Thursday, July 9, 2015

Disrespect for Law is Increasingly Evident

(From the July 9, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

A few weeks ago I had some time to myself, and I decided to head to the Lake Street Beach on Spring Lake to sit with an iced tea, look at the lake, and read a book. I had only read a few pages when what I thought would be a pleasant and peaceful few hours turned into a cacophony of disregard for civility.

First, two young women came to the beach with their two dogs. I thought to myself, “are dogs allowed on the beach?” But I said nothing and did nothing.

But soon, I could do nothing. I certainly couldn’t read. The women let the dogs off of their leashes. One went into the water and splashed and thrashed about, eventually grabbing the rope that marks the swim area in his maw and trying to swim with it. The other dog, a younger pup, ran all about the sand and shore, yipping noisily.

It was a full-scale land and sea invasion.

The dogs weren’t the only noise. The women added to the chaos by constantly yelling the dogs names to get them to stop their mischief. So I heard “bark!” “yell!” “bark!” “yell!” ad infinitum for at least a half hour. It never occurred to them to use the leashes to literally rein in the canines.

Eventually another man arrived, presumably with the same intention I had—a little solitude on a late afternoon. He, unlike me, chose to state the obvious. He mentioned to the young women that dogs are not allowed on the beach.

Now, this is simply a statement of fact. And he said it calmly, matter-of-factly. But if the barking and yipping was bad before, this effort to bring up the rules in the hope that they would be adhered to only ramped up the noise. The young women responded defensively, accusing the man of being a certain body part, and generally carrying on with the decorum and intelligence of that which their dogs left behind on the beach.

Shortly after they left, it became peaceful for a time. But I had stopped reading my novel. I was thinking of the advantage of cats over dogs. Then, my mind had shifted to ethnographic study of social encounters on a small beach. I was “rewarded” soon with more data.

A couple that had gone kayaking earlier returned to the beach, paddling over the swim rope and through the swim area to do so. I waited. It didn’t take long. The other man, the self-appointed enforcer, pointed out that no boats are allowed in the swim area. I’m a kayaker myself and had assumed this to be true, but watched to see the reaction.

The female kayaker calmly just kept walking her kayak to the truck they had parked near by. Her husband, however, responded with the manner of the dogs, which had just departed—loud and aggressive. He threatened the other man’s manhood, challenged him to a fight, and made some remarks that indicated he had an impressive knowledge of the other man’s lineage. He wasn’t done. After loading his kayak and getting in the truck, he started driving, and then challenged the other man to a fight again. The other man just lay there, and the truck drove away.

I looked down at the novel on my lap. It seemed to be deficient in drama at this point. So I closed it, took a long sip of iced tea, and gazed out at the lake to think.

We have laws, some significant and some minor. Some people don’t know about them, but any lawyer will tell you ignorance of the law is not a defense. So, this other man at the beach just wanted to get the word out, let people know for future reference what the rules were. Some may consider him a nerdy stickler for rules. On the other hand, the rules are there to preserve the rights of others to enjoy the beach.

So the dog owners and the kayakers could have responded by saying they didn’t know about the rule, apologize, and even thank the man for pointing it out. Or they could have at minimum said, well, it was late and there were no kids and few others there so they only did it this one time. That may not be excusable, but it would at least have been more civil and rational.

But in both cases the response to a simple reminder of rules was immediately defensive, and in a visceral way. It’s striking, and it seems to fit a theme in our culture of the favor of individual rights over social responsibility. People don’t view the rules to know how to comply, they look at them to consider how much they can get away with. And when challenged, they fight.

You see this in many other ways. Parking in a handicapped spot without a permit, putting trash in bins clearly marked for recycling, and countless other infractions occur daily. Some might argue that the dog owners and kayakers and others aren’t committing serious crimes and it shouldn’t be worth worry. It may be a stretch to say that such disregard for rules portends the end of time, a descent into lawlessness and anarchy.

But I wondered about that when I should have been reading my novel. Another novel I read some time ago, “No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy, is about lawlessness. In it, an old and nearly retired sheriff investigates a terrible series of murders out west. Contemplating the unusual degree of evil in the crimes, he comments to his wife on the state of society: “I think it began when folks stopped saying ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’.”

Could be. I maintain that it’s a short road from incivility to crime.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Royal Visit Has Me Thinking About Heritage, Human Nature

(From the June 11, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

The King and Queen of the Netherlands came for a visit to West Michigan recently. As the son of a Dutch immigrant, but a man who considers himself fully American, this was an event that struck me as both interesting and odd.

