Thursday, November 9, 2017

Writing About Writing Keeps Me Writing

(From the October 12, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I have been writing this column for more than 15 years, and it just occurred to me that I have rarely actually written about writing. Once was when I shared about my experience participating in an event of writers and artists at an art gallery in Douglas. Another time I wrote about the experience of self-publishing a collection of these newspaper columns.

But I have never written about the craft of writing. Lately, however, writing has been on my mind for several reasons.

For one, I have noticed a decline in it. Video and emoticons seem more popular than actual text. Because of this, people are losing the ability to write fluidly, clearly, and persuasively. Even in my field of public relations, I hear other educators and employers bemoan the lack of quality writing.

That all makes the second reason for my pondering writing even worse. The job market for writers. I have an old friend who has been unemployed for three years. He’s an excellent writer, with a diverse array of bylines in national journalistic publications and for organizations. But, he keeps getting a “no” after the third interview. He lives in the Washington DC area, where the writing jobs are numerous. But there are also many young people who can be paid less for the same job.

So while some employers complain they can’t find good writers, it seems many of them are unwilling to pay for it.

I also have been thinking about writing because I’ve been thinking about a favorite author of mine, Jim Harrison. I encountered his work long ago when I was starting out writing for Traverse Magazine in northern Michigan. I heard about a local writer whose novel had been published, and I was intrigued. I read and own everything Harrison, originally from Reed City, wrote. He died last year. His friend and fellow writer Phil Cacputo found him on the floor next to his writing table in his home in Arizona, collapsed from a heart attack. “He died a writer’s death,” Caputo said. “With a pen in his hand.”

This past summer I read Harrison’s memoir and learned how much he struggled, near poverty, but stuck with the craft. Eventually he sold novels and screenplays and did well for himself. But the sheer challenge of writing was striking. Then, in late summer, I was talking to an innkeeper on Mackinac Island who grew up in Grand Marais and met Harrison, who had a cabin there. The two became friends, and the innkeeper told me several stories about him. I was so excited. I had never met Harrison, but feel as though I knew him well through the bond of writing and reading.

A few months ago I attended a writers conference. I came away with equal parts inspiration and frustration. Publishers want you to have an agent, and agents typically want you to be committed to writing full time. I have a pretty full day job, which involves academic writing. I have an idea or two for a personal book I wanted to explore. It seems an uphill battle. I was told there are 300,000 books published in the U.S. every year, and another 600,000 self-published. That doesn’t mention the volumes rejected.

Aspiring authors are expected to do their own market research, establish a platform for themselves online to gain a following, and complete a lengthy and detailed proposal including market potential before they get anywhere near an agent or publisher. If the writing itself isn’t daunting enough, the logistics and business aspect could stymie your creative juices.

I did come away with some glimpses of hope. Several acquisition editors from publishing houses gave me good feedback and encouragement in one-one sessions the conference arranged. I was invited to write short pieces for a magazine. A literary agent followed up with some guidelines and invited me to send a proposal and sample chapters for my book. So I am encouraged, but have more work to do than I imagined.

But I’ll take the challenge. Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing this column. It’s good exercise for me. And, every month I think about quitting, and one or two of you out there tell me you enjoyed my last column. At the end of the day that’s what writers want: readers. And, as many writers will tell you, they don’t really enjoy writing, but they love having written.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Tempting Tables Offers Elegant Encouragement

From the November 9, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

They came as a complete surprise. The gorgeous plants we found on our front porch. One was a huge pink azalea, along with some gift cards, delivered on a lovely day in May. Then again last December there was a beautiful winter arrangement in a frosted vase, arriving the day of our wedding anniversary, and just after my wife’s eighth surgery related to breast cancer.

We did not know the person or persons from whom these delightful gifts came. We were guessing it was friends from church. For a moment my wife thought the one on our anniversary was from me. I was honest and said no. But we learned that they came from an unusual and delightfully positive organization called Tempting Tables. We don’t know how they found out about us. It could be from a photo of my wife in the paper when she ran a local race and had a sign on her shirt about her breast cancer. Or it could have been someone connected to the organization who knew us and kept their lips sealed. Whatever the case, we were pleasantly surprised and grateful.

My wife had actually attended one of their events in 2015. She took a lot of photos to show me the displays of various themes, some quite humorous. She enjoyed the event in its own right, but also the cause for which it is created. It is a showcase of complex “tablescapes,” elaborately designed table settings that go beyond crystal and china. They are more like art gallery, museum or juried art show displays. The biennial event also features personal collections of various items.

Or to put it succinctly from the Tempting Tables web site: “an extraordinary biennial event featuring exquisite table settings and unique collections benefiting breast cancer research.”

I am not the type of guy who is in to this sort of thing. It’s enough for me to remember where to place the knife, fork and spoon. And I usually find the sofa more tempting than the table. But I admire this organization because their mission is to create greater awareness of breast cancer. They do this with their event, and the proceeds go to breast cancer research organizations here in Michigan. They also have a “Dream Fulfillment Fund,” which provides gifts to women currently going through treatments for breast cancer. That’s why my wife received the gifts on our front porch.
I can tell you that both times the gifts were a surprise, and a tremendous encouragement. The beauty of the flowers, and the thoughtfulness in their arrangement and unexpected arrival gave us another needed reminder that we are not alone.

Sometimes I get cynical about all the efforts to “raise awareness” of breast cancer. It seems anyone and everyone can slap a pink ribbon on their product, storefront or clothing. I wonder if they are actually doing any good for breast cancer programs or if they are hitching a ride on a popular cause and trying to benefit their own reputations. I actually read an article about that in a media ethics journal recently.

