Death is a Business Best Left to Others

by Catherine Breese

death is for others1They say that if you want to know how long you’ll live, you should look at your parents and your grandparents for a reliable indicator.  I’ll give you a moment to ponder.  

This sort of inquiry is not likely to result in contentment, so it’s probably one of those thoughts that is best chew on for a few moments and then spit out.  But for now, let’s do a little tasting.

Recently I listened to a conversation between a daughter and her father on a podcast called Roam Schooled.  The daughter had done some math and concluded that on her birthday, her life was approximately 10% complete, meaning that she had 90% to go.  Then she did the math for her dad, and his life was 60 or 65% complete.  

The amount of time you and I have left is finite, but we don’t get to know what that amount is.  This makes some people do crazy things like go to church, jump out of airplanes, have affairs, run marathons, have children, or simply become melancholy.  The rest of us drink.

When I was in the tenth grade, many, many percentages ago, my mother had a heart attack and we thought she was going to die, but she was saved by surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic.  My mom is 85 years old now, and unfortunately, has succumbed entirely to the mental deterioration of Alzheimer’s.  She can no longer feed herself or speak coherently.   My dad died from cancer at the age of 56.  His mother died in her forties.  My other grandparents made it to their early eighties, but not without senility and nursing homes at the end.  These are the facts, and I can only draw so many convincing conclusions from this genetic picture. None of them are attractive, and, as my friends all know, I care deeply about aesthetics.

Bryan’s grandmother is in her mid-nineties and she recently survived a bout of pneumonia plus a staph infection and returned home from the hospital, alive!  Yes, Bryan has a living grandmother.  Most of mine died when I was a teenager.  It occurs to me that he is almost guaranteed to live long past me, maybe 20 years. That will be good for him.  Of course, he will need to find another person to make his life clean, delicious, and fabulous the way that I have.

Frankly, death is a real mother-effer. It is best kept at arm’s length if you want to enjoy your existence at least a little.  It has been my experience that even those of us who have a grounded acceptance of it are almost always caught off guard. You are tooling along…slaving for the man or wandering aimlessly or fulfilling a higher purpose and then boom: a ravenous grizzly bear lopes out from behind a rock and eats your head. We are surprisingly shocked when someone dies, no matter the cause.  In an age that is relatively free from plagues and super-volcanoes, we have the expectation that we and all our friends will just continue to exist. My own death is easier to imagine. death is for others 2

A boss that I had a few year back, one whom I detested, died suddenly a few weeks ago. He was a mean and egotistical boss who picked favorites and made employees cry on purpose.  He died while jogging.  His obituary didn’t glorify his life, though.  It mentioned his bad golf scores, egotism, and harsh disposition.  I don’t know who wrote it, maybe a disgruntled daughter.  It suited him.  My daughter has promised that she will write many charming exaggerations about my kindness and beauty, and for that, I am grateful.

Artistic, romantic, beautiful deaths are rare. I expect mine to be as ugly and unpleasant as most peoples’. I do find I am comforted in the notion that there will be great food and fancy cocktails at the occasion.  And that my death will probably inconvenience an ex-husband in some way, and well, that’s just bonus.

PS  This just in.  My cousin Sue reports that my grandfather’s sister, Aunt Lee, lived to be 99. Good news, eh?

 

*art work modified using PicMonkey from “The Skeleton Dance” 1929 Disney short, and Flipnote Hatena

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Mom is a B-word*

by Catherine Breese

B-word image2016-2Bad news… summer vacation season is here. Luckily, I took mine already and I am mercifully back at work; it’s just so much pressure, trying to squeeze a year’s worth of lemon suffering into a one-week joy pie.  During my vacation this summer, as I lounged by the pool reading a book and watching other people’s children ruin or attempt to ruin their parents’ annual holiday, I was reminded that being a parent is long and dirty job that mostly sucks the whole time. 

We saw this family climbing out of a van at the seashore. The mother was prodding at the one petulant child who evidently wasn’t super-psyched to see the beauty of Pamlico Sound.  This mother then articulated within earshot of all nearby human ears the following statement:  “I swear… this child has been making my life a living hell since she was born!”  Poor thing.  The mom, I mean. Oh, I’m sure she knows that it may be psychologically damaging to talk this way about her child in front of her child, but clearly she was at the end of her endurance, so my sympathy lay with her.