It was interesting because of my ethnic connection to the Netherlands. My mother told a few stories about Queen Juliana, who was on the throne when my mom’s family was still in the Netherlands.

It was also interesting because I know less than I should about my ancestral homeland. Typical of the offspring of immigrants, I did not learn the history, culture, or governance traditions of the land from whence my family came. I have visited a half dozen other countries, but only set foot in the Netherlands once to change planes at the airport. I have studied three languages in addition to English, but none of them are Dutch.

So it became interesting on the occasion of the Dutch royal family’s visit to learn from media accounts things my family did not pass on to me or my siblings and cousins in favor of assimilating as Americans. But as I followed the accounts of the visit in the media (I was not invited to meet King Willem and Queen Maxima, in spite of my heritage), the spectacle struck me as odd. Several questions came to mind.

One question I had was why we know so little about Dutch royalty and so much about British royalty. With the Brits, we know about every act from dating to proposal to marriage to pregnancy to birth. We hear about royal scandals and rumors. But it took the Dutch royals’ visit to learn their very names, and details of their family.

There are several reasons for this. The British prevailed over the Dutch as a world power at the time of the American revolution. So while the Dutch had much to do in American history, the British were more prominent and recent. For example, the British power allowed them to rename New Amsterdam to New York, and it was from Britain that the U.S. sought independence.

There is of course the advantage of language. While the English spoken in England can sound different than they way we speak in the U.S., it is certainly more understandable than Dutch. We Americans can understand comments made by the British royals, an we can follow British media. The British also tend to cultivate the attention a bit more than the Dutch. King Willem, who only became King in 2013, has an understanding with the media that he is only interviewed at official occasions. Otherwise he and his family are off limits for questions and photographs.

The British royals also garner more attention because they typically keep the throne for life. The Dutch more traditionally willingly step down or abdicate the throne. This makes the change of power more dramatic in England, where there is a large, public and dramatic public funeral and coronation when royal power changes hands. The Dutch have a more routinized transition, a form or royal retirement and promotion.

By the way, I have three thrones in my house. I abdicate them often. I understand the regularity with which I do this is healthy medically (it is best to willingly step down than to die there), but I had not known it to be an activity of royal significance until the visit of the Dutch King and Queen recently brought attention to it.

Seriously, the Dutch royals’ visit also made me wonder why we Americans get excited about royalty at all. Is it not in our national fiber to resent the monarchy? Perhaps we are less offended by the modern monarchy because they play more of a ceremonial than an authoritative role. As such, they are more akin to ambassadors and democratic representatives of foreign countries than persons ruling by “divine right,” as was assumed hundreds of years ago.

But I also think we humans are fascinated by and have a need for persons to admire, exalt, and even worship. This was evident prominently in the Old Testament, when the people of Israel built golden statues to worship even as God spoke to Moses, or they begged the prophet Samuel for a king, as opposed to being satisfied with God, so they could be like other nations. Today, we Americans raise up athletes and actors, musicians and politicians, and others to be our ceremonial monarchs. We proclaimed Elvis to be King, we have our Queen Latifa, we gather around our “American Idol.”

Nevertheless, King Willem and Queen Maxima flew home to the Netherlands on a royal jet. There they will continue to live and serve within the limits of the Dutch constitution, one-third of which addresses the monarchy. We in West Michigan can return freely to being kings and queens of our respective castles, doing what we do unceremoniously, attending to our duties and responsibilities both small and significant.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Running 25K on Knee Scooter Takes Patience and Persistence

From the May 14, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

The words patience and persistence may seem to be conflicting, as if you can’t practice both at the same time. But in fact they are compatible, as I’ve learned again recently.

I wrote back in November about my wife needing to be on a knee scooter because of a heel fracture. She injured the heel in August, and the treatment requires not walking on it. In other words, be patient and let it heal.

Our patience has been tested as each time we visit her doctor we hope he will say she can take off the air cast and no longer need the scooter to get around. But each time he determines by painful prodding that the heel has a ways to go to be fully healed, and he says stay on the scooter.

This is especially hard on my wife, who is very active. More importantly, she is a runner. Her running could be described as persistent, since she runs hard in all kinds of weather, no matter the circumstance. You can see the brewing collision between the doctor’s advice of patient healing and persistent running.

