Monday, December 17, 2007

This Year, Why Not Santa for President?

(From the December 13, 2007 Grand Haven Tribune)

It’s been a perfect storm. First, the presidential elections have encroached on Christmas territory. We’ve got debates and election coverage crowding into annual ‘Frosty the Snowman’ TV specials. In fact, if you were paying attention, you may have noticed that there actually was a snowman asking a question in one of those silly UTube debates. I actually remember the snowman better than any of the candidates. There are more people running for president this time around than there are BCS bowl games.

Meanwhile, there’s a writer’s strike going on in Hollywood. In response, the networks are airing reruns, reality TV, and more Christmas specials.

It’s bad enough during most of the year when Hollywood and Washington pine for our attention. But now the intensity has risen. The writers’ strike is getting more testy, and the politicians apparently feel that the primaries should move up in equal proportion to the number of candidates.

The Grinch can take the year off. Politicians and writers are stealing Christmas this year.

But then one night, as I flipped channels and saw glimpses of stump speeches and bad sitcom reruns, it hit me—Santa for President.

Why not? Let’s combine fiction, Christmas, and politics once and for all. There are lots of good reasons.

For one, Santa’s not a bad candidate. He makes all kinds of promises every year. Some people don’t believe him, but how is that any different from the other candidates pre-primary? You want a new Wii or Play Station? Sure. Reform Social Security? No problem. That new monopoly game that takes credit cards? It’s on the list. Free health care for everyone? Ho ho ho!

He looks like a politician too, when you think about it. He always wears the same suit, and could stand to lose some weight.

Santa has a distinct edge in some areas. One, with all the milk he drinks on Christmas Eve, and his endorsement of stockings, he has the dairy associations and textile industries locked up for support.

He’s strong on foreign policy too. Santa has name recognition all over the world. In fact, he’s actually part of traditions in more countries than George Bush can name, or pronounce.

Speaking of foreign countries, think of how much he can save us on travel. He takes that sleigh of his all over the world without burning any fossil fuels. We could moth ball Air Force One during a Santa presidency.

His one liability could be outsourcing. Everyone knows he has his toys made by elves at the North Pole. This will likely upset the unions and other protectionists. But, if he’s smart, he could turn this negative into a positive. Move the elves to Washington, and get rid of Congress. Shoot, some of our congressmen are older than elves as it is. Plus, those elves are pretty industrious—they might actually get something done.

We’d keep Teddy Kennedy though. With his red nose, he could come in handy if Rudolph is ever unable to fly. That’s Rudolph the reindeer, by the way, not Rudolph Giuliani. That Rudolph’s face was read on “Meet the Press” recently, but not his nose. Plus, he can’t lead a sleigh. He has his own driver.

Santa could draw on some of the other candidates for his administration. Dennis Kucinich, for instance, admitted during one debate that he has seen a UFO. Since he’s savvy of the night skies, he could be Secretary of Sleigh Navigation. Then again he’s also kind of short and has big ears. Maybe he’d be a good director of FEMA—Federal Elf Management Administration.

The again, let’s just make a fresh start. All our current congress people and presidential candidates should be sent to the “Island of Misfit Toys.”

Santa can pick his own cabinet from some well-known Christmas TV special friends. Frosty could head up a special task force on global warming. Let’s face it—he has a strong personal interest in that cause. Ebeneezer Scrooge would make an excellent Treasury Secretary. He’s on top of every penny. The Nutcracker could be Secretary of Defense. With a name like that who’d want to mess with him? Plus, the uniform is impressive. Santa could handle national security by himself. No need for a Patriot Act or wiretapping for him. He’s already had a naughty and nice list for years. Finally, the Grinch would make an excellent vice president. He has a rather dour demeanor and lives at an undisclosed location most of the time.

This is all silly fantasy I know. But, if Santa ever did become president? Well, my heart would grow three sizes that day.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Begging for Candy Makes for Strange Holiday

(From the November 8, 2007 Grand Haven Tribune)

Last week Wednesday I came home to a familiar and yet strange sight. Familiar because I have seen it before. Strange because, well, it’s strange.

Cars were parked all over my neighborhood. Children (and not a few adolescents and teenagers) were dressed in all manner of costume. They traipsed across lawns (and sometimes shrubbery) going door to door, seeking candy.

Of course, I’m talking about Halloween.

I wonder how many people really think about Halloween beyond the concept of dressing up and getting free candy.

There’s quite a history to Halloween. The Druids, who were Celtic priests, celebrated New Year on November first to mark the transition from the period of light to a period of darkness, stemming from their worship of the sun god. Their festival was called Samhain, and the three-day affair involved people dressing up in costumes made of animal skins and animal heads. Hmm, I hit a deer the week earlier. Had I done my research earlier, I could have saved the carcass for my own ‘traditional’ Halloween costume. Maybe not. I’m glad the little kiddies marching through my neighborhood have costumes made of nylon and polyester.

In the first century the Romans introduced a holiday to Europe known as Pamona Day, named for the Roman goddess of fruits and gardens. It also happened on November 1. It was blended with the Celtic celebration, making the annual event even bigger. Pamona? Don’t we have a park by that name up in Fruitport? That’d make a nice location for a Halloween event every year. Maybe all these people who show up in my neighborhood begging for candy could head there instead and beg for fruit. I mean, why not return to the roots of this annual ritual.

Later, in the year 835 AD, the Roman Catholic Church made November 1st a church holiday to honor all the saints—and possibly to counter the pagan rituals on November 1. This day was called All Saint's Day, or Hallowmas, or All Hallows. Years later the Church would make November 2nd a holy day. It was called All Souls Day and was to honor the dead. It was celebrated with big bonfires, parades, and people dressing up as saints, angels and devils. I wonder how the church could condone dressing up as devils, but I get the saints and angels part. It’d be interesting to ask the “little devils” going through my neighborhood, “who’s your favorite saint?” If they answer with the name of a bonafide saint, I’d give them an apple. Or maybe a wafer.

Of course, the Protestants also tried to co-opt this ancient tradition. They celebrate Reformation Day near the end of October. It hasn’t broken into the Halloween tradition of “trick or treating” however. If it had, these children would dress like John Calvin or John Wesley and show up on front porches reciting catechism. I’d give out king size Snickers bars if that ever happened. Or maybe Wilhemina peppermints and windmill cookies (inside joke to those of the Reformed persuasion).

