Uncle Thor's Lessons, Anecdotes and Humor

24
Apr

Writing for Effect

Essential to good writing is to make sure that the message you want to convey is the message that your reader receives. With all too many writers, what the person means to say and how he actually says it are two different things. The reader gets a very different message than what was intended. That is, if he gets any message at all. This is why, when proofing your work, you have to take the role of your reader. You know what you mean to say, but will your reader know what you mean?

Part of the problem is using too much talk to convey a simple idea. If the reader has to work his way through all that flowery prose, will he get the full impact of the message? Yes, there are folks who think writing is a way to show off their literary skills. Too bad that the reader gets caught in a confusing jumble of fancy language that obscures rather than illuminates.

In 24 years of publishing, I have never had anyone contact me and ask to explain what I meant in something I wrote. I have never been asked to clarify, restate, or otherwise transliterate my writing so the person could understand what I meant. My way is to write clearly and present ideas so that people can appreciate them and, when necessary, use them. What is better: to give a lengthy and wordy description of, say, the Naud Rune, or to get to the point and tell folks that the power manifests in things that have the root word “press” : compress, repress, pressure, suppress, etc.?

Fancy word craft is fine for novels and short stories. It has no place in books meant to inform, educate and instruct. Just look at an Army manual. It gets right to the point, complete with illustrations. No mincing words or fancy descriptions. Here it is; this is how it works; this is what it does and here is how you use it.

I do appreciate a good book. There are occasions when seeing things in another field provide an excellent example. Recently, I read a “how to” book on model railroading that impressed me. Within its chapters were extra things such as using layout-planning software, working with a unique track system and how to set up and use a digital control system. An average person reading that book would know about the subjects and even more, be able to do them himself. It was clear, thorough and well-illustrated. Ironically, another book I reviewed at the same time in that genre was less accommodating. It talked about a new track system and command control, but did not show much on how to use either. The book urged buying its author’s other book on track plans if one wanted to learn to use it, though. That’s a cheesy attempt at self-promotion. How much better if there had been instruction in the first book, like the competitor’s book did.

Write for your readership. Make sure that the message you send is the message they receive. Proof and edit your work with that goal in mind. If you are providing instruction, make sure that you give the reader what he needs to do it.

23
Apr

Defender of the Faith

Many years ago, I read a short story about a sergeant who was assigned a group of new troops. He was stateside, having served in Europe in World War II. One of the troops noticed that the sergeant was Jewish. The soldier was also Jewish and tried to cultivate a friendship with the sergeant. On one occasion, the NCO allowed the soldier to have a pass to go to a religious service. He found out later that the man went out partying and ended up in a Chinese restaurant. To make a long story short, the soldier tried to play up his shared background with the sergeant to get favors.

As it was, the sergeant was a fair man who resented very much that the soldier used his shared heritage to try to get over on him. In the end, when it came time to assign the troops, the sergeant assigned the man to the Pacific. It was still a hot combat zone. The man seemed surprised, but as the sergeant felt he had to do it. The title of the story was “Defender of the Faith.”
Supposedly, it was based on a real event.

It is all about the difference between getting over and standing up.

Where is the difference between letting a shared heritage or affiliation open a door or become a “get-over”? This is a good question to consider. The characters in the story were Jewish, but it could apply to almost any ethnicity, religion, membership, association, etc.

21
Apr

Like and Hate

The comic book fans have been going on about one of the original X-Men coming out as gay. This has happened before with other comic characters. I cannot see how sexuality has to be an issue in comic books. When I read them as a kid, I did not think about it at all.

This comes as a Pennsylvania high school has seen a backlash against Gay rights. I never heard of it before, but supposedly since 2000 there has been a “Day of Silence” for gays. While some of the students in the Pennsylvania ( bumpkin state) school honored the day, others rebelled. They wore flannel shirts as a token of their anti-gay stance. Unfortunately, there were a couple of incidents of violence and harassment.

