The Pope & Sex

pope

by William Orem

The earliest Christian documents we have are not the four canonical gospels—
Johnny-come-latelies written, anonymously, by Greek-speaking theologians far from the events they describe. Rather, they are the epistles of Paul, a Roman Jew who was signally responsible for both the character and spread of the new faith. Paul’s Jesus Christ was primarily a mystical being, met in visions: to judge by his letters, he may not even have believed Christ lived in a body on earth. The relationship of Paul, and the other epistle writers, to Gnosticism—with its central thesis that the body is a low, scurrilous thing, a mere trap for the spirit—is a fascinating subject in itself. Whatever Paul’s metaphysics, though, the deep concern with which he viewed the flesh is famous.

In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul hotly chastises the brethren for behavior unbecoming of the saved. Christian brothers have been, in the colorful King James elocution, “fornicating”; Christian brothers have been visiting prostitutes; one has been having sex with his mother (stepmother, if you wish: “his father’s wife”). Paul seems also to be stepping into an active debate over whether sex should be permissible at any time, inside marriage or out.

The apostle lays into the libertines here with some of his most memorable ire: 
“Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind [ . . . ] shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor 6:9-10) “Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot?” (1 Cor 6:15) “Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.” (1 Cor 6:18).

“It is well for a man not to touch a woman,” Paul sums up his position (1 Cor. :1), drawing an association between holiness and sexlessness that would echo for millennia. Ideally, everyone should just be celibate, as the world is about to end anyway. He himself avoids sex altogether—though some, Bishop John Shelby Spong as a recent example, have suspected a homosexual subtext among the guilty denials. Regardless of the source of Paul’s anxiety, his message is clear: If you absolutely must, go ahead and have sex with your wives, just to keep your animal lust from driving you to worse things. But, honestly, God would like it best if people didn’t touch each other down there . . . or here, or here . . . or under there . . . at all.

And so forward through the centuries. Catholicism has been marked by a recurrence, among its primary names, of deep confusion and alarm regarding sexual drive. One thinks, even at a quick glance, of Origen, the Church Father who took a knife to his own genitals (inspired by this act, a Christian sect called the Valesians are reported to have castrated not only themselves, but others). One thinks of Augustine, who wallowed in a decade of unbridled, if guilt-poisoned, libertinism—“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet,” was his prayer—before encountering Paul’s own Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof, whereupon he became a great condemner of sex all around. Sexual desire is mud, he tells us in Confessions; it is chains, thorns, an itching, open sore. One thinks of Aquinas, who, in his Summa Theologica, turned the most powerful intellect of the 13th century to the pressing matter of all “monstrous and bestial manners of copulation” (Is masturbation a worse sin than rape? Is “nocturnal pollution” an offense to the Almighty?)

It was to Aquinas, by the way, that the recently self-deposed Pope Benedict advocated the modern, science and reason-based West needed to return. Benedict was also a great Augustinian, once saying Confessions is the only book other than the Bible he would need on a desert island. This was in the early days of Benedict’s papacy, before his name was forever linked to a massive, international practice of both sheltering and enabling Catholic priests who rape children.

Sex, as it turns out, is a normal function. Some 250,000 years of natural selection acting on our own species, with perhaps a billion years of laying the biological groundwork before that, have formed us in exactly this way. The wandering symphony of sexual behaviors is a great many things, but first of all, it is human.

This basic recognition has serious consequences for any orthodoxy that seeks to subdue, or vilify, healthy sexual expression. In an imaginary world, leaving the body behind may be commendable. In this one, the result can only be great numbers of people who are lonely and unfulfilled; sexually repressed, with the consequent psychological effects; sexually covert, living a life of hypocrisy and self-alienation; or, in the worst cases, pathological.

In his book Dilemma: A Priest’s Struggle With Faith and Love, Father Albert Cutié makes a blunt statement:

“After several years in the ministry, I came to the understanding that most of my priest acquaintances—with very few exceptions—fell into three basic categories, with some falling into two or even three of them:

1. Those removed from the Church
2. Those accused of sexual or other crimes
3. Those who felt disgruntled and/or isolated.”

Cutié, known throughout the U.S., Spain and Latin America for his radio and TV outreach, was “outed” having a sexual relationship with a woman. Rather than retiring in shame, however, he converted publicly to Episcopalianism, married his love, and started a family. (By contrast, Thomas Merton, a previous Catholic apologist of international repute, kept his relationship with a woman almost three decades his junior a secret.) Cutié’s insider exposé of the celibacy myth makes harrowing reading for anyone raised to believe that all clergy . . . or even the majority . . . follow Vatican instruction on matters of sexuality.

In a gentle, almost crestfallen voice, “Padre Alberto” details the astonishing number of seminarians, priests, bishops and others who lead active sex lives:

“There are more priests and women in this situation than anyone can imagine. I once met a bishop in a Latin American diocese who confided in me that every priest in his diocese had a girlfriend; most of his priests had fathered children in these relationships. [ . . . ] But, with the passage of time, and as my ministry in the media took me all around the world, I began to understand how impossible celibacy is for most people. The phenomenon of Roman Catholic priests who are officially celibate but leading secret lives is present all over the world [ . . . ]”

Nor are all “men of the cloth” men. Just recently I had lunch with ex-nun Mary Johnson, whose excellent memoir An Unquenchable Thirst chronicles her time in Mother Theresa’s order. While working in the Missionaries of Charity, she had a lesbian relationship with a fellow sister who turned out to be a sexual predator; a love affair with a priest; and a personal awakening to the cost of loneliness that caused her to leave the Church altogether.

Among the covert, of course, is the great number of male homosexuals. Father Donald Cozzens, in The Changing Face of the Priesthood, holds that some 60% of Catholic clergy belong in this latter category. Cutié, in a recent television interview, accepted this rough figure, further underscoring how many of these gay men are “promiscuous”—meaning actively engaged in sex with multiple partners. Such claims have been vocally challenged by their detractors, to be sure; but anything remotely like what these ordained men are describing would make the Vatican’s celibacy rule, its anti-homosexuality stance, and its position on sexual behaviors in general, a farce.

For relatively healthy clergy—gay, straight, or bi—and for their parishioners, the cost in hypocrisy alone of all this duplicity must be extreme. A cleric who is using prostitutes while preaching that even masturbation is a sin is a terribly fractured entity. Beyond such cases, though, stand the truly pathological: those clergy whose sexuality is misshapen to the point of predation.

The very existence of an organization like SNAP—the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests—tells a chilling tale. According to BishopAccountability.org, a public database by lay Catholics on the sex abuse scandal, “Thousands of Catholic clergy and religious have raped and sodomized tens of thousands of children—perhaps more than 100,000 children—since 1950.”

This figure is jaw-dropping.100,000 children, in a crime so painful it is almost certainly underreported. That’s over 1,500 assaults every year, or another Jerry Sandusky striking every six hours, every day, since Quo Vadis was on the big screen.

Can such an evil possibly be happening? Must it not all be some terrible mistake, or malicious rumor—the “few bad apples” defense?

The Vatican, whose Cardinal Sodano dismissed clerical abuse as “idle gossip” in 2010, first tried to downplay the extremity of its problem. (Sodano now has his own scandal, involving his having pressured then-cardinal Ratzinger not to investigate sex abuse charges against Archbishop Hans Hermann Groër and Father Marcial Maciel, of whom more below.) Yet huge numbers of cases continued to be revealed—in the U.S.; in the Netherlands; in Austria; in Poland; in Canada; in France; in Germany. Settlement cases, according to AP, had already cost the Church two billion dollars in 2007; Bishop-Accountability puts it currently past three billion. In America, whole dioceses had to declare bankruptcy. The more Catholic the country, it seemed, the more profound the pain: in Ireland, government investigations brought to light an astonishing 15,000 cases and cover-ups, going back fifty years—causing four separate Bishops to offer resignation and dealing the Irish church a blow from which it may never recover.

When denial became impossible, Pope Benedict blamed society. In his year-end address to Vatican bishops and cardinals, 2010, he said:

“We are well aware of the particular gravity of this sin committed by priests and of our corresponding responsibility. But neither can we remain silent regarding the context of these times in which these events have come to light. There is a market in child pornography that seems in some way to be considered more and more normal by society. The psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to articles of merchandise, is a terrifying sign of the times . . .”

