Saturday, August 22, 2015

Maintaining your sanity one book at a time

Humble suggestions for my adult children and anyone else who cares to read

My family is looking at a couple of milestones in 2016: our youngest will graduate from college in May, our oldest is getting married next September. These events have me thinking about life lessons I would like my adult children to absorb and consider.

I’m talking about the things I’ve learned since the kids graduated high school – or maybe some things I learned while they were in high school but they wouldn’t have listened to or believed at the time.

As parents know, our children are quite convinced we lose several IQ points during their teenage years. We regain them slowly. My mother is 79 and I now realize she is absolutely brilliant.

So I offer some motherly advice to my adult children. If the rest of you get something out of it, so much the better.

We’ll begin with a fact many adults don’t want to acknowledge: being an adult can be boring and talking to other adults can be even more boring, as in completely mind numbing.

When I went to college (Valparaiso University, class of 1979), I didn’t get the memo that it was supposed to be four years of bacchanalian excess. Instead I plunged into meeting other young women who wanted to talk about more than boys. We fueled our late-night discussions with chips and soda and trips to Donut Hut. We shared opinions; we worried about nuclear power and the environment. We talked about movies and books. Politics and religion were fair game. It was the early years after Roe v Wade made abortion legal. We were certain we could manage work, marriage and children.

I can’t remember the details of those conversations but I do remember the enjoyment of talking about substantive issues and I remember with great fondness the fun I had bantering with Alexis, Judy, Sam, Angie, Monte, Christy, Penny and Kathy.

Working, marriage and children followed the bachelor’s degree. Somewhere along the line adult conversation centered on what activities the kids were doing and what the adults were buying. By the end of my 30s, I labeled these “stuff” conversations and I stopped wanting to go to social gatherings because I couldn’t stand to hear about other people’s “stuff.”

I admit I was/am jealous. Most of the people we hang out with have really nice stuff while the linoleum on our kitchen floor is vintage 1950s and disgusting. We’re waiting for the stove and refrigerator to die before we upgrade to something this century. 

Another thing I noticed was that in my 20s, I felt pretty free to share my opinions. As I matured, I slowly realized that sharing my views on everything was often not welcome at social gatherings. Heck, it wasn’t even welcome in the newsroom where I worked. Let’s just say it was made known to me that I can come off as intimidating.

My current reading stack. 
The answer to my hunger for deep conversation revealed itself thanks to a neighbor and a bookstore. In the course of sending my youngest to elementary school, I met another mother and we got to talking about books. She shared that there was a neighborhood book group. Over the next few months I let it be known that I would be interested in joining should there be an opening. Eventually I was invited.

Around the same time a local bookstore began hosting a monthly book group. I started attending. The bookstore closed but the book group is still going strong. At one time I was in four book groups, including one I dragged my youngest to in Ann Arbor. I’ve since maintained regular attendance in just two groups.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say those book groups saved my sanity. They have provided a monthly venue for good conversation. It starts with the assigned book and branches out into myriad topics, all substantial and enriching.

My book groups put everything on the table: politics, religion, racism, divorce, death, aging parents, illness, infidelity - anything and everything gets discussed.

Plus I’ve been given the opportunity to read books I never would have picked up on my own from “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline to “The Solace of Leaving Early” by Haven Kimmel. I’ve shared book club selections with my children and husband.

Even reading books I didn’t like has proved valuable. It forced me to hone my critical thinking skills and learn more about myself. I learned to go beyond saying I just don’t like something to recognizing what it is inside of me that is reacting negatively to the book. I’ve learned to value that people I respect can read the same material I despise and love it. I’ve learned that my enjoyment of a book is affected by where I am both physically and mentally when I am reading the book. I've learned to be still and listen when someone else is talking.

So here’s my humble suggestion: when you get to the point where you begin to notice that most of the adults you know spend most of their time talking about kids and stuff and it is starting to bother you – find a book club and join. Bookstores and libraries can help you connect with local book clubs. It is preferable to meet with a group in person on a regular basis, but you can check out the online book club Goodreads to get started.

It can’t hurt to start a family book club either.  When the kids come home to visit, I notice they scan the shelves and sometimes depart with a book or two.  They also arrive bearing books as gifts. It’s a wonderful way to stay connected.

As for me, I am looking forward to reading "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt and "Euphoria" by Lily King as the September selections of my two groups. I am also excited about facilitating a discussion about "The Painter" by Peter Heller at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in November. 

