Uncle Thor's Lessons, Anecdotes and Humor


Loose Chickens, Tuna Turds and Your Wallet

My wife left me flabbergasted when she told me about the latest questions concerning organic chicken.. She works in the food industry. Her job deals with regulations and certifying the foods that her company makes. Three of the issues many companies face are “organic” foods, Chinese imports and Genetically Modified foods. Many companies do not want Chinese-made products or GMOs. As for organic, well….

One of the customers wants its foods made from free-range chickens. Seeing as my grandfather raised chickens up the country, I think I know something of this. His chickens were “free range.” A mixed batch with some that were scrawny and rather unappealing insofar as chickens go. Two issues my wife had to resolve recently involve the free-rangedness of chickens.

First was a company that bought chicken broth. They wanted to know if the broth were made from “spent hens.” What? Well, spent hens are those that are no longer laying eggs. They tend to be tough when cooked, and thus are best fricasseed (boiled in water). However, that has nothing to do with the broth. Old hens, new hens or cranky old roosters, broth is pretty much the same.

The next was even more bizarre. A customer had asked how many hours a day that the free-range chickens were allowed to range outside. In other words, how much can the chickens play outside the coop? I wonder: do these people think that roaming an outdoor pen enhances their food quality? Or is it a matter of happy birds? Do you want your food to be happy before it is killed and cooked? Are you opposed to eating unhappy birds? And if someone cared that much about the happiness and mental / emotional health of the birds, why eat them at all. You would think anyone that concerned over the chickens’ consciousness would never be able to eat one.

My wife said there is not an organic rating for fish because they cannot control a fish’s diet. That is, wild fish. Farmed fish could be controlled, but the fans of “organic” cuisine frown on eating fish from a fish-farm. I can imagine how the organic people might react to fish. “How were they caught? I don’t want them caught with a hook because that is inhumane!”

“What kind of net do they use? Is it a humane net? Do the fish have room to swim? Is it made of rope that abrades the fish or is it nice and soft to avoid ruffling their scales?”

“Have they eaten a natural diet? I don’t want a fish that got hooked because the metal may alter the fish’s body chemistry….”

“Can you guarantee that the fluke has not ingested tuna turds? I am afraid of mercury poisoning….”

Get a grip, people!

Along with having been around free-range chickens, I also worked in a fish house some years ago. That was when people feared medical waste. The thing back then, as now, is that the fish are caught so far offshore that waste never gets near them. Most of the fishing occurs tens to hundreds of miles out. Nonetheless, people work themselves into a frenzy.

If you ask me, the “organic” thing is a racket. Food designated organic costs more, but is not much different from that without the rating. Besides, how is food not organic? Are there chickens, pigs and fish made of plastic? Are we in danger if ingesting a cyborg tuna? Get a grip, folks. Standards for an organic rating might surprise you.

Over thirty years ago, a very wise man said, “People pay for bullshit.” I am seeing evidence of this all the time. The organic food thing is a prime example. People are told that things are issues when, in fact, they do not matter at all. How many hours your chickens play in a yard or fussing over how your fish was caught is a waste of mental energy and your money.

We no longer thrive on necessities. Manufacturers, marketers and food producers make their money selling folks things they do not need. Advertising created a need in people’s minds. But do we need them? Are we being sold bullshit?

These days, it is not the thing, but the ideas around the thing that are selling points. People pay more for ideas than the item itself. For example, it is not the soap, but the idea that the soap feels like Springtime in County Cork, Ireland, or has a scent that will make you smell like some dysfunctional move star. For all you know, County Cork may smell like a load of hog farms and that movie star may be the closest thing to the village idiot of Hollywood. Look at the things you buy and ask yourself why you prefer a certain brand or item. You might find yourself paying for bullshit more often than you think.

There are people living in dire poverty in this country. There are people who do awful things to one another. They seem to be ignored, but folks will make a fuss over the happiness of chickens and the suffering of hooked fish. A little perspective is in order.

So long as people will pay significantly more, someone will let the chickens run loose in the yard. The more people pay, the bigger the yard and the more hens to run in it. Do not be surprised to see someone selling “non-hooked fish” or “caught in humane nets” in the near future. If there is someone willing to fork over more money, there is someone willing to sell them what they want, no matter how ridiculous it is. P.T. Barnum was right. And for every sucker there is a handful of marketers looking to sell him overpriced goods that he does not need.


The Value of Literacy

When I went to grammar school, we were taught simple matters of communication. We learned to make proper margins, for instance. Our initial lessons were on lined paper. We measured and folded the ends of the paper to learn how to make the right size margins. We learned proper forms of address and the correct way to end a letter. “Dear Sir…Dear Mrs….Sincerely….Yours Truly….” There were lessons in where to put the address of the person to whom the letter was sent ,and where to put the writer’s address. Our teachers also showed us when to start another page. Students were taught about addressing an envelope and where to put the stamp and th return address.

