Saturday, December 27, 2008

Books Read, 2008 - Ones I Didn't Like - 2

As I've written here previously, I read a lot of mysteries. I've been a fan of the genre since I discovered the Perry Mason novels of Erle Stanley Gardner when I was fourteen.

Writing mysteries is like eating Lay's potato chips: you can't just write one. The dedicated reader of mysteries expects their favorite authors to publish a book every year, or they'll lose interest in the series and find other authors.

However, it is almost inevitable that the writer of a mystery series will grow tired of the detective who is the focal of the series, run out of interesting plots, or just plain get bored. And three of my favorite mystery writers published books this year they should not have.

I've read all of Patricia Cornwell's novels about Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner. Cornwell's novels are known for the forensic details the author brings to the novels, as well as complex plots and an interesting group of core characters. One reads Cornwell as much for the changes in the lives of Scarpetta, her lover, an FBI profiler, her niece, a wealthy, gay computer geek, and the retired policeman who works for Scarpetta and is in love with her, something she never notices.

Book of the Dead is an unbelievably bad book. Where Cornwell almost always writes from the point-of-view of Scarpetta, in this novel she uses third person omniscient, which could be a sign that she is bored and needs a new way to tell a story. But this change in p.o.v. only confuses a boring story. She either had a deadline to meet, or she is taking her readers for granted and thinking we will like anything she writes. I’m glad I got this one on my Kindle and didn’t pay as much for it as I would've paid if I'd bought in hard cover.

Bad, bad, bad.

One of my favorite mystery authors is Archer Mayor. His series centers around a Vermont policeman named Joe Gunther, and Mayor brings a thoughtfulness and compassion to Gunther that is very different for a mystery. His latest, The Catch, like Cornwell's book, uses multiple points of view, which is a radical departure for Mayor. The strength of the series is Joe Gunther's decency, and the reason I like the novels is that I like spending time with Gunther.

In this novel the reader is taken inside the minds of the criminals as well as other policemen, but Mayor doesn't make us care about them. In addition, most of the novel takes place in Maine rather than Vermont. When writing about Vermont, where Mayor lives, he is obviously writing about what he knows. But Maine is not embedded in his psyche like Vermont is. I could tell he'd done a lot of research about Maine but I didn't get the feeling that he loves Maine. I felt I was reading his research.

The worst aspect of the book is that the reader is taken on a wild goose chase. A policeman is murdered in Vermont. Because the suspected killer is a drug dealer, the trail seems to lead to Maine. But the murder was committed by the policeman's former mother-in-law and could have been solved in the first 15 pages.

As a reader, I felt disrespected.

The third writer is Bill Moody, a jazz pianist. He does not write a book a year, and his latest, Shades of Blue is only his sixth in this series featuring Evan Horne, a jazz pianist, who finds himself in situations that involve not only having to solve a murder but also some mystery in the history of jazz.

The series is interesting because Moody writes about jazz from the inside, being a practicing musician, and his descriptions of improvisation as well as his insights into the music are always interesting.

In this novel the main story line does not deal with solving a murder but on searching for the widow of his mentor. He learns, however, that the widow is his actual mother and his mentor was his father. This part of the novel is really good, but Moody mucks a fine story up with two unnecessary subplots.

One subplot deals with a grad student from UCLA who had been taking care of his mentor’s dog. Evan inherits the house, meets the grad student, and they develop a very nice relationship, the grad student obviously falling in love with Evan. This creates a little tension because Evan has a girl friend, an FBI agent whom I don’t like, whom Evan isn’t sure of. Out of the blue the grad student is killed accidentally. I felt Moody didn’t know what to do with the developing relationship between Evan and the girl, didn’t want to have to deal with her in the next book, so he killed her off. I thought it was a cheap trick to kill off a character Moody had made the reader really like.

The second subplot is even too dumb to mention. Neither subplot supported the main plot. It was like Moody felt like he didn’t have enough material for a book so he padded it with subplots which sabotaged what could have been an even more moving story.

Cornwell has a new novel out, Scarpetta, but I don't think I'll read this one as the reviews I've seen have been very negative. However, I'm hoping that Mayor and Moody return to form in their next novels.

Next time I'll write about mystery writers whose books I read this year and loved.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Chanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas

Chanukkah is not a major holiday on the Jewish calendar. But in America, Chanukkah is attaining a significance that is changing it from the commemoration it was intended to be into a commemoration of the exact opposite.

First, the history. It is the second century, B.C.E. Palestine is under the control of the Greeks, and the Greeks have brought with them their culture and civilization, in other words, their value system. The Greeks understood that the most effective way to conquer a people is not by military might alone. Instead combine military might with persuading the people to accept your value system, to make your way of life attractive.

The Greek way of life became so attractive that Jews began changing their names to Greek ones. In Jewish cemeteries Greek inscriptions began appearing on headstones rather than Hebrew ones. Jews became so fluent in Greek that they could no longer read the Torah in Hebrew. The Greeks loved masculine beauty and would exercise and participate in athletics in the nude. Some Jewish men were so eager to be accepted into Greek society that they had operations to have their circumcisions reversed by having a piece of skin reattached so they could exercise in the nude and pass for Greek.

However, trouble ensued when the Greeks set up statues of Greek deities in the Temple in Jerusalem. They went into villages with pigs and demanded the Jews worship the animal. In one such village, however, when a Jew stepped forward to bow to the pig, a Jew named Mattityahu stepped forward and killed him. Thus began the revolt that eventually led to the reclamation of the Temple, its cleansing of idolatry, and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days.

The war that led up to the reclamation of the Temple represent the first instances in world history of what we now call guerilla warfare, and the tactics used in that war are taught to this day at West Point. That war also represents the first time in history that a people fought for the right of religious freedom. In other words, Jews fought for the right to live and worship as Jews.

Because of Chanukkah's proximity to Christmas, Chanukkah, the Jewish holiday which was a rebellion against assimilation, is becoming the holiday of assimilation.

While I can understand the good intentions of Gentiles wishing me a "Happy Chanukkah," I have problems when Jews do it. In a Jewish context, the words are meaningless. The word, Chanukkah, means "dedication", dedication to Jewish values. Unfortunately, the eight day observance is becoming a dedication to assimilation. And nothing represents that more than the increasing proliferation of the word, "Chrismukkah".

It will not be too many more years before Christmas and Chanukkah will each be devoid of meaning.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Monday, December 22, 2008

Books Read, 2008 - Ones I Didn't Like - 1

As I've written in previous blogs, I keep a personal "commonplace book" in which I write about the books I read and record the sentences and paragraphs I underlined. I try to read at least a book a week, and this year I read fifty-five.

I'll begin with books I really, really didn't like:

Foreskin's Lament by Shalom Auslander:

Auslander was raised as an Orthodox Jew with a yeshiva (religious school) education. The book is his screed against his upbringing. It is supposed to be funny, and in places, it is. But overall, this is an angry, ugly book.

He details his early rebellion against kashrut [the laws that govern what an observant Jew can and cannot eat] by sneaking off to eat non-kosher foods, his love of pornography, and most of all, his disgust with the concept of God as the Being who metes out punishment for every little violation of Jewish law.

What is clear is that Auslander never had a religious experience. If a religion is nothing more to you than restrictive rules, I suppose one response is Auslander’s.

Perhaps my response would be different if I were younger, or if were a born Jew. But I am neither and I found this to be an unpleasant book.

In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson by Sue Erikson Boland

This was an odd book. I was looking forward to reading it because I’d read Robert Coles's book on Erikson, as well as Erikson’s books on Martin Luther, Gandhi and his book on childhood and society, These books were important to me in my own attempts to forge my identity.

His daughter’s book addresses the disparity between her experience of her father and that of the many who idolized him. The Erik Erikson who wrote with such insight about childhood was not much of a father. The disparity between her father’s image and his actuality as a father leads her to what becomes her life’s work - an analysis of fame and how people project onto the famous their need for heroes.

I didn’t find what she had to say about fame, the famous and projections to be very original or insightful. And, though she wrote more than once that she loved her father, the love does not come through. That Erikson was not as good a person as his words did not surprise me or bother me. But she does not include any of his words, and perhaps there was a good reason.

Once she was going to deliver a paper about her father to a group of colleagues, a paper that eventually led to this book. She began by playing a videotape of her father speaking. Too late she realized that she had lost her audience because they were totally captivated by her father. If she had included excerpts from his writings in this book, readers might not have believed her words about him. But including some of her father’s words would have given a more balanced experience of him.

When I finished the book I wondered why she'd written it, or, perhaps more important, why she published it. I sure she would find it ironic that all she accomplished for me was to make me want to look again at his books and Coles's biography to see what I'd underlined in them, and I recall that I underlined a lot. Erikson's writings were crucial in my journey to defining myself.

She does admit, however, that her older brother, Kai, had a very different relationship with their father because Kai became a prominent sociologist, and he could talk with his father about things that interested them both. I would have found the book to be more honest if she could have acknowledged that she was writing as much, if not more, about herself and not her father.

