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1. The Killings in Connecticut

I have been thinking a lot about the black man who killed eight people and himself at the company in Conn. In response there have been the usual expressions of bewilderment and incomprehension that someone would do such a thing. There have been expressions of innocence by the company as well as the denials of racism by the family and friends of the eight white people who were murdered. Both the company and the union said that Omar Thornton had not filed a complaint about racism with either of them. I think I understand why he did not file a complaint and why he killed eight people. And I will add that to understand his actions is not to approve of them, because I do not.

More than half a century ago, Ralph Ellison wrote a novel called Invisible Man in which he described the status of blacks in this country as being invisible to the white majority. I don't think blacks are invisible any longer, especially after Obama's election.

However being black still carries with it an element of unreality, meaning that when we leave our homes and go into the white world - schools, jobs, shopping, etc., it is very hard for us to know what is real. I envy white people because they do not have to ask what is real. Let me give an example of something that happens to blacks daily. We are in the check out line at a store, and the cashier is rude. If I were white I would think, "She's having a bad day." But because I am black, I do not know if she is having a bad day or if she doesn't like black people.

That may sound foolish, but it isn't foolish if you've stood in the checkout lane and heard the cashier say hello and how are you to the person in front of me, but when you stand before the cashier you are not greeted or asked about your day. Or the variation on that experience: to take advantage of discounts and sales at many stores, you must have a store card to get the savings. What am I to believe when the cashier asks the person in front of me if he has a card, but doesn't ask me. Now perhaps I'm supposed to assume that I heard the cashier ask the person in front of me for her card so there's no necessity to ask me for mine. But what having to live with racism does to you is that when you're in public you question yourself about the impersonal contacts with whites. Was that person being racist? Did I imagine he looked at me in a certain way?

Many white people think racism is limited to using the n---- word, or as Thornton claimed, drawing that word and a noose on a bathroom wall. But racism is far, far more subtle than that. I believe that Omar Thornton had experiences as I've described above, but he did not have the words to articulate the unreality he was feeling trapped in. The incidents that he considered racist were so small, so insignificant to the white person who offended him that he knew he would appear as hypersensitive if he said something to the person, as looking for racism where none existed or was intended if he filed a complaint. He probably felt he would be laughed at if he filed a grievance against someone who never smiled at him but did so whites, who had an edge in her voice when she spoke to him but not when she spoke to a white co-worker. There was no one at the company he could talk to who would truly understand. And what could be done anyway? Tell someone to smile when she saw him? Tell someone to speak as pleasantly to him as this person did to whites?

The essential element in human interactions is to feel in the hearts of others an echo of our own heart, its yearnings and aspirations, its sorrows and its pains. If such does not happen often enough, we lose touch with the reality of ourselves and thus, the reality of others. And then it seems logical and morally right to pick up a gun and kill some of those you feel are responsible for your unreality.

I think I understand Omar Thornton because I've had more than one day when I have wanted to do what he did. But I know how to use words. Omar Thornton only

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2. The Sherrod Debacle

It has been a long time since I've written here, not because I haven't had things I wanted to write about, but because I didn't want to take the time away from other things I was doing. However, I cannot be silent after the administration's allowing itself to be baited by the right wing deliberate falsifying of the taped speech Ms. Sherrod gave to the NAACP in March. And although President Obama was not directly involved, his efforts to change the tone of politics in the nation have led to an administration that goes out of its way to placate the right wing, and in so doing, gives the right wing more power. And it was this fear of the right wing that led the Secretary of Agriculture to fire Ms. Shirley Sherrod for something she did not say.

What is so appalling in this incident is the utter disrespect the Secretary of Agriculture showed Ms. Sherrod. A doctored tape of her speech is shown over and over on the Fox network, and the Secretary reacted like a Pavlovian dog. Indeed, all the media outlets reacted like Pavlovian dogs. And no one, no one had the decency to ask Ms. Sherrod directly what she said, or ask for a copy of the speech, or a copy of the videotape.

While the administration has apologized and Ms. Sherrod has been offered a promotion, that is insufficient. The president should ask for the Secretary of Agriculture's resignation for his violation of a fundamental tenet of our democracy; a person is innocent until proven guilty.

I do not understand how Democrats allow themselves to be defined by the right wing time and time again. John Kerry did not take the Swift Boaters seriously and they defined his service in Vietnam and him as a liar. The right wing came close to undermining Obama's candidacy by associating him with Bill Ayers, a Sixties radical. And now we have the teabaggers and Sarah Palin who will say anything, like defining a consultation between a doctor and a patient about end of life care a death panel. President Obama does not seem to understand that the right wing has no integrity, knows that if they repeat a lie often enough it will become the truth in the minds of millions, and, above all, it counts on the Democratic Party not to be as passionate about what it believes as the right wing is passionate about what it believes. The president does not seem to under understand that there is nothing he can do that the right wing will approve of. NOTHING!! It takes two to change the tone of politics in the nation, and it is not in the right wing's interest to make that change. Meanwhile, Obama ignores his constituency, those of us who got him elected, in favor of trying to work with people who would rather die than work with him.

I voted for Obama for many reasons, but one was his passion. That passion has been in short supply since he entered the White House. And because he has been afraid to be passionate, he has set a tone in his administration in which the only passion many of his subordinates show is weakness. I hold Obama responsible for the Secretary of Agriculture's firing of Ms. Sherrod, and I will be disappointed if he does not request the Secretary's resignation. Such poor judgment as the Secretary showed leaves me with no confidence in any decision he has made or will make.

I remember election night and the million people in Grant Park in Chicago with tears in their eyes, the millions of us in our homes looking at our televisions with tears in our eyes, and how much we believed that things were going to be different now.

If someone had told me that night that I would write what I'm about to write, I would've thought they were crazy.

I'm beginning to be sorry that Hillary didn't win the nomination.

And now I'm going to make me a soda with cream soda and vanilla ice cream, and get back to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

© 2010 by Julius Lester

3. Two Things On My Mind

Tiger Woods is making an announcement tomorrow (2/19). Whatever else he says, I hope he says he will not play golf for the next year, that he will use the time to become better acquainted with himself as a human being, that he will apply the same focus and intensity to the health of his soul that he has applied to golf. I am not morally condemning him. To do so I would have to stand in moral judgment on myself. But I know what it is to separate one's creative life from one's personal life to such an extent that the two scarcely know each other. It is extremely difficult and painful to "know thyself", but not nearly as painful as ignorance of one's self. My wish for Tiger Woods is that his life become as beautiful and awe inspiring as his golf game.

*****************

One of my current pet peeves is the pervasive use of the word "boob" as a substitute for breast. I am especially peeved when women use "boob", a word devoid of dignity. However, given how breast-fixated America is, perhaps the wide use of "boob" is an unconscious effort to combat that fixation. But I think it has much more to do with America's discomfort with talking about anything related to sex. A few years ago, a high school in this area (western Massachusetts) found itself under attack when it was learned that the school was going to put on a performance of "The Vagina Monologues". The reaction could not have been stronger if the play had been titled "The Pussy Monologues". On the other hand, it is interesting that words have such power for some Americans that the mere mention of the word "vagina" sends many people into a rage. If only these people would take seriously and be enraged by words like war, poverty, homelessness. If only.

© 2010 by Julius Lester

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4. Bold Words, Timid Actions: Obama, Year One

On January 20, 2009, an estimated one million people stood on the Mall in Washington, D.C. to witness the inauguration of Barak Obama. Untold millions around the world watched on television screens. Never in American history had so many witnessed the inauguration of a U.S. president. Never had so many felt so hopeful about the future of this nation.

On the day of Obama’s inauguration I was ecstatic to be done with the reactionary and divisive politics of George Bush, to be done with the self-righteousness of the right wing. At long last the U.S. government would function with a sense of caring for the well-being of those who did not have the means to insure their own well-being.

