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‘For the Boy Who Makes Waves’ by Joe Blair

We are introducing a writer who has not appeared on this blog. Joe Blair lives in Iowa with his wife, Deb, and family. He grew up in Westford, Mass., and studied literature and writing at UMass Lowell, later earning an MFA in nonfiction at the University of Iowa. This essay first appeared in the Modern Love series of the New York Times in 2009 and has been reprinted elsewhere, making it a candidate for a contemporary classic in my view. The essay is also available as a NYTimes podcast read by actor Mykelti Williamson. Joe’s memoir By the Iowa Sea (2012) was published to much praise and ranked among the best memoirs of the year. Oprah.com had this: “ . . . an understanding of so-called ordinary life so raw and true you’ll gasp, and a situation so pressing you’ll tear through the pages.” A reviewer at Publishers Weekly used the words “lyrical, vivid, thoughtful.” All the while, Joe has been an HVAC mechanic, which remains his trade. He writes every day.—PM

Joe Blair with his family.

FOR THE BOY WHO MAKES WAVES

By Joe Blair

PROSPECTIVE buyers must wonder about the hard-packed runway of dirt in our backyard where grass won’t grow. And the hasp and padlock on the refrigerator. They must wonder why the gate on our six-foot-high picket fence is permanently bolted shut.

Deb and I hardly think about these things. We’ve been with Michael for 11 years.

There are two runways inside the fence. One traces the edge of the house. The dog made this one. He sprints from window to window, tracking my location. Am I in the kitchen? Leaving the kitchen? Walking to the living room? Walking back to the kitchen? D’Artagnan’s head pops up in each window as I pass. It might be cute if it weren’t for the destroyed windowsills and muddy paw prints on the siding.

The other runway, in the center of our tiny backyard, belongs to Michael. It’s a 10-by-3-foot stretch of shiny earth. There are three layers of sod beneath it, each one representing Deb’s hope that this time the grass will take hold, this time the grass will take hold, this time …

Once she placed lawn chairs over the spot, but Mike moved them. She tried a heavy picnic table, but it blocked the sunlight and the grass almost died anyway. So we moved the table and Mike finished the job with his pacing.

First thing in the morning, whether at 2 or 6 or 8, you can depend on Mike finding one of my leather belts, sneaking out the back door, and starting to pace on that patch of dirt, a brown packed surface, hard on dry days, slick on rainy days. What could be better? A belt that, if you grab it by the buckle and move it back and forth at a certain pace, will make sine wave after sine wave, its tail lapping the ground ever so gently as it releases the previous wave into the universe.

It is a mesmerizing thing. So absorbing. So incredibly fantastical that Mike can’t help releasing loud shrieks of delight. Or agony. Or pent up frustration. Or joy. In that muddy patch. In that sinusoidal belt. In that release into the universe.

Typically he will be naked. Or have only boxer shorts on. He will be screaming or singing or howling in a shatteringly high pitch; he is a supersonic Tarzan, an alarm clock we cannot ignore. Because we have sleeping neighbors: a veterinarian and his wife, a guy who is the head of some department at the University of Iowa, and another who works in the penal system.

And one of us, Deb or I, cursing beneath our breath, will peel ourselves out of bed and hurry down the creaking stairway.

“Michael!” we will say in our most authoritative voice. “Michael. Get in here!”

And Michael will drop the belt and do as we say. He will leave behind the thing he loves most. More than food. And he will do what we say. Until we are back in bed. And then he will return to his beautiful runway. With his magical belt. And he will make the world understandable in a sinusoidal way.

It is a poor substitute, we have learned, for the real thing, ocean waves. When Mike first saw the ocean, two summers ago on a beach in San Francisco, he was enthralled. He dropped the belt he always carries, threw himself on the sand that was warm and fine, and listened to the sound of the surf. It was as if he had finally found someone who spoke his language. The Pacific Ocean. Mother of all sine waves.

We visited the beach everyday for five days, but this was only vacation. And despite what boys want, vacations end. Soon Mike was back in Iowa and it was the belt again, lapping against the brick walkway while he waited for the school bus with his father.

One evening Michael’s twin sister, Lucy, said to Deb and me: “The teachers will think I’m stupid. Like Mike.”

“Mike is not stupid,” Deb said.

“Mom,” Lucy said, patiently. “You know what I mean.”

“Yes,” Deb said. “I know what you mean. But you’ve got to know what I mean, too. Imagine if you found yourself in the middle of China somewhere. And everyone was trying to talk to you. But you couldn’t understand them. And everyone thought you were stupid. But you were still just like you are. How would you feel?”

I have had glimpses of the kind of man I should be. Such are the revelations we are afforded. Passing glimpses, like the small, hidden pond you pass while driving on a particular road for the first time. Suddenly opening up and then closing once again. So that it can be instantly forgotten, or recalled only in part.

I have had these glimpses. Once, while attending some frighteningly capitalistic rally for Amma, the hugging saint, her face magnified and simulcast throughout the convention center in Coralville, Iowa, and printed on mugs and glossy paper and everything else, I had such a glimpse.

I had taken Mike to see the hugging saint for the same reason we have taken him a lot of places—with the hope that somehow it might help, that something might reach him. Anyway, what did we have to lose?

Once there, however, I did not want to hug the hugging saint. I did not need her blessing. Or the glazed smiles of her followers. Or the hypnotizing chants. I did not need anything other than to get my son, who was lying on the floor, feeling the carpet with his lips, and screaming, outside and in the car where I could maybe listen to the Cubs game. And then, while I was hauling Michael to his feet, Amma’s interpreter came on the screen and said something about eternity. And then he said something about kindness.

When I was 10, I would pray to God and ask for my challenge. “Give me my challenge,” I would pray. “Give me my challenge.” And at my lowest moments I have thought: “That was my mistake. I asked for it.”

These days I rarely talk to Mike because he rarely responds in any way. You may think this is cruel, ignoring my own son. And if you were to spend one day with him,  you might be full of energy and hope and good will. But I have been with him every day of his life for 11 years. My bad habit of ignoring my son has become so ingrained that our routine of noncommunication has become something of a runway all its own. And I ignore the very things that fascinate Michael. The belt. The patch of dirt.

Still, once in awhile, we engage one another. Sometimes, for example, we play the blinking game. While lying next to each other, very close, Mike will look at me out of the corner of his eye, a sly smile playing across his face, and he will blink once. Then, in response, I will blink once. His smile will gain in radiance. And he will answer my blink with one blink of his own. This will go on for some time, whipping Mike up into a fit of laughter.

Tonight, I lie next to Mike. It’s 11, well past his bedtime. He has been nervous. Maybe he has broken into the refrigerator and eaten some of the food we have forbidden him to eat—like bread or cheese or milk—since we’ve put him on the gluten-free, casein-free diet.

He has been laughing hysterically for at least an hour, which might seem cute to you but to me indicates that Michael is on the edge of a seizure. Our faces are very close in the dark. Mike likes it this way. Close. He is a beautiful boy. His eyes are large and liquid. His facial features are clean.

The great challenge I asked for when I was a boy, imagining the crack of doom and the Argonauts and the seven feats of Hercules, is lying in bed next to me, very close to my face. Faith is nothing other than an acceptance of eternity and, at the same time, of death. The great challenge, my great challenge, is nothing other than, in the face of eternity and death, a question of kindness.

Can I, being alive at this time, love this boy? Can I listen to him? Can I be a good father to this boy?

We have glimpsed the future, of Mike at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, his sporadic anger triggering the need for drugs, restraints, while I grow older, smaller and weaker. And Deb and I decided that we want a shot at a different future, one in which Mike, near his beloved waves, in a place where it seems he belongs, maybe isn’t so troubled.

So after nearly two decades in Iowa, we’re moving to the coast, to the waves. I have no work there, but I will find work. We have no community awaiting us, but we will make one.

The people who come to look at our house don’t understand this, but it is not theirs to understand. It has not been given to them. It has been given to us.

“Mike,” I say, in the darkness. “You’re a good kid.” I say it, and then I keep listening for once. I don’t stop listening after a few seconds as I normally do. Instead, I let the seconds run on.

Mike has ceased his laughter now. After some time, I don’t know how long, he whispers very quietly, “You’re” and “a good kid.” And then, “a good.” And then, “kid.” And then, “Mike, you’re a good kid.”

“I’m proud of you,” I say. The words wave and wave. And then they come back. Broken and then full. “Proud,” Michael says. “I’m proud of you.”

“I love you,” I say. It’s a profession. It’s also a self-rebuke.

“Love,” Mike says a few minutes later. “I love you. Love you. I love. I love you. You.”

After Mike seems to be done with his response, I ask, “How would you like to live by the ocean?”

This brings a big smile. He is looking off. Away. At something far. The words wave and wave. “Ocean,” he says.

.

—Joe Blair (c) 2009, 2020

 

 

Frank Wagner: A New Poem

Our new contributor Frank Wagner from Texas has a poem about neighborhood destruction, a subject familiar to anyone in Lowell who knows what happened in the Market Street Greek-American enclave in the Acre in the 1930s,  Little Canada in the 1960s, and the Hale-Howard district in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Frank is writing about an African-American neighborhood where he grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. Frank fills in the background: “That was the amazing thing about Lowell and Corpus Christi. Two different regions, different racial and ethnic groups, but the same tight-knit communities, where we were more than neighbors, we were family. All of Hillcrest is scattered now. In the ’30s that was the only part of town where African- Americans could buy a house, right next to the docks and the harbor and the oil refineries. They were told to live there—now they have to leave.”—PM

Web photo by Courtney Sacco courtesy of Caller-Times

 

The Bridge Where We Used to Live

by Frank Wagner

 

Ten thousand cars and big trucks roll
on the hot and hard asphalt on
the bridge where we used to live.
No driver of any of these
thinks for a second about
rusty tin roof garages,
old red-brick schools,
little drive-in grocery stores,
cracked basketball courts,
and wood-frame houses,
all there no more,
replaced with this hot and hard asphalt,
a new home,
the bridge where we used to live.


The old bridge rose over the docks,
to greet ships from Africa and Greece,
sometimes from Russia, too,
the men in steel-toed boots,
sweat-drenched shirts
came from the
houses in Hillcrest
to load the cotton
and grain for Russia,
unload barrels of oil,
unload cars from Japan,
then got their fistfuls of cash,
to pay bills and rent,
and buy cold doses of beer,
bitter and rich
at one time
on their tongues.


The old bridge began to fall,
all planned that way
a half-century before.
A new bridge had to come through,

and so it did,
and gone were the magazine racks
selling Amsterdam News and Jet and,
oh, don’t forget Sam’s Barber shop
where they got the Saturday morning trim,
the smokehouse bbq run by Brother Bell.
This is true,
Brother Bell preached, owned and operated

Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church,
and his barbeque stand was next to it,
irresistible sweet smell, sweet Jesus,
mommas all over Hillcrest didn’t
have to worry about fixing Sunday dinner.


That’s all gone, too.
with the Booker T. Elementary,
and the colored Coles High School.
Those schools began to look different
about the time the old bridge was built,
the same time
when they put the new interstate in.
That’s when those people
had to take those
old catwalks over to
the schools where those
rich kids went.
This slow stroll
came after a stop
at Garcia’s Grocery
for a sixteen-ounce bottle
of ice-cold Pepsi
and pork rinds.
These scholars munched
and drank, then
looked down at racing trucks
on their way.


Everyone in Hillcrest
used to ask why
the police station
was put right there,
on Buffalo Street,
the border where
the Saxet neighborhood
turned into Hillcrest.
Never mind now,
that police station is gone, too,
the exit ramp for
the bridge where we used to live.

–Frank Wagner (c) 2020

Lowell City Council Agenda: Jan 14, 2020

Here are the City Council motions and a report on the 75 Arcand Drive eminent domain taking from the agenda for Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting:

CITY COUNCIL – MOTIONS

  1. Nuon – Req. City Mgr. provide update regarding review of inspection and enforcement procedures within Developmental Services to determine if better efficiency can be achieved through transfer of data via tablets or other electronic means with the aim of improving turnaround time without adding personnel.
  2. Nuon – Req. City Mgr. have Parking Director instruct staff to check pay stations during daily routes and report any malfunctioning meters each day.
  3. Nuon – Req. City Mgr. have proper departments (Law, Human Relations) provide a report on feasibility of residential requirement for public employees in City of Lowell.
  4. Nuon – Req. City Mgr. provide a report regarding status update on the Smith-Baker building.
  5. Elliott – Req. City Council vote to establish a subcommittee on Election Redistricting.
  6. Elliott – Req. City Mgr. provide an update regarding bridge construction on VFW highway at Beaver Brook.
  7. Conway – Req. City Mgr. meet with Police Superintendent and Fire Chief to provide a report and update regarding “Wellness Programs” for our first responders.

REPORTS

75 Arcand Drive eminent domain taking (from City Solicitor’s response):

Dear Manager Donoghue, Mayor Leahy and Members of the City Council:

I write in response to a request that “the Manager provide the Council with a report regarding the negotiations and relocation and other charges concerning 75 Arcand Drive.

Following the City’s taking of 75 Arcand Drive, the owners were paid $2.6 Million for the value of the property, otherwise known as the pro tanto payment. The City’s payment of $2.6 Million was based on an appraisal of the property prior to the taking. Pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws owners may seek compensation beyond the pro tanto payment, in essence asserting that the property had a value greater than the pro tanto payment. In the present case, the former owners of75 Arcand Drive have filed suit in Superior Court challenging the amount paid by the City. The case is in the discovery stage, and the City is currently awaiting responses to its discovery requests. To date no evidence, such as an additional appraisal report, has been presented indicating that the City’s pro tanto award was insufficient. Once discovery is complete, the law department can provide the Council with an additional status report.

With respect to relocation efforts, progress continues to be made pursuant to the State-approved relocation plan. The City of Lowell’s approved relocation plan defines the time period in which occupants are to be relocated, and requires that all compensation for relocation costs in excess of$50,000 must be approved by the State. To date, two of the Doctors have agreed to relocation figures and, in turn, the State’s Bureau of Relocation has approved the relocation amounts agreed to by the parties. Specifically, the Bureau has approved a relocation payment to Dr. Montminy in the amount of $129,820.00, and a relocation payment to Dr. Ross in the amount of $745,792.78.The approval letters are attached. At this point, all of the doctors have now identified new locations, and the City’s relocation expert will continue to work with the Doctors’ relocation expert in reaching settlements as to the remaining relocation claims.

Seeing Through the Double Standard

Seeing Through the Double Standard

By George Chigas

The use of the double standard (in this case, when a state applies the rules of war differently depending on which side you’re on; but it also applies to multiple other contexts: personal, home sports teams, etc) is an age-old form of deception that temporarily conjures illusions of grandeur but ultimately undermines our ability to engage in meaningful dialog with our adversaries. It’s not difficult to see why we are so easily hoodwinked by our government’s use of this cunning slight of hand. The double standard inspires us to applaud our good behavior while simultaneously blinding us to our bad behavior (because it simply doesn’t exist) so we see ourselves as the ultimate “good guys.” Conversely, by focusing exclusively on our adversaries’ bad behavior and ignoring their good behavior (because it doesn’t exist), we see them as the consummate “bad guys.” Accordingly, the double standard affirms our moral superiority, precludes any serious use of diplomacy and creates the illusion that force is the only way forward. Historically, by the time we have seen through the state’s use of the double standard, it has been too late and the irreparable damage has been done. We saw this with the genocide of American Indians, when the double standard went by the name “Manifest Destiny”; with the horrific crime of slavery, when it was called “white supremacy”; with the forced internment of Japanese American citizens, when it was called “national security”; with the carpet bombing of Southeast Asia, when it was called “the Domino Theory;” etc.

This is the sorry show currently on full display in the US and Iran regarding the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani. From the American perspective, the double standard, under the guise of the so-called “maximum pressure campaign,” is being used to argue that Soleimani’s crimes made him an evil war criminal deserving of execution; while American war crimes, such as the murder of three Afghani men by Army officers in 2008, among other examples, were the patriotic acts of brave soldiers. (That is to say American war crimes in the Middle East don’t exist.) Similarly, the Iranian government uses its own double standard to argue that the assassination of Soleimani was an egregious American atrocity; while the war crimes committed by the Iranian-backed militias in Lebanon and elsewhere were acts of righteous heroism. (That is, Iranian war crimes in the Middle East don’t exist.) They can’t have it both ways. Both sides have historically done good things (militarily, culturally, politically, etc), and both sides have done bad things. Showing some humility and taking responsibility for your own wrongdoing, while recognizing the commendable actions of your adversaries, are necessary prerequisites for building the mutual respect required for meaningful dialog and diplomacy. Neither the American nor Iranian people should allow themselves to fall for this age-old slight of hand. The first step would be for us to refuse to accept the premise of their deception and let them know we will not be so easily fooled this time.

George Chigas, Ph.D., is Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of World Languages & Cultures at UMass Lowell.

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