The Nobility Of Research In Real Time

I still argue that the most valuable institution in our country isn’t our universities, our co-equal branches of government, our healthcare, our science institutions or our education system writ large. It isn’t even our military. It is our news media, making journalism the most noble of professions.

I think I will always make that argument.

“The media gets a lot of criticism in this country and some of it is deserved. [But] there is no institution that comes off better in the Muller Report than the print media of the United States. This has not gotten enough attention, and it really should. Certain newspapers did incredible reporting that got to an enormous amount of this material over the last two years. One of the reasons that this document isn’t more shocking than it is is the amount of it that has already been in the New York Times, in The Washington Post, in The Wall Street Journal, and in the much-maligned Buzzfeed News, which did some incredible reporting. All of these organizations have had major reporting projects that are substantially validated by this report in pretty dramatic ways…Buzzfeed famously got a big, big thing wrong with respect to one aspect of this report. They also got a LOT right. The whole Trump Tower/Moscow story is a Buzzfeed News story. We should come away from this with an admiration for the way certain mostly-elite news organizations have performed and a heightened trust in the substance of what they report going forward.”

—Benjamin Wittes, legal journalist

The Ethics of Caring for Outdoor Cats

That’s an interesting title, because not too long ago there was no other kind.

Feral cats recover from neutering surgery in cages at the Philly Animal Care and Control facility. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It now seems  common for members of our Saran-wrapped society to grow as appalled by the site of a cat on grass as they do seeing an unaccompanied child walking on a sidewalk. This article covers the ethical strengths and flaws of arguments on all three sides of the issue. No one is comfortable.

Then again, where is it written that any of us should be?

Penser à des amis à Paris

I am sad to my core about the fate of the regal cathedral in our first ally’s City of Lights. Various BBC reports have provided additional, suprising information about this tragedy.

Had fire crews not entered the building, “without doubt it would have collapsed” said French Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nuñez. He explained that multiple fires ignited in the towers, but were successfully stopped before they could spread.

During my 10 years as a firefighter I fought many fully-involved fires in large structures, though none nearly so precious. I’ve had the priviledge of visiting Notre Dame on three occasions, and think I have a small idea of the imperative the crews must have felt yesterday. The firefighters worked through the night, causing the overwhelming fire to be declared “under control” after only 12 hours, with no loss of life and only one firefighter “slightly injured,” according to Commander Jean-Claude Gallet. Many artistic treasures and religious artifacts were saved. Among them was what is celebrated to be the original Crown of Thorns that Jesus wore as he carried his cross, along with the robe worn by King (later St.) Louix IX when he brought it into France in 1239. These items were fearlessly recovered by Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, already respected for his ministry to the dead and wounded when he entered the Bataclan music venue in 2015 after Islamic State terrorists murdered 89 people using guns and explosives, and for surviving an ambush in Afghanistan when 10 soldiers were killed. These are examples of the kind of French bravery and resolve we’ve seen throughout history.

A few years ago, along with my daughter Sammy, I even attended a mass at this singular monument. It is impossible to exaggerate how vital this place is to our humanity. At once it represents us at our best and at our worst. Throughout the world, people are pledging to help rebuild it. I am among them.

The Purpose of a Karate Uniform

I’m exactly the wrong person to write this article, given how much of my life I spent avoiding anything I associated with uniform dress. Why do fancier clothes always come with discomfort and impracticality? Why do women enjoy an endless variety of fashion, while men get variations on a single outfit? Why can’t police wear sneakers? Today, however, I find myself happily distributing a high-quality uniform (known in Japanese as a “gi“) to each eager, beginning student who joins our karate school. What happened?

In my 20s, I was invited to be a wedding groomsman for a second time and it brought an epiphany. (It didn’t during the first one, in large part because the entire bridal party was required to wear sneakers. The only clue I’ll give you of who offered this fun gaffe is his status as one of Granite Forest Dojo’s Shotokan instructors and most senior students. Today, Jim {oops} owns more uniforms than you and me put together.) I realized that I was dressing out of respect for someone else. In one evening I learned there is no benefit to minimal dress, and in fact there are several to dressing in the best way appropriate to honor my hosts. 

