Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's the Season of Excuses, and Inspiration

(From the December 10, 2009 Grand Haven Tribune)

Some people think of this time of the year as the holiday season. Or the end of the fall season and the beginning of the winter season. Or the season of love, joy, peace and so on.

All of that may be true. But it is also the season of excuses. That’s because final projects are due and final exams are happening on college campuses across the country. The excuses are coming in like a Canadian cold front.

I follow a group of professors on Twitter who maintain anonymity as “annoyedPRprof” so they can say what they really want to say to students. Here’s a sampling of some recently released frustrations:

  • “You have 891 points out of 1000 and you want an A? Too bad you showed up to class late 12 times this semester. I counted.”
  • You "forgot" to take your final exam? Really?”
  • “Independent study does not mean no accountability. You must finish the work we agreed on, I don't care how passive aggressive your emails are.”
  • When students don't turn in / submit assignments, do they think I won't notice and just give them an A anyway? Sheesh.”
  • “The 60 minutes you spent asking for a project extension could have been used for other things...e.g., finishing your project.”

These are funny, in a “misery loves company” sort of way. The reason I and some of my colleagues in the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University laugh at these excuses is because they are all too familiar. Let me give you a few examples of excuses I have received and the responses I give, or want to give (I’ll let you decide).

Excuse: “My grandma died and I have to go to the funeral so I can’t turn in my paper on time. Response: Just out of curiosity, is your grandma a cat? Because Professor Smith said your grandma died in September when something was due in her class, Professor Charles said your grandma died in October right at midterm time, and Professor Brown said your grandma died just last month when you were supposed to make a presentation in his class. (Yes, we talk to each other).

Excuse: “My girlfriend and I drove to Wisconsin.” Response: Wisconsin is a good place for you. Your story has holes in it like Swiss, and your performance so far this semester stinks like cheddar aged a week too long.

Excuse: “I forgot to set my alarm.” Response: Well, here’s an alarm for you—you get an F on what was due today.

Excuse: “I decided to change the focus of my project because what I had intended to do was too hard so I need to turn in the project late.” Response: You mean you decided to start the project an hour before you wrote this email, right? Bummer. I decided not to give extensions on assignment deadlines because then I have to grade them later—and that’s too hard.

Excuse: “My best friend got concert tickets for the night of the exam.” Response: It looks like your BFF is going to ruin your GPA. LOL.

Excuse: “The printer was out of paper.” Response: And you’re out of luck. By the way, how long does it take to add paper to a printer? That would only be a problem if you decided to print five minutes before class.

Yes, the excuse season can be frustrating. In weaker moments, I fantasize about getting even. I think to myself that when students ask me for a letter of recommendation, to complete a graduation audit, or to sign approval for any number of their needs, that I will reach into this list of excuses and offer one back at them. Or stare at my lap and send text messages to friends, then look up and say, “like, huh?”

But I won’t. A common trap for professors is to dwell on the excuses because they demand attention, when in fact they are rare among students. Most of my students are outstanding young people, striving for excellence, creatively brilliant, and even inspiring. There are good stories there too.

One story I heard earlier this week really moved me. A student came to me with tears in her eyes. I half expected a sob story and a lame excuse for why she couldn’t meet a deadline. Instead, she told me that she had been diagnosed with stage 2 cancer and wanted to drive the two hours home to tell her parents. She didn’t want to tell her parents this news over the phone, even though she realized this would mean missing class. Of course, I said, I completely understand.

Then came the inspiring part. She said she is really excited about her project and wanted to present in class as scheduled later in the week. I told her that was up to her, that I admired her courage, and would be thinking about and praying for her.

Now I’m tempted to have this standard response for future excuses: I’m sorry, I was just thinking about a student just diagnosed with cancer who is presenting her project on time. What was your excuse again?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Beach Towns Are All Alike Except When They're Different

(From the November 12, 2009 Grand Haven Tribune)

SAN DIEGO—We walked along Harbor Drive, admiring condominiums with a view of the water. We strolled up one one-way street and down another, surveying the options for dining and shopping. We took to the boardwalk, where joggers and walkers enjoyed the nautical scenery while getting in some exercise.

We aren’t in Grand Haven though. We’re in San Diego. I’m here to deliver a paper and attend a public relations conference. My wife is here because, well, because she wanted to come along. I also met up with 13 of Grand Valley’s finest students who are here for a companion conference, and an alumna who is working on a graduate degree here. We were all a little dismayed the other night, while having dinner together, to learn that the weather in West Michigan was unseasonably nice. If there’s one thing you don’t want to miss in West Michigan, it’s the Indian Summer. There is little joy in being in 80- degree weather when it’s nearly as warm back home.

That’s what got me to thinking about the similarities and differences between San Diego in southern California and the Tri-Cities of western Michigan. The weather was supposed to be different this week and wasn’t too much. Maybe there are other aspects that are similar as well, I wondered. It turns out there are.

I mentioned the downtown’s proximity to water, and even the aptly named Harbor Drive that both communities share. This common attribute was enhanced when I glanced up one day and saw a Coast Guard boat and dingy cruising along not far from the boardwalk. I did a double take—Coast Guard boats are a common sight in Grand Haven. I had to remind myself that I was in San Diego.

There are other similarities as well. Both communities have a Harbor Island. We also noticed signs around San Diego about Art Prize (OK, that was Grand Rapids, but it was a regional event). Both communities are distinguished by bridges that enable vehicles to cross over water in such a way that boaters are not impeded. Both have cruise ships, cargo ships, and a fishing industry.