But, as I learned, patience and persistence can go together. My wife has been a good girl and wears the air cast or “boot” regularly and uses the scooter for getting around outside the house. That’s the patient part. The persistent part is maintaining her running regimen by doing what she calls her “scoot and run.”

She’s received encouragement in this from everyone, including neighbors, friends, and members of the Grand Haven Running Club. The only one who did not encourage her is the manager of the medical equipment company. He could have seen this as an opportunity to demonstrate what knee scooters can do to help people maintain mobility with an injury, as opposed to crutches. But he was only worried about equipment. They ultimately wrote off the depreciation and let my wife keep the scooter.

When the scooter wheels were almost shredded, she went into a Lowe’s store to look for options. A kind store clerk suggested lawnmower wheels and even installed them for her so she could be back on the road.

We also received a lot of encouragement when we ran the 25K River Bank Run in Grand Rapids last weekend. A man named Josh who is a nurse at the state prison in Ionia as well as a pastor was carrying his study Bible as he ran. We talked with him for a couple of miles. A friend had written 15 names on her arm, and planned to pray for each person at their designated mile marker on the 15.5-mile course. My wife was number 6. Many women who had run the recent Gazelle Girls Half Marathon recognized my wife from that event and came over to say they had been praying for her ever since. There was the stranger who let me use his bike tools to tighten a wheel on the scooter. Countless others offered words of encouragement and told my wife she inspires them.

My wife also seeks to be an encouragement and inspiration to others. She wore a sign on her back for other runners to see that said “Beating stage 4 breast cancer, a brain tumor, and a heel fracture.” Many runners would read that and comment on it. We always try to give hope and encouragement to others fighting cancer or who know someone who is. We also use the opportunity to share our own faith in Jesus Christ, which is the ultimate source of our hope and inspiration.

That also explains the “why” question. When I tell some people what we did last weekend, they say that merely running a 5K would be enough for them. But a 25K, on a knee scooter?! As I explained in a previous column several years ago, when my wife was  diagnosed we decided quickly we weren’t going to think about dying of cancer, but living with it. And by that we mean truly and fully living. That’s why my wife runs, or scoots, in spite of everything. I really have no excuse not to be along side her.

My wife’s inspirational Bible verse is from Hebrews 12:1--“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” which is a metaphor for all of life but drives her perseverance in literally running. I think of 1 John 3:16 which encourages Christians to be like Christ and “lay down our lives” for each other. That’s also a metaphor, but while my wife is persistent, when I’m running I often do want to lay down.  Seriously, I draw inspiration from 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

We don’t have to win the race, or set a record. We just have to run, and finish. That is done with both patience and persistence, as well as mutual inspiration.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Mental Health and Brain Injury Require Thoughtful Response

(From the April 9, 2015 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I’ve been thinking about thinking lately. Specifically, I’ve been musing about how people think when they have had a brain injury or have a mental illness. I’ve also been thinking about how those around people with cognitive issues resulting from mental illness or brain injury think about them.

The reason for my consideration of all of this comes from a sudden coincidence of people I know or met who have such cognitive issues.

My father has had several bouts of depression a few years ago, one requiring hospitalization. He is fine now, with his mental health controlled by counseling, medication, and lots of prayer. But for a while it was frightening as my mother and I felt as if we were speaking to a completely different person.

Closest to me is my wife, whose breast cancer spread to the brain in late 2013. The surgery and radiation to her head relieved her of this tumor, and we are grateful that recent scans show no sign of cancer. But there are lingering effects. One side of her mouth droops, especially when she is emotional. She gets a little extra emotional at times—either laughing or crying. She has headaches that may be caused by a muscle in her forehead that doesn’t relax since the surgery. She gets anxious in crowds. There are memory and focus issues. Sometimes she struggles to pronounce words correctly.

My wife and I laugh about it. We joke that with me being the stereotypical absent-minded professor and her dealing with consequences of brain surgery, we have half a brain between the two of us.

Yet, it is not funny. It’s frustrating and sad. And the worst of it is, most people don’t understand. They say she “looks great” and they’re happy she is currently cancer-free. But when we discuss cognitive issues they have a blank response and a look that seems to say, “well, snap out of it.”

I’ve heard this sort of sentiment from others too. They explain their difficulties and fear that people assume they are making weak excuses versus describing legitimate and real problems.

