Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Kafka's Soup

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

For those of you who love literature and food, I have the most wonderful book to recommend. It is called Kafka's Soup: A Complete History of World Literature in 14 Recipes written and illustrated by Mark Crick, the first book by this English photographer.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a book of recipes but it is how the recipes are presented that makes the book unique. Each recipe is written as a narrative, but the narrative is in the style of a particular writer. Among the fourteen writers and the recipes associated with them are Raymond Chandler (Lamb with Dill Sauce), Jane Austen (Tarragon Eggs), Franz Kafka (Quick Miso Soup), Proust (Tiramisu), Steinbeck (Mushroom Risotto), Virginia Woolf (Clafoutis Grandmère), Graham Greene (Vietnamese Chicken), and Chaucer (Onion Tart). It is absolutely uncanny how Crick emulates so perfectly the writing styles of such a varied group of authors.The book is a literary tour de force.

I was very familiar with a couple of the writers and, as an English major fifty years ago, had a passing acquaintance with most. The more familiar you are with the writers, the greater your enjoyment. However, if you’re someone who loves to read cookbooks, you might enjoy this. And if you’re looking for new recipes, here are 14 that look enticing.


“Wine is the most intricate song. It encodes the earth and the weather and the people who are responsible for making it. I can find the universe in the taste of a particular wine.”

Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor, quoted in Wine Spectator magazine, 11/15/1997.


A’fingered – Afflicted with hunger, famished, very hungry.


Restaurant table, Mystic, Connecticut

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Our Bodies

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

Scrotum. It’s a word I’ve never heard anyone say. It’s a word I’ve only seen in medical encyclopedias and books on health, where there’s always a line pointing from the word to a drawing of the male sexual anatomy. Yet, because the word appears on the first page of this year's Newbery winning children’s novel, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, scrotum has appeared in the New York Times more often in the past few days than at any time in that paper’s august history.

I’ve been puzzling over why some librarians are refusing to buy the book for their libraries because it contains that word. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not the word per se that has some people upset by its appearance in a book for children. What we are witnessing is yet another example of the American discomfort with matters of the flesh. What really troubles these adults is they would not know what to say if a child asked them, “What’s a scrotum?”

The American embarrassment about bodies and their functions of elimination, procreation, and nourishment, extends to bleeping words we all know on TV broadcasts, blurring women’s breasts on telecasts of fashion shows and in movies on basic cable if there's any danger of nipples being seen on those breasts. If Americans were not ashamed of their bodies, the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast on the Super Bowl broadcast several years ago would not have become a national scandal, (and, by the by, why has Justin Timberlake, the person who exposed that breast, become a national sex symbol while Janet Jackson remains a national pariah?)

Many Americans are still ashamed of their bodies and their messy, smelly functions. Many still associate their bodies with an animal state which we are to rise above, a state whose desires we are not to give into because to do so would be sinful.

We have been taught to believe that our humanity resides in our power to reason and in our souls. This is a partial truth only. Our humanity also resides in our vaginas, breasts, penises, and scrotum. After all, each of us came from the joining of penises and vaginas with sperm released from the scrotum and joining with eggs.

Praise to the vagina!
Praise to the penis!
Praise to the scrotum, to sperm and egg!
Praise to being all that we are - flesh and blood, mind and spirit.


“God is even in one’s own posterior when at last one has crawled full circle and seen it revealed in its full glory.”

Aldous Huxley, Letter, 11/4/1951


Avoir La Queue Verte – To be valiant in the service of Venus

Vocabula Amatoria French-English Dictionary of Erotica by John S. Farmer.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Presidents Day

Photograph & text © 2007 by Julius Lester

In 1971 President Richard Nixon proclaimed the third Monday of February as Presidents Day to honor all past presidents and give workers a three day weekend.

I have fond memories of when February 12 and February 22, Lincoln and Washington's birthdays respectively, were observed as holidays, regardless of which day of the week they happened to be on. I remember the guilty pleasure of not having to go to school on a week day, not just once but twice in the month of February.