On January 19, 2010, My wife and I drove to the high school about a mile from our house to cast our vote in the special election of a senator to replace Ted Kennedy. As we drove up the hill to the polling place in the high school gym, we both noticed that there were a number of political signs bordering the road, and they all said “Vote for Brown”. We looked in vain for a sign saying “Vote for Coakley”. We knew that did not portend good for the outcome.

We cast our votes for Coakley, but all day there was a sick feeling in both of our stomachs. That sick feeling only intensified when the results we’d been dreading came in. Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the country, was sending a Republican to fill the remaining two years of Ted Kennedy’s terms. How could the mood of a nation change so radically in a mere 52 weeks?

I think the responsibility lies with the man in the Oval Office. It is as if the man who filled us with hope and enthusiasm, the man who vowed to bring change we could believe in was kidnaped, and in his place, someone substituted a person who looked like him but was far more timid in his actions.

This doppelgänger courted the Republican opposition, not understanding that the Republicans would never agree with him, that it was not in their self-interest to work amicably with him, that their vocabulary consisted of “No” and “Boo!” But the false Obama did not want to believe that a political party could be so wedded to negativity and scare tactics.


Even worse, however, is that the false Obama completely forgot the people who had been so enthused by his campaign and his election. He seemed to take for granted the millions and millions whose hopes he had kindled into dancing flames of warmth. When political right-wingers began holding a rallies around the country attacking the false Obama’s citizenship, when the “tea baggers” harassed Democratic congressmen at public meetings, the false Obama and the Democratic Party dismissed them as crazies, as people not worthy of serious consideration.

What he and his party failed to recognize was the passion the “tea baggers” embodied, the passion that George Bush had for his causes - the right to life, the war in Iraq, the opposition to research using stem cells, etc., etc. Regardless of how repugnant Bush’s politics were to me, he was not afraid to speak passionately about his beliefs.

A lack of passion has been the Democratic Party’s Achilles’ heel for decades now. When Al Gore debated George Bush, I cringed every time he droned, “I have a plan.…” When John Kerry debated George Bush I cringed every time he droned, “I have a plan.” Why doesn’t the Democratic Party understand that voters don’t care about plans? What people need to know about a candidate for office is what do you care about, and, are you able to make listeners feel how much you care?

Barak Obama-the-candidate was not timid about showing us his passion and caring. But then, the doppelgänger was substituted for the real Obama. When Congress began deliberating on how to reform health care, the real Obama would have gone around the country repeatedly exhorting us to put pressure on Congress, to protest at the offices of insurance companies. Not only did the fal

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5. Tiger Woods Did Not Cheat On His Wife

I have never understood why someone who commits adultery is called a "cheater". Cheating is something I associate to having an unfair advantage, or not abiding by the rules in playing a game. A marriage can be many things, but it is far more serious than any game, even the Super Bowl.

To define what Tiger Woods has done as "cheating" is to obfuscate what his transgression really is. Tiger didn't cheat on his wife; he lied to her, and in doing so, he shattered the trust which is mandatory in a marriage. His wife's sense of reality has been destroyed, because she believed that she and her husband were living in the same story. Now she finds out that she has been living in a life that did not exist because Tiger had a secret life of his own.

Given the number of text and phone messages Tiger used to communicate with various women, one has to wonder if he wanted to be caught. Did he truly believe that he could be involved in so many sexual relationships that it would not become public some day? Part of the culture of professional sports is athletes having girl friends in every city the team or athlete goes to. I have no doubt that some men compete with each other to see who can have sex with the most women. Tiger is the most well-known and richest athlete in the world, so it follows that he must have sex with the most women. But any man as indiscreet with his indiscretions as he was is begging to get caught.

Some postulate that he is a sex addict. If wanting sex all the time is addictive behavior, then 99% of all American males are sex addicts. What is not a postulation, however, is that Tiger is a world-class liar. But he has been a spokesman for cars, watches, shoes, sports drinks. and other products. Television commercials and magazine ads lie to us all the time because America's value system places far more importance on satisfying greed than telling us that using a certain product might harm us? Tiger makes (or made) one hundred million dollars a year from being the spokesman for various products, which makes him a very well-paid liar. If he lies to the American people, why wouldn't he lie to his wife?

One more thing that is in the same category of glossing over something through language. Why are Americans afraid to say the word, breast? When did women's breasts become boobs? How can we think we are a mature nation if saying "breast" frightens us so much that we have to call them "boobs"?

The language we use has a profound effect on how we live our daily lives. We call Tiger a cheater when his offense is that he's a liar. We say boobs which is a far more ugly sounding word than breasts.

I shudder to think about all the other things we might be afraid to call by their rightful names.

© 2009 by Julius Lester

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6. Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

The criticism of Obama's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize is that he hasn't done anything yet to deserve it. This is truly laughable, especially when it comes from a buffoon like Rush Limbaugh who said that all Obama has ever done is make speeches. And what, exactly, has Rush Limbaugh ever done except talk?

One of the stupidest adages ever spoken is "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." The three ribs and collar bone that were broken when a truck hit my car eight years ago have healed, but words my mother said to me sixty years ago continue to hurt. Words are not "just" words; words are actions. All Adolf Hitler did was use words, and those to whom the words were spoken took them into their souls, and the consequences haunt us still.

In 1940, a small booklet was published called "Words and Their Meaning." The author was Aldous Huxley, and the following is from that booklet:

"We talk about 'mere matters of words' in a tone which implies that we regard words as things beneath the notice of a serious-minded person.

"This is a most unfortunate attitude. For the fact is that words play an enormous part in our lives and are therefore deserving of the closest study. The old idea that words possess magical powers is false; but its falsity is the distortion of a very important truth. Words do have a magical effect....Words are magical in the way they effect the minds of those who use them, 'A mere matter of words,' we say contemptuously, forgetting that words have power to mould men's thinking, to canalize their feeling, to direct their willing and acting. Conduct and character are largely determined by the nature of the words we currently us to discuss ourselves and the world around us.The magician is a man who observes that words have an almost miraculous effect on human behavior...."

The Nobel Peace Prize committee bestowed the prize on President Obama because his words reveal a respect for others, that his words are inclusive of humanity, his words are a profound change from the intemperate words of those who believe that government is not the solution but the problem. President Obama's words speak to the best that is in us, even the best in those whose words call for his death.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee was not premature in bestowing this prize on President Obama. They wanted not only to acknowledge the impact his words have had around the world, but perhaps the committee also wanted us to value the power of words to make change, and, specifically to be cognizant of how much this president has already accomplished by his words.

© 2009 Julius Lester

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7. The Death of Ted Kennedy

This is the blog I posted on learning of Ted Kennedy's brain tumor diagnosis.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Ted Kenedy

The news of Ted Kennedy's brain tumor is devastating news for those of us who live in Massachusetts. I know he is the butt of jokes about his drinking and is probably not taken seriously by many people but I love the man, though I've never laid eyes on him.

I love him because he was the ne'er do-well Kennedy brother. After the WW II death of the oldest brother, Joseph, the family hopes came to reside in Jack Kennedy and Robert. Not much was expected of Ted. Yet, after the murders of JFK and RFK, Ted Kennedy, to everyone's surprise, took up the burden of the family mantle. While the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquidick Island while in Ted's company ended any chance of him ever becoming president, he became the unstinting, unswerving, uncompromising, and often, only voice of political liberalism in America.

Practically every other Democratic Party politician ran when Republicans turned the word "liberal" into a pejorative. Not Ted Kennedy. He was a liberal and was proud of it, and his compassion for that other America of poverty and joblessness never weakened.

To face his death is like contemplating the death of a close family member. For those of us in Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy has always been there. It is impossible for me to imagine the political landscape without his presence.

