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.