lama saw his brother alive for the last time, and “it was a special moment” says Mrs. Norbu. “I brought him in a wheel chair and the two of them put their foreheads together, staying in that position and in silence for a long time, finally tears streaming from the  His Holiness’ face, my husband was also crying. It was amazing how they communicated, not verbally.” Afterwards the Dalai Lama would send Para Rinpoche to stay with his brother until he died eight months later. After her husband’s death Mrs. Norbu left the TMBCC and moved to Seattle, where members of her family still lived. Meanwhile the Dalai Lama had appointed a new administrator, Arjia Rinpoche.

“We all feel good that we have all done our part; our only hope is that Arjia Rinpoche is doing things to preserve the Tibetan culture,” says Mrs. Norbu. “We also have to remember who started the Center,” adds Kunga, “and that everything that my father had started and done out there has to be preserved.”

Though she has been invited, Mrs. Norbu has not been back to the Center since she left Bloomington. “Too many memories…, when I am stronger, I will go back and check how things are going.  My hope is that Arjia Rinpoche will continue what my husband has built. An extra fancy looking little thing is not important to me, the important thing is to give the message out about what is happening in Tibet. It is all related to Mongolia now, I don’t know why. Did you see that there are no Tibetans out there?” The Center was renamed in 2007 after Arjia Rinpoche’s arrival (he is a Tibetan of Mongolian decent), to reflect the commitment to Mongolian representation. In an article in Bloom magazine in November 2012, Rinpoche said one of the missions of the TMBCC is to establish an interfaith program open to all, including local Mongolians because they “have nowhere to go.” The increase in Mongolian presence might have caused local Tibetans to attend religious services and cultural events at the Indiana Buddhist Center in Indianapolis instead.

In 1995, Norbu co-founded the International Tibet Independence Movement in a further effort to free Tibet from the Chinese occupation. The Dalai Lama, however, chose a different path: the “middle way” approach, which aims to achieve peace through non-violence, mutual benefit, unity of nationalities, and social stability. The 14th Dalai Lama opposes policies and sanctions that might harm the average Chinese citizen. He is also concerned for the safety of Tibetans in Tibet, Mrs. Norbu says; he doesn’t want to say or do anything that might make life harder for them than it already is. “I respect him,” she adds, “but at the same time it is up to people like us to speak up for the Tibetans back home. People in Tibet have to burn themselves in order to be visible, to be heard.”

“And as they die,” adds Kunga, “their slogan is ‘Long Live the Dalai Lama,  Free Tibet’, not ‘Long Live the Dalai Lama, and the middle way’.”  He believes that while people might not verbalize their desire for an independent Tibet while the Dalai Lama is alive, nonetheless that is what the majority wants.

Since the middle way approach is also an important philosophical teaching in Buddhism, I ask if, as the religious figure of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is trying to practice what he preaches? Moreover, as a self-proclaimed simple monk, perhaps it would be difficult for him to take a more aggressive stand against China.

“Yes, it is hard to be a religious person and the political leader at the same time, it doesn’t work and that is why he had resigned as the head of the Tibetan government,” responds Mrs. Norbu. “My husband and I were very free to speak but when you are working for the exile government you have to be careful. I think what His Holiness doesn’t realize is that the ones in Tibet are dependent on people like us. They [the two brothers] had a different approach to handling the Chinese occupation but they loved and respected each other.”

The first Independence Walk took place in 1995; Norbu walked from Bloomington to Indianapolis together with two other supporters. That was followed by a 300 mile walk from the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC, to the United Nations headquarters in New York. “He felt obligated to people back home to do something, and he never changed his goal,” explains Mrs. Norbu. Previously he had worked with the CIA to further the Tibetan cause, to recruit and train Khampa fighters, from the toughest Tibetan tribe to be infiltrated into the borderlands of China. According to the 2008 obituary in The Guardian “Norbu’s name appears in reports of secret training camps in the Colorado Rockies and on the Pacific island of Saipan.” In the end the US covert operations were unsuccessful and came to a halt in 1970s with Richard Nixon’s new China policy which sought to better relations between US and China. Determined nevertheless to fight for Free Tibet, Norbu did one last walk from Toronto to New York; he was then in his 70s. When he fell ill, his youngest son took up the cause and began to carry the torch until he was struck by a car in Florida.  On March 23rd his widow, Yaling, is holding a fundraiser for the Ambassador of Peace organization, which had helped sponsor Jigme’s Independence Walks, at Café Django on March 23rd in her husband’s honor to raise money to fund the future freedom walks for Tibet.

Jigme Norbu And His Father, Thubten

Mrs. Norbu is somewhat hopeful that as the old generation of leaders die off and the new generation of Chinese travel abroad and access free information about Tibet, the situation might change. Kunga remains cautious however, “nothing much has changed in 50 years; we watched a government drive a tank against its own citizens at Tiananmen Square.”

“We are against the policies of the Chinese government, not the Chinese people” concludes Mrs. Norbu. Similar sentiments are echoed by the Dalai Lama in his various public statements, aiming to win the hearts and minds of the Chinese people regarding Tibet.

Others now follow in Norbu and Jigme’s footsteps, taking part in Independence Walks across the country. While Kunga walks for freedom, Mrs. Norbu will travel back to Seattle to raise funds for Tibetan refugees.

“We are the voice of Tibet outside of Tibet.” says Mrs. Norbu, “Perhaps someday my grandchildren will take up the cause like their father and grandfather. Who knows?”

The Ryder, March 2013

MUSIC: Bach’s Mass In B Minor

◆ by Jeffrey Huntsman

Unbridled expression is the commonest way great emotional intensity is realized. Ecstatic spiritual rites, dancing to exhaustion, talking in tongues, even a heavy-metal rock concert are highly individualistic manifestations of passion. Nonetheless, as spontaneous as they may seem, they are all best understood through lenses that reveal intentions, structures, and cultural meaning. In time such practices may become formalized into styles, movements, or even genres — think Romanticism in art, literature, and music. In these examples there is a kind of symmetry between the forms of expression and its intended content, so a wildness of expression serves a wildness in meaning.

But there is a contrary impulse as well, which works through a dynamic tension between a passionate intensity and a highly formal structure. The power of Kwakiutl carvings, early Celtic knotwork, and Islamic calligraphy all depends precisely on the spring-wound energy of the internal forms straining against the outer boundaries. Dylan Thomas’ most personal and wrenching poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” pushes his anguish about his dying father against the formal strictures of his sestina version, with a single pair of rhyming words throughout. The emotional storm is harnessed — barely — by the straited structure.


In Western music, there is no better example of emotional intensity manifested through highly formal structure than Johann Sebastian Bach. His compositions — even the cantatas he turned out at a rate of one or more per week of his later professional life — are each models of precise musical genius. It is possible in many cases to demonstrate with mathematical exactitude the balance of musical motifs, textual meanings, and spiritual revelation — although just as surely Bach himself would never have overtly modeled his work mathematically. Writing one such masterpiece of controlled focus would be a wonder for most of us; the hope of “tossing off” hundreds is virtually unimaginable.