We were taught to minimize the use of contractions in a letter. Teachers urged us to use cannot instead of can’t and does not rather than doesn’t. We used full words and applied proper grammar and syntax. The teachers also showed us how to find the proper forms of address for professionals. government officials, clergy and educators. We were taught about dictionaries and the thesaurus.

These lessons were common in all schools: public, private and parochial. Grammar was more than an exercise in language. Grammar was applied to communication between individuals. Educators did not care if a student was destined to be a politician, doctor or garbage man. They taught us all and they taught us well.

Today, I saw a joke that was not funny. It was factual. It stated that in years past, students were taught Greek and Latin in high school; today, remedial English is a college course. That is true. A garbage man who went to school in the old days can communicate better than many current college students.

There is something wrong when a letter from an educated person reads like “words from the hood.”

I value literacy. I judge a person ‘s intellectual acuity by the way he communicates. When a letter reads like a Dum-Dum Communique, I assume that the writer is a dolt. I grew up at a time when a person with poor communication skills was considered stupid. In fact, the way old cartoons implied stupidity was via poor grammar and limited vocabulary. Perhaps that is why I am appalled to see a supposedly educated person express himself like a stereotypical bumpkin.


One of the most pathetic things I have ever encountered is an illiterate adult. I am not talking about people who are illiterate due to some kind of mental or developmental disorder. The focus here is otherwise healthy adults who have the reading ability of a chimp.

For instance, I had a side job manning the front desk many years ago. Our maintenance man was a strange fellow named Jack. He hobbled about the place tending to his various chores. The big secret that everyone knew was that Jack could not read to save his life. He had a pair of thick glasses that he kept for “reading.” If he needed something read, he would come to the desk, put on his glasses and claim he could not see the print. Jack always found someone to read for him. Here was a man in his fifties (he was not sure of his own age) who was a very capable maintenance person. His ability was crimped by his illiteracy.

On another job, the man who had been with the company longest was a truck driver. Like Jack, he did not know his own age. The man could read most road signs, but anything else was a mystery. If he ran into a situation on the road that required reading, he had to call the office. This led to a confused conversation between the driver and the owner. Things that a literate person could have handled quickly became a lengthy spectacle with the illiterate wheel man.

There was a railroad man in his forties who handled his illiteracy by behaving like a buffoon. His way of deflecting attention to his problem was playing the clown. He played the bozo card too often and his secret was common knowledge. It was a case of a man who could have advanced, but remained on the lower rungs by his own choice. He chose to stay illiterate.

Illiterates stay that way because they develop a handful of tricks to conceal their problem. In a pinch, they get others to read it for them. Of course, there is always a cover story. They hide their illiteracy through a variety of ploys and excuses. Why would rational people want to perpetuate a problem rather than solve it? Whatever the reason may be, illiterate adults do it all the time.

Because of the problem, there are literacy programs in most area. These are free courses to teach adults to read and write. Nobody has to remain illiterate. The ability to communicate and access information is essential to life in this day and age. Only a fool would choose to perpetuate a state of illiteracy when remedies are available.


Death: Phelps vs. Dignity

Fred Phelps, the founder of the bizarre Westboro Baptist Church, finally kicked the bucket. Many people are cheering. Phelps’ church has been harassing funerals of fallen soldiers and others for years. Westboro Baptist Church is composed mainly of his extended family. To be fair to Baptists, the Phelps church is not endorsed by any of the Baptist organizations in this country. Most, if not all, have ostracized Westboro Baptist Church.

People have done some bizarre things in the name of religion. Believing that his God hates homosexuals, Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church took it to another level of insanity. They stated that disasters happening to Americans were cause by their God’s displeasure over gay folks. This included the deaths of servicemen, which is why Phelps’ group harassed military funerals.

To be blunt, Phelps is not the first preacher to condemn homosexuals. He will not be the last. There have Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy who deride gay people in the harshest terms and these preachers are not going to go away anytime soon. A few of our fellow Pagans and Heathens share their sentiments. People interpret their religions in many different ways. For instance, where some members of a denomination may harshly denounce homosexuals, others of the same sect welcome them into their congregations.

Who is right and who is wrong? If we go by the tenets of the religions involved, that depends on how the scriptures and beliefs are interpreted. One man’s abomination is another’s child of God. Common sense would state that a religion that preaches universal love and forgiveness ought to be inclusive. If homosexuality is wrong by their tenets, then condemn the sin and not the sinner. That seems reasonable, but reason is not a prerequisite of religious belief. This is why a religion of universal love can somehow justify inquisitions, organized persecutions, pogroms and bloody crusades.

Religion can inspire. Religion can give meaning to life. Religion can also provide the means and motive for acts of tremendous stupidity.