Well, I know this much. After he dies, and I pray that won't be before his present term ends in 2012, if his name should happen to appear on the ballot for re-election to the U.S. Senate, even dead, he would win in a landslide. A dead Ted Kennedy would be better than a lot of politicians I could name who think they're alive.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

TODAY'S WORD

Anywhen - At any time.

This is a great word. We use anyhow, anywhere, anywise, why not anywhen?

I'll take Ted Kennedy anywhen over anybody else.

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8. Fighting Back Against the Right

"Nature does not bestow virtue; to be good is an art."

Seneca

What follows below is from MoveOn.org and was sent to me by a blog reader,(Thanks, Kate!) and I thought it worth passing on. Please feel free to send this to anyone you think would be interested. And for information about putting this statement from MoveOn.org on Twitter or a Facebook page, go to the organization's web site. And don't forget: many of the lies and innuendos are being spread via the Internet, which has become a powerful political tool. We must use it also.

Julius Lester

---------------

The health care fight has turned ugly, fast. Right-wing mobs are crashing congressional town halls, lies are spreading via anonymous email chains, and Sarah Palin bizarrely said that President Obama was going to set up a "death panel," whatever that is.

Many of these claims are just incredible—but if we don't fight back with the truth, the right will continue to poison the health care debate. So as part of our Real Voices for Change campaign this August, we're working to set the record straight.

Check out the list below: "Top Five Health Care Lies—and How to Fight Back." Can you spread the word by passing this email along to 10 of your friends today?

Top Five Health Care Reform Lies—and How to Fight Back

Lie #1: President Obama wants to euthanize your grandma!!!

The truth: These accusations—of "death panels" and forced euthanasia—are, of course, flatly untrue. As an article from the Associated Press puts it: "No 'death panel' in health care bill." What's the real deal? Reform legislation includes a provision, supported by the AARP, to offer senior citizens access to a professional medical counselor who will provide them with information on preparing a living will and other issues facing older Americans.

Lie #2: Democrats are going to outlaw private insurance and force you into a government plan!!!

The truth: With reform, choices will increase, not decrease. Obama's reform plans will create a health insurance exchange, a one-stop shopping marketplace for affordable, high-quality insurance options.6 Included in the exchange is the public health insurance option—a nationwide plan with a broad network of providers—that will operate alongside private insurance companies, injecting competition into the market to drive quality up and costs down.

If you're happy with your coverage and doctors, you can keep them. But the new public plan will expand choices to millions of businesses or individuals who choose to opt into it, including many who simply can't afford health care now.

Lie #3: President Obama wants to implement Soviet-style rationing!!!

The truth: Health care reform will expand access to high-quality health insurance, and give individuals, families, and businesses more choices for coverage. Right now, big corporations decide whether to give you coverage, what doctors you get to see, and whether a particular procedure or medicine is covered—that is rationed care. And a big part of reform is to stop that.

Health care reform will do away with some of the most nefarious aspects of this rationing: discrimination for pre-existing conditions, insurers that cancel coverage when you get sick, gender discrimination, and lifetime and yearly limits on coverage. And outside of that, as noted above, reform will increase insurance options, not force anyone into a rationed situation.

Lie #4: Obama is secretly plotting to cut senior citizens' Medicare benefits!!!

The truth: Health care reform plans will not reduce Medicare benefits. Reform includes savings from Medicare that are unrelated to patient care—in fact, the savings comes from cutting billions of dollars in over payments to insurance companies and eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse.

Lie #5: Obama's health care plan will bankrupt America!!!

The truth: We need health care reform now in order to prevent bankruptcy—to control spiraling costs that affect individuals, families, small businesses, and the American economy.

Right now, we spend more than $2 trillion dollars a year on health care. The average family premium is projected to rise to over $22,000 in the next decade—and each year, nearly a million people face bankruptcy because of medical expenses. Reform, with an affordable, high-quality public option that can spur competition, is necessary to bring down skyrocketing costs. Also, President Obama's reform plans would be fully paid for over 10 years and not add a penny to the deficit.

We're closer to real health care reform than we've ever been—and the next few weeks will decide whether it happens. We need to make sure the truth about health care reform is spread far and wide to combat right wing lies.

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9. The Poisonous Political Climate

"There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as moral indignation which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue."

Erich Fromm


During the presidential campaign my fear that candidate Obama might be assassinated was more abstract than real. However, in the past few weeks that fear has become real. When the Rush Limbaughs of America pollute the air waves with blatant lies questioning Obama's citizenship, when the irresponsible rhetoric of the Bill O'Reilly's and Glenn Beck's mobilizes people to shout down anyone who speaks in favor of the health care legislation, when demonstrators carry signs depicting President Obama as Hitler, my fear for the president's life ceases to be abstract and becomes very, very real.

If something should happen to the president, the mouths of hatred will be quick to deny that they had anything to do with it because they did not pull the trigger. And this is what is so despicable about these people; they refuse to take responsibility for their words; they refuse to acknowledge that speech is action, that words are not just words because words create emotions, and emotions get translated into actions.

I wanted to believe that Obama's election heralded the beginnings of a post-racial America. This may still be the case, and what we are witnessing from the Right represents the final outbursts of a thinly disguised racism. But this does not mean that serious damage is not being done to the atmosphere in which issues are discussed and decided. When one side has no interest in discussion, when one side has no interest in knowledge, when one side has no interest in listening, when one side has no interest in any truth other than what it deems as truth, when one side will say and do anything to maintain its narrow and self-centered view of life, it must be countered by those who envision a dynamic and creative society in which people listen to and learn from each other in an atmosphere of civility and respect. Wherever those who hate gather to disrupt, they must be met by the anger of those of us who will not permit thus hatred people to poison democratic ideals.

However, I find myself thinking about the political atmosphere in the country in 1963 when it was far from certain that the civil rights movement would succeed, when thousands of white people blamed President Kennedy for what they perceived as his compliance with the goals of the civil rights movement, which, as they saw it, was to destroy their "way of life". There was violence in the air then, and it expressed itself in the murders not only of John Kennedy, but Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy.

There is violence in the air now, and I am afraid.

© 2009 Julius Lester

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10. The Professor, The Policeman & the President

I, for one, am tired of hearing about the encounter between the professor and the policeman. However I am going to add my words because I've not heard or read anything that reflected my perception of that encounter.

I was disappointed that the president stupidly said that the policeman acted stupidly. But because the president is a Harvard alum and the professor is a member of the Harvard faculty, I suspect that the president felt personally offended by the alleged actions of the policeman. I have no idea what the president hoped to accomplish by having the professor and the policeman come to the White House. Is he now going to invite the antagonists of other such encounters to the White House for a beer? Is he going to stop being the President and become the national Therapist? The president's "beer summit", as some in the media have called it, has made the president the butt of jokes by the late night comedians who, until now, had been unable to find anything about him they could make fun of. Once those who make a lucrative living by making fun of others find a weakness in a president, once a president becomes fodder for laughter, the president's power to persuade and inspire is damaged.

What intrigues me about the encounter between the professor and the policeman is that either of them could have walked away after it was established that the professor was in his own residence. What happened that made it impossible for either one of them to do that?

In any encounter, one person creates the emotional atmosphere by tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, etc. Who and what created the emotional atmosphere of the encounter between the professor and the policeman, and did so in such a way that the encounter spun out of control so quickly?

Generally, we lose control when we feel that our identity is being attacked. When an encounter which should be impersonal and innocuous becomes personal, communication is impossible, and, the person feeling attacked cannot walk away. When both people feel that their identities are being attacked, the encounter becomes violent, and emotional violence is as damaging to the spirit as physical violence is to the body and spirit.

Like most black men in the United States, I have had encounters with the police, though not in my home. (However, I did have an encounter with two white FBI agents in my home). Nonetheless, in those encounters (and even in the one with the FBI) I sought to create a benign emotional atmosphere by remembering that when the policeman took off his uniform, he was a mere human being; I related to him, not the uniform. Above all, I did not act as if his reason for stopping me was because I was black, even if I was convinced that was his reason. Thus far, over the years, the emotional atmosphere of these encounters has remained benign.

