Turk and Christy Pipkin made the decision of a lifetime at their breakfast table in Austin not long after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Turk, a successful writer, actor and comedian, had been asking himself big questions about life and purpose in middle age. Christy, recently diagnosed with breast cancer, was thinking about time and the future of their two young daughters.
"I came to realize, looking back at 20 years of writing for network and cable television, that there were only four hours out of a hundred that I cared about at all," says Turk, who has written 10 books of fiction and nonfiction in addition to his TV work. "Christy and I talked a lot. And finally, I just said: Look. Let's not make anything, ever again, that we don't care about."
The Pipkins made the pact. Then they made a movie — "Nobelity," released in 2006 — that sent Turk around the world to engage nine Nobel Prize laureates in socially conscious discussions about war, pollution, social injustice and poverty. The film, inspired by the Pipkins' concern for their children's future in an era of global crisis, conveyed the earnest message that there is no hope without compassion and knowledge and a commitment to act in the name of larger humanity.
Building on the message of their movie, Turk and Christy Pipkin produced a follow-up documentary in 2009, "One Peace at a Time," which champions every child's fundamental right to water, shelter, nutrition, education and peace. (There's a "One Peace" DVD release party at Waterloo Records on Friday.) The Pipkins have also founded a nonprofit, the Nobelity Project, devoted to humanitarian causes abroad and educational outreach programs at home.
Turk Pipkin has set aside his career as a humorist to become a jet-setting, multitasking, filmmaking, bridge-building humanitarian, inseparable from the portable computer that connects him with friends in India, Ethiopia, Morocco and Bangladesh. He's just returned from Africa, where the Nobelity Project has pledged $250,000 toward the construction of the Mahiga Hope High School in rural Kenya. After an April 11 Nobelity Project fundraiser at the Four Seasons — where donors can share a dinner honoring singer Willie Nelson in the company of director Richard Linklater, University of Texas Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg and actor Billy Bob Thornton, among many others — Pipkin is off to Haiti. He'd love to partner with larger aid groups to build some schools there, too.
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Christy Pipkin, the executive director of the Nobelity Project and its chief fundraiser, also runs the education wing of the program, screening its two feature films at middle schools and high schools, civic clubs and houses of worship across Texas. Katie and Lily Pipkin, who provided the inspiration for the original "Nobelity" movie, are now completely invested in the project's credo — which is, in essence, "seeking a path that connects you to the world in a bigger way."
"We're all wrapped up — Americans in general, I think — in lives and priorities that don't make us happy," says Turk Pipkin, a San Angelo native whose life story before "Nobelity" included chapters as a UT street mime, a juggler, a stand-up comedian, a novelist, a writer for the 1980s TV series "Night Court" and a recurring guest star on "The Sopranos." "We drive around in our cars, communicate on our electronic devices, wake up in our big houses and say, 'I wonder where my family is?'
"Willie Nelson says in our second movie: 'Right and wrong is not that hard — it's what you choose to do.' And I think that's what happens in your life. When you start making good choices, good things follow."
Christy Pipkin grew up in a large Catholic family — she was the eighth of nine children, born in Austin — with a large social conscience. "My parents were politically active and pointedly anti-racist," she says. "We walked together in protest marches, candlelight vigils. It's the way we grew up."
W. Don Ellinger, Christy's father, helped organize labor unions in Dallas in the 1940s and 1950s and worked in the U.S. Justice Department for Attorney General Robert Kennedy in Washington in the 1960s. Her mother, Ruth Ellinger, was once the education director of the Texas AFL-CIO.
"My father was a classic rabble-rouser," says Christy. "We'd come to the dinner table and then he'd go 'round and say, 'What did you do for the world today?' And you had to actually answer that question ... to his satisfaction ... which, on some days, when you're 8 years old, was a little challenging."
The Ellinger family's idealism is clearly evident in the "Nobelity" films, the Nobelity challenge. The film "One Peace at a Time" could just as easily be called "What Did You Do for the World Today?" in the way it celebrates any individual who takes a small step to make the world a better place, whether the subject is Muhammad Yunus and the power of microcredit or the grass-roots effort to halt the U.S. production of cluster bombs.
