Thursday, April 10, 2014

Understanding Work and Service

(From the April 10, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I’ve been thinking about work lately. I’m not just thinking about work in the sense of thinking about my job. Rather, I’ve been thinking about work in the big picture perspective.

This is the time of year when work is on the minds of young people about to graduate from college. They are gearing up for final projects and exams, but also interviewing for jobs. They are excited and nervous about making the transition from student to full-time employee. Some of them have jobs as college students, of course. But now they like to talk about getting that first ‘career’ job.

I would agree that it is exciting. No doubt a good job in the field that one has studied is a worthy reward for the effort put into a college degree. But in listening to some students talk, I get a little uneasy feeling too. They focus on how much they will get paid. They talk about the benefits and how much vacation they’ll have. They carry on about whether their job will be something fun for them to do or drudgery.

It’s hard to tell them not to think about such things. But I want to encourage them to think about something more. I want them to think about what “work” really is. And it really is about more than a job, a way to pay the bills, or an extension of one’s personal identity.

More than a dozen years ago my father-in-law gave me a book written by a friend of his. “Work: The Meaning of Your Life. A Christian Perspective” is written by Lester DeKoster, a former college librarian and professor of speech and also a magazine editor and author of several other books. He sets the course for his brief little book by defining work simply yet profoundly. As he says, “work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.”

That’s what was in the back of my head recently as I overheard all the talk about work. I wanted to hear a little less about salary, job description, and benefits. I wanted to hear young people talk with some excitement about whom they would serve, and how.

Meanwhile, the faculty where I teach have been talking in the past semester about service. For those outside of higher education, I should explain that when professors are reviewed for tenure and promotion—and indeed beyond that—they are evaluated in three categories: teaching, research, and service.

Across the country it’s the same. Professors are expected to teach well and engage in some form of scholarship. But they also are expected to do something called “service.” What this means is administrative work, such as chairing committees, advising students, and a number of other things that wouldn’t fall under teaching and research. In some sense, based on the definition of work above, I would say everything is service. But on university campuses there is this unique distinction.

The issue recently has been that a few faculty members seem to do the bulk of this service work while others do very little. People were speaking up and wanting some equity. The implication is that some faculty members focus on teaching and research and leave the service largely to others.

This is not unique to higher education. There are tasks in any occupation that need doing, and there are people who tend to do those tasks and others who say “that’s not my job.” Of course, this problem would go away if people would see work as a way of being useful to others.

It’s interesting to me to regard a lot of retired people I know. Many of them do not have a regular job with a salary. But they still work. They volunteer in formal and informal ways. They actually say it: “I just want to make myself useful.”

I admire that. And I need to apply that now, well before I retire. Instead of looking at my own agenda and to-do list and seeing everything else as an interruption, I could take a lesson from the book I received years ago and look at everything I do at work in the light of how I am being useful to others.

There’s an old expression that if you do what you love you’ll never work another day in your life. It’s possible to amend that by saying that if you see work as a way to be useful to others you’ll probably satisfy yourself.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Embracing Winter for Spring Break

(From the March 13, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

My wife and I had planned a getaway to Florida in December. But then she had a surgery we had not planned on, and we had to cancel that trip.

When we decided we should re-book something for spring break, we quickly learned that the condo club we had joined had nothing available south of the Mason-Dixon line. So, on a whim, I thought I’d just see what was available for the first week of March. As it turns out, there was some availability if we wanted to head north.
So, we spent the week in northern Michigan, “up north,” for spring break.
It was neither spring nor a break from the winter. The first few days we woke up and checked the weather to realize it was zero, or below zero. The patio of our condo had snow up to the door handle. The wicker furniture outside looked like some sort of winter festival sculptures.
We exchanged e-mails with my parents, who are in Florida for several weeks. I communicated with colleagues and friends and students on Facebook, all of whom are in Texas, Florida, California, Hawaii or the Caribbean. Everyone was happily posting temperature readings in their temporary locales — 79, 83, 87. They would post photos of beaches, grass, alligators, palm trees and meals “al fresco.”
For a while, it was like torture. All these people I know sharing evidence of their enjoyment of warmer places was like waving candy in front of a child and then pulling it away. I stared at the fire, adjusted my wool slippers, pulled the blanket over me and took a long sip of my hot coffee.
All my friends are “al fresco” and I’m “all frozen,” I moaned.
But I got over it. I snapped out of it. I gave myself a cold slap in the face. I walked outside.
As a lifelong Michigander, I have long enjoyed the change of seasons. There are times that winter seems to be a bit too much of a change, or it doesn’t change back soon enough. And this winter seems to be such an occasion. But, given our circumstances, we decided to simply embrace winter, even the high snow piles and temperatures so cold they freeze your nostril hairs.
We went for our daily runs outside, taking different routes around Charlevoix to enjoy views of Lake Charlevoix or Lake Michigan, the marinas, the downtown ambiance, and a variety of very stately and currently vacant homes.
We went cross-country skiing a lot. We saw the beauty of a northern woods in winter, where birch and pine are lovingly decorated with pure snow. It gave us the feeling we were in a postcard or a painting by Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kinkaid.
We skied out onto Lake Michigan, up to the large chunks of ice formed since last fall. Up there — with a rocky shore and bottom, and cleaner water — the ice looks like blue gems.
We also saw a beaver in a tree — twice. It was the same beaver, same tree, on different days.
We had conversations without feeling rushed. We had the fireplace going a lot. We enjoyed soaking in a hot Jacuzzi. We read. We watched TV. We mostly avoided dealing with work or medical issues. I even took a few naps.
It didn’t feel like spring. It didn’t feel like spring break the way we northerners usually think of it — as an escape from winter. Rather, it was an embrace of winter. And a chance to enjoy it more fully than when we are at home and have so much else going on.
I have always enjoyed northern Michigan and have been up north many times in the summer. I had often said to my wife that it would be interesting to experience northern Michigan in the full force of winter. We certainly had that chance this year.
We had felt like circumstances worked against us when we had to cancel our December trip to Florida. But it now seems like circumstances were in our favor when we picked this year to spend the first week of March up north. Normally, the temps would be in the 40s and the snow would be slush. That would be no fun.
If we were going to go up north for spring break, it was best that we have ample snow and cold temps. And that’s what we got.
We also got something more typical of a spring break — sunshine, almost every single day. In fact, if you look at me closely, you might even see my tan lines. They are somewhere between my eyes and my nose

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Getting AARP Card Makes Me Age Quickly

(From the February 13, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I was routinely going through the daily mail one day recently when something stopped me cold. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. I had received my AARP card and an offer to officially register my membership.

AARP used to be the American Association of Retired Persons. That’s right, used to be. Apparently people of a certain age are too weak and tired to breathe the full name, so the acronym is used. Sort of like a verbal cane, I guess.

AARP also sounds like the sound I made when it really hit me that I turn 50 later this month.

I wonder how AARP knows that I am so close to being a man of a certain age. I mean, I myself didn’t really know it. In my mind I feel like I’m 38. Of course, in my mind I still have a full head of hair and can run 5-minute miles. People have said that age is about your attitude or all in your head. So I fully embraced that concept.

But this little invitation in the mail was a cold, slap of reality. It was less an invitation than a taunt: “Dude!” it said. “You are OLD!”

Years ago, I thought 50 was old. But the closer I got to that significant number, the less old it began to seem. Having received the AARP mailing, though, I was forced to take stock. 50 years. Five decades. The big 5-O. My life passed before my eyes. I got out my reading glasses to see it better. Sure enough, I have been around that long already.

Thanks AARP for confirming my increasing infirmity. Now I can’t explain away the aches and pains, the tired feeling and other aging symptoms as merely the result of being busy or working hard. No, I’ll just have to admit it: I’m getting old.

Now I will have to live cautiously. What other symptoms of age will I start to exhibit? I’ll fight as long as possible to hold them back. I certainly won’t be doing a comb-over—I don’t have the resources for that. But if you see me about town with my pants hiked up closer to my neck than my naval, please let me know. It is odd, come to think of it, that there’s a correlation between pants height and age. Young people wear them closer to the knee than the waist. I’m not sure why that is.

Meanwhile, if you see a car moving slowly and straight with a turn signal on, I hope it’s a tourist and not just me. I also will try to go to bed after 8 p.m. and not rise before 5 a.m.

I joke about all of the above. I do feel quite young and spry in spite of receiving the AARP letter. It is a little puzzling that AARP, which is supposed to be for retired persons, is targeting someone as young as 50. I know very few people who can retire while still in their 50s. That’s another reason the AARP invitation seems premature to me. I have at least 15 and probably 20 more years to work. This became obvious to me recently when meeting with a colleague who will retire next year. We were talking about some issues at work, and I felt myself getting a feeling of resolve and a look of tight-lipped determination. His face was an aura of bemused bliss.

But, even though I am nowhere near retirement, there are some “benefits,” according to the AARP material. I can get publications, health benefits, discounts at restaurants and hotels, and representation in Washington to fight age discrimination. Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that. Those things might be more useful when I am actually retired.

Interestingly, the same week I received this information I heard someone on a news program say that 70 is the new 50. Well, that’s good. Even old guys like me need something to look forward to.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Richard Sherman Tipped a Ball

Richard Sherman tipped a ball
and turned the course of a game.
For this he spewed a stream of gall
to feed his pride and fame.

Meanwhile, a soldier risks his life,
a fireman does the same,
while a policeman calms some strife,
and no one speaks their names.

A teacher notices a boy or girl
who sits alone and shy,
and they coax young thoughts to unfurl,
and no one wonders why.

A workman, weary, his route must roam
on frozen winter day.
He keeps families in their homes
and all for modest pay.

We see our heroes all around,
their efforts make them tall.
But no silent, modest, grace was found
when Richard Sherman tipped a ball.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Self publishing more grit than glory

From the January 9, 2014 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)
“You should write a book!” they say. They are people who have never written a book, thus the speed and casual way with which they encourage someone else to do so. They think of seeing the finished product, not the work that goes into it.

But I listened to them. Last year I realized I had been writing this column for 10 years. Friends encouraged me to publish a collection of them in a book. And of course I listened to them.

Writing a book is hard work. I should know this. I have done a lot of writing since I graduated from journalism school decades ago. I’ve written reams of newspaper and magazine articles. After I transitioned into public relations, I wrote annual reports, newsletters, web site copy, and all manner of organizational media. As a professor, I have written lengthy research articles.

But I had not written a book. So it was a combination of vanity and stupidity that led me to produce a book of my Grand Haven Tribune columns. Vanity and stupidity eventually gave way to hard work and humility.

Of course, much of this particular book was already written since the book is a collection of past columns. But I still had to curate, select, and edit them so they would make sense in this new collection at a later date than when they were written. That process took a long time.

But having completed the “writing,” I had another consideration: how to go about actually publishing it? That took some doing also. I didn’t think a major publisher would be interested in what is called a book of “hyper-local” interest. So I looked into self-publishing. This is also called the “vanity” press, because you have to be somewhat arrogant to attempt it, and you may find out your efforts have been in vain.

But I approached it as an experiment. I found a local designer who specializes in book covers. I gave her a photo I had taken as well as cover copy and she delivered a professionally designed cover. People do judge a book by its cover after all. Paying for the design would cut into my profits, but I wanted it to look good.

Then I worked with Schuler Books of Grand Rapids to do the actual printing. I used their online instructions to format my book and get them an electronic file. They printed a quantity for me. I sold some in person at events, but also have some at Schuler stores, as well as at the Bookman locally and several other vendors in town. I also created an electronic version for Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook devices.

So, I wrote a book! But what those friends who encouraged me failed to mention and couldn’t foresee is that I have to actually promote the book too. When you have a publisher, they do this. Even though they take most of the profits, it’s worth having them handle the marketing of the book. When you self publish, you also must self promote. So, I have business cards with info about the book, a Facebook page for the book, conducted some media relations, and engaged in other shameless self promotion. I even keep a box of them in the trunk of my car, because you never know when someone might want to buy one.

So, with all of that done, I awaited the sales figures to soar. That hasn’t exactly happened. While people were eager to say “write a book!” they seem less eager to actually buy a copy now that it’s done. I’ve had lots of people tell me they saw the book with great excitement. But when I ask them if they bought one, they change the subject.

I have had some success. My father-in-law early on went to the bookstore every other day to buy a copy for a friend, hoping the store would think the sales spread across several days indicated consumer interest. A friend of my wife bought eight copies to give to her kids and other family members for Christmas. We need more friends like that! And there are others out there, people I don’t know, who have actually purchased copies. I get these royalty checks that are small but enough to know there are actual sales happening. That’s the best part—knowing there are people out there who I don’t even know who wanted to read my book, to share in my thoughts. I wish I knew who they are.

I hope to meet some readers next week. On Friday, January 17, as part of the annual “wine about winter” event from 5-9 p.m. downtown, I will be among several local authors at The Bookman. Stop by, say hello, ask me about self-publishing. You can “see” my book. You will also be able to actually buy it. No pressure there, though.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

An Unusual Reason for Joy This Christmas

(From the December 12, 2013 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

How can your hearts not break?

That’s what people asked us a few weeks ago when we shared the news that my wife’s breast cancer had spread to the brain. A tumor the size of a quarter had been discovered in her right frontal lobe.

It’s easy to understand their question. My wife had endured so much. The original diagnosis was followed by chemotherapy and all of its side effects, then surgery, then radiation. Having recovered from that, she had complications from attempted reconstructive surgery, including a blood clot and an infection that were both scary and required hospitalization and/or more medication.

She had just reached a point of relative stability when the symptoms started showing up. She experienced regular headaches, the inability to close her left eye independently and some other things. All cancer survivors know about this. You want to believe that little symptoms are minor and can be explained by something simple. But you are always looking over your shoulder. You always have that haunting question lurking: did the cancer spread?

The confirmation that it had was a big blow. It was especially hard since we were so close to a meeting with the plastic surgeon to see about continuing with reconstruction, which would be a step forward. A new emergence of cancer was a huge setback. The fact that it had spread to the brain was particularly daunting. All of this no doubt prompted that question from some people who know our story. How can our hearts not break?

And yet, our hearts did not break. I often tell my students, in the context of organizational leadership, that your responses to the situations in life are more important than the situations themselves. That can also be true of our personal lives. It was for us. Our response to the situation of a newly diagnosed brain tumor was to rely on God to lead us, and to trust that we are in His hands, no matter what. Having done that, we were able to see multiple blessings in the middle of the dire uncertainty of looming brain surgery. Paradoxically, the Thanksgiving with brain surgery was the one during which we felt the most thankful.

The blessings were abundant. Our families of course have been so close to us through this. We cherish those relationships even more. With my wife’s brain surgery scheduled for the Monday after Thanksgiving, we savored the holiday even more. My wife’s siblings and nephews were over to our house to help us decorate for Christmas, something we have not done in a few years. Our neighbors organized a schedule to bring us meals every single night after surgery, a gesture of love that brings tears to our eyes. Our church family, the one we currently attend and several we have attended previously, have overwhelmed us with prayers, cards, and messages of support. Then there are past friends, and friends of friends, praying for us. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, praying all across the United States and even in other countries who bring our needs to God regularly. We pause and think of that, and draw great strength.

We also have great hope and joy as we enter this Christmas season. For all the uncertainty that comes with a brain tumor, we are reminded of the fact that Christmas is about bringing certainty to an uncertain world. As Christians, we celebrate God sending His son Jesus into the world. He is the savior that was promised, called Emmanuel, meaning God with us. He eventually died to pay for our sins so that when we die, we can live eternally with God in paradise.

With a brain tumor, it’s hard not to think about death. My wife and I have talked about it. It’s not really a pleasant thing to talk about. But we also know that we all die one day. We pray that my wife has many years left on earth, but if not, we know she will be cancer free and living with God eternally. This earth is not our home; it is only temporary. Something better is yet to come. This is the joy of Christmas. This is the hope of everyone who struggles, whether brain tumor, financial difficulties, broken relationship, or anything else that makes this life hard.

Meanwhile, we have experienced Emmanuel, God with us, through this brain tumor situation more than ever before in our lives. That’s what my wife calls the blessing of a brain tumor.

On December 2, the Monday after Thanksgiving, she had her surgery. We went in feeling the peace of God and quiet confidence that He knew the outcome. It went well. She will need some therapy to regain strength and full function as a result of the surgery. But she is already making progress.

We go into this Christmas following a brain surgery, dealing with recovery, and with more treatment and uncertainty ahead. But for all the reasons I mentioned above, and especially the primary reason for this Christmas season, we have a ready response for people who ask us how our hearts don’t break. We just turn the question around.

How can our hearts not sing?