We went to an indoor water park. I know, I know. Aren’t those expensive and tacky?  Well, yes. But you must believe that the crowded park was filled with parents who obviously thought only of their children’s happiness when they booked that trip. “Water park? Great idea. The kids will love it!” That quickly turns into “I told you to use the bathroom before we waited 45 minutes in line for the waterslide!”  and  “Can you please make your brother stop crying without hitting him!” Diapers were exploding and pizza crusts were being tossed carelessly on the ground all around us. It was a battle ground upon which kids were winning and parents losing as far as the eye could see.  At 5 a.m., while all sane children sleep peacefully in their beds, the halls of the hotel were crowded with refugee dads on their cell phones and laptops trying to get a few moments of peace away from the loving family.  A pitiful tableau.

Long, hot car rides, waiting in lines, spending huge amounts of money–these are just a few of the benefits of vacationing with children. It is an American rite of passage, a time-honored tradition, a Norman Rockwell painting, and, it’s entirely illusory.  My parents did it with my sister and me.  And I remember it fondly, obviously because I have a very selective memory that has also been clouded over by years of drinking. I remember my own mother, however, as being a in a very bad mood, from pre-vacation to post-vacation and throughout.  Huh. Wonder why?

Oh, don’t you worry. I did my best to play out that happy family vacation montage, even in divorce.  I dragged my children to various locations both far and near, including Disney World, with some fleeting hope of “family fun”—you know, a photo taped by the corners to the refrigerator showing everyone’s sunny mouths screaming wide with utter glee.  Didn’t happen.  I can, however, recall some roadside spankings**, a lot of tearful bedtimes, and hours of attempting to console crabby children whose skills in complaining, begging, and whining were Olympic caliper. 

Being a parent consumes your life for at least 20 years. (More if you’re silly enough to have more than a couple of kids.) Consumes, like a drunk frat boy at a Waffle House consumes the steak and eggs special: it’s messy, loud, and barfing is to be expected.  Oh, there are a few exceptional individuals who make parenting look easy and who even seem to enjoy it. But these are rare birds to be sure. Secretly, I assure myself that these people are either play-acting or they have excellent prescription coverage with their medical insurance. 

There’s a Facebook page called I Regret Having Children. Much to my chagrin, it is not a comedic page. It is a supportive place for those who state unequivocally that they wish they had decided otherwise. Many post anonymously, but they don’t need to worry about their kids seeing the posts because anyone under the age of 25 left Facebook months ago.  I would bet nearly every parent on earth has had this thought at least once. I am uncertain, however, as to whether Facebook is the perfect place to get this off one’s chest. But such is the weird social norm of contemporary American life.  It is a safe to conclude that raising children–successfully–is demanding and difficult.  Parenthood is for the valiant and the obstinate.  You just have to be more stubborn than your kids, especially if you’re planning to take them on vacation.

*The title of this article is not a statement about my mother. No doubt that my kids said it about me.  Generically, it is a true statement about everyone’s mother…it is also an effing awesome title.

**Look, it was still kosher when I did it. I know it’s out of fashion, now.

I Should Know Better by Now

by Catherine Breese and Bryan Ward

Mistakes      Humans are killing it, both literally and figuratively.  With the exception of a few deadly bugs, a handful of diseases, and the couple of large toothy predators left that can eat a fella, human beings are hammering the competition for earth’s resources. Despite some evidence to the contrary, our greatest strength as a species is not our unstoppable drive to reproduce—it’s our brain. Our ability to reason sets us apart from the rest of the creatures. Our highly adaptive brains allow us to learn and change.  When we make a mistake and connect the consequences of that error with its cause, we will change our behavior in the future to avoid mishap. Usually. 

And then there are those mistakes that we just keep making, over and over again.  You know the mistakes I’m talking about, the ones that make you say “What the hell is wrong with me?”

Battle of Repeated Errors: Catherine v. Bryan

Bryan wins the toss, he calls…. Going to Long John Silvers

If you’ve eaten there, we don’t need to explain the mistake. Let’s just say, don’t stray too far from an acceptable restroom.

Catherine: Clicking on CNN and expecting not to see Donald Trump’s face

I know we try not to get political here at Alta Blue Skies, but seriously, his picture inspires my gag reflex and his name burns my ears. And, thank you, media on both the left and right—you birthed and breastfed this monster and now we’re stuck with him.  CNN, you are the Octomom of the Donald and you should be ashamed.

Bryan: Forgetting to shake the mustard before use

Good one, Bryan.  But mustard water is all a part of the fun of a picnic.

Catherine: Buying Girl Scout cookies

I have never been addicted to cocaine, but I can only image it is not dissimilar to the appeal of an open package of Girl Scout cookies. Serving size, one box. Who doesn’t finish at least a whole sleeve?  You may argue that this is not a mistake.  And that proves you are addicted, too.

Bryan: Expecting men’s shoes to cost $35 and jeans to cost $20

You got me there, B.  I don’t know how your price point got stuck in the mid-1970s, but unless you are buying everything at Old Navy you’re going to have to pay a bit more than that. 

Catherine: Forgetting the grocery bags in the car

It ain’t easy being an earth-loving human with her own grocery bags, especially in southwestern Virginia where the mere suggestion that one might take some personal responsibility for the health of the earth is viewed as a commie-red declaration of allegiance.  Then, I’m in checkout at Kroger before I realize I have left the bags in the car. “You don’t mind waiting while I run out to the car, right?”

BryanSetting down my keys and/or phone in a weird location

Oh, for a 21st century problem that is more annoying!  But I have to admit, we both have a habit of making this mistake. It occurs especially when we are running late or stressing out. The fact that you can’t blame anyone but yourself makes this mistake one of our least favorite.

CatherineBurning my tongue with hot coffee

Here’s your winner, folks.  The dumbest and most avoidable mistake that I make at least four times a year.  Sometimes, it’s on a road trip. Sometimes it’s at work in the afternoon. It happens a lot when the coffee comes with a lid and you have to guess about the temperature before you sip.  My lizard brains tell me “forge ahead, glorious caffeine awaits.”  Ouch! Shit.  And then, well, I didn’t want to taste any food for a few days anyway, right?

Yes, as a species, we can be pretty dumb. 

In a totally unrelated story that illustrates just how smart humans can be: a man named Boyan Slat invented a system to clean up the plastic waste gobbing up our oceans that works passively with the ocean’s currents.  We thoughtless humans made the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and one man and a team of others are working to make it go away. thus saving us from ourselves.  Check out The Ocean Cleanup for more information.  I thank him sincerely and admire him greatly.  Also, I hold faith that perhaps Mr. Slat burns his tongue on hot coffee, as I do.

Ten Forty Blues

1040 Martini

by Catherine  Breese

Today is the last day of February 2016. If you have completed your 2015 tax return at this point, one of three things must be true about you: you are expecting a refund and need the money to buy something, (say, a set of aperitif glasses or new oven), you are a tremendously type-A person, or you are required to complete the FAFSA because you have college-aged children. I am that third kind of tax preparer. And I can assure you that if the FAFSA were not hanging over my head, I would not have even begun to gather up receipts and 1099 forms.[1]  I am the kind of US citizen who so despises doing her taxes that she puts it off until the last conceivable moment to begin.  I would prefer many other unpleasantries above doing our taxes: going to the gynecologist, grouting my shower, listening to a Donald Trump speech. etc. But like death, doing taxes is compulsory.

I am not really qualified to do my own taxes–to be honest.  I end up guessing on some of the questions that my H&R Block software asks me, and I pretend to understand the explanations when I really don’t.  And, to fully uncover my incompetency, I have also to admit that I avoid anything to do with my retirement account savings because I have exactly no understanding of the tax laws surrounding those accounts. Apparently, I was supposed to be keeping track of my contributions for the last 20 years and documenting that for the federal government?  I don’t know. I didn’t do it.  And when I asked my money-man, Edward J., for the documentation, he sent me an 84 page .pdf that appears to be written in Swahili.  I don’t really have a plan for dealing with this, except that I’m pretty sure I can’t  ever retire, so I guess my children will just inherit my financial squirrel’s nest.

In the past I have paid others to do my taxes for me. But, if I have to sit there with the professional tax preparer and answer all of the questions, it seems silly not to do them myself for the cost savings.  Not to mention that several years ago we took our taxes to a preparer who made a $5000 mistake. We had to go back three times to get the thing corrected.  Frankly, I can do that kind of shoddy work myself, at no charge.

So, every year, I clear off the dining room table, get out a bunch of file folders from previous tax years, set up the laptop, and then walk away for about 5 weeks until the whole scene becomes tiresome and naggy. Then I finally sit down, cocktail in hand, and launch into the world of the IRS.  In this world, you have to put aside any desire you have for the clean and precise use of the English language.  You must immerse yourself in a pile of gobbledygook that  reads something like this: “The adjusted basis is calculated with original cost of property, plus certain additions and improvements, minus certain deductions such as depreciation allowed or allowable and casualty losses.”  I don’t know what that means, and neither do you.  I get the gist, sort of, and that’s all I expect of myself.  I mean I do actually have a university degree, in English, so I should be adequate in the reading department.  My point here is that no one really understands the language of the tax code, and thus, we are all inferring our way through filling out this mandatory menace.  If we find out we have erred, well, no one should be surprised.