Since then I’ve discovered that outward logic to be secondary, trumped by the inward benefits of proper outerwear in general, and your karate uniform in specific. These aspects can benefit even three-year-old children. They drive our uniform policy at Granite Forest Dojo.

The care and wearing of a uniform brings a small amount of self-consciousness even for those of us who seldom look in a mirror. That awareness influences our self control. For worry-free children, a uniform begins to guide them toward the sense of responsibility that accompanies small tasks, like when to remove and where to store their shoes, how to line up in class, and how to address the instructor. It lets them know, at a developmentally appropriate scale, the boundaries of what is acceptable. It is the smallest, most accessible stepping stone on the path toward personal dignity.

We ask that each student in our dojo be fastidious in the care of his or her uniform. Here are some suggestions to help make this more feasible:

  • Give it a home, a special place where only your gi is stored. Whether it’s a hangar on a hook or folded in a bag, setting it aside from other clothing will help form the habit that will grow to become a value. 
  • Set the rule. Once its location is established, your gi is either there, being washed, or being worn, period. I’ve always owned at least two gis so I’ve never been without one at the ready. (Now I have…more than two!) Because I participate in outside events, I’ve even established complete setup that stays folded and in a bag (along with water, a towel, a spare belt, and spare undergarment) for grabbing at a moment’s notice.
  • Hygiene first. To support fellow students in their focused karate practice we should remain odor-free. Our gi must be always clean and in good repair when arriving to class.
  • Wear your full and proper uniform. That is, an obi (belt), uwagi (jacket) with all patches, and zubon (trousers).  As the jacket can often become disheveled during training, ladies are encouraged to add a T-shirt and/or sports bra beneath it. It is considered improper for a gentlemen to wear a T- shirts under his uwagi. Youngsters may wear imprinted Granite Forest Dojo T-shirts (and no other T-shirts) during normal Kids’ Class training. But in that context the shirt is to be considered a part of the uniform, and must be clean and unwrinkled. When class begin, those out of uniform (i.e. missing any part of it) are expected to respectfully line up at the end of the student line, below the lowest ranking students. Some schools don’t allow students to train at all when arriving late or out of uniform. I believe it’s better to train in less-than-ideal conditions, so karate-ka should always show up and do what they can. All black belts have experienced less-than-ideal dress and timing during our karate career; as with everything else in class, we have been encouraged to do our best with what we bring. During exams and mock exams, however, a full, white gi and early arrival are required.
  • Use dojo dressing rooms. We encourage students in adult classes to change at the dojo, rather than wearing their uniforms to it. This may sound trivial, but using a bag to speedily change and a tidily repack civilian clothes is a practice that actually aids your awareness of the world around you and your preparedness for its challenges.

In the practice of martial arts and elsewhere, uniforms aren’t only about dogmatic dress-code adherence. They are visible manifestations of self control, which is one of the highest purposes of our craft. Our training hall is a forge for tools we use in a challenging world. Our gi is an important reminder that we can meet those challenges. It helps us stand at full height, find our spirit in lesser moments, and enables us to better approach the hard tasks we signed up for.

All this having been said, your uniform is only a tool to facilitate your training. I own many books. Those in perfect condition have been of little use to me. The ones with worn spines, however, have contributed to my growth. My better gis, like my better books, are dog-eared. Enjoy your gi, and the obi that secures it. You further earn your right to wear them every time you train hard in them.

Spandex Enthusiasm

I often disdain the unworthy enthusiasm of those who reserve early seating for release dates of today’s superhero movies. Not a one of you have forgone the kiss of a girl or endured a wedgie for your crimes. I do so wish you all could have felt what it was like to read these stories in 22-page installments with a month between issues, and experience what we all had to go through for the privilege. There was a line outside C.A.V.E!, the comics shop I owned immediately next to the Keswick Theater in Glenside PA, almost every Wednesday, or New Comics Day. (C.A.V.E! stood for Comics, Adventure, Video, Excitement! Lit by flourescent tubes, my sign adorned a near monastery to spandex-clad imagination, decorated in the manner of the Batcave. The name was created with the help of my friends. To us, it was a perfect description.)

Similar to the way in which fans will attend midnight premiere movie screenings today, people did a lot to try to accelerate their first glimpse of a new story. My friends Jim, Kurt, Mo, Mike, and others often pulled all-nighters on Tuesdays and took the 2 am journey with me in the Batvan — yes, it was what you’re thinking — toward my distributor in center city Philly. All this just for the joy of fighting motion sickness while they, with neither seats nor windows, were first to read their fave titles as I zigged and zagged back home along Lincoln Drive. Worse, they’d help me sort the hundreds of new issues and get them on shelves by 11 a.m., a deadline so difficult to meet that all hands, nauseated or not, were welcome.

I remember one such morning when only my not-a-fan wife-at-the-time could be cajoled into losing sleep and helping me pick up, sort, and display the week’s haul. A couple of C.A.V.E.men (as we called our subscription club members) showed up early to buy their X-Men issues. They were 9-year-old kids, playing hookey. As was the case each Wednesday, we couldn’t allow them in ‘til 11 so everyone would have a fair shot at something that might sell out. I was well practiced at rejecting protestations and smiled at them sympathetically as we stood on the inside of the locked glass door.

One of them huffed in resignation, then threw up his hands and said, “Ugh! Middle-aged people!!” We were 29.

Lowered Shields

This is brief but, to me, was so densely packed I found it worthy of many pauses. It is possibly the best relationship advice I’ve heard. I’ve listened to it three times.
 
I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts if you’d care to share.

Samurai Parenting

This article was originally published in Bux-Mont Living in 2010.

Children are built to learn. Like ants in your kitchen, they’ll explore every square inch of their universe, discovering wonders and determining exactly where the boundaries are. Then, they’ll try to broaden those boundaries. Such tenacity is an extraordinary gift, perfectly designed for survival in the modern world.  Continue reading “Samurai Parenting”

Yoga “Versus” Christianity

 

The title of this column is so tasteless, isn’t it? “Yoga versus Christianity” sounds like the line shouted into the microphone at a Saturday afternoon World Wrestling Federation match. Yet it is the antagonism that some people of faith apply to the two concepts. 

Both Christianity and yoga provide terrific and precious benefits, and are complementary. But Christianity and yoga aren’t in the same category, so couching them as being in “conflict” isn’t even appropriate. It’s like saying, “exercise versus nutrition.”

Yoga can seem scary to an American of Christian faith, because it is unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable. A Christian might ask, “Since yoga was founded in Hinduism, isn’t the use of yoga a form of prayer to false Hindu gods?”

In a word, no.

Indeed, it is possible that yoga predates the very Hindu gods that some Christians worry about praying to. While the origins of yoga continue to be debated by academics, it is generally agreed that Yoga was created more than 5,000 years ago as an ascetic practice to develop unity with the divine universe (“yoga” is derived from yuj, a Sanskrit word meaning “to unite”). Yoga is not a religion. Yoga is not prayer. It is a toolkit that can be used in a number of ways, as any set of tools can.

For example, yoga is among the best physical exercises one can perform. It is rare in its ability to increase both strength and flexibility in the same practice. Rarer still, yoga is an exercise that can be used to lower blood pressure and stress levels. It can be used as a social bond. As a student of meditation, I enjoy its use as a methodology toward serenity. It requires an open-minded submission to its practice, and I like things that challenge my preconceptions. Yoga is designed to do exactly this. Its variety of tools — focused breathing, chanting, balancing, twisting and stretching — are not a threat. In fact, for millennia and for millions of people, they have been and are trusted, intimate, and nurturing.

