Compassion Works. So Does Anger

Grounds of Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center

Colum­nists tour Tibetan Mon­go­lian Bud­dhist Cul­tural Cen­ter in Bloom­ing­ton, Ind. Photo by Christy Pollock

BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Sat­ur­day night, July 10, 2010 — The learnin’ part of the Sat­ur­day por­tion of the annual con­fer­ence of the National Soci­ety of News­pa­per Colum­nists ended at noon, unless you’re a colum­nist (pub­lished or not). The usual field trip either can be writ­ten about or learned from. Lunch and and tour this time were both, a visit to the Tibetan Mon­go­lian Bud­dhist Cul­tural Center.

• • •

The hour “On Cre­ativ­ity” fea­tured not a writer but a vet­eran jazz com­poser and musi­cian, David Baker, chair of IU’s jazz stud­ies depart­ment. He was right, the chops of cre­ativ­ity are about the same for any of us.

Baker has three rules, and they seem to come from the moti­va­tional world.

  1. From a late pas­tor, A.W. Tozer: “Time is a resource that is non­re­new­able and non­trans­fer­able. You can­not store it, slow it up, hold it up, divide it up or give it up. You can’t hoard it up or save it for a rainy day — when it’s lost it’s unre­cov­er­able. When you kill time, remem­ber that it has no resurrection.”
  2. Excel­lence is not an acci­dent. It comes from hard work and vision.”
  3. A rid­dle: “I’m your con­stant com­pan­ion,” and con­tin­ues with good and bad traits, such as “I will push you onward or drag you down to fail­ure.” and ends, “Who am I? I am habit.” Good advice from “author unknown,” but it’s office-poster copy.

Baker says he needs a dead­line for com­pos­ing. He finds word games help­ful, he’s espe­cially fond of ana­grams, as they keep his mind sharp even musi­cally. “Com­pose at a reg­u­lar time. in a reg­u­lar place, have all nec­es­sary mate­ri­als at hand.” “I don’t get locked in any sin­gle ele­ment. Ana­grams help in this. The goal is to state what you’re intend­ing with the great­est pos­si­ble econ­omy. Ana­grams help me see things from dif­fer­ent angles, to find the best one, to find an unusual one.” “I’ve writ­ten over a thou­sand pieces; that’s not an over­es­ti­mate. Some were awful and thank good­ness have never been performed.”

Another good quote that Baker recited, and I didn’t catch its author, “Any music that is not heard live is doomed to extinction.”

Baker men­tions he teaches a course on Duke Elling­ton. At the Q&A, I noted that Elling­ton and Pyle were con­tem­po­raries, com­ing into promi­nence in the 1930s, and ask how he makes Elling­ton rel­e­vant in 2010 to non-music majors and non-jazz fans, which we could use with Pyle, increas­ingly obscure with time.

To teach Elling­ton, it helps to show what was con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous with Elling­ton at the time. What we know and what is less known of those times. He didn’t live in isolation.”

• • •

The colum­nists couldn’t con­vene in Ernie Pyle’s home state and his home uni­ver­sity with­out a panel on the renown news­man. Lauri Lebo is research­ing a book on Pyle’s life in the 1930s — before the World War II writ­ing that engraved his name in his­tory. Owen John­son, an IU pro­fes­sor, is a long­time Pyle scholar. Mod­er­at­ing was long­time NSNC mem­ber Mike Harden.

They reviewed Pyle’s life. John­son has a solid bio­graph­i­cal essay online. In the 1930s Pyle trav­eled the coun­try with his wife and wrote columns on small-town Amer­ica. The pan­elists had a fun word for these pieces, “vagabondage.” I have a book of these, and they recall CBS cor­re­spon­dent Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road.” But Kuralt died 13 years ago. That’s three gen­er­a­tions of jour­nal­ism majors who didn’t see him on TV.