In those days, the 1940s to the mid-1960s, a holiday was truly a holiday. The stores were not open, not even small corner stores. If buses operated, there were few passengers because nothing was open to go to.

Stores were also closed on Sundays. Even when I moved to New York City in 1961, stores were closed on Sundays which made them truly days of rest. People walked more slowly, and cars did not seem to go as fast. The vast metropolis of New York paused to catch its breath.

Now, commerce rules 24/7. Presidents Day is a holiday only if you are a professional or white collar worker. For the millions who work in stores and the service industries, today is another workday. Once, the needs of commerce and the need for rest coexisted. Now, commerce dominates every aspect of our lives. Most of us don’t know how to rest, how to stop and disengage from the constant activity of a society whose most important activity has become buying and selling.

If any President from Washington to Kennedy were to return to the nation he led, the change I think he would notice first would be the absence of silence, which is the language of rest. It is in the silence of rest that we know ourselves as beings separate from the buying and the selling.

Alas. Our society has decided that nothing is more important than commerce, not even the health of our souls.


“There are three ways in which we may relate ourselves to the world – we may exploit it, we may enjoy it, we may accept it in awe.”

From God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel


Rest. It is a word with many definitions, but the word's primal meanings are illuminating:

One of its roots is in Old English, from a Germanic root meaning league or mile, referring to a distance after which one rests

The other root is Late Middle English, from Old French and Latin meaning to stand back.

Thus the act of resting is not only to cease activity after physical exertion, rest is also the spiritual act of standing back so that we may better see the lives we lead and whether those lives are what we want them to be.


New York City, 8th Avenue between 22nd & 23rd Streets,
a Sunday morning in the winter of 1966. Even in this
photograph, you can hear the silence.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Non-Meaning of Life

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I watched the Westminster Dog Show Monday and Tuesday nights. I am not a "dog person, but my wife has never seen an animal she didn’t like. Because of her, I, too, watch the dog show every February.

As I watched and listened to the descriptions of the various dogs, I was awed, as I always am, that a dog’s behavior is innate. Some breeds have to herd cattle, sheep, or whatever. Other breeds hunt, retrieve, etc., etc. No one teaches the dogs to do what they do. They just know how to do it.

Thinking about this led me to wonder, is there any activity that is innately human, a quality that is shared by every person who has ever lived?

When I asked my wife what she thought, she said immediately that humans are the only species driven to seek meaning. I think she’s right. How many times have you heard someone say, or said yourself, “Everything that happens, happens for a reason.” Whatever happens to us, especially the unpleasant events, we want to know, “What does this mean?” And to the extent that we can find an answer we find consolation.

We are plagued by wanting to understand our lives; we want to know that our lives not only have meaning, but that this meaning will continue after we are dead.

The older I get the more I find myself wondering, what if there is no intrinsic meaning to our lives or to life itself? What if the existence of this planet is a random accident, and our lives are also?

More and more I find myself returning to the Sartrean existentialism of my college years in the 1950s. I still remember Sartre’s simple but profound formulation: "Existence precedes essence." We are not born into meaning; we are merely born. It is up to us to give our lives meaning --- or not.

When I am the one who gives meaning to my life, I take responsibility for my words and my deeds. I do not justify my actions by saying I am carrying out God's will. I do not justify my actions using words written thousands of years ago.

We are living at a time when people are being killed daily because they do not ascribe to the beliefs of others. The most dramatic daily example is the carnage wreaked by Shiites against Sunnis and Sunnis against Shiites.

The older I get the less I know what my life means, and the less it matters. It is enough that I am alive. I wish that was enough for all those - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Democrat and Republican - who are convinced that they, and they alone, embody TRUTH, and those who disagree deserve death, cultural or literal.