Here was an unexpected tu quoque move that many felt tasted bitterly of justification. The then-head of the RCC was apparently contending that this molestation business is all a quite recent development, and the Church itself is somehow one more baffled victim of “the times.” Moral relativism, it turns out, is the real culprit. Also, the secular culture of the 1970s did it. The abuser priests themselves are a kind of victim, in Benedict’s view—victims of permissive modern society and all its temptations (including, evidently, the “temptation” afforded by terrified underage boys). If only the West hadn’t fallen away from the true Church, its weakest members wouldn’t have found themselves—by the tens of thousands—assaulted by that Church’s representatives.

Many Catholics had had enough. Earlier that same year, Swiss theologian Hans Küng, in an interview in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, called on the Pope to apologize personally for the scandal, saying that “no other person within the church had seen so many cases of abuse pass through their office.” Now, Catholics and non-Catholics alike began to ask why abusers in a collar, and those Bishops who enable them, should get a sinecure instead of a sentence.

By the end, when Benedict broke with six centuries of tradition to “retire” from the Papal chair, the rumors advanced in the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica and elsewhere that the Vatican was being blackmailed by Rome’s prostitutes, that there is a gay faction inside the Curia itself, that the Holy Father was forced from his seat to avoid the Crimes Against Humanity charge being organized by SNAP and other victims’ groups, seemed less like idle gossip than more of the tragic same.

And thus to the new Pope.

One hears, of him, the usual roster of encomia. Pope Francis is a deeply humble man, one who cares for the poor, committed to ecumenical dialogue. Let it be so: though not untouched by their own abuse cases, the Jesuits in many respects shine as an order, and having one in the disgraced papal seat has filled many with new optimism. My own experience of the Society of Jesus, for whatever anecdote is worth, has been a strongly positive one: I maintain a meaningful friendship with a priest who taught at my high school and later spoke at my wedding. (Another Jesuit at the same school has since been defrocked, with painful predictability, for molestation.)

But Francis is a bit like a man who comes to the doctor’s office bleeding out of both ears and wanting to talk about other things first. There is a single, fundamental issue that must be addressed before Rome can turn its thoughts anywhere else: its multifaceted, multidimensional, and interlocking problem with sex.

One would like to think the new Pope, who comes out from behind the bulletproof barriers to embrace the faithful he clearly loves, will make changes that dignify his wounded Church. The possible avenues are many:

He could begin by lifting the morally repugnant ban on condom use—a policy that would immediately dial back the spread of AIDS in Africa, surely a greater opprobrium than the supposed crime of strapping a piece of rubber over a man’s penis. Francis has shown some flexibility here, early reports suggesting he is open to considering condoms for the purpose of preventing disease.

He could remove the widely ignored celibacy rule, allowing priests to marry. “For the moment,” Francis says in his book On Heaven and Earth, “I’m in favor of maintaining celibacy, with its pros and cons, because there have been 10 centuries of good experiences rather than failures. It’s a question of discipline, not of faith. It could change.”

He could announce as formal doctrinal position what, to many in America, has long since been recognized as fact: that gay men and women are not just contributing members of the Catholic community, but vital ones, and always have been. (In the same book, Pope Francis refers to gay marriage as “an anthropological step backward.”)

He could lift the prohibition on divorce. (“While [divorced Catholics] live in a situation on the margin of the sacrament of marriage, they are asked to integrate in the life of the parish,” Francis says, reminding divorced laity—apparently in all earnestness—that they “are not excommunicated.”)

He could recognize the full equality of women, opposition to which is surely the tacit agenda behind so much body control, from Catholic Rome to Muslim Saudi Arabia. (Francis: “A philosophy of constant feminism doesn’t give the woman the dignity she deserves.”)

Then, setting aside the Emeritus Pontiff’s attempts to pin priestly abuse anywhere other than on priests, he could begin to address the horrific and overwhelming number of clergy who molest children and adolescents as an expression of their distorted sexual development. The questions that must be asked are terrifying: Is the seminary process forming pedophiles, or just attracting them? What part does celibacy play in dysfunction, even pathological dysfunction? What has the actual effect on humanity been of Christianity’s millennia-old teachings on sex, on women, on the body?

“I do not believe in taking positions that uphold a certain corporate spirit to avoid damaging the image of the institution,” Francis says of the clerical abuse scandal. “That solution was proposed once in the United States: they proposed switching the priests to a different parish. It is a stupid idea; that way, the priest just takes the problem with him wherever he goes.”

For a Pope even to say this much—setting aside the odd suggestion that shuffling around molesters is only a solution “proposed once in the United States”—whispers the possibility of change. But behind even such updates as Francis may achieve, I would suggest, lies the core problem.

While excellent, allowing condoms in order to prevent the transmission of disease—to take one example—would still be notable for what it is not. It is not sanctioning human sexual pleasure; it is not recognizing sexual joy that does not have procreation as its purpose to be both a personal right and an end in itself. It is not throwing over the mistaken belief, with us since Gnostic times, that the body is a disgrace or a distraction or a burden to be overcome; it is not admitting that intimacy and orgasm are so much more—physically, psychologically, spiritually—than the side effect of child-making. It is not recognizing that healthy, adult, mutually consensual, self-respecting and partner-respecting sex is a high moral good, and one of the brightest birthrights of the human experience.

Until a Pope can acknowledge this—and, in truth, I do not see how any Pope can—the particular species of suffering that started with Paul will continue to take its toll.

There is a moving photograph, taken in 2004, of Pope John Paul II placing his hand on the forehead of a gentle-looking older man. The moment of benediction, a spiritual and emotional bond between two elderly clerics, feels genuine. That man is Father Marcial Maciel, the Roman Catholic priest who founded the Legion of Christ. Maciel was a model cleric to the late Pontiff, who praised him in talks and in print. His was a sanctified life.

At the time that this blessing was being bestowed, however, things were quite otherwise than they seemed. Among various transgressions, Father Maciel had been sexually abusing seminarians, and others, for decades—including, by some accounts, upward of thirty boys. He had sired as many as six illegitimate offspring, with two different women; two of whom, the allegations run, he sexually abused as well.

To put it bluntly, when that picture was taken, the saintly Father Maciel had been a rapist for some three decades, his victims including his own children.

“For his own mysterious reasons,” the Legionnaires of Christ website states, “God chose Fr Maciel as an instrument to found the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, and we thank God for the good he did. At the same time, we accept and regret that, given the gravity of his faults, we cannot take his person as a model of Christian or priestly life.” The Vatican formally denounced Maciel after John Paul II died, admitting that he had lived a “life devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning.”

I believe the new Pope should have that 2004 photograph on his wall, and should consider it deeply. It is not to be passed over with a wince; it is not to be discounted as freakish or inexplicable. Above all, it must not be classified as the doing of some supernatural force. Rather, it is telling Catholics, and all people of good will, something we desperately need to understand.

That image—and everything it says—is where the new Pope needs to turn. That is the problem he confronts.

[William Orem graduated from IU in 1999 with an MFA in Creative Writing. His fiction, poetry and plays can be seen at WilliamOrem.com. Currently he is a Writer-In-Residence at Emerson College. William’s article, The Threshold of Popes, appeared in The Ryder in January, 1996.]

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

Do It Yourself

Picture 8

The Maker Movement is unified by a shared commitment to open exploration, intrinsic interest, and creative ideas ◆ by Jenett Tillotson and Kylie Peppler

In the 1920s, Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers famously stated, “We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” As the beginning of this most recent recession loomed over the American economy, George Bush urged Americans “to go shopping more.” Consumerism drives the American economy.

But consumerism becomes unsustainable when it goes unchecked. According to the EPA, Americans produced 479 billion pounds of trash in 2008 – that’s equivalent to 2.4 million blue whales. The amount of materials and energy required to make the goods that result in that much trash is enormous. And America’s taste for cheap consumer goods means materials and products are often shipped around the globe before it reaches the hands of a consumer. People no longer know where their goods come from, how they were produced, how they work, or where they go to when they are no longer of use.