I was most distressed when, after the professor and the policeman met with the president and vice-president, the policeman let it be known that he had not apologized. And the president never apologized for saying that the policeman acted "stupidly". Although the professor did not say that he did not apologize, it is safe to assume that he didn't.

It is deeply regrettable that apologies are seen as a sign of weakness, of giving in, as an act that is self-demeaning. As intelligent as the professor, the policeman, and the president may be, their emotional IQ's are low. An apology is not a statement that I did something wrong. An apology is the recognition and acceptance of the fact that something I said or did was hurtful to the other person(s) in the encounter. Whether the hurt was intentional or unintentional is not important. What is important is letting the other person(s) know that I know that they are in pain, even if I was in the right.

If the president wanted his little tete-a-tete on the White House lawn to be a "teachable moment," he failed. I think he knows now that he should have said that the encounter between the professor and the policeman was a local matter and left it at that. But his own ego identification as a Harvard alum and a friend of the professor, as well as his being black, made him feel that his ego had been attacked by the policeman. One of the odd things in American life is that when we are asked, "What do you do for a living?", we respond by saying, "I am a policeman/professor/whatever". We are asked what is it that we do, and we respond with a statement of identity. Thus, the policeman felt his identity was not being respected by the professor, and the professor felt his identity as a member of the Harvard faculty was not being respected, which led the professor to feel that his identity as a black man was under siege.

But whenever we feel that our identities are under attack, we are saying that the person attacking us has more power over us than we have over ourselves. Doing so puts one in the position of being a victim, and seeing yourself as a victim is a statement of self-hatred. That self-hatred is projected onto the adversary. Thus, men have waged war against other men for the breadth and length of human history, and when I write "men", I am being gender specific.

If you wonder why I've written about the professor and the policeman without using the names of the individuals, it is because I know the professor and do not want my observations construed as an attack on him, and most important, the dynamics of the encounter between the two specific individuals is a dynamic latent in almost any encounter between two people, even of the same race, religion, or gender. If the specific encounter is seen only in the context of race and racial profiling, we fail ourselves by not recognizing how such dynamics all too often play an important part in our relations with those we live with each and every day in our homes.

Thus, I have not written about the professor, the policeman, and the president. I have written about you and me.

Julius Lester © 2009

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11. A Modest Request

Whenever I publish something on this blog, I am bombarded with comments that are written in Chinese or Japanese characters. Because I moderate comments, these come directly to me, sometimes as many as four a day. I just deleted 11 which have come in the past two days.

I have no idea who is doing this, and I certainly have no idea why he or she is doing it. Whoever you are, you should know that your comments go directly to my spam blocker. I have not bothered to open one in quite some time. I delete them from my spam folder, and I delete them from Moderate Comments of this blog.

One of the negative aspects of this age of the internet is the ability of people to conceal their identities which thus enables them to harass others without risking being identified.

I do not know if this person who sends "comments" in Chinese or Japanese characters thinks it is amusing, or whether this person is angry with me about something I wrote or did. Whoever you are, why don't you try something novel and e-mail me in English whatever may be on your mind, or what it is you hope to accomplish by sending e-mails I cannot read. Perhaps you have a purpose which I cannot understand, and I would like to.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Julius Lester

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12. On the Death of Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was an exceptionally gifted singer and dancer. He brought an intensity and joy to his performances unlike any performer I can think of. And because he brought so much joy to so many, I never understood it when the media turned on him with hysterical outbursts when, for example, he held his baby over the railing of a hotel balcony somewhere in Europe, something he did in response to fans yelling up that they wanted to see the child. Did they really believe he was going to drop the infant? The thought is ridiculous.

Jackson became a freak in the eyes of the media, and the Lenos and Lettermans knew they could get a guaranteed laugh if they made fun of him. How could people become so hostile toward someone who had given joy to so many? Why couldn't people be grateful for his astounding gifts as a musician and dancer and leave the person alone?

But what about the charges of pedophilia against him because he slept in the same bed with children? What no one wanted to examine was why did the American mind instantly equate sexual acts with sleeping in a bed with a child? People projected onto Jackson their own prurience. I am reminded of a case in which a father took film to be developed. On the roll were photos of his daughter, naked, in the bathtub. The camera store owner called the police, and the man was arrested!

In his relationships with children, in the fantasy world he created at his Neverland Ranch, Jackson was attempting to retrieve what his father had deprived him of -- a childhood. There was something pathetically courageous in Jackson's efforts to have a childhood. But just as Americans projected pedophilia onto him, he projected his need to be a child onto actual children in an attempt to live through them. Some of the children may have been uncomfortable with this, and perhaps their expressions of discomfort were translated by adults into pedophilia.

Jackson did not understand that he could not give himself the childhood his father had deprived him of. The love and play of childhood would always be closed to him as long as he carried resentment and anger at his father. And the greatest paradox Jackson did not learn to live with was that he would not have become the entertainer he was, that he could not have amassed the wealth he did if not for the tyranny of his father.

Jackson lived in pain, excruciating pain as evidenced by the $100,000 pharmacy bill he amassed over a two year period. He wanted to numb the pain, but the only way to rid himself of the pain was to go through it. This was not possible for someone who probably felt most comfortable when he was on a stage, performing.

As for the plastic surgeries Jackson underwent, the changes in his skin color from dark brown to an unnatural whiteness, these were interpreted as expressions of self-hatred, that Jackson wanted to be a white man. Last week, Deepak Chopra was interviewed by Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, and Chopra said that Jackson had had lupus as well as a skin disease, and it was this that led to the plastic surgeries and the wearing of ghostly white make-up.

The Michael Jackson story is a modern American tragedy that touches other young people who become world famous. I find myself thinking of Michael Phelps and athletes in general. Americans idolize youth, especially in sports and entertainment. Michael Jackson, Michael Phelps & Britney Spears were applauded all over the world for the joy their performances gave so many. And yet, the public turned against them when they transgressed the bounds of the social norms. Opprobrium was heaped on them for something that was not entirely their fault. No one had taught them how to live when they were not performing on their respective stages. Each had their childhoods taken from them by ambitious adults, and each reached a point of rebellion, sometimes self-destructive rebellion.

Learning how to live is a lifelong process. The exceptional abilities of these young people were focused on to the detriment of their minds and their emotional lives. None of them were given books in which they might have seen something of themselves and their lives. Books help us to see ourselves, something we cannot do alone, especially when we are surrounded by sycophants. When I learned that Michael Phelps's life up to the Olympics consisted of swimming, eating pizza, playing with his dog and watching television, I was saddened. But the values of our country have become mired in celebrity and wealth. When many children today are asked what they want to be when they grow up, all too often the answer is "Famous and rich." Our society expects multimillionaire teenagers to be role models, but having a society which wants children to aspire to be heroes/heroines, well, heroes and heroines are confined to books. And adolescent celebrities don't read.

Michael Jackson was a man whose childhood was taken from him, and he tried to have that childhood when he was no longer the age of a child. It was sad to watch. While I am stunned and saddened by his death, a part of me is also relieved that perhaps now he has the peace that seemed to be so very absent from his life.

Saddest of all, however, is that Americans are now expressing their love for him and their gratitude for all that he gave us. This would have meant so much more if it had been expressed while he was alive instead of the contempt and derision heaped on his valiant attempts to learn how to be a person.

Julius Lester
© 2009

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13. A Speech I'd Like to Hear

I called this press conference because I understand a newspaper is going to print something about my personal life, and I want the people to hear it from me. What the paper is going to report is that I am having an affair. And that is true. Which makes me no different than at least fifty percent of married Americans. Husbands and wives stray from their marriages. The reasons are irrelevant.

