Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Best Christmas Gift--Not Shopping

My wife and I recently watched the DVD “Christmas With the Cranks,” a comedy based on the John Grisham novel “Skipping Christmas.” It was hilarious and thought provoking, as good comedy should be.

The story is of a family in suburban Chicago whose only daughter has joined the Peace Corps. Since they envision her being away for two years, the husband gets to thinking. He also gets to calculating. He determines that all they spend on Christmas every year could be saved and spent on a cruise instead, with cash to spare.

It takes him some time to convince his wife to go along with it. But then the troubles begin. Office workers are miffed that he won’t play along with the gift-giving rituals at work. Neighbors are incensed that they don’t decorate their home with the Frosty the Snowman on the roof. And the policemen are suspicious when he doesn’t purchase the annual fundraising calendar. Friends are perturbed that they aren’t having their annual Christmas Eve party. Then, chaos ensues when their daughter declares she’s coming home with a new Ecuadoran boyfriend with just hours before Christmas Eve. The couple scrambles to put together a party and welcome their daughter home without letting on they had planned a cruise instead of their family tradition.

Moral of the story? It is nearly impossible to fight social norms and rituals.

So, how did we get this tradition of giving gifts at Christmas? Well, of course the obvious answer is to trace it back to the three wise men described in the Bible. They brought gifts to the newborn Jesus (or some say he was two years old by the time the wise men got to him). But our gift giving has strayed a bit from that original example. For one, while gold is still popular, it’s hard to find frankincense these days, and I’ve never seen myrrh at the mall. Secondly, the wise men bought gifts for Jesus, not for each other.

I think that Christmas gift-giving, like many traditions, started with good intentions and then lost its mooring and meaning.

Today, Christmas is a secular celebration of retail revenues. Stories in the news are about what kind of holiday shopping season retailers expect, how our shopping activity will affect the economy, and what the trendy gifts and gadgets are. There are many vague references to the “true meaning of Christmas” that are never explained, but the implications are about giving to others—not necessarily a bad thing—versus the message of God’s gift of his Son as a savior to mankind. It makes me think that the wisest men and women among us today would stop shopping.

Well, if there is not a star in the east, there is a bright spot on the Internet. It’s called buynothingchristmas.org. It’s a Web site spawned by a movement to, as the name implies, buy nothing at Christmas. If only the Cranks had such support in the movie.

I quote here from the introduction on the Web site:

“This Christmas we'll be swamped with offers, ads and invitations to buy more stuff. But now there's a way to say enough and join a movement dedicated to reviving the original meaning of Christmas giving.
Buy Nothing Christmas is a national initiative started by Canadian Mennonites but open to everyone with a thirst for change and a desire for action.
Buy Nothing Christmas is a stress-reliever, and more people need to hear about it. You can change your world by simply putting up one of the posters (or make your own) in your church, place of worship, home or work. Be sneaky about it if you have to. The point is to get people thinking. It's an idea whose time has come, so get out there and make a difference!”

The poster referenced is an image of Jesus face and the words: “Where did I say you should buy so much stuff to celebrate my birthday?” It’s a free download.

They have other resources as well. There’s a song called “Buy Nothing at All” you can download. There are kits for plays and other Christmas activities. And there are a host of ideas for giving “love” at Christmas, such as cakes and coupons you can make for a free back massage.

May tradition still has you bound. Maybe you can go shopping for sweaters and DVDs and other stuff and still celebrate the Christmas. But I think this Web site and its philosophy are worth checking out. As an item in a youth group study kit says: “Image is everything? Well don’t get pegged as a mindless consumer. Be a rebel this Christmas.”

Of course, on that I would say buying nothing at Christmas is not rebellion. It’s a recognition that we in this modern secular tradition have been rebelling against the “true meaning of Christmas” all along.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Setting Clocks Back Ticks Me Off

So, as usual, we set our clocks back this fall. It has become a ritual. As I understand it, this “daylight savings time” was first enacted to give farmers and others who needed it more daylight to do chores in the short days of winter. But I got to thinking about it this year, and feel that it’s really a bunch of malarkey.

First of all, we’re not really saving any daylight. We have the exact same amount no matter what we do with our clocks. We’re merely shifting our schedules. And while this might seem to be a benefit when there is more light in the morning for a while, we lose this perceptual benefit very quickly. In a few weeks, after the sun has continued on its seasonal quest for the southern hemisphere, we in the north will drive to work in the dark and drive home in the dark whether we shifted our clocks or not.

But of course we have to mind the time. Everything is coordinated by hours and minutes in modern society. Schools, work, transportation schedules, and of course, the big one—television! If there were no time, we would fall apart.

I also wonder why the clock changing happens around Halloween. We enact this futile attempt to save daylight right about the time all the little pre-school pirates and wee witches come out begging for candy. They’re all dressed to scare the living daylights out of us, thus negating any savings of said daylight we might have actually accrued.

Actually, speaking of ancient customs like Halloween, the whole concept of a “clock” is pretty ancient. Around the year 1000 I’m sure men and women and children merely woke up when it was light. They then made us of available daylight until it was time to return to the hut or cave to build a fire for warmth, light and cooking. Eventually they went to sleep, and started the process over again the next day. There was no real concept of time. It was irrelevant. In fact, if anyone referred to time they would have been clubbed on the head. Can you imagine some guy named Grog stretching by the fire and saying, “Well, I’m gonna turn in early. I need to get up at 6 a.m. to hunt and gather.”