Out of a lifetime compendium of Bach’s treasures it is daunting to choose a single exemplar of supreme excellence, but if pressed to choose one, Bach’s Mass in B minor would be it for many. A product of his late life, the Mass in B minor (1749) is unusual for one composed by a Lutheran, because it sets the whole Latin text of the Roman tradition. Several parts were actually composed earlier: a segment of the Crucifixus dating from a cantata of 1714, the Sanctus from 1724, and the Kyrie and Gloria from 1733. Revisiting, reusing, and revising earlier material is something most musicians do, of course, and Bach’s companions here include among many others Handel, Janáček, and Lauridsen. But there is nothing stale in this reimagined masterpiece. The Mass was Bach’s last major composition, completed after he had gone blind and when he surely was most mindful of his impending mortality.

Although it apparently languished unperformed over two centuries until 1859 — Bach himself does not seem to have heard it in its finished form — it has since become recognized as an epitome of his writing for voice, with a compendious variety of musical styles, a breadth of textures and sonorities, and his characteristic richness of technical complexity and finesse. So towering is its stature that no one since, not even Beethoven (who tried twice to get a copy of the ms.), has written another mass in that key. That player’s number has been permanently retired.

The Chamber Singers, under the baton of Music Director D. Gerald Sousa, is returning to the Mass after a decade and a half of consistent growth in its size and musicality. For this performance, the BCS is partnering with the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra (Artistic Director Barthold Kuijken), a group also with many past and current connections with IU’s Jacobs School of Music. It will be an especially rare treat to hear the Mass played on period-correct instruments, like Bach himself could have used, and the splendid venue at St John the Apostle Catholic Church, on the northwest edge of Bloomington near Ellettsville, is a virtually third acoustic partner.

[The Bloomington Chamber Singers, with the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra, will perform J. S. Bach’s Mass in B minor on Saturday, April 13 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, April 14 (at 3:00 pm at St. John the Apostle Catholic Church in Bloomington.

The Ryder, March 2013

FILM: People Will Say We’re In Amour


The Heart-Stopping Cinema of Michael Haneke ◆ by Craig J. Clark

This has been a long time coming, but it appears uncompromising Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke is finally starting to gain some mainstream acceptance in the United States — that is, if the multiple Academy Awards nominations for his last two films are anything to go by. Between them, 2009’s The White Ribbon and last year’s Amour were nominated for seven Oscars, with two nods for Best Foreign Film (which Amour won), Best Cinematography, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay. That’s not bad for a period piece about the nature of evil and a heavy drama about a couple facing their mortality with grim determination. Hardly what one would consider feel-good films, but Haneke has never been interested in coddling audiences or providing them with easy answers to life’s problems.

That hard-line stance goes all the way to his first feature, The Seventh Continent, which was released in 1989 and is one of his most quietly devastating efforts. It also illustrates his early propensity for formal experimentation, breaking the action down into three distinct parts. The first takes place in 1987 and observes engineer Dieter Berner, optician Birgit Doll and their young daughter Leni Tanzer as they go about their daily routines. Nothing that unusual happens; we just watch them (usually from a distance or framed in such a way that their faces aren’t visible) as they do all the mundane things one has to do to get through the day. Part two, which takes place a year later, is structured the same way, and features repetitions of some of the same shots and actions. There are enough subtle differences, though, that an observant viewer will begin to wonder just what Haneke is getting at. Well, what Haneke is getting at is what happens in the third part, which takes place in 1989.

The first clue that something is amiss doesn’t come until nearly an hour in, when Berner casually mentions to Doll that they “have to cancel the newspaper subscription.” It’s at that moment, when the characters reveal that they have crossed some kind of threshold without telling us, that the dread starts to mount. There’s one mention that they’re immigrating to Australia (the seventh continent of the title), but it soon becomes clear that they have an entirely different destination in mind. What that is I leave the reader to discover for themselves if they so choose.

For his second feature, 1992’s Benny’s Video, Haneke ventured into Atom Egoyan territory with his story of a teenage boy (Arno Frisch) who is obsessed with capturing images on videotape and then playing them back repeatedly. A child of affluent parents, Frisch is also in the habit of renting violent movies and listening to loud rock music while he’s holed up in his room, a practice disapproved of by his father (Ulrich Mühe), but his mother (Angela Winkler) doesn’t find it too troubling. Maybe if she had a look at some of the videos he’s taken and edited together, she would.

“Benny’s Video”

Provocatively, the film opens with footage of a real pig being killed with a captive bolt pistol (similar to the one favored by Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men). And if that’s not disturbing enough, the video is rewound and played back in slow motion, and then a third time when Frisch shows his set-up to a girl that he meets outside the video store he frequents. Conveniently, his parents are away for the weekend when he brings her home, so when he kills her with the same weapon that was used on the pig, he has time to coolly clean everything up. The only thing he doesn’t do is dispose of the body, as his parents discover to their horror when they get home. From the way they go about dealing with the problem, though, it becomes pretty clear how Frisch became so dispassionate that he could take a human life without batting an eye.

The final part of Haneke’s “glaciation trilogy” was 1994’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, which tells the backstory of a young gunman’s rampage at an Austrian bank by breaking it down into bite-sized narrative chunks spread out over the two months leading up to it. Rather than explain how the event comes to pass or why each of his eventual victims was there when it happened, though, Haneke teases out just enough information with each fragment to give the audience the chance to figure out how they all connect (or not, as the case may be). As such, there is no one central character to latch onto (not even the murderer), but we do come back to a few of them enough times to get a feel for how they pass their days in the shadow of looming tragedy.

Meanwhile, Haneke starts each day (there are five depicted in the film) with news reports on unrest and violence in places like Somalia, Haiti, Northern Ireland, Turkey, Lebanon and Bosnia, as well as an in-depth look at the Michael Jackson child abuse scandal that was consuming a lot of media attention at the time. I’m sure Haneke is making some kind of point about how easy it is for people to lose perspective (the Jackson case is given as much weight as all of the other stories, if not more), but the main thing one takes away from the film is that there are no easy answers. And apart from the gunman, whose death by his own hand is revealed in a title card at the top of the film, we never find out the fate of any of the other characters. That may be frustrating to some, but anybody who appreciates not being spoon-fed will have much to chew on after all 71 fragments have been slotted into place.

Next up for Haneke was his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which had previously inspired some aspects of Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka. Made in 1997 for Austrian television, its story concerns a land surveyor (Ulrich Mühe, the father from Benny’s Video) who arrives in a snowbound village, having been summoned by the Castle, only to find that his services are no longer required — nor were they ever, apparently. Mühe attempts to gain entrance to the Castle, but is frustrated at every turn, and it doesn’t help that he’s been assigned a pair of interchangeable assistants (Frank Giering and Felix Eitner) who make quite a nuisance of themselves. He also takes up with barmaid Susanne Lothar when he finds out she’s the mistress of a high-ranking official, but how he expects to get anywhere that way is frankly beyond me.

Things get more complicated from there — much, much more complicated — as Mühe peels away the layers of bureaucracy and obfuscation only to find more where they came from. His relationship with Lothar also becomes a major distraction, and like everything else he tries it gets him no closer to gaining entrance to the Castle, but by the end there are people trying to get to close to him because of his perceived connections there. At least Mühe remains sane enough to appreciate the irony of that.

Haneke’s next theatrical feature, made the same year as The Castle, was Funny Games, which is one of his more notorious films (made even more so by the fact that he remade it shot for shot a decade later). Briefly, it’s about two unfailingly polite young men who show up at the vacation home of a nice, upper middle class family and proceed to terrorize the hell out of them. It’s difficult to say any more about the plot without giving the “game” away, but the whole thing starts with a simple request for eggs and, before it’s over, they’re not the only things that end up getting broken.

