Thursday, March 29, 2007

Odds and Ends

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

Poisoned Pet Foods

My wife and I have two cats. Thus, the recent finding of rat poison in pet food has been of no small concern to us. Our cats are fed IAMS and Science Diet, both of which are advertised as being as close to gourmet pet food as one can get.

Imagine our surprise when we learned that 95 brands of cat food are supplied from one company in Canada, which means that all cat food is basically the same. Iams, Eukanuba and other pricey pet foods are allegedly made differently than the bulk of the 95 brands. But the only real difference between even IAMS and Eukanuba, for example, is their advertising. The claims made about how the health and well-being of our pets will be greatly improved if they eat their particular brand are, in short, lies.

But, when you think about it, we should not believe any advertising. After all, an advertisement is nothing but a company bragging about its product. Why do we believe anything it says about its product would be true? Corporations have no interest in truth. Their one concern is profit, and they will use whatever images and “buzz words” they have to in order to manipulate us into increasing their profit, the only thing they really care about.

Anna Nicole Smith

When I read of all the drugs Anna Nicole Smith was taking, it was enough to make me want to weep – painkillers, anti-depression pills, anti-anxiety pills, anti-aging pills. Her inner world must have been a frightening place. The irony of her death is that her doctor and boy friend urged her to go to the hospital. She refused. Why? Because it would draw the attention of the media, the very media she courted shamelessly and used to make her name and face as common as dirt. Concern for her image led her to disregard her life. But if there is an afterlife, she must be thrilled with the attention her death has received.


“Right away she smelled more than thirty years of her fears, lies and deceptions. Those things do have an odor. It is common, metallic, and not unlike the smell of fresh blood. It is fresh but it is also old, ancient even. Everyone knows the aroma but does not admit it because we have smelled it on ourselves too many times. It is ugly and deeply embarrassing. Good intentions, good love, good hope. We were so sure it would work this time. We were so sure this was the right person, or the ideal situation, the thing we had been waiting for our whole lives. But we were wrong. And as our fear, lies and other deceptions moved in to those new situations, the odor began again.”

Jonathan Carroll, White Apples, p. 279


Stalking-Horse: "As early as the fifteenth century, this expression denoted a horse trained to graze as it slowly approached birds or other wild game. This clever camouflage often allowed its dismounted rider to come close enough to shoot his prey with bow and arrow, and later gun, from under the horse's belly or neck. By the late sixteenth century, stalking-horse was used figuratively for a sneaky type of military maneuver, and by the early seventeenth century for an accomplice who, often unknowing, assisted in underhanded ventures."

Jeffrey Kacirk, Forgotten English p. 4-5


The Georgia State Capitol, 1966

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Another "Inconvenient Truth"

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I am a fanatical environmentalist. As a child I hated to walk on grass because I was afraid I was hurting it. Today I feel pain when I see land being cleared for housing. I sympathize with polar bears whose habitat is melting because of global warming. It angers me that the Inuit way of life is being eroded by global warming. I hope that governments, especially my own, will find the will to do all that is possible to avert global catastrophe.

After coming across an article tonight on I understood that governments not only have no incentive to stop global warming, they will do everything to encourage it.

According to the article, “Riches Await As Earth’s Icy North Melts,” the Arctic “has as much as 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas. Russia reportedly sees the potential of minerals in its slice of the Arctic sector approaching $2 trillion. All this has pushed governments and businesses into a scramble for sovereignty over these suddenly priceless seas.”

Global warming will “open the North Pole region to easy navigation for five months a year....That could cut sailing time from Germany to Alaska by 60 percent, going through Russia’s Arctic instead of the Panama Canal.

“Just a few years ago, reports said it would take 100 years for the ice to melt, but recent studies say it could happen in 10-15 years, and the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway have been rushing to stake their claims in the Arctic.”

While many of us despair over what is being done to the environment, governments and businesses are rubbing their hands in glee.

This is the most “Inconvenient Truth” of all.

A Note to Subscribers and Readers

When I started this virtual commonplace book (I hate the word “blog”), I did not want it to turn into a chore I would come to resent. Those who know me personally know there are periods of time when I lapse into silence because I have nothing to say, or just don’t feel like talking. The same holds true for my presence (and lack thereof) in this virtual world.


“At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.” Confucius


Aeonian - Eternal, everlasting


Palm fronds photographed at the National Botanical Gardens in Washington, D.C. I have given the image a deep sepia tone to enhance the tonal contrast and to emphasize the form of the plant rather than its color.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Living with Emphysema - Conclusion

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

When I learned that I had emphysema I thought death was imminent. It took a while before I understood that emphysema is not a life-threatening disease like lung cancer. While there is no cure for emphysema, it is a condition which people can live with for many decades. The quality of that life depends on the person and how they make peace with their condition. For me Judaism once again provided the way.

After a period of depression about the state of my lungs,I settled into a deep sorrow. Breath is essential to life, and I felt that I no longer had breath.One Saturday morning I was leading services at the synagogue in Vermont of which I was lay leader at the time. There is a line near the end of the preliminary service which I had chanted innumerable times, but that Shabbat morning I understood the line in a new way. The line reads: “Nishmat kol chai t’vareich et shimcha Adonai Eloheinu – The breath of all that lives praises You, Lord our God.”

The Hebrew word “nishmat” can be translated as “breath,” but it also means “spirit.” As I chanted that line, I realized something. I still had breath! It might not be as much breath as someone whose lungs were healthy; I might have to fight for breath every now and then, but I still had breath, and I certainly had spirit! Of that I had an inexhaustible supply!

Thus I came to accept that having emphysema was not the end of life, merely another way to live that life. Emphysema is part of who I am, but it does not define me, though it might look that way to others who see me walking around inhaling supplemental oxygen.

I have breath, and each morning and evening as I meditate, I am aware of each breath and the spirit animating those breaths.


“Hope can arrive only when you recognize that there are real options and that you have genuine choices. Hope can flourish only when you believe that what you do can make a difference, that your actions can bring a future different from the present. To have hope, then, is to acquire a belief in your ability to have some control over your circumstances. You are no longer entirely at the mercy of forces outside yourself.”

Jerome Groopman, M.D. How People Prevail in the Face of Illness: The Anatomy of Hope, p. 26


Spirit – From Lat. spiritus, breathing, breath, air, life, soul. A breath of life.


A highway on the high plains of western Nebraska, a place where my spirit soars!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Living with Emphysema 3

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I converted to Judaism at the end of December, 1982. The story of the why of my conversion is in my book, Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, so I will not go into the details of that here, but converting eventually gave me the motivation to stop smoking.

One of the things that had drawn me to Judaism since I was eight was the music. I remember sitting in synagogue at the bat mitzvah of the daughter of a friend and weeping inside that I would never be able to sing such beautiful music, music that moved me more deeply than any I had ever heard.

Oddly, however, after I converted it did not occur to me that I should start learning the music. I was quite content to sit in the congregation and sing along with it. I have a rather distinctive bass voice, and on congregational melodies I could certainly be heard.

One Shabbat after services my rabbi at the time, Rabbi Ed Freedman, asked me when I was going to lead a part of the Sabbath morning service from the bimah, i.e. the pulpit. (For those unfamiliar with Judaism, one does not have to be an ordained rabbi or cantor to lead a service). With his encouragement and tutelage, I began learning the music for the various parts of the Sabbath morning service. My singing was received well by the congregation, and almost every Shabbat I would lead part of the service.

Then there came the day when I realized that I wanted to lead the services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, services which are quite complex musically. But one thing made me hesitant. I had begun coughing up huge globs of mucous and knew that I could not trust my body not to have to eject a mass of mucous in the midst of a singing a solemn prayer. I had to stop smoking if I was going to be able to pray in music, which is what it was like for me when I sang the music of the Jewish liturgy.

I went to a local acupuncturist I knew and respected, Jonathan Klate. He had developed a method of fooling the body into believing it was still receiving nicotine. On July 13, 1988, 2:45 p.m. I smoked my last cigarette. It took a month before my body was at peace with the radical change of living without nicotine after 32 years of living with it. It is a month that is a void in my memory. All I remember is being in a nether world that was neither life nor death. But at the end of a month, the sun came up and I could see and hear and feel again. I’ve not had a cigarette since, not even the craving for one.

I am convinced that if I had not stopped smoking when I did, I would have ended up with lung cancer and would now be dead instead of living with emphysema. While I have certainly had and still have moments of regret that I smoked for so long, on the other hand, I cannot imagine my life without emphysema. That sounds odd even to me, but it is true.

I will try and explain in the next blog.


“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

Henry David Thoreau


Huiji-jiyi(Chinese): "To avoid following your doctor's advice for fear of being recognized as the sufferer of a disease."


Cemetery in Fog and Snow, Belchertown, Mass.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Living with Emphysema - 2

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I had my first cigarette when I was around 12. Adults would send children to the store to buy cigarettes, which, in poor neighborhoods, were two cigarettes for a penny. This was the early 1950s, a time when smoking was not only socially accepted but was the “cool thing” to do.

Smoking did not become a 1-2 pack a day habit until 1956, my freshman year. I remember being seduced by billboards for Salem mentholated cigarettes which depicted a smiling couple gazing lovingly at each other, lighted cigarettes in their hands, sitting by a stream with green-leafed trees in the background. If smoking Salem cigarettes was all I had to do to get a woman to smile at me with love in her as we sat in a place liked the Garden of Eden, I couldn't wait to buy a pack. This was also the era when cigarette commercials on television featured doctors in their white coats telling us that smoking eased tension.

None of us knew then what we know now, namely that cigarette companies added ingredients to cigarettes to make smoking more addictive than it already was, and that it is easier to get off heroin than it is cigarettes.

Dr. Allan Brandt, Professor of Medical History at Harvard, has written a book called The Cigarette Century. He writes, “…quitting is no easy matter. Most individuals attempting it have tried and failed. Even those who get the best counseling and pharmacologic treats are likely (at a rate of about 80 percent) to be smoking still, or again, at the end of a year. And it may well be getting even more difficult to quit. A recent study shows that the average dose of nicotine in a pack of cigarettes has increased by more than 10 percent just since 1995, a result of explicitly engineered modifications.”

I tried to quit many times and failed. My mother told me I was weak because I was unable to quit. But it wasn’t a matter of having insufficient determination and will power. Any addiction is an inverted search for spiritual wholeness.Until one finds a way toward spiritual wholeness that is not self-destructive, the addiction will remain.

(To be continued)


To the ancient Greeks “The purpose of sickness, the meaning of affliction, was to force the individual to confront his disconnection from the Gods, to sacrifice his hubristic acquisitions, and to re-place himself in the proper spirit of relationship by binding himself (re-ligion) through suffering in service to the Gods."

Russell A. Lockhart, quoted in Peace, Love & Healing by Bernie S. Siegel, M.D., p. 57-8.


Addict – mid-16th century, from Latin, Formally made over or bound to (another); attached by restraint or obligation; obliged, bound, devoted, consecrated.


This is a collage comprised of 3 photographs and is #6 in a series I call
"Ancestral Memories".

Friday, March 2, 2007

Living with Emphysema - 1

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

It has been almost a month since my pulmonologist said that I needed supplemental oxygen when I am exerting myself. I’m not quite sure what “exerting myself” really means, but, for now, I take it to mean that I should use oxygen when I am out doing errands, working around the house, going up and down stairs.

Even though there are over a million people in America with emphysema and probably the majority use oxygen, I don’t see many people in public with the two-pronged cannulas in their noses, the tube attached to the portable oxygen canister on their shoulders. I understand why. Using supplemental oxygen is like shouting to the world, “I was a smoker!”

The question I get most often is, “Were you a smoker?” When I reply that I was, I can almost see the questioner relax because he or she never smoked and so, they will avoid the fate that has befallen me. However, they don’t know that 15% of people who have emphysema never smoked. And, only 20% of smokers end up with emphysema.

Emphysema is the fourth leading cause of death after heart disease,cancer and stroke. Of these four, emphysema is the only one that carries with it a moral judgment. One day I was exercising in the pulmonary rehab center at a local hospital, and someone I knew came in and looked at me with raised eyebrows. I said, “I have emphysema.” His response? “Well, that’s what you get for smoking.”

The attitude of many is precisely this: ‘it’s your fault that you have emphysema, so don’t expect any sympathy from me.’

To appear in public with supplemental oxygen is scarcely better than being branded with the letter ‘A’ in Puritan New England. You are a moral pariah because you were a smoker.

(To be continued)


“…it is very important at this juncture that novels should not insist that somebody is right. Because when somebody is right, then someone else is wrong, and this gets us forgetting that we are all wrong, or, in some sense, right.”

Thomas Merton, The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends p. 47


Prescription – from Latin, pre - before, and scribere, to write. The word comes from Roman law and originally meant “to lay down a rule,” meaning legal rules or orders.


Store window, Atlanta, Georgia, 1966.

For those who may not be from the south, on the top row are various kinds of chewing tobacco. On the second, the small, round containers hold snuff, powdered tobacco that was either sniffed or placed between the lower lip and one's gums. This is how my grandmother "dipped" snuff, as she called it.