I Like Funerals.

Bobby, the first of the five Matteson siblings, is a remarkable artist whose work is in the homes of most creative thinkers in the Northeastern United States, and many worldwide. (It was in mine 22 years before I ever had a conversation with him.) Susan had only just brought a close to 35 years of educating young minds. Gerry travels the world as an industrialist, and is as creative with the written word as he is successful in business. Billy, capable of exquisite craftsmanship, chose the career of maintenance man, which Bobby has said “is a description which falls far short of his abilities.” Barbara, 11 years younger than Billy, the delight of a family who’d thought they were done having children, operates a hair styling salon, teaches shotokan karate, and is my fiancée.

Last Thursday morning Billy succumbed to the surprise of esophageal varices. He was discovered by Rosalie, his partner of 25 years, after having died of blood loss. Thus began days of painful remembrance, phone calls, paperwork, writing, photo processing, and tears. It was difficult for anyone to gather the energy required to do any of these “necessities.”

Nevertheless I must acknowledge a realization: it comforted me a couple of days later when I caught myself actually looking forward to the funeral. Despite the fact that Barbara and I should have been miserably exhausted because neither of us could sleep the night before, I had more energy that morning than I’d had all week. I couldn’t help feeling positive at the thought of seeing those I’d come to know better in recent years, all gathered for the common purpose of offering respect to Billy. I am nearly fifty. At this point of thinking more clearly and worrying less about others’ judgements, I’ve elevated the thought to a conscious level: I like funerals. This despite the extraordinary heartache they bring to people I love.

Billy.

Tears were constant that day. But for every awkward moment so common to funerals, I saw a dozen hugs or handclasps or sentences that were warmer and firmer and longer and more sincere than we get to enjoy in everyday times. There were observations and descriptions and appreciations, much of which was by way of wisecracks at Billy’s expense. This irony was well suited for celebrating Billy in the pillared funeral parlor, properly set with photos of his many rescued dogs, his one-finger salute, and him in his underwear with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Few in the room hadn’t experienced Billy’s unique cocktail of machismo, crude humor, and sensitivity, and all had been affected by it. Several, who I never knew had such powers, spoke eloquently of Billy despite their pain. I was particularly proud of Barbara when she approached the podium and composed herself long enough to share—despite background photos of her brother protectively towering over her as a toddler—the terrifying story of how he had been permitted to babysit her exactly once. Then, after an overwhelming presentation of his own, elder brother Bobby offered shots of Billy’s half-empty bottle of Jim Beam, using Billy’s own skull-shaped shot glass. I was honored to join the line, right behind Barbara.

Billy Matteson has been the loudest and most diverse of this communicative, varied family. Less than two years older than me, he had achieved levels of mastery that I’ll never approach. We have a beautiful table in our home, with roses carved into the wood, that Billy made from a barrel. He enjoyed horseshoes with his friends and family, and created increasingly sophisticated horseshoe pits to play in. His masterpiece, however, was Wyntop, the palatial estate that he was in the process of restoring, project by project. You would be astonished by the incredible, many-angled, thatched roof, ornamented by copper snow guards, valleys, gutters and down spouts (which he coated in automotive clear-coat, so that they still enjoy their orange glow years later). Each renovated room was completed meticulously; ornamented but subdued. I feel honored when I’m in the home, anxious to hear stories of construction details.

Click on the picture for the slideshow I made to honor Billy and his family. It starts with this photo, which is arguably the perfect shot of Billy: in front of the Wyntop estate; next to his rescued, bipolar pit bull Grendel; in one of his signature brightly-colored shirts; happy.

The highlight, from my (and, I like to think, Billy’s) demented perspective, is the grand-daddy of all horseshoe pits. Each spike is surrounded by angled, staggered walls to redirect overthrown shots; the throwing area is outlined by a two-layer handmade fence; there’s a mounted bottle opener for the requisite beverages; the entire facility is illuminated, stadium-like, for all-night tournaments. Its natural-wood elements perfectly blend with the surroundings, particularly the roof created by centuries-old maple trees that predate the estate itself. It is an arena that elevates its lawn game to a gladiatorial duel. Only Billy could do this.

Driving home, I came to appreciate that the same can be said about funerals as about life’s brightest moments: I’m with the people I most wish to be with. I’m driven to deep introspection. I’m emotionally overwhelmed. It’s an unforgettable time. Afterward, I’m forever changed.

I remained energized all that day, so much so that I called Florida to rip my septuagenarian mother’s head off for not letting me get high speed internet installed in her house yet, and so was keeping me and my children from seeing her and my dad face-to-face more often, in lieu of adding that money to my inheritance. “I’m getting it for you now,” I shouted. “While I can!”

Her iPad is on its way. Thanks, Billy.

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