My take on religion is that there are times it must give meaning, inspiration and comfort. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of funerals and the departed. As chaplain of my American Legion post, I participate in services for departed Legionnaires. The simple service is a great comfort to the family and friends of the deceased. Last week we did a funeral for a man who had passed suddenly. His family was very upset. We were informed only a day before. Five of us showed up and did the service. The family needed it. They needed a simple ceremony to help them deal with the tragedy of sudden loss. I wonder how much harder it would have been for them if a whackadoodle cult like Phelps’ crew had come to protest outside the funeral home.

The greatest comfort we can give at a wake is respect for the departed. Just showing up sends the family a message. Sometimes we may not have known the departed, but we show because of our friendship with a relative of the deceased. Respect – honor – is often conveyed in the simplest gestures.

Personally, I find it offensive when people behave badly at a wake or funeral. And sadly, I have seen offense from people who knew better. There was the in-law who called attention to herself rather than to the deceased. There were the children of the decedent who did not like the race of the clergyman her church sent for a simple prayer service, so they hid outside until he had finished. Sometimes buffoons start fights at funerals over old grudges. Then there is the moron who shows up drunk and goes on a loud crying jag. Offensive behavior disrespects the departed and his loved ones.

Fred Phelps was not much different from any other jerk who uses a funeral to call attention to himself. He was no different from the obnoxious drunk or the pretentious old bag crashing a wake. What can you say about a man and a church who are angry at one group and go out of their way to offend someone totally unrelated? Stupidity known no bounds, especially when it is tied to religion.

Simple dignity outshines the loud and bombastic antics of misguided fanatics like those of the Westboro Baptist Church. Dignity is a manifestation of character. Religious buffoonery is but another expression of stupidity. Let us be thankful that persons of character far outnumber those who abide in selfishness and folly.


The Plug-Ugly Pug

(For the last week, my wife and I have been dog-sitting one of her friends’ dogs. I was not consulted about inviting the creature into our home. It is an obese, 11 year old pug named Julie. The pug is not really housebroken,. It uses pee-pee pads, but invariably misses all or part of the load. Cleaning up several times a day is bad enough, but the pug’s other habits only add to is repulsiveness. As a last resort, I have penned this poem to express my disdain for the breed. Note that I never really liked them in the first place.)

The Plug-Ugly Pug
by T. Sheil

If ever there’s a mutt to rue
Distributor of piss and poo
Bearer of an ugly mug
The foulest breed of pup’s the pug.

An aberration of canine species
A pooch that marches through its feces
A stench to supplement its farts
Lingering after the pug departs

Ugly of face with eyes like a bug
No dog is as loathesome as the pug
With corkscrew tongue and mushed-in snout
And shuffling walk as it gads about

Squat and thick like a tugboat’s hull
Skinny legs and tail, round of skull
Wrinkled jowls and flattened snoot
Homely and ugly and far from cute.

A pug groans and gurgles, snorts and snores
Emitting noxious fumes, your nose deplores
Bouncing underfoot, your feet to trip
And pissing the floor that you may slip

A gluttonous breed that inhales its food
For a meal the pug is always in the mood,
Scarfing down its chow faster than a family of hogs
The ugliest eater of all breeds of dogs.

The ugliness in a pugs face
Is matched by the behavior of this flat-faced race
Of canines bred with disgusting traits
Hideousness that neither softens nor abates.

Unsightliest canines, and stinkiest, too
Annoying and cloying, its good traits are few
As pretty as mudholes and slithering slugs
The foulest of dogs are those fat ugly pugs.

(If pug-lovers are offended, GOOD! Respectable, rational people do not want to be inflicted with the sight, sound or stench of your ugly pups.)


A Higher Understanding

(Some thoughts on things…)

If one thing has been a central part of my life for decades, it can be expressed in one word: spirituality. That is the issue that has permeated my existence. The issue is not a search for it, but enjoying its many expressions. I have done just that. I have enjoyed so many different experiences of spirituality over the years. The Old Wisdom (what some may call Heathenism) is just part of it all.

Therein lies the rub. Back when we first went public, our term for our Heathen beliefs was “the Old Wisdom.” We did not use terms such as Asatru or Heathenism or Odinism. Likewise, we never actually adopted the terminology that had crept into Heathenism. All those Icelandic terms never made it with us. There was Wyrd, and Macht, and Magna. Terms like Urd, Orlog and Megin felt forced.

What we had at the time worked well. I had actually used it in some very trying situations. Our way was simple and direct. We have never changed it. Nor have we ever used proto-Germanic Rune names, adopted the contrived Nine Virtues or any other modernist affectations. What we do today is pretty much the same as we did twenty years ago.

People have encouraged us to conform. Others have urged us to sign on with one or more group, organization of individual. Neither happened. We remain independent in both our connections and our materials.

