Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Washington Post Neologisms

Each year the Washington Post has a neologism contest in which people are asked to give alternate meanings for common words. Here are my favorites from this year’s winners:

1. Coffee (n.): the person upon whom one coughs.

2. Negligent (adj.): describes a condition in which you absentmindedly answer the door in your nightgown.

3. Lymph (v.): to walk with a lisp

4. Gargoyle (n.): olive-flavored mouthwash

5. Testicle (n.): a humorous question on an exam

7. Pokemon (n.): a Rastafarian proctologist

8. Oyster (n.): a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

9. And, my personal favorite: Frisbeetarianism (n.), the belief that when you die, you soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

The Washington Post also invites readers to take a word, alter it by adding, subtracting or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Again, my favorites from this year’s winners:

1. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

2. Foreploy (v.): Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

3. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.

4. Inoculatte (v.): To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

5. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

6. Ignoranus (n.): A person who is both stupid and an asshole.

7. Karmageddon (n.): It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bette Davis-isms

One of the great actresses of the 20th century was Bette Davis (1908-1989). She made more than 100 films. Life Magazine wrote that she gave "probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S actress” in “Of Human Bondage” (1934). She won Academy Awards in 1935 (“Dangerous”) and again in 1938 (“Jezebel”). Today she is probably remembered most for her 1962 performance opposite Joan Crawford in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

She was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was the first actress to receive ten Academy Award nominations and the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. Kim Carnes's song, "Bette Davis Eyes", became a worldwide hit and the highest selling record of 1981 in the U.S.

In addition to being a fine actress, Betty Davis had a way with words. She was known as someone who always said what was on her mind. Here are some of my favorites from The Girl Who Walked Home Alone, the recently published biography based on extensive interviews with her.

“One must live in the present tense, but I have always lived in the present tensely.” p. 5

“I like to dust. Have you ever noticed the objects look back at you in a different way after you’ve dusted them?” p.9

“I’ve reached that time in life when I can afford to be more totally frank and forthcoming now that most of me is in the past.” p. 12

“Feelings can’t be promised. Actions can be promised, but not emotions.” p. 16

“Men never wanted me, or seemed to want me, for my mind. They didn’t pay much attention to my mind. That was hard on a person who was as brain-vain as I.” p. 16
“Until your children hate you, you haven’t been a good parent.” p. 17

“Your children are there but a few short years. They grow up and leave you, but the power they have over you lasts a lifetime.” p. 17

“There are four major reasons marriages fail: money, sex, intellectual incompatibility, and only one bathroom. I think bathrooms, or the lack of them, is one of the major causes of divorce….I mean, if there’s only one bathroom, God help you! So, it’s everyday annoyances and disagreements -- the little things -- that cause a bitterness that makes even sex difficult. Or, anyway, good sex.” p. 20-1

“Compatibility. That is the most important word in any relationship. Passion passes, you know. Passion is easier to find than compatibility.” p. 64

“Enthusiasm is one of life’s great blessings.” p. 73

“Ah’d love to kiss you, but Ah just washed mah hair.” (Line from her film “The Cabin in the Cotton.”) p. 83

“Ham [one of her husbands] chose to show his manhood in the only way he knew. He couldn’t earn more money. He wasn’t a good lover, although I didn’t know it then. But he did have the power over me to make me unhappy. He couldn’t give me happiness, but he could give me unhappiness.” p. 100

“Romance, passion, respect, and consideration. Sex is flat without that.” p. 122

“Willie was the only man I ever met whom I respected in every way. Lust with trust.” p. 133

“I thought I missed him, but what I really missed was Us.” p. 134

“A woman can live without sex, but not without the hope of sex.” p. 295

“Perhaps my sense of self was too well-developed. Perhaps my problem wasn’t loneliness, but only-ness.” p. 297

“Happiness should never be postponed. Life is the past, the present, and the perhaps.” p. 298

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Same-Sex Marriage in Massachusetts