A couple years ago, gays began boycotting Chick-Fil-A because the company donated to a Christian group whom the gays disliked. The funny thing was when Mike Huckabee, a religious looney and politician, urged people to come out in support of Chick-Fil-A. There were hour-long lines going into the restaurants.

There is a point that needs to be addressed: just as there are many people supporting gays, so there are many who do not. No amount of propaganda, protesting or anything else is going to sway folks on one side to the other. By law, they have this right. It is called the Right of Association. Harassing people for those with whom they choose to associate – or not – is puerile.

One of the problems here are weak, whiny types who get upset because someone does not like them. You find them on both sides of the fence on any issue. They make the most fuss and ignore the hard reality. No matter who you are and what you do, there are people out there who hate you for it. They don’t know you but based on whatever criterion they use, they hate you. No matter what your race or ethnicity, there is someone who holds it against you. The same goes for your religious affiliation, your gender, your age, political favorites, occupation, and even the neighborhood in which you live. Nobody is exempt. Having a skin color and gender is all it takes to be hated. Do not cry about it or fuss over it. That is just the way things are.

Reason has little to do with it. Few people can give a logical reason for it. Nonetheless, there it is. You can cry over it. You can complain. You can try to convince folks who hate you that you are a wonderful person. All of that changes nothing. No matter what you do or say, to those who hate you will always be “one of THEM.”

Understand that however you feel and who and what ever you are, there are folks who like you for it and others who hate you for the same thing. Do not take it personal. Choose your own associations and let the other guy choose his. Remember that life – and people – are unfair. You can choose not to hate. Considering that hate is a self-induced poison, you will be healthier and happier if you choose not to indulge in hatred.

21
Apr

That time again…

People think 4/20 is either National Stoner’s Day or Hitler’s Birthday. On April 20 of 2003, which happened to be an Easter Sunday, I had a heart attack. That was the beginning of my great cardiac adventure. In early Spring 2012, I had a congestive heart failure. Things got progressively worse by 2014. I knew by Summer that things were getting really bad. For whatever reason, I bought an NYC F7aa locomotive in O gauge in August. If I made it to Yule I was going to run it
.
In November, I had open heart surgery to replace a valve and do a single bypass. Never had I experienced such excruciating pain nor such a debilitating ordeal. This has not been easy. Last month I got some bug that has been going around and have had a hard time shaking it off. I do not know if I am getting better. (The doctor says I am.) Without that surgery, I would have been cold stone dead by Yule.

I have faced life-threatening danger before, but this is very different. Previously, scary incidents were sudden and brief. The cardiac stuff is slow and plodding.

The medical bills are choking us and other things are adding a burden of their own. Things get tough and they get tight. But as the French say, where there is Life there is hope. To which the Norsemen said in the Havamal, that where there is Death there is nothing. Better one living than one dead.

Thor is rumbling outside. We have a small line of brief thunderstorms headed this way. At times, thunder is a reminder of life. It is like the shout one makes in dire circumstances that says, “All is not lost!” What the Norsemen called “striving against fate” is the same as “refusing to capitulate without a fight.” Do not give up, Do not give in. Even if it looks hopeless, better to strive against it than lay back and let it roll over you.

We can be healed so that we may live. We may not be as strong or as agile or have as much endurance. We need to look at what we can do. There are times all we can do is fight to get better. There are times when we have to do something other than what we did before. We can heal, we can change, but we cannot stop living. Leave the rolling into a little ball to armadillos and pillbugs..Ours is to live and to do.

The F7 locomotive set ran on Yule. Pushing a silver cart in the old Norse temples was considered a service to Thor. Running an electric train can be a modern way to do the same thing. And the NYC F7 has “lightning-stripe” markings. The rumbling thunder and rain outside are very reassuring tonight.

13
Apr

Coins of the Realm: Need and Greed

Many years ago, I noticed that there was a relationship between the Needy and the Greedy. While doing a construction job in a rough neighborhood, several of us went to a local deli – grocery to get coffee. The place was a surprise. Three walls were covered by shelves and refrigerators with the goods. Between them and us was a counter. Halfway from the floor, it looked like wood. The rest of the way it was inch-thick bulletproof glass. A swivelling box was how the clerk handed out the goods. Customers would tell a clerk what he wanted and he would get it from the shelves and bag it. The customer paid through a bank-teller type slot. I noticed prices on some things and they were higher than in my neighborhood. Essentially, people paid more to shop this way.