All of the religions and theologies and systems of the world are attempts to address spirituality. All of the various pantheons and deities are human apertures through which to connect. They use manifestations of their culture to do this. Whether you call it God or Gods or Spirit or Mind, if you are of the right mind and heart, you make the connection.

I have known genuinely spiritual individuals in almost every religion and tradition that I looked. They stand out. No one religion can claim to have an exclusive connection. Likewise, no religion, school or teacher can deny it to anyone else. My person al experience has included meeting some very enlightened people in the most usual and unusual places. Among them are metaphysicians, Hermeticists, ceremonial magicians, Wiccans, New Agers, Heathens, Zen folks, Taosists, Buddhists, Hindus, Voodoo people, Christians, Jews and Muslims. And that is just a partial list.

Being Heathen is not an automatic straight shot to spiritual development. Nor is it so with any other tradition. Like other traditions, the majority of people are more concerned with the outer trappings than the difficult inner work. In terms of our own beliefs, they see it as a matter of being Heathen rather than following a Heathen path to spiritual excellence. This is true for most. In a way, the outer is the What of a person’s identity, while the inner is Who.

Keep in mind that a spiritual person is not some “Goody Two-shoes” who lives in a realm of sweetness and light and peace. Spirituality hinges on reality. There have been spiritual persons who have been anything but sweet, light or peaceful. Miyamoto Musashi was one of the great spiritual writers, as evidenced by the Fifth book of his “Book of Five Rings.” He conveyed in a few paragraphs a genuine insight into the nature of Spirit, which he described as “the Void.” Musashi reached his enlightenment through various means which include cutting down adversaries with a sword. Egil Skallagrimson , a master of the esoteric uses of Runes, was also a cantankerous old grouch who was equally good at using a spear. There are many roads to spiritual enrichment. The way of peace and gentility is but one of them. Many paths have aspects which can be brutal. I have learned that the search for wisdom comes not with a beacon of divine light, but enduring the worst.

Spirituality is truth, and truth can hurt. Truth can restore peace, ignite a war, recede like the surf or crash down like a wave. Likewise, right is not some glorious act that evokes the glow of godly satisfaction. It can feel wonderful, but it can just as likely be very uncomfortable. Right is not always the easy thing and it does not always feel good. Right does not always look good, either. Despite how it looks or feels, it is the only thing. Right is actually a facet of truth.

You may be familiar with the stereotypical “church ladies” who spend their free time at their favorite house of worship. The smiling old gals are usually the most judgmental folks and biggest gossips among the congregation. They may be religious, but they are not spiritual. Genuinely spiritual persons do not need a church to validate them. If they do attend one, you can be sure they have better things to do than be the local busybodies. Genuinely spiritual people can be as friendly as anyone else. They do not waste their time making a nuisance of themselves.

Acting like a Viking or Little Ms. Natural does not make you spiritual. It makes you an actor. Dressing like someone out of a Kirk Douglas movies will not bring you closer to your higher power. If you are into the costume thing, then admit that you favor the history over spiritual development. People who are on the real path do not need costumes or extensive historical research to gain spiritual insight.

Spirituality is reality. For the seeker, it means being real about himself and his motives. Spirituality rests on a fulcrum of rigorous self-honesty. Many cannot or will not achieve a necessary level of self-awareness. It takes someone who is willing to face the best and worst in himself to seek spiritual enlightenment. Definitely, this is no place for the cowardly or the morally weak.

The Gods are not a bunch of great big men and women with magickal powers. They are spiritual beings. All of those stories in the myths are a blend of folktales and allegories. Those who treat the myths as if they are history are as foolish as those who think the Bible is the inspired word of a god. Likewise those who hope to replicate the religion as it was practiced a thousand years ago are as likely to succeed as Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Times have changed and the information is lost. It would be like the metaphysical high priest searching in a dark room for a black cat that is not there. Perhaps it is the Schroedinger’s Cat of Religion.

Spirituality is as close as your mind. You do not have to sacrifice or give up anything. The search begins with a simple desire. Simple. The whole thing is so simple that it evades people. Just think about it. Meditate on the Gods. Contemplate what spirituality means to you. That is all it takes to get started.


Confidence Works

The term “faith” has been so misused, overused and abused that its meaning is as nebulous as a fog bank. People use it to mean belief, trust, religious affiliation or religion in general. The religious connotations alone have multiplied to the point that the meaning of the word is diluted. Perhaps a better word might be “confidence.” After all, faith itself is the same thing. Like confidence, the intensity of faith varies from little or no confidence to the greatest. In the end, the only difference might be a nuance of meaning. Even then, the nuance itself is small to nonexistent

Genuine faith, then, is a matter of confidence. We all have confidence in many things. We may have just a little toward the government, but plenty of confidence toward a relative or friend. Some friends evoke more confidence than others. Look at the previous sentences and switch confidence with faith. It all boils down to the same thing.