In any event, many of these influences have blended together today to give us an event exploited by candy makers, greeting card companies, and of course, children. After one of my typical 10- or 12-hour days, I find it odd to have youngsters dressed as cats, athletes, ghosts, and what looks like Brittney Spears on a bad day (that one scared me most) flocking to my neighborhood. Even understanding the ancient past of this tradition, I wonder if it makes sense now for modern times.

For one, we have an obesity problem in this country. Should we really be co-conspirators in this plot to give the next generation a sugar addiction? What lesson comes from a plastic pumpkin full of calories?

Also, isn’t “don’t take candy from strangers” a well-known mantra that parents tell their kids? So, what’s with the carloads of total strangers coming from remote corners of distant townships to seek smarties and gummy bears from me and my neighbors, whom they’ve never met? If you’re going to ask for candy, it seems to make sense to keep it among families and friends.

Finally, the door-to-door begging thing has me stumped. These days, I hear again and again from employers that the younger generation has no concept of personal responsibility, initiative, or self-sustainability. Kids today, so I’m told, have too much of an “entitlement” attitude. Maybe we should think about the consequences of sending them out like beggars to collect candy.

Well, maybe I shouldn’t take so much time thinking about the odd nature of well-established social norms. I’ve got other things to do. In fact, there’s a fake pine tree in our storage room that needs to be placed in our library and adorned with lights and a collection of balls and knick-knacks.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Government Best at Local Level

(From the October 11, 2007 Grand Haven Tribune)

It would be easy to be disenchanted with government of late.

In Washington the two dominant political parties seem more intent on scoring political points than in actually serving the people they represent. We have senators and representatives better known for their “wide stance” in airport bathrooms and cash in their freezers than for sponsoring any significant bills. When they do pass legislation, it seems padded with riders and earmarks that pat the backs and line the pockets of friends.

In Lansing we recently witnessed a long and bitter battle over the budget. Sure, there may have been sound and principled ideological perspectives that had state politicians pulling all-nighters to debate the budget. It was the old cut spending versus raise taxes dialectic. But there was a lot of partisan positioning going on too, a lot of posturing for the next election versus serving the people who voted for them in the last one. Even with a passed budget that prevented an extended government shutdown, there is lots of uncertainty about state policies and finances. The only certain thing is that there will be more bickering and rhetoric. No wonder some have called for a part-time state legislature. And, while I can look forward to paying more state taxes, I will not see any direct benefit of more being ‘rendered unto Ceaser.’ No wonder the tax collectors were always the bad guys in Jesus’ parables.

But I got to thinking recently about that old expression “all politics is local.” I could amend that to say that government is at its best at the local level. At least you tend to see a more tangible benefit of having government. Here at the township level I am witnessing the provisions of government that are as fundamental as in the time of the Roman Empire—water and roads.

No, there are no aqueducts being built. But I did stumble across the annual drinking water report from the North Ottawa Water System. My goodness, there’s a lot of chemistry involved. The municipal system checks out water thoroughly, monitoring for all sorts of ingredients, and reporting quantities in parts per million or even billion. It was no doubt impressive when Jesus turned water into wine. But it seems almost miraculous that local water supply is checked for lead, copper, arsenic and selenium, not to mention other things that are hard to say or even type after a long day.

It’s easy to take a lot of this for granted. But it’s a painful fact known to any who have traveled overseas or pay attention to international news that a significant portion of the world population does not have clean water. I used to work for an international mission agency whose staff included several missionaries in Africa who spent most of their time drilling wells. Seems simple to us, but in some countries in Africa there isn’t good equipment to get through bedrock and bring up clean water from an earthen aquifer. I was reminded of this recently while reading National Geographic and seeing photos of families crowded together in make-shift shacks, doing their cooking and bathing in the same fetid pool of water. Consequently, many get diseases that could be avoid but for clean water. Meanwhile, we can go to our faucets, fill a glass and take a drink without fear. That’s pretty significant. I’m grateful the stuff coming out of my tap doesn’t contain any stuff I can’t pronounce.

It does make me laugh about this bottled water craze. People of larger wallets and lesser minds, who are susceptible to fashion, lug around their bottles of “Fuji” and “Ice Mountain” or “Aquafina.” They’ll insist it’s cleaner, tastes better and so on. Bunk. I’ve seen more than a few tests that show tap water from an average city system is more healthy than many bottled waters (some of which, by the way, are pumped out of the ground just a few counties north of here). It’s why I laugh when I see a bottle of “Evian” and remember that the brand name is nothing more than “na├»ve” spelled backwards. My wife and I, avid runners, drink lots of water every day. We have empty water bottles we saved from previous road races and fill them up with tap water and store them in the fridge. Delicious. Refreshing. Healthy. Free. Government water. Our tax dollars at work.

And if that’s not enough, the local government just started repaving the roads in my neighborhood. We had noticed a sudden, rapid decline in the road surface. Cracks became ruts, which became craters. But they’re on it. After waiting a few months, crews showed up one morning recently and started scraping the road, preparing it for repaving. Soon, my returns from work into the neighborhood will not be an obstacle course. I wouldn’t say I live on easy street, but at least the street I live on will be smooth again soon.

So there you have it—water and roads. These are things we take for granted, but which are are rarely well supplied in many parts of the world. So I am grateful for government in this regard. God bless America. At least my part of it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Parents Online Adds New Dimension to Life

(From the September 13 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I get a lot of emails every day. Some of them are quite surprising. None was more so than one I received recently from my parents.

There was nothing unusual in the message. The thing that was so surprising was that I got an email from … my parents!

Just this week I read a report that people over 55 are online in relatively equal numbers to those who are under 25. It took a while, but the computer and all its features has made its way into most demographics now. Still, my parents are a tad older than 55, and they had resisted the computer era for a long time. So it was indeed a surprise when I got an email announcing they had joined the legion of emailers, and asking for the email address of my sister in Spokane so they could surprise her as well.

Here’s the irony: my parents spent so many years trying to keep me and my siblings IN line; now they have joined us ON line.

