Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Mental Health and Brain Injury Require Thoughtful Response

(From the April 9, 2015 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I’ve been thinking about thinking lately. Specifically, I’ve been musing about how people think when they have had a brain injury or have a mental illness. I’ve also been thinking about how those around people with cognitive issues resulting from mental illness or brain injury think about them.

The reason for my consideration of all of this comes from a sudden coincidence of people I know or met who have such cognitive issues.

My father has had several bouts of depression a few years ago, one requiring hospitalization. He is fine now, with his mental health controlled by counseling, medication, and lots of prayer. But for a while it was frightening as my mother and I felt as if we were speaking to a completely different person.

Closest to me is my wife, whose breast cancer spread to the brain in late 2013. The surgery and radiation to her head relieved her of this tumor, and we are grateful that recent scans show no sign of cancer. But there are lingering effects. One side of her mouth droops, especially when she is emotional. She gets a little extra emotional at times—either laughing or crying. She has headaches that may be caused by a muscle in her forehead that doesn’t relax since the surgery. She gets anxious in crowds. There are memory and focus issues. Sometimes she struggles to pronounce words correctly.

My wife and I laugh about it. We joke that with me being the stereotypical absent-minded professor and her dealing with consequences of brain surgery, we have half a brain between the two of us.

Yet, it is not funny. It’s frustrating and sad. And the worst of it is, most people don’t understand. They say she “looks great” and they’re happy she is currently cancer-free. But when we discuss cognitive issues they have a blank response and a look that seems to say, “well, snap out of it.”

I’ve heard this sort of sentiment from others too. They explain their difficulties and fear that people assume they are making weak excuses versus describing legitimate and real problems.

A man from my church has lost a lot of his short-term memory because of brain surgery. Another has had cognitive issues that make it challenging for him to keep a job. The mother of a friend gets tired and overwhelmed in crowds after a head injury in a car accident. Last semester a student in one of my classes collapsed in the middle of a presentation because of a brain tumor. One this semester explained to me why he sits in back and leaves the room occasionally because of anxiety brought on by some traumatic life events. Another is in counseling and needs special accommodation because of the untimely and suspicious circumstances of her mother’s death.

These people—and their spouses and close friends—have to explain their situations to others in the hope that they will not be judged for forgetting things or leaving a party early or needing to sit on the end of a row at church. But it is hard.

Injury or illness of a physical nature is also challenging, but does not come with such a stigma. People can better understand what they can see. A wheelchair, a prosthetic limb, a cast, a scar or other visible evidence do the explaining for them. But people with mental health or brain injuries have to explain themselves, repeatedly, and still fear judgment instead of compassion.

So let me offer a few words of advice. First, truly listen to people. Understand the situation they’re in is as real as a broken bone. Don’t offer quick diagnosis and solution. Don’t assume they haven’t tried to find relief. Understand that some mental health and brain injuries have lasting effects and don’t just heal over time. Don’t let people with mental health issues or brain injuries and their side effects annoy you. Instead, love them, just as they are.

In short, if you have a fully functioning brain, then use it to understand those who don’t. If you have a problem with their behavior, snap out of it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Reading is Important for Work, Pleasure, and Just Being Well-Read

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

I’ve been thinking a lot about reading lately. Mostly, about how little time I have for it.

I do a lot of reading in the course of my days and weeks. I read the Bible and some sort of devotional every morning. Then there is a lot of reading for work—reading trade publications, newsletters, academic journals and books to stay up on the field I teach. I also read lots of memos and reports related to administrative responsibilities. Of course I have to read student papers. I try to keep up on the news, which these days involves reading this paper as well as many other sources digitally on my computer or phone.

So why do I feel like I lack the time to read?

It’s partly because so much of the reading I do is obligatory or compulsive reading. I feel like I lack the time to read nonfiction books or novels just for the sheer pleasure of it, to entertain and educate myself on topics about which I am otherwise unfamiliar.

It’s also because so much of the reading we do these days is done in short bursts. We read headlines, summaries, reviews, social media posts. In fact, one academic study found that most of those links we see people offer on Facebook and other social media platforms are to articles they never actually read. They just want people to think they read it. And most of the people who click “like” do so not because they actually went to the link and read and approved of the content. They just liked the headline, or the idea of the article being linked.

So I, and possibly a lot of you, need more time to not only read, but to read for simple curiosity, and to read deeply.

I must say I was happy to read on the top front of this newspaper last week that the Bookman, our own local bookstore, will continue even though its current owners have decided to retire. Kudos to the new owners for following their passion, and in so doing keeping a local bookstore running for the rest of us.

Speaking of bookstores, there does seem to be a lot of people in bookstores whenever I am. This strikes me as odd and reassuring, because I get the sense that many people feel they have less time to read. Perhaps there is a core group of people who are regular readers of books. Maybe not everyone feels overwhelmed and lacks the time to read.

That notion was supported by another article in the paper last week the same day the news about the Bookman broke. Our local libraries are looking to increase digital offerings, but they still have hundreds of thousands of printed books in circulation every year. One librarian noted that people with e-readers also read print books. Like every other emerging technology, digital books supplement but does not replace printed books.

An interesting example of technology encouraging book reading is seen on Goodreads, a social media space on the web or in an app that’s all about sharing with friends what you’re reading, what you want to read, and what you thought of what you read. I’ve learned of good books—and been steered away from some—with this platform. I have categories of books ranging from academic interest to pure fiction entertainment in this app, and it encourages me.

I was also encouraged recently by meeting several people at social occasions who impressed me with how well read they are. These were people I had never met before, but just struck up a conversation because we were at the same event with time on our hands. Our discussions went from history to politics to religion to sports to philosophy. It was delightful. One person was an entrepreneur, another a maintenance man. Their occupation and academic pedigree did not matter. They were simply deep readers, and therefore great conversationalists.

As I write this, it is college spring break. My wife and I are not going anywhere, choosing instead to stay home and catch up on some projects and just relax here. I also caught up on reading. I picked out some classic literature, an award-winning novel, and some nonfiction works. All of them hard cover books I had bought in recent years and left on a shelf for later. Well, with a week off from normal obligations, I dove right in. Now I hope I can keep reading even as work and life pressures continue.

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.