Thursday, August 14, 2014

In Tree Trimming, Homeowners Feel Powerless Against Consumers

(From the August 14, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It was noticeable right away. First was the sound. The persistent angry buzz of  gas-powered machines broke the summer morning stillness. Next was the visual shock. A row of backyard trees gone, exposing the siding of the new home in the development beyond.

Neighbors felt a mix of emotions. There was the surprise. There was confusion. There was a feeling of helplessness. And there was anger.

What was happening was a clearing of trees in the backyards of a row of homes. A set of power lines runs through there, and Consumers Energy is engaged in maintaining the lines on their easement to prevent power outages from tree limbs falling during storms.

They all understand the right and responsibility of the power company to maintain the poles and wires and do what they can to maintain consistent power. In fact, power companies have a federal mandate to do this. But local neighbors are disturbed by how it is being done, by what they perceive to be excessive clearing of trees and not enough respect for their own rights and concerns as property owners.

Their primary complaint is that Consumers did not follow its own protocol of letting residents know about the planned trimming and allowing them to discuss specifics. Door hangars were left months previously, but the norm is to give two-weeks notice before actual cutting begins. They feel some trees were not trimmed but clear cut, leaving only stumps. They also feel that some trees were not tall enough to be a threat to the power lines, and others were not anywhere near underneath the power lines. One neighbor’s underground sprinkling was damaged. Add to that the loss of aesthetic view, privacy, and personal investment in landscaping, and you have a set of angry neighbors. A neighbor was offered $200 after complaining, but says the amount doesn’t come close to covering the cost of replacing landscaping.

I contacted a friend who works in public relations for Consumers, and he referred me to the company’s forestry communications director. He told me that this is an unusual case, because a neighbor in the new development behind my neighbor wanted to remove trees, do their own landscaping and put a fence around the property. They contacted Consumers about tree removal in the easement, and the Company contracted with a crew to remove trees on that part of the easement only. But that neighbor was shocked at the extent of cutting also. That particular section is clear cut, but other portions of the easement should not be cut so severely, I was told. Also, the remainder of cutting in this particular section of power line is not scheduled til November.

I was also informed that the normal protocol is to send a postcard to residents informing them of plans to trim trees. After that, an employee paints blue Xs on trees and goes door to door to talk to residents, or leaves a card with a phone number if residents are not home.  The forestry communications director told me that Consumers will meet with residents on a case by case basis to discuss questions and concerns to balance property owners’ interests and maintaining the power lines.

Consumers does remove—versus trim—about half of the trees they address. This is determined based on the species of tree and its potential to grow too near power lines, the health of the tree, and the physical relationship to power lines. All of Consumers’ foresters are certified arborists capable of making these assessments. The representative of Consumers also encouraged me to share the Right Place Right Tree concept, a program of the Arbor Day Foundation that helps homeowners select species of trees to plant that will not grow to the height of power lines. More can be found at

In spite of assurances from Consumers, neighbors are still concerned. One had an arborist on their property and was assured that since they have a professional tree company maintain their trees that they would not be trimmed. But the trees have been marked, and this neighbor believes the company lied to them. They have moved because of it.

This set of neighbors is especially sensitive because several years ago the Spring Lake Township Planning Commission made assurances to residents that the new development behind them would not come too close to their property lines.  But at a subsequent meeting, when the developer was present but neighbors were not, plans changed. More trees were cut than they had expected to make way for new homes.

One neighbor is working to set up a meeting between Consumers representatives and a group of residents. They feel they may have more strength of voice and gain more respect as a group than they have had as individuals. Their concerns are logical—to get Consumers to be reasonable about which trees are affected, and whether they can be trimmed as opposed to clear cut.

Time will tell if Consumers actually considers the interests of their customers. As a public utility, they are a monopoly allowed by law. But they are regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission. Other residents in the Tri-Cities who have similar issues with Consumers Energy may want to file a complaint with the MPSC, which can be done online”

Thursday, July 10, 2014

'Expressions in Ink' Has Writers Commenting on Art

(From the July 10, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It would not be unusual to find me in an art gallery. I have enjoyed art since I was a child. I enjoyed it even more when I took an “art appreciation” class in college, which gave me a greater depth of understanding of what I was looking at. Since then, I have been fortunate to know and work with all manner of artists, from graphic artists and photographers to painters and sculptors.