Now, I know that I'm supposed to stand here and say how sorry I am for hurting my wife, children, friends, and, for good measure, my dog. Well, part of me is sorry, but another part of me isn't. The relationship I have with another woman is a good and caring one. I am not ashamed for loving her as I do. I knew what I was doing when the relationship became sexual.

It annoys the hell out of me that the press is so eager to report on the sexual lives of politicians but who is going to report on the sexual lives of newspaper reporters and editors? How many of you in this room holding your microphones and scribbling notes are involved in adulterous relationships? It is hypocrisy of the highest order for you to put your noses into my private life, but your private lives are not held up to public scrutiny.

So, yes, I am having an affair. No, I will not resign my office. What I do in my private life does not impinge on my responsibilities to serve the people of this state. I am merely one of millions of people who do exemplary work and have sexual relationships outside their marriages. As for what I am going to do about my marriage and the relationship with another woman is none of your business.

I wish Americans cared as much about universal health care as they do about other people's sex lives. If they did, we'd have health care for everybody tomorrow.

Grow up, people, and get your priorities in order.

© 2009 Julius Lester

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14. Liberals and President Obama

In recent weeks liberals have criticized President Obama on matters where they disagree with him on principal. The president has said repeatedly that while his administration will not engage in torture of prisoners, neither will he prosecute CIA agents who tortured prisoners, nor anyone in the Bush administration who ordered such tortures. He will also continue the Bush administration policy of preventive detention, meaning anyone deemed likely to be involved in future terrorist attacks on this country will not be released from detention.

Constitutional lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, and liberal commentators such as Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC have reacted with outrage. Recently, Maddow, in her faux little girl voice, asked, "Is this Change We Can Believe In?', a sarcastic reference to one of Obama's campaign slogans.

And there's the problem. "Change We Can Believe In." Liberals assumed Obama believed what they believed, that the changes they believed in were the changes he believed in. Liberals projected onto Candidate Obama their own image. And now, they are feeling betrayed because the president is not as liberal as they thought.

I suspect that the change President Obama has experienced is that Candidate Obama did not know how complex and difficult it is to govern, that presidential decisions have consequences which can reverberate for generations. For example, what would happen if President Obama prosecuted CIA operatives and Bush administration officials for their involvement in torturing prisoners, a clear violation of American law and the Geneva Convention? At a minimum current CIA agents would feel betrayed that operatives were being prosecuted for carrying out orders under one administration that are now considered illegal by a new administration. Agents would fear that carrying out orders from the Obama administration would might leave them open to prosecution from a later administration.

Equally, prosecuting Bush administration officials would set a precedent and would lead the next Republican Party president, whoever he or she might be, to prosecute officials from the previous Democratic Party administration for whatever the Republicans could find or make up. I would love to see Dick Chaney thrown in jail, but doing so would split the country even more than it already is. It would also create animosities that would linger for decades, as well as make people reluctant to serve in government.

Preventive detention is clearly against the U.S. Constitution which guarantees one's right to a speedy trial. But what if Suspected Terrorist X is released and six months later Suspected Terrorist X is involved in an attack on the U.S. in which thousands are killed? The blame for releasing Terrorist X would fall directly on Obama. His presidency as well as liberalism would be derided for naivete and an inability to protect the American people.

What liberals failed to see was that Candidate Obama was not as liberal as they thought he was. What liberals also fail to see is that if Obama was an ideological liberal, he would be no different than Bush in his ideological reactionary conservatism. The President of the United States is supposed to govern for the benefit of the American people, not merely those with whom he shares a political ideology. If President Obama is going to be president of the nation, he is going to make decisions I disagree with, and even, abhor.

What liberals fail to grasp is that it is easy to be ideologically pure when you don't have to be responsible for the consequences of putting your ideology into practice. Why can't liberals understand that we have just emerged from eight years of being governed by an ideologue whose allegiance was to his ideology and not to solving the nation's problems?

I trust Obama because on some issues he is liberal, on others he is conservative, and on many, he is pragmatic. Anybody who can piss off liberals and conservatives has the makings of a great president.

© 2009 by Julius Lester

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15. The Toll of the Bell

I think one of the reasons I have not been wanting to communicate is because in the past month three people I knew have died. In the past year, add three more. One of the aspects of aging that nothing can prepare you for is the deaths of people you know in the generation ahead of you, and, increasingly, the deaths of your contemporaries.

The most personal death was that of David Gahr 11 months ago. He was my spiritual older brother, my mentor when I took up photography, and a wonderful soul. But David was in his 80's, had been in declining health, so I was somewhat prepared for his death, as much as one can prepare for the finality death represents. But with his death I lost an important connection to my past for it was David who took my photograph when I started writing for Sing Out magazine in 1965. It was David who took the photographs of me that appear on the two record albums I made for Vanguard during my days as a folksinger. It is his photographs of me that appear on the jackets of my first books. A part of me which I shared with no one else also died when David did.

The other deaths were not as personal in terms of shared histories, but they were personal in the emotions shared. One was a woman older than me whom I knew through my associations with various Jewish communities in Vermont. We shared an unquestioned love of Judaism. Another was a woman I knew only through e-mail, but we shared a love of books, of Amazon Kindle, of psychotherapy, and I really miss writing to and hearing from her. Another was someone who reached out to me when I was being attacked publicly for something I'd written. At the time, I knew him only by name, but when he heard he called and asked if I needed anything. And, I have never forgotten that phone call and how much it meant when I was feeling very, very alone. Another was a colleague from the University of Massachusetts who always had a mischievous twinkle in his eye which I think I captured in a photograph I took of him which he used for a book of his. And the last was someone I knew only casually. He and I retired from the University of Massachusetts at the same time, and the last time I saw him we talked about the joys of retirement. Apparently his retirement was not as joyful as mine because he walked onto the railroad tracks as a train approached. And, of course, I wonder: did I miss something in our last conversation? Is there something I could have done?

This is the part of aging there is no preparation for, this whittling away at your memories, this snipping of relationships that sever emotional cords as surely as the snipping of your umbilical chord severed you from your mother's womb. It is as if part of the preparation for your own demise is the gradual but steady taking away from you the relationships that have bound you, in love and joy, to this world. And something of you dies as these others die.

I realize that I have been in mourning. Even more, I begin to understand that mourning has become an integral part of my living, that the deaths of people I know is now woven into the fabric of my living, and the number of those deaths can only increase.

Old age is the time when you learn the depths of sorrow, and I am learning that those depths are far deeper than I would have ever imagined.

© 2009 by Julius Lester
[email protected]

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16. An Odd Event

Friday morning, April 24, I logged on to check my e-mail and found the strangest e-mail I've ever received. Phil Nel, an author and member of an internet children's literature group to which we both contribute, wrote that in my biography on Wikipeida it stated that I had died "peacefully" in my sleep at 6:15 that morning. Though Phil admitted feeling a little odd e-mailing me, I am grateful he did so instead of accepting what he read as fact and telling others.

I went to my biography on Wikipedia and read about my "death". My very first response was to wonder if I had died and hadn't gotten the news yet. Who knows what it's like to be dead? I thought about the old philosophical question: Am I a butterfly dreaming that I am me? I asked my wife to read this "news" of my "death" and her doing so confirmed that I was, indeed, still alive.

I deleted the paragraph describing my "death", though I was touched by the last line which read, "He will be missed by all." I read through my Wikipedia bio and restored verbs to present tense that had been changed to past. Then I e-mailed my children and told them what had happened, in case someone offered them condolences on my "death."

Some might think it would be upsetting to read of one's death. It wasn't for me. I was more baffled than anything else. Why would someone choose me for such a prank? I am not famous enough that news of my death will make the front pages of newspapers or cause television networks to interrupt regular programming to announce it. However, the real negative about this false report of my death is that should I die in the next few weeks, no one will believe it.