Reading the book I could not help trying to imagine what one of my children might write about me, if their memories of me as a father would be a record of all I did not do that they wished I had? In so many relationships, the hurts we experienced live within us for decades, and the joys, that were part of the same relationships, are scarcely remembered, or, if remembered, have little meaning for us.

I hope that my children will be merciful to my memory, when that is all that remains of me, that they will know that I did my best. And if my best was not good enough for them, that is neither my fault nor theirs. This is merely what it is to be human.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

An Apology and Words

Well, it seems that the economy recovery program I supported in my previous blog was based on poor arithmetic and wishful thinking. Several people e-mailed to point out that however many trillion it was divided by however many million results in $425 per person, not $425,000. Well, it was fun to fantasize about.

Words. The Times of London reports that Collins Dictionary has announced that it is going to drop some words because they are no longer used. Well, how can we use a word if we don't know it exists? Here are the words, some of which I can definitely use.

Abstergent: Cleansing or scouring

The word itself sounds cleansing.

Agrestic: Rural; rustic; unpolished; uncouth

I can now tell someone they're being uncouth, and they'll think it's a compliment.

Apodeictic: Unquestionably true by virtue of demonstration

I have no idea what this means. Collins can take it out.

Caducity: Perishableness; senility

If I can remember this word, it'll prove I'm not senile.

Caliginosity: Dimness; darkness

Compossible: Possible in coexistence with something else

Embrangle: To confuse or entangle

I need this word. I get embrangled a lot.

Exuviate: To shed (a skin or similar outer covering)

Fatidical: Prophetic

Fubsy: Short and stout; squat

Has something of the onomatopoetic about it.

Griseous: Streaked or mixed with grey; somewhat grey

Malison: A curse

Mansuetude: Gentleness or mildness

Muliebrity: The condition of being a woman

I had to look this one up. It comes from the Latin muliebris and means, "the female genitalia." In the Merriam Webster Unabridged muliebrity is defined as "the state of being a woman, or of possessing full womanly powers."

Niddering: Cowardly

Nitid: Bright; glistening

Olid: Foul-smelling

Oppugnant: Combative, antagonistic or contrary

One of my favorites. Makes me think of the kind of person who, no matter what you say, takes the opposite side because they like playing "devil's advocate". Instead of telling him or her to stop being an asshole, I can say "Don't be oppugnant."

Periapt: A charm or amulet

Recrement: Waste matter; refuse; dross

Roborant: Tending to fortify or increase strength

Skirr: A whirring or grating sound, as of the wings of birds in flight

I love this word. A true onomatopoeia. It reminds me of one of my favorite words - drizzle. I just love the sound of that word whether it's drizzle rain or if a recipe says "drizzle butter...." Which reminds me of my favorite onomatopoeia, ronron which is French for a cat's purr. Say it with that French "r" rolling from the throat and it sounds exactly like a cat.

Vaticinate: To foretell; prophesy

Vilipend: To treat or regard with contempt

I hope there's a word here that you can adopt. I hate to think of a word dying.

Julius Lester

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

An Economic Recovery Plan That Would Work

This economic recovery plan comes from someone named Bill Searle. I do not know who he is. It was sent to me by a college classmate, Lesley Green Huffaker. If you like it, share it with as many people as you can. It certainly makes sense to me.

My Dear Fellow Americans ,

I'm against the $85,000,000,000.00 bailout of AIG. Instead, I'm in favor of giving $85,000,000,000 to America in a We Deserve It Dividend.

To make the math simple, let's assume there are 200,000,000 bonafide U.S. Citizens 18+. Our population is about 301,000,000 +/- counting every man, woman and child.. So 200,000,000 might be a fair stab at adults 18 and up. So divide 200 million adults 18+ into $85 billion that equals $425,000.00. My plan is to give $425,000 to every person 18+ as a We Deserve It Dividend..

Of course, it would NOT be tax free. So let's assume a tax rate of 30%. Every individual 18+ has to pay $127,500.00 in taxes. That sends $25,500,000,000 right back to Uncle Sam. But it means that every adult 18+ has $297,500.00 in their pocket. A husband and wife has $595,000.00. What would you do with $297,500.00 to $595,000.00 in your family?

Pay off your mortgage - housing crisis solved.

Repay college loans - what a great boost to new grads

Put away money for college - it'll be there

Save in a bank - create money to loan to entrepreneurs.

Buy a new car - create jobs

Invest in the market - capital drives growth

Pay for your parent's medical insurance - health care improves

Enable Deadbeat Dads to come clean - or else

Remember this is for every adult U S Citizen 18+ including the folks who lost their jobs at Lehman Brothers and every other company that is cutting back. And of course, for those serving in our Armed Forces.

If we're going to re-distribute wealth let's really do it instead of trickling out a puny $1000.00 ( 'vote buy' ) economic incentive that is being proposed by one of our candidates for President(Obama).

If we're going to do an $85 billion bailout, let's bail out every adult U S Citizen 18+!

As for AIG - liquidate it. Sell off its parts. Let American General go back to being American General. Sell off the real estate. Let the private sector bargain hunters cut it up and clean it up. Here's my rationale. We deserve it and AIG doesn't.

Sure it's a crazy idea that can 'never work.' But can you imagine the Coast-To-Coast Block Party! How do you spell Economic Boom?

I trust my fellow adult Americans to know how to use the $85 Billion. We Deserve It Dividend more than I do the geniuses at AIG or in Washington DC.

And remember, The Searle plan only really costs $59.5 Billion because $25.5 Billion is returned instantly in taxes to Uncle Sam.

PS: Feel free to pass this along to your pals as it's either good for a laugh or a tear or a very sobering thought on how to best use $85 Billion!!

When told the reason for Daylight Saving time the old Indian said...'Only a white man would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket and sew it to the bottom of a blanket and have a longer blanket.'


Bill Searle

The Economic Crisis

The current economic disaster shows just how rapacious a system capitalism is. Why are millions of people having their lives destroyed? Because a minority of people thought only of themselves and satisfying their lust for money. It's really just that simple. The central idea of capitalism is that the individual is more important than the group, and that the highest principle is the satisfaction of greed. And nothing is going to change until these precepts are overturned and replaced by ones that say the individual and the group are of equal importance, and the highest principle is compassion.

By definition, capitalism appeals to our most narrow self-interests. Capitalism makes a virtue of selfishness. Capitalism makes greed sacred. Capitalism preaches that it is better to be in debt than it is to save. Capitalism makes us crave THINGS, and we go into debt in order to buy THINGS. The economy needs us to BUY THINGS. And, worst of all, perhaps, capitalism has convinced us that this is the best way to live, and dammit, we seem to be convincing the rest of the world of this.

Maybe out of the current economic debacle, more and more people will begin to see the capitalism primarily benefits a minority and pacifies the majority with THINGS and dreams that one day members of the majority can join the wealthy minority.

Tomorrow, I'll pass on an economic plan someone passed on to me from someone who passed it to her. I hope you'll pass it on to others.

And even though Barack Obama believes in capitalism, as of 2 A.M. (EST), I'm still happy that in 49 days, 10 hours and 1 minutes, he will become the 44th president.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Friday, November 28, 2008

Why Black Americans Are Indebted to White Americans

One of the real ironies of Barack Obama's election to the presidency is that it was white Americans who recognized and believed in this possibility long before blacks. I remember getting e-mails in January from two white friends in California who were raving about Obama and wanted to know if I'd read his books. They were already working for his campaign and kept telling me that I had to read his books.

But like most blacks, I didn't think a black man had a chance of being elected president, especially a black man with a foreign name. To be honest, I think the initial black response to Obama's chances came not only from our perception of a racist white America. That initial black response came also from residual feelings of black inferiority. President-elect Obama was quite right when he said that white America was not ready for someone like him, and neither was black America.

But when Obama won the Iowa caucuses, I and other blacks started to pay attention. We knew that the number of blacks in Iowa numbered between zero and one, excepting Des Moines and the towns where the University of Iowa and Iowa State were located. Iowa got our attention but we were not yet believers. However, we became believers after Obama's wins in the Super Tuesday primaries, and especially after Bill Clinton started attacking Obama personally.

So, this is a thanks to all those white Americans who believed that Obama could become president and worked to make it happen when most blacks thought they and Obama were a little crazy. My personal history of growing up under racial segregation and my involvement in the civil rights movement to overthrow racial segregation limited my ability to perceive the new movement of change being born before my eyes.

But when my eyes began to see truly, my heart was made glad and it becomes gladder and gladder with each day's sunrise.

Oh, by the way, at 1:54 a.m. (EST) it is 53 days, 10 hours and 5 minutes before Barack Obama becomes president.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I Give Thanks for my iPod Touch

For my wedding anniversary at the end of August, I bought two iPods, one for my wife and one for myself. I already had a previous generation iPod, but when I learned that I could download a French dictionary to the iPod Touch, I was sold.

