Thursday, November 12, 2015

A 24/7 World Doesn't Have to be Hectic

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

“It’s a 24/7 world,” he said. As if that explained everything. As if I should know better. As if this were a new concept.

He was a fellow professional with whom I was supposed to meet for coffee. The meeting had been set and confirmed. But at the pointed time, I sat there alone. So I called him, and he explained he had emailed me earlier that day with apologies but he had to cancel because of some sudden client demands.

I explained I had been at other appointments and do not have my work email come to my personal phone. Some say it would be convenient to do so and would have saved me an unnecessary trip to a coffee shop. But my employer did not pay for my phone, and the fact that I get 200 emails a day does temper the notion that it would be convenient to have them assaulting my personal phone.

But that’s when he said it, in a tone that mixed matter-of-fact incredulity and a shocked scolding of me.

Never mind that I always include my cell number when I make appointments, and he could have called me. There was no consideration of the fact that the other appointments earlier in the day were medical appointments with my wife. It would be inappropriate, an--given the nature of some doctor’s offices deep in the concrete labyrinth of hospitals—impossible for me to check email while talking about the results of a serious medical test.
let the meeting mix up pass. 

I got a cup of coffee and some precious moments alone to think.

But I came back to the statement “it’s a 24/7 world” as I nursed my coffee. It was said as an explanation and a justification. It implied that, given the realities of a 24/7 world, we have no choice but to be tethered to our phones and other technology constantly. It would follow that people, like me, who don’t check their phones constantly are somehow backward.

I beg to differ. I think people who check their tech constantly have mixed priorities, and miss the point.

Here’s a data point for such people to download: it has ALWAYS been a 24/7 world. As long as there has been a sun and earth there have been 24 hours in each day, and seven days in each week. All that has changed is our choices in what to do with that constant amount of time.

Much of my own work happens offline. Meetings, grading, class preparation, reading, writing. Because of this, I have learned to do what some call “batch management” of email—that means I don’t check it every time I hear a little “bing” that I have received a new email. I am not a canine enslaved to Pavlov. I am a human, with self control, and things to do.

I have found that managing email and other messages in batches has significantly improved my life and work in several ways. For one, I have deeper focus. I read things with greater thought and therefore understanding. A second improvement is my productivity. Psychologists have noted that a single interruption, however short, can set back a cognitive work effort by a half hour. I don’t know if this is true, but if it is, it only takes 16 email interruptions and an 8-hour days is shot. A final benefit to handling email and messages in batches is that I feel less stressed, less hectic.

The fact that it’s a 24/7 world doesn’t mean that we need to be constantly engaged. It means we need to manage each hour and each day judiciously. Sometimes that means ignoring messages for long stretches of that time.

All of this talk of 24/7 time frame reminds me of a colleague who was nearing retirement. I joked with him that he was slowing down at the end of his career. He protested: “I’m working 24/7!” When I looked at him in confusion and disbelief he smiled and explained: “24 hours a week, seven months a year.”

That’s a world  a lot of us could live in.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Award Nomination Brings Consternation, Introspection

(From the October 8, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I was recently nominated for an award. This brought me one minute of joy and several weeks of dismay and anxiety.

Awards are nice. They can make a person feel good, proud, validated, and appreciated. But they can also cause grief.

In my case, a colleague nominated me for something called University Outstanding Teacher Award. As I said at the outset, my initial reaction was one of joy. What a high honor this would be. But then the anxiety set in.

I looked at the information about the award, including the criteria for winning it. Did I really possess what those flowery adjectives described? Momentary pride sank into swells of self-doubt. Surely others are more worthy.

Then I looked at what was expected of me as a nominee. I had to gather letters from current and former students and several colleagues. I had to gather example syllabi, assignments and exams that would be representative of my outstanding teaching. I had to write a statement including my pedagogical philosophy and reflections on my years of teaching. I looked from the award nomination form to my calendar, and my to-do list. I wanted to strangle the colleague who nominated me. Really, with everything I have going on, and now you drop this on my plate?

I felt like the poor guy in Japan who hits a hole-in-one on a golf course. Initial jubilation, and then the gut-hollowing reminder that the culture requires significant gifts for everyone you’ve ever golfed with. They even have hole-in-one insurance over there.

But I complied. I took the nomination seriously and began to assemble what I needed to put forward to the deans office, who will forward it to a committee who will decide the winner. Part of this has to do with the fact that my colleagues think it would be good for our “unit” on campus. We need, they argued, more of our communications faculty to win these campus awards. Why should chemistry or nursing get the attention?

Ah, so I am to represent my academic unit to aid in our on-campus branding. I felt less like an esteemed colleague than a sacrificial lamb. But, paradoxically, I humbled myself and set out to achieve the accolade.

It took me about 6-8 hours to assemble all that was needed to be considered for the award, something that turned out to be 58 pages of evidence of my excellence, not counting several hundred more pages of student evaluations of the past two years for every class I have taught. Having done so, I felt less daunted and more encouraged.

