Two weeks ago, a pretty Irish lady who also happens to be the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize winner was in Dallas to talk about a city she is opening in Italy. There, hundreds, maybe thousands, of orphaned, abused and otherwise displaced refugee children will come to live in safety and security. The Dalai Lama is on the city's advisory board, along with Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel. This is not a dream or a lark; the "City of Compassion" is a reality. It is the result of decades of peace work on the part of Betty Williams, who has championed the world's children in the 30 years since she became a Nobel laureate.
But what you probably know about Williams is this: She wants to (nonviolently) kill George W. Bush. That's what Williams told a congregation of delegates during her keynote speech at this year's 3rd International Women's Peace Conference in Dallas.
"It's easy to talk about peace," Williams told the delegates. But in illustrating how hard it is to actually practice peace, she went off-script: "Right now I could kill George Bush, no problem," following quickly with, "No! I don't mean that. How could you nonviolently kill somebody?" The next morning, Dallas Morning News readers were greeted with this headline: "'I could kill George Bush,' says Nobel Laureate in Dallas." Other news outlets were similarly having multiple cows over Williams' comments, and she was widely derided for her remarks, for which she later apologized.
It all had the effect of obscuring Williams' actual message and the work she does to improve the lives of children on this war-ravaged planet where, according to UNICEF, 40,000 children die every day from disease and malnutrition. In an effort to combat that number—the equivalent of all the inhabitants of our own suburbs of Mansfield, Hurst or Cedar Hill starving slowly, suffering, then dropping dead on any given day—Williams, along with her organization, the World Centers for Compassion International, is creating a refugee city where children can come to live in peace and safety.
But she made a joke about finding a way to nonviolently kill our beloved leader, the poor, helpless Dubya. Obviously, Williams' remark is the big news here, right? After all, if it bleeds—or is likely to make Bill O'Reilly mess his drawers—it leads.
A few days after that keynote address, I met Williams at a private reception in North Dallas. There, she talked extensively in her dreamy Irish brogue about the City of Compassion, a stretch of land on an Italian beach that was destined to become a nuclear waste dump before Italian women protested and the land was given to Williams. Italy, which is a major destination for refugees from Africa because of its proximity, is a prime spot for the first-ever City.
"Are we really there?" said Williams to the small group of activists and peace conference delegates gathered in a posh, moderately sized living room. Williams, who became a peace activist after witnessing the deaths of three children in the midst of Protestant-Catholic violence in Belfast, seemed amazed that the dream city would become a reality.
Trouble is, there's not always a lot of acting in activism, which is why something like the Women's International Peace Conference could seem pretty silly were it not punctuated by brief rays of hope when activists like Williams, who admittedly has a great deal more influence than your average peacenik, make a tangible difference in their chosen spheres.
Many times at such conferences, there's a lot of touchy-feely stuff. Usually some lectures on how crappy things are in this place or the other, meetings on how oppressed people of a particular race/religion/gender were or are and which old white men are to blame, and then everybody sits in a circle and learns a fancy breathing technique. The WPC, with more than 1,000 delegates and four days of lectures, did not disappoint in this aspect.
During a seminar called "Religion and Sexuality: A Question of Women's Empowerment" presented by two shaky-voiced grad students from California, the word "menstruation" was repeated every four or five seconds between readings from ancient religious texts on the subject. This was all much to the horror of the young man stationed in the corner with an extra microphone; the poor audio-visual kid could do nothing but stare, wide-eyed, at the floor.
Late one other afternoon, a man and woman serenaded the delegates in the exhibition hall with a warbly version of "Edelweiss" while standing in front of a stage labeled with a giant sign on a tripod, lest there be any doubt: "PERFORMANCE STAGE."
But what would all this peace talk be without mention of its sister subject, love? Just more bitching about inept government, happily ignorant citizens and over-intellectualized feminist wonkiness, to be sure. This is why I tempered the experience by shuttling between the peace conference at the Adam's Mark and the Hyatt Regency, where the Romance Writers of America were simultaneously holding their annual conference. At the Hyatt, 1,950 aspiring and published writers with penchants for throbbing members and creamy thighs met to talk about the art of the romance novel.
I arrived at the atrium level early one evening to find hundreds of certified MILFs drinking red wine and screwdrivers, notebooks poised on their knees and pens in hand. It was as if Dallas had split into two schools. The former Debate Club girls gathered at the peace conference to talk about issues and eat granola, while every sexually frustrated band girl (flutists, no doubt) who'd long pined for the untouchable star quarterback had shacked up at the Hyatt to create elaborate fantasy worlds in which everyone gets their romantic happily-ever-after.
Before I attended a novel-writing boot camp led by a guy in a camouflage kilt and matching cowboy hat, I met two sisters. One, plump and blond, did her sister's public relations and proofreading. The other, the writer, was rail-thin with brunette hair that hung down well past her thighs. Behind dark sunglasses, she told me she wrote paranormal romance. There are about 50,000 different kinds of romance novel, from historical to suspense to inspirational, and the paranormal genre is particularly growing in popularity.
"It's called The Memoirs of Renee LeBouf," the dark writer told me about her book. The plump sister piped up immediately with a heavy Texas twang, "She's such a good writer! I mean, she is good." Good? Well, I was sold. Sign me up for the presale. I love good stuff. What was it about?
"It's a vampire story," her darkness explained, "set in the 1930s." I asked her to repeat the title for me one more time so I could scribble the name in my notebook. As I started the word "memoirs," the author clarified.
"It's not real memoirs," she said, pointing at the word. "They're fictional."
"Oh," I said, nodding enthusiastically, as if telling me that the Depression-era paranormal romance novel about vampires wasn't real was a tremendously helpful, clarifying statement.
Between the peace delegates and the romance writers, it was a weird week for Dallas—full of fantasy in both camps. If it's bizarre to sit around and imagine vampires putting on a little Rudy Vallee and getting their game on, it's just as nutty to believe there's a way to bring peace to this planet. And I love that there are lots of people who don't give a crap and decide to try it anyway.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.