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

During my childhood whenever I looked at a map of the United States, my eye always went to the state of Massachusetts sticking out into the ocean like a fish hook. Even the name sounded exotic, certainly more than the prosaic plainness of “Kansas” where I lived from ages two-to-fourteen. So I was not surprised when, in 1969, I found myself living on Martha’s Vineyard, and then, in 1971, I started teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

I love living in this state for many reasons. It is a place where history is revered and preserved – Lexington and Concord and the “shot heard ‘round the world”, as Emerson’s poem described the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Paul Revere’s Ride, Daniel Shay’s Rebellion. I liked reading in Emerson’s Journals that, on one of his treks, he walked through the small town where I live. More writers have lived in Massachusetts than probably any other state -- Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Wharton, and on and on. I love that, in 1972,the only state Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern carried was Massachusetts. And I am especially proud that last week, Massachusetts, the only state to recognize same-sex marriages, reaffirmed their legality.

However, until the legislature voted, it was not clear this would be the outcome. In Massachusetts, amending the state constitution requires the legislature to vote affirmatively in consecutive years to place an issue on the ballot for voters to decide. Only fifty legislators out of 196 need vote “aye”. Last year sixty-two legislators voted to put on the ballot that the constitution be amended to define marriage as being only heterosexual. This year there were only forty-five affirmative votes.

Although democracy is based on the principle of majority rule, it is anathema to me that people should be permitted to vote on the rights of others. As a black person I know that the majority can be wrong. Majority rule supported slavery. The racial segregation I lived under until I was twenty-two was instituted and upheld by majority rule. Majorities do not possess innate intelligence or compassion. All too often it is quite the opposite. So what changed in the Massachusetts legislature that permitted same-sex marriages to remain legal?

One was the election of a governor who aggressively supported such marriages, unlike the former governor, Mitt Romney (who, if the majority elects him president, will make George Bush look like a socialist). Another factor was the defeat in the last election of some legislators who were opposed to same-sex marriages. However, not enough were defeated to insure the affirmation of these marriages.

The third factor was that gay rights organizations in the state made it a point for undecided legislators to spend time with gay couples. This personal contact, this experience of seeing that gay couples were no different than heterosexual ones made the crucial difference.

While I am glad that legislators were open to changing their minds after meeting gay couples, I am also saddened that they could not use their imaginations and reach the same conclusion. Do we always have to have direct, personal experience before we can appreciate common elements in our humanity, before we have compassion for others?

One of the uses of literature is that it provides us with opportunities to live more lives than our own. Literature can extend our emotional vocabularies and enable us to increase the breadth and depth of our humanity.

But to do this, people must read more than TV Guide and US Weekly. And there’s the rub, as Hamlet said.

There’s the rub.


“Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.”

Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman


Compassion: from Latin com – together with + pati- to suffer.


Wedding cake toppers for same-sex weddings, Provincetown, Mass., 2004

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ovulation and How Women Dress

Photograph © 2007 by Julius Lester

According to a recent study by researchers at UCLA and the University of Wisconsin-Eau, “Near ovulation, women dress to impress. They tend to put on skirts instead of pants, show more skin, and generally dress more fashionably.”

Thirty co-eds in “committed relationships” were tracked through an “entire ovulation cycle”, were given urine tests to determine ovulation and each woman’s most fertile period was pinpointed. The women were “photographed from their most fertile to their least fertile period.”

Then, the women’s faces in the photographs were blacked out, and the photographs “presented to strangers (men and women) with the question, who is trying to look hot or not? Forty-two people participated and in 60 percent of the cases – a frequency well beyond random chance – the people picked the ‘highest fertility’ photo.”

“It seems that a subtle event in biochemistry has an observable and pretty dramatic impact on how women dress to impress when the chances to conceive are highest.”

"Spirituality & Health Magazine," March-April 2007, p. 36


“Dating is a social engagement with the threat of sex at its conclusion.”

P.J. O’Rourke


Puntare (Italian) – To stare intensely at the one to whom one feels sexually attracted.


