We Need a Little Light

What interesting parallels I’m having this week with the stories I wrote ten years ago as the Slate Diarist not long after 9/11. There was a lot of talk in the media then about how 9-11 had changed everything, but I suspect that less changed than we predicted. Ten years ago I was trying to shape my thoughts about writing simply, about telling stories that move me, and about my recently published Christmas book, When Angels Sing that has this past year been made into a feature film.

I was even more focused on my script, Waiting for Gordo, a South Texas adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s classic that I had set on the border, not far from where I am writing this week on the Rio Grande River in and around Laredo. Gordo was a small effort to personalize a story that is too often dehumanized and always politicized.

A decade later, the eight candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination – arguing like an octopus turned on itself – are arguing about border immigration and freeloading illegals in the same tone I was hearing then.  I’m not going to hold my breath for a solution, but I have learned this week that border intervention is a huge business and not likely to ever become a smaller one. It’s been an honor to look for a little understanding of border issues in the company of Time Magazine’s Joe Klein and one of the greatest and bravest photographers of our time, Lynsey Addario. Watch for Joe’s stories and Lynsey’s photos on Joe’s Swampland Blog and in Time Magazine for the next month.

But first, here’s my Slate Diary Blog from soon after 9-11 – a time capsule to a me that I hope I can hold onto.


The beauty of being a free-lance writer is you get to pick your subjects, themes, and characters. Unless they pick you. The age-old dictum, of course, is to “write what you know,” a philosophy that works for a time, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a tattoo. Much better to write what you learn.

So after a long day on a film set watching my words turn into pictures, the questions before me tonight are: What did I learn today? And what can I write?

Foremost, I learned that my daughter is not the only one plagued by dreams hanging on our fears of a darkness that threatens to envelop the earth. This morning, one person after another related their sleepless experiences until it seemed like half of America must have awakened at 4 a.m. from what I can only describe as a collective nightmare. Oh, if this war were only a dream, how sweet would be our waking tomorrow.

One thing I learned in that quest today, learned and relearned as I have to learn nearly every day, is the aspiration to write simply. Misquoting Faulkner—but raising a glass to his spirit—my goal is to write from the heart, not from the balls or brains (though those can be handy in a pinch).

A few years ago, while a guest on Sky TV’s literary talk show from London, I was talking with Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass series and other timeless tomes. Pullman is a former schoolteacher who started quite a row in the literary world by saying the art of storytelling had been foolishly devalued by hip literary stylists. I believe Martin Amis was one name that he singled out, though I don’t intend to reduce one great writer to hoist up another. But I do think Pullman was right to wonder if the literary hipsters weren’t forgetting to give something back to their readers.

I later shared a few ales and words on this subject with Richard Cohen, the British publisher of my novel, Fast Greens, which I was promoting at the time. Richard fell more into the Pullman camp than the Amis, saying that he had once worked for a marvelous publisher who only asked one question when Richard found a novel that he wanted to publish. “Did itmove you?”

Cohen also gave me a piece of advice I’ve carried ever since. One of the advantages of being a Southern writer (or a Texas writer), he said, is that the innate style and language of our region enables us to write close against the line of sentimentality. (He neglected, however, to mention the Sisyphean nature of defining the line that separates sentiment in its true light from blatant sentimentality.)

A couple of years ago, I wrote one of those little Christmas novels that a cynic might think the product of monetary desperation. But this was a story that chose me. I’d been thinking of writing something for my family’s Christmas but had no solid ideas. Then one morning I awoke from a late night’s reverie and began to write. Twenty days later, I stopped writing and sent the book to my friends and family as a Christmas present. One week more, and the editor of Algonquin Books called to say she’d like to publish When Angels Sing, which most critics lauded as a heartfelt story simply told. But two critics (fans of Martin Amis, I imagined) absolutely loathed my story of a man who had to shed his hatred of Christmas in order to hold the love of his son.

I dashed off irate letters to these reviewers—letters I later regretted, learning the hard way that it’s better to offer thanks to those who give us praise. I also learned a more valuable lesson—that we can’t make the entire world into what we want it to be. The writer’s job, if you put your faith in the verities of old, is to shine a light on what is already there. To help us all awaken from the dream within a dream so that someday we may realize the dreams within our hearts.

Samuel Johnson wrote that we tell each other stories in an attempt to be made whole. Through storytelling we reveal who we are at the core; through storytelling we lay bare the hearts and souls of humankind, 6 billion people whose DNA can all be traced to a handful of common ancestors. Can there be any wonder that we share the same dreams?

