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






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.
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World Party: The Dalai Lama and DogCanyon in Washington, D.C.

earthA few years ago I got to meet the Dalai Lama. My friend Jim Forbes, the extraordinary former senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, hosted a small event on political engagement with the world. As the Dalai Lama entered the church, he paused, turned and bowed to me, Margie, and daughter Katie. Smiling, we put our palms together in front of our eyes and bowed back. He smiled back at us like old friends, of which he has approximately 6.7 billion.

This week, DogCanyon heads for Washington, D.C., to attend a conference on education and world citizenship sponsored by the Dalai Lama’s Mind & Life Institute. The economy is forcing us all to focus on the near. Where’s the gain in thinking about the whole world, you ask? Unless we do, we might just lose the near that’s so dear to us.

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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.”

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Willie Wednesday – The Tao of Willie

TurkTao-WillieNobelityloresAfter lots of response to my Willie Nelson post last Wednesday, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the man every Wednesday (as Willie generally does on his XM Radio channel, Willie Wednesday). Might as well start with a bit of the intro to our book The Tao of Willie. So here is a little of what I’ve learned about – and from – Willie.

Willie Nelson is an American icon. His voice as comforting as the American landscape, his songs as familiar as the color of the sky, his face as worn as the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps that’s why we ought to add his face to the cliffs of Mt. Rushmore and be done with it.

He’s called an outlaw, though from Farm Aid to the aftermath of September 11, from the resurrection of a burned-out courthouse in his own hometown to fanning the flame of the Olympics, it is Willie Nelson who brings us together.

“If America could sing with one voice,” said Emmylou Harris, “it would be Willie’s.”

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Shoeshine Man — Back By Popular Demand

I can only conclude that he is made of something we could all use a great deal more of — laughter and love. American hero and visionary political leader Willie Nelson gives us all a great laugh… because we need one.

Willie's new chordYou asked for it, and here it is, with a bonus video on the jump (read more)! — Editors

Ha Ha – the joke’s on us. When you look at a news cycle that’s dominated by music video award scandals, by health care discussions driven by big money manipulation of small-minded politics (gee, I thought it was supposed to be about healthcare); by the murder of a pretty college girl whose tragic death will receive ten thousand times the coverage of a child dying of malnutrition every 6 seconds throughout the day, week and year; by deep division over whether it’s proper for an American President to speak to American school kids: by the demonization of immigrants by a nation of immigrants…And by the total absence of any mention of billions wasted, terrorism stoked and American and Afghan casualties in a war that offers nothing to win

When you look at a day that is our every day, in a time when words mean less than pictures, when volume trumps knowledge, when holding someone’s attention for 30 seconds is considered a success… When you… I’m sorry, I had an important conclusion but was interrupted by an email from a former friend about the Speaker of the House being the spawn of aliens and goats…

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