A man from my church has lost a lot of his short-term memory because of brain surgery. Another has had cognitive issues that make it challenging for him to keep a job. The mother of a friend gets tired and overwhelmed in crowds after a head injury in a car accident. Last semester a student in one of my classes collapsed in the middle of a presentation because of a brain tumor. One this semester explained to me why he sits in back and leaves the room occasionally because of anxiety brought on by some traumatic life events. Another is in counseling and needs special accommodation because of the untimely and suspicious circumstances of her mother’s death.

These people—and their spouses and close friends—have to explain their situations to others in the hope that they will not be judged for forgetting things or leaving a party early or needing to sit on the end of a row at church. But it is hard.

Injury or illness of a physical nature is also challenging, but does not come with such a stigma. People can better understand what they can see. A wheelchair, a prosthetic limb, a cast, a scar or other visible evidence do the explaining for them. But people with mental health or brain injuries have to explain themselves, repeatedly, and still fear judgment instead of compassion.

So let me offer a few words of advice. First, truly listen to people. Understand the situation they’re in is as real as a broken bone. Don’t offer quick diagnosis and solution. Don’t assume they haven’t tried to find relief. Understand that some mental health and brain injuries have lasting effects and don’t just heal over time. Don’t let people with mental health issues or brain injuries and their side effects annoy you. Instead, love them, just as they are.

In short, if you have a fully functioning brain, then use it to understand those who don’t. If you have a problem with their behavior, snap out of it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Reading is Important for Work, Pleasure, and Just Being Well-Read

(From the March 12, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I’ve been thinking a lot about reading lately. Mostly, about how little time I have for it.

I do a lot of reading in the course of my days and weeks. I read the Bible and some sort of devotional every morning. Then there is a lot of reading for work—reading trade publications, newsletters, academic journals and books to stay up on the field I teach. I also read lots of memos and reports related to administrative responsibilities. Of course I have to read student papers. I try to keep up on the news, which these days involves reading this paper as well as many other sources digitally on my computer or phone.

So why do I feel like I lack the time to read?

It’s partly because so much of the reading I do is obligatory or compulsive reading. I feel like I lack the time to read nonfiction books or novels just for the sheer pleasure of it, to entertain and educate myself on topics about which I am otherwise unfamiliar.

It’s also because so much of the reading we do these days is done in short bursts. We read headlines, summaries, reviews, social media posts. In fact, one academic study found that most of those links we see people offer on Facebook and other social media platforms are to articles they never actually read. They just want people to think they read it. And most of the people who click “like” do so not because they actually went to the link and read and approved of the content. They just liked the headline, or the idea of the article being linked.

So I, and possibly a lot of you, need more time to not only read, but to read for simple curiosity, and to read deeply.

I must say I was happy to read on the top front of this newspaper last week that the Bookman, our own local bookstore, will continue even though its current owners have decided to retire. Kudos to the new owners for following their passion, and in so doing keeping a local bookstore running for the rest of us.

Speaking of bookstores, there does seem to be a lot of people in bookstores whenever I am. This strikes me as odd and reassuring, because I get the sense that many people feel they have less time to read. Perhaps there is a core group of people who are regular readers of books. Maybe not everyone feels overwhelmed and lacks the time to read.

That notion was supported by another article in the paper last week the same day the news about the Bookman broke. Our local libraries are looking to increase digital offerings, but they still have hundreds of thousands of printed books in circulation every year. One librarian noted that people with e-readers also read print books. Like every other emerging technology, digital books supplement but does not replace printed books.

An interesting example of technology encouraging book reading is seen on Goodreads, a social media space on the web or in an app that’s all about sharing with friends what you’re reading, what you want to read, and what you thought of what you read. I’ve learned of good books—and been steered away from some—with this platform. I have categories of books ranging from academic interest to pure fiction entertainment in this app, and it encourages me.

I was also encouraged recently by meeting several people at social occasions who impressed me with how well read they are. These were people I had never met before, but just struck up a conversation because we were at the same event with time on our hands. Our discussions went from history to politics to religion to sports to philosophy. It was delightful. One person was an entrepreneur, another a maintenance man. Their occupation and academic pedigree did not matter. They were simply deep readers, and therefore great conversationalists.

As I write this, it is college spring break. My wife and I are not going anywhere, choosing instead to stay home and catch up on some projects and just relax here. I also caught up on reading. I picked out some classic literature, an award-winning novel, and some nonfiction works. All of them hard cover books I had bought in recent years and left on a shelf for later. Well, with a week off from normal obligations, I dove right in. Now I hope I can keep reading even as work and life pressures continue.