But there are also differences. Unfortunately, these differences make Grand Haven pale like a northerner’s skin compared with this southern California city. Their Harbor Island is accompanied by Shelter Island and Coronado Island, which have sizable communities, a historic hotel and Navy bases. Our Harbor Island has a coal plant. Both here and in Grand Haven the Coast Guard saves lives. But in San Diego they are also concerned with interdiction of drug smugglers and illegal border crossings. In the Tri-Cities, SeaDoos with an inappropriate number of life preservers seem to demand the most attention. In San Diego people can go to a spacious zoo in the hills of Balboa Park to enjoy looking at giraffes, rhinoceros, elephants, hippos and many other kinds of exotic animals. We shoot deer in the city.

In San Diego the cruise ships depart for Hawaii and the Mexican Riviera for adventure in tropical rain forests, coral reefs, and volcanoes. Our cruise ships carry Europeans looking at fall leaf colors and sand dunes. Their cargo ships arrive with containers of fruits from Latin America. Our ships carry gravel and coal from Cleveland. We always used to be impressed at the size of the salmon being cleaned at Chinook Pier. In San Diego we felt small watching swordfish so big they had to be hoisted to the pier with a crane. Moored in San Diego is the U.S.S. Midway, a massive aircraft carrier that now serves as the flagship of naval museums. We have the bell of the Escanaba and a dingy. Grand Haven is called Coast Guard City USA, which is certainly a point of pride. But San Diego refers to itself with a more general and confident self-esteem as the “Finest City.” Maybe this is why if you say you’re from San Diego, no one asks where that is. But if you say you’re from Spring Lake or Grand Haven, Michigan, they most often do.

My wife and I did our part to put Spring Lake/Grand Haven on the map, so to speak, down here in southern California. My paper was named “Top Faculty Paper” at the conference, and my wife won her age group in the Shelter Island 5K that we ran while in town. Our names and hometown were announced at both events, and we proudly explained where we live and boasted of our closeness to Lake Michigan and distance from Detroit. We expressed glowing pride and pointed out the unique features of our beach town. My wife won a sweatshirt and a free night at a local hotel at the race awards ceremony. That means we’ll have to come back to San Diego. By the time we do, I’m hoping people will recognize where we’re from. “Oh, Coast Guard City!” they’ll say. Or, “No kidding, you actually live in the city that has the musical fountain!?”

Otherwise, we might just say we came over the bridge from Harbor Island and let people think what they want.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Movie Making Won't Be Magic for Lakeshore

From the October 8, 2009 Grand Haven Tribune.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that the film “What’s Wrong With Virginia” is currently being shot in Grand Haven and 30 other locations on the Lake Michigan shoreline. It will be exciting to witness some of the filming, meet actors, and eventually see the film and try to see what settings are recognizable.

But beyond that temporary curiosity, there’s not much to get too excited about.

There have been other movies shot in the area and the region was not made famous. Recall “Road to Perdition” several years ago, starring Tom Hanks and including a scene at a beach house on Lake Michigan near Port Sheldon. Other than some local excitement, few people who saw that movie would know where the scene was shot.

But that’s fine. Do we really want to be recognized in a Hollywood production? I think not. Usually people from Los Angeles and New York make fun of the Midwest in their movies. I doubt the people in North Dakota think they were fairly or positively portrayed in “Fargo.” In fact, that movie is often cited by people who mock the Midwest, adopting the accent used by lead characters and suggesting that all Midwesterners talk funny. I’d hate for the film currently being produced in our area to include dialogue or images that become fodder for amateur comedians across the country to associate some unkind attribute with Grand Haven.

I don’t know the storyline of the movie, but if it evokes positive characteristics then it would be nice if the movie would boldly make obvious that the film is being shot in Western Michigan. It would be great if the film exposes the rest of the country to the beauty of our environment. What a refreshing surprise it would be if the industry and integrity of our people were cast as positive values and not bizarre anomalies to be scoffed at by goateed and turtle-necked moral relativists with drug problems and an abundance of ex-wives, if they ever got married. But such enlightened respect is as rare as natural physical features among Hollywood elite.

Maybe I’ll be surprised. But I suspect that either West Michigan will be only used as a backdrop for this movie and will be anonymous, with the houses and shops and other props being in “Anytown USA.” Or, we will be regarded as quaint folk who are nice but in an unsophisticated way. We will be ridiculed with faint praise.

Not only will positive fame be illusive, so will riches. A big deal has been made of the state offering tax incentives for filmmakers to create movies in Michigan. But it is questionable how much income is brought to the region. Actors and film crews come from elsewhere, so there’s not much of a local employment boost. Maybe lodging and dining establishments will get some business during filming, and that’s good. But it’s not phenomenal.

But, not to despair. Would we really want to be “discovered” by Hollywood? That could have negative consequences. Soon beachfront property would be bought up faster than you can say “Malibu,” and the real estate market would skyrocket. That would be good for local realtors, but the rest of us could say goodbye to ever owning a home on the beach. We’d have to fight to keep our parks from becoming gated communities. We’d have to deal with the likes of Nick Nolte and other washed up Hollywood “leading men” stumbling drunk out of area bars causing a ruckus. Prima donna actresses would parade down Washington Street, eventually turning local merchants into overpriced boutiques similar to Rodeo Drive. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie might move here—with two dozen kids. Yikes! Roads would be closed frequently by film crews. It would get old quickly if you just want a cup of coffee at Jumpin’ Java but are held back by a dolly camera shooting yet another movie scene.

