Thursday, October 13, 2016

Still Smiling in Spite of Difficult Election Season

(from the October 13, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It’s a question sometimes spoken and often thought this year. The question emerges on people’s lips and in their thoughts with increasing frequency as we draw closer to November. The question goes something like this: there are more than 300 Americans and it has come down to these two?

Hilary Clinton was inevitable. Donald Trump was improbable. We got them both. Most people don’t like either of them.

So how did we get to this point? Blame us.

It is an old adage that we get the leaders we deserve. Some would question if it’s fair to say that in this case. How did we ever bring it on ourselves to have to choose between a bombastic billionaire who speaks with “locker room language” and a woman who has held many positions but also many secrets even in the face of congressional subpoena? Rather than get excited about voting, we want to yell at the TV. “Go home, blowhard!” “Liar, liar, pantsuit on fire!”

Well, “we” get the leaders we deserve because “we” includes a lot of us collectively. Maybe individual readers of this newspaper consider themselves above the fray, more enlightened citizens, not given to selfish appeals to politicians and therefore not susceptible to their pandering and empty promises. And that may be—people who actually read newspapers are better informed and one would hope more rational and broad minded than the “average” voter.

Nevertheless, if we can consider “we” to be our collective society, than we get what we deserve. When we hold our noses next month to vote for either Trump or Clinton—or take a stab at a geographically challenged third party candidate who didn’t know if Aleppo was a city in Syria or an acronym for a congressional bill—we are reaping what we sowed.

That’s because we have responded to negative ads. On social media we keep hitting the hornet’s nest by sharing and reposting the derogatory comments about the “other” party. We complain about the polarity in our politics, but we have stirred it on. We say we can’t believe the negativity, but we sure talk about it. The ratings for the presidential debates competed with that of NFL games, and had the drama of “Scandal” and “House of Cards.” Only one candidate has experience in ‘reality TV,” but both have made this election season seem like the same.

Now some of us would rather vote them both “off the island” than vote for one for president.

We had options. There was an unusually long list of 17 of them on the Republican side. But people rejected the boring policy proponents for the petulant populist. There were fewer options on the Democrat side. There may have been more, we find out now, after the party chairwoman resigned in disgrace when shenanigans to anoint an insider favorite were revealed. Another reason there were not more or better candidates on both sides is that our culture has made it unsavory for competent people of integrity to seek high public office.

I am reminded in such a time of history, both national and ancient. In our nation’s history, there were many presidents who were not always popular. While we’ve had some national leaders for whom we make monuments, others are lost to history for their incompetence or failures of character.

That reminds me of ancient history. Even in Israel, among God’s chosen people, there were a series of good and bad kings. Leaders ranged from Ahab to David, one synonymous with evil and one revered today as part of Israel’s national identity. But even David, a mostly “good” king from whom Jesus descended, had issues. A well-known story involves David lusting after a woman named Bathsheeba, arranging for her husband to be killed, and taking her as his own. Suffice it to say this is on par with locker room language and Benghazi.

If we have brought these bad candidates on ourselves, we make a second mistake by dwelling on the present. What history shows us is a simple truth. People are not perfect. They are fallible, even to the point of deeply disappointing and unsavory of character. Our candidates today are like all humans. They have selfish ambition and evil desires.

People, and nations for that matter, are also merely temporary. They are like what the prophet Isaiah poetically called grass and flowers that whither and fade. Only God endures forever.

I will vote next month. It will not be with enthusiasm or partisan joy. I’ll vote more out of a sense of duty and obligation. I will give the government my decision the same way I give my taxes: with reluctant obedience.

But I’ll smile when I leave the polling place. This is partly because the dreaded deed will be done and partly because I know if I stay healthy I will outlive both of these candidates. But mostly I’ll smile after voting because my hope is not in mere mortals of the moment.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Time to Add New Sports to Summer Olympics

(From the September 8, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune).

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the summer Olympics this year. I had thought I would not be watching them due to reports that there were lots of problems in planning.

Premier athletes were bowing out because of caution about the Zika virus. The Brazilian planning committee was struggling to complete buildings for housing athletes and hosting key events. It looked to be a mess.

Then there is the weather issue. In the summer, I would rather be outside doing things as opposed to sitting inside watching some brute from Bosnia heave a heavy object.

But, as I said. I was pleasantly surprised. My wife and I recorded Olympic events or periods of broadcast time on the DVR and then watched them each evening. This way we could be doing our own summer things and then watch on our own time, skipping or fast-forwarding through events we were less interested in or the preliminary qualifying rounds of others.
            As the Olympics wore down to the final event, the men’s marathon, I found myself a little sad that they were ending. They had been fun, dramatic, compelling and exciting to watch. My wife and I even came up with several other events to propose for future summer Olympics.

First, to make room for our proposed events, some current summer Olympic sports would have to be removed. There are some easy first round eliminations, such as sports that should be kept to recreational activities at the beach or cottage for which they were originally intended. I count among these Badminton. Hitting a little birdy an Olympic sport? No. Add to this list golf, sailing and tennis. Any activity common at snooty country clubs does not merit inclusion in the international competition of that originated among naked Greeks.

There are other sports that could be removed just because they tend to crowd the field. There are four cycling events, for example. Perhaps BMX or mountain biking, which have their own competitive circuits, are not needed in the Olympics. There are three equestrian events, including one called ‘eventing.’ If an event is called ‘eventing’ then it apparently has not been thought through. It sounds like it could be simply horsing around. Advocates of that sport should at least specify what their event actually is and get rid of the generic name and reapply.

With the field cleared of extraneous sports, it’s time to breathe a little life into the next summer Olympics with some new sports. Here we go.

