Shake the Dust

Sometimes beauty hides in the magic of a URL. The nearly indecipherable strings of letters and numbers that only make sense when fed into a machine.

Anis Mojgani performs Shake the Dust at HEAVY AND LIGHT

Sometimes beauty hides in the magic of a URL. The nearly indecipherable strings of letters and numbers that only make sense when fed into a machine. But the code and the sound and the light the machine spits back is pure beauty. Pure magic. Pure love.

And sometimes this gift is delivered with the simple chime of the arrival of a new text message. Cutting through haze and blur of just another day. Landing like a burning ember, glowing red hot, right in the crotch of our day causing us to jump and slap wildly, dancing, flailing.  Trying in vain to maintain the shroud of an ordinary day.

The spark sets us alight. And for a few minutes, as the flames consume us, feeding off the tinder we pull over ourselves to keep out the cold, we can see in the light a different world. A place flickering with hope. Shining with love. Radiant with life.

Shake the Dust came to me today. Sent unheralded, unannounced. A flaming cannonball shot over my wall. And my kingdom is ablaze.

May the fire spread to your heart. The amazing and incomparable Anis Mojgani.

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

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:

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:



Part 2: Documentaries that Change the Way We Think About Art

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Steve “Lips” Kudlow with renowned country musician Damon Bramblett at Emo’s.
Steve "Lips" Kudlow with renowned country musician Damon Bramblett at Emo's.

I had no desire to watch a documentary about a Canadian heavy metal band, but I did and it told me more about a love of and commitment to an art form than any film I have ever seen.

Anvil: the story of Anvil is moving, poignant, inspiring and deeply heartbreaking. It poses the questions with which many artists that have yet to achieve any sort of fame or monetary success grapple: Am I delusional? Should I give this up? Is my perseverance admirable or ludicrous? Is my relentless pursuit of my art form worth the many costs I suffer as a result of my efforts?

The film follows the founders of the heavy metal band Anvil, Steve “Lips” Kudlow (lead vocals, lead guitar) and Rob Reiner (drums). The two have been best friends and band mates since they were fourteen. In 1984, they toured the world with heavy metal bands Scorpion, Whitesnake and Bon Jovi. All the bands on the tour had astounding subsequent success, except for Anvil.

The film begins with shots of Anvil during this glory tour and then flashes forward twenty-something years. Anvil is still together, but playing strip mall bars to a small but dedicated group of fans. Lips and Rob are working decidedly unglamorous day jobs—Lips as a catering delivery driver and Rob as a construction worker. But the years, lack of success and drudge work have not dampened the pair’s enthusiasm or hope of once again reaching a wider audience. It’s wrenching to watch Rob and Lips’s sometimes painful hopefulness and dedication despite the cost to their marriages, finances, and even their friendship with each other.

And viewers of the film have to wonder, how could this aging pair even imagine they will ever make a comeback in the young man’s world of heavy metal? And yet it’s impossible to keep from rooting for them wholeheartedly as they come to represent every dedicated musician struggling to gain some recognition despite staggering odds.

It’s clear that Lips and Rob keep playing metal and pushing for their dream of having an audience for their shows because their passion for their music forces them to do so. An apt lesson for any aspiring artist.

Documentaries that Change the Way We Think About Art

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Banksy graffiti art on the West Bank Wall

I was disappointed that:

1)   Banksy didn’t pull any inspiring art stunts at the Oscars; and

2)   That his brilliant documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” didn’t win an Oscar.

Still, pondering the mysterious graffiti artist’s documentary started me thinking about films I’ve seen lately that address the travails and adventures of an artistic career. So this week, I’ll feature one such film every day.

I’ll start with Banksy’s own “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” I was lucky enough to watch the film screened in my friends’ backyard.  A big crowd had gathered for the showing and was lounging in camping chairs. The film started as darkness fell.

We were mesmerized by the story of the eccentric French man who became obsessed with documenting the most well-known and prolific graffiti street artists of our time. As I watched the French man’s footage of infamous graffiti artists Space Invader, Shepard Fairey and Banksy climbing down the sides of buildings under cover of darkness for a chance to make their renegade art, I couldn’t help but a feel a profound longing for such joyful risktaking.

One of the high points of the film is when Banksy himself sneaks into Disneyland and attaches a blow up, lifesize replica of a Guantanamo prisoner to a fence right by a rollercoaster, so that the rollercoaster riders fly by the hooded “prisoner.” (See the video below).

The film takes an interesting twist as Banksy moves from street artist to a member of the “legitimate” art world; and the French man follows suit, his fascination with documenting unorthodox art for art’s sake morphing into an obsession with creating mechanized, commodified art for the sake of money and prestige.

This film is a must see for anyone who has struggled with frustration at seeing crap art glorified, or questioned whether her own art is worthwhile even if unacknowledged.

The Anxieties of X-treme Winter

It used to be  that the weather was just the weather, to be enjoyed or complained about depending on how much it affected your occupation or vacation plans.

We’ve had a long gray cold winter here in Northern California. I know, the rest of the country has been buried under blizzards, and I shouldn’t complain about the X-treme deluges and the frosty mornings out here—evidently there was a day in January when 49 states had snow cover. Only Florida escaped it that day, by a few miles (Hawaii has mountains that get snow).

Still, relative to a normal winter in the Bay Area, this one has been interminably sodden. Our coastal rains transmogrify into tons of the white stuff in the mountains. Mammoth Mountain, in the Central Sierras, claimed it had the most snow of any ski area in the world over the winter holidays, which is a clue to how much moisture we’ve had. Used to be the X-treme skiers were the crazies who shot off cliffs, jumped turns down a chute of snow that looked vertical, and lived to tell about it. This winter, even beginners can claim to be in the X-treme ranks because of snow levels under their skis.

I’m a skier myself, and I’m thrilled about the white stuff, but not as thrilled as I was forty years ago when I learned to ski. Now, I feel a vague undercurrent of anxiety about global warming and too much X-treme weather. Two weeks ago, as I was riding ski the lift at Tahoe and looking at the gi-normous amount of snow on the slope below, I had a pang of worry. It did not manage to dampen my enjoyment of the skiing, but it did give me pause.

It used to be that the weather was just the weather, to be enjoyed or complained about depending on how much it affected our occupation or vacation plans. Why we have excessive rain, heat, cold, and snow have become political and ethical questions about how we live day to day. And, as I sat there on that lift, I thought about how downhill skiing isn’t exactly a green sport, unless you already live near the mountains and are willing to haul your skis up the slope for an hour or more for the thrill of skiing down really, really fast for 5 minutes.

In the mid 1970s, I lived in Switzerland for a couple of years, and the skiers over 70 remembered how they strapped their skis on their backpacks, snow-shoed up, and skied down. They would do it two or three times a day. No way! I used to think. Backpacking in the Ansel Adams wilderness a few years ago, I took all day to climb about 1500 feet over 8 miles carrying 40 pounds. I could not have faced skiing down after that ordeal. Skis don’t weigh that much, but then again, we were hiking in August, not in February, and not over 30 feet of snow.

In the middle of my mid-winter ruminating about whether or not I should quit my favorite sport, I received the picture below from my artist friend in Houston, Rich Doty. I think it pretty well captures my anxieties about  X-treme global warming and the conflict with my love of skiing. It’s a photo of his sculpture, about ten inches long, made of copper and bass wood with a coating of Bar Top.


Musician Sam Baker Makes Visual Art Debut

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Poet Jardine Raven Lebair reads in front of Sam Baker's paintings.

Beloved Itasca-born songwriter Sam Baker made his visual arts debut last Thursday night at (Un)(In)hibited, a group art exhibit held at the Continental Club Gallery.

Baker showed two paintings, (pictured in the photo, left to right) Untitled, and Woman with Green Hair and Oil Blue Eyes.

(Un)(In)hibited also featured works by photographer Todd Wolfson and artist Bale Allen, as well as music by John Dee Graham.

Baker recently returned to the studio to record a single with accordion player Joel Guzman. Baker hopes that the song, about 14 Mexican nationals who died in the Arizona desert, will help draw attention to the plight of illegal immigrants and the need for workable immigration reform.

Annie Proulx & The Gourds

[caption id="attachment_8440" align="alignleft" width="190" caption="Annie Proulx. Photo by Gus Powell."][/caption]

Annie Proulx. Photo by Gus Powell.

