‘Overtourism’ Coming to Tri-Cities?

An isolated beach in fall. Could it become too crowded in the future?

“No one comes here anymore, it’s too crowded.”

That is one of the classic statements of Yogi Berra. They are statements that are all at once contradictory and yet make perfect sense. In this case, if a place is crowded you can’t say no one comes there. And yet, the statement makes perfect sense.

And it could possibly be said by some about the Tri-Cities.

Earlier this year, I noticed a rash of articles about something called “overtourism.” The articles were in prominent media, such as CNN, The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Yes, the news media have a tendency to do what is called “pack journalism,” in which a bunch of news outlets all cover the same story after noticing another one do so. Or there is a cultural meme that seems popular so the media jump on to seem relevant, grab eyeballs, and make profit.

But there may be something to this overtourim thing. The terms means as implied, that a certain destination has just become too popular, too crowded with tourists, as to make it less desireable to residents, businesses, even a growing category of other tourists. Granted, over crowded or too crowded can be a subjective term. But the situation reaches critical mass when a significant number of people don’t go to a place because a reputation for being crowded has developed.

The articles I read were about the global locales, from Spain to the Netherlands to Croatia. They included tourist cities across the United States. Incidents of alleged overtourism were reported in traditionally popular locations as well as until recently lesser known destinations. In some cases, the stories were simply about increases in tourist numbers. In other stories, the situation had gotten dangerous, with locals spray painting “tourist go home” on bridges and buildings or otherwise trying to diminish the fun of visitors.

And, as I said, this could be starting to happen in the Tri-Cities.

In late summer, we were with a group of friends from church at an area beach. One young lady who knows French started talking with some tourists who happened to be from France. I was surprised, and asked them how they heard about this area. Turns out they did some research online and found rave reviews about one of our county beaches.

I had mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, how cool is it that world travelers from as far away as the beaches of Normandy would find it compelling to visit one of our local Lake Michigan beaches? On the other hand, the word is out, we’ve been exposed, the very quiet solitude many of us enjoy at the little gem parks we favor may not exist much longer.

There are other impacts of overtourism. Gone are the days when we can drive in and easily find parking at an event in Grand Haven, such as Coast Guard Festival, a summer concert in the waterfront stadium, or an art festival at the marina. Increasingly, it’s necessary to leave much earlier than desirable, park far away and walk, or even bike to avoid traffic and parking hassles. Again, it’s a rush to see things so popular, but it’s coming close to the point where we opt to stay home.

It’s not just tourists. It’s residents, whether seasonal or permanent. The Tri-Cities and Ottawa County have seen significant growth. That sounds good as municipalities measure success in numbers. But there are negative consequences too, such as an increase in housing costs, less parking, a literal drain on water supplies as aquifers lose capacity, and demands on schools and infrastructure. We have to strategically plan when we make a run to the pharmacy or grocery store to avoid traffic.

It’s not just me saying this. I’ve heard fearful comments from many other locals as well. The sentiment is generally that growth is good, but managed growth is better. One municipal official said recently, when asked about the loss of available land to develop and the decrease in parking, that we need to build up not out, implying condo towers and multi-level parking ramps. I wonder about capping or managing growth instead.

We need to consider what we lose as well as what we gain. We can’t only measure our communities in terms of quantitative numbers of tourists, new residents, new condos and homes. We also need to measure the qualitative, such as lower traffic congestion, available parking, low stress, pace of life, and natural uncrowded beauty. We have to remember that our community is popular because it is less crowded.

We may not be as bad as Barcelona or as awful as Amsterdam. But now is the time to do some hard thinking about it. Even as Spring Lake is sprucing up with new businesses in its M-104 corridor, and as Grand Haven continues its expansion on both sides of Washington Street, we need to think of the condition of all the people on the quiet lanes and cul de sacs.

There are worse situations, such as living in a place where no one wants to go. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, people still come here, but it is getting crowded.

A Seven-Year-Old Boy Makes Us Grow

(From the September 12, 2019 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Suddenly, this summer, we found ourselves in possession of a seven-year-old boy. At times I have felt as if he was actually possessed by a force much darker than us. Nevertheless, two months into this we have survived, with our souls and even most precious household knickknacks intact.

