Thursday, February 12, 2015

Re-Defining FOMO--We all need to put down the phone

(From the February 12, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Several years ago the New York Times had an article aboutthe new concept of ‘FOMO,’ an acronym for Fear of Missing Out. It related to social media, and the fact that so many people can’t go more than a few minutes without checking their Facebook or Twitter feeds to see what vital nugget of information they may have missed.

A friend may be grilling asparagus at this very moment, for goodness sakes. Or someone may have posted a ‘selfie’ of themself doing something unremarkable in front of a nondescript landmark.

Frankly, there is not a lot to miss in terms of quality content. Even the “breaking news” that comes into the notification center on my smart phone is often an item of marginal urgency.

Ultimately, the fear people have of missing out is based on social pressure. The phenomenon of needing to feel engaged and relevant almost constantly is a socially constructed reality. Yet so many people are drawn in to it. It requires mature discipline and self-restraint to put down a phone for several hours and be okay with that. The fear of missing out, in other words, is a fear of people’s own making.

I see this phenomenon in action all the time. On the college campus, on sidewalks around campus, in hallways as they wait to enter a classroom, even in the classroom, students check and re-check the smart-phone screen like Pavlov’s dogs, responding instinctively to every beep and buzz. My wife and I have seen young people on a date walking hand-in-hand on the pier, and in their free hands they each check their own phones. I call it a bizarre dance of disconnection.

Let’s be real, though. Adults are just as guilty. In meetings, in cars, adults who should be paying attention to people and circumstances around them are in tune with their tablet, phone, or laptop instead.

The thing is, most people know it’s a problem. Last week a faculty colleague of mine shared on Facebook (I know, that’s ironic) a video about the folly of phone addiction. In the video, a young black man raps some savvy lyrics about the problem. He asks a friend to meet face to face, only to be asked when he wants to Skype. He points out the human attention span is now one second less than that of a goldfish. The average teen texts every 20 seconds when they are awake. He calls Facebook an ‘anti-social network’ for its pushing us to count friends by number instead of by quality.

I shared the video (I know, again, ironic) on Facebook and received a lot of affirmative comments. Again, many others agree that smart phones, social media, and technology in general can get out of hand. It all can control us instead of us controlling it.

And that’s the answer. “Everything in moderation,” or “nothing in excess,” is an ancient sentiment, attributed variously to Aristotle, Socrates, obscure Roman dramatists, and the plumber who raised me. Regardless of the source, it makes sense today too with regard to use of technology.

As new technology emerges, it is always a two-edged sword. There was great fear that the telephone was an intrusion into people’s homes when it was new. But it also served to provide substantial benefits to society. It’s how we use it. It’s the same with smart phones and social media. I read books and magazine subscriptions on my phone, and I can keep in touch with acquaintances that I otherwise would not see for months or years. I teach how organizations can use social media for transparent, dialogic communication with their various publics. However, I can’t let it rob me of my time by worrying about keeping up with all of the mundane minutia that pops up.

Numerous articles and blog posts address the problem now. They give advice to otherwise savvy business professionals about how to control their use of email and social networks. The key advice is to “batch manage” such communication. In other words, check email and social networks in batches, maybe twice a day. This relieves the stress and allows one to be more productive and focused as opposed to being constantly interrupted.

I’ve been employing this strategy, having been guilty of being a little too excessive in checking and responding to messages. I feel greater peace and productivity at work. And in my personal life, I have come to redefine FOMO—I fear what I may be missing out when I’m looking at my phone. The sound of a bird chirping. The pleasure of reading a good book. Something my wife says, or the look on her face when she laughs. I’ve learned to choose my wifey over Wifi.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Exploitation Leads to Closure of Local Health Store

(From the January 15, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

We had visited three or four times, well within normal business hours, and found the doors locked. There was no note on the door, and no evidence of anything unusual other than the locked door. We knew something was wrong.

We had come to know the owner, so we tracked down her son at the place where he works. He confirmed our fears: Lakeshore Natural Health had closed.

We later spoke to the owner. We have gotten to know her over the past several years as regular customers. We talked to her on her cell phone. As it turns out, she had to file bankruptcy because she just wasn’t selling enough product. It’s not that she didn’t have a lot people in the store. But there were two problems. She had a lot of issues with shoplifting. The other problem was another form of theft in my opinion. People would come in and listen to her advice for free and then go buy product online or at a lower price at a larger chain store.

The problem for us is that many of the things she sold at Lakeshore Natural Health are not easily available elsewhere. Since my wife’s cancer diagnosis we have combined conventional medical treatments with natural supplements that we believe have contributed to preventing a recurrence of cancer and mitigating the side-effects of other treatments.