I had thought I would fill this iPod with music as I had done with my previous one, but the iPod Touch is an entirely different experience. It has changed my life. First, there is the convenience of internet access. When I'm sitting in my chair and need a particular piece of information, I simply Google what I'm looking for on my iPod Touch, and within seconds, I have it. In addition to internet access, I have an address book, calculator, notepad, calendar, and then, there are the applications created for the iPhone and iPod Touch, and for those who don't know, the iPod Touch is an iPhone without the phone.

On my iPod I have the American Heritage Dictionary, Roget's Thesaurus, the Oxford Concise Dictionary and Thesaurus, two French dictionaries, two e-Book reading programs, a database into which I've put all the books from my upstairs library so when I'm in a bookstore, I can check to see if I have the book already. Other programs on my iPod Touch are The Weather Channel, which tells me not only the temperature but how cold it actually feels, two programs which give me still shots and videos from Fashion Week in New York, London, Milan, and Paris, WebMD, a couple of astrology programs, and a Channukah Menorah whose candles will not drip wax. Oh, yes, and also a solitaire app which contains I don't know how many games of solitaire. The program keeps track of the number of hours you've played a game. I will not tell you how many
hours I've racked up so far on just two games.

Some iPod apps are free, and prices for others range from $.99 to $35.00 for the Concise Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus.

And the most wonderful thing of all about the iPod Touch is that you do whatever you want to do by the merest of touches on the screen. I find myself touching other things now and being surprised that nothing happens.

But, what led to all of this praise for the iPod Touch is this: As I type, my iPod Touch is informing me that there are 54 days, 9 hours, and 22 minutes until the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. Behind the digital counter are photos of Obama that change as well as quotations from his books and speeches which also change. This is a free application in the Entertainment Directory of the App Store at iTunes.

So, on this Thanksgiving I sit here and watch the Obama Inaugural Countdown on my iPod Touch and just smile, smile, smile as the seconds counter speeds along.

I give thanks for my iPod Touch which brings me joy every day.

And, I give thanks for you who read my words and tell me that they mean something to you.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Slow Blogs

In this past Sunday's New York Times, there was an article about what seems to be a new "movement" in the blogsphere, which is "slow blogs." I'm glad someone has come up with a respectable name and made a "movement" out of something which came to me naturally, which is, only writing this blog when I feel like it.

The problem with blogs is becoming snared by the desires of others who want you to post something everyday, or at least more frequently than once a month. While I am flattered that people want to read about what I'm thinking, my motto since I retired at the end of 2003 is something I saw on a T-shirt: "I don't want to. I don't have to, and you can't make me. I'm retired." The beauty of being retired, for me, at least, is not having the pressure of being obligated to do something. Each day my time is there to be shaped according to my desires and no one else's.

Now that I have a name for my approach to blogging, I am hereby informing you that just because I don't post anything for a month or two, it's all right. This is a slow blog.


It appears that political "progressives" are upset with Barack Obama even before he is sworn in because he is not adhering to their agenda. They fail to understand that Obama is not an ideologue; he is a problem solver, and if ideas from political conservatives help him solve problems, he will apply those ideas. What is important is solving problems. We do not need a continuation of the last eight years when adherence to ideology created problems more complex and devastating than any in my almost seventy years. To substitute adherence to "progressive" ideology for that of conservatives would not constitute substantive change.

I am pleased that Obama wants Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State. He is showing us that you can have sharp differences with someone and still work closely with them. It has been a long time since we've had someone in the White House who welcomes ideas that don't mirror his own. It has been a long time since we've had someone in the White House who was not an absolutist, and "progressives" can be as absolutist as conservatives. Both create an atmosphere of a righteous Us against a nefarious Them.

I do not want a president who seems himself as leading a crusade. I am grateful that we will have a president who wants to clean the air and rivers, make bridges and highways safe, and help us feel secure and at peace in our homes. I am grateful that we will have a president who will leave us alone to believe whatever we want to believe.

And this Thanksgiving I will also express my deep and sincere gratitude that George Herbert Walker Bush will very soon no longer be president of this country.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Observations Post-Election - 3

Barack and Michelle Obama were on "Sixty Minutes" Sunday evening for the entire hour. I cannot remember ever liking a president. I like this man. I believe that the man I see and experience is the man as he is. He is someone I could imagine having a conversation with. He is someone I could imagine inviting to my house, and those who know me know that I hardly ever invite anyone to my house.

I have been thinking about the massive outpouring of emotion at his election, not only here in the United States but around the world. I cannot think of any head of state whose election to office has been responded to by universal hope. Our despair was deeper than we knew that his election brought forth our tears, brought forth a deep exhalation and a relaxing of muscles that have been tensed for the past eight years.

Can one man withstand the weight of the world's hopes? I am convinced that this man can. I am so convinced because he is rooted in his family. I believe it was the French writer, Stendahl, who said, "Be as bourgeois in your life as possible so as to be as revolutionary in your work as possible."

What a wonderful feeling it is to trust the president of the United States. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president when I was born, but the first one I remember is Harry Truman. This is the first time I have given my trust to the man sitting in the Oval House. And he will not abuse that trust. Of this, I am sure.

Julius Lester
© 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

In A Lighter Vein - 2

One sunny day in late January, 2009 an old man approached the White House from across Pennsylvania Avenue, where he'd been sitting on a park bench. He spoke to the U.S. Marine standing guard and said, "I would like to go in and meet with President Bush."

The Marine looked at the man and said, "Sir, Mr. Bush is no longer president and no longer resides here."

The old man said, "Okay" and walked away.

The following day, the same man approached the White House and said to the same Marine, "I would like to go in and meet with President Bush."

The Marine again told the man, "Sir, as I said yesterday, Mr. Bush is no longer president and no longer resides here." The man thanked him and, again, just walked away.

The third day, the same man approached the White House and spoke to the very same U.S. Marine, saying "I would like to go in and meet with President Bush."

The Marine, understandably agitated at this point, looked at the man and said, "Sir, this is the third day in a row you have been here asking to speak to Mr. Bush. I've told you already that Mr. Bush is no longer the president and no longer resides here. Don't you understand?"

The old man looked at the Marine and said, "Oh, I understand. I just love hearing it."

The Marine snapped to attention, saluted, and said, "See you tomorrow, Sir."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In A Lighter Vein

These were posted on a list I'm on, and I wanted to pass them on. You do the same.

TEACHER: Maria, go to the map and find North America .
MARIA: Here it is.
TEACHER: Correct. Now class, who discovered America ?
CLASS: Maria.

TEACHER: John, why are you doing your math multiplication on the
JOHN: You told me to do it without using tables.

TEACHER: Glenn, how do you spell 'crocodile?'
TEACHER: No, that's wrong
GLENN: Maybe it is wrong, but you asked me how I spell it.

TEACHER: Donald, what is the chemical formula for water?
TEACHER: What are you talking about?
DONALD: Yesterday you said it's H to O.

TEACHER: Winnie, name one important thing we have today that we
didn't have ten years ago.

TEACHER: Glen, why do you always get so dirty?
GLEN: Well, I'm a lot closer to the ground than you are.

TEACHER: Millie, give me a sentence starting with 'I.'
MILLIE: I is..
TEACHER: No, Millie..... Always say, 'I am.'
MILLIE: All right... 'I am the ninth letter of the

TEACHER: George Washington not only chopped down his father's
cherry tree, but also admitted it. Now, Louie, do you know why his
father didn't punish him?
LOUIS: Because George still had the axe in his hand.

TEACHER: Now, Simon, tell me frankly, do you say prayers before
SIMON: No sir, I don't have to, my Mom is a good cook.

TEACHER: Clyde , your composition on 'My Dog' is exactly the same
as your brother's. Did you copy his?
CLYDE : No, sir. It's the same dog.

TEACHER: Harold, what do you call a person who keeps on talking
when people are no longer interested?
HAROLD: A teacher

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Shape of Things to Come

In Monday's New York Times there is an article, "Obama Weighs Quick Undoing of Bush Policy" which outlines some of the actions President-Elect Obama is planning to enact by executive order when he takes office. Indeed, in August, before he had been formally nominated at the Democratic convention, a transition team was already at work going over executive orders signed by President Bush that Obama could countermand by executive order. Among these are limits on stem cell research and the expansion of oil and gas drilling into national parks, the latter announced last week by Bush.

As I read the article I remembered one charge made by Hilary Clinton and John McCain was that they would be ready on Day One, that they would not need "on the job training". Guess what? Obama is going to be ready before Day One.

The Times article stated that on Bush's first full day in office, he reinstated an executive order prohibiting taxpayer money from "being given to international family planning groups that perform abortions and provide abortion counseling." This EO will probably be overturned by Obama.

The change that a great majority of us were aching for was a change from an ideologically based presidency in which allegiance was given to abstract principles that showed no compassion for the impact of its ideology on the lives of people. Bush is a true believer, and is no different than the Taliban mullahs, Iranian ayatollahs, and all the other religious and political tyrants who have made millions suffer in the name of their religions.

