Thursday, July 14, 2016

Landscaping Project Leads to Root of the Matter

(From the July 14, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It seemed like a big project. But not that big.

We had decided to take down eight large pine trees. We would replace them with a variety of plants that would be smaller but still provide a privacy screen and also have the benefit of blooms.

We did not figure on the roots.

The project started in early June when a tree company came to take out the pines. I came home from teaching a summer class about noon planning to watch this event. I was shocked that they were almost done already.

My wife and father-in-law and several neighbors told me how amazing it was to watch eight large pine trees get cut down, put through the chipper, have their stumps ground and all get cleaned up with such efficiency. I was delighted to have the work done so quickly.

It also gave me pause. These pines had been on the property when we moved into the house almost 20 years ago. You might say they had grown up with us. I remember moving snow and almost covering one of them. We had for a time planted wildflowers in between them, but there was no room for them now. All manner of birds enjoyed refuge among their elegant boughs. They provided privacy for the back yard of our corner lot.

But recently they had become problematic. I had to trim them to allow people to walk the sidewalk. Their needles seemed to be falling more abundantly. It turned out this was due to a fungus that would have them all dead in a few more years. I also was frustrated by their roots lifting bricks on the patios and walkways and even disturbing fence posts.

The roots. That should have been a clue.

With the removal of the trees and my momentary reflection on their loss, I was eager to get on with our project. The tree service did their thing, it was time for my wife and I to get to work. We had plans! And we felt a little exposed with 40-foot evergreens suddenly gone.

But before we could plant we had to prepare the ground. I borrowed a friend’s roto tiller to loosen the hardened soil. This was also helpful to remove networks of fibrous roots all along the surface. But this was just the beginning. As we worked we found numerous deeper and thicker roots. There were long, sinewy networks of overlapping cables. As we pulled these we came upon numerous roots as large as tree limbs. It was a plethora of pithy, piney projections preventing us from planting!

We had to dig under them. We had to painstakingly saw them out. It was hot, sweaty, dirty work. At one point, after excising a particularly pesky and thick root, I held it up and exalted: “the root of all evil!” A neighborhood kid asked me if one was a mastodon bone. I told him yes, it was actually a tusk. Nearby neighbors and regular dog walkers came by and commented that we were working hard. As if we didn’t know.

We filled our yard waste dumpster multiple times and borrowed those of several neighbors just to dispose of the roots. We finally were able to plant. Where there were eight tall pines on three sections of our property there are now weeping cherry, hydrangea, lilac, holly, and a row of rhododendron. We took great care when planting to consider soil makeup, add fertilizer, and water appropriately. We want these new plants to take root. It would only be fair.

While toiling on all this on and off for a month, it was easy for my mind to wander metaphorically about roots. People are like trees. I think of our former neighbors, who uprooted themselves two years ago to move to Florida. It is hard work to uproot. But we saw them again this summer. You can never remove all the roots.

I thought of us, moving to this community 18 years ago. It took a while for us to lay down roots. For several years we could go all over the Tri-Cities and never see anyone we knew. Now that is, happily, impossible. Just last weekend we went for a 5-mile run that took twice as long as it should have because we stopped our run to talk to two men  we have come to know over the years, chatting in their driveways.

People also are like trees in that we can’t always see what lies beneath the surface. We don’t know the extent or depth of their roots, which are their source of nourishment or possibly the cause of their distress. As in landscaping, when working with people it is wise to consider roots before planning to plant.

As for our landscaping project, it is finished. We enjoy it now, and we appreciate the compliments and congratulations from neighbors and dog walkers. We saved the biggest roots to place atop the mulch, alongside the plants and decorative boulders as artful reminders of what once lay beneath. We should never forget our roots.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Graduation Open Houses a Time of Celebration, and Fear

(From the June 9, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune). 

There are many things that can instill fear into people these days. Public speaking, heights, taxes, extreme weather or ISIS come to mind. But nothing compares to the fear caused by the need to prepare food for a high school graduation open house.

My wife and I don’t have kids. But we have nephews. And when one of them graduated this year, we were placed on duty to prepare pasta salad for his open house. Should be easy, right? It’s only pasta, it’s only salad.

But it’s for a graduation open house. We usually prepare food for just the two of us, and occasionally a few guests. But we were talking a lot of people here, or potentially a lot of people. It was frightful to plan. How would we know we had enough?