Enter the Maker Movement. The larger Maker Movement or Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement has emerged in response to the growing need to transform the nation’s consumer culture to one that empowers people with the knowledge to make it themselves, fix it themselves. Doing so connects people to the objects in their daily lives and empowers people to be makers instead of consumers of new technologies. While the roots of this movement date back to the early 18th century, making came into more common practice in the 1950’s and included DIY activities referred to as handicrafts, decorating, zines and home repair. A thread that runs across varied applications of DIY is the act of creating, most often through hands-on activity, as a conscious rebuttal of the cultural predisposition toward consumption and an emphasis on self-reliance–the choice to take on a challenge that could readily be outsourced to a professional.

Dan Halsey

Dan Halsey Builds An E-book Reader Stand

Today, the DIY mindset has been revived as a growing culture of hands-on making, creating, designing, and innovating. A hallmark of the Maker movement is the desire to bring individuals together with shared interests around a range of activities, including textile craft, robotics, cooking, woodcrafts, electronics, digital fabrication, computer programming, mechanical repair, and making nearly anything. Despite its diversity, the Movement is unified by a shared commitment to open exploration, intrinsic interest, and creative ideas. And it is spreading; online maker communities, physical makerspaces, and Maker Faires are popping up all over the world and continually increasing in size and participation.

Moreover, there is growing national recognition of the potential of the Maker movement to transform how and what people learn in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and Arts disciplines. As President Obama put it in his remarks on the Educate to Innovate campaign, makers “see the promise of being the makers of things, and not just the consumers of things.” This orientation towards personal fabrication rather than blind consumerism is also seen as the foundation for a new, more prosperous economy.

Nathan Heald Project

Electronic Fireworks Launcher Built By Nathan Heald

The maker mindset empowers people not just to seek out jobs in STEM or creative fields, but to make their own jobs and industries, depending on their interests and the emerging needs they see in a rapidly changing society.

Readers may have already seen evidence of this movement creeping into the Bloomington culture. The Monroe County Public Library, for example, has sponsored “Maker Days” this summer. The library is hosting more than 10 programs for youth ages 9-20 this summer ranging from designing e-Fashions, touring the digital fabrication center (FabLab) located in the Fine Arts Building on IU’s campus, building Pizza Box Solar Ovens, making stop action animation, and much, much more. Steven Backs, Adult and Teen Services Manager at the Monroe County Public Library, is excited to provide access to new information and skills through partnerships with local organizations. “The library’s vision is an educated, engaged, curious, and creative Monroe County, with the library at its center. Being involved with local makers has opened up opportunities to help us make that a reality.”

There are also a host of organizations in the Bloomington area that celebrate DIY and Maker culture on a daily basis. Bloominglabs, the first makerspace in the state of Indiana, is a group of makers that cooperatively share a space, tools, and ideas for the purpose of increasing the making capabilities of the average person. “Making allows me to specialize an object to my needs, and I love making unique objects,” says Nathan Heald, a founding member of Bloominglabs. “I can personalize a project including choosing more durable or locally sourced materials.” Makerspaces help individuals like Heald access resources that in the past were only available to industries. “By combining the prospective talents and resources of our members,” says Heald, “Bloominglabs has put high-end tools, materials, and processes in the hands of the average person. Now I have the knowledge and ability to build about anything including objects that don’t yet exist. And has new resources become available, the Maker movement is poised to take advantage of the situation.”

Some groups tackle the waste problem head on. Discardia focuses on “upcycling” by converting materials from the waste stream into new products to sell in their “ReBoutique.” “I always say that you can’t throw anything away because there is no away,” says Discardia member Gail Hale. “We take commonly discarded materials such as clothing, plastic film strips, and plastic bags and turn them into dresses, cloth shopping bags, rugs, art – anything to give them new life.”

Other groups making in Bloomington include the Bloomington Print Collective, Bloomington Clay Studio, Ivy Tech courses, IU fine arts groups, and IU student organizations. This summer, organizations such as these as well as independent makers, will be coming together to showcase their talents at Bloomington’s Makevention on August 24, 2013 held at the Convention Center in Bloomington. Makers of all types, including tech enthusiasts, artists, educators, crafters, hobbyists, and tinkerers, will gather to share their projects as well as learn to make new things together in this family friendly event. If you catch the making bug, the Maker movement is welcoming of all ages and skill levels. All that’s needed is a willingness to learn and a desire to make.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

FILM: Late Summer Movies

The Lone Ranger

Reviews ◆ by Lucy Morrel

◗ White House Down

From director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), White House Down is a summer action flick revolving around the hostile takeover of the White House and is not to be confused with the earlier released Olympus Has Fallen, which has a similar premise. White House Down is basically an imitation Die Hard with more patriotism and higher stakes. Channing Tatum embraces the average, just-doing-his-best action hero role, as John Cale, like John McClain before him, struggles to save his estranged family member (in Cale’s case, his eleven-year-old daughter Emily), who’s been taken hostage. He takes some punches and manages to kill a reasonable amount of men (as far as these movies go) all the while acting as the good ole American underdog, who’s not highly educated but is entirely competent and extremely dogged. Channing Tatum, like Bruce Willis, is easy to root for.

Publicity Still

White House Down

The parallels between the two films, however, go deeper than their leading men. There exists a similar inside/outside dynamic with miscommunication or mistrust often resulting in problematic attempts at rescue or attack. In White House Down, different agencies and political players like the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) and the Vice President (Michael Murphy) debate and vie for control of the situation, although it is mainly secret service agent, Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who communicates and guides Cale through the White House. The goal here being, not so much to save the hostages, but to protect the idealistic and affable President, played with surprising humor by Jamie Foxx. Refreshingly, this President seems to understand his responsibilities to the world and doesn’t just hand out his nuclear codes at the first sign of trouble.

With a couple of predictable betrayers joining their ranks, most of the terrorists never stray far from the expected, and some are even laughably suspicious “bad guys.” Their actions seem certain to end in nuclear war, yet unsurprisingly Cale manages to disarm, kill, and uncover the last of the villains during an eight-minute countdown to total destruction. For the moviegoer, though, it takes all of the last twenty minutes, and the characters even get to stop for some quick hugs. For all the intense buildup and fighting, the final confrontation with the last accomplice seems like the conclusion to an episode of Scooby Doo; one almost expects the accomplice to shake his fist and curse the “darn kids!” for not letting him get away with it.

The movie is fun and the characters likeable, but it suffers from having been done better before. Nonetheless, it embraces American culture, giving the audience patriotic, if a little too familiar, amusement for the summer months.

◗ The Lone Ranger

In Disney’s reboot of The Lone Ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer), an uncompromising and idealistic lawyer, returns to his hometown, and in the process of trying to capture outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), is shot along with all of the other Texas Rangers, including his more capable and brawny brother Dan (John Badge Dale). John alone returns from death to administer justice with the help of Tonto (Johnny Depp) and a Native American spirit horse. John is, unfortunately, a principled dunce, able to rattle off some John Locke but unequipped for life as a lawman on the Texas frontier. While this makes for the occasional comedic moment, his transformation into a skilled gunslinger at the end is unbelievable, making all of the jokes throughout about John being “the wrong brother” ring sadly true. In the end, John just has to shoot the men desperately trying to kill him rather than try to take them to trial, and lucky for him, he doesn’t even have to learn how to shoot or fight at all because there is Native American spirit walker magic flowing through him. So all he really does in a two and a half hour movie is go from morally upright gentlemen to morally upright, but slightly less law-abiding, ranger.

At least Tonto is committed to frontier-style justice, but as an idiosyncratic character who defies understanding and has questionable sanity, he might as well be the wild west version of Captain Jack Sparrow. Johnny Depp is fun to watch, but a Native American actor could have done just as well and help make up for the one-dimensional portrayal of actual Native Americans. Victimized and certain of their demise, the Comanche are slaughtered in droves, with their very deaths providing for a convenient escape and plot point. The film seems to highlight the fall of the “noble savage” with even the elderly Tonto relegated to a sideshow diorama, but it doesn’t give American Indians any agency or their culture any validity. It capitalizes on a whole history of real problems and sorrows to give a couple of reflective minutes more punch.