The person who perpetrated this obviously does not know me, because I do not want to die in my sleep. I want to know that I am dying; I want the experience of watching death approach -- if that's what happens. To die in your sleep is, I suppose, easy and painless but if I have to suffer pain to know that I am dying, I will choose the pain. However, it would be even more painful to be dying and know that I won't have the chance to write about it. Maybe dying in my sleep isn't so bad after all.

I am glad that I do not allow unmoderated comments on this blog. It would be all too easy for someone to post false information here. And, over the past almost two months I have received "comments" for the blog that have been entirely in Chinese or Japanese characters from "Anonymous". They automatically go to my spam folder, but perhaps "Anonymous" got tired of being ignored by me and "killed me off".

One lesson from this is be careful using Wikipedia. Another is to emulate Phil Nel, and check your information before passing it onto others.

As to my silence since my blog post of March 1, I haven't felt like talking and, I will now return to that silence.

Julius Lester
[email protected]

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17. Catalog Pollution -3

On November 15 and 25, 2007, I wrote about “Catalog Pollution” and how I was thoroughly disgusted by the number of catalogs I received in the mail each day. So I began a campaign to reduce the number I was receiving by utilizing CatalogChoice.org. This is a non-profit environmental group that operates a web site where you can log on, check the catalogs you no longer want to receive. They contact the catalog, and that will be that.

Unfortunately, it did not turn out to be that easy. My experience was that the majority of companies ignored the requests from CatalogChoice, with some openly saying they would not honor such requests. After eight months I decided it was time to call the companies directly to get off their their mailing lists, and, equally important, to tell them to stop renting or selling my name to other companies.

I kept a record of the catalogs, date contacted, and whether I made the request via phone, e-mail or snail mail. Some companies want you to send them your mailing label, figuring, I’m sure, that very few will go to that trouble. I did.

It took me six months of mainly phone calls, and for a while I was calling companies every day, but, finally, in January the day came when I went to the mailbox and (fanfare), there were no catalogs! At first it was an odd feeling to receive scarcely any mail. Now I feel very clean when I open the mail box and there’s scarcely anything inside.

For the record, I stopped 143 catalogs from coming to our house. Of that 143 I would say that I had ordered from 10-20 companies, and that is being generous. The remaining catalogs I received were the result of my name being rented and sold repeatedly.

Now I order things over the phone. In that way I can request that my information not be sold or rented and thus receive only the catalogs I want.

I also learned that American businesses do not know how to sell. They send out glossy, full color catalogs indiscriminately in the blind hope that enough people will order something. Some companies send out catalogs once or twice a month. From one company I received 11 catalogs in 5 months and had to contact them 4 times before they finally removed my name from their system.

But I was persistent, and I prevailed. I am no longer polluting my soul with consumer pornography. I feel so much better.

© 2009 by Julius Lester
--------------------

I am aware that I started to write about books I'd read and liked last year and have not continued. I probably won't. Instead, I'll add to my posts quotes from the books I liked in 2008.

"Be cheerful, be stoic, be tranquil. In the valley of sorrow, spread your wings."

Susan Sontag, quoted in Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir by David Rieff. He is Sontag's son, and his book is his experience of the last years of her life. It is an intense and searing book.

Julius Lester
[email protected]

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18. Michael Phelps Is Not A Role Model

A photograph has appeared of Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimming multi-gold medalist, smoking marijuana. From the outcry you would think Western civilization was coming to an end. There have also been reports and photographs of Phelps at strip clubs receiving lap dances. Isn't it interesting, however, that these did not provoke the same negative response?

But what did people expect of Michael Phelps? He is a young man who has devoted practically his entire short life to one act - swimming. Every day he swam; he ate a mountain of food; he sat on the couch with his dog and watched television. This is what he did, year after year after year. His commitment to athletic excellence in swimming paid off with more gold medals than anyone has won in a single Olympics, and this has made him a millionaire several times over.

However, the price of such an accomplishment is that Michael Phelps is emotionally undeveloped. He's an adolescent boy who now wants to act like an adolescent boy. Unfortunately for him, he is finding out that he doesn't get to go back and do all the adolescent boy things now. One of the prices of taking millions of dollars to endorse products is the loss of a private life. Michael Phelps wants consumers to care about (and buy) the products he endorses; consumers have an interest, then, in knowing who Michael Phelps is, and why they should believe what he says about the products he wants us to buy.

What I do not understand is why Michael Phelps, or any athlete, is supposed to be a role model. A role model of what? Yes, the very best athletes are incredibly disciplined and committed, but they are also young. In the United States we glorify youth without recognizing that the majority of our lives are spent not being young. It is the rare athlete who can be a role model for anything except being young, physically gifted, and disciplined.

When I was young I didn't have role models. I had heroes. I was very involved with classical music, played piano, and kept a bust of Beethoven on the top of the piano. My middle initial is "B", and. some time ago, I came across a book from my childhood, and inside I'd written "Property of Julius 'Beethoven' Lester". I had many heroes -- the English poet, Shelly, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus. These were people whose lives awoke my spirit, made me want to strap on wings and soar toward the sun. Heroes stir in us the desire to touch and be touched by the divine. Heroes make us want to be better than we are, to live lives bigger than we could have imagined.

In the United States today, however, "Heroes" is a television show, and we have "role models." I thought a "role" was something someone pretended to be. But a hero does not pretend. A hero makes us ask, what are the values by which you live your life? When I was in college, I read the dialogue of Plato's that describes the death of Socrates, and I remember talking with others in the class and thinking a lot about would I die for something I believed in? In 1956 none of us knew that in a mere four years that question would be made real when the civil rights movement began, and thousands and thousands of blacks and whites would have to as that question - am I willing to risk my life, am I willing to die for the cause of racial equality?

As frightening as the question was (and is), those of us who had grown up with heroes found courage in their lives and works and answered, yes.

Michael Phelps has the potential to become a hero.

So do we all.

© 2009 by Julius Lester
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19. Birthday, etc.

The Birthday

First, thank you to all those who sent birthday wishes, even from as far away as India.
I was deeply touched by your messages.

My birthdays are always quiet ones. My children called. My wife gave me three cashmere sweaters, and although I own too many sweaters, there's always room for ones made of cashmere. A close friend gave me a wonderful 1998 St. Emilion Grand Cru which I look forward to welcoming spring with. The rack of lamb from Dean & DeLucca was the mildest I've ever had. And the 1998 Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape. Well, I do not have the words to describe the experience of drinking such a wine. So, my birthday was one of quiet sensual pleasures that made me smile outwardly and inwardly.

I usually don't feel anything about my birthdays, but there have been some exceptions. Twenty-five scared me. I'd lived a quarter-century and hadn't done anything. Forty was a happy one because I felt like I was, finally, an adult. Fifty was very depressing for reasons that depress me to talk about, so I won't. As I've thought about what it feels like to be 70, the word that keeps coming to mind is gravitas - Latin from gravis, "serious". Seventy is another country, and I am looking forward to exploring what it has to offer me.

A Little Blog Business

A blog reader, Lindsey Brown, e-mailed to ask if she could use in a class what I'd written about the inauguration. Even though it's probably too late, the answer is, yes. I was not able to respond to her directly because when someone sends a comment on a blog post, I am not given that person's e-mail address. So, to you Lindsey, as well as others, my lack of response to your comments and, sometimes, questions is not indifference on my part. This blog hosting site does not allow me to respond to you directly. If someone needs a direct response from me, do not send a comment to the blog but e-mail me [email protected]

Football

Today is Super Bowl Sunday. For serious football fans like me and my wife, it is a day of mixed feelings because it is the last serious football game until preseason games in August. As we all know, sports reflect societies, and in this country, at least, sports have also been agents of change.

One of those changes is seen in football. The home crowds at football games have become an important element in games. They are encouraged to make noise to make it difficult for the visiting team players to hear the signal calling. Sometimes, in crucial situations, a player will move before the ball is snapped and thus incur a penalty for his team. When this happens the crowd yells even louder on the next play.