January 21, 2009 cannot come fast enough!

Julius Lester

Friday, November 7, 2008

Observations Post-Election - 2

During the Democratic party primaries, one of the things Hillary Clinton criticized Obama for was his ability to use words, and John McCain repeated this from time to time. I, for one, am looking forward to listening to a president who uses language well, who speaks in a way that inspires people.

What Clinton and McCain failed to recognize was that words are not merely words. Words are action when they touch our hearts and make us want to do better, to be better. To stand in the Lincoln Memorial and read the words of Abraham Lincoln, to stand in the Jefferson Memorial and read the words of Thomas Jefferson is almost a religious experience because their words lift our souls out of the day-to-day and into the realm of the ideals that have shaped our nation, ideals that have been lost, especially over the last eight years.

It will be good to have a president who understands that an important part of his task is to reintroduce us to these ideals. The words with which we think about another, the words we use to talk about another determine how we treat another.

President-elect Obama's words will be chief among his most important actions.

Julius Lester
© 2008

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Observations Post-Election

Watching the coverage Tuesday night after Obama was declared to be our next president, I was most moved by the number of people in the streets of America's cities. I cannot recall any election of a president that elicited such an outpouring of emotion. Seeing those faces and especially the expressions on the faces of the young took me back to the 1960s and what it was to feel like you were a part of history, that you had been a part of bringing about significant and meaningful change.

As I watched I also couldn't help remembering that the last time I was in Grant Park in Chicago was in 1968 during the Democratic convention when police rained violence on people who had gathered in peaceful protest against the war in Vietnam. I was covering the convention for radio station WBAI-FM in New York and sensing that violence was in the air, I got my black behind out of the park before the police attacked. I much preferred the images on my television screen last night.

It is wonderful to feel hopeful again, to feel that there will be a man in the White House whose allegiance is to people and not ideology, who will listen to those who disagree with him, who acknowledges that good ideas can come from those who disagree with him as well as those who agree.

Whether those who disagree with Obama will respond to his appeals for civility remain to be seen. I was speaking with another daughter today who lives in Denver. Outside a mall she visited on Wednesday stood people dressed in black who were saying that Tuesday was a sad day for America, and they were already preparing bumper stickers reading, "Don't Blame Me. I voted for McCain."

Obviously the damage done to our nation by eight years of George Bush will not be healed in the next four or eight years. Perhaps it will not be healed until a generation of people who fear change die off. No matter. The election of Obama is a revolutionary change in our society, not primarily because he is black but because of his values.

As I said to my wife a while back, if Obama wins, he'll be our first woman president. Who would've ever dreamed she would take the form of a black man.

Julius Lester
© 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I'm Back

I wasn't sure why I stopped writing here. I thought it might have something to do with my anxiety about the outcome of the presidential election. A few hours ago when it was announced that Obama had won, and I cried, I felt that I was ready to write here again.

My joy at Obama's election has little to do with the fact that I am black and he is black. Yes, I never thought I'd live to see a black man as president. But if a black
man had been elected tonight who shared John McCain's political philosophy, I would have cried for entirely different reasons.

My joy at Obama's election has much more to do with the fact that he is thoughtful and compassionate. As my daughter said on the phone a few minutes ago, "He's not a politician; he's a leader." And it has been a long, long time since we've had a leader in this country.

Now, there's a new anxiety which I'm sure I share with many. Will Obama be allowed to live until this night in 2012? There are forces in this country that hate him far more than I hate the present occupant of the White House. Will we once more have our hopes and dreams shattered by a bullet from a rifle? Or, will even those who are in as much despair tonight as I was on this night eight years ago and four years ago, will they come to see that Barack Obama is a decent man, a man who, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "increase tenderness in the world."

I certainly hope so -- for my sake and theirs.

Julius Lester

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Election

For the first time in many, many years, this year's presidential election does not put us in the position of having to choose the "lesser of two evils". The choices are as clear cut as they can be. Do you want to continue living in the past, or are you willing to take a chance on the unknown future? Do you choose a world view that believes in war as a diplomatic tool, that believes in imposing American ideals on other nations so that the United States can more easily exploit that country's natural resources? Or, do you choose a world view that believes it is a sign of strength to talk with one's enemies?

Do you choose a man who is so cynical that he chooses a woman as a running mate simply because she is a woman? Or do you choose a man who did not take the easy and more popular course and choose a woman?

The so-called political pundits are maintaining the McCain's choice of Governor Palin has changed the course of the presidential race. Nonsense! Do McCain and the pundits really think that Clinton's women supporters are going to vote for him because he is running with a woman who is opposed to abortion even when a woman's life is endangered? McCain's choice of Palin is sexist because there are many people in the Republican Party who are as reactionary as she is and could have been his running mate. The only reason she's on the ticket is because she's female.

The pundits are saying that Obama must be careful in how his campaign responds to her. Nonsense! Obama responds to her by calling her what she is - a right-wing zealot who would do her best to get Rowe v. Wade overturned and to give Alaska and the environment to the oil companies.

Given Palin's lack of experience, it is likely that the attacks on Obama's alleged inexperience will diminish. Even if this is true, the point which the Obama camp has not made is that experience in government is the problem. Dick Cheney has 40 years of experience in government from being a congressman to Gerald Ford's Chief of Staff to being Secretary of Defense before becoming Vice-President. If the past 8 years is what experience gives us, then it is past time to choose experience of a different kind, and that is experience that is not rooted in the past but experience that sees the complexities of the present and the challenges of the future.

I am two years and five months younger than John McCain. He and I have this in common: we have more years behind us than in front of us. Indeed, our memories exceed the number of years Obama has been alive. I feel much better with someone as President who has more of his life ahead of him. He will care about the future in ways that neither John McCain nor I can. We don't have a stake in the future beyond the next twenty or so years.

While McCain and I belong to the same generation, I cannot entrust the future to a man who has never experienced the Internet, who has no conception of how the Internet has significantly changed the ways we live in and think about the world. Is John McCain even aware that in the next ten years, it is probable that most newspapers will cease to exist? I bought an iPod touch a couple of weeks ago, and it has revolutionized how I organize my life. John McCain is as obsolete as a quill pen.

This is a crossroads election for the United States. If McCain wins or is able to steal the election as Bush did twice, I believe the nation will become as divided as it was at the time of the Civil War. While Obama's world view is broad enough to include portions of McCain's, McCain's world view is narrow and moralistic in the worst sense. His election will cause millions of people to become not only disaffected with the system but antagonistic to it.

I do not know what form(s) a new civil war would take, but I am convinced that a McCain victory will lead to a war between the past and the future.

If so, count me in. But, dear God, I pray it does not come to that.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Different Kind of Olympic Games

I wonder what it would feel like to watch an Olympics where there were no flags, where nothing indicated what nation athletes were from. I wonder what it would feel like to watch an Olympics in which the athletes were not representing the hope and the pride of their respective nations. I wonder what it would feel like to watch an Olympics only to admire the celebration of youth which is what the Olympics really is.

The Games are a marvelous exhibition of what amazing things the body can be trained to do. They are a marvelous exhibition of the physical beauty the human physique can attain. And, if you are no longer young, the Games are poignant because those young men and women with their well-trained bodies do not know just how brief a span of time being young occupies over the course of a life.

For all these reasons it would be wonderful to watch an Olympics in which no national anthems were played and no athlete felt obligated to run around the track draped in his country's flag. It would be wonderful to watch an Olympics and cheer as loudly for those who come in last as well as those who come in first. Those who come in last may have worked just as hard, even harder than the athletes who win gold and feel that all their years of hard work paid off, finally.

The Olympic Games reward success – gold, silver, bronze. I would like an Olympics in which the definition of success is broadened, so that the sheer love of engaging in athletics is also rewarded. The English author, G.K. Chesterton, wrote: "A man must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without any hope of fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well."

Those words are applicable to, perhaps, most of the athletes of the Olympic Games. Such love deserves our admiration. Such love merits emulation.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stress and the Olympic Games

It is hard to imagine the stress under which Olympic athletes perform. They have devoted their young lives to this event, to a space of time which, for some, is counted in seconds and microseconds, and for others, like marathoners, is counted in hours -- a lifetime of preparation for the glory of being known as the best, or one of the best at what they do.

But being able to function at the highest level while under tremendous stress is something many of us do, and, at some periods of our lives, we do so for months and months. There is no way to train for the stress of losing jobs, failing marriages, being laid off at an age when getting a new job paying as much as the old one is close to impossible. There is no way to train for the unexpected and life-threatening illness of a spouse or child. There is no way to train for the death of a spouse or child.

Yet, most of us endure. Some of us live well with stress and mentally place a beribboned gold medal over our heads to dangle brightly where only we see it.
Most of us, I suspect, are more akin to the last runner who completes the marathon, the one who stumbles onto the track of the Olympic stadium long after the other runners have showered, dressed and left. We made it but we hope and pray we never have to go through anything like that again.