From "The Lone Ranger"

Tonto & Friend

Overall, the film spends most of its time just throwing together all of the elements of a classic western, including the threat of Native Americans, the railroad and its expansion, silver mining, the traditional settler woman, saloons and prostitutes, and gunfights between outlaws and lawmen. There are a couple of nods to John Ford, but most of the elements seem flung in cavalierly, incorporated every which way into the plot, and punctuated by unnecessary anachronisms. It has moments of humor, but it is like the less successful, hodge-podge cousin of director Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean films.

◗ Pacific Rim

In Pacific Rim’s not-so-distant future, giant alien monsters called Kaigu emerge from a portal under the Pacific Ocean and wreak havoc on coastal cities. The governments of the world respond by making huge fighting robots called Jaegers, which two drivers operate through a mind-melding process known as drifting. Bipedal and scantily armed for the circumstances, the Jaegers are like boxers thrown into semi-aquatic bear fights, and yet are somehow capable of inflicting more damage than any arsenal of traditionally available weapons and vehicles. The Jaegers tend to win, mostly because the fights lack consistent logic.

When the jaegers do begin to fail, the international governments quickly abandon that project (and any remaining common sense) in favor of building an idiotic wall on the coasts that touch the Pacific Ocean. Clearly, a good premise won out against good judgment in this fun, but flawed movie.

The movie does deliver some exciting fight scenes with the Kaigu, which resemble Godzilla and marine animal hybrids. Director Guillermo Del Toro brings the same level of creativity to the Kaigu, as he traditionally has for his creatures in movies like Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy. Unfortunately, not everything in the movie is equally creative; the dialogue is trite, and no more so than in the fight scenes when (despite effectively sharing a brain with his co-pilot) protagonist Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) shouts such unnecessary platitudes as “we can do this together!” and “hang in there!”

It may be easy to find faults with the film, but it is also hard not to enjoy it. As every relationship and scene attempts to be fraught with emotional intensity, the movie can come across as melodramatic, but sometimes even the most over-the-top elements pay off. Two oddball scientists, played by the easily distraught Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, bicker and interact with an equally eccentric black market dealer played by Ron Perlman, producing some of the funniest scenes of the whole movie. This movie is not perfect, but it has gems of good humor and fun, predictable and otherwise.

◗ Red 2

With director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) taking over the Red series, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) attempts to settle down with girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), but soon a former Cold War-era assignment forces him to join up with old friends and emerge once again from his restive retirement. This movie hopes to capitalize on the same successful humor as the first Red, namely, seeing an older generation wield weapons with gusto. There is a certain shock and awe that comes with the esteemed Helen Mirren whipping out a couple of pistols in slow motion amidst the turmoil of a car chase, but that sort of attention grabbing, based on upset expectations, is not enough to sustain the film.

Publicity Still

Red 2

When it comes to an actual plot, the movie fails to deliver anything worth the interest that it initially generates. With all of its locale changes and new characters, Red 2 a convoluted mess, seemingly aimed at having Frank and Sarah kiss various other people. It can be humorous watching them act like normal jealous lovers in strange situations, but it overshadows everything else—like what exactly they are trying to accomplish and why.

The sheer scope of magnified destruction, perhaps drawing on its comic book roots, is tallied in anonymous human lives and leaves an unsettling feeling. In order to prove just how amazingly awesome they are despite their age, Frank and his friends kill droves of people, distinguished only by nationality. The gratuitous killing of a dozen or so Russians and Iranians is intended to be lighthearted and creative; still, watching all of those unknown stooges get mowed over renders the film’s poor attempts at depth that much more difficult to believe.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

To Surly With Love

From "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"

The high school experience as refracted through the lens of ’80s comedies ◆ by Craig J. Clark

“Believe it or not, there’s life after high school.” So sang Daryl Hall and John Oates in their 1983 hit Adult Education, but it’s a message that may be cold comfort to anyone preparing to hit the books for another term. For the rest of us, all we have to do is look at the high school comedies that flourished during the ’80s to remember what it was like to be the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, the criminal, or whatever combination thereof that we were.

A good place to start, naturally, is with the work of former National Lampoon scribe-turned-writer/director John Hughes, who spent the mid-’80s cataloguing the travails of the modern American teenager in such films as Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The one that most accurately replicates the feeling of being trapped inside a brick building all day with no chance of escape, though, is 1985’s The Breakfast Club, which gathers together one of each archetype (as Hughes saw them) and bounces them off each other as they endure a Saturday detention together. As played by nerd Anthony Michael Hall, jock Emilio Estevez, flake Ally Sheedy, stuck-up Molly Ringwald, and troublemaker Judd Nelson – in many ways, the core of the so-called “Brat Pack” — these five individuals learn a lot about themselves and each other, and the audience is given a handy, if somewhat unrealistic, reminder of how codified the high-school caste system could be.

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The Breakfast Club

A rather more nuanced take on the experiences of high schoolers – and one that features some actual schooling – is 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (To be fair, Ferris Bueller does include some classroom scenes, but the title character is notably absent from them owing to his having taken the Day Off.) Directed by Amy Heckerling, Fast Times was the screenwriting debut of rock journalist Cameron Crowe, who based the script on a book he had spent a year researching at a high school where he was able to go undercover as a student. The result is a perceptive, well-observed comedy-drama that gave early exposure to the likes of Sean Penn (as the spaced-out Jeff Spicoli, the film’s breakout character), Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, and Nicolas Cage (back when he still went by Nicolas Coppola). Even more importantly, it didn’t give short shrift to the teachers, in particular Vincent Schiavelli’s creepy biology teacher, who takes his class on a field trip to the local morgue, and Ray Walston as the indomitable Mr. Hand, who has no illusions about his ability to reach his charges.

From "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"

“Mr. Spicoli”

Appropriately, the side of the educators is also represented in 1984’s Teachers. Director Arthur Hiller had previous experience exploring the inner workings of a public institution with 1971’s The Hospital, which benefited from having been written by Paddy Chayefsky. For its part, Teachers is centered on a popular social studies teacher played by Nick Nolte who tries his best to defuse the tension between his students and the rest of the faculty, which can run high at times. Comic relief is provided by Richard Mulligan, who plays a mental patient who wanders into a history class and begins teaching it, taking on the roles of such iconic historical figures as General George Custer (he of the last stand fame) and President Abraham Lincoln. The less said about the subplot about the gym teacher who sleeps with one of his students and gets her pregnant, though, the better.

Then again, the line separating the teen-sex comedy from the high school film can be so thin at times as to be nonexistent, as in Bob Clark’s surprise hit Porky’s and its sequels and imitators. And then there’s the teen-slash film, which gave rise to such lifeless parodies as Student Bodies (which was so bad director Michael Ritchie disclaimed all responsibility for it), National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (which incredibly enough was the feature screenwriting debut of John Hughes), and Slaughter High (which took the “stalking and slashing people at their high-school reunion” trope to new lows).

If you’re looking for something you can sink your teeth into, you would be better off seeking out something like 1985’s Once Bitten (which gave Jim Carrey an early starring role) or 1987’s My Best Friend Is a Vampire (which did the same for Robert Sean Leonard). In the former, Carrey is a virgin who’s targeted by an older, female vampire who needs his blood in order to stay young. In the latter, Leonard has to deal with the consequences of a similar encounter. Neither of them spends too much time worrying about their studies, though.

The same goes for Michael J. Fox in both of the movies he had out in the summer of 1985. In Teen Wolf, he’s just your average, underachieving, van-surfing nobody until his latent lycanthropy gene kicks in. Far from turning him into an outcast, though, his new abilities transform him into Mr. Popular, especially when wolfing out improves his skills on the basketball court. Fox then traded his basketball for an electric guitar and the werewolf suit for a time-traveling DeLorean in Back to the Future, in which he bumps into his parents in 1955 and prevents them from bumping into each other, nearly erasing himself from existence. At least in the course of correcting his mistake he manages to improve things for his family in the present.