The fellows who owned the store were Indians, by the way. They were among the few groups of people willing to set up shop in that neighborhood.

In another neighborhood that was less dangerous but almost as needy, there was a supermarket from a chain that had a store in my neighborhood. The one in the needy neighborhood was different. There were none of the premium quality item they had in my neighborhood. Most goods were the cheaper brands. Surprisingly, they cost more than I would have paid in my neighborhood store. With no sales of premium goods, greater losses through shoplifting and the need for more security, costs were passed on to the customers.

In both these cases, it was not greed that made prices higher. The higher cost of doing business and lower profit margins in those neighborhoods caused it. Without higher prices, the stores would likely have not earned enough to justify staying there. Nonetheless, it illustrates something I learned: dollar for dollar, it costs more to stay poor

There are people who exploit the poor. There are slumlords who charge far more than their apartments are worth. Those apartments are horrible. I remember a fellow years ago who sold furniture and appliances on the installment plan. His customers were mostly young newlyweds who had little extra cash. They were unable to buy the items outright in a regular furniture or appliance store. If they had, they would have paid far less in the long run that they paid in combined total installments. Where there is need, you usually find someone trying to profit from it.

Another example: liquor stores near the welfare office started carrying some cold cuts and canned foot. People could not buy liquor with food stamps legally, but they could shop in a “deli”. With a little creative bookkeeping, those liquor stores were able to sell liquor for food stamps. They also did a slam-bang business cashing welfare checks for a fee. Several drug dealers in that area also took food stamps. This was the city welfare that handled only single individuals.

“A fool and his money are soon parted.” The poor are targets for greedy folks ranging from rogue landlords to purveyors of every social ill.

We tend to equate greed with the wealthy. Indeed, the history of wealth includes many who exploited the poor. The “robber barons” used money to get their way and push all others aside regardless of the consequences. However, many wealthy are content to have their riches and do no harm. There are those among the wealthy who have created opportunities for others by opening business, building and thereby creating jobs. Their wealth made it possible for others to earn.

The worst kind of greed is actually among those who exploit the poorest elements of society. These are people who are willing to evade the law to fill their coffers. Some live in two worlds. At home, the yare loving parents and pillars of their respective communities. At work, they are money-grubbing worms who will use the foulest tricks to gain a few extra dollars. These are the people who cheat widows and orphans and exploit the elderly and the handicapped. With them we see greed for what it is.

The thing motivating the greedy to grab more and more is a fear that one day, they will not have enough. As they feel unable to compete against legitimate businesses, they target the vulnerable. Beneath it all is the same little fear that goads the needy: “I do not have enough.”

Of course, these are very stark examples of greed. As a matter of living in this day and age, we all know at least one person for whom greed is the motivating factor. Of them, it is said, “The know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

Think about that. It sums up greed in a nutshell. For those not living off greedy nor needy thoughts, there are values much greater than can be estimated in dollars and cents. For the greedy and the needy, everything had to have a price.

And yes, the needy are all too often as greedy and the greedy. They see people as a means to get something. They are always on the lookout for a few dollars. Like with their opposites on the coin, they also know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. The very needy are as focused on “stuff” as their greedy counterparts. The only difference is that one side has more than the other.

On one side is a haggard beggar holding up an empty bowl. On the other is a man frantically scrambling to pickup pennies off the ground.

***

The lessons on value, price, need and greed did not come from a book. They came through a period of hard times and difficult circumstances. When the difference between a good day and a bad week is having that extra 50 cents to get your shoe repaired, you get the point. If you ask for wisdom, be prepared for a hard journey.

12
Apr

Coins of the Realm: Anger and Passion

Many years ago, I had started work on an article to be entitled “coins of the realm.” The premise used the idea of a coin to illustrate how many aspects of human nature are two sides of one thing. Take such things as anger and passion, or need and greed. Beneath the surface, it is as if each pair is fed by one spring. Need and greed are both manifestations of one thing. Anger and passion stem from one shared attribute. Just as the Mannar Rune is one person defined by two things – who he is and what he is – so many traits are the dual aspects of one.

I never got to finish the article. At the time, it did not seem worth doing. The aspects of human nature were not as convenient a fit as I had hoped. However, I have covered these things in other articles and essays in the past 27 years since then. Maybe it is time to give the “Coin” analogy another look.

Anger and Passion: Here is one case where the aspects partake of a single force that is symbolized by a Rune. The Thurs Rune embodies a roaring energy which is akin to Fire. It burst forth like raging current. It is the fire of anger that smites. Thurs is like the cannon firing its deadly missiles, the volcano issuing bursts and rivers of lava, and the axe which bites deeply with every impact. It is the shaped charge, the flamethrower and the projectile that hits with impact. These are obvious. Yet Thurs is also the passion that drives people to amazing feats. It is the sustainable fire of ambition that impels one forth when willpower alone has run out of steam. Thurs is passion, ardor, desire and the outburst of a hot, wild, wonderful energy that transforms all that it touches. Indeed, in both its Angry and Passionate aspect, this energy changes all that it contacts. The same force that can destroy and wreak the most awful havoc can also enliven and propel to heights of excellence.

Anger and Passion also have a down side. I have known people to be consumed by both. The problem is one of the mind. If we let Anger and Passion do our thinking for us, we end up in very sorry circumstances. When we keep our wits about us, Anger and Passion can lead to good things. Consider as an example the anger that causes a person to seek change. He may be angry with a thing or rule or institution. That anger is what inspires him to create necessary changes. He may have to eliminate a thing, alter it, cause the revoking of an unjust rule or make an institution answerable to those it is supposed to serve.

Passion also drives. Passion can lead to great love. It can also propel a person to take on an insurmountable task. Passion inspires the artist. It impels the visionary and fuels the drive of those building the future. Willpower is like an aiming device. Passion is the energy that drives where it is aimed.

Unguided, angry folks and passionate people can create turmoil. Guided by wisdom and a clear sense of direction, the same anger and passion can create things that rise above turmoil.

The fire of desire has to burn hot and long for some ambitions. They used to say, “You have to want it bad enough.” Look at the most professional level of a sport, be it basketball, football, baseball, hockey, etc. Those who play at that level are a rare few out of the millions who want to be sports stars. One of the reasons those players are there is because they wanted it. They wanted it so much that they would go to almost any length to get there. Even then, desire has to have talent and skill behind it. In another field where many desire to be a start, very few make a living as an actor. The few who get top billing in movies and plays and television shows are but a portion of all the people who aspire to it. Desire is one part of the package needed to succeed in that field. Yet without passion manifesting as ardent desire, there is no hope of getting close to the goal.

Anger, indignation, passion and desire are the start of the process. Alone, they tend to burn themselves out. They must be backed with insight, vision and the necessary talents in order to create successful results.

Our coin has two sides. On one is a raging warrior in the split second before he swings his axe. On the other is a person climbing, his hand outstretched toward a glowing disk that symbolizes the object of his passion.

07
Apr

Allfather Ambassador

As Heathens, we are both ambassadors and teachers. Young Heathens look to the older ones as examples of how a Heathen should be. non-Heathens look at us as examples of what a Heathen is. The example we set is important. We are called to a higher standard because we are few and our impact is weighty.

The things that might pass for others may not pass for us. We have to be better. We have to be more. As a very tiny speck in the religious landscape, our success depends on each and every one of us. Large denominations can afford a high percentage of duds among their people. We cannot.

So what do we do? As we cannot change others, then we each work on ourselves. We strive to set an example of dignity and reason. We also strive to make ourselves and our families better. That means education and the development of skills. It means using one’s mind effectively. It means being smarter, more aware and more capable than the average Joe Schmoe.

Sure, the others may fault us for our beliefs. But they have a harder time faulting us if we set a standard for honesty, fairness and initiative. Imagine if some outsider said of us, “Those Heathens are into some strange stuff, but you have to admire how they always keep their word.” “They are different, but they always deal fairly.”

This kind of reputation will not come from some group or organization. It will come from you and me. Our example is the teacher and the ambassador. Each of us is responsible.

***

What happens a generation or so from now? How would you feel to see our first Heathen senator, or world-renowned Heathen neurosurgeon, or hall-of-fame ballplayer? That can be our destiny if we practice our principles now. The legacy of our generation will be seen in the successes of future generations.

06
Apr

A Lesson in Leadership

I have recently been examining the histories of short line railroads. It is part of a hobby project. The short line railroads all operated in this region at one time or another. Unlike the massive railroads like the Santa Fe and Union Pacific with thousands of miles of track, most short lines are lucky if all their rail adds up to 20 miles.

One thing that kept coming to the forefront was a matter of personality. At one point or another, a short line would thrive and surmount almost any obstacle. The line may have had hard times previously, and may even have failed years afterward. Nonetheless, it experienced a time of success that stood out. The one thing that all of the short lines had in common during their best times was an uncommon excellence in leadership. Very often, it was the will and insight of one individual in a leadership position that guided a short line railroad through a period of its greatest success.

I am reminded fo what General John Pershing said about leadership. He stated: “A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops.”

John Pershing was an amazing leader. In World War I, he not only led our Army, but managed to negotiate the political quagmire of dealing with our French and British allies. Pershing had been leading men for years before the World War. We can trust his estimation of the impact of leaders on their troops. The situation with short line railroads confirms the verity of General Pershing’s statement. A good leader makes a rinky-dink railroad thrive, and a bad leader can sink a giant railroad.

One such dynamic leader was George Clark of the Rahway Valley Railroad. Clark had experience in railroading in the West. He was brought in to run the Rahway Valley Railroad. Where leaders of big railroads sit atop several levels of bureaucracy, a small line improves with hands-on leadership. George Clark knew it. He was able to do every job on the railroad and understood every aspect from billing and paperwork to loading boxcars by hand. Clark was innovative and practical, He could see the rising competition from trucking and worked to mitigate its adverse effects on the Rahway Valley Railroad. The man had no pretensions about his small railroad, the competition ,and what it took to survive. Clark surrounded himself with good, reliable people. He was decisive and thoughtful.

When George Clark retired, his son took over his job. George Jr. had learned well and had the same traits as his father. Unfortunately, he died three years after assuming command of the Rahway Valley Railroad. No replacement could match Clark’s talented leadership. Today, the Rahway Valley Railroad is gone.

Another small railroad with good leadership was the Morristown and Erie. It stared with a character named Melnick whose railroad construction methods were haphazard, at best. The McEwan family took the reigns and everything improved. The McEwans were successful owners of paper mills in the region. Their business acumen set the Morristown and Erie Railroad in a profitable direction. The Morristown and Erie was able to survive against competition from trucking in the mid-20th century and the closing of plants that had been its customers. As with George Clark of the Rahway Valley railroad, the McEwans were up to all challenges.

In the 1960s, a new regime took over. Led by Andrew Cobb, it proved a disaster, Cobb and his crew started investign in non-transportation entities. They led the Morristown & Erie to bankruptcy. Fortunately ,the person charged with maintaining things under bankruptcy proved capable. The railroad was then acquired by Thomas Peterson. With Ben Friedland, he revived the Morristown and Erie. The small railroad thrives to this day, despite competition and changing markets. Good leadership accounts for a large part of it.

Here is a case where the experiences of short-line railroading confirm General Pershing’s insightful quote about leadership. Be it armies or trains or other businesses, leadership calls the tune. A good leader can make a rinky-dink operation succeed. History also shows that a bad leader can sink a first-class operation. Consider this carefully, because it is often the difference between success and collapse.

****

There is a booklet available about the history of the Rahway Valley Railroad. Here is the link: http://trainweb.org/rahwayvalley/Saga_of_a_Short_Line_by_John_J_McCoy.pdf

06
Apr

Talking Heathen

I am amused when some of our fellow Heathens talk like characters from a bad Medieval novel. “Mighty Deeds” and other such terms make me laugh. Our Heathen forebears did not talk in such contrived and high-faluting language. They spoke the colloquial languages of their respective cultures. Old Norse, Old High German, Anglo-Saxon, Old Frisian, etc. They spoke in their languages as you and I speak to each other in modern English today.

There is no way to “act Heathen.” We do not behave any differently than any other citizen. At our jobs, in the neighborhood or at the ballgame, we carry ourselves like everyone else. Granted, we do act according to our ideals. However, that is not an ostentatious display.

The plain reality is that we are part of the place and time in which we live. We ought to be comfortable enough that we do not feel a need to call undue attention to ourselves. Subtlety is the way of the wise. I used to see it with the Wiccan kids. The new ones wore the oversized pentagrams and occult jewelry that trumpeted their religious affiliation like a five-chime air horn on a diesel locomotive. Older, experienced, secure ones wore smaller and fewer pentagrams and far less of the quirky jewelry.

Our beliefs are an extension of ourselves. We do not wear them or strut them around. Discretion is the hallmark of the mature and secure. A small hammer pendant conveys more than an oversized one that can choke a horse. We do not need special language or jewelry or clothing to set ourselves apart. As Heathens, it comes from within. No amount of outer trappings can compensate for it.

Being Heathen is about be-ing, not acting and talking like one’s screwy image of it.

05
Apr

Resuming the Work: Close calls, slow recovery and related fun.

The first week of November, 2014, I had open heart surgery. Suffice to say that it was the beginning of a physical ordeal that was painful and frustrating. And it is not over. I have not fully recovered yet. This takes time.

The business of facing death is nothing new. The manner of facing it is. Close calls with guns, moving vehicles, accidents and the like are sudden and often come with little or no advance notice. You see it coming and a few seconds later, there you are. Or you do not even get a few seconds. There is the barrel of a gun pointed at your face. So you duck or jump or talk fast or look for an opening.. In the end, you are crawling from the wreckage or picking yourself up off the ground or you walk away. From start to finish, it’s just a few seconds. Close, but not dead.

Even simple procedures were no great thing. I was conscious the whole time. A few hours and it was all over with no fear of calamity.

This time, it was different. This time, it was like getting a reverse blood eagle along with some new parts. Afterward, I had not been so dependent on others since I was an infant. And eight days later, I slowly climbed the stairs to my back door.

I am a believer in the idea that when Life knocks you down, you get back up. You wait for an opportunity to act, even if it takes time. This time, the fall was much further down. Not a few feet or yards, but down the side of a mountain. Getting back up is a slower and longer process. Getting back up is the only thing to do.

I told it once before, but it came up again. The little shanty town on the hill between Jersey City, Union City and Hoboken. A couple years ago I was looking up something else and ran into an article about the bums who live in the hillside shanty town. One of them is someone I knew going back to kindergarten. Back in the 70s, Life knocked him down and he decided to stay down. He had friends who wanted to help him and lots of encouragement, but he chose to stay down. The last report on him was 2012 and he was still a dyed-in-the-wool park bum. It did not have to be that way. It does not have to remain that way, but that is the choice he has made every day since the 1970s. That is what happens when you do not try to get back up.

For all but a very few, the issue is not one of avoiding Life’s knockdown. There is no dodging or ducking it. Life roars in and all you can do is pick yourself up afterward. It may happen more than once. Most of us get knocked down a few times. All of us have to get back up every time.

As the Japanese saying goes, “Fall down seven times m get up eight.”

The knockdowns of life are not necessarily evil events. The lessons learned may prevent a future disaster. Just as life can knock us down, so we make mistakes. The mistakes we make in the early days may just provide the lessons to avoid a major disaster later.

***

There is a time to act and a time to rest, a time to speak and a time to reflect. We need to take time to recharge and regroup, especially after major events. I am writing this column again.

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