So let me tell you a story from the set of Going to California—a story that even a sentimental writer wouldn’t have the balls to make up. In my episode, “Waiting for Gordo,” the two guest roles are Pucho and Fortunato, Latino characters inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Pozzo and his slave, Lucky. As the coyote Pucho, we enthusiastically cast Tony Amendola, the kind of actor you always dream will say your words. A man of infinite moods, Tony moves so deftly from darkness to light and back again that I wish I could be his full-time scribe, following close behind and whispering everyday lines into his ear just to hear him make me sound brilliant.

More important to today’s story, though, is the young man cast as Fortunato. The show’s producers knew only that on videotape, Bernardo Verdugo seemed to be an angelic natural as an illegal alien who is discovered in the trunk of a car where he has been locked by a coyote. Like so many people from so many parts of the world, Fortunato’s great aspiration is to come to freedom, to make a new life in America. After the first few scenes this morning, I complimented Bernardo on his performance, and he said that it was not a difficult part for him. Six years ago, well before he got his green card and residency in the United States, Bernardo was brought to America by a coyote.

“How did you cross the border?” I asked.

“Locked in the trunk of a car,” he said.

And then I watched him climb back into the trunk of a car. The lid slammed shut, and I thought of him there in the darkness, wondering what awaited him. Cameras rolled and our director softly said, “Action.” As the trunk came open, the sun peeked out from behind a tall cloud, and long rays of light shone in upon the face of Bernardo Verdugo.

And on a film set high atop a hill on a ranch outside of Austin, the shared dreams of a young man from Mexico and a writer from Texas came true.

We finished the scene to everyone’s delight, then the sun slipped back behind the clouds. That’s when I heard someone say, “We need more light.”

Willie Nelson, America’s Voice in the wake of 9-11

Ten years later – here’s the third of my Slate.com diaries written in the wake of 9-11. I’m don’t have any vintage photos to post with this one because I’m on the Texas-Mexico border this evening with Joe Klein from Time Magazine and, ironically, the great photographer Lynsey Addario who was tough enough to endure her kidnapping in Libya earlier this year and continues to be one of America’s greatest news photographers. All three of us spent much of the decade since 9-11 filming, shooting photos and writing in a lot of crazy places around the world, and each of our journeys seemed to have been launched by the incredible tragedy of 9-11 and by America’s response to the attack on The World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Like the rest of America and the world, there’s no going back to who we were before. We can’t undo the falling of the towers or the growing tragedies of the Iraqi and Afghan War, but we’re still searching for the best way ahead through the stories we tell in words and pictures. Much of the diary below is about Willie Nelson and a voice that continues to fill a need in so many people. Willie’s still out there doing what he does. The rest of us can only follow his example to the best of our abilities. One happy note – the diary mentions our upcoming American Masters film on Willie which later premiered to great acclaim and was rewarded with an Emmy Award for the best non-fiction series.  Thanks for all the music, Willie. We still love you; still need you.

So here’s my Slate Diary #3 – in the wake of 9-11

Slate.com Diary by Turk Pipkin

This has turned into the right week to be buried under a tall pile of work. When I’m talking on the phone about one project or another, I’m not watching my country edging toward a growing anthrax panic, our national consciousness flinching as we wonder where and how terrorism will strike next.

This afternoon, I tried to sit down to some serious writing, but the words wouldn’t come, so I decided to call someone I knew could lift my spirits. Most of us have that one person who can reliably bring you up. It may be your mother or your brother, your new best friend or a pal from long ago, but the bottom line is, you hear that voice and the world suddenly looks better. Or it may turn out thatthey need their spirit lifted, and the job of strength falls upon you. Not quite the same, but you do learn that perhaps you had it better than you knew. I’d been saving that phone call, and the time had come.

Willie Nelson and I have been occasional golf buddies for 20 years. I’ve written a few things for him and about him, but mostly we just like to shoot the shit. Lately he’s been fighting a nagging case of pneumonia but is still playing his gigs, so I called him on the bus that he calls home for a couple of hundred days a year. For a long time, when I called the bus I’d ask where he was. He’d look out the window at the passing countryside and say, “I see some fields,” or “Looks like America to me.”

So I already knew where he was, he was at home in America.

“Mr. Nelson, Mr. Pipkin,” I said.

“Hey!” he said, his mellifluous tone rolling back at me, strong enough for me to know he was feeling better. “I enjoyed that magazine story!”

A couple of months ago, we’d spent the day playing golf and chess, shooting pool and listening to his upcoming album The Great Divide, which I think is one of his best. I took notes all day and wrote a story for a new magazine called Fringe Golf. Lemme tell you, writing about your friends is no gimme. Willie’s a better golfer than most people suspect, but I couldn’t resist saying his swing looked like “fly-casting a frozen turkey,” so hearing that he liked the piece was all the lift I needed.