It’s a bit funny that we consider ourselves so civilized today. But in creating time and timepieces, we have imprisoned ourselves to a degree. We are addicted to knowing what time it is. We ask each other that question frequently. We have appointments set by time, not by when we are ready to do something. Our work is measured by time, “time and a half”, over time. We are delighted when we have time off. In fact, it is when we are most like the cavemen of millennia ago that we feel privileged now. How often have you heard someone boast about being on vacation and not even looking at a clock? Exactly. It’s freedom.

But, for better or worse, civilization is guided by time. And we try to manage the inevitable rotation of the sun and the planets according to our schedule. How laughable. As the Bible says, we can be certain of the “rising of the sun and the setting of the same,” so why get in such a dither about changing our man-made time-measuring devices. I hear that for our neighbors to the south, in Indiana, coordinating time zones was a key ballot proposal this election day. It’s as if a majority of voters can take on God and say, “Let there be more light in certain regions of Indiana.”

This business of time zones has me fascinated too. Having traveled internationally, I know how such time measurement can have practical value. You want to avoid calling someone when they are sleeping at 2 a.m., so being aware of different time zones is important. It can also be bizarre. One time when returning from Asia, I flew from the east to the west, going backward through time zones. When I landed that I realized that I had arrived home one hour before I left. At least according to the way mankind keeps track of dates and time. In reality I had been in the air some 14 hours. Period. No big deal. But these self-constructions of time can blow our minds on occasion.

I suppose nothing will change. As hard as it is to change clocks twice a year, it would be even more difficult to change the way the world perceives of this thing called time. But as for myself, I’m going to try to not get so obsessed about it personally.

“Time waits for no man,” the saying goes. I say, that’s fine. Time, you go on ahead without me.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

It's Sometimes Hard to Have Faith In Government

As an undergraduate student, I majored in journalism and minored in political science and marketing. As a doctoral candidate, I am exploring how democracy is enhanced or hindered by the journalism and public relations professions. So I’m a fan of democratic government.

But I have to say that it has been hard to have faith in government lately. I keep reading about government goofs, and worse, at the local, state, and national levels.

Just recently I was shocked at a quote in this very newspaper by a local elected official who shared this gem of wisdom: “the people buying the condos in downtown Grand Haven might have more than one car.”

Ya think?!

Let’s see. Is it really surprising that people buying condos that cost twice an average middle class home might have the financial means to buy a second set of wheels? Is it hard to imagine that the people buying these condos, which are very likely a second home, would be the kind of people to buy a second vehicle as well? One only need take random glances at the driveways on Grant, Pennoyer or any other street in Grand Haven to see that two vehicles is the norm. You don’t need to be an honor student at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to determine parking needs. You should, though, if you are a local government leader, think about these things before the condos are built, before the site plans are approved. It’s called “planning.” Look into it.

My wife and I and countless other individuals walking along the channel have wondered aloud about the parking issue that is emerging in Grand Haven. New residents downtown might indeed have two cars. They might want to have friends over. New businesses and residents will draw more people to town. This is good. But they will all need to park. If they can’t, they might not come back. This is bad. What’s the plan?

Moving on to the county level, I’ve been amused and dismayed to read about Ottawa County’s $40,000 spelling error. Sure, mistakes happen. But spelling “public” wrong on a ballot is hard to fathom. You could say it’s an “l” of a mistake. Maybe they should have left it as is, saved us all a lot of money, and probably increased voter turnout. We know from pollsters in Florida that the average American can’t read a ballot anyway. The $40,000 saved on reprinting ballots could have been used to provide signage for new Grand Haven parking lots. Less the fee of a parking consultant, and a spelling consultant to make sure the signs are correct.

At the state level, I’ve been dismayed by the gubernatorial debates. I’ve also really always wanted to use the word gubernatorial in a sentence. Now I’ve done it twice. Anyway, you would think that a debate between people who hope to represent all of us could have the civility we all expect and deserve. Instead, the tone and informational quality of these debates was on par with reality TV. Call it “Survivor: Political Debate.” Can we vote them both off the island?

At the national level, we’ve also got sex scandals—again. An insane narcissist in North Korea is developing nuclear weapons, but our news has been about a senator sending naughty messages to a congressional page. In a sense, this breach of trust is big news. But you’d think our leaders could lead and represent us in a way that would make us proud. How can we trust our economy and defense to people we can’t trust to be around young people? Of course, I can’t resist pointing out the hypocrisy here as well. Get this: a senator gets caught sending naughty emails to a page and appropriately resigns, and TIME magazine declares the end of the Republican party. But when we had a sitting Democratic president who actually had sex in the oval office with an intern, and lied about it, we were chastised for not separating a person’s personal life from their ability to do their job. Had Senator Foley been a Democrat, he would be declared a “victim” for being accused of anything, and anyone who pointed out his misdeeds would have been labeled a homophobe.

The only concrete action the federal government has taken recently has been to approve building a 700-mile fence along our 2000-mile border with Mexico. Perhaps we should have the legislators proposing this take a long walk on a short pier. Or, maybe leave the border alone and fence in the congressional pages, or the senate, or both—but not together.

I’m not sure how all of this is related. Government issues from local to national, from parking to sex. I guess there is one connection between parking and sex: it should be illegal and morally unconscionable to pay for either one.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Drive-In a Way to Look Ahead to the Past

A few years ago my wife and I read in this paper that the Getty Drive-In Theatre and Muskegon would be closing. We looked at each other and said, “have you ever been to a drive-in?” Neither of us had. So we decided to go just to say we had known the experience before it was permanently lost to a previous era.

Apparently, many of you thought the same thing.