Over the years I have visited fine art museums and galleries from the good ones in West Michigan to the Louvre in Paris and MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York.

So I am not a stranger to art galleries. What is strange is that I will be part of an exhibit at a West Michigan gallery later this month.

Don’t worry. You won’t be subjected to rudimentary efforts on my part to render something worth looking at in any visual medium. I’ll actually be participating in the event as a writer.

“Expressions in Ink” is an interesting participative event hosted by the Water StreetGallery in Douglas. They have invited a number of writers, including me, to select a work of art from their current exhibit, “Not So Still Lives,” and write a short essay, poem, story or paragraph about how the art inspires us. The exhibit opened July 5. The “Expressions in Ink” event is July 19 from 5-8 p.m. at which artists will be present and writers will read what they have written about their chosen piece of art. Books by the writers will be on sale in the gallery that night.

The event coincides with the “Taste of Art” tour, which offers free trolley rides to participating galleries in Douglas and Saugatuck.

I’m excited about the event. But I also feel uniquely challenged. Earlier this week when I visited the gallery I encountered another writer and we both discussed how 100 words is not a lot. To non-writers that seems easy, but to writers that is a challenge. The other writer, a poet, said she had so much to say. Even poetry is often long form. Writing is not just the acting of putting words down, it’s choosing the right ones, and deciding which ones are not appropriate.

This column is 800 words. Each month when I write it, I normally go too long, and have to comb back through it and remove the excess. Imagine my struggle to keep my thoughts about a work of art to a mere 100 words. This is why writing is also an art.

The exhibit gives a lot to write about. “Not So Still Lives” is an effort to show that a “still life” work of art can go beyond the stereotypical painting of a bowl of apples on a table. A still life really is a depiction of inanimate subject matter. That means it could be painting, but also sculpture and other media. It also means subjects are not all fruits and flowers. Trust me, it is a fun exhibit.

I selected my work of art to muse about very quickly. It caught my eye, sparked memories or personal experience, and inspired thought. That is what art should do, and that is its value. I sat in the gallery and jotted some notes down, a series of key words that came to me, almost like a word association game. Now, I just have to put them in proper form—a haiku, a free verse poem, an anecdote, a very short essay? I’m not sure yet. Writing is about making choices, and I have work to do.

I won’t tell you more about the exhibit or the piece I selected. I will say that is worth your time to go see it. I will share this much: the “still life” exhibit reminded me that it is so easy to get caught up in life that we are too rarely still. But being still is part of life, to pause, savor something beautiful, reflect on the past, and think deeply. A mind in motion is part of an active life too, and it requires exercise to maintain it.

So, come out on the 19th to see the art, and witness my art gallery debut. It may be the only time you’ll see me in an art gallery as a participant, and not just an observer.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Professor Explains What 'Out of Office' Message Means (and Does NOT Mean)

Everyone uses them. The voicemail message or automatic email reply that says they are "out of the office" for a certain period of time. Often they give an alternate number, email address or person to contact during this absence.

Most of the time, these are short, one-week absences for a vacation or medical situation. Sometimes they are due to business travel during which rapid and frequent communication is not possible.

As a college professor, I put these messages up every year about this time, after I've finished teaching my six-week spring class and am "off contract" til things ramp up for the fall semester in mid-August. My message says exactly that: I am off contract and out of the office til mid-August. I give links to web pages with helpful information in my absence. I also provide the phone number to the main School of Communications office, where there are staff all summer long to help with various issues.

But apparently, some people don't understand what this message means. Worse, they don't understand what this message does NOT mean. These people are not just students. They are other faculty, employers and others. So, here's a quick reminder of what an out of office message means and doesn't mean.