Just hearing his voice sent me back a couple of weeks when I’d watched him on TV singing “America the Beautiful” to close the “Tribute to Heroes” telethon. As Clint Eastwood’s speech morphed into Willie’s first guitar licks, I found myself fighting back my tears. Then Willie got to the line that got to all of us: “Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.” Like so many Americans, I just let it flow. Willie had given me permission.

Today we had some new business to go over. The Emmy-winning PBS documentary seriesAmerican Masters is producing a two-hour film on Willie. I initially took the project to American Masters, and it’s since taken on a wonderful life of its own. American Masters knows what they’re doing, and New York filmmaker Steve Cantor is directing. That leaves me as a producer whose main job is to make sure everyone’s happy. Willie sounded happy. We talked about filming his upcoming 10k race for Farm Aid in Austin and about the photo Texas Monthly is going to take of Willie and mystery writer Kinky Friedman posed as the farm couple in American Gothic.

“I get to hold the pitchfork; Kinky’s going to wear the dress,” Willie told me. “Kinky’s always been mad he wasn’t born a woman anyway.”

I was still laughing when, as they say in London, we rung off. A smile had found my face, and for the first time all day, I had the general idea that everything was going to be OK.

For the next couple of hours, I managed to put in some good work on a whole string of projects: the still-pending movie of my coming-of-age golf novel, Fast Greens; a first-look at the Web site, turkpipkin.com, that my sister-in-law is putting together, and a magazine pitch about the dam the government of Belize foolishly wants to build on the upper Macal River basin that will destroy much of the breeding grounds of the endangered scarlet macaw and Baird’s tapir. Good news and bad, the world was moving on.

I didn’t even let the round-the-clock anthrax coverage get to me. Not until my wife came in this evening to report why our 10-year-old daughter was so emotional tonight. She’d been having trouble sleeping and finally told her mom that it was because of bad dreams. In her dream, she was at a local market when a man asked if he could sit down with her and her friends.

“What was that chemical that they used to spray on crops that was so poisonous?” my daughter asked.

“DDT,” my wife answered.

“That’s it,” she said. “The man was mentally disturbed, but he looked normal, and he had this big tank of DDT that he started spraying on us.”

Believe me, this is as hard to write as it is to read. The worst part was, in my daughter’s dream, her best friend had died. Not too surprisingly, our girl was scared and sad. I think my wife came up with some pretty good answers for her, but let’s face it, they’re answers to questions we never wanted to hear.

“Sadness is a real emotion in your heart,” Christy told our first-born, “but fear is in your mind. And your mind you can control. If you live in fear that things might happen, it can be as bad as if they really did happen. You have to take strength from what’s real, even when it’s sad.”

When I was 10, my fears were that Communists were going to sweep across America, lock us in our stadiums, and torture us until we thought like they did. In the ensuing years, I somehow came to the conclusion that we’d done a better job in the world since then. But now my daughter is 10, and the world is falling down around her.

“Man has been faced with terrible tragedies and events throughout our history,” my wife reassured her, “and we’ve always come through it.”

“I know that,” our daughter said, “but this is the first time it’s happened to me.

Our daughter is asleep now, her dreams beyond our reach. Tomorrow is another day, more bad news from far away no doubt, more fears from just around the corner, and more phone calls to the people we love.

Stay well and keep singing, Willie; we need you.

– Turk Pipkin


My photos are online at www.turkpipkinphotography.com

Learn about The Nobelity Project’s education work in the U.S. and abroad at www.nobelity.org






Ten Years After – My Slate Diaries in the wake of 9/11

In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood.

Writer and filmmaker Turk Pipkin looks back at some of his writing in the wake of 9/11 when he was the weekly diarist on Slate.com.

Turk Pipkin: In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood. Rereading this story is a great reminder of the life I used to live, of the lives many of us lived in the decade before 9/11 when the economy was fairly good and the worst thing the fine members of America’s Congress could imagine was a blow job.

A decade later, we’ve blown three trillion dollars in two lost wars, bailed out billionaires with government money while hard-working men and women discovered that the hardest thing about work is finding it. For a few weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we had the whole world with us, but we blew it all away with hubris, lies and a ten-year battle without end that has destroyed far too many lives and has fractured America into groups that are unable to recognize their common ground because of the massive focus placed on their differences.

