Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Basic Economics for Tricky Times

(From the December 11, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune)

Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about the economy lately. As I pondered our current financial fate, the thought occurred to me that I had similar musings on the matter previously. In fact, four years ago, in January of 2004, I wrote a column about the economy that seems eerie to re-read today.

Back then, I suggested we look at how our economic obsession affects us. But then I meant an obsession with consumption and growth. I feared that too many people were getting carried away by financial measures of happiness and that the eventual end of that behavior and thinking would be anything but happy.

I may have been right.

Today we are obsessed with the economy for the opposite reason—its rapid collapse. Our conversations are dominated by words like bailout and bankruptcy, foreclosure and liquidity.

As I said then: companies want to grow in sales volume and expand to new markets. Consumers want to get bigger homes, newer cars and clothing styles, the latest gadgets. And to a degree, as Adam Smith, author of the famed economic tome “Wealth of Nations,” would say, this is a positive cycle of exchange, a necessary economic engine. But maybe, I wondered four years ago, that engine could be geared down a notch.

Now, the engine hasn’t been geared down by us. It has blown a gasket because of our relentless pushing on the accelerator. Banks extended too much credit. Too many citizens bought bigger houses than they could realistically afford, or “bought” cars with no money down, never thinking that eventually they would be asked for actual money.

Four years ago, there were others thinking that maybe we were putting ourselves in danger with too much economic excess. I mentioned a CEO who pondered in a Business Week article: “What if people already have everything they want to buy?” An Associated Press report in 2004 on annual economic forecasts projected that the federal budget deficit will reach a record $500 billion in 2004. Sounds like a bargain today. Dick Grasso, former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, was ousted because his $188 million compensation was deemed excessive. He was the first executive to lose his job for being paid too much.

Too bad that trend didn’t stick. Fast forward to this week in 2008 and I read that the president of Merrill Lynch had to be talked down from his insistence on a $10 million bonus. The amount is nearly equal to the losses the firm suffered under his watch. He thought he did a good job preventing further losses and orchestrated the sale of the firm to Bank of America. How far have we come when people want bonuses for not failing worse?

In the past, I suggested that maybe not everyone needs an SUV, unless you have to haul lots of stuff or pull a heavy trailer. Since 2004 we have seen gas prices slingshot above $4 and back down again. We are seeing auto company executives go hat in hand to Washington, like reckless children asking for an allowance increase.

It’s ironic that “sustainability” is one of the more popular business trends these days. It’s the idea that businesses should be managed for long-term viability, factoring in economic as well as environmental and social equity factors. But we’ve learned that the economic attitudes of the past were not sustainable.

So, I humbly submit some principles that should guide our thinking so that we are hopefully in better economic shape in four and 40 years from now.

One, think long-term. Businesses are in bankruptcy or begging for bailouts because easy credit, mortgages, and payment plans were not sustainable. They managed the books on a quarterly basis to please stockholders and boards who wanted to see an increase every quarter for quick portfolio gains instead of making prudent decisions that would position companies to endure long term. Consumers fell into this trap too. Too many people wanted to “drive new every two” or get mortgage deals that delayed, but inflated, interest payments. Ask yourself what is the total you will pay for something, not what the monthly payment is.

Two, distinguish between wants and needs. Many children have been cautioned with this warning. Too many adults need a time out on this one. Think. Do you need a Hummer or will a simple sedan get you where you need to go (and probably more cheaply)? Do you really need a house three times the size as the one you grew up in? Do you really need that gadget, those clothes? Or do you want them, because the economic engine is racing, and you’re excited, and—like a child says—all your friends have those things?

Three, consider that if you don’t have the money now, you can’t afford it. Resurrect the idea of a budget and live by it. Live within your means, not within your dreams. Use credit cards for the convenience of not carrying cash, and pay the balance every month. If you can’t handle that, get rid of your credit cards.

This isn’t tricky economics. And if it sounds simplistic to you, it is. But too many businesses and individuals in our culture took their eyes off the ball. We were diverted like kittens with a flashlight on the wall.

It’s a basic concept that the economy depends on the production and consumption of products. But it is also a fundamental truth that controlling one’s finances may lead to the possession of fewer things, but not less happiness and security.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Campaign, Election Provoke Humor and Gratitude

(From the November 13, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune.)

If you’re like me, you are glad the election is over. Citizens were tired of the barrage of advertising and allegations. Both candidates inspired a lot of people to vote, but they also inspired comedy as a coping mechanism for campaign fever. By the end of the long campaign, it seemed the true winner was Saturday Night Live and other late-night comedy programs.

In fact, the campaign and election made me so punchy that I considered, facetiously, announcing my candidacy for president in 2012. It occurred to me as I reviewed the past campaign that I have many of the apparent qualifications to lead this country. Excuse me, this “great land of ours.”

First, think of McCain. Now look at my picture. Bald white guy. Enough said. Sure, he ultimately lost, but he came close. I would have a better chance. I wouldn’t say “my friends” so much, unless of course we’re talking about the people who “friend” me on the numerous social media Web sites I plan to join.

That’s right—I can use a computer. Vote for me. I’ll be on Facebook.

You might also see my face on a book. I’m pretty young yet, but between now and 2012, I plan to write two autobiographies to extend my personal brand. Bill Clinton had a book called “Man from Hope.” Obama has a book called “Audacity of Hope.” The working title for my books are: “Man! That’s Audacious!” or “No Hope for this Man.”

Of course, Obama will be running again, so I’ll have an uphill battle against an incumbent. My strategy is to compete with him head to head.

Obama campaigned on change. But in four years, I will represent the change. My slogan will be: “Is it that time already? Change.” One of my ads is already in production. It goes like this: “You change your shirt every day. Shouldn’t you change your president at least every four years?” We will adapt the ad for southern states: “Shouldn’t you change your president as often as you change your shirt?” The voice-over on the second one will be provided by Larry the Cable Guy.