It’s instructive to watch Funny Games in tandem with The Castle since Ulrich Mühe plays the hapless father and Susanne Lothar is his wife. Haneke even recasts one of Mühe’s unhelpful assistants (Frank Giering) as one of their tormentors, and the other (Arno Frisch) had played the title character in Benny’s Video, so he was well-versed in the art of inflicting randomly cruel violence on others. Of course, Haneke chooses to only show us its after-effects, scrupulously keeping the actual acts of violence (with one notable exception) offscreen. This is much appreciated considering some of the worst offenses are committed against the couple’s child, making this a film that disturbs as much as it enrages.

For an encore, Haneke puzzled out 2000’s Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, which is a companion piece of sorts to 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance since it presents a series of interlocking stories about people whose lives intersect in ways both ordinary and unexpected. The main focal point is Juliette Binoche, who plays an actress working on a thriller that we get to see in various stages of rehearsal and shooting, but we also spend time with her photojournalist boyfriend (who seems most at home in the middle of war zones), his younger brother (who yearns to escape from the family farm), a young African (who takes offense to the brother’s treatment of a beggar), his father (who drives a cab to support his family), and a Romanian immigrant (who winds up getting deported since she was in the country illegally). As with 71 Fragments, Haneke leaves it up to the viewer to figure out how their stories fit together.

While Funny Games and Code Unknown were both in competition at Cannes, and Code Unknown received a special Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, Haneke moved one step closer to the coveted Palme d’Or with 2001’s The Piano Teacher, which was awarded the Grand Prix (the second-highest prize at the festival), plus Best Actor and Actress. As anyone who’s seen the film can attest, Isabelle Huppert definitely deserved the latter for diving headfirst into the role of a deranged music professor who enters into a sado-masochistic relationship with a student (Best Actor winner Benoît Magimel) whose aggressive nature both attracts and repels her. Then again, it doesn’t help that she has the worst stage mother this side of Barbara Hershey in Black Swan, which is all the more pathetic when one considers that Huppert is clearly in her 40s and therefore has little chance of being “discovered.” Not only does she still live at home, but her overbearing mother is constantly checking up on her, which probably accounts for why she has so many sexual and emotional hang-ups.

“The Piano Teacher”

As is frequently the case in Haneke’s films, it takes some time for Huppert to reveal the depths of her psychosis. The camera dispassionately observes her in uncomfortably long takes while she engages in erratic behavior which becomes increasingly dangerous, both to herself and others. Her passive-aggressiveness even compels her to destroy a student’s chances of playing professionally just before an important recital. Little wonder, then, that Magimel tells her, “It’s totally sick what you’re doing here.” That’s as may be, but it doesn’t prevent him from coming back for more.

Huppert returned for 2003’s Time of the Wolf, an apocalyptic tale that shows how the world ends, neither with a bang nor a whimper, but rather with uncertainty, misery, and the high probability of death by exposure and/or starvation. Set during an unnamed calamity that spurs city dwellers Huppert and Daniel Duval to stock up on some essentials and flee to the country with their children, the film immediately puts them at a disadvantage since another family has beaten them to their cabin and the father has a gun. This means the supposed safe haven where they were planning on waiting out the catastrophe instead puts them face to face (for the first of many times) with desperate people who will do whatever is necessary to hold onto what little they’ve got. After Duval is taken out of the picture, Huppert tries her best to provide for herself and her children, finding food and shelter where neither is easy to come by.

Much like the similarly themed Children of Men and The Road, Time of the Wolf is bleak pretty much from the word go, and it only gets bleaker as it goes on. Even so, there are some starkly beautiful images on display, with Haneke going the Stanley Kubrick route by shooting all of the night scenes by firelight. (One such tracking shot features Huppert and her children walking past a row of farm animals that have been killed and set ablaze — an image both poetic and horrifying at the same time.) It may not be a comforting vision, but few people go into a Michael Haneke film expecting to be reassured about their place in the world.

Another winner at Cannes (earning him Best Director and two other awards), 2005’s Caché found Haneke on the threshold of a crossover success that seemed unlikely just a few years earlier. A tense drama about a man unwilling to face up to his past mistakes, it stars Daniel Auteuil as the host of a popular public television program who starts receiving creepy videotapes showing the exterior of the house he shares with book editor Juliette Binoche and their preteen son. The premise is similar to the opening scenes of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, but whereas Lynch quickly branches off into other, stranger avenues, Haneke stays firmly rooted in reality as the tapes (and the gruesome drawings and postcards that begin arriving with them) chip away at Auteuil’s long-dormant conscience. But what does he have to feel guilty about and why does he feel compelled to keep secrets from his wife and son?


Without giving too much away, Auteuil eventually receives a tape that leads him to the apartment of a mysterious Algerian man (Maurice Bénichou) who’s cagey about the connection between them when a clearly agitated Auteuil shows up at his door. He also has a memorable confrontation with the man’s son (Walid Afkir), but that only comes after an event that I wouldn’t dream in a million years of spoiling. Haneke’s films may be deliberately paced, but that only serves to make the shocks more effective when they do come.

For his first (and, so far, only) English-language film, Haneke followed in the footsteps of The Vanishing‘s George Sluizer and Nightwatch‘s Ole Bornedal by remaking one of his own films. In his case he chose Funny Games, casting Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the affluent couple whose home is invaded and Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet as the ones doing the invading. Both films are equally effective (it all depends on whether you prefer to read subtitles or not), but Pitt and Corbet make for very ingratiating home invaders and the games they come up with are designed for maximum discomfort, both for the “players” and for the audience.

Before Amour, Haneke’s biggest success, both domestically and internationally, was The White Ribbon, which stands apart from the rest of his filmography thanks to its period setting and Christian Berger’s stark black-and-white cinematography, which perfectly evokes the place and time (a small German village in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War I). The imagery also captures the outlook of the villagers, many of whom see everything as strictly black or white. As Haneke deftly illustrates, that sort of environment is a veritable breeding ground for intolerance and corruption.

“White Ribbon”

If anyone could be said to be at the center of everything, it would be the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who narrates the film from the vantage point of some unspecified time in the future. His main concern, both in the past and the present, is his tentative courtship with the local baron and baroness’s nanny (Leonie Benesch), a girl of 17 who is unjustly dismissed after an incident that doesn’t even involve a child under her care. The incident is far from the first, or the last, though, and most seem to somehow involve the older children of the local pastor (Burghart Klaussner), whose ideas about punishment always seem to outstrip the misbehavior involved. Then there is the doctor (Rainer Bock), who’s carrying on an affair with the town midwife (Susanne Lothar, returning from The Castle and the original Funny Games), which turns out to be the least of his transgressions. With role models like these, it’s no wonder the children lack a proper moral compass.

Firmly back in the present, Haneke’s second Palme d’Or winner in a row was Amour, which is that rare thing: a tearjerker that conjures up profound emotions without having to ladle on the sappy strings or Nicholas Sparks sunsets. Rather, it uses the most straightforward method of telling the story of a man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who watches helplessly while his wife (Emmanuelle Riva) incrementally slips away from him. After all, who needs cheap melodramatics when you’ve got two actors with more than a century of film-acting experience between them?