The situation is, in the language of state courts and our own realistic reasoning, indefinite. That means we know even less about how long this will last than we do about actual parenting.

The comments of others upon learning of our situation has been a potpourri of commentary. “Disruption is good,” came the philosophical musing of a bookstore proprietor friend of ours on Mackinac Island. “You’re doing God’s work,” was the spiritually infused observation of an administrator at the university. “What are you, nuts?!” was the unbridled expression of a lifelong friend whose honesty I’ve always appreciated and who’s tact I’ve never located.

What we are, actually, is family. And we are doing this to keep the child in the family, while his mother can do some things she needs to do before the boy can return to her.

In the meantime, we are at the age of what could be youthful grandparents experiencing the upheaval of first-time parents. I find myself asking all sorts of questions, first of the boy and then of other parents. Of the boy: “why do you trod the floors with the weight of a 250-pounder when you weigh less than 50 pounds naked and soaking wet?” Also, “why are you out here in the hallway actually naked and soaking wet?” That latter question is rhetorical—the obvious answer is that Uncle Tim had given up after seven attempts explaining why a towel and clean underwear and pajamas were in the bathroom next to the tub for him.

Questions of other parents: “you mean it’s not unusual for a child to leave on every light in the establishment? Can your child eat breakfast in less than an hour? You can’t duct tape a kid to their bed, can you? How many toys have you found on your roof?”

I am reminded of the perplexity of the television character “Monk,” an obsessive-compulsive detective, who takes in a small child abandoned on a case he was investigating. At one point, having learned he must feed and dress the child, he declares to his assistant: “So you’re saying he’s like a small person!?”

What we have on our hands here is a small person, with the energy and destructive force of a large army.

But it is worth it. In the eight weeks with us, he has processed the disturbing reality of the circumstances by which he was removed from his mother’s care. The screams in the night, which happened initially more than once each night, have ceased. He speaks with appropriate understanding and attitude about his situation. He refers to our house as home. His behavior, from cognition to eating habits to other interactions, are seeing slight improvements. He has known the delight a boy should know, of baseball games, running free on the beach, swinging on swings and playing with new friends.

One day he called me “daddy.” He interrupted his whirling playtime to run up to me, utter the word, and scamper away. I wanted to correct him. I didn’t want to correct him. I didn’t know if he said it out of confusion, wishful thinking, or boyish silliness. I reminded myself that parent is also a verb. I watched him run and play.

We have had a lot of help. From the principle and teachers and staff at his local elementary school. From friends and parents of similarly aged children at church. From neighbors. Even an innkeeper on Mackinac Island during a needed getaway recently, who in a previous career was a special education teacher, offered many insights. We keep learning.

People ask if we are parents or grandparents. They ask how long we will have him. Again, it’s all unusual. It’s indefinite. The fact that it is God’s work, that it is necessary, that we are making willing sacrifices, that part is definite. But otherwise, it’s a day at a time.

One friend commented from experience that little boys will drive you nuts all day long and then melt your heart with one sweet deed at bedtime. I have learned that too.

At night, after the stories and the prayer and his begging for one of us to snuggle with him until he falls asleep, I wait for his breathing to be rhythmic to tell me he is at last asleep. I can finally have some time to talk to my wife uninterrupted, or actually catch up on work. But I linger, and wonder about his future. I watch him breathe in. I watch him breathe out. And I determine that’s all I can do for now as well.

Dining in T-Shirts a Metaphor for Life

(From the August 8, 2019 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune).

Years ago, while in college, I uttered the phrase “dining in t-shirts” to my contemporaries. We were sitting around, in t-shirts, having a meal, and talking about advanced concepts from some of our classes.

It occurred to me that “dining in t-shirts” was a good metaphor for the blended modes of life.

Dining connotes a formal affair, at least in fine dining. It brings to mind notions of elegance, enlightened conversation, a bit of sophistication and enjoyment of the finer things in life.