My sister-in-law told us about how many people to expect, and then she looked on line for information about how much food to prepare when you’re having certain numbers of people. I’m not sure of her source, but I was wondering if she factored in size of each person, time of day, other dishes being prepared, average appetite, apparent wind speed, and the correlation of age, gender, ethnicity, and talkativeness with quantity of food consumption. I’m a scientist.

But my sister-in-law just gave us a certain number of cups and said bring that much pasta salad. So we went with that.

Or that was the plan. My wife was concerned that we would have enough. Not just enough pasta salad, but enough of each ingredient. Would there be enough marinated red onions? Should we add more cucumber? Perhaps, just to be safe, we should seed and cut and slice a few more bell peppers.

To divert ourselves from anxiety about the quantities of ingredients, we entered into a lengthy debate about the relative merits of crinkle cutting versus straight slicing the cucumber. A crinkle cut would be better to hold the dressing, particularly if the dressing is lacking in viscosity, sort of like a thinner motor oil. I panicked: what should be the drip rate of a pasta salad dressing?! Our dressing blended two unique ingredients, which I won’t share with you, even though they were in a simple recipe on the pasta box, but the point is I don’t know if it was a 5w-30 or 10w-30 dressing.

We decided to crinkle cut, to be safe. And as long as we were being safe, we decided to do a few more cucumbers. And peppers. And all of the marinated red onions. We also, after carefully considering how many of the boxes of pasta we really needed, decided to be safe here too and go with all of them. We know how to use our noodles.

My sister-in-law, meanwhile, was engaged in what she called meatball madness. Hundreds of meatballs were rolled and cooked. They came in turkey, ham, beef and veggie varieties.  And there were cheese plates, and cookies, and fruit and varieties of other things.

So, the big day came. Did we have enough? That would be an understatement. We had plenty. More than enough. Way too much. One variable we did not consider—people coming to this open house had been to several previously on the same day. Even my nephew’s hungry young friends had already consumed pig roast, burgers and other food only hours before. Our fatal flaw was assuming people were hungry. We were novices when it came to the competitive landscape of the modern graduation open house.

So we have lots of leftovers. We are freezing some. But what we will be having for dinner for the foreseeable future is not in question. There will be pasta salad, no surprise there. Beyond that, the forecast is cloudy with a chance of meatballs.

I don’t recall this open house mania when I graduated from high school. I only remember after the ceremony being stranded outside the fieldhouse. My parents were nowhere to be seen. In those days it was not wise to be in downtown Grand Rapids after dark, and I certainly did not want to be so while wearing a gown of all things. I did catch a ride from a friend and when I got home my mom said she thought that was the plan. My dad just looked at her and said “he still lives here?” There wasn’t even any food.

Anyway, maybe it is a good thing there are so many graduation open houses. We have others to attend, even though we are not on the hook to bring anything. Normally it would be nice to be invited to an open house to get some food, but now I’m looking forward to leaving some. I’ll have my wife distract the hosts while I nestle a tray of our leftover pasta salad between the ham and buns and potato chips. No one will know, until the last guests have left and the poor hosts clean up and contemplate all the leftovers. They probably will have wondered if they would have enough. Now they’ll be wondering who brought the pasta salad.

If you are having a graduation open house, be afraid. You’ve been warned.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Thoughts About Thoughts and Prayer

(From the May 12, 2016 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

One week ago, May 5, was the National Day of Prayer for 2016. This formalized event was established in 1952 by an act of Congress that the United States set aside a day each year, other than Sunday, as a National Day of Prayer.

In 1988 President Reagan signed a bill designating specifically the first Thursday in May as the official day. A decade later, in 1998, President Clinton signed a law stipulating that the president issue a proclamation each year in association with this day that the people may (not must) turn to God in prayer in churches, in groups, and as individuals.

It seems that tax day grabbed more attention. For all the presidential and federal government involvement, the National Day of Prayer seems to have come and gone.

That may be in part because of the nature of the government and prayer. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution covers it—we don’t need the government’s permission to pray nor may he government compel people to do so. So this national day is more ceremonial and symbolic than legal.

The people’s reaction to this day is no doubt varied. Some who do not pray regularly probably shrug at a national day designated for that purpose, if they notice at all. Those who do pray regularly probably pray quietly on the national day the same way they do all the other days of the year. Hence, there is no great attention given to the day, at least in public.
concerns citizens, especially in the climate of world events and our current presidential election campaigns. We need to pray for the country, and many believers know that God speaks to this as recorded in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” That’s a solid encouragement to pray for the nation.