The film opens with the story’s end, as the fire department breaks into Trintignant and Riva’s apartment and finds her dead with flower petals strewn about her room. It then flashes back to the night of another break-in, which the couple missed because they were attending a piano recital given by one of her former students. Apart from that all seems well, but the following morning Riva zones out for a few minutes during breakfast, which raises a red flag for Trintignant. “We can’t pretend nothing happened,” he says, and next thing we know Riva has had an operation, but it apparently did more harm than good because when she comes home she’s in a wheelchair and has lost the use of the right side of her body. It’s quite understandable, then, that she makes him promise never to take her back to the hospital, even if it will cause him great distress to keep it.

For the most part, Trintignant and Riva exist in isolation, save for the occasional visits from helpful neighbors and their daughter (Isabelle Huppert), who fills them in on her problems (a philandering husband, a directionless son) and grows increasingly concerned about Riva’s condition, which deteriorates rapidly. In a matter of weeks she goes from zipping around in her motorized wheelchair (the introduction of which provides a rare moment of levity) to being confined to her bed and barely capable of speech. Given the range of emotion she has to express, I’m not surprised she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but Trintignant is equally deserving of recognition for his work here. I’m sure it will be a long time before I see another pair of lived-in performances such as these.

[Editor’s note: The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Caché, Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher and The White Ribbon can all be viewed on Netflix.]

The Ryder, March 2013

LETTERS: If You Brand Too Deep, The Worms Will Get In

Inhabiting, Crossing-Over & Crossing-Out Textual Space in Crispin Glover’s/W.M. Baker’s Novel, “Oak-Mot” (1868 & 1991) ◆ by Christopher Martiniano

The 1868 American novel, Oak-Mot written by the Right Rev. William M. Baker, Pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, is largely forgettable and mostly forgotten. Baker’s sentimental story sprawls, while its family ranges and ultimately settles a new home in a place called Oak-Mot. Baker’s original book, in the hands of actor, artist, filmmaker, author, songwriter, singer and provocateur, Crispin Hellion Glover, is radically transformed. Glover published his version of Oak-Mot almost 125 years later in 1991, sharing with the original novel many of the same characters, much of the same text, many of the same chapter headings as well as the same typeset, printed pages. Besides these similarities however, Glover re-inhabits and radically transgresses Baker’s traditionally bound novel and transforms it into a worm-ridden, postmodern palimpsest. Glover’s palimpsest, however, operates much differently than the traditional definition of it used by manuscript scholars and historians.

Historically, a palimpsest is a parchment or other writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another. In Glover’s palimpsest, however, he takes over the original pages, its characters and ultimately the story with what Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) called in 1987 his “hierographics.” Without total erasure, Glover effaces the original text with thin tendrils of India ink that sprawl across the page and reframe Baker’s pages. These spindly black cross-outs and white outs cover over many of the original words and passages; scrawled, handwritten words, sketches, and scratches that couple with the ominous, re-worked photography and illustration to recolor Baker’s novel. In an act of near total, palimpsestuous (to borrow a wonderful word from literary critic Sarah Dillon) effacement, the foundation of Baker’s Oak-Mot can barely be seen beneath the rising blackness of Glover’s Oak-Mot.

Due to these hierographics, the surfaces of Baker’s original novel are nearly unrecognizable. Describing his own method in an interview with The Ryder, Glover speaks of the organic growth of a narrative, from page-to-page beginning with a scrawl and ending with a coherent story. He says,
Old books from the 1800s…have been changed in to different books. They are heavily illustrated with original drawings and reworked images and photographs…. I was in an acting class in 1982 and down the block was an art gallery that had a bookstore upstairs. In the book store there was a book for sale that was an old binding taken from the 1800s and someone had put their artwork inside the binding. I thought this was a good idea and set out to do the same thing…. I worked a lot with India ink at the time and was using the India ink on the original pages to make various art. I had always liked words in art and left some of the words on one of the pages. I did this again a few pages later and then when I turned the pages I noticed that a story started to naturally form and so I continued with this.

By his own admission, Glover originally began drawing and scrawling within found books as a means to create and house his own pictorial art — framed “inside the binding.” Oak-Mot and 12 other Glover books as well as his sculpture were first displayed at LACE in late 1987. And on a Late Show with David Letterman episode a few weeks before this exhibition, Glover showed Letterman his book Rat Catching in its original, pre-published form. Letterman asked, “Are these actual, earlier publications?” and Glover answered — or rather, nervously stammered through the answer — “I remade them.”

According to a press release by LACE in 1987, Glover’s was a “Bookstore Exhibition” and his books were “created within an existing book altered by his writing and imagery interwoven into the original narrative, the works included found photographs, bookplates and the author’s own system of hierographics”.

Of course fiction is a form of art but but Glover’s narrative art insists on the difference between using a book as a medium to create pictorial, sequential or sculptural art and creating a palimpsestuous narrative in novel. But what is it? Oak-Mot is a book in form if not a novel but more importantly, a palimpsestuous hybrid narrative of text and graphic, found object and invention, emergence and burial. The coherence of the narrative, outside of plot derives from Glover’s hierographics that create fairly simple thematic and affective juxtapositions by blocking out or burying much of the text from the original 220-page novel.

Recently described in an interview as “whimsical vagrancy,” Glover’s re-habitation of Oak-Mot, like his other books, radically re-shapes and wanders over the original text, often supplementing it as much as he builds over and conceals it, then quickly leaving that portion of the structure to begin a new one. What makes Glover’s Oak-Mot particularly “vagrant” or homeless and ultimately unsettled is his rebuilding the novel with patches and layers of lacunae — or holes and pits in the Latin sense of the word. This is not to say that the text is constructed from negativities or absences but that each page’s surface is a ruined yet annexed landscape of pits, ditches, channels and gullies in which parts of the original text are buried or layered over by new textual/graphical formations. The first three pages of Glover’s palimpsest, for example, are pages 7, 10 and 17 of Baker’s original. This new sequence, undermined by traditional lacunae or absence, is narratively cohered by the layering of Glover’s hierographics that connect and juxtapose passages of text that shockingly shift to new episodes and/or introduce new characters and locales.

Glover’s mark-outs or burials of the original grow organically out of and in the text, the various spindly lines emanate from the amoebic, black boxes as tendrils. These many black scrawls and scratches act more like worms or better still, channels or trenches that mark the path of a worm through Baker’s original prairie. The only recurring text of Glover’s Oak-Mot that originates in Baker’s is on page 94. Glover carries the macabre, “The worms will get in. They will get in” through his version of Oak-Mot. It occurs again at the bottom of page 101, “The worms will get in” and at the bottom of page 188 in very large, horrific and elongated letters, “The worms will get in”. The first of six selections from Oak-Mot that Glover reads for his accompanying CD ends with the dramatic flourish of the music on an echoing guitar’s E minor chord and Glover’s whisper repeating, “They will get in. The Worms will get in.”

Worms are of course hermaphroditic, each individual possessing both male and female reproductive organs, thus making them perverse mirrors of themselves from one end to another. Glover’s worms too, are hermaphroditic in the metaphoric sense, being both textual and graphical. Pages 58-59, for instance, show the worms channeling across the surface of the page, over the reworked photograph and encircling the text, burrowing across the gulley separating the two pages connecting Adry, the new Uncle and Prosy, culminating in the text, “Adry is a little wrong in his mind” just below the ghost-like image above it (59). Glover worms, like real ones, devour the surface of Baker’s original novel and deposit or secrete black residue upon his pages, building up new surfaces that bury and/or annex the newly cohered text of the restructured Oak-Mot. Glover’s worms operate as palinodes, which means “recantation” or literally from the Greek, “to sing again” as Glover re-narrates Baker’s original text.

