Strategic reserve

We’ve been reading of many shortages in this time of social distancing. A lot of the media has brought attention to shores that have empty shelves where the toilet paper once was. We are told that people are hoarding toilet paper. More seriously, supplies of personal protective gear are short in hospitals and medical centers across the country. Our health system is fairly dependent on disposables when it comes to infection control. Gowns, masks, gloves and in some cases even face shields are made to be used once and disposed. There is also a shortage of respirators, especially in the larger cities where the outbreak has been more severe.

Personally, and at the church, we aren’t currently experiencing any shortages. Occasionally, when I make a trip to the store to stock up on groceries, I see empty shelves and from time to time, I have trouble finding a particular item. Yesterday it was mint tea. With Susan avoiding caffeine as much as possible and me cutting back to just an occasional cup of black tea, we drink quite a bit of peppermint tea. Since we drink a lot, we have an ample supply on hand, but I put it on my shopping list only to find that the store was remarkably short of tea. I know another place that probably has a good supply, but so far, we’re doing fine.

What I did find at the store yesterday was toilet paper. They had a whole aisle filled up with what seemed like a usual supply. We didn’t have it on the list and I know we have plenty at home, but I purchased a single package anyway. It just seemed to make sense. I didn’t get the great big 36-roll package, however. I don’t want to be selfish. Others may need it more than I.

Years ago, I read an article about the strategic reserves that the federal government keeps of some commodities. Oil is kept in huge tank farms spread out across the nation so that in the event of some national emergency there will be enough to keep the military in business. There have been times when part of the strategic reserve has been sold on the general market and it is significant enough to affect the price of oil.

Apparently, however, we don’t keep a strategic reserve of personal protective gear, or respirators. We may, however, have a strategic reserve of toilet paper. Instead of having it in huge government warehouses, it is dispersed in the closets and storerooms of millions and millions of homes. If we really reached a crisis point, I wonder if people would go to their neighbors and ask for a spare roll. I’m thinking that it would work. After all, we have extra rolls in hour home. The church has been consuming less with the preschool not in session and no large group meetings at the church. We’ve got some cases in the shed that constitute a kind of reserve.

That got me to thinking about all of the extra things I have around my house that I could contribute if social distancing and stay at home orders persist.

I have a lot of books. And I’m willing to loan and even give them away to those who are bored and looking to read. A lot of them are solid academic theological works and may be boring to some readers, but I’ve got novels and history and biography as well. If I knew of any neighbors in need, I’d be glad to have them take a few.

I’m really well stocked with scraps of wood. I’m not sure what would constitute a shortage, but if we ever do have one, I’ve got pieces of 2x4 as short as 3 or 4 inches and as long as a couple of feet. I hate to throw out good wood that can be used for blocks. I have a good supply of cedar strips cut and milled for canoe or kayak construction. I may have enough to make a whole boat. I have quite a few planks. You never know when you need to get something from one place to another. If we have a national or regional shortage of wood scraps, I stand ready to donate.

For some reason, I have a really healthy supply of copier paper. We have a printer at home that we used to use a lot, but which gets less and less usage now that we send more documents electronically. Yesterday I went to get a bit more paper for our printer and discovered that we have nearly a full case of paper. I bought it because it was way cheaper by the case than by the ream. Now we have a lot more than we will use in a year or perhaps longer. We’d be glad to share.

I’m sitting pretty when it comes to empty plastic containers. We purchase yogurt and cream cheese and cottage cheese and sour cream in tubs. I save them because they make good mixing cups for epoxy. But it appears I have saved way too many. They are headed for the recycling bin before long, but if there is some kind of shortage, I still have them in stock.

I have one of the larger collections of t-shirts of anyone I know. I have t-shirts from fund-raising walks and from organizations I have supported and from youth events and from various events. I have “tough enough to wear pink” t shirts and black t-shirts with advertisements in bright colors all over the backs. I have t-shirts with dates from events in the 1990’s and 2000’s that aren’t worn out because I have so many that I don’t wear them often. I’ve got all sorts of colors, but most are either L or XL when it comes to size. I stand ready to donate if we have a shortage.