But I am also somewhat dubious about a national day of prayer, in the sense that we should probably pray on more than one day. In fact, the Apostle Paul encouraged early Christians to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). That may seem extreme or impossible. After all, we need to go to work, shop for groceries, sleep and so on. But the meaning if not literal is clear: consider prayer something done all the time, not just in designated days or situations.

I have certainly learned this in the past few years. Since my wife’s diagnosis with cancer more than four years ago, I have prayed more, and in more places, than ever before. This past year a small group I am part of in my church read and discussed a great book about prayer that I would highly recommend: “A Praying Life” by Paul Miller. As a lifelong Christian who thought I understood prayer, I must confess I learned a lot.

For one thing, I noticed there are different attitudes about prayer. I became sensitive to hearing people say things like “thinking of you” or “sending positive thoughts your way.” What is that? I think people who say that mean they don’t want the person they are addressing to feel alone or despair.

Other people mention prayer specifically, but one wonders if it is a casual off-hand comment in order to move past discussion of something difficult. For example, “I’ll pray for you” can be a comfort but it can also be a way to bring closure to a conversation.

By comparison, I learned from some impressive people that prayer does not have to be deferred for later. If these people are talking to someone about a difficult situation, they just pray right there in the car, the hallway, the restaurant or wherever.

I also learned that prayer can and even should be “messy.” You don’t have to be a suave orator or brilliant writer to offer an effective prayer. Prayer is spilling your heart. It is not, however, a wish list or God’s vending machine. In other words, prayer is not all about asking and getting instant gratification. God has a plan and His own timing.

That was the hardest lesson for me to learn. Prayer isn’t about jobs, health and personal needs. It’s not about other people. It’s about your own heart, and getting closer to God, having a relationship with Him instead of a mere abstract concept.

At the end of the day, prayer teaches us to see God as a father. As such, we do not use prayer for just asking Him for things, but spending time together. Praying should be seen not as a burden or obligation, but a rich privilege and relief. It is not a last resort but a first instinct. Prayer is not the result of a periodic government proclamation, but a constant Godly invitation.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Shopping for Health Care Not Yet Perfect

(From the April 14, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

The letters started coming recently. When you deal with lots of doctors, medical bills, and insurance statements, you get a little worried about crisp looking letters from the insurance company.

These letters from Priority Health were not frightening or bearing bad news. But they were at least mildly upsetting. They pointed out a recent specific medical procedure my wife had and encouraged us to use their online price comparison tool to see if we couldn’t find a lower cost option in the future.

Now, this makes some sense at the outset. No one is unaware of the fact that our national health care system is in turmoil, and not least of its problems is the rising aggregate cost. Certainly if patients would start looking for and selecting lower price options for various medical procedures, then in large scale the system would save a lot of money. Free market theory would say that if patients paid more attention to price then prices may even come down.

The two-minute video on Priority Health’s web site makes this point. It reminds the viewer that they may spend months researching a vacation, and they would compare prices when buying a new home appliance. So then, the logic goes, we should pay attention to the varying rates for everything from arthroscopy to Zika virus remedies.

The video falls a little short in its argument, however. If we are going to make medical decisions an economic concern, then we should consider the economics more thoroughly. Economists talk about the assumption of perfect information. In other words, people make economic decisions, both rationally and emotionally, on more than one or two select facts. Perfect information means economic theory such as market price fluctuation and elasticity of demand depends on people having complete information, all the facts, multiple variables. Price is merely one consideration.

Take the vacation and home appliance examples. The considerations we certainly all do in such cases has more than price on our minds. Say you went on a trip to the mountains and got to your low price destination and a man named Clem greeted you toothlessly and offered to carry your bags to the barn, while his brother Earl rocked and played banjo while spitting tobacco and eyeballing your children. I’m going to suggest few if any of us would rejoice at our cost savings for this mountain getaway. Also, having shopped for appliances with a woman, I have empirical evidence that price is one of the last considerations after things like top vs. side load, size and location of freezer, color and materials and so forth.