The best fea­ture of the hour was receiv­ing a copy of a col­lec­tion Harden co-edited, On a Wing and a Prayer: The Avi­a­tion Columns of Ernie Pyle, 1928–32. I read them on the return to Arkansas. I’d grown a lit­tle tired of the NSNC patron saint and his halo, but these pieces were a rev­e­la­tion. Ernie Pyle in his war columns had occa­sional wit, but a dozen years ear­lier he could be down­right funny, even snarky.

• • •

An authen­tic buf­fet awaited us at the Tibetan-Mongolian Bud­dhist Cul­tural Cen­ter: Mo-mos (dumplings), chicken and veg­e­tar­ian, fra­grant rice, mar­i­nated cab­bage salad. A local woman, Dawa, dressed in native cos­tume, touch­ingly sang tra­di­tional songs a capella (not on pur­pose but the CD player wouldn’t work), and the center’s direc­tor, Arjia Rin­poche, explained the cen­ter and the monastery else­where on the 108-acre grounds.

Also speak­ing was a cen­ter board mem­ber, Elaine Irwin-Mellencamp, wife of rock star John Mel­len­camp. They live with their chil­dren in Bloom­ing­ton. She and Rin­poche sum­ma­rized the prin­ci­ples of Bud­dhism (com­pas­sion and wis­dom) and how a major cen­ter for Tibetan cul­ture and Bud­dhism ended up in south-central Indi­ana. Well, it was founded by the eldest brother of His Holi­ness the Dalai Lama. Thubten J. Norbu (1922–2008) was a pro­fes­sor at Indi­ana University.

The rin­poche (no mere monk but a high-level, recognized-in-childhood, rein­car­nated lama) also gave a short auto­bi­og­ra­phy. Ear­lier this year, Rodale Books pub­lished his mem­oir, Sur­viv­ing the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama’s Account of 40 Years under Chi­nese Rule. I’m halfway through it, and it’s a fast read, and sad. He stayed in China-controlled Tibet for years longer than other Tibetans (most of whom fled to India), which helped the peo­ple greatly but put him in dan­ger many times.

We ate in the library of the cen­ter, of which one cor­ner is a Bud­dhist alter, then had a walk­ing tour, past prayer wheels (one solar-powered), two stu­pas (shrines), end­ing at the monastery, whose major room down­stairs was a tem­ple. No pews, folks, floor pads and just a few chairs, and by the way leave your shoes on the low shelves at the door on enter­ing. The alter is stun­ning, full of two– and three-dimensional reli­gious pieces. Nearby on two dis­plays are holy books and rit­ual objects of major reli­gions, whose spir­i­tual lead­ers helped ded­i­cate the monastery not that many years ago.

Some col­leagues have put their insights on the cen­ter and over­all con­fer­ence in columns and blogs, many of which can be found at a spe­cial page at Columnists.com. The page is being updated as new blogs and columns come in, and will be archived indefinitely.

• • •

Besides the Sit­ting Duck award, which goes the easy col­umn sub­ject or tar­get of the past year, the annual ugly tie award went to the same entity to BP.

The Sit­ting Duck specif­i­cally went to BP exec­u­tives over their han­dling of their oil spew in the Gulf of Mex­ico. As the press release noted, “In this year’s case, the Sit­ting Duck is like shoot­ing fish in an oil barrel.”

The Kramer Mys­tic Tie Award is named after Jeff Kramer, whose left-behind neck­tie at an NSNC con­fer­ence in 198-something in Mys­tic, Conn., was mounted on a plaque. The con­test is announced by the pre­vi­ous year’s win­ner, who gives a topic for which colum­nists have 24 hours to write its open­ing paragraph.

This year, 2009 win­ner Smi­ley Anders of the Baton Rouge (La.) Advo­cate pro­vided the set-up: “BP has a fool­proof way to stop its oil gusher.” The win­ner was Brian O’Connor of The Detroit News, who explained the best cap for the leak has turned out to be a truck load of the pillow-sized, anatom­i­cally cor­rect (well, not the col­ors), Peru­vian fair-trade pup­pets, one of which was shown to us Fri­day by researcher and blog­ger Debby Her­benick of the Kin­sey Institute.