T-shirts are ubiquitous as a fashion item in our country and culture. They are emblazoned with political commentary, show allegiance to a school or employer, or boast to all observers of a place the wearer has been. They are also, in contrast to dining, a signifier of casual, relaxation, informality.

A good life requires both. We need that which is sophisticated as well as all that is common. We need serious contemplation and light-hearted wit. We need to be able to move easily from black tie to blue jeans.

“Dining” is needed in life because there are topics, occasions and situations that are more serious. Sometimes things require formality, they call for depth, order and the harder work that goes with thoughtful reaction and action. We can’t be uncaring, rudimentary and primitive all the time.

However, the “t-shirt” aspect is important too. We’ve all heard the caution not to take ourselves too seriously, or to get too worked up about a situation. Moderation is in order. T-shirt mode is important precisely because life can be so serious and formal at times. We need a break. We need comic relief. We need to chill, to relax, to enjoy.

My own life oscillates this way as a college professor. During the school year, things are fast-paced and serious. There are lots of deep discussions, reading, introspective thinking. Serious stuff. In terms of dining, it is a smorgasbord every day.

In summers I switch to t-shirt mode. I slow the pace, read some fiction and other things just for fun, not because I have to teach it or am doing research on it. I literally wear t-shirts often. This summer, even though off contract, I put in several hundred hours of work—hiring and training adjuncts, responding to various administrative requests for information, completed writing a book for one of my classes, a book chapter for an association I am part of, and launched a research project. But, as serious as this all is, I did so in my own time, and probably in a t-shirt.

The funny thing is, while in one mode I often long for the other. During the school year I look forward to summer. At some point in summer I look forward to the school year. I go from dining to t-shirts and back again. It’s hard to stay in one mode too long.

As you have gathered by now, by saying dining and t-shirts I am not talking about eating or fashion selection. It’s not just what we eat and where but how we think. All of us need to go from one to the other. It is healthy, and makes for a full life. We need to pay serious attention to the issues of our contemporary world. But there are also times where it is equally important to turn off the pundits and the noise, to sit and talk about recent idle experiences. We can not always be obsessed with where we want to go. What is the point of that if one never savors where they simply are?

I was reminded of “dining in t-shirts” recently while in line at a Coast Guard Festival event. I was chatting with someone next to me, and yes, we were both wearing t-shirts. We engaged thoughtfully about the role of the military, challenges in the education system, the behavior of children, and nutritional benefits of various foods.

We were just standing in line. We were engaged in serious conversation, with some humorous commentary. We were both formal and informal. It is a snapshot of how life should be. We were dining in t-shirts.

Defining Generations Leads to Gratitude for Greatest One

images.jpeg(From the June 13, 2019 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Some would call it a tragedy. The water is high. The wind is strong. The beaches are eroding. It’s not quite officially summer yet, but people are shaking their heads. Some are grieving the loss of beach, with what had been a smooth slope of sand inviting easy entry to Lake Michigan being replaced by cliffs. There are drop-offs as much as eight feet or higher. Recreation is wrecked.

I don’t own waterfront property. But I enjoy a swim or beach walk as much as anyone. So I confess that I count myself among those bemoaning the loss of beach. I did this up until June 6. That was the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when allied forces in World War II had a very different beach experience.

I watched the news coverage and some of the ceremonies that took place in Europe to commemorate the historical moment. I re-read the speech given by Ronald Reagan, written by Peggy Noonan, when we reflected on the 40thanniversary. He spoke about and to the “boys” of Pointe du Hoc. I looked on TV at the legions of grave markers at the American Cemetery on that coast of France and recalled visiting there myself during a trip to teach in France about 10 years ago. I cried at the sight. I am somber once again.

We are in the habit in this current era to place much emphasis on defining generations. You see this in advertising, churches, education, and elsewhere. People are defined and appealed to by the period of years in which they were born. People know if they are Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z. It’s almost as if we know our generation more than our profession, ethnicity, or character.

But if we are going to obsess over generations, we should do so more over the generation that is departing us. The beach we are currently losing through seasonal fluctuations in water levels may come back. The ones who dealt with real tragedy on those beaches long ago are leaving us forever.

Hearing the interviews with a few nonagenarian survivors still stuns me. They were indeed boys, still in their teens, barely in their twenties. Drafted or volunteers, they nonetheless went into the dark certainty of a pivot in history. They had been told they were fighting a war to end all wars. They boarded Higgins boats, landing craft, knowing this could be their last assignment. They watched waves of their friends leave the boats into frigid water, a rain of bullets, then screams and blood. Then they went next. Others jumped out of airplanes in what was then a new wartime tactic. Boys, paratroopers, floating down in foreign darkness to confront a grisly foe.

So many of that generation did what they were told, knowing they might die. They did what they were told and those who survived told little of their experience. They did not speak about what they saw because they saw the unspeakable.

We meanwhile, all the generations who have followed, speak often of ourselves. We share on social media our experiences, more trivial than tragic. It’s ok. The members of the oldest generation who came back silently lived their lives. That’s what they fought for. To end a tyrant’s tight grip on humanity. To preserve and restore freedom. To no longer be soldiers, but to be workers and husbands and fathers and men. To allow us to do the same.

I realize others have been soldiers and have seen combat. I don’t know what that was like. But I can not imagine it reached the level of horror recounted on the beaches and skies and fields of Europe 75 years ago.

Soon I might go to the beach, once the water warms and it is more comfortable. The worst I will experience I imagine might be flies, or a wayward beach ball, or difficulty finding a parking space. If so, I will remember another beach, and another generation. I will be grateful.

We all should revere the elderly. We should consider their greatness is measured not in technical gadgets but human generosity, not in hubris but humility. We should be respectfully mindful that the last of them are leaving us. The tragedy today for them—and us–is not what they faced on the beaches of Normandy, on Flanders fields, or in the decades since at home where they lived their lives and silently carried their grief. The tragedy will be if none of us has the grace and grit to rise to a level of greatness seen only rarely across generations.

I saw an old gentleman wearing a WWII Veteran hat recently. I looked at him and smiled. He looked initially surprised, then he smiled and nodded. I don’t know what he saw long ago. I hope that day recently he saw respect.

College Admissions Scandal Elevates Hard Work Over Hollywood

(From the May 9, 2019 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I recall a day in 1985 like it was yesterday. It was a summer evening. I was in a townhouse in Georgetown, a tony neighborhood in Washington D.C. I was attending a party populated by other young people like myself who were spending their summer doing some form of internship in the nation’s capital.

Except, I was not like all the other young people there.

For one thing, my internship was in journalism. I was working at the Washingtonian Magazine, part of a national program of the American Society of Magazine Editors. A lot of the other interns were working for law firms, lobbying firms, or on capitol hill.

Another difference was that I was wearing jeans and a polo shirt, having changed after work. I didn’t get the memo. A lot of the other college students were posturing in their suits with the yellow polka dot power ties fashionable in the 1980s.

But mostly, I stood apart in the dialogue. Students were talking about their futures. One boasted that his father knew some big wig at a firm where he wanted to work. Another declared that he was a member of some society at an east coast Ivy League school. Still another pointed out conclusively that his father golfed with the president of a certain company. Then the circle of people I was in cast their eyes on me.

This was the moment that summer where I grew the most. It was not working with a staff writer who was the wife of a future vice president. It was not conducting a research interview in the mayor’s office. It was not the writing I did for my developing journalistic portfolio. It was this simple moment before a jury of my peers.

“Well,” I gulped, as the pin-stripe suited east coast elites looked at me. “My dad is a plumber. My mom is an immigrant. I go to a state university back in Michigan. I guess whatever job I get I’ll know I got it because of my own hard work and talents, and not because of who my daddy knows or the name of the school on my diploma.”

Crickets. Literally, all I heard was crickets. We were outside at night in the summer. Then one young man, quite possibly the least pretentious of the bunch, spoke. “Good for you, man,” he said and smiled. “Good for you.”

“I hope you become a senator,” I responded. “You get it.”

I bring up this story because it came rushing back to me in my mind in recent months. A scandal broke in the national news involving several Hollywood celebrities, and now apparently many more wealthy people, who paid a lot of money to fake information and trick admissions officers to get their kiddos into top notch colleges. It reminded me of the elitist attitude I encountered on that summer night in DC years ago.

One would think that all these years later, people would understand that college is not just a pedigree to wave around as leverage. No, college is an opportunity to learn. And it is based on hard work and talent development, not patronage.

There was this interesting juxtaposition of my own current experience teaching at Grand Valley and this national scandal. Some of the children of these elites boasted that they didn’t even want to study or attend class, just party and be part of the elite school scene. Meanwhile, I had three students take third place in a national PR case study competition, competing among top schools from across the country, including graduate students. My colleague leads a group of students on a National Student Advertising Competition team who won their district, besting Big 10 and other larger schools in the Midwest, to go on semi-finals and possible the national finals.

A year ago I was in New York City to attend a conference and I connected with an alumnus who works in Manhattan, handling major national clients in the digital advertising arena. He is a loyal GVSU alumnus and says what he loves most about the school, from its sports teams to its students, is “grit.” They all work hard and succeed beyond expectations, he said, which is how he got where he is now in Manhattan.

That grit was exhibited this past semester by another student. She came to me after a career fair and resume review event and said she got high praise for her resume, and that bothered her, because she thought surely there was room for her to improve. This was a student who had multiple internships, including with a U.S. Congressman, was involved in extracurricular activity, and did excellent classroom work. I simply confirmed what the people at the event had told her—she looked stellar.

At the final exam period recently, she turned in her exam with an envelope. The envelope contained a kind thank-you note, and a business card for her new job….at a well-known PR firm in DC. She also thanked me for writing a letter of recommendation for her to be admitted to graduate school at Georgetown, where she will attend nights while working her new job.

I don’t think my letter did much to persuade, just confirm. I think she got the job and grad school acceptance because of her own hard work and talent. I also am keen to observe that her dad is a plumber.

I confess some delight in seeing those given to patronage and pretense ending up in scandal. It is reassuring to know that in this world the values of hard work, merit, or call it grit, still lead to success. And more than success is the satisfaction in knowing it has been earned.

On Thrones and Blood During Lent

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 2.05.05 PMFor a few days in March, the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones” had an interesting promotional event. Fans of the show could go through an immersive experience engaging sets and actors of the show. This all happened at the popular annual SXSW event in Austin, Texas.

There was much news about the show yesterday as its final season began.

The most compelling aspect of the promotion was the cause-related marketing. “Game of Thrones” had partnered with  the American Red Cross to include a blood drive. Participants were asked by costumed actors if they wanted to donate blood–the campaign was called “Bleed for the Throne.” You can read more about it on HBO’s web site.

I am not a fan or viewer of the show. As an educator in advertising and public relations, I was intrigued by the creativity in the promotion and the cause-related partnership. But as a life-long Christian, especially in the season of Lent, when I see the words “bleed” and “throne” my mind instinctively goes to some thing, and someone, else.

I think of Jesus.

In the show, and in much of life, people are asked to make sacrifices for others, whether kings, political leaders, employers, or deities. But Jesus turned all that around. Animal blood sacrifices of the Old Testament ended. We are not asked to bleed for Him. As the Son of God, He left His throne to bleed for us.

I’m not against HBO’s promotion, or even a fictional show called “Game of Thrones.” I am just reminded all the time of the radical and loving thing Jesus did for us, especially as Good Friday approaches on April 19. But it’s a reminder to seek an “immersive experience” of faith through reading the Bible, prayer, and worship with other members of a glorious kingdom. This Easter we approach the throne of God not because of our sacrifice, but His. His throne is not one of blood, but grace.

“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)


Too Much Emphasis on STEM Leaves Us Without Flowers

(From the April 11, 2019 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

stem fest tshirt
A t-shirt made when the tulips bloomed and fell  before the annual festival in 2012.

STEM has been a big push in recent years. The acronym stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. It is what employers say they need in terms of skills and competencies of new employees. Therefore, it is what is being stressed in schools, at both the K-12 and college level.

But it is, ironically, not done with careful measurement that are the hallmarks of science, technology, engineering and math.

A former neighbor who is an educator moved to Florida several years ago. In his new school district, where he is teaching English, he is mandated to assign the students papers on science topics because of STEM. He asked me, if you taught English, wouldn’t you have students write about Chaucer or some classic literature? No, he must tell his students to write about global warming, gaming interfaces, or I don’t know what other science topics.

Even as STEM is emphasized as school subjects and employer needs, there is a cautionary tale emerging about when all of us infuse our lives with too much STEM and not enough of the arts and humanities. There have been a plethora of articles and books about this recently. There is MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s book “Alone Together,” warning about the loss of human ability at relationships because of the prevalence of technology. A newer book by Douglas Rushkoff called “Team Human” insists that we must resist the technical media landscape that is stealing our humanity. There was a New York Times op-ed pointing out that Steve Jobs of Apple never intended the iPhone to be ubiquitous and take over our lives. The Wall Street Journal interviewed a Georgetown University computer science professor who has no social media accounts and points out to people that eschewing them leads to more productivity and, hear this, creativity. The New York Times reported on a study by researchers at New York University and Stanford University that found that people who got off social media had more free time, happier moods, and deeper relationships.

In other words, while STEM is important, so are the arts, humanities, creativity and other subjects.

Employers say this too. They don’t only want STEM skills. Study after study I read shows they want employees with good communication skills, critical thinking, creativity, adaptability and other things associated less with STEM than with other fields, such as my own field of advertising and public relations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment of public relations specialists to grow by 9% from 2016-2026, as fast the average for other fields, and they have a limited definition of what public relations people do so the number is likely higher. Author Daniel Pink has written and spoken extensively about the importance and need for the ‘creative class.’ In my own experience, there is a huge need for advertising and public relations professionals, and my former students are well employed all over the world. Many of them do advertising and public relations for organizations in the technology, health and engineering sectors—STEM related employers who need communications.

So, this all becomes a personal problem for me when the state government appropriates money for new university buildings that favor STEM at the expense of other fields. I wish our government leaders would do the math, no pun intended. They need to realize that Michigan’s universities are independent, not one system. And while other state universities may need STEM buildings, GVSU has added numerous academic facilities to cater to these fields. In my time at the university I’ve seen the construction of two new science buildings, three new health buildings, an engineering building and a later expansion, and a computer science building. Meanwhile, my colleagues and I in communications—and our significantly expanded number of students—remain in a building constructed in the 1960s.

I could also make the case there actually is a lot of science, technology, engineering and math in advertising and public relations. The field has evolved with the computer age to require skills in digital media, analytics, the collection and use of data, and has always had a basis in research.

But over-emphasis on STEM also goes against student interest. There are more than 500 students majoring in advertising and public relations at GVSU, and many more in other non-STEM fields. They come from families who pay state taxes. They are in demand by employers. They have a right to choose a degree and career path in line with their interests and talents. Government support for them should be equitable, not biased toward an un-tenable emphasis on a select set of academic fields.

I mentioned Steve Jobs earlier, the founder and former CEO of Apple, arguably the most influential tech company and one that obviously is driven by STEM skills. But Jobs, who actually studied art and typography, not any STEM field, has this pithy quote about his company’s DNA and reason for its success that I have tacked to my campus office door: “it is technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.”

Indeed. STEM and other arts and humanities and liberal arts fields must go together. We can’t favor one over the other. For this reason, some add the ‘A’ for arts to the acronym to yield STEAM.

I am reminded of Holland’s Tulip Time in 2012, the year spring came early and the flowers had fallen before tourists arrived for the annual festival of colorful flowers. The locals made jokes, and even t-shirts, about that year being “stem fest.” They had pictures of just green stems emerging from soil, with no flowers. It was funny, but not what people wanted.

Yes, STEM fields, like flower stems, are vital and necessary. But they aren’t all that’s needed. We all want flowers too. Let’s give some due emphasis to that again.