Obama impressed many because he edited the Harvard Law Review. So did my first cousin. (It’s true. Look for the name Robert Niewyk just above Obama’s in the roster of the Law Review in the Obama biography video). But I have also edited newspapers, yearbooks and magazines not only in college, but as a professional.

Obama has an interesting international experience, with a multi-racial family and experience abroad. Well, I am the son of an immigrant, and have worked for short periods of time in Mexico, Japan, the Philippines, and France. Obama spoke overseas to crowds of thousands. I spoke overseas to crowds of 37, but I have time to build on that.

Speaking of family, I should tell you that my dad is a retired plumber. With all the mentions of Joe the Plumber in the last election, this fact has to score me some electoral points. I’ll recall the story of how I asked my dad, Butch the Plumber, to spread the wealth around. He just muttered something about what I was spreading and told me to go mow the lawn. People will eat that up.

A lot of people, when pressed to explain why they voted for Obama, point out that he ran a good campaign. Well! I’ve run many campaigns. In fact, I’ve won awards for them. I teach classes on campaigns. This should be a cake-walk. Since policy seems secondary to the American voter, I’ll just run a whiz-bang campaign, short on policy and long on platitudes.

There is one major liability I face. My middle name is Scott. The opposition will no doubt start Internet rumors that I am secretly Scottish and wear a kilt around the house. Not true! I’ll protest. Then they’ll accuse me of skirting the issue. It’ll be hard to win that one.

Yes, it’s fun to poke fun at our political system, the candidates who run for higher office, and the ridiculous 24/7 media cycle that is more opinion than news. But the truth is, the alternative to our system is not that funny. In many parts of the world, the people have no voice. Violence is the only agent of change. For all the flaws and follies of our elections, and regardless of which candidate wins, we are blessed.

The best part of the past campaign was the humanity of it. The gracious concession speech by McCain, the fighter whose love of country did finally show through. The drama of Obama’s grandmother dying just hours before her grandson achieved his improbable goal. The multi-hued sea of faces in Chicago, oblivious to the cold and the colors of their skin, yearning to breath history. Jesse Jackson--who was on the balcony with Martin Luther King on the awful day the articulator of that dream was silenced—crying at the sight of the dream realized. The Obamas and Bushes, greeting each other at the White House, the people’s house, and walking inside calmly to discuss the peaceful transfer of power.

Yes, I’m grateful the election is over. I am also grateful that we have them.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Public Relations Should Be Good for Democracy

From the October 9 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune.

I teach public relations. That’s not always easy during a presidential election. People often associate public relations with the negative aspects of political campaigning, in particular the negative ads and the “spin” that goes with candidates’ claims.

Some of my faculty colleagues across the country think we should make a distinction between PR and politics. Others, including myself, think we should continue to stress what we teach, that PR should be building mutual relationships with the public through transparent and honest communication.

Certainly, there are bad examples of public relations professionals behaving badly. The lies and deceptions of PR people have been a part of giving the PR profession a bad name. But here’s the thing: many of the deception is done by people who don’t have an education in public relations and their job title might not even be public relations. But when they do something deceptive, the media and the public call it public relations. It’s as if PR were synonymous with deception, which it is not. To believe that would be to believe all journalism is like the National Enquirer, or that all chemists run meth labs, or that all priests are pedophiles. The majority of public relations professionals practice honestly.

In fact, public relations properly understood has a central and ethical role in democracy. The PRSA Code of Ethics mentions democracy as the context for the values and provisions of the code, notably by asserting that public relations professionals should seek to enable “informed decision-making in a democratic society.”

The spin you see in campaigns is either done by political operatives who know nothing of PR, or by PR people who have lost their way. It is not the essence of PR.

That essence is seen in the common academic definition of public relations: “the management function that seeks to identify, establish, and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and all the publics on whom its success of failure depends.” The key to this definition is mutual relationships. I’ll spare you the technical descriptions of theoretical models about public relations practice, but the methods advocated by people like me who teach PR are characterized by the key concepts of collaboration, negotiation, and mediation. In this model, PR professionals listen as well as communicate to their publics.

Understanding public relations as dialogue to achieve mutually beneficial relationships is the proper way to see the profession as a positive and ethical contributor to democracy. This understanding of public relations is related to what Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest properly understood” in his famous book, “Democracy in America. ” As he described it: “American moralists do not pretend that one must sacrifice himself for his fellows because it is a fine thing to do so. But they boldly assert that such sacrifice is as necessary for the man who makes it as for the beneficiaries.” While Tocqueville was talking about relationships among individual citizens, the same can be said today of relationships between organizations and their various publics. Public relations professionals should see that considering public benefit is in the best interest of the organizations and candidates they represent, and part of their ethical and democratic role.

Critics of public relations characterize the profession as “spin” that distorts citizens’ ability to discern the truth. But early writers about democracy point out that truth is a complicated matter. What some call “spin” may not be deliberate lies, but a legitimate, alternative perspective of the truth. To label public relations as only and always something negative is a form of rhetorical censorship.

In 1644, John Milton made a plea for open deliberation in his “Aereopagitica.” The title of this speech, intended for the Lords and Commons of the Star Chamber court in England, is a reference to the Aereopagus, a court of ancient Athens that included 300 elected citizens. The essence of Milton’s argument with the government was that government censorship, even if well intended, does great harm to society. Milton is famous for his plea to “let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter.” In other words, ethical/democratic public relations practitioners should allow and seek out opposing views for the good of the public. Critics of public relations should not condemn PR but recognize it as a profession that enables otherwise still voices to be heard in open democratic dialogue.

Similarly, in his book “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill notes that the truth is not always black and white. He argues that citizens will not pick a “winner” but find a consensus among the multiple points of view offered. “Truth,” Mill wrote in 1859, “in the great potential concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites.” It serves no helpful purpose to label one argument as truth and another as “mere public relations” if both contain elements of truth. Public relations critics and professionals alike should view PR communication as contributing to different perspectives worthy of consideration and deliberation by the public.