Lakeshore Natural Health was a one-of-a-kind place, and now it’s gone. It was unique not just because of the products, but the owner. We would talk for a long time during almost every visit. Jyl would not only direct us to the appropriate supplement, but explain in great detail why it was appropriate, how it worked, where it had been tested, how others have proven it works, and so on. She has a degree and years of experience that contribute to her encyclopedic knowledge of medicine and natural supplements. But the best part of the store was her genuine desire to help people.

And that’s what saddens us the most. It would be one thing if the store just didn’t make it financially. But this store went under because people exploited a good woman’s knowledge and compassion. There were tears on the phone when we talked to her that day. There had been tears between us when we talked about my wife’s medical condition, and promises of prayer. Now we promise to pray that she will find a new way to make a living.

I wonder about the people who used to stop by and just ask questions about a medical situation they were experiencing, and then walk out with free knowledge and a plan to save a few dollars at another store. Did they not consider that their selfish behavior writ large would have such a consequence? Of course unique local businesses have to charge a bit more for product. That’s because they don’t have the economies of scale that are an advantage for large chain retailers. But local stores offer more value too. They may have unique products or specialty brands. But mostly they have people who offer special and unique service, like Jyl did. So the people who saved a few bucks on product now have caused all of us to lose a very special and helpful service.

It’s the same phenomenon in all businesses. Consider going to the local hardware store verses Home Depot. Or buying a book at the Bookman as opposed to Barnes and Noble or online. The personal relationship, the assistance to the local economy, the special service are all part of the mix that give greater value that more than covers the price of the product.

We considered Jyl to be part of my wife’s “medical team.” Various doctors have various specialties, and gave great advice and treatment. Jyl did the same with regard to natural supplements. It is too bad our medical system does not have more respect for what she knows and does. It’s too bad that so many members our community did not have more respect also. If they had, Jyl would still be in business, and we would all have a great resource.

Monday, January 12, 2015

To Be Brilliant or Kind?

A pastor from my church asked this question on Facebook: "if you had to choose one would you be brilliant or kind?"

This strikes at my professor's heart and gives me yet another reason to examine my imperfections. Several thoughts leapt to mind, after the initial response that I would not choose between them but prefer to be both.

What came quickly to mind is Proverbs 9:10: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." Wisdom and "brilliance" are not the same thing. Brilliance gets at exceptional intelligence, whereas wisdom implies good judgment. I have known brilliant people to do unwise things, and am acquainted with people of little formal education who have impressive wisdom.

To "fear" God also means to respect, honor, worship and obey Him. And if we do that, we can't miss a major message and command of Christ: to love one another. Love is a multi-faceted concept, but certainly it involves kindness.

We learn in Ephesians 4:32: "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you."

I would point out that in my own life, I have known two types of brilliant people. The ones who were brilliant and unkind produced in me a grudging respect, but all I knew is that they knew a lot. Those who were both brilliant and kind develop a relationship, a means by which they could share their brilliance and give it some value. Their kindness made it possible for their brilliance to have meaning, to percolate into understanding, to marinate into motivation and inspiration.

So, if I HAD to choose, I would go with kindness. Call it emotional intelligence over merely a high IQ. Or call it the wise biblical choice. But I'm going to try to be brilliant AND kind. I'll start by fearing God, as the beginning of wisdom. If I'm honest, I think it ends there too.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Teaching What 'Professor' Means Is Big Challenge

(From the December 11, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

For years, when people would find out that I am a professor, they would ask me: “what are you a professor of?”

Aside from cringing at the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence, I would find this question a little awkward. I could answer it quickly and tell them I teach public relations, but that led to blank stares or even worse questions.

In a shoe store about a month ago the nice saleswoman was striking up a conversation as I tried on shoes. When we got to the part about me teaching public relations, the conversation felt like ill-fitting boots.

“So, that’s like talking to people?”

“Not exactly.” I then gave the officially sanctioned definition of the profession from the Public Relations Society of America. This was a mistake.

“So, it’s like sociology?” At least she didn’t call it “spin” or “getting the word out” or “publicity.” I decided to cut my losses.

“These shoes are just what I need. Thank you.” And in changing the subject and preserving the relationship, I exhibited a form of public relations, though the point was likely lost on her.

It gets even worse when people don’t ask about my subject matter expertise but the very nature of being a professor. They’ll ask “what class do you teach?” As if professors teach only one class. Three classes per semester is typical at most universities, though at “research universities” faculty may only teach two and spend more time on research. At other colleges, faculty may teach four courses but do little or no research.

