Humor in the Headlines

I know that I have a quirky sense of humor. Some things that don’t amuse others cause me to laugh. I see humor where others do not. And some jokes that others love to tell aren’t all that amusing to me. It is just one of the ways in which we humans aren’t all the same and all of our differences are which make life interesting.

I know I couldn’t make it as a comedian. My sense of humor is just too quirky. All the same, I think that it must be fun to earn a living by making jokes about what is going on in the world. The news headlines alone provide me with quite a bit of entertainment most days. Some of the entertainment and the humor I find in the news comes from the fact that I don’t really understand all of the details of a particular situation. If I were to go public with the things that strike me as funny, I’d probably open myself to criticism for my lack of research.

I don’t know if it struck anyone else as funny, but a series of serious cyber crimes have been committed by those who stole a National Security Agency tool. In the first place, there is something comical about those who are hired to protect you from crime by developing security networks, being vulnerable to crime because their network doesn’t work. The crimes are genuinely serious. The city of Baltimore, near where the agency is headquartered has suffered an attack. The use of EternalBlue is estimated to have caused billions of dollars in damage worldwide. So I know you’re waiting for the punchline. According to the New York Times, the N.S.A. will say nothing.

If you don’t think that’s funny, don’ worry, I told you my sense of humor is quirky.

I giggled openly when I read that the owner of Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky is suing their insurance company over their refusal to cover rain damage. I’m pretty sure that every home owner in the United States has been told that homeowner’s insurance does not cover damage caused by flooding. You have to buy flood insurance from the U.S. Government, the only source for that kind of insurance. And the theme park owners are trying to make a point to guests about their own interpretation of the Bible and their belief that the great flood was a historical event. If you believe that God uses a flood to teach humans a moral lesson, what lesson might there be in torrential rains causing slope to slide and a retaining wall to fail. I checked, and no it did not rain for 40 days and 40 nights to cause the damage.

Having traveled in Japan last summer, I know that some Japanese people are not very impressed with President Trump. Nonetheless, I know they will be polite and host him graciously during his visit. The press is making a big deal about his visit to a sumo match and presenting the trophy to the winner. To our president, it is a “very big event.” It doesn’t take that much memory to recall that 20 years ago Jacques Chirac, who was president of France at the time attended a sumo match and presented the trophy in much the same manner as President Trump. Chirac, however, was able to sit on the traditional mattresses. They had to bring in a chair for President Trump. And Chirac was so taken with the sport that he named his dog Sumo. It probably won’t happen for our country, or we’d already have a white house dog named Golf.

Although the United States has never had an emperor, it has been common folklore that he famous dish Caesar salad originated in our country. It is said to have been invented by an Italian Immigrant, Cesare Cardini, who opened a restaurant in Sacramento and later one in San Diego. The story is that he was experimenting with leftovers: a bit of romaine lettuce, raw egg yolk, Parmesan cheese and a few other ingredients. What he ended up with is a surprisingly delicious meal and one offered on menus around the world. The pice of the story that isn’t often reported is that Cardini didn’t develop and first serve the salad in the United States. He left San Diego and established a restaurant in Mexico during the 1920’s in order to escape Prohibition and the famous Caesar Salad really originated in Mexico. It just goes to show that it is hard to own a recipe. And the whole thing strikes me as hilarious. If it is any consolation, Taco salad did originate in the U.S.

I know that it is no laughing matter and that laughing at the misfortune of another is schadenfreude and not one of the most appealing qualities of humans. But somehow it strikes me as amusing that the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has issued a safety warning about improperly set up beach umbrellas. A sudden gust of wind can turn the temporary shade into a violent weapon, hurtling it at high speeds and when it hits someone, it can be a real hazard. According to the CPSC more than 31,000 people were treated in hospitals for umbrella-related injuries between 2008 and 2017. It amuses me that there is such a category as umbrella-related injury.

Because mountain climbers can go on and on about the beauty of wilderness and getting out to areas where there are no other people, I am amused by the crowded conditions on the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. Apparently it has become so crowded that they have to schedule climbs and it is difficult to get a picture of yourself at the top without having another climber in the background.

In the end, quirky sense of humor or not, I find it to be a blessing that I can laugh at the news. If I didn’t, I’d probably be crying.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

When I grow up

Yesterday a colleague and I were talking about all of the changes that are occurring in the leadership of churches in our community. We came up with two pastors who are switching from one denomination to another, one who is moving out of the United States to serve in another country, one who is leaving South Dakota for an east-coast state, one who is moving to another community in our state, and several who are nearing retirement. I suppose that there has always been a lot of change in the many congregations that we have in our town, but as we were talking, the number of changes seemed to be larger than typical.

The fact that there are so many changes taking place all at once is probably a matter of coincidence and unlikely to be repeated again soon, but all of the changes mean that there will be a certain amount of shuffling of church members and other changes in the congregations that serve our community. One factor that is frequently cited is the general low wages in South Dakota. In our denomination the South Dakota Conference has the lowest wages of all of the Conferences in the nation. Similar statistics appear in other denominations as well. But pastors are rarely primarily motivated by pay scales. It isn’t as if pastors are compensated as CEOs in any part the country. And the costs of living are higher in most other places. I’m not convinced that we understand the dynamic and suspect that each pastoral change is surrounded by its own unique circumstances and reasons. Several of the pastors who are moving are close friends of mine and knowing that they will be going to places far away from here means that our paths may7 never again cross in this life. It has been good working with such colleagues and they will be missed.

I spend a fair amount of time with high school and college students and young adults and have enjoyed conversations about “what do you want to be when you grow up?” What I find these days is that such conversations are not just reserved to people at the beginning of their careers. In fact the questions about where and how to invest the next phase of my own life seem more intense than they did when I was younger.

I am currently in regular contact with four different individuals who are in he process of seeking discernment about their calls to become Christian ministers. It is the largest number at one time that I can remember. For most of them, the sense of call is strong. It is also clear that they may need to have other streams of income to their families if they are to pursue ministry. That has been a part of Christian traditions since the earliest days of the Christian church. Whether is is Paul’s tent-making or other stories of how the early apostles obtained financial support reported in Acts, it is clear that the call of God does not come with a guaranteed income.

That is true of other vocations and professions as well.

Most of us, if we go back into our family histories, can come up with an immigrant story. Some ancestor came from another country and started with nothing. The image of hard work and perseverance paying off within a single generation is a common story in the United States. I think, however, that the path to success is significantly different for people today. In the span of a single generation, more new jobs and job titles have been produced than ever before. And many of the jobs that people are doing today will not exist in just a few years. Finding a calling and pursuing it as a lifelong venture, as has been my story, is unlikely to be the story of my grandchildren. They will need to be much more adaptive and be able to make multiple major career changes as they navigate their way through life. I am, frankly, bored with the talk of many of my age mates about “the kids these days.” The world is so different for them that it is unfair of us to make comparisons.

Whenever talk turns to careers it includes talk of money. We don’t want to say out loud that we are interested in becoming rich or that our goals for our children and grandchildren center around income and how much money they can earn, but we do think about it a lot. My conversation with my colleague yesterday drifted to money and income within a few sentences.

We’ve all read the book and we know that happiness, well being, service and loving are not the same as money and that they cannot be purchased with money. We all know the there are things that are more important than income levels and the balance in savings accounts. But assets and net worth seem to creep into every conversation about vocation.

I feel compelled to tell some of the people with whom I am regular conversing about call to the Christian ministry that their prospects for full-time employment in the church are very slim. If the reason they are pursuing ordination is to improve their financial stability, it may not be the right choice. This is something that they all know and acknowledge as soon as the subject drifts in that direction, but it is a factor as well.

We measure the success or failure of others in part by assessing their financial situation.

Looking back, I am grateful that I have lived in my particular part of history. I entered the clergy at a time when it was still possible to pursue that profession as a lifelong adventure. I have been able to provide a home and education and health care and food for my family. I am not confident about the future or my prospects for retirement, but I’ve been more fortunate than many of my colleagues.

Now if I can just figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Seeking justice

I am not a money person. I have tried to be responsible with the amounts entrusted to me and I’ve signed my name to mortgages and made the payments. I can read the financial statements of our church and the other nonprofit boards upon which I sit. I served a term on the corporate board of Local Church Ministries, which at the time had tens of millions of dollars in designated investments and a very large budget for a church organization.But managing money is not my most capable skill and I think of myself as one better suited to small amounts of money than large sums.

My father set a goal for himself to become a millionaire and he achieved that goal. As he passed the age of 50 his net worth was steadily going upward and he became more active in managing investments. It allowed him to make a six figure gift to a beloved college. It allowed him to spend the last two years of his life replacing roofs on cabins at church camp and historic buildings at the college without affecting the budgets of the organizations. It allowed him to create a pension for our mother that saw her through 35 years of widowhood and several changes of address.As his son, I felt that there were times when he became a bit obsessed with his financial goals, but he did well and I’m proud of the decisions he made.

So I’m having a bit of trouble understanding the reported settlement between disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein and his former studio’s board members to pay a settlement to the women who accused him of misconduct. The settlement is reported to be worth about $44 million.

My first reaction is that I don’t know how someone can be rich enough to pay $44 million. If I were ordered to pay a tenth of that amount, I would not be able to do so. Bu there is a picture of Mr. Weinstein on the BBC web site with a smile on his face, presumably pleased with the figure. I don’t know how many women were abused. I don’t know how the amount will be divided. I don’t need to know. What I do know is that the pain and suffering inflicted on the victims is something from which they can never recover and it appears that Weinstein can pay the money and recover. The amount may be sufficient to support victims and aid in healing, but it doesn’t seem to have punished Mr. Weinstein very much. It seems that the comparative cost of the abuse is born disproportionately by the victims.

I’m glad I’m not the judge in the case. I’m glad I’m not the negotiator for the victims or for Mr. Weinstein. I really don’t know what fairness would look like in the situation.

I remember a famous case years ago in which a woman was burned by extra hot coffee in a disposable cup that was spilled at a McDonalds drive-through. The amount she was awarded by the jury seemed to be radically disproportionate to the small amount of suffering of some surface skin burns. The jury members, however, felt that the settlement had to be that large in order to inflict at least some punishment on the giant corporation. They didn’t want to establish a precedent that those with large amounts of money could buy their way out of punishment for damage they had done. The case was argued at many of the coffee circles in which I have participated with various people taking various opinions in the case.

Around the same time the cost of product liability insurance caused Cessna and Piper, two of America’s oldest and most popular brands of general aviation airplanes to cease production for about eight years. The result was that the cost of used airplanes went out of reach for people like me. New laws were enacted and the companies have resumed production, but the issue remains. What is a fair number for an accident, in which a manufacturer is ruled to have a share of the liability, that takes the life of a person. Is there any amount of money that will replace the one who is lost? I believe that the answer is no. You can’t measure the value of a human life in dollars and cents.

The work that I have done with the victims of sudden and traumatic loss leads me to believe that there is no compensation which can make up for the loss of their loved one. Trying to value their life in monetary terms just doesn’t work. But insurance companies and courts try to restore some sense of justice and the tools they have to do so are limited. Often what is able to be done is to give some financial compensation at the point of loss.

I work with C.O.P.S. (Concerns of police survivors) who work to rebuild the shattered lives of survivors and co-workers affected by line of duty deaths. Line of duty deaths are relatively rare for police officers, but when they occur, they can tear a community apart. C.O.P.S. works to make sure that surviving family members get the compensation that they deserve. More importantly, the organization works to provide emotional support through events, classes, commemorations, memorials and a host of other activities that provide on-going support years after the loss has occurred. My observation is that the on-going support is far more important than the checks that come to the family.

So we are left with an imperfect situation in an imperfect world. We can’t fix all of the wrongs that have occurred. We can’t make everything better. We have to learn to live with grief and loss and brokenness.

My prayer for the victims of Mr. Weinstein is that they will be able to go on with their lives with as little contact with the man as possible and that the courts will commit themselves to doing whatever can be done to make sure that there are no new victims.That will be worth more than all the money in the world.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Watching the snow melt

Tuesday afternoon, while it was still raining in town, the snow was starting to get deep at home. There were about 7 or 8 inches in our driveway, which made it impassible for our little car, which was in town with Susan. So I headed home and blew snow for about an hour. Then I walked to an intersection with the main highway and met Susan, armed with a scoop shovel, just in case. We got the car into the garage and returned to work in another vehicle with more ground clearance. As I was shoveling and walking, I noticed that the deer were a bit wound up. They were running through the neighborhood, mostly running in the streets, where cars had made paths through the deep snow. They seemed disoriented by the storm. Often when we have a storm, the deer hunker down below the big trees where less snow falls to the ground and wait it out. Something had stirred them up, perhaps a neighbor’ dog or the noise of the snow blower or some other thing that I hadn’t noticed.

The deer are looking scruffy at this time of the year. They’ve begun to shed their winter coats, and their fur is patchy. I suspect the lack of fur makes things a bit uncomfortable for them, especially in the wet snow. After I had finished shoveling and walking as the snow was still falling at a good rate, it felt really good to go inside and put on dry clothes for the rest of my evening’s activities. The deer can’t do that. When they are wet, they have to stay wet until the sunshine dries them out. And there was no place for them to go to dry out on Tuesday. We didn’t see much sun until yesterday afternoon.

I’ve been paying attention to the deer. They are within a month of the birth of fawns and I like to look to see which does are pregnant and observe where they are going. Sometimes I can get a general prediction of where the fawns will be born and have a chance to see the little ones early. They hid easily in the first weeks of their lives and you have to look carefully to get a glimpse. The little fawns can stand within minutes of being born, but it takes half a day before they can walk even a short distance, so if you know where they are born, you can get several glimpses of them if you are careful.

I’ve also been looking for a particular doe. There is one who has raised two sets of twins and a single fawn in our backyard over the past years. Whitetail deer only live 4 or 5 years in the wild around here, with many being lost to the winter or the highway. I’m guessing that this doe is at least 5 years old. At least I can remember 4 summers with her. She was injured, perhaps by a car, which left a visible scar on her flank so she was easy to pick out from the others. But I haven’t seen her since last fall and I suspect that she is no longer living.

Life has to be hard for the deer in our neighborhood. They’ve adjusted to semi-urban living quite well. They know where the grass isn’t mowed for cover and where it is for the tender green shoots of early spring. They know where there is shelter under the trees. They know which homes have dogs that occasionally are let out off leash and which ones have none. When my sister visits with her dog, even though he is not allowed off leash in our neighborhood, they are startled by his presence. Most interesting to me is that the deer have adjusted to yard lights. 20 years ago, if there were deer in our yard and I turned on the light, they would quickly run from the yard. Now, I watch them walk into the neighbor’s yard, where they have motion sensors on the lights and when the lights turn on it doesn’t startle them at all. They just go about their browsing almost as if they appreciate the light to see the best grass to eat.

15 inches of snow on May 22 is a record for us, if not for the hills. We’ve live here long enough to have seen plenty of spring blizzards but none with quite this much quite this late. Although the heavy snow caused some problems with the electrical system, we only lost power for a few minutes at a time. Neighbors up the road had longer power outages as crews struggled to keep up with the heavy snow. The pine trees handle the snow well, but some folks with deciduous trees may have some broken branches. I talked to one neighbor who went out several times during the storm to shake the snow off of his new willow trees to protect them.

As strange as this spring’s weather has been for us, we are lucky to be at the top of the hill where we no threat of major flooding. Our basement stays dry even in the wettest of conditions. The water runs off. Folks downstream don’t have it as lucky. There are flood warnings all across the state as the waters head towards the Missouri. And downstream in the Missouri and Mississippi there are severe floods. Add to that the tornadoes that swept across Missouri and Oklahoma and there are lots of folks who have weather far worse than ours. On the anniversary of the Joplin, Missouri, tornado there were fatalities just 40 miles away n Golden City yesterday. More severe storms are predicted for the next couple of days as a high pressure area with unseasonably hot temperatures is stalled in the southeastern corner of the US with the winds swirling around it.

We complain about the snow a little bit, but the moisture is great for the forest and we are safe and comfortable. And I can go inside and change into dry clothes when I get wet from working outside. Besides that, I can watch the deer without going outside. We really do have it good!

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Awards for Volunteers

I attended the Black Hills Spirit of Volunteerism Awards luncheon yesterday. The event is sponsored by the Helpline Center with the support of major corporate sponsors including a bank, a large construction company and the area’s electricity supplier. Volunteers were nominated by various groups throughout the community in several categories: Youth, Group, Corporate Humanitarianism, Up and Coming (19-49), and Shining Bright (50+). All of the nominated volunteers were people who had made exceptional contributions to our community and the award winners were deserving of their recognition. It was fun to see how many dedicated volunteers are at work in our community and what meaningful work volunteers perform.

The event, however, left me feeling a bit uninspired. One would expect such an event to be a celebration that invites and inspires others to become involved. It didn’t have that effect on me, and I’m not sure exactly why I had such a reaction.

Parr of the process, I’m sure is that they had so many nominees. Nearly 50 individuals and groups were profiled in short descriptions from the podium in a 90-minute event. That meant that they read profile after profile with almost no separation between them. The short amount of time for each nominee meant that they barely covered the surface and didn’t speak at all about motivation or note those who volunteer for multiple organizations. The event came off as if the most valued volunteers were those who volunteer for only one organization, despite the fact that many of the volunteers are not so single-minded or focused on a single organization. It made it seem as if the organizers of the event believed that individuals should pick a single organization and feel that their work was sufficient. We humans, however, are complex and have many different interests. I work at a full time job and yet find time to volunteer with at least four different organizations that do meaningful work in our town.

Another reason for my discomfort for the event was that it was filled with promotions for the corporate sponsors. The program booklet, color printed on expensive paper, was filled with advertisements. The screens at the front of the room displayed advertisements for the sponsors. Representatives of the sponsoring organizations presented the awards. the whole thing came off as if the reason sponsors donate is for recognition and the reason volunteers give of their time is for recognition.

I work in a voluntary organization. I see dedicate volunteers who serve without any thought of recognition. I work with donors who donate for the purpose of doing good, not for the public recognition. I know a lot of donors and volunteers who weren’t at the luncheon, many of whom have given as deeply as those who won the awards. Each individual is special and I have no disagreement with the judges choices of award recipients, but awards and luncheons aren’t the reason that volunteers serve.

The sponsor of the event is a relative newcomer to our community. The Helpline Center promotes itself as a one stop place for service. They operate the 211 phone line that connects those in need with organizations that help. Their shrives are not yet well developed in our town. The times we have called trying to connect people in need, they have been less than helpful and we have ended up working directly with organizations ourselves. The Center has, however, been very successful in obtaining funding. They have received grants that previously went to other organizations. My frustration is that the Center doesn’t provide any services at all. It just is a coordinating group. It seems to operate as another layer of bureaucracy in a world that doesn’t need more bureaucracy. I like the idea of a single phone call that connects those in need with services, but so far the system doesn’t work in practice in our community.

There has been a big effort in our community to centralize services. The Helpline Center has a lot of support form the Mayor and other community officials. They also have been promoting the development of a single campus that consolidates all services tor people who are homeless. The idea is to create public-private partnerships that are as big as the problems that are faced. The problem with that idea is that there are very good niche service providers who know they can’t solve the whole problem, yet continue to serve faithfully in one small area. The Mission provides emergency shelter, but is not able to provide addiction recovery services. Habitat for Humanity provides affordable housing, but is not able to provide transitional housing. Love Inc, provides classes and some direct services, but is not able to do food distribution. Hope Center provides drop-in day services, but is not able to provide overnight housing. All of these organizations work together in diverse locations with services that are spread out. The idea that they all should become part of a huge county-owned campus doesn’t align with the mission of many of the groups.

The Black Hills Spirit of Volunteerism Awards is a nice idea, but it falls way short of recognizing all of the volunteers who make our community work. And that is just fine with the volunteers. Among the most dedicated of volunteers are plenty of people who have no need of luncheons and awards and recognition. They don’t serve for that purpose. They gain reward from the people they serve and the knowledge that they have helped. That is sufficient reward for them.

There were plenty of pictures taken under the Helpline Center banner yesterday. They showed award winners and corporate sponsors together. The pictures will show up on public media and will be displayed in corporate headquarters and offices. There will be plenty of sponsors and volunteers for next year’s award luncheon. I’m thinking, however, that I’ll skip the luncheon next year. That would give me an hour and a half that could be given in volunteer service to one of the organizations I love and support. My absence from the luncheon won’t be noticed and I can leave the recognition events to those who enjoy them. I prefer to hang out with the unsung heroes.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!