The Getty is still open. Judging from a recent visit, it appears to even be thriving. After the threat of closure, many West Michigan residents re-acquainted themselves with the drive-in experience, and many more were introduced to the idea for the first time. It has led to a resurgence in drive-in movie-goers.

By coincidence, I read an article in TIME magazine about drive-ins in August, during the same week that we took my nephew to the Getty Theatre to give him the drive in experience. TIME notes that after the first drive-in came into existence in Camden, New Jersey in 1933, the concept grew steadily. But, like many other things in modern life, the drive-in fell prey to air-conditioned megaplex theatres, VCRs, DVDs, TiVo, video on demand via cable television, and the ability to download films from the Internet. By 1995 there were fewer than 500 drive-ins left in the country.

But, since then, the number has grown to 658. Why the turnaround? There are lots of opinions and theories, with truth in all of them.

One reason has to be price. The Getty offers double features for a reasonable rate compared to conventional theatres. With no need to build and maintain a large indoor theatre, they can keep their costs low.

Another reason has to be the combination of two great American pastimes—camping and movie watching. At the drive-in, you can sit outdoors—or recline in the seat of your vehicle—and watch the film. You can be outside in the fresh air and be entertained by the latest feature films. It’s sort of like a silver screen campfire.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that our summers are preciously short in Michigan. People can’t give up their entertainment addiction, but they also want to be outside while the weather is nice. The drive-in accommodates both desires simultaneously.

I also think there is something about humanity that periodically rejects the inevitable onslaught of technology. With all the electronic entertainment options we have, there is a pull to the simplicity of the drive-in experience. For the young, of course, it may simply be something “new” to them. But for others, it may feel refreshing to unwind figuratively along with the literal unwinding of the reel of film.

It is interesting. I looked around at the setting when we were at the Getty recently and couldn’t help but think about scenes in the developing world that were ironically similar. I was in the Philippines once and noticed a billboard for the movie “Back to the Future” in a remote part of the country. In this case, I was told, it was likely a bootlegged VHS copy of the film that would be shown by battery-powered projector onto a bed sheet hung from a tree. The locals loved it. Of course, for them it may have been their only option.

A few weeks ago, sitting in camp chairs on the little grassy berm in front of our car, I enjoyed the two films as a bit of nostalgia. I was experiencing something I had only known about from the old TV show “Happy Days” or other historical references. For my nephew, Matthew, it was a new experience. There were some surprises for the eight-year-old.

“I thought there would be sounds in the movie; I didn’t expect speakers next to the car or sounds on the car radio,” he said. “I expected the screens to be smaller.”

He also expressed a few disappointments.

“I didn’t like sitting outside and watching the movie because it was getting kinda cold,” he admitted, although he did say there was a better view outside compared to a regular theatre. He also liked that you got to see two movies—even though he fell asleep during the second feature.

So, drive-ins persist against the advance of time. It’s modern entertainment in a nostalgic setting. Many are choosing drive-ins against options that would seem more convenient and comfortable. For all the advances in technology, human beings still have a basic yearning for simplicity. There’s something reassuring about that.

If you want to know what I mean, there are only a few more weeks of drive-in season left.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Being A Tourist Helps One Appreciate Tourists

OK. I admit to having been a snob. Living in the Tri-Cities created in me a certain feeling of entitlement to the wonderful benefits of our area. I found myself annoyed with the additional traffic, parking hassles, and other inconveniences of tourists in Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Ferrysburg.

But I recently came to feel a little more sensitive to the feelings of tourists when I was one myself.

I’m writing this in a hotel room in Napa Valley, California—and in several airports and airplanes en route to West Michigan—and reflecting on what it means to be and host tourists.

Several times in California we heard locals comment negatively about tourists. In San Francisco there were several shopkeepers and people on public transportation who complained about the extra crowds getting in the way. Up along the Pacific Coast and in Napa Valley we overheard locals complain as well about long lines at restaurants, crowds at beaches, slow traffic, and scarce parking spaces. The owner of a new coffee shop expressed delight at “tourist season” because her cash register was really ringing, but mostly people were put off by out of towners.

It was interesting to hear this commentary and know that it was about me, even if not directed specifically to me. I have felt the same way in the summer months when stopping somewhere to get coffee, going out for a meal, trying to park at the state park beach, waiting to turn left onto Beacon Boulevard. In California, away from home, I had become the very subject of my frustration.

But I can see things the tourists’ way now. While I was on business, I also was in an area I have not been to often. So, I wanted to go slow, look around, and enjoy myself at a relaxed pace. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I should try to do that more often at home. I’ll try to be more patient with people who drive slow, gawk at the water and otherwise seem “in the way.” I can’t begrudge them a desire to look around. We live in a beautiful place, and they want to see it. They are on vacation and want to relax. I should let tourists serve as a reminder that I should not take our area’s beauty for granted. I should follow their lead and relax more.

Another thing I noticed—or will notice at the end of the next credit card billing cycle—is how much money I spent. The food, transportation and a few other activities and items I consumed will single-handedly support the central Californian economy for the next month, or so it seems.

I now have something else to think about while I wait in line at Tri-Cities restaurants and other establishments. All the people I’m waiting for are unloading their vacation funds from somewhere else into our local economy. They are giving local retailers and vendors and good profit, which enables them to be here in the first place and serve all of us locals year round. I can be more patient in line now.

The following thought also occurred to me--would we really rather live in an area where no one wants to visit? Rather than be bothered by the influx of traffic and activity to our area in the summer, we should be proud of the endorsement of the Tri-Cities as a “destination” for vacationers.

