Friday, April 29, 2016

Dueling: I'm not Talking Banjos.

I think Americans have an abbreviated sense of history and time.  It is as if nothing of any real consequence happened before 1776, or at the very earliest 1492.  We, and especially our kids (though they tend to think more globally than us) are increasingly rooted in the present moment and the very recent past.  So when you say “not so long ago” you almost always get an argument to the contrary. 

Dueling was popular not so long ago.  You know dueling, someone slaps you in the face with a glove claiming a breach of some code of honor or another, the slap becomes a challenge to a weapon wielding fight, you choose the weapon, rules are followed, and just like that it’s on baby.  Only an apology by the challenged can restore honor to the challenger, and if none is offered only a fight, a willingness to risk one’s life for his honor, can end the conflict.  So if you the challenged do not completely fold, retract whatever you did or said to anger your opponent so, you are formally one half of a two man declared personal war.

Before you know it, at dawn perhaps (usually a foggy dawn in the movies) you’re in some secluded place slamming swords together, or shooting at each other from 20 paces with clumsy single shot pistols.  Someone gets hurt, perhaps both of you, and the one who is hurt the least wins.  Often someone dies, making the outcome easier to determine, and honor is restored.  Life (especially for the winner) goes on, albeit often with bandages, wounds, and eventually cool scars duelists seemed to be proud of because they made for such good stories.  But don't forget the funerals.  Life ended for many.  And it was all sanctioned by society.  Or was until we decided dueling was barbaric.  But that took a while.

Dueling is way old.  It flourished in Europe among the nobility, and Americans took to dueling like ducks to water.  Some say it inspired the NFL.  Or was that Sumo wrestling?  In any case here’s the story on dueling.  I’ll make this quick so we can get to the more recent American stuff.

In Western society, the formal concept of a duel developed out of the medieval judicial duel in which combat between individuals or small groups of knights and squires were orchestrated and supervised by a judge to end various disputes and hostilities between two large parties (typically noblemen controlling territory) which could not be resolved in court. Weapons were standardized and of the same quality. The duel lasted until the other party was too weak to fight back. In early cases, the defeated party was subsequently executed.  The defeated party whom the then dead combatants represented was then bound to give up his right to further protest and live with the outcome of the contest.  I’d say we let a damn good system get away from us.  Better to settle the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo with a handful of trained combatants in a duel than suffer through World War I don't you think?   I digress. 

Dueling morphed during the renaissance from representing group interests to protecting the individual status of respectable gentlemen of the higher class.  To say it was an accepted manner to resolve disputes is an understatement.  During the reign of Henry IV (1570 to 1610 give or take) over 4,000 French aristocrats were killed in duels in an eighteen-year period while a twenty-year period of Louis XIII’s reign saw some eight thousand pardons for "murders associated with duels".  American record keeping apparently was not as good, but historians believe thousands of men in the United States, particularly in the South, died protecting what they believed to be their “honor."   What do you suppose was so damned important?
The French published the first national code of dueling during the Renaissance.   In 1777, a code of practice with 26 commandments was drawn up for the regulation of duels in County Tipperary, Ireland of all places.  Gentlemen kept the modern Irish code in their weapons case for reference should they need to consult it.  Sort of like duffers keeping the rules of golf in their golf bag.  I hope duelists consulted the rules more than golfers do now.  Dueling was after all often a matter of life and death, and certainly more so after pistols became the popular choice among killing devices.
One important development in this Irish codification of dueling was the concept of “seconds.”  Seconds were friends chosen by the aggrieved parties to conduct their honor dispute. These friends would attempt to resolve a dispute upon terms acceptable to both parties and, should this fail, arrange a site and oversee the mechanics of the encounter.

Not that everyone was down with dueling.  Judicial duels were deprecated by the Holy Roman Empire at the Lateran Council of 1215 with little or no apparent effect going forward.  Dueling was outlawed in France in 1626 and afterwards grew in popularity.  French military officers fought 10,000 duels leading to 400 deaths between 1685 and 1716.  You wouldn’t exactly call that effective legislation.  Sort of like the War on Drugs.  Queen Elizabeth I outlawed dueling in 1571 at the beginning of its popularity in England and the Brits ignored her. 
Dueling was a hit, especially among rich guys with big egos, and hard to stop.

However, as civilization lumbered along things changed. In the late 18th century values like politeness and civil behavior began to temper attitudes towards violence in Europe.  England was industrializing and with the growth of cities and urban planning police forces became more effective and street violence began to wane.  Besides that newspapers were discovered as recourse to libel charges.  Gentlemen could defend themselves through correspondence in newspapers, air grievances, and resolve conflicts more publicly with less bloodshed.  Seemed like a positive trend.   Even a new found sense of Christian conscience and social activism, the same bent that was beginning to condemn slavery, took aim.  Dueling was labeled by progressive clergy as “ungodly violence in an egocentric culture of honor.” The church may have had some impact after all. 
Dueling in the United States was a more deadly problem largely because we took it up later and embraced the pistol wholeheartedly.  Wouldn’t you just know it?  Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury was killed by Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804.  Between 1798 and the Civil War the U.S. Navy lost  two-thirds as many officers, many midshipmen or junior officers,  to dueling as it did in combat at sea, including naval hero Stephen Decatur, the man for whom that lovely town in Illinois is named.  Dueling persisted, particularly in the South, because of contemporary ideals of chivalry and because of the threat of ridicule if a challenge was rejected.  Can you give me a quick rundown on the value and importance of chivalry?  It’s utility escapes me completely.
Gradually courts began to apply law to the matter, but they were notoriously lax because at its core civil society was sympathetic to the culture of honor.  Queen Victoria herself expressed hope that Lord Cardigan, prosecuted no doubt for wounding another in a duel while wearing an ugly button up sweater, would “get off easily."  By 1840, dueling declined dramatically in England when yet another vicious nobleman in a sweater, the the 7th Earl of Cardigan, was acquitted on a legal technicality for homicide in connection with a duel with one of his former officers.  Outrage was expressed in the media, alleging there was deliberate, high level complicity to leave the loop-hole in the prosecution case and reporting the view that "in England there is one law for the rich and another for the poor."

Clearly sanctioned and technically legal murder among rich guys was on its way out.  The last duel between Englishmen in England occurred in 1845 over an altercation between two noblemen concerning the affections of one’s wife.  Which one is not without some doubt known.  The winner was charged with murder.  Dueling dwindled and then died out in Europe.
Dueling also began to be criticized in America in the late 18th century; Ben Franklin denounced dueling as uselessly violent, and then General George Washington (I love the pragmatism) encouraged his officers to refuse challenges during the Revolutionary War because he believed that the deaths caused by dueling officers threatened his war effort.  After a spike in popularity in the first half of the nineteenth century in our lawless Western frontier (think quick draw gunfights at noon on dusty streets) dueling began an irreversible decline after the Civil War and finally petered out altogether.  Good bye violence of the organized codified variety in defense of personal honor.  Hello drive by shootings, road rage, senseless street violence, and terrorism as we now know it.  But by God no more duels.*

Not that there weren’t some humdinger American duels.  Here’s the one that intrigues me most and may have application yet today.  Imagine that!  History preceding the 1960’s that we can learn from!

September 22, 1842 found future President Abraham Lincoln, at the time an Illinois state legislator, hurrying toward Alton, Illinois.  At Alton, he would cross the Mississippi River to a small island over the Missouri border-Bloody Island.  (Do you suppose that island is still available?)  There Lincoln would prepare himself to kill or be killed in a saber duel with Illinois State Auditor James Shields.  Fortunately their seconds intervened and persuaded them against it.  Let’s hear it for the seconds and for the Irish, for inventing seconds.

Before circumstances turned Shields and Lincoln into mortal enemies, the two politicians had enjoyed a peaceable and professional relationship despite being in different parties. At that time Illinois had an enormous debt (surprise) and the legislature had its hands full just keeping the government operating. In 1837, as the state bank teetered on the brink of collapse, Whigs and Democrats fought over what to do. Lincoln and Shields, however, were able to negotiate a compromise that saved the banks. On one key issue of the time–building new infrastructure such as railroads and other public works–the Whig party wanted private corporations to own the facilities. Democrats favored state ownership. Shields, though faced with heavy pressure from his party, often supported private ownership. So, despite party differences on major issues, Shields and Lincoln often managed to land on the same side of the final vote.

When the state bank defaulted in 1842, however, there was no such camaraderie. Shields, now the state auditor, aligned with the state’s governor and treasurer to adopt a policy in which the state would refuse to accept its own paper money as payment of taxes and other debts. Lincoln cleverly assailed this policy in the Sangamo, one of many Springfield newspapers then, by submitting an allegory under a pseudonym critical of Illinois Democrats in general and Shields in particular which they published.

The details of Lincoln’s public rebuke of Shields are tiresome, like stories of petty conflict tend to be to this day.  Nonetheless, Shields felt publicly humiliated.  Upon determining the identity of the author of his public humiliation, Shields, emotionally wounded and furious, had a menacing note hand-delivered to Lincoln in Tremont (just down the road from Danvers) on September 17.  It read:

‘I have become the object of slander, vituperation (when did you last experience vituperation?) and personal abuse. Only a full retraction ‘may prevent consequences which no one will regret more than myself.’ (Does that sound familiar at all?)  Lincoln discussed his predicament with advisors and decided not to retract his pointed words. Shields was not appeased and again demanded ‘absolute retraction.’ Lincoln refused, suggesting that Shields take back his hand-delivered letter and submit one that was more ‘gentlemanly.’ There would be no further negotiation. Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel.

As the party who had been challenged, Lincoln got to set the fight’s conditions. He did so on September 19 in a letter that demonstrated a personal trait that historian Gary Wills described as ‘letting nonsense work itself out to its own demise.’ First, Lincoln selected ‘cavalry broad sword of the largest size’ rather than pistols, as the dueling weapons. ‘I did not want to kill Shields and felt sure I could disarm him…,’ Lincoln later wrote, adding, ‘ and I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I think he would have if we had selected pistols.’

Next, Lincoln prescribed conditions so advantageous to himself that his opponent would be forced to write off the affair as a lost cause. He ordered ‘a plank ten feet long, and from nine to twelve inches abroad, to be firmly fixed on edge, on the ground, as the line between us, which neither is to pass his foot over upon forfeit of his life.’ Such unusual conditions would allow Lincoln to take advantage of his superior reach; Shields was only five feet, nine inches tall, while Lincoln soared to six feet, four inches.

Fortunately for Shields and Lincoln, shared friends John J. Hardin and Dr. R.W. English sped to the duel scene-as much as anyone could speed in a small boat in 1842-and pleaded with the would-be combatants to let bygones be bygones. It was a desperate attempt to bring peace but it worked. The duel was cancelled. Though the incident ended without violence, Lincoln avoided talking about it, preferring to forget it ever happened. Lincoln never again got tangled up in the makings of a duel.

Shields, on the other hand, found himself involved in such proceedings in 1850, when on behalf of Democratic Congressman William H. Bissell, he presented the acceptance of a challenge to a duel issued by future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. But he immediately set to work settling the matter without violence. He was successful.  Maybe he learned something from Abe.

Lincoln and Shields apparently settled their differences, or at least agreed to disagree. During the Civil War, Shields was nominated for the rank of brigadier general in the Union army. Final approval fell to the president-Lincoln. He approved. With that move some 20 years after the duel that was not, Lincoln publicly buried the cavalry broadsword.**

And there you go.  Close to killing each other, two political adversaries work out their differences.  Maybe there is hope for Illinois yet.  Do you think any part of this story could help us now?

Couldn't have written this one without Wikipedia* and**

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Real Cost of Gamesmanship

In 2012 at a tax policy conference in Chicago, sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute, moderator Margaret Spellings, former U.S. Secretary of Education, asked Bruce Rauner how people could build a "political constituency for change." This was his response.

"We will crush our economy if we try to spend money on both high-cost, inefficient, bureaucratic, heavily unionized government and a social safety net to help the disadvantaged," Rauner said. "I think we can drive a wedge issue in the Democratic Party on that topic and bring the folks who say, 'You know what, for our tax dollars, I'd rather help the disadvantaged, the handicapped, the elderly, the children in poverty, instead of directing tax dollars to the Service Employees International Union or "AF-Scammy," his favorite way of referring to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME for short.

As it turns out four years later, that is the exact strategy he has used in an attempt to enact his turnaround agenda in Illinois. No acceptance of the turnaround agenda? No budget. If Democrats in Illinois don’t fold then “the disadvantaged, the handicapped, the elderly, the children in poverty” will suffer and they will be blamed. The political fallout will be so overwhelming they will have no choice but to capitulate. Do you remember seeing that in his campaign ads? I must have missed it. Here’s where we stand to date according to Andy Shaw of Illinois’ Better Government Association since higher education and a significant portion of Illinois social services has been starved of cash.

  • 177 layoffs at Eastern Illinois University.
  • 70 human service agencies in Southern Illinois cutting programs.
  • 23 counties suspending efforts to reduce juvenile incarceration.
  • 84,000 seniors losing Meals on Wheels and other outreach.
  • 15,000 women losing access to cervical and breast cancer screening.
  • 130,000 epileptics losing treatment.
  • 57,000 police officers losing training.
  • A $6.2 billion increase in state debt by June 30.
  • $25 billion in unpaid bills by 2019.

Not all results of this catastrophic war of wills are so neatly catalogued. The news is sprinkled with anecdotes but unless you are in that group “the disadvantaged, the handicapped, the elderly, the children in poverty” you don’t really feel it. We seem to say: it’s happening, it’s awful, and I’m glad it’s not me. Maybe that is human nature.

Before I came to the shack yesterday morning there was a story on Chicago Public Radio of a man in Evanston with cerebral palsy whose electric wheel chair; patched with duct tape, telephone cords, and coat hangers is broken, and can’t be fixed because the local repairman of such devices, whose business is dominated by people who live on state assistance, has not been reimbursed by the state in so long he cannot afford to buy parts. His parts supplier will no longer extend him credit because he has no faith the state will ever pay.

As my coffee brewed, I moved freely about. I went down the steps to the mud room, stepped outside to get the Tribune, came back and fried eggs, made toast. Over my radio in the kitchen I heard the interviewer ask a question and then was struck by the man’s reply; it was the garbled tortured response of a man whose words, whose very voice, have been taken away by his disease. His words were “translated” and amplified by his long time personal aide. He is frustrated, she says, and very angry. He can no longer get into his bathroom without the chair and be transferred to his toilet with her assistance. His life as he knew it, his capacity to live independently, is severely impacted by his chair not working. He’s but one victim of a political standoff soon to be in its eleventh month. The next time you see Bruce Rauner or Michael Madigan as talking heads on TV try if you can to think of that man and his aide struggling to make his voice heard and with everyday life in his one bedroom apartment in Evanston.

I may feel more than most about the decisions being made by private agencies whose programs are dying, because I can imagine the discussions taking place. The meetings. Board members staring down at spreadsheets. Executive Directors reluctantly agreeing that the only option is to lay off staff and close programs they have spent their careers building. Motions made and seconded.  Roll call votes.  With that comes closing offices, copier leases, support staff, all the stuff that goes with it. Taking it all apart. Saving money by not serving people your mission it is to help. It’s painful. And is it necessary? Can Illinois afford to ignore the needs of those people?

October of 2015 Youth Services Network of Rockford announced at a press conference the closing of it’s ReDeploy Illinois program in Winnebago County which served delinquent youth and their families prior to their incarceration in Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice due to a lack of state payments to the county. The program closed despite support voiced by their local state representative, state’s attorney, Police Chief and the Mayor of Rockford.

January 22nd , 2016 Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, after carrying the State of Illinois for seven months to the tune of $6 million dollars, closed 30 programs laid off 7450 staff, but more importantly ended services for 4,700 Illinois citizens including seniors, the drug and alcohol addicted, recently released prisoners, and dysfunctional families.

January 30th, 2016 Children’s Home and Aid of Illinois suspended crisis services for troubled youth and in addition close their Englewood office which operated a special program for homeless youth.

April 7th, 2016 Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House was forced to lay off 117 staff in the absence of state funding, primarily in the area of senior services, but also in programs serving youth and families.

I know either the directors or key staff in all those agencies. I can imagine the impact on them professionally and personally. Someone in the community, not aware of the pressure that led to those actions, will call their agency and ask for help, either for themselves or someone they are assisting, and that call will end up in the director’s office. My friends will find themselves saying words to this effect:
“Sorry. We don’t do that anymore. We just couldn’t afford to keep it open. I’m sorry.”

“You’re kidding. That’s what you do. Who is going to help these people now?”

“No one that I know of. That help is just not available anymore.”

Some of these cuts make the news and some don’t. It is hard for proud established organizations that rely in part on the good will and perception of their community to risk appearing financially vulnerable. But come on. Who wouldn’t be vulnerable going into the eleventh month of no money from your primary funder? How much reserve and line of credit availability are you expected to have?

I don’t know if we are unaware of what is happening or aware and uncaring. In either case hue and cry is not working.  It’s all politics to Madigan and Rauner. It seems that the people affected; the kids and families, the elderly, the handicapped-don’t matter. It’s hard to say that. But what are we left to conclude?

Don’t tell us those programs aren’t needed because we know they are. Don’t tell us they don’t work because we see them in action. We know they work. There is a fallacy in what is happening in Illinois. The fallacy is that Illinois will be better having not spent money in these areas. Think this through.

The February 14th edition of the Chicago Tribune covered Governor Rauner's announcement earlier in the week that he intends to shut down the Kewanee youth detention center serving males in Kewanee. It’s a good move. The juvenile version of state prison is overbuilt, and it was difficult to attract the kind of staff needed to serve these young males, 43% of whom are from the Chicago area, to work in Kewanee. AFSCME will try to protect those state jobs, there is a process, but I suspect in the end it will happen. The John Howard Association, the ACLU, and youth advocates across the state support this action.

But there is a key point to consider in that story. Juvenile Justice spokesman Michael Theodore, who estimates a saving of more than $14 Million a year from Kewanee's closing, says a major focus for these kids will be after care “our version of parole.” It involves specialists who work with young ex offenders after their release, connecting them with local community organizations and other assistance that could keep them from committing crimes again and getting sent back to prison. “It’s a proactive effort to rehabilitate these kids closer to home,”  said Theodore.

Rehabilitation, proactive, community organizations? Wait. Didn’t CHASI just suspend its program in Englewood? And Rockford the same?  Aren’t youth programs that offer proactive programs and rehabilitation, drug and alcohol treatment and prevention, being absolutely whacked, gutted by the Illinois budget fiasco? Do you expect those agencies you reference to be there when this is over, eager to ramp programs back up with promises of state money? First you take them apart and then you expect them to be there when you need them? Is that logical?

Pay attention as well to where the cuts are first taking place. Rockford, Englewood, Southern Illinois, East St. Louis. the first programs to be cut are those where the state is the largest funder. Where is that? It’s where local government cannot afford to fund social services. Where no local levy is collected for mental health services. It’s where the United Way is weak. It’s in rural areas. Cuts start in the poorest areas of Illinois where people need it the most. The geographic and economic inequality of resource availability in Illinois continues to grow. It’s now not only your school system. It’s social services as well.  It’s the new Illinois. I guess we should get used to it?

You can’t bully your way to fiscal reform by challenging your political opponent to a contest in which community agencies and institutions are the weapons of choice. You may choose to ruin your own political future, but should you be allowed to take our system for serving the people who need us down in what amounts to a duel?

A duel? Hey. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Illinois is Drowning

I last wrote about Illinois’ finances in January before I left for Florida.  I tend to write before out of state trips thinking that while I’m out of the Illinois, away from the bad news, those running the state will come to their senses, find a compromise, pass a budget, and move forward.  But when I come back I find the same old stuff going on.  There’s only two and a half months left in this fiscal year, the rest of April, then May and June.  After the failed meeting of the governor and legislative leaders last Tuesday it appears we will go this entire fiscal year without a budget.  It’s hard to believe.  Really it is.
As luck would have it I retired as executive director of a largely state funded youth and family serving agency when I was 62.  Had I not done so, had I chosen instead to work till I was 65, this would have been my final year running YSB.  I would have gone out on this awful note, assuming I had made it through those three years without the stress killing me.  There are a lot of questions that must be asked.  I wish there were more answers.  I hardly know where to begin.  How about these for starters:

What will the auditors say?

If you run a private agency that receives any significant amount of state revenue you must submit to and pay for an independent outside audit of your books every year.  CPA’s come in and crawl all over your files.  Mostly computer files nowadays.  They come on site, set up their laptops and multiple screens, stay for a week, and while there go over your accounts with a fairly fine tooth comb.  Their large goal is to determine if you are solvent.  They make a report directly to your board of directors, who have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure spending is attributed to activities funded and revenue is more or less are in the ball park to cover those expenses.  The auditors ask a lot of questions of everyone and then go back to their offices and write the audit.  $30,000 later you have the report, a clean audit hopefully, and that’s that for another year.  If I were still involved I would have these questions for the CPA's. 

Are those state contracts for which agencies haven’t been paid considered good receivables?

Receivables are monies you earned, dollars you can assume with confidence you will receive, but simply have not yet gotten the check.  Can agencies still assume their unpaid FY 2016 money is on its way?  If you go the entire year without being paid and start a new one, can you realistically expect the state can and will pay you for an entire year once a new one is underway?

Where will the money that is owed private agencies come from?

If the state ends the year with the kind of deficit that is projected, which is a dead cinch to happen, having given up a sorely needed tax increase that lapsed eighteen months ago, how will it manage to write new contracts, honor them, and yet pay for last year’s services as well?  On what account will those checks be drawn?  What is the likelihood the state will be able to double pay agencies it didn’t pay this whole year?  I’m no accountant, but I’d say that is a significant problem. 

If agencies can no longer afford to hire staff and deliver services because of non-payment by the state, who will truly have breached their contract agreement? 

There was never much negotiation per se in those contacts for social services agencies.  As much as private agencies tried to say we were partners we certainly weren’t equal partners.  Those contracts are pretty lopsided.  After all the state has the money.  I may have from time to time boasted that the terms of the contract we were offered were unacceptable, and acted as if I could negotiate my own terms, but in the end we took what the state gave us and did what we could with it. 

This year a significant number of contracts for human services were signed by state officials who have not paid their contractors a dime.  But clearly there was an expectation that the services be delivered by the private agencies like always.  Referrals were made to providers.  For example local police continued to call agencies for help with runaway kids in the middle of the night.  Those calls were fielded and responded to in person by staff that were hired and in place per the terms of the contract.  Emergency foster parents took those kids into their homes when they could not be safely reunited with their parents and received payment for doing so.  Monthly reporting of service units went on as usual.  Training events and meeting were held.  Monitoring for quality continued.  Quarterly expense reports were required by the state.  The state and its communities certainly received value for the services provided although payment has yet to be rendered.  If the agencies possibly could they held up their part of the bargain.  So who didn’t hold up their end?  Doesn’t it follow that the party not paying for the services breached that agreement?

If you construct a financial report based on the expectation of payment, and payment does not occur, how long can you reasonably expect to carry that credit?

It’s too simple I know but occasionally I had to learn to write off bad debt as an executive director, sometimes at the urging of my finance director, other times the auditors, but I learned over time to look more realistically at the payer and manage that problem before it grew.  The conversations went something like this, often between my day care director and me.  Day care was the program where bad debt most often occurred.  Amounts billed and amounts paid got out of whack.  We had to find and fix the problems.
“How much does (Mrs. Smith) owe on her day care bill?”


“How many weeks is that?”


“What’s going on at home?”

“She’s in the middle of a divorce and her husband isn’t paying child support.”

“Has she been able to pay anything?”

“She gave us a check for $40 last week.”

“Was it good this time?  Did it bounce?”

“We were able to cash this one.”

“When was the last time she paid before that?”

“Before Christmas.”

“Christmas was two months ago.”

“I know.”


“Have we refigured her subsidy?  Did you do a redetermination based on her new situation?”

“Yes.  We’ve done everything we can.”

“She’s in too deep already.  Think about it.  Where is she, or her husband, going to get that kind of money?”

“I don’t know.”

“Who else can watch her daughter?”

“Maybe the husband’s Mom.”

“You’re going to have to cut her off.  Talk to her again, and you decide when.  But is she doesn’t pay a significant amount soon you will have to tell her she can no longer bring her little girl here.”

It broke my heart to do that.  Several hearts were usually broken every time that occurred.  We did everything we could to avoid it.  But we barely broke even at the day care center even when every family paid in full.  We wrote off bad debt fairly regularly, and over time learned how to limit it in the first place.  We covered all we could with privately raised money but there is a limit to everything.  It’s not pretty.  In the end money talks and you have to listen.  If the State of Illinois was a day care parent at my old day care center, which they often are by the way, I’d be saying “Where are they going to get that kind of money?”

Harsh reality has a way of setting in.  We elected a new governor over a year ago in hopes he would bring new ideas and fresh approaches to the fiscal mess Illinois is in.  What has happened is that the mess is now significantly worse.  If elections are any indication of momentum and future success Governor Rauner and his fellow rich campaign contributors did not advance support for his turnaround agenda in the primary but rather lost ground.  In seven months we will again be able to gauge public sentiment in a tangible way when we vote in a state and national election.  At that time we will see more clearly how Rauner backed candidates fare.  But seven months is too long.  In the meantime we have this awful financial swamp to drain.  Private agencies, which in Illinois deliver the lion’s share of human services, are dying.  People are losing their jobs.  Programs are being closed.  People who need help are being turned away.  The private sector agencies delivering those services may not recover.  You can’t turn that around on a dime. It that the intent here?  But they have contracts.  Signed contracts.
By the November election we could be five months into yet another budget stalemate.  How can a Fiscal Year 2017 budget possibly be passed when FY 2016 is in such shambles?  Budgets are how priorities are expressed, initiatives are launched, problems are addressed, corners are turned.  Budgets are how politics and political movements are made real.  We’re nowhere in Illinois.  Stymied.  At a standstill.  Screwed, blued, and tattooed.

If you were a board member responsible for the fiscal well being of a private agency that helps vulnerable people in your community just how are you to view the balance sheet of your agency?  Is it possible that it is solvent on paper but broke in reality?  Will the state make good on signed contracts that are more than twelve months old?  If they say yes aren’t you obligated to wonder not only when but how they will manage to provide payment?  Will new contracts be offered for the year beginning July 1?  Will they fare any better?

I know I’ve written this before but let me repeat myself.  I didn’t vote for Governor Rauner but I wasn’t necessarily opposed to a Republican at the helm of the executive branch bringing new ideas to the Springfield equation.  I worked with Republican administrations that got things done.  Together with communities they created good policy for kids and families, reduced spending where tired ideas proved outmoded and funded initiatives that sparked progressive change.  Yes, Republican governors and their appointees, often working with a House or Senate or both controlled by Democrats.  Jim Thompson was one, Jim Edgar was another.  If I had the chance to speak to Bruce Rauner I would paraphrase a bit from a memorable politician on the national stage long ago by saying to him:

“I met Jim Edgar.  I worked with Jim Edgar.  Governor, you are no Jim Edgar.”

(That original line was Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s in an impromptu exchange with Sen. Dan Quayle in a 1988 vice presidential candidate’s debate.  Substitute Jack Kennedy for Jim Edgar and you’ve got the connection.)

Neither Edgar nor Thompson nor any governor of either party no matter how crooked or conniving would have put risk Illinois‘ colleges and universities and their students, its public schools and school children, it social service agencies and the vulnerable people they serve, the progress made by agencies committed to building up Illinois’ poorest communities; at risk of failure to the extent our new governor has by stubbornly persisting in this game of political chicken.  Something needs to give and something will give in time.  But does no one else see how much damage is being done?  Important systems of care are being taken apart.  Does our Governor think they can simply be put back together like new when his ploy to get what he wants is over?  He should think again.
And as far as blame goes does anyone know Bruce Ranuer’s jacket size?  48 long maybe?  Because in a scene reminiscent of the Master’s golf tournament our governor should be prepared to put on the jacket of responsibility for this for this fiasco and wear it well.  He owns this.  Congratulations Bruce.  You won the blame for this outright by your rhetoric, and that jacket is richly deserved.  By doin’ and sayin’ the same thing over and over you have guaranteed no action has taken place.  That’s not how a Governor cares for the citizens of his state.

What we need are proposals that have a chance of being accepted, and players on the Springfield stage that will accept half a loaf when they wanted it all.  So far neither have emerged.  Most glaringly, we need action from the governor’s office.  As we wait, without recourse that we know of, Illinois drowns.  Drastic measures are called for.  Stay tuned.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Such is Life (the French say it better)

The fire burning season inside the shack is drawing to a close.  Soon I’ll just turn on the electric space heater for twenty minutes or so and the chill in my small room will be gone.  But beginning in early fall until well into spring I build a fire most every day.  I have a wood burning stove, the Sardine model, built by Marine Stove Works out on Orcas Island, in the San Juan chain off the Pacific coast of Washington.  My Sardine stove was originally designed for the snug small spaces afforded cabins below deck on sailboats.  They also make larger models:  the Little Cod and the Halibut.  I’ve found the Sardine is sized perfectly not only for sail boats but also for tiny buildings like my backyard shack, where I do my writing.  I turn on the computer, and while it boots up and comes alive I start a fire in my stove.

If I have gotten a good start the sun is not yet up.  By the time I begin to feel the heat from the stove light breaks through the trees in the ravine.  I always pause to watch the sunrise, and that is usually when I pray.  Not long or complicated prayers, but rather silent thoughts unspoken and unrehearsed.  I check in, so to speak, with something other than myself. I work hard to make those thoughts the truest and most honest of each day.

When I remember I ask for paper bags at the grocery store.  The brown paper from half a bag is just the right amount in the stove.  On top of that coarse paper I place soft wood like pine, cedar if I have it, something small and dry.  In a pinch I use small thin pieces of oak, a hardwood.  I try to start the fire with one wooden match.  On the farm we called those phosphorous tipped wooden sticks kitchen matches.  My Dad lit them by dragging them quickly across the leg of his overalls.  When we burned the trash for Mom we scratched them into flame against the backyard burn barrel.  You can strike them anywhere.

I’m still using a box of 250 Redbird matches I brought back from a fishing trip to Ontario which are strike anywhere matches.  Because they are sold in Canada their description is also printed in French: Alumettes qui s’allument partout.  The good American strike anywhere matches I used to purchase, Ohio Blue Tips, I no longer find in the store and those that remain, at least at my grocery, are made so that the user must strike them on the box, which I won’t do.  I have a matchbox holder on the wall like we used to have on the farm.  It holds the opened box and I take matches from it.  If I can’t separate the matches from the box I won’t buy them.  It’s supposedly a safety measure.  I think that’s bullshit.

I strike the match on the arc of the rim that holds the round stove lid.  I find if I strike the match and put it immediately inside the stove it often goes out.  The draw on my little stove, even though it has only a 4” stovepipe, and the chimney is up against the tree line fronting the ravine, is good and strong, strong enough to extinguish the match.  So I usually let it burn outside the stove for a moment or two, the flame working itself down on the matchstick, getting bigger.  Only then do I reach the match inside the stove and light the brown paper, touching a single ragged edge I’ve left sticking up for that purpose.  On a good day that’s all it takes.  I turn to my computer and keyboard and wait to hear the crackle of the kindling burning before I add chunks of oak.

Oak is my main fuel.  While I split it and cut it to fit my small stove I admire the oak’s dense and beautiful grain.  Oak burns long and hot while the soft wood, the pine and cedar kindling, flares and fades quickly.  When I have a good strong fire, or later a bed of hot coals, I can add as many chunks of oak, as big as will fit in the stove, as I choose.  On those good days one match is all that’s needed for fire and warmth all day.

Unless I hurry.  There are mornings I misjudge or pay little attention to the size of the kindling I use.  I put in wood that’s too big, using whatever is immediately at hand.  In that case I have a dandy paper fire, which burns out from under the wood but does not catch fire and burn because the sticks are of a size that requires more heat than the paper provides.
Or I neglect the air.  There is a small wheel on the side of the Sardine that opens and closes the air intake for the stove.  When starting a fire, the air intake should be wide open to let as much air, and oxygen with it, as possible.  Later when the fire is established and hot, the air can and should be throttled, shut down, to let the fire ebb a bit, burn the wood slower, conserving fuel but still producing plenty of heat.  If I fail to open the wheel in the morning, from its closed position when I left the previous day, my first morning fire suffocates, strangles from a lack of air, goes out, dies.  In either case, whether improper fuel or lack of air, there are mornings when I slowly realize I have no fire at all.

By that time I’m writing.  If the crackling of the stove doesn’t alert me to add wood I keep working until it dawns on me the shack, and me with it, are cold.  I remove the lid from the stove and discover I have to start over.  Damn it anyway.

You might think I would learn from my mistakes and not repeat them.  That seems likely doesn’t it?  But I don’t.  I could split the wood into smaller thinner pieces with my cleaver on a log inside the shack beside my stove, so that I have a ready supply of kindling for the next day, but I often don’t.  Instead I hurry.  I could check the air intake every time I build a fire but some days I ignore it.  I can’t be bothered.   On those days I have to build a fire twice.  It continues to escape my mind that building a fire, like cooking, writing, forming and nurturing relationships, and other endeavors cannot be hurried.  Many things require not only the necessary elements like fuel, air and flame but also an amount of time and attention that cannot be lessened or hurried.

Sometimes I pray I won’t forget the lessons I learn.  But invariably I do.  As they say in parts of Canada and elsewhere, C’est la vie.

Friday, April 8, 2016

April is Poetry Month

April is poetry month.  You may not have been aware of that fact, given the relatively low status of poetry these days.  Poets and books of poems are rarely published, and poetry itself seems to be at low ebb, save for the slams of energetic young poets reviving the genre as performance poets, delivering their work orally into microphones for eager crowds of listeners.

But kick back with a good book of poems?  Mention to your friends that you came upon this great book of poems by a hot new poet?  Not happening.  Can you name a poet writing today?  See what I mean?

It’s ironic I think.  Our attention spans are shrinking.  Poems are tailor made for the narrow width of a smart phone.  Poems are economical, typically short, distilled little bits of language that could fit in beautifully with the fast paced frenetic lives we live alternately on line and in the real world.  They could experience a rebirth in popularity on Twitter and on Face book, but it’s not likely.  No one seems to get poetry.  I think it’s a shame.

I get two poems a day, one from Writer’s Almanac and another from the Poetry Foundation, via e mail.  Some I simply delete.  They do nothing for me.  Others are a delight. Reading them in the morning in the shack sometimes starts my day out in a lovely way.  The good ones I copy to a Word file and save.  I have hundreds, my own little anthology.  I think of them as hidden pearls of language and meter.  Like silent songs.  Poetry is the music of written language.  It flows. It speaks to us with something besides mere words.  But sadly it gets no respect. Please read this poem to appreciate one of poetry's problems.

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Some damn English teacher assigned you a poem to read and during the next class period insisted it had deeper meaning.  He or she cut that poem up, dissected it, inserted meaning where there was none, and bored you to tears.

That’s not the way to approach poetry.  Read it like you listen to a Motown song.  Love it for what it is.  Take it as it comes.  Read it and feel it at the same time.  If you don’t like it forget it.  Look for another that means more to you, makes you smile, or cry, or pause and think.  Here’s one I like.  See what you think.  But don’t think about it too long.

I Ride Greyhound 
by Ellie Schoenfeld 

because it’s like being
in a John Steinbeck novel.
Next best thing is the laundromat.
That’s where all people
who would be on the bus if they had the money
hang out. This is my crowd.
Tonight there are cleaning people appalled
at the stupidity of anyone
who would put powder detergent
into the clearly marked LIQUID ONLY slot.
The couple by the vending machine
are fondling each other.
You’d think the orange walls
and fluorescent lights
would dampen that energy
but it doesn’t seem to.
It’s a singles scene here on Saturday nights.
I confide to the fellow next to me
that I suspect I am being taken
in by the triple loader,
maybe it doesn’t hold any more
than the regular machines
but I’m paying an extra fifty cents.
I tell him this meaningfully
holding handfuls of underwear.
He claims the triple loader
gives a better wash.
I don't ask why,
just cruise over to the pop machine,
aware that my selection
may provide a subtle clue.
I choose Wild Berry,
head back to my clothes.

See what I mean?  Poems are usually little slices of life.  They are there and then they’re gone.  It’s OK.  You don’t have to memorize them.  It doesn’t have to be deep.

It can be.  And they can rhyme also, but it's no longer required.  Time was when free verse, poems that don’t rhyme or follow a strict pattern of meter, were considered slop.  Robert Frost said that writing free verse was like “playing tennis without a net.”  That time is over.  The net is down.  Not that they weren’t good poems.  Try one of the old guys, a venerated wordsmith.  It’s short.  I promise it will be over quick.

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls 
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
     And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
     And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
     And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Wasn't that nice?  Now try something more modern with a different tone.

The Love Cook
by Ron Padgett

Let me cook you some dinner.   
Sit down and take off your shoes   
and socks and in fact the rest   
of your clothes, have a daquiri,   
turn on some music and dance   
around the house, inside and out,   
it's night and the neighbors   
are sleeping, those dolts, and   
the stars are shining bright,   
and I've got the burners lit   
for you, you hungry thing.

I have lots of these.  I could go on and on.  Consider this lament from a veteran of the marriage wars.

Prolonged low level guerrilla warfare plagues the homeland

I rail that she moves my things
and I cannot find them.
She insists I leave things lying around
and never put them away.
The war continues unabated.
It has lasted thirty nine years.
For the first five neither she nor I took notice.
For the next thirty four we dug in solidly.
It flares occasionally into open aggression,
but mostly lies beneath the surface,
lurking under cold coffee cups, 
smoldering amidst the smelly chaos of laundry baskets.
Clenched teeth and pointed stares, often unnoticed, 
belie the conflict’s continued existence.
Until one of us dies we are doomed,
I fear,
to jagged resentment that reaches no truce.
And so we go on, our positions solidified.
We are weakened by surprise attacks which produce no victor,
exhausted by battles which know no end.

(Composed by the author during a temporary cease fire)

You’ve been missing out on poetry haven’t you?  They can be fun.  But poems can also be serious, even deadly.

I had thought the tumors... 
by Grace Paley

I had thought the tumors
on my spine would kill me but
the tumors on my head seem to be
extraordinary competitive this week.
For the past twenty or thirty years
I have eaten the freshest most
organic and colorful fruits and
vegetables I did not drink I
did drink one small glass of red
wine with dinner nearly every day
as suggested by The New York Times
I should have taken longer walks but
obviously I have done something wrong
I don’t mean morally or ethically or
geographically I did not live near
a nuclear graveyard or under a coal
stack nor did I allow my children
to do so I lived in a city no worse
than any other great and famous city I
lived one story above a street that led
cabs and ambulances to the local hospital
that didn’t seem so bad and was
often convenient
                       In any event I am
already old and therefore a little ashamed
to have written this poem full
of complaints against mortality which
biological fact I have been constructed for
to hand on to my children and grand—
children as I received it from my
dear mother and father and beloved
grandmother who all
ah if I remember it
were in great pain at leaving
and were furiously saying goodbye

So there you go.  Consider this my personal pitch to revive something in you that may have flickered out.  Or maybe your lamp was never lit.  Whatever the case, consider poetry.  You might even consider writing it.  I think poetry, writing it or reading it, is good for the soul.  I’ll end with one I wrote the other day, just to prove you can write a poem about anything. 
Enjoy your weekend.

Lazing in the shade

I felt something wet on my arm.
A bird pooped from high in a tree and it dropped, 
untouched by the thick green leaves and dark branches 
that blocked the sky above, 
onto me.
I laid face up on a bench in that tree’s shade,
arms akimbo,
reading, lolling, dozing, letting the day wrap around me.

I opened my eyes.
Beside the tree gauzy clouds
barely whitened the bright blue of the sky.
I turned my head 
Looked at the dollop of dung on my arm
and pondered my options.

I decided to lie still and let it dry.
I would wait till the manure’s moisture evaporated
into the hot dry air around me.
I listened to the birds,
watched the clouds and waited.
Perhaps I dozed again.

After some time, I don’t know how much, 
I sat up, took my knife from my pocket, 
and carefully scraped the tiny mound of manure away.
It came off cleanly with no stain,
Save for a few stubborn bits
clinging to the hairs,
bleached blonde by the sun,
on my forearm.
Those bits too soon disappeared without a trace.

I then wrote this poem.
About a lovely park on a hot spring day
in Guanajuato Mexico. 
When it was finished I lay back on the bench 
and went to sleep yet again safe in this thought:
What were the odds it could happen again?