My mom and dad used to joke about not using a computer. “We have a Web site,” my dad would say. “It’s in the lower corner of the garage window.” My mom referred to her well-thumbed study Bible as the only search engine she needed. Well, now they have gone from the era of Ishmael to the time of email, from Isaac to iMac.

For a time I advised them that at their age, no longer being part of the work force, they could do just fine without a computer. After my wife and I offered them a brief lesson in the fundamental aspects of using a computer mouse at the Spring Lake Library, that sentiment was confirmed. Navigating a computer was perhaps more trouble than it was worth.

However, in addition to having kids in different cities, they have a large group of younger friends at their church who send announcements via email. They got tired of feeling left out of that loop. They also have a neighbor who works with computers who was willing to help set them up.

So far they’ve made the transition quite well. A new computer resides in my sister’s old bedroom (a fine trade-off in my opinion; I wanted to trade her in for a video game system years ago). Other than one cell phone call from my dad about how to open and view received emails as they familiarized themselves with new software, I haven’t heard of any troubles. In fact my mom tells me that even though she pushed for the computer, my dad has spent much of the time online. The other day he was musing about a job at home and went to the computer, did a search for “countertop wax,” and was amazed at the results. Since they have a dial-up, I encountered a persistent busy signal the other night when I tried to call and check in on them. There’s no one home to yell at them for tying up the phone line.

Now the adjusting may be on my part. I have sent a couple of emails to my parents. But I have to remember to do so. I’m still not used to the fact that it’s an option to include them in a list of recipients when I send out a message. It will also take a little getting used to seeing their name in the “sender” line when I receive email.

But it will be nice as well. They’ll be able to send quick updates without waiting for us to be available to talk on the phone. It will be more affordable for them to stay in touch with my sister who lives three time zones away. And I’m sure they’ll enjoy the multiple benefits of finding all sorts of information on line. My mom might get into downloading recipes. My dad could pursue more information about tools and methods for home projects, or order John Deere merchandise online. They could research travel ideas for their next trip. The list goes on and on.

Who knows what’s next for them. Maybe they’ll have an actual Web site instead of making a joke about a spider web in the garage window. Maybe they’ll have a MySpace page to connect to their various friends. Or maybe not. My mom or dad will probably insist that, in spite of having a computer, “Our space is the well maintained yard and garden we enjoy.” They would probably tell me that in an email though.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Smokers Are Invasive Species

(From the August 9, 2007 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I just had a realization. Smokers are different from the rest of us. In fact they are a different species, an invasive species.

Ironically, I had this epiphany this week in the land of tobacco—Virginia—where I have been telling friends about the beauty of our Lake Michigan beaches. But at one point I had to admit it’s not all perfect. I explained about the algae caused be zebra mussels, the depleted fisheries caused by the goby, and the cigarette butts in the sand caused by smokers.

That’s right—zebra mussels, goby fish, and smokers. All three are strange, invasive species despoiling Lake Michigan’s balanced ecosystem.

A little history may help to explain. Zebra mussels and goby fish are called invasive species because they are not indigenous to the Great Lakes. They come in the ballast water of ships from afar when it is released into our fresh water. These species wreak havoc when they invade our local waters. Our state and federal representatives are trying to enact laws forcing ships to dump their ballast in the ocean, before they enter the Great Lakes.

To understand smokers as an invasive species requires a little more history. Here in Virginia, tobacco plantations are interwoven into local and national history. Within the past few months, the National Geographic ran an article about how the early colonists adapted tobacco-growing practices from the Native Americans, and soon this part of the country all along the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River was virtually a contiguous tobacco farm. But as long as there has been tobacco, there have been efforts to ban its use. The Atlantic Monthly pointed out in a small article a few months ago that such efforts date way back to the 1600s. But bans on smoking have never held.

Now, the tide seems to be turning against smoking once again. New York City, which made smoking in public not only acceptable but fashionable back in the ‘20s, has a ban on smoking in public places. France, the cultural pinnacle for many global elites, has done the same thing in the past year. Even Hollywood, which used cigarettes and cigars as props to glamorize actors, has recently done some rare introspection about the consequences of including smoke in so many scenes. So it’s not entirely surprising that several Michigan municipalities, and most recently the Ottawa County parks, have enacted smoking bans.

I applaud the ban. But I’m not holding my own breath that other people will stop exhaling smoke. Just as goby fish and zebra mussels will be hard to eradicate, smokers are unfortunately not going anywhere.

My skepticism stems from legal reality. Smokers will invoke their “rights.” To some extent they have a point. It’s their body. More appropriately, it’s their funeral.

On the other hand, as is the case with all legal tensions, there is the notion of responsibility to society that counteracts the argument about individual rights. Smokers need to think about a host of ways their messy habit negatively affects society. But they don’t. They upset the balance. This qualifies them as an invasive species.

Smokers of course are harming their own lungs and other aspects of their personal health when they inhale. But there are also numerous scientific articles demonstrating the harm of second-hand smoke when smokers exhale. That leads to cost as another social consequence of smoking. Insurance costs are higher for all of us because of the huge number of cases of cancer, emphysema and other diseases born by those who insist on smoking. Even if you have a non-smoker’s discount on your health insurance policy, there’s a good chance part of your premium pays for oxygen tanks and other treatments for those who didn’t exercise personal responsibility toward their own health or that of society at large. General quality of life and common courtesy are another aspect of responsibility smokers should consider. Aside from the health risks, smokers need to consider that many of us do not want to smell smoke when we dine or recreate. Smokers may have a right to smoke. But the rest of us have no less right to breath God’s good fresh air. Quality of life also relates to litter. The main reason the Ottawa County Parks enacted the ban on smoking is because 50 percent of the litter they must pick up from the beaches is tobacco related. Just as zebra mussels abandon their shells on the shore, smokers leave their butts behind on the sand.

I reflected on this one day at one of our beaches just before traveling to tobacco country. Two young ladies near my wife and I smoked almost constantly while at the beach. Upon finishing a cigarette, they snuffed it in the sand next to their blankets. When they left, they picked up everything except the leftovers of their selfish indulgence. They are either too selfish or ignorant to see the difference between the sand in a common ashtray and that of a previously pristine natural wonder.

I shook my head and went for a walk. I saw zebra mussels at the water’s edge. I saw goby fish on the pier. And I saw countless cigarette butts in the sand. Sigh. I wish all of the invasive species upsetting the balance in our lakes and beaches could be discharged as ballast far out to sea.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Study Should Help Us Keep House in Order

(From the July 12 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I’ve noticed an interesting confluence of information recently that all seems related.

First, I read a study that shows that Ottawa County remains one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. The same study showed that most of the growth is happening in suburbs and townships surrounding core cities.

Then I got my summer tax bill, and observed once again that the majority of the taxes we pay in the summer go toward public schools in one form or another. The township newsletter that came with the tax bill included an item about the completion of a statewide wetlands inventory. It can be accessed at Michigan.gov/deqwetlands.

Finally, I read an article that said Ottawa County will be conducting a housing study. The study will be broken down into four quadrants and consider an economic overview, residents perceptions of the safety and affordability of housing, the potential market for additional shelters and special needs housing, among other things.

The central thread connecting all of these things in my mind is growth, and the potential impact of it. I know that growth is generally a good thing for economic and other reasons. You only have to travel to other parts of the state to experience a depressed, declining city to gain a grateful perspective for the hustle and bustle in the tri-cities. However, promoting and celebrating growth needs to be tempered with some careful consideration of consequences. Or to put it in public relations terms, we need to consider whether all publics benefit mutually from their relationship with the community. This is where the housing study can ensure that our area’s ‘house’ is in order.

A long time ago, when I was a reporter for a newspaper in another city, I covered a city commission meeting at which the plans for a new apartment complex were being discussed. I’ll never forget the audacious words of one councilman who complained that more apartments “cheapened” the culture of the city.

I was living in an apartment at the time.

Such an attitude is dangerous. It shows an elitist perspective that those who live in an apartment or trailer are somehow lesser citizens. We must remember that there is a population for whom an apartment or other rental property is their only option. We should also not make the mistake of assuming that apartment dwellers do not pay taxes—they pay property taxes indirectly through their inflated rent, and they pay income tax as well. That income tax is taken out of paychecks they receive for doing the many service jobs that are so vital to a community. The study should ensure that we have enough quality rental properties to accommodate this hard working yet low-income segment of our population.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what the study uncovers regarding the need for shelters and special needs housing. It is easy and tempting in a small, resort community to assume that the problems of homelessness, mental illness, and physical disability only occur elsewhere. We may be a beautiful community, but we are not Shangra La. There is a practical reality and moral obligation for any community to provide for those who truly need such consideration.

At the same time, we should ensure that we have enough affordable, entry-level home ownership options for people who decide to stay and achieve the American dream in the Tri-Cities. While I don’t begrudge anyone from enjoying their material success, I have to admit it pains me more than a little to see the proliferation of condos and “cottages” in our community, realizing that these are second homes that sell twice what I paid for my primary residence. When I think that some can’t even afford to own their own dwelling, I shake my head. Even though the new developments and monster condos garner all the excitement and attention, the housing study should shine a light on the more important information about the need for shelter and affordable housing.

The wetlands inventory is also interesting related to all of this. Wetlands have both economic and ecological value. People move to our area primarily for all the access to water for sport and recreation. However, it’s been alarming to see the increase in construction closer to or on areas that would seem to be protected wetlands. There’s a trend for people to “build” versus “buy” their homes these days. But in our current market, it would be interesting to know how many existing homes could accommodate new move-ins. It would also be helpful to encourage residents to reside in the urban areas, leaving the wetlands natural for the recreation of everyone, and to provide their vital ecological benefits such as filtering pollutants and providing wildlife habitat.

Finally, I would hope the housing study would look at the impact of added housing and population on our schools as well as demand for infrastructure like roads and sewers. I don’t have children, but I don’t mind paying taxes to support public schools because education of a community’s children has great value to all of us and is a shared responsibility. However, I’m not made of money. I worry that all this growth will soon lead to a millage request to build additional primary and secondary public schools. Also, all the new housing brings more cars and people who need and affect our roads, water supply, sewer systems. The argument is always that growth brings more revenue, but it also necessarily increases costs to a community. What is the tipping point? Are we planning for that? Who will pay for new structures and services—current taxpayers, new residents, developers?

I don’t have all the answers, but I hope the survey asks some good questions. I’ll look forward to hearing the results of the survey and the necessary plans that come from it.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Smoke Signals Carry South

After my earlier post about smoking restrictions on Muskegon beaches, I''m glad to see the Ottawa County Parks Department will institute a complete ban on smoking on county beaches. If only the state park would follow suit.

Trash is the reason for the ban--more than 50% of trash on the beaches is the butts and packages of cigarettes and cigars. Yuck!

But the smoke is another good one. Second-hand smoke is proven dangerous. And even though beaches are outside, we non-smokers still suffer downwind from inconsiderate puffers.

They may complain, but you know, every right comes with responsibility. If they think they have a right to smoke, they should have proven they have the responsibility of not using the beach as an ashtray. But smokers are inferior people, generally. If they ignore surgeon general's warnings and aren't responsible for their OWN health, why could we expect them to be socially responsible with regard to others and the environment?

We can't. That's why they brought this ban on themselves.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

No Boo-Hoo for Bil-Mar

I'm glad the DEQ denied Howard Meyers his plan to expand the Bil-Mar restuarant and area parking. The reasons given are sound (see the Muskegon Chronicle version of the story), and recognize the views of the residents nearby and not just this one business.

Meyer can expand his restaurant. He just doesn't have to go to extremes. His statement that he will appeal this decision only shows his arrogance.

If he wins the appeal, I say boycott the Bil-Mar.

No Smoking on the Beach

Kudos to Muskegon for creating a no-smoking section of the beach.

Trouble is, the smoking section of the beach is to the south, downwind of the folks who prefer not to inhale second-hand smoke. Also, it doesn't look like enforcement will be heavy.

Nevertheless, good of the Muskegon folks to try to clear the air on this issue.

Upgrading Can Be So Degrading

(From the June 14, 2007 Grand Haven Tribune)

Call me Tim 2.0. Or, if I’m honest about my age, Tim 4.3. The point is, I’ve upgraded. As I’m realizing, upgrading can be exciting, but it can also be….degrading.