 Frustrated at America’s response to 9/11, my wife and I ended up founding The Nobelity Project and, like so many people who care about a better way ahead, are trying our best to be a positive force in a world that needs us all. Here’s my Slate diary from October 8, 2010.


It was a beautiful weekend. There was a chill in the air, and the monarch butterflies were winging their way to Mexico. I set all my writing aside, left my computer at home, and drove with my wife and kids to the Texas Hill Country, where I’ve been building a cabin overlooking the Llano River. Every trip I make to the river is a pilgrimage, for I spent much of my childhood at my grandmother’s ranch on the river’s headwaters—wading, swimming, and fishing in the cold spring water that eventually runs over the granite outcroppings at the property we now own. My family lost my grandmother’s ranch when I was in high school, and I spent the next 30 years trying to figure out how to get back a piece of the river.

But as a comedian, then a free-lance writer of books and television, the price of waterfront land was always just out of my reach. Whenever I started to make more money, the prices went up. Then on Valentine’s Day, 2000, while I was writing a magazine story in Belize, my wife sent me an e-mail saying her mammogram had shown something suspicious. I came home to a diagnosis of DCIS—Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. We went from doctor to doctor and the word “mastectomy” kept hitting us like a hammer. Eighteen months later, I still couldn’t say which one of us was more scared.

Running from what we could not escape, one day we dropped the kids at school and headed for the river, driving on back-country roads till we came to a low-water crossing built by German settlers in the 19th century. In the space of one day, we fell in love with the land overlooking that crossing, learned it was for sale, and made an offer to buy it. Eighteen months later—with my wife having beaten her breast cancer and having begun teaching yoga for a living—the river has become a central part of our lives.

We have no television or radio at the cabin; it’s too good here for all that. This weekend, with the wind blowing cool out of the north, we built a campfire in the late afternoon, then grilled steaks and vegetables by the light of an orange and violet sunset. Within an hour, the sky was brilliant with stars, the Milky Way shining bright from horizon to horizon. Just before bedtime, my daughters and I looked up and all saw the same shooting star.

It’s never easy for me to escape my work. People tell me they envy my carefree life as a writer, but they don’t have any idea how hard I have to work to keep from having a job. To cobble together one real income, I write for television, film, magazines, and try to turn out a book every couple of years. That means long, butt-throbbing hours at my desk and very short nights in bed. It’ll be a miracle if I get any writing done this week. A one-hour episode I wrote for a great new Showtime series—Going to California—will be filming in Austin, and I’m hoping to see as much of the action as possible. I’ll also be working on a documentary on Willie Nelson for American Masters on PBS, and I’m moderating panels and hosting events at one of my favorite events of the year, the Austin Film Festival.

At last year’s festival, I chaired a panel with David Chase, the creator and executive producer of HBO’s hit, The Sopranos. Before the panel, we talked a bit about my experiences in Italy interviewing lawyers and hitmen for the ‘Ndrangetta, the fearful Calabrian mafia. When the panel started, David was looking at me kind of funny, and I thought I must have said something wrong. Far from it—a couple of days later, the casting director of The Sopranos called to see if I’d videotape an audition for the show. The role was a total hoot—the born-again, narcoleptic boyfriend of Tony’s sister Janice. They faxed the script, I sent back a tape, and a couple of weeks later I was in Queens falling asleep on Tony Soprano’s shoulder and having him bounce walnuts off my sleeping noggin at the Sopranos’ Thanksgiving dinner.

For a writer whose future depends to a great extent on a larger audience discovering his work, this tiny brush with fame was a dream come true. All the better when the show brought me back for a couple more episodes, giving me some fun scenes with Aida Turturro, a wonderful actress who makes Janice one of The Sopranos‘ most memorable characters. When Aida was nominated for an Emmy for her work this year, I felt sure I’d soon be in front of the TV watching her accept her award.

NYC skyline and sunset from La Guardia just before 9/11

Then came Sept. 11. The week after the bombings, I could not look away from the television. I had to know everything, had to e-mail everyone I knew. For some reason, I felt a compulsion to be a reassuring voice, to tell my friends and family that somehow everything would be OK. A lot of nice words came back for my efforts, but I also got the worst possible news from too many friends whose family members, business associates, and college buddies had been in the Trade Centers. On one of my trips to film The Sopranos, I’d taken my 10-year-old daughter to the top of the World Trade Center. Now she wanted to know about the people we’d seen there, and what would happen to the children of those people who’d died. My voice began to sound less and less reassuring. And our refuge at the river began to seem more and more important.

