Thursday, May 10, 2018

Living in a Healthy County is Satisfying

From the May 10, 2018 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

A couple of months ago I read a news release from Ottawa County that this is the healthiest county in Michigan and has been since 2014. 

My first reaction was immediate: you are welcome.

I mean, I must have been a contributing factor to this stellar result. I run almost every day, and in many parts of the county I’ll have you know. I have also, due to my wife’s urging, given up a lot of unhealthy foods. 

My second reaction was: what took so long?

If Ottawa County has only been number one since 2014, the people at the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, who compile the data and the county health report, have not been paying attention. I’ve been running and eating healthy since the last millennium. It’s a shame it took so long to be recognized. 

But at least I’ve finally had an impact. My sacrifice and hard work has thrust our whole county into a positive spotlight. I am your taxpayer at work. 

But I can’t keep this up by myself. I get some assistance already. My wife runs with me and I’ve already mentioned the dietary sacrifices. I also appreciate the group effort of the Grand Haven Running Club. The individual efforts of all the gym rats, pickleball players and random strangers pulling their own weight along one of the county’s bike paths are also appreciated. 

But I’ll be calling out others of you from now on. You’ll know me. I’ll be that guy saying, “How many Pronto Pups? Seriously?” Or “maybe walk the pier instead of just sitting on it.” Or “put down the ice cream cone and/or cigarette and help us maintain our ranking!” 

OK, at this point I would hope readers would have a healthy sense of humor. Obviously I’m being facetious. But I am doing so with a purpose. Basically, I think it’s important that we all think of our own health but also how each of us should care about the overall health of the place where we live, as an act of compassion and just good civic mindedness.

Ottawa County reported that we have several areas of particular strength: 
·     Longer life span
·     Lower teen birth rate
·     Fewer babies born at a low birthweight
·     Fewer children in poverty
·     Very low unemployment
·     Less inequality among the highest and lowest incomes

But we also have areas to consider for improvement:
·     Number of mental health providers 
·     Adult obesity is higher than it has ever been (29%)
·     The rate of sexually transmitted infections continues to increase
·     Children living in single-parent households 23% now compared to 17% in 2010
·     Increase in violent crime rate (203 cases of forcible rape, robbery, homicide and aggravated assault per 100,000 population compared to just 62 in top counties)

The Ottawa County Health Department has used this information to create a community health needs assessment and also to hold a series of planning meetings to get input on how to improve our county’s overall health, even though we rank high compared to other counties in Michigan. The next planning meeting is May 31 and people can register on the County Web site or by contacting the Health Department.

We talk about personal health, and that is important. But health often goes beyond just individual well-being. If our community has aggregate health problems, that affects the economy, the labor market, resource availability, safety, criminal justice and many other things that contribute to overall quality of life. We should also be concerned for our neighbors who struggle with any of the items on the list above. If their struggles are the result of their own decisions or actions, it is in our interest to offer education and encouragement. If our neighbors have a form of poor health because of some circumstance of our county and community, we should want to address that as much as we want the county to clear the snow off the roads in winter.

I feel satisfied when I run and watch what I eat and get a good report from my doctor, but I also know I could still improve my personal health. It is also satisfying to live in a county ranked the healthiest in the state, but we can make some changes to do even better on this annual county health check-up. Whether there is something you can do by yourself or as a business, nonprofit or local government, see it as a priority.

Meanwhile, maybe I’ll see you running some day. At least wave at me if you’re driving by. You’ll burn a calories and it will be good for your mental health. It all adds up. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Kindness is Still in Fashion

(From the April 12, 2018 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune).

There is an old line about relying on the kindness of strangers. It comes from “The Glass Menagerie,” a play by Tennessee Williams. The character, Blanche, who utters it, has mental health problems attributed to a past of suppressed trauma. 

But sometimes, depending on the kindness of strangers is not an indicator of mental illness or any kind of trauma. It can be a happy and unexpected circumstance. Such has been the case with my wife and I in the past few months.

Back in January, I was invited by a friend and professional colleague to a Super Bowl party at his new office. It was a bunch of advertising professionals talking shop about the annual ad extravaganza. My wife, meanwhile, received a sweet invitation by a single lady in our neighborhood who decided to get out of her comfort zone and have a Super Bowl gathering at her place. My wife may have been bored with me and my ad buddies, but she had a great time with the neighbors.

Meanwhile, I forget exactly when, but several times during this long winter I was inside when the snowplow came through our neighborhood. It cleared the streets but in the process placed a huge snow dump at the end of our driveway. A neighbor who has a tractor appeared out of nowhere to push it clear. It’s nice to have bored retired guys living nearby. But seriously, it was a very kind and appreciated gesture.