In over 40 years of spiritual research, I have noticed something about Spirit. Whether you call it Thor, God, Gods, Spirit, Mind or the Great and Wondrous Ogo-Pogo, certain things are evident with stunning consistency. Spirit recognizes confidence. For example, take that which is variously known as Prayer, Invocation, and other names from Treatment to Spellcasting. The prayers that get answered are those that are said with confidence. Spirit responds to the confident request.

Begging, pleading ,whining and groveling prayers are an exercise in futility, for they are manifestations of uncertainty, fear and panic. Those prayers are rarely answered.

Think of prayer, treatment, etc. as being like a connection of electrical wire or pipes. Confidence is what makes that connection strong, so that power can pass through it. Fear is a weak and tenuous connection that is more likely to come apart. Fear creates such a weak link that little or nothing may pass through. Confidence allows a strong current to flow; the best fear permits is a tiny trickle.

You can invoke, you can ask politely, you can state your need. These all exhibit confidence. Having made your statement, hand it over to the Power you have invoked. Let that Power see to its fulfillment. The best analogy here is that of the center to the quarterback. You as center have one job: pass the ball to the quarterback. His job is to get you the touchdown. Having passed the ball, it is not up to you how he does it. All that matters is that by whatever means he chooses, he gets that touchdown.

A good end point is to accept the fulfillment of your request even before it starts to manifest. An easy way to make this connection is gratitude. Take a moment to express thanks that the Power is working for you. Gratitude works.

Over the years, I have noticed that certain things are dependable. Among things that ring true with amazing consistency is the necessity of confidence. Interaction with the Higher Power of your understanding is effective when you show confidence. Approach as one might to a trusted friend rather than pleading before a tyrant. Confidence assures results.


Other People’s People

During our Revolution, the British were short of troops to respond. Many of their soldiers were needed elsewhere to protect the homeland and the valuable Caribbean colonies. Taking them away from those posts might have left enough of a power vacuum to invite an invasion. Raising forces would take time. The British were well aware that the longer an insurrection lasted, the more difficult it was to address. The solution was to avail themselves of troops offered by their German allies. We know these troops collectively as Hessians. (In fact, only two of the six German allies were Hessian. The rest came from other regions)

The legend is that the Hessians were the greatest ground troops in Europe. The fact was that the best were the Prussians. While some Hessian units were good, most were made up of new conscripts. Many of these were taken off the road or culled from workhouses and jails. Some received their military training on the decks of the ships that brought them here. While the soldiers of Hesse Kassel and Hesse Hanau were good fighters, those of Anhalt Zerbst were fit for nothing more than garrison duty in Quebec. And once our army was aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the Hessians, they were defeated.

The biggest threats to the Hessians were desertions. Officially, 20% of all German troops deserted. The number may be higher, as the German officers received a higher indemnity for a dead soldier than a deserter. Thus, many deserters were officially recorded as dead. Over 400 deserted on the march from Philadelphia to Sandy Hook, NJ. (And if your family hies from central NJ in our colonial era, you probably have a few hired Heinies in the woodpile.) There were other problems. The units from Anspach-Bayreuth had a reputation for being mutinous. Instead of being marched overland, they had to be sent as much as possible by ship. Several of the Waldeck Germans reported as “dead” had deserted to go live with the Indians. The Hessian hirelings had their flaws.

One of the scandals of recent years involved “military contractors” hired in Iraq. The most notorious of these were employees of Blackwater. They caused a lot of trouble. Blackwater’s people were armed like soldiers and expected to guard key individuals and installations. They were not disciplined like regular troops. Problems were severe enough that the Iraqi government demanded they be barred from the country.

Another scandal involved a man named Eric Snowden who is currently a fugitive. He is hiding out in Russia. Snowden released confidential information from the National Security Agency. (Whether you think he is a traitor or whistleblower is not the issue here.) He had access to very sensitive materials which he made public. Snowden was not an employee of the NSA. He was employed by a company hired by the NSA.

So what do Hessians, Blackwater soldiers and Eric Snowden have in common? They were all second-hand employees. They were not the employees of the people for whom they were hired. They were the employees of the people whose services were contracted. Hessians troops may have served Britian, but they took their orders from their own officers and rulers. Blackwater troops may have performed missions dictated by the United States, but they inevitably worked for Blackwater. Snowden was not an employee of the NSA, but of people the NSA hired.

The lesson is an old one. You have much more control of the people you hire yourself. Your people – the members of your organization – are under your direct control. You set standards for employment, training, performance, etc. Hiring an agency to provide forces for you puts the people outside your control. No matter what agreements are made as to the quality of the people, the agency is the one in control of the people. You are at the mercy of the folks who do the hiring. Whatever their claims, they set the standards and conditions of employment. You can be sure that to provide sufficient people, they may pad their ranks with folks of lesser skill and integrity.