Often when I visit a place I wonder what it would be like to live there. I wondered that along the coast of California at ocean beaches, in sprawling farms of Napa, in small villages like Calistoga in the hills and mountains. And I admit, it could be a beautiful place to live. But I hear that comment about Grand Haven and Ottawa County a lot from tourists I happen to talk to. They often comment that it must be great to live here. I always agree.

Heading home again I look forward to the not only the familiar, but the fabulous. We have a great place to live. And for the remaining weeks of summer when I encounter out of state plates, slow traffic, lines at stores and restaurants and questions about the obvious, I’ll be happy. And I’ll be helpful, answering questions and offering tips about the area whenever I can. I’ll do so because I understand that they are on vacation, and I understand again that I am lucky to live year-round in an area they chose to visit for a week.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Vision for Parks Needs to Continue

A recent issue of TIME Magazine included a package of articles about Teddy Roosevelt. Now 100 years removed from the middle of his second term as president, it is interesting to look at this man and his vision for the country as it entered a new century. One aspect of his visionary legacy that stands out is his understanding of the need for parks.

In his first term (1901-1904), TIME reports, he created five national parks and 50 bird and other animal reservations. Roosevelt, who developed a love of the outdoors after dealing with asthma as a child, wanted to ensure that all Americans in future generations could enjoy our great country’s great natural attributes as he had.

There is rarely if ever a legacy that did not begin with a vision. And so, 100 years after Roosevelt was president, I was impressed to receive a brochure about the vision for Ottawa County parks that is equated with our own legacy as the residents of this county. Titled “Our Parks…Our Families…Our Legacy”, the brochure spells out the numerous accomplishments of the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Commission in the past decade. It also illustrates planned initiatives for parks throughout the county in the years ahead. And, it makes the important point that it will take the vision and investment of all of us to ensure that these initiatives can come to fruition. The purpose of the brochure, distributed by the Ottawa County Parks Millage Renewal Committee, is to vote “yes” to renew the Land Legacy millage first approved in 1996.

The original concept of a park, according to various sources, is a place free of houses and other structures for the nobles to go and hunt. In our modern era, a park is better known as an area of open space for citizens to enjoy recreation. One hundred years ago, when Roosevelt proposed setting aside large tracts of federal land as parks, he had preservation of land and the access of the common man in mind. Some back then, in a vast open country, may have considered such actions unnecessary. But again, he had vision.

Here in Ottawa County in 2006, the vision is easier to grasp. As the well-monied “nobles” of our day acquire private properties on Lake Michigan and inland lakes and rivers, it is increasingly important that we ensure access to these natural resources for the common man. And even away from the water, the time to preserve open space for recreation is now. According to U.S. Census data, Ottawa County grew by 7.2% from 2000-2005, to a population of more than 255,000. To put that in perspective, we have 566 square miles in the county. In 2000, there were 421 people per square mile; now we’re up to 451 people per square mile and growing. That’s two and a half times the population density of the State of Michigan overall.

Ironically, one of the reasons people move here is because of the open space and access to recreational waters. While growth is good for the economy and brings many benefits, it is also important to plan for growth and to ensure that it is sustainable. Environmentalists, business owners, and government leaders all have the same at stake here—ensuring a quality of life that will retain employees, customers, citizens and taxpayers.

As I looked through the brochure that came in the mail, it was not just a pitch for money or an accumulation of data. I read it as a scrap book of good memories as I reviewed all the Ottawa County parks. I recalled frequent hikes at Rosy Mound, walking with county naturalists at the newly acquired North Ottawa Dunes property, biking the Musketawa Trail, kayaking the Grand and Pigeon rivers, cross-country skiing at Pigeon Creek and Hemlock Crossing parks, and anticipating all of these activities and more at the newly acquired lands planned to become parks. The vision of county leaders and citizens in the past made all of this recreation possible for me—a common man. The same is true I know for many of you.

I’m not a rich man, but I feel wealthy when I consider where I live. Every time I fly home from Miami, New Orleans, San Francisco or anywhere else, I glance down from the airplane window and delight at the site of the Lake Michigan shoreline, the dunes, the rivers and lakes, and the spreading green below. And while many other regions of the country have exciting attributes, I consider myself lucky to live here for the natural quality of life we enjoy.

And even though I am not rich, I can certainly afford $16.65—that’s the amount per year this .33 mills proposed will cost the owner of a $100,000 home. As the brochure says, that’s about the same as a fast food restaurant meal for three. It’s certainly less than the cost to fill up an SUV or a boat these days. It’s even less than the $24 for an annual state park vehicle pass. I’m going to vote “yes” to invest that amount to maintain and grow our parks, to establish our legacy. I hope you’ll do the same.

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Family and Friends Show Focus in Funeral

It had all the ingredients of a made-for-TV story. There was an unusual turn of events, and plenty of raw human emotion. And so news media from around the world, both broadcasters and print reporters, arrived in west Michigan to cover this compelling story, the funeral of Laura VanRyn.

You’ve no doubt heard the story yourself about VanRyn, of Caledonia, and her fellow college student Whitney Cerak, of Gaylord. The two Taylor University students were in an accident six weeks ago. At the time, officials declared the Cerak had died and that VanRyn had survived with serious brain and other injuries. For several weeks, families thought it was VanRyn at the Spectrum Health Brain Injury Center. Only recently did the truth emerge—officials had mistaken the identities of the two young women. VanRyn was the one who had passed away.

That mistake is what made all of this newsworthy for the media. This was little reporting about the original accident beyond the local and regional media where the two women lived and went to school. But this past weekend, reporters from CNN, the New York Times, People Magazine and many other national media outlets came to west Michigan to tell this story of mistaken identities, shock, and grief.

But the national media perhaps got a different story at the funeral.

