Thursday, August 10, 2017

You Can Read This Column Later

(From the August 10, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

You don’t have to read this column right now. Set it aside for later. Read it when you have the time to read it slowly. Finish that looming chore or other task first. Then, and only then, read this column. You might enjoy it more.

I say all that with the assumption that you would read this column at all, and that if you do it has some urgency in your mind. But really I say it to make a point—that our society has too often lost the fine practice of delayed gratification.

Several semesters ago I was reminded in a pleasant way of this concept. I was giving a final exam, and I passed around some treats my wife had made for students to enjoy during finals. Students were helping themselves as they were passed around, but one student brought the plate up to me in the front of the classroom without having taken one.

“Don’t want one?” I asked, more curiously than offended.
“Yes, but after I finish the exam. I want to have one as a reward, you know, delayed gratification,” the student explained.

This was impressive to me from a young person, even more so because he took almost the longest to finish the exam, thus adding to his self-imposed delay. I remember noticing him thinking deeply, and writing carefully, about each question.

When he came back to the front to turn in his exam, I asked what I often ask: “how do you think you did?”

“Pretty good,” he said calmly. “Now, I can reward myself.” And he smiled and helped himself to a treat.

The reason this story sticks out to me is because it exemplifies something so rare. If we ever have delayed gratification, it is often something imposed on us by an external force. We call our resulting action trying to be patient, and often failing. But the kind of self-control and deliberate denial of self and impulse this young man showed was instructive.

By comparison, consider all the ways our culture demands instant gratification these days. E-commerce is a primary example. People shop online to shop and buy in a click what would otherwise take an investment in time and motion. And speaking of computers, have you ever caught yourself red faced because a computer screen takes more than 5 seconds to load?

Even in interpersonal situations, people want things right away. People want to get right in to see their doctor and are appalled at having to wait for an appointment. In other instances, people can scarcely wait for a co-worker to finish a conversation or whatever they are doing before they answer a question, all of which are urgent in the mind of those asking.

Don’t get me started on flight delays. People want to get where they are going right away and their emotions take flight if an obvious weather situation means their plane can’t take off immediately. Even when planes take off and land on time, the very definition of an instant gratification mindset is the person who can’t understand why it may take just a few minutes for 100 other people to get luggage and move down a narrow plane aisle before they can get their precious self off the plane.

People “can’t wait” to graduate, but then find the decades off routine work that await could have been put off a bit to savor the brevity and open possibility of the life of a student. Similarly, people are eager for the wedding day but fail to grasp that the lifelong commitment of marriage is not a thing to be obtained instantly.

Traffic jams also test the narrow bounds of our need for instant gratification. People swear and gesture and honk uncontrollably, as if their antics will change the fact that the car in front of them in turn has 100 cars in front of them. I did admire one man recently waiting for the bridge in Grand Haven. When the lights blinked and the traffic stopped, he put his car in park, his arms behind his head and looked up and out his window with a smile, as if it was his rare good fortune to be afforded the opportunity to inspect the underside of the US 31 drawbridge.

"Eventually" can be a good word. It is not always associated with lazy procrastination. We should use it positively as a signal of our own self-controlled perspective and ability to accommodate delayed gratification. We’ll get where we’re going and what we want, eventually. And it might even be better having waited.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Being Powerless Provides Perspective

We were powerless. In more ways than one.

Like many local residents and readers of this newspaper, we lost power in the high-wind storm early last Friday morning. That was a loss of electrical power. But we also felt powerless recently when dealing with the bureaucracy of the medical and insurance industries.

Both losses of power have given us perspective.

First we lost the house power at 3 a.m. I was awake for the wind and noticed when the power went out. I was hopeful it would be back on by morning.

That’s part of the trouble of being powerless: uncertainty. We received a range of updates from Consumers Power that went back and forth from our power would be restored at 8 a.m. Friday, to 11:30 p.m. Sunday, to 10 a.m. Saturday, and back to 11:30 p.m. Sunday. If we only had one anticipated time for restoration of power it would have been easier. The raising and dashing of hopes is what is so frustrating.

