Thursday, December 8, 2016

We Need a New 12 Days of Christmas

(From the December 8, 2016 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Lords a leapin’! After today there are only a few more shopping days until Christmas. That probably makes some people excited, and others panic. It makes me wonder.
What exactly is a “shopping day” versus any other day anyway? Well, there’s no difference of course. But the term was injected into our vocabulary and culture by retail marketers who have successfully equated this holiday with an annual buying binge. You see it in the advertisements, coming earlier every year. And the news media carry the theme by interviewing business owners and economists, asking for a forecast of sales this Christmas season.

So, in spite of all that we say about Christmas, that it is about peace and love and hope and joy, it really seems to be about, you know, stuff.  Buying stuff, giving stuff, getting stuff, even stuffing the turkey. Last year I saw a group of women go ga-ga over some large plastic containers. “These will be great for storing stuff!” one of them exclaimed. A friend of mine, a builder, pointed out that the average size house of 50 years ago is about the size of an average garage today. Garages are bigger because families typically have more than one vehicle, and lots of stuff that go with them. Meanwhile, a big selling point for a home these days is a basement storage room--extra room for extra stuff. Even with that, “Storage” merits its own category in the yellow pages. There are doezens pages of “u-store-it” type businesses in our area ready to help people who have too much stuff.

When you really think about this, our habit of accumulating things seems as ridiculous as that perennial song “The 12 Days of Christmas.” I mean, the person who wrote this annoying ballad must have been the person who had everything. Why else would his true love give him such impractical crap? Seriously. Other than the thoughtful yet extravagant gift of jewelry on the fifth day, the poor sucker kept getting birds for seven days. It started with a simple partridge and got quickly out of hand, culminating in seven swans a swimming by day seven. By my count, in a week’s time he was stuck with 23 birds including the aforementioned as well as a variety of turtle doves, geese, and french hens. The guy probably had to hock the five golden rings just to afford the bird food. Now, eight maids a milking would have been useful if he had been given cows, but no, they were excessive as well. With all that fowl it’s no wonder the 10 lords were leaping, obvously trying to avoid stepping in all that 23 birds might leave behind.

This all makes a sweater and a gift card to Home Depot seem about right.

Or better yet, maybe we could refocus the 12 days of Christmas on something other than the hectic pursuit of more stuff. Maybe it could be about rest from routine, rekindling relationships, and remembering others. Here are my suggestions for enjoying the 12 days starting tomorrow and ending the day before Christmas:

On the first day of Christmas--read a good book.

On the second day of Christmas--meet a friend you haven’t seen in a long time for a cup of coffee and a long chat.

On the third day of Christmas--play games with your spouse and kids, or a few close friends.

On the fourth day of Christmas--try to repair a strained relationship.

On the fifth day of Christmas--call (don’t email for once) a friend or family member who lives a long ways from you.

On the sixth day of Christmas--get a cup of coffee or hot chocolate at a local coffee shop and then walk downtown and enjoy the lights.

On the seventh day of Christmas--walk the pier and/or the beach to appreciate the beauty of nature in winter.

On the eighth day of Christmas--write in your journal--or start a journal with an entry--about all the good things other people did for you this past year.

On the ninth day of Christmas--visit someone who can’t get out much.

On the tenth day of Christmas--Enjoy a concert or play.

On the 11th day of Christmas-- Go to a crowded shopping center not to shop, but just to smile at the frenzied people who are.

 On the 12th day of Christmas--remember that there are people who really need stuff, including food, clothes, toys, furniture and even housing. Make a donation to local charities that are providing those things.

 Then, on Christmas Day, remember that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. Remember that this fact affects us every day, not just 12 in December. Remember that Jesus is a gift to us from the most true love we’ll ever know.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Local Attention Gets College Students Excited About Election

(From the November 10, 2016 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I knew it would happen when the news broke over the weekend. Hillary Clinton would do a campaign rally on the Grand Valley State University campus on the day before the election. Then more news came. Donald Trump would do a rally in downtown Grand Rapids.

Let me sidetrack for a minute. My colleagues and I in the Advertising and Public Relations program have been bringing in a series of speakers about this profession. The idea is to engage students outside of the classroom, to bring lots of students together--as opposed to only those in one class. We also wanted to give the students opportunities to rub shoulders with professionals in their chosen profession, as well as alumni of our program. The attendance at these events has been ok, but not great. We have to incentivize them by making a class assignment out of it or offering extra credit.

But when I saw the news that Clinton and Trump would be coming to west Michigan, I knew getting students to attend would not be a problem. Sure enough, my email inbox started filling with the questions and comments from students. I smiled at some of them, because they were written professionally and persuasively, the way I teach them to write. They knew that there were group presentations in class today, but.... they all began. Then came the careful arguments. We could postpone the presentations until Wednesday and do them in the writing lab. Perhaps they could hand them in without presenting them. These were the solutions. The rationale was more precious. They pointed out this is the first election in which they had the opportunity to vote. They told me, as if I didn’t grasp it, that having both major candidates in a presidential election on campus and in town on election eve was a rare opportunity.