Van Ryn’s father, Don, set the tone for a different story right away when he began the funeral by addressing the misidentification and that some people had encouraged them to file a lawsuit. Such a scenario could have easily been expected. One only has to watch cable TV coverage of various accidents and crimes to see the story drag out as a legal battle. But VanRyn put any notions of that to rest by speaking from his Christian perspective that Christ encourages us to forgive rather than to seek vengeance.

His perspective was followed and reinforced repeatedly. Laura’s siblings recalled her simple capacity for happiness. Her college roommates and friends shared her college sports and academic accomplishments. All of them spoke of her—and their own--faith in Jesus Christ, and what that means at a time like this. It was all very moving, as might be expected at a funeral. But it was all the more moving for the peaceful, positive flavor of the event.

It so happens that two of my friends and colleagues who are members of the West Michigan Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America responded to a request from Kentwood Community Church, where the funeral was held, to help handle the large number of reporters at the event. Neither felt the media were particularly surprised at the expressions of faith, since the family’s Web log (blog) about Laura had been publicized and included many spiritual themes. But both said it was interesting watching the media reaction to the event.

“It was interesting standing in the back of the media room and watching their reactions as speaker after speaker essentially preached the Gospel for an hour and a half,” said Bruce Schedlbauer, who normally handles communication for the Ford International Airport. “By watching their faces I could see a little curiosity and wonder at how the family and friends conducted themselves in the midst of this painful event.”

Overall, both of my friends said the media conducted themselves very well. Rather than exploit the occasion for a sensational story, as some criticize the media of doing, the reporters at the event respected the family’s wishes for privacy at a very personal moment. They also dealt with the faith aspect in different ways.

“I would say that there were different levels of sophistication when it came to how the service was covered,” recalls Phil DeHaan, who handles media relations at Calvin College. “Some media made only passing mention of the faith of the family; other outlets centered their coverage on the relationship the VanRyns have with their Lord and Savior.”

DeHaan notes that one station in Indianapolis actually read from the family’s blog, quoting Psalm 18 on the air. He also points out that the ABC reporter had attended a Christian college, and the People Magazine reporter had family in the area. So not all national media representatives find matters of faith to be foreign or beneath mention.

Beyond the media reaction, I wonder about the reactions of their viewers and readers across the country. At times when we do seem so consumed by news of violence, hatred, and revenge, I would hope that in comparison the testimony of the VanRyns and their faith community provides hope. It’s that difference that makes this story newsworthy to me.

In the end the story did have a turn of events and deep human emotion, but perhaps not what lots of people expected. A story that could have been about anger was instead about peace and forgiveness. The prospect of sudden anguish and doubt was overwhelmed by the peace flowing from a deep and long-held faith. An incident described as being about confusion at a time of death became a message about certainty in this life and the next.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

High Gas Prices Fuel Idea for Hometown Vacation

Only a year and a half ago my wife and I were celebrating an anniversary in Hawaii and were struck by the fact that gas was selling for $2.70 a gallon. We figured we could deal with it because we were on vacation and would return to reasonably priced gasoline soon.

Now, with gas at the same price levels here, we are thinking it might be good to spend our vacation here at home. The truth is, we have often chuckled when we go away in the summer and return home to see the Tri-Cities bustling with vacationers from all over. We wonder, why do we leave? Obviously, it’s just for a change of pace and to force relaxation away from the temptation of doing yard work or other projects around the house.

But, this year in addition to a week up north, we are talking about spending summer vacation time right here at home. Here are a few ideas we have for making the most of our time off, if not time away.

We have always thought it would be interesting to take the Trolley that we see carting about happy tourists every summer season. It’d be interesting, as local residents, to see what it’s like to ride the trolley, and to listen to what those drivers are actually telling tourists about us. Taking the trolley, of course, would also save gas.

One summer a few years ago, I was hanging out near the fishing boats having a latte with my wife and some friends, when a couple asked us if we knew of a place nearby to rent bikes. We gave a few ideas. But the thought occurred to us, there are wonderful bike paths in our community that can take you to several parks, all the way to Holland, or around Spring Lake. One vacation day at home could be spent riding around Spring Lake, stopping for lunch in Fruitport and then ice cream at Miss Lisa’s or the Front Porch. This would require no gas, and depending on what you eat, could generate some.

Speaking of parks, those same bike paths connect most of us to Hoffmaster, Grand Haven State Park, Rosy Mound, Kirk Park and other beach locations further south. A bike ride to the beach, with a backpack of refreshments and reading material, could make for another fine day of vacation. The only hard part would be pedaling home after being relaxed in the sun all day. But you would have saved on gas again.

Another great vacation activity would be to attend Concerts in the Park, on Tuesdays in Grand Haven’s Central Park, as well as Concerts at the Point, at Mill Point Park in Spring Lake on Thursdays. Both are put on by the Grand Haven Area Arts Council and are absolutely free. If we still had “Stompin’ at the Stadium” jazz concerts in the waterfront stadium in Grand Haven, you could make a week off at home a de facto music festival.

Another more cultural activity would be to visit the Tri-Cities Museum as well as other historical and art museums in the region. It’d be a good rainy day activity. And, if you’re like me, you hardly ever take advantage of local museums unless you have out of town guests. The local museums are in biking distance, if you still want to save gas.

It’s unfortunately too late to take a ride on the Harbor Steamer, since the local landmark is in dry dock and for sale. I had always wanted to take a cruise on the boat as a tourist in my home town. But we still can engage in the popular tourist activity of walking the pier, getting a hot dog or some ice cream, and watching boats go up and down the channel. As the boaters look at us landlubbers with pity, I will pat my bike seat and revel in the knowledge of gas dollars saved.

If you wanted to do just a little driving, you could head up to the Getty Drive-In in Muskegon and enjoy a double feature at dusk. This place nearly closed a few years ago until locals stormed the gates trying to take part in a classic American summer activity one last time. Since then it has been re-popularized and remained open. You can bring your own food to recover the cost of the drive up there.

One must-do activity for a stay-at-home vacation is to literally stay at home. Many of us do so much work in our yards and we rarely sit in them and enjoy the natural splendor we have created. I plan to grab a good book and a tall glass of iced tea and sit in a hammock in the yard or lounge on the patio and relax. At least until I notice something in the yard that needs work.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Anniversary of Immigration is Time for Pride

Tomorrow, April 14, marks the 50th anniversary of the day my mother and her family got off a boat from the Netherlands in New York harbor. The occasion has me reflecting about what it means to be the son of an immigrant, a first-generation American-born citizen, and one of Dutch ancestry.

For much of my life I was a little shy about saying I had Dutch roots. West Michigan is often depicted as overwhelmingly Dutch—in fact, many estimates say 45 percent of the population in Ottawa County claims Dutch ancestry. You would think that would provide some comfort. But if you move in some more diverse circles, you also get the negative comments about the Dutch. Perhaps that’s because of a natural human instinct to resent the perceived majority.

Of course, I’ve had to ponder my own family history in light of all the current political drama about immigration. While I do concur that immigration should be legal, it’s hard for me to bear resentment of immigrants when I myself am only one generation removed from that status. Plus, it’s in my Dutch DNA to advocate for the American “melting pot.” In fact, that very idea comes from the Dutch, and not so much the English as history books have taught us.

I base that assertion on a wonderful book by Russell Shorto called “Island at the Center of the World.” It’s a book about Manhattan and the forgotten Dutch colony of New Netherlands.

Shorto points out that the Dutch culture was the most tolerant in all of Europe in the 17th Century. It’s a little known fact that the Pilgrims—who always steal the show to this day in Thanksgiving plays—fled to the accepting atmosphere of Amsterdam before they came to the New World. In fact, they came to the New World because they felt the Dutch were a little too tolerant of other religions. And as for that dinner with the Puritans and the Indians? I wonder if there was a Dutch person there to translate. Turns out that as late as 1750 the English authorities in the New World needed to find a Dutch speaker to converse with the Indians, since that was the only European language many of them had learned.

That’s just one of many examples of history overlooking Dutch influence on America that Shorto points out in his book. To this day, children learn about “13 original colonies,” but in fact the Dutch colony on Manhattan is the origin of much of our modern American culture. Their natural tolerance allowed the area that became New York City to welcome a great diversity of people from around the world. This, and a well-regarded work ethic and business savvy, helped position New York as the global trade center that it still is today. Shorto describes the New Netherland colony on Manhattan as crawling with people from all over the globe, peacefully coexisting and commencing trade. It was the original melting pot of ethnicities.

The Dutch had their influence on American politics, as well. England took over the colony in 1664 and renamed it after the Duke of York. But in negotiations before that takeover, the Dutch insisted on preserving rights under the new English authority. This document, Shorto claims, is a precursor to the Bill of Rights we all enjoy today in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, it was the New York delegation that expressed the most concern about a strong federal government. Of the 26 names signing a document insisting that a bill of rights be attached to the constitution, half were English, half were Dutch.

While some around West Michigan indicate that the Dutch are “narrow minded,” history actually shows a strong intellectual background. Rene Descartes and John Locke both found safe haven in the Netherlands when their new ideas about philosophy and politics were not well received elsewhere in Europe. In the 17th Century, the Netherlands produced half of all the books published worldwide.

Today, our American culture—not just here in West Michigan--is sprinkled with many contributions from the Dutch. In 1915, New York City adopted as its colors the orange, red, and blue of the 17th Century Dutch flag in recognition of its origins. That’s why the Knicks and Mets have those colors in their uniforms. The reason we eat cookies and not the English “biscuits” is because of Dutch influence. Wives on the original colony in Manhattan popularized “koeckjes” (cook-yahs) or little cakes, which we today call cookies. The Dutch women also improvised in those early years to make food from a variety of ingredients, including a cabbage salad called “kool sla” which you get as a side called cole slaw in many restaurants today. Of course the Dutch tradition of “Sinterklaas” (St Nicholas) excites American children every December as they await Santa Claus.

Perhaps all the Dutch in America today don’t share the characteristics of the inhabitants of the original New Netherlands colony. Perhaps they should. As for me, I’m proud to be an American. And I’m especially proud of all the Dutch influence on American politics and culture. I think I’ll put a Dutch flag on the front porch and have a cookie.

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Pause for Poetry Provides Oasis of Thought

I didn’t know if he was serious or not. This kid I sat by in a high school English class. He had asked me for my impression of his poem:

“Blades of grass,
blowing in the wind,
like blades of grass.”

Like I said, I didn’t know if he was serious or not. He often goofed off. He didn’t seem to take the class seriously. But somehow he seemed as if he were proud of this poem.

“Deep,” I said. I figured he could decide if I was serious or not.

He nodded, thoughtfully. Unless he was faking it.

It was hard in high school to take poetry seriously. I’d be in class during the afternoon and prodded to discuss iambic pentameter and heroic couplets. Then, in my after school job, all I was allowed to say was: “paper or plastic?”

But something did stick. I had an English teacher in seventh grade, whom I’ll never forget. I remember this young woman partly because she had fake teeth in the front of her mouth—due to an accident of some kind--that she would suck up and down to freak us out. But also because she taught so passionately that diagramming sentences was as exciting as sports. She sparked for me a life long love of words.

In college that love blossomed under the tutelage of another young woman who taught the mandatory freshman English composition course. She forced us to keep journals. Many complained about this, and at first I thought it was ridiculous as well. But I still have that journal today, and many more that I’ve maintained since then. Journaling has been good practice, therapy, and habit. Many of my journals include poetry.

I also began to read poetry just for fun. My bookshelves include collections from Frost, Keats, Dickenson as well as more contemporary work from the likes of Jim Harrison, Robert Haas, and Billy Wilder. I like the efficiency of the words and the power of sparse expressions to yield profound thoughts.

It’s deep.

So my interest was piqued when I saw a notice in the paper and on the sign at the Spring Lake library about a poetry reading night. Local people were invited to come in Tuesday night and read their poems. I made a note to attend.

There were about a dozen people in the room. One of the librarians made a few announcements, and then people were invited to read. The editor of “Peninsula Poets” started it off. He was followed by a group of other local poets—men, women, senior citizens, and younger people too.

There were serious and spiritual themes, as well as humorous and whimsical efforts. There was free verse, more metered verse, and even some poems that rhymed. The topics varied. There were poems about cats, the breakwaters at the Muskegon pier, life in a cemetery, lions in the zoo, remembering a mother’s sewing machine, gardening and flowers, something called “Ode to Pilot Biscuits” about a unique type of cracker the poet had encountered in Alaska, prayer, and many other subjects.

All of it was deep. Seriously.

Earlier in the week I watched a few glimpses of the Academy Awards. I am a little interested in films, but find the self-aggrandizing speeches, over-hyped glamour, and feigned humility to be sickening. This poetry reading was a refreshing alternative. Local talent gathered together to humbly share their inner thoughts and creations with fellow citizens. We were a collection of every day people, sharing our sense of the profound.

I hadn’t intended to read myself. I was a little shy of bringing public the words I had thoughtfully and privately etched in a series of notebooks. But I was so inspired that I did read one. It was a poem about my wife that I had with me in my laptop because I printed it and framed it with a picture of her. It felt odd to read it aloud to a room full of strangers. But they politely applauded, as I had for them.

This poetry reading at the library was the same--a chance to listen to the innermost thoughts of fellow human beings, and just sit there a while to think and appreciate words and life itself. We should do it more often. It all reminded me of a poem called “Oasis” that I wrote about attending a poetry reading several years ago. Other people’s thoughts bounced around in my own mind and, even though in a room full of other people, I felt I enjoyed a moment of solitude. I had the same feeling at the Spring Lake library earlier this week:

This period,
This place,
This collection of words
And pauses,
This cause for reflection
Is refreshment
And relief.

It is real.

It is a place on the hazy horizon,
A time unmeasured,
A pause in dry routine,
A shimmering image
For me
Alone.

Thursday, February 9, 2006

Super Bowl: Your Ad Here

There were streaking sheep, cute little Clydesdales, cave men, Muppets, and monkeys. Oh yeah, there was a football game too.

The Super Bowl has been a high-profile staple of American culture for four decades now, but increasingly the phenomenon is the advertising that goes with it. And I don’t just say that because I teach communications. Local and national surveys confirm that more than half of the people who tune in do so at least as much for the ads as they do for the game. In fact, one study I read reported that 20 percent of people tune in primarily for the ads, as if the game is irrelevant.

I felt that way especially this year, having been invited to a Super Bowl party at Hanon-McKendry, a well-regarded Grand Rapids advertising agency. The “Ad Bowl” they arranged pitted myself and some academic colleagues from Calvin and Aquinas colleges against the professional advertising creatives at the firm. It was a fun and intense competition to rank the ads and see whether the pros or profs prevailed by comparing out picks against the consumers’ favorites as listed the next day in USA Today.

They had decked out their conference room with a small-scale football field made out of astro turf. Competitors say at tables on the field and watched a big screen TV. Others who were spectators sat in bleachers in the back of the room. When the game would stop and commercials would start, a referee dressed in black and white stripes would bow the whistle to get our attention. We would view the ads and raise one of three cards to give our rating of the ads based on the criteria of memorable, compelling, and differentiating. A “touchdown” had all three elements; a “safety” one of the three, and a “delay of game” had none of the desired attributes.

It was a good thing there was a football game to give us a chance to get more food and use the rest room.

So I know what you’re thinking: who won? Well, it was close for a while, but the Steelers prevailed in the end. What? You weren’t thinking about that? Of course not. Actually, the profs and pros were pretty close. The professors listed as our top three the ad featuring the young Clydesdale horse who gets secret help from older horses to pull the famous Budweiser wagon. We also liked the humor and production of the Fed Ex ad featuring a cave man who gets stomped out after using a pterodactyl instead of FedEx to send a package. Finally, we liked the Dove ad featuring little girls with an important message about self esteem and true beauty. The pros picked the ad featuring the streaking sheep, and also the Fed Ex and Dove ads. And, according to the USA Today poll, the profs were closer—the national consumer poll ranked the ad with the secret fridge number one, the young Clydesdale and the FedEx cave man as the top three.

In the end, what I found most interesting was not who won the football game or the ad ranking competition, but what the total collection of ads and this annual spectacle says about our society.

For one thing, as annoying as ads can be at times, we need to appreciate them for being the financial engine that allows us to watch content without paying for it. We pay for the TV and the equipment, but there’s still a lot of content out there that we would have to pay for were it not for advertisers.

It’s also interesting how ads have changed beyond mere announcements about new products and their features to being entertainment spectacles in their own right. Consumers expect ads to be funny. These mini 30-second movies often don’t mention a product at all, they simply try to introduce or maintain a brand and create an image, a feeling, and a loyalty toward that brand. And consumers expect to be entertained.

Given that expectation, I always wonder about the value of ads to the advertisers. There’s a lot of debate in the profession about tracking ads and their effect. But most of it is whether people like the ads or remember them, not about whether they were persuaded to buy something. This was a point I made in two news interviews I did with an area TV station and radio station after the game. But the USA Today poll and most other discussions of the ads just look at whether consumers liked them. It assumes sales will follow. That’s a big assumption for $2.5 million, the going rate for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl.

When you sit back and think about the whole exhibition of commercial television, this barrage of ads and content, you realize that this is really not about advertisers funding content to benefit society. And networks don’t produce content to entertain us. No. Networks are selling US to advertisers. Advertisers pay a lot in order to send us a message. We are the commodities here, not the spectators. With more people watching for the ads than the game, I wonder why the Budweiser doesn’t charge the NFL a fee for attracting an audience to the game. Or why WE as consumers don’t charge advertisers a fee for our attention.

I’d watch a football game and as many ads they want to show me for far less than $2.5 million per 30 seconds. Give my agent a call, Budweiser, and we’ll work out a deal. But I should tell you up front that I’m charging extra for streaking sheep.

Monday, January 9, 2006

Those French Have a Different Word for Everything

The French are into irony, I’ve read. So here’s an irony--I studied German for two years in high school; I studied Spanish for two years in college; my mother is an immigrant from the Netherlands; I’ve learned through previous jobs and travel to speak snatches of Japanese, Hawaiian, Tagalog (a common dialect in the Philippines), and even certain greetings in everything from Russian to Tiv, a Nigerian language; but the first time I have an opportunity to go to Europe, it happens to be France. I have never studied French. All I know is what comedian Steve Martin said: “Those French have a different word for everything!”

It’s true.

I found that out for myself when I went to France the week after Thanksgiving to teach public relations to a group of 20 French students at a place called ESSCA. That’s a French acronym, so suffice it to say it’s a business institute in the city of Angers. Angers is pronounced “an-JAY” or actually like a drunk with a bad cold, “an-SHJAY.” It is not Angers, as in a collection of people who are angry. Although, I had to wonder about a country with cities named Angers and Nice. Talk about your national mood swings! Other cities in Europe are named for American lunch meats and fast food—Hamburg, Frankfort, Genoa, Bologna—so at least the French are more original.

But back to the language thing.

My wife bought me a set of language CDs for me to bone up on yet another language, to get ready to teach in France. Now, I would be teaching in English, fortunately, because the students had to know English. But I wanted to learn enough to be able to communicate a bit, show some global savvy by at least trying to speak French and not perpetuate the image of the boorish American who expects if they merely shout slowly everyone will understand them. My mother-in-law even bought us a pocket translator from Brookstone, in case we needed to say something in a pinch, like “I need diarrhea medication.”

But actually, as I studied, I realized I did know some French. Apparently, quite a few French phrases have found their way into common American expressions. Especially when we’re talking about food. For example, omelet du fromage is a cheese omelet. Crème brule is a dessert that I’m sure most of you have heard of. And of course, who hasn’t said bon apetit at the beginning of a meal? Wines are all named for regions of France—Bordeaux, chardonnay, and so forth. It makes it interesting to drink a glass or bottle of Bordeaux while you are in Bordeaux. I don’t know if Michigan wineries will ever adopt this trend. I just can’t hear people at a party saying, “Would you like a bottle of Paw Paw?” The word for wine in French is vin, which looks similar, although it is pronounced vahn. At least the French word looks like the English word so we can guess intelligently what it is.

But some words don’t look anything like the English word. Or worse, they look like an English word but one with a completely different meaning.

For example, we saw stores everywhere with the word pain, such as maison de pain. I knew maison meant house, so what was this? A house of pain? Are these Frenchies a bunch of masochists?! Then we learned that pain is pronounced pahn, and that it means bread. Then we had some bread, and decided this fresh, daily, no-preservative bread was outstanding. The French eat a lot of bread and no one seems overweight. Forget the Atkins diet; the French motto seems to be “no pain, no gain.”

In the end, I was able to practice my French and even ordered dinner and bought a beret, baguettes, and even champagne at little shops, with the transactions happening entirely in French. I felt quite proud of myself. Until I started noticing that after I enacted a conversation in French, people would respond in English. They must have known my accent and decided to prevent me from further torturing their language. Or maybe word was out about my feeble attempts at multi-lingual puns, such as the time I bought bread and asked if they could take my baguette and bag it. I don’t think they caught on.

So now, I’m a little sensitive about the French language. I noticed back here now in the states how often when I read a magazine or newspaper that some American snob has to insert a French phrase when a perfectly good English one would do. For example, why did a certain national columnist recently have to write raison d’etre when he could have just said “reason for existence”? They put these little French phrases in italics (like I’ve done with this column) as a way not to better express their point, but to say: “hey, I speak French!” Snobs.

Meanwhile, many French people refuse to speak English, or are so arrogant that they don’t want to have any words from other languages seep into their vernacular. They really do want to have a different word for everything. I’m tempted to start a lobby to ensure that we Americans stop sneaking little French phrases into our language. Now that I think about it, I’m quite passionate about that. I have anger, even though I do not live in Angers. Stopping the intrusion of French into American English will be my raison d’etre.

By the way, if any of you want to see my photos of France, you can see a quick slide show online