Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Man I Would Have Liked To Know

Photograph ©2006 by Julius Lester

My local paper has recently instituted a new policy about obituaries. It now allows families to write their own obituaries of the deceased. These obituaries convey not only the facts of a life, but often give a flavor of who the person was. The following is verbatim from Monday's newspaper. Some people wrote the newspaper to object to the publication of this obituary. The newspaper revealed that the obituary was written by the deceased, obviously before he died.

"With trumpets blaring, Zeus, god of gods, called Daniel R. Porter III to His Heavenly Pantheon on Nov. 21, 2006.

"He (the deceased, not Zeus) was the second White child born in the new maternity ward of Cooley Dickinson Hospital on his father's birthday, July 2, 1930. His mother Eleanor (Parsons) needed all the help she could get.

"Porter was reared on a small farm with his siblings in Worthington. Sickly as a child, his parents often contemplated drowning him in Watt's Brook that flowed (trickled in summer) behind the house into which (the brook, not the house) they deposited other trash, sewage and cow manure.

"After being partially educated in local schools, Porter matriculated in the class of 1952 at UMass, formerly Mass Aggie. Here he failed to distinguish himself in any meaningful way, and managed to alienate a number of his classmates and professors. Upon graduation without honors, Porter was drafted into the Army and served in Korea before and after the armistice. There he learned more than at college -- never volunteer, be cowardly to survive, don't circulate petitions and keep away from indigenous females.

"Returning home ill-prepared for an occupation, he was strangely accepted by the University of Michigan Graduate School where he tried to prepare for an acceptable if not respectable occupation.

"A 35- year career as a museum and historical agency administrator and museum director followed. He moved from state to state five times to keep ahead of his reputation. He completed his career ignominiously in Cooperstown in 1992. On his demise, he was a member of no organization, club or charity.

"Porter was not survived by his parents and sister, Janice Leroux. But surviving him are his relict, Joan (Dornfield)." [Here follows a list of relatives. Relict - I had to look it up - is an archaic word for widow from Old French, relicte, woman left behind, from Latin, relicta, from the the verb, relinquere.]

"There will be no final rites or any mumbo-jumbo. He will not lie in state at The Farmer's Museum. His cremated remains will be scattered on Watt's Brook. Memorial gifts will not be accepted and cards are a waste of money."

End of obituary. He sounds like a man I would have enjoyed knowing.


I like to photograph dead animals I find in nature. It is a way to contemplate my mortality. I found this snake a few summers ago while walking on the gravel road from our house to the mailbox. I photographed it on our deck. It presently resides on the stereo cabinet, probably vowing, in its next incarnation, to do something vile to the cat who likes to play with it.

Monday, November 27, 2006

I Love Women's Fashions

Photograph © 2006 by Julius Lester

I love women's fashions. Perhaps it's because my mother wanted a girl, didn't get one but named me after her anyway. On Thanksgiving I was probably the only man in America who watched football while leafing through the latest Vogue. I subscribe to it, as well as W, InStyle, Harper's Bazaar, and Paris Vogue. I also subscribe to three fashion blogs, and my iPod is filled with videos of fashion shows.

I mention this because in one of the magazines I came across a mention of a book, How to Walk in High Heels: A Girl's Guide to Everything by Camilla Morton (Hyperion). The book is composed of very short sections of how-to information on everything a woman could possibly want to know about how to walk in high heels, how to get a mortgage, how to hang wallpaper, "How to pick up dog doo with style," and "How to swim with shades on." Some sections are written by people in fashion, such as "How to look good in a photo" by super model Gisele Bundchen, "How to choose a designer," by fashion designer Stella McCartney, and "How to compile your own soundtrack," by Jade Jagger, daughter of Sir Mick.

The book is written with an understated wit that seems to be a gift the English have (the author is English). As I browse through the book, I am envious. There should be a book like this for men like me who hate going to hardware stores because men assume that other men know about "men" things like screw and bolts and tools whose names I don't know and whose functions I can't imagine. I always leave hardware stores with such feelings of inferiority that I have to rush home and look at a video of an Oscar de la Renta show.

Today's Photograph: A shop windown in Provincetown, Massachusetts, 2006.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The study of languages has expanded my emotional vocabulary

Photograph © 2006 by Julius Lester

One of my regrets is that I do not have a facility for languages. I have studied three - Spanish, Hebrew, and presently, French - but I do not have fluency in any. Yet, even the study of them has expanded my emotional vocabulary. For example, Hebrew verbs grow from a three letter root structure, creating relationships between actions and experiences that cannot be translated. On the other hand, French verbs seem finely attuned to the nuances of time. It is not enough that an event happened in the past. The verb form one uses to describe the event can convey something about one's experience of the event. Thus, my emotional vocabulary becomes richer. A few more words from the Christopher Moore book.

Se virar [say-vee-rahr, Brazilian Portugeuse noun]

Literally it means "to empty," but it is used to describe "When you try to do something but you don't have enough knowledge to complete the task." Would having such a verb in English make us more accepting of our inevitable ignorances, make it easier for us to say, "I don't know"?

Razbliuto [ros-blee-oo-toe, Russian noun]

A "melancholic, bittersweet word" used to describe the feeling you have for someone you once loved but no longer feel the same way about.