"There is a sense of '60s sensibility, if you want to call it that, that definitely colors our work," says Christy, who worked as an independent music and event producer — and as a dance instructor — before the pact to film "Nobelity." "It's the lens through which we see things. 'Yes, there is possibility.'
"What we see as our contribution, socially, is to tell inspiring stories," says Christy, whose organization celebrates — and at the same time collaborates with — the Austin-based Miracle Foundation, A Glimmer of Hope Foundation and Architecture for Humanity. "And the need for inspiration is endless. The physical needs in the world are deep and wide. So our contribution is based on sparking people's willingness, their own commitment, to take a first or next step — without carrying the burden of it being an impossible task. ... It all goes back to what Desmond Tutu said in 'Nobelity': 'The sea is made up of drops of water.' And we are those drops of water."
As delicate March light streams though the windows of his Austin home, Turk Pipkin sits at the kitchen table with his wife and daughters while tapping out e-mails to members of his global family in Kenya. He's deeply focused on a Nobelity Project-sponsored undertaking called 1,000 Voices for Hope — the construction of Mahiga Hope High School and a library in rural Kenya. Willie Nelson, Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks and Lyle Lovett, high-profile friends of the Pipkins, were the first to make financial contributions to the project.
Turk has gravel on his mind. It has been raining in Kenya. The rains have washed out the road. So Turk must engineer the purchase of gravel — at least six truckloads — so the road can be sufficiently fortified to allow construction supplies to make it through. The community has already done its part, digging trenches and clearing land at the construction site with picks and shovels.
"People sometimes ask us, 'Why these kids?'" says Christy, considering the international emphasis of the Nobelity projects. "I say, 'Why not these kids?' It's personal for us. ... These kids go to school till the eighth grade, and that's it. If we don't build this school, it's either back to the field or back to the fire. "
Turk, who first met the Mahiga children during the filming of "Nobelity," carries the thought further: "We know we're not going to change Kenya. But this work is going to create real possibility and hope for all these kids. ... They are children who are eager to learn. They know this school is an opportunity for them. It's not like, 'I'm going to school because I have to go to school.' When they get that opportunity, their commitment is big-time. Their family's commitment is big-time. To them, it's still joyful: the idea of being in school, being in class, writing on a blackboard."
After so many years as a professional jokester, forever cracking wise, Turk is nothing but earnest when talking about the world's underprivileged children. There are pictures of children throughout his Austin home. In the kitchen, on the refrigerator, in the living room: photos of children from the "Nobelity" movies, photos of children the Pipkin family supports through the Miracle Foundation.
Katie Pipkin, who filmed with her father in Ethiopia and Ecuador for "One Peace at a Time," sees a clear difference in him as a result of the "Nobelity" experience.
"There was a marked change in you when you came back from India," Katie, now 19 and a budding painter in the UT art school, says to her father at the kitchen table. "I remember when you said to me, 'I'm never going to be the same.'"
True, says Turk. "There's a tendency, though, for people to think what changes you is when you see, in India, the starving baby — or the baby sitting in its own urine on the street. It's one of the first things I saw in India, and it sticks with you. There's no 'un-knowing' after that. You can't go back.
"But I think what sticks with you more is the overall humanity, how much the human spirit is not dependent on material things. People are always remarking how the children in these movies are smiling, when it looks like they're living in terrible conditions. And I'm not sure I have an explanation for that."
A few years before the conception of "Nobelity," Christy Pipkin was playing with her young daughters in a sandpile when a pair of young women, door-to-door evangelists, walked up to their house. The adults chatted cordially for a time.
"Who is your spiritual inspiration?" one of the evangelists asked Christy at one point. Spontaneously, Christy looked at her daughters — Katie was only 7 then, and Lily was 3 — and said, "There. Right there."
"Their reaction was, like, 'Cool!'" Christy recalls with a laugh. "They thought about it for a minute, said, 'OK, that works for me; have a great day,' and headed on down the road. But I realized at that point that statement was absolutely true for me — that what I chose to do in my home and beyond was all about what I saw reflected in those beautiful children."
Turk Pipkin admires the ambitious dream of Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child in the world. Yet in the more achievable spirit of "Nobelity," he often finds himself dreaming, "Why not one good book for every child in the world?"