Editor’s note: Excerpted from a longer essay that was presented at Indiana University’s conference, “Collections & Collaborations: Occupied: Taking up Space and Time”, March 22, 2012.

The Ryder, February 2013

FILM: True False Festival

by Peter LoPilato

One of the best documentary film festivals in the world is just a short drive down I-70 in Columbia, Missouri. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating – it’s not that short a drive (six hours) but it is a fantastic festival. Filmmakers and occasionally the subjects of their documentaries present films, take part in Q&As and hobnob with festival-goers in hipster cafes, taverns and ice cream shops.

Think Lotus, only with movies. Film showings take place in multiple screening rooms in downtown Columbia and on the campus of the University of Missouri, all within walking distance of one another. For four days, from mid-morning until past midnight, Columbia is transformed into a film-lover’s playground. You can leapfrog from a film to a panel discussion to a performance by an indie band. And at night there are parties! Real parties — this is not one of those dreary academic affairs, with all due respect to academics. True False 2013 will feature close to forty new films and forty now bands. Most films come freshly discovered from Sundance, Toronto and other festivals; others appear mysteriously before their official premieres elsewhere.

Musicians Perform At The True False Film Festival

Some of 2012’s best documentaries were showcased last year at True False including The Ambassador, The Imposter, Queen of Versailles and Searching for Sugar Man.

This year’s festival will take place February 28th through March 3rd. As we go to press, the full slate of films has not been announced. It will include however, No, by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. No captured the Directors’ Fortnight top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Actress and fictional filmmaker Sarah Polley (some of you saw Take this Waltz last year at The Ryder) will present her documentary debut with Stories We Tell. By the time you read this, the rest True False program should be posted on the festival’s site.

The Ryder, February 2013

The Stunt On Page 3

by Danusha V. Goska

Some years back I was watching a televised discussion about the existence of God. I felt compelled to email the atheist participant. To my great surprise, he responded. Our exchange continued for a year. We debated the existence of God, and we fell in love.

Two years after our relationship ended, I wrote Save Send Delete, an account of our email debate and affair. It was an act of courage for me to argue, in the book, for my Christian faith. I am an imperfect and unorthodox Christian. I actively support gay rights. I am a feminist. I am critical of the Catholic Church that baptized and educated me and that collects my donations in its weekly baskets. I lay claim to no Christian celebrity. I possess no snapshot of myself with the pope. I don’t even have a photo of myself with my parish priest. What right do I have to argue for Christian faith?

Upon reflection, I realized that it was my very imperfections, unorthodoxy, and plebian status that might lend value to my work. Save Send Delete isn’t about the Christ, or the Christianity, of power, perfection or piety. Save Send Delete is about one flesh-and-blood seeker’s encounter with Jesus Christ.

Warning: Nudity

I sent the manuscript to secular publishers. They attacked. I received a typical rejection from the publisher of a small but trendy house, one with one of those offbeat and pretentious-in-its-lack-of-pretentiousness names, something like Used Handkerchief Publishing or Chipped Coffee Cup Press. Or maybe it was the one with the outdoorsy, New Age label – Clouds of Bodhisattva Books or Cougar’s Spit Ink.

This trendy publisher’s rejection leaked more corrosion than an abandoned car battery. This was a practically audible email, with its own volume – eleven – and its own pitch – fever. It’s a truism among writers that literary agents, editors and publishers have no time. Once they reject your work, you are not to linger in their inbox, not to send any follow-up messages, and not to expect any. I sent a follow-up message: “Having a bad day?”

He wrote back. Immediately. More outrage. It’s Christians like you, he insisted, who stone gays, and prevent evolution from being taught in schools, and burn witches.

“It is?” I responded. Just those two, two-letter words were enough to bait him into a page and a half of fresh outrage.

I wrote back. “May I help you?” You bet he wrote back. Five times.

I began sending query letters to Christian presses. I received equally impassioned but differently reasoned rejections. One publisher sent a lengthy letter praising my writing. He said that Save Send Delete “emasculates” atheist arguments. But then he brought the hammer down, in a sentence I don’t think I’ll ever forget. “You can’t use the word ‘blowjob’ in a Christian book.”

My first reaction – had I used the word “blowjob”? I checked. There it was, on the third page of the manuscript. I suddenly remembered a previous rejection. That one had said that people like me didn’t do Christianity any good, and “I recoiled from the stunt you pulled on page three.” At the time, I was blank. What “stunt” on page 3? Now I understood.

In the 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn about the lives of impoverished Irish immigrants, young Francie Nolan submits to her teacher writing assignments that describe her own, real life. “Poverty, starvation, and drunkenness are ugly,” this teacher tells little Francie. “We admit these things exist, but one doesn’t write about them…. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty, always… stop writing these sordid little stories.”

Francie must look up the word “sordid.” She discovers it means “filthy.” She is crushed.

I felt like Francie Nolan. I’m also the child of immigrants. I did not realize that snooty Christian editors, my presumed social superiors, would assess my natural speech patterns as “filthy.”

Ephesians 4:29 counsels against “foul” language, but, it continues, speak “only such as is good for needed edification.” Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you should respond to each one.” Each of these verses emphasizes that speech must be honed to fit its context. The Amplified Bible makes this most clear in its translation of Ephesians 4:29: proper speech “is fitting to the need and the occasion.”

I’m a working class girl from New Jersey. We use the conventional swearwords more than many other demographics. These are basic words that translate, variously, as “Ouch,” “I’m shocked,” “Listen,” or “Nonsense!” Used judiciously, these words are not foul, but, rather, serve excellently for needed edification. We value grace in speech, and we value the seasoning, the salt.

In 2005, Princeton University Press (in New Jersey!) published Prof. Harry Frankfurt’s book entitled On Bullshit. Frankfurt and Princeton argued that no other word could have communicated exactly what “bullshit” communicated. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” said Mark Twain. Words are power — power Christians are commanded by God to harness.

If Christians decide not to mention, when mention is called for, a given aspect of life, their speech is not edifying, it is not seasoned with salt. Jesus modeled this in his longest recorded conversation, the conversation with the Woman at the Well. In John 4:18, with the mercilessness of a film noir antihero, Jesus states the erotic facts of this woman’s life. It’s hard not to be shocked by his bluntness, but it is his bluntness that causes her to state, in the very next verse, “I can see that you are a prophet.”

After the rejection that accused me of pulling a “stunt,” I thought of the graphics on the webpages of Christian publishers. Puppies and kittens. Ponies and daisies. Soft focus and airbrushed. These warm and fuzzy graphics communicated Christianity-as-Barcalounger, Christianity as a soft, fat piece of furniture one could occupy when one wanted to feel sheltered and smug. I thought of the view outside my window. I see garbage, a bar, gang members. I see my neighbor, a single mother from the Dominican Republic, with determined gait, heading to her job as a nurse’s aide. I see her fatherless son, obese, leaning on a fence, far from any playing field, on his face the resignation of a caged animal, a life-form suspended by boredom and neglect till death or explosion.

I thought of the vocabulary necessary to converse with my students about their most pressing concerns. My students don’t approach me to have urgent, one-on-one conversations about puppies or kittens. These conversations never require multi-syllable, abstract, Latin nouns: sola scriptura, actus purus, transubstantiation. My students need to talk about pain, and the obscene vocabulary of abuse, betrayal, and exploitation. They need to confess to the orgy at a tacky Route 3 motel, the boyfriend who impregnated, the girlfriend who teased, and then ran. They need to talk about mom’s boyfriend who takes her daughter into the basement of the public housing complex and rapes her. They need to disgorge the words that name the unique nausea caused by the deaths of those who should not die. Nice words need not apply.

