The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
Greg Barrett and his seven companions were kind of conspicuous at the border of Jordan and Iraq.
“We looked like spring breakers, a group of unarmed Caucasians,” he said of the group that included Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne in all his dreadlocked glory.
Quickly, a group of U.S. Army soldiers arrived in Humvees, and Capt. William Don Foster assured the group that if they went into Iraq they would likely be kidnapped and decapitated.
Decapitated — a word they heard several times.
The captain was legitimately concerned, Barrett said. Since he’d been in Iraq, three of Foster’s interpreters had been kidnapped and beheaded. Foster had to watch the videos.
“I was ready to turn around,” said Barrett, who remembered his wife told him before the 2010 trip not to do anything foolish. “But peer pressure is a wonderful thing. Sami said it wasn’t true.”
While it is easy to presume many Iraqis would see this Western group as synonymous with their enemies, Claiborne, Iraqi-American Sami Rasouli and their fellow travelers had different experiences.
In 2003, several of them traveled to Iraq as the United States was getting ready to invade under the pretense that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
“They were going to reside in the middle of ‘shock and awe,’ ” Barrett said. “Some people said they were suicidal. Not at all. They were courageous.”
The Americans were trying to help and show the Iraqis a different side of the United States than they were about to see.
And they survived, only to be injured in an auto accident as they were leaving the country. Just when their journey looked extremely dark, the group was rescued by Iraqi Muslims and treated and protected at a devastated clinic in the town of Rutba.
“The story of American Christians being rescued by Iraqi Muslims resonated with me because I was in Iraq in 2003 and was amazed at the kindness that I was treated with,” Barrett said.
Barrett, a longtime newspaper writer for a number of papers including the Baltimore Sun and USA Today, was in Iraq with Gannett News Service. His aim was to put a human face on the people who were about to be on the receiving end of the U.S. invasion, though he was a little apprehensive about how he would be received.
On one of his first days in Iraq, he was in a crowded market and became separated from his group.
“I was in a crowd of Iraqis, mostly men, and there was no mistaking me for an Iraqi,” Barrett said. “I am a dirty blond American.”
But the entire 45 minutes he was alone in the crowd, no one laid a hand on him except a man who told him the zipper on his bag had opened, and he was in danger of being pickpocketed.
It was one of many instances that solidified in Barrett a belief that regardless of ethnicity, religion or nationality, people are essentially the same.
And that is what he sought to chronicle in his new book, The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq, which tells the original tale and the story of Claiborne and crew’s journey back to Iraq in 2010.
The gist of his presentation is the theme of unified humanity, despite walls people put up, such as the walls between Jews and Palestinians on the Gaza Strip.
“I was there with Shane,” Barrett said. “The walls are as high as San Quentin — they are a literal manifestation of fear. We were on both sides of the wall, and everyone was really the same: they love their children, they love their friends, they want security.”
Of course, when the group returned to Rutba, there was a little fear on both sides. When they arrived, Barrett said, they were initially questioned by local officials about what they were doing there. But after they understood the mission was to say thanks and show a different side of America, Barrett said, the Americans were greeted warmly, and the mayor even gave them his security detail while they were there.
It was an experience that would not have been possible, Barrett said, if they had turned back or come armed with their own security.
“There is a huge difference in showing up with our own security detail with guns pointed saying we want to be friends and showing up with our hands extended and no guns,” Barrett said.
On the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, it’s a message Barrett and Claiborne, who has helped promote the book, want to convey.
“You can’t bomb the world into peace,” Barrett said. “You have to build dynamic relationships, not expensive wars.”
Reading over appreciations of writer and director Nora Ephron, who died Tuesday after a battle with Leukemia, a theme quickly emerged: whether penned by an actual friend or not, that is what she was regarded as. Through her movies, which is what I knew best, and writing, people got a sense of a woman who understood them, shared their victories and disappointments and knew the poignant and absurd often kept close company.
For my money, her triumph was 1989′s When Harry Met Sally, a love letter to love and to New York City that in some ways almost out Woody Allened Woody Allen. Seeing it as a single college student, it was striking how Ephron simultaneously presented this beautifully crazy romance/friendship between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan but also celebrated romances that had lasted decades. You saw both the couple maybe you knew or would like to be and the ones you hoped to become. Through movies like Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle (1993) we saw these relationships that were not idealized but still seemed fantastic.
We felt like we knew her characters, therefore we felt like we knew her.
Of course, she shared more of herself in her books, her 2011 memoir I Remember Nothing having just shot to the top of my must-read list. Hearing people quote it over the last 12 hours indicates an empathetic voice that is even clearer than in her screenplays.
Maybe the most striking thing is that for such a seemingly regular gal, Ephron was a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, those hit movies just scratching the surface of what she created.
