Thursday, December 12, 2013

An Unusual Reason for Joy This Christmas

(From the December 12, 2013 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

How can your hearts not break?

That’s what people asked us a few weeks ago when we shared the news that my wife’s breast cancer had spread to the brain. A tumor the size of a quarter had been discovered in her right frontal lobe.

It’s easy to understand their question. My wife had endured so much. The original diagnosis was followed by chemotherapy and all of its side effects, then surgery, then radiation. Having recovered from that, she had complications from attempted reconstructive surgery, including a blood clot and an infection that were both scary and required hospitalization and/or more medication.

She had just reached a point of relative stability when the symptoms started showing up. She experienced regular headaches, the inability to close her left eye independently and some other things. All cancer survivors know about this. You want to believe that little symptoms are minor and can be explained by something simple. But you are always looking over your shoulder. You always have that haunting question lurking: did the cancer spread?

The confirmation that it had was a big blow. It was especially hard since we were so close to a meeting with the plastic surgeon to see about continuing with reconstruction, which would be a step forward. A new emergence of cancer was a huge setback. The fact that it had spread to the brain was particularly daunting. All of this no doubt prompted that question from some people who know our story. How can our hearts not break?

And yet, our hearts did not break. I often tell my students, in the context of organizational leadership, that your responses to the situations in life are more important than the situations themselves. That can also be true of our personal lives. It was for us. Our response to the situation of a newly diagnosed brain tumor was to rely on God to lead us, and to trust that we are in His hands, no matter what. Having done that, we were able to see multiple blessings in the middle of the dire uncertainty of looming brain surgery. Paradoxically, the Thanksgiving with brain surgery was the one during which we felt the most thankful.

The blessings were abundant. Our families of course have been so close to us through this. We cherish those relationships even more. With my wife’s brain surgery scheduled for the Monday after Thanksgiving, we savored the holiday even more. My wife’s siblings and nephews were over to our house to help us decorate for Christmas, something we have not done in a few years. Our neighbors organized a schedule to bring us meals every single night after surgery, a gesture of love that brings tears to our eyes. Our church family, the one we currently attend and several we have attended previously, have overwhelmed us with prayers, cards, and messages of support. Then there are past friends, and friends of friends, praying for us. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, praying all across the United States and even in other countries who bring our needs to God regularly. We pause and think of that, and draw great strength.

We also have great hope and joy as we enter this Christmas season. For all the uncertainty that comes with a brain tumor, we are reminded of the fact that Christmas is about bringing certainty to an uncertain world. As Christians, we celebrate God sending His son Jesus into the world. He is the savior that was promised, called Emmanuel, meaning God with us. He eventually died to pay for our sins so that when we die, we can live eternally with God in paradise.

With a brain tumor, it’s hard not to think about death. My wife and I have talked about it. It’s not really a pleasant thing to talk about. But we also know that we all die one day. We pray that my wife has many years left on earth, but if not, we know she will be cancer free and living with God eternally. This earth is not our home; it is only temporary. Something better is yet to come. This is the joy of Christmas. This is the hope of everyone who struggles, whether brain tumor, financial difficulties, broken relationship, or anything else that makes this life hard.

Meanwhile, we have experienced Emmanuel, God with us, through this brain tumor situation more than ever before in our lives. That’s what my wife calls the blessing of a brain tumor.

On December 2, the Monday after Thanksgiving, she had her surgery. We went in feeling the peace of God and quiet confidence that He knew the outcome. It went well. She will need some therapy to regain strength and full function as a result of the surgery. But she is already making progress.

We go into this Christmas following a brain surgery, dealing with recovery, and with more treatment and uncertainty ahead. But for all the reasons I mentioned above, and especially the primary reason for this Christmas season, we have a ready response for people who ask us how our hearts don’t break. We just turn the question around.

How can our hearts not sing?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A man's appeal for a special kind of bra

(From the November 14, 2013 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

This column started out as a joke. I mentioned to my wife that I should write a column about bras. I was only half serious.

But then I saw an article about bras in the Wall Street Journal last week. This seemed like more than a coincidence. So I thought maybe I should actually write about bras.