As I watch the athletes, most of them basking in the arrogant beauty of youth, I wonder how they will handle the stress when their youth inevitably fades. How will they respond to the stress of having their gold medals fade into the memory of the records, they and their triumphs remembered by fewer and fewer.

An article in the August 18 issue of The New York Times reported on two studies of what life is like for these athletes after the Olympics. A 1982 study of 163 Czech Olympians found that "only 17 percent made the transition to the workplace without significant emotional distress, including substance abuse and depression." The most complete study was done of 57 American Olympians in 12 sports. Forty percent had "serious problems post-Olympics."

I do not envy the Olympians, especially the medal winners. They do not know how short our memories are, as I cannot tell you who won a medal in any sport at the last Olympics. I do not envy them because I know the stresses that will weigh on their souls as they begin to create their lives outside the athletic venues which gave their lives meaning and significance. Sometimes, the stress of just getting through the day will be far greater than any stress they knew as Olympians.

None of us can train for what life presents us with, but, somehow, many of us endure, and more often than not, we triumph. But only we can see the gold medal shining against our bodies.

And that's enough.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Olympic Games - Random Comments, Week 1

* I wish I had the time to watch the telecasts of the events that don't draw large crowds - fencing, rowing, shooting, etc. I did watch some of the badminton matches on my computer, and it is my hope that NBC will keep all the videos online for long time. The Olympics are still fun to watch even when you know who won.

* Michael Phelps won the eight gold medals he set out to win and beat Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Olympics. But when Spitz was in the Olympics, there were only seven gold medals that he could have won. As he observed, if there had been eight, he would have won eight. Seeing an old film of Spitz swimming in the Olympics, I was struck by the fact that unlike swimmers now, swimmers at that time did not wear caps, shave their bodies, or wear swimming suits. Spitz wore swimming trunks like any guy on the beach. Olympic athletes at that time did not have dieticians, sports psychologists, computer analyses of their training techniques, etc. Michael Phelps' achievement is truly awesome, but it should not be permitted to diminish that of Mark Spitz. Both did the best they could with what they knew. That is the most that can be said of any of us.

* I have watched Olympic gymnastics since the mid-1960s and Nastia Luikin's floor exercise in the all-around finals brought tears to my eyes. It was the best I have ever seen.

* Have you noticed how the first week of the Olympics the athletes were primarily Euro-American, and the second week will have many more Africans, African-Americans, and blacks from the Caribbean? Make of that what you will. I just find it interesting.

* One event I will watch on my computer, if it is not televised, is rhythmic gymnastics. There are many who do not consider this a sport, perhaps because it is so beautiful and requires the more refined skills of agility and timing. And there is no equivalent sport for men, so it can't be athletic, right? For those of us who believe that the world is in dire need of beauty, rhythmic gymnastics is the highlight of the Olympics.


"For the most part the spectator's stake in the proceedings is the gratification that comes from identifying with success. Whoever can provide such vicarious joy needs no other justification as a human being. The capacity of one man's actions to buttress the self-esteem of another is demonstrably a potent force -- a force that has been exploited whenever possible by the entrepreneurs of sports events."

Michael Roberts, "The Vicarious Heroism of the Sports Spectators," New Republic, Nov. 23, 1974

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Birch Trees

We think of autumn as beginning in October with the full spectrum of red, yellow, and orange-leafed trees, and mornings of cool air with a biting crispness.But that is not when autumn starts.

When I get up every morning the first thing I do is open the curtains and look out the window across the field and into the woods. Last week I noticed that the leaves on the birch trees were turning yellow. Driving home yesterday I saw red leaves on a tree whose leaves were green last week.

Autumn begins in mid-August. It merely reaches maturity in October. This is how it is with all the seasons. They begin in the midst of the preceding season. One year I smiled at crocuses in snow. In February when I see buckets hanging on maple trees, I know the sap is running and spring has begun.

Change functions similarly in our lives. We don't reach decisions as much as we recognize a change within and realize that the decision has been unfolding within us for some time, and the decision has already been made. We just haven't announced it to ourselves.

This may sound like a prelude to my announcing a decision, but it isn't. I simply noticed that the leaves on the birch trees are turning yellow and wanted to let you know – autumn has begun.

© 2008 by Julius Lester


"Nature is always hinting at us. It hints over and over again. And suddenly we take the hint."

Robert Frost

For those who may be wondering why I haven't written anything here in several weeks --

Blogs can be like beasts whose appetites can never be satisfied. Blogs demand words, and I read about people whose lives are devoted to writing on their blogs. Whenever I sense this blog criticizing me for not feeding it, I take a vacation. There are also times when I have nothing to say, or I may have something to say but don't want to say it aloud. Sometimes I have a lot of energy for writing here; other times I have none.

The times of words need the times of silence.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Last Ride

"Crystal Lake, Ill. -- Jeff Hornagold loved being a UPS driver. So, when the suburban Chicago man died this week of lung cancer, longtime co-worker Michael McGowan agreed to take him on one last delivery.

McGowan transported Hornagold's body from Davenport Family Funeral Home to Saturday's funeral services in his UPS truck.

Hornagold was a UPS driver for 20 years, and his wife Judy Hornagold described him as 'just the happiest UPS man alive.' She says the special delivery was the perfect tribute."

It used to be (and still may be in some places) a Jewish custom to carry the deceased's body past the places he loved one last time. I don't much care what vehicle carries me to my funeral, but if that vehicle wanted to carry me past a few of the bookstores at which I've spent a ridiculous amount of money, that would be fine.

Of course, if Mr. Hornagold had lived in Africa, he could've been buried in a replica of a UPS truck. There are places in west Africa where people have been buried in their cars. And I did read recently of a man who has already had his coffin made of beer cans, and he sleeps in it.

I understand that. I've instructed my wife not to cover my casket with dirt. Just dump in all the magazines and books I haven't read!


From an interview in Paris Vogue. The person being interviewed is Malgosia Bela, a fashion model.

Quelle lumière pour une nuit d'amour? (What kind of light for a night of love?)

Son désir incandescent et mon aura lumineuse. (His incandescent desire and my luminous aura).

And it just doesn't sound the same in English.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I hate hot weather. Every year about this time I silently thank those African ancestors of mine who got themselves captured and brought on a slave ship to these shores, thus sparing me from having to curse the African sun. But who knows? Maybe they hated the heat, too, and took their chances that the slave ship was going someplace cooler.

I grew up in Kansas, Arkansas, and Tennessee in the 1940's and 50's when, for the most part, air-conditioning was non-existent. You might think we got accustomed to the heat. We didn't. During these times poor people didn't have refrigerators, and a man would come through the neighborhood on a mule-drawn wagon selling 25 and 50 pound blocks of ice. People would put a block of ice in a galvanized washtub and let an electric fan blow across the ice. It sounded good in theory, but it didn't help. Nothing did. Hot is hot!

A few years ago I was in Maine and happened to see a college classmate. She grew up in Alabama, and when I asked her what she was doing in Maine, she said, "I looked at the map to find a place that was as far away from the heat as I could, and this was it."

I understand. I read a novel that was set in a town that was above the Arctic Circle. I seriously thought about moving there until my wife said that was grounds for divorce, which goes to show that love does not conquer all.

The only thing that gets me through summer is knowing that winter is coming. I just wish it was coming tomorrow.

© 2008 by Julius Lester


Roozles - Wretchedness of mind.

Now, there's a word. Roozles! How do you define "wretchedness of mind"? How do you recognize a "wretched mind"? What would someone say that would cause others to nod and say, "Tsk. Tsk. His mind is roozled." Am I suffering from the roozles because I hate hot weather? Well, I am going to keep my eyes and ears open, and if I come across anything that I thinks reveals the roozles, you'll read about it here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

"Don't believe everything you think."

Bumper Sticker, 2008

Picktooth: Leisurely, as it is in leisure moments that the toothpick is used.

We could all use more picktooth moments in our days. Tooth picks are cheaper than alcohol and tooth picks do not lead to drunken driving and drunken driving can lead to maiming or killing others. Instead of buying a bottle of whiskey, buy a box of toothpicks. The picktooth way of life could be America's salvation from itself.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

"The poor need bread. Did those books of yours solve the problems of the world?"

"Not all problems are economic," I said gently.

Anais Nin


Wuther: The rustling of the wind among tree branches.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"The universe gives me the creeps."

Willem de Kooning


Lick-for-leather: being at full speed.

My days of going lick-for-leather are over, and I am so glad!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I Am A Flip-Flopper!

One of the most interesting elements of Malcolm X's short life and career was that he did not hesitate to change his thinking when he learned more about a particular issue. The Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam was not the Malcolm X who was killed in 1965. He had moved from a defensive black superiority to an inclusive world view that did not revolve around a black sun.

Why is it that changing one's opinions has become a negative in American political life? Four years ago the Republicans successfully defined John Kerry as a "flip-flopper", and they're trying to do the same to Barack Obama. I never understood why John Kerry did not say, "Yes, I am intelligent enough to change my views when I am presented with information and knowledge I did not have previously. It is regrettable that President Bush does not exemplify the same intelligence."