I review the evaluations after each semester, but reading them again as I assembled them reminded me that my teaching is reaching. Students express such positive appreciation for learning. The letter from the current student struck me—is that what she thinks, over there in the second row from the right, the fourth seat back? She intentionally took me for five classes because I hold the bar high? And the recent alumnus with his letter on fancy corporate letterhead. I had no idea that the legal brief assignment was the most challenging in his entire college career and one he still thinks about fondly even today. My faculty colleagues, they really regard me as  someone with classroom talent and not just a nice co-worker?

Even the lady in the campus copy shop offered a vote of approval. “Oh, you’re Tim Penning?” she asked with a smile. “I hear a lot about you from your students when they come here to bind the big assignments you give them. They love your classes.”

Forget the dean, I won the support of the copy shop clerk.

At this point the award is out of my hands. But the nomination process put a lot in my head. I am humbled, and grateful. If I don’t win the award, I will really be OK without a plaque, an announcement at a campus event, or any other recognition. I’ll have the reward of knowing that my hard work is worthwhile.

And if I do win? I’m not sure what I’ll do. I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. I know I won’t buy gifts for everyone I’ve ever taught with.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

If You Said 'I Do' Then You 'Signed Up for This'

From the September 10, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune

While walking the beach with a friend earlier this summer, she told us a sad story about her dad and her step mom. Her dad and mom had been married 52 years, until her mom died. Twelve years ago he remarried, to a woman whose husband had passed away. It sounds like a sweet story.

But recently, our friend’s dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is showing the symptoms of dementia. His wife responded by saying, “I didn’t sign up for this.”

This made our friend understandably angry. We were angered also. Of course the woman is distressed to have to deal with a spouse who’s memory is fading, and all that will entail. It may be especially difficult since she watched one spouse die already. But nevertheless, to say she “didn’t sign up for this” sounds cold and selfish and puts into question what kind of love existed in that relationship.

It’s interesting that this anecdote came out in the midst of several other experiences. One was the wedding of the son of friends. At the wedding, we heard the young and happy couple make vows, which included the classic line, “in sickness and in health.”

They are young and healthy now, but they signed up for dealing with whatever hardships a difficult sickness in one of them may bring.

On the same day, other friends of ours were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. One of them has been dealing with persistent health issues. But they remain together through it, without any thought of whether this was part of the deal or not.

Of course if you have read my column before you are aware of all that my wife and I have been through. We are approaching our 21st anniversary, but the past four of those years have been marked with a stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis which subsequently metastasized to the brain. There have been 8 surgeries, several months of chemo, two rounds of radiation therapy, an ongoing infusion every three weeks, and countless scans, tests and doctor’s office appointments. One might say I didn’t sign up for this. But I did when I said “I do” more than two decades ago.

Believe it or not, I still remember something the pastor who married us said to us during pre-marriage counseling. “If this goes well,” he said, “one of you will stand at the other’s grave site some day.”

That sounded morbid, but I also know instinctively what he meant. Our vows included the common promise “til death do us part.” That’s pretty plain, we were in this come what may. There was a vow to love each other. There was no promise that our lives would be easy.

After my wife’s first surgery, the anesthesiologist, who knows my parents, complimented me to my parents for how I had been during my wife’s surgery. I was confused. All I had done was wait in the waiting room. But no, he said. I was there in pre-op, holding her hand, giving her a kiss, praying with her, at her side til they had to wheel her off to the operating room. And I was there when she came out, smiling, assuring her of my love in spite of what the surgeons had to do. I thought this would be typical. But I was told many husbands impatiently ask how long it will take before leaving for work, or a golf game. Others don’t even show up, leaving the driving to their wife’s friend or another family member.

I in no way want to put myself on a pedestal. I am blessed to have been raised by parents who model this kind of love. I’ve also witnessed it in many others who in turn inspire me.

But I worry about our society. I worry about people who could say even of the need to care for an ill spouse that they didn’t sign up for that. Many people these days don’t understand love. It is perceived as a good feeling generated toward someone else. But that’s only part of it. Love in its full bloom is a verb. It is about what we do, not just how we feel. In particular, it is about what we do for others, before ourselves.

As the Apostle Paul wrote to the early church in Corinth, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”

That’s really a beautiful way of saying love does not consider what one ‘signed up for.’ If you made a marriage vow, you DID sign up for whatever comes next. If you truly understand love, you will see the beauty and blessing of active love in both the mountaintops and valleys of your journey together.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Preserving the Past

We redid our basement this summer. It started out that we would re-carpet. But, having moved everything out of the basement, we decided to re-paint. And then, looking at everything we moved out, we decided we needed new furniture.

So I was happy recently to begin the long process of putting things back. We are sorting and discarding and re-organizing and de-cluttering as we go. But one particular part of this process gave me pause: re-stocking the home-made preserves in a pantry cupboard.