As it turned out, the power came back on at our house at 1 p.m. Saturday. This was directly after we had moved our refrigerator and freezer foods to an undisclosed (and powered) location for safekeeping. So we ended up defrosting and cleaning them, and then did the laborious restocking job.

Being without power puts you at the whim of others and makes it hard to plan. We had to make various adaptions also—such as how to cook, disconnecting the garage door from the automatic opener so we could come and go, and of course placing lanterns about the house. I know, first-world problems. But it was frustrating nonetheless.

All of this was compounded by the fact that my wife had to go in to Grand Rapids for several medical appointments, and her car had a flat tire. I told her to take my car and started to work on hers by pulling out my air compressor and an extension cord....and then realized I had no power to plug into. So I used an old cigarette lighter air compressor, which took longer. I then left the car to see if the air was leaking slow or fast so I could know if I could drive it to the tire store for repair. But I left the key on. So when I went to move it, the battery was dead.

A neighbor came over to jump me with his jump box, but it was dead. And he couldn’t recharge it because, you guessed it. Finally, old fashioned cables and his truck did the job.

But this compounded feelings of being powerless.

I mentioned my wife had medical appointments. That leads to the other type of powerlessness. That of being up against the medical industry and insurance companies. We are grateful for insurance, and the care my wife receives. But often we feel like a number in an overwhelming system. And we feel powerless.

Insurance companies have been increasingly denying treatments. The recently denied my wife getting a PET-CT scan to monitor if her cancer has come back. This has been standard practice. But now the insurance company denied the doctors order and said she could have a CT scan and a bone scan instead. These are less precise and require two trips into Grand Rapids instead of one. If either scan shows anything, the will likely call for a PET-CT which she could have had in the first place.

Meanwhile, the doctor has changed the protocol for how she gets her regular infusion to keep cancer at bay. He has made the process more cumbersome and seemingly unnecessarily so, given the process for the past five years. There is no explanation for the change, just a new order to the nurses, who are confounded. They even asked if he was sure he was talking about the same patient. Again, she was powerless.

In the end, with our house and our medical battles, we have gained perspective from not having power. We need to adapt. We need to be patient. We need to accept the fact that we are dependent on others. But ultimately, that’s a good reminder. To be reliant not on ourselves or even a power company, but on God who is all-powerful.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Sometimes a Drag Can Be a Good Thing

(From the June 8, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

In aeronautics, “drag” is a term that means a resistant force, air on a wing that slows down the craft. It can be a bad thing if the goal is fuel efficiency and faster speed. But drag can be good if the need is to stabilize or slow a plane for landing.

In the same way, the incident of an airline passenger being dragged out of his seat and off an airplane could be seen as a bad thing or a good thing. At first, it seemed awful. A paying customer forcibly removed from a flight because the airline overbooked it? Making a customer pay for a company mistake?

But then more news came out, and we learned that the passenger was not a person of the most stellar character. We also learned more that overbooking is a standard practice because cancellations and no-shows are standard and the airlines actually have thin profit margins on every seat sold. So, unfortunate as it was, he could have been less belligerent and worked with the airline.

As it turned out, he later settled with the airline for an undisclosed amount. The airline promised not to drag human beings any more, or something like that. A United spokesman said in one news report: “We look forward to implementing the improvements we have announced, which will put our customers at the center of everything we do."

That sounded ok until the end. When it comes to airplane seats I hate the center. I’d feel better if they promised to put their customers in the aisle or window seats. Since they overbook a lot, keep those center seats for the employees or others who are the last to arrive.

Or maybe, just maybe, they could revisit this whole incident and embrace the drag. It’s just like aeronautics—it could be a good thing depending on how and why it’s done. Just as airlines have bag policies, they could have drag policies.

Of course, one policy should be that no one gets dragged based on the airline’s own mistake. But there are plenty of other reasons to consider productive drag policies.

One that comes to mind right away has to do with carry-on luggage. Since the airlines charge for everything these days, many passengers try to avoid checked luggage fees and carry all of their luggage on board. Of course this means some people inappropriately have too many or too large suitcases to fit in the overhead compartments. These people should be dragged back off the plane, along with their bulky gear. Fasten some wheels and casters to their fannies and off they go. There would be more seats and storage for the rest of us, who brought one small bag that fits above us or beneath the seat in front of us. Call it the “no bag no drag” policy.