What it means
  • "Off contract" means I am not getting paid. Professors are usually on 9-month contracts. When people are not getting paid, it means they are not working. 
  • Out of office means out of office, and out of contact. (See above about not getting paid). During those 9-months when I'm on duty, it's a 24/7 enterprise. My wife jokes in August, "see you in December." And in January she jokes, "see you in April." It's not that bad, but it is hectic. With night classes, student group activities, class preparation and grading, research projects, and the 200 emails per day that come with all of the above, I am exhausted by the end of an academic year. So I take a break. I spend more time with my wife. I read what I want to read. Because (see above) I am not getting paid, and this is the time I finally get to do those things.
  • It means you. As noted, I get 200 emails per day. There is some junk mail, and a lot of e-newsletters  I subscribe to. But there are a lot of other requests for information, advising, etc. I will check email, just to keep my inbox from exploding. But I will not respond unless to something truly urgent. I am the one decides what is urgent. The auto reply explains this. This applies  to everyone. If I respond to one email, that could open the floodgate. But, again, I am not paid. I need a break. I can't respond to emails right now. This means you too. 
What it does NOT mean

  • My auto email and office phone messages say I am off contract and out of the office. This does NOT mean you are welcome to contact me on my personal cell phone or social media accounts. The whole point of being out of the office is that I need a break (see above). Also, I am not paid (see above the above). If I need a break from 200 emails a day, why would I want a rush of messages to my personal cell phone, Twitter and Facebook accounts? (This already happened twice in the first two days of my "break"). That is not a break. That is annoying. I am out of the office and on break. I am not being paid. That does NOT mean I have taken all the hectic academic year flurry of messages home with me. 
  • My message that I am out of the office and all of the above about needing a break and not being paid does NOT mean I am not working. Actually, I give away a lot of free labor in the summer. I actually have time to focus on planning classes for fall, tackling some research projects, catching up on a stack of books related to my field and class preparation, and doing some administrative work that always gets interrupted--seemingly, every….five….minutes--during the school year. 
  • My "talk to the hand" message on email and my office phone does NOT mean I don't care. I do care about people contacting me and about their needs. But I also care about my wife (in recovery  from stage 4 cancer). I care about my own health and sanity. And as they say on the airplanes in the oxygen mask message--you need to make sure to take care of yourself first so you can take care of others. I'll be better able to serve others in the fall if I can catch a break in the summer.
So, back to my break. See you in the fall.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Neighbors' Departure Brings Mixed Emotions

(From the June 12, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It was a visual definition of mixed emotions. I walked out my front door and saw two UHaul trucks at adjacent neighbors’ houses. One was at the home of a neighbor who, to put it charitably, should have moved long ago. The other was at the home of neighbors who have become really good friends and were expected to always be here.

Neighbors, in some ways, are like family. You can’t exactly choose them. Some you like and seek opportunities to spend time together. Some you acknowledge cordially. Some you avoid.

One neighbor, the one who should have moved long ago, was for a season on the neighborhood association board. In that position he alienated most everyone in the neighborhood. Since leaving the board he has kept mostly to himself. It’s not worth wasting time discussing this neighbor other than to say his departure brings relief.

The other neighbor moving is a source of sorrow. We vividly remember when they moved in 11 years ago. One conversation started a solid friendship. We had many chats in the street, spent time together at home and at various favorite locales in town. We watched their kids grow up.

They had talked for several years about moving to Florida. Then several months ago they told us about an opportunity they were going to accept down there. The planning began. It seemed unreal. But last week it became all too real. My wife helped organize and pack. On a long Saturday I helped load that UHaul truck. In early evening we chatted in the street, like always. But this was different and odd and sad. We were saying goodbye. We were actually saying goodbye.

With truck and car and kayak trailer secured, we went through a bizarre ritual dance in the street. There were hugs, and then crying, and then a joke and laughter to cover the fact that we were crying. And then a hug, and it started again. Eventually someone had to break the cycle. They had to get in the vehicles, and drive away.

If you ever talk to someone who lost a spouse or a parent or a child who lived in the same home with them, you hear about the odd emotion after their departure. Sure, our good neighbors and friends did not die. But the emotions are the same. It’s hard not to look at the house, ponder its emptiness, and ask if they are really gone. We hear a noise and look expecting them to be there. Or we look at the house in a certain angle and vivid memories of an interaction come roaring to the forefront of our minds. Our shared moments play on the screen in our heads in short clips, as moving movie trailers of memory.

It occurs to us that the neighbors we love are as important to our sense of home as the furniture, decorations, and landscaping we select. But this is more. When we come home now, it is different. It is sad. A part of us is missing.

We joked that this neighbor might be like yet another family, who moved to California several years ago. We were sorry to see them go also. But, almost one year later to the day, they moved back. They decided they missed Spring Lake, and in particular our neighborhood. Just recently we talked to this neighbor as she was walking her dog. She missed the relationships, the values, even the seasons. Their old house had sold, but they bought the one two doors down. It was hilarious and joyful to welcome them home. We laughed that the neighbor next to them might think he was losing his mind, having seen these neighbors to his east for several years and then after a one-year absence sees them to his west.

Unfortunately, we doubt the neighbors who just moved to Florida will be coming back. Boomerang neighbors are probably a rare phenomenon. But we can keep in touch. We already are. We’re planning a visit to maintain the relationship that started across the street even though it’s now across the country. Meanwhile, we can be grateful for the other good neighbors who remain around us, contributing to our sense of home.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Transparency and Access Needed in Medical Information

(from the May 8, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Most of the hullabaloo about the Affordable Care Act, AKA ‘Obamacare,’ has been about giving more people access to health care. That is a noble goal, and we have yet to see if the long term effect of this massive legislation actually accomplishes that in a way that is affordable and leads to actual care.
But one area of access that is not getting enough attention is access to information about health care. This form of access should be about the necessity and/or effectiveness of proposed treatments, the cost  of specific medical procedures, and most importantly, a patient’s own medical records.
On the first one, we are failing, literally. An organization called Catalyst for PaymentReform (CPR), of San Francisco, along with Newtown, Connecticut-based Health Care Incentives Improvement Institute issued a report card on medical cost transparency. Michigan received an F, and few states did much better.
Many consumers are paying more of their own health care costs. Many of us are in high-deductible health savings plans. Yet it is difficult to know up front what a proposed treatment or procedure will cost. Even if insurance will cover the cost, it is important for consumers to be able to shop around and compare prices as we do with many other significant purchases. Whether we pay or insurance does, it will save us all money if the costs are transparent and consumers have knowledge and choice.
Even after the fact when a bill or insurance statement is provided, the patient has less than full knowledge about costs. Procedures are vaguely worded, entered more than once, or even listed only by some code number meaningless to all but someone at the doctor’s office and insurance company. Actual patients are left in the middle, and feel as if they are being talked about rather than talked to.
Seeing doctor’s notes is also important, but not easy to come by. They are increasingly entered into an online system so that multiple doctors and other health professionals can access in one place a patient’s health record. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that these online systems are often not accessible to the patient.
One test of such a system happened in Boston, Seattle and rural Pennsylvania. Using a secure portal called OpenNotes, patients were invited to review their doctor’s notes. 82 percent of them took advantage and said they felt more informed, at ease, and took better care of themselves.
In our own case, it has been a mixed bag. Some doctor’s offices easily offer copies of notes. Others require us to go through a ridiculous process of requesting them, receiving them from some company in Georgia, and then being asked to pay per page, including several pages of extraneous information we did not ask for. Most maddening about this is that it is in compliance with the state law. Michigan’s Medical Records Access Act (Act 47 of 2004) does stipulate who gets access to patient records, including patients and third parties. But it also sets the rate. The fees are updated every year, and for 2014 include an initial fee of $23.42, $1.17 per page for the first 20 pages, and .59 cents for pages 21-50 and .23 cents for pages 51 and after.
Based on the fact that we have seen numerous errors in my wife’s record, we feel the issue here is not just cost but safety. The law should be changed to compel medical providers to give full and free access to a patient of their own medical record within one week of each visit. They should also include a process to sign off on the records as accurate and to amend or correct any inaccurate information. Much of this can be done online, or in an app, and some providers are doing this. But it should be standard by law. I’ve appealed to my state representative and senator on this matter but only received generic thanks for contacting them.
Meanwhile, the Michigan Department of Community Health named an advisory committee last year to review the 1978 public health code and recommend changes to anything in the code, which covers everything from licensing to how medical records are stored and accessed. The committee will only make recommendations, not actual changes. But I await their report to Governor Snyder due this spring and fervently hope that more patient information about costs, procedures, and their own records is near the top of their list.
One of the greatest causes of stress in a medical situation is uncertainty. That is made worse when patient’s are not informed about their own condition, options, costs, and the bigger picture success rate of proposed medical procedures. Allowing informed decision making is the hallmark of democracy, and should be so for health care as well. More efforts in this area will lead to patient satisfaction and improvements in the economy, insurance, health systems, and individual health.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Understanding Work and Service

(From the April 10, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I’ve been thinking about work lately. I’m not just thinking about work in the sense of thinking about my job. Rather, I’ve been thinking about work in the big picture perspective.

This is the time of year when work is on the minds of young people about to graduate from college. They are gearing up for final projects and exams, but also interviewing for jobs. They are excited and nervous about making the transition from student to full-time employee. Some of them have jobs as college students, of course. But now they like to talk about getting that first ‘career’ job.

I would agree that it is exciting. No doubt a good job in the field that one has studied is a worthy reward for the effort put into a college degree. But in listening to some students talk, I get a little uneasy feeling too. They focus on how much they will get paid. They talk about the benefits and how much vacation they’ll have. They carry on about whether their job will be something fun for them to do or drudgery.

It’s hard to tell them not to think about such things. But I want to encourage them to think about something more. I want them to think about what “work” really is. And it really is about more than a job, a way to pay the bills, or an extension of one’s personal identity.

More than a dozen years ago my father-in-law gave me a book written by a friend of his. “Work: The Meaning of Your Life. A Christian Perspective” is written by Lester DeKoster, a former college librarian and professor of speech and also a magazine editor and author of several other books. He sets the course for his brief little book by defining work simply yet profoundly. As he says, “work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.”

That’s what was in the back of my head recently as I overheard all the talk about work. I wanted to hear a little less about salary, job description, and benefits. I wanted to hear young people talk with some excitement about whom they would serve, and how.

Meanwhile, the faculty where I teach have been talking in the past semester about service. For those outside of higher education, I should explain that when professors are reviewed for tenure and promotion—and indeed beyond that—they are evaluated in three categories: teaching, research, and service.

Across the country it’s the same. Professors are expected to teach well and engage in some form of scholarship. But they also are expected to do something called “service.” What this means is administrative work, such as chairing committees, advising students, and a number of other things that wouldn’t fall under teaching and research. In some sense, based on the definition of work above, I would say everything is service. But on university campuses there is this unique distinction.

The issue recently has been that a few faculty members seem to do the bulk of this service work while others do very little. People were speaking up and wanting some equity. The implication is that some faculty members focus on teaching and research and leave the service largely to others.

This is not unique to higher education. There are tasks in any occupation that need doing, and there are people who tend to do those tasks and others who say “that’s not my job.” Of course, this problem would go away if people would see work as a way of being useful to others.

It’s interesting to me to regard a lot of retired people I know. Many of them do not have a regular job with a salary. But they still work. They volunteer in formal and informal ways. They actually say it: “I just want to make myself useful.”

I admire that. And I need to apply that now, well before I retire. Instead of looking at my own agenda and to-do list and seeing everything else as an interruption, I could take a lesson from the book I received years ago and look at everything I do at work in the light of how I am being useful to others.

There’s an old expression that if you do what you love you’ll never work another day in your life. It’s possible to amend that by saying that if you see work as a way to be useful to others you’ll probably satisfy yourself.