I should stress that I don’t have a personal interest in bras, and I’m not writing about “man bras” or anything funny like that. This is a serious column about the need for businesses to manufacture bras for women who are breast cancer survivors. If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that my wife is among those women.
Like a lot of men whose wives have breast cancer, I try to be very supportive. I go to most of her medical appointments. I try to comfort her and make things easier for her in any way I can. I know all of her complaints. And one of them has to do with bras.

Even before my wife had cancer, she would complain about how difficult it is to find the right bra. I would normally just nod when she said this. Now I listen with more attentive concern because this is related to the many issues related to her disease.

The problem of finding the right bra for breast cancer survivors is even more acute. Women who have had mastectomies need to go to a special boutique and purchase a “post-surgical garment” immediately after surgery. There is a limited number of styles for these bras. They come in white only, and look like they were designed for old women. They hook in the back, which is hard to deal with after surgery. They also can be very hot.

After surgery recovery, women have to find a mastectomy bra. This is a bra designed to accommodate a prosthetic breast to fill in for what was removed in surgery. These also have limited options in terms of colors, styles, and sizes. Often the design includes a band that goes right over a sensitive surgical site, and is tight and painful. Even so, these bras are expensive, and insurance only pays for three per year. They also don’t make bras for younger, active, even athletic women. My wife is a runner, and knows other survivors who are runners and have the same complaint.

My wife did find a bra made by Jockey that is not designed for breast cancer survivors but she has been able to adapt it to her needs. She has even mentioned to staff at Jockey stores that they should improve and market these bras to breast cancer survivors. She knows it would be a success because she herself has shared info with other women who went out and bought several for themselves.

I would think companies that make bras would jump all over this. That Wall Street Journal article I mentioned earlier was about three start-up companies that each raised between $5 million and $8 million to make a better bra and compete with Victoria’s Secret. So it seems they sense a market for bras for all women.

But if they want to consider market opportunity, they should consider the huge market of breast cancer survivors. They are more of a secret than Victoria’s Secret to clothing manufacturers. According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. There are more than 232,000 new cases each year. There are currently 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. I’d call that a market opportunity. It would also be a great opportunity for companies to show their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or engage in some cause-related marketing.

I tell my wife all the time that I will love her no matter the size or number of her special feminine body parts. I know she appreciates that. But I also know that every day brings a little despair at the situation. She doesn’t want to be a movie star. She just wants to be comfortable. I want that for her too. I can do a lot, but I am no feminine undergarment designer.

That’s why this man is appealing for a better bra. I want a bra that is not better in the way it conforms to our culture of enhanced sexuality. I just want one that suits the needs of legions of women who are valiant and beautiful in their fight against a disease that robs them of so much. If there is a clothing company that truly cares about women, it will offer something that provides comfort and dignity. It will make a lot of women happy. The men at their side will be smiling too.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Voting No on Spring Lake Schools Bond Proposal

I wrote in an earlier post about the issues involved in considering a $60 million bond proposal by the Spring Lake Public Schools. Decision day is next Tuesday, November 5. In the three weeks since I attended an information session, I've noticed an equal number of "No" and "Yes" signs popping up, and read with interest the letters to the editor. I've also talked with a lot of other residents. Ultimately, I've made my decision to vote no on the current bond proposal, for the following reasons:

