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 Rise (or Fall) of the Clarksville’s Last Holdout Corner Lot

The past and a vision of the future. Photo by Mary Lowry.

When I was four years old and first moved to Clarksville, a couple of teachers would’ve most likely been able to afford a mortgage on a small house in the neighborhood. These days a little 1300 square foot bungalow goes on the market for half a million dollars. Heck, I wouldn’t be able to stay in Clarksville if I wasn’t willing to live in 300 square feet of rented heaven.

My awareness that I would not be able to pay even property taxes on a tiny house in the area of town I fell in love with as a kid caused me to develop a deep affection for Clarksville’s last undeveloped corner lot. I’ve been admiring it for years, as it sat unchanged and boldly defying gentrification.

I noticed when the only structure on the lot–a little wooden shack– was joined by a practically capacious RV. The addition seemed to fit and the lot continued to remind me of the bedraggled houses, children and dogs that occupied the Clarksville of my childhood.

So it was with dismay that, while out for a walk the other day, I spotted the sign warning of the imminent transformation of Clarksville’s last holdout corner lot.

The lot’s future? The shed, the RV, the trees, all will be razed or removed to make way for the Four Luxury Townhouses of Woodlawn Plaza.

But who am I, a lowly little renter, to deny such progress?

Why Clarksville?

In order to understand the macrocosm of the history and culture of Texas, it’s important to understand the state on a microcosmic level as well.

That’s why examining the past and present of my favorite Texas neighborhood, Central Austin’s Clarksville. I’ve lived in Clarksville, on-and-off, for the past 29 years.

Clarksville sits a short 25-minute walk from the Texas state capitol.

A freedman’s colony after the Civil War; a shabby, eclectic middle class neighborhood during the years of my childhood; Clarksville is now gentrified, mostly white, and full of quirky, thriving local businesses.

Magical Night Burnout


Photo by John Markalunas.

When I worked as a forest firefighter on the Pike Hotshot Crew, we lit backfires to stop the main fire in its tracks. We often did these “burnouts” during night shifts because the cooler temperatures and higher relative humidity lowered the risk that the fire we lit would jump our fireline and burn out of control.

To learn more about my pal John Markalunas, the firefighter/photographer who took this picture of two Pikers lighting a midnight burnout, click HERE.

Shoot a Real Machine Gun!


Shoot a Real Machine Gun. Photo by Mary Lowry.

On a layover yesterday at the Las Vegas airport, the slot machines, advertisements for a chance to shoot a real machine gun, and overload of rhinestone bling on women’s sandals and hair accoutrement made me so queasy I was tempted to pay $16.99 for 10 minutes at the Airport’s Oxygen Bar to revive myself. I was careful not to miss my plane out of there. Viva Las Vegas!
Slot Machines. Photo by Mary Lowry

The San Antonio Missions

Since I moved here in November, I have appreciated that Seattle offers some amazingly diverse subject matter for photography.  Whether I am in the mood for urban street scenes or rocky beaches or temperate lowland forests, I can find a new place to explore from behind my lens every day.  That is, every day that it isn’t raining.  After two weeks of pretty much straight overcast and gloom, I found myself thinking about a photography trip I took to San Antonio last September.  My plan was to stay for five days and photograph as much as I possibly could, rain or shine.  So rain or shine, mostly rain, I went out every day, knowing I would enjoy seeing this history-rich city whether I got any strong shots or not.  Each time I set out to travel to one of the historic missions, the sun would shine and the clouds would let enough bright blue sky through to make mental shots I took in transit so stunning that my adrenaline pumped for fear that I would miss the opening by the time I arrived.  Crossing my fingers that the sun would stay, I rushed into the parking lot.  Every time and more specifically, five times, as I pulled in to the parking lot for each mission, the clouds would come together like they had just had the sudden realization that I was some naughty neighbor kid trying to sneak a peek at their lacy undergarments. The rain would pour as I would hide my camera under my coat, sometimes led on down the sidewalk by groups of stray-looking, soaked to the bone dogs. Yet, as I approached each mission, the clouds seemed to understand that I was there to genuinely appreciate the moment and to respect these stunning Spanish sanctuaries.  Abruptly, the fluffy white clouds would turn dark around the edges, would open up to blue sky in and allow the wet sidewalk to become a mirror for the arches and domes above. Continue reading “The San Antonio Missions”

Painting with Lights from the 18 Hours of Fruita Race

Through the icy blackness, riders circled Highline Lake in Western Colorado for the 18 Hours of Fruita mountain bike race. Starting at midnight, the racers in teams of four, two or solo road the seven mile course their headlamps blazing little tunnels of light burning a path through the night down the single track trail. With the slow lifting of the dark six hours later, the most visually compelling part of the race was over, but only the first third of their adventure was completed.

All photos created during the hours of midnight and six AM at the 2010 18 Hours of Fruita Mountain Bike Race by Dave Grossman.