The Fall to Earth

Ten years later the hallucinogenic events of September 11, 2001, remain enigmatic and nightmare-like. There is no shared, uniform view because our experiences of that day are so disparate. There weren’t four planes, there were 300 million of them, and they slammed into our minds, not just our collective psyche (if there is such a thing), but into each of us.

Whatever else 9/11 is, it is an extraordinarily personal trauma. It comes to consciousness within its own hall of mirrors, images and thoughts appearing un-summoned and then disappearing before they are neatly understood.

It is the day we fell to earth, and with that thought my mind leaps and I’m in a limo on a New Mexico highway with David Bowie’s alien in Nicolas Roeg’s film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. I glance out the window at a white horse that seems winged as it glides beside our car. Like Bowie’s character, Thomas Jerome Newton, I ride the horse into memory fields as the song from The Fantasticks, “Try to Remember,” whispers like the ghost of irony on the soundtrack.

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow
Try to remember the time of September
When love was an ember about to billow
Try to remember and if you remember
Then follow, follow.

The Fantasticks? It’s a musical about two fathers who pretend to hate each other to trick their son and daughter into pursuing forbidden love, a conspiracy among modern Capulets and Montagues to marry Juliet and Romeo. Like I said, the thoughts come unbidden. Maybe I’m thinking about the destructive power of manipulation, about the arrogant and terrible fools who toy with the hearts of others out of their own ambitions.

Continue reading “The Fall to Earth”

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:



I May End Up At The Poop Deck

I recently made a trip to Galveston. I love some Texas Coast, and I had never visited the most notorious of Texas wharf towns.

Each summer my daughter and I try to have some sort of water holiday before AISD takes over our lives and, if we were Libertarians, our Freedom. Since things have been kind of rough this summer in that  I have been  broke more often than not, we had a one night’s stay in Galveston, for which I begged for state rate.

But that one night at the Hotel Galvez provided a magical 28 hours…
There was the saltwater pool of my daughter’s dreams.  Ample time spent in the ocean (technically bay??) waves.  An expectation to eat fried fish twice a day.  And then….

The Poop Deck

The Poop Deck, a second story bar looking overlooking the seawall, was the setting for my Vacation Epiphany Moment.   You know how sometimes, when you get out of town and you are actually really relaxed, you have a realization that brings a sense of tranquility and optimism to your overall outlook?

My realization was that I could end up at the Poop Deck…

And it would be sort of bitching.

I could sling domestics and breathe in salty gulf air. I could look out at the ocean any time. I could wear outfits that were really pushing it for my age. I could drink on the job.

My Poop Deck epiphany has offered me a strange solace. I tend to worry about  never finding a life partner or not having another child. I’m pretty clear that Social Security will be gone when I’m old, and, even with compound interest, my retirement savings will most likely be a pittance.

But sitting on the balcony of the Poop Deck, drinking a Lone Star and staring at the sea, gave me the enchanting option of ending up in a gritty, pretty place, with plenty of canned beer and Texan coastal culture.

And it would be sort of bitching.

Immigrants, legal and otherwise, fuel Texas economy, job growth

The Washington Post cites several studies indicating that immigrants, both legal and illegal, account for a good bit of the job growth in Texas. Also, they put more into the state’s budget than is spent on services. So, immigration is a net gain all around.

This isn’t likely to change the minds of the bigots, though. They live in a zero sum universe. If someone of slightly different appearance is driving a nice car, they assume it’s a nice car that should be their own but isn’t because the undeserving person of slightly disappearance got it through theft or government hand-out.

Here’s the story.

Here’s how WPost’s Ezra Klein summed it up:

So Texas, with its booming economy, may have more to benefit from with its large immigrant population, both illegal and illegal. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all states would immediately benefit from a big influx of immigrant workers.

Happy Birthday, Annie Proulx!

Annie Proulx @ 2008 by PEN American Center/Beowolf Sheehan

Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) was born on this day in 1935. Proulx’s first novel Postcards was published when Proulx was 58 years old. So if any of you mid-life folks are feeling like it’s too late to try something new, please consider Annie Proulx as a refutation of that idea, as well as an inspiration.

To read/listen to Annie Proulx tell a story at the 2008 PEN World Voices Festival, click HERE.

Adventure and Art: A Manifesto for Women and Grrrls

I believe grrrls and women should have adventures. And we should have the opportunity to experience the adventures of other grrrls and women through books, film, music and visual arts.