“Only fools think that everything can be explained. The true substance of the world is inexplicable.” p. 172

Carl Jung: Dream Analysis: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-1930


In February, 2005, the conceptual artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, set up their installation, The Gates, in New York's Central Park. My wife had to convince me to go, and I am so glad I did because I had one of the great experiences of my life. As we walked along the sidewalks beneath the pieces of orange cloth, my mind kept trying to find meaning in what we were doing. When it couldn't it told me what we were doing was stupid and ridiculous. But when I was finally able to get my mind to stop looking for meaning, I was overwhelmed with joy at the complete absurdity and yes, the ridiculousness of all these miles of orange weaving through the park. I haven't decided whether the experience was one of silly holiness, or holy silliness. It was an experience beyond meaning, beyond what my mind could grasp. And so is my life. So is life itself.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Photographic art and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I spent much of Saturday in excruciating stomach pains, with almost continuous diarrhea and some vomiting. Around seven that evening I had my wife call 9-1-1 and was taken to the hospital. The ER doctor thought I had contracted a virus, but later she wasn’t sure that it might not be a bacterial infection. I won’t know which it is until the results of the stool culture come in tomorrow or Tuesday.

The doctor wanted me to stay in the hospital overnight. If there’s one thing I know it is that a hospital is no place to try and get well. And I mean that seriously. Experience has taught me that a hospital is not even a good place where you can get a decent night’s sleep. So I decided to go home. The wisdom of my decision was confirmed when the doctor said, “Are you willing to sign a form saying that I advised you to stay but you chose to leave? The hospital is always getting on us to see if we did our best to get the patient to stay.”

This is what happens when hospitals are for profit corporations. Was the doctor’s advice a medical judgment, or was it motivated by the need for the hospital to turn a profit? Maybe it was a combination of both, but I felt sorry for the doctor having to also be a sales rep for the hospital.

It is sad that we live in a country where we sometimes feel we must question a doctor’s recommendation. What is paramount in American medicine? The patient’s well-being or the hospital’s bottom line? I think the answer is obvious.

P.S. I am feeling very well.


From the New York Times, Sunday, February 11 -

A few months ago a man walked into a pharmacy in Madrid, pulled out two toy guns and told the attendants to hand over all the Viagra in stock. Two hours later, in what was perhaps a show of gratitude, he returned with two bouquets of roses, before being arrested.


“Illness is the most heeded of doctors. To goodness and wisdom we make only promises: pain we obey.”

Marcel Proust


A few years ago I had a project of photographing every building I went into. This is a photograph-based art piece of a hospital recovery room.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Black Racism

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

Last week the New York Times carried an article saying that if Barak Obama is successful in his bid to run for president, he cannot count on getting the black vote. The reasons given were that many blacks feel that Obama’s Kenyan father and white mother disqualify him from being truly “black”, and that his past is not rooted in the slave experience of American blacks, therefore he cannot really relate to or understand the American black experience. In addition some blacks resent that Obama does not come out of the civil rights movement experience but belongs to the generation that came after (as if he had any control over when he was born).

All of this would be funny if it were not so utterly ridiculous. Blacks who submit other blacks to a racial litmus test are no different than whites who submit blacks to a racial litmus test. There is an almost total void of black leadership nationally because what too many blacks are seeking is someone who will make them feel good about being black, not someone who has creative ideas about how to address the problems not only faced by blacks but by America. Some blacks quoted in the Times article were opposed to Obama precisely because some white Americans are finding him appealing -- as if a black person could get elected president without appealing to the majority of voters.

I live in Massachusetts, and we elected a black governor this past November. I watched Deval Patrick’s campaign closely. What was so energizing about it was that he did not appeal to the black vote; he appealed to the hearts of all voters. He articulated that the role of government is to serve all the people, to meet people’s basic needs, not only for viable employment and meaningful health care, but also people’s need to be regarded with respect and dignity by their government. There was a note of idealism in Patrick’s speeches that I had not encountered in a politician since the sixties (with the exception of Ted Kennedy who has never stopped being an idealist. We in Massachusetts will probably vote for Kennedy as one of our senators even after he's been dead for ten years, and he'd probably win).

If Barak Obama can reawaken a sense of hope and idealism in the American people, it will be a clear message to those blacks who don’t think he’s black enough that their view of what it means to be black is demeaning, archaic, and downright racist. Perhaps it's time that blacks started regarding each other as people and not quasi-mystical symbols.


“The main regard of religion must be to make us good at home.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson


I was looking through one of my French dictionaries last night trying to figure out what “mal voyante” means (poorly sighted/legally blind?), and I came across the following:

mal des grandes ensembles - depression resulting from life in a high-rise block.

And if you have ever seen a public housing project, even from an interstate highway, it is a sad and depressing sight. Imagine what living in one feels like. And how brilliant that the French recognize this and coined that phrase.

The other phrase I came across was le mal joli – the pain of giving birth. Literally,the bad joy. That phrase could apply to all aspects of being a parent.


I took this on a plantation in Mississippi in 1966. I love the sweet joy in her face.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Black Coaches in the Super Bowl

© 2007 by Julius Lester

I did not read or listen to any of the pre-Super Bowl hype. I did not want to subject myself to all the pious platitudes about this being the first Super Bowl featuring two black coaches. During the game I wanted to throw up when Jim Nance, my favorite sports announcer, said how historic it was that February is black history month and a black coach was going to win the Super Bowl. Yes, it was historic -- for white America.

The two black coaches became a “feel-good-about-ourselves" two weeks for white America, which wallowed in sentimentality about how far the country has come and how race relations have improved because the two opposing coaches were black. Arent'we (white America) good?

The truth is this: There would have been black coaches in the Super Bowl forty years ago if the United States (and the NFL) had not been so mired in white supremacy. By now probably all the coaches in the NFL would be black if not for a racism so persistent that, in 2002 NFL team owners had to make a formal agreement that they would interview at least one black when looking for a new head coach.

It is hypocritical and racist for America to see two black coaches in the Super Bowl as examples of black progress. No, two black coaches in the Super Bowl is an example of white progress. Black people always knew that blacks could coach football, basketball, baseball, and do anything else white people did. It’s white America that didn’t know this. It’s nice that white America is finally catching up.

Unfortunately by making a big deal out of two black coaches in the Super Bowl, white America is only putting a new face on its racism.


"The hardest lesson of all is to know what one has to do for oneself."

David Cooper


"Hue and Cry"

In medieval England, there were no such entities as police forces. If someone stole something from you, for example, you were expected to make a racket, start yelling, do something to alert others. Everyone who heard this “hue and cry” was legally bound to chase after the thief. The phrase ‘hue and cry’ dates back to at least the 13th century.

Isn't it interesting that people were legally obligated to come to your aid.
We've made a lot of progress since the “Dark Ages”, haven't we?


A sandlot football game, Atlanta, Georgia, 1966.

I wonder if there was a potential black NFL coach among any of those young men playing their hearts out as if they were in the Super Bowl when I happened to see them on that summer evening.

Friday, February 2, 2007

This and That #2

© 2007 by Julius Lester

1. I don't know why but I seem to be in a preservation mood these days. I've been spending an hour or so each night putting polyester covers on book jackets from my library. There's something about doing it which is very centering. And I love how a book feels when the jacket is covered. Somehow the experience of reading is heightened when I feel the cool smoothness of the cover as well as know that the jacket will be preserved.

2. I bought a 500gb external hard drive and I'm backing up my entire system. I've always backed up my Word files and photographs, but last June my hard drive crashed, and because I back up everyday I only lost my e-mail addresses and my Bookpedia files, the program which is the database of my library. However, more
annoying was having to reinstall so many programs and losing the settings I'd made in those programs. So I'm backing up everything and that's a chore, but a good one.

3. I am also backing up my iPod. I was discussing with one of my children what he might want of mine when I die, and he listed all kinds of things. I told him, "What you should want is my iPod." I have everything on there from Bach to the Staple Singers. But I've decided not to give my iPod to any of my children. Just in case there's an afterlife, I'm having it buried with me.


"Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you'd think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise."

Lewis Thomas


Today's word is one of my all time favorites:

Acushla It means "my heart's pulse, dear heart, darling".


Curls of rushing water in a small stream.