A friend who knows I have a deep love for both the books of Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx and the music of The Gourds sent me a link to the NYTimes review of Proulx’s newly released memoir “Bird Cloud.”

In the review, Dwight Garner writes:

I like her abiding fondness — I share it — for an under-sung band out of Austin, Tex., called the Gourds. Ms. Proulx nails the lead singer Kevin Russell’s voice — it’s an original American instrument, in the moonshine-soaked vein of Levon Helms’s — as “like a graft of a carny hustler onto a Missouri River flatboat man, roaring about putting down his brown cow.” (Here’s one thing to do today: download the Gourds’ songs “Last Letter” and “Dying of the Pines.”)

Put me in a room with Brad Pitt, Bill Clinton, Martin Scorcese and Annie Proulx and I would make a beeline for Ms. Proulx. That’s how much I love her searing, brutal prose.

And so it was satisfying to find out that she too has an appreciation for The Gourds, who make music for the “unwashed and well-read.”

I have the fun good fortune of sometimes spotting members of The Gourds around town (In January, 2005, I saw Jimmy at the Quik Mart buying a six-pack. “How are you?” the cashier asked. “Just got back from the inaug-aug-augeration,” Jimmy slurred. The cashier rolled his eyes at the mumblings of a drunkard. I stifled a giggle, knowing The Gourds had indeed just played George W. Bush’s $40 million inaugural bash.)

But Annie Proulx, who lives in the far removes of Wyoming, can only be conjured in my imagination. However, after reading that NYTimes Review which revealed our shared musical taste, I was inspired to send Ms. Proulx’s literary agent an email asking if she would be willing to forward Ms. Proulx a missive from me, an aspiring writer and fan.

Her agent said she would indeed. And so a couple days ago I penned Annie Proulx a little letter. While I await a reply, I think I’ll put on a Gourds record and start reading “Bird Cloud.”

photo from The Gourds website.

Sculpture as Political Commentary

Rich Doty describes his work as visual commentary on the state of American life and politics. His work is like a good cartoon. He sculpts his commentaries in three dimensions, then he takes photos so those of us who can’t see the sculptures can still share the commentary and the laugh.

Rich Doty is a graphic artist who lives in Houston. I met him over 30 years ago when I lived there. He, his wife Sarah, an educator, and I were part of a young adult professionals group at a liberal mainline Protestant church. Every year since, I have looked for their Christmas card in the mail because it always made me laugh. Last year, he did a series of “Logos of the Season,” artfully designed. They included:

“Virgin Travel: Egyptian Get-Away Specials!”
“Roman Empire: Homeland Security, Messiah Division”
“Caspar, Mechior & Balthasar L.L.P.: Astronomical Forecast Modeling” and
“Expect a Miracle: The Yahweh Fertility Clinic.”

I was back in Houston at the end of September, and, when the three of us went to lunch, he showed me photos of his latest art work. I think Dog Canyon readers will get as much of a kick out of Rich’s work as I did that afternoon.

As an artist, he describes his work as visual commentary on the state of American life and politics, and “a million years ago” he studied at Texas Christian University to be a political cartoonist. Of the different direction Rich took, he says “I’m grateful for my job and it sucks,” which captures the paradox of working in corporate America today and the ironic tone of much of his art.

Though he went a different route, his work is like a good cartoon. He can capture a whole world of issues in one image. Unlike a cartoonist, he sculpts his commentaries in three dimensions, then he takes photos so those of us who can’t see the sculptures can still share the commentary and the laugh.

He got into sculpture when he went back for a Masters degree, following an urge to do something that was not commercial art: no standards, no customers, no compromise. His wife Sarah collaborates both as an inspiration for some of his ideas (like the one about education, below) and as a critical eye to whether or not they work.  After a short hiatus of a few years, he’s back at it and is working on a paranoid screen door.

A strong narrative line characterizes his sculptures and their ironic humor, and the title is key to the point. As Rich sends me photos, I’ll keep posting them here for the enjoyment of DC readers. I recommend not looking at them with a mouth full of coffee. You could hurt yourself choking while laughing.

When Cows Want to Sit
No Child Left Behind