In the same way, I hardly think we’ll see someone show the scar from a knee replacement and say they still can’t walk stairs without pain but grin and proudly announce they saved hundreds on the procedure. Nor would anyone say at Aunt Edna’s funeral that we’re sorry to see her go but we just couldn’t see paying 12 percent over market rate for that recommended life-saving surgery.

Well, I logged into my Priority Health page to test out this tool. I searched for a chest MRI with contrast, a procedure my wife has had in Grand Rapids, and the results came back that no nearby facilities did this. But a search on Chest CT gave lots of options, including those in Flint and other paces well across the state. When the tool does work, you can chose facilities and doctors and compare a price list, as well as distance in miles from the zip code you enter. There is also doctor information, including specialty, gender, board certification, language the doctor and staff speak, medical school and residency. This is somewhat helpful, but also irrelevant. By that I mean the real information patients want about doctors is their personality—are they compassionate, do they listen, do they think outside the box? They should make transparent in the search results the data from patient satisfaction surveys for both facility and doctor. That matters too.

The tool is a good start. We may consider using it in the future. But more complete information would be better. As a side note, it would be a nice move in the interest of transparency and medical ethics if Priority Health would disclose that Spectrum Health, one of the providers that comes up on price comparison lists, is in fact their own parent company.

If the goal is to save cost, Priority Health could ask Spectrum Health to lower costs. Or, instead of giving Visa gift cards of $50-200 to patients who select “rewardable” options for medical procedures Priority Health could lower premiums or deductibles on policies.

At the end of the day, Priority Health must know that for their patients and policy holders health is in fact the top priority.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Communication Technology Can Aid or Invade the 'Good Life'

(From the March 10, 2016 Grand Haven Tribune)

I don’t often bring scholarly articles to the foreground in a family newspaper. But I read something recently in the Journal of Communication that I think will be of interest to almost everyone.

That’s because the subject is communication technology, which seems to be of interest to almost everyone.

The scholar, who teaches in both Germany and China, proposed that communication technology is so popular because it meets three basic human needs. For one, he said, technology gives us access to information of any kind, any time and anywhere. This is true, as you may have experienced yourself in everything from news and sports scores to restaurant reviews or finding the hours of a local mechanic.

A second need communication technology meets is a desire for stories and narratives. Here again, this could be the online stories provided by professional or “legacy” media, but they also come from friends, acquaintances and total strangers from across the globe via YouTube, Facebook, Vine, Snapchat and an array of other platforms. The stories range from the informative and moving to the entertaining and silly.

The third need that this author suggests technology meets is the need to be together, to not be alone, and to not be excluded. Certainly, he always on and mobile aspects of technology these days would seem to satisfy this.

In fact, the author says that the technology of today meets this needs exhaustively, so much so that one could think our technology infrastructure has offered a form of utopia or “the good life” in terms of meeting satisfying what humans innately desire. But the author gives caution also. The mediated world we live in brings us closer to a good life, he says, but in other ways technology leads us further from it.

He gives three examples of the negative aspects of communication technology. One is the anxiety that comes from the constant expectation of something big to happen, something that will distract us from our normal life, which used to be just fine but now has been rendered banal by comparison to the frantic news feeds on our phones.

Related to that is the problem of the desire for stories that has left us living in a fictional or fantasy world. We have been trained to construct alternate realities, in which we are popular, successful, humorous and smart all the time. We can’t allow ourselves to be ourselves in this hyper high-tech world.

Finally, the saturated aspect of never needing to being alone has rendered it impossible for some people to ever be alone. There are many benefits of solitude, and at the very least it is not a bad thing to be alone once in a while. But technology has not only aided us in this regard, it has invaded us.

Others have picked up on the cautionary tale with regard to communication technology. Other scholars have written books about the subject, including “Reclaiming Conversation” by MIT professor Sherry Turkle. There are also novels that tell a dystopian tale about the excess of technology, such as “The Circle” by David Eggers.

These negative consequences of communication technology are not a reason to abandon them altogether. Like almost anything else in life, we are responsible for exercising self-control, reason, and responsibility. Some joke that they are addicted to their phones or other technology. That may be literally or figuratively true. But it is also true that most people are capable, with conscious effort and discipline, to control the technology and not cede control to it.

As you read this column, I am doing that. I am in a place where I can not retrieve messages. Far from making me anxious, this gives me delight. I am be communicating using only my ears, eyes, and mouth. I am enjoying solitude with my wife.

That’s a good life too.