But to call someone a flip-flopper because he changes his mind is a thinly veiled attack on intelligence. Many of us laugh at George Bush because he seems incapable of speaking in coherent sentences. However, many Americans find this aspect of Bush reassuring because it makes them feel like he is one of them. Bush and Kerry were contemporaries at Yale, but Bush was proud of not having been a good student. Many Americans who never made it to Yale were also not good students, and Bush redeemed their lack of academic achievements.

My fear is that Barack Obama can lose the election because of his obvious intelligence, his preference for nuanced thinking rather than polarizing positions on issues, and his willingness to rethink what he advocates and change his mind accordingly.

Intelligence should not be an object of contempt in a presidential campaign. But it was four years ago, and it is threatening to be so again.

It's time to stand up, people! Someone needs to make bumper stickers, T-shirts, and buttons so that we can proclaim loudly, "I'm a Flip-Flopper. I Think!"

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Monday, July 14, 2008

"A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."

Thomas Mann


Slotter: To make a noise with the palate while eating.

I fell in love with a young woman once, but when I took her out to dinner, she slottered. I didn't know then that's what she was doing. All I knew was that she chewed with her mouth open. In China slottering is a way of showing appreciation for the meal. This woman would have been a prized dinner guest in China. Now, you might say that if I had truly loved her, her slottering would not have made any difference. But you didn't hear her. I did. Love can conquer a lot of things but not slottering. Except in China.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Friday, July 11, 2008

Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true."

Robert Brault


Wuzzle - To mingle

You might learn a lot about yourself if you divide your friends into those you like mingling with and those you like to wuzzle with. Wuzzling sounds much more erotic than mingling.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jesse Jackson & Barack Obama

It must be painful for Reverend Jesse Jackson to watch Barack Obama succeed where he failed, i.e. become the first black to be the presidential candidate of a major party. It must be painful for Jackson to watch Obama win the Democratic Party's nomination without any help from him who was the self-appointed spokesman for black Americans for so many years. It must be painful for Jackson to feel that he has been pushed aside as irrelevant, though he's been irrelevant for a long time and doesn't seem to have gotten the news.

Thus, it is not entirely surprising that on Sunday, July 6, Jackson was waiting to be interviewed on Fox News and an open microphone overheard him whisper to a guest, "See, Barack's been talking down to black people. I want to cut his nuts off."

Jackson was referring to Obama's Father's Day speech at a black church in which he criticized black fathers: "We need them to realize what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child -- it's the courage to raise one." Jackson thought Obama's context was too narrow in that he failed to mention the effect that high levels of unemployment, home foreclosures and violence have on black men. "We have some real serious issues -- not just moral issues," Jackson contended. But this is not the first time Jackson has attacked Obama. Last fall he criticized Obama for "acting like he's white."

When I learned of Jackson's ugly and self-serving remark, I thought of Hillary and Bill Clinton. I remembered the various comments and outbursts by Bill Clinton that certainly hurt his and Hillary's esteem in the eyes of blacks. At the time I thought that, unconsciously, Bill was trying to undermine Hillary's campaign.

Our behavior as humans is not always governed by what we think we believe. The Socratic admonition to "Know thyself" is daunting because knowing ourselves means seeking to be aware of what is unconscious within us. Jackson's unconscious envy and resentment of Obama led him to express it where there was an open microphone.

While I can understand the political expediency in Obama having the Clintons campaign for him, I fear what lies in their unconscious. I fear that their anger and resentment that Obama ran a better and more well-organized campaign will find expression when there happens to be an open microphone around, that they will find some way to sabotage Obama as I think Bill sabotaged Hillary.

The simple fact is that Jackson and the Clintons had their days in history. They should be satisfied that they did their jobs as well as they could, and that they helped prepare the way for someone like Obama.

But Jackson and the Clintons ceased to grow in their thinking, ceased to expand their visions of what it means to be an American in 2008. They don't seem to realize that fifty years have passed since 1968. Believe it or not, the nation has moved from "We Shall Overcome" to "We Are Overcoming."

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind."

Henri-Frederic Amiel

IN MEMORIAM, New York Times, July 3, 2008

WEILER, Gerald

Gerry, love you and miss you. Please help the Yankees.



Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Julius Lester,

My name is Ronald Kipchirchir. I read somewhere today about your contest on the usage of the word mundivagant. I am a student of Kenyan descent partaking of pre-law studies here in America. Despite the fact that you do not know me, I just want to say that I, too, love words. I suppose the contest became stale long time ago but I would love to contribute, nonetheless.

"I come to invoke your spirit of good-samaritanism; not as a mundivagant beggar with a bowl in hand and kneepads upon my knees, but as a wounded friend, seeking not an ordinal sedation, but a lifelong immunization from the agonies of life and anomalies of history."

Actually, I used the sentence about two months ago in a speech contest. The speech was a calling on people of goodwill to help salvage my beloved country from the jaws of death (in regard to the post election chaos that had engulfed Kenya during the month of January and February).


"Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness."

James Thurber

Monday, July 7, 2008

Obama's Rightward Turn

One of the dilemmas any Democrat running for president faces is that he or she must appeal to the party's liberal core to win the nomination. However, to win the presidency that Democrat must move to the center to win the votes of America's conservative majority. And by conservative I do not mean those reactionary Republicans who have sullied the word "conservative". These Republicans are not conservative but are as radical as the Left was in the sixties. Both sought to remake America in its image.

The majority of Americans are conservative because their primary interest is in conserving their way of life, its virtues and its sins. However, unlike reactionary Republicans who are wedded to an ideology and seek nothing less than the triumph of that ideology, conservatives are willing to change when events force them to. The civil rights movement of the 1960s succeeded in its primary goal of desegregating public life and insuring voting rights because the conservative majority was convinced by demonstrations and riots of the need for change.

It is this majority to whom Obama is now introducing himself, not as a political liberal but as someone who shares and understands the legitimacy of their concerns. And if he is elected president, this will be part of his responsibility. On inauguration day the president takes an oath to serve the American people. The overriding arrogance of George W. Bush was to lose the popular vote and govern as if no one mattered except those who shared his political philosophy.

I am reassured by Obama taking positions with which I disagree because it indicates that he wants to be president of the American people, not just of liberals who can be as ideologically dense and obtuse as reactionary Republicans.


Gubbertushed: Having projecting teeth.

I once had a crush on a girl who was gubbertushed, and I thought she was very cute.

Friday, July 4, 2008

From My Reading Journal - Always Wear Joy

Always Wear Joy: My Mother Bold and Beautiful by Susan Fales-Hill

What a wonderful, delightful book! I came to it out of curiosity about Susan Fales-Hill. I had seen her picture often in the New York Times and in fashion magazines at various dinners and charity balls attended by socialites, and she was almost always be the only black person. So, I wondered who she was, came across a mention of this book somewhere, and got it.

She is the daughter of Josephine Premice, a black actress and performer whose name I remember from the black newspapers and magazines of my youth. Her father is a white man from a wealthy background. Fales-Hill belongs to what I would call black royalty because she grew up knowing many black and white celebrities - Belafonte, Diahann Carol, her mother’s best friend, Richard Burton, with whom her mother had an affair, Roscoe Lee Brown, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne, and on and on. She went to the Lyceè Française and spoke French with her mother, Italian with her nanny, and possibly Creole because her maternal grandparents were from Haiti. She grew up in a world where dressing well was taken for granted, and thus the ease with which she moves today in a world in which haute couture is taken for granted.

One of the key elements in liking a book is whether or not one likes the writer, or perhaps I should say, the voice in which the book is written. I absolutely adore the voice in Always Wear Joy. She is very funny but also sensitive and honest in talking about the negative qualities of her parents as well as her own.

“Mom, what do I put down on the school form where it says ‘Mother’s Occupation’ when you’re not acting in a show?” – Enrico Fales, age 8
“Tell your teacher, ‘My mother’s an unemployed legend.’” Josephine, age 41

“Your baby is beautiful. His father was white?” Roman woman to Josephine.
“I don’t remember.” Josephine to Roman woman.

“My mother’s packing motto has always been, ‘If you can’t decide, take it all.’”

“We had devoted countless hours of our lives as mother and daughter to pondering the eternal question. For us this was not, What is the meaning of life? but, What are we going to wear?”

The quotes do not do justice to all that is in this book, especially the descriptions of the racism encountered by black actors. Fales-Hill was a television writer for some years working on the Cosby Show, “A Different World,” and others. Her stories of the racism in television were infuriating.

This is a wonderful book. I enjoyed spending time in Susan Fales-Hill’s company.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Even though the contest to use mundivagant in a sentence is over, I received a
wonderful sentence from Edi Campbell who teaches English in Taiwan:

"I live a mundivagant life based upon hopes and dreams with no concrete plans to steady my step."