Public relations properly understood involves reconciling a candidate’s or organization’s interest with the interest of the public. The ethical and democratic role of public relations is to help provide equal and diverse expression, to encourage deliberation, and to enable informed decision-making. Public relations professionals do have an ethical obligation to represent points of view fairly and honestly. But citizens have a civic duty to listen to all sides, without labeling views as “mere public relations,” and then decide with discernment.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Not Here, Not Now, Not Ever Again

(From the September 11, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune)

“On the night of August 17, the word "nigger" and a caricature face were spray-painted on the driveway of a Park Township family. This was discovered the next morning by the teenage son; one of the daughters asked her mother, "Does this mean we will be killed?"”

These were the words in an ad that ran in this newspaper this past weekend. They brought to my mind the original news account of the defacing of a local family’s property, and my reaction to the incident when I read about it last month.

At one level it is hard to believe that in 2008 we are still confronted with the unfortunate and hostile use of the ‘N’ word. It would seem that we have come so far from Martin Luther King Jr’s exhortation to judge one another by the content of character, no skin color. We have seen so many African American and other racial minorities excel in this country, in business, the arts, education, journalism, and governance. Indeed, we have an African American running—and seriously contending--for the highest office in the land. This is part of the shock of encountering the overt racism in our community so recently.

Then again, sadly, perhaps we should not be surprised that racism has reared its ugly and ignorant head once again. The successes of racial minorities I mentioned are celebrated by many of all races—but there are some who see the success of others as a threat to themselves.

Or perhaps, the perpetrators of this spray-painted crime had a bad experience or encounter of some sort with one person of black skin color. They reacted the only way they could with their lack of courage and intellect—name calling in the dark of night.

It may be that the juvenile graffiti goon thought what he or they were doing was funny. I hope they now realize, in silent shame, that their judgment is as immature as their sense of humor.

What makes me shudder most was the question of the young daughter in this family: “does this mean we will be killed?” What a question! It all at once reflects innocence and a grievous loss of it. Just as racist attitudes can be learned by its perpetrators, the potential consequences of bigotry are absorbed by its youngest victims.

A long time ago, a chaplain taught me a valuable life lesson. I was complaining to him about the inability of some people to get along peacefully. He pulled two pens from his pocket and asked me to describe them. I played along: one was black, one blue; one pall point, one felt tip; one opened with a click and one with a twist, and so on. He smiled, and told me I was typical running through a list of contrasts and differences. I could just as easily have described the similarities of the pens: both were made of plastic, from his pocket, used for writing, and so forth.

Such is an unfortunate reality of human nature. We have a tendency to focus on differences rather than what we have in common. First of all, differences among people are not only not that threatening most of the time, they are what adds strength to society, innovation to business, and excitement to our daily lives. In fact, the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, offers a view of Heaven as an extraordinarily diverse place, filled with a multitude of people “from every tribe and tongue and nation.”

We humans have far more in common than we have that distinguishes us. In fact, the word community is derived from the Latin word for common. We all need food, shelter, and jobs. We all desire to have friends, live in peace, get an education.

We all hope to never hear our children ask if we will now be killed.

In the end I was pleased by the ad I saw in this paper last weekend. It appears that a “multitude” of people in West Michigan would rather stress our commonalities than our differences. These people signed their names under this statement:

As concerned residents of West Michigan, we extend our support to the Park Township family whose driveway was recently defaced with an offensive racial slur and picture. We want the family to know that anyone who did this does not reflect us or what we want our community to be, and we support efforts to bring the person or persons to justice. We will work to see that no other family living here now or in the future experiences the same shock and pain. A diverse and welcoming community creates economic and wonderful cultural benefits. But inclusion depends on all of us. We, the undersigned, pledge to promote justice, celebrate our diversity, and act as anti-racists in our personal and community lives.”

Good. The real ‘minorities’ in this community are any who think of racial differences as a negative thing. Let’s hope there are fewer of them with each passing year.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Access Key to Tri-Cities Greatness

From the August 14, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune

August is a great time to be in the Tri-Cities. It is a delightfully lazy month between the frenzy of Coast Guard Festival and the return to the routines of another school year. It’s a great time for local residents to enjoy what the Tri-Cities has to offer

But sometimes I worry if common local residents are in danger of losing access to the things that make the area so great. The idea came to me when I recently read a review of a book by Barbara Ehrenreich, “This Land is Their Land: Notes From a Divided Nation.” Ehrenreich is known for her earlier book, “Nickel and Dimed,” about the struggle to make a living on minimum wage. The book was adapted as a play and performed at Grand Valley State University this past spring. Her new book makes the case that the wealthy in our society have slowly been robbing common folks of access to the truly beautiful places in our country. “If a place is truly beautiful,” she opines, “ you can’t afford to be there.”

Ehrenreich speaks from her own experiences traveling in places like Jackson Hole and Key West. Mansions, she complains, have taken up most of the scenic spots. These may be select and extreme cases, but I wonder if the potential for such a scenario is possible in Grand Haven and Spring Lake. We don’t have mansions on the order she is talking about. But there certainly has been an increase in the number of large homes and condos, including those that are merely second-homes for the wealthy who only are here a few weeks of the year. We are not adding public space at the same rate.

Take water, for example, which is perhaps the greatest asset of our community. We all live in proximity to a great lake, as well as Spring Lake and the Grand River. And we all have access to each waterway. But when you think about it, there is only one small public beach on Spring Lake, and a pay launch facility and park in Ferrysburg with no swimming. There are about a half dozen area DNR ramps and parks on the Grand River. As for Lake Michigan, most of us are limited to state, county, or township parks. All of that is great, but boat ramps don’t provide access to people without boats. And as the area—not just the Tri-Cities, but the communities nearby whose residents make day trips to the beach--becomes more populated, there’s a danger that access will be denied to people who arrive at full parks.