Too many times we have read books and watched films about a man or boy having an adventure while a woman sits at home and waits for him. In movies like LEGENDS OF THE FALL, the male protagonist (in this case Tristan, played by Brad Pitt) travels the world having adventures and sex in opium dens while his true love sits at home on the Tristan’s front porch and waits for his return.

In books like Paul Coehlo’s THE ALCHEMIST, the spiritually seeking man (in this case, the protagonist Santiago) goes on an odyssey while his true love, the woman in the desert, stays in the desert unmoving, unchanging until Santiago’s return.

Which brings us to the word “odyssey” itself, a word derived from the name of the adventurous Odysseus who went to war and traveled the world for twenty years, while his wife Penelope stayed at home.

And even in contemporary books with female protagonists written by women, the big choice for the young woman often remains as uninteresting as “Should I chose the werewolf or the vampire to be my boyfriend?”


We as women and girls can’t just demand more interesting and engaging female characters. We have waited too long already. And there’s no guarantee the male dominated film industry or the imploding-as-we-speak publishing or music industries will listen. We have to write the books and—if necessary—publish them ourselves. We must write the scripts and storm Hollywood with them and—if necessary—make the movies ourselves. We must write the albums and–if necessary—record them ourselves. We must paint the paintings and—if necessary—show them ourselves.

We will no longer stand for stories that offer no more than the woman who waits on the front porch or in the desert, who plays the auxiliary wife of the man of action. We will no longer compliantly consume such art; we will, at the very least, take notice of the messages such art contains.

Statistics about women in artistic industries are daunting.

Only 30% of producers of major motion pictures are women. Only 10% of screenwriters of major motion pictures are women. Only 4% of directors of major motion pictures are women.

In the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, only 3.5% of the works of art on display are by female artists.

The publishing industry seems anomalous in this regard. Female editors and agents dominate the publishing industry. And most book buyers, book group members, and literary bloggers are women. And yet, to quote Lakshmi Chaudry “the gods of the literary…remain predominately male–both as writers and critics.”

From 1921-2006, only 31 % of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction were awarded to women.

Females easily make up 50% of published fiction writers; and yet in the New York Times article “What is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Past 25 Years?” of the 26 books mentioned, only 2 of them were written by women. (Writers of color are radically underrepresented in this article as well).

Does this mean women aren’t writing as well as men? Hardly. But it does mean their work does not receive the awards and acclaim more often bestowed upon their male counterparts.

Female fronted rock bands and female hip hop artists are still notable for their gender because rock and hip hop are also still male-dominated art forms.

These statistics and realities are daunting. But we will not spend too much time bitching about them; we will not become paralyzed by our complaints. We will instead notice them, pay attention to them; we will use our anger about them to drive dynamic and positive change. We will make that change ourselves.

Nicki Minaj

We don’t ask permission (or at least not for long). We write the stories, the songs, the films. We paint the paintings. We record or publish or film them ourselves if need be. We throw our own art openings. We open our own gallery spaces.

Like Ani Difranco, we start our own record label, Righteous Babe Records, and sell our music out of the trunk of our car until our records and our label take off. And we will go on to write, record and release more than 20 albums on our own label, maintaining our artistic freedom even as we garner attention and acclaim.

Like Kathleen Hannah (former lead singer of Bikini Kill) we start the underground punk rock Riot Grrrl movement even though, “punk rock is for and by boys.” We express our collective anger and joy loudly, for all the grrrls too afraid to do so themselves.

Like Nicki Minaj, we quit our 9-5 office job—despite the disappointment it causes our mother–to work on our lyrics full-time and push our career as a hip hop artist. And we write songs that say:

In this very moment I’m king/In this very moment I slayed Goliath with a sling… I wish that I could have this moment 4 life/4 life, 4 life/’Cause in this moment, I just feel so alive/alive, alive

Like Amanda Hocking, we publish our own books and make them available on our blog until the sheer buying power of our fan base drives the publishing industry to us.

Like Shauna Cross, we become a roller girl; and then we write a novel about it called DERBY GIRL; and then we write the screenplay adaptation of the novel, which becomes WHIP IT, the first movie directed by Drew Barrymore, a female actor brave enough to take the reins and make her own film.

The internet and social networking have brought down the barriers that once existed between art and audience; they have rendered the gatekeepers much less relevant than they have ever been before. And so we create our work; and we take responsibility for putting it out into the world so that our audience can find it.

But most of all we keep having adventures ourselves.

We don’t ask for permission to be granted by our fathers, our mothers, our lovers, our brothers, our husbands, our wives, our bosses, or friends. Or even from our sisters, who sometimes worry and so might like to have us sequestered from harm.