I like that phrase " steady my step." There've been times my step needed steadying and I hadn't had anything to drink, either.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

“Love does not exist, only demonstrations of love.”

Jean Cocteau


Gumbled: Awakening in the morning, the eyes are said to be gumbled.

Awakening, she looked around with gumbled eyes, decided to call in sick and went back to sleep.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

From My Reading Journal - The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

This is the kind of book I think of as popular literary fiction. It is well written, lots of nice turns of phrases, figures of speech, etc. But there is something about it that comes close to sentimentality, i.e. a very skillful avoidance of the harder realities.

The novel is set primarily in South Carolina in 1964. Lily, the teenage heroine, lives with three black sisters and ends up having a crush on a teenage black boy. He drives around with her without any sign that he could be lynched. That is simply not how it was in the south in 1964. He shows no hesitation or fear about being seen in the trunk with a white girl beside him. And, in a climactic scene, he drives into town with her in the truck, gets arrested and no one wonders why he is with a white girl. This simply would not have happened in a southern state in 1964, the summer when Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered in Mississippi.

There is also a glaring historical error. There is a reference in the book to a metaphor used by Martin Luther King, Jr., “drum major for justice.” However, this metaphor wasn’t used by King until a few weeks before he was killed. He used it in a sermon and a tape of that part of the sermon was played at his funeral.

The book was a good read but not a good book because of its disregard for the social and political truths of the time. But I underlined some things.

“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they do, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”

“…it washed over me for the first time in my life just how much importance the world had ascribed to skin pigment, how lately it seemed that skin pigment was the sun and everything else in the universe was the orbiting planets.”

“…you can be bad at something, Lily, but if you love doing it, that will be enough.”

“…it’s something everybody wants – for someone to see the hurt done to them and set it down like it matters.”

“There is nothing perfect….There is only life.”

“Drifting off to sleep, I thought about her. How nobody is perfect. How you just have to close your eyes and breathe out and let the puzzle of the human heart be what it is.”

“Not just to love – but to persist in love.”

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

From My Reading Journal - 2004

E.E. Cummings: A Biography by Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, 543 pp., excluding notes.

Not sure why I bought this. I’ve never read that much Cummings and the poems I like are the ones anybody likes of his. Part of it, I suppose, is a New York connection. Though Cummings died the year after I moved to New York, I walked past Patchin Place, where he lived in Greenwich Village, more times than I can count. There was also a tree in Washington Square Park to which Cummings would speak, and I always wondered which one it was. I can’t say that I have understood Cummings’ poetics, and don't have much more of an understanding after reading this biography, and that’s not the fault of the biographer.

But, even after all these years, I am still fascinated by the lives of creative people, and I am still seeking insights into my own creative life. I did not find Cummings's life to be very satisfying. However, I do envy him the early exposure to languages - Greek, Latin, French - all of which he knew fluently.

Reading the biography I became aware of how much of I have lived and created alone. I have stayed away from having writers as friends, perhaps because I have never ego-identified with writing. Writing is something I do; it is has never been who I am. I have never taken myself seriously as a writer in the way that the writers of Cummings’ generation did. I have never believed that literature and art have an enormous impact on the way things are; I have never seen poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Shelley proclaimed.

However, reading the biography took me back to my days at Fisk [the small black college in Nashville, Tennessee, from which I graduated in 1960] and the excitement of discovering so much literature and so many writers. What an exciting time that was reading Joyce, Faulkner, Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Andre Gide, and so many others for the first time. And there was also the excitement of talking about existentialism and the Beat Generation with classmates and teachers.

But I think religion has engaged my soul in ways literature never has. It was and is the spiritual journey I identify with, that is, at root, my passion. Maybe this is why photography is so important to me, because through images I can more directly express the fruits of my spiritual journey than I can in writing. There is a dimension of the spiritual that only begins where words end, and it is this which can be expressed in the silence of a photograph.

What I found unsatisfactory about Cummings’ life were the ways in which he never grew up. He never held a job and lived primarily off wealthy friends and his mother. And he did not take responsibility for his relationships. It was rather shocking to read about his daughter, Nancy, and how she grew up thinking someone else was her father. Cummings told her the truth when she was an adult and promptly had little more to do with her. She is 80 now and lives in London and will probably read this biography with great curiosity and interest, or not read it at all. So, there are fundamental ways in which Cummings did not mature. He devoted his life to poetry and art, but I did not get the sense that there wasn’t room in his life for taking responsibility. He simply chose not to.

I don’t condemn him but it is not a life I would want. Some quotes:

“Concerning Mr. Derry [his high school Greek teacher], let me say that he was (and for me will always remain) one of those blessing and blessed spirits who deserve the name of teacher: predicates who are utterly in love with their subject; and who, because they would gladly die for it, are living for it gladly. From him I learned (and am still learning) that gladness is next to goodliness.”

“Eater of all things lovely — Time!”

“Sound emerges from& retreats with silence.
Every sound has its own peculiar silence!”

“...the ponderous ferocity of silence.”

God, I love that line!!

“but from the endless end
of briefer each our bliss —
where seeing eyes go blind
(where lips forget to kiss)
where everything’s nothing
— arise,my soul; and sing.”

© 2008 by Julius Lester

Sunday, June 29, 2008

McCann is old, and so am I

If you're a fan of mystery novels as I am, and even if you aren't, the Swedish writer Henning Mankell writes wonderful novels, and the solving of murders is merely one plot element. Over the weekend I reread his first mystery, Faceless Killers, and the following passage helped me clarify something: "A new world had emerged, and he hadn't even noticed it. As a policeman, he still lived in another, older world. How was he going to learn to live in the new? How would he deal with the great uneasiness he felt at these changes, at so much happening so fast?"

The character speaking is Kurt Wallender, a Swedish police detective in his forties. However, his words clarified for me why I have been uncomfortable with John McCain seeking the presidency at age 71. I know it is not politic to question someone's age, but since I am only two years younger than McCain, I can talk about his age without being accused of age-ism.

It is fascinating to watch myself age. For example, I subscribe to both Us and People magazines but am debating if I should let my subscriptions lapse because I have no clue who anybody is anymore. Blake Lively? Spencer Pratt? Heidi Montag? Leighton Meester? I could find it out easily who they are, but, at age 69, I don't care.

One of the reasons I retired from teaching at the end of 2003, after 32 years, was realizing that to continue to be an effective teacher I would have to learn how to do Powerpoint presentations and set up websites for my classes, and I just didn't have the interest or the energy to do this. If I was going to learn new technologies, it would be for my personal creative projects.

I have a cell phone which I turn on once a month or so to see if there are any messages, and if there are, they are so out-of-date by the time I hear them, I can ignore them. I do not text message. I read my youngest daughter's Facebook page but do not comprehend half of what is on it. I do have an iPod and I have transferred much of my cd collection to it and I download music and videos from iTunes and regularly. And I am computer literate, having bought my first one in 1986.

But the question I face and the question John MCain faces is the same Kurt Wallander faced: How do we "learn to live in the new"? John McCain and I do not feel an urgency, or even a need to "live in the new". And more, to what extent are we capable of even recognizing "the new"?

In traditional societies the old are honored and are responsible for the spiritual life of the group. But such societies do not change and thus, the old are the best ones to insure continuity.

But not since the invention of the printing press has the world gone through such enormous changes as it is undergoing now, but changes now are happening at a much faster rate.

John McCain and I are too old to comprehend all the changes and too old to keep pace with them. We cannot "live in the new". Nor should we expect ourselves to.

© 2008 by Julius Lester


The challenge was to use the word "mundivagant" as an adjective.

The winner is Jonathan Shaw of Annandale, Australia, who submitted two
wonderful sentences.

"Jules Verne is responsible for giving us the mundivagant Phineas Fogg."

"Just down the road from us is a backpackers, and the revelries of mundivagant youth enliven our evenings."

I questioned Jonathan about "is a backpackers" and he explained that "is a backpackers is what an establishment aimed at that clientele is called here." For us on this side of the equator, the sentence would better read, "Just down the road from us are backpackers, etc."

Another fine entry came from Roberto Delgado, a former student of mine:

"It is a lie to settle when you feel called toward a mundivagant fate."

Friday, June 27, 2008

"He was a wall I chose not to scale."

Martha Cooley, The Archivist

Isn't that a wonderful insight? Haven't we all met someone and, for reasons we can't specify, have decided to walk quietly but quickly away from any relationship with that person? But we do that because of the walls we climbed and had a helluva time finding the way back over the wall. And what about those occasions when we were/are the wall someone else chose/chooses not to scale? But we won't talk about that.


Mundivagant - Wandering through the world.

The book from which I took the word does not indicate what part of speech it is, so I'm not sure how to use it in a sentence.

Well, I just looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and learned something interesting. The OED gives the first printed usage of a word, but mundivagant has never been used in a sentence! The only two references cited are two seventeenth century dictionaries. How, pray tell, does a word end up in a dictionary if it has never been used, and since it has never been used, who would go to the dictionary to look it up? But I just did, didn't I?

