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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”