Then there are a host of other potential, shall we say, “draggage” policies for airlines:

The “mag drag” policy—you get dragged off the plane if you tear an article out of the in-flight magazine, leaving a tattered mess for the person who has your seat on the next flight.

The “nag drag” policy, if, apropos of nothing, you complain about the weather, customer service, your job or anything to the total stranger sitting next to you. An especially bumpy exit should be given to a person who does this to me when I’m reading, wearing headphones, or otherwise sending strong signals that I am not to be disturbed. I’d push a button: “bing!” The flight attendant would come. “Yes sir?” “This person is complaining too much—please drag them off the plane.”

If people who are able-bodied take too long walking down the aisle, stowing their one bag, settling into a seat, the airline could execute the “lag drag” policy. “Sorry—you’re slowing down the boarding process. We’ll be dragging you to the jetway now.”

Don’t even get me started on the poorly dressed. Air travel used to be classy. Now people show up in sweats, pajamas, thongs and all manner of inappropriate or incomplete outfits. Put me down as in favor of a “rag drag” policy. Not properly dressed? It’s your fault if you get rug burns on that exposed skin after being dragged off the flight.

Also, anyone who is so obviously drunk that they weave as they walk down the aisle should be dragged right back off the plane under the “zig-zag drag” policy. They may not even know it happened.

All of this may be far-fetched, but that’s how my mind travels some times. Who knows, you might even see such policies announced by a flight attendant during pre-flight instructional video, set to the music and ending with United’s theme: “we love to fly and it shows.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Concepts of Freedom Often Hold Us Bondage

(From the April 13, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It’s a common expression, often uttered in support of the military, that “freedom is not free.” What is meant by that of course is that the freedoms we enjoy in various forms comes at a cost, the cost of human effort and even the sacrifice of lives to protect and preserve the freedoms we enjoy in our country from those who would take it away.

But there is another meaning to that expression. Quite simply, what we often think of as freedom is something else, and in fact even the opposite. For example, we seek and delight in what is promised as economic, political and theological “freedom,” but we could be deluded into traps that are actually costly, captive and corrosive.

Take economic freedom. We are taunted with coupons and ads and other offers of getting something for nothing, a “free” this or “free” that. But something truly free in an economic sense means there is no exchange, nothing given first to get what is offered for free, no fine print. But all of these things are usually part of the deal.

I was just alerted that I have a “free” coffee waiting for me at Starbucks. But I paid $125 to for other coffees in order to get to the level where I “earned” a “free” one. At work I was teased with an opportunity to download a “free” white paper or report on a topic of interest to me. All I had to do was fill out a form, giving up my personal contact information. This is quite a common scenario these days, in which our personal privacy is the cost of getting something for “free.”

We also must think about the folly of economic freedom in a large scale, systemic way. For example, promises of “free” health care or “free” college must include consideration of the fact that someone pays something. The recipients of free services may “get what they pay for” in reduced quality or freedom of choice. Or they must consider that someone else is paying. The old adage is true in an economic sense: there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Political freedom is closely related to economic freedom in this sense. Freedom is a hallmark of democracy, in the United States and elsewhere. People often associate political freedom with rights but discount the associated responsibilities.

I’ve written about this before in these pages. A right is not a claim on something that belongs to others. A right is only that which is extended to all equally without impinging on others. So we have a right to move around the country freely. But we do not have a ”right” to receive anything from the government that others have paid for. That may be a compassionate benefit, but not a right. In the end, to get things for free from the government is to become dependent, which is closer to slavery than freedom.

Theological freedom is another dangerous path. Freedom of religion and to worship as we please is a wonderful aspect of our country. However, free will can be dangerously misinterpreted as the ability to do as we please before God because “He made us that way.” However, freedom theologically does not mean self-indulgence. It means the opposite: obedience, self-control, denial and sacrifice. Only then are we free of temptation and the controlling consequences of sin. It is counter-intuitive, but proven repeatedly, that submitting to God is what brings freedom, not submitting God to our desires.

