Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Beware the IDES of December (or any other month)

Decades ago, I learned a sense of humor can go a long way toward pushing back the blackest of moods.

Consequently, I decided at some point to make humor, along with my faith, a part of my daily routine.

The inspiration for this particular part of my routine came from the 1980 movie, "Airplane," with Leslie Nielsen and starring Robert Hays. In one scene, a fight breaks out in a bar and, in the midst of the action, the camera zooms in as a hand wielding an electric shaver rises above the action. Someone shouts out in alarm, "Look out! He's got a razor."

That's the scene that I recall each day as I begin my morning by shaving. As I look into the mirror and raise the electric shaver toward my face, I pause and, looking at my reflection, mouth those words, "Look out! He's got a razor."

Seriously. Each day. And each time I raise the alarm to myself, I smile at my own goofiness.

Yet most days this simple act starts me smiling. Now, that's no guarantee the day's first smile will last -- I am human, after all. Still, a sense of humor has saved me on more than one occasion from tripping into those dark chasms that frequently have threatened to engulf me during my adult years.

And let's face it: Humor is fun, can take the edge off a sharp situation, can bring a little joy into an otherwise dull day and, when all else seems to fail, it can save your sanity.

For example, on the day I was laid off, everybody I encountered started out saying something like, "Ted, I'm so sorry ..." at which point, I'd respond with a (sometimes half-hearted) laugh, "Not as sorry as I am, I bet."

So it was the shaving routine that started my morning on Dec. 4, two days after I'd been laid off. Truth be told, I was not quite in the spirit for it, but I had to file my unemployment claim with the Illinois Department of Employment Services, or IDES, and I was fairly certain I would need a sense of humor before I was done.

Actually, the IDES website ( is fairly cool and easy to navigate. I first became acquainted with it around May 2009 when I was furloughed for a week as part of the then-Sun-Times News Group's contortions to stem the flow of red ink. I believed this was a step that would shorten any waiting period associated with unemployment benefits should I be laid off later that year, although I was not.

During my introduction to IDES at that time, the application process took something like 20 minutes.

Flash forward to Dec. 4, 2010, and the process took nearly three hours. I'm not sure what happened this time, but during the course of things, the website signed me out a couple of times, then twice refused to recognize my user name and password until I walked away from the computer for 30 minutes each time before returning and trying to sign in again.

At one point, I began to suspect that perhaps the confounded computer was feeling a bit temperamental. I was not in the best of humor, after all -- applying for benefits seemed to be driving home the finality of being laid off. So I was running through the whole gamut of emotions, and from time to time muttering under my breath, when things began to go wrong.

But this was only the start. As I worked through the Web site, filling in all the information and answering all the questions the state needs before allowing me to collect what unemployment is allowed, I started reading files that I suppose were intended to be informative but were filled with the kinds of bureaucratic jargon that as a journalist I had come to detest. Frankly, I was dismayed at what I read.

My first foray into jargon came early in my career as a reporter in Wyoming in the early 1980s. That's about the time schools starting calling their libraries "resource centers" or "learning resource centers." Yet they still were rooms filled with shelves and shelves of books that, despite the name change, still looked suspiciously like libraries. My job was to write in in terms laymen used and would understand, so much to the chagrin of local educators, I continued to write about school libraries, even though writing about "resource centers" might have sounded more impressive.

That's also about the time I learned of a piece of jargon being used by the U.S. Forest Service, which had been taking flack not only for letting lumber companies come in and clear-cut acres upon acres of forest land, but also for carving roads through the forests for use by the lumber companies. I suspect that as a result of the outcry over clear-cutting, the Forest Service began using the term "vegetative manipulation" in environmental reports so as not to alert environmentalists to recommendations for tree-cutting activity.

There were many, many more pieces of jargon I learned over the years. Their purposes varied. Some were used exclusively within a community to convey a very specific idea -- such as the term "subject" used frequently by police. Other terms, like vegetative manipulation, for example, seem to me intended to obscure or disguise what is really going on. And still others, like "learning resource centers," seem intent on making the mundane sound more impressive and comprehensive -- but they just sound pompous.

And yet if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, it's probably a duck.

But the series of PDFs that IDES has available on its Web site that are supposed to spell out the unemployment program's requirements and such seem fairly vague on "how to" but explicit about the consequences if you do not abide by the how to.

I've read through the PDFs several times already and remain unclear on a number of issues, although some of my former colleagues who preceded me on the unemployment rolls have provided some encouragement that's been greatly appreciated.

Even so, the bottom line is, if a career journalist, trained in the craft of reading, writing and editing, finds a lack of clarity in documents that are supposed to spell out the courses of action one must follow to receive unemployment benefits, then how is anyone else supposed to decipher this mess?

For example, nowhere could I find out how one proves he has been actively searching for work. The form one is supposed to use to track that activity implies that one must send a resume or fill out an application at a potential place of employment. But it's tough for journalists to send out resumes when most news outlets have been laying people off and few are hiring, In this event, does spending a five or six hours a day online looking through the job listings on numerous Web sites count toward the job search activity? The form seems not to allow it, yet that is what I already had begun to do.

And I could not afford to be daunted. So despite getting locked out of IDES's website a couple of times, I eventually finished filing my claim successfully, which is when I learned unemployment benefits are not near what I had been earning.

Next week: Dealing with shock, anger and blame.