I didn’t make them wait too long. I sent a blast email to the class that we would not meet today and gave them instructions for what to do outside of class, after the rallys, to be ready for Wednesday. It must have been for them rather like an impending snow day in the winter semester. We’re not having class, right? I can’t believe we’ll still have class. He HAS to cancel class! Finally, relief and glee: class is cancelled.

But I also made this a teachable moment. Since the class I released was my media relations class, I told them to observe carefully everything they can at the live rally, and then to look at the media coverage later. I told them to look at TV, radio, print. I told them to look in native format and on apps and web sites. Then I asked them to compare if the media captured what they saw.

One student had already done this when Donald Trump Junior was on campus last week. In an email to me he bemoaned the fact that the subsequent news reports focused entirely on a handful of protestors with no details on what the young Trump said. “It was very one-sided,” he noted with the certainty and disappointment of a veteran pundit. Another student also expressed her disappointment that the protestors at that event seemed bent on preventing anyone from being heard. “I’m fine if you disagree with a speaker,” she said. “But let the speaker speak so the rest of us can hear. It was very childish.”

Millennials are growing up. They are getting freedom, and with it the car keys, utility bills, and all the incivility the world has to offer.

But there is hope. I recall the year 1984, when Ronald Reagan was running for re-election. As a journalism major at Central Michigan University at the time, I drove down from Mt. Pleasant to Grand Rapids to hear a president speak on the banks of the Grand River by the Ford Museum. I came with a friend, a photographer, and we got photos and a story for student media. It was a thrill of an assignment. It was the first presidential election in which we could vote. I don’t remember now, but I probably got out of class that day. I do know that I and my friend were more excited than we had ever been on a snow day.

I saw that kind of excitement earlier this week. This column is in the paper two days later, when we know the results. But at the beginning of the week we did not, and Michigan was in play when in previous years campaigns took us for granted. Young people were excited, as they should be.

One student in particular represented this. A soft-spoken African-American man who works in an athletic shoe store when not in class, he came to my office and gently knocked. He inquired about my weekend, and if my wife is also a runner. We chatted about that a bit. Then he asked about missing class. He wanted to go to the Clinton rally on campus and then the Trump rally downtown.

“Both candidates, right here, the day before the election,” he said, lifting his hands and shaking his head. “I have to go, I just have to go.”

“Yes,” I said. “You do. You really do. And I think it’s great you’re going to both.”

I didn’t ask him for whom he planned to vote. In the moment, I didn’t think it mattered. Sometimes it’s more about the process than the politics.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Still Smiling in Spite of Difficult Election Season

(from the October 13, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It’s a question sometimes spoken and often thought this year. The question emerges on people’s lips and in their thoughts with increasing frequency as we draw closer to November. The question goes something like this: there are more than 300 Americans and it has come down to these two?

Hilary Clinton was inevitable. Donald Trump was improbable. We got them both. Most people don’t like either of them.

So how did we get to this point? Blame us.

It is an old adage that we get the leaders we deserve. Some would question if it’s fair to say that in this case. How did we ever bring it on ourselves to have to choose between a bombastic billionaire who speaks with “locker room language” and a woman who has held many positions but also many secrets even in the face of congressional subpoena? Rather than get excited about voting, we want to yell at the TV. “Go home, blowhard!” “Liar, liar, pantsuit on fire!”

Well, “we” get the leaders we deserve because “we” includes a lot of us collectively. Maybe individual readers of this newspaper consider themselves above the fray, more enlightened citizens, not given to selfish appeals to politicians and therefore not susceptible to their pandering and empty promises. And that may be—people who actually read newspapers are better informed and one would hope more rational and broad minded than the “average” voter.

Nevertheless, if we can consider “we” to be our collective society, than we get what we deserve. When we hold our noses next month to vote for either Trump or Clinton—or take a stab at a geographically challenged third party candidate who didn’t know if Aleppo was a city in Syria or an acronym for a congressional bill—we are reaping what we sowed.

That’s because we have responded to negative ads. On social media we keep hitting the hornet’s nest by sharing and reposting the derogatory comments about the “other” party. We complain about the polarity in our politics, but we have stirred it on. We say we can’t believe the negativity, but we sure talk about it. The ratings for the presidential debates competed with that of NFL games, and had the drama of “Scandal” and “House of Cards.” Only one candidate has experience in ‘reality TV,” but both have made this election season seem like the same.

Now some of us would rather vote them both “off the island” than vote for one for president.

We had options. There was an unusually long list of 17 of them on the Republican side. But people rejected the boring policy proponents for the petulant populist. There were fewer options on the Democrat side. There may have been more, we find out now, after the party chairwoman resigned in disgrace when shenanigans to anoint an insider favorite were revealed. Another reason there were not more or better candidates on both sides is that our culture has made it unsavory for competent people of integrity to seek high public office.

I am reminded in such a time of history, both national and ancient. In our nation’s history, there were many presidents who were not always popular. While we’ve had some national leaders for whom we make monuments, others are lost to history for their incompetence or failures of character.

That reminds me of ancient history. Even in Israel, among God’s chosen people, there were a series of good and bad kings. Leaders ranged from Ahab to David, one synonymous with evil and one revered today as part of Israel’s national identity. But even David, a mostly “good” king from whom Jesus descended, had issues. A well-known story involves David lusting after a woman named Bathsheeba, arranging for her husband to be killed, and taking her as his own. Suffice it to say this is on par with locker room language and Benghazi.

If we have brought these bad candidates on ourselves, we make a second mistake by dwelling on the present. What history shows us is a simple truth. People are not perfect. They are fallible, even to the point of deeply disappointing and unsavory of character. Our candidates today are like all humans. They have selfish ambition and evil desires.

People, and nations for that matter, are also merely temporary. They are like what the prophet Isaiah poetically called grass and flowers that whither and fade. Only God endures forever.

I will vote next month. It will not be with enthusiasm or partisan joy. I’ll vote more out of a sense of duty and obligation. I will give the government my decision the same way I give my taxes: with reluctant obedience.

But I’ll smile when I leave the polling place. This is partly because the dreaded deed will be done and partly because I know if I stay healthy I will outlive both of these candidates. But mostly I’ll smile after voting because my hope is not in mere mortals of the moment.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Time to Add New Sports to Summer Olympics

(From the September 8, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune).

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the summer Olympics this year. I had thought I would not be watching them due to reports that there were lots of problems in planning.

Premier athletes were bowing out because of caution about the Zika virus. The Brazilian planning committee was struggling to complete buildings for housing athletes and hosting key events. It looked to be a mess.

Then there is the weather issue. In the summer, I would rather be outside doing things as opposed to sitting inside watching some brute from Bosnia heave a heavy object.

But, as I said. I was pleasantly surprised. My wife and I recorded Olympic events or periods of broadcast time on the DVR and then watched them each evening. This way we could be doing our own summer things and then watch on our own time, skipping or fast-forwarding through events we were less interested in or the preliminary qualifying rounds of others.
            As the Olympics wore down to the final event, the men’s marathon, I found myself a little sad that they were ending. They had been fun, dramatic, compelling and exciting to watch. My wife and I even came up with several other events to propose for future summer Olympics.

First, to make room for our proposed events, some current summer Olympic sports would have to be removed. There are some easy first round eliminations, such as sports that should be kept to recreational activities at the beach or cottage for which they were originally intended. I count among these Badminton. Hitting a little birdy an Olympic sport? No. Add to this list golf, sailing and tennis. Any activity common at snooty country clubs does not merit inclusion in the international competition of that originated among naked Greeks.

There are other sports that could be removed just because they tend to crowd the field. There are four cycling events, for example. Perhaps BMX or mountain biking, which have their own competitive circuits, are not needed in the Olympics. There are three equestrian events, including one called ‘eventing.’ If an event is called ‘eventing’ then it apparently has not been thought through. It sounds like it could be simply horsing around. Advocates of that sport should at least specify what their event actually is and get rid of the generic name and reapply.

With the field cleared of extraneous sports, it’s time to breathe a little life into the next summer Olympics with some new sports. Here we go.

Couples synchronized 5K running. This is my favorite. My wife and I run together, both in training and in events. Running is hard enough without having to match pace with a spouse. I think it would encourage healthy marriage, reduce gender bias in sports, and provide exciting viewing. There is already synchronized swimming, so why not expand the concept to something above water that people can actually see?

Mini golf. This is golf for the rest of us. Golf has a major circuit of international competitive events. But mini golf has a different set of skills, would provide an athletic outlet for a whole new range of athletes, and offers wonderful potential for country specific competition at each upcoming Olympics. It’s not that hard to whack a ball across an open pasture. Real sport is trying to bank a ball off the left rear pillar of a  scale model Eiffel Tower.

Yo-Yo. There used to be yo-yo competitions. I saw them as a kid, but not at all recently. It’s time to bring it back. If there’s such a thing as “rhythmic gymnastics,” with its prancing and waving of streamers, it’s not a stretch to have an event that involves bobbing and twirling a round disc at the end of a string.

Hammocking. Yes, it’s a thing. Perhaps you’ve seen people at parks and along the boardwalk and even on the pier when the catwalk was still there string up a hammock for some serious relaxation. Why not make this competitive? Plus, nothing says summer like a supine swing.

Roller derby has made a come back in Grand Rapids and in other cities. The sport is a team sport, highly active, fun to watch, and reminds me a lot of the speed skating in the winter Olympics. It certainly has more compelling viewing potential than badminton.

Lawn bowling is another summer sport that seems to be the warm weather equivalent of a winter sport, in this case curling. I never really understood curling, with its frantic sweeping, but I always enjoy watching it. At least lawn bowling is on a grassy field, and its history is traced to the 13th century, which gives it more historical credibility than many current summer Olympic sports.

I don’t know if I’ll get my wish when the next summer Olympics kick off in Tokyo in 2020. But I’ll be watching, not just to see what’s on when, but if there’s anything new.