Friday, June 30, 2017

Those Poor Poets

On this last day of Illinois’ fiscal year, on the brink of the financial abyss, I have chosen not to rant politically but rather to blog about POETRY.

Poetry sadly is seldom read these days.  It is I think the most beautiful use of language ever to have been imagined, let alone created.  Poems are written every day by millions using every language.  They seldom find their way to print and if published, earn their authors little reward. 

The good side of that sad fact, proving some problems really do have a bright side, is that no one writes poems for the money.  There are no blockbuster best-selling books of poetry.  No one writes mass market poems.  There is no mass market.  No path to riches. 

And so poems are written out of love; love of language, of art, and a fondness for the kinds of emotions, moments, and experiences that can best be represented by poems, which coincidentally includes love.  I think the best poems are love poems.

I had the chance to participate in an art event which SURPRISE included poetry read aloud to a large public.  A barge full of international musicians tied up on the south shore of the Illinois River by Ottawa’s Allen Park and delivered a free summer evening concert.  Downtown Ottawa was the backdrop for musicians from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Canada, and the Americas to deliver beautiful orchestral music under the stars.  A local chorus of flutes opened the evening.  somewhere in there music accompanied  a prose reading of Mark Twain by a crew member of the boat.  The crowd was big.  I don’t how to count crowds.  Call it more than 200, less than 400.

Magically it seemed, the organizers sought out local poets to do a public reading at intermission.  My friend, leaving town and as yet unsuccessful in helping the city enlist enough poets, called and asked for my help locating poets.  Sam Barbour and I host a local monthly poetry reading at our church.  Read your own poetry, read someone else’s, or just listen.  We meet each third Thursday of the month at 7:00 p.m. at Open Table Church on the corner of Jackson and Columbus in Ottawa.  It’s a small but loyal group.  A number of us write the occasional poem and read them to each other, long with those of our favorite poets.  The group rarely numbers more than ten.

I said yes.  I had the rest of the day to recruit readers from our group.

“If I can’t find anyone else I’ll do it.”

I couldn’t find anyone else.  My words rang in my ears.  I found myself on the edge of the boat, a microphone beneath my nose, and a lot of people waiting to hear what I was about to read. 

The odd and comforting part of the whole experience was while I knew people were out there, a lot of people, I couldn’t see them.  The lights were in my eyes.  I simply read a poem I dedicated to my wife and forgot anyone else was there.

Acts of Kindness

The sun not yet up,

He pulls on his jeans,

in the dark

Careful to not wake his wife

Who came to bed late.

He steps quietly from the room,

Padding downstairs in his socks.

He pictures his shoes,

Left behind on purpose,

Waiting for him by the chair. 

His wife, reading late,

sleep finally possible,

Surveys the room before leaving,

And spots, forgotten, his old brown shoes.

She stoops to get them,

Grips them in one hand,

Right pressed to left,

Stands, shuts off the lamp, and quietly mounts the stairs.

He will be asleep.

In the dark she places the shoes carefully, kindly, by his jeans.

He’ll find them in the morning, she thinks, and be pleased. (end)

Had I had even a few more days to work on the poem I was currently writing I might have read this one:


The fireflies surprise me each year.

Called lightning bugs on the farm

we chased them across the yard in 1959

ran towards their glow in the dark

captured them between two hands

and imprisoned them in jelly jars

lids poked with ice picks for air holes 

and rarely let them go.

A fleeting globe of luminescence,

we put grass and sticks inside

to make them feel welcome.

But the close quarters

perhaps the lack of air

usually killed them by morning.

Enlightened as adults we enjoy those same bugs now,

renamed, treasured, always free.

Once on a 1993 bike ride

down the towpath of an old canal

my son and I spent a charmed June night

racing through fireflies that lit our way

down a tree covered dirt track

away from home.

We, man and boy, age 43 and 10 

were enthralled by the beauty of that night,

 and the sheer magnificent abundance

of life in the summer.

Now in 2017 I worry we’re killing the fireflies

with insecticides and monoculture

but they continue to shine

surprisingly beautiful, still inspiring.

Each year I forget when they come out.

This year, late on a most magical

warm June night

 I was in a shack

looking over a tree filled ravine

when I saw my first firefly.

It glowed, faded, glowed again.

Here then gone.

Seeing one I became of aware of them all,

Scores, maybe a hundred fireflies

filled my view

warmed my heart

and lit my way.

My past looped back to the present

and brought hope to my future.


Simple insects, but more.

Their brilliant yet elusive light,

fills my heart once again.

If summer is the loveliest season, and I think it is, they should move poetry month from April to June.  Spiteful poems, angry poems, and poems that harbor hate do exist I admit.  But the poems that move us are about love.

Enjoy summer.  Read a poem.  Join us at Open Table Church on the third Thursday if you want.  Next one is July 20.  Enter through the south door on Jackson Street.  Everyone is welcome. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Garden by Committee

It’s so ironic  in this spring and summer of 2017, when I didn’t take a step on my newly put together left ankle from April 7th to June 5th , have walked only clumsily since with the help of a knee rolling scooter and crutches, and am still not cleared to bear full weight on my ankle; that my garden looks great.  Better than years in which I got around fairly well on two legs.  How could that happen?

I’ve always prided myself on taking care of my own garden, thank you, but this year that would clearly be impossible.  My wife urged me to skip a year. 

“It’s just one year.  Give it a rest.  You can put your energy into other things.”

I considered it.  But I was haunted by the prospect of BLT’s with someone else’s tomatoes, an entire year with no 2017 edition of my Mom’s Chilla sauce, no homemade jerk marinade, no eclectic and custom built Irish Asian chili paste.  I would have said I walked around sadly for days pondering the possibility, but I couldn’t walk.  Instead I rolled on my scooter forlornly, laid in my recliner with my leg on three pillows, above my heart as ordered, and anticipated the loss.  I couldn’t give up my garden.  But neither could I do the work it takes to have one. 

It’s always been hard for me to ask for help, but I had little choice.  My wife was doing plenty more for me already, bringing me meals on a tray, driving me from here to there, untold extra mercies.  Besides that, we have a well defined division of labor when it comes to spring and summer work.  She grows the flowers, I grow the vegetables.  She picks up the sticks, I mow the yard.  It’s the kind of thing you fall into when you’ve lived together forty years, thirty of them in the same house surrounded by the same yard.  I wasn’t going to mess that up by asking her to do more.  Not that she would have done it anyway.

I’d have to expand recruitment beyond the house.  There’s my kids, who both live in Chicago and are busy young urban professionals.  Not a lot of man hours possible there.  No, it would most likely  be locals, friends not family.  It meant imposing on others who have no obligation whatsoever.  Daunting.  I began to formulate a vague plan as countless Cub games were played in cold weather on TV.  I usually don’t plant tomatoes till Mother’s day at least, even Memorial Day would be OK.

It’s easy to underestimate the kindness of others.  My friend who owns a roto tiller, and generously brings his machine up to my house each year so I can till my garden, and don’t have to buy one, called before I could ask him.  He’d heard about my plight.

“I can till your garden for you.  Be glad to.  Just tell me when you want it done.”

I thought of my long skinny plot out there beside the garage.  Each fall we till the garden, after all the trash is pulled and burned, and sow it with winter rye, which makes a great cover crop, keeps out the weeds and feeds the soil.  It was a great winter and spring for rye growing.  It was over a foot tall.  In spring we till again.  Afterwards I provide lunch and drinks. 

“All you’ll have to do is mow that rye.  Clogs up the tiller.  Just let me know when you’re ready.”

The rye was too tall to mow.  I didn’t tell him that.  Just another step in the process.  But I had a lot of time to come up with a plan.

My wife was struggling with her own problems.  I was the one who always cut down the prairie grass, which was reaching a critical point.  When the new green growth creeps up two or three inches it is time to trim the brown stalks down to meet it.  I always used the hedge trimmers, but I was in no shape to do that.  My wife doesn’t do power tools, yet she needed it done.  It was a task I’d been doing since the prairie grass was planted.  God knows how long.

Here’s the great thing.  When you’re compromised physically people offer their help blindly, not expecting to be called on to deliver it.

One friend, retired and living close by, checked in on me and said, as many before him had

“If there’s anything I can do to help let me know.”

Rarely comes the request that cashes in on that often made offer.  However, I immediately made one in reply.

“Actually, there is a way you can help.  I have this prairie grass that needs to be cut down, as well as the rye in my garden.  Think you find an afternoon to do that?  We can have some drinks after.”

I offered no assistance whatsoever, seeing as I couldn’t walk.  It’s a tall order, saying yes to such an open assignment.  Truly generous people decide to help quickly.  His reply?


My wife showed this next day volunteer where the prairie grass was and got the tools and power cords out for him. I added that there was a tarp he could put the rye straw on.  Later I would use it for mulch.  He had it all done in a couple of hours.  We retired to the shack for couple of glasses of rum.

“So who’s going to till the garden?”

I told him.

“I know him.  I worked with his wife.  Will he need help?”

“He might need some help getting the tiller out of his pickup.  That’s always a little touch and go.  Better two people doing it than one.”

“Let me know when he’s coming, I’d be glad to help.”

With the rye cleared the two of them turned over the dirt with the roto tiller in less than an hour, start to finish.  I was ready for planting in less than a week.  Mind you, all I did in this whole operation was pour drinks.  We added whiskey to the mix after tilling.

My son Dean came down unexpectedly on a Saturday, just for the day.  Soon after he arrived he offered to take me to the Seatonville Greenhouse to buy plants.  I’m still not convinced his Mom wasn’t somewhere behind his sudden desire to be helpful but she claims not.  He took me over in the Buick, we discovered to our surprise the greenhouse was handicapped accessible, so I cruised the paths between the tables of plants on my knee scooter picking out what I needed.  Dean trailed putting them all in flats.  We got it all, herbs, pepper plants, tomatoes, lemon grass.  It’s a one stop shop, that Seatonville Greenhouse.

When we got home we slammed the tomatoes, a dozen, in the ground before dark when Dean headed back to the city.  We couldn’t plant the peppers though, because those require fencing to keep out the rabbits.  Dean didn’t have time.  The peppers would have to wait.

They didn’t wait long.  My daughter and her boyfriend were at the house the next weekend for Memorial Day.  They host a bash.  A beer brew, crayfish boil, canoe trip down the fox, tents in the yard, the whole deal.  Thirty five people this year, slightly down from previous years.  After it was all over and we were returning to normal on Monday afternoon they planted the peppers, with me directing from a lawn chair, pointing here and there with my crutches, directing the placement of serranos, poblanos, habaneros, jalapenos, cayennes, those mild round sweets, and a few new ones for the sheer hell of it.  Then they surrounded the peppers with the fence.  It’s just chicken wire and skinny steel fence posts.  Not fancy but it works.    Moe planted the herbs in pots by the back door steps.  Next they put up the trellises for the tomatoes and mulched everything with the rye straw, including the garlic which was planted last Halloween.  Done.  I sat there in amazement.  I hadn’t done a damn thing.

I take that back.  I fertilized.  I started out thinking I would buy an organic fish poop product on Amazon.  But the more I read about it the more dubious I became.  I cast about on Face Book for ideas.  Consensus among the gardeners was the fish poop stuff was powerfully smelly and bad to handle.  And then the Breslins responded by inviting me to come out and just take some of their stuff.  Colleen drove me out of town to the Breslin organic farm where I scored a bucketful of Chick Magic, not to be confused with Chick Magnet.  As luck would have it they had just taken delivery on fifty tons of Chick Magic, pelletized shit from organically fed chickens.  And thus is born organic chicken shit.  When you’re dealing with fifty tons of shit what’s a bucketful here or there?  It smelled fairly bad, so I shuddered to think how the fish poop stuff must reek.

That was truly my only contribution.  I hopped around the garden on crutches sprinkling Chick Magic by the plants.  And since then, as I become more mobile, I crawl and crutch around pulling weeds. Oh, and I sit on my butt in a lawn chair by the garden and spray water on it.  But the heavy lifting on the McClure Fields Hill 2017 garden was done totally by friends and family.  And it’s the best looking garden I’ve had since I’ve been here.  There’s a lesson to be learned here, best summed up by a single word.  Collaboration.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Politics as Theater

Following up on last Friday’s blog piece, it turns out Stacy Keatch had a heart attack on stage which prevented him from delivering his lines in the one and only Chicago staging of “Pamplona”, a one man show at the Goodman theater about Ernest Hemingway. 
Keatch reported he felt “like this great fog had come over me.  It was the most bizarre moment of my entire career.”

He didn’t make it halfway through the production.

“…I was hoping that I was just in the middle of an actor’s nightmare and that I would soon wake up and find myself back in the position where I knew what I was doing again.”
Chris Jones, a theater critic who saw Keatch’s on stage breakdown and wrote the June 9 Chicago Tribune article I am paraphrasing as we speak, described the performance as “akin to being lost inside a labyrinth and unable to find any way out.”

“I was very much aware that I was in a state of repetition.  Hemingway’s problem of what word to put on the page intersected with mine, which became how to find the next line,” Keatch said.
When asked he would have stopped what seemed to be an endless loop of lines had the Goodman not stopped the show, Keatch responded

“No.  I don’t believe I would.  I would have kept on going and going, trying to find myself back in the play.  I was relieved to be released from my duties.”
Keatch is going to try it again, he hopes, in 2018.  I’m going to let the Goodman keep my money till then.  I’m determined to see this play.

John McCain had a similar experience at the Senate hearings when he questioned Jim Comey.  He was trying to make some kind of comparison between the Hillary Clinton investigation, which is finished, and the current hearing on Russian influence in our 2016 election which is just gearing up.  It didn’t make sense.  Credit Jim Comey with being gracious and refraining from asking Sen. McCain what the hell he was trying to say.  I sure couldn’t tell. 
That’s a shame too because this is a time when we need sane, balanced, conservative Republicans to get very involved in this topic and carry out their role as protectors of the country rather than political hacks.  This past week reminded me of the Watergate hearings that wre broadcast in 1973.  I was finishing up my assignment as a student English teacher under Harry Adrian and John Duffin at OHS, living with an old lady on the east side who I chose from an approved housing list given to me at the office, and grading papers while watching Sam Ervin and the crew question Nixon aides on her fuzzy color TV.  The Watergate hearings were a long and drawn out process, occurring in Nixon’s second term.  News of the investigation simmered on the back pages of the nation’s newspapers.  Only the most careful readers of the Washington Post and New York Times knew what was happening.  And then it burst onto network TV.

We didn’t have social media back then, the internet, fake news, a whole host of current complicating factors.  But as I watched those hearings, my respect for the office of the President of the United States steadily fell.  Nixon and his staff stonewalled, went into crisis mode, did anything and everything they could to retain power.  It didn’t fall apart until Republican support for their own Republican president crumbled.  Supporting Nixon became politically poisonous for Republican Senators and Representatives protecting their own careers.  I wanted to think it was about the good of the country, but I’m not sure it was.  However in the end the system worked. Nixon,  in an attempt to influence his election over George McGovern, a contest which was never in doubt, authorized clumsy political dirty tricks  on his Democratic opponents, and then covered them up.  In his final days, he read the writing on the wall, previously stalwart Republicans abandoning him, and resigned before his looming impeachment. 
That’s why we need John McCain and his friends in the GOP to look at this thing clearly and objectively.  The Democrats will certainly push the agenda, but it is likely the Republicans will make the difference in the end.  Let’s hope Senator McCain comes out of his fog as did Stacy Keatch.

Finally, my favorite quote from this morning’s news comes from Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner.  He dismissed as a “sham” hearings held by the Democrats who took testimony from those most affected by the Illinois budget impasse, those served by private social service agencies funded by the state.  These people include parents of handicapped children, victims of domestic violence, troubled young people, the homeless, the addicted, low income senior citizens.  I quote the Governor now from a Trib article written by Kim Geiger and Monique Garcia.
“They are…I think, taking advantage of those who are being hurt.  We know, it’s a tragedy. We know who’s being hurt.  My heart’s broken by the human service agencies, the social service agencies, many of which my wife and I have been supporting ourselves for years, they are being hurt, Our universities are being hurt, our schools, so many people in Illinois are being hurt by no balanced budget.”

I have to say I continue to be amazed the Governor can say these things with a straight face.  He’s been saying things like that for two years now, AS IF THERE IS NOTHING HE CAN DO ABOUT IT.

The theater that is Illinois politics rivals the Goodman, perhaps even the silver screen.  It’s like “Groundhog’s Day” down there in Springfield.  While Democrats hold hearings around the plight of those served by social service agencies Rauner runs endless TV commercials set in someone’s tricked out woodshop, wearing a flannel shirt, waving around a roll of duck tape, and trumpeting a property tax freeze, when there are no assurances we can or will fund our schools any other way.  He’s trying to do too much, and by holding out he does nothing.  Representative Greg Harris (D) introduced a bill earlier in the session which would provide relief to those very social service agencies.  It was also passed in the Senate.  The Governor won’t sign it.
Who is taking advantage of those who are being hurt?  Both parties must get off the public stage, get back to Springfield, and pass a budget that stops the bleeding.  If Rauner can make progress on his political agenda more power to him.  But holding out for the whole deal is, at this point, folly.  As a London pundit described Great Britain this morning, the day after their calamitous election: 

“It’s a mess!  A pig’s breakfast!”
That’s describes Illinois to a T.   Stop posing and acting out your partisan political roles.  I think we’re running out of time.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Write Hard and Clear

I still get the Tribune delivered to my door and save clippings from it for blog posts I intend to write.  The shack is filling up with pieces of paper about Bruce Rauner and the Illinois legislature.  I have started this piece many times and deleted it.  It’s painful.  But just today I read an applicable quote in another article I saved, on Stacy Keatch totally blowing his lines in a one man play about Hemingway.  The play, “Pamplona”, which I have tickets to later this month, was halted half way through on opening night last night and cancelled today.  Word has it Stacy is getting medical treatment. Here’s what Hemingway once said:

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

Thanks for the reminder Ernie.

The day after state budgets were passed, not so long ago it seems, was always a day when private social service agency directors burned up the phone lines determining what happened at the close of session to the state grants and contracts they signed to help people in their communities.  The political wrangling continued all the way till midnight, sometimes they  stopped the clocks in the chamber.  Even if you stayed up till it was over you couldn’t tell where the money went from back home.  George Ryan was famous for passing out the budget book so late in the game that lawmakers, especially the Democrats, didn’t know what they were voting on.   

Newspapers never carried the details we were looking for.  Before the internet, it took someone reading the final budget book in Springfield, often printed in the waning hours of the session or after, to tell us.

I’d be on the phone to the state association or my local politicians Springfield office armed with a yellow pad listing all my funding sources, the amount contracted for the previous year, and a calculator to figure the percentage increases or decreases.  Sometimes, it was a victory if the line item survived at all.   More than once I would inquire about a line item and the quiet response was “Zero.”  I’d swallow hard. 

Programs, initiatives, efforts to serve new populations of kids and families who needed help, sometimes died that way.  Sometimes they were revived in the veto session. But we knew.  We knew where state funding was going, where we could go in turn, what we could accomplish without their support that needed to be done with private money.  Government decides things, sets priorities, by how it spends money.  The budget deadline came and went last night at midnight.  What are Illinois’ priorities today?

Yes, May 31 is a phony date.  The fiscal year doesn’t end till June 30 and a budget could be passed at that time but it would require more than a simple majority, which means Republican votes, and further it requires the Governor sign, not veto, the bills enabling the budget.  Neither of those possibilities seem likely.  So despite the posturing, few see real work towards a budget that could be passed prior to July 1.  What is seen is manipulation of blame in order to gain a political advantage prior to the 2018 election, which takes place in November of that year.  Few rules are hard and fast these days, but the saying which holds most true in Illinois politics is “nothing of substance gets passed in an election year.”

That means failing to pass a budget now likely dooms Illinois to having no budget till January of 2019 at the earliest.  That’s a long time folks.  Another 570 days.  Add that to the 700 we’ve gone so far and you have a state lurching along with no budget in place for four years, Rauner’s entire term as governor.  I remember people predicting this.

“We may not have a budget for four years.”

I thought they were crazy.  You can’t run one of the fifty states in America, let alone the fifth largest state, without defining the future with a spending plan.   You wouldn’t run anything like that, not a church, a small agency, a big agency, a school district, a township, a village, a county, a city.  It’s unheard of.  How do you plan in the absence of a budget?  How do you set priorities?  How do you meet challenges, changing needs, emerging problems, contingencies, without a budget as a guide? 

I don’t think you do.  That’s where my pain begins.  I’m not even a fan of planning and policy.  But for Christ’s sake how do you know where you are without a budget, in a world where generating revenue and spending that revenue in ways that help people who reside within your borders is your only purpose?  Public policy and spending are like bread and butter.  We have a failure in both.

Would you come to work in Illinois from another state?  Today there is an opening for a new Director of DCFS, the agency charged with helping children and families affected by child abuse and neglect.  Who is going to take that job in this climate?

Not having a budget, not facing up to our need for increased revenue via taxes, is screwing our state colleges and universities.  They never know when their next check is coming from the Comptroller.  I graduated from one of those schools, and today I wouldn’t send my college age son or daughter to one of them because their futures are unknown.  Would you fill a job at one of those universities?  Is that a place you would choose to advance your teaching career?

Some believe there is a conspiracy, between Democrats and Republicans alike, to simply let the weak schools fail.  The weak one of course are the financially vulnerable, Chicago State, Eastern, Western, Northeastern, Southern.  Did we vote to weaken or close universities in rural areas of the state where students can study while working and being part of their family and community?  Did we pass a referendum that if your campus is situated in a distressed part of the city of Chicago you lose?  This is policy by default.  Is this what we want for Illinois?  That’s what we’re getting.

There have actually been positive policy initiatives during the Rauner’s turn in office, particularly in juvenile justice and adult prison Reform.  Both legislation and executive action point to a desire to reduce incarceration.  Most agree that reducing confinement requires increased services be delivered in the community.  However ReDeploy Illinois, a partnership between states and counties to reduce commitments to the Department of Juvenile Justice, that contracts with private youth serving agencies for those services, and is the key to making that policy work, is dying on the vine.  Winnebago County, which has little organized local funding for such services such as a county mental health board, was an early casualty.  Only three programs among the many that operated three years ago are now in operation, LaSalle County being one, which is blessed with such a mental health board which injects local money into the effort.  that is but one example. 

You can’t implement public policy initiatives that require services to a community without financial investment.  If you ran a private agency with such a contract (yes they still write contracts, that agencies sign, knowing there is no promise of payment) or were on the volunteer board of that agency, would you continue to hire staff for such a program?  Not knowing when or if you will be paid?  Is that what you imagined when you voted for this governor?

Senate democrats approved bills increasing the income tax and advancing a budget that the house did not vote on, would not call the bill, claiming it would only be vetoed and yes votes used against democratic representatives in the upcoming election.  Democrats in the house demand republican votes.  Imagine, both parties voting on something to help Illinois. 

Everybody, democrats and republicans, including the governor, knows a tax increase is needed and must happen in the end if Illinois is to right itself financially.  Everything hinges on what is gained by the governor and conceded by democrats to reach the point where that tax increase is approved.  And nothing happens. 

As an example, the governor demanded that the Thompson Center, a state building in Chicago with problems, be sold.  The democrats passed such a bill.  Rauner says it’s not the right bill.  He has problems with zoning considerations contained in it.  It’s likely to be vetoed.  Find a compromise.  Anywhere.  I can’t.

Rauner demands a property tax freeze in exchange for an increase in the income tax.  On my tax bill, the lion’s share of what I pay funds my local schools, which I value highly.  If you were a public school board member, whose only ability to improve the schools his or her kids and neighbor kids attend is to generate money from property tax increases, would you support giving up that power when the state formula for school funding is inequitable and unresolved?  I hope not.  Public education depends on resources.  Did we sign on to screw schoolchildren and their families?  Did we elect this Governor hoping he destroyed Chicago Public School funding?

Is nothing done incrementally anymore in Illinois?  Are compromises not reached in hopes of further progress later?   Is everything about campaign money and elections?  When you cast your vote in 2014 is this the kind of hurt you expected to suffer, watching the state you live in, perhaps were born in, self destruct?  Our bond rating has been reduced again.  We have the lowest bond rating of any American state.  The only lower rating left to achieve is junk.  The budget hole just gets deeper. 

It hurts.  I get angry and sad at the same time.  I don’t know what to do.  I don’t have anyone on the state level to vote for in the near future, and I don’t believe the people we’ve elected are listening.  Perhaps they listen, but they certainly are not acting independent of their party bosses.  It’s not about blame for how we got here.  The past is over.  It’s about going forward.  How much pain is too much?  When does something happen?  How will we know when it’s too late?