Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A weem a weck, a weem a weck

After all this time I never put it together that Montreal’s name involved a mountain, Mont Real.  America, and at least this American, is so caught up in itself.  The extent of my knowledge of that city may have gone beyond this old John Prine lyric, but maybe not.

“She was a level headed dancer,

on the road to alcohol.

And I was just a soldier,

on the way to Montreal.”


John was referring of course to American boys in the 60’s fleeing the draft and death in Vietnam by going to Canada.  Montreal I’m sure saw its share of expatriated Americans, along with Toronto, and Vancouver, and all the other great Canadian cities.  It’s so much better to call those young men expatriated Americans rather than draft dodgers, just as it is better to call anchor babies the children of illegal immigrants.  Of course now there is no draft to dodge, seeing that conscription into the military is political suicide.  Resurrecting the draft is discussed even less than even meaningful gun control.

 Was John Prine’s AWOL solider, who probably completed basic training and received orders for Southeast Asia, right in refusing to obey that coercive draft?  I don’t know.  I never had to face that choice.  But remind me, what did we accomplish by sending 58,220 young Americans to their death in Vietnam?   Was it more meaningful than the 4,486 young Americans in the all volunteer military volunteer who died in Iraq just a few years ago?  I can’t recall.  One was weapons of mass destruction and the other stopping the spread of communism.  Did we ever find that yellow cake uranium?  Or was it all just tiger pits and those trashy IED’s by the side of the road?  I can’t keep the wars straight.  Old age is a terrible thing.

But this isn’t a political piece it’s a report on vacation.  My wife and I celebrated our anniversary by going to the province of Quebec, which isn’t far away.  Neither of us had been there.  It’s the French speaking portion of Canada, although nearly everyone knows English as well.  And contrary to advice from Americans before we left, they didn’t mind speaking English at all.  All I had to do was say “Bon Jour” in what must be a twangy sort of Central Illinois way, and they would immediately switch to English.  We found Canadians to be nice folks.  We made it a point to talk to lots of them.

A lady waiting for the shuttle bus from the Montreal airport turned out to be a social worker, a mental health therapist on her way up North to an indigenous community.  She’s been going up a week a month for twenty years.  Sort of that town’s part time resident head helper.  I have a thing for social workers.  I find them to be good to talk to.  Of course neither of us wanted to talk about mental health, which is work after all for both of us, but when she found out where I was from she expressed her appreciation for Chicago.  She flies across the Great Lakes to visit there often.  She likes the music and the bars.

“But you know something?” she said.  “Your poor people in America, they’re really poor.  It’s surprising.”

Every country has poor people of course.  I’d not yet seen Canada’s.

“What is your federal minimum wage?” I asked.


“Ours is $7.25.”

“Whoa.  That explains a lot.”


She talked about her community up North some, which she clearly felt part of, and gave us a good tip on Montreal.

“Go down by the river at night in the Old City.”

My wife plans the details of these vacations and had found us a deal on an apartment in a neighborhood on Air B&B.  We didn’t know exactly where the neighborhood was, but the cabbie did.  The cabbie complained about Uber which was just coming into Montreal.  He couldn’t figure out how they were doing it without having company insurance.  He was sort of mystified.  I told him it was a real deal.  At least he talked to us.  I used to talk to cabbies all the time in Chicago but lately they only talk on their phones to someone else using Bluetooth in their ears.  I think they’re talking to me and I realize not.  So I just chill in the back seat.  It takes something away from the experience.

Our neighborhood was Verdun, which was west, and our second floor one bedroom apartment was just off Rue Wellington.  It was a working class neighborhood with a real business district and real people living their lives on the streets.  Just around the corner was a bakery, a cafe, a liquor store, and a grocery.  Everything we needed was on Wellington.  Two blocks away was a Metro stop.

The Metro, Montreal’s public transportation, was easy to figure out.  We were six stops away from Montreal’s downtown.  When we were downtown it was a short walk to old town.  Old town in Montreal is really old.  The French came there in 1640.  The British took over for a while in the 1700’s.  It was all about the fur trade back then.  But they built a beautiful city.  Old Montreal is splayed out along the river.  It feels like Europe.  It’s taken over by tourists of course, but so are the pretty cities of Europe in the summer.  We spent a lot of time there.

One night we had dinner at an upstairs jazz club in a damned fine old building.  As it got dark the street lights glowed outside the big windows.  The sky opened up over the river.  The food was good but expensive.  We split an entree.

It was just a female singer (chanteuse), a bass guitar, and a guy on a electric keyboard.  The best instrument was the woman’s voice.  She closed her eyes during the pretty parts of the song.  She drew out the notes in an alluring way.  I could have listened to her all night.

We sat next to a couple some years younger than us, he from Niagara Falls Canada and she from Toronto.  They had driven down from Quebec City.  We were headed there the next day.  The Patrick Kane story had just hit the news and we talked about the Blackhawks.  Very nice people.  He thinks the hawks will be screwed without Patrick Kane by the way, but that’s another story.  We talked about Cuba, where they had traveled a few years before.  Canada has been fine with Cuba since forever, despite pressure from the U.S. not to be so.  Canada sold them codfish and beer.  Cuba sent back cigars, sugar and rum.

“You know it must be nice not to be at war with anyone.  To be on good terms with the world.”

They both shrugged.  “We’re pretty easy people to get along with,” the man said with a smile.

As it turns out Canadians, especially the French Canadians raised a stink about conscription in 1944 during World War II and pretty much killed the concept politically from there forward.  No draft in Canada since way back.  When Americans came there fleeing the draft in the 60’s, they understood.

It came to me then that as America takes the lead in fighting ISIS, agonizes over Iran, and opposes North Korea and its craziness Canada, and most of the rest of the world as we know it, takes a back seat.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  Do you think it would change our country’s mind set if that were the case? Maybe even change us?

After dinner my wife, remembering the nice woman in the airport, said

“Let’s go down by the river.”

It was a beautiful night.  It was windy off the river but you didn’t need a jacket.  The narrow streets were absolutely jammed with people.  The bars overflowed.  Street seating at the restaurants was at a premium.  Montreal was buzzing and we were in the middle of it.  Rue St. Paul, one of the many old streets closed to traffic, runs perpendicular to the St. Lawrence river. The biggest crowds were there.  As we turned the corner I saw a man with a torch surrounded by a throng of people. 

“Let’s see what’s going on there,” I suggested.

As we walked up the man, wearing a remote microphone headset amplified through a beat up speaker, was recruiting volunteers to hold each end of a thirty foot rope.  He was loud and frenetic, never stopped talking, always in motion.  He put the burning torch down, balanced on an orange traffic cone, and approached the people at the edge of the crowd. 

“You’ll be great at this.  I need a barrier here.  I need room to work.  I need to keep people a safe distance, and with the breeze I need people lined up here to block the wind.  All you really have to do is hold the rope.  Well, you can pose a little.  You can strike a pose can’t you?”

A middle age woman found herself holding the rope and blushing profusely.  He struck a pose beside here, hand on one hip, head thrown back. 

“This is a good one.  A crowd pleaser.  Or you can make up your own.  Try mine.”

She did so, half heartedly, blushing an even deeper red.

“Let’s give her a hand.”

That was to be his most repeated phrase.  Every two minutes he exhorted the crowd to clap for this or that.  Or to make a noise which he demonstrated as a  crowd chorus.  It was audience participation at its finest.  He was good at Involving people.  He recruited another volunteer for the other end of the rope, this a man, whom he asked to strike a different pose, exhorted us to clap for him, and thus one edge of the stage was defined by two people holding a rope.  He did the same on the other side, then made a big show of moving the ropes in.  He asked people to step up to the front row, fill in the length of the rope.  And for more people to stand behind them.

“Block the wind for me.  It’s a torch show.  I need to block that wind.”

As he talked to people, persuading them to volunteer, he asked their age, their nationality, and whether they were married or not.  If they were married he asked how long and if their spouse was with them.  It was a wildly diverse crowd.  He was persuasive.  Something about him was likeable.  Hardly anyone turned him down.  He chose a black man from the Bahamas, another black man from Africa, a stout little Dutch man, a Chinese man and a Korean, an Englishman from Kent, a Latina who emigrated from Mexico, a pretty young girl from Germany, an Arabic woman wearing a hijab,  a tiny Filipina, and finally he called on me.

“Sir.  Yes you, in the red hat.  Where are you from sir?”


“Illinois.  Do you live anywhere close to Chicago?” 

“Yes I do.”

“That’s excellent.  And are you married?”

“Yes I am.”

“For how long?”

“Thirty three years.  We’re celebrating our anniversary on this trip.”

“23 years?”  I knew he heard me correctly.


“And is that your wife beside you?”

“Yes it is.”

“Whew.  So glad it isn’t your girlfriend.  In front of all these people.  Would you come up here sir?  I need a volunteer.” 

I was the last of a dozen people that formed a line at the top of the square roughly defined by the two parallel ropes, small orange traffic cones at the bottom of the square that he constantly moved and shifted. He had created a kind of stage, constantly asking people to move in and move out.  I estimate he had gathered about 200 people around his little area.  From time to time he would refuel his three torches, light them, swing them around, put them back on their cone, let them burn down.   The process was entertaining.  I had no idea what he was doing, but he held the crowd.

He exhorted the children to move back, relit his torches, swung them around a little, then put them back down. 

“OK ladies and gentlemen I’m going to need everyone’s help because we moving into the main part of the show.  See these brave men and women, these volunteers before you?  Let’s give them a hand.”

(Broad applause.)  “These people will play the part of lions.”

I was standing next to the woman who had been asked to hold the rope.  She gulped air involuntarily.

“Oh my god,” she said.

“And what do lions do ladies and gentlemen?”  The crowd murmured.

“They roar of course.  Lions give us a roar.”

We stood mute.

“Like this lions…”  He roared loudly into his remote mic.

“Ladies and gentlemen help the lions here.  Show them how to roar.”  The crowd roared at us.

“Now lions roar back.”  We roared less than enthusiastically.


It went like that until we loosened up.  When we reached a respectable volume as a group of lions he changed tactics.

“Now the really best part of the evening begins.  Lions, you will now, alone or in groups, show your individuality and do small routines while I play music on my guitar here.” 

He produced an extremely beat up guitar, plastered with silver duct tape, connected to his equally beat up amp, and began to strum.  He played the music of a James Bond theme.  He began with the Englishman from Kent. 

“OK England, here’s what I want you to do.  As I play this famous theme song from Thunderball, I want you to step out of the line here, with your hands clasping a pretend revolver, scan the crowd for bad guys, and maybe drop and roll.  Can you do that?  I’ll show you how.”

The guy was working so hard.  He was lithe and a good dancer.  He played a mock scene of James Bond perfectly.

“Can you do that?”

The Englishman from Kent looked pale but game.  The showman began to strum the familiar song, the man broke into the routine, moving to the center of the empty space, actually dropping and rolling over awkwardly, and the crowd clapped before the showman asked them.  The show was underway.

What we realized, standing there in a line as a group, was that each of us in turn, in some fashion, was going to be made a public fool in front of this crowd.  The wonderful part of it was that we knew virtually no one there.  But that was little solace to many.  The woman beside me was clearly terrified.

The Dutchman on the other side seemed infinitely amused. 

Next the Chinese and Korean men, amid much banter, were asked to do a Kung Fu routine, kicking, throwing air punches, to a popular tune.  And so it went.  The Mexican woman danced to the song “Tequila.”  The Arabic woman along with the Filipina, the German girl, and the Canadian woman next to me performed a belly dance as a foursome.

When the Canadian joined me back in line after her dance I told her she did just fine.  She smiled.

The two black men, along with the Dutchman, were instructed to do the limbo (using the rope) ending with an energetic bump and grind to a Calypso song.  That was a crowd pleaser.

He ended with me.  I was scared, but it was a good scare.  I kind of like the adrenaline.  My role was Casanova.  But he hesitated. 

“I need an additional volunteer.  How long did you say you were married?  23 years?”

“33,” I answered.

“OK, Chicago.  How about we ask your wife of 33 years to join you here, because I need you to play Casanova to a beautiful woman.”

He went straight to my wife and tried to take her hand. But he had not counted on encountering anyone as stubborn as my wife.  My wife doesn’t do public performance, for anyone.  She’ll dance with me, sometimes even when we’re the only couple on the dance floor, but she would have no part of this.

He realized that pretty quickly and did something ingenious. He chose another woman who looked like her, about the same age.  She even had red hair with highlights.  Swear to god she looked like my wife.  He asked the crowd if she was an acceptable substitute.  They applauded their approval.

And so my show began.  My task, while he played Carmen on the guitar, was to strut past this woman once, holding a big artificial read rose, catch her eye, strut back the other way, blow her a kiss, give her the rose, get down on my knees kiss her hand, and overwhelm her with love.  He showed me the moves.  The woman was embarrassed.  I was shaky.

“Are you ready?” he said.  What can you say but yes?

I walked slowly one way, pretended to just see her, put the rose between my teeth (laughter from the crowd) walked the other way, gave her the rose, got down on one knee (not the bad one), kissed her hand, her forearm, her elbow, her bicep.  The woman playing my wife smiled.  She was a good sport.  And my part of the show ended.  When I got back in line the Canadian woman said I did great.

I thought the show was over.  But we had a final act.

OK, ladies and gentlemen you all know the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight correct?  Everybody knows that song.  You, the crowd, will sing this “in the jungle, the deepest jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.  In the village the peaceful village the lion sleeps tonight.”  And the women, at least some of them anyway, will sing the high part ‘Ew Ew Ew.’  And then our lions here are going to be the bass line, they will crouch, hunch their shoulders, ball their fists, and take four big strides forward while singing “a weem a weck, a weem a weck” on each stride.  When they reach the end they will turn around and march back singing, but this time with a sexy march, swinging their tails like lions do, and so forth.  And then we repeat it.  You got it now?  Everybody is in on this.  Let me get the music going.”

And we did it.  All 200 of us.  I had stopped feeling silly.  It was fun.  The crowd sang, we sang, we marched like lions, they laughed, we sang more.  It was good.

And then the show was over and the entertainer made his pitch.

“Ladies and gentlemen let’s give our lions a big hand.”  They did.   “And give yourselves a big hand.  You were a wonderful crowd.  We are proof that all of us, from all over the world, share much more in common that we can ever differ.  We speak different languages, eat different foods, sing different songs but tonight, on a beautiful summer night in a city on a river in North America, we shared the gift of humor, and song, and mutual respect.”

“I am not hired by the shopkeepers, or the city, or the tourism board.  I am a street performer.  If I brought a smile to your face, if I entertained you in any way, please consider putting money in my hat.  Here’s my hat.  It’s in my hand.  With hat in hand I appeal to you to support my efforts.  And if you don’t have cash that’s OK. There an ATM just around the corner over there.”

“No seriously folks.  If you cannot pay it was my pleasure to entertain you.  If you can support me please consider doing so.  I’m a student.  If I make enough money I’ll be able to go back to school.  If I make even more I won’t have to.”

He continued to talk as people put money in his hat.  It was a beautiful night in Montreal.  The lions did something they would have never done back home.  You do that stuff and get away with it on vacation.  You also buy hats.  They look great on vacation.  When you get home and put them on your head they look silly.  Vacation is life lived differently.  It’s good for you.  I recommend it.  I’m going back to Canada tomorrow, this time fishing in Ontario.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  Maybe when I get back Illinois will have a budget. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Illinois Agencies at the End of Their Rope

I’m going on vacation, the concept of which changes after you retire.  Vacation used to be a break from the hectic; getting away from the schedule, the appointments, the being late, the looming deadline, the unexpected crisis.  Now vacation is more like moving this leisurely existence to another location.  Vacation for retirees means lolling around in a different environment.  My wife and I are going to Quebec.  It looks like as good a place as any for lolling.
We’ll be gone about ten days.  My hope is that when we return, and log back into American life, Illinois has a budget.  I briefly brushed up against my old work life recently.  I attended a committee meeting of Illinois’ best advocate for kids, a statewide youth service collaborative.  Most of the committee members were on the phone, but I had the chance to attend at their office in Chicago.
A receptionist put me in the small office of the director, and I sat there for a while in the quiet.  She was finishing up another meeting.  Her lunch was in a white Styrofoam clamshell on her desk by the silent landline phone.  The desk was piled high with papers, manila folders, bound reports, some open, some closed.  I began to reminisce, but only for a while.  As time stretched on I filled it by softly whistling some old tunes that had been rattling around in my head, thinking about nothing in particular, a newfound luxury I have discovered.  It’s a byproduct of lolling.  The start time for the meeting came and went.
The director burst through the door with her MacBook Air laptop in one arm, open and running, and her cell phone in the other. 
“Come with me, we’re moving to another room.  Sorry I’m late.  I’ve been behind all day.”
She started to move back through the door; seconds after she’d entered it, then went back to her desk and grabbed the lunch, the white container hinged open like her laptop, and balanced it in the hand holding the cell phone.  I followed her down the hall.
It was a finance committee meeting.  A few of us were present but most were on the phone, logged into a conference line, their voices coming out of a little speaker.  They were busy employed social service execs also.  My friend apologized once more to them for being late.  Lateness is a chronic condition of the busy.  I was late for so many years I do it still, out of habit I guess.  Leave as close to the start time as possible, and if travel makes you late so be it.  You miss the early meeting chit chat.
As my friend the exec ran her finger quickly on her laptop touch pad she stole a bite of salmon salad with a plastic fork.  As soon as she swallowed she started the meeting.  It was 2:30.  She was late for her own lunch. 
It was a finance committee meeting.  Like all private social service organizations doing business with the State of Illinois the main agenda item was cash reserves and available credit.  At that organization we’re monitoring it with a weekly cash report on all accounts.  Money, being conveniently represented numerically, allows easy calculation.  How long can we pay the staff without getting paid by our funders?  When do we reach a crisis point?  Fortunately, that organization’s fiscal outlook is healthy.  They do business with entities other than the state.  They’ve planned ahead.  Other healthy organizations are able to pay them dues.  They have a diverse revenue stream.  We adopted a tentative budget.  We made plans that went beyond survival.  Instead of a future defined by a budget controlled by someone else, that organization is able to look ahead.  Not every social service organization is so lucky.
When you provide services to communities through an agreement with the State of Illinois you had best have money in the bank and a good relationship with your bankers.  Banks, if they know your agency and the work it does, and trusts the board of directors and the administrators they employ, will extend a line of credit to you based on your assets, your track record of balancing expenses with revenue, and a certain amount of faith.  Small community banks are typically more faithful than big ones.  You can provide them a list of the contracts and grants you were given last year by the state.  If pressed you would have to admit the contracts that have been issued so far this year by the state of Illinois are not even as good as the paper they are printed on without a budget that appropriates money to that activity.  Illinois’ code departments have issued contracts as a way of anticipating that those contracts will be in place.  No one knows for sure how many dollars agencies will receive through those now hollow contracts and grants.   
And then there are a number of contracts that were not issued.  These are the programs and community efforts that were cancelled just before Easter in the Friday night massacre.  At that time a letter was sent then from the Republican administration simply saying agencies had received their last payment for that previous full year commitment.  Consider those programs the low hanging fruit of cuttable expenses.  Small in the scope of state expenditures they fund after school programs, prevention efforts, community organizing, aid to immigrants, the list goes on and on.  All in place for decades, usually in Illinois’ poorest communities, those contracts have traditionally be held by small organizations, with limited capacity to raise significant private funds.  Together they form a sort of quilt of support for kids, families, the mentally ill, the addicted, and the developmentally disabled.  They are not fancy; they do not have sophisticated studies proving their effectiveness.  They do not have a wealthy or particularly vocal constituency or donor base.  Of course all that combined is what makes them cuttable. 
A stink was raised in reaction to the third quarter cuts and those grants were restored in three weeks but only until the end of the state’s fiscal year, June 30.  When the fake paper only contracts for July 1, 2015-June 30 2016 were issued those same programs were not among them.  Those programs are in limbo.  If you were a banker would you extend credit to those programs?  If you were an agency exec or a volunteer board member would you continue to pay the staff who work in those programs?  Faith can be easily tested.
And so calculations are being made all over the state.  Without state money when can we make our last payroll?  Would the bank raise our limit on our line of credit?  Will those programs now in limbo indeed by funded?  How important are these programs?  If the state does not fund them can we possibly find another source of revenue?  What will the people we serve do without us?  What will happen to them?
While hitchhiking in Oklahoma in the 70’s (I’m afraid I’ve told this story before) I was once picked up by a guy in a cowboy hat driving a new Cadillac.  He sprayed Lysol on the leather passenger seat before I got in.  When he asked me where I’d been I described my trip to South America.  When he asked me why I was going home I said I had run out of money.  I never forgot his response.
“You didn’t run out of money you ran out of rope.”
“Yeah.  If you had real money you’d still be out there.  Your money would be making money and you, especially travelling like you are, could stay away as long as you want.  You didn’t have money, you had rope.”
Your small local community agency most likely does not have money either, enough to sustain its operation and its payroll indefinitely without the State of Illinois’ funding.  Social services agencies run on rope.  Rope and hope.  Both are running short.
If there is not a budget in place by the time I get back from Quebec,  local agencies and the programs they operate, and the people they serve, will be in serious trouble.  If and when state contracts are finally sent to the Comptroller’s office for processing it will take weeks longer for them to issue checks.  Think lack of investment, poor computer systems, vouchers processed by hand.  In the meantime pencils will be sharpened, calculations will continue to be made, lawyers for the governor and the advocacy groups will make noise and go to court about the legality of cuts, searching for ways to both enforce and prevent them, and legislators will sponsor bills to restore funds.  Pressure will force them to open the spigot some.  Pass along some federal funding (not all) and pay some new Mediciad expenses.  They pick and choose depending on who screams loudest.  Piecemeal and desperate, Illinois will lurch along. 
I spent some time lolling under the trees not long ago on a beautiful Friday night at the Hegeler Carus mansion in LaSalle listening to good music written and performed by Katie Belle and the Belle Rangers.  As it ended I ran into an old friend, who I frequently see at local music events, still working at a local social service agency.  I mentioned a local state legislator.  He went off, and he’s not like that.  He should have been mellowed out.  He, like me, had been drinking wine and listening to music for an hour and a half. 
“They’re doing nothing for us.  Neither party.  It’s all going to come down on social service agencies. Community based agencies without clout. Watch it happen.  They want us to fail.  At some point there will be no one to fund to do that work.”
I don’t blame my friend for being worked up.  But we all have to take a deep breath.
He’s completely right of course.  Having exempted state employees and schools there is little room to spread more money around.  Until a budget is in place every reaction is knee jerk.  The tax increase expired.  There is no budget.  Something has to give.  And it is likely to happen in your community to those with the least voice; those low income day care parents, kids in after school programs, the disabled, the poor.  The list goes on.  Cuts here and there that some think won’t matter.  They will.
My friend and I both know that not for profit mission driven organizations don’t typically fail spectacularly in a ball of flames.  They fade away.  Quietly desperate they put off paying their bills. Unable to face the fact that the people they serve will be ignored they adopt one last plan that is unachievable.  They don’t make payroll (or their payroll checks bounce) and their staff, some of whom volunteer for a while, finally stop working.  Most painful is the message they craft to their clients saying their worker will no longer see them.  The letter suggests other resources they know will not meet their needs.  Not for profits are deeply ashamed of failure.  Maybe some other organization picks up the pieces and maybe not.  Do you think there is a long line of organizations that can’t wait for the chance to provide low income parents day care at the low rates paid by the state?  Think again.
The board of directors has its last meeting.  Someone volunteers their home address to receive straggling correspondence.  They find someone to accept and clear out their office furniture.  Word goes out to the community.  New jobs are sought.  People in the community think it’s a pity, and the next morning they have breakfast.  You can only hold out so long without money, no matter how important your mission or how illogical the lack of support.  That’s the nightmare your friends in Illinois’ social service community are waking to at 2:00 a.m. as the budget crisis continues.
I’m encouraged at the response to my last blog piece on stupid and drastic day care cuts.  It had the highest readership of any post since St. Patrick’s Day when I wrote an article on homosexuals in the holocaust.  Readership increased because the post was shared on Face Book by several of you Dave in the Shack readers.  Thank you.  Please keep sharing.  Everybody in Illinois should know what’s happening.
I may not post to this blog again until I return from “vacation,” otherwise known as lolling around in Canada.  Let’s hope the story line has changed by then.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The 2015 Cubs

I know the numbers now without looking, but I still check them out every morning when I get the Tribune off the driveway.  I could view them online but I want to see them on paper, hold them in my hands, lay them on the counter by my coffee cup so I can pick them up and read the numbers again.  It’s the Major League Baseball standings. 

The best baseball in the country is being played in the Midwest.  Kansas City’s Royals are leading the Central division in the American League by 11 ½ games with a record of 66 wins and 54 losses.  The best team in baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals, leads the National League Central with a whopping big winning percentage of .640 and a record of 71-40.   The Pittsburgh Pirates are chasing them, 5 ½ games back, with a record of 64-44. 

The next best team in baseball?  Care to guess?  It’s a tie.  Los Angeles, with a winning percentage of .564, leads the Western division of the National League by 3 ½ games over last year’s World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.  Tied with them, holding an identical record, are the Chicago Cubs.  The Chicago Cubs are 14 games over .500 with a record of 62 wins and 48 losses.  The Chicago Cubs own the fourth best record in Major League baseball and the date is August 10, 2015.  The Chicago Cubs.

If the Cubs were playing on the coast, East or West divisions of either league, they would be leading or tied for the division lead.  The Cubs have a chance to make the playoffs.  A good chance.  Do you know how difficult it is to even think, that let alone write it?

A true Cub fans is a guy with an old girlfriend who wants to get back together, but he can’t bring himself to think about it because she’s broken his heart so many times.  Too many times.  He sees her at a bar.  She looks good, her hair different, maybe lost a little weight.  She smiles at him.  He looks away, doing everything he can to keep that feeling from seeping back into his heart.  You know that feeling.

“Maybe I do still care for her.  Maybe it could work out.”

He looks back. She’s still smiling.  He looks hard at himself in the bar behind the mirror, a reflection of his face hanging just above the whiskey bottles, and stares into his own tormented eyes. 

“Don’t do it,” he begs himself.  “She’s trouble.”

 He pays for his beer and leaves, not looking back.

“I gotta protect myself,” he thinks.  “Keep my distance.” He’s talking about distance in his heart.

That’s how I felt last week when the Cubs were swept by the lowly Philadelphia Phillies (45-67).  They are 14 ½ games behind the New York Mets and going nowhere. 

“It’s going to happen,” I told myself silently.  I didn’t want to give up hope in front of my friends and family but I felt it.   The dread, the unbounded pessimism known only to true Cub fans. The personal private heartbreak of knowing that your team, your Dad’s team, the team that last won a World Series in 1908, the year before Dad was born, was about to fold.  How many times have you seen them fall apart?  Can you bear to watch them do it again?

“Get it over with,” you find yourself thinking.  “Lose ten.  Eliminate yourself mathematically and let me go.”  But you can’t deny the feeling.  You still care.

Love is a complicated thing.  So is being a Cub fan.  Just like you can’t live without love, neither can you live without hope.  The standings don’t lie.  It’s August 10th and the Cubs are 14 games over .500.  There are 57 games yet to be played.  This 2015 Cub team has a chance to do something.  Screw the past.  Go ahead.  Let your heart go.  This time you might get lucky.      

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Illinois Today

I’m more aware than many of what a budget stalemate in Springfield means to real people.  I’ve been through previous stalemates as the director of a not for profit that strived to provide programs that were largely state funded to people that needed them in a fairly rural part of Illinois.  But none like this.  Sometimes there are no other places families and kids can turn to for those services.  I felt an obligation, all of us involved did, to keep our doors open, make payroll, pay our vendors, do everything it took to go on with counseling, day care, therapy, and the many services our agency provided.  We went on without valid contracts, without guarantee of payment, as if everything was fine.  We kept a brave face while the programs we maintained and the people who used them were used as pawns in some larger game.

There were always programs, contracts, grants that were on the bubble and vulnerable to cuts or elimination.  Often old, seldom studied, and not trendy they were nevertheless part of the fabric of social services in Illinois that we all take for granted. Most of those services are provided by agencies in your community through year to year funding agreements between them and the State of Illinois.  Twelve months at a time.  No promise of more.  July 1-June 30.  That’s just the way it goes.  Uncertainty is part of the deal in private not for profits.  Does that make it easier?  No it doesn’t.

And then you read your agency mail and get a communiqué like this last week on IDHS stationery with Bruce Rauner’s name and his interim department head James T. Dimas at the top:

“Due to significant Fiscal Year 2016 funding shortfalls, the Illinois Department of Human Services is reducing it's Child Care Assistance Program-CCAP (think day care subsidies for low income parents) to ensure sustainability of CCAP despite limited available financial resources projected for FY 16.

You scan the body of the letter for numbers.  It’s a letter about money.  Where are the numbers?  You find them.  Your heart sinks. 

Family size         New                    Redetermination

2            $664                   2,456

3              838                   3,098

4            1,011                  3,734

Jesus Christ where are they getting these numbers?  You go back to the words.

“Effective July 1, IDHS is imposing priority guidelines to all new applicants.  Families whose monthly income does not exceed 50% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines for family size will be eligible for subsidy.”

50% of Federal Poverty Guidelines? Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG) no longer have any relation to reality.  They have over the past 30 years been used only as a calculator to control cost.  Thus you get multipliers, percentages of an arbitrary figure, sometimes 100% of FPG, sometimes more depending on how much money the government wants to spend, sometimes less.  In this case Illinois picked 50%, saying in effect ‘if you are more than half as poor as the federal government defined poverty years ago, you can no longer receive any help paying for day care for your child.’  Let me help you read those numbers.

If you are a single mother with one child who recently got a job and need someone to care for your young child, you must earn less than $664 a month.  Want to break that down to earnings in a week?  $153.  That’s not even a full time job at minimum wage.  Annual income at this rate?  $7,968.

Family of three, Mom with two kids?  Earn more than $10,056 a year, $838 a month, $194 a week, and you are on your own.  Pay for it yourself.

Family of four?  Do you make more than $12,132 a year, $1,011 a month, $235 a week?  Two kids in day care?  Three?  Doesn’t matter.  Sorry.  You’re screwed.

Imagine you are newly employed.  You shop for day care, visit the center, look around, meet the teachers, and decide you would like your child to also be part of the positive environment that kids typically experience at local day care centers.  Some nice person at the day care reviews your financial situation and says you aren’t eligible for help.  You will have to pay full price.

You look back at them blankly.  “What do you charge?”

The Illinois Valley, where full time care at a licensed day care centers is fairly reasonable, is in the neighborhood of $132 a week for a pre-school age child.  Can you afford that on your own if you fall just outside the guidelines for help?  No.  You can’t possibly pay for day care, pay rent, and buy food.  What do you do?  You look for cheaper care; your neighbors, your Mom, an acquaintance.  And if you don’t find it, you don’t work.  That’s the pressure low income parents are under after the issuance of this letter.

Mind you the letter allows those who were enrolled and receiving assistance prior to July 1 to continue at the same previous levels of assistance, their threshold for assistance three times higher and more.  And the letter does say “All families denied for this reason will be notified once the program returns to its regular policies so new applications can be submitted.”  That implies the program will return to its regular policies.  Someday.  Perhaps.  It’s all up to Governor Rauner and James T. Dimas, whoever he is.

It says nothing of the fact that your day care center will not be paid for the care they may extend under these reduced rates until there is a budget.  That the effect of 50% Federal Poverty Guidelines virtually assures no new enrollments is not acknowledged.  That payments for services past June 30, 2015 are frozen is not mentioned.  That you and the low income families you strive to help are left out in the cold is not contained in the letter.

Without a state budget Illinois has found a way to continue to pay it’s state employees.  We agreed at some level to a deal that allows schools to start on time.  But low income families seeking help finding quality day care for their children?  Sorry.  We can’t help them.  That’s Illinois today.  Thought you ought to know.