The question of how much you would change about your past is also the theme of 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married, in which Kathleen Turner plays a soon-to-be-divorced housewife who faints at her 25-year reunion and wakes up in her own body in 1960 with all of her memories of future events intact (as well as the fact that she’ll have no need for algebra whatsoever). Theoretically, this gives her the chance to alter the course of her life by not marrying her high school sweetheart (Nicolas Cage, showing that he’s long had an affinity for making off-kilter performance choices), but she soon finds out what some things are harder to change than others.

That’s also the lesson learned by the dim-witted title characters in 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, who are gifted with a time-traveling phone booth that allows them to ace a history presentation, thus saving the future from something totally bogus. The end result isn’t nearly as inventive as the similarly themed Time Bandits, which Terry Gilliam co-wrote and directed at the beginning of the decade, but it’s still a lot of fun watching Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves (as the titular dim bulbs) stumble their way through time, picking up historical figures like Napoleon, Lincoln, Socrates and Joan of Arc along the way.

The protagonist of 1987’s Three O’Clock High, played by Casey Siemaszko, probably wishes he had a time machine, that way he could go back and prevent himself from meeting new student — and ticking time bomb — Richard Tyson, who takes such exception to being touched that he challenges the honor student to a fight at the designated time. Considering the lengths Siemaszko goes to try to get out of it, it seems like nothing short of blowing up the school would have done the trick.

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Heathers

Speaking of blowing up a high school, that’s the endgame of two films that bookended the decade: 1979’s rebellious Rock ’n’ Roll High School and 1988’s pitch-black comedy Heathers. The first, with its story of Ramones superfan P.J. Soles standing up her school’s strict new principal (cult movie legend Mary Woronov), cheerfully set the stage for the decade to come, and the second effectively closed the door on it. In it, Winona Ryder stars as the newest member of the most exclusive clique in school who falls under the spell of transfer student Christian Slater (literally playing a character named J.D.), who takes a page out of the Massacre at Central High playbook and starts methodically ridding his new school of its most popular (and, to his mind, least essential) pupils. Featuring a corrosively funny and endlessly quotable screenplay by Daniel Waters and dynamite direction from Michael Lehmann, Heathers is the ’80s high school comedy to end all ’80s high school comedies. You certainly wouldn’t be able to get away with making it today.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

The Papaw Project

A Family Re-enchantment ◆ by Shayne Laughter

This story from the Papaw Project collection, “The Stronger,” was published in the Spring 2011 Bacopa Literary ReviewShayne will read “The Last” — based on her great grandfather’s encounter with a mystery on the Kansas prairie — at 1:30 pm, Saturday, August 31, at the 2013 Fourth Street Festival’s Spoken Word Stage.

It was a classic setup.  In 2007, I moved back to Bloomington from Seattle to get Mom through knee replacement surgery. “Would you please go through this trunk,” she said, “and throw out some of Papaw’s papers?” A classic setup, and a classic payoff.  Granddaughter meets Grandfather’s writings in a file folder stashed away in a trunk.

My Papaw died in 1976, age 81.  An autopsy showed that he had been enduring Alzheimer’s, which explained the bad temper of his last years. Elmer Guy Smith had been born in Tipton County in 1895, the late baby of four children.  He had two years of military service in Paris and fifteen years as a Veterans Administration payroll accountant in Washington, DC, but lived most of his life in Bloomington and Monroe County.

Elmer Smith had more poetry in his nature than was entirely helpful to a farming family teetering on the edge of poverty.  His parents had come north from Kentucky to work more fruitful land in Indiana. After a few years in Tipton County, they wound up south of Bloomington on South Rogers Street, on acreage bordering the Monon track between Indianapolis and Louisville.

Smith

Elmer Guy Smith, 1920

The farm house was built in 1848 and burned in the 1930s, after Elmer finally sold the place. Elmer called it Glen Echo Farm. He wrote in a 1976 letter (all quote marks are his):

I have never “set foot on the 28 hopeless acres” since 1924. Highway #37 came later, but when I sold, it was very inaccessible – across two railroads and the creek that often flooded, carry (sic) raw sewage from the “city plant” and creosote from the plant ¼ mile north. In dry weather the R. R. engines set fire to the pasture grass, and I would have to run down the hill, & grab the bucket of water and jute-sack I kept there, to try and beat out the fire, before it ruined the pasture-land.

(The creek he mentions is Clear Creek, and the creosote plant was still in operation at the south end of the Monon [now CSX] Switchyard, during my childhood in the 1960s.)

At Bloomington High School, Elmer won honors for his poetry and essays.  He graduated and went off to the Great War in 1918, came down with the Spanish Flu and shipped to an infirmary in a chateau the minute he set foot in France. He had trained as a machine gunner; the flu was probably what saved his life. Few of his unit survived battle.

Being six feet tall, Elmer was reassigned to Military Police once he had recovered his health.  His post was Gare Montparnasse in Paris, after Armistice and during the peace talks at Versailles. Elmer kept a diary and asked his family to keep the letters he sent home; he had an idea he wanted to be a writer.

From the same 1976 letter:  From that house one could hear the “echo down the valley” as the trains went a-whistlin’ south-bound. From there I went “down the valley” on the “troop-train” with a lot of other Monroe County boys, in 1918.

In the early 1930s, his wartime letters and diary entries were published as weekly columns in the Bloomington Evening World  (he took his five-year-old daughter with him to deliver them, and she got bit by the newspaper bug).  He carefully clipped the columns and glued them into the pages of blank books he paid to have printed with the column’s title on the cover and spine: Away From Glen Echo.  It was a poor man’s vanity publication; just three copies were made.

Then, when Elmer was forty years old — husband and father of two, eking out a living as a Library Assistant at IU under the WPA — he was finally able to take college courses, thanks to Depression-era schemes for WPA workers and War veterans.   Accounting turned out to be a breadwinner, but English Composition was where his heart had been aiming since boyhood. In these classes he was finally able to play with his memories and family tales, to shape them and see what could come up from under his pen.

By the time Elmer died, I was already familiar with Away From Glen Echo.  I didn’t like my grandfather’s writing at all. He was sentimental and used far too many “quote marks.” I felt deeply embarrassed for him.

Yet when I read through the little class assignments, something was different.  He wasn’t giving an account; he was using bits of his memories to tell a story. He still wasn’t terribly good, but he had a knack for descriptions of country life. That knack beamed like a sweeping radar arm, showing me where jewels lay buried. I knew I could reach them, with fiction.

Four years later, I have finished three stories of a four-story collection based on these writings. Does that mean the stories are now mine?  Or are they still his? Papaw did plenty of fictionalizing himself, since he obviously changed place and character names to mask his loved ones and his home.

My mother – now eighty-six and a long-retired newspaper editor — isn’t sure she agrees with my enthusiasm for fictionalizing her father’s life. I’m okay with that. For me, this “Papaw Project” isn’t about reporting what happened. It’s about fiction’s re-enchantment of a hard country life – and the jewels Elmer could not quite reach.

Shayne Laughter, is the author of the novel: YU: A Ross Lamos Mystery.

In the early 1930s, Elmer Smith’s wartime letters and diary entries were published as weekly columns in the Bloomington Evening World.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

Afghanistan

The Juice Ain’t Worth the Squeeze ◆ by Douglas A. Wissing

Douglas Wissing is a Bloomington-based independent journalist who has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, GlobalPost, CNN, and BBC. His most recent book, Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, was published by Prometheus Books.  This essay is adapted from his remarks at a Washington, DC press conference with representatives Walter Jones (R-NC) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) on May 15th, 2013. More info at his website.

The New York Times recently reported the CIA hauled tens of millions of dollars in cash to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s office in suitcases, backpacks and shopping bags. “Ghost money,” they call it. But instead of buying influence, the CIA money fueled corruption and funded double-dealing warlords, kleptocrats—and the Taliban.

When I was in Kabul, my taxi drivers liked to point out a marble-clad four-story mansion owned by Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum—a mansion that he reportedly paid for with his $100,000/month CIA payoff. It’s a nice place.

I recently returned from my third set of embeds with US troops in Afghanistan, and I saw firsthand the toxic system that connects ambitious American careerists, for-profit US corporations, corrupt Afghan insiders and the Taliban. The deeply flawed system continues to waste billions of American taxpayer dollars, without accomplishing our military or diplomatic goals–“phantom aid,” development critics call it.

