The Education of a Minimum Wage Worker

I’ve always considered Yorktown Seafood my first real job. I’m not quite sure why, as it wasn’t the first job I was paid for, nor the first job I got by gathering up the courage to ask, nor the first time I worked for a stranger. I was 13 and made $1.26 an hour under the table. John, the psoriasis-covered owner, worked six 12-hour days per week, and on the seventh drove to the Jersey shore to catch his haul. His place, and he, were truly disgusting, but many wealthy patrons overlooked that, as he had the freshest, most generous portions of seafood anywhere, and as any teenager in Montgomery County could tell you, the same went for his fries. I have more stories about this place and my countless six-legged coworkers than I do about the skating rink, many of which involve John’s long flowing ear hairs.

But the Old York Road Skating Club was just as formative for me. I worked there in my freshman year of college every day at 6 am. I was working in the twilight zone, pre-dawn bleary, cleaning and running the zamboni for 8-year-olds that needed fresh ice every hour, for some bizarre reason. I found a child porn dime novel in the secretary’s desk & stupidly didn’t tell anyone for fear of getting in trouble for opening the secretary’s desk. I would sneak out back and sit on top of the mountain behind it and watch brilliant sunrises. I wasn’t happy in my work there. The only person I could relate to in the place was my boss, Jack Hoffman, who was rarely there but I really liked because he was a wacko well into his 50s.

As a somewhat full-of-my-own-opinions college DJ at the time, I was into progressive rock, classical, and jazz, and that was it. It was 1980. I was lamenting the decline of “music for which talent was required” (unlike what we were getting out of the B-52s that year, paving the way for – shudder – hair bands). He asked about early rock, and I argued that, The Beatles notwithstanding, bands like the Rolling Stones were what we all hadda wait through to get to the good stuff. He wasn’t a Stones fan either. I then went a step too far. “C’mon,” I said, “what did ‘Hound Dog’ do to move us forward?”

When I said that, everything stopped. Suddenly all work tasks were dropped. He pointed to a bench in the center of the large room and said, “Sit down.” As “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” pulsed from the skater’s lounge’s unreasonably good speakers, it took me exactly three minutes to come to understand. I didn’t get up, Jack was holding court. “THAT is why Elvis is, and always will be, The King.”

Ever after I was convinced Jack was a thoughtful man, although he would never let me refill the paper towel holders with more than a handful of those C-fold towels. “If ya put more in, they’ll just use more.” I hated the job, and cost kids a few ice skating lessons by oversleeping that year. But I got to drive a zamboni. And I got to know Jack.

A 2016 Voter’s Post Mortem: Think Independently in 2020

A thoughtful old friend challenged my frustration regarding the DNC’s choice of candidate in 2016. My thoughts follow, skipping the part where I accuse him of assigning other folks’ thoughts to me.

What did everyone hate so much about Hillary? Now, look at where you got that impression. Most people who really “hated” her were duped by 20 years of Republican propaganda. Many were willing to buy that propaganda because of misogyny. Don’t think the term applies? What else do you call the double standard by which the same trait that results in a man being called ‘strong’ gets a woman called “controlling?”

My friend, I certainly agree with you that she’s strong, and has that necessary quality for presidential leadership. She’s also a — what do they call that? oh yeah — a reader.

Back when we were friends in college, I was more susceptible to the propaganda you describe, but in the opposite direction. After my disappointing disillusionment with the Carter administration, Ronald Reagan was the first presidential candidate I was old enough to vote for, and I happily did so, twice. But it was during his second term, when he denuded the FCC of its authority over news agencies that my excellent mass media graduate school professor foresaw the coming of Roger Ailes, MSNBC, and the like, that I began to put that together with the Carter experience and understand that enthusiasm for a political ideology simply doesn’t work. I’ve been an Independent, with Conservative friends convinced I’m a Liberal and vice-versa, ever since.

I find topic-driven voters rare. On the other hand, the party faithful are plentiful, and most of them can’t imagine there being any other way to think. They’ll cling to the flawed people in their ideological camp. The current president, who said in a 1998 interview with NBC’s Stone Phillips, “[I’m] liberal on health care, we have to take care of people that are sick…I like universal [health coverage], we have to take care, there’s nothing else. What’s the country all about if we’re not going to take care of our sick?” And, on abortion, “I’m totally for choice. I think you have no alternative” is simply the most extreme example (albeit the most extreme by far) is the result of this problem on both sides.

Trump’s existence as an RNC-nominated candidate is far, far more of a demonstration of reductio ad absurdum than Clinton is from the DNC. But even if you’re objective enough to observe Trump holding the far extreme, I think it’s difficult to argue that they both don’t exist in this space. I’ve watched Clinton’s disturbing lack of hubris, her inability to authentically apologize, her capacity for cover-up, and other trust-straining qualities throughout my adult life. For me, it was watching her behavior during the Whitewater investigation that made me consider her ineligible for high office, and brought me the sense of waiting for a shoe to drop during every moment of her time as Sec’y of State (though it is difficult to ignore her many achievements during her tenure there, even if many Conservatives manage to).

So no, I don’t feel hornswoggled by Conservative propaganda. While I’ve voted for many on national and local stages, I haven’t found a worthwhile Republican White House seeker since George H.W. (and I wasn’t too sure about him, at the time I pulled the lever for him). I’ll add that, were Trump involved in Whitewater (which, again, I consider to be both Clintons’ most egregious evasions, with Hillary’s duplicity and obfuscation outshining even that of her husband, which is saying quite something) it would be so distant and diminished among the Teflon Mad King’s repertoire of skulduggery as to be unnoticeable.

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.


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 earlier life I spent avoiding anything to do with uniform dress. The very concept seemed silly. 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 stand as 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.) It took two expensive ceremonies to get the concept through my head: I realized I was dressing out of respect for someone else. In one evening I learned—and ever since have only had reinforced—that there is no benefit to minimal decorum. In truth, there are several advantages to dressing in the best, appropriately-possible way to honor my hosts. 

That latter, outward point is secondary, however, always 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 each student in our dojo to 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 events outside our dojo, I’ve even established a complete setup that stays clean, 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, your zubon (trousers), uwagi (jacket) with all patches, and obi (belt).  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 gentleman to wear a T-shirt 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 so must be clean and unwrinkled. When class begins, 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 actually a practice that aids your awareness of the world around you and your preparedness for its challenges.

In the practice of martial arts and elsewhere (including friends’ weddings!), 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 of our potential to 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 (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.