It was still cool this morning when we hiked down the granite point to the river’s edge. It was a little late in the year for a swim, but I waded in till my knees were wet, decided it was too cold, and turned back to shore. Then I slipped on the slick rock, and the river gave me my baptism anyway. Once I was wet, I went ahead a paddled around in what turned out to be the best swim of the year. And then I headed back to Austin to watch Aida win her award.

It was a beautiful weekend, but then I turned on the TV. America Strikes Back was a harsh return to reality. The awards, of course, were pushed from our concerns, and the war had started without me. Now I find myself trying to remember my long-ago friends, David and Lynn Angell, who died on American Flight 11; find myself trying to imagine rushing to the rescue of innocent men, women, and children, knowing you might never return, or what it must be like to be under bombs and missiles raining down from the sky. I try to think of all the things we need to think of when our country is at war, but instead my mind keeps returning to the monarchs, their orange and black wings brilliant in the sun as they fly unknowing across the borders of man in their ancient pilgrimage of life.

And the week is just beginning.

Learn more about The Nobelity Project and watch the trailer for Building Hope at: www.nobelity.org

I’ll try to update some of the other diaries this week, but in the meantime, all five of my daily posts from the week are archived at: http://www.slate.com/id/116912/entry/116920/



The Right To Education

It’s been just under a year since I wrote a story for DogCanyon on The Right to Clean Water bemoaning the massive number of kids in the world whose lives are permanently derailed by lack of access to clean water. A year later, the situation is at least moderately better, thanks to a number of efficiently run nonprofits who’ve been chipping away at the problem one community at a time. This weekend I ran into my friend Scott Harrison, founder of Charity Water (charitywater.org) who’ve now funded 2,900 water projects in 17 countries, providing clean water to 1.25 million people.

Charity Water just launched their Born in September Campaign. If you’re a September birthday (others welcome too), they’d like you to forego the stupid birthday presents in favor of your friends giving you a well for your birthday. Their mission for September is to provide clean water to ALL of the Bayaka people and many others in the devastated forest regions of the Central African Republic. The goal is to raise $1.7 million dollars to provide clean water for 90,000 people in a single month (that’s a cost of $20 per person served) and one of those great ideas that, once you’ve got it in your head, it’s impossible to rid yourself of it short of doing the right thing.

And that’s not even the subject of my blog this week so let’s turn to education. My interest in the basic rights of every child are the focus of my feature doc, One Peace at a Time (now out on DVD and easy to find online). The film is produced by our education and action nonprofit The Nobelity Project (at Nobelity.org). The ultimate goal of the film is to convince people to “pick and issue” and take action on a problem that speaks to them.

Having previously done a good deal of water work, The Nobelity Project shifted our action focus last year to the right to education. We’d already helped to bring water, electricity and more to the rural Mahiga Primary School in Kenya. But at a celebration of that work, it really sank in that clean water and an 8th grade education wasn’t going to be enough for these great kids. The majority of children in Kenya and most of Africa don’t attend high school, and I concluded we couldn’t do anything about the larger situation except perhaps to ensure that the kids of Mahiga did have an opportunity to graduate from high school. If that went well, perhaps our project would be a model for other rural education programs in Kenya.

Once we’d committed to building a secondary school, we realized that every year we delayed, another class of 8th graders would drop out of school forever. So we determined to build Mahiga Hope High School, and decided to do it in a year. We didn’t have a plan or the funding, but knew the community would be part of the planning, and felt that we could reach out to the fans of our films and find enough support to fund this school.

That was one year ago and I couldn’t be happier about the scheduled October 1 ribbon-cuttings for the new classroom and libraries building, a new kitchen and dining hall, the RainWater Court – winner of Nike’s GameChangers Award – and even a new pre-school for a dramatic expansion of the number of 4- and 5-year-olds prepping for big-time first grade. (And while we’ve been building, this great community has already started 9th and 10th grade classes in temporary classrooms.)

The multiplying factor of the GameChangers Award was a big first step. The RainWater Court is a full basketball/multi-sport court with a giant roof that collects and stores 30,000 liters of purified drinking water for the school. There’s also a stage that makes it a performance space and an outdoor classroom. The funding that came with the award included an Architecture for Humanity Design Fellow for one year. Greg Elsner has been living in the community, refining and designing, building and generally becoming a valued member of the local community. He’s the only guy I know that’s build an entire campus in a year, though he has had the support of community labor and up to 100 skilled, paid labor on some of our busiest days. (Check out my short film A Day in the Life of Mahiga at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FTpnycMoiQ)

Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, the Dixie Chicks and lots of other great Texas artists stepped up our fundraising outreach, and enabled us to consider truly fundamental ideas about education. If you had the money to build a great school, wouldn’t it have a community lending library with thousands of books, a computer/tech library with internet access and a sister school (in Texas), science labs for chemistry (with lab sinks and Bunsen burners), physics and biology labs (with an organic garden and an orchard), a kitchen with wash sinks and high-efficiency stoves  (instead of open fires destined to blind and poison the schools cooks). Add in that pre-school for 60 kids, and how much have you spent?