OK. Maybe none of that will happen either. And that’s good. There’s nothing wrong with filming “What’s Wrong With Virginia?” in our neck of the woods. There’s nothing wrong with Grand Haven either. We’re just a typical community. I hope the film doesn’t insinuate otherwise. But I won’t get too excited either way.

It’s just a movie.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

H1N1 Has No 'Influenza' on Me

(From the 9/10/09 Grand Haven Tribune)

It’s September. The harvest moon rises early in the evening. The sun sets sooner. The Lake Michigan water has turned colder. There are football games on TV. Kids are back in school and salmon are back in the channel. And according to one waitress at the Tip-a-Few, the tourists are gassin’ up and goin’ home.

But the biggest sign of fall this year is the return of cold and flu season. K-12 and college students are receiving carefully worded letters of caution to prevent illness. Adults can’t miss discussion of the flu pandemic in the news, complete with maps of how many cases of the current strain of flu are in each state or country in the world. There’s even an iPhone application to see how many reported cases of flu are in your area. Yes, there is an app for that, and it’s nothing to sniff at. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has even declared that next week is the official start of flu season.

But I remain underwhelmed by all the frivolous fear of the flu. I was a little worried earlier this year when it was called “swine flu.” But they stopped calling it that because apparently pigs had very little to do with this virus. Pigs have very little to do with anything in my life. Except maybe for their contributions to the construction of footballs, and certain parts of my breakfast. But other than that, I hardly would give the little porkers a thought. That’s why a name like swine flu caught my attention. Can you catch a cold from catching a football?! Might I be having bacterial bacon for breakfast?!

No, of course. But then the scientists who monitor public health these days did a very scientific and 21st century thing. They renamed the disease from something that was an actual word and potentially scary to something that sounded very scientific, very digital, very unfrightening. Since the name swine flu didn’t fly, they called the virus H1N1. How can anyone be afraid of that? It sounds like it could be some scientist’s passcode to the main computer at the CDC. It reminds me of the cute robot from “Star Wars” named R2D2. Is H1N1 his little brother? If you tell someone you have H1N1, will either say “huh?” or “that’s cute! Did you get C3PO too?” Now, if you tell them you have the swine flu, you get respect.

How are people going to get sick days for H1N1? I imagine some poor guy explaining between coughs that he can’t come to work on account of H1N1. His boss is likely to say, “Right, pal, and I got a case of ESPN. Get yourself to work!”

There may be an argument to give diseases more friendly names. Maybe people would be more likely to get the recommended shot for something they can pronounce and that maybe even reminds them of a cousin. Going to see the doctor because the government is warning about something callledH1N1 could cause people to worry that it’s just a plot and they’ll get beamed up or have their brain attached to the “Matrix.” 

Hurricane season happens at the same time as flu season, or those big storms have very nice names. In 2009 the hurricane names so far have been Ana, Bill, Claudette, Danny, and Erika. If the weather cooperates, we might get to meet Fred, Grace, Henri, Ida, and Joaquin. People can identify with these names. People will prepare for Hurricane Fred. If there was a warning for a storm called BH12, I’m thinking they’d just shrug.

No, as illnesses go, H1N1 just doesn’t register with me. The plague, whooping cough, shingles, and even the gout have more pizzazz in my book. In fact, the original word “influenza”, from which we get “the flu,” is a fine word with an interesting history. The word influenza comes from the Italian language and refers to the cause or “influence” of the disease, which was originally blamed on bad astrological influences on a person. More advanced medicine and knowledge that cold weather can bring on the virus led to the connotation "influence of the cold," which is why today we speak of the “cold and flu” season. Seems like a perfectly fine name to keep using, even if there are different kind of flu bugs out there.

So I’m not going to worry about H1N1. I’ll just keep doing what I always do to avoid getting the flu. I’ll follow the instructions on the bottle of medicine: “take one dose per day and keep out of reach of children.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Stanley Cup Runneth All Over Grand Haven

My wife and I were heading back from the beach yesterday afternoon when I saw an unusual crowd in the parking lot of Butch's Beach Burritos. "Crazy tourists," I said. My wife had a different reaction: "It's the Stanley Cup!"

Huh? This woman doesn't even watch hockey. Could she know what she was talking about? I couldn't get a look because I had to navigate beach traffic. So we pulled in to the YMCA parking lot and ran back to Butch's. By the time we got there, the parking lot was at a normal level of activity. The Cup was gone.

So I channeled Wayne Gretsky and thought: we gotta go to where the Cup will be, not where it is!

My wife  came through again. "I bet they'll go to Pronto Pups," she mused.

So we took off, parked behind some condos, and...score! There was Lord Stanley's Cup, surrounded by corn dogs on sticks instead of hockey sticks. Pittsburgh Penguins Coach and Grand Haven native Dan Bylsma was posing with passersby and delighted Pronto Pups proprietors.

We walked down the street and followed the cup to the Dairy Treat, where they filled it with mint chocolate chip ice cream and let people eat from it. The entourage moved from there toward Washington Street and other spots in town. 