But the Tempting Tables event is one of quality, in my view, for several reasons. One, it’s elegant, and if you know a woman with breast cancer you know the disease can take a lot of dignity and femininity away. This is a fine event, suitable for real ladies of class.

I also like the event because it’s more than a piggyback effort. There are lots of volunteers and donors putting in considerable time and effort to make this all happen. It shows a level of commitment to the cause that goes beyond what sometimes is suspected as mere lip service.

I also am impressed that the benefit is real and local. They give tangible encouragement to women, like my wife, who are battling breast cancer. They also go beyond “raising awareness” to fighting this terrible disease through research. Their web site has a link specifically for updates on breast cancer research, including profiles of several doctors who are on the case.

So, yes, Tempting Tables is doing it right. They are setting the table for awareness and action to beat breast cancer.

If you want to go this year, the series of events are October 18-21 at the Holiday Inn in Muskegon. There is a patron’s event Wednesday evening, and then the exhibits are open Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can also consider volunteering or making a donation. More information and tickets are available at

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Free Speech Should Beat Back Violence, Not Encourage It

(From the September 14, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

We are fortunate that when people say the names of our communities—Grand Haven, Spring Lake, or even West Michigan—what is most likely to come to mind is the geographic features we enjoy. Our local reputation may be one economic or political characteristic, or demographic make up. But our locality is not tarnished with memory of tragedy.

Such is not the case with Charlottsville, where an ugly confrontation commanded attention and turned the Virginia city’s name into a meme for hatred, violence and debate about free speech. One can hope that they, and we as a nation, recover our sanity and perspective.

President Trump hit the hornet’s nest on the issue when he inserted the words “both sides” into a statement he made about the incident in Charlottsville, where a white supremacist rally was met with counter protest and violence broke out, including a car plowing into a group of counter protestors, killing one person.

In decrying racism and hatred and violence, Trump indicated that violence was perpetrated by both the white supremacists and counter protestors. This was empirically true—members of both groups threw punches—but it was not politically expedient to say so in that moment. It would have been better to call out the white supremacists, whose message was clearly racist and whose actions precipitated the tragic events. The larger conversation about violence replacing tolerance and dialogue could be saved for another less heated occasion.

I tried to bring up this point a week or so later, when I was noticing a trend in social media of people equating all people on the right ideologically of being prone to violence, as if those on the left were always correct in their views and consistently peaceful in their expression. In fact, ideological perspective is more often about opinion than fact, and no large group of people is entirely violent or entirely peaceful. All ideological groups have their unfortunate extremists and none are without fault, even though the large middle majority on both the left and right can express their views with reason and restraint.

I posted a piece from CNN on Facebook that made this point, and noted that the left in our country also has exhibited hatred and violence. It also noted that, on college campuses in particular, this extreme was manifested by shouting down speakers that the left did not agree with, thus eroding free speech. In some cases, speeches had to be cancelled because of the potential of violence, property damage, threats on the speakers’ lives.

What bothered me about this was the moral relativity assumption that violence is ok if it is done on behalf of a particular viewpoint. It also bothered me because as a student, and now as a professor, I had always been told that a college hosting a speaker never means they endorse the views. Colleges are supposed to be about higher education, questioning assumptions, examining alternative views, tolerating differences. But certain colleges were shutting down speech if it didn’t parrot a perceived official doctrine. It’s one thing to hold the line at speech that incites violence or is obscene, but it’s another to exemplify what our law cautions as “prior restraint” which amounts to censorship.

My Facebook post became a forum for those I know on both the left and the right. There were interesting and thoughtful remarks on both sides, but there was also invective, defensiveness and anger that were sadly contrary to the intent of my post. One person said I was wrong based on meetings that had at GVSU. I pointed out I was speaking about national trends and doubted a meeting in little old Allendale could disprove events across the fruited plain as reported by CNN. Another person questioned my values. This is a common and weak rhetoric. Its an ad hominem attack—insulting the person versus discussing the issue. It’s also an illogical exemplar of a false dichotomy—assuming that in my pointing out there is violence on the left that I endorse it on the right. This is preposterous. My values, I pointed out, including telling the truth and having peaceful dialogue. Would that my values were shared by some defenders of the left.

But it has gotten better. Since my Facebook post there have been many mainstream media reports calling out “Antifa,” a leftist group claiming to be against fascism and doing so with fascist and violent tactics. Alan Dershowitz, a liberal legal scholar at Harvard, said in an interview in the Washington Examiner that the left needs to acknowledge its own hatred and violence. Richard Epstein, who calls himself a classical liberal and is foremost legal academic teaching at the University of Chicago and New York University, said in a weekend Wall Street Journal interview the American left  is inappropriately pushing for curbs on “offensive” speech.  Everyone offends someone most of the time when they speak, Epstein points out. The remedy is not to shut down speech but to encourage more of it.

Indeed. That’s what John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher, said in the 1800s: “Let truth and falsehood grapple, and the truth will out.”

Perhaps the left-leaning Berkeley University in California is returning to its liberal roots. By liberal I mean the classical meaning of being liberated from oppression, including in speech. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the institution has invited back some speakers who previously were cancelled or shouted down by protesters. These include Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopolous, and potentially Steve Bannon, all conservatives known to be provocateurs and likely to go against the ideological grain at Berkeley. But that’s ok. In fact that’s the point of free speech, particularly on a college campus. Let them be heard. Those "offended" or in disagreement should respond not with violence, but their own arguments. Or walk away.

As for the rest  of us, the best counsel is ancient. In 1 Peter 3:9 the advice is “do not repay evil with evil, or insult with insult.” That’s holy behavior, not to mention good communication strategy if you want people to hear your side.

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.