If Christians quarantine this vocabulary, they relegate these conversations to non-Christians who are all too ready to use these words. Atheists don’t have any problem with using the vocabulary needed to talk about sex or pain or bodily functions. And so my students, if turned away by me on the basis on of the inadmissibility of necessary words, would simply turn to atheists.

This relegation of discussion of the most intimate, the most intense, the most telling and testing moments of life to non-Christians is both tragic and farcical. If Jesus does not belong in that basement with that inner city girl being raped, Jesus does not belong anywhere.

Billy Graham used the word “blowjob.” Pope John Paul II used the word “blowjob.” Mother Teresa used the word “blowjob.” They’ve used the word, either out loud or internally, because it names an inescapable part of life. Since we all know that we’ve all spoken, or at least thought, the word, a public pretense that we have never used it, or that we live on the planet where this vocabulary word is not necessary, suggests that we require phoniness in order to be Christian.

Technology places office workers in Kansas into competition with office workers in Bangalore. Technology also places Christianity into instant competition with ancient traditions like Hinduism, invented ones like Neo-Paganism, as well as atheism. Only a Christianity vital in its authenticity will survive these debates. On this playing field, we can’t afford to anesthetize our language. We need to be able to address the panoply of human experience, as did Jesus himself.

The Ryder, February 2013

STAGES: February (& More)

by Ryan Dawes

◗ King Creole’s Bayou Boogie

Saturday, February 16 / Bloomington Convention Center / 6 pm / $60

This Mardi Gras-themed event will feature a performance by Curtis Jackson’s Motown Review, which will serve as soundtrack to the shell-crushing ecstasy of a massive crawfish boil.  Other Cajun, Creole, and Yankee dietary delights will be served compliments of local restaurants.  The event will benefit the Bloomington Independent Restaurant Association and the Monroe County Chapter of the American Red Cross to support their work with victims of disasters, military families, and emergency response and preparedness.  Tickets can be purchased at or at the door.

◗ Soup Bowl Benefit

Sunday, February 17 / Monroe County Convention Center / 5 pm / $25

Benefiting the Hoosier Hills Food Bank, which collects and distributes food for local NPO’s, the Soup Bowl offers ticket holders their choice of hundreds of handmade ceramic bowls made by area artists, along with soup and bread donated by local restaurants and bakeries.  The idea for the Soup Bowl Benefit was first conceived by local artist Carrie Newcomer and music attorney Robert Meitus, who participated in a similar event while on tour.  Since then, the benefit has helped HHFB buy trucks and refrigerators and feed families across Monroe and 6 other counties.  Musical entertainment will be provided by Another Round (formerly Straight No Chaser) and the old-time folk outfit, The Monks.

◗ Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three with Al Scorch

Thursday, February 21 / The Bishop / 9 pm / $10

Lotus World Music Fest alumni Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three conjure spirits of the historic South with a glowing brand of  rag-time, western swing, and country blues. The sweaty, humid feat is achieved with Pokey’s brilliant guitar-picking and crooning voice stacked charmingly atop guitjo, double bass, kazoo, and harmonica. Chicago’s own banjo shredding Al Scorch will pre-heat the Bishop with his old-soul narratives supported by a bluegrassy, gospelish folk that is often penetrated by a youthful post-punk recklessness, lending more emotion to the work. Each act alone would be worth the same door price.

Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three

◗ The School for Scandal

Friday & Saturday, February 22 & 23; Tuesday, February 26 through Friday, March 1 / Ruth N. Halls Theatre / 7:30 pm / $10-25

Set in London in the 1770’s (when it was also written), this theatrical comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is about the repercussions of the age-old practice of gossip. We see this play out as Lady Sneerwell plots to wreak social havoc by spreading unfounded rumors of a love-affair so that she may pluck what she wants from the wreckage, that being the affection of a married man. After more lies, backstabbing, bribery, and the arrival of a rich uncle in disguise, Sneerwell’s plot unravels in a way that illustrates just how “tale-bearers are as bad as the tale-makers.” Tickets are available at the IU Auditorium box office or at the Lee Norvelle Center box office in-person, which opens one hour before the show.

◗ Dragon Wagon

Friday, March 1 / Max’s Place / 10 pm / Free

With a fiddle player who was trained the tradition of Celtic violin and later toured with a death metal-bluegrass hybrid outfit, DW is a bluegrass folk-rock band, but obviously not without a diverse array of other influences. The band is based in Ann Arbor, MI and has been playing together since 2008.  Legend has it that percussionist Fritz McGirr was once hired by Guinness Brewing Company to rap about beer and play the Bodhrán (double-sided, hand held frame drum with goat skin). DW mandolin player Troy Stanley Radikin confirms this.  Donations for admission will be accepted.

◗ Spamalot

Wednesday, March 6 / Indiana University Auditorium / 8 pm / $38-62

“Bring out your dead!” Created by the writers of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, Spamalot is the Broadway version of the former.  After entertaining more than 2 million people and grossing more than $175 million in its first year, Spamalot was awarded a Tony for Best Musical in 2005. So enthused by the first year’s success, that 1,789 Monty Python fans amassed to form the “World’s Largest Coconut Orchestra” in Shubert Alley in Manhattan. Since then, the production has toured through Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Europe, and Australia.  If you’re not dead yet, you can find tickets at the IU Auditorium Box Office, located just south of the main entrance.

◗ Unknown Mortal Orchestra with Foxygen, Wampire

Friday, March 8 / The Bluebird / 9 pm / $12

Led by Ruban Nielson formerly of New Zealand, UMO creates a guitar-driven psychedelic pop with strains of funk and garage rock influenced by solitude and liver-punishing life on the road. His high-pitched, emotionally charged vocals combined with fuzzy distortion sound like a mix of Elliott Smith, Jimi Hendrix, and a new 21st Century bleakness that didn’t exist before. Sharing similar threads of psychedelia (not to mention the local labelship of Jagjaguar), Foxygen will precede UMO on stage, sporting surprising song structure that illustrates admirable instrument and genre diversity, amounting to a very entertaining and thoughtful experimental pop.

◗ Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma

Monday, March 18 / Indiana University Auditorium / 8 pm / $38-60

As one of the most recognized cellists in the world, Yo-Yo Ma directs and performs in the Silk Road Ensemble, which is part of a broader educational initiative called the Silk Road Project and includes performers from nearly 20 countries, playing instruments unique to their countries. For example, you can hear a kamancheh (bowed instrument with silk or metal strings) from Iran, a shakuhachi (end-blown flute) from Japan, or an erhu (double stringed fiddle with a python-skinned sound box) from China, just to name a few. Altogether, the Ensemble boasts both an enormous fleet of symphonic sound as well as illuminates individual instruments solo.

The Ryder, February 2013

Smile Trek

He traveled across Southeast Asia, on footFrom The Diary of Winston Fiore

Bloomington-native Winston Fiore recently completed a 5,000-mile trek across Southeast Asia. After graduating from Bloomington North High School, Winston joined AmeriCorps, America’s voluntary national service program. In 2007, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and spent three weeks training in Senegal. As a middle-class American, his eyes were opened by the sight of children scavenging through garbage and women carrying water on their heads for great distances. Amid the poverty and cultural differences that surrounded his experience there, Fiore found himself inspired to make global changes — in his own way. After returning from duty in Afghanistan last year, Winston decided to form his own charity project and then embarked on his 5,000-mile walk, which he calls Smile Trek, in an effort to raise funds and awareness for facial-reconstructive surgeries in the developing world.

