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.

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.