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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

What's Bloomington Got That We Don't Got?

July 19, 2010

by Russell Frank (Indiana)
July 16, 2010

The Dalai Lama likes Tootsie Rolls.

Peruvian women sew pillows that looked like
oversized female genitalia for sex-ed purposes.

Commercial air travel will never get off the
ground (so to speak) unless the airlines offer
more comfortable seats and quieter planes. So wrote Ernie Pyle in the 1920s.

See how broadening travel can be? I learned all
these things on a recent visit to Bloomington,
Ind., home of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist
Cultural Center, the Kinsey Institute for
Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, and
the Indiana University School of Journalism.

People are surprised to learn there's a Tibetan
Buddhist center in the cornfields of Indiana. But
there's a simple explanation: Founder Thubten
Jigme Norbu, older brother of the Dalai Lama, was
on the faculty of Indiana University. The center
is a few miles out of town – but not in a
cornfield. South-central Indiana is hilly and wooded and lovely.

And speaking of lovely, we, the National Society
of Newspaper Columnists, were welcomed to the
center by Elaine Irwin-Mellencamp, who is a) a
member of the center's board of directors, b) a
big-time fashion model and yes, c) married to
Bloomington's own John Mellencamp.

What to say about Irwin-Mellencamp's kind of
beauty? I knew she was a model before I knew who
she was. Her gaze swept over our scruffy group
like the beam of a lighthouse. She didn't look
unreal as much as she looked hyperreal. Next to
her, everyone else looked out of focus.

Am I saying I found her attractive? My
imagination isn't up to the task of picturing myself with her.

Our visit to the Buddhist center included a quick
history of Buddhism and Tibet and the center by
director Arjia Rinpoche, a fabulous Tibetan
lunch, a viewing of mind-bogglingly intricate
sand mandalas and a peek at the room where the
Dalai Lama sleeps when he visits. An offerings
bowl next to His Holiness' little bed was filled
with Tootsie Rolls and Tootsie Pops.

Also on the NSNC conference program was a talk by
sex researcher Dr. Debra Herbenick, illustrated
by those anatomically explicit Peruvian pillows.
Herbenick was great – one of those speakers who
is so knowledgeable and fluent that she speaks
with nary and um, uh or like. Hurrah for Kinsey,
I thought. It's high time this culture got over
its shame and embarrassment about sex.

But then I got home and read this passage in
Norman Mailer's "The Armies of the Night."
Mailer, being Mailer, writes about himself in the third person:

"...Sex, to Mailer's idea of it was better off,
dirty, damned, even slavish! than clean, and
without guilt. For guilt was the existential edge
of sex. Without guilt, sex was meaningless. One
advanced into sex against one's sense of guilt,
and each time guilt was successfully defied, one
had learned a little more about the contractual
relation of one's own existence to the unheard thunders of the deep..."

Hmm, that twisted little egomaniac may have a point.

Moving right along: Ernie Pyle is more or less
the patron saint of the National Society of
Newspaper Columnists. He's best known for his
dispatches from the trenches during World War II,
but before the war he wrote an aviation column
for the Washington Daily News. The building that
houses Indiana's J-school is named after him
because he was both a Hoosier and an IU alum
(though he never graduated). Most of the aviation
columns pay tribute to (and occasionally scold)
those magnificent men in their flying machines.
But a few report on the state of commercial aviation, which was in its infancy.

On one commercial flight, Pyle writes, "the seats
were jammed together so closely that one simply
had no place to put his legs except under his
chin...When an air passenger has to sit two or
three hours in one spot, he wants that spot to be
somewhat roomier and softer than a sardine can."

His other complaint: "The inside of the average
airplane still sounds like a political rally in a boiler factory."

I think it's safe to say, three-quarters of a
century later, that passenger comfort is not an airline industry priority.

One more thing about Bloomington: Because it's a
college town in the middle of nowhere, one is
bound to compare it to our own little college
town in the middle of nowhere. So let's see. In
addition to being the home or home-away-from-home
of a religious leader, a rock star, a supermodel,
a journalism hero and a jazz composer (Hoagy
"Stardust" Carmichael), Bloomington has
Ethiopian, Moroccan, Turkish, Burmese, Tibetan,
Latin American, French and Afghan restaurants.

Whereas we've got the greatest college football
coach of all time and grilled stickies.

Less hip than a town in Indiana? Ouch.
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