There are other delusions of freedom. Freedom of thought is one that is common in this era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” although it is really nothing new. Freedom of thought is wonderful if done honestly, but too often there is a slippery slope into thinking what we want and not what is true. Again, if we do this we are fooling ourselves and not free but captive to our own constructed illusions.

Social media and technology are another false freedom. Oh, a mobile phone is a wonderful thing and liberates us in many ways in terms of communication access. However, they also have an addictive quality that has robbed too many of the freedom to have a leisurely face-to-face conversation without interruption. Another freedom lost is the ability to go home and be away from work until returning to the shop or office the next day.

We still do enjoy many freedoms in this country and in our society. But whether we are really free depends on us and whether we think about freedom honestly.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

People, Like Food, Are Better in Diversity

(From the March 9 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

 I had the opportunity while visiting friends in Florida to also visit a rather remarkable farmers market. In fact, "farmers market" is a term that does not do justice to the spectacle that I saw. With all due respect to the farmers markets in Spring Lake, Grand Haven, Muskegon and Grand Rapids, the Green Yellow Market in Ft. Lauderdale is a shopping mall by comparison.

But the size is irrelevant. What was striking to both my wife and I as we wandered through the crowded stalls with our friend was the diversity and pleasantness we encountered here in south Florida. And, in addition to produce, fish, and other delectable delights, we left the market with some important thoughts about diversity.

For one, people are like food in that diversity is exciting and nourishing. In fact, a diversity of food and people pair nicely. So the experience was enhanced when we talked with the African American women while they made us fresh smoothies of mango, pineapple, coconut and beet. We felt enriched when we spoke with the young, beautiful Pakistani woman at the market for her first time offering samples of aloo and chutneys. We were also delighted by the cheerful enthusiasm of the Indian woman from whom we bought chicken curry and naan bread, the Italian man who sold us delicious olives, and the Brazilian man who educated us on the health benefits of acai.

It became so obvious. We need food to survive. We must eat. Yet to eat the same thing or few items day after day is as boring as it is an unhealthy diet. Variety is indeed the spice of life. We delight in experiencing new foods, something exotic excites and interests us. The different taste is tempting to our palates and deeply satisfying.

The same should be true of our experiences with people who are different. We do not have to permanently forgo our "normal diet" to try something different. Why not break from another order of the usual and have the courage to go down the menu. It can be such a thrill to go boldly to the buffet, to savor the smorgasbord of ages, cultures, languages and nations. It's better than just shaking our heads, looking away, and wrinkling our nose because we "might" not like it.

When we sampled Cuban coffee, it woke us up. When we ordered some shrimp tacos, our peculiar hunger was sated. In the same way, encountering different people makes us alert to what we have been missing and provides a feeling of needed nourishment.

Another thought we had is that fast food is never as good as authentic food. Most of us will pass on reheated frozen portions or processed food with scientifically derived ingredients. We will, by comparison, salivate over fresh natural ingredients. Give me slow-cooked ribs on the barbecue over drive through burgers any day.

When it comes to diversity of people, the same applies. As my wife noted, you can't force diversity. At the market, the potpourri of people came together organically, like most of the products there. There was a common desire for good natural food. And when people came together with this common interest, they got along like basil and oregano. Better this than forced diversity from programs and quotas and policies. That may get the job done short term, but ultimately it leads more to feelings of indigestion and guilt than gratification and contentment.
I realize that people are not food. Even with food, not everyone can enjoy everything. Some may even have outright allergies and bad reactions to specific foods. But even if you must avoid certain foods, it does not mean you can't appreciate them simply by looking at them for the variety they contribute. Locally, I'd recommend Cumin, the Indian restaurant with the Nepali staff, or Mama Thai. There may be more food variety now, and hopefully even more soon.

We couldn't help but notice that was the vibe among the many stalls and booths of fresh produce, hummus, pesto, beverages, menu items, and assorted natural lotions and creams and balms. The people were happy, courteous, and smiling. It has been said that there is nothing like food to bring people together. But what happens next is up to the people. I would hope that more will have the courage to not only taste what is different, but also digest. I would expect that those who do will wear the unmistakable smile of satisfaction.