Well, the numbers aren’t final, but we’re looking at a total a little north of $250,000. Not for a classroom or a building – for a school. A school with a mentor system and some job training, with HIV counseling and organized athletics and music programs. That’s education at a level that could be replicated in thousands of communities and not come close to the cost of another wasted war.  There’s no reason why the things we take for granted in the developed world – whether it’s water, food, education, health care or other basic rights – should be considered a luxury for kids in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. You want a peaceful world? Start with a just world – where children don’t die in huge numbers before their fifth birthday, where water-borne illnesses don’t take many more, where illiteracy is rampant.

If you’re motivated to forego your birthday and fund a well with Charity Water, then that’s an issue you should act upon. Your life will be better for it. And so will the lives of the beneficiaries. You’ll be forever connected to those people who have received your gift. On the other hand, if the idea of helping provide opportunity and true hope to high school kids in a great community rings your bell, then the Nobelity Project could still use your help at Mahiga. We’ve funded 90% of this project. Some small part of what’s left may have your name on it.

Here are some links worth exploring:

The Nobelity Project: www.nobelity.org

Our Video Channel: http://www.youtube.com/nobelityproject

The Nobelity Blog: www.nobelity.blogspot.com

The RainWater Court: http://openarchitecturenetwork.org/projects/rainwatercourt

Report from Haiti

Traveling and working in the developing world, I’ve discovered that I’m a fairly positive person. In the cholera-ridden slums of Nairobi and the heroin-shooting galleries of Dhaka, Bangladesh, I’ve managed to find things that left me hopeful that solutions were more a matter of will than way. And then came Haiti.

I arrived in Port au Prince on a search for how The Nobelity Project – and anyone who wanted to join us – could make a real difference in the long-term rebuilding of Haiti. I was prepared for bad, but what I found was worse. In a city of six million people, one out of two buildings destroyed or seriously damaged. A million people living in tents. Major fuel shortages. Disaster pricing for essential commodities. Schools that remain closed many months after the quake. Hurricane seasons coming fast. And never far from anyone’s mind – the Haitian’s continuing shock and mourning over the loss of 300,000 friends and family members. 300,000 – what portion of your city or county would that be?

I was in the company of  our partners, Architecture for Humanity, who have an office in the country and have emerged as one of the most-respected voices for understanding the long-term nature of this disaster. AfH’s knowledge has been hard won through multi-year perseverance after the Tsunami and Katrina, and they’re committed to a long-term school reconstruction effort here, and to providing advice, design and engineering services to help build it back better.

“Before the quake, there was only one seismic engineer in the whole country,” founder Cameron Sinclair told me as we tried to drive through the city’s rubble strewn streets. “That engineer reported that the only building in the country that could withstand a major quake was the Presidential Palace. And it fell down.”

Shortly after the quake, The Nobelity Project offered my film One Peace at a Time to Architecture for Humanity chapters around the world for Haiti fundraising screenings. The Austin screening at the Paramount Theatre raised well over $10k, with more funds coming from events across the country and as far away as Bangladesh. (That’s right, people in Bangladesh – one of the poorest nations on earth – are raising money for their brothers and sisters in Haiti. So there’s a little hope for you.)

Cam Sinclair had enlisted many other supporters. Ben Stiller’s foundation Stiller Strong and director Paul Haggis through the L.A. based Artists for Peace and Justice were partnering with AfH in Haiti. APJ has raised $6 million for Haiti, but I was equally impressed by their commitment to the idea that a star has to do more than just donate money to be a part of this work. Haggis, Stiller, Gerard Butler (of the amazing “300”) and House’s Olivia Wilde were on the ground working hard on APJ’s effort to build a new high school. And while visiting St. Julien’s Hospital, I discovered that Olivia has a real knack for producing smiles on kids who were very much in need of smiles.
Continue reading “Report from Haiti”

We Can’t Get There Without You

Tomorrow is a big day for The Nobelity Project, the national theatrical launch of our film One Peace at a Time at Austin’s Arbor Cinema. This isn’t the end of the road I’ve been traveling for three years on this film. If we sell enough tickets in the next week, we’ll get a longer run in Austin, and the number of other cities we reach will grow. So this is a big step. And we can’t take it alone.

onepeacecrosswordloresWe have a lot of things going for us: A movie that thousands of people have already seen and come away saying it was inspiring to the max; film fest awards, and a national promotion partnership with Bono’s amazing advocacy group ONE.org, and a great trailer with music by Ben Harper

The film is jam-packed with ideas and solutions that are truly life-changing. It has thousands of beautiful kids that I filmed with in 20 countries on 5 continents. And the wisdom and insights of Muhammad Yunus, Desmond Tutu, Helene Gayle and the great Willie Nelson as you’ve never seen him before.