• • •

There’s two kinds of speeches deliv­ered by recip­i­ents of the annual Ernie Pyle Life­time Achieve­ment Award, older-professional to younger-professional tips and what news­room vet­er­ans call war sto­ries, the lat­ter being jour­nal­ists explain­ing how they won or lost major scoops, the odder the bet­ter. The best are a combination.

Our 2010 win­ner, Carl Hiaasen of The Miami Her­ald (not to men­tion best-selling writer of humor­ous mys­tery nov­els) did both. He accented “war sto­ries.” How could he not, being a Florid­ian? (“You can have any kind of a home you want. You can even get stucco. Oh, how you can get stucco. … Florida, folks, land of per­pet­ual sun­shine. Let’s get the auc­tion started before we have a tor­nado.”) — Grou­cho Marx’s char­ac­ter, The Cocoanuts, 1929)

One thing I’ve come to admire in Hiaasen’s books, whether adult or juve­nile, are his manly men. Huh? His pro­tag­o­nists, and I say this as a straight guy, are hunks, rem­i­nis­cent of the witty and deci­sive guys like Ray­mand Chandler’s Philip Mar­lowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. I love the Michael Chabons of our gen­er­a­tion, but the men are too much like me, wimpy, with page upon page of won­der­ing what to do. Hiaasen heroes just do it. May screw it up, but they up and do.

I men­tioned that to Hiaasen, and he shrugged. That view was new to him, he said. He works hard to ensure his heroes have seri­ous flaws. Well they do, but they’re still not sissies.

Hiaasen, 57, was a reporter then had a metro col­umn that ran sev­eral times a week. Now it runs just on Sun­days, and he writes from home.

I don’t know how any­one stays fresh as a colum­nist with­out wak­ing up each morn­ing with a feel­ing of injus­tice, of anger. We have [plenty of] mate­r­ial.” “I think it’s good to be angry. … News­rooms were excit­ing, the smoke, the energy. … Now they’re like mor­tu­ar­ies. I’m glad I don’t have to go in any­more.” “Stay pissed off. That’s my best advice. It’s what I tell stu­dents. It’s not hard.”

I do believe in karma. Colum­nists can do good, even if we feel we’re not reach­ing any­one, maybe you are, it [may be just] one per­son.” “Jimmy Bres­lin said, ‘The worst sin for a news writer, is to be bor­ing.’ With south Florida, I don’t have that excuse, though I have been bor­ing some­times.” “You have a duty to your read­ers to do your best.” Effec­tive columns can have dif­fer­ent frames: “You can write a scathing satir­i­cal col­umn or a soap­box rant or just focus on one lit­tle guy [and how he was vic­tim­ized].” “A colum­nist is a vir­tu­oso. Not every piece is a mas­ter­piece. I do think it’s the Lord’s work, and I don’t talk like that lightly.”

Along the topic of news­pa­pers weak­en­ing, often appar­ently at the hands of short-term cor­po­rate own­ers who don’t under­stand their cus­tomers’ true wants and needs, Hiaasen said, “If you don’t do any­thing bad, you can out­last these bas­tards.” “You become more impor­tant to the com­mu­nity, the longer you go. Some news­pa­pers dump colum­nists, and they live to regret it. The colum­nist is a fran­chise. It doesn’t mat­ter the size of the com­mu­nity. It’s a voice that you can’t find in any other medium.”

Asked he how does both columns and nov­els, he said, “For me, it’s ther­apy. If I didn’t write satires, I’d take a rifle up into a tower.” “The advice I’d been given is, and it’s true: ‘Ass in chair,’” refer­ring to a daily writ­ing sched­ule, not wait­ing for inspi­ra­tion. “You go home [from work, in the years when he was in a news­room] and write. That’s it. No, it’s not easy on the fam­ily.” “Novel-writing uses a dif­fer­ent mus­cle than columns, 100,000 to 120,000 words ver­sus 700, 800 words.

What began his envi­ron­men­tal focus? “I can’t show my kids where I played. Those places are gone, they’re park­ing lots or worse.” “The [BP] spill is an atroc­ity against the planet, a crim­i­nal atrocity.”

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