You can see this by the ‘upgraded’ photo that now accompanies my column. I had lasik surgery and no longer need glasses. I will, however, continue to make a spectacle of myself when I have the opportunity. But seriously, what an amazing upgrade to my human eyeballs. When I got glasses back in the ninth grade, I dreamed that such a tool would be able to ‘zap’ me back to 20/20 vision. Now it’s a reality for so many people.

On the other hand, my new photo also is a little degrading to me. That’s because, while my mug does not bear spectacles, it also has considerably less hair. I can go to the secretary of state’s office and tell them to remove the “corrective lens” item on my driver’s license. However, they may need to put a question mark next to “hair color.” I am now “follicle challenged,” a “person of scalp.” How degrading.

I thought about this while weeding the garden the other day. I was pulling grass from around some trees and yucca plants. Taking a break, I sighed when I surveyed a part of the lawn where grass would not grow. It grows where I don’t want it, and it won’t grow where I want it. The same is true of my hair now. It doesn’t grow in the natural location—the top of my head. It must have entered a relocation program, because now hair is appearing on parts of me that would seem to have no use for hair. How degrading.

The same upgrade/downgrade phenomenon happens with machines. I finally had some time to upgrade the operating system and applications on our home computers. I must say, there are some pretty slick enhancements with the upgrade. Old bugs are worked out. The bells and whistles are fun to use. But at the same time, there are issues. It can take time to learn these new features and functions. And some of the old features and functions aren’t on the new versions. Worse yet, some of the upgraded software is no longer compatible with some peripheral equipment and older documents. It’s sort of the way my newly aerodynamic noggin is no longer compatible with our old wedding photos. How degrading.

A similar feeling happened when we recently went to upgrade our cell phones. We were hoping newer models would improve reception and allow for some enhanced functions. Yes, the style of the phones and the colorful screens are an improvement from our old monochrome versions. But once again, some things we liked about the old phones are no longer possible. For example, we can’t record our own voice commands. So when I use the “upgraded” technology to call home, my new phone dials the office. It was a little confusing to hear a receptionist answer what I thought was the home phone. Some days, it would be nice to have a receptionist at home. “Mr. Penning,” she would say from behind a counter, “the main floor bathroom is open now. You may go in.” But that might be a little degrading too.

Meanwhile, back to the cell phones. I no sooner had signed a new two-year service agreement for a new “upgraded” plan than I got a shocking email. I was informed of my next bill due, showing a balance that had an extra digit. It made me want to show one of the centrally located digits on my right hand to the cell phone company and ask if they could hear ME now. Turns out, their “upgraded” computer system had counted a one-minute-and-four-second phone call as a 24-hour call. The call was to one of my clients, who said she would testify if need be that we hadn’t talked for an entire day. Eventually, the clueless wireless company credited my bill. But the experience was frustrating, and a little degrading.

Next on the list is a new television. The one in our basement den shows bizarre colors and jerky lines. It’s hard enough to see a hockey puck without all that, so we’ll have to upgrade to a high definition, digital TV. We all have to anyway before 2009 when broadcasts will be all digital. This means I’ll have to upgrade our cable service as well. And that means my well-educated but increasingly shiny head will turn red when I sheepishly ask some 19-year-old salesman a bunch of questions about how this upgraded TV stuff all works. How degrading.

Oh well, what is life if not give and take, a constant trade-off of being upgraded and degraded. I just hope I can enjoy the current version of myself all my stuff for more than a few years.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Local Radio Provides More Than One Kind of Rhythm

(From the May 10, 2007 Grand Haven Tribune)

I have always been fascinated with radio. As I kid, I remember working with my brother to build our own radio in the basement. I was thrilled when it worked. We turned the dial and shouted with glee when we heard broadcasts. It was astonishing to think that this sound just came through the air all around us, like magic.

As I grew up, my interest in radio continued. I was more particularly concerned with content, such as finding out about new music to staying informed with news reports. As a media communication scholar, I am again fascinated with the technology of radio, ranging from iTunes, podcasts and MP3 players to satellite and high definition (HD) radio. But as complicated as radio becomes, there is one thing I will never take for granted: the local radio station.

That’s why I was particularly interested to read that WGHN, our local station, will potentially be sold to a man from outside the community. My heart sank a bit as I pondered the possibility that WGHN would become like a fast food franchise, offering the same menu of content as countless other stations belonging to some giant conglomerate owner. WGHN would cease to be “the rhythm of the lakeshore” and become merely an economic interest for someone from far outside the station’s broadcast signal.

But things don’t look so bad. Will Tieman, a Lansing man who founded the Spartan Sports Network, is not a conglomerate. If the Federal Communications Commission approves the sale of WGHN, it will be the first and only station he owns, according to local news reports. He has also indicated he wants to keep WGHN a local station, including maintaining the staff and programming. He plans to visit leaders and residents of WGHN’s coverage area, which also is a sign that the station will continue to reflect the uniqueness of the area.

Having a radio station that is responsive to and in touch with the local community is important for a variety of reasons. WGHN itself has a section on its Web site proclaiming “the importance of local radio.” It cites a study by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters in which a large majority of Michigan residents surveyed indicated they continue to listen to local radio in spite of the emergence of satellite and Internet radio.

Other national studies indicate why so many of us still are loyal to local radio. A 2000 study by the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) revealed that 90 percent of national survey respondents think an important function of radio is to inform people about community events. Additionally, three-fourths said that radio should identify community problems, and a majority said local news is very important as compared with national news. A 2005 study by Arbitron, a company that measures radio station audiences, said that even those with iPods and satellite radio listen to “terrestrial” radio only 15 minutes less per day.

The federal government has long been concerned about the “public interest” of local radio as well. The government has authority to regulate the radio and television business because they use ‘public property”—the air around us—to broadcast on a limited spectrum of frequencies or channels. That’s why way back in 1941 it established rules about local radio ownership. These rules are reconsidered regularly, and changed in 1996 as part of the Telecommunications Act. The FCC is currently studying how station ownership in the current market affects programming and radio station audiences. But the current rules still limit the number of stations a single entity can own in a given market, depending on market size. Part of the reason for this limit is to create a level playing field for business, that no one owner could monopolize a radio market. But there’s also the concern that local communities have local programming.

Everyone has different musical tastes and preferences for news sources. But local radio still has an important niche that no one else can beat—local information and flavor. WGHN has been filling that niche for years, and we’re lucky that it appears they will continue to do so with new owners.

Consider what WGHN offers to the Tri-Cities area. First of all, there’s the local news. You can’t hear local election results on satellite radio or some station that’s programmed from out of state. WGHN even won two awards for news last year—from the Associated Press and the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. They also give local weather with a local insight. At times I’ve heard a host comment on the view of the channel from the studios at One South Harbor. That’s specific local information!

WGHN also provides a host of local information no other station can provide. There have been times I’ve lingered in the locker room at the YMCA to hear the closing minutes of a local high school sports contest. The proprietors of the Bookman, a locally owned bookstore, come on the air to recommend new books. The station does live remote broadcasts with other local businesses, such as City Farmer. The station profiles local nonprofit organizations and broadcasts local church services.

I’m still fascinated with radio, including the rapidly changing technology. But, perhaps because of the explosion of radio and other media technology, the thing I appreciate about local radio more than anything else is the sense of community it provides. When WGHN offers us the “rhythm of the lakeshore,” they are not only providing a musical backdrop for our daily lives. The station and all that they broadcast reflect and contribute to rhythm of life itself for all of us fortunate enough to live on the lakeshore.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

What Spring Lake Government Needs

After the residents of Spring Lake Township voted against having a 'professional' township supervisor, the township is moving ahead with plans to seek a 'professional' township supervisor.

One would hope that such a 'professional' would understand that government, at least in this country, is of, by, and for the people. In other words, the government leaders should heed election results that represent the voice of the people.

What the current township leaders really need is a civics lesson. Or, judging by the way they act towards each other lately, a session with Dr. Phil. Maybe a kindergarten teacher. Perhaps a 'time out.' It seems that the less they do, the better off we citizens are.

Ultimately, what they all need is to become professional themselves. To be a professional does not necessarily possessing an appropriate degree, license or years of experience. It means understanding that your job is a service to society, and practicing accordingly. That's the reason lawyers, doctors, accountants etc are called "professionals"--because they provide forums for civil resolution of disputes, health care, and other services that maintain social stability and well being.

Stability and well-being are sadly lacking in Spring Lake Township these days. Not for the lack of a professional manager, though. It's due to the lack of professional behavior by those fellow citizens elected to serve us.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Library Deserves Help Moving to Next Chapter

(From April 12, 2007 Grand Haven Tribune)

Several years ago I had the opportunity to interview Patrick Sheane Duncan, a native of Hamilton (near Holland) who is best known as the author of “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” The film, starring Richard Dreyfus, was indirectly inspired by a library. In fact, the working title of the film was “Mr. Herrick’s Opus,” a nod to the library in Holland that Duncan visited frequently as a child. One of many children from a poor family, Duncan frequented the library as a form of entertainment and self-education. Years later he reaps the benefits. He started writing screenplays because he found too many products of Hollywood to be unimaginative. His imagination, sparked at a local library, has been fodder for a variety of stories. He continues to be a voracious reader as well.

Duncan isn’t alone. There are 18,000 people who are card-carrying advocates of libraries. That is, they have Loutit District Library cards. The interest in books and libraries has a long tradition. Cicero is reported to have said, “If you have a garden and library, you have everything.” Herbert Samuel opined that “a library is a thought in cold storage.” I have a bookmark with a quote attributed to Erasmus: “When I get a little money, I buy books. If there’s any left over, I buy food.” Then there’s this gem from an unknown commenter: “Knowledge is free at the library; just bring your own container.”

That last one is only true to a point. While a library card costs nothing, there are costs associated with maintaining libraries. That’s why the Loutit District Library Board is seeking voter approval of a bond proposal on the May 8 ballot to help fund renovation and expansion of the library’s Columbus Avenue building. I sat down with two board members, Dennis Craun and Sue Robertson, who chairs the Community Library Improvement Committee. They made a good case.

First, they resolved the location issue. There was considerable opposition to building an entirely new library at a different location. Critics didn’t want to lose the downtown location, and thought the relocation was too costly. The board listened and worked with the community and architects to come up with a plan that will keep the tradition of the current building and also meet the needs of a growing community and list of library patrons.

When the library was built in 1967, Craun explained to me, it was designed as a city library. It now serves not only the City of Grand haven, but Ferrysburg, Grand Haven Township, Robinson Township and northern Port Sheldon. The population the library serves has tripled. Plus, as Robertson pointed out, the original library plan could not have envisioned the demand for CDs, DVDs, audiobooks, and computer access. As the library has tried to accommodate demand in its current space, the available seating for patrons has declined from 100 to 20 seats. It is definitely a crowded place. It is also well used, with circulations over 200,000 for the past five years according to the library’s annual report.

Thus the plans for renovation and expansion. The plans would provide an 80 percent increase in space for the library. The extra room would allow for more books of course, but also a used book room, an area for public computing, more comfortable seating areas and a fireplace, and a room for programs such as author presentations and children’s reading hours.

While an increase in your tax bill is never welcome, the impact of the library’s request is minimal. For an owner of a home with a $150,000 market value, the average annual additional property tax will be $8.25. That’s comparable to buying one paperback book, two tickets to the Grand Haven 9 Theatre (even after they announced their price reductions), or taking the family out to a fast-food dinner. Plus, what you get for it yields long lasting and widely shared benefits.

I’m also impressed that the library board didn’t come asking for taxpayer money till they had worked very hard to secure other funding. If the proposal is passed May 8, taxpayers will provide $3.4 million of an $11.5 million project. They raised $1.3 million in donations, and they have accumulated $1.8 million in savings. The remainder will come from funding from the library’s current millage.

So the Loutit District Library has listened to the concerns of the community, it has served an ever-growing community’s library needs, and now it asks for a little help to move into the next chapter of its existence. I must confess that I live in Spring Lake and am not affected by this proposal. But I did support Spring Lake’s library expansion and have been glad I did ever since. I encourage you to support Loutit Library’s small yet significant request. You may be supporting another screenwriter in the making. But even if not, it’s worth doing for the community, and yourself.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Cooking Has Become New National Pastime

(From March 15, 2007 Grand Haven Tribune)

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet, the song goes. It is supposed to capture all that is America.

Unfortunately, NASCAR is the fastest growing sport in this country, and soccer still tops the sporting heap in most of the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Chevrolet has taken a back seat—or, to really use a bad automotive metaphor—been run over by Toyota and other imports.

That leaves hot dogs and apple pie. Two out of the four ingredients of that old song, a full half of our national identity, is related to food. And unlike baseball and Chevrolet, food seems to be a passion that is really taking off.

In fact, by my observation, food has become a sport in its own right. It is our new national pastime.

I’m not necessarily talking about food as actual sport, as in food fights. Nor do I refer to those odd eating contests, where rather rotund contestants inhale obscene numbers of hot dogs, chicken wings, pies, or whatever else the contest is about.

I’m talking about the fact that so many mainstream Americans are so into food, and in particular, cooking. Much of this was caused by, and is evidenced by, the cable television channel called Food Network.

For a short time, I was worried that my wife was dating some guy named Emeril. We’d be in our kitchen and she’d say: “Emeril says gahhhhlik makes this better,” or “I learned from Emeril that essence is the special ingredient in this chicken dish.” Finally I learned this guy was some chef who had his own shows on the Food Network.

Bam! I thought. That’s what this is about. So I was prepared when she mentioned the names of other male food superstars—Alton Brown, Bobbie Flay, Tyler Florence, even someone known as the “Naked Chef!”

The real struggle came whenever I was ready to check scores on ESPN, I found the TV had been tuned to Food Network. At first this frustrated me, but then I started watching. If I had been worried about my wife’s relationship with Emeril, she now has to wonder about my infatuation with women named Rachel, Giada, and even a southern grandmotherly type named Paula Deen. Talk about spicy dishes! And these women are attractive, too.

Now, our kitchen is home to all of these names, as well as an increasingly sophisticated and diverse culinary vocabulary. We don’t just have sauces and dressings. We have remoulade, bisque, the ‘trinity’, herbs de provence, rubs. We don’t just cook, broil, or grill. We now brine, baste, sear, and braise. When I said food has become like a sport, this is what I mean. There are sports fans who basically want to know the score. And there are sports fans who can discuss at length the merits of specific rules, the strategies behind each specific play in the playbook, and the relative talents of each player.

That leads to another phenomenon. Sports nuts have lots of equipment. A guy can basically play baseball with a glove, a bat and a ball. Or he can have several mitts, several bats for different situations, batting gloves, baseball pants and shoes, and so on. My wife now has gone beyond the basic cookware to a plethora of pots and pans and assorted accessories, the purposes of which are often a mystery to me. Now she has more kitchen tools than I have power tools. In fact some of her kitchen tools are power tools. When she uses them she has this bizarre look on her face that usual means I should go away, but that I will eat very well before the night is through.

Just as sports enthusiasts acquire all manner of books and specialty magazines, the same is happening with food. There are numerous magazines all about food and cooking. Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray have their own food themed magazines. Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, Eating Well are a few others. My wife has countless recipes from these and other magazines, as well as downloaded from the Food Network Web site and other sources. And whereas sports teams have their playbooks, those into the sport of food have their cookbooks. Boy, does my wife have her cookbooks. If I live to be 100 and eat three meals a day, we will perhaps sample half of the recipes therein. Wherever we travel we usually visit a bookstore. I pick up something from the history section, a good novel, or the classics of literature. If I lose myself browsing, she is always easy to find—in the cookbook section.

While this food obsession seems to me at times to be out of hand, we may need to continue watching the food shows and reading the food magazines. That’s because there are still some things I don’t understand. For example, if cheese is essentially mold, what makes cheese get moldy? What makes Teflon stick to the pan?

But these are things to ponder over dinner. Let’s eat!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Muskegon Right to Get Butts Off Beach

Kudos to our neighbors to the north.

Muskegon is looking at the possibility of banning smoking from city beaches, according to an article in the Muskegon Chronicle.

They say they removed more than 4,000 butts, and that cigarette related trash is significantly more than food trash. Which proves a theory I have: since smokers don't care about their own bodies, they are slobs when it comes to public places. They treat the beautiful beach that belongs to all of us as if it is their personal ashtray.

I say go Muskegon. And may Grand Haven follow suit quickly. I know, some will complain that smoking is being banned all over the place and that the beach is outside, for goodness sake. Right, but if smokers can't handle the responsibility of properly discarding their smoking trash, then they shouldn't have the right to smoke on the beach.

Snuff said.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Some Facts Enlighten Discussion About Teacher Pay

Recently, the Tribune published an editorial from another newspaper that was critical of teacher pay. That editorial prompted several angry letters to the editor. So angry in fact, that the editor had to respond to those letters.

Teacher compensation is clearly a sensitive issue. But the debate usually devolves into symbols and assumptions. For example, commenting what kinds of cars teachers drive could be an indication that they are paid better than some suspect. But it could also mean that the teacher has a spouse with a good job that allows them to afford a premium vehicle. Or maybe some teachers chose to go into more debt and get a car they really can’t afford on a teacher’s salary.

Similarly, in this debate there are many assumptions. Teachers assume they work harder than people realize, but it may be they don’t realize how hard others work by comparison. Also, many assume teachers are poorly paid because that claim is uttered so often. But few ever really explain how a teacher’s pay compares to that of other jobs.

So it was interesting timing that we had this debate again in our local paper in the same week that the Manhattan Institute issued a report called “How Much Are Public School Teachers Paid?” You can read the full report for yourself online at www.manhattan-institute.org.

The focus of the report is to add some facts to the constant assumptions underlying the debate. The organization did a national survey of compensation of teachers and other professions on an hourly basis for more meaningful comparison. In other words, comparing annual salaries doesn’t make sense because teachers have more time off and often work on nine-month contracts. While teachers might argue that they work very hard during those nine months, often taking work home, the study considered that. They note that those in many other professions also take work home. I can attest to this point personally. Before I became a full-time professor I worked as a professional journalist and public relations professional. I would concede that hours worked in any job is not confined to time in the office, but overlaps considerably to the home, evenings, and weekends. The data in the Manhattan Institute report includes total hours worked for perhaps the most truthful salary comparison we have.

So, what do the numbers tell us when pay is compared in this equitable fashion? Here are some highlights straight from the report:

• According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average public school teacher in the United States earned $34.06 per hour in 2005.

• The average public school teacher was paid 36% more per hour than the average non-sales white-collar worker and 11% more than the average professional specialty and technical worker.

• Full-time public school teachers work on average 36.5 hours per week during weeks that they are working. By comparison, white-collar workers (excluding sales) work 39.4 hours, and professional specialty and technical workers work 39.0 hours per week. Private school teachers work 38.3 hours per week.

• Compared with public school teachers, editors and reporters earn 24% less; architects, 11% less; psychologists, 9% less; chemists, 5% less; mechanical engineers, 6% less; and economists, 1% less.

• Compared with public school teachers, airplane pilots earn 186% more; physicians, 80% more; lawyers, 49% more; nuclear engineers, 17% more; actuaries, 9% more; and physicists, 3% more.

• Public school teachers are paid 61% more per hour than private school teachers, on average nationwide.

• The Detroit metropolitan area has the highest average public school teacher pay among metropolitan areas for which data are available, at $47.28 per hour, followed by the San Francisco metropolitan area at $46.70 per hour, and the New York metropolitan area at $45.79 per hour.

From these facts, I’d like to make a few observations about the issue of teacher pay. One, I would stress that teachers should be well paid. I don’t even have kids in school. But as a citizen, I believe in the importance of quality education. Kids who receive a good education in K-12 will be more fun for me to teach when they get to college. Also, good education provides more labor for our local economy, and these jobs in turn lower crime rates. So, with education being such a vital social and economic factor, we should compensate teachers well for the influence they have.

Secondly, teachers ARE paid well. As the statistics show, when figured on an apples-to-apples comparison, teachers do very well compared to other professions. So I now have a factual basis with which to disregard any whining from teachers about not being fairly compensated. Especially when you figure that teachers in Michigan are among the highest paid in the country, and that the benefits package on top of salary is the envy of most workers in any profession.

There are many related issues in the debate about education. But the facts above speak for themselves with regard to teacher pay. I’d suggest all sides stop arguing based on impressions, and start with an honest admission of the facts.

Class dismissed.

Monday, January 15, 2007

What the Tri-Cities Y Should Try, and Why

Local newspaper reports and subsequent evidence show that the new Tri-Cities YMCA director is working on a membership drive. Their message is centered around the fact that people should join to fulfill New Year's Resolutions to get healthy. The incentive is a waiver of initiation fees.

Not so sophisticated an approach in my opinion. For one, the same strategy has been tried by every health club on the planet. This does nothing to distinguish the Y from Norton Pines and other local options for exercising.

More importatly, the Y needs to ask its current members about their satisfaction level. People talk more than ads do. There are some issues with parking, hours, the state of the facilities--particularly the hot tub and sauna, as well as some exercie equipment--and maybe other factors as well. Beyond that, the Y should look at membership trends and see if there is any pattern that should be addressed. Related to that, exit interviews with people who did not renew or went elsewhere should be seriously considered before trying to lure in new members.

Messages as they are seem to assume that everyone wants to join the Y, they just need to know about it. That's naive. A little advertising exercise is needed before the new Y director is in shape for the promotion game.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

I Blog, Therefore I Am

By now, many of you have heard of this phenomenon called “blogs.” It’s one of those modern terms that combines two words, Web log, into one: blog. As the name implies, a blog is essentially a log or diary kept by an individual online.

There are many types of blogs. Some company presidents keep blogs. Politicians are writing blogs. But the overwhelming majority of blogs are by everyday, average people. They write about everything from the inane to the insightful. There are a lot of kids blogging about what they did that day, who they like at school and so forth. Others are taking on major social issues and bringing forth viewpoints not found in the mainstream media. Bloggers have been credited with breaking major news stories, creating buzz about a product, and affecting public opinion.

Communication professors like myself get all excited about this sort of thing. It’s something new to study and talk about. This blog trend is radically changing the media landscape by putting the tools of communicating to large audiences into the hands of the citizens. Concepts like “media democracy,” “social media” and “consumer sovereignty” keep cropping up.

I won’t get into a full discussion of the pros and cons of all of that in this column, though. On a more basic level, the blog phenomenon—also called the “blogosphere”—is interesting to contemplate. According to Blog Pulse there are 40 million blogs, with another 40 thousand new blogs added each day! Others estimate even more blogs are out there. So now technology has devised ways to search blogs for topics relevant to specific interest categories. As one reader noted on a site called technorati that helps “tag” blogs with key words that identify their content, “With 55 million blogs, at least some of them have to be good.”

I have also read surveys in which very few people indicate they have ever read a blog. It seems that only a few blogs are read with any regularity. The remaining millions are just voices in the blogosphere wilderness. This raises the question: why blog?

In the 17th century the French philospher Rene Descartes said “I think, therefore I am.” It’s a simple statement but with deeply profound philosophical implications. While the exact meaning of the quote is debated, some have maintained that it means people are certain of their existence, or significance, because of their ability to think. It may be a loose connection, but today I think many people are blogging not because they have anything important to say, but because they feel with so many other bloggers out there they must join in to lend proof of or significance to their existence. On the other hand, maybe they just think it’s fun to blog.

I have decided to blog for several reasons. I started a local professional blog last year because I thought it was a way for me to offer commentary on my profession—public relations and advertising. It’s a local blog because I only discuss matters related to advertising and public relations here in West Michigan. There are many blogs just about public relations, and I thought I couldn’t really add a lot to that conversation. But by focusing locally, I can perhaps do something meaningful. I am asked often for my opinion on subjects like this, so I decided to get proactive. So, it is a way to facilitate discussion about my profession. If you want to read this blog, “GRPR”, it can be found at http://gr-pr.blogspot.com

Now, I have decided to start a second blog focused on the Tri-Cities. This also will be a way to facilitate discussion, and to have fun. Many of you have asked me if my columns are online. Some are, at the Grand Haven Tribune Web site. But I thought that, beginning this month, I will start posting them to a new blog, called “Pier Points.” As I have time, I will add previous columns for the full archive to be there. I only write a column once a month, but I often have more than one thought a month! So I may use this new blog to post comments on Tri-Cities or other issues periodically between columns as well. The best part about the blog is that you can post comments to a specific item right in the blog. You can also continue to use the “Letters to the Editor” section of the Tribune.

If you are interested in reading the blog, you can find it at http://.pierpoints.blogspot.com

See you in the blogosphere.