Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hallmark Hits the Mark with Holiday Movies

(From the January 14 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

At least I know I’m not alone. The shopkeeper in Saugatuck said her husband is the same way. A few guys we know from church agreed. A few neighbor men went along with it too.

Men. Dudes. Watching Hallmark movies. And not just because they have to.

I got into Hallmark movies with my wife over the recent holiday season. Although we’re not done yet. She loaded up the DVR by recording almost every single Hallmark movie on the chart during the holiday season. We couldn’t watch them fast enough. No really—the DVR zapped a few “Hawaii 5-0” episodes we were storing up to watch during the snowy season. So for those we’ll have to surf over to the right web site on my laptop to watch them that way. Surfing for a show in Hawaii seems right.

But back to the Hallmark channel. As I noted at the outset, this is not some weakness or flaw in my masculinity. It’s not like going shoe shopping just to be a good husband. These movies are popular.

The cable network released two new movies every weekend in November and December, all with a holiday theme. And they were a hit, according to ratings data reported in the Wall Street Journal and several advertising trade publications. The Hallmark Channel has seen percentage increases in viewership each year since 2012, while many other networks endure double digit declines in audience.

So how to explain this success? The Wall Street Journal was on to it when it described the movies as “feel good.” Indeed they are. The themes all include romance, redemption and recovery of some sort.

The movies are so feel good that at times I took liberty with the ending, articulating an alternative conclusion more consistent with what might appear in theatres or on other networks. The handsome man would turn out to be an Albanian spy, or a con artist inserting himself into the lonely widow’s life just to get at her bank accounts. Or the newly married woman turns out to have an evil side and attacks her new family with an axe. I created these variant story lines—much to the chagrin of my wife---not because I am sinister, but just to demonstrate the contrasts.

Some would say the Hallmark movies are predictable plots, even formulaic. The sardonic might roll their eyes at the consistently syrupy endings, the implausibly neat sewing up of situations, all in two hours, minus commercials.

But therein lies the beauty. Simplicity is not always unsophisticated. Happy, predictable endings are not necessarily amateur. They satisfy the audience. Isn’t it a good thing that a good story with a happy ending is what people want in growing numbers?

I’ve written before about the folly of  “reality” television. I’ve complained about the mind-numbing conformity of network entertainment offerings that are endless variations on the predictable plot of big city detectives, with gratuitous violence and inevitable sexual situations. It may seem old fashioned to some, but the Hallmark movies—many of which come from short stories and novels—rely on human emotion and good storytelling. In that respect they are less predictable than the staged “reality” or pandering to depraved interests that is available on other television entertainment fare.

The Hallmark movies often start with a story of someone who has suffered a loss. There has been a relationship break-up, a death, or a realization that career pursuit left something lacking. Then there’s a plot twist, a change in direction, a new character emerges. Sure, it is easy to see the plot coming, the conflict and resolution. But the thing is, it is a joy to see.  People gawk at car accidents on the highway, but it’s far more compelling and delightful to watch a wedding on the beach.

Some may secretly mock people who watch these Hallmark movies for an indulgence into something sappy. Many others find the channel a welcome respite. We have ISIS cutting off heads, drug lords on the loose, mass shootings, and another long season of politicians slinging mud across the airwaves.

Hallmark is on to something. We’re all still children, at least a little bit. We want to close the curtains on the world out there. We want to be distracted from the potential of monsters lurking. We say, tell us a story.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

It's Time to Move Past 'Millennials'

(from the December 10, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)


Let me say at the outset that I work with the age group of human beings who are called “millennials.” I put that in quotes to show that it is a coined label and not necessarily a real word.

The term comes from the word for a period of 1,000 years because this group of people is the generation that would be the first to grow into adulthood in the new millennium, the 2000s. The term was invented by “demographers.” I put that term in quotes because they annoy me.

Demographers annoy me because putting a label on a group of people simply because they coincidentally came into the world at the same time is one thing. But the tendency to describe this group and ascribe characterizations to all of them seems like a colossal over-generalization. Millennials, for example, have been called lazy, entitled, self-absorbed and other things that they would not want on a resume.

As a college professor, I have seen these negative attributes among some of my students. But I have also seen these attributes among people decades older. I often tell my students I defend them as a group, because I have seen work ethic, integrity, creativity, civility, and humility among them that is not only encouraging, but inspiring.

So, I’m against these generational labels. As for myself, I was born in the year on the cusp of two generational labels. I am neither a “boomer” nor a “buster.” I am just some guy, a man who defies definition.

It seems like the rest of the world is moving beyond such age group labels too. If they are not moving beyond labeling, they are moving beyond a fascination with millennials that has led to both fawning and fretting over young people. Much space in advertising trade publications is devoted to how to reach this age group with messages. A lot of the entertainment programming is geared to appeal to them. Employers have assembled into special task forces to find ways to attract and retain young “talent,” the common term for a class of skilled workers in demand.

Perhaps all this fawning makes it easy to understand a recent malevolence towards millennials. Several ads by major national brands, and a skit on “Saturday Night Live,” have dared to mock this age group for being so na├»ve and self-absorbed. There was a meme going around on Facebook—which I could not resist sharing in spite of the millennials on my friends list—that pointed out that in 1945 18-22-year-olds stormed beaches and dropped behind enemy lines as part of a global war offense, whereas today’s 18-22-year-olds storm into their professors’ offices or drop on their parents’ couch to complain about how they suffered an offense at something someone said.

This is more than idle chatter by critics who are merely older and finally resentful of the millennials. Just last month the Wall Street Journal had a large feature called “Closed Minds on Campus,” all about the recent spate of protests on college campuses. The author pointed out that today’s student protests are not about war and major global and social issues, but inane and even imagined injustices suffered by individuals. The irony is that the university as an institution and college students as a generation are supposed to be defined by open-mindedness, cognitive exploration, challenging assumptions, and developing character. Instead, some of today’s students narrow the dialogue by creating a chilling effect on expression of a variety of ideas with hyper-sensitivity.

Of course, some of this has been enabled by colleges themselves by the culture they have created. That culture has done damage to strength of thought and consideration with its own diversity training that informs young people about “micro aggressions”—little, well-intended comments that may nevertheless be offensive. Professors in some schools are encouraged to utter “trigger warnings”—an alert that subjects to be discussed in the class about to start might be upsetting.

There is a push back, some of it from the millennials who redeem themselves from the culture that makes almost everything potentially offensive. Students at Princeton formed an Open Campus Coalition and let their president know they would not be intimidated from free speech because what they wanted to say didn’t meet the foregone determination of what is an acceptable point of view to express. Good for them. They provide proof that attitudes and behaviors vary within generations and among generations.

Family background has more to do with a person’s character than a certain age of a person. My parents had a better way of handling things that upset me. My dad, I am pretty sure, coined the phrase “Be quiet or I’ll give you something to really whine about.” My mom, on the other hand, met my complaints about some one else’s comments by saying “just don’t let it bother you” without even putting down her knitting. I remember it well for it’s lasting effect on helping me grow up; I was 5.

Is it any wonder that in this environment there is space, even a perceived need, for a blog and a resulting book called “Adulting—How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps.” This used to be something we all did, as the millennials might say, organically.


I would hope that the parents of the younger siblings of millennials are taking note. We can’t have kindergarteners coming home upset about Winny the Pooh for not wearing pants, or for being named for what used to fill their diapers. What then? Tigger warnings?

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?”