We recently had friends in town from Virginia. We advised them to drive down Lake Shore Drive on their way from our home to visit family in Hudsonville. But we had to explain that the road offers few actual views of Lake Michigan, because most of the property there is privately owned. Waterfront homes include large wooded acreage between the lake and the public road. The view is blocked; access denied. Owners have that right, and have paid a pretty penny for the privacy, of course. But a part of me is saddened to think of hard-working locals of modest means who can’t steal a glance of God’s given glory because some wealthy family from Chicago had to sequester the “cottage” they visit a few weeks a year behind majestic oaks.

In Hawaii they have a policy that requires any new private hotel or condo development on the water to include a public access easement. They are an island state, with plentiful waterfront. But the policy is a good one, and one that could be considered here.

Ehrenreich points to other effects of mansions mania in hot spots around the country. Huge homes have led to inflated home prices throughout the local market where they are built, as well as higher rents. I would add that higher tax assessments could be an eventual consequence of the proliferation of new condos and homes in our community. I shudder to think that these increases might force long-time residents of more modest accommodations to relocate.

The impact doesn’t stop with just the housing market. The influx of seasonal and permanent residents with deep pockets often leads to an increase in boutique shops, fine dining and other amenities. While that sounds nice and will no doubt be a shot in the arm to the local economy, it will be troubling if the local market gets out of balance and caters too much to the cashmere class. There needs to be a middle ground between escargot and cheeseburgers, between Wal-Mart and Armani.

We do have a wonderful place to live. Each evening, I feel grateful as I look west toward the setting sun and enjoy the pastel hues of a summer sky. But with more condos rising into that sun set scene, I worry a little too.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

One Night Camping in Two Tents Proves Too Tense

From the July 10, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune

Last month in this column I wrote about ‘stay-cations.’ I shared that my wife and I had little travel planned this summer other than a weekend in Ludington to camp and run the annual half-marathon that goes through the state park. What with gas prices and the hassles of packing, unpacking and so on I opined that staying home right here in the glorious Tri-Cities vacation destination made a lot of sense. Well, as Paul Harvey says, now you’ll hear the rest of the story.

The day my column appeared, we headed north for Ludington. I should have re-read my own column and just stayed home.

True to form, even though we were only going away for a weekend, it took us til late afternoon to be ready to leave. We got up to Ludington, set up our tent and the gazebo tent over the picnic table, and went for a little walk along Hamlin Lake. A family was fishing from the boardwalk next to the lake and the woman said, “Hey, don’t you live in Spring Lake?” It turned out they were our neighbors from just down the block. We talked to them for a while and laughed about the coincidence of running into them in the campground.

Maybe it was no coincidence. I think it was a sign that we should have all stayed in our neighborhood. You’ll see why in a few paragraphs.

Later that night, after having dinner in the great outdoors, we were discussing what to do for the remainder of the evening when a few drops of rain started to fall. We decided to head into the tent and read for a while before getting a good night of sleep.

Then it started to rain harder.

An avid backpacker, I tried to tell my wife that when it rains this hard it doesn’t rain long. “It will probably be a great downpour and then stop; we may even see the stars tonight,” I tried to assure her.

Soon, I was the one in need of assurance. The rain kept coming, and it kept coming hard. “It’s really coming down!” one of us said, as if we expected it to come up. It was like a fire hose trained on our tent. Even right next to each other, we had to yell to communicate. The rain was accompanied by thunder and lightning. Loud thunder. The kind that makes your chest pound with each roll and peel. The lightning was bright and nearly constant. It was as if airborne paparazzi were taking photos of our campsite.

We know that our tent can withstand rain pretty well. But this Mason County Monsoon was no ordinary rain. Because of the force, drops started coming in where the zippers come together in the tent doorway. Because of the volume of rain, pools started accumulating by each of the tent’s two doors. Just before midnight, the rain ceased momentarily. I took an absorbent towel and used it as a shammy to mop up and ring out the water in the tent. No sooner had I finished this task than it started raining again. Hard. It lasted til after 3 a.m.

We made the best of it. We tried to read for a while. I was reading about Hemingway on some adventure in Africa. He was in a tent too. He had guides to take him on his hunt. He had wild game cooked over an open fire and exotic beverages to enjoy as he surveyed the landscape. I know Ernie is from Michigan and I enjoy his writing, but I would respect him more if he had endured a night in a tent during this kind of thunderstorm. I made a note to myself: write a novel called “Middle Aged Man and the Michigan Monsoon.”

I had other thoughts during the night too, as I alternated between dozing, feeling around to see if water had spread on the floor of the tent, and being shaken awake by thunder and lightning. I re-examined my position on water boarding as a means of getting prisoners of war to give up vital information. I tried to remember the last time I reviewed my life insurance policies. I thought about my bed at home in Spring Lake, in the house that just had a new roof applied.

In the morning we learned that 11 inches of rain had fallen. There were reports of tornados touching down just north of us. We learned the campground did not have a tornado warning siren. When we had set up camp, we envied those with lots right along the shore of Hamlin Lake. Not in the morning—those lots were now part of Hamlin Lake. Water had risen to the level of picnic table benches. Campers were wading knee-deep on their lots. Canoes that had been set next to campers were now “beached” on the campground road. Several dozen boats from the public beach in the campground had been carried up by the rising waters and floated through the dam and out toward Lake Michigan. Water was soon at the top of the dam, and several boats were wedged into it. Water started coming up more in the campground, across the road and to the middle row of campgrounds. Ultimately, the sheriff drove around and announced a mandatory evacuation of the state park. Because of this, the half marathon run was also cancelled.

We complied willingly. We collected our race shirts and headed home. Our one weekend of camping had turned into a one-night ordeal. Relaxation in two tents had proven to be too tense. Our vacation turned into an evacuation. I should have taken my own advice and stuck with a summer long stay-cation.

'Stay-cation' Not a Bad Idea for Tri-Cities Residents

From the June 12, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune

By the time you read this, I will be on vacation.

Why am I not more excited?

We’re going away for a long weekend of camping up north. Sounds nice, and yes, it will be fun. But in some ways I would just as soon stay home.

For one thing, there’s the gas price situation. It is hard to believe that 10 years ago when we moved into our current house a gallon of gas could be had for less than a dollar. At four bucks a gallon, even in our four-cylinder car with good mileage, that starts to make you think twice about driving more than necessary.

I also am nervously looking at the skies. All the rain we’ve been having is great for our lawns and the lake levels. But when you’re on vacation in the “nylon condo” (that means tent for you rich, fifth wheel-haulin’, home-on-wheels “campers”), rain in the sort of frequency and quantity we’ve had lately is not exactly conducive to relaxation.

The there’s the whole hassle of it all. I know the point of vacation is to “vacate” your normal circumstances, surroundings and routines. It’s good to get away, completely away in new surroundings and not be tempted to do any work or projects around the house. But all the planning, packing, unpacking...it seems like just a different kind of work and not a break.

Lots of people are talking about the idea of a ‘stay-cation’—taking off work but just staying home—because of the gas prices. But the more I think about the concept, the more it seems like a good idea. That’s especially true for those of us who live in the Tri-Cities.

It always amuses my wife and me when we return home from a vacation up north. As we return to the Tri-Cities from our vacation destination, with car packed to the gills with camping gear and kayaks and bikes strapped to the roof and trunk, people no doubt assume we’re arriving in Grand Haven to begin a vacation, not returning home from one. After we unpack, we ask each other what we want to do now that we’re home from a summer trip. Often we go to the beach—which is the same thing we had been doing on vacation.

Just this past weekend we went for a walk on the beach and noticed a large number of out-of-state license plates. People were here from Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, New York, Georgia and elsewhere. It kind of makes us feel good to realize that we live here. It kind of makes us feel ashamed that we don’t appreciate it, savor it, enjoy it more often.

There are times that we look at the waterfront homes and the downtown condos sprouting all over and shake our heads. Many of these are second homes for families from other cities. These residences have twice the square footage and several times the asking price than our permanent home. If you let it, a feeling of jealousy can well up within. But then I think that these poor (poor being a relative term) saps have to go back to Chicago, or Detroit, or wherever they spend the majority of their year. They “vacate” their vacation home. We get to stay in this vacation destination.

Which brings up an interesting point about vacations. The word stems from Old English or Latin or French and means essentially to “be unoccupied.” That implies leaving your home, but not necessarily. A vacation can also mean that a person, not their home, is unoccupied. In other words, take a break from work, don’t occupy your hands or head with stressful actions or thoughts. You can achieve that state of being unoccupied even as you occupy your home. It may take some discipline to not answer the phone, check email, or wander into the home office.

Another meaning of vacation, according to some dictionaries, is to spend time with family and friends. You don’t need to leave home for this either. In fact, given my brutal schedule during much of the year, it is nice to be at home and actually spend quality time with my wife. Being delightfully unoccupied, we can linger over meals on the deck or enjoy a drink on the moonlit patio without the constant weight of work cutting short such moments. Yes, a stay-cation means I can stand still, and even force time to do the same for a while.

So, I’m looking forward to an extended stay-cation after returning home from the planned weekend vacation. I’ll leave my “second home” rolled up in the garage, and take my bike down to the state park. I’ll read good books to keep my mind unoccupied with work-related thoughts. I’ll have long walks and casual, uninterrupted conversations with my wife. I’ll be free of planning and packing. I’ll use little if any gas. I won’t have gone anywhere, but I will have arrived in a good place.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Local Schools Show Their Excellence

(From the May 8, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune)

When I was asked by the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation to speak at their annual “Excellence in Education” dinners, which recognize students who are in the top 10 percent of their graduating class and the teachers who inspired them most.

Obviously, these people have a handle on excellence in education. But I thought I would affirm their accomplishments and possibly inspire them further with my personal thoughts on what makes education excellent. I hope they inspire you as well.

1. Excellence in Education is Hard Work.

Students honored by the Foundation are in the top 10 percent of their class. But that is just evidence of their excellence, not what makes them so.

I’m sure the parents, teachers and friends of high achieving students know how much time they spend reading, studying, asking questions, writing and re-writing. Some students may appear to be naturally smart, but there is lots of work involved that people don’t see. As Sophocles said: “To DO is to learn.” That implies activity associated with learning. In other words, work.

2. Excellence in Education is Curiosity

To be excellent in education, you need to wonder. You need to go beyond the bare minimum, completing an assignment exactly as asked. We overuse the word “wonderful” to mean something trivial, as in “have a wonderful day.” In fact, the word means full of wonder. That’s what makes education excellent as well, on the part of both students and teachers. Both need to maintain a constant curiosity, to wonder about why things work the way they do, how to try things differently, what other people think, and so forth. Assuming you already know everything is boring. Having a sense of wonder makes life, truly, wonderful.

3. Excellence in Education is Broad and Deep

It was Aristotle and the Greeks who first introduced the idea that people should be broadly educated in the basic subjects: math, science, language, music, art etc. Colleges continue that tradition today in what is called a “liberal arts education.” It means that you have a liberal helping of ideas, concepts, theories and experiences in your education.

How does this relate to your eventual career? Look at it like weightlifting. If you are on a sports team—football, volleyball, whatever—you no doubt practice the fundamentals of the sport. But you also probably did something called training—lifting weights, running and so forth. Now, on game day, you don’t take the field and rip off 10 reps on a bench press. But, by having done the training, you are better able to tackle, block, bump, set spike—whatever the sport requires. The same is true of a broad and deep education. It gives you the mental muscle to handle new educational challenges.

4. Excellence in Education is Passion

College professors are required to write a philosophy of teaching. As part of mine, I include this line from the poet William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”

So, what does that mean?

Here’s what I think. Education, certainly excellent education, is not about filing up your head with facts. You might all remember that funny cartoon where a little boy in a classroom raises his hand and when the teacher calls on him he says: “My brain is full. Can I go home?” We laugh because that’s ludicrous. Our brains are not receptacles that can be filled up with information. They are much more complex.

That’s why excellent education is about lighting a fire. That means, getting something started, being inspired. I think this notion speaks to teachers who experience the thrill of former students contacting them to say what they are now doing and relating it to being inspired by their teaching. That ‘s a great result of teaching, and a sign of excellence.

Fire brings warmth and light. I hope our local students’ future education is so excellent that they are not merely filled with facts, but warmed and enlightened by it.

5. Excellent Education is Attractive

I have a colleague who says this to his students. Only he uses a word that really gets their attention: “studying is SEXY!”

Maybe you are surprised by this. My colleague’s point is that too many students think ‘excellent” students are geeks or nerds or dorks whatever word kids use today to describe young people who study a lot. That’s wrong. It is so immature to be attracted to other people merely by their body, or the fact that they wear the currently popular brand of jeans, torn in just the right spot, with the specific logo. What mind-numbing conformity.

Rather, I encourage young people to seek out friends who can have entire conversations without using these words: awesome, amazing, like, or dude. People who are deep thinkers and command extensive vocabularies should be the ones exalted, not derided, in our schools. Yes, it’s sexy to be well educated. I encourage students to not hide their excellence, but to share it and seek it out in others.

6. Excellent Education is Ongoing

It was very impressive to hear about what these local ‘excellent’ students plan to do next. Most of them are going on to college. But I reminded them that even after getting their degrees, I hope they continue a love of life-long learning. If you work hard in school, the joy of learning becomes contagious. It’s a habit for life. People who get this realize that education is not about filling up their heads, like buckets of information. It’s about being drawn to the warmth and light of a fire. I would hope all members of the Tri-Cities community are inspired by the excellence of our area students and teachers.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Bus Proposal is Good First Step Toward Regional Mass Transit

(From the April 10 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

The seeds of this column were planted a few years ago in the basement of a museum in Angers, France. Those seeds were fertilized by realities experienced here in the Tri-Cities. They were watered recently by an article in this and other local papers about a unique proposal.

The proposal is to launch a regional, inter-city bus system. Civic leaders from the Tri-Cities as well as Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Holland are talking about working together to provide a regional bus system. It would be possible to take these buses for express trips between these metropolitan ‘hubs’ of the West Michigan region.

Buses don’t usually generate excitement. They are seen at the bottom of the transportation pecking order, as the unfortunate necessity for people who can not afford to have their “own” transportation—a car.

Oh the things we do for love. Here in Michigan in particular, we all have a devotion to our cars. The auto was born here. Cars are not just transportation; they are status symbols, personal expressions, private spaces. Actually riding a bus voluntarily would seem to violate a sacred truth of American and Michiganian liberty.

But let me go back to that museum basement in France. Angers is a city of about the same size as Grand Rapids. Its downtown is attractive and walkable. The city has a major river running through it. There are also neighborhoods and suburbs outside the central city that require a car or taxi to reach. So, in the museum basement, there was a futuristic exhibit. It showed video footage of people at various parts of Angers—downtown, a shopping area, the university campus. And then it superimposed a modern, efficient, electric train onto the scene. It showed people moving about the community freely, happily, without pollution, and with minimal expense. Buses were also part of the picture, taking people to specific locales the train could not reach.

I have long had a similar futuristic vision for West Michigan. That’s why the bus system gets me excited. It’s not just a government welfare program for people who can’t afford transportation. It’s a long-term strategy that affects us all. I know the objections people have to taking a bus: they are crowded with other people; you can’t have the solitude your own car affords you; you can’t listen to your own radio stations or CD music.

But, a bus system has advantages for all of us, both in terms of your personal self-interest and the common good. For one, the current gas prices are fluctuating, but do seem to be at a higher relative rate for good. Taking a bus for city-to-city trips will simply make more economic sense in the years ahead. Anyone who travels highways 31 or 96 knows there is lots of movement between cities in West Michigan. It’s a safe bet that half the labor force in Spring Lake commutes to one of the other cities in the area. Many of us shop or otherwise recreate in other cities, and many of our Tri-Cities visitors come from other addresses in the region. Buses would generate considerable cost savings.

Parking is the other major hassle alleviated by busses. If you get off the bus, you are simply there. You have no need to search for, or pay for, parking. Parking is at a premium in almost every area of the region. I know I’ve had to hunt for a spot in Grand Rapids, Holland, Muskegon and even here in Grand Haven at certain times of the year.

There are also common benefits to busing. Among them are cleaner air, less congestion on the roads, and the knowledge that the less fortunate can get to jobs, shopping and recreational activities.

You wouldn’t have to give up your car for good. You may have to go to areas of a city not served by a bus line, or you might need the car to carry sales material or other items that would be impractical to haul by hand on a bus. But on occasion, the bus would make sense for lots of us.

I can give some anecdotal evidence of the plausibility of buses for the masses. At Grand Valley State University, there are more than 1 million riders per year on the Rapid, the Grand Rapids public bus system. They have several routes that take students, faculty, staff and any community member between campuses in Allendale and downtown Grand Rapids, and they also serve student apartment centers and popular shopping areas. I took this bus myself when I taught a night class in Grand Rapids. The trade off from giving up the personal space in my car was in my favor. I left the driving to someone else, saved on gas, didn’t have to frantically search for parking before class, and even caught up on reading during the trip.

So, these busses between the Tri-Cities and other regional cities could serve our needs for commuting, shopping, recreating and save us money and a portion of the breathable air. But this is only a first step.

We should also seriously consider light rail electric trains along the highway corridors. Imagine being able to leave your car at a park and ride lot in Nunica or Grand Haven, hop a climate controlled, high-speed train, read or do other pleasant activities during the trip, and take local, hydrogen-powered buses to your specific location in your destination city.

We should move forward with the inter-city bus plan, but also think long-term of a regional mass transit train system to complement the buses. We should have the same vision that was on display in that museum in France, before our own museums are the only place we can see what it was like to have open, uncluttered areas in West Michigan.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Being Neighborly is More Than A Wave

(From the March 13 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

The weather people tell us we set some records for snowfall in February. The snowfall and cold weather contributed to feelings of isolation and a temptation for us all to “cocoon” ourselves inside our homes while winter raged outside.

Winter in particular is a time of year when we don’t see or talk to our neighbors very much. Other than a brief wave while shoveling, running the snow blower or quickly retrieving the mail, the climate gives us little opportunity for casual outdoor conversation. According to some articles I’ve read, in our modern times neighbors talk less than they used to all year round. That may have something to do with construction of larger homes without front porches, in neighborhoods without sidewalks. Or it could be the hectic nature of everyone’s lives these days. I’m not sure.

But as it turns out, this winter is one during which I have thought a lot about neighbors. In past winters, when the snow was occasionally heavy, several of our neighbors have come to our rescue with snow blowers while we struggled stubbornly with shovels. Last year we finally conceded to buy a snow blower for ourselves. So, this year we’ve repaid the favor and helped out a neighbor who travels a lot. We cleared the snow so he could return to an open driveway.

Meanwhile, one of our other neighbors lost his job. Another neighbor has quietly, anonymously, generously, provided the first neighbor with gift cards to a local supermarket. Even though we are not personally affected in this case, this act of thoughtful compassion makes us glad to live in such a neighborhood.

Being “neighborly” took on a deeper meaning recently. An older gentleman who lives a few doors down has gradually weakened in a struggle with disease. He had lost his wife four years previously. His kids would stop by now and then to visit and help with a few things. A friend from the south moved in with him and provided companionship and comfort as his condition declined. They were planning to marry if he had not become sick. My wife, ever thoughtful, noticed this from a distance and took our snow blower to their house to clear snow on more than one occasion. She retrieved their mail for them. She talked with them to provide a small measure of emotional support.

Apparently, other neighbors had been doing similar deeds. When he passed away last weekend, we were alerted by a phone call from another neighbor. We in turn shared the news with others in the neighborhood. When my wife and I brought some food over and ended up talking for a long time with our neighbor’s surviving fiance, we noticed in the front hall was a dish to be returned to a neighbor who had provided a meal. We heard stories of other neighbors who had looked in on them. We also talked a lot about how odd it is that this was the first time we had really talked at greater length.

It is odd to attend receptions at funeral homes and memorial services. Why is it at these occasions that we often learn more about people than we ever knew when they were with us? We learn their histories, their family stories. More of their personality is revealed in retrospect. Is it not a shame that we learn most about some of our neighbors at their funerals than at their mailboxes, front doors, or kitchen tables?

Fortunately, that is not the case for all of our neighbors. We have gone kayaking, sailing, and boating with some of the neighbors who happen to live closest to us. We have chatted in the driveways. We’ve attended positive life events of neighbors too, such as graduation receptions and weddings. Having lost a lesser-known neighbor, I’m even more glad to have gotten to know these others.

A neighbor is someone with whom we are acquainted only because of location. The simple fact of living next to or near someone makes them a neighbor. There is no blood connection as with family. There is no bond or choice, as with friends. The only common connection is proximity. Yet we have so many incentives and benefits to getting to know our neighbors. We can have fun, or help each other out with simple household tasks. We may even be there for each other when death comes near.

We all speak of who we are “close” to. Often that means an emotional closeness. But sometimes being literally close to someone is important too. Neighbors can be more than a coincidence of a real estate decision. They can be close not only to our homes, but our hearts. They can be as close as friends and family, perhaps even closer. Indeed, such is the nature of a real neighborhood.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Day to Celebrate Marriage Should Involve Heads as Well as Hearts

(From the February 14, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune)

It’s cold outside. There’s a minus sign in front of the number our digital thermometer gives us as an indication of the outside temperature. We’re told by the authorities to stay inside because of the extreme weather. So I stand at the window of our library in the front of the house and look out the window, at the light-up candy canes that remain from Christmas. It has been too cold to take them inside. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I will rotate them so they are not a row of eight candy canes, but a row of four red and white hearts.

Frozen hearts doesn’t seem like a good image for Valentine’s Day. It would seem they should be warm, or even hot. Or perhaps not. Maybe Valentine’s Day should be less about our hearts, and more about our heads. I say that because when I think about Valentine’s Day, I feel confronted with another one of many contradictions in our society.

On the one hand, we celebrate marriage. You probably read or hear a version of the story every year. The cruel Emperor Claudius had outlawed marriage because he thought unmarried men made better soldiers. A priest named Valentinus married people in defiance of the decree til Claudius had him beheaded on February 14. This makes Valentinus perhaps the first to lose his head over marriage. It also marks the beginning of a day that we celebrate to this day in recognition marriage.

But there’s the contradiction. Our society doesn’t celebrate marriage beyond this day anymore. I recently saw the original cast of “Family Ties” on the Today Show. The director of this 1980s situation comedy said Hollywood moguls at that time were doubtful about the potential of a show that actually depicted a married man and woman. Today, at least as reflected in our entertainment and news media, marriage seems an afterthought for many. Living together, co-habitation, and free love are hip. Valentinus would be called a fool by people who by personal choice rather than civil decree choose not to marry or to divorce on a whim.

Instead, on Valentine’s Day, our society seems to celebrate some notion of love. They even get that part wrong. Our English language inhibits our understanding of the word. The Greeks had several words for love. Among them were “eros,” which referred to lust and intercourse, and “agape,” which had implications of almost divine, self-sacrificing and thoughtful love. Hollywood is confused and dwells on the former. What’s needed in our society is marriage understood and celebrated in accord with the latter term.

That’s how the Apostle Paul—a single man—described love in a letter he wrote to people in Corinth about 200 years before Valentinus. Paul wrote: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered; it keeps no record of wrongs.”

In other words, it deals with the thorns on the roses. It recognizes the mistake of equating love with fluttering eyelids and beating hearts. True love is less about excitement and ecstasy than it is about comfort and commitment. It’s not about the wildly beating heart but the familiar touch of a hand. It’s not about heavy breathing, but pleasant conversation. It is not about seeking pleasure in the moment, but cherishing the gradual accumulation of years of shared episodes in life.

Another revolutionary captured that spirit of love. Jose Marti was a Cuban who served as a leader in the fight for independence from Spain. He was also a poet who penned these words about love: "Love is . . . born with the pleasure of looking at each other, it is fed with the necessity of seeing each other, it is concluded with the impossibility of separation."

It seems that too many today celebrate Valentine’s Day as if they are Charlie Brown regarding the little red-haired girl from a distance, too caught up on the pleasure of looking at each other. We need more emphasis on the impossibility of separation.

So, on a cold day, with a warm heart, I contemplate my candy cane hearts from the window. When the snow melts, these decorations will be put away, stored unceremoniously with the other accumulated marital clutter. They’ll return next year.

What is more important is what happens between February 15 of this year and February 13 of next, and all the days of all the years to come. Perhaps none of us will have lives worthy of a Harlequin romance or a made-for-TV love story movie. But why hold such folly in our hearts? Instead, we should use our heads and decide to savor the love we have, all year long. There will be kisses in the kitchen, hands held on the pier, folding laundry, dusting, mowing the lawn, doing favors for the other just because, minor repairs, a few crises, meaningful conversations, and maybe even an exotic vacation now and then. All of it, the mundane and the marvelous, can happen together with the one person to whom we have been “joined together.” Having so decided in our heads, we will certainly feel it in our hearts. That’s worth more than one day of celebration.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

It's Strange Waking up to 2008

(From the January 10, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune)

During the holidays, I took advantage of the opportunity to catch up on some sleep. But lately, as I get focused on the new year, I’ve been wondering if I’m still dreaming. I’m having a mild case of the Rip VanWinkle effect. Or in this area, it could be DeWink, VanderWinkenBerg, or Winksma. Anyway, it’s as if I slept for decades and am waking to bizarre realities.

First, it’s pushing 60 degrees and it’s January. Driving home from work the other night, there was thunder and lightning that gave me an inkling of spring.

Speaking of warmer weather, it still seems bizarre to me that an Oscar Award was given to that global warming documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” It’s actually not even a film documentary. It resembles a slide show. If I had been sleeping 20 years, I would wonder how a mundane PowerPoint presentation could win next to digital animation and special effects.

Speaking of guys who speak in near monotone, it could strike one just waking up as confusing to hear all the recent discussions about Carr and Les Miles. One might think the topic is fuel efficiency. But no, this was actually about football coaches, not the auto industry.

Speaking of unique industries, it seemed as if I slept through a decade or two when I read local news reports about Muskegon recently. For one, there is talk about putting a Casino in the old SPX plant. Gosh, lose a major employer, and replace it with opportunities for the citizens who are left behind to put what little money they have in shiny, humming machines. What a forward-looking idea! At the same time, area leaders envision a fleet of floating windmills 22 miles off shore in Lake Michigan to generate power. That truly is visionary and innovative. Imagine, West Michigan could have control of two precious commodities—fresh water and energy. We could be to the next century what Saudi Arabia has been to the last.

Speaking of unique distinctions for our state, Michigan and Rhode Island lost more population than any other states in the country in the past year, according to recent reports. North Dakota is hanging on to people, and we are not? I must be dreaming. It reminds me of the 1980s recession, when bumper stickers asked the last one to leave the state to turn out the lights.

Speaking of lights, wasn’t that holiday light show amazing? I remember when Harbor Island was a barren wasteland during the winter. This past holiday season there were cars streaming in to witness lights and music more tightly choreographed than Russian pairs Olympic figure skaters. Now we have a winter counterpart to the musical fountain.

Speaking of staged presentations, even those of us who have seen actors and peanut farmers chosen to be our leaders must give pause when considering the current election process. Mention the slate of candidates and it sounds like the set up for a joke. For example, “an African-American, a woman, a southern Baptist minister, and a Mormon businessman walk into a New Hampshire cafĂ©…..”

Speaking of spending lots of money for video, my wife and I were shocked at Blockbuster recently. We hadn’t rented DVDs for a while, and were stunned to be charged $4.39 per DVD—even the old ones. It’s as if the video stores want us to go with video on demand from our cable and Internet providers. This may be the way to go, with HDTV prices coming down and digital broadcasts inevitable.

Speaking of noticing details on the faces of television personalities, it was a surprise to see David Letterman and Conan O’Brien sporting beards when they returned to the airwaves recently. Their having beards made it more obvious to me that you see so few of them on TV. It was as if they were asleep with Rip VanWinkle and woke up to a newly hirsute hilarity. They grew the beards in solidarity with the writers on strike, but will likely shave them soon. Letterman did on the air the other night.

Speaking of routines and schedules, it has been unusual to hear the term “trimester” so much lately. Of course, around here anyway, the term doesn’t refer to expectant mothers as much as it relates to the public school calendar.

Back to calendars. Just into our second week of the year and so many things to think about. It’s exhausting. I need a nap.