  • The elementary school buildings are old. But so is the one I teach in at GVSU. It was built in 1960, has been upgraded several times, and there is no talk of replacing it. Some of the classrooms I teach in are hot, my office gets cold. We endure. My wife and I were in Holland and Grand Rapids recently and noticed several elementary schools that pre-date the construction of Holmes and Jeffers.
  • Renovation over re-construction is possible. My dad was a plumber. He told me over lunch recently that they used to do lots of jobs in old buildings to update boilers and to put plumbing and heating in places where it had not been before. It would be interesting to see the consultant and architect reports that insist the building needs to be redone, or to have some other independent inspectors give a report.
  • Many in the community seem opposed to locating two elementary schools in one building. It's an interesting suggestion, but creates problems ranging from culture to traffic.
  • The sports facility portion of the proposal is supposedly "only" 8% of the total bond. But as one reader of my online column pointed out, 8% of $60 million is still a lot of cash. Plus, the principle of it matters--a neighbor of mine points out that support for public education is a social responsibility even for those who don't have kids in the schools, but athletics is extra-curricular and such funding should be raised privately or separately from a public bond. If the amount is so trivial as the superintendent indicated, then raising it outside of a bond should be possible.
  • One woman investigated the financing seriously and noted that the bond rate and the millage are not fixed. So there is the potential that over the life of the 30-year bond the interest rate could increase, or as has happened in other communities, if home values decrease the millage could increase to cover the difference. In some west Michigan communities, an initial millage of 7% was raised to 12% for this reason.
  • The final reason comes down to attitude. I witnessed and have heard the superintendent being aloof, defensive and arrogant in public meetings. Some people talk of being cut off, not being allowed to ask a second question, rudely told that their comments were disruptive. It would seem that a leader of a public institution would not only want to but would feel obligated to listen to the public whom he proposes to saddle with a 30-year obligation. One wonders if he will even be in the district for the duration of 30-years, or if he will use this "achievement" to seek employment in another district for even higher compensation. 
All of the above is not just my opinion, but repeated comments from many in the community. I think the concerns have merit. The school board did not put forth any alternatives, and when asked about a plan B, it seemed to be of no concern or consideration. No clear plan was expressed for what would happen to the buildings or properties at the current Jeffers and Holmes sites. Everything has been simply put out there in take it or leave it fashion. So, let's leave it. They can come back to us later with another proposal. It would be wise if it reflects the comments and concerns of the actual public who pays for public education.

Considering School Bond Proposal is Tough Homework

(From the October 10, 2013 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It’s been hard to know how to vote this November 5 on the Spring Lake Schools bond proposal. I’ve been torn about the prospect of another increase in taxes.

I’m an educator at the college level and value education. I recognize the civic responsibility to support public education, even though my wife and I don’t have children. These initial thoughts would make me favorable towards a proposal that would improve local schools and help them maintain their good quality.

But there are also certain realities that trouble me. One is that I do not make a significant amount of money. So, even though the proposal would cost most homeowners in the Spring Lake School District “only” about $40-50 more per year, that is on top of annual property taxes that exceed $2000. A few “onlys” add up quickly.

Because of this conflict in my head, I attended a public forum in which the Superintendent Dennis Furton gave a presentation and answered questions. Attendees were also given a considerable amount of literature to digest about the proposal. About 25 people attended the event at Jeffers Elementary earlier this week, and stayed nearly two hours.

Here are a few points that I consider most relevant that I think are worth considering as all of us contemplate a vote next month.

The proposed facility upgrades are not a wish list of things that would be nice to have. Engineers did a facility assessment on the 60-year-old elementary school buildings and determined upgrades to facilities and technology that are needed are so expensive in the older buildings that new construction makes more sense. One key take-away from teachers at the meeting is that their classrooms can not be temperature controlled by outdated thermostats and boiler systems that are beyond repair. Rooms typically are near 80 or even 90 degrees. Even in winter some teachers open classroom windows to make the classroom more comfortable.

New buildings also would enable more space and furnishings that are conducive to modern teaching styles, which involves more collaborative learning activities vs sitting in rows of desks. As a college professor I hear from employers who say that is how the workplace is changing also, to more collaborative work styles. Facilities that allow for educating children in this manner will better prepare them for college and the workplace.

Some residents complained that the proposal includes funding for athletics, which could possibly more appropriately be funded by private fundraising. But the athletic-related projects account for only 8% of the total proposal. Also, improvements like artificial turf actually will save the district money over time in maintenance costs.

Some were concerned about having one elementary school and causing many children who now can walk to school to need to be bussed. It was pointed out that when the current schools were built about 90% of the students lived in Spring Lake Village, in walking distance to Holmes Elementary. Today that number is 10% or less.

With regard to the increase in taxes, it was helpful to compare Spring Lake to other school districts in Ottawa County. If the proposal passes, the total millage would be 7.0, 8th out of 11 districts in the county. The highest is Coopersville at 8.69 and the lowest is Saugatuck at 3.0.There was also a sense of urgency to the proposal. The Michigan legislature capped the School Bond Loan Fund at $1.8 billion, and the fund is nearing the cap. If the proposal passes this year the taxpayers will have a .569 mill increase. But if not, the same proposal without being able to benefit from the School Bond Loan Fund would require a nearly 5 mill increase.

When asked about plans should the proposal fail, the superintended said there is none. They may come back to the voters with an alternate or scaled down request. Some in the room seemed surprised that there was not any thought given to contingencies.

There were a lot of other issues discussed at the recent meeting. Perhaps voters have even more thoughts in favor of or opposed to the proposal. I’d be interested to read them in letters to this paper or comments on this column. I know I appreciated the presentation by the Superintendent, and his response to questions and comments of taxpayers in the room. The proposal is a big decision, affecting us all for three decades. I’ve done my homework, and will continue to study the issue, before the proposal meets the test of voter approval in November.

A collection of Tim Penning’s columns is available in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays.” 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

We Should Consider Covenant Over Constitution

(From the September 12, 2013 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I was watching national political news the other day and I started thinking about the Old Testament prophet Samuel. I realize this is not a reaction common among news viewers, so let me explain.

There are two books in the Old Testament devoted to Samuel. That alone should be an indication of his importance. He was not only a prophet, but one of the judges who led Israel before they had a king.

In those days, judges heard directly from God, and based on this divine instruction, they guided the Israelite people. It seems like a pretty efficient and effective form of government. It was under what is called in the Bible a covenant, or an agreement. In this biblical covenant, God says “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Alrighty then. Or should I say, Almighty then.

The Bible includes more than a few stories of other nations fearing Israel because of their powerful and benevolent God. But in spite of this, under Samuel the people grew weary of the arrangement. They start to whine that they want a king. They wanted to be like other nations, as if being God’s chosen people were not good enough.

So Samuel gives them a king. They get Saul, who was a mighty warrior. But he also proves to be paranoid and power hungry. If given the opportunity, he would have fit into Washington D.C. without anyone doing a double take. Except maybe his loin cloth. That and the sword would seem odd. But otherwise, as national leaders go, the lust for power and constant fear of opponents is textbook.

After Saul there were other kings. Some good, some bad to the point of wicked. Eventually Israel split into two kingdoms, and then was conquered and the people dispersed. Well, they wanted a king, to be like earthly nations. The expression “be careful what you wish for” may have come from this era.

So, that’s why I was thinking about an Old Testament character while watching some 2013 characters recently. I know not everyone in these United States is a person of faith. But many are. And much of the partisan bickering includes invocations of God, even as people whine like childish ancient Israelites.

Politicians are pathologically possessed with power and their own position. One wonders if they consider at all their humble responsibility to lead and serve the people.

The pundits have replaced the prophets. They speak with a feigned divine authority and expect the people to take their word as sovereign.

Then there are the people—that’s us—who clamor for our modern day Sauls to do our work for us, to go into battle to slay the Philistines of our times, namely the other party.

People on either side of any argument hold high the constitution. This is important as our basis for national governance. But it is a document by and between mere humans. It refers to God (early drafts did so more explicitly) but is not from God. In other words, it pales in comparison to the covenant.

But so many of us, in spite of our faith, look to politics and government as the solution to every trouble we the people experience. We favor programs and policies over prayer and personal involvement.

I know not everyone is like this. There are many I have met who do not wait for Washington or lobby Lansing. They take simple, loving acts to address our society’s problems. Such people do not participate in million-man marches to get the attention of government, but do the will of God by walking alone or in small groups to serve one person in prison, in a hospital, or home alone. They do not think of what others can do, but what we should do.

Republican? Democrat? These are trivial concerns. Our passions and loyalties are misplaced. We will get what we wish for if we put all our focus on political parties.

God wants to be our God. We should be His people.

A book of Tim Penning’s Tribune columns, “Thoughts on Thursdays”, is available at the Bookman in Grand Haven or from Schuler Books in Grand Rapids or online

Thursday, August 8, 2013

You Don't Die of Cancer, You Live With It

(From the August 8, 2013 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I missed the deadline for my July column. I got an email from my editor: “Are you out there? Your column is due.” I replied to him that I was in the hospital with my wife and frankly had completely forgotten about the column. He agreed I could take the month off. It has been that kind of summer.

Let me back up. My wife had major surgery back in mid-May related to her cancer. While my wife was in this 9-hour surgery, I received an email from the U.S. Navy asking me to confirm I wanted to go on a “Leaders to Sea” program aboard the USS Ronald Reagan. (I wrote about this experience in my June column). A couple from church who were in the waiting room with me agreed: I should go. My wife upon regaining consciousness also agreed.

The rationale for this decision: when you or someone you know is fighting cancer, you have to keep living.

This decision got complicated later when my wife spiked a fever on the way to a high school graduation open house for the son of friends. We spent an evening in urgent care instead of at an open house. I wondered if I should still go on the Navy trip, but my wife said to go ahead.

When dealing with cancer, you’re still living.

So I went. I had just gotten back ashore and in cell phone range when I called my wife to learn she was in the hospital being treated for an infection that had caused her fever. She spent six days there. We had plans to go to England where I had to make a presentation at an academic conference, and she was going to come along. I was finding out that her plane ticket was not refundable, even for being hospitalized. But she was discharged three days before departure. So she went along, with oral antibiotics for the infection, injections to treat a blood clot related to surgery, and one remaining surgical drainage tube.

It may seem to some like a hassle and potentially dangerous to travel overseas in such circumstances. But this was a rare opportunity. And, when you have cancer you are not dying, you’re living.

While in England, we were blessed with relatively good health. Security and airline personnel were actually quite helpful with my wife’s excess bag for medical supplies. At one point she noted that her drainage tube was not draining any more. But we were in England, and would not be home for another week. We emailed a sister-in-law and asked her to call our doctor. An email came back saying it would be ok for me to remove the drainage tube, along with instructions. So I donned rubber gloves and did the procedure in our hotel room.

It’s all part of realizing that when dealing with cancer, you just have to keep on living.

Back from England, we hit the ground running with medical appointments. We retuned on Thursday evening, and had one appointment already on Friday. The following week we joked that it was a good thing the Fourth of July was on the calendar, because every other day that week involved a doctor’s visit of some kind. So at least, we thought, we would have the holiday off. We were wrong. The night before the Fourth (why do these things always happen on a Friday night or before a holiday?) my wife swelled up in two areas. It was scary. We called the doctor’s office the morning of the Fourth, expecting to at least get some advice over the phone from the on-call doctor. Instead we were told to meet with our surgeon at the clinic. The swelling turned out to be blood. One area was drained. The other had clotting and the doctor had to do a procedure to address it. It was the Fourth of July. My wife, the doctor, and I were the only ones in the building. So I got to be the surgical assistant.

It will be the most memorable holiday ever. Not what we would have wished for, but a reality nonetheless. When dealing with cancer, it’s amazing what can become part of your normal living 

The hardest part, and the reason I was in the hospital when I should have been working on my July column, was when my wife needed surgery again. The infection had become so serious that the doctor needed to “undo” part of the reconstructive surgery my wife had endured in May. It was a major setback.

Meanwhile, we have many appointments with doctors yet to come. Fortunately the blood clots and infection issues have been resolved. But there remains the nagging background uncertainty of whether cancer will come back. And we’re still uncertain about future surgery.

But, we keep living every day, and thanking God for each one. My wife keeps a gratitude journal and each night writes down three things for which she is thankful. With all the uncertainties of cancer, we have to delight in the certainties of each day. Moments together are sweeter. Time with family and friends are more precious. Routines and small achievements are more special. The presence of God is more powerful.

Yes, when you are dealing with cancer, it’s not about dying. It’s about living. Perhaps even better than before.

A collection of Tim Penning's columns is now available in the book "Thoughts on Thursdays."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Up Close Look at Navy Instills Excitement, Pride, Gratitude

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

With all due respect to the Coast Guard, which will be celebrated again next month in the annual Coast Guard Festival here in Grand Haven, I have to give a shout out to the Navy.

I mean, I have to. I spent two days on a Navy aircraft carrier last week, at sea, with full operations underway. This is the sort of thing that gets the attention of any civilian.

Geared up for the catapult flight off the USS Ronald Reagan.
I was part of the “Leaders at Sea” program, which sends leaders from all sectors—corporate, civic, government, non-profit, and service—to embark on a Navy ship at sea. I was nominated for this program by a former student who is a public affairs officer in the Navy Reserve, specifically in the Navy Office of Community Outreach. She also works full-time for the Navy, as a civilian community outreach manager for Navy Region Northwest. Her work is largely about educating civilians about the Navy, and the embark program is part of that.

“By educating leaders, especially those in non-fleet concentration areas who may not know as much about the Navy, we are able to reach a broader audience to teach them about the importance of their Navy,” she explained.

They succeeded. My Navy knowledge previously was brief and out of date. It consisted of two events in the 1980s. One was when a Navy recruiter visiting me at my parents house when I was a high school senior and seriously considering the Navy. The second was the release of the film “Top Gun” in 1986, the year I eventually graduated from Central Michigan University. I learned more about the Navy in two days last week than I could have possibly gleaned any other way in the decades since “Top Gun” came out.

The visit started with a briefing from a veteran Navy aviator at the North Island Naval Air Station on Coronado Island, in San Diego. The aviator, who coincidentally is originally from Muskegon, went over the Navy operations globally as well as specifically in the Pacific Fleet. He reviewed the various types of ships and planes, and then gave us the specifics about the USS Ronald Reagan, the aircraft carrier we 14 civilians would be visiting. Ultimately, this veteran pilot told us what to expect for our transportation to the carrier.

We flew on a C2 Greyhound, also called a COD (Carrier On-Board Delivery), which is a twin
The C2 Greyhound, or COD, that took civilians
to the aircraft carrier.
propeller plane capable of carrying cargo and about 26 human beings. It’s about the size of a regional jet, but without the amenities. The seats face backward, seatbelts are four point restraints, and everyone wears a “cranial”, or helmet, with headphones and goggles. The plane has to land on the aircraft carrier the same way the fighter jets do, in what is called an arrested landing. This means a hook on the plane catches a cable and brings the plane from 105 miles per hour to zero in two seconds. When we departed the following day, we took off via catapult, which had us go from 0-128 miles per hour in three seconds. I am happy to say I got a certificate acknowledging that I completed these feats. I am even happier to say that I did not throw up.

In between landing and launch, we had an exhaustive tour of this massive carrier. It included a reception with the captain—another Michigander, incidentally, who hopes to retire in Traverse City one day. We also had a brief from the Rear Admiral. Both men were very warm and gracious in explaining the ship's mission and operations and thanking us for coming to visit. We also met many officers, chief petty officers, and sailors on the 5,000-person ship, explaining their various roles. All of them demonstrated teamwork and exhibited great enthusiasm for serving their country in the Navy. They also repeatedly stressed that this is “our” ship as taxpayers.

The most exciting part was being on deck—under close supervision—to watch F-18s land and take off. “Top Gun” or other movies cannot do justice to standing 20 feet from these aircraft and watching the “ballet” of Navy personnel making it all happen on deck. Watching a refueling ship come alongside and replenish the ship’s supply of jet fuel was also a fascinating engineering trick to observe. But I also enjoyed the tours of the bridge, the hangar, repair shops, the anchor deck, the on-board Reagan museum and library, and many other areas of the ship that is so big that we were told many sailors don’t even see all of it.

I’ll never forget the one night aboard. Let’s just say I’ll never complain about a hotel room near an elevator after sleeping with fighter jets landing and taking off 20 feet above my head during night operations.

It’s important to note that all of us civilians paid for our trip. With the sequester, the Navy has to be very careful about budget. We even paid for all our meals on board. But it was well worth it.

It was more than just an adventure. It was truly educational. I learned so much first-hand about how much the Navy does, and how much has to be done to keep an aircraft carrier running efficiently. Imagine a job in a small city, and it’s a job on the ship. Most of the 5,000 sailors, including 25 percent women, are 25 years old or younger. They do a job that impresses any observer, and should instill pride in any citizen.

I’m grateful that a former student who graduated 10 years ago not only remembered me, but nominated me for this truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m especially grateful to see first hand how hard the men and women in the Navy work not only to protect the United States in military engagements but to serve the world in humanitarian and other peaceful missions.

Learn more about the Navy online at

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Reading Novels Requires Discipline

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

Colleges have had their spring graduation ceremonies, and the end of the high school year is less than a month away. It’s time to think about “summer reading.”

I think about it with a mix of anxiety and joy.

“Summer reading” is the notion that people read more in the summer. It also conjures images of reading lighter fare, specifically some popular novels that have a good story line conducive more to quick page turning than deep introspection. Hence my feelings of anxiety and joy.

The joy comes from thoughts of reading for simple pleasure and not for work. I don’t have to grade it, review it, comment on it, or otherwise think too hard. I can set it aside occasionally to nap on my patio, or to cool off in Lake Michigan. An easy reading novel connotes more than just reading for pleasure, it is a state of mind and a season.

But there is also that anxiety. That comes from a sense of guilt. Can I really get away with reading something so simple, just for, dare I say it, fun? Shouldn’t I be reading impressive and thick hard cover tomes on subjects related to the academic field I teach and other related intellectual fare?

I need to get over it. I need to tell myself that reading the latest John Grisham or Jim Harrison or other favorite novelist is perfectly ok. For one, it is good to relax. We can’t be on duty all the time. The brain needs refreshment too. At the same time, reading novels can have tremendous benefit beyond simple relaxation. Many novels are didactic in nature, meaning they teach us something. It could be a moral point gleaned from the subject of the story. It could be education about a place or particular subject, such as in historical novels, or those set in or written by authors in other countries. In other words, novels can be both entertaining and educational.

But I need some discipline to go ahead and read a bunch of novels on my list. Why? Because there is all the other “stuff” in my life. Summer also brings yard work, household projects, and a job that doesn’t just stop. Mostly, the available time for reading novels is eroded by all the other things I feel compelled to read.

First there is email. I get way too much of it. I get about 30-40 emails per day at home. Much of this can be sorted and deleted quickly since it is mostly personal correspondence or marketing emails from vendors sending offers or electronic versions of bills. But a lot of my home email is actually stuff to read—electronic newsletters from various newspapers, blogs and other sources. Then there’s my work email, where I get easily 100 emails per day. (I always laugh when a student comes to my door and says “I’m the one who emailed you.” Would that there were only one!). Besides the student emails, there are emails from faculty colleagues and administrators. Many of these require not just reading, but responding or doing more work. I also sort my work email into folders to try to manage and unclutter the flow. But these folders require lots of reading too—social media updates, alerts to the subjects of newly published academic journals and various trade publications. I feel compelled to read all of this to stay up to date in my field.

I mentioned social media. That is a black hole of reading. Not only do I use social media, I teach it, so I feel I must be engaged on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, and other social media platforms. But as many have said, this can be a real “time suck” that takes me away from reading other things.

I also get hard copies of journals, trade publications and magazines. They sit next to stacks of nonfiction and academic related books to read. One stack of these books resting in my home office looks very familiar—they were there last summer when I intended to get through them over the summer.

So you can see my consternation. Perhaps you have the same problem. Some of my friends on a social media site called “Goodreads” seem to rub it in when they post about books they’ve recently read. I envy them.

But like I said, I plan to discipline myself. I am going to set aside time this summer to read novels. I will do so without guilt. The lawn can be edged later—or not. I can skim those professional blogs and publications later. I am going to focus on reading novels. I deserve a little relaxing entertainment this summer. And my work will be better for it come fall.