US funds paid for teacher-less schools that were turned into houses and even brothels, falling-down clinics and hospitals, wells that disastrously lowered water tables, vastly expensive generators that have never been installed, fuel for nonexistent Afghan army vehicles. US funds paid for military logistics and development contracts that funnel enormous sums to Taliban fighters—to provide security against themselves.

A recent United Nations Security Council report estimates about 10 to 20 percent of Afghanistan contracts funded by the US and other international donors end up in Taliban pockets.

Wissing

Doug Wissing In Afghanistan

USAID’s five-year, $150 million counter-narcotics program called IDEA-NEW was supposed to help Afghan farmers develop new crops so they wouldn’t grow illegal opium poppy. But instead of weaning Afghan farmers from poppy production, Afghanistan’s opium crop surged 61 percent during the IDEA-NEW program, including opium production in two provinces that were poppy-free when the program began. The UN reports that today Afghanistan still produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium.

The story doesn’t get any better as the projects get smaller. One US military development team told me about a useless animal slaughterhouse in Zabul Province. USAID and the military contracted out the project to an American for-profit development company. The expensive facility was built in the wrong place, which was just as well, because it had  floor tiles with a raised pattern that held blood. “Wall of flies,” the military veterinarian told me with a grimace. The worst part of the story is that this was the second failed slaughterhouse that US officials paid to have built in Qalat City. No one remembered the first one until after the second one had problems. I knew about failed US-financed slaughterhouses, because I’d seen one in Ghazni Province that now serves as the local dog-fighting ring.

Afghanistan is a great gig for the military-industrial and development-industrial complex. Even as the US troop levels are declining, the numbers of private contractors are rising. I’ve embedded three times at one large frontline base, FOB Salerno, in eastern Afghanistan. When I was there this winter, I started laughing when I saw all the civilian contractors. I asked the officer with me where the soldiers had gone. The officer just shrugged.

The enormous US embassy in Kabul is a forest of construction cranes as a gargantuan expansion is running at full steam. Private contractors are building an embassy complex for 2,000 people at a time when drawdowns will probably put embassy staffing levels at 600. One low-level State Department staffer laughingly told me that he was going to stay in Kabul—because he figured he could get a penthouse for his accommodations.

Tens of thousands of American and Afghan lives have been destroyed by this war. The death last month of Anne Smedinghoff, the 25-year-old diplomat killed in Zabul Province by a suicide bomber, particularly touched me. A few months before her death, she facilitated a meeting for me in the US embassy in Kabul with an Afghan Threat Finance Cell official, who railed about Afghan government corruption. Anne Smedinghoff was smart, informed, ambitious and witty.

She wanted to get out in the field, as US officials in the fortress-like embassy are seldom allowed out in Kabul. One of last things she said to me was that on a good day the embassy was like living in a small liberal arts college but on a bad day, it was like being in a maximum-security prison.

Anne Smedinghoff and four other Americans were killed and many others wounded while reportedly “lost and walking around” in a wholly insecure environment. American commanders had told me major parts of Zabul were Taliban controlled.

I was on an earlier mission to the same base where Anne Smedinghoff was killed. To negotiate the two miles from another US base, my unit had to travel in a convoy of five armored gun trucks, accompanied by a heavily armed security platoon. I cannot fathom why a group of Americans was out walking in this dangerous situation. Anne Smedinghoff’s death was senseless and unnecessary. It was a stunning breakdown of operational security. With the details of Benghazi still being unveiled, it is important for Americans to learn the whole story about how Anne Smedinghoff came to be in harm’s way.

Secretary of State John Kerry also worked with Anne Smedinghoff at the US embassy in Kabul. Secretary Kerry was also touched by her death.  He spoke about what he called the “extraordinary harsh contradiction” of a bright young woman, who believed in diplomacy and western-style education, being killed while carrying books to a school. Anne Smedinghoff was on what the military calls a WHAM—a winning-hearts-and-minds mission. Kerry called it “a confrontation with modernity,” and a “huge challenge,” and said Anne Smedinghoff embodied “everything that our country stands for.”

When I first embedded in Afghanistan, I didn’t have a preconceived notion of the ground reality—“the ground truth,” as the soldiers call it. If anything, I thought that things couldn’t be as bad as they are. Today I can plainly say that many disillusioned American soldiers and civilians tell me we need to stop this waste of American taxpayer dollars on a war that’s unwinnable. Soldiers told me, “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

Picture 1

Wissing Interviews An Agriculture Consultant

After 12 years of an American intervention that economists say will cost over a trillion dollars, Afghanistan’s government is ranked as the most corrupt on the planet and sixth on the Failed States list. It is near the bottom of the World Bank’s Human Development Index infant mortality, life expectancy, per capita income, literacy, and electricity usage lists.

Twelve years in, with $100 billion in US development aid, and the country is still a disaster zone. The US is still spending $1.5 billion a week in Afghanistan.

Soldiers tell me, “We’re funding both sides this war.” They talk about “fighting the MAN”—the military acronym for Malign Actors Network. The insurgency continues to grow each year. Attacks are jumping to record levels. Every day American soldiers and civilians face injury and death at the hands of Afghan insurgents, who use mismanaged US logistics and development funds to help fight their war.

I cannot help but recall the remarks that John Kerry made on Capitol Hill in April 1971, when he was a young, anti-war Vietnam vet. Back then, 27-year-old poignantly asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

ARTS: From Knob Creek To The Big Screen

The Story Of A Homegrown Filmmaker ◆ by Malia Bruker

In the 10 years that I have been making films, my childhood spent at Knob Creek Road in Lawrence County, Indiana has always been a strong influence. I realized early on that my Mom and Dad were very different from my friends’ parents. My mom wore Birkenstocks with socks, didn’t shave her armpits, and didn’t eat meat (no, not even chicken). My dad played bass in jazz bands, had a big beard in a time and place of bare faces, and had no patience for conservative or religious bigotry. We stood out in Bedford, the traditional farming town where I went to school, but fit perfectly at Knob Creek, our little hippie community at the end of a gravel, dead-end road 20 miles from Bloomington.

It wasn’t until I left Indiana and saw a bit more of the world that I began to understand how others might describe Knob Creek: it was not a commune, but perhaps an intentional community. My parents and their friends were back-to-the-landers, fed up with consumerism and environmental degradation.

When I began studying media production at Florida State University, I once again felt out of place. I was not obsessed with any particular film director like my fellow students, and I had never heard of the French New Wave. I hadn’t even seen Star Wars. But despite the geographic isolation, the lack of exposure to media, and the relaxed, earthy lifestyle of my youth, I actually think that Knob Creek provided me a great background for being a filmmaker.

There were 10 children living at Knob Creek at its height, and all but two were girls. Although my brother found this situation something resembling hell, for me it was perfect. Most of our parents were not big on TV. We only got a few channels anyway, so we were often left to our own imaginations out in the wilderness. We played in the creek, grinded “make-up” out of the bedrock stones, pretended we were explorers, and spooked ourselves by imagining ghosts and witches in the woods. I’m convinced that if screenwriters had access to the mind of a bored child they  would have a lot better stories to tell.

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Malia Bruker At Knob Creek

Without the constant entertainment of TV or those nice, paved suburban roads to bike on, I read. A lot. I remember going to the Monroe and Lawrence County Libraries and piling up more books than my spindly legs could carry. (We did borrow the odd movie here or there as well—Spaceballs was a family favorite.) Although I didn’t realize it at the time, by reading so voraciously I was learning how to tell a story, how to build characters, and how to draw in an audience so well that you could even forget you’re in the middle of nowhere in Indiana in the midst of a hot, humid summer and your brother doesn’t want to play with you.

Because we were in such a remote area, our schools were quite small, and our classrooms were sparsely populated. In my 6th and final year at Heltonville Elementary, we only had 12 kids in the entire grade. That kind of attention from teachers, many very good ones, made my elementary and middle school education as solid as any private one. I kept reading and I even wrote my first book, Cloudy with a Chance of Furries, as an extra credit assignment (I’m still waiting for it to be picked up by Harper-Collins). I have never had much trouble putting pen to paper, which has made the first steps of creating a film much easier.