Luckily…your odds of being audited are way down.  Apparently, the budget of the IRS has been so drastically reduced that they don’t have the ability to audit many of us taxpayers.  The overall audit rate for individuals is less than 1%.  You odds are higher if you make over $200,000 or claim the earned income tax credit.  Owning your own business also puts you at better odds for audit, but only slightly.  This knowledge does offer a small comfort to me, although I still feel some version of mild disgrace in the face of my inferior tax preparation skills.

So, as of today, my 1040 is complete and I have already received my refund.  In fact we have already spent it—two new tires and our AAA membership fee–not a beach vacation, sadly.  But even worse news: I have yet to complete the FAFSA.  So, off to the liquor store.  What cocktail goes best with the FAFSA, you ask?  If it’s your first FAFSA, I recommend the Old Fashioned. You’re going to need its dark brown goodness to get to the end.  If you’re a FAFSA regular, the classic vodka Martini is an ideal choice.  Chin up. You can do this; you have to.  Cheers.

[1] The FAFSA is a form you have to fill out you have a child who is in college or going to college next year.  It is used by colleges to determine the type and amount of financial aid for which your child qualifies. It is the second-most annoying and difficult electronic form that you will complete during your lifetime. It will involve you screaming  utterances such as “I don’t know my daughter’s effing PIN!” and “Nooooooo! Not back to the start page!”

She’s Not Happy Unless She’s Not Happy

by Catherine Breese

Unhappiness is the ultimate form of self-indulgence.”  Tom Robbins

she is not happyOld people complain a lot, or so the stereotype says. Recently,  I encountered a real superstar in the world of kvetches who served to reinforce my vacilating prejudices. We were seated at the same banquet table at a luncheon by chance, and this woman complained from the moment she sat down until the final applause.  She wasn’t served quickly enough, the food was bad (it was pretty typical banquet food, you knowーmeh?) and, crime of the century, we weren’t served any bread.  She griped to two different waiters about their being no bread and was scolded by another woman at our table for doing so, because, after all, “the waiter doesn’t plan the banquet, he/she only brings the food.” So then she asked to see the manager.  At one point when speaking with the manager she uttered the words, “This is the worst food I have ever eaten in my life.”  Now this woman was seventy years old if she was a day. If this were actually the  worst food she had ever eaten, well, that says a lot about the comforts of her life.  I surmise it was hyperbole, but it was terribly ill-placed.  At a table full of educated American adults, surely we can rise above petty complaints and attempt some more positive human interaction. Books, movies, travel, life experiences, heck, I would even prefer to listen to a good surgical story rather than listen to this rude old woman expound upon how she’s been wronged by a hotel banquet.  

I admit, her age probably had little to do with inspiring such bad manners.  It’s more likely that she had always acted this way. This state of perpetual dissatisfaction appears bred in some. Some rube is always driving in their lane. Some idiot is always preventing them from doing a good job at work. Some jerk is always ruining their chance at fun or victory or honor.  It is a story people tell themselves and it is self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating.

Last weekend when we were doing some grocery shopping I became keenly aware that everyone in the store, shopper and employee alike, was bitter and angry.  There was a palpable mood in the store, like  civility-be-damned and watch-out-cause-I’m-comin’-through. Every shopper for himself!  Shoppers of all ages and nationalities crashed their carts into my ankles, reached over top of me for the romaine, and forced me to flatten myself up against canned goods while they barreled down the aisle, picking up the very important items that they need for their families, their church potlucks, or their dinner parties.  At the end, the bagger overfilled my bags (tomatoes and bread be damned) and gave the buggy a mean little shove. “Have a nice day”.  So many unhappy people, so very very unhappy.

I see an obvious correlation between self-centeredness and unhappiness, but I guess it is not so obvious to the narcissist. There are people who seem to prefer to be in a constant state of dissatisfaction.  We all probably know someone like this.  Thanks to Facebook, we all probably know too many.  And I don’t have an answer. My standard solution is simply to avoid them as much as possible.

When I was eleven years old and had broken my toe chasing the dog around the sofa, my mother made me take a bath before she would take me to the emergency room.  Let me add a little visual detail here: the little toe on my left foot was sticking out at a 90 degree angle from my foot.  My mother didn’t make me take a bath because she was a cruel person, but rather because she believed in doing things a certain way.  You didn’t take a dirty child in dirty clothes to the hospital. When we went to the hospital, my parents joked and smiled with the nurses and doctors. No drama. Just polite conversation and pleasant requests. I held my breath and made not a peep when the doctor gave me a shot of local anesthetic, grabbed my toe and wrenched it back to being relatively parallel to the other toes. We all laughed on the way home.  Don’t get me wrong; I am not nostalgic for the imaginary past of my parents simple values.  I am saying, though, that being nice works a whole lot better in this world than its negative counterpart.

People who are louder and meaner and uglier don’t get their way more often, despite what they believe. Nope, they get their food spit into. (Sorry about that preposition at the end.)  They get everyone around them flustered and leave a wake of discontent and sadness.  And, I think most importantly, they don’t accomplish good in the world.

Yes, sometimes I do have a really horrific day, too. And I am just pretending to be delightfully pleasant to the tired woman at the customer service window of the DMV.  But, feigning politeness and being polite in utter sincerity have the exact same consequence: a more perfect world.

New Year’s Aspirations

New Years-11Certainly, resolution is a desirable quality in a human being. The ability to put one’s heart and mind to a task and stick to that mission, even in the face of adversity, is admirable. Parents do their best to teach this to their children. If you had some trouble learning to ride a bike or to tie your shoe, you remember that someone told you to keep practicing. Teachers reinforce the notion, too.  They tell their students that what they put into something is what they get out.  In our books, movies, and songs, a great victory typically comes at the price of some failure, some sacrifice, and a whole heaping pile of resolution.  

Annually–you may have even done this last night and are regretting it even this morning as you contemplate going to the gym or drinking a kale smoothie or planning a budget (God help you)—many people make a New Year’s resolution.  People take advantage of the calendar’s end/beginning point to resolve all sorts of things. From quitting smoking to falling in love, a lot of Americans make a resolution.  And an even bigger and more impressive “a lot” fail at them.  About half of the country makes one.  How many succeed?  A ridiculous 8% achieve their resolution.1 Wow! That is a significant amount of disappointment.  I mean that is a terrifically huge number of folks not getting what they say they want.  No wonder we seem so unhappy.  Half of us don’t care to improve and the rest of us fail at it.

All that failure can’t be good for us as humans or as Americans.  So, here is my proposal. Don’t make a New Year’s resolution; make a New Year’s aspiration.  I aspire to eat a healthy diet.  I aspire to become more financially viable. I aspire to learn to play the guitar.  I aspire to be a non-smoker.  In this way, you allow yourself the luxury of failures and setbacks without the cliff of doom looming in the foreground.  

When the inevitable occurs and you binge on an extra-large supreme pizza and three sleeves of Oreo cookies on January 19th, you don’t have to see it as the end of days.  You are not a failure but rather an aspirant on a path.  This makes January 20th a better day for you.  It is forever your choice to get back onto the track.  Or, you can even choose a new track, as long as your train keeps moving forward.  

Let me know how it goes, and remember, life is work and that is good.

Happy New Year, everybody.  Go forth unafraid, and aspire!

Catherine Breese

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1 I found my stats at Statistic Brain, but bunches and bunches of legit journals and news sites report similar numbers.

That Flapping Flag

Catherine Breese

Happy Flag - Hearts and UnicornsFlags are symbols by definition.  And symbols are important—just ask any English major.  Those on both sides of the Rebel flag fight agree on this. Yes, the flag in question goes by several names:  Confederate battle flag, Rebel flag, the Southern Cross, and the Dixie flag. But this is not about the nomenclature.  This is about symbolism.  For one group of people, the flag symbolizes pride in heritage and history.  It represents the South. It represents freedom. To others it is a symbol of hatred, subjugation, and intimidation. How can it be true that one flag can be all those things?  Well, that’s how really great symbols work.  Just ask any English major. The complexity of a particular symbol enhances its artistic power and authority.  And there is no doubt that the rebel flag is a symbol with great potency.  

In addition to being a battle flag for the Confederacy, the Rebel flag was also carried by the Dixiecrats, the splinter 1948 political party opposed to civil rights, and the Klan Klux Klan. In the history classes of my Midwestern education, it was prominent in the photos held above the men in white hoods. No matter who else carries it, and for what purpose, those guys pretty much spoiled it as an emblem. It is a symbol that does not say “I am free.” It says “I am a racist.”  

That can’t be the message at least some of the people who are wearing it around intend.  So, what are people saying when they put it on?  

When someone dons a Cleveland Browns t-shirt, I assume that the person loves Browns football. The person is saying she/he is a fan.  Then, when a Confederate Flag-person dons the Rebel flag, of what are they a fan? Grits? Mint juleps? NASCAR? Civil War battle history? The glory of the Old South? No, none of those things are brought to the forefront of my mind. My reaction is rather more physical than cognitive. It is disgust.

As in other parts of the country, when the state of South Carolina took the flag down off of its capitol building, Rebel flag devotees got riled up.  Some people incorrectly believed that the government was somehow outlawing it. Then when Amazon.com and Wal-Mart followed suit by stopping sales, that really sent Rebel flag fans into a flurry of political activism. Where I live, in Southwestern Virginia, flags have cropped up like giant ugly weeds, overnight, on the back of pickup trucks, on hats and t-shirts, and even on people’s homes.  Not that some people weren’t already occasionally displaying it, but now it seems as though the flag wavers are waging a campaign to stick it in my face wherever I go.  Shop at Kroger, see the flag.  Eat at a Chinese buffet, see the rebel flag.

Confederate Flag-1541The other day I passed a car with four men inside, one was hanging his arm out the window, cooling the burn from a brand new Southern Cross tattoo.  Not so unexpectedly, these individuals are almost exclusively young to middle-aged white males, who, quite frankly come off as rather intimidating. I assume that is their intention.  I only wish that we could harness their fervor for good. Imagine if we could get these guys on the side of, say, activism for ending hunger or activism towards equal access to healthcare. But nope. It is a flag, a symbol, that inspires them to put it all on the line in public.

Here, as in a few other parts of the country, a local high school made some national news when the principal suspended some students for wearing the flag and for displaying the flag in the school’s parking lot. This high school has a specific rule against the display of the Rebel flag. When I saw the picture in the newspaper of the student protesters with their young, bright faces wrapped in the flag out outside of the high school chatting vivaciously with reporters, I was nauseous.  

It’s not about racism, they said. It’s about freedom of expression.  I, like many Americans, spent some time thinking about this claim.  As a really big fan of the First Amendment, I always tend to err on the side of protecting our right to speak out. And I really tried to see their point. I did. I won’t go into the legal argument that the Supreme Court has ruled on multiple occasions that public school students don’t actually have the full right to free speech, but instead I will go with the conclusion that gives my conscience peace.  In a public school we have to protect everyone’s rights, including the right to come to school without fear of intimidation. While I’m sure those white students who wrapped themselves in the flag and loudly touted that it has nothing to do with racism believe what they are saying is true, I surmise there’s a whole group of kids who would beg to differ.  Public schools are academic institutions, places to learn, and rules are made to support those outcomes.  You can’t learn if you don’t feel safe. Wearing the Rebel flag is bullying by almost any definition.  

So, there you have it.  Hey, fans of the Rebel flag, let’s find another way to say that you are proud of your heritage. And let’s make sure we are actually creating a heritage that our children can be proud of, one that includes a little less abhorrence and a little more accommodation for our fellow man.

Cats on the Internet Are Us

by Catherine Breese

Cats on the Internet-5Until recently, I have felt a nonspecific prejudice against cats. Beyond my unpleasant olfactory memory of a couple of my childhood friend’s homes, I have had no negative experiences with them. However, I have always found their reserved uppityness to be off-putting. I like dogs, with their less-than-hidden agendas–pet me, play with me, walk me, yes, I’ll take a snack, and yay, I’m glad you’re home! It’s just so comfortable. Cats are never obvious.

Then, there are the thousands of paradoxically annoying and entertaining pictures of cats on the Internet. Cat videos, cat photos, cat montages, cat memes, mean cat memes, and pictures of cats snuggling with pit bulls and lions–cats are pretty darn popular. Evidently, cats are also not afraid of much. And they look really cute stuffed into boxes or with something stuck upon their little heads.

This summer a cat has come to live in my home. I began immediately to treat it like a dog, which, as any reader with a cat will know, was a stupid move. But I am a dog person. Dogs are wagging bags of love. Cats don’t wag and they seem to have approximately two emotions: disinterest and indifference. In this way, having a cat and having a statue of a cat are very similar experiences, except in the one case you get to clean out the litter box regularly. But before the reader gets the wrong impression that I am some cat-hating snob, let me just say that I actually like our current in-home cat resident. His name is Jake and he came home from college with my daughter. He has long black hair and bright yellow eyes and is very beautiful. This is his greatest (and perhaps only) agreeable quality. Jake bites–not a send-you-to- the-hospital type of bite, just the type to make you stop whatever it is that you are currently doing, which in my case is usually some misguided attempt to pet the cat.

Cats on the Internet-3Jake prefers to exhibit his personality in other ways. For example, he enjoys running figure eights through your legs as you attempt to descend the stairs first thing in the morning, making it almost impossible to do anything other than trip and curse his name loudly. He also wants to be a big part of any home maintenance or improvement project, jumping into any open tub, box, open cupboard door, or drawer and placing himself defiantly in the most inconvenient location. I tried to put a few items into the attic yesterday. Before I had even climbed all the way up with the first load Jake was pushing his way past me on the ladder. When we were trying to paint, he insisted on standing right next to the open paint bucket. When we tried to clean the brushes, he jumped into the utility sink. When you close the bathroom door for some privacy, he claws at the door to come in. When you let him come up on the bed, be assured he is not there to snuggle. Biting your feet through the covers is more his thing. He loves heights and has the weird habit of going into the shower or tub after you leave it to get his feet wet.

What does our dog Pancake have to say about all this cat business? Turns out, not much. Pancake and Jake reached detente very quickly, only a few days after their first meeting. Pancake is pleased to go on about his dogly duties under the pretense that he is the only pet in the house. Jake occasionally executes an unprovoked attack, but Pancake is quite content to simply relocate when this occurs. Pancake remains in denial. For this reason, we love him even more.

Cats on the Internet-6Cats are not quiet. Jake demands to be fed–I am talking downright howling whenever his bowl has been empty for a few hours. Don’t expect a thank you, either. And, on the other end of the process, that litter box thing is a surprisingly stinky nuisance. I am completely convinced that when he “misses” the cat box, it is more vindictive than accidental. We humans learned quickly that one must stay on top of the catbox if you don’t like the odor–and we don’t. The smelly garbage created by cleaning out the catbox was the inspiration behind a genuine hillbilly moment for our family. After a few days the garage garbage can was horrific and we couldn’t take it. Determined to take the garbage to the dump without suffering, Bryan bungeed the black bag to the roof of the car. The first attempt was a dismal failure: the offending bag of poo falling off of the roof before we had gotten 250 yards outside our neighborhood. The engineering team then redesigned a cat poo transportation device (see photo above) to include a hard-sided box strapped on rather than bungeed. It worked significantly better, thus allowing the driver a smell-free ride to the city dump, albeit embarrassingly unaesthetic.

Cats on the Internet-4Among his many entertaining habits, Jake the cat does make a regular escape attempts. Great care must be taken when entering or leaving the house to be sure that the cat stays safely inside (it’s for everyone’s sake, including the birds). When he has gotten out, he doesn’t go anywhere too far. And we take this as high praise, although surely it is not meant as such.

One early morning as Bryan was letting the dog outside, the cat slipped out. Bryan whisper-yelled upstairs,“Catherine! Come down and help me!” I stumbled down in the darkness, barely awake. “Is that our cat?” he asked, gesturing at the glass door.

        “What?”

        “Is that our cat looking in the window?” he said, vehemently pointing at two glowing yellow eyes peering in.

        “Uh…I don’t know. Where is the cat?” Now, this is a question that gets asked all the time at our house–”where is that cat?” But, I got down on my hands and knees and went face-to face with the black cat meowing in the window. (There is another black cat in our neighborhood.) I couldn’t decide, so I just opened the door. It came in, mewing in frustration that it had been left outside for any length of time in the dark. Judging from the complaints and the fluffy tail, we decided the right cat had entered our home. Cats on the Internet-1

Jake will let me pet his head now (not his body, mind you, just the head) and he does like to be picked up. The majority of my dog-brained attempts at showing the cat affection go unacknowledged. Cats are not dogs. They don’t obey any commands and they don’t wag their tails or lick your face when they are pleased. They are damn entertaining, however, as everyone on the Internet knows.

Congratulations, Graduates: Now Get Out*

by Bryan Ward and Catherine Breese

ABS_1605*We published this article previously at about this time of year. Little has changed, and we’d just like to say how much we enjoyed shopping at Kroger this morning, unobstructed by scantily clad co-eds and their omnipresent iPhones and tattooed, flip-flop wearing bevy of boys with their hats on backwards and their arms full of Natural Light. Bye-bye, and thanks for all the inconvenience.