A week before Barack Obama and Steve Chu go to Copenhagen to make America’s first pledge to cut carbon emissions, we’re releasing a film in which Steve Chu – many months before he was named Secretary of Energy – discusses what he’d do if he were the “Energy King”.

Shortly before Barack Obama receives a Nobel Peace Prize, that was more than a little controversial, we’re releasing a film in which I propose – from the steps of the Nobel Museum in Oslo – that it’s time that the children of the world receive the Peace Prize. Who suffers the most under the bombs? Who offers more reason to put an end to this madness?

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Willie Nelson at Austin City Limits – and 1000 Voices for Hope!

Here’s a little Willie Wednesday item that was worth waiting the 3 1/2 weeks I’m behind. Sunday night, 11/15.  7 p.m. Central, PBS is broadcasting the new Austin City Limits episode with Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel. I haven’t seen the edit, but I was there for the taping and it was fine, and I’m sure director Gary Menotti and all of the super-fine ACL production staff have hit a grand slam home run.

If you can’t wait till Sunday – and even if you can – through November 17, PBS.org is giving us online streaming of the very first ACL episode – the Austin City LImits pilot with Willie Nelson and family – recorded October 17, 1974. Prepare to be delighted and happy to your very core. The only off-note in the whole show is the realization that all the great Austin nightclubs – Soap Creek, Split Rail, Dillo, Castle Creek, One Knite – that are included in the opening montage are long-since gone. Luckily, Willie and his wonderful music are still with us, and will always be with us.

While you’re watching Willie, you can sing a little harmony in a new choir called 1000 Voices for Hope. Having rebuilt Mahiga Primary School in Kenya with purified drinking water, electricity, a computer lab and new classrooms, The Nobelity Project is setting our sites a little higher. With no high school in the area – and very little chance for a decent future for these great kids – we are building Mahiga Hope High School.

RainwaterNewLoResOur design for the multipurpose RainWater Court won the international GameChangers competition from Architecture for Humanity, which included the money to build it (thanks to Nike) and an incredible design fellow, Greg Elsner, who is living in Mahiga, Kenya to see this school through to completion.

The high school will also have a block of 8 modern classrooms, a computer lab, a book library with 1000s of volumes in English and Swahili, and a science building with physics, chemistry, biology lab and gardens.

When we say HOPE high school, that’s exactly what we intend to bring to hundreds of kids in this rural community where education is the best possible shot at a better life.

So what does this have to do with Willie? With the RainWater Court money – and another $60k we’ve raised at screenings of my new film One Peace at a Time, we are halfway to full funding for the school. Working with GlobalGiving.com, we’ve launched 1000 Voices for Hope, a campaign to enlist 1,000 good-hearted, smart-thinking people to donate $100 each to build this school.

1000 x $100 = HOPE – Mahiga HOPE High School.

The first donors – the first members of our choir – are Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Emily Robison and Marty Maines of The Dixie Chicks. You can join this amazing choir and sing some beautiful music by making a tax-deductible donation at:

1000 Voices for Hope at GlobalGiving.com

Till Dec 1, GlobalGiving will match 40% of your donation. If we raise over $10,000 by then, they’ll match 50%. Every $100 becomes $150/$500 into $750. Double that with the funding we’ve already raised and you’ve built a school, changed a community, brought real hope and a promising future for hundreds of kids. And I think you’ll find that you’ve changed yourself as well.

Education shouldn’t end after the 8th Grade! Join the Choir! Sing out!

(And please send this post far and wide – we can’t get there without you.)

Mahiga Girls

L.A. Premiere of One Peace at a Time, Wed, Oct. 21

OnePeaceLAPremiereEverywhere I go, people tell me they envy my glamorous life as a doc filmmaker.  There’s no point in explaining the reality of shooting 18-hour-days in the developing world to them (but give me a couple of beers and I’ll try). For instance, you spend two years shooting a doc in 20 countries on 5 continents while constantly balancing the risk of malaria with taking malarone (which destroys your liver and gives you nightmares), then break your leg shooting water footage in the Grand Canyon, finish shooting the film in a wheelchair, on crutches and on a long trip hobbling around Africa on a cane with fifty pounds of camera equipment on your back (which is still ten pounds lighter than the water jugs the women I’m filming are carrying).