Hiring outside crews may seem a quick and easy way to handle a shortage of manpower. There are times it may be necessary. However, hiring outside contractors means that issues of quality and reliability are outside of your control. No matter what a contractor promises, you get what he sends. Be it half-trained German peasants, rowdy military contractors or mutinous intelligence analysts, the failures of hired help contribute to your failures. It is always best to do your own hiring because you are assured that your emp-loyees will perform to your standards. They work for you, not for people who work for you. There is a big difference.


The Heroin Menace

The tragic death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman is striking a nerve. He died at age 46 with a syringe in his arm. Hoffman was a successful and highly respected actor. Once the dust settles, many will be asking how an accomplished performer could die that way.

The common image of the heroin abuser is of a filthy, scarred street person with drawn features and the pallor of death. The junkie is regarded by most as one of life’s losers. Indeed, many end up that way due to the addiction. However, the image of heroin addiction has to change. Here in Monmouth County and neighboring Ocean County, deaths from heroin are at an all-time high. The victims are sometimes the standard image of junkies, but more often they are not. For instance, heroin use is high among teenagers. It is becoming the #1 killer of young people in our region.

Years ago, heroin was uncommon among high schoolers. Other less dangerous drugs were common . Fortified wine, pot and pills were the experimental drugs for teens. Heroin was used by the poor, the desperate, artists and musicians. It was not a kid’s drug.

Back when I worked with substance abusers, the heroin was less than 10% pure. It was expensive, too. Junkies needed fixes two or more times a day. I asked how they got addicted. Almost to a man, they all told me how wonderful the heroin high was. And they explained how painful the withdrawal was. One aspect of it was described as “…feeling like your bones are breaking from the inside…”

Junkies, all of them. But beyond the addiction were people. They had names like Eddie and Mario and Maryann. They did not start out in life hoping to become addicts. Beneath the drugs was a father whose addiction had estranged him from his wife and daughters. There was the college graduate whose addiction cost her the love of her life. Countless junkies turned out to have been people we see everyday. By whatever means, they took the path to drugs and lived to regret it ever since.

Most of the junkies I dealt with wanted to have a normal life. The wanted to be free of the drug. Unfortunately, heroin and the addict lifestyle were too potent a thing to resist. Imagine a force so powerful it impels people give up every good thing they ever wanted. Heroin is that powerful. It is to the junkie what alcohol is to the alcoholic and crystal meth is to the tweaker. You may find it hard to believe that an inanimate substance could do that to people.

Normal people do not give up everything to lead a junkie’s life. Obviously, something abnormally powerful is at work. Equally obvious is that those under the throes of addiction do not have within themselves the means to challenge it. They are incapable of overcoming addiction by themselves.

The problem of heroin is made worse today by two factors. The heroin on the streets today is much cheaper and much stronger. Today’s heroin is 60% to 85% pure. Contrast that with 10% purity or less two decades ago. The purity means the power of the high is increased. It also indicates that the discomfort of withdrawal is also increased geometrically. Part of the process of overcoming addiction will be to blunt the power of that high and diminish the discomfort of withdrawal. The other part will be addressing the psychological, emotional and spiritual side of addiction.

Philip Hoffman’s death is a tragedy. It should indicate that heroin abuse is not limited to the stereotypical junkie. The problem is serious and it is getting worse. A sure solution to the current heroin problem has not yet emerged. I believe the solution will be several things, not one. We must blunt the power of the high. We must ease the discomfort of withdrawal. We must address the personal factor and we must also stop the flow of heroin. This will require the efforts of modern medicine and law enforcement.

We tend to see addiction as someone else’s problem. That is, until it hits someone close. A neighbor, a child, a friend…. Then we see a rat’s eye view of misery played out before us. When it happens to a famous, successful person who is not a decrepit junkie, maybe people will realize that the menace is closer to home than they thought. And maybe more action will be taken to deal with the menace that heroin has become.


I did not mention dead friends or AIDS. I had friends who went the route of drugs and died for it. I also had friends who got off the drugs, but later relapsed into addiction and died. Back when I was counseling substance abusers, junkies died ignominiously. AIDS showed up and opened a whole new level of horror. I knew people who were able to get off drugs, only to discover they had AIDS. People were aware of how AIDS killed people in painful increments. For folks to keep using heroin in spite of that tells you just how powerful the addiction is.

Back then, there was no cure for AIDS in sight. There was no way to arrest it. A diagnosis of HIV – the virus that causes AIDS – was a death sentence. A slow and agonizing death. Still and all, fear of AIDS was not a powerful enough incentive top get folks to stop using heroin.

Even fear of contracting AIDS was not enough to make people stop using Heroin, and that was when its purity was only 10% or less. The addiction is that potent.


Holiday Disgrace: Who Owns Your Wallet?

The television clip of women brawling in a shopping mall on Thanksgiving Day is a commentary of this year’s winter holiday season. More than a few retailers opened their doors on Thanksgiving Day to get a few dollars more. Goggle-eyed shoppers hurried to get the early bargains, sacrificing the sanctity of the day in hopes of scoring a big discount. Already, the shopping malls and department stores are mobbed. Their parking lots are impassable as hordes of holiday shoppers descend like a pack of lemmings. Advertisements on television, newspapers and mailbox-choking flyers proclaim sales in hopes of separating customers from their dollars.

Whatever happened to a time when Thanksgiving was strictly a family holiday?

Who decided it was a good time to get out to the store and shop?

And for what?

It’s not just these holidays, either.

The other day, my wife gave her opinion on greeting cards. She said that the cards that children made in school with macaroni and traced hands had more meaning than those sold in gift shops. She is right. Children put their hearts into those little projects. The result may be sloppy or awkward, and their little slogans may seem trite. Nonetheless, those little handmade cards have more heart than buying a card with a design and a slogan contrived by a stranger. The store-bought card has someone else’s words and sentiments. There is not much heart in buying your heartfelt wishes from a card manufacturer.

There are cards for every occasion, all lined up in special racks with their color-coordinated envelopes. The variety is astounding. So is the price they ask for what is essentially printed cardstock. Inside are poems and notes carefully composed by professional writers. Nowadays, folks instinctively head for the card shelf whenever there is an occasion or event to celebrate. That seems a pretty hefty price to pay for something that usually ends up in the recycle bin a week later.

Valentine’s Day was a minor thing. Children made silly Valentine’s Day cards and a few chocolate shops sold special Valentine’s Day candy in heart-shaped boxes. Today it is an event that calls for store-bought cards and dreams of romance and cheap gifts and mushy sentiments.

They got Halloween, too. What had been a children’s event with trick-or-treating and bobbing for apples has become bigger and more expensive. As Valentine’s Day and Halloween grew, so did the amount of items sold for them. Half a century ago, we were content with cardboard posters of witches and black cats. Now the amount of decorating is astounding, as is the cost of costumes.

Have we as a people substituted store-bought sentiments and discount specials for affection? Are we equating love with something you buy for someone? Has the pricey gift taken the place of heartfelt caring?

It certainly looks that way.

Whose idea was this?

And how did it spread to non-holidays like Halloween and Valentine’s Day? How did the start of the winter holiday season expand from the weekend after Thanksgiving to the day after Halloween?

The winter holidays of Yule, Christmas and Hanukkah celebrate religious events. The season was one of celebration with loved ones. At the heart of the celebrations were sentiments that had naught to do with the accumulation of goods. One might not be able to discern this if he judged only from the current practices. Today, at the heart of things is money. The marketers want it. That is what Black Friday is all about. All of those gaudy decorations and other holiday-themed items are more ways to get people’s money.

Your money. Every holiday gee-gaw and greeting card and shopping spree separates you from your money. It all goes to the retailers and manufacturers and the folks they hire to advertise to you. As soon as the holiday is over, prices on all that stuff drop. By then, they already have your money and you are left paying the bills.

If you bought with a credit card, how long do you think you will be paying for your holiday spending spree? And if you add up the interest on the cards, how much did you really save? That is, if you saved anything at all. More than likely, most of what you saved on Black Friday you will pay to the folks who issued your credit cards.

And what did you accomplish with all that spending?

Did your gifts buy the everlasting love of those who received them? Did you get a bigger feeling of goodwill for the season? Was Yule more joyful? Was Christmas merrier? Was Hanukkah happier? Or did you get that same sinking feeling as last year when the bills came in? It’s your money, pal. Happy Holidays, indeed!

Let me take you back to a time when the holidays meant something different. Let us go back to a time when people did not buy greeting cards for every occasion. Back then, Halloween decorating was little more than a few cardboard witches and a jack-o-lantern. Bobbing for apples counted more than who had the most expensive costume.

Back then, the lights and decorations were not lit until the day after Thanksgiving. The same went for the shopping. Yuletide was celebrated only after Thanksgiving was over. Most of the pre-season advertising was confined to catalogs issued by a handful of catalog retailers. Granted that the children pored over those catalogs time and again, ruffling the pages of toys and more toys. Yet parents were not extravagant in those days. A child might get one large toy and a couple of smaller ones. Train sets and slot cars and army men playsets were the top choice for boys. Dolls and play kitchens and doll baby carriages were favorites for girls. Bicycles and roller skates were loved by both.

Gifts shared by adults were smaller and more personal. People considered the receiver when picking gifts. The need to spend more was alien to the holidays back then. Gifts for adults were small tokens of appreciation.

Advertisers pushed the toy market. Most of the advertisements for adults were for electric razors, perfumes and tacky colognes. The joke gift of the decade was “soap on a rope.” People were more interested in getting together with loved ones than counting up their plunder. Things were a far cry from the merchandising madness that rages today.

People enjoyed the holidays then. They bought less, spent less, and had a really good time. It calls to question: who decided that the only way you can enjoy your holidays is to spend more, give more extravagant gifts and fill your home with more tacky holiday trinkets? If you did not make the decision, who did?

Who really controls your wallet?

Who controls your wallet when you rush out on Thanksgiving Day to get a few bargains on things that are not even for you?

Who owns your pocketbook when you stand on line for hours to get the next new cellphone or home video game or other electronic gadget?

Who controls the purse strings when you rack up holiday bills on your credit card that won’t be paid off until next year? Or later?

Are the holidays a time for you to enjoy or are they a time for marketers to enjoy getting your money? And why do you willingly give it to them and put yourself in debt for another twelve months? What is the payoff for you?

More to the point, why are they getting the payoff while you foot the bill?

This holiday season started with a scene of several women brawling on the floor in a mall on Thanksgiving Day. It is a tragedy for our holiday traditions and a victory for greedy marketers and avaricious merchants.

Time to take back your wallet.

The marketers and merchants, retailers and manufacturers will balk at this message. They do not want you to think about reasonable spending. They do not care to put the meaning of the holiday first, especially if it means they get less of your money. You cannot rely on the media, either. The media does not want to offend its advertisers. That leaves it all up to you. The decision is yours. It is your money and you should be the one to decide, not them.


Winter Holiday Thoughts for All Faiths

For those of all faiths….

The Winter Holiday season is shared by several traditions. Within it are Christmas for Christians, Hanukkah for Jews, Yule for Heathens and Pagans, and Kwanza for African-Americans. Various religious events are commemorated during these holidays. They range from the birth of Christianity’s founder to the Solstice celebration to withstanding an eight-day siege during the Hellenic era. Whatever the celebration, the holidays were times for family gatherings, festivities and expressions of joy and goodwill.

Since the 1940s, the celebration of the Winter Holidays has changed. The focus had been on family gatherings and family activities. Gingerbread men, singing holiday songs, decorating the house, playing with clay tops and various other things were part of the seasonal fun. Back then, Thanksgiving was the main even of the Autumn. Holiday decorations were not lit until the day after. Back then, the Winter Holiday season was not in evidence until Thanksgiving was over.

This year, greedy merchants are opening their stores on Thanksgiving Day to attract more shoppers. They are selling out the Thanksgiving family gathering to serve their coffers. This is an assault on family gatherings. It is the promotion of greed to the detriment of all that Thanksgiving offers.
The Winter Holidays have slowly evolved from family days to incessant shopping sprees.

The Winter Holiday Sales Glut now begins the day after Halloween. We are bombarded by an increasingly voluminous number of advertisements in our newspapers, on billboards and on television. Stores clamor for our business and the shopping malls are packed. It is as if our cities take up the merchant’s war cry of “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” And the people buy into it and spend well beyond reasonable limits. Look at the parking lots around shopping malls and department stores.

Are we celebrating joy and goodwill, or have we become addicted to shopping?

The marketers have already polluted the Yule season by burying tradition under piles of advertisements and incentives to buy. We are quickly losing our holiday spirit to the spirit of shopping. Joy, goodwill and togetherness are fading in the face of commercial greed.

It is high time we take back our holidays. Thanksgiving is threatened by the same greedy salesmanship as the rest of the season. We need to take a stand for what the Winter Holidays really mean.

First. Let us rescue Thanksgiving while we can. We can do this by refusing to shop from Noon on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving until 6 a.m. on the Friday afterward. Many may even wish to boycott retailers who open on Thanksgiving. The point is that we need to draw the line before we can reclaim the entire season. Thanksgiving must be saved first.

Second. Let us put the brakes to the wild spending and inject sanity into our holiday celebration. We can limit our spending. Many families have already agreed to set aside extravagant gifting in favor of small, meaningful gifts. This works wonders in saving money and putting the focus back where it belongs.

Instead of letting advertisers tell us what to buy, why not ask our loved ones what they would like? This way we are assured that our gifts will be appreciated.

Third, let us cut back on all the holiday clutter. The goal should be to decorate tastefully, not bombard the senses with an overload of tawdry ornaments and flashing lights. Dignity should be our goal. Leave the garish displays to the greedy merchants and the buffoons who worship them.

Fourth, let us make coming together with loved ones our paramount goal this season. We ought to be focused on sharing joy and creating memories.

The Winter Holidays can be a greater blessing for all of us. Whether you are celebrating Yule, Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza, you can reclaim the spirit of the season for your family. It begins by shifting focus from the rampant merchandising to the activities that bring people together. Put them emphasis on actions rather than things. The season should be more about doing and less about getting. By taking a stand now, we assured a more joyous season for ourselves and for future generations.

Rev. T. Sheil

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