I might even have some useful stuff around here if I look. If you’re running short of anything, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Copyright (c) 2020 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 grand adventure

According to the New York Times coronavirus map and case count this morning, South Dakota has the second fewest diagnosed cases of the virus in the US, when comparing state to state. Wyoming, has three fewer cases than South Dakota, and North Dakota leads South Dakota by eight cases at the moment. Our three states are the only ones with fewer than 100 cases. This unique status likely will not be the same a week from now and there are several possible reasons for the statistic. Certainly being a state with lots of rural areas that is distant from both coasts of the country and has less convenient airline access are among the factors. It is also possible that delays in testing have resulted in a statistical anomaly. It may just be the case that we are behind the rest of the country and the number of cases here will peak after peaks have been reached in other states. Finally, having relatively low population means that the total number of people infected will be lower than places with more people.

The statistics on the spread of the disease, however, are doing little to calm the fears of people. Within the last week I’ve spoken to several people by telephone or teleconference who are very frightened. I’ve witnessed tears and heard panic in the voices of people who seem to me to be very safe.

Without wanting to play down the tragedy of any person’s death, and being fully aware of the grief that comes to family members, I also want to point out that this is not quite the end of the world. People in the very highest risk categories, those with pulmonary disease or severe coronary artery disease, still have a better than 50% chance of surviving if they contract Covid-19. Those odds are way better than a large number of other diseases. I have a friend who has stage IV pancreatic cancer. About the only way that disease won’t be the cause of his death is if he is the victim of an accident.

The challenge for all of us, living under all of the changes to society that are coming from this pandemic, is balancing the information we have and the range of decisions we are able to make with the needs of our human spirits.

The fears comes from the randomness of the spread of the disease. There are many factors that are simply beyond our control. A virus is an incredibly tiny lifeform, much smaller than a single human cell. We can’t see a virus without the aid of a powerful microscope. We know that the virus is spread through droplets, which we can sometimes see. Add to that the fact that a person can be infected without having any symptoms and can therefore spread the disease to others without knowing it. There is a certain randomness about the spread of the virus that makes us all feel vulnerable.

I think that the reason we are obsessing with cleaning surfaces is that it is something we can do. We feel like we are losing control and washing and disinfecting doorknobs and tabletops feels like we are taking positive action. The reality is that the virus is dependent upon the bodies of mammals and doesn’t survive long on surfaces. If it is in a drop of water, the water evaporates and the virus dies. The way in which the disease spreads is from person to person. And that is why keeping distance between people slows the spread of the virus.

We are social animals. We don’t thrive when separated from others. Babies need the touch of their parents. Children need to be held and reassured. In fact we all do, and some of the tearful emotions I have witnessed may be coming not just from fear, but also from a lack of human contact.

It is a balancing act.

Jesus worked hard to calm the fears of those who followed him. In both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke he says, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27, Luke 12:25) Of course, being told not to worry and being told that worrying is futile doesn’t stop us from worrying.

Here is what we can say with a fairly high degree of certainty. More people are going to contract the virus. People we know are going to become infected. Our risk of becoming infected ourselves goes up with the passage of time and the spread of the disease. Some of us may not even know we are sick. Others may feel bad for a while and the discomfort may last as long as two or three weeks. A few will need hospitalization. The threat of this pandemic is real.

But with an even higher degree of certainty, I can say that we all will someday die. None of us is immortal. One of the gifts of this virus may be that it reminds us of a truth that we have become very practiced at ignoring.

There is no life without risk. There are other random events that can be life threatening. As terrible as this disease is, any individual has a higher risk of slipping and falling in the bathtub than they do of contracting coronavirus. That hasn’t stopped us from taking baths. I’ve quoted Bad Luhmann in my journal before: “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.” We have to be able to set aside our fears in order to become fully alive.

There is little new information in my journal today. I’m saying things that I’ve already said and that my readers already know. So I will end by saying that I am not overwhelmed with fear. I am not sad about the state of my life. I am not willing to become a recluse and avoid other people. Neale Donald Wisch wrote, “adventure begins where your comfort zone ends.”

We find ourselves in another of life’s grand adventures.

Copyright (c) 2020 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!


We are each trying to figure out exactly what form our social distancing should take and how to live our lives with this new sense of isolation. From the beginning of the crisis our policy at the church has been to trust the judgment of our members. We understand that there are different levels of vulnerability and different people will make different decisions. This is quite natural for our congregation. We know we are not bound together by sameness. We have never striven for everyone to agree or to see things from the same perspective. We are a diverse group of people.

Yesterday I was exchanging text messages with a member of the congregation. Our church has a small staff and a large number of volunteers. Right now we are without a janitor and cleaning is being done by volunteers. Last week we had a deep cleaning event with about ten people, all well spread-out, systematically cleaning and sanitizing rooms. We also performed the usual chores of vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, emptying trash, mopping floors, and washing the glass doors in the entryways. The person with whom I was exchanging messages has a family member who has compromised breathing and has every reason to be very cautious about reducing risk of contacting the virus. She was looking for a time to come to the church for some business “when there would be no possibility of someone coming into the building.” That last part poses a special challenge, because there are a lot of people who have keys to the building and I don’t exactly know when there is a time when there is NO possibility of another person entering the building. I know from experience that not many people come in between 6 am and 8 am. Our security logs show that no one comes into the offices between midnight and 4 am. It wasn’t hard to make a plan for this person to feel comfortable with what needs to be done, but I couldn’t provide an absolute guarantee that there is no risk.

Another member of the congregation touched base by telephone to report that her daughter had been hospitalized. Tests indicate that the daughter does not have the coronavirus, but she does need treatment. The mother is elderly and partially disabled. Her husband is recovering from a stroke. They have to be very careful. The mother said, however, that she would visit the hospital if she was needed. Her capacity for risk is higher when it has to do with her daughter’s care. I was touched by her very appropriate love and concern.

Each day it remains possible that I might become a vector of transmission. I am out and about more than many members of our congregation. I am careful about social distancing, but I do walk on public sidewalks and in the parks. I go to the office every day and work in a nearly empty building, but see the folks who come and go. I respond when emergencies occur. Yesterday morning I went to the site of an unattended death with several officers and a coroner. I spoke with bereaved family members. We’ve dropped the custom of handshakes and mostly conducted our business from a reasonable distance, but I was among folks whose medical history I do not know. My risk was no greater than that taken by the officers, but it isn’t fair to say that I was taking no risk.

My concern is partly for what will happen when the virus touches a member of the congregation. I’ve heard quite a few fairly harsh and judgmental words about those of us who are not completely isolating in our homes. I know that we have members who are trying to avoid all contact with other people. I wonder how the congregation will react when someone becomes ill with the virus. I suspect that there will be those who will blame the victim. They will point out ways in which the behavior of the victim contributed to the situation. I hope that they will show the kind of compassion that they show when someone is injured in an accident. I hope they can accept that we have different levels of risk-taking. But I don’t know. I worry that in the mood of social isolation we might fail to express compassion to those who are ill. I’ve certainly felt that in conversations about a nurse who has contracted the virus. She continued to work without knowing that she was exposed and inadvertently exposed others, including patients. There have been some pretty harsh words said about her from people who are normally caring and compassionate. Their voices sound angry. And I know the connection between fear and anger. What happens when dozens or perhaps hundreds of our community have contracted the virus? It is a worry if you think the way that I do.

The entire pandemic is a kind of huge social experiment. In Sweden, the government has taken a different approach than other European countries. While many in Europe are under full lock down, Sweden is allowing life to go on in a nearly normal fashion. Ice cream parlors are open. People are eating at outdoor cafes. Gatherings of less than 50 people are allowed. That stands in contrast to Denmark where no meetings of more than 10 are allowed or England where people are not supposed to meet anyone outside of their household. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, in a televised address to the nation, said, “We who are adults need to be exactly that: adults. Not spread panic or rumors. No one is alone in this crisis, but each person has a heavy responsibility.” This high level of trust in the people is reflected in a high level of trust for public authorities in Sweden. The Swedes love the outdoors and believe that keeping people physically and mentally healthy is important in their response to the virus. It will take months, perhaps even a year or more, to know if the Swedish approach works better than the more restrictive approaches of other countries.

In the meantime, I continue to venture out of our home to do work at the church. I practice the social distancing rules and am careful, but I know that my behavior is not free of risk. I trust the wisdom and decisions of others who chose a different path. And I remain committed to community and the care of all. That includes the sick, regardless of the cause or name of their illness.

Copyright (c) 2020 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!

More coronavirus ramblings

The website of the place where I usually get my hair cut says that it is closed every day of the week. They are protecting the workers who cut hair and the customers as well by observing social distancing rules. You can’t cut hair from six feet away. It isn’t a problem for me because last week when I needed a haircut, my wife stepped in and did a very good job. She used to cut my hair when we were first married, but somewhere along the line I started having other people cut my hair. In my case, I don’t think it is too big of a job. There isn’t a lot of hair on the top of my head anyway.