Winston Fiore


Winston’s parents own Bloomington’s legendary Le Petit Café where Winston will be hosting a benefit dinner on Thursday, March 7; all proceeds will be donated to the International Children’s Surgical Foundation. ICSF’s founder and principle surgeon, Dr. Geoff Williams, will speak. For more information about the benefit or to make a reservation contact Winston at (812) 272.2686 or at

What follow are excerpts from Winston’s blog describing some of his experiences along the road.

Locals often ask me what I’m up to. Apparently a westerner walking up to a roadside eatery donned in a bulky load-bearing vest in middle-of-nowhere rural Malaysia is not a common scene. So I tell them I’m walking across Southeast Asia. Without fail, they reply, “walking?!”, with emphasis on the second syllable, as if their incredulousness doesn’t kick in until half way through the word. “Yes, walking.”

Refined sugar fuels the Malaysian. It is a force of habit, a bien-entendu, a fact of life. Malaysians go so far as to add simple syrup to their coconut water, and their tea makes Sunny Delight taste like distilled water. “Milk” refers to a pallid, condensed corn syrup that is added to tea/coffee to make it even sweeter. I learned long ago to simply preface every beverage order with, “No sugar please,” no matter how ridiculous such a request may seem. I once came across real cow’s milk – a rare find – at an eatery and ordered a glass. “Surely,” I naively thought, “I don’t need to specify that I don’t want sweetener added to a glass of milk.” The glass arrived with a halfinch mound of sugar grains caked to the bottom. Sometimes, beverages arrive with added sugar even after my precautionary request. Most likely, this is due to force of habit, but I like to picture the shopkeep in the back, wittingly adding sugar by the spoonful, shaking his head as he chuckles to himself, “Silly American, asking for no sugar in his coffee. He has obviously lost his way, but I will show him the light.”

The rainy season has finally arrived, and with it, Murphy’s Law. Thick black clouds may billow across every square inch of sky, but taking preemptive cover only postpones the downpour. Water doesn’t fall until the instant I decide to begin walking again. A particularly memorable instance occurred a couple weeks ago. The sky betokened a thunderstorm, as usual, and a long bridge lay ahead of me. I decided to press on, fingers crossed that I’d come across shelter on the other side in case of rain. Naturally, the sky fell the minute I reached the top, and the landscape before me was roofless as far as the eye could see. I walked for miles, sandwiched between never-ending oil palm plantations. It was approaching nightfall, I was drenched, and any promise of dinner seemed long gone. As I began accepting the fact that I’d be camping on yet another plantation, which I hate doing because they are teeming with mosquitos, a nondescript road-sign appeared out of nowhere. On it were the words “Teluk Intan Golf & Country Club” with an arrow pointing down an intersecting backroad. Through some twisted sense of humor, the gods, having just made my last two hours a living misery, were now dangling a carrot. With nothing to lose, I took the hint.

A secret garden unfolded before me: mowed grass, manmade lakes, a swimming pool, sports cars. I entered the massive building that stood at the head of the country club. Not only was the house restaurant open for business, but the owner bought me dinner, let me use the showers, and allowed me to set up camp in the lobby! I took advantage of the powerful ceiling fans, and my boots, socks, and clothes were bone dry by the time I hit the road the following morning. It’s a funny thing when such poor fortune is so quickly reversed by good luck.

I spent one night in a Muslim graveyard. I hadn’t intended to, but every once in a while, you get caught in an urban area when the sun goes down. In towns, where prospective campsites are few and far between, cemeteries are a godsend. They’re quiet (dead quiet), secluded, dimly lit, and generally unpopular at night. Plus, what better way to fall asleep than to be surrounded by people who have been sleeping for a very long time? I was out of there by sunrise.

Entering Laos from northern Thailand was quite the snafu. I navigate with Google walking directions, which had been reliable to a T up to that point. How Google went from infallible accuracy to epic failure in one fell swoop is beyond me, but that’s exactly what happened. Somehow Google Maps displayed, not one, but five imaginary bridges linking Vientiane to Thailand! One of these was incorporated in their walking directions from Bangkok to Laos’s capital, so when I got to the river dividing the two countries and could not find the bridge that was supposed to lead me across, I went through all five stages of grief before finally hitchhiking to the nearest real bridge (20 miles in the opposite direction)

It’s funny because a half-hour before this discovery, two women in a pickup truck pulled over to ask me where I was headed. “Laos!” I exclaimed. “You’re going the wrong way,” they insisted. “No,” I assured them, “there’s a bridge right up ahead.” After some time trying to convince me of the opposite, they finally drove off in disbelief. “Wow,” I thought to myself in amazement, “it’s incredible that natives of this very area aren’t even aware of the transnational bridges in their own backyard!”

I stepped on a snake in northern Thailand. I was walking at night and noticed what I thought was a bamboo stalk on the road shoulder (this is quite common). The object was similar in width, straight in structure, and completely motionless. I ended up stepping on it, and it quickly sprung out from under me. It was the most terrifying part of the trek so far. What made it terrifying wasn’t the fact that I stepped on a snake, but the fact that I stepped on a snake that I thought was a stalk of bamboo. Having one’s perceived reality so abruptly betrayed by one’s physical reality is absolutely petrifying. Can you imagine sitting on a fur couch that ends up being a live grizzly? Or stepping out onto a field of grass that is actually a pond covered in duckweed? This experience instilled in me a deep respect for Jumanji players.

I saw a Buddhist monk smoking a cigarette the other day, which was odd because I don’t usually think of Buddhist monks as smokers. If I were a tobacco lobbyist, I would exploit this image for all its worth. I thought of other monks out there who don’t cross my mind. Are there Buddhist monks in prison? If so, what do these incarcerated monks look like? Hulking muscles and Nirvana tattoos clad in an orange toga and flip-flops would seem contradictory, but who knows…

I’m beginning to scare the children. Around the time school lets out, it’s not uncommon for me to share the roadside with clusters of kids headed back home after class. Over the course of a half hour, the mass of schoolchildren will diffuse and I will end up gaining on a small group of three or four kids, one of which will turn around and notice me in the distance. Curiosity ensues, and everyone in the ensemble will begin turning around sporadically to behold their new pursuer. Once I get into the 30-yard range, they begin running away from me, stopping once they feel like I’m far enough behind them, and resuming once I approach again. This pattern usually continues until they turn off the main road to where their homes presumably are. But on one occasion, a group of kids stopped walking entirely and waited anxiously on the side of the road for me to pass them. I could detect the air of panic that had overtaken their conversation, “Look he’s obviously not going to stop following us, and every time we run away he just keeps catching up, so let’s just park ourselves right here and stare him down as he walks by.” I haven’t had children run away from me since that day my mom packed squid as my school lunch.

The Chinese know how to build cities. This was my first observation after a month in Vietnam, where the infrastructure was… dated, to put it charitably. The amount of construction happening in China right now is unreal; the country is one big public works project. Not only that, but the Chinese appear to be future-proofing their cities, building enormous avenues that, while underutilized today, will undoubtedly fill up as cars continue to become more affordable to China’s growing middle class. Many of these gargantuan avenues are built on the outskirts of large cities in anticipation of the development to follow. It is comical to be trekking down a deserted Champs Elysees biding its time until Paris is built.