We go out into the world and live. We run through rain forests at night; and swim in oceans; and kayak; and when we run out of money, we take the ferry from Seattle to Alaska where we wait tables at the Princess Hotel and ride our mountain bikes under the midnight sun. We busk on the streets in Bosnia. We work as cops in Palmer Lake, Colorado. We teach a boy to read or a girl to play the guitar. We give birth to or adopt a child. We take a call on the National Domestic Violence Hotline. We go to physical therapy school. We support the art other women make; we buy extra copies of books and albums we love; we give them to our friends as gifts.

We say, “You are talented.”

We say, “You can do it.”

We say, “Yes it can be done.”

We say this to ourselves. We say this to each other.

And then we use our adventures to fuel our art and we share our art with others; to show them the way; to let them know that they are not alone. And so women and girls can see that with or without permission our art and our lives will flourish. Our art and our lives will not be stifled by the music or publishing or film industries or by gallery owners or well-meaning loved ones.

We are women and girls; and we will make our art and have our adventures; and we will support each other.

If this manifesto spoke to you, please shared it with a friend.

An Even More Modest Proposal

The Ourorboros

Jonathon Swift went too far in his “A Modest Proposal” (1729) when he proposed the eating of human children as a solution to Ireland’s economic woes and the plight of the hungry poor. If we were looking for a solution to our own economic crisis that might be acceptable to more people, and so better suited to a democracy, wouldn’t it be efficacious to simply let the hungry youngsters starve to death?

There are 12 million hungry children in America. Statistics on the cost of raising and educating children in America (including private and public spending) show we will spend more than $2 trillion – that’s $2 trillion – on these 12 million insatiable mouths. (Because we are talking about kids in hunger, I’ve discounted by 75 percent the middle class average cost of raising a child.)

Think of the savings. Two trillion dollars! And we could add to these savings the wealth the children would consume as adults if they survived. We could cut public transportation, prisons, welfare, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare! The mind boggles. We simply replace the inefficient safety net with a safety scaffold, so to speak.

Basing his argument on Tertullian’s satiric masterpiece, the Apology, Swift unfairly exaggerated the depravity of those of great wealth and power. Tertullian said, “Man’s flesh goes belching, fattened on man’s flesh.” But that’s an impolite image, and it challenges the nettlesome taboo against cannibalism. We could erase that taboo with a focused advertising campaign, I’m sure. But that would cost money. This Even More Modest Proposal saves money and asks of us only a certain passivity and inaction.

Continue reading “An Even More Modest Proposal”

Is Rick Perry Channeling Phil Gramm – – or Clayton Williams?

Yipee ki yay… Mo-fo. Rick Perry is in!

He’s FED UP! and he’s come out swinging. He’s attacking Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Social Security and Medicare, anyone who is anti-business or anti-Jesus, and now – – Ben Bernanke.

The national press loves to fall in love, and Perry had a nice 72-hour honeymoon before his shoot-from-the-lip style, which works in Amarillo, Abilene and around Austin, backfired with Bernanke. Bigtime.

Comparisons with George W. Bush from pundits who want to sound like they know Texas politics were inevitable, but everyone in Texas knew they were never worth much. Bush is an Ivy Leaguer whose grandfather was a senator from Connecticut. Perry is a genuine Texas Aggie from genuinely small-town Texas.

If you want to understand Perry, you have to understand Texas A&M. The macho swagger of that school is really the essence of who Perry is. Perry comes from my part of Texas, and I’ve known him for 25 years. I covered the Texas House during his time as a state lawmaker, and in those days we all saw the Aggie mystique play out two distinct ways in two Texas political legends: Phil Gramm and Clayton Williams.

Gramm, who recruited Perry to the GOP, was Perry’s economics professor. Always the opportunist, Gramm leaped last week at the chance to endorse Perry, who barely passed his class (principles of economics) with a D, according to those pesky college transcripts.

Perry learned more than supply-side economics from Gramm, who was about the toughest and meanest campaigner Texas had in his day. Gramm was an unabashed conservative whose strong suit was red meat for the base. He was known for ideas that could be outside even the conservative mainstream, and he never backed down. In fact, when challenged, Gramm habitually would “double down” – – surprise you by embracing something you might expect him to downplay or qualify. It’s a political trick Perry adopted and has used effectively in Texas.

Continue reading “Is Rick Perry Channeling Phil Gramm – – or Clayton Williams?”