Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Support Our Troops?

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

Practically every day I see bumper stickers reading SUPPORT OUR TROOPS. I hear people being interviewed on television newscasts saying, “No matter how we as individuals may feel about the war in Iraq, we can all agree on how important it is to support our troops.” Each of the many seeking their party’s presidential nomination add their voices to the “Support our troops” chant.

I have been thinking about that sentence a lot. Maybe I’m just plain dumb, but I have no idea what it means. How can I be against the war and also support those fighting it? I ask the question as someone with a relative who is a graduate of West Point, and she is now serving in Afghanistan. I ask the question as someone whose brother was an Air Force career man, and who, in one of the great ironies of my life, was stationed in Thailand in 1967 during the Vietnam War while I was one of the first Americans to travel to North Vietnam where I watched that country being bombed from planes whose radar my brother serviced.

I am not indifferent to the loss of American and Iraqi lives, the staggering number of wounded U.S. soldiers who will be physically or mentally maimed for the rest of their lives, the disruption in the family lives of those who have been sent to Iraq for their second and third deployment, and the number of soldiers who are committing suicide.

But SUPPORT OUR TROOPS is an empty slogan that obfuscates (from a Latin root meaning “darkened”) the truth, a truth painful for many to face, namely, that our troops are risking and losing their lives in Iraq for absolutely nothing. Senator Barak Obama hinted at this a few months ago, and the media came down on him so hard that he did that rhetorical dance politicians do so well of saying he was misquoted, blah, blah, blah, support our troops blah, blah, blah. Americans need to believe that those oh so young men and women fighting in Iraq are there for a reason – for love of our country, to stop terrorism, to bring democracy, to keep America safe. The sad fact is that Americans are risking their lives and dying in Iraq for absolutely nothing.

If politicians had the moral courage to say this, if people would believe what they surely know, they would support our troops in the only way which makes sense, and that is through an outpouring of anger at those in power who conceptualized the war, advocated it, and voted and continue to vote to spend billions and billions of dollars to pursue a war the United States cannot win.

I do not understand why more Americans are not outraged over the meaningless loss of so many young lives, are not outraged that billions and billions of dollars are spent on an obscene and ridiculous war, while Brad Pitt has shown more caring about the fate of New Orleans than the federal government.



“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”

Mahatma Gandhi, Non-Violence in Peace and War


Anger - from Middle English, meaning, distress, grief, trouble, vex, hurt, wound. Around the 14th century the word acquired its present meaning, rage.

I wonder what happened that brought about the change in meaning. However, anyone who has suffered the death of a loved one has experienced how much of our grief is expressed as rage at the person for dying.

Maybe “supporting our troops” means experiencing grief for the dead and the maimed, American and Iraqi. Perhaps we cannot find our rage until we know our grief.


Cemetery and corn field, Whatley, Massachusetts

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My iPod

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I’ve had an iPod for almost a year now, and I adore it! I have spent hours and hours transferring my cd collection to the iPod, but only transferring the songs and compositions I want to hear. For the first time I am able to listen to just the music I want to listen to, as well as organize it as I want to. For example, the Handel Suite no. 3 in d minor has a lovely “Air with 5 variations”. I have versions for harpsichord, piano, and two guitars. I created a play list just for them and now can listen to each in succession. And so it is with numerous other works of music.

What an extraordinary age we live in. We are able to listen to more music than any people in history. How many times would we have to traverse the world to hear all the music available for a click on iTunes and emusic.com?

On my iPod there is music from Africa, especially Mali with its haunting music that is so close to the blues; there is Bach, of course, lots and lots and lots of Bach, Handel, who was called the “English Bach,” all of Chopin, and many other classical composers. There is jazz – the Modern Jazz Quartet, Carmen McRae, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and more.

Some of my children are beginning to ask for the things they want when I die. I've told them what they should be asking for is my iPod. Alas, none of my children have the abiding passion for music I’ve had since childhood. Maybe that's for the best.

The Pharaohs of Egypt were buried with golden vessels and statues and all they would need in the afterlife because ancient Egyptians believed life was so wonderful, how could it possibly ever end? I agree. Yesterday I told my wife to bury my iPod with me – just in case.


“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes -- ah, that is where the art resides!”

Artur Schnable, classical pianist, (1882-1951)


Nod-crafty – Nodding the head so as to appear wise.


Club window, New Orleans, 1966

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Death of Yolande King

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I was saddened to read Tuesday morning of the death of Yolande King, the first-born child of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King.

I’ve thought often about the King children as well as the children of Malcolm X and Betty Shabbaz, wondered what is it like to grow up without a father, and yet have your life dominated by that father? Do you ever have the opportunity to find out who you are separate from that father? Do you even know that you may have an identity separate from that father whose shadow falls across you like a net of fine mesh? Do you know that you do not have a duty to perpetuate the life of your martyred father? Or is the expectation that your life will exemplify the work and ideals of the father so overwhelming that you never have the opportunity to even imagine that you might have a separate identity?

Although my father was not even remotely as famous as the Kings, Malcolm X, and Betty Shabazz, he was a prominent minister in the communities where I grew up, and there was certainly the expectation by him and those communities that I would follow in his footsteps as he had followed in those of his minister father. I almost became a minister, but that urge, that need, that compulsion to write was stronger even than filial duty and my father’s enormous personality. But when I left my parents’ home in 1961, I did so when they were away. Only once did my father allude to how deeply he and my mother had been hurt to come home and find a note on the dining room table: “I have gone to New York.” I had to steal myself in order to become myself.

But my father did not die until I was 40. What is it like to steal your life from a martyred father, a figure whose life’s achievements you can never hope to equal? Perhaps you can’t have a life of your own. Perhaps all your life can ever be is an extension of that of the martyred parent to whose memory and work you devote your life.

I don’t know how it was for Yolande King, but her death saddened me.


“When a man lies dying, he does not die from disease alone. He dies from his whole life.”

Charles PĆ©guy


Pagezuar (Albanian) - The state of dying before enjoying the happiness that comes with being married or seeing one’s children married.


Selma, Alabama, 1966

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Books That Changed Your Life 10

Photograph © 2007 by Julius Lester

This week's contribution comes from Becky Levine

"I've been reading the responses to your question about books that changed one's life with interest and a bit of perplexity--it's the same feeling I get whenever anyone talks about this subject. Books as a whole have basically created my life, I think, as it is--it's always the first 'hobby' I write on any form or description of myself, although it feels more like a necessity or a nutrient than a hobby. I've never, though, felt like there was even one specific book that actually changed the way I live life or look at it.

Then, today, I realized that...FINALLY...that's not true. I feel like I get to come out on the playground and join everybody on the swing set! So here, for what it's worth, is my contribution.

For decades I have written--stories, some poems, a mystery novel that I worked on for way too many years without getting far enough. At the same time, of course, I read --novels, fantasy, lots of mysteries, but more and more for the last few years --children's fiction. I grew up with a mother who spent her childhood in England, and I've always gone back to The Secret Garden, Arthur Ransome's books, E. Nesbit, and, yes...Enid Blyton! Since my son was born, though, I think I've been on a journey of discovery--of the kids' books being written today, and I've fallen in love all over again.

Yet I kept writing that grown-up mystery.

Then I found a series I hadn't known about. Linda Bailey's Stevie Diamond mysteries--middle-grade mysteries. And in the sheer fun and lightness of Bailey's characters and stories, I made the biggest discovery. Or rediscovery.

I remembered what I wanted to write. A book that kids can leap into for escape, for pleasure, to laugh and to imagine. All with a little adventure thrown in.

For the past year, I've been working on a middle-grade mystery of my own. The progress I've made on it, through rewrite & rewrite, has been at light-speed compared to the years I spent on the older book. I was never in love with the characters in that book as I have been every day with the kids I'm writing about now.

It's the best playground.
Becky Levine
Writer & Editor


“Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one’s luck.” Iris Murdoch


Parlor – "the room in a house used for conversation which the family usually occupies, as distinguished from a drawing room intended for the reception of company."

Now houses have dens, media rooms, rec rooms. Do family conversations exist anymore? And if so, where in the house would they take place?


Two Boys Running. Atlanta, Georgia, 1966

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

My New Car

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I’ve always invested as little in a car as possible. My attitude was, it’s just a car, something to get me from one place to another and back home. But this time when I started thinking about getting rid of my 12 year old Saturn wagon, I let myself think about getting a car with a few amenities. At age 68 I know that the future is now.I did a lot of research on the Internet and finally decided on a 2007 all-wheel drive Volvo Cross Country wagon.

I have never had a car that did almost everything for me,leaving me free to enjoy the ride. The navigation system frees me from looking for street signs; the windshield wipers come on automatically on when it starts raining and adjust their speed according to how much rain is falling. The rearview mirror dims automatically if the headlights of the car behind shines on it. The dual climate controls bring even more happiness to my happy marriage.

The sensors on the front and rear bumpers beep when I am close to something and give a continuous tone when I am within nine inches of making contact. One of the car’s computers automatically calculates how many miles to the gallon I am getting as well as how many miles before I run out of gas.

The seats are leather as is the steering wheel and the dash. I have Sirius Satellite radio which I keep tuned to Channel 74, the blues station, a hookup for my iPod, as well as a 6 disc cd player, Dolby surround sound, with volume controls on the steering wheel.

The dealer did not have a car with my exact specifications and could not find one at any Volvo dealership in the country. So my car had to be made in Sweden.

I've been driving the car since February, and I am a changed driver. To my amazement, I obey the speed limits now, something I have never done in all the years I’ve driven.

But because the car is so comfortable, because the car is a joy to drive, getting to my destination as quickly as I can is no longer the object of driving. Now it is the ride itself. I am enjoying the journey, instead of focusing on getting to my destination as quickly as I can.