Our city is on an official lock down. The City Council at it second emergency meeting in a week last night adopted an emergency ordinance in hopes of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. The ordinance doesn’t name which businesses are “essential,” but it does order a long list of businesses to close. This closure will be reviewed on April 8. The council also passed the first reading of a related bill that will allow extensions and changes by resolution without requiring a second reading. The council debated the ordinance for over 2 1/2 hours and two members voted against it.

I’ve checked the list. Churches aren’t on it. Affected are:
  • Restaurants;
  • Food courts;
  • Coffee houses;
  • Bars;
  • Breweries;
  • Distilleries;
  • Wineries;
  • Clubs;
  • Cafes;
  • Other similar places of public accommodation offering food and beverage for on-site consumption, including any alcohol license with on-site consumption privileges, including casinos;
  • All recreational facilities;
  • Pools;
  • Health clubs;
  • Athletic facilities;
  • Theaters, including movie theaters;
  • Music entertainment venues;
  • Hookah lounges;
  • Cigar lounges;
  • Vaping lounges;
  • Other similar businesses which allow for on-site consumption;
  • Arcades;
  • Bowling alleys;
  • Bingo halls;
  • Indoor climbing facilities;
  • Skating rinks;
  • Trampoline parks;
  • Other similar recreational or entertainment facilities.

We have potlucks at our church when we aren’t in the midst of a crisis, but we’ve never allowed smoking, vaping, cigars, bowling, or trampolines. We don’t even play bingo, which I assume has been suspended in the nursing homes and care centers because they are pretty much keeping their residents in their rooms and away from communal gatherings.

It is hard to tell what additional restrictions may come, as we we don’t know exactly how the pandemic will unfold in our city. Some cities have issued a ban on non essential travel, which is a bit hard to define. Is it essential travel if I go to the church to pick up the things I would need to have to work at home? So far I’ve been going to the church to do my work. Although I’ve heard rumors about how covered with germs and viruses gasoline pumps are, I have no trouble operating one with gloves on my hands. Since we are driving a lot less, we won’t have to go to the gas station very often anyway.

The post office was in operation yesterday, something for which we are grateful, because we mailed out home Sunday School resources for families and we mail some items to elders who do not have computers and cannot access the church website or livestreams.

I happen to know one of the members of the council who voted against the resolution. He believes that shutting down all of these businesses is based more on fear than science. He points out that there is little evidence that the primary mode of spread is surface contamination. Initial outbreaks in the country were related to health care institutions, not restaurants. While theoretically the virus can be spread in any gathering of people there isn’t a lot of information about how effective mandatory closings are.

Those who argued in favor of the ordinance pointed out that there is a need to take strong preventive action and that the disruption is inevitable. They believe that acting quickly may slow the spread of the virus enough that it might even be less impact on businesses than an extended time of mass illness.

We’ll be arguing about this for years however it turns out.

In the meantime, I’m grateful for skin. It is a truly amazing organ that we all have. In the case of a virus that is spread by droplets, skin provides an incredible level of protection. We often come into contact with viruses that do not cause us illness because they do not invade our bodies. Our skin is remarkably good at keeping a separation between our outsides and our insides. And our bodies have secondary lines of defense as well. Once inside our bodies, viruses are met by several different protective factors, including our immune system and the way that fluids are handled in our bodies. Simply drinking water can help flush viruses from our system. Even so, repeated exposure to viruses can result in serious illness. The coronavirus doesn’t do damage in the stomach, but when it gets into the lungs, it can result in distress very quickly.

Scientific medicine does a pretty good job of treating illnesses caused by viruses. But such treatment requires a lot of equipment and our hospitals are not primarily designed to deal with large numbers of victims. Rapid City has barely enough isolation rooms and respirators to deal with the normal seasonal viruses and antibiotic resistant infections that are already spreading throughout our community. It won’t take too many cases of this new disease to overwhelm the system. Our hospitals and nursing homes use disposable gowns, masks and gloves to stem the spread of infections. While it seems like inventories of such gear are high, The hospital can go through a tremendous amount of such items. Cases and cases of gowns end up in garbage cans every day. The supply would be exhausted quickly if a major outbreak occurred.

Our real shortage, however, is people. We don’t have enough skilled nurses to meet the everyday demand in our community. Factor in a few of them becoming sick and an increase in patients and there is potential for a real crisis.

Closing businesses won’t make more nurses available. It won’t increase the inventory of personal protective gear in health care facilities. It won’t address the inefficiencies of insurance and reimbursements for health care. But it might be a good idea nonetheless.

We’re in a place we’ve never before been. We’re making up our response as we go along. We’ll probably make some mistakes. But, as I often say, we’re all in this together. We’ll keep trying to do the best that we can.

Copyright (c) 2020 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!

Still honing my skills

When I was in high school, one of the events at speech meets was called extemporaneous speech. The format was fairly simple. I don’t remember all of the specific rules, but when I competed, we were presented with three questions. We had a period of preparation, which was timed. During the preparation period the contestant chose one of the questions and prepared a seven-minute speech. At the end of the preparation the speech was delivered from memory, without notes to a panel of three judges. In our small high school, which had an equally small speech team most of us competed in multiple events. I competed in original oratory, which was a highly prepared speech, honed over weeks and polished. The speech had to be a self-written ten minute speech. It was good to have an emotional appeal to the speech.

I enjoyed participating in speech in high school and did fairly well, bringing home an occasional trophy from a meet. Extemporaneous and oratory were the two events in which I competed. Most speech meets involved several rounds, so I might give as many as six speeches during a meet. If you had asked me at the time, I would have said that I enjoyed oratory better than extemporaneous, but I was more successful in extemporaneous. My plan for approaching an extemporaneous topic was simple. Pick the question about which you had the most information. Sometimes topics would be foreign policy or issues specific to another country. Given the times in which I went to high school, you could count on drawing at least one question about Vietnam in each meet. I was pretty quick to select a topic, because I knew that wasn’t the most important part of preparation. The next step was to get an opening line that i could easily remember. Then I went for the conclusion - how I would end the speech. I knew it went better if I could find a story to illustrate the points in between.

I was thinking about high school speech meets recently because someone referred to my preaching style as extemporaneous. I think the person was complimenting me on my preaching, but I don’t think of what I do as being like a high school speech meet at all. And if it is, I think it is more like oratory than extemporaneous. In both events in high school, I spoke without notes. In oratory, I had memorized an entire ten-minute speech word for word. Occasionally there would be a lapse of memory and I had to keep going. I occasionally left out sentence or even a section of a speech, which resulted in a disaster and a shortened speech.

I still deliver most of my sermons without notes, although I always use manuscripts for funerals and weddings and I preach from a manuscript when I haven’t had enough time to prepare for worship. When I started preaching without notes, I essentially memorized a sermon, just like high school oratory. However, I found that I needed to develop a bit of flexibility. I remember well the Sunday I had a well-crafted sermon that I’d worked hard on preparing. I had even delivered it to the empty church a couple of times. Then the local high school basketball team won the state championship the night before the sermon. I knew that was a possibility. I had been following the team’s games very closely. I also knew that I had two churches, one where the team wasn’t competing in the state tournament and one where the team would either win or lose. I had to have a variety of different options for my sermon. After the victory and delivering an acceptable sermon in the church where the team wasn’t in the tournament, I only had a half hour or so to completely rework the sermon, knowing that what I had prepared wouldn’t work at all.

Over the years, I’ve gotten better a flexibility and adaptation. I used to follow the process of writing a manuscript, then outlining the sermon. For a lot of years, I had a sermon outline in the front cover of my bible when I stepped into the sanctuary. Many times I didn’t ned to refer to the outline, but it was there in case i needed support.

What I have learned, however, is that oral language is very different from written language. Good writing doesn’t always result in an interesting oral presentation. In oral language we use more repetition. Run-on sentences are acceptable. Sort sentences and even stand alone words can be effectively employed. Sometimes I transcribe a sermon from a recording. It usually needs to be edited before it can be given out as a written document.

Now I am being challenged by a need to develop a new way of speaking. When I preach in the congregation, I have the faces of the people that I can read. I can tell how things are going and whether or not I am communicating by the folks in the room. If I get a very quiet pause, I know they are listening. If there is a lot of movement and chatter, I know I need to focus their attention. Decades of delivering sermons has given me some experience on how to adapt. But it is very different facing a camera with my congregation spread out in their homes.

I’ve been delivering daily prayers with manuscripts. I write out the prayer before I set in front of the camera. This coming Sunday, we will be working from a full manuscript. With two of us, we need to practice the timing of delivery in order to get things the way we need. I think I could develop the confidence to become less dependent upon written notes, but it will take time. And, truthfully, I hope I don’t get the time to perfect the skill. I am eager for our congregation to get back together and we will do so as soon as we are able to with safety.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about high school speech meets and how nervous I used to get. I hope I can use that nervous energy to deliver meaningful messages to our people.

Copyright (c) 2020 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!