Living in a small town with a medium-sized university has some advantages. At this moment, however, we cannot think of any (unless you consider the wide availability of ping-pong balls to be a big advantage). All I can think today is, “Yay! They’re leaving!” These fine young graduates have taken their exams, sold their textbooks back under the tented street corner, drunk their last cheap beer or flavored vodka drink from a red solo cup, and snap-chatted their final “whoooooo!” pic with all their friends.

ABS_1621Hung over, they have helped their fathers load their unbroken furniture onto a truck while their mothers scoured the counter tops and cleaned out the microwave oven. They have hugged their friends and waved good-bye. Awwwww. So congratulations, Class of 2015. Now, good-bye and get out.

Here are few highlights from the year in review:

Catherine at the garbage dumpster: “You know, kids, the goal is to get the garbage inside the dumpster, not just generally nearby!”

Bryan driving through town: “Look out for that oblivious idiot walking into the street!” Catherine: “Which one?”

Bryan in the backyard: “Hey, maybe you boys down there could take your mouths off the bong long enough to come down here and pick up your dog’s shit.”

ABS_1614Catherine driving through town: “Please ladies, get your tanning-bed orange face out of your iPhone long enough to see the giant two-ton automobile already in the crosswalk!”

Bryan driving through town mid-winter: “I am certain that these kids’ parents sent them to college with an effing coat. It’s 12 degrees out here. Wtf.”

Catherine in grocery store on first warmish day of spring: “Oh, I didn’t know Food Lion was clothing optional.”

Farewell, students. Bon Voyage. And thanks for vacating all those parking spots. Yes, we know a new crop will be back in August, but until then, adieu, adieu, adieu. ABS_1622

The Blue Ridge Parkway: Put It On Your List

by Catherine Breese

Looking Glass Mountain Color 1-101

There are two things Americans are known to love, our cars and our incontrovertible belief in American superiority.  A recent drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina allowed me to indulge briefly in both of those luxuries. If you’ve driven any part of the Parkway, then I don’t need to extol its virtues. If you haven’t, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that it is something you must do.

Graveyard Flat Lower Falls-101Bring your kids, your neighbor’s kids, and your grandmother.  And bring a picnic, because there’s not much in the way of concessions over the 469 mile long ribbon of highway. There are approximated 300 overlooks on the Parkway, so you are not going to get anywhere fast.  What you are going to do is pull over, and pull over again, gawking and uttering something about the uselessness of the English language when it comes to describing outrageously beautiful things.  Stunning, scenic, vast, moving, breathtaking, etc.  All of these words are inadequate.  If you can’t feel something amazing looking across the mountains and valleys of North Carolina and Virginia from high above, well, you must be an idiot.

IMG_0924The Blue Ridge Parkway  was engineered and designed with a the lofty goal of building a limited-access route that offered drivers scenic views, waterfall, and secluded coves, alluding to a romantic American past, the “spacious skies”, the “purple mountains majesty” (or blue in this case) “above the fruited plain.”  Thus, it cuts unobtrusively through the landscape. Maintenance buildings and service areas are hidden from the route, and as you drive it feels every bit like a car ride from the movies.

Ours can seem to be a visionless time—a time when the President dismantles NASA with the stroke of a pen, and we only fix the bridges after one falls down and kills some folks. The Blue Ridge Parkway is of a different time.  Each mile represents a feat of the human spirit and a triumph over both mountain and human opposition.  It is a New Deal project, brought to life during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Conceived as a connecting route between three of our youthful National Parks (Tennessee was one of the original states to benefit from this parkway, but their obstinacy at the negotiation table got them booted from the plan), it put people to work and stimulated the economy.  

As all women know, natural beauty takes a lot of work.

Buck Spring Tunnel-101Beyond the design and engineering genius of R. Getty Browning, Stanley W. Abbott and others, there was the shear feat of making the road through and on top of the Appalachian Mountains.  Hundreds of workers built not only the road but also the many stone retaining walls for the road and overlooks, and they dug 26 tunnels (25 of which are in North Carolina) which, I have learned, were largely dug by hand.  The National Parks Service now maintains 503 miles of road and the Blue Ridge Parkway has been the most visited of all the National Parks since 1946.

George Carlin once asked the question “why do we drive on a parkway and park in a driveway”?  Well, I only know the answer to the first half of that. Because it’s effing gorgeous. The Blue Ridge Parkway is as aesthetically pleasing as Mother Nature can provide, and the human capacity can bring to fruition.  It exemplifies what a public vision, public funding, and a quest for the common good can create.  