Couples synchronized 5K running. This is my favorite. My wife and I run together, both in training and in events. Running is hard enough without having to match pace with a spouse. I think it would encourage healthy marriage, reduce gender bias in sports, and provide exciting viewing. There is already synchronized swimming, so why not expand the concept to something above water that people can actually see?

Mini golf. This is golf for the rest of us. Golf has a major circuit of international competitive events. But mini golf has a different set of skills, would provide an athletic outlet for a whole new range of athletes, and offers wonderful potential for country specific competition at each upcoming Olympics. It’s not that hard to whack a ball across an open pasture. Real sport is trying to bank a ball off the left rear pillar of a  scale model Eiffel Tower.

Yo-Yo. There used to be yo-yo competitions. I saw them as a kid, but not at all recently. It’s time to bring it back. If there’s such a thing as “rhythmic gymnastics,” with its prancing and waving of streamers, it’s not a stretch to have an event that involves bobbing and twirling a round disc at the end of a string.

Hammocking. Yes, it’s a thing. Perhaps you’ve seen people at parks and along the boardwalk and even on the pier when the catwalk was still there string up a hammock for some serious relaxation. Why not make this competitive? Plus, nothing says summer like a supine swing.

Roller derby has made a come back in Grand Rapids and in other cities. The sport is a team sport, highly active, fun to watch, and reminds me a lot of the speed skating in the winter Olympics. It certainly has more compelling viewing potential than badminton.

Lawn bowling is another summer sport that seems to be the warm weather equivalent of a winter sport, in this case curling. I never really understood curling, with its frantic sweeping, but I always enjoy watching it. At least lawn bowling is on a grassy field, and its history is traced to the 13th century, which gives it more historical credibility than many current summer Olympic sports.

I don’t know if I’ll get my wish when the next summer Olympics kick off in Tokyo in 2020. But I’ll be watching, not just to see what’s on when, but if there’s anything new.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Wife's Birthday is Worth Celebrating

(From the August 11, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

She doesn’t want me to say anything. She doesn’t want me to do anything special.

I am going to anyway. Because it is really something. And she is really special.

My wife is having a birthday in a little over a week. It is a special birthday, one that ends in a certain number that signifies not just the marking of a single year but a period of time. She will be a woman of a certain age.

Some might wonder why I would go against my wife’s wishes and make something out of her birthday instead of letting it quietly pass. Well, some people wonder why there are those who climb mountains, and the best answer is simple: because they are there. I am defiantly celebrating my wife’s special birthday for similar reason: because she is here.

Some of you know the back story. In 2012 my wife was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. We found out on my birthday. I said at the time that rather than let that dark day mar my birthday for the remainder of my days, we would let it signify the joy that she has beaten the beast of cancer for another year for the remainder of her days. I told her then to no longer get me birthday presents. All she had to do was be here.

So, if she is here on her birthday, we do the same thing. We celebrate just because she is here. We were born two-and-a-half years apart. I am the older one, I freely admit. But having birthdays exactly six months apart gives us perfect semi-annual occasions to appreciate life. Every February and August is a precious reminder of beating the odds, that considering life a gift is not a cliché, that the grace of God is as real as cancer.

Actually, she is worth a birthday celebration not merely because she exists, but how she lives. Let me give you just a few examples.

She can make grown men cry with a mere bucket of blueberries. My wife has always loved blueberries. She picks them and serves them fresh and also freezes and dehydrates them to use throughout the year. Recently, she knew of several people who had knee surgery. So she picked extra for them and dropped them off for them to enjoy while recovering. One gentleman said it brought tears to his eyes when he saw the bucket and note she had dropped off at their house. This is just one selfless act my wife does. While some cancer patients mope, complain and feel sorry for themselves, she deals with the frustrations of scheduling surgeries and scans and other appointments, and then rushes to the fields to pick blueberries—for others.

She is the most social person I know who does not have a Facebook account. My life likes to talk when we run. On the occasions when my schedule is too packed for me to run with her, she talks to other people. She talks a lot, apparently, to people at their mailbox, in their yards, backing out of their driveways. A recent five-mile run we did together took considerably longer than planned because we stopped no fewer than three times to chat with people she has met over the years. She knows about them too, about the circumstances and struggles in their lives, and asks about their well-being. And she shares her story, boldly sharing details, humbly giving glory to God for the battles won.

She works harder than a team of Guatemalans. That may sound racially insensitive, so let me explain. We knew some people who had landscaping done at their house and hired a company to do the work. It happened to be a group of guys who were all Guatemalan. And we noticed how hard they work, long days accomplishing a lot fast. So our inside joke when we recently completed a major landscaping project of our own was that she works as hard as those five or six Guatemalan men put together. She defies the odds. Even through the worst  of cancer treatments and the lingering and bothersome side effects—the muscle pains at surgical sites, the lost toe and finger nails, the difficulty sleeping, the hot flashes—she maintains an energy level that defies reason.

She worships with hands held high. She does not sing well, and I don’t particularly either. But when she sings in church or at a Christian concert, she does so with enthusiasm and meaning. We have both been Christians since we were children, but never with such heart. But the view from the mountain is majestic when you’ve come through deep valleys. So she sings, with hands up. Even if off key, the sound is sweet for me. What greater harmony is there than to be spiritually in tune with your spouse?

For these and many other reasons, I can not imagine my life without her. We know three couples personally who had the same struggle as us. And now three women are no longer with us. This hits home. My birthday is a celebration of the gift I have that she is part of my life. Her birthday is a celebration that her life continues.

You have my permission to wish her happy birthday next week if you know her and see her. You do not need to mention which specific birthday it is. Just tell her it’s good to see her. I think you’ll agree that’s the truth.

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.