Knob Creek was also full of creative people—actors, photographers, painters, quilters and a lot of musicians. Bonfire sing-a-longs were regular occurrences, among other communal performances. What began as charades on New Year’s Eve turned into an all-out yearly performance of prepared skits and scenes. I have not one single memory of fireworks at midnight, but the images of the grown-ups, red in the face and dressed in costume, are still clear in my mind. One of the moms even wrote plays for us kids to perform, which were thrilling despite the fact that the stage was a creek bank and the audience sat in chairs in a field. There is still nothing I like better than participating in an act of creativity, and I learned early on that it is best when collaborative—essential qualities for a filmmaker.

When my family left Knob Creek and moved to Miami, Florida my junior year of high school, my entire life changed drastically. That is probably very obvious and also an understatement. I was quite different from my peers, a fact only exacerbated by my history teacher, who told all of his classes about “the Indiana kid who lived where there are farms!” Despite my attempts to fit in, I was “the Indiana kid,” or just “Indiana” according to my basketball coach, or even “Wyoming” to our senile athletic director.  Instead of isolating myself, I opened up in Miami, and found that as boring as my life might have been, it was interesting to those kids because they had never heard anything like it. If there is one thing I could say about my favorite film directors, it would be that they have unique perspectives. I hope they could say the same about me.

My family has been quite mobile since our time at Knob Creek. My parents moved from Miami, back to Bloomington, then to California. I moved from Florida to Colorado to Philadelphia, where I now live. My documentary, Heirloom, is the closest I’ve come to capturing what Knob Creek has meant to me throughout all of these changes, although most of the film was shot elsewhere. Heirloom is set on a 4-month long road trip I took with my parents as they returned from their home in California to Bloomington, where they will retire. Throughout the film, as my parents get closer and closer to their home, I realize that I really cannot go back to Knob Creek, not the Knob Creek of my childhood. It is a tough realization, the stiff awakening from the nostalgia of youth, but in the process I learned that Knob Creek has carried me this far and will be with me the rest of my filmmaking days.

Bruker

Coming Home?

[Editor’s note: Heirloom will have its premiere screening in Bloomington at Bear’s Place on August 17th at 5:30pm. Malia Bruker’s recent film Chase, which takes a humorous look at the banking industry, will screen prior to Heirloom, and she will be in attendance to discuss both films.]

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

 

 

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FILM: Summer’s Here And The Time Is Right…

From "Summer Rental"

…For Watching Films Indoors ◆ by Craig J. Clark

According to Hollywood, the summer movie season has been in full swing since the beginning of May, but by the time July and August roll around, temperatures are sweltering enough that it just doesn’t pay to go outside, even if your destination is an air-conditioned screening room. That’s why, instead of putting yourself at the risk of sunstroke, it’s much better to stay put and watch one (or more) of these summery cinematic treats.

The mid-80s had no shortage of movies about how people chose to spend their summer vacation – or their lack of one as in Carl Reiner’s Summer School. In it, high school gym teacher Mark Harmon’s planned getaway to Hawaii is scuttled when he’s tapped to shepherd a class of misfits through a remedial English class. Helped along by fellow teacher Kirstie Alley (his requisite love interest), Harmon tries his best to engage his inattentive charges, which leads to much high-jinks, including a classroom screening of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Nothing spells “summer” like watching a movie where other people watch a movie.

From "Summer Rental"

“Summer Rental”

Carl Reiner was also responsible for Summer Rental, in which frazzled air-traffic controller John Candy is given some much-needed time off and uses it to take his family to Florida, where a cascading series of mishaps prevents him from getting much rest and relaxation. His plight does give rise to one of the mainstays of ’80s comedies, though: the montage sequence where everybody pitches in to fix something up. In this case, it’s a boat that Candy needs to get shipshape so he can win a regatta, a plot point that also figures into the Nantucket-set One Crazy Summer. Written and directed by Savage Steve Holland, the auteur behind the ’80s classic Better Off Dead, it’s about a singular season of screwiness during which hapless cartoonist John Cusack and his pals (whose ranks include Bobcat Goldthwait, Curtis Armstrong, and Joel – brother of Bill – Murray) band together to save Demi Moore’s grandfather’s house from being razed by some shady developers. (That’s another trope of ’80s movies that could inspire an article all its own.)

From "One Crazy Summer"

“One Crazy Summer”

If you don’t mind getting a little arty, boating is also central to Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika, which was his first film to make a splash on these shores, largely because its American distributor capitalized on the title character’s fleeting nudity by releasing it under the lurid title Monika, the Story of Bad Girl. Said bad girl is played by Bergman’s muse, Harriet Andersson, who convinces her boyfriend to steal his father’s boat so they can get away from Stockholm for a few months. Andersson returns in Smiles on a Summer Night, which was made two years later and deals with the romantic entanglements of several couples. A classic of world cinema (one of many Bergman would turn out over the course of his career), Smiles later inspired the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music and Woody Allen’s pastoral A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, which isn’t quite on the same level, but it’s still plenty funny.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been brought to the screen on a number of occasions – most notably in a 1935 adaptation with the once-in-a-lifetime cast of James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland and Mickey Rooney (as Puck) and one from 1999 that features Kevin Kline, Christian Bale, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sam Rockwell, among others – but if William Shakespeare seems too daunting, you can always give Tennessee Williams a try. First staged in 1958, Suddenly, Last Summer was adapted by Williams and Gore Vidal the following year for Joseph L. Mankiewicz to direct. In the process they had to skirt around some of the issues that the play addressed more directly, but Elizabeth Taylor remains a force of nature as a patient in a mental hospital whose vindictive aunt (Katharine Hepburn, who was nominated alongside Taylor for Best Actress) wants kindly lobotomist Montgomery Clift to go to work on her. Before he can do so, though, he has to get to the bottom of what happened the previous summer, suddenly.

From "Suddenly, Last Summer"

Elizabeth Taylor In “Suddenly, Last Summer”

Williams’s flair for the psychosexual reared its head again in 1961’s Summer and Smoke, based on his 1948 play. Directed by Peter Glenville, it’s about a wastrel of a bacteriologist (Laurence Harvey) and a repressed preacher’s daughter (Geraldine Page, earning her first of many Best Actress nominations) who live next door to each other in a small Southern town and are about the most incompatible would-be lovers as you could ever imagine. That doesn’t prevent Harvey from trying his best to drag Page down to his level over the course of a particularly sultry summer.

Those who wish to go abroad without actually leaving home would be advised to look up David Lean’s Summertime, which got the director hooked on location shooting. Set in Venice and filmed in glorious Technicolor, it stars Katharine Hepburn as a spinster fulfilling her lifelong dream of visiting that most photogenic of Italian cities. What she doesn’t anticipate is that she’ll fall in love with a handsome Italian in the process.

From "Early Summer"

“Early Summer”

If the Far East is more to your liking, you can visit Tokyo in Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Summer and The End of Summer. In the first, Ozu regular Setsuko Hara plays a young woman who wants a say when her family decides it’s time for her to get married, and in the second, released a decade later, she’s one of the daughters of a widower who takes up with his old mistress. As is Ozu’s practice, both films are punctuated by shots of the Japanese countryside and downtown Tokyo, making them a miniature travelogue.

Doubling back to Europe, why not spend a couple of Summer Hours in the French countryside? In the 2008 film, which comes complete with the Criterion seal of approval, a family that is widely dispersed has to figure out what to do with their estate when matriarch Edith Scob dies. All three of her adult children have their own ideas about what to do with it, but as writer/director Olivier Assayas observes, it is the next generation that will be most keenly affected by their decision.

If beating the heat isn’t high on your agenda, then turn off the air conditioning to get the full effect of the sweltering Summer of Sam. Directed by Spike Lee, whose Do the Right Thing proves that he knows how to evoke a hot summer’s day, the film is set in New York City in the summer of 1977 when the Son of Sam was on the loose and tempers flared across the boards. Of course, if you’d rather not be reminded of real-life horrors, there’s always Red Hook Summer, in which Lee reprised his role from Do the Right Thing. Like Summer of Sam, that one had a hard time finding an audience and divided critics, but perhaps it plays better when people can watch it in the comfort of their own homes.