Enjoy the journey, whatever car you have. Enjoy the journey even if you don’t have a car.

Enjoy the journey.


Festina lente. Make haste slowly.

Augustus Caesar


Enjoy – from Old French enjoier, from Latin gaudere ‘rejoice’: “To be in joy, or in a joyous state; to manifest joy, exult, rejoice.”


My new car

Monday, May 7, 2007

Books That Changed Your Life 9

Photograph © 2007 by Julius Lester

Today's contribution to "Books that Changed Your Life" comes from Gal Adam, Oakland, California.

A few years ago, I took classes called Intuitive Development with a very intuitive and clairvoyant teacher. One of the ideas that remains from the class is the idea that all time happens at once. You can look at time as linear, as moving along a horizontal line from beginning to end with everything in between. Or you can look at it more vertically, as if everything that ever happened, is happening, and will ever happen is happening all at once. If you can grasp that, the notion of time traveling makes a lot of sense, as does deja vu, and that feeling of somehow knowing what's to come.

A few years after I took this class, I read The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I couldn't put it down. The love story was heart wrenching, and it is among the top five most beautiful love stories I've ever read.

But what I loved most, and what still haunts me when I think about it, is the way time moves in the story. The main character is an accidental time traveler and the love affair with the woman in the story happens across time, which doesn't move linearly but rather jumps around in a way that takes some surrender to grasp. It's so magical and amazing,I can't really think of a better way to describe it. It's a brilliant creation from the author's imagination - one of those books that makes me think, "I wish I'd thought of that!" Everyone should read this book.

I'd often time traveled in my mind, and after reading the book, I started using the term in conversation. I've said to my husband things like, "I know you're meant to do this, because when I've time traveled to the time when you've already done it, I see you there with two daughters (we have one so far) and we're all so proud of you." I think we should allow ourselves to travel through time a little more freely - it has definitely opened up my imagination to greater possibilities, and given me a sweet sense that it doesn't really matter how fast I am moving toward the end of my life if it's all happening at the same time.

One more time traveling story, and I really believe I traveled through time for a split second: I was sitting in the rocking chair nursing my daughter who was about 6 months old at the time. She'd fallen asleep, and I looked down and noticed her tiny hand resting gently on the middle of my forearm. I had a split second flash - of that same hand many years later, when she was in her 60s and I in my 90s, at the end of my life, that hand of hers resting on my arm, communicating that she was there and that I could let go when I was ready. In that moment in the rocking chair, I recognized my mortality, with tears in my eyes and peace in my heart, because it doesn't really ever end, does it?


“The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.”

Albert Einstein, "Letter to Michelangelo Besso, March 21, 1955 '


Accurate - 1) Executed with care; careful; 2) Exact, precise, correct, as the result of care.

What a pity that this word’s meaning has been reduced to measurements. Would that we were also concerned about being accurate in relationships, between persons, between nations.


Old Cemetery, Worthington, Massachusetts

Friday, May 4, 2007

Another Way to Make American Democracy More Democratic

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

Whenever I visit Washington, D.C., I always go to the National Gallery of Art. I went there first the summer of 1957 when I spent the summer in D.C. The National Gallery was the first place I saw original paintings by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Winslow Homer, and other artists whose work I knew only in books. Even now, fifty years later, I go there with the same sense of awe I had when I was 18.

My wife and I went twice when we were in D.C. a couple of weeks ago. I spent a lot of time with statues by Rodin, paintings by Winslow Homer, and a special exhibit of 19th and early 20th century photographs of Paris. It was quite thrilling to see original prints of Eugene Atget, one of my favorite photographers.

As we left the gallery I felt a real sense of pride that my taxes go to such a wonderful institution. If you’ve never been to D.C., one of the surprises is that the museums and galleries under Federal auspices do not charge admission – the National Gallery, the Smithsonian, the Museum of the American Indian, the National Botanical Garden, the National Archive, all free. All paid for from our tax dollars.

Walking down the steps from the National Gallery and heading across the mall, I thought: wouldn’t it be great if the tax laws were changed so that we could designate where we wanted our taxes to go? Not so much in specifics, like the National Gallery, but broadly – the arts, defense, highways, poverty, the environment, etc. It would be a sure way to know from year to year what is important to the American people. We spend money on what we value, on what is important to us. What we spend our money on tells us who we are, as individuals, as a nation.

I think every American would stop trying to find ways to pay as little in taxes as possible. I know I would gladly pay my taxes if I could legally designate how I wanted them used. And I believe every American would feel the same.

I know such a law will never be enacted. It’s more democracy than politicians could deal with. But what better way could there be of having a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”? What better way to free that sentiment from its lofty rhetoric and make it an everyday reality?


“The happiness of society is the end of government.”

John Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776


Taradiddle (noun) – A lie, pretentious nonsense

You may apply this to the politician of your choice, as in, “The President’s administration has been characterized by one taradiddle after another.”


New York City, 1966