The Pipkins, with the help of Austin Eagle Scout James Parker, have begun to run with this idea in Central Texas schools, calling it 1,000 Books for Hope. The pitch: Pick a book — one that's special to you — and donate it to the effort. And to keep it personal: Write a note in the front to someone on the other side of the globe about the book's meaning.
"The fact that everyone has to pick one book is very important," says Lily Pipkin, 15, who is working to launch the project at Westlake High School. "A lot of people might have boxes and boxes of books to give away. But that's not the point."
The first shipment of books will go to the school in Kenya. The Pipkins haven't gotten beyond that yet. Maybe Haiti?
Turk Pipkin, most famous for his comic novels "Fast Greens" and "Old Man and the Tee," has already made his choice for 1,000 Books for Hope: "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," the true story of the Malawi child whose homemade electric windmills brought water and light to a village. Christy Pipkin selected A.A. Milne's "Now We Are Six."
On the inside cover, she wrote these words: "This is the first book I remember my mother reading to me, and the last book I read to her before she died. Some books last a lifetime."
From the very beginning, Christy Pipkin's 2000 cancer diagnosis has been a subtle, understated presence in the "Nobelity" story. It's present but unseen, like the breeze that ruffles the leaves of the live oaks behind the Pipkins' house.
"What my first diagnosis really did was bring into sharp relief how we were going to spend our time," she says, her voice strong. "And it's been that way ever since."
Cancer-free for years after her mastectomy, Christy learned in November 2008 — right in the middle of "One Peace at a Time," one week after her 50th birthday — that her cancer had returned. The family kept filming, and the work went on, as Christy went through chemotherapy treatments and the Pipkins dealt with the notion of mortality one more time.
"Round Two of cancer was certainly a reality check, in terms of understanding 'This is a limited-time offer,'" says Christy, sitting outdoors with her husband at a South Congress Avenue coffee shop, cancer-free once again. "But it also made clear to me that I have the strength to do whatever I choose to do, whatever I have to do. I wouldn't choose to die. But if I have to die, I can do that, with as much integrity and grace as I can muster."
Turk Pipkin, forever the comedian, remarks, "You know what they say about chemo: What doesn't kill you makes you throw up." And his wife laughs warmly at the joke. But she does not shy away from discussion about mortality and how it fits with the story of her work in the Nobelity Project.
"I don't fear death. It's what we're all given," she says quietly. "The minute we're born, that's all we know is going to happen. Yet culturally we deny it until we get there — until it becomes some great tragedy that we died. Who made up that story?
"So when we look at our opportunity to die — which is what we have here — you do get to make some choices. And they aren't that hard. The notion of 'fighting' cancer? I will fight when I need to fight. But I am not by nature going to find that anger. That's not where I work well. It distracts me, wears me out.
"For me, fighting cancer is about 'embracing,' really. I'm a body-centric person. I've done lots of yoga, lots of dance. And for all the feelings, early, that my body had betrayed me, I finally had to say, 'OK. I am my body. And I have to love my body through this.' That's been my approach, rather than to fight my body out of it."
The Pipkins are reluctant to use words like "legacy" when considering the intent of the Nobelity Project. The choice they made at the breakfast table almost 10 years ago is the current that guides them now. The family life, the family work, one and the same.
"My inclination is that we don't take our lives seriously enough," says Turk Pipkin, sitting at the same breakfast table, surrounded by his family. "At the same time, we take our own lives way too seriously. You can spend too much time in life obsessing about 'doing the right thing.' Taking life seriously includes playing. Or doing yoga. Or listening to music. Or dancing in a mosh pit. Or even watching TV, if it's good TV."
The Pipkins' daughters set out some sliced apples and cheese. The dog goes in; the dog goes out. The afternoon air is light and clean.
"We're put on earth," he says. "You have a certain amount of time — you don't know how much — and it's entirely up to you what you do with it. Most people are 70 years old before that occurs to them, if at all. And if the path you end up choosing is engaging with your neighbors, engaging with your friends, staying close to your family, reaching out to the world, learning as much as you can, playing as much as you can, and finding ways to have love play a role in your life, then I think you end up with a very good life.
"There is no definition of success. It's all just what you choose," he says, glancing at the plate before him. "And right now, apple and cheese is pretty good."