On Morning Joe today, publisher Arianna Huffington recalled how a month ago Ephron gathered friends together to celebrate the burgeoning singing career of actress and friend Rita Wilson. In her description, it almost sounded like a bit of an unannounced final gathering of friends, with the ringleader not drawing attention to herself.
Maybe that was the key to an extraordinary life that so resonated with us ordinary folk. Maybe that’s why this morning, we feel like we lost a friend.
The summer issue of Southern culture chronicle The Oxford American is out with two contributions from Henry County writer Wendell Berry. The short story “Down in the Valley Where the Green Grass Grows” tells the tale of Big Elllis, a farmer who needs a little help courting Annie May Cordle. Then “Who Dreamt This Dream? The Best Lie” is a “shorter” story about liar Grover Gibbs. The issue also includes “Having at It,” a short story by Dale Ray Phillips of Murray, and the magazine’s annual feature “Odes to the Best of the South 2012,” including items about Southern snack food and Louisiana’s state dog, the Catahoula.
The Best of the South 2012 issue is slated to be on newsstands through the summer.
Though Louisvillian Jennifer Lawrence is the Oscar nominee among The Hunger Games leading actors, Josh Hutcherson is the old hand at movies. According to the Internet Movie Database, the 19-year-old actor has been performing on camera since a 2002 TV movie called Becoming Glen, the same year he appeared on an episode of ER, though fellow Kentuckian George Clooney had already left the show by then.
In particular, while big, physically demanding spectacles were new to Lawrence, Hutcherson had been through that mill several times with films such as Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) and Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005).
“It definitely has some physical elements that I’m kind of used to ion a shoot,” Hutcherson said in a March 4 phone interview. “The story is something like I’ve never read before, let alone done. So in that respect, it was something brand new to me.
“I just got done shooting Journey to the Mysterious Island right before that was running around in a jungle trying to survive. This was just running around in a forest trying to survive.”
Asked if he prefers a jungle or forest, he chose forest, in part because he said being from Kentucky, it’s a more familiar environment.
As for his co-star and fellow Kentuckian, he said, “She did great. She literally didn’t have one day off, except the weekends, obviously, for the entire shoot. Everybody else had a few days off here and there, but she worked every single day.
“She was amazing. To come to the set every single day with the same energy and enthusiasm for her job that she did is so impressive. She’s so humble and down to earth and real, and it was an honor to talk to her.”
Hutcherson did get the worst of things in one instance. Wednesday night, on The Late Show with David Letterman, he recounted how Lawrence gave him a concussion when she kicked him in the temple while practicing fight choreography.
Click the play button above to hear our entire interview with Josh Hutcherson.
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Henry County native Wendell Berry will deliver the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities April 23 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. The annual lecture is considered the most prestigious honor the federal government gives for achievement in the humanities.
Previous Jefferson lecturers include John Updike, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Toni Morrison, Arthur Miller and Robert Penn Warren.
In announcing the honor, National Endowment for the Humanities chair Jim Leach said, “Wendell Berry is an American treasure whose prose and poetry have — with subtlety, intelligence, and conviction — helped open our eyes to the importance of respecting and living with nature. Tilling the land of his Kentucky forebears, he is a 21st-century Henry David Thoreau.”
Berry’s lecture, It All Turns on Affection, will be about the interaction of people and nature as is depicted in history, nature and philosophy.
Berry, the author more than 40 books of poems, essays, short stories and novels, lives on a 125-acre farm near Port Royal.
Tickets for the lecture are free and on a first come, first serve basis. Click here for the ticket application form.
Country music singer and Flatwoods native Billy Ray Cyrus is writing a memoir that will be published by Amazon Publishing in the spring of 2013.
Hillbilly Heart will reportedly detail Cyrus’ early years in Eastern Kentucky, his fame thanks to his first album and hit single Achy Breaky Heart and the challenges of raising his daughter, teen star Miley Cyrus.
“I learned early from the Book of Psalms that: ‘The truth will be your shield and your buckle.’ I’ve always loved that,” Cyrus said in a news release from Amazon. “You only get one chance to tell your life story. This is my chance to set the record straight. I realized that over the years that there have been untruths and misconceptions about me, my music, my life, my family and our dreams. I’m going to lay out the facts starting from August 25, 1961 (his birthday), and work my way to the present, even if it stings a little.”
The Kentucky Foundation for Women has awarded 10 Artist Enrichment Grants totaling more than $24,000 to “Central Kentucky feminist artists and arts organizations committed to creating positive social change throughout the state,” according to a news release. The release says the grants “provide opportunities for feminist artists and arts organizations to enhance their abilities and skills to create art that advances social justice in Kentucky. Applicants may request funds to develop their skills, participate in artist residencies, explore new areas or techniques, and/or build a body of work.”