On another day, my wife and I decided on a whim to drive over to North Beach Park and look at the sunset and icebergs. The parking lot had not been plowed, but we saw other cars there. So we entered in, and promptly got stuck on an icy section. A woman and her son immediately started helping to push, and then another man got out of his SUV and started to push also. It took some doing but we got back to dry pavement. I was relieved. The sun had set and I was nervous we would be stuck there til morning. 

Not long after that, with some snow still on the roads, my wife found a bag with a pair of slippers and a notebook in it on the street in near our house. She mentioned it to me, and we both shrugged. But later I later read on our neighborhood Facebook page that someone had lost a bag matching the description. My wife had not only retrieved the items but she washed them before delivering them to a grateful neighbor. She in turn stopped by with a pot of blooming tulips as a gesture of thanks.

More recently, our yard waste container was put back next to our garage after the truck had come through the neighborhood. A small thing, but it made us smile nonetheless.

And then, two sisters who live a few houses down left an adorable Easter basket on our front porch. One might say we’ve outgrown Easter baskets. But we were delighted.

All of these things might seem simple, not a big deal, easy to do. But they loom large in our current cultural context. There is such a thing as a “Kind Campaign" and organization to address girls bullying girls in school. “Be Nice” is a similar campaign of The Mental Health Foundation to encourage civility. We had a movie called “Pay It Forward” that sparked a movement that warmed people’s hearts, although we probably should have been paying it forward all the time.

A former pastor at my church happened to post something on Facebook recently that relates to all of this. “If you have to chose between being right and being kind, be kind.” It gets at the nature of our discourse on social media and in life. It seems like a trite expression, but it is unfortunately a necessary reminder. 

But that’s why I mention the examples above. Kindnesses by neighbors and strangers still occur. Holding open a door, allowing another car to go first at a four-way, carrying a bag of groceries, even just a smile. These are small things with huge impact. We may not depend on them, but it would not be so terrible to expect them, and to return them. To do so would not be, as in the play, a sign of a mental health problem. On the contrary, to give and receive kindness is the clearest evidence of a culture that has retained its sanity. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Deaths Near a Birthday Are Cause for Reflection

(From the March 8 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Late last month I celebrated my birthday. “Celebrate” is a relative term. I started the day in the funeral home.

I had not planned that my birthday would start that way. Frankly, I had not planned much at all for my birthday. I am a man of a certain age, and tend to treat birthdays with indifference or denial. But a few days earlier, I happened to be reading this newspaper and saw a photo of a friend, Bob. Shortly after recognizing the photo I realized it was on the obituaries page. I alerted my wife, and we noted the details of the funeral service and planned to attend.

This is how I came to start my birthday in a local church. My birthday fell mid-week this year. The weather was cool, with a threat of rain. Rather than go into the office with my attention on the tasks of the day I sat in a pew next to my wife with my mind not on a single day marking a milestone in my life but on the 76 years marking the completion of Bob’s.

It can be sobering to spend your birthday at a funeral. It can also be a beautiful reminder.

I knew Bob liked to write. On the table next to photos and other mementos of his life was a collection of his hand-written journals. They were funny and poignant, pensive and off the wall. One thought of many stuck out. It was something about all of us being books with similar first and last chapters, but the ones in between are up to us.

The pastor officiating Bob’s funeral told stories about Bob, including how he quietly served others. One story was of him tutoring a local bully until the young man graduated and went on to get a job and become a responsible community member.

I did not know that Bob also liked to sketch. But his sketchbooks with well-done pencil drawings were also on display. One, of a wooden sign with Psalm 91:4 on it seemed to capture the day: “ He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.”

On my birthday, a day to mark another year of my life, I started the day pondering death. Bob reminded me of the source of refuge, and put a smile on my face.

The very next day I saw the news flashes that Billy Graham had died, at 99 years of age. Billy Graham was not a close friend, though my wife and I met him once in Grand Rapids. He spoke at the Ford Museum, along with Kathy Lee Gifford, at event honoring President Gerald Ford. I was working as a media volunteer at the event and invited to a reception afterward. Already advanced in age at that time, he sat on a stool as my wife and I greeted him meekly, thanking him for his years of service. He nodded humbly.

My wife and I recalled this when we watched his funeral on national television. It was a joyous occasion. All of his children spoke, as well as several international dignitaries. The president and vice president of the United States and their wives were there. Many told stories of one-one encounters with him, and others recounted how he had reached millions in stadiums across the globe. He knew and counseled personally every president since the 1950s. For him, death was a destination longed for, to go to Heaven and be with his wife again, and with God.