And the next time you get bored at a social gathering, ask around and see if you can find another reader. It's cheaper than having to buy new "stuff" to have something to talk about. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Being mindful about the difficulty of change

A walk on a beautiful day is a great distraction.
People who know me have credited me with preparing well for the jump into psychology from journalism.  Change, however, is not all that easy. I found I needed to stop being a writer for awhile.

It has been an interesting few years personally. My husband went from being at home a lot to being at home a lot less as his new work has him traveling at least two weeks every month. Our children are looking forward to getting married (our oldest) and graduating from college (our youngest) next year. I am working harder than I ever have and yet I'm also aware of a need to pay closer attention to my body and its care.

I read a book about denial in which the author explained that humans are the only living creatures aware that they have an expiration date. So, he argued, we developed the capacity for denial so as to live as if we will be around forever.

As we age, however, it gets harder and harder to deny certain realities. I see spots on my hands that didn't exist a few years ago. I can no longer live on a diet of soft drinks and candy and feel good at the end of the day.

The losses also begin to pile up - jobs come and go, children grow up, dreams go unfulfilled and loved ones pass on.

Even as the evidence accumulates, we want to hang on to the illusion that we have control. We spend precious hours replaying the past in search of a better outcome. We try and predict the future. We expect our parents, our children, our partners to do what we want them to do and are dumbfounded when they don't or won't.

We become anxious, fearful, angry and we don't always recognize what is happening.

I didn't. For me, anxiety tipped into a panic attack a couple of years ago. I spent all day in the E.R., got a stress test, a clean bill of health and a prescription for Xanax.

As a person who spends 40 hours a week treating addiction, I really didn't want to take Xanax, an addictive benzodiazepine. It is meant to be used for panic attacks. When used for that purpose it is quite effective. But I didn't like the way it made me feel after the panic was gone - weighted, irritable, tired. I wanted a solution to anxiety that did not involve pills.

What I have found is Mindfulness  - a buzzword these days because of recent studies showing that the practice actual rewires the brain in positive directions. I'm not talking about sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed and repeating "Om" over and over.

Queen Anne's Lace along a trail in Portage.
What I mean by mindfulness is training yourself to live in the present and accept what you see and experience without judgment.

For example, today was one of those picture perfect summer days, the humidity was a scant 32 percent, there was a cool breeze, the temperature was around 80 degrees and the sky was deep blue with a few white, puffy clouds. In my new career, I only have one day a week off and this was it. I decided the best thing I could do was take a walk for my health and practice the mindfulness I preach.

I went to Bicentennial Park in Portage and walked the trail between Milham Avenue and Kilgore Road. It is a 3.2-mile round trip. I made it a point to focus on what I could see and not think about anything beyond what my eyes noticed. It was a visual feast. The frequent rains this summer have produced an abundance of wild flowers. As a child growing up on a grain farm in Indiana, we called these flowers weeds, but at this stage of my life I can stop and admire their beauty and fragility. I allowed myself to enjoy everything around me - the flowers, the breeze, the crickets. It was perfect and I was content.

When you see the world as it is - both tragic and beautiful - and accept that you don't get one without the other, that is mindfulness. When you can realize that you are a part of all this, that whatever or whoever created all of this also created you, it banishes anxiety. It also helps one to accept that change is inevitable and we should take time to enjoy what is right now, let go of what happened yesterday and try not to ponder the future too much.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Looking forward to following Kalamazoo journalist on his swing-state election journey

Chris Killian
By Joyce Pines

Since leaving the realm of daily journalism, specifically the opinion pages of the Kalamazoo Gazette, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to stomach politics.

Prior to switching to psychology full time, I spent six years taking the pulse of southwestern Michigan, particularly as it relates to politics. I sparred with Fred Upton and Jack Hoogendyk on a number of occasions, held meetings with dozens of local politicians and handled the letters and comments from community members who held strong political views.

Since leaving journalism, I have been encouraged to run for office and get involved in party politics, but so far I have found that to do that would betray all the ideals of journalism that I still embrace.

Now, I find myself switching channels whenever a political segment comes on either my television or radio.  From what I do hear and based on my own immersion in the subject for the past six years, I feel quite comfortable in my understanding of where the leaders of both major parties stand on the issues. I don’t need to hear, read or see it 24/7.

I will vote but I firmly believe our system is broken and I am most disappointed in the media’s coverage of politics as a sport and its increasing polarization into conservative and liberal camps.