I also learned that mundivagant is an adjective, and I've been scratching my head trying to figure out how to use it in a sentence as an adjective. I'm stymied.

So I am announcing the First Commonplace Book Contest. The first person who can use mundivagant in a sentence as an adjective will receive an autographed copy of Falling Pieces of the Broken Sky, a collection of my essays that is now out-of-print.

Send your sentence to me at Please put Sentence Contest in the subject line.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

“I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be, in a light better than any light that ever shone, in a land no one can define or remember — only desire — and the forms divinely beautiful.”

The quote is from a letter written by the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones. What follows is from my reading journal, January, 2005:

"This is the gift of the imagination, isn’t it? This is the magic of the imagination. And, I wonder if this is the only kind of beauty that endures. The beauty of a flower is evanescent. The beauty of a woman changes with age. I look at Weston’s photographs of Charis, and her physical beauty exists now only in the photographs. I look at the Joyce Tenneson photograph, “Suzanne, 1985,” that I bought a few month ago. Suzanne does not look like that now, twenty years later.

"So, does this mean that the only physical beauty that endures is that which comes from the imagination? Is this why we love art because in art we can create beauty that is not subject to the changes that time inevitably brings? The Grecian urn endures. We decay.

"Looking at some of the photographs from southeast Asia since the tsunami, at survivors and rescue workers with masks covering their nostrils and mouths so they won’t have to smell the bodies. After we die, we stink. All of us.

"In art, all that is good in us is preserved. Milan [my wife] and I go to museums and look at paintings and we wonder who they people were. They are nothing but bones now. What remains is what an artist put on canvas, and what the artist put on canvas may or may not have been who the person was. Certainly, when one looks at photographs of the women painted by the Pre-Raphaelites, they were pretty ordinary and homely looking women. But, in the paintings of Burne-Jones and the others, they were transformed into a beauty that never was but is in the realm of the imagination."

And today, three years later, I would add that one of the sins of the 20th century has been the devaluing of the imagination and of beauty. The consequence is a coarsening of life on every level, especially the spiritual.


Pewfellow: One who sits in the same pew, hence, a companion.

One cannot have too many pewfellows in life, even if you don't go to church.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

“He was a lucky man to be sitting beside Elinor in the garden in the last green days of May. He had loved her for so many years, he would just go on doing it, with or without her.”

Alice Hoffman, The Probable Future


Sandillions: As numerous as the sand on a beach.

Sandillions is much more expressive than gazillion and softer on the ear.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

“‘That’s the thing those boys don’t understand,’” Matt told Stella. “‘Just because you don’t feel pain, doesn’t mean you don’t experience it.’”

The quote above is a good description of what it was like to grow up under racial segregation in the south during the nineteen-forties and fifties. We couldn’t allow ourselves to feel the pain on a daily basis but we sure as hell experienced it, and, even at age 69, I continue to experience that pain.

Alice Hoffman, The Probable Future


Weeping-ripe: Ready to weep; ripe for weeping.

It's not a bad thing to be weeping-ripe.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

“Stella had seen so much death, that one Saturday morning she’d been compelled to sink down onto the linoleum floor, overwhelmed not so much by the sorrow of it all, but by the human dignity, the almost supernatural ability to face the abyss and still order scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast.”

Alice Hoffman, The Probable Future


Pixilated: Led astray, as if by pixies; confused, bewildered.

It makes me feel a lot better to blame the pixies for all the times I've been confused.

Friday, June 20, 2008

And Now It Has Begun: A Followup

On Wednesday I wrote about a button that was sold at the Texas Republican Party convention this past weekend, a button which read, "If Obama is President, will we still call it the White House?" (For any who may have missed it, there is a photo of the button in Wednesday's blog.)

In a story in Thursday's Dallas Morning News it was reported that the button vendor, Jonathan Alcox, apologized, and the Texas Republican Party announced that is donating the $1500 Alcox paid them to lease his booth to the American Red Cross Relief Fund to help flood victims in the Midwest. Additionally, the Texas Republican Party said it was unaware that Alcox would be selling such a button and it will never again permit Alcox to sell anything at their conventions. Hans Klingler, spokesman for the Texas Republican Party, said party leaders found the button distasteful and hated that it was being sold.

Alcox operates two websites, and, where he sells political paraphernalia. Politically he is an independent and said he became aware that the button could be seen as malicious after talking with a black man who had seen the button on the Dallas newspaper's blog. Alcox says he had made only 12 buttons to see how they would sell. He sold only 4, and 2 of those to the reporter who broke the story.

He went on to say that his web site has been hacked, his life has been threatened, and he has lost the business of the Texas Republican Party, his biggest customer.

I am happy to be able to present this followup and am glad that people, including Texas Republics, were outraged enough to make Mr. Alcox's life miserable and to have a negative effect on his earning power.

When large numbers of white people are as angered and hurt by racism as blacks, that is a sign of fundamental change.

IN MEMORIAM, from the New York Times, Thursday, June 19:

"Christian Jetter Harrison, June 19, 2006

I had to lose you to find you in me.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Americans Get Fat While the Poor....

These are people in Haiti searching for food or something to sell from a dump. The April 23, 2008 issue of Paris Match reported that there have been demonstrations protesting high food prices and food riots in Haiti, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Mexico, Mozambique, Cambodia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Senegal, and Kenya. Some weeks, PM reports, "riots explode on all the continents."

The obscenity is that this situation does not have to exist. In the Sunday (June 15)"News of the Week in Review" section of the New York Times, Donald G. McNeil, Jr. wrote, "The whole world has never come close to outpacing its ability to produce food. Right now, there is enough grain grown on earth to feed 10 billion vegetarians." So, what is happening to all this grain? Well, a lot of it is "being fed to cattle, the S.U.V.'s of the protein world." And who is eating the beef from these grain feed cattle? Affluent North Americans and Europeans.

"Theoretically," McNeil writes, "there is enough acreage already planted to keep the planet fed forever….But success depends on portion control." There is something radically wrong when people on every continent are eating from garbage dumps and rioting for bread while Americans are worried about an "obesity epidemic."

According to McNeil, there is a simple solution to the famine being faced by those Paris Match refers to as "les damnés de la terre" who "ne veulent pas mourir de faim" – the damned of the earth who do not want to die of hunger. That solution is to end the "subsidies to American and European farmers" which artificially raise prices. Ending subsidies "would let poor farmers compete which…would push down American food prices and American taxes."

There is an additional solution. The capitalist system engenders an ethic of individualism, greed and selfishness. Simply by living in the United States we are educated to think primarily of ourselves and not care how our behavior affects others – to the point that by 2025, according to the United Nations, 1.2 billion people will suffer from hunger.

Right now 33% of American adults are classified as obese. What will that number be by 2025?

We cannot continue to live as if we are the only people on the planet. Well, sadly, that's not true. We can continue living as we do – uncaring about how our behavior assaults the lives of billions and hastens their deaths.

And, we probably will.

Text © 2008 by Julius Lester

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

It Has Begun

It has begun, the snidely racist Republican attacks on Barack Obama. The above button was on sale at the Texas Republican Convention this past weekend. In all fairness to Texas Republicans, I don't know how many buttons were sold, but the fact that the Texas Republican Party did not issue a statement expressing their disgust with the buttons says enough.

"Lets [sic] Keep the White House White" is a rubber stamp. This bill was found on Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City. This is more insidious than the button because that has to be purchased. A piece of currency with that message stamped on it can appear in my wallet. Republicans "Swift-boated" John Kerry in 2004 with the Internet campaign attacking his military record during the Vietnam War. Foolishly, Kerry waited too long to respond.

The only way to fight the racism represented by the two items here is for record numbers of people to register and vote in November. But there is a chance the Republicans will steal this presidential election as they stole the last two because the state of Louisiana, for one, is already having problems registering the number of blacks who want to vote. On election day in November many blacks will go to the polls believing they are registered voters and will be told they are not because their applications were incomplete or invalid. The evildoers are already at work disenfranchising blacks.

Fortunately the Obama campaign is aware of problems registering voters in Louisiana and other states. At least in this election McCain does not have a brother who is governor of the state that can swing the election.

Unrelated to the above: I was sitting in the dentist's office last Friday afternoon when I heard over the radio that Tim Russert had died. Like everyone else I was shocked, but I do not consider his death to be an event worthy of the platitudes being bestowed upon him. A writer on the Psychology Today website wrote that Russert's death "produced the greatest national outpouring of grief for a single 'civilian' since John Lennon was killed in 1980." (Americans grieved far more for Princess Di.)John Lennon has been dead for 28 years and is still remembered by millions. Five years from now Tim Russert will be remembered only by those who knew him personally.

For the the record I want to say that I never liked Tim Russert, thought he was egotistical and filled with too great a sense of self-importance. I was saddened by his death but, as I indicated in yesterday's blog, I am saddened by the deaths of those whose names I know only because I read them on the obituary page.

© 2008 by Julius Lester