Oddly enough, Red Hook Summer could have easily been an alternate title for I Know What You Did Last Summer, which is about what happens when a quartet of fresh-scrubbed television stars is stalked by the Gorton’s Fisherman. Photogenic young people are frequently the focus of contemporary horror movies, especially those that take place at summer camps, but it took the makers of I Know What You Did Last Summer and its follow-ups – I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer – to put the word right in their titles. I cannot in good conscience recommend that you watch any of them, though (unless you’re nostalgic for the days when Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze, Jr. were considered bankable stars). Instead, why not cool off with an affectionate send-up of summer-camp movies?

From "Wet Hot American Summer"

“Wet Hot American Summer”

Set on the last day of summer camp in the Catskills, way back in the mists of time (also known as 1981, making it the spiritual successor of the Bill Murray vehicle Meatballs), Wet Hot American Summer was the debut feature of David Wain, who co-wrote it with fellow State alum Michael Showalter and stacked the cast with troupe members Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino and Joe Lo Truglio, plus such ringers as Janeane Garfalo, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler and H. Jon Benjamin. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that if you’ve watched any American comedy film or television series in the past decade, you could have seen (or, in the case of Benjamin, heard) half its cast here first. Few did, though, because Wain’s film received a critical drubbing and at best a token theatrical release in the doldrums of 2001, but in the years since it’s attracted a sizable cult audience. If you’re not yet a part of it, now’s your chance to hop aboard.

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

FILM: Wait ‘Til Your Father Gets Home

shining

Movies to Watch on Father’s Day ◆ by Craig J. Clark

On television, fathers may think they know best, but at the movies they aren’t always so sure-footed. Whether they like to admit it or not, they can’t all be Atticus Finch.  As portrayed by Oscar winner Gregory Peck and brought to the screen by Robert Mulligan,  Atticus is the father to the impressionable young Scout and her brother Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird.  He is the preeminent upright father figure, but few of his peers can ever hope to measure up to him.

 Not that they don’t try their best, of course. In Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt attempts to instill his values in his three sons, but the eldest (who grows up to be emotionally distant architect Sean Penn) chafes against his authoritarian stance. The same goes for Burl Ives as Big Daddy in Richard Brooks’s adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Based on the play by Tennessee Williams, which lost some of its subtext in the transition, Cat finds Ives struggling to relate to his grown son Brick (Paul Newman) and mostly failing, but they eventually reach a kind of mutual understanding.

Finding a way to relate to his family is also foremost on the mind of Gene Hackman in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Long absent from the scene, he has his work cut out for him with his adult children (financial wiz Ben Stiller, moody playwright Gwyneth Paltrow, tennis pro Luke Wilson) who all blame him for the ways they’ve faltered in their lives. It’s hard to get more estranged, though, than Jack Lemmon is from his son in Costa-Gavras’s gripping political drama Missing. Another winner at Cannes, taking home the Palme d’Or and Best Actor for Lemmon, it’s a true story set in the aftermath of Chile’s 1973 coup and sees the deeply conservative Lemmon coming to a political awakening as he tries to find his activist son, who has disappeared without a trace.

Albert Brooks has a bit more luck as an animated clownfish in Pixar’s Finding Nemo, which turns a parent’s worst nightmare – a child being snatched away right in front of their eyes – into a thrilling and frequently hilarious adventure. That’s definitely a far cry from the work of writer/director Lodge Kerrigan. In his debut, Clean, Shaven, newly released mental patient Peter Greene attempts to track down his daughter in his own unhinged fashion, and his later film Keane follows a desperate Damian Lewis obsessed with finding his young daughter, who was abducted from New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. The way Kerrigan gets inside his characters’ heads, you feel for them almost as much as you fear for their dwindling sanity (and realize that even if they found their children that might not be the best thing for either of them).

A kidnapping is also central to the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, only this time the twist is that instead of the son of industrialist Toshiro Mifune, the perpetrators take his chauffeur’s son instead – and then insist that he still pay the ransom. There’s a great deal of tension in the first half of the film as Mifune debates whether he’s willing to ruin himself financially for the sake of another man’s son, but when his chauffeur pleads with him, one father to another, he knows he can’t refuse.

A father’s desire to protect his offspring is the driving force behind Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin as well, but it manifests itself in a completely different way. In addition to writing and directing, Welles also plays the title character, a filthy rich man of the world with a murky past who hires a private detective to dig up whatever dirt can be found on him – largely so his daughter (Paola Mori) will never hear about it. On the other side of the fence, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone knows all about his father’s dirty dealings in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, but Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) tries to keep him out of the family business anyway (and we all know how that works out).

For some fathers, protecting their children is their way of atoning for past mistakes. In Firestarter, based on the Stephen King novel, David Keith is on the run from a sinister government agency that is really after his pyrokinetic daughter (Drew Barrymore). Of course, she would have been a completely normal little girl if Keith and his wife hadn’t taken part in a government experiment in college that left them with residual (but weak) psychic powers. Little did they know what they would be passing on to the next generation.

A similar situation is found in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, although in that case the mutation was the unexpected side effect of a pregnancy drug developed by scientist Patrick McGoohan, who subsequently withdraws himself from the lives of his two sons. That they grow up to be bitter rivals, battling for control of his legacy, is something he never could have foreseen, but at least McGoohan makes it up to the young brother (protagonist Stephen Lack) in his own way. Elder brother Michael Ironside, on the other hand, is a lot less forgiving.

Continuing the theme, it’s never explicitly stated where pint-sized Danny Torrance gets his telepathic power from in Stephen King’s The Shining, memorably brought to the big screen by Stanley Kubrick, but it’s intimated that his father Jack (a scenery-chewing Jack Nicholson) also has a touch of it. Instead of leading to father-son bonding, though, it merely leaves Nicholson more open to the malevolent influence of the Overlook Hotel, which eventually drives him to try to murder his wife and son, echoing the actions of a previous caretaker.

Jack Torrance may not be a candidate for Father of the Year, but at least he can blame his crack-up on a combination of cabin fever and supernatural forces beyond his control. In contrast, John Meillon, who plays the father in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, has no such excuses, and we never do find out what prompts him to drive to the Australian outback with his two children (a teenaged Jenny Agutter and Roeg’s own son, billed as Lucien John) and try to shoot them before turning the gun on himself. This also causes their car to go up in flames, stranding Agutter and John, so it’s a good thing they’re soon befriended by an Aboriginal youth (David Gulpilil) on walkabout who guides them back to civilization.

A car accident of a different sort is what precipitates the action in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, in which an outwardly noble surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) kidnaps young women in an effort to restore his daughter’s beauty since he feels responsible for her disfigurement. Shocking in its day for its graphic face-transplant scene, the film also manages to get under the skin with its chillingly poetic imagery thanks to Edith Scob’s performance as the daughter, who glides through most of the film in a featureless mask. Brasseur gets points for his dedication to her, but what he really needed was to find another, less destructive, outlet for it.

Knowing when to let go can be hard, but one of the most important things a father can do in the movies is give his daughter away to another man, as widower Chishu Ryu demonstrates in Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring and An Autumn Afternoon. Made 13 years apart, the films bookend the final stretch of Ozu’s long career and find Ryu playing characters that comes to realize their adult daughter needs to be married off before they’re consigned to the life of an old maid. Don’t think their plots are identical, though. Ozu may have been fond of remaking his own films and reusing certain plot devices, but he always knew how to spin them in such a way that they always felt novel.

Things are a bit more lighthearted in both versions of Father of the Bride, which were made four decades apart. In the first, directed by Vincente Minnelli, Spencer Tracy is the doting dad overwhelmed by the hectic arrangements surrounding the wedding of his darling daughter (Elizabeth Taylor). In the second, directed by Charles Shyer, Steve Martin takes over the role, which means the emphasis is placed more on his physical comedy. At the end of the day, though, all he wants is to make sure his daughter’s big day goes off without a hitch (and doesn’t bankrupt him). You can’t ask for a better wedding present than that.

The Ryder

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

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