And yet, not too many years ago, there was a rule that the home team could be penalized five yards if the noise of the crowd interfered with the ability of visiting team players to hear the quarterback's signals. I remember stadium announcers asking crowds to be quiet so the home team would not be penalized. I remember players and coaches of the home team gesturing the crowd for silence. I liked the element of fairness invoked by not allowing the noise of the home team crowd to influence the play of the visiting team.

But, at some point, the National Football League decided to allow crowd noise to become an integral factor in games. In so doing, they also contributed to the coarsening of public life. This coarsening not only has to do with encouraging crowds to be loud and boisterous. It also gives us permission to deaden our feelings towards others.

This creates a subtle but definite shift from values of fairness to others (the visiting team), to the value that says nothing is more important than my ego identity, (the home team), and anything I can do to feel good about myself (my team wins) is not only acceptable but commendable.

And thus we come to the Republicans in Congress who continue to root only for Republicans, who continue to act as if only they matter. President Obama is sincerely trying to change the tone of political discourse in the United States. Perhaps the place to start would be asking the National Football League to reinstate the rule that penalized the home team when the noise its crowd makes puts the visiting team at a disadvantage. Transforming the tone of public discourse might begin with changing the tone of football games.

© 2009 by Julius Lester
[email protected]

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20. Today I Am Seventy

Today I am seventy. I’m not sure I know what that means. Knowing of this birthday people have commented, “You don’t look seventy.” But what does seventy look like? What is it supposed to look like? I have no idea.

If you were to ask me what it feels like to be seventy, it depends on when you ask. Some days I think I have as much energy as I had when I was thirty-five; other days I am tired from the moment I wake up and remain tired for the day. Also, I take more naps in the afternoon than I used to. However, except for living with emphysema, I am in excellent health, but I take more pills to maintain that health than I used to, and I’m losing most of my teeth.

Today I am seventy, but I haven’t done anything in particular to reach this age. I think of all the people I’ve known who deserved to reach such a day in their lives and are dead. I read an obituary recently of a woman who never smoked and died of lung cancer at age 43. I smoked for 32 years, (stopping in 1988), and here I am, age 70. My wife believes that, at birth, each of us is given a certain number of breaths, and once we reach that preordained number, we die. This makes more sense than believing that I did something to merit reaching my 70th birthday. I know better. But I am grateful that I have reached this age. It is the best time of my life.

I would not want to be young again. I look at the young, and I know what they face -- defining their lives, negotiating the perils of marriage(s), raising children, the deaths of friends, relatives and parents, facing the prospect of not fulfilling their dreams and living with the cold knowledge of failure. One of the joys of being seventy is knowing that I have been through those stages of life -- and survived. However, I am not unmindful of the fact that I have been successful far beyond anything I could have imagined. For that I am deeply grateful.

And yet, when I look back, there is so much I regret. My painful shyness stopped me from having relationships with people I met and could have known better, perhaps - Hannah Arendt, Richard Avedon, W. Eugene Smith, and many others. And yet, who knows? Perhaps that shyness protected me. Other regrets have to do with people I hurt, some unintentionally, others with malice aforethought. I regret, also, that I was not a better parent, or a better caretaker of my mother during the last decade of her life. I can say that I did my best, but, sometimes, one’s best is not good enough. That’s life, but it is not a justification. It is a pain one lives with when one is seventy.

I am going to celebrate this day very quietly. Being a lover of wine I bought a 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape recommended by my wine seller. It will accompany a rack of lamb from Dean & DeLucca. My wife will cook the lamb; I will uncork the bottle of wine, and the two of us will have a quiet meal of complex and wondrous flavors.

This birthday is a time to experience the wonder of having lived this many years. It is a time to look back. For the first time, I am going to read the more than forty books I have published since 1968. This is also a time to express gratitude to those people who have been important in my life over these years, and I will be telling them so in various ways throughout this year.

With great anticipation I look forward to becoming eighty. Just as I could not have imagined the awe of this day, I really cannot imagine the awe of that one.

That is how it should be.

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21. The Inauguration - 2

When I was young I used to feel sorry for old people. Being young I knew that what I did was going to have an effect on the future, but old people were, well, old, and to be old was to belong to the past. I was convinced that old people were envious of us, the young, because youth was life.

However, there were also terrifying moments when I realized that one day I might be old, and being old I would be jealous of the young. How did the old live with the despair of knowing their lives were over? How did they live knowing that the only thing the future held for them was death? How awful to be old and filled with jealousy of young people and all the wonderful things they were doing.

But as I watched the pre-inaugural concert on Sunday and the inauguration itself, I did not feel sorry for myself, envy the young, nor miss my own youth. Instead I was happy to see and feel the energy and vitality of youth as a part of political life again.

And the celebratory energy of the young people at the inauguration was different than the energy we had in the Sixties. Our energy was angry, but it was also threaded with anxiety and uncertainty. We did not know if what we were trying to do - end segregation, end the war in Vietnam, change the way Americans thought about race, etc. - was going to succeed. We felt ourselves to be engaged in a battle, and the consequences could be death, as it was for some in the civil rights movement and on college campuses.

The sheer happiness on the faces of the young (as well as the old) at the inauguration is unlike anything I've ever witnessed. It is a different kind of energy, a much needed energy, an energy that is transforming in and of itself on a national scale. For people to come together in public space - not in anger, not because they're against something, not to be entertained - but to affirm changes in the qualities of our relationships to each other is profoundly different.

It is especially wonderful to have youth in the White House, and I mean the President and the First Lady, not their children. One of the important things a president does is set the emotional tone for the entire country. The tone set by the Obamas is one of love for each other, one of pleasure in clothes, in sports, in people. They are comfortable in their bodies. And President Obama's smile can brighten a day for the entire country.

So I am thankful to the young for renewing the spirit of this country, for bringing joy into the public arena, for affirming the good, but not in any narrow moralistic sense. I am talking about that universal good which can be evoked by something as simple as a smile that starts in the soul and floods into the eyes and raises the lips upward and opens to reveal the teeth while looking at the person next to you.

Smiles like that are powerful political statements.

© 2009 Julius Lester

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22. The Inauguration

It was a day of more emotions than I think I have ever experienced. I had not know there were so many shades of wonder, astonishment, joy, and disbelief. I started watching television around 10:15, around the time the Obamas arrived at the White House for coffee with the Bushes. I don't know why my eyes teared up at that moment, but they did. There were many such moments but there are two that stand out on this day after.

The first is the relief that flooded my body as George Bush boarded the helicopter, and later, the plane that took his pathetic self back to Texas. He liked to talk about good and evil, never imagining that there were many of us who saw him as that evil. For eight years we had to listen to that sniveling voice, we had to look at that smirk, we had to endure his ignorance and his world-view that allowed for no questions, no doubts, no learning. In another era he would have been locked in the pillory on the town square, and we would have walked by and thrown garbage at him.

Didn't it feel good to wake up today and know that George W. Bush was not in the Oval Office and Barack Obama was?

The second moment that will endure in my emotional memory is not any of the speeches or the pageantry, (excluding Aretha Franklin's hat). What will endure is the sight of those millions of people standing in the cold cheering this enormous change in the quality and nature of the political leadership, cheering themselves for getting involved and making a difference. What will endure is the sight of all those people, especially blacks and whites, side-by-side, united, sharing the same experience, and part of our nation's problem has been that there are too few experiences that blacks and whites have shared as equals. Let yesterday be the beginning of many thousands.

Part of the political genius of Obama and his advisers was that they organized outside the confines of the Democratic Party. Obama's vision brought people into the electoral process who had been indifferent because no one spoke to them. Obama's vision energized young people who had become cynical because all they saw on the political scene were childish adults with the most narrow of self-interests committed to the triumph of ideology over people.