Meanwhile, yoga does not have any ecclesiastical significance whatsoever. I was raised in a devoutly Christian family. As a karate teacher and as something of an A-type personality, I was curious about the overtly peaceful nature of the yogis and yoginis (male and female yoga practitioners) that I had met. When I began my practice, it did not impinge on my spiritual beliefs. In fact, the provision for meditation provided a forum for me to practice them. When I meditate, whether through prayer or yoga practice, I defer to God in humility. I am reminded that I am but a small part of the universe. I am afforded the opportunity to think deeply, seeking to be the best part of it that I  can be. And in so doing, I began to understand the peaceful joy of the yogis and yoginis I had met. 

Yoga is a celebration of spirituality, like Christmas is. Practicing yoga makes me no more a Hindu than buying gifts at Christmas makes me a Christian. Of course, I can choose to spend all of my holiday time in material fixations, or deny the validity of Christmas with a fundamentalist argument that Jesus was more likely born in March. Similarly, I could spend my entire yoga class concerned only with pose alignment or working up a sweat. In both instances, though, I would rob myself of a wondrous opportunity for spiritual reflection.

Consider the journey of Jessica D’Angelo, chief instructor at Hot Flow Yoga. “When I first started to practice yoga, I was doing it primarily for the physical benefits,” she said. “I’d heard that it was the ultimate exercise for building a strong core and healthy spine, and that it developed long, lean muscles and optimal flexibility. 

“After about a month or so,” she continued, “I started notice of how positive I felt after classes. I noticed how yoga would get me out of a funk like no run on the treadmill had ever done. It helped me unwind after a very long day at my job. I even noticed that my sleeping patterns we more regular and uninterrupted. My yoga practice was following me ‘off the mat’ and becoming a positive influence in my life.

“As I started to delve deeper into my practice I realized that yoga made me closer, or more connected to my own faith. I was in awe at the gift my body was to me. I was closer to God. Now, for me, every yoga class is a celebration of spirit.”

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.  — Thích Nhất Hạnh

Bruce Costa lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

This article originally appeared in Bux-Mont Living.
© Bruce G. Costa

Signs

This is an article that appeared in Comics Buyer’s Guide in the fall of 1992. It was the last of my columns, entitled Suggested for Mature Retailers, to appear in that fan publication. Krause, CBG’s publisher flattered me with an invitation to bring my readership to their new trade magazine written specifically for my audience. It was to be called Comics Retailer.

While this article was directed toward business owners, I’ve encountered the phenomenon so frequently in my life as a consumer that I felt it to be worth sharing. Please let me know what you think.

You spend a lot of time trying to make your store presentable. After all, its presentation is the packaging of your product, if you will allow an analogy, and a product’s packaging is really more important to its initial sale than the product itself. So you initiate policies of daily vacuuming and dusting, no eating lunch on the front counter, daily shelf maintenance, etc. Somewhere in the course of all this, you realize that a lot of the‹‹reason that maintenance is required is due to certain habits that customers have. Obviously, some of these policies need to extend to customers, as well. You don’t want food in your store, for example. Past shoplifting experiences require you to check bags and packages. If someone’s property is stolen, you don’t want to be responsible for a customer’s indiscretion in leaving it lying about. And so on. So you post signs.

And you end up contradicting the very principle you were trying to uphold in the first place.

A couple of years ago I went into a T-shirt store—you know, the kind where you can quickly have a shirt made to say just about anything. I have to admit that my main purpose in going in to the store was not to buy a shirt (though as a recovering T-shirtaholic, I would have bought one if it were really cool) but to see how they were displayed. I was never satisfied with any T-shirt display I’d seen at the time; on a circular rack like I had, no matter how professional it looked, the customer had to fumble through the shirts to see them, hung on a wall they took up too much room, and an imprint-only wall display, while solving the first two problems, didn’t leave the thing looking like a T-shirt. So, I figured, this T-shirt store looked like a pretty upscale place; they might have some ideas for shirt fixturing and display.

I can’t even remember how the shirts were displayed. Nor can I, an admitted T-shirtaholic, remember what they had for sale. All I can remember is the 11 x 17 inch sign standing erect, shrinelike, on the counter. Written in red and black ink, it was prominently visible for all to see who entered the store. It read as follows:

NO checks
NO credit cards
NO money orders
NO pets
NO food
NO shirt (on you), no shirt (from us)
NO smoking
NO loitering
NO handling merchandise without assistance

A broken water line in front of the store couldn’t have been a more severe deterrent to business. As I hastily copied the text from the sign into my ever-present date book (I just knew I’d have occasion to recite this someday), I was amazed. I was in a beautifully appointed, well merchandised store in a busy shopping mall at lunch time, but I was the only one in the place. The sign might not have been the main reason for that, but it sure didn’t help.

It was a severe example of what not to do, but all of us run into situations that could give a negative message to customers. Some years prior to the T-shirt store incident, shortly after I opened my store, I needed some signs. I had a street-front store which had one of those annoying doors that you can never figure out whether to `push’ or `pull’. So my mother-in-law, a talented artist and a terrific help in creating my store, bought me stickers that explained this. She also gave me a third sticker-sign, which exclaimed “NO BARE FEET” in bold metallic letters. I was amused at what I felt was an aberration of her usually impeccable design sense. As I chuckled, a confused expression played across her face. She wasn’t amused in the least. With eyes wide, she challenged, “What’s so funny? You don’t want anyone in here with bare feet!”

I don’t want to get into a lengthy discussion of the disadvantages of bare-footed patrons. I suppose, if forced to actively choose, I would have preferred shod customers. But despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I had never before thought about this potential problem, it was intuitively and instantly clear to me that it would not be enough of a problem to warrant a negative sign on my door.

Shortly thereafter, I started to pay attention to signage as a concept, instead of simply a necessity. This is why I was sensitive to the one in the T-shirt store. Not only is it destructive, but there is never, ever a need for it. In fact, since signs are often a necessary part of a business, they can be used for expressing yourself in a positive way to your customers.

I heard a story one about how businessman Whitt Schultz favored businesses that exuded a positive attitude toward their customers. Specifically, he noted some interesting signs, and how they affected the way he viewed the business he was visiting. He mentioned a financial institution that posted, instead of the normal “Closed” sign, one that read: 

Our next opportunity to serve you is at  8:30 a.m.
And we look forward to seeing you.

In his favorite restaurant, there was a sign in the cloakroom that stated:

Of course we’re responsible for your personal belongings when you’re a guest here. Relax, and please enjoy your meal. Our number one responsibility is always to serve you well!

Compared to the normal “Not responsible for personal property,” how memorably this stands out! He mentioned a washroom that contained an eloquent sign that read: 

Because of the quality of the people we employ, we don’t have to remind them to wash their hands before returning to work.

What a difference a little creative thinking can make! When a sign is necessary, think about its wording. You’ll always be able to come up with a positive way to get your message across.

And if you get stung, think twice about the necessity of preventing future problems with signage. My grand opening day was somewhat tarnished by a woman who came in and said, “The entire neighborhood is up in arms, because we’ve heard that you sell adult comics.” I had already put my adult stuff on the top shelf, but I instantly printed a sign that said, “You must be eighteen years old to purchase adult comics.” The result? A year and a half later, I pulled the sign down, and began bagging adult books and inserting a slip of paper with the store logo and a sentence that stated the same thing. All that sign ever served to do was invite people to ask, “Hey, you sell adult books here?”

You see, no matter how bad the sting, it just might not be worth negative signage because of the infrequency of such an occurrence. How many coats did that restaurant have to buy as a result of its sign? $1000 worth per year is probably an overstatement, but it is a small price to pay for the feeling its patrons got when they hung their coats. And all told, I don’t think I had more than a few bare feet in the history of my store.

And by all means, blow your own horn! Positive signs make your place a nice place to shop. If you have a pretty good track record about fulfilling rare back issue requests, flaunt it! A cash register sign that states, “We at Comic World will make every effort to fulfill any special request” will raise some eyebrows, and give you more business, as well.

Of course, signs are only advertisements of policy. The first step is to have your store policies in place. Generous service and return policies are what will keep your customers generous and returning.

Bruce Costa lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.