They express shock that you have a PhD, even though that’s a minimum requirement for most professor jobs. Or they think you get tenure if you show up on time for two years. My own mother tells me she thinks tenure sounds like ten year and she gets confused.

Recently, when I got promoted to professor, the highest rank of professors, confusion really followed. “What?” friends would say, “I thought you already were a professor!”

Well, there’s the generic term professor and then there’s the more formal rank. Most professors on what is called the “tenure-track” are hired as assistant professors. This is just the rank title—it doesn’t mean you actually assist another professor, though in medieval days that may have been the case. After seven years, during which there have been several review meetings, assistant professors can go up for tenure and promotion to associate professor.

This is a daunting process. Candidates must show they are excellent in teaching, research and service. Teaching excellence is determined by a review of student evaluations, which are completed after every single class at the end of a semester. Other faculty watch candidates teach and review their teaching materials. Advising students is part of teaching and is also part of the record. As for research, candidates must show they have presented at conferences and/or published in appropriate journals or books. Finally there is this category called “service,” which means a faculty member has been on committees and/or taken an appropriate amount of administrative responsibility, as determined by colleagues.

In my time as a professor I’ve seen a handful of people not make it past this review process. So when someone says they have tenure, or are associate professor. it is a major accomplishment. After another seven years, the stakes are higher in all three categories. Candidates must be excellent or significant in all three to be promoted to full professor. It took me the better part of a summer to gather supportive documents into four large books for the committee in my unit (department) and at the college level to review.

Of course, by explaining all this to those outside of academia I expect a response not unlike that of students in an evening class—namely, a tired and indifferent expression, with eyes glazed like a Krispy Kreme.

So while it may be personally satisfying to have made it to the highest rank among college faculty, it is also humbling. I was humbled just the other day when I explained to someone that I was a full professor.

“What are you full of?” they asked.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Wife's Persistence Keeps Her Running

(From the November 13, 2014 Grand Haven Tribune)

Ever since my wife’s diagnosis with stage 4 breast cancer more than two and a half years ago, people often ask me, “How is your wife doing?” More recently, they have been asking me, “WHAT is your wife doing?!”

In late summer, my wife had a foot injury common to runners. It is a stress fracture in her heel. An X-ray and an MRI confirmed it. The doctor said she needed to wear one of those boots (air cast) you see people in with similar injuries. What is worse, she had to stay off her foot for several weeks. At a subsequent check-up, the doctor said another month.

So my wife, more active than a hummingbird, who has survived surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, and has run through all of the significant stress and side-effects of cancer treatment, would now be sidelined by a common running injury unrelated to cancer. Right.

Wrong. You think I would know this woman after nearly 20 years of marriage. You would especially think I know her these past several years.

She makes the word tenacious seem synonymous with a half-hearted effort. She is well beyond that. She did relent and wear the boot, and has been staying off her foot. But she doesn’t just use her crutches to go from bed to couch and back again. No, she got one of those scooters so she could be more mobile. Of course, what comes with mobility? Running.

This is why people started asking me what my wife is doing instead of how she is doing. They see her on the bike paths of Spring Lake, pushing with her good leg, following the same routes she would on two good legs. She calls it her scoot and run. I call it crazy. Kids want to upgrade from their scooters to the kind my wife has, especially since she has it all decked out with pink “Hello Kitty” tape.

But wait, there’s more.

It wasn’t enough for my boot-scootin’ bride to just tool around on bike paths. She had to participate in one of our traditional events—the Grand Rapids Half Marathon. Since I worry about her, I had to participate as well.

A friend from church works with the race director and suggested we start a half-hour early, with the group of people called “Team in Training” who push specialized wheeled strollers to run with special needs children and others who are physically challenged. Running with a smaller group put me at ease that my wife would not miss a pothole in the crowd of thousands of runners, or get knocked off her scooter.

It was cold and dark when we started. In other words, it was a good morning to have stayed in bed. But as is often the case, after we started running the light and warmth increased, as did our positive spirits.

Running across a downtown bridge over the Grand River that early in the morning afforded us a view of stunning beauty. Fall colors and skyscrapers were reflected in perfectly still water, as a light fog hovered above it. As dawn increased, we were able to enjoy even more of the beauty of fall as we ran.

Eventually, more crowds of spectators lined the course. We enjoyed their encouragements, as well as their comments about their amusement and shock to see a woman “running” a half marathon on a scooter. Comments ran the full course, from “you go girl!” to “that is dedication” to “here’s something you don’t see every day” to “what an inspiration!” We also saw her doctor, who advised her not to do this, and waved and smiled as we ran and scooted past him.

Even the elite runners took notice and gave encouragement. Since we got a half-hour head start, we were able to see the lead runners as they passed us in the hilly section at about mile 7 or 8. They patted her back, offered words of encouragement, and even said they—the fastest in the race—were inspired by her. It was really touching. Also, I can now say that I was neck and neck with the lead runners in a half marathon, for about a second or two.

We finished the race to comments from the PA announcer and cheers from the crowd of spectators at the finish line. We had completed the course in 2 hours and 5 minutes, slower than our normal running time but not bad considering the circumstances.

And when we consider the circumstances, all that my wife has been through in the past two and a half years, we would have to say we have run the course well. We have run in spite of situations. We have persevered, and finished the race. We have thought about where we’ve been, and where we have yet to go, and we find the strength to keep going. We have done so with encouragement and good cheer. I dare say we even enjoy the race.

The day after the event, she had her sixth surgery related to cancer. This one was on her nose. As a result, she can’t run for a while. But I’m sure she will run again.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Cross Controversy on Dewey Hill Exposes Misunderstanding About Constitution

(From the October 9, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Dewey Hill, that grass-covered dune, is a focal point of our community and a controversy once again. One or two people are “offended” by the cross that appears on that hill on Sundays

It’s ironic that someone could be offended by something that is meant as an invitation, an offer of hope. They are still free to reject the message of the cross. But their being offended should not preclude others from the right to display the cross. All of this is allowed because of something called free expression, a freedom that some in our society frequently propose be denied to those of Christian faith.

It’s all a big misunderstanding.

At issue is the U.S. Constitution.  People often justify their bigoted exclusion of Christians from the public sphere with the phrase “separation of church and state.” Please know this:  that phrase is NOT in our nation’s founding document.

There is, however, something called the First Amendment, which reads exactly as follows:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It goes on to speak of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right of people to assemble peaceably.

But most folks who argue for separation of church and state utter only the first part of what I quoted. This is known in legal circles as the “establishment clause.” But they ignore the part after the comma, the part about free exercise.  Allowing a cross on Dewey Hill, especially if it is provided and hoisted and funded by local citizens and not the government itself, is certainly not endorsing religion. It is not an example of the government saying, “Hear ye, you all must be Christians and worship the same way.” No. Ridiculous. But not allowing a cross to be displayed on public property violates the constitutionally guaranteed free expression of religion. 

This misunderstanding of the constitution, and misappropriation of a phrase, is disturbing given the intent of our country’s founders. The phrase “wall of separation” is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but not in the Constitution. According to Philip Hamburger, author of the book called “Separation of Church and State,” Jefferson coined the now much-disputed phrase in an 1802 letter to a Baptist congregation concerned about religious liberty. The church was concerned about the government controlling the church, not the reverse. Far from separating church and state, Jefferson himself and others of our nation’s founders frequently and eloquently intertwined the two. Michael Novak points this out in his book, “On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.” It was Jefferson who wrote “the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.” And in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and other national leaders of the fledgling nation indicated a strong measure of religious faith in opposing the British when they wrote of a “firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.” 

Legally, others would also have a right. Current complainers want to display messages in favor of hot-button issues, such as pro-abortion and same-sex marriage. This may be offensive to a majority, but Madison warned against a tyranny of the majority and that minority opinion should also have voice.

However, the long court history on free speech refers to the right and responsibility of governments to rein in that which violates a “prevailing community standard’ of decency. That is subjective, to be sure. Grand Haven leaders may also decide not to allow political messages, i.e. words on signs, because it is a visual distraction from the natural beauty of Dewey Hill where only a flag and cross—mere symbols without words—are displayed. The Supreme Court has ruled that speech may be limited if not completely censored by the ‘TPM’ standard. That is to say it can be controlled given certain times, places, and manners of speech.

We’ll have to see what city leaders do on this current issue. But here’s a final point. Whether a cross is displayed on public property or not isn’t the big issue for many Christians.  For millennia governments and religions have had a tenuous coexistence.  But perspective comes from a noble source. Nearly 2,000 years ago the Apostle Paul, a Roman citizen and often persecuted for his Christian faith, wrote to Christians in Rome: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” It’s a rhetorical question, and the answer is--nothing. No earthly government can do so, and certainly not the misinterpretation of our modern constitution, whether done out of ignorance or intolerance.

In the end I, and I’m certain many like me, are less concerned about a symbol on Dewey Hill than about the unchanging reality of a cross long ago, on a hill far away.