I loved looking at the joy and the tears on the faces of people in the crowds. My wife observed that the reverence with which many of them held small pictures of President Obama was as if they were holding saints' cards. Joy and reverence are infectious emotions that have spread throughout the land like a healing balm soothing our many wounds from these past eight horrific years.

As I live with the emotional memory of those millions of people on the mall in Washington, joy pouring from their bodies as if it were a radiant light, I realize that the revolution we fought for in the 60s is finally over, and we won.

All of us. We won.

We won.

© 2009 by Julius Lester

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23. Thoughts on the Day before the Inauguration

When I was young, seven, eight years old, I liked to listen to old people talk about their lives. I would look at them and wish I could see the images inside their heads as they told me about their lives. My maternal grandmother was born in the 1880's, and I was in awe of the changes she had experienced over the course of her life. (But she never adjusted to the idea of electricity, refused to have her house wired, but finally, in the late 1960's she gave in, and for the first time, she had electric lights. Shortly after, however, the house caught fire and burned to the ground. She survived, regretting her decision to get electricity when she'd lived for almost ninety years with a wood stove and kerosene lamps).

Yesterday as I was thinking about the inauguration (which is only 18 hours and 46 minutes away at 5:14 p.m. EST), I realized: I have become that old person I talked to as a child. I thought about my childhood in the 1940s and 1950s when racial segregation was the law, and we had no hope that it would ever go away.

Racial segregation was not only signs indicating where blacks and whites sat on buses, what entrances we used at movie theaters, and where we were not allowed to go at all. Racial segregation was an ethos, a culture of racial superiority so deeply embedded that it was taken for granted by blacks and whites. It was a way of life that governed every aspect of dailiness, one that could be enforced by any white person, even a child, against any black person. The system of racial segregation that existed was, in short, a form of fascism practiced by the government and the majority white population. Even though I grew up under such a system, looking back it is even hard for me to believe that it existed, but I still carry the wounds that cannot heal.

When I look at Barack Obama, I see a man who grew up in a world in which legal racial segregation had become something read about in history classes, a man who does not remember the lynching of Emmett Till, a man who did not put his life at risk so that the words "with liberty and justice for all" would mean what they say, and I am thrilled that he knew none of that.

Yesterday's concert at the Lincoln Memorial ended with Beyonce singing "America the Beautiful," and she sang it with such tender love, with such emotion, a love and an emotion I do not have because of the time and places in which I grew up. But tears came to my eyes as I watched and listened to her, and I am so happy that she is able to express such love for this country.

I feel blessed that tomorrow, one week from my 70th birthday, I will witness this incredible change in the American ethos from the matter-of-fact psychological and physical violence of the racial segregation of my childhood to an American ethos in which a black man spoke to that which is good and decent in people, and they have responded with their hopes and dreams for what we in the early years of the civil rights movement called "the beloved community."

I know that I am going to cry tomorrow as Obama takes the oath of office and as he delivers his inaugural address.

I know, too, that I will not be the only one crying.

© 2009 Julius Lester

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24. January 17, 2009

*** I am recuperating well from the surgery I had on January 9th. I am still waiting to learn the results of the biopsy but am confident it will be negative.

***It is bitter cold here in western Massachusetts with the temp reaching -17 two nights ago, and more snow is expected tonight and tomorrow. This is how it should be in New England in January.

***Two days and thirteen hours until the inauguration. A friend came back a few months ago after living in France for two years. She brought with her a bottle of champagne which she has been saving for a special occasion, and that occasion, she decided, is to toast President Obama and a new era in United States history. January 12 was "Coming of Age Day" in Japan. Tuesday, January 20, will be Coming of Age Day for this nation.

***For those of you who may be curious as to what I sound like, I was interviewed this week by radio station WBUR in Boston. Click on the link to hear some of my thoughts on the coming Obama administration and to see a few of the photographs I took in the South in 1966.

In last Sunday's "New York Times Book Review," there was an essay-review of a book, Little Rebels: A Collectioin of Radical Children's Literature . The reviewer, Caleb Crain, referred to "High John the Conqueror", a folk tale I'd retold in my Black Folktales (1969). I wrote a letter to the NYTBR in response to his stupid remark. In case the Times does not publish it, here it is:

"In Caleb Crain’s essay, 'Children of the Left, Unite!' (Jan. 11), reference is made to my retelling of the 'High John the Conqueror' folk tales (Black Folktales, 1969). Crain characterizes their inclusion in Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature, the subject of his essay, as 'Inappropriate' because the anthology’s editors give 'no warning' that the tale 'deploys the N-word with gusto.' The High John the Conqueror tales originated in slavery when 'the N-word' was a part of the ordinary speech of blacks and whites. Its use in this (and many other tales from slavery) show how the 'N-word' was used by slaves to show affection for each other as well as to make class distinctions between those who worked in the plantation owner’s house and those who worked in the field. How the word was used revealed much about the sociology of the slave community. And yes, the word was often used with 'gusto', and appropriately so."

Julius Lester

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25. Books Read, 2008 - Ones I Liked - 1

First, the mysteries. Three writers stood out for me this year, one very good, the other two extraordinary.

Margaret Coel writes a series set among the Arapaho of Wyoming. Until the most recent book the series had featured a Catholic priest and Arapaho woman lawyer. Coel bases her mysteries on historical incidents in Arapaho history, which gives them an added interest. Her plots are strong, and her descriptions of the land are quite good. Like most mystery series, it is best to read her novels in order of publication because the central characters, the priest and the woman lawyer, evolve. You can find a chronology on her website.

The first of the extraordinary novelists is Fred Vargas, Fred being short for Frederique. Vargas is a French anthropologist and one of the best-selling novelists in the world. Unfortunately, only three of her novels have been translated from French into English, and I despair that my French will ever be good enough to read the books that have not been translated.

Her character is Paris police Chief Inspector Adamsberg, a man who functions almost entirely by intuition. Thus her novels are as far from police procedurals as is possible. Indeed, her novels are characterized by an almost aimless meandering quality, and one's interest is held not only by the most perplexing mysteries but also by the panoply of unusual characters. Vargas excels at novels with multiple and quirky plot lines that, somehow, all converge in the end.

A few quotes from Seeking Whom He May Devour:

"That's what makes human beings so hopeless, really. They cling to the worst things they've known."

"Camille rather liked Suzanne who took verbal crudity to an incandescent intensity that could only inspire admiration -- Camille's mother had taught her to consider vulgarity as a way of coping with life."

"Yes, of course he [Adamsberg] was in love with Camille, deep down inside, in the unknown country you carry along inside you like some private but alien submarine world. Yes. And so what? Nothing says that you have to put every one of your thoughts into action."

From Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand:

"You love someone, you've got to give something, haven't you now, but if all you want's a good time, you don't have to."

"At eighty-six, the old woman was capable of giving herself without stinting."

From This Night's Foul Work:

"Spring is capricious, Adamsberg thought, you can't expect her to arrive punctually on the morning of 21 March, when you think of the astronomical quantity of buds she has to deal with, not to mention all those larvae, roots and seeds, things you can't see but that must certainly take up a huge amount of her energy."

"She was a tall, rather angular woman who moved around cautiously, as if she was surprised to find herself alive. Her chatter was composed of the most trivial non sequiturs, some pointless, some completely odd, and she could evidently keep it up for hours. In a sense, it was a work of great artistry, a lacy network of words, woven so fine that it contained only holes."

"If something feels sudden, it's only the end of a long hidden process that one may not have been aware of."

"The world of fantasy fills the gaps in people's knowledge."

The other extraordinary writer I read last year was the Swedish mystery author, Henning Mankell, but I will write about him another time.

On a personal note, I am going to have minor surgery on Friday, but any surgery means major pain to accompany recovery. So the next period of silence on this blog will have a discernible reason.

© 2009 Julius Lester

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