For one day, Grand Haven had what Detroit could not get this year.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Brainstorm Leads to Ideas for Boardwalk

(From the July 9, 2009 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

 Downtown Grand Haven merchants are posting “Support the Boardwalk” signs in the windows of their shops. It’s part of a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the boardwalk, as well as an effort to keep the boardwalk along the channel in good repair for years to come.

The project seems to be picking up momentum. Last weekend when my wife and I walked along the channel, we noticed people selling boardwalk t-shirts to raise money for the effort. Earlier this week I had lunch at Downtown Dogs and noticed the eatery is offering a “Boardwalk Brat,” with 50 cents of each purchase going to the boardwalk fund.

So I started thinking. I do that sometimes. What are some other ways to raise a few bucks for the boardwalk? I came up with 10 ideas.

1. A reality TV show. Get two families to run competing hot dog stands along the boardwalk. But you have the moms work with the opposite families. Meanwhile, they all have to compete in a series of weird obstacle course events. Finally, the team that sells the most hot dogs after a month wins a prize. It’s a combination of the Apprentice, Survivor, and Wife Swap. Trust me, once the Michael Jackson memorial is done, Americans will be ready for something like this. Any network would love to pick up such a show. The ad revenues will be huge.

2. A “Boardwalk Bucks” tourist tax. Residents of the Tri-Cities can show their ID and walk for free, but others will have to proceed through turnsytles and deposit “Boardwalk Bucks” (available at local merchants) in order to enter the boardwalk. This will make the boardwalk even more popular. Have you ever seen the lines to go through turnstyles at Six Flags or Disney? And, it will force more people to patronize local merchants.

3. Issue tickets to irresponsible dog walkers. These people routinely ignore signs prohibiting skateboards or they don’t clean up after their dogs. I once read about something called a “poop deck.” I think it was in Moby Dick or the Caine Mutiny. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but my idea is to build a poop deck just off the boardwalk, where dog owners who don’t pick up after their pets will be forced to stand in shame until they pay a fine. Based on my observations, we could raise all that’s needed with this idea alone.

4. A local Monopoly tournament. Participants would pay a small entry fee and play as normal with a prize for the winner. But anyone who lands on Boardwalk during the game would have to pay real money, with proceeds going to the local boardwalk effort. We could even create a Grand Haven version of the game.

5. Federal stimulus money. Just this week various government officials were calling for more stimulus money because the economy doesn’t seem to be recovering fast enough. In the past, the main criteria for receiving federal funds was that projects be shovel ready. I have seen many families with children walk the boardwalk down to the beach, with their children eagerly wielding plastic buckets and shovels. I think we qualify.

6. A benefit concert. We bring in groups to sing songs referencing boardwalk or walking, such as “Under the Boardwalk” or “Walking on Sunshine.” Hold it in waterfront stadium and charge a premium for proceeds to go to the boardwalk.

7. Hold a Boardwalk Walk and Run. My wife and I run all over the Tri-Cities, including the waterfront. I think from Chinook Pier to the lighthouse and back is about four miles. It would be a fun course, and t-shirts already have been made. A portion of race entry fees would go to the boardwalk fund.

8. Piracy. You read that right. The Grand Haven High School mascot is a buccaneer, a fancy word for pirate. May as well start living up to the name. Get some high school athletes, probably from the swim team, to jump into the channel and board the largest yachts coming through to demand ransom. All of the money “collected” would support the boardwalk. Pirates would not be allowed to seize any booty. But if the yachts have a good sound system they would be allowed to shake their booties for a few minutes before swimming back to the pier with the loot.

9. A boardwalk food festival. Most people walking the boardwalk are also eating something either as they walk or afterwards. A three-day festival featuring everything from the classic Pronto Pups to this year’s new waffles on a stick could be featured. Not only would this be a great promotion and sales boost for the vendors, but a portion raised for the boardwalk would likely be substantial.

10. Pay toilets in the campground. Let’s face it, campers use the boardwalk more than anyone. We may as well take advantage of the fact that they’re a captive audience. If they have to make a deposit before they, you know, we’d raise funds faster than you can flush at the thought.

I’m not sure if the boardwalk committee will like these ideas. If not, they could just ask for donations or something. See you out there.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

PETA Off Course in Bid for Grand Haven Lighthouse

(From the June 11 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I didn’t know whether to laugh or roll my eyes when I read in this paper one week ago that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has requested rights to use the Grand Haven lighthouse for a center for “fish empathy.” My initial response was one word: please.

The leadership of PETA wants to use the space to offer vegetarian food and give out little toys that say fish are “friends, not food.” They justify this as a good use of the lighthouse because after being used to protect people at sea, they say, it now makes sense to use the lighthouse to protect sea life.

No. This does not make sense. For one, lighthouses do not protect. They guide. Fish don’t need guidance. They find their way to harbors and upstream reliably each year. If anything, PETA seems to have lost direction.

It was particularly amusing to read that PETA officials think people will be less likely to “stick a fork” in fish once they learn how “sensitive and intelligent” fish are.

Really? How do they know that? Did the fish tell them? I know from going out with friends who are avid fishermen that fish are intelligent. That’s what makes the little suckers so much fun to catch. But sensitive? Maybe after they’ve been marinated or brushed with lemon and butter.

Seriously, did PETA officials ever consider that fish eat other fish? From my perch (no pun intended) high atop the food chain, I think that makes humans very sensitive and intelligent indeed. Rather than carp about my diet I wish these people would find salmon else to complain about. (OK, puns intended there).

You don’t have to think long about the food chain to realize that everything from birds to bears eat fish. Does PETA have a problem with that? I’d suggest they have a fish empathy session with an eagle and a grizzly and see how far they get.

In fact, Jesus endorses the consumption of fish. One of his most famous miracles involved feeding a huge crowd bread and fish. No commentary or footnote I’m aware of explains that he passed out asparagus. It was fish. His first followers were fishermen too, and they were even helped by the Lord to increase their catch.

I’m curious about the position of the average PETA member on the abortion issue. Have they considered that a human fetus is “sensitive and intelligent”? Maybe the lighthouse should be an outpost for the pro-life movement. Given the choice between the importance of a fetus versus a fish, I don’t have to think more than a second. Speaking of choice, if PETA members are pro-choice then they should allow people to choose what to eat without harassment. They can abstain from eating fish. We can all say pass the tartar sauce.

This objection to fish eating is also offensive to other cultures. As you go around the world you’ll encounter populations who revere cows and would never dream of eating beef, even though we Americans love our steaks and hamburgers. Meanwhile, other cultures think nothing of dining on dog, which we consider a domesticated part of our households. Well, we can shake our heads at the difference, but it’s a stretch to take over a local symbol such as the lighthouse to argue the point. Especially when so much of our local culture revolves around fishing, as a business and recreational activity. The charter captains I’m sure would be upset by the partisan PETA propaganda on the pier. But even more so will be our fellow citizens of more modest means who can’t afford a boat and enjoy the pier as the location for their fishing. To set up shop there is as, well, insensitive as it would be to protest fishing in a fish-dependent culture such as the Japanese or the Inuit in northern Canada.

The National Historic Lighthouse Act of 2000 allows nonprofits to use lighthouses for education, recreation, cultural or historic preservation. I don’t think what PETA wants to do fits any of those criteria; in fact it flies in the face of a key recreational and cultural aspect of the Tri-Cities. I hope the National Park Service considers this when they respond to PETA’s request.

Yes, let’s stick a fork in this crazy idea and consider it done. Instead, let’s start a new group named for my initial reaction to this lunacy: please. Or PLEASE, as in People Love Eating Animals, So Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Presenting Tim's Most Influential People

(From the May 14, 2009 Grand Haven Tribune)

 I don’t think I’ve been particularly influenced by Michelle Obama. Same goes for Rush Limbaugh. Ditto that for the guys who invented Twitter, Senator Edward Kennedy, or Nouriel Roubini (who supposedly predicted the economic crash, meaning he influenced no one, at least not soon enough).

All of these people and more—a total of 100 individuals—are included in the annual TIME 100—The World’s Most Influential People. I’m sure TIME Magazine has a point with some of them. They certainly influence us indirectly with inventions, public policy and other elements of common life they had a hand in. We should not take their contributions to society for granted. To a degree, they are influential. Just not the entertainers; especially not George Clooney. Tiger Woods also has not influenced me, as evidenced by the fact that I have gained no additional influence over my golf ball whenever I play.

The truth is, if someone came up to me and asked me who really influenced me, none of the people on TIME’s list would pop into mind. At the same time, the individuals I would think of would never occur to TIME editors I’m sure. So, I give you: Tim’s Most Influential People.

I’d have to start with my parents. I know some people in TIME helped negotiate world peace and so forth. But I’d have to say learning to tie my shoes and go potty by myself was a more pressing concern when I was growing up. Call me selfish. But where would I be without those skills today? Once I had the shoelaces and bathroom situations mastered, they moved on to other things. They limited my TV watching, probably instilling a life-long love of reading that led to all three of my careers. Their greatest influence was leading me to a faith that has guided every aspect of my life. Not bad for an immigrant and a plumber.

Add to my parents my in-laws. Most people roll their eyes at the mention of in-laws. I got lucky—a second set of parents whose values are consistent with my own mom and dad. Their additional influence has been making me aware of commercial airline flight schedules, investment advice, health issues, and some of the intricacies of auto repair, to name a few. They also had a daughter of whom I’m quite fond.

That daughter is now my wife and arguably one of the most influential people in my life currently. She brings the Food Network to life in our home. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, she pretty much has a vice grip on my aorta. She also gives my heart a workout. After I introduced her to running, she persistently influences me now to get out there and run, usually for more miles than I intend. She also taught me the concept of compromise. For example, if I want to do one thing, and she wants to do another, we “compromise” and do what she wants. I get that now.

The educators in my life can’t be left out. There was the middle school English teacher who hung parts of speech from the ceiling to help us understand and enjoy sentence diagrams. A professor when I was an undergraduate visited me in Washington DC when I was a kid on my own in the big city doing an internship. The chair of my doctoral dissertation committee has a work ethic and patient guidance that directly influence how I engage my own students today.

Speaking of students, they influence me as well. They write papers and do projects that teach me. They inspire me when they go on to jobs that involve innovative application of what they studied in college. And they keep in touch! Just this past month I’ve spoken with current and former students who are working in advertising for Google in Ireland, teaching English in China, serving as executive director of an organization seeking a cure for a rare disease, and starting social media efforts for a major corporation.

Friends and neighbors make the list of Tim’s Most Influential People. They provide help, humor, feedback and perspective at just the right moments in life. Whether in person, on the phone or via email, this network has influenced or confirmed many a decision in my life, from the proper time to apply lawn fertilizer to how to handle an issue at work. Those two things aren’t related, by the way.

There are others who have influenced me and I don’t want to leave them off the list, but I am running out of room. Let me just say that this last group made the impression on me that humility is a good thing. I honor them by not mentioning them here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Spartan Pride Not Defefated

(From the April 9 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I am not a sports writer. This is not the sports section.

But this is a special circumstance.

Earlier this week, the Michigan State Spartans played in a national championship game of basketball. They lost. You might even say they got blown out, creamed, annihilated, tarred by the Tar Heels.

But, that’s not the whole story. I have to write about it.

It was interesting this year to see a sidebar on the usual national media chatter about basketball. Along with the talk, the predictions, the utterances of defensive strategy, posting up, three-point percentages, fast breaks, runs, inside the paint, and other sports-related jargon, there was a more interesting narrative.

National sports columnists and cable TV news anchors were talking about the Spartans’ run through the tournament not just as a sports story. They were lifting the young men from East Lansing to symbolic status. It became an occasion when sport was a metaphor for life.

In this case, a handful of young basketball players under the direction of a man with the improbable name Izzo became the embodiment of the entire state of Michigan. And the NCAA basketball tournament played the role of the economy.

It didn’t make sense, really. What does a handful of young men playing a game have to do with the pressing reality of the current economic doldrums?

On the one hand, nothing. The basketball tournament was like Nickelodeon theatres during the depression of the 1930s—a diversion from the overwhelmingly negative truth.

But then again, maybe basketball had a direct relationship to economics. It’s not for nothing that economics is called the “dismal science.” It is hard to come to solid, empirical agreement on causes and effects in economics. When it comes to forecasting the future, it seems there are as many opinions as there are dollar bills in circulation. Many economists talk not only about static cause and effect relationships, they talk about fuzzy concepts like rationale, mood, exuberance, momentum, confidence, destiny, and, yes, rebound.

These are the same concepts with which people were talking about the Michigan State Spartans this past few weeks. That’s what caught my attention, and what I will remember, more than any slam dunk, fast break, rebound or even final score.

There are various indicators reported as a way of “keeping score” on the economy. There are unemployment rates, increases and decreases in CPI, GDP, stock market indexes and the like. But these scores don’t always reflect the experience of each individual.

It is the same for me and the Michigan State-North Carolina game.

The score and other statistics about that contest would tell an entirely depressing tale. The Spartans got whipped by a superior team. But my experience is different.

I watched a group of young kids, most of them from blue collar towns in Michigan, rise to an incredible occasion. They emerged with dignity from poor backgrounds. They avoided the lure of a gang life. One escaped from a war-torn foreign country. By some reports, they came together like more than a team. They were like a family. That doesn’t end with a final buzzer.
All season long they had fought for respect and been disregarded, in the same way the State of Michigan is panned as an economic lost cause. But they persisted, against a wave of setbacks. They hoped. They worked hard. They eventually proved people wrong, going up against better teams and winning, including two number-one seeds in the tournament. They won with scrappy hard work, more so than flash, and this is what endeared them in the end to so many fans. This is what made a group of college basketball players a symbol of economic hope.

I was impressed as well by how they spoke, and how their coach spoke about them. The players were gracious and calm in their remarks, always offering more hope than bravado, more gratitude than pride. Someone taught them well—their parents, their professors, their coach. The thing that impressed me most was when Coach Izzo spoke of his players’ attributes, and among them mentioned that they graduate. Meanwhile, the storyline for North Carolina was that several players gave up pro contracts and returned for their senior year to win a championship. Not a degree, a championship. While the ball didn’t drop as often for the Spartans as it did for the Tar Heels Monday night, I think our boys have more reason to hold their heads high.

People often say when a team loses, “there’s always next year.” Indeed there is. Michigan State has some young players who will be back next year, giving them a good chance at another opportunity to win a championship.

But there’s also right now. Right now I am proud. Coach Izzo motivated his team all year with the words of the NCAA tournament theme song, “One Shining Moment.” They lost the final game. But I think they shone nonetheless. For more than a moment. In more than a game.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reading Seems a Lost Art, Forgotten Pleasure

(From the March 12, 2009 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

A few months ago, my wife and I were on a date night at an area book store. (Yeah, I’m a cheap date, but that’s not important now. ) She came up to me laughing and handed me a book: “How to Read a Book.” We both thought it was funny. A book about reading books! Sort of like a coffee table book about coffee tables.

But on closer inspection, I saw this was an actual, well, book. In fact the book, written by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren originally in 1940, is a best-seller and considered a classic. It has been reprinted several times.

So I did what one does with actual books—I read it. The authors cover a lot of topics related to reading books. They review the goals of reading, either for information or understanding. They outline the levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, and analytical. They even give detailed guidance for reading various specific types of book, from ‘practical’ to literary, from science to history. In other words, this book was far more serious than we originally thought.

This caused me to think a little more about reading. It seems to be something taken for granted today. So many jobs involve reading—in business, health care, manufacturing and any job you can think of there is some reading required. When you can read, you assume everyone can and does.

But, that’s not the case. In January of this year, the U.S. Education Department released statistics stating that more than 32 million, or about 14 percent of Americans, are illiterate. Some people literally cannot read at all; others are ‘functionally’ illiterate, meaning they can’t read and comprehend at a level necessary to understand instructions, follow road signs, or perform a job. These people need more personal attention than a book on how to read a book.
However, I worry about the rest of us who can actually read, myself included. Adler and VanDoren appear to be addressing educated people in the ways to engage in critical thinking to expand mental acuity and depth of understanding of a variety of complex subjects. Back in 1940, radio was a new medium that was all the rage. Perhaps the authors of this book worried that people were sitting in their rocking chairs by the fire and just listening to people talk versus reading text. They wrote the book to encourage and help people maintain their intellectual capacity.

Imagine how they might worry today. With television and the various temptations of the Internet, I wonder if many people read books anymore, or if they do, if they read them well.
There’s no doubt that television has eroded people’s reading habits. News comes to us constantly in bite-sized morsels, with visuals and audio. While studies show that newspapers and magazines do still have readers, percentages are consistently less than TV. I notice in the way people write that they are not avid readers—spelling, word choices, and punctuation reflects they are mimicking what they heard on TV, not what they have read. I will admit that after a long day of work it is easy for me to collapse in front of a television. That’s because for me, like probably so many other people, work involves reading—emails, reports, memos, and various other documents. The thought of reading a book seems like an extension of “work” versus a break from it.

Even when we do read, the Internet has taught us to be fans of brevity. Online, we talk about “pages,” but we mostly seek instant, concise nuggets of information. Studies show that most people won’t bother to scroll past the first page of search results, or in most cases past the bottom of the screen once they found the information for which they were seeking. To read a book as compared to this fast-paced environment is a shock. Nothing but actual pages one must turn with a finger. There may be photos and illustrations, but no links to click on or embedded video.

One aspect of the World Wide Web—social media—hasn’t encouraged book reading either. Facebook, MySpace and similar sites cultivate short-attention spans with the addictive need to check status updates. Web logs, or blogs, contain posts that are typically only a few paragraphs. Twitter, the micro blog application, limits literary contributions, called “Tweets,” to 140 characters.  

At the end of the day, it seems we have lots of information, but less knowledge perhaps. We do lots of surface scratching, and have little depth to our understanding.
But there may be help in the form of another technology: the Kindle. This device, sold by Amazon, enables owners to wireless download actual books, which can be read with a special technology called electric ink. Books—as in multiple pages and chapters. Who knows? The Japanese have been reading books on their cell phones for years. A Kindle application is already available for iPhones and iPods. Maybe those inclined to gadgets will “discover” books.
I’m a bit of a gadget hound myself, but still prefer to read books in the old-fashioned, bound paper format. Last week, which was Spring Break where I teach, I stayed home. I spent a little time experimenting with social media since I teach it and advise clients on its appropriate use. That was interesting. But I also went to the library and checked out a novel to read. That was refreshing.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Local Business Offers Assurance in National Economic Uncertainty

(From the February 12, 2009 Grand Haven Tribune)

The worst part of the current economic situation is the uncertainty. People who have been laid off wonder if and when they’ll get a new job, what kind of job, how much it will pay. People who have jobs wonder and worry if they’ll still have a job in a few months. Homeowners and businesses wonder if they’ll be able to get loans for homes, buildings and new ventures. College students wonder about getting student loans for next year’s tuition. Everyone wonders if the stimulus will work or not, and when.

Add to that the uncertainty that comes with working with large, national businesses and mortgage companies in this climate. I feel fortunate that I have a job and am able to pay my mortgage and insurance premium. I am pretty confident that at least my personal accounts are in order.

But, unfortunately, nearly all of us have to do business with large, national companies that have been mentioned as part of the national economic meltdown. Last month, an experience I had with Countrywide, the giant mortgage company, added to my uncertainty about the competence and integrity of some of our nation’s largest financial institutions.

It started with an innocent looking piece of mail from Countrywide. I almost threw it away, figuring it was junk mail. Don’t get me started on that—many blame ‘predatory’ lending practices through relentless marketing for getting lots of consumers in over their heads in the first place. But that’s a subject for another column. I opened the letter just to be sure what it was and was shocked to read that I didn’t have adequate homeowner’s insurance and that Countrywide would be forcing “lender-supplied” insurance on me.

This is where the uncertainty was created. I knew for a fact that my insurance policy was adequate and that premiums were paid up. So was Countrywide incompetent for not keeping accurate records? Or was there something more sinister at play—an attempt to force one of their other products on me? I was uncertain.

Of course, these sorts of letters always come on the weekend. When I tried to contact customer service all I could get was an automated message telling me the status of my account and so forth. I would have to wait til Monday to talk to someone and sort out this mess. Ironically, I received an email from Countrywide that weekend saying they had a special on home equity loans and that customer service agents were available all weekend long! But that was for new (i.e. unsuspecting customers). No help for poor saps like me who are long-time customers who are being wronged.

A quick side note on that. Am I really a customer? I never had a say in whether or not I would do business with Countrywide. And I can’t take my business elsewhere. As many of you know, when you apply for a home loan even at a local bank, that loan is sold to a large mortgage company for servicing, often before you even make your first payment. We have no consent. Given the negative news I’ve seen of Countrywide for excessive executive compensation and special favors to heads of Senate committees, I would take my business elsewhere. But I can’t. I’m not a customer—I’m a hostage.

So on a Saturday at home, while Countrywide focused on reeling in new customers, I was left on my own. I did note the letter said something about updating information on their web site. So I logged in to my account, entered the details about my insurance policy, and clicked submit. I hoped that was the end of it. But I was still uncertain. So I contacted my local insurance agent, Ron Knoll of the Oakes Agency. It was still the weekend and I expected I might hear back from him Monday. But he responded within the hour, assuring me he would contact the mortgage company first thing Monday and straighten things out.

He did. He called me Monday before noon and said he had confirmed that both his agency and my insurance company had sent the latest policy information to Countrywide. I thanked him and felt reasonable sure that with my update of the web site and his call of confirmation the situation was over.
But no. I got another message from Countrywide saying it wasn’t settled. I checked the web site and noticed the data I had updated had been changed back to what they had before. I was furious. It was the weekend again, so no help available from a real person at Countrywide. So I emailed Ron again.

That Monday he was on the phone again and insisted on a letter from Countrywide confirming my account was in good standing. I received that later in the week. And then, hilariously, the next day I received a letter dated a week earlier saying I still had inadequate insurance. No doubt the nasty letter was automated. At this point, I just laughed.

“Caveat emptor” is an old expression in business. From Latin, it essentially means “buyer beware.” In other words, it is up to buyers to ensure that they are getting good quality for what they buy. But that’s hard to impossible for us to do in all cases these days when dealing with large businesses that automate so much of their relationships with people.

In these uncertain times, I am glad for local business people like Ron Knoll. He makes it his business to look out for me. Others seem to overlook us to look out for their business. I’ve never met anyone from Countrywide, yet they control my largest financial investment. My local insurance guy I know. I see him in coffee shops and riding bikes along Lakeshore Drive. It’s a small thing, but I appreciate the certainty that comes from working with local businesses.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dog Movie Evokes Cat Memories

(From the January 8, 2009 Grand Haven Tribune)

As 2008 drew to a close last week, I was more morose and reflective. I could blame the mood on the abundance of snow, the cold temperatures, or the lack of sunshine that often causes the onset of “seasonal affective disorder,” better known as the winter blues.

But that wouldn’t be honest. I would have to attribute my sad pensiveness to a dog, two cats, a book and a movie.

Some time ago, my wife handed me a book that belongs to her sister, and encouraged me to read it. It’s called “Marley and Me,” and features the sweet, droopy mug of a golden Labrador retriever puppy on the cover. I shrugged and set it aside for a while. It’s not that I don’t like dogs or books. I was just a bit preoccupied reading books dealing with political philosophy and communication theory. I hope you can forgive me my selfish indulgence into such light literary fare.

With some time off during the holidays, I retrieved the book about this Labrador. I set aside dog-eared copies of scholarly works to immerse myself into a tome that actually mentioned dog ears. I took my wife’s word that it was a good read, and I also was intrigued that it was written by John Grogan, a newspaper columnist with roots in western Michigan.

As it turned out, the book was to me as a stick is to a retriever—I couldn’t put it down. My reaction is not unique. “Marley and Me” is a best seller. The movie of the same title led the pack in gross receipts last weekend. When my wife and I attended a matinee at the Grand Haven 9, there were few if any available seats. As the book came to life on screen in front of us, children and adults alike giggled and sniffled at the corresponding humorous and sad moments in the life of someone else’s dog.

But I think there is something more to all of this. I think people laughed and cried at the antics and trials of Marley because they are reminded of their own pets. The popularity of this book and movie is probably not due to the fact that they reveal the uniqueness of a particular animal. Rather, “Marley and Me” is about you and me and millions of others and their pets. We laugh and cry because we know the joy of unconditional love that animals give their human companions, and we know the pain that comes from the separation made inevitable by the shorter life spans of canines and felines.

I’ve known that over the past several years. I inherited a cat named Mindy from my wife’s sister when we were dating. Mindy was named for my eventual sister-in-law’s favorite soap opera star. I would have changed the name to something more suitable for me, like Selma Hayek, but I didn’t think this was my cat. I thought it was a temporary situation while my future sister-in-law moved. As it turned out Mindy—the cat and her name—stuck. I had a “daughter” from my wife’s sister even before we were married.

But Mindy and I bonded. After breaking her of an uncanny habit of tipping over drinking glasses, we got on just fine. She loved to sit on my lap, snuggle next to me in bed, and lick my beard with affectionate kitty kisses. She was also gracious enough to let my wife move in once we were married, and even became her constant companion in the kitchen. Her nickname became “moocher” for her persistence in begging for people food. She would take a seat at the table with us, eerily human like, and stare us down as we ate. When we weren’t looking, she would haul off everything from corn on the cob to homemade biscotti and gnaw and nibble in feline delight.

One day while working in the backyard of our house in Grand Rapids, my wife hollered something about a cat. I thought Mindy had escaped. But it turns out we were being visited by a stray. She was hungry and seemed to be sleeping under our porch. She had fluffy white hair with a slight brown swirl in it. We looked around the neighborhood and could find no owner. So we fed her, took her in, cleaned her up, and named her “Latte” for the color of her fur.

Latte and Mindy got along well as step-sisters. Latte was more sedate than Mindy. But we were amused by her desire to speed through the house, and by the contortions she went into when she groomed her long fur with her tongue. One of the best memories is of the two of them as they lay supine on a pillow above our heads in bed, purring in symphonic harmony.

Latte passed away in the spring of 2006. Mindy followed her to feline heaven this past June. So reading the book and seeing the movie about a strange dog named Marley brought back familiar feelings about my two cats. I made my own memorial movie about them this past weekend. It won’t play in theatres, but the scenes will play in the hearts of my wife and I for years to come. I suspect that’s the way it is for all people who have ever allowed a pet into their homes and their lives.