A recent New York Times piece about how journalists allow both political parties to wash their quotes before using them in stories is just another example of the sorry state of the field.

My time away from journalism has also made me realize how most of the people I talk to each day find politics too complicated, too ugly and generally too out of touch with what’s going on in the United States of America.

That’s why Kalamazoo journalist Chris Killian’s plan to visit the swing states and talk to voters from August to November is such an intriguing idea. I’ve worked with Chris at the Gazette and we both studied in the counseling psychology program at Western Michigan University.

Anyone who has read Chris’ work in the Gazette can see that he cares about people and is dedicated to telling their stories.

Based on my experience, I have a few predictions as to what he’ll discover.

There are a small number of strong conservatives and strong liberals who back Republicans and Democrats no matter what. These folks are so rooted in their beliefs that you can present factual evidence of mistakes both parties have made and it won’t make a bit of difference. There’s even research that explains this which you can read in Jonah Lehrer’s book, “How We Decide.”

I suspect he will also meet people who do not understand how our political system works. I ran into a number of people over the years who thought U.S. Rep. Fred Upton voted in the state Legislature. People will take time every four years to vote in the presidential election, but they rarely take the time to vote for the politicians who will have the most impact on their lives - school board members, city commissioners, even state legislators.

Another group Chris will encounter are those who decry the government and complain about paying taxes, yet take full advantage and can’t imagine living without its services - Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, disability, etc. Some of these people even work for the agencies which provide these services. These folks consistently vote for whoever promises to not raise their taxes, yet these same politicians vote to raise all kinds of “fees” which results in those who are struggling having to pay more for services.

But most people are much more complicated than our visions of conservative and liberal, people whose life experiences and outlook don’t push them into one category or another. Their stories are the ones I’m looking forward to reading and that Chris has pledged to write. I believe that these people are the heart of our great country.

I’m excited for Chris and his project. I love that he has been able to raise money through the Internet to pay for this enterprise and I kicked in a very small donation myself. As of my writing this, he has raised $3,601. He’s got 17 more days of fundraising and I figure given the age of the van he’s driving, he may need all he can get for unexpected repairs.

I look forward to seeing what he will produce in the coming months. It’s giving me a glimmer of hope for both journalism and the democratic process.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Welcome back Bryan Gruley

By Bradley S. Pines

Today, Bryan Gruley is a big-time journalist, a reporter-at-large for Bloomburg News.
Bryan Gruley reads from "The Crisscross
Shadow" by Franklin W. Dixon,
a Hardy Boys mystery.
Early in his career, he was hired by News Editor C. Lane Wick as a reporter for The Kalamazoo Gazette. He returned to the Kalamazoo, Michigan, area on July 14, for a visit to the Portage District Library.

Gruley is the author of three acclaimed mystery novels set in his fictional Up North lake community of Starvation Lake. They revolve around the life of Gus Carpenter, the editor of the small-town newspaper, The Pine County Pilot, and the lives of those around him. In each novel, family relationships, secrets and deeds from the past play an important role.

At the Portage District Library, Gruley talked about his books and signed the latest, "The Skeleton Box."
Although not conceived as a trilogy, this third novel does complete a story arc for Gruley's Gus Carpenter.

It is, on its surface, a wonderfully atmospheric murder mystery, but it is so much more. Gruley is a craftsman, his places and his characters feel genuine. The nicknames his hockey players bear, the chatter at the local bar and diner, the emotions and actions of those in his stories all ring true. Put that down to the journalist in him.

Gloria Tiller of Kazoo Books sold books during the visit, and several signed copies of all three novels will be available at her two locations, 407 N. Clarendon and 2413 Parkview in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Gruley wore a T-shirt, a gift from his wife, Pam, that misquotes a scathing, over-long amateur review of his debut novel on His quick humor was evident in both his writing and during his visit.

Gruley says he credits a book given to him by his mother, "The Crisscross Shadow," a Hardy Boys mystery, as perhaps inspiring his career as a novelist. He revealed that he's trying to decide whether to continue the Starvation Lake series with an offer to publish two more, or to write a thriller which is also set in Michigan.

"The Hanging Tree," his second novel, has been optioned by a Hollywood filmmaker. But, he said, the odds are that he'll never see Johnny Depp or John Cusack play Gus Carpenter. No matter, for as long as Gruley keeps getting up very early each morning and hammering out novels, the pictures he paints will more than do.

For a picture gallery of image from Bryan Gruley's visit, please see:

Here's Bryan Gruley in a Simon Schuster video talking about his latest novel, "The Skeleton Box"

Monday, July 2, 2012

Commentary: HBO's 'Newsroom' and a former colleague's passing leave me mourning my newspaper family

William R. Wood and Linda S. Mah smile on May 17, 2012 as they are awarded the Tony Griffin Golden Word Award by InterCom at Western Michigan University. (Photo courtesy of John A. Lacko /

By Joyce Pines
View From Kalamazoo

The new HBO series “The Newsroom,” reminds me that one of the things we’re losing in today’s Internet-driven information grab bag is the sense of family that newsrooms created.

Although set at a cable news network, the second episode of “The Newsroom,” brought back memories of working as a young reporter in newspapers in Indiana and Illinois and a little of my early experiences in Kalamazoo.

The HBO show, starring Jeff Daniels as the TV anchor for a 9 p.m. cable news hour, includes a newsroom full of young people eager to make their mark in the business. Like the fictional characters, I didn’t make much money, my personal life was lived in the middle of the open newsroom and after work we’d all go to the bar with the best drink deals and cheapest appetizers. It was a life full of deadlines and disasters and because we are reporters, we were constantly in each other’s business, right down to emails inadvertently sent to the wrong people.

It was a pressure cooker but the idealism, passion and drive produced good journalism. What’s more, it was fun. A newsroom is supposed to be a place where its inhabitants can and should talk or argue about everything.

Connie Schultz got it right in a recent column for Creator’s Syndicate when she said she missed the brainstorming that used to go on in her newsrooms. It was, as “The Wire” fictional metro editor Augustus Haynes says, “a magical place.”

These thoughts tugged at me as I attended a memorial service for Kalamazoo Gazette staff writer Bill Wood on July 2, 2012. Bill was one of those reporters who had a habit of walking into a newsroom discussion and posing some of the most jaw-dropping questions you could possibly imagine. He saw the world differently. I thought the pastor at his memorial put it well when he noted that Bill looked for what was good and beautiful in the world.

Bill was fearless when it came to asking questions and he was courageous in fighting his 7-year war with cancer.

Looking around St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo, I was astonished by the diverse elements — politicians, musicians, chefs, actors, playwrights, journalists — who came together under one roof.

It was the power of Bill’s personality and writing that brought all those people together. It was also the love and respect the community feels for his wife, Linda Mah, a fine journalist in her own right.

Today, the demands of technology, the changing economy and perhaps the increasing concentration of media ownership among a few entities concerned with profit more than community is tearing newsroom families apart throughout the nation.

I fear something important is being lost. Newsrooms allowed people who care about news, facts, writing, photography and design to debate the information gathered and decide the best way to present it to the community.

We weren’t supposed to agree all the time - it was the debate that mattered. It gave us different ways of looking at things, the opportunity to ask the questions that would lead to follow-up stories. We took the time to argue about what words we were using and why. Plus, we were entrusted with the historical context for what was happening because we had been about the business of gathering the news for decades.

A newsroom scene from “The Wire” on the proper use of the word evacuate provides a fine example of the kinds of discussions that people who care about language and the meaning of words have with one another.

During my first years in journalism, being in the newsroom was a great learning experience. I spent much of my day outside the office - meeting people, covering meetings and events. Then I would return to the newsroom to write the stories, discuss them with my peers and editors, and then go out in the evening to replay the day with coworkers, one of whom I eventually married.

Bill and Linda were among several married couples who worked in the Gazette newsroom during my tenure there. It added to the family feeling that existed as coworkers went to weddings, watched children grow up, overheard squabbles, shared stories of illnesses, triumphs and losses.

Sometime shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, things began to change. Management began endlessly repeating the mantra “less is more.” First it was shrinking news hole and then it became shrinking staff.

When the buyouts began, the fun ended. The family that was the newsroom was torn asunder. Yes, intellectually it was just business. But it was also the community’s knowledge that was being tossed out, because many of the people who had been at the Gazette the longest and knew the community best were let go. It was no longer a priority for the newspaper to be guardian of the community’s history by having staff members skilled in knowing who to contact, how to find old clippings and files and knowing the community well enough to know the power structure and who gets what done. 

In his newest mystery, “The Skeleton Box,” former Gazette reporter Bryan Gruley includes a scene where the main character, Gus Carpenter, the editor of a smalltown newspaper, has to go to the county clerk to look at old issues on microfilm, because the owners of the paper turned the archives over to the county. MLive Media Group gave the Gazette’s archives to Western Michigan University. I love it when fiction and reality collide.

Perhaps I’m getting this wrong, but I’m just sitting in my home office, typing on my laptop and posting to my blog. There’s no editor (other than my husband) to tell me I’m going overboard, no business reporter sitting next to me to argue against my economic theories, no one to push me to find a resource other than my go-to favorite, “The Wire.”

I have found a life after journalism and I love it. Sometimes I think I took a long detour through journalism to get to the place I really belong - psychology.  But saying goodbye to Bill filled me with such sadness.

I’m mourning a man who was a delightful character and colleague. His passing also reminds me that the family of journalists who were entrusted with continuing a tradition begun in 1837 of telling this community’s story has been stripped of its building and most of its resources.

But Bill was an optimist who sought goodness, truth and beauty. His wife Linda is still among those trying to report the news in Kalamazoo, so I will continue to hope for the best — good, professional journalists who are valued and recognized for the work they do by those who sign their paychecks and by the community in which they live and work.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Commentary: Michigan legislators err in disrespecting Kalamazoo woman of achievement

By Joyce Pines
View from Kalamazoo

The Kalamazoo YWCA’s annual Women of Achievement dinner is generally not an occasion for controversy. It is an opportunity to recognize women, from high school students to senior citizens, for their contributions to the community.

This being an election year, the fact three southwestern Michigan state legislators chose not to sign the proclamation for Sarah Stangl, one of the six women recognized May 17, made news because she worked as the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender student services coordinator at Western Michigan University.

The legislators did sign the proclamations for the other women honored: Lola Clark Atkinson, Audrey Lipsey, Bobbe A. Luce, Alfrelynn J. Roberts and lifetime woman of achievement Kathy B. Beauregard.

It is sad that two of the individuals who refused to sign Stangl’s proclamation were women - state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, a Lawton Republican, and state Rep. Margaret O’Brien, a Portage Republican. The third non-signer, Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, signed an early version of the proclamation, and then refused to sign the final version after he saw that Schuitmaker didn’t sign it and her name had been removed.

All three legislators advocate for service to country. I take issue with how they are performing that service in this case.

You either serve everyone in your district or you don’t. Schuitmaker, O’Brien and Bolger chose not to serve, but to judge one of their constituents.

Proclamations like this cross politicians’ desks all the time and are routine. They usually don’t make the news and these wouldn’t have either, had the politicians just done their jobs and endorsed the work of the community leaders who chose these individuals.

Instead, O’Brien told WKZO: “I do have my own values, so you have to make sure that as you’re signing something that it’s something that’s going to be consistent with what your values are.”

Gov. Rick Snyder’s values must be different from O’Brien’s because he signed the proclamation, or maybe he was just doing his job and not turning a community celebration into an opportunity to hurt an individual.

Actually, I’m not sure what values not signing the proclamation upholds. Even if you have a problem with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, would you disrespect someone who is paid by a state university to help those LGBT students by not signing a proclamation recognizing her work? Does anyone think those students will cease to exist if the university doesn’t have an office to assist them?

My family’s values include leading by example, supporting family members by modeling good behavior, showing compassion for those less fortunate and not judging others.

The annual women of achievement dinner does more than honor six long-time community volunteers and achievers, it also spotlights the next generation of promising female leaders. Our daughter was among 26 young women of achievement who were honored.

Schuitmaker, O’Brien and Bolger disrespected all of those young women by suggesting that it is still OK to judge an individual because of the people that individual chooses to serve. The stand of those legislators also violates the spirit of the gay rights ordinance passed by a large majority of Kalamazoo voters in 2009 which grants protections in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodation to the LGBT community.

A great evening ended on a sad note when YWCA CEO Jennifer Shoub revealed what the legislators had done. It wasn’t the lesson we had hoped our daughter would get from the evening, but it was a powerful reminder that the work of the YWCA in social action and advocacy is far from done.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Picture Gallery: Kalamazoo Marathon fills streets with runners

Runner 127 smiles as she sees volunteers with water and snacks on Bronson Blvd. near Maple Street, just beyond the halfway point during the Kalamazoo Marathon on May 6, 2012. (Bradley S. Pines) CLICK TO ENLARGE

For a picture gallery of 21 images from the 2012 Kalamazoo Marathon, please click below: