Afterwords, Part II

My father’s life was one to make you disbelieve in justice.

He was born to an outwardly decent family.  His father & namesake was a decorated Korean War veteran from a classic American Protestant family; his mother a Mattapan Jew.  He originally grew up both; synagogue on Saturday, church on Sunday.  It started out well enough on paper.

However, after six brothers and sisters, his father was gone, and his mother overwhelmed; so he was the acting father himself to his brothers and sisters.  His mother married again, and another brother and sister came, but that marriage too ended.  His litany of former residences read like a Hall of Fame for dangerous, poor and downtrodden towns and cities in Massachusetts.   The oldest of nine children, he worked from his early teen years.  He joined a gang, a notorious one, because it was easier to protect his siblings from its violence by commit it himself on others.

He was intelligent, but spent his life working with his arms, not with his mind.  He enjoyed none of the quiet, steadily accumulating success and authority that are supposed to gather to the hardworking American.  He began his working life just as Reagan dismantled that dream in favor of stockbrokers and magnates; the worker now runs in place, and my father was one of them.  His successes were mostly others’; he got to see me finish college, and missed my sister’s graduation by days; but he knew that she had done it, all the same.  He himself labored day after day, never adequate to his own dreams and potential, and never rewarded terribly well with money, prestige or comfort.

He was a proud man who refused to take gifts even in the midst of his sick helplessness. But he would ask to “borrow” my money, in a polite fiction of repayment he maintained until the very end.  He never admitted he was going to die, and that his cancer was beyond beating, even though it was past cure from the day he was diagnosed.  He was used to living in hopeless conditions, in worlds without reward, where you work for others and save nothing for yourself.  That had been his entire life.

There was some dim promise he’d have a better old age; because of his protection and efforts his children are doing what he should have done, given the chance; we may have been able to support him in doing many of the things he’d dreamed of and never did.  And then, on this cusp, lung cancer took him, two weeks short of his 57th birthday.

His joys were in his family; in his short travels.  He loved cruise ships and casinos; he got to be a father at Harvard’s commencement.  He started the path of the downtrodden who rose up, but his rises were always frustrated, always on the edge of failure and defeat.  Always some circumstance of life made the goal of a little breathing room and comfort just out of reach.

The point of this litany is not to depress.  The point of this is to cause America to understand what it has become.  America prides itself on opportunity and progress — we cannot exist without believing our system rewards work with inevitable success.  But those rewards no longer are broadly shared; we build yachts and golf courses with our excess, instead of better schools and housing for the poor.

Instead of rebuilding our system to be more fair, we’ve rebuilt our believes to make it seem fair, as long as you don’t look too closely.  We live according to selfish myths that mask the people who need help into cyphers of irresponsibility and deceit who deserve their lot in life.  Poverty without help breeds crime; and we build prisons instead of help.  We tell ourselves the poor deserve it; they don’t work hard enough, are lazy, and taxing those with extra — staggering amounts of extra — to benefit who cannot is thus decreed patently unfair.  The wealthy are deserving, because our system is holy and fair, so it rewards and punishes perfectly.  We sin who doubt its judgments of income and wealth.

There is no place in this myth for my father.  He’s the hardworking man who tried all his life and still got nothing for it but an early grave. He doesn’t even inhabit that grave.  He gave his remains to medical science, in the hopes that in his last dying, he could make the world a better place still.  Gave and did not get; perhaps his remains will help the research that cures his disease.  It would be a fitting, anonymous epitaph for this anonymous man that Republican and Democrat, Congressman and President, stockbroker and lawyer, all have forgotten.

And it brings me to want to do something about it.

Afterwords, Part I

Dying is usually thought of an instant, a moment in time, when a being tips over some unseen edge from warm familiar life into a journey that must remain opaque to those of us left still waiting in line.   There…there…and just now, not.  Sometimes death is exactly that, all too quick.  Wars harvest little instant deaths by the dozen; highways do the same, though in incidents far enough from each other that we find them less immediately horrifying.

My father’s death took 468 days.  He was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer on January 30th, 2010, and died a year and some months later, on May 18th, 2011.  Metastatic lung cancer can have many causes, but by far the most common, and the most likely, were the cigarettes that my father smoked nearly every day of his life from age 15.   He tried many times to quit; and even though he was profoundly stubborn and willful, the craving for cigarettes broke his will every time.

I did talk about it somewhat as the year went along, to friends, family and debaters.  But there’s a quiet fog that wraps itself around you that no words actually come through.  There’s a pale mood that cannot be spoken.  You find others who have been touched this way; others who watched or were watching a loved one die.  When you meet, you say no words, you just simply identify yourself, and then stare for a while.  Both of you know there’s nothing to say; both of you know it helps to feel less alone.

But usually you’re a lonely ambassador, speaking a different dialect: you don’t want to impose your grief on everyone else, but it’s always there and you can’t always hide it.  You don’t want to hide behind it as an excuse for every flaky moment, every outburst, every time you let slip the mask you keep around the parts of life you declare normal.  But it is the excuse, it is the reason, and you don’t care enough to lie, either.

You find each moment tinged with guilt; guilt that you’re not there in some way for your parent, that you’re not doing the right thing, that you could somehow be a better son in the last months left you will be a son.   You find each moment tinged with grief, wondering what it’ll be like when he’s well and truly gone, when you have the last sequence of last moments with him — the last meal, the last hug, the last word.  The last gift.  You don’t know which will be the last, but only that it grows closer and closer, and you worry that you’ll botch it, and be left carrying it forever, without possible apology or amends.

For four hundred and sixty eight days, life was about a series of endings, of things you’ll never get back or have again, culminating in that final one.  A last Father’s Day, a day that shall nevermore have meaning to me; last Thanskgiving, last Christmas — both my birthday and Dad’s favorite holiday; he was the one waking everyone up at 6 AM.  And then one last ending, May 18th.  Another holiday on the calendar, a new personal Father’s Day.  A day to spend in pointless rituals, lighting candles, doing whatever it is to try to inadequately show you’re still somebody’s son.

Two Mayors

So now I’m off the Yale IV, in more ways than one. Yesterday was Election day locally, and I do mean locally — there were no national races or even statewide races affecting my corner of the universe. We had a remarkably uncontentious set of races for various local offices, punctuated only by the removal of the local town hothead, who was resigning her spot on the Town Council, and the subsequent dethronement of the long serving council President, whose tenure was no doubt tarnished by having to deal with, and be associated with, aforementioned hothead. Life’s unfair like that sometimes.

Last night the mayor of Boston was re-elected for the fourth time. Menino’s been a fair mayor, but not an amazing one, and is given credit for redevelopment but blame for terrible schools. They talk down here of big challenges, but when I consider the issues facing Boston and its immediate suburbs, the problems are those of managing growth, channeling it productively, deciding what to build, and dealing with the nationwide trend of schools segregated by wealth.  Boston has a solid economy, its housing crisis is relatively mild, crime is low if rising in the past year, and the city is clean and boasts a wealth of cultural attractions. So people are reasonably content with the mayor. Menino’s challenger, if anything, was too like him genetically — his outlook and approach is rather different, at least so he claims.  But in Boston many things are still seen first through the lens of background and race and ethnicity.  An Irishman from Southie named Michael Flaherty cannot convincingly run as anything but a machine politican. We already have a highly effective machine politician in office, so Mumbles Menino — even his staunchest allies would never claim he’s a gifted orator — skated in, 57-42.

Back home, in Fitchburg, MA, my home town, the incumbent mayor was likewise re-elected last night, on a wider margin, but only after two years of serving in office. She replaced a complete debacle of a leader, a clothing salesman turned grandstander who was so obviously an incompetent the city didn’t even care to elect a native to replace him.  Thus the incumbent mayor is the very face of a Change Candidate; Lisa Wong, 30 summers of age, Asian-American, not native to the city, a BU grad who studied urban planning if I’m not mistaken. She unfortunately came to office at the very beginning of the economic crisis, and has but unable to do little more than manage it for the last two years.  However, she also had no real challenger — the challenger listed on the ballot was an acknowledged crackpot, while her more credible 2007 opponent decided to launch a sticker campaign only last week. The finally tally was Wong 60, crackpot 14, sticker guy 26 (assuming all the write in and sticker votes actually voted for him, which is probably close enough to true).

Fitchburg is a city without a margin for crisis. It’s been neglected by the state for a long time now; Boston and environs suck up most of the oxygen, and therefore resources, in Massachusetts.  It’s was left behind when the country and the economy shifted in directions it could not follow.  It is blue collar in an economy that rewards connections and brainpower, not arm power. It lacks the money for reinvestment and redirection; everything it has goes to a bare level of survival. It’s geographically a bit isolated, which is a blessing in terms of quality of life, but a curse in terms of economics.  It’s very poor, run down, and lacks hope for the future. It might bounce back when gas hits ten bucks a gallon and small dense urban centers come back in fashion, but until then, it’s hard to see where it’ll go. It’s a place where kids like me, who do manage to succeed by some definition or another, are urged by civic leaders explicitly and implicitly to leave, for our own good.  Which robs it of it’s so-called Best and Brightest, and pushes it further back.

Fitchburg would be fortunate to have only the problems Boston or Watertown faces. The mayor has put the library on a part time basis, which means it lost accreditation, closing it off from interlibrary loans with other libraries.  She shut off most of the city’s streetlights, which has proven deeply unpopular, despite having little real effect — research shows pretty convincingly that streetlights mostly produce light pollution, not crime reduction; the city is much better off living darker than laying off a police officer. However, streetlights make people feel safe, and that matters politically. Americans are bad at seeing second order consequences; they react instinctively in the political sphere. It’s not just debaters who don’t know how to weigh arguments properly — nobody does in our political arena where everything is black or white.   However, despite Mayor Wong’s resultant unpopularity, no one serious ran against her.  No one wants the job.  She mostly chooses which thing to cut today, knowing that the thing she decided to keep is simply the thing she’ll have cut tomorrow instead.

People don’t pay taxes anymore, they don’t want to. In Massachusetts, a town or city cannot take in more than 2.5% above their total property tax income from the year before, unless there’s new construction or growth.   Any increase in total tax income over 2.5% must be approved in a override referendum, which never happens in larger towns and cities, and only rarely passes in posh suburbs.  This “Proposition 2 1/2” was passed in a ballot referendum in 1980 and took effect in 1982. As as side note, my uncle, recently inducted into the Fitchburg High Hall of Fame, thereby lost his chance to be a state champion, as the state championships were not held in 1983 due to budget cuts that Prop 2 1/2 required. Since then, inflation has been above 2.5% in 22 of the 27 years that followed.  Real estate values have shot skyward but revenues have not followed.  The tax based spending power of every local government in Massachusetts has declined.  The state makes up for it a bit with state aid, but it doesn’t meet the gap.  And state aid puts revenue and spending out of the control of the local governments — the state has cut state aid several times the past two years to balance its own books.  This situation is unsustainable in the long run, of course. Schools services get a little worse, and a little fewer, every year. Yet a repeal of Prop 2 1/2 is nowhere on the political radar. People think we still live in “Taxachusetts” despite our overall tax burden ranking 23rd out of the 50 states.

It’s an act of ultimate anti-patriotism, wanting to keep your money for yourself, so you starve your community of taxes. Clearly the United States is better served by your second flat screen TV than it is by a better school. In New England, there’s no regional authority below the state level; county government no longer exists.  So mayors are straightjacketed in places like Fitchburg, forever cutting, never adding new. Mayor Wong can’t encourage or spur growth; she has no money to do it with. None of the money in the comparatively wealthy towns surrounding Fitchburg — Townsend, Lunenburg, Westminster — is available for reinvestment in the city center, even though most of their economic power comes from it.  They’d be much better off if Fitchburg would bounce back.  But they won’t pay for it either.

So a city dies slowly.  The surrounding areas enjoy a brief prosperity that too will fade once the center is completely hollowed out. Fitchburg is a canary in the coal mine of Prop 2 1/2, one of the places which was already weak and in trouble in 1982, and which has been gradually devastated ever since.  And it likely will be allowed to die by uncaring neighbors and an uncaring state.  Little will be done about the imbalance in taxes, where wealth grows ever concentrated and unstable, until places like Boston and Watertown and Belmont and Newton are truly hurt by it.  When Weston has to turn out their streetlights, then maybe voters will notice.  By then, it’ll be too late for Fitchburg.

I hope Mayor Wong has tricks up her sleeves to turn it around. The only real hope is new growth that somehow springs up, through favorable zoning laws, or effective marketing, or securing some federal program or something.  But ultimately it’s impossible to get around the reality of ever declining common wealth. Maybe Fitchburg will have a flash of innovation and pull itself out of its doldrums.  But if it does, that will just shunt the problem elsewhere — some other town or city would be the first to wither then, and be that dying canary; by saving Fitchburg you may simply doom Springfield, or Pittsfield, or New Bedford.  And no one will talk about it.

So I’ve started.

Eulogy

Grampa always valued education more than anything else.   But he was not an educated man.  He wasn’t a stupid man, or an ignorant one. Throughout his life, he was always curious and hungry for knowledge. He read all the time, and above all loved history, both of the country and of the family. We couldn’t go to a new place without Grampa trying to drag us to some battlefield or fort. He learned constantly, and strongly believed that education makes a person. So the fact that I went to Harvard, I think, made him prouder than anything else.  He never stopped talking about it.

A lot of people at Harvard also think that education makes the person, but there it can be more sinister and snobbish. Since it’s supposedly the Best College in the World, it’s very self-satisfying for folks to tell themselves that a person only matters if they have a degree from an ancient institution, and everyone else is simply a peasant. Most of them lived all their lives around privilege, and don’t know real struggle; they think two exams on the same day is the toughest challenge in life. Those that don’t come from privilege often forget where they came from, and turn their back on their homes and families as much as they can.

But I never would have been there without my grandfather, both through his generosity, and his example. A geeky little boy with big glasses who wanted to read everything might not have kept up with it without knowing his big fireman grandfather was doing the same thing. And once I got there, I knew that you didn’t need education to make the world a better place.  Grampa made the world a better place all the time; it’s practically all he did.

He was born into a very tough world, but instead of looking out for himself, he always tried to make things better for others. His brothers and sisters had little more than each other and their remarkable mother, and Grampa always took the worst of it onto himself. His own family life wasn’t perfect — he had had no one to teach him how to be a father — but he always strove to be the best he could be, never neglecting his family, always making sure they had enough even when times were hard. He made us all as Leblancs better, and this extended family was so important to him. We came close to not doing the Fourth this year, and I thank God that my cousin Rhonda did it anyway, even though her life was busy and hard at the time, and she probably shouldn’t have.  That gave his wider family a chance to see him one last time, without knowing it.  Most of my friends don’t understand how a family this large and extensive can even know each other, much less get together on a regular basis. But many of his nieces and nephews saw him as a second father, and Uncle Lester and his brothers and sisters kept us together. He made his city better, serving for 15 years as a firefighter, and then as a small businessman in neon signs, real estate, and God knows what else. He was instinctively friendly, and would strike up a conversation without effort wherever he went. He made his country better, serving in the Army in Korea and Germany. We all know his patriotism knew no bounds.

So I could never turn my back on any of that, when I was at Harvard and people there assumed I came from an awful, terrible past simply because I don’t have wealthy ancestors. But I had something better. I had a grandfather and the family he helped create for an example and a support. He may have been proud of me going to Harvard, but I am prouder to be a Leblanc, and to be his grandson. We could all do well to live like him, always making the world a better place. The only time he ever made the world a worse place was when he left it.

Lester Joseph Leblanc Jr, Jan 21, 1931 – July 22, 2009.