In the days that followed, I learned of other deaths. The young son of a colleague, only 23, whose cancer returned and could not be beaten this time. In his obituary ran a quote from Lau Tzu that “the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” Then I received an email from my church that the father of one of our youngest pastors had died suddenly. A social media alert made me aware of another sudden death, of a college classmate of mine in Detroit. He was the age I had just turned, 54.

For the last six years, my birthday has not been merely another marker in my life. It has also been about death, and beating it. It was on my birthday that my wife and I learned of her cancer diagnosis. I said then, and each year since, that she did not need to buy me gifts for my birthday. Just be here, I told her. And she has, including this year, one year past the statistical survival rate for people with her particular diagnosis.

So I look at her, still here, and I am grateful, especially this year, with the coincidence of so many other deaths. Some have been long awaited and even joyous. Some have been unexpected and grievous. All are inevitable. We just don’t know if we’ll live to 99, or 76, or 23, or 54.

That brought me back to my friend Bob’s journal notation. I had seen the last chapters of so many at once in recent weeks. I eventually did celebrate my birthday, acknowledging that I don’t know if I’m in the middle or near the end of my story. But I have new perspective, motivation and gratitude to use in my chapters left to write.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

An Overdue Spark Strikes Spring Lake Village

    (From the February 8, 2018 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)     

   I, along with most residents of the area, have been taken aback by the sudden surge in commercial real estate transactions in the Village of Spring Lake. This paper as well as others in the region have reported on the acquisition of a number of properties adjacent to the Township and Village offices and others along M-104.

The number of properties, and the speed at which their purchase has been announced, is what contributed to the shock. The tentative plans for these properties—restaurants, shops and housing units—also caused a buzz.

Some of the scuttlebutt about the project has been positive, and some reaction has been negative. Such is always the case with big community news.

Those worried or anxious about the proposed project have what I would consider objections typical of those against change. They complain that all of this property is being purchased and new development proposed by an “out of towner.” Well, the woman behind it, Kim VanKampen, lives in Florida and owns a seasonal home here. (I must disclose I know some family members of the developer, though I do not know her personally). However, whether one lives here all year or part of the time is irrelevant. Even seasonal residents are stakeholders in the success, or failure, of the village. There is no law or reason that would indicate they can’t be involved in local development.

Some complain that this is another example of the “rich getting their way.” This begs the question—what exactly is the way of the poor when it comes to the buildings and their use in the village? Was the status quo preferred? The last time I ate something in what was the Phoenix cafĂ©, most of today’s Spring Lake High School students were eating baby food. Perhaps it’s time for a change.

Another complaint is that there is no public input on the use of the property. But, in fact the “public” input has been in the form of representative government officials zoning the property for commercial use. And, since the commercial property is private, the owner has the option of seeking public input as to its use, but no requirement to do so.

In fact, there is much to like about what is proposed for the property acquired in the village. Old buildings will be restored. As that happens, the aesthetic of Spring Lake Village will improve. Dingy, gray buildings will have a more vibrant appeal. An old gas station will become a dining establishment. Long-vacant buildings will be used again, bringing a vibrant feel to a village whose sleepiness is not an asset. The village could become a destination instead of a drive-through. 

So, while some see this developer as an “intruder,” I see a catalyst. Some may see arrogance, but I see generosity. Some may see disruption, I see a long-overdue stride forward.

This reminds me of 20 or more years ago when I was working in Grand Rapids. Having grown up in that city, I could recall the days of my childhood when my parents took my siblings and I downtown to the Santa parade by the old Herpolsheimer’s Department Store. It was busy, and safe, and seems in my memory like a Norman Rockwell painting. But in years following, downtown Grand Rapids suffered. By the time I was in high school and college, folks didn’t want to be downtown after dark, and not at all other than that unless they worked there.

But over time, a group of visionaries turned the tide. Yes, they were wealthy. Yes, they bought lots of real estate, and they may have profited off the ways they developed it. But so did the city residents at large, both of the time and the ones to come. The catalysts were a sports arena, a large hotel, and a downtown college campus. This sparked more business development, then urban housing.

Fast forward to today and downtown Grand Rapids is thriving. My college students are eager to take classes at our downtown campus, and upperclassman and alumni want to live there. Businesses are booming. Buildings have windows instead of plywood, and art instead of graffiti. Many major events are planned in the city each year, bringing new visitors and potential residents, and benefitting businesses large and small.

