It’s 2020, and paper calendars are here to stay

images(From the January 9, 2020 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Someone said on social media recently that this may be the decade when paper calendars go away. After all, he reasoned, digital calendars have been around for some time. Paper calendars are unwieldy and unnecessary.

But many commented to the contrary. Paper calendars are still used, either instead of or in addition to the digital variety. I was among those chiming in regarding the continued merits of old-school paper calendars.

I use the calendar on my phone. In addition, I have a note pad and a reminder app that coordinates with my phone calendar. All of these digital tools on my phone sync to both my personal and work computers as well as my watch.

But recently I bought eight paper calendars.

There is the large calendar on the wall of my home office. It has gorgeous large photos of natural scenes for each month. January is an aerial view of the Swiss alps. February is a creek winding through a snowy wood. I will wait to be pleased by the appearance of subsequent scenes of visual splendor as the year progresses.

I have a similar calendar in our kitchen. This one features various animals. A small calendar is situated across the kitchen next to the coffee pot. It features beautiful scenes and Pslams. Why not ponder divine wisdom while I wait to live and move and have my coffee bean? Another small such calendar for my campus office features scenes from America’s national parks.

All of these calendars have the dates for the month too, which comes in handy when I want to quickly look up and see what is the date two Tuesdays from now? But mostly, they serve a purpose more aesthetic than organizational. They are decidedly not about planning, purposefully not digital. They are all about looking up from the dreary digital task of the moment, and considering the timeless majesty of God’s creation.

In addition to these wall calendars, I have several for the desktop that feature something delightful every single day. These daily calendars mark the date and day of the week for sure. But the one on my desk at home has images of islands from around the world. These remind me of warm, lovely places and relaxing times in our past travels or potential future destinations. Another, for my campus office, has a cartoon from the New Yorker for every day. A little humor can brighten my day and offer a counterweight perspective to whatever else may be on my mind.

Also for my desktops are weekly planners. There’s a basic one at work that travels in my briefcase, and a National Geographic photo one on my desk at home. In both cases, they serve as a useful place for short-term to-do lists, plans for specific tasks. Yes, the digital calendars have deadlines and reminders. But there is a primal joy that comes from writing down and then crossing off, by hand, with pen, a set of accomplishments.

I remember years ago when the first PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) came on the market. The Palm Pilot was a favorite. In offices around the country, early adapters were showing these gadgets to colleagues still weighed down by Franklin Planners and other leather-bound professional appointment and note-taking books. Some who toted these calendars around or plopped them on conference tables were laughed at by techy colleagues.

Franklin Planners still exist. So do many other forms of binders and paper inserts for daily, weekly, or monthly spreads awaiting pen or pencil from people making plans and lists.

In addition to the visual and tactile advantages these paper calendars have, many also appreciate their reliability. Studies show that memory is enhanced by the mere act of writing something down with pen versus keyboard. It is also notable that, while such calendars could be misplaced, they never crash or run out of battery power.

We have reached the year 2020. Many years ago, when I considered this year as long in the future, it sounded so advanced, almost like science fiction. 2020? What would life be like then? Will we have world peace? Will there be a cure for cancer? Will Congress get along? Will we have free, abundant and renewable energy? Will the Lions win in the post season?

Not yet on any of those things. So far 2020 is just another year. But at least we have all manner of paper calendars to tell us that.

Thinking of Little Boys and God’s Grace This Christmas

(From the December 12, 2019 Grand Haven Tribune)

Christmas is all about a little boy. You know the story. A helpless baby, in a manger. Shepherds and wise men visit because they see a star, and they know he’s special.

Jesus, the little boy of Christmas, is God’s own son. As such he was great, but assumed a lowly position. He did so to save us, even to suffer for us. He did this even though we did not deserve it. He was obedient to God’s will, and his presence an act of God’s grace.

He lived to be 33. At that point, by an act of government, he was crucified and died. But the story does not end there. He rose again, in victory, for our eternal benefit.

I think this Christmas about another little boy. Not a baby, he is seven years old. He is far from perfect, and requires much supervision and instruction. He was never in a manger, so far as I know. But he lived in our home these past five months.

We took him in to save him, in a manner of speaking. He was taken from his mom for a while. He is a family member. We wanted to save him from the uncertainty of being placed in a stranger’s home.

What we did was a sacrifice. Not a sacrifice any near what Christ sacrificed. But we gave up a lot of time, peace in our home, and even relationships with other family members. What we did was done in love, and yet we were attacked for it.

There were times we questioned what we were doing. Jesus did the same, in the Garden of Gethsemane. But He went on with it. So did we. We remained obedient to what we saw as God’s will. We tried to offer grace, to the little boy, and to those who worked to undermine us. We gave love even when it was not appreciated.

Recently, by an act of government, he was taken away from us. He was moved to the other side of the state where he can be closer to his mom, as the state workers transition to longer home visits and eventual reunification.

There is peace in our home again. But there is also a void.

Friends tell us what a great job we did, that the little boy will not forget it. We hope so. We kept track of progress made by us, with the help of wonderful local school staff, other tutors, the input and involvement of neighbors and friends from church. The differences between when he came to us and now are stark. Everything from basic bathroom hygiene, to the level of his voice, to obedience, to math and reading have improved.

When he came to us, he struggled to understand numbers and get his letters correct. Recently he counted to 100, and without any prompting, he taught subtraction on a white board easel to his stuffed animals. He loved stories and Bible stories each night, but recently he read them to us, with some help.

His first nights in our home were punctuated by screaming. Now he sleeps through the night. It was aggravating at first that he would wake up early and be loud. He would run around, throwing clothes and toys, yelling violent words. On his last morning with us he got up, turned on his bedroom light, and played so quietly I had to strain to know if he was awake.

All of this improved basic behavior is far removed from what Jesus did. But it is significant to us. There are similarities. The little boy who stayed with us for a season is a child of God too. Also, his presence revealed God’s grace, even if in different ways.

He gets it. This little boy understands. One of his Sunday school teachers sent us an encouraging card, sharing that when the kids were asked to say what they were grateful for, he said two things. He was grateful that his aunt and uncle take care of him, and he is thankful that Jesus died on the cross for him.

On his last night with us, after routine stories and prayer, we told him of his relocation. At first, he wondered what things he could take with him. Then he wondered if he would see us again. Then he expressed fear about moving to an unknown home. Then he expressed anger at those who were changing his life like this. We just hugged him. He asked me to stay until he fell asleep. I situated myself on the edge of the bed. Just before he drifted off, he grabbed my hand. It almost broke my heart.

Now, approaching Christmas, we pray that God’s grace will continue in his life. We pray that all we taught him about love, kindness, and Jesus will rise up in him in the future. We pray that this little boy caught in so much uncertainty becomes a man of confidence, and his own form of grace. We pray that the God who came into this world as a little boy watch over the little boy who left our home.


From Now Until Election Day Let’s Talk Policy, Not Party or Person

The next presidential election is a year away. I know for many that seems like a long way off and yet it can’t come soon enough.

Our political environment has become so polarized that it is hard to have reasoned conversations anymore. There has been an increase in the number of organizations dedicated to civility, civil discourse or other terms for just talking nice. I was at a national conference last month at which one keynote address was given by the actor Richard Dreyfus, whose topic was all about civics, which he reminded the audience is defined as the rights and duties of citizenship.

And the coming election, and in fact the future of our nation, will depend not on those vying to be leaders. It will depend on everyday people enacting their role of citizens. That will mean not parroting the partisan proclamations of the candidate you chose. It will mean not sticking by a person or party, but speaking up in reasonable fashion about the issues.

Along with that, good citizenship means actively seeking out and listening with respect to opposing views. We have become a nation of citizens who try to shout down and shut up opponents, when we should seek to hear them out. We should be not be afraid of this. Our goal and role should not be only to persuade and win but to achieve a mutual understanding, a healthy respect and tolerance for other opinions and values. Our civil discourse does not need rapid fire one-liners, but patient listening and questioning.

Our own views are more robust if we can adequately and fairly articulate alternate views. We should not be so simple minded as to stop at learning what someone else believes, we should work toward grasping why.

The interesting thing is, if you really ask a lot of Americans what is important in the next election, there is a lot of agreement on what the issues or topics are. The variance comes in deciding what side of the issue one is one, or the means of achieving a common goal.

So, let me propose the issues–not the solutions for now–that I think we all should stress in the coming election. And then, while we may disagree on solutions and policies, let’s press politicians of both parties to offer ideas and plans instead of personal attacks and pedestrian slogans.

Here we go, in no particular order:

  1. Tax reform. Tax policy often centers on the value of whether government should be large or small. But we should back up and discuss the role of government, and then the sources and amounts of tax that makes sense for that.
  2. Immigration. Let’s look at current immigration law and either enforce it or change it. We need to have the debate with a conclusion and closure as opposed to constant ridiculous accusations about either one’s patriotism or compassion. Sovereign nations have borders and laws about them. Let’s come to a conclusion about ours.
  3. Health care. A significant health insurance policy was passed under the previous administration. There are differences about how that is working out. A middle ground between leaving people hanging and expecting the government to do it all should be achieved. It will require a reminder that citizens balance “rights” with responsibilities.
  4. Infrastructure. We know locally the pain of infrastructure maintenance problems due to the closure of a bridge. Nationally, we have infrastructure issues in the maintenance of roads, bridges, utilities and more. What we need is a federal master plan that addresses ongoing infrastructure building and maintenance as a federal-state and public-private partnership.
  5. Debt reduction. Many Americans don’t know the difference between the national debt and deficit. The former is the total ongoing amount we are in the red, and the deficit is the annual budget number if we spend more than we receive in a given year. Congress needs to come together to both cut spending and raise revenue to eliminate not just this year’s deficit but our total debt. It will be painful but it is necessary and can only be achieved with bi-partisan effort.
  6. College accessibility and purpose. Some politicians are calling for free college as a right. That is an extreme proposal that sounds good, but lacks practical reason. What we should do is determine the purpose of higher education and find funding mechanisms that keep costs reasonable and help Americans achieve that true purpose.
  7. Environmental policy. Here the argument should not be whether or not we “believe” in global warming. Instead of debating current alarming facts and the uncertainty of future projections, we should look to common cause in the value of the environment and work to preserve and enjoy it for a variety of purposes.
  8. Security. The world is a dangerous place. Security is an issue that is timeless and global. A definition of what it means for a nation to be secure should be clarified by any politician seeking office. This is the fundamental responsibility of government.
  9. Education. Our national education policy has been swayed by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) which is very jobs focused, but we need to ensure that civics and democratic values are instilled as well.
  10. Election reform. Finally, it would be refreshing to hear from those running for office how they think the ground rules should change to make running for office more possible for potential candidates and less polarizing for voters.

‘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.