Just as in previous countries I had walked through, the nicer restaurants in China boasted food photography in their menus. Because I don’t read Chinese, I would depend on these photos to know what I was ordering, which was problematic because 90% of the time, the dishes that were brought to me looked nothing like the photo. The most extreme case was a time I ordered a banana split at a UBC Coffee, a prevalent restaurant chain throughout China. The picture was magical: a festive bowl bursting at the seams from the generous vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry scoops that filled it, drowned in rich chocolate sauce and buried under a heap of whipped cream, pierced with chocolate-filled wafer sticks and flanked by two hearty banana halves. My mouth watered as I waited with impatience for this bowl of sin to appear before me. The waiter returned promptly, tray in hand, but what he produced was of a more modest nature: three quarter-inch, perpendicularly sliced, morsels of banana topping two barren scoops of freezer-burned vanilla ice cream. Nothing more. I pointed out the disparity between the photograph and this naked dessert to my server, who spoke passable English. “It require some… imagination,” he told me!

An insightful window into Chinese culture was opened at another UCB Coffee in Fuzhou. This was my final destination in China, so I was well versed in menus’ unrealistic food portraits by this point. But my low expectations didn’t make me crave ice cream any less, and I found myself in a conundrum. One dessert option boasted whipped cream, but the ice cream flavors did not tempt me. Another option had the scoops I desired but whipped cream was not in its description. Luckily, my server was majoring in English at a local university, so communicating my request that whipped cream be added to the latter option went smoothly. “I’ll pay extra,” I assured him, to which he replied that he would need to consult his manager. When he returned a few minutes later, the twinkle in his eye had evaporated, “Sir, I’m sorry; we don’t have that computer button in our system.” I stared at him blankly and listened for the hum of a cooling fan from within his chest cavity. I inspected his waiter uniform for any protruding hydraulic wires. He seemed human enough. “Well, this is going to sound crazy, but I’m willing to bet that if you walk through those kitchen doors and talk to the cooks in person, they’ll be able to throw some whipped cream on there.” His countenance showed little promise when he returned from the kitchen moments later, “Sir, I’m afraid the kitchen manager is gone for the day, but even if he were here, he would have to call the owner of this branch for approval.” Everything I knew about the world crumbled. The decision to add whipped cream to a dessert would have to go through the restaurant owner because they didn’t have a button in the computer. My server was very nice, and very eager to converse with a native English-speaker, so he proceeded to explain how this highly centralized approach to decision-making was quite common in China. Those with power flaunt it and feel the need to remind subordinates of their status on a regular basis. Even the trivial decision to add whipped cream, if made by a waiter or cook autonomously, could cause an insecure boss to feel threatened. “Here, someone could get fired over this, maybe just to make an example of them,” my waiter explained. I nursed my Tsing Tsao, grateful to be from a land where initiative was generally rewarded with a promotion.

I don’t generally sightsee on days I walk, as making use of my day to cover ground is a priority, but a massive Buddhist temple snuck up on me one afternoon a few weeks into crossing China. Its size alone sparked my curiosity, and the serenity it exuded made it too intriguing to resist. An imposing staircase linked the temple’s distant threshold to the ground before me, and as I ascended the deserted steps, I felt like Bruce Wayne in the opening scene of Batman Begins, in which he pilgrimages to a remote ninja temple in the mountains to seek training. What this movie scene doesn’t reveal, however, are the brand new SUVs parked at the entrance, the free buffet, and sneaker-clad monks texting on their mobile phones, all of which awaited me at the summit. Any hopes I had of being greeted with an anachronistic martial arts montage after the climb were nipped in the bud. The temple was gorgeous, though, and the buffet’s spread was handsome. After leaving a donation, I made my way back down the stairs to resume trekking. When I later told my father the bit about the monks texting on their phones, he bellowed, “They’re texting Buddha!”

Hong Kong was a breath of fresh air: uncensored internet, chocolate, coffee, clean streets, bars that knew how to prepare cocktails, people who spoke English. Still, I couldn’t see myself living there. I’m a pedestrian at heart, and Hong Kong is the least pedestrian-friendly city I’ve ever stepped foot in. It’s like walking through an M.C. Escher painting. Sidewalks outright end. This is not an exaggeration. Literally, you’ll be walking along a sidewalk, and it will end without warning. You’ll see where you want to go from where you’re standing, but you’ll have no idea how to go about getting there, like Jennifer Connelly’s character in Labyrinth, who can clearly see the Goblin King’s castle in the beginning but has to navigate a maze to reach it. Your only hope is to retrace your steps in search of some tunnel or underpass or overpass or talking door knockers that might get you one step closer to your destination. Even in those rare instances when you can discern a path to your endpoint, there will be obstacles. You’ll have to hurdle sidewalk rails, benches, and landscaping, all while keeping a watchful eye for police officers all-too-eager to ticket jaywalkers.

I’ve never met a breed of city dwellers as obedient to pedestrian protocol as Hong Kongers. Masses of cutthroat businessmen, veteran financiers, movers and shakers, kings of the hill, merciless men who clawed their way to the top, tooth and nail, and who answer to no one, men with booming voices who slap backs, who eat market share for breakfast and close mergers on their lunch breaks, who don’t get pushed around by anyone and who don’t take “no” for an answer; these men, when confronted by the little red man in the pedestrian traffic light, become sheep. The fact that there isn’t an automobile in sight matters not; they kneel before this little red man and adhere to his every command. For 70 seconds, their undivided attention, their world, their lives, are his.

I had my share of preconceived notions before coming to ‘Nam, mostly derived from war movies: conical hats, rice paddies, and hot humid weather. It is true that the stereotypical hats are worn by most in the countryside, and that the countryside is composed almost entirely of rice paddies, but what the war movies don’t tell you is that it gets cold in Vietnam! I actually had to spring for a fleece, and even with a fleece and my warm-weather sleeping bag, it was too cold to camp. Luckily, guesthouses, or “Nha Nghi”, averaged no more than $10/night.

Pale lager is the only kind of beer I enjoy, and in Vietnam, I discovered the best pale lager I have ever encountered anywhere in the world in my entire life: Bia Hoi, or “fresh beer.” Sold on street corners across the country, this stuff is distributed to vendors daily and directly from the brewery. It is hands-down the freshest beer I have ever tasted, and the price is almost negligible. Vendors purchase 5-gallon kegs for the equivalent of $7! In NYC, it’s not uncommon for a pint to cost $7…

I am not a fan of Vietnamese coffee. A dysfunctional marriage between a failed French press and a broken coffee seep, the brewing contraption is a terrific flop in human ingenuity. A nine-year-old chimpanzee with a learning disability could not invent a less efficient apparatus. Grounds are placed inside a metal filter that is affixed atop each individual cup, an ounce or so of hot water is poured in, and the brewed coffee drips into the cup… one… drop… at… a… time. Not only does it take twenty minutes to brew an ounce of coffee, but the beverage is stone cold by the time it has seeped through the filter.

To make matters worse, coffee is not generally offered in eateries and food is not generally offered at cafes. So instead of being able to allow the coffee to brew at the table while I ate breakfast, I would have to eat breakfast at one place and relocate to a cafe afterwards only to stare for twenty minutes at my cup as the coffee brewed one… drop… at… a… time…

The Ryder, February 2013

1 2 3 4 5