The Village of Spring Lake may never be Grand Rapids, nor probably should it be. But it can be more vibrant, attractive, and healthy than it currently is. It can stop being on the way to somewhere else and be the place to go. I’ll be watching with hopeful anticipation.

The old adage is that it takes a village to raise a child. Sometimes it takes a stranger to raise a village.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Debates About Taxes Are Taxing My Patience

(From the January 11, 2018 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

In a few weeks, those of us with a job are supposed to see in our pay stubs the real and personal result of our recently changed federal tax policy. It could mean a few extra bucks for those of us who toil somewhere between the elites and the impoverished. But the debate about the tax policy changes has been more significant than personal spending money.

I’ve heard compelling arguments on multiple sides of the tax issue. But some of those arguments are simply so bad as to be, well, taxing the patience of rational thinkers.

One strand of argument comes from a hatred of wealthy individuals or corporations, or an assumption of bad deed or motive on the part of those with lots of money. I’ve seen the meme “tax the greedy not the needy”, which, albeit a clever rhyme, succeeds only in crafting a heroic couplet of two fallacious arguments.

For one thing, people are not greedy simply for possessing a large chunk of cash. Some might be, but most obtained wealth honestly, through hard work and pursing an innovative idea. They provide employment, and I have seen numerous times tremendous and humble generosity from wealthy donors and philanthropists. This is far from greed. And, by the way, these people pay a phenomenal amount of taxes, far more than the needy.

A Pew Research Center analysis of IRS data from 2015, the most recent available, shows that taxpayers with incomes of $200,000 or more paid well over half (58.8%) of federal income taxes, though they accounted for only 4.5% of all returns filed. By contrast, taxpayers with incomes below $30,000 filed nearly 44% of all returns but paid just 1.4% of all federal income tax – in fact, two-thirds of the nearly 66 million returns filed by people in that lowest income tier owed no tax at all. 

So those advocating those they assume to be greedy be taxed should know they already are. And the needy already pay little or no income tax.

Another bad argument has to do with an unfounded hatred of corporations. Again, some corporations are shady and work to avoid taxes. But most do not, and persist in providing what economists call “positive externalities”—providing employment, useful products and services, and considerable federal to local tax revenue. Lowering the corporate rate to be on par with other nations is both fair and practical. Already we’re seeing more corporate money returning to and benefiting employees, consumers and the macro economy.

I’ve also seen some argue “what would Jesus do?” with regard to tax policy. This is problematic for two reasons. One, I didn’t see it in context as a referent deferral to divine wisdom, but more as a pedestrian rhetorical device to bolster the vague “care for the needy” emotion espoused in the bad tax arguments above.

Secondly, with regard to taxes, Jesus said little. The only time he spoke directly of taxes he said “render under Ceaser what is Ceaser’s.” He said it to humble fishermen. His point was not to affirm a particular tax policy but to distinguish between mere earthly rulers and the Kingdom of Heaven. With regard to the rich, he noted it is harder for a rich man to enter the Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, and he cautioned a rich man to sell everything and follow him. But there is also the parable of the talents, in which those who work and invest and increase their holdings are praised, but one who does nothing with what he has been trusted to him is chastised. Alternately, he praised the widow who gave what little she had at the temple.

So I don’t think Jesus would advocate soaking the rich with taxes. He would probably say we should obey the government’s policy, whatever it is, and he would judge people’s hearts and not their tax return.

Lost in all of this debate is the consideration of why the government needs the money. To be sure, they do. But how much, and for what exactly? I looked at the list of federal agencies on and was stunned by the number of them. None that I can see offered an annual report showing how much they received, what they spent it on, what they actually accomplished for citizens. Corporations do this, why not the government?

In some ways, tax policy reminds me of the famous bank robber John Dillinger of the Depression era. When asked why he robbed banks, he famously replied “because that’s where the money is.” It seems sometimes our tax policy taxes based on where the money is, rather than fairness, efficiency, and demonstrated need. This is how we have personal income tax, corporate tax, sales tax, gas tax, and all manner of taxes disguised as “fees.” Any discussion of taxes should be matched with a discussion of federal spending.

In the end I think the new tax policy goes in the right direction, but some criticisms remain valid. We could go further by eliminating loopholes and certain deductions, especially those only accessible to the very wealthy and corporations. With lower, progressive rates, coupled with fewer itemized and complicated deductions, there would be more transparency, and paradoxically, revenue.

Nevertheless, our debates about tax policy will for sure continue and our tax policy will forever change. As Benjamin Franklin is said to have commented, “the only thing certain is death and taxes.”