The honorees are:
Philis Alvic, Lexington: $2,000 to create an exhibition titled Portals, exploring openings, transformations and passages in feminist weaving.
Arwen Donahue, Carlisle: $4,900 to create a book manuscript, with watercolor and ink illustrations, combining memoir, oral history interviews with artist-agrarian women.
Joanna Thornewill Hay, Frankfort: $3,500 to work with a mentor to write a book based on Stories From the Balcony, her oral history project with white and black people who attended the Grand Theatre in Frankfort during the era of segregation.
Rebecca Gayle Howell, Lexington: $3,000 to archive her recently completed body of feminist social change manuscripts, photographs and digital files, and use new and traditional media.
Chialing Hsieh, Mount Sterling: $3,500 to record and distribute a CD of works for viola and piano by contemporary American female composers.
Josephine Sculpture Park, Frankfort: $1,500 to support a feminist production of The Tempest, focusing on the female characters and led by female artists.
George Ella Lyon, Lexington: $1,000 to complete a CD of original songs in the folk tradition called Every Time You Speak the Truth (You’re Making Justice in the World).
Anna P. Murphy, Frankfort: $1,000 to create and exhibit a series of paintings depicting strong female figures juxtaposed with detailed lace and patterning.
Bianca Spriggs, Lexington: $2,043 to attend a national conference, participate in discussions and network with writers and literary organizations.
Doris Thurber, Frankfort: $2,000 to create batik wall hangings depicting myths and stories that show the roles women play in the physical and spiritual worlds.
Project descriptions were provided by the Kentucky Foundation for Women.
A book chronicling the the work of portrait artists in 19th and early-20th century Kentucky received one of five general awards from the Kentucky Historical Society last weekend.
Estill Curtis Pennington’s Lessons in Likeness: Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 1802-1920, published by the University Press of Kentucky, was honored in the category of projects with budgets of $50,001 to $100,000.
“The book is likely to become an important reference work on Kentucky’s cultural history, thanks to his three decades of shoe-leather research,” Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen wrote late last year.
Pennington, who lives in Bourbon County, has served as a curator for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Miss., the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga. His previous books include William Edward West, 1788–1857, Kentucky Painter and Kentucky: The Master Painters from the Frontier Era to the Great Depression.
The Oscar nomination, in 2004, was for one of her first efforts, the short-subject documentary Ferry Tales, which looked at the women who meet daily in the women’s restroom on New York’s Staten Island Ferry. Other films have included Vertical Traveler, about New York’s relationship with elevators, and the critically acclaimed Hole in the Sky, about New York City five years after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Esson comes to Kentucky with Poetry of Resilience, a documentary about poets who have endured devastating events, including the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
“I have been following her career for a while,” says conference director Julie Kuzneski Wrinn. “I have been wanting to bring a greater emphasis on dramatic writing to the conference. It is tough to find women filmmakers who make films about women.* While Poetry of Resilience is about women and men, its emphasis on poetry made it seem right for the conference.”
Esson will screen Poetry of Resilience on Thursday night at The Kentucky Theatre. On Friday, she will lead a session on documentary versus narrative storytelling and will speak at the plenary luncheon.
Last week, Esson was in her native Germany, but we caught up with her via email. Here’s the discussion:
Question: What led you to this topic of poets who have endured unspeakable hardships?
Answer: In September 2006, I was invited to Massachusetts to document a conference of poets from around the world. I have to admit, my first thought was, “Oh boy, filming people reading poetry. … How boring!”
But as soon as these incredible poets — who are also survivors — stepped onstage and spoke not so much about the atrocities they endured but rather about the will to survive spiritually and artistically, I was hooked.
Making documentaries satisfies my deepest hunger for discovering who we are and what makes us human, and every single one of these poets spoke to that.
Q: What was your relationship to poetry before this film?
A: Before Poetry of Resilience, I saw poetry as something somewhat elitist, inaccessible, and I was intimidated by it.
Berea College has retained one of the biggest names in contemporary Appalachian culture to be the interim head of its center focused on the region.
Author Silas House has been named the interim director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea following the promotion of previous center director Chad Berry to academic vice president and dean of the faculty at the college.
The center was founded in 1970 and Jones was it’s first director, serving in that post for 23 years. It studies all aspects of Appalachia and its culture.
House is the celebrated author of numerous books including The Coal Tattoo and Eli the Good. He has received many literary awards and recently served as the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea.
“I am incredibly honored to be trusted with this position at a center named for a true Appalachian scholar and hero,” House said in a Berea College news release. “Dr. Berry helped to make the Appalachian Center at Berea one of the essential lifelines–if not the very heart–of Appalachian Studies–and I’m excited about what the next year holds.”
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich