December 2019

Electric flight

I grew up with an ear for a particular airplane engine. Although my father had hours and hours of flight behind much smaller engines, such as the Continental C90 flat-four or a Lycoming 150 in Piper Super Cubs, the engines that made music in my ears were the two Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior engines in our Beech C45. That twin beech was the airplane of my dreams when I was a kid. It also was the airplane in which my father flew on longer trips that took him away from home for several days. When I heard the sound of those engines low over town, I knew that dad was home. I even learned to note the sound of the engines as he synchronized them after take off.

There are still a few old airplanes flying around with Pratt 985s. There were a few Stearman. The old biplane trainers originally came with a Continental radial and a few were retrofitted with Jacobs engines, but the ultimate upgrade was to the 450 hp R-985. The R-985 also was the standard engine on the DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver.

A few years ago we were in Vancouver, British Columbia, watching the float planes taking off and landing from the harbor. One of the big operators of sightseeing flights was Harbor Air. They had a fleet that, at the time, was mostly De Havilland Beavers and Otters that had been re-engined with Pratt & Whitney PT6 turboprop engines. The jet engines have a high pitched whine that just doesn’t sound the way I think a Beaver ought to sound. The new engines, however, are extending the life of these venerable old airplanes. Float plane work is hard on engines and airframes and Harbor Air has a lot of high-hour airplanes. They also have the capacity to completely rebuild a De Havilland Beaver from the ground up to make it as good as a new airplane. They put shiny paint jobs on their airplanes to encourage the tourists.

At the time, I said to myself, when I have the time and the money, I’m going to go for a ride on one of those Beavers, but I want to make sure that it is behind a R-985. I want to hear the roar of that old radial piston engine a few more times in this lifetime.

I guess I’d better hurry if I want to do that. The world is changing.

Yesterday, in what they claim is the first such commercial flight, Harbor made the first seaplane flight from their Vancouver base in a Beaver that was outfitted with a 750-horsepower magni500 electric propulsion system. The mother, manufactured by Australian company magnet is roughly the same horsepower as the turboprop engines that were dominating the Harbor Air fleet. It will take a while for the airplane and engine combination to become fully certified by Canadian officials, but it was an historic flight.

There are a few compromises with the electric propulsion system. The lithium ion batteries used are heavy, reducing the amount of weight that the plane can fly. the plane, however, does not have to carry any liquid jet fuel, so that weight is saved. And the range of the plane, with reserves, is only about 100 miles, quite a bit less than with either of the other engines. Battery technology is rapidly evolving, producing lighter weight and more capable batteries. Officials of the company hope to have a 250 mile version that carries 6 passengers within a few months.

Harbor Air said that they plan to electrify their entire fleet by 2022. If they achieve their goal, or even come close to it they will have made a huge advance in commercial aviation. Until very recently, electric propulsion has not been seen as viable in commercial aviation applications. Finding a way to make air travel less polluting seemed to be a challenging conundrum. Harbor Air and magniX believe that they have found a clean and efficient way to power their airplanes.

The aviation sector is a significant contributor to the release of greenhouse gases into the environment. Although the bulk of that pollution comes from much larger aircraft such as the transcontinental and transoceanic jets that are used by airlines, general aviation and small commercial operators have not been known for fuel efficiency or a lack of pollution. If you’ve ever watched a R-985 start up, you know that all of that smoke can’t be good for people or animals to breathe. If you are around those planes, as I was when I was younger, you learn where to stand and where not to stand when they are conducting ground operations.

So the Harbor Air seaplane with the electric motor is a huge step forward toward a sustainable commercial flight operation.

Aviation has always been a place of innovation and new ideas. A century ago, any airplane that could reliably and safely fly 100 miles was an impressive piece of technology. There are a lot of carriers that started out with a barnstormer and a WWI surplus airplane that was held together by the creativity and courage of the entrepreneur pilot. Their safety record was none too good. Even by the time my father was starting his business after WWII, he couldn’t obtain life insurance from conventional carriers because of his occupation. A relatively high-priced Lloyds of London policy was the only way he could insure his family and business would have a future if something happened to him.

I’m sure that there will be some historic and nostalgic airplanes, with the old engines around for many years to come. Harbor Air may continue to maintain a couple of their R-985 powered Beavers just for a few old coots and aviation buffs like me. I might yet get that ride behind the rumble. On the other hand, perhaps instead I will be among the first to take a ride behind the first of their electric fleet.

I know my father, given the choice, would choose to be the first to fly behind the new motor not the last to fly behind the old technology.

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!

Getting a Christmas Tree

Here in the United States almost everyone knows the storyline of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The animated television special first aired in 1965 and has been shown every Christmas since. There are several themes to the special. Charlie Brown is a bit ambivalent about Christmas. Lucy advises him to direct the annual Christmas pageant. Everyone makes fun of the short spindly tree that he brings until the true meaning of Christmas works its magic on all of the characters in the story.

I’m not sure that the special actually grasps the totality of the true meaning of Christmas, but it does help people to see through some of the glitter and hype of the season. The cartoon special is genuinely fun to watch with some great animations, including Snoopy playing “crack the whip” with Linus’ blanket.

What has emerged is the designation of a “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.” Whenever there is a tree with a crooked trunk or a lack of needles, or a huge bare spot, we refer to it as a “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.”

We’ve had several Charlie Brown trees over the years. For the first few years of our marriage we didn’t have a Christmas tree of our own. We were students and took a break from our studies to return to our parents’ homes to celebrate. When we moved to North Dakota we started our family tradition of a tree. Because I had grown up near the mountains and our family went up to the mountains to cut our own Christmas tree each year, that was what I expected one should do. The problem is that the corner of North Dakota where we moved isn’t exactly covered in evergreen trees. The solution was a trip of about 50 miles one way to the Slim Buttes in South Dakota, where there are some pretty good stands of Ponderosa Pine. The Slim Buttes are also home to a good bit of gumbo if you catch them at the right time. We didn’t own a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but we had tire chains and that was good enough for the adventure. A couple of years during that time we put together a small group of people and went on a “Gathering of the Greens” expedition to secure Christmas trees for the congregations we served and for the homes of the participants. We’d pack a hearty lunch, fill our thermoses with hot coffee and head out.

The Slim Buttes is a good destination for Charlie Brown Christmas trees. Ponderosa pine are beautiful, long-needled trees, but they don’t have an excess of branches and they tend not to be shaped like a traditional Christmas Tree with a well-rounded, conical set of branches. We learned to set the Christmas tree in a corner so that the best side could be exposed and decorated.

The television special does get that part right. The quality of the celebration isn’t dependent upon the shape of the tree.

The Boise National Forest in Idaho gave us a few more options in terms of tree cutting and we were able to access forested sites a bit closer to our home. Getting the tree was still a major excursion and took a bit of planning. Some of the years that we lived in Boise we purchased a noble fir or a spruce tree from one of the vendors selling trees just for the convenience of being able to obtain the tree in town. It isn’t the same and commercially raised Christmas trees are cut weeks before you take them home, so aren’t as fresh as the ones you cut yourself.

Moving to the Black Hills brought the adventure of going for our Christmas Tree to a new level. We live right next to the national forest. The Black Hills have both Ponderosa Pine and Black Hills Spruce trees in abundance. A tree permit from the forest service allows you to go on a grand adventure and seek just the right tree for your home. In addition, the house we bought in Rapid City has an entryway with the ceiling reaching up to the second story. We had a place for a really big Christmas tree and I went a bit overboard the first year we lived here. The tree was not only so tall that we were standing on the stairs to decorate it, it also was so wide that it pretty much blocked the passage from the living room to the kitchen.

In subsequent years we’ve been happy with a tree that will fit under the 8’ ceiling in our living room. We have had some grand adventures seeking our Christmas tree in the hills, including one December when we went out in below zero temperatures with my mother who was past the age of 80. We ended up cutting a tree that could be seen from the road, something we rarely do, and rushing back to the car because it simply was too cold for my mother to get out and hike. Another year, Susan and I went to get the tree and had the starter in the truck fail 8 miles from the nearest house. We ended up spending the night in the truck before hiking out the next morning and raising the concern of our daughter and several members of our congregation.

We have never been really big on lots of Christmas decorating. We get our our nativity sets and we decorate our tree with lights and our favorite ornaments, collected over years of being married, but we don’t go in for big outdoor displays. We like the lights put up by our neighbors, but Christmas is a busy time for us and we’ve tended to make our family celebrations a bit more low key and private. So when our children grew up and began to spend Christmas away from our home, we downsized even a bit more. Some years we’d get a 6’ tree,

Yesterday was a delightful day for us. We went out and got our Charlie Brown tree. We didn’t go as far from home as some years, and selected a small Ponderosa pine that was growing too close to its neighbors to become a healthy full-sized tree. But the walk in the woods was just right to renew our spirits and remind us of what a wonderful place we live. We’ll decorate our tree and its fresh smell and long needles will keep that memory fresh all season long.

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!

A Wider Perspective

In addition to reading the online versions of US newspapers, I read the home page of BBC news each day. I often also read other International newspapers online. Interestingly, because of paywalls and article limits, which exist on US news sites, I tend to read more articles on BBC and NPR than on other sites. I suspect that this gives me a bit of a bias in my news reading, but I try to maintain some balance and at least keep up with sources that offer perspectives that are different from my own. I try to at least be aware of what the people I serve are watching and choosing for news sources. I do not, however, watch television very much at all, so I don’t have the died of 24/7 news repetition that plays in the homes of some of the members of my congregation. I’m pretty sure that I have some sense of what our folks watch, but I don’t immerse myself in all of it.

I was struck by the contrast between US and international sources this morning.

The New York Times first five stories have these headlines:
How Giuliani Led Trump to the Brink of Impeachment
What to Watch at Today’s Impeachment Hearing
Saudi Gunman Had Clashed With Instructor at Florida Base
Barr Dives Into the Culture Wars, and Social Conservatives Rejoice
Despite Warnings, Trump Moves to Expand Migrant Family Detention

NPR’s first five stories are:
Biden Rejects Calls For Impeachment Testimony As A Trump Ploy to ‘Divert Attention’
Democrats’ Impeachment Process to Resume Monday - As Will Battles with GOP
FBI Is Investigating Pensacola Shooting as Terrorism
Justice Department Watchdog Report On Russia Investigation Due Monday
Caroll Spinney, Who Played Big Bird And Oscar On ‘Sesame Street,’ Dies At 85

Over at BBC the first five are:
New Zealand volcano eruption kills at least five
Russia banned from global sports for four years
Finnish minister, 34 to be world’s youngest PM
French far-left leader sentenced for intimidation
Saudi Arabia ends restaurant segregation

Outside of the BBCs use of normal sentence structure instead of the US news sources using headline capitalization, there is a very notable difference. It appears that the US news sources are focusing solely on what is happening in our country. If one goes only to US news sources, one might get the impression that the drama in Washington DC and the after effects of a mass shooting were what the whole world is focused upon. Go outside of the US for news coverage, however, and one is quick to discover that there is a lot going on in the world beyond our borders. The contrast is even more striking when you notes that none of the top five stories on BBC are about events in England. In fact all of the 14 top news stories on the BBC home page are about events that occurred outside of England. The site does have a US & Canada tab and a UK tab at the top of the page, where you can access geographically sorted news stories, but the site is designed to bring news of the world to those who visit it regularly.

When you assume that you are the center of the universe, you get a very different view of what is important than when you pay attention to the wider world. The narcissism that is so evident in American politics today seems to be influencing our culture in so many ways. We are losing the ability to see ourselves as the rest of the world looks at us. Although news sources in other countries pay attention to the US and keep a large contingent of reporters here to cover the news in our country, they do not see every whim of every politician to be news.

And if you pay attention to US news sources over time, you get the impression that their attention span is incredibly short. Personally, I am very interested in US immigration policy and stories about what is happening at our borders. I find that many days it is hard to get fresh news on that topic. It is almost as if that is “old news.” Our short attention span is on impeachment hearings this week, but there is some indication that the House of Representatives is planning to finish up its work on that topic before Christmas. We’ll soon be on to something else. Meanwhile, there are some alarming things going on with Immigration. The New York Times does have a story about the Trump administration’s attempts to expand the detention of families and children at US border crossings. Family incarceration always brings to mind images of WWII German concentration camps and US Japanese detention centers. The world does not have a pleasant memory of times when governments have attempted to lock up entire families. There is a definite paranoia in detaining people who pose no threat. Even if the economic threat perceived by some were real, it is a pretty selfish perspective to think that families seeking safety should be incarcerated or sent into the hands of kidnappers just so that they can’t compete for jobs. Our selfishness as a nation, however, is rarely the topic of a news story.

There is a lot going on in the world. And the world is filled with people who are caught up in dramatic events. A cruise ship side tour to a volcano can turn deadly in a matter of minutes. the Olympics can be transformed by a major competitor being banned because of doping. Peace talks aimed at ending the war in the Ukraine are beginning. India is struggling with the definition of citizenship, the democracy protests in Hong Kong continue after six months. There is a lot going on and we aren’t the center of every story.

I plan to continue to read stories from news sources outside of the US. I hope that others will do so as well. Although my calling is to serve a particular people in a particular place, we are all a part of something bigger than ourselves. And God, Creator of the Universe, loves all of the people of this 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!

Soulmate

A friend asked me if my wife is my soulmate. It is not the kind of language we use when talking about our relationship, so I paused a moment before answering. We are very close. We have a wonderful relationship. We have more than 46 years of being married and so many shared experiences. We have similar tastes. We enjoy being together. I know that I am very lucky in love. I met and married the right person. But I am not sure what the term soulmate means.

If you google “soulmate” you’ll get page after page of online dating services. Apparently there are some people who believe that computers are very good at matching people. I know people who met through online dating services and who are pleased with their relationships, so I don’t want to discount the value of such services, but what does a computer know of someone’s soul? What questions could a computer questionnaire ask that would help match the parts of a human being that cannot be seen or measured?

In a book that is older than our marriage, Howard and Charlotte Clinebell explored the multi-faceted nature of intimacy. They wrote of recreational intimacy and work intimacy and a whole list of different ways in which a couple could draw close to one another. Their theory was that some couples are naturally intimate in some ways and less close in other ways. Awareness and counseling can help couples draw closer to one another. The book made sense to me when I first read it and I have used the principles in the book when working with couples who come to me for help with their relationships.

As a seminarian I did an internship at the Wholistic Health Care Center, where my focus was on pastoral counseling. I did a lot of individual counseling, some couples counseling and a bit of family counseling. Most of the couples counseling that I did in that setting was focused on divorce. Couples who came to the center seeking counseling usually had one member who had decided to divorce. It was nearly impossible to dissuade that person from that decision. They had made the decision before coming in to the center. I found the work to be frustrating and a bit sad. I knew that my success rate in that kind of work would be small.

As a pastor, I have tried to engage couples in thinking about their relationship at the beginning, to help them consider questions about their relationship before marriage. That has not met with great success. We were extremely careful with pre-marriage counseling with the first couple whose weeding we officiated, and that relationship didn’t last a year before a divorce. These days the marriage ceremony is generally several years after the beginning of a relationship. Couples who come to the church to be married often have lived together for a long time and have established a lot of their relationship before deciding to marry.

After years of experience as a pastor and after years of being married, I really don’t know if I am much of an authority on marital happiness. I’m tempted to say that part of what makes for a successful marriage is luck. I can’t explain why I met the right person so early in my life and others do not. It feels like extraordinary good fortune that Susan and I found each other when we were young. Having spoken with a lot of people and observed a lot of couples, it seems to me that it is relatively rare for a young person to find the right mate right off the bat. I did.

Beyond that, I guess that it would be fair to say that a couple has to both work at a relationship, though I hesitate to use the term “work.” We have focused a lot of time and attention on our marriage. We have invested a lot of energy in doing things together and sharing our experiences. But it hasn’t seemed like work. I don’t remember every not wanting to be married. I don’t ever remember not wanting to do what I could to make our marriage work.

I don’t use the word soul much. I am a pastor and I understand the concept of spirit and I speak of the spirit regularly, but I am not sure that my theology of spirit encompasses a sense of the soul. Webster defines soul as “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life” and adds “the spiritual principle embodied in all human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe.” I think that most people use the term soul to refer to a part of their individual identity that continues on beyond death, and perhaps existed before birth. I have no expertise or experience about what happens before birth or after death, but It seems to me that the essence of all beings is God and I do not know whether or not we can exist apart from God. In the resurrection, it seems to me, we are with God. The love that never dies is the the love of God. I could go on and on trying to wrestle with the concept of soul, but for the purposes of this journal entry, I simply prefer the term spirit to soul.

So I’m not sure if I’ve found my soulmate. I’m not sure that such a thing exists. I have found a person whose spirit animates my spirit, and with whom I have been able to share my life. I have no doubt that I have found the right person and that every day I try to be the right person for her. In her I have found someone so fascinating and so appealing that a lifetime is all too short to explore our relationship.

And I’m less confident than I once was about my ability to help others with their marriages. I now what has worked for us, but that might not be the right thing for others. I do hope, however, that others can find the love and joy and wonder we have found and that they can enjoy it for many years.

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!

Ministry and Community

There are some exciting conversations about theology going on these days. Most of them aren’t happening in the church. Increasingly as I strive to serve a congregation, I find that I need to be aware of the conversations that are occurring outside of the congregation. Part of the reason is that no one can honestly serve a Christian congregation in the United State these days without giving serious thought to the people who aren’t in the room. Whether the congregation is large or small, urban or rural, growing or declining - we all share the reality that our congregations do not reflect the diversity of the communities in which they are located. There are people who are not participating in the church, and that group of people is, according to several Pew studies, the fastest growing category when it comes to religion in America.

So I pay attention to a lot of conversations that don’t take place in the church. I do it enough that some of the members of the congregation I serve have noticed. I’ve had several conversations over the years with congregants who wish I would spend more time visiting in nursing homes and reaching out to elders in our congregation. They are sure that I could make more time for these tasks if I would only spend less time volunteering in community nonprofits and service agencies. They are right that I should be spending more time visiting. They are also right that I could make more time available for visitation by focusing my attention on those people who are members of the congregation and not worrying so much about those who are not members. I try to look for the truth in that kind of conversation and adjust my life in response to the truth I discover. I have adjusted my schedule. I cannot, however, faithfully serve this congregation if I am not serving those who are outside of the membership. And, I am convinced that it is critical that our congregation pay special attention to those who are not attending church if it is to find its future areas of service and ministry.

Outside of the church there are many people who have been injured by the institution. There are folks who have been hurt by church policies, people who have been turned off by dogmatism, those who disagree with church politics, folks who see no future in institutional religion, victims of clergy abuse, and lots of other folks who have no interest in the institution of the church. They may have given up on religion, but they have not stopped thinking about God. They continue to engage in theological thought. And they continue to engage in theological discussion - its just that they don’t do it in front of church folks that often.

It is interesting to me that there are even a lot of academic theological discussions going on in places other than the church. The public radio program and podcast On Being with host Krista Tippett, frequently engages serious academic theologians and discusses topics of God and the relationship of spirituality to every day life. There are several other podcasts to which I listen from time to time that engage academic theology, but are hosted by and engage mostly people who are not church leaders per se.

I have a couple of friends who have degrees in academic theology, biblical studies and other areas of religion who are not active in a local congregation of the church. Some days, when I am frustrated, it seems as if there are parts of our church’s Conference and National settings that are terribly far removed from the everyday life of local congregations. I once asked, at a meeting of national leaders of our denomination, “Do any of you actually go to church anymore?” It was a rhetorical question and unfair of me, but there was a grain of truth in the sense of distance between denominational leaders and the local church.

Serene Jones, who is a minister and who is active in the church, and who recently was interviewed by Krista Tippett on On Being, is the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She makes a big point in her writing and lecturing about the distinction between religion and theology. She may be right that there is plenty going on in religious institutions that is less than thoughtful and less than studied about God and the relationship of God to the people.

She is, like many young theologians, a bit too individualistic for my tastes. I am so firmly rooted in the traditions of discipleship as a communal adventure that I don’t understand the contemporary popularity of one-off individual religion, practiced with a certain purity and consistency of thought, but without the presence of a community. Still, her thought is often brilliant. Her particular theology is deeply rooted in place, somewhat different from many Old Testament writers.

She does, however, redeem herself in my eyes by inviting that all good theology must be public theology. She asks, “What is theology, if it’s not talking about our collective lives and the meaning and purpose of our lives and how we’re supposed to live together and who God is, in ways that are part of our conversation together?”

It is clear that my own theology continues to grow and develop and that I need to keep talking with people outside of the congregation I serve in able to be able to talk in a meaningful way to the people I am called to serve.

It comes down to a basic theological conviction. I really believe that God loves everybody and the world. I really believe that God forgives in mercy everybody and not just a select group of people who agree with me. If God loves and forgives every body, then I am called to take seriously both the congregation that has called me to be its pastor and the community in which it is located.

Advent is a perfect season to remember the “both/and” nature of our calling. The announcement of the Christ child didn’t occur within the walls of established religion. The announcement was made to those who were outside of the immediate faith community. The Good News is for the whole world and not just the folks who are most familiar to us.

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!

Consultants

My sister lives in the town where we grew up. She hasn’t lived there continuously. She has lived in many places since she graduated from high school, but now that she is semi-retired, it works for her to serve as the caretaker of a family property and to live in our old home town. Since she has moved back there, she keeps me informed about the happenings in our town. Many years ago, the high school we attended was abandoned. The building had simply become too much of a liability, Dealing with all of the needed health and safety upgrades would only be part of the expense. The building was filled with stairways and most classrooms and bathrooms were not at all accessible to those who use wheelchairs or walkers. The time had come for a new high school. With the promise of tax payments and an increase in population from a mine in the mountains south of town, the community passed a bond issue and built a new high school.

The old high school remained mostly abandoned, except for the gymnasium, which was repurposed as a community center and continues to be used for community functions.

A few years ago the main part of the old high school caught on fire and burned. The structure was brick, but there was plenty of tinder dry framing lumber in the building to make a spectacular fire. For a while the rubble remained, with a hastily-erected chain link fence around it. Community-minded people chipped in to start the clean up. Some items were salvaged and auctioned to offset part of the cost of clean-up. Some people donated the use of equipment. Others volunteered their time and labor.

As the community worked together to clean up the site, some folks began to dream about what might be done with the site. The block where the high school was located now contained the gymnasium-become-community-center, the public library, the old phone company building which is now a community museum, and the empty lot where the school used to be. The idea of a community park became popular among the folk. Some of the people had visited Rapid City’s Main Street Square and wondered if something like that would work in our home town. More talk continued and a committee was formed to do some research.

Yesterday, I happened to be exchanging text messages with my sister as she was attending a community meeting about the proposed community plaza. It is a concept with which she is familiar, having lived in Portland, Oregon, with its Pioneer Courthouse Square and often visited Rapid City with our Main Street Square. The presenter, however, was making a big sales pitch for community squares. She supposed that there were some people who were less familiar with the concept who needed to be convinced. After a few text exchanges, I began to recognize the “pitch” being made by the presenter at the meeting. The more she wrote to me about him, the more familiar he seemed. I ended up guessing his name. He is from our town and was a big promoter of Main Street Square and several other projects around town.

Later she told me she had left the meeting without being sure what he was trying to sell. I know him and I know the answer. He was selling himself. He believes that he would be a good consultant on the project in my home town. He has hired out as a consultant before and earned some respectable money by doing so.

I have no idea whether or not hiring a consultant for such a project is a good idea, but something strikes me as not quite right about the idea.

Rapid City has a population of 74,421, and a history of steady growth over the past 20 or more years. My home town has a population of 1,674, very nearly the same population as 20 years ago. The ups and downs in population in my home town are directly related to the price of the metals taken from the mine. When the price is low, the mine shuts down. When the price is high it goes back into production. Boom and bust is the cycle of many mining towns.

But that isn’t the only difference between the two towns. There are plenty of other reasons why simply copying an idea from Rapid City won’t work in Big Timber.

I haven’t lived in that town since I was 17, nearly 50 years ago. I don’t know the community, and the members of the community I do know are all old timers. I suspect, however, that the people who live there are intelligent and creative and filled with good ideas. They have a wonderful city park and a lot of other attractions. I’m pretty sure that they are capable of deciding what to do with an empty lot in the center of the town without the need to hire outside consultants, even very good ones who have lots of experience.

The spirit that cleared the lot - volunteers and generous folk - will go a lot farther towards bring about the future the community needs than a desire to behave like a much larger community by hiring consultants.

We somehow keep convincing ourselves that there is great benefit in hiring folks who are not from here to help us, however. Back in South Dakota, our governor decided that we needed to hire an out-of-state advertising firm to design a drug awareness campaign. They did come up with a slogan that I’m pretty sure would not have come from any South Dakota advertising firm. I still don’t know if the ad agency folks are among the large number of Minnesotans who are laughing at South Dakota’s “Meth. We’re on it.” ad campaign. What if the whole thing is just a big South Dakota joke that they tell in other states.

Communities are strongest when they work among themselves to solve their own problems.

I’ve decided that my home town doesn’t need my advice about whether or not to hire a consultant for their project. I won’t be weighing in on the decision one way or another. They’re good folks. They’ll make a good decision.

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!

Paperless?

I came into adulthood in the era when utilities, companies that provided services, and those that extended credit used the U.S. Mail to send an invoice. In most cases the invoices came at the end of the month and it was expected that you paid them within ten days or so. The method of payment was to write a check and use the enclosed envelope to return the payment by mail. I don’t remember the postage rate exactly, but it was probably somewhere between ten and fifteen cents when we began our married life. Large companies had access to lower postage rates by presorting the invoices.

I’m not unhappy that business is making a transition from that system. It is very convenient for me to pay bills electronically by using the computer and the Internet to transfer money from my checking account to the businesses with whom I do business. I like the convenience of automatic payments that are set up in advance and allow for important bills such as our mortgage, insurance and utilities to be paid on time without every experiencing a delay. Having things like that set up also makes it much easier to travel. I don’t have to worry about checking the mail in order to keep up with payments that need to be made.

More and more businesses are getting into electronic and paperless billing systems. Usually it works fairly flawlessly, but occasionally there are small glitches. I’ve been paying attention to the glitches in the area of medical bills lately. We’ve been more aware of medical expenses since my wife’s hospitalization this fall.

We are covered by medicare and we have a very good supplementary insurance to cover other medical expenses. Although we don’t fully understand the system, we are aware that the process begins with the health care provider sending bills to Medicare and to our supplementary carrier. Medicare is the primary insurance, so they respond first. They send the provider a check, but they don’t just pay the bill. They discount the amount billed to another figure. This not only decreases the medicare portion of the payment, but also the amount remaining to be paid by the other carrier. The bill is then processed by the supplementary insurance company which also applies discounts. We receive explanation of benefits statements from Medicare and from the insurance company which, if carefully studied, eventually tell us what portion of the bill we are supposed to pay. A bill that starts out at $1,500, for example may result in a total payment to the provider of perhaps $800, with the portion that we pay being $20. It takes a couple of months or more for all of the paperwork exchanges to be made before we finally know what we are supposed to pay. Although we have signed up for “paperless” billing, we will receive multiple invoices, explanation of benefits sheets, and other pieces of paper in the mail from the insurance company and from the health care providers.

A week ago, I received notice from a health care provider that the process on one bill had been completed and it was time for me to make a payment. The amount was small, less than $30. I immediately used the provider’s online payment method to make a transfer from my checking account and pay my portion of the bill. I was pleased with how well the process went and how easy it was to make a payment. The amount I paid was exactly the amount the explanation of benefits report from the insurance company said I should pay. Then, yesterday, I received a paper statement from the provider in the mail for the amount that I paid electronically. Since I have already paid the bill, I filed the statement together with the explanation of benefits and a hand-written note to myself with the date of the electronic payment. I know that the provider will catch up with the payment eventually.

I’m a bit annoyed with the simple fact that “paperless” doesn’t mean “without paper.” There is still a lot of paper involved in the process. With many providers it doesn’t even mean less paper. But I am more deeply troubled by the huge inefficiency of the system. I know that with the costs of paper, envelopes, mail and especially the costs of people to operate the computers, it cost the provider way more than $30 to collect the fee from me. I don’t know what portion of medical costs is wrapped up in the inefficiencies of the billing and payment system, but I know it is a lot. Our local hospital, for example, sends statements from Denver, which means that they have contracted with an independent business just for the process of billing and collections. Those services are not inexpensive.

It is virtually impossible to determine how much this inefficiency costs consumers in part because there is no one in the system who can explain the amounts that are billed. It appears that initial statements are simply huge numbers created in order to make income from receiving a partial payment. As valuable as my wife’s trip to the hospital was, it probably never had a fair market value of over $100,000 which was the number for just the hospitalization that appeared on the first statement. The process doesn’t begin with real numbers, just fantasy numbers. No one can say why that number was chosen, as opposed to one that might vary as much as 50 or 60 percent. I’m guessing that the hospital spends more than 10% of its operating budget on the costs of negotiation and billing. That would be more than $10,000 on a single hospitalization. It is, of course, only a guess because there is no one who actually knows the real numbers. Hospitals don’t operate in the arena of real numbers.

So we have a very thick file of paper to document our encounters with the medical providers. Thank goodness we’ve gone paperless. I can’t imagine what it would be like if we weren’t using their “paperless” electronic billing system. We’d need a separate filing cabinet just for two weeks over the end of September.

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!

Too many deaths

At a board meeting yesterday, we were discussing the statistics for our community for the preceding month. Four deaths by suicide isn’t high enough to make us think it is unusual any more. In fact, our average is slightly higher than that number. After our conversation, as I was driving home, I felt increasingly alarmed at our attitude during our discussion. We may be becoming callous about the deaths of our neighbors. Death by suicide is so common that those of us who pay attention to our statistics have lost our sense of outrage. I don’t want to get to the point where I am no longer shocked by unnecessary death. I’m not saying that every death by suicide is preventable. I don’t think we possess the knowledge and resources to prevent every suicide death. But we ought to be able to make a difference and decrease the number of deaths.

I still run into people who believe that the United States has the world’s longest life expectancy. For those who haven’t looked at the data, it is easy to assume that our country is Number 1 on everything. But that simply isn’t true. For decades U.S. life expectancy has been below that of other advanced countries. And that gap is increasing dramatically. The widening “death gap” is the result in increased mortality among working-age American, largely due to what has been deemed “deaths of despair”: drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol. As the number of deaths from these causes rises, overall life expectancy for Americans has fallen every year for decades.

These deaths are not evenly distributed throughout the United States, however. A 2018 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association provided information on state by state changes in health and life expectancy. The divergence among states is striking. In 1990, Texas and Florida had higher life expectancy than New York and about the same as California. Today those two states are far behind. Life expectancy in New York and California continues to rise while it is falling in Texas and Florida. Our state, South Dakota, parallels Texas and Florida. Our health statistics were behind more populated regions of the country already and we have continued to see dramatic increases in deaths of working-age adults.

It is difficult to explain the divergence in the various states. Public policy is part of the picture. States that have expanded Medicaid and have taken action to decrease the number of uninsured people have seen increases in overall health. Our state has not taken any action to address those without insurance and remains near the top of states when it comes to the percentage of our population who are without insurance.

Being without insurance is not simply a matter of having less contact with health care providers, which is definitely true. It also means that we lead the nation in bankruptcies as a result of unpaid medical bills. The financial devastation of families due to the inability to pay for health care could be a factor in the increase in despair and a subsequent increase in death by addiction and suicide. Those connections, however, are largely speculative. Little or no solid research has been conducted into the reasons behind the disparity in states when it comes to increasing mortality.

Conservative leaders have argued that the rise in mortality is caused by the lack of traditional values. Attorney General William Barr has blamed what he calls “militant secularists.” He says that secularists attack traditional values and that is what lies behind soaring suicide rates, rising violence and a deadly drug epidemic. The statistics, however, don’t back him up, however. European nations, which are far more secularist than the United States have not see a comparable rise in deaths of despair and a decrease in life expectancy that the United States has experienced. And within the United States, the states that appear to be more urban and secular have better statistics than those with more traditional values. South Dakota is a conservative state. We are about as conservative politically as a state can get. Our legislature and our people have resisted attempts to increase secularism. Last year our state legislature mandated that every public school in the state display the national motto, “In God We Trust.” The law specifies the size of the letters and the locations where the motto is to be displayed. It is too soon to have comprehensive statistics, but so far there is no evidence that the displays have had any effect on rising teen suicide and drug-related deaths. South Dakota leads the nation in methamphetamine addiction among youth 12 to 17 years of age. We remain near the top when it comes to teen suicide.

Much attention has been given to South Dakota over state spending on an advertising campaign aimed at raising awareness of meth addiction. I’ve already focused on the campaign in a previous journal entry. Despite the lack of educational theory behind the slogan, “Meth. We’re on it.” and despite the lack of evidence that advertising has any impact on addition rates or treatment options, there is a grain of truth in the intended double meaning of the slogan. Addiction affects all of the citizens of our state, not just those who are using the drugs.

What frightens me about the spending of so much money on the advertising campaign is that I believe it is based in an inaccurate analysis of the case of the problem. It encourages people to continue in the belief that addiction, mental illness and suicide are somehow the result of a lack of moral education. These evils are rampant in our society and deeply seated in our state. They are not, however, signs of moral weakness or of a lack of religious training.

Our legislature has consistently taken actions that have not had any impact on the life expectancy of our people. They may be aware that we have a problem, but their analysis and response to that problem has been misguided at the least.

At the worst, it has been dead wrong.

Unfortunately, we’ve gotten all too used to the deaths.

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!

In defense of wordiness

In a month I will be writing my annual report to the congregation. It will be the 42nd annual report to a congregation that I have written in my career. Not long ago I read an article on the design of annual reports for the corporate world and the article suggested that a report should consist of about 150 words. The rationale was that people rarely will stay focused and read a report that is longer than 150 words. I was dismayed at that thought. I don’t know for sure but I guess that my average report to the congregation I serve is in the neighborhood of a thousand words. I have a good feel for what 1000 words feels like because that is the rough length of my journal essays. I came up with the idea of writing a 1000 word personal essay every day a dozen years ago. I wanted to teach myself more about writing, feeling that I was at a point in my life where making a transition from being a contract writer to writing my own material was in order. Previously, I had done quite a bit of professional writing on contract. Publishers hire writers to produce material and specify the length of the content. I wrote educational resources to contract for years The idea of a 1000 word goal for my personal essays came from the proverb, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” When I started my journal, I would post a single picture and a 1,000 word essay each day. I enjoy photography, but haven’t been as disciplined about my photography as I have about my writing. As a result, I often do not publish a picture with my essay.

A customer service representative of the company that hosts my web site was amazed at the amount of data in my journal. A dozen years of 1,000 word essays every day adds up to quite a bit of data. That representative said that most people make blog posts in the 100-word range. I decided to stop calling my journal a blog and have been referring to it as a journal since that conversation. I don’t want to mislead people who aren’t interested in reading that much.

I do, however, want to defend my use of words.

I think that one of the problems with the lack of civility in our society these days is that we don’t take time to really understand other people. We want short identifiers that will quickly allow us to categorize others. Is this person with us or against us, friend or foe? Of course there are lots of other options. The world does not consist of only two categories. We can have allies with whom we disagree on many subjects. Human beings are complex. When we reduce others to simple categories, we fail to understand them. Conversation looses nuance and subtlety. I think we need to teach people to use language more fully.

When I was a student, the common assignment was a 10-page paper. A ten page paper contains around 5,000 words. Of course you can get by with fewer words by using longer words and more than a few college students expanded their vocabulary in order to fill the assigned pages. Ten pages gives enough space to explore a topic. It allows for consideration of opposing viewpoints and discussion of small differences. A ten page paper allows enough room to demonstrate that research has been conducted and the field of literature on a topic has been explored.

Ten page papers may still exist, but they are nowhere near as common in college work as once was the case. I recently spoke to a professor in a college of education who said, “I’m lucky to get two or three pages out of my students. If I assign more, it will just be a jumble of things cut and pasted from the Internet. I don’t have students who are capable of writing 10 pages of original content.” The students to whom he was referring are the future teachers in our public schools. It is a depressing thought.

Social media seems to be redefining not only the way we speak to one another, but the way that we think. Most famous is twitter, which began its service by allowing only 140 characters. The character limit was based on the limit for a text message at that time. It isn’t possible to communicate a complex thought in 140 characters. The limit produced a strange adaptation of language. According to the company, when the limit was 140 characters, the average tweet was only 34 characters. People developed abbreviations, known as “text speak.” “u r” replaced you are; “b4” replaced before; “sry” replaced sorry. Of course the last one wasn’t used very much because manners and politeness went out the window with the lack of characters. People didn’t use tweets to apologize. They didn’t waste characters on please or thank you, either.

When the limit on the number of characters in a text message, Twitter doubled the allowable number of characters in a tweet. The current limit is 280 characters. Most messages sent, however, are much shorter than the limit. In fact, the company says that the average character count has gone down to 33 characters since the new limit was announced.

Very little communication can be accomplished in 33 characters. (That sentence would read: “Very little communication can be ac” in 33 characters).

If we are to maintain civil society and civil conversations, we need more than aphorisms and tweets. Human beings are complex and we are capable of complex thought. We can make subtle distinctions, given the opportunity. So far, I have only used my Twitter account to point towards more substantive ideas. I will continue to defend longer and more complex modes of writing. I will continue to read books and other long forms of writing. And you can count on my annual report to be even a bit longer than usual this year.

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!

My wanderlust

“Blessed are the curious, for they shall have adventures.” (Lovelle Drachman)

Our language has a lot of words borrowed and adapted from other languages. That’s how we got the word, “wanderlust.” In its original German it means a love of hiking. In its contemporary usage in our language it is the desire to travel far and wide. I seem to be affected by it. From as early as I can remember, I loved going on trips. With pilots for parents, there were frequent opportunities. Whether it was a routine check of Yellowstone National Park or a charter to Oregon, my father kept the airplanes ready and when the weather cooperated we took some really grand adventures. Our whole family flew from our home in Montana to Indianapolis, Washington DC, Chicago, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Seattle among other destinations closer to home. When we graduated from seminary, we spent six weeks traveling with my parents and sister and her husband in Europe, driving around in a rented van and visiting friends, many of whom had visited our home.

I come by the wanderlust naturally. My parents loved to travel. They visited Japan and Taiwan and New Zealand and Australia. They took trips to the Bahamas and Bermuda. They wandered around Hong Kong. After my father died, my mother toured China, the Philippines and Sri Lanka on her bicycle. She also took cycling trips around Montana and did a New England tour as well. Later she went on several cruises and traveled with her brass choir to Germany. She had a list of possible future destinations that she kept with her and talked about for all of her life. Had her health permitted, she would have traveled even more.

I am constantly thinking of and planning trips. Some of them are only dreams. They involve destinations and modes of travel that I cannot afford and are trips that I probably will never take. All the same, we have been fortunate enough to travel to Costa Rica several times and we had a wonderful trip to Australia with our adult children in 2006. We’ve been to England and made two trips to Japan. And we enjoy hitching up our trailer and exploring the northwest. One of the kayaks I built has been in the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Bay of Fundy and the Salish Sea. It has been paddled in Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron as well as the Yellowstone and the Missouri and countless little lakes and ponds one the way.

Not long ago I read a piece published on the BBC website that reminded me that this desire to explore and travel is not universal. While some of us find travel and adventure to be a huge part of our lives, there are others who focus their energy and attention on staying at home. They may travel, but their true joy is in remaining where they are rooted.

Scientific research has discovered a variant of the DRD4 gene, the gene that affects sensitivity to the near sensor dopamine, a chemical that is involved in the perception of pleasure. Dopamine research has produced significant progress in treating illnesses as varied as Parkinson’s and bipolar disorder. It isn’t as simple as having the 7R variation of the DRD4 gene means that one has a craving for travel. People with that variation, however, are less sensitive to some of the simple pleasures that give others satisfaction. While one person might feel intense pleasure with a taste of chocolate, a walk in the park, lingering with the newspaper or a favorite coffee, another person might be able to recognize the value of those things, but not feel the deep pleasure experienced by the first person. Those with the 7R variation seem to need more dramatic stimulation in order to experience the same level of pleasure. Those with the 7R variation are more likely to be risk taker and thrill seekers. Those people will go farther than others in order to get those increased dopamine levels.

I have never had genetic testing. I don’t know whether or not I have the 7R variation. I don’t seem to be attracted to the most extreme forms of risk taking. I’ve never had the desire to parachute, an experience both my son and my brother have had. I’ve never been attracted to bungie jumping. I got great pleasure from staying home with our children. I enjoy paddling in the same lake over and over again. I never tire of the sunrise view from my home.

We know that genes don’t determine one’s personality. All sorts of different factors play into the personalities we have. Relationships can affect the amount of travel and the amount of staying at home one experiences. One’s career can have a big impact on the opportunities for travel. Furthermore, the 7R variation has been linked to addiction, a short temper, and delinquent behavior. I don’t think I’m especially prone to any of those things. Of course all humans have addictions, but my primary addiction is to my family and perhaps to some of the gadgets in my life. I drink perhaps a half dozen glasses of wine a year. I gave up caffeine without a big problem. I did have a rather short temper when I was younger, but I’ve learned to control that without problems and I don’t think people would describe me as having a short fuse these days. I haven’t been one to get in trouble with authority, where inside of the church or in my life in the community.

If I do have the 7R variation, the desire to travel and explore seems like a much better expression of that variation than struggling with addiction or destroying relationships with a violent temper.

I suspect that my urge to travel may be more psychological than genetic, however. With the Internet and other forms of instant communication, I am constantly aware of what others are doing. Most of our recent travel adventures have been to visit family who are in distant places. I am inspired by the lives of my colleagues, who live in many different places around the globe. The church is a world-wide fellowship and I am continually aware of ministries and missions taking place in countries and on continents I have never visited. I only have to open up YouTube to view another camping trip or canoe trip or a trek to a very remote part of the globe. My mind wanders even when I am at home.

Jack Kerouac wrote, “Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that damn mountain.”

I think I may have a few more mountains in my system before I really settle down for 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!

Snow go or no go

About 30 years ago we were in Portland, Oregon. My sister lived there at the time and her home was on a hill. Portland experienced an ice storm. The freezing rain stuck to everything and coated the roads. I put tire chains on our family van and pulled it out of my sister’s driveway. I could get some momentum, but I couldn’t steer the van. I got it stopped without hitting anything and got out some cable chains and put on the front tires. So-equipped I loaded my family into the van and headed out for the 400+ mile drive home. Within 30 miles we had the chains off of the van and encountered no further problems.

As we drove I told our children the story of another time, years before, when we were living in Chicago and a blizzard shut down the city. I had tire chains, put them on my car and was able to get to a motel where my sister was staying. The next morning we proceeded to show her the city. It was amazing the way people had abandoned cars in the middle of the highways. There were plenty of drifts, but we were able to get around without big problems.

I’ve always had pretty good equipment for getting around when inclement weather occurs and I haven’t been held back much. However, there is a need for a bit of common sense to go with the equipment we have.

Perhaps as a result of my experiences, I am very reluctant to cancel events when the weather turns harsh. Today is another morning when I’m facing a decision. I could have made the decision last night. A lot of churches in our community did. There are plenty of cancellation notices already posted. But I knew that the winds would go down overnight. I was right. It isn’t as bad this morning as it was last night. I have the snow cleared from my driveway except for a bit that blew in overnight. I have chains on all four wheels of my pickup, which has pretty high clearance and four wheel drive. We could get to the church.

The snow plow has just made its first run up Sheridan Lake Road and it will be cleared soon.

On the other hand, there is a Whispering Pines rescue truck stuck in the ditch across the road from our home. The car they were trying to pull out of the ditch when they slid in is also still there. It is going to take several hours for our city to dig out after a full day of snow and blowing. The drifts in our yard are the biggest I can remember in 25 years of living here.

I used to say that we trust people to make their own decisions. If I can get to the church, I’ll go there and we’ll have worship for whoever shows up. This morning as I contemplate the right thing to do, I am questioning that approach. Technically, there is still a “no travel advised” order for the city. It is likely that will be lifted before the 9:30 start time for worship. On the other hand, when I think of who might come to worship, I wonder if I want to take responsibility for those who might not have the right equipment to venture out.

We’ve already made the decision to cancel our bus service. The driver doesn’t think he will be able to get the bus out in time. Our choir director lives out in the country and his equipment probably isn’t heavy enough to conquer the drifts. It is unlikely that he can make it. We aren’t likely to have enough people to have a choir anyway.

Yet, when I think of it, I know that the church parking lot is likely to have been plowed well before worship. The plowing bill will be big. It seems a bit of a shame to go to all of that work for a cancellation.

It is easy for me to argue both sides of the issue.

This is likely to be the last winter that I’m the one calling the shots on this type of decision. On the other hand, it is early for us to be contemplating closings to winter storms. There could be a lot more decisions that need to be made before summer comes. We have had to cancel worship in May due to a spring blizzard once before.

Within an hour or so, I will suck it up, make a decision and we’ll get busy getting the word out. I can change the outgoing message on the church phone. I can send an email “blast” to church members who have subscribed. We can post on social media. We can call the various church leaders who have responsibilities. We have already been in touch with the family who have a baptism scheduled for this morning and know what the alternate dates are if we cancel.

If we do cancel, I know that by 9:30, I’ll be a bit antsy. The weather is supposed to be sunny. We’ll be dug out. The snow plow will have made a trip up our street. There will be nothing that really prevents me from getting out.

If we do decide to go forward, I know that attendance at church will be light. 9:30 is just too early to get dug out if you don’t start digging until 8 or so. We probably won’t have a choir. We might not have an organist. I have a clear memory of a day when we proceeded with worship because of a scheduled baptism. The family of the baptized were almost the only ones who showed up. I picked up the organist and give her a ride to church and back home afterward. We didn’t have a choir. It was not one of our grander or most glorious worship experiences. On the other hand the family of the baptized will never forget it.

Either way, I’ll be second guessing the decision that I make. Making decisions is part of my job. It goes with the territory. But it is one area of my work life where experience doesn’t seem to help. These decisions don’t get any easier.

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!