Thursday, November 27, 2014

Be Very Thankful

I had a work flashback this week when I was thrown back into the world of acronyms. I thought I was visiting a nursing home and found to my amazement that I was instead standing in an ICF-MI. This is proof that you never know where you’re going to find yourself.

Excuse me for being obscure here. It’s just evidence of how social workers working in Illinois with bureaucrats and bureaucracy speak. Bureaucracies create long titles that are shortened to acronyms and used as shorthand. It speeds up conversation. I barely knew what an ICF-MI was. I have however been in an ICF-DD.

And ICF-DD is an Intermediate Care Facility for the Developmentally Disabled. That is the label the state puts on a type of reimbursed care setting for those Illinoisans who have an IQ of less than 70 who are determined unable to live independently. I was first in one, an ICF-DD, some twenty years ago when I visited Horizon South in Oglesby. I was there for some kind of a meeting. Horizon South was a nursing home taken over by a good local agency, Horizon House. To their credit, Horizon House as an organization worked hard to close Horizon South because they felt the people who lived there would be better served, more humanely housed, enjoy an improved quality of life, live with more dignity, in a smaller group setting. They were successful, much to the credit of the leaders of that organization, in creating and funding scattered site housing, and emptying that tired and worn out institution housing people who were perfectly capable of living with each other in small setting placed in regular neighborhoods throughout our communities. Bravo to Horizon House. Would that all agencies of their type done the same. Would that Illinois had funded such a system conversion.

There is a type of tyranny, maybe brutality, which exists when human beings are forced to live in such large scale settings. As a society we revel in such settings at times, especially in the case of prisons. There the milieu is deliberate, part of the punishment. Offend us? Live this way. See how you like it. We like it that the food is bad, the beds hard, the cells crowded, the environment austere.

There are few times in our lives when we exist in such a way. We live like that in the military perhaps, for periods of time. Basic training maybe. College dormitories are another example, though few are as densely populated and communal as those I inhabited in the 60’s. Students and parents just won’t have it any longer. Won’t pay for it. College students live increasingly in smaller settings. The dormitories with the long halls, the big group bath rooms, are pretty much things of the past. I lived in a dorm exactly four months before finding a way around the rules and moving into an apartment.

An ICF-MI is an Intermediate Care Facility for the Mentally Ill. Same big group concept. In this case 115 patients with the type of diagnosis that qualifies one for such care: schizophrenia, bi polar disorder, personality disorders, and more are put in an old nursing home, most likely built in the 60’s, and there you have it. On the entrance door a large sign “The use of video or still cameras without permission of the administration is not allowed.” Let me try to describe it for you. Video with audio would be more graphic. I’m sorry. Rules you know.

The day I visited it rained and snowed. As I walked to the entrance a back hoe was digging under the foundation near the front door. Once inside, after signing in, I saw a man on a ladder shining a light up into the suspended ceiling where a tile was pushed aside seeking a source for the water that dripped into buckets below.

Five corridors leading to a big day room with coin vending machines, one TV, a Wii play station. Little printed material. Lines of patients at the nurse’s office, the dietician’s office. Their doors are closed. The day room is filled with folding banquet tables. At the tables some people play a dice game, others do jigsaw puzzles, while some sleep, foreheads on the fake wood finish or cheeks and one ear pressed flat, mouths agape. While the TV blares, few watch. An extremely obese young man, wearing his coat and sweatpants, sits in a wheelchair trying to get the attention of everyone and anyone who passes. To each staff person, dressed in scrubs, IDs on lanyards, carrying clipboards, he speaks loudly.

“Why aren’t you smiling? You’re supposed to smile.”

To me he explains “We’re not all there, that’s why we’re all here.” When I don’t respond he laughs in a high pitched voice; laughs, and laughs.

A pay phone, the only phone for patient use, in a crowded area offers a brown cotton curtain for privacy there. But the conversation, wouldn’t everyone hear?

The person I was with, who had been in a similar facility, thought the day room was nice.

“I was in one of these a couple of months ago, and the halls from the patient room just led to a nurse’s station. There was no common area like this. I think they took them to the basement for activities, and it was hard to get them there. This is good,” he said.

Good, I thought? Were I forced to spend day after day in such a room would I think it was good?

The five corridors, long and narrow linoleum tiled halls, with doors to two person patient rooms, floors covered in the same brown tile, on them old hospital beds with hand cranks at the foot that no one uses, metal night stands and dressers, closets built into the wall. In some the plastic brackets that hold the rod are broken, so clothes are simply laid in the bottom of the large compartment. One nondescript picture of an unnamed seascape adorns one of four beige/peach walls. The bathroom is shared with the room next door. Shower down the hall. Hasps on the night stands, added later and attached with metal screws, yawn open with no locks.

I visit a person there in one of the small rooms. I point out clothes that were sent, the drawers that hold them, a book chosen that we thought would make good reading. Little interest is shown. It’s quiet in the room. There’s no radio, no TV, little really except for an old electric clock belonging to the roommate, and the picture. An artist’s rendering of a patch of ocean, light on the waves, dark sky. Maybe paint by number. It made us seem so far away from there. During pauses in the conversation you could hear the clock whir, the hands moving perhaps. Inside the room time passes slowly. As I was leaving the roommate came in.

“How long have you lived here?” I asked.

“Two years.”

I made my way through the day room to the front desk where I signed out.

“What are they digging for outside?”

“Grease trap clogged up in the kitchen. Turned out to be a bigger problem than they thought.”

“Do you have a lot of trouble with the building?”

“Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s old. Always seems to break down in the winter.”

I drove away, very mindful and very thankful of my ability to do so. Soon I was out of town passing through the peaceful space of empty cornfields. Winter is hard enough, I thought, without having an image of that day room in your mind.

The owners of that facility own ten such places. Private company. Perhaps this was their oldest, the facility in the worst condition. No way to tell. Maybe it was their best. The internet offered little information. They maintain no independent web page, the owners, so their online presence is controlled by others. I found an ambitious list of ICF facilities in Illinois that appears to have been designed so that a wealth of information, provided by the facility, could be shared with consumers. Little data existed. Staffing patterns were outlined, few nurses, surprisingly low ratio of mental health professionals. 11% of a full time psychiatrist for 115 patients. Sliver of a dietician. I could imagine the requirements behind staffing pattern. People you pay for because you have to have them.

The facility was called a nursing home though there were very few nurses there. It’s intermediate care. Physical disability and poor health is not the main concern inside those walls, but rather mental illness. Were the people inside not mentally ill they would live in the community. This is a private facility housing poor publicly funded patients. I would guess 100% of the people inside are funded by Medicaid. When you are poor you qualify for Medicaid and when you are mentally ill and unable to live on your own a facility such as this accepts you and provides care (think housing) collecting a daily fee for you based on those Medicaid rates. The condition of the patients earns the owners of the home a lower rate than what we think of as a nursing home. The rates are set by the state and reflect the money legislators budget for Medicaid reimbursement to private facilities. If you are the owners of this nursing home you put ten such place together and run it on a business model. Hey, someone has to do it.

Illinois has by and large closed its state facilities and instead contracts with private facilities to carry out its responsibilities to the mentally ill. It’s more flexible than maintaining state institutions. Annual state contracts can be adjusted to reflect changing need, and it’s cheaper. Staff are typically non union. The facility I was in has an occupancy rate of 96% because that is the economy, the business model if you will, of such places. Run full, maximize revenue, do the best you can with the dollars you are given. At least we hope they do the best they can. It’s a private for profit company after all. We have little but hope to go on.

Some societies have much less. America and Illinois at least has a system to care for the mentally ill. Should we be thankful for that system? OK, I guess we should. Can we do better? God, I hope so. Will we in the future? I see little indication we will. As far as I can tell this is not high on Bruce Rauner’s agenda. It is high on the agenda of very few people. We are beginning to develop and have developed beautiful places to house and care for our senior citizens, our properly insured and funded senior citizens that is. Options for the poor mentally ill remain few. Other options for my friend may be sought soon. I’ve been told not to be optimistic.

I’m about to take off on a solo road trip. I am very thankful on this day that I can. Be thankful for your freedom; your car, the ability to put gas in it, a credit card to charge a room for the night, the mental wherewithal to find your way to your destination. Independence and the ability to exercise it is a gift. Be thankful, be very thankful.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Imagining a Warmer Day

Tuesday, November 18, 2014, it was 8 degrees at 6:30 in the morning. That’s the coldest temperature on record since 1903. Heck, it was 5 degrees in Red Lake, Ontario 1100 miles north of here, not unusual for them. But Thanksgiving is next week. It’s not supposed to be that cold in Illinois.

Not only was it 8 degrees, but the wind was blowing so hard I had to shut the damper in my stove pipe to keep the match from blowing out when I lit the stove. I don’t pay attention to the wind chill numbers they promote on the news but the wind made it a lot colder. The sparrows have puffed out their feathers and look twice their size. Not having access to Google they don’t know the temperature or the records but by all appearances they think its damned cold too. I hadn’t gotten my leather chopper mittens out, don’t know why, so when I went out to get more firewood that morning I put yellow cotton work gloves over the fingerless gloves I have on now as I type. My hands were still cold. As I type this morning the stove slowly warms me up, starting with my right shoulder and thigh. It’s a process.

Up in the garden my Brussels sprouts are frozen onto their stalks. I was hoping to make it till Thanksgiving to harvest those. Was that too much to ask? They seem to be better on the stalk and better yet after a few frosts. But this can’t be good for them. The positive spin is that they were organically grown and now they are organically frozen. I am pretty sure they are also gluten free. The downside is I’m going to have to get them into the freezer if the weather gets in the 40’s as it is supposed to this weekend so they don’t thaw and go mushy before next Thursday. It’s always something. But if it warms up I plan to do some roofing.

I’m trying to finish my woodshed roof but it’s too damn cold. I had all summer to do it and didn’t see the urgency. Thanks to help from my brother Denny and our friend Brice, I have the rafters up and the spaced 1x4’s which will hold the cedar shakes. Keith McConnoughhay is giving me both advice and material and I’m doing the work. It’s a shame to learn on the job during the probably one and only time I’ll ever shingle a roof, but that’s where I am. Once the roof is on I’m moving the eight of so pallets of oak wood now in the yard into the shed, splitting some of it before I stack it, so it can continue to dry and season. I have a lot to do before Thanksgiving.

We’re having the Flaherty family to dinner at our house on Thanksgiving Day, more than twenty of them. I ordered a turkey from Handy Foods, one of those raised up by Waterman and not injected with all the stuff. Think I’ll brine it before we roast it. I’m anxious to see everyone for the holiday. Beats getting together for funerals.

The day after Thanksgiving I’m driving to Florida, or starting out anyway. I haven’t picked a route. Instead I intend to back out of the garage, turn either right or left, up or down the hill (the only choices), and consult the road atlas once I’m out of town. My wife is flying down the next Monday, we’re staying with relatives in Tampa and Sarasota, then ending up in a house in St. Pete Beach for a week. I’m bringing the golf clubs and the car of course, so that we are mobile when we’re down there.

That, on the surface, is the official reason for my one way drive. (My wife is riding back with me.) Just beneath the surface though, this short solo trip represents my longing to travel by myself again, with no deadline, no itinerary, and no route. Just a departure point and a destination. No ETA. I expect to plug in the laptop and write along the way, posting blogs while I’m gone.

I had no idea I would want to escape the cold this much this early. It is hard to see the value of it. It is not a friendly thing, or a welcome guest, the cold. It stings my face. It seeps into my joints and pains me. My knees feel old. I run from that reality by imagining warmer times. That’s perhaps the biggest benefit of being human, having the ability to imagine better days instead of being trapped in the present.

I continue to feel out of touch with modern life. Like a Halloween Jack O’Lantern in November with a vague feeling his time has passed I consistently discover aspects of everyday life that date me. I went to Farm and Fleet, discovered that they do not sell wooden bushel baskets as I know them, and was further puzzled at the lack of shingling hatchets in the hand tool section. I always wanted a shingling hatchet though I had no use for one. Now I do.

I worked on a carpentry crew in the sixties building homes in new subdivisions in Bloomington Normal. The plumbers and electricians had the best pickup trucks and seemed the most calm and sedate of the tradesmen. The carpenters were somewhere in the middle of the continuum of trade union gentility while the roofers were the roughest and toughest, along with the painters. The roofers worked under the toughest conditions, in the sun, no hope of shade, carrying those shingles up the ladder on their shoulder. It was believed by those in the know that roofers drank the most, though there is no data that I can find on to support that theory. Anecdotally, in the bar after work with my bosses, they appeared to drink the most. They certainly drank the fastest. A roofer once told me why.

“Well, first you build up a powerful thirst up there in the sun. But also, if you get in here in the air conditioning and chug one or two cold beers real fast it makes you eyes water, which flushes all that asphalt shit from the shingles out of your eyes.” Oh, the excuses that abound for hard drinking.

It was the end of a brutally hot week in 1968 but us carpenters were under roof and shaded, finishing the last of the inside framing on a Hundman Home in Greenbriar subdivision, about to put the windows in their frames. The roofers had come as early as possible, at first light, so they could get off the roof before the heat of the afternoon set in. As we heard them pound nails above us we knew they were baking up there. The shingles were black. To do their work properly they sat on shingles just laid, wearing out the pockets of their jeans, which were streaked with tar. We sweat but they sweat more. We imagined their work as miserable.

I was outside gathering an armful of 2x4 studs from a stack in the yard when I heard an especially loud argument break out above me. I looked up, squinting into the sun, and saw a crew of roofers involved in what looked like a fight. I didn’t see any punches thrown but they were arranged in that challenging stance that people take when they are attacking or about to be attacked. In this case that tableau was set on a 4:12 pitch. Two men were the principal figures, the other two bystanders. I didn’t see any punches thrown. I imagined you could get knocked clean off a roof very easily in a fist fight at that angle. They were sparring verbally. It went something like this.

“Either you get your ass down there and bring up those shingles or I’ll fire you right now.”

“I been humping shingles for days and you don’t make no one else do it, especially your f***ing brother.”

I sensed favoritism based on family which I learned in later years was unfortunate, unwise, and not uncommon. Behind the boss the brother, I assumed, whom the boss couldn’t see, grinned broadly. That did not help the situation at all. The aggrieved party continued.

“So if you want more shingles have him do it” he said jabbing his finger violently at the smiling sibling “or get the god damned things yourself. And as for firing me don’t bother. I quit.”

The boss countered loudly. “I’m the boss of this crew and nobody quits when I’m firing them. Make no mistake about it asshole, you’re f***ing fired.”

It can be a fine line, the difference between quitting and getting fired, don’t you think? As he concluded that statement the boss picked up the young man’s shingling hatchet and threw it off the roof. It arced in the air, turning slowly, and landed not far from my feet. Neither of them noticed me. I put the lumber down and picked up the hatchet. It was a nice one, an Eastwing with a stacked leather handle, a leather thong you looped around your wrist, and the holes for pegs in the hatchet head. The deal with the pegs is that you can use the hatchet itself as a measuring device, bringing the peg to the edge of the shingle tab below, bringing the shingle above it down to meet the face of the hatchet, and defining the proper distance without a ruler. Slick.

“Now get the hell off my roof!”

The fired (recently resigned?) roofer was halfway down the ladder when he stopped and resumed yelling.

“You think you’re the only god damned roofing company in town needs roofers? I guarantee you I’ll be working tomorrow. And when I am I won’t be putting up with BASTARDS like you.”

He scurried off the ladder and began quickly walking to his car, a sad looking old Chevy. Being perhaps experienced in these matters he did glance over his shoulder to see if the boss was chasing him. Realizing he wasn’t, he slowed down. As he neared I extended the hatchet. I could see sweat drip from his face. He smelled bad. He took the hatchet and barely acknowledged me. As he passed by he turned and directed one more oath back at the roof.


Bastards and sons of bitches. With that he pretty much trashed his fellow roofers’ ancestry on both sides. I had a strong suspicion he had effectively burned a bridge there, and would never work for that roofing company again. At the same time given the explosion in construction in Bloomington Normal at that time, I had no doubt he would as he claimed find another job with no problem. After all, he had his own hatchet.

I was thinking of that hatchet when I was at Farm and Fleet. Not finding one, I consulted with one of the staff in the red shirts.

“A shingling hatchet?” He seemed confused. “Let’s look it up on the computer.”

I stood with him by a PC in the paint department as he scrolled down a screen. “Here it is. Discontinued. No longer carry it. Oh my.”

“Oh my?”

“It was discontinued in 2008.”

“No kidding? That was six years ago.”

“Well you know,” he explained, “roofers use air powered nailers these days. I’ll bet you they don’t use a hatchet and a nail on a single shingle.”

I did find a shingling hatchet, several in fact, at RB Lumber. They are the new place that opened up in Ottawa’s old K Mart. The guy behind the counter directed me to their tool aisle and there it was, the Eastwing shingling hatchet of my memory with the adjustable pegs and stacked leather handle. It was perhaps a little sleeker, a bit shinier, but it was basically the same hatchet I held in my hand that hot summer day 46 years ago. Trouble was, it cost $44. As much as I wanted it, I was only shingling a very small roof.

And so, although I coveted that nice shingling hatchet with the pegs I went with a single piece of cheap painted steel with a wooden handle. Probably made in China. It was $14.99. I don’t plan to make a career out of this. But I have to admit I wouldn’t mind being up on a hot roof in the summer right now, if only for a little while.

If I don’t write again before Thanksgiving have a good holiday with your family. And stay warm.

Friday, November 14, 2014


After I stopped working I thought some things might change. I was chronically late for most of the thirty four years I worked at YSB. It was a busy place, and I liked to stay busy. I used every bit of time before grant deadlines, sometimes driving the grant to the city where it was to be mailed on the day it was to be submitted. By 5:00 p.m.. By working this way I never gave myself extra time to do things. There was always a certain amount of tension around time, especially travel time. I would stay in my office in Ottawa working until the last possible minute before leaving for a meeting say, in LaSalle. I would do the same thing for long distance meetings in Springfield or Chicago. I got speeding tickets. The smallest things could make me late, a train, a red light or two. And getting lost? Forget about it. If there is no deadline I actually enjoy being lost. But throw a wrong turn into the carefully measured amount of time I’ve spared to travel to an appointment and I’m screwed. Might as well turn around and go home, which I’ve done on occasion. Being held up in any way really makes me mad. I am nearly always alone in the car so no one hears me yelling. It is my place to let off steam. Occasionally, I would whack the passenger seat with the back of my arm. That hasn’t happened in a while. It was road rage of some different type, not directed at other drivers in any way, but at the clock. Time rage I guess. You’re right. That’s stressful and unwise. I know that.

I knew exactly why I was trying to cut it so close. I hate small talk, both listening to it and trying to start it. If I arrive at the appointed hour just on time, or a minute or two late, I encounter nothing but meeting with no time to fill. No chit chat. For example, I ran a meeting, the Children and Adolescent Local Area Network (C&A LAN), in LaSalle on a regular Friday (second, last, I don’t remember) that started at 1 p.m.. I could leave my Ottawa office as late as 12:44, head out on Route 6, get on I-80 at 178, take the LaSalle exit, cut over on the road past the Flying J, hit a little blacktop, and be walking into the Mental Health Center between 1:00 and 1:04. My secretary was already there, the agenda and minutes were passed out, everyone would be talking, catching up, socializing and having a chatty moment or two. I would walk in, sit down, call the meeting to order, and away we went. It was my favorite meeting I think. I miss it a little.

Why did I grow to hate being early? Hard to say exactly. There is this. My family went to a Presbyterian church in Danvers, three miles from our farm. After I quit going to Sunday School, when my Dad returned to church after a long absence (long story) my parents insisted on getting me into the car more than a half hour before church started, driving the short distance to Danvers terribly slow, checking out everyone’s fields on the way, and being perhaps the first people to enter the sanctuary. We sat, in our same pew every week, and did nothing. Said nothing, read the bulletin maybe, looked at the stained glass windows, suffered the silence of an empty church. Why in God’s name would anyone do that? As people arrived my Mom and Dad would smile at them, perhaps exchange a greeting, or go over and talk to them in a low voice, or they came to us. It was maddening. I sat there not believing I was in that place, at that time, doing nothing. Did I vow to never again in my life be early? Could be.

The money for the C&A LAN ran out just as I retired. I don’t think they have that meeting any longer. People would bring stumper cases to that meeting, kids and families that defied our fitting them into neat categories, that fell through the cracks (those were never cracks, but rather gaping holes). We would brainstorm. School people, special education folks and social workers, joined with mental health people , child welfare providers, social workers from different agencies, psych hospital people, the whole gamut of organizations and institutions that dealt with problem kids and families. It was a meeting not about one organization but about people who needed help. We tried to find the strengths of families rather than dwelling on their weaknesses. We came up with creative solutions or not, made one another aware of resources and programs that could be used for a family’s benefit, maybe. It was not about us. That was refreshing. When needed we drew from a small pot of money to buy services, or hard goods, or make a rent deposit, or anything that may get a family over the hump and into a better place. We used it all kinds of ways.

When the meeting was done it was the middle of Friday afternoon and most everyone went home as soon as the meeting ended. Week over. Friday afternoon meetings are the best. Everyone leaves immediately when they end. No small talk on either end. It was perfect. When that meeting was over I would go back to work. Friday afternoon was a popular one for skipping out if your work was done or you had worked late early in the week. Seemed like something always came up though. Besides that it was quiet. I would go back to Ottawa, get organized for the week to come, work till 5:00 without interruption. Interruption, that’s the killer.

At some point early on I said I had an open door policy but in reality as the years went on I shut my door more and more to keep people out. I read a lot, and wrote grant applications, wrote all the time really, thinking problems out by putting them on paper. I had talky organizational meetings, yes I did, and talked to people, and told them what I thought, what I believed our organization should do and not do, and listened to the same kinds of things from my staff. But rarely did I act on anything without putting it first on paper, into words, and responding to it in writing. So I was in my office, like I am now in my shack, writing.

That’s why I loved, loved, loved e mail when it became a tool of the trade. I could write my staff, my board, my peers, my funders with a measured response, reread it, change it, edit it, get it the way I wanted it, deliver it immediately, and expect a response. No doubt about what I meant to say, that I said it wrong, that something went wrong in the hearing of something or other. It was in writing. That’s the way I communicated. And then came texting, which practically took me away from speaking all together. So when someone came to my door and wanted to talk, to throw some situation up and want an opinion, a solution, in spoken word on the spot, it put me off. I don’t really care to talk much, then or now.

And when they wanted to talk just as I was leaving, when I had exactly sixteen minutes to make it to LaSalle, barring trains holding me up, when they wanted to talk to me as I was putting on my coat and trying to get out the door, I was probably plain rude. I didn’t have time to talk. Talk is slow. I was late. I was always late. I was OK with it. Still am.

So why would I be late now that I’m retired? That is hard to say. I have very few things for which I must be on time, and absolutely none of them really require my attendance. There’s Yoga at the YMCA at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. I swim Monday and Wednesday, Friday too if my blog is done. As far as the pool goes, if I’m not there at noon kids swim on some days (I can’t remember which) at 1:00 and if I’m much later than 12:15 I can’t get my laps in. Choir practice is at 6:00 on Wednesdays. And that’s the extent of it really, day to day. I have a church on a regular Tuesday night at 6:00, second Tuesday I believe. Beer club is a regular Wednesday March through November that conflicts with choir at 6:00 for part of the year but still let’s me make the second hour, have a few beers and some food, and see the guys. I’m sure I’m missing something. It is not what you would call a grueling schedule. Am I on time for my appointments? No.

I’m the last to come into Yoga, but often they haven’t gotten into their first pose. I sneak behind everyone, get a mat, a blanket, two foam blocks and a strap. We’re usually into the first pose within a minute of my arrival, or I’m a minute or so late. Perfect.
At choir, as I go up the stairs, I often hear my choir mates warming up. I know the warm ups, and begin them on the stairs, shucking off my coat, getting my folder of music, taking my place between the fellows in the back row. Nice.

Being late for swimming sometimes jams me up without a lane of my own, but not often. It’s a small town, a small Y, and there’s always room. When I’m late I swim fast. I go for 56 lengths if I can, and if I can’t, that’s OK.

It happened yesterday morning. I was writing, and watching the clock on my computer. I knew I had but 11 minutes to drive down the hill, park at the Y, climb the stairs, put my membership tag under the little scanner, get into the locker room, take off my regular clothes, put on a T shirt, jock strap, and sweat pants, lock my locker, and get up a second set of stairs before the rest of the class broke into sun salutation, or downward facing dog, or whatever we start with. I knew just how much time I had but instead of going straight to the garage and leaving, as I should have, I cut through the kitchen, I don’t know why, where I encountered my wife who chose that particular moment to tell me about the Dave Letterman show. She had watched it while I was sleeping the night before.

“You should have seen Dave Letterman last night. Jennifer Lawrence was on? (My wife has fallen into uptalk.) You’ve seen her before on Letterman haven’t you? (Doesn’t wait for me to respond.) It was so FUNNY! Dave asked the staff to look something up for them and when it took a long time Jennifer Lawrence said to Dave ‘You want to get out of here’ and they just walked off the set and the camera followed them down these little halls and stuff. It was wild. And then they broke for a commercial and when they came back Jennifer Lawrence was in Dave’s chair and he was the guest. I tell you. She’s crazy.”

“Uh huh,” I said.

“You don’t look interested in the least.” She knows me well. I wasn’t interested at all. I like Jennifer Lawrence but only as an actress. She was terrific in the movie about meth in the Ozarks, but I could care less about her as a person and what she does on the Dave Letterman show. Like it never mattered to me what Dennis Rodman did off the basketball court. To me he existed to rebound, and that was it.

“I’m not interested. I’m sorry but I don’t have time. I’m going to Yoga and if I don’t leave right now I’ll be late.”

“Good bye. Maybe later today you’ll find time to talk to me.”

I can be more honest with my wife than other people. With others I get caught up into being polite and standing there pretending to listen as the minutes tick by and I feel lateness creep into my future and tension seize my body. Thankfully my wife knows this about me, this self imposed rush I get into, and holds it against me only occasionally. Actually, she holds it against me more than that, but I find ways to make up for it. Unbroken attention. Eye contact. Don’t look at your phone. Real listening. I should do that more often.

It may not be good, this practice of leaving no time for transition, or it may be inconsiderate of others. It’s probably rude. I know that. But that’s what I have going on. Call it a bad habit if you must. First you recognize and admit to a bad habit and only then are you perhaps able to change. Isn’t that how it goes? I see absolutely no value in being anywhere early. I think it’s an awful waste of time. And time, even though I have a lot of it these days, is still not something I want to fritter away. I may well continue to do what I choose to do until the last moment I possibly can, and then leave in a rush. I like it that way. Too much maybe. But I’m exploring other options. And while I am certainly not committed to change, I am considering it. I’m being honest here. What else can I say?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Out with the Old, In with the New

This blog post was held up by an unforeseen circumstance. Not only was I busy building a woodshed the last two days, I was waiting for final results in the election of our my representative in Illinois’ 76th district, where incumbent Democrat Frank Mautino was running against Republican challenger Jerry Long. Frank is unofficially ahead by about 342 votes out of more than 34,000 votes cast. Long is not conceding and reportedly is considering a recount. The election will not be certified until November 25th. I’m surprised.

The week before the election I was talking politics to the guys at choir practice.

“You been getting fancy mailers from Jerry Long?”

“Yeah,” my baritone friend said. “Where do you suppose he’s getting the money?”

“Has to be the Republicans. They must think he has a chance of winning or they wouldn't be putting money in this late.”

“I can’t imagine,” piped up the tenor. “When has Frank ever had a serious challenge?”

“It’s been since the Unions were mad at him for bringing the WalMart distribution center to Spring Valley, maybe eight years ago.”

“Who ran against him then?”

“Don’t know. Nobody I knew.”

I don’t know Jerry Long. He is a truck driver that has never been elected to anything to my knowledge, although he may be smart and capable. You couldn’t tell from the glossy mailers. On the other hand, I know Frank Mautino as both a key player in the House and a moderate. He knows the budget and is fiscally conservative. Besides that he answers phone calls, returns them, and has a staff, both in Springfield and Spring Valley, that does the same. Couple that with the fact that he listens, realizes when concerns are important to those contacting him, and measures policy implications and you have the recipe for a good elected official regardless of party. I was disappointed in his vote against same sex marriage, but I have never been a single issue voter. If Frank was in trouble something was definitely going wrong. Turns out he was in trouble. Maybe still is. And he has company in the Democratic party.

I worked as an election judge Tuesday in Ottawa’s 12th precinct. I always wanted to be part of the process and after I retired did just that. It’s just my second election so I’m still learning. This day was radically different from my first experience, which was the spring primary. Last Tuesday the polls were busy all day. Second only, the veteran election judges say, to 2008 when Obama was elected. I was a poll watcher for the Democrats that day in Naplate. I remember the excitement, seeing all the young voters participating in their first election. Tuesday was busy, but it was a different mood. It was serious, even somber.

We had voters waiting when we opened the doors at 6:00 a.m. and a voter in a booth as we took all the others down and locked the doors at 7:00 p.m.. Including the hour we spent setting up the polling place the day before, the hour we spent preparing before opening, the hour counting after closing plus delivering the ballots made the whole effort nearly a sixteen hour task. I think I’ll make about $170 for the entire deal, which included a three hour training in late October, and doesn’t account for the vegetable tray I bought as my contribution to the group’s nourishment. I joke with my wife that my earnings for this election and the last will be only money I earn all year. If so, I’m working for less than minimum wage.

Ottawa precinct 12 was paired with Ottawa 4 in the Lion’s Club on Ottawa’s North Side. It’s a good polling place, plenty of space, clean, well lit, good bathrooms, kitchen off the back though we had little time to eat, not that we complained. Being busy at the polls beats a slow day all to heck. We had a steady stream of people through the building all day. Ottawa 4 had a little better turnout than us at 52%. 364 of our 738 registered voters participated in Tuesday’s election for just under 50%. It was like presidential turnout. We were surprised.

I live in the precinct I worked, so Tuesday was a chance to be with neighbors, meet new people, and put names with faces. We were evenly balanced; three Republicans and three Democrats, and we followed the many rules that govern voting without disagreement or issue. I worked most of the day next to a high school senior participating in a program of our local County Clerk that recruits and trains teen age election judges to involve them early on in the process. She was a hard worker and attentive to detail, and there are plenty of details that require attending.

Most of the stress comes from determining when voters must cast a provisional ballot, filling out the right affidavit forms, and determining why a voter who shows up is not among those listed in our precinct. Help is just a phone call away, and we had experienced judges who knew their stuff. The process was made easier for us by the new opportunity given voters to simply go the County Clerk’s office, register, and immediately vote. I think that’s a great new wrinkle to Illinois voting, which bucks the trend nationwide of throwing up obstacles to voting in the name of eliminating voter fraud. I’m pretty confident, being on the inside of the voting process and working with the kind of smart and conscientious people that sign up to work elections here, that there is little or no voter fraud in LaSalle County. Why not extend a well run process so that every possible person eligible to vote can do so?

I was struck all day at how much voting means to us. A young woman comes in late, makes sure her husband is in the book, votes and hurries home to watch the kids so he can make it to the polls in time.

“Bring the kids. We don’t care. We like to have them here.”

“You might, but we have three pretty rambunctious kids. We want to take our time in the booth. Hard to do with those rascals underfoot.”

Old couples in walkers came to vote. We brought them chairs when they had to wait in line for a booth. Our two precincts had eight voting booths and many times during the day they were full. We switched jobs during the day; from looking up voters in the four preprinted books of registered voters and giving them their application to sign, to initialing the ballots and giving instructions on voting, to numbering and spindling the ballots, to helping voters insert their ballot into the machine. Each and all of us saw every voter at some point in the process. Sitting at the poll on election day and watching your neighbors file past gives you a real snap shot of your neighborhood. I realized our neighborhood, our community, is more diverse than I realized. I like that about Ottawa. No one side of town is dominated by good or bad housing, we’re mixed up by income, by age, by ethnic group. We’re still fairly white but slowly we are being joined by more people of color making their homes among us.

I was explaining the ballot, the security sleeve, the process to an older African American man who paid more attention than most. I had a standard rap I repeated a hundred times or more.

“It’s a two sided ballot, so remember to flip it over and vote both sides. When you’re done please put it back in this cardboard sleeve with the green initials facing up when you put it in the machine. Use any booth against the wall.”

The African American gentleman looked at me closely. “So when I get to the booth I take it out of the sleeve? Just how does this work?”

“Yeah. You darken ovals with an ink pen next to the name of candidate you choose.” We had little pads of examples to show people how to mark the ballot that we rarely used. I grabbed one and showed him how, blackening the middle circle across from one in a set of three fake candidate names.

“Make sure you only vote for one candidate in a race. Although if you over vote or fail to vote the machine will let you know at the end.”

He thanked me. From his questions I was pretty sure it was his first time voting. I love to see people get involved. We need everybody, especially young people, to get involved and stay involved. When we say half of those registered vote is good turnout, we have a long way to go reach excellent participation in government. If we lose interest in voting government it will only get worse, and we need it to get much, much better.

A woman came in late and found she was in the wrong precinct. She had moved, thought her voting privilege followed her automatically to her new address (in the same town) and was frustrated. She was a member of the Laborer’s Union, still in her work clothes.
“Where did you work today?” Many of our local trades people travel considerable distance to get work.

“Homer Glen.” I left early, got into a bunch of traffic, made it here and now I find out I can’t vote. That’s just the kind of day I had.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a flagger. I run the sign for road work.”

My co worker, the election judge with all the moxie, was on the phone with the County Clerk's office as we were speaking straightening out her situation.

“OK,” she said. “You can go to the courthouse, you’ve got almost a half hour, and they’re going to take care of this address change and you can vote there right after.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Because by God, I’m determined to cast my ballot in this one.”

That’s the way this election went. People were seriously interested in letting their feeling be heard through the ballot box. I was surprised by the results. Heavy turnout, especially in our area, usually favors Democrats. Being a Democrat, I had hoped the turnout meant we were seeing through the simple arguments put forth by the governor’s candidate who has never been elected, never introduced a bill, never worked the floor of the house or senate, never seen a well meaning policy initiative create unintended consequences that needed correction, and for al we know has never struck a compromise with his peers in order to reach a common goal. But that was not the case.

Ottawa 12, my precinct which is neither a Republican or Democratic stronghold, voted for Jesse White by 60%, chose Lisa Madigan handily over her opponent, barely endorsed Topinka over Simon, and voted overwhelmingly yes to increasing the minimum wage. Yet Rauner received 201 votes as compared to Quinn’s 140, which pretty much mirrored LaSalle County’s total vote of Rauner at 56% and Quinn with 39%. My friends and neighbors came to the polls to vote Quinn the Democrat out of the Governor’s mansion. In scanning LaSalle County’s precinct votes, in the rare cases where Quinn did carry a precinct, he did so usually by only single digits. There are some precincts in LaSalle County which historically vote very heavily Democratic. They didn’t do so Tuesday. Voters in LaSalle County, apparently Democrats and Republicans alike, came to the polls with something to say. It made me wonder how the woman in the Laborer’s Union who runs the sign really voted. What voters in my precinct, LaSalle County, and Illinois said fairly convincingly is they don’t want Illinois to be lead by a Democratic governor.

Those are my friends and neighbors. They’re good people and I respect them. If Rauner is OK with them I’m willing to give him a chance. We have no choice of course but to do so, and if it all goes to hell we can vote him out in four years. But if you’re going to be involved you have to be involved all the way. I’m going to watch closely and stay involved over the next months and years, tell my elected representatives what I think of various bills and issues, and hope for the best. Who knows? It could work.

When I was just getting to know how much state government meant to communities, in the early eighties when I was a new director of a not for profit serving troubled kids that depended, as most do, on state dollars to fulfill its mission of helping kids and families, Jim Thompson, then Jim Edgar, were governors who contributed to the quality of life in Illinois by making good things happen. It’s been done before. They were good governors because they were smart and pragmatic. They saw what needed to be advanced and worked with Democrats to advance those things. Pragmatism, when accompanied by smarts, is a great quality. We have to hope history repeats itself.

Stay tuned, and please stay involved.