New York City, 1965

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Thursday, June 7, 2007

What We Believe

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I have been watching and enjoying the Showtime presentation, “The Tudors,” a series on the life of the young Henry VIII. The show is a historical soap opera, and a good one, with wonderful costumes, music of the period, and exceptional acting.

When watching any such drama, I try to imagine living at the time. Invariably I end up being glad I am alive now because there were customs I could not abide. (Of course, if I had lived then, I would not have been the person I am now, but that's irrelevant.)

One aspect of Tudor society that would have driven me nuts was the absence of privacy. No one is ever wholly alone. The King is always surrounded by servants and various members of the aristocracy who do nothing, it seems, except hang out at court.

The other aspect that would have resulted in my early death via the guillotine was the king’s absolute power. Because it was believed that the king acted as God’s representative, his word was, quite literally, law. “I am your master!” the Henry VIII of “The Tudors” shouts more than once.

As I've watched the show each Sunday after "The Sopranos", I've wondered: why did people believe in the king to such a degree? And what happened in societies that no one today believes in the divine right of kings? How could a belief of such power, a belief entire populations held to be sacred, disappear?

And that leads me to wonder about the unquestioned beliefs of our time. The three major religions share a belief in one God. But there was a time when people believed in and worshiped a multiplicity of deities, male and female.

What happened to them? Did Isis, Demeter, Jupiter, and all the other deities of the ancient world disappear when people stopped believing in them? Or, do they still exist? Are they languishing in the ether waiting for people to believe in them again?

Or, perhaps they never existed, except as beliefs? Perhaps Jesus, the Holy Trinity, Adonai, and Allah do not exist either except in our beliefs. Perhaps we are only the sum total of our beliefs, and we equate our beliefs with Truth.

Five hundred years from now, will there be a TV series, “The Bushes,” and those watching it - as far removed in time from us as we are from the Tudors – wonder how we could have believed in a merciful and compassionate God and tolerated societies in which poverty, violence, corruption, and greed flourished?

What we believe determines what we value and how we act. It behooves us to examine and reexamine throughout the length of our days what those beliefs are. In doing so, hopefully we will grow to accept the possibility that our beliefs are merely that, beliefs. However all too often we equate our beliefs with Truth.

When that happens the earth becomes sodden with blood.


“We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe.”

John Henry Newman


Believe – In its root, believe means “hold dear, cherish, trust in.” Perhaps this is why so much of history is of warring belief systems. We “hold dear, cherish and trust in” what we belief. Thus, we see as a threat those who “hold dear, cherish and trust in” something other than what we did. Likewise, they see a threat to what they “hold dear, cherish and trust in.”

We need to stop cherishing what we believe.


New York City, 1966.
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Sunday, June 3, 2007

Buddhist Compassion and Bugs

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I'm not sure how long it has been since I started feeling guilty about killing bugs. For much of my life, my unthinking reflex was to smash with my hand or step on any insect that came near me. But once as I mashed some flying/crawling/biting whatever, I realized: one day I will be going about my business, and wham! a heart attack, stroke, truck, and before I know it, I'm as dead as that flying/crawling/biting thing I just killed.

Since that day I try not to unthinkingly mash or step on insects. If they are in the house, I try to catch them and take them outside. And if one alights on me when I'm outside, I will gently brush it away. However, in this new phase of having Buddhist compassion for all life, I am not a sentimentalist. Wasps and bees can hurt; ticks and other insects can carry diseases. And mosquitoes? Mosquitoes suck your blood and whine in your ear at 4 a.m.

Maybe the Dalai Lama has compassion for mosquitoes, but me? I smash every one I can! Still, I hope my death will not be so sudden and unexpected that I go from life to death and miss the dying.


"Today more than ever before life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life."

The Dalai Lama


In case saying "Shoo!"to a bothersome creature is not effective, you can try saying it in

Pashto (a language of Afghanistan and Pakistan) - Tsheghe Tsheghe
Spanish - Sape, or
German - Husch


Bug and Peony

Photographs are for sale:

$25 - 4x6 on 8x10 archival paper
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Prices include postage and handling.