There were all manner of tasty relishes, sauces, compotes and jams that my wife had put up over past years. Peppers, strawberries, blueberries, apples, peaches, blueberries and more tempted me as I organized and stacked jars on shelves. They dated as far back as 2006, but stopped abruptly in 2011.

My wife was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2012. The dates on jam jars was another reminder that we live in an era of BC (before cancer) and WC (with cancer). It was hard for her in 2012 and since to pick, process, cook and can fruits given the chemo, surgery, radiation and countless medical appointments since the initial diagnosis even up to today. Hence the abrupt halt in production.

We also have not eaten many of her past batches. In part, we forgot them in the clutter of the basement. But we also have to be careful about how much sugar she takes in. But she did make them low sugar even BC, always being a health conscious person.

So recently, we have indulged in fruits of her past efforts. And I realized we were not just unsealing preserved fruit, but bring out past memories. The smell of blackberry/blueberry/raspberry jam from 2006 made me close my eyes and try to remember what the weather was like that summer. The taste of the pepper relish from 2008 made me consider what we were doing in that year BC, when we had appointment-free time to enjoy a West Michigan summer. The fruit compote from 2011 made me think again of how much our lives changed after that year, our last year BC.

All of this recollection had a sobering effect at first. But it also was healing in effect. We did not just preserve fruit, we preserved the past. It is a pleasing taste and enticing fragrance to enjoy something from an earlier year in the present. We do not bemoan the passing of the past, but we savor it now. It inspires us to consider the possibility of doing more canning next summer, to preserve the present to enjoy again in the future with anticipation and gratitude.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Now You Can Major In Beer

(From the August 13, 2015 Grand Haven Tribune)

The fall college semester begins in a few weeks, and as I have been getting ready and already answering students’ questions, it occurs to me that there has been a significant change in educational opportunities since I was an undergraduate decades ago.

You can now actually major in beer.

Back in my day, we might comment humorously that some other student was majoring in beer. It was a joke, an insult, a comment on someone’s unfortunate favoring of partying over studying.

But now, it is possible for college students to look at a major declaration form and write down “beer” and not get expelled. They may call the major ‘brewing’ versus just beer to make it, um, go down easier, particularly with parents. Grand Rapids Community College has such a certificate program in beer brewing. But it is possible. Some are certificate programs or focused programs at community colleges. But around the world there are universities that offer four-year degrees in programs that set people up to become brew masters. Right here in Michigan, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Western Michigan University collaborated on a brewing program that taps into (yes, pun intended) the sustainability movement. The sustainable craft brewing program begins this fall.

A major reason for the formalization of beer brewing as a college program of study has to do with the explosion in popularity of craft beers. The Beer Institute and National Beer Wholesalers Association recently completed a study called “BeerServes America” to show the positive economic impact this trend has had. Breaking down information by state, the study showed that in Michigan there is $6.6 billion of beer-related economic output.

Nationally, the numbers from the beer industry are significant. It provides 1.5 percent of the nation’s GDP (gross domestic product) and $48.5 billion in tax revenue at the state and federal level. Brewers gave 49,576 people their jobs in 2014. The microbrew segment alone employed more than 10,000 people.

I’m not sure if the study included everything related to beer brewing. But a Marne-based company called Coldbreak Brewing caters to the craft brewers need for special equipment. Apparently they have been around since 2004, but intend to expand to meet market demand. So there’s money to be made not just in brewing, but in making and selling brewing equipment. Maybe there’s opportunity for students to double major in engineering and beer.

Michigan is 8th in the nation in the number of beer-related jobs, and sixth in the number of craft breweries. In 2014, at last count, there were 159 craft breweries in the state. More have been added locally just recently, with the introduction of Dutch Girl Brewery added to Odd Side Ales and Old Boys to the Tri-Cities beer landscape. There is also a new brewery in Allendale, dangerously close to campus and student housing.

I’m actually not sure how I feel about all of this. As a professor advertising and public relations, I see the opportunities for some of my students to get work in the promotion of microbrews as well as the public affairs work that will be necessary for the industry. But I also worry a bit about some students being drawn to a different major for less than scholarly reasons. Already we have too many students who choose a college program because it sounds easy, fun, or familiar. Could the possibility of a major in beer be detrimental to intellectual diversity?

On the other hand, the academic interest in beer is simply a response to a social trend and a burgeoning market need. As the reports show, there are jobs and careers to be had in this industry. Also, do we want our microbrews produced by some hobbyist or by an educated beer master who has a scholarly conception of the science of fermentation?

I’ll have to see how all of this plays out. I may overhear conversations like this if the popularity of beer continues: “so you’re a beer major!? What is your roommate?” “Oh, he’s just pre-med.”

Or, I may have my own interesting conversations during office hours. To the student struggling with the rigors of theoretical application and the writing demands in the advertising and public relations program, I may be tempted to offer this advice: “have you considered majoring in beer?”

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.