Miljø is a Norwegian word which means society. But it also means the environment. If we had a word in English which made society synonymous with the environment, would our nation have treated the environment so callously?

And the last word for today is the most untranslatable word in the world. It comes from the Tshiluba language of the Republic of the Congo.

Ilunga [ee-lun-ga, noun]

"It describes a person who is ready to forgive any transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time."

Today's Photograph:

In the spring of 1967 I spent a month in North Vietnam, one of the first Americans to visit the North during the Vietnam War. This photograph was taken in a small village. I was the first black person most North Vietnamese had ever seen. Thus, this little girl peered out at me from behind a tree. I wonder if the sight of me expanded her emotional vocabulary?

Someone e-mailed to ask if my photographs are for sale. Yes, photographs here and on my photography website are for sale in three sizes: 8x10, 8 1/2 x 11, and 13x19 for $30,$40 and $65, including shipping and handling in the continental U.S.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Words I've needed and didn't know existed....

We have experiences for which there is no word in our language, regardless of what language we speak. We try our best to communicate what we have experienced but are frustrated because we have not been able to express ourselves well. But just because there is not a word in our language, it doesn't mean there isn't a word in another language.

Here are some wonderful words from the book I mentioned in the previous blog, In Other Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World by Christopher J. Moore (Levenger Press: Walker & Co. ISBN 0-8027-1444-7).

Esprit de l'escalier (French idiom - es-pree de less-kal-iay): The witty remark that occurs to you to late, literally, on the way down the stairs.

Korinthenkacker (German noun - core-in-ten-cuck -er: A "raisin pooper", someone so taken up with life's trivial details that they spend all day crapping raisins.

Mierenneuker (Dutch) The idea is the same as the word above except in Dutch it means "ant f--cker."

And my absolute favorite is another Dutch word:

Uitwaaien (noun oot-vay-en: To walk in the wind for fun.

How wonderful that the Dutch found this experience so wonderful and so important that they have a word for it. It's supposed to be windy tomorrow here in western Massachusetts, so I may go for an uitwaaien.

[The digital art above is one of a series of eight, thus far, called "Alone, Herself". Most are of my wife at moments when she is unto herself. This is Alone,Herself #3 and is based on a photograph taken outside a museum in Williamston, Mass. Note the museum shopping bag in the foreground].

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I am reading a fascinating (and beautifully designed book), In Other Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the Most Intriguing Words in the World by Christopher J. Moore. Having spent most of my life engaged in writing, I have come to adore words. In their etymologies, words are the repositories of our psychic history. Words also shape how we think about ourselves and others and the world in which we live. Words also play a role in how we act.

"Problems of translatability emerge right from the start where Islam is concerned. Islamic belief is founded on the principles of iman. This word is usually translated as 'faith,' but in fact it is nothing like faith as conceived in a Western sense. A Muslim's belief is founded on a deeply rational persuasion of its rightness, and therefore to a believer in Islam the Western existentialist idea of a 'leap of faith' would make no sense at all." p. 66

If faith means that I am deeply and rationally persuaded that my beliefs are right, then I am also 'deeply' and 'rationally' persauded that the beliefs of others are wrong. To what extent, then, is honest dialogue possible with someone in whose language is imbedded the conviction of his 'rightness'?

The second word underscores the experience imbedded in iman.:

"Tarradhin [tah-rah-deen] {noun}

"Arabic has no word for 'compromise' in the sense of reaching an agreement via struggle and disagreement. But a much happier concept, tarradhin, exists in Arabic. It implies a happy solution for everyone, an 'I win, you win." It's a way of resolving a problem without anyone losing face." p. 69

Is it possible to have an honest dialogue with someone from whose language the concept of compromise is absent? Saying 'I win, you win' may be effective in personal relationships, but between nations, ethnic groups, religious denominations religious sects within denominations, ? Not when faith is absolutist in nature, not when faith demands conformity to what I believe or you die.

It would be wonderful if we, all of us, would borrow a word from Spanish, also mentioned in the book mentioned above. That word is convivencia. It means "living together with us, i.e. the quality of a society where citizens get along by practicing tolerance and mutual respect." [p. 16]

May our lives be filled with convivencia!

A Commonplace Book

Commonplace books began in 15th century England. They were used as scrapbooks and contained anything a person wanted/needed to remember -- recipes, medical remedies, sayings, etc. No two commonplace books are the same because each reflects the person keeping it.

In 1961 when I began my commonplace book, I did not know that was what I was doing. All I knew was that I had just read something in a book and underlining it was not enough. I wanted to have the quote in a place where I could find it when I needed it. This was the first quote I saved:

"That's how much of life works: our friends float past; we become involved with them; they float on, and we must rely on hearsay or lose track of them completely; they float back again, and we either renew our friendship -- catch up to date -- or find that they and we don't comprehend each other any more." The Floating Opera by John Barth

This electronic commonplace book will certainly be a place where I share quotes from reading, but it will also be a place for my photographs as well as short essays on whatever engages my mind.

If you are primarily interested in a list of the books I've written and what they are about, and excerpts from reviews, please go to

Even though I will include photographs here, I do have a website devoted to my photography: