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PJM Algonquin, Illinois: Seductive as following world news on the Internet may be, you've still got to know what's going on in your own backyard, writes Rick Moran.

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September 19, 2007 - 5:00 pm

By Rick Moran

The Internet is truly a seductive place. It is the 18-year-old blond hard body with legs that don’t quit, swishing through a lunchtime crowd of 40-something paunched, balding, married men wishing they didn’t have two kids, a wife with a headache every night, and a mortgage to rival the national debt. With a flick of her hip, the seductress will whisk them all away to some place where they don’t have to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home from work or take the kid to soccer practice. Instead, our middle-aged Lotharios imagine themselves… (Insert current fantasy here.)

The Internet does that, of course. It seduces our senses, placing us smack in the middle of history, a “This is London,” Murrowesque reality on steroids where we can change the scenery simply by clicking the mouse. To those of us who grew up in a world where the grainy, black and white images of far away places were broadcast on one of only three television networks, it truly is magic – something those who have lived with the sorcery for most of their lives will never understand.

Look on the front page of the PJM website and what do you see? Articles from writers based in Paris, Baghdad, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Islamabad, Tel Aviv, and all the important, vital datelines here in the US; New York, Washington, D.C., and anywhere a presidential candidate sneezes. When I was young, jets were still a novelty. But who needs airplanes when you can use the Net to beam yourself wherever you want to go?

Getting caught up in earth-shaking events and the personalities that shape them is all well and good. But there are times when instead of peering at the monitor, gleaning the latest news from thousands of miles away, we should be looking out the window instead. What’s going on in your community? Your neighborhood? Next door?

So today, I want to add my byline to PJM Paris, PJM Tel Aviv, PJM Copenhagen, PJM Tokyo and tell you what is going on in my neck of the woods. Today, I am Rick Moran, PJM Algonquin.

I went out and purchased two of the suburban daily newspapers that cover local news and events to find out what is most directly impacting me and my neighbors lately. I am not entirely ignorant of local politics and current events. But in the last couple of years, they have taken a back seat to my interest in world and national affairs.

I bone up around election time in order to at least familiarize myself with the issues on the ballot and the candidates for office. I know, for instance, that the rapid growth of my little village has caused enormous problems for the part time village board that tries gamely to deal with issues like school overcrowding, horribly congested roads, and a tax base that doesn’t generate enough revenue to deal with these and other problems.

And then there is the interesting relationship between local politicians and the evil developers who seek to fill up all the green spaces in my beautiful little town with row upon row of cookie cutter houses and truly ugly townhomes. Some enterprising reporter for a local paper could probably win a Pulitzer by ferreting out the story of how these developers are able to sway local lawmakers to grant them the permits to build willy nilly, eating up open ground, cutting down the few remaining stands of trees in order to satisfy the insatiable appetite of commuters who continue moving further and further north from Chicago to escape the overcrowding, the expense, and the danger of the nearer suburbs.

Algonquin is one of the new ex-urbs – a place where young families come seeking less expensive housing, quiet, safe neighborhoods, and good schools only to discover that within a matter of a few years, lots of other people had exactly the same idea as they did, making their dream a nightmare of underfunded schools and overused roads, strained sewer and water facilities, and a rising crime rate that threatens their peace and security.

And all of these problems end up being reported in the pages of the local papers. The stories also reveal how my neighbors are coping with these problems. After all, members of the Village Board and the School Board live right here. They have families too. They have to wrestle with the same traffic problems. Their cars run over the same pot holes. Their kids play in the same parks that have to be maintained and cared for.

But reading the papers, it appears that familiarity with the issues does not necessarily mean that my neighbors have a clue about how to solve them. A case in point is our local school board. They approved a budget last night. The only problem is that it was a sham budget. That’s because education money from the state is in limbo while Governor Rod Blagojevich and the state legislature play chicken with the budget. Our school district has a notion of how much money they’ll be getting from the state. But until Blago and his cronies come to terms with lawmakers in Springfield, they are unable to plan correctly.

Running a $30 million deficit last year, the district was saved when we taxpayers grudgingly passed a referendum giving them some more money. I was interested in what they planned to do with the cash (besides bring the deficit under control). Our local paper earnestly reports on some of the things on the school board’s wish list:

  • $720,000 to establish department heads on the high-school level.

  • $149,897 to increase instruction technology and media lessons.
  • $179,309 to increase middle school exploratory courses and foreign language offerings.
  • $45,005 for expanded alternative educational services.
  • $1 million in one-time expenses including:
  • $485,600 for software updates.
  • $400,000 in new computers.
  • $100,000 automated phone system.
  • $50,000 in library books.

To my mind, the very first and very last items should be reversed. The level upon level of bureaucratic redundancy at district headquarters does not need to be extended to the schools themselves by creating an entire new classification of employees. I would rather they spend $720,000 on library books and $50,000 to make department heads but that’s just me. I always thought school and library books kind of went together where department heads were superfluous.

One item of note the board also discussed, carefully weighing the pros and cons, was whether or not to build a new track at Algonquin Middle School. Apparently, the Algonquin kids are the only ones with a gravel track rather than the nice composite tracks found at other schools.

Again, $700,000 for department heads and they can’t find 50 grand to pave the track for the kids?

But my neighbors on the school board have to deal with so many competing interests that I can see where educating children can get lost at times. As far as I can tell, they’re doing the best they can under very difficult financial circumstances. Perhaps they are doing as well as we should expect.

Not so with government’s response to those neighbors of mine caught in the recent flooding of the Fox River. (I covered my own experience with local government during the flood for PJM here.) The damage estimate from the mid-August rains comes in at just under $23 million. Hardly Katrina numbers but significant if you are one of the couple of dozen homeowners whose house is still unlivable. Governor Blagojevich declared the counties affected a state disaster area and applied to the feds to make it national.

That was a month ago. In the meantime, as the feds carefully weigh whether our federal government’s $2.4 trillion budget can absorb an extra $23 million, my local paper reports many families are paying out of pocket for things like hotels and meals at restaurants, plumbers to come and fix the pipes damaged in the flooding, and all the little odds and ends that have to be done so that their houses can be made safe to occupy again.

And there are inspiring stories too. Church groups volunteering to come and help with the clean-up for many families, tearing up ruined carpets and padding, sweeping up the layers of dried river mud, washing and scrubbing and polishing so that some semblance of home can be restored.

I was surprised to see that this kind of help extended beyond those we worship with to co-workers, teenage kids, retired folk – neighbor helping neighbor, just as its written somewhere that we should all be doing. For many in my community, the urge to be of assistance in times of trouble is more than a matter of faith; it is a question of shared values put into action by simple, decent people who don’t care much what is happening in Tokyo or Pakistan or Islamabad and even Baghdad. They may have the internet but their view of what is outside their window is not obscured by the seductiveness of what is on the monitor.

Science tells us that this “Do unto others” urge may be in our genes. Perhaps that’s true. But I prefer to think of it being in our hearts. We don’t react like automatons when a neighbor needs help. We feel their need and act accordingly.

This then is the news from where I live. People with their own problems that seem as vitally important to them as reforming health care or balancing the budget or war and peace may be to those of us who spend many hours a day trying to squeeze the world through a coaxial cable in order to try and understand the titanic forces of history that are moving all the nations on earth to an unknowable future.

But driving those forces of history have always been ordinary people. Shuffling along at their own pace, how they face the challenges that life sets before them determines everything in the long run. And you don’t need to surf the net to discover what those challenges might be.

All you have to do is look out your window every once and a while.


Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.

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