At the same time, you’re constantly raising money, are frequently folded from six-foot-seven to 5 foot-nothing in coach for flight schedules up to 48 hours straight, and never all that clean. You barely notice when teenagers wave swords or their AK-47s in your face, or when your wallet and gear are stolen, or when your crazy driver won’t slow down and has a head-on collision with a guy on a motorcyle who doesn’t know how to ride a motorcycle. You worry that you’ll become immune to the under-nourished (and under-educated) children you meet by the thousands, but you never do because their faces never leave your  mind. When you’re not shooting, you’re editing for an over-lapping year and a half, often in two or three edit bays at a time with multiple editors, while your wife/producer convinces your musical heroes like Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan to donate some of their best songs ever to your non-profit endeavor while keeping family and home together (not to mention beating breast cancer). Don’t even think about making a doc about how we could fix the world unless you’re married to a super hero.

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Ain’t it Funny How Times Slips Away?

It’s Willie Wednesday, and maybe because I was sick as a dog last week, I’ve been wondering how Willie – who is exactly twenty years older than me – manages to keep doing 200 dates a year on the road while recording, writing and advocating for what he believes in. Of course, time is relative, so to speak, and is also the subject of a chapter in our book, The Tao of Willie. Here’s an excerpt followed by a Willie Video of Dave Matthews’ song Gravedigger that you absolutely HAVE to see. I’ve watched it many times, but should confess that I always stop it before that final shot. turk

(My column this week is dedicated to the life and memory, family and friends of the wonderful George O’Dwyer who did so much for our work at The Nobelity Project, and who shone so brightly throughout his life.)

Aint It Funny How Time Slips Away
from “The Tao of Willie” by Willie Nelson and Turk Pipkin (all rights reserved)

“Time flies like an arrow.
Fruit flies… like a banana.”

– Townes Van Zandt

So two guys drive up to the golf course and an old man leaps nimbly forward and says, “Need a caddy?” Then he grabs their two heavy bags and sprints to the first tee.
The golfers catch up and one of them says, “Say, you’re pretty spry for an elderly chap. How old are you?”
“Ninety-one!” says the caddy. “But this is nothing! This weekend I’m getting married!”
“Why would a ninety-year-old man want to get married?” one of the guys asks.
And the old man replies, “Who says I want to?”

Every few years, my pal Turk pulls out his ratty reporter’s notebook and asks me one of those questions that makes me HIS canary in the coal mine.
“What’s the best age?” he asks.
And so far, I’ve always said the same thing. “This one.”

So what can I say about getting older that hasn’t already been said by a bunch of other old farts?
I’ve heard it said that you’re only as old as your feel. I’d find that more of a comfort if I didn’t wake now and then feeling pretty dang old.

But most mornings, after a nice night’s sleep with Gator driving the Honeysuckle Rose a few hundred miles through the heartland of America, I can hardly wait to peak out the blinds and see where we are.

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Right and Wrong Is Not That Hard

It’s Willie Wednesday again at DogCanyon. While ACL Fest goers were slip-sliding away, Willie was joined this weekend at Farm Aid in St. Louis by Neil Young, Dave Matthews, Wilco, Promise of the Real and more. Farm Aid has now raised over $35 million for America’s family farmers, and Willie and his team have been tireless advocates for supporting the families who feed us. You can learn a lot, make a donation and watch a great feed of the show at www.FarmAid.org. As I write this blog, I’m listening to Neil Young sing a gorgeous version of “Sail Away”.

While you’re listening, you can read below about the L.A. Premiere of One Peace at a Time… PLUS… another installment from The Tao of Willie, the book I wrote with Willie that continues to give me a lot of guidance in life.

OnePeaceLAPremiere If you’re in Southern California on Wed, October 21, don’t miss seeing Willie, Steve Chu, Muhammad Yunus, Helene Gayle of CARE and more in the L.A. Premiere of my new feature doc, One Peace at a Time. The film looks at the possibility of providing basic rights – water, nutrition, healthcare, nutrition and a peaceful and sustainable world – to every child. I filmed in 20 countries for almost three years, and despite all the amazing people I spoke with along the way, Willie comes close to stealing the movie in a single game of chess. One thing he said that echoes loudly was about our ability to do the right thing in a world that needs a world of right things.

“We already know what to do,” Willie told me. “Right and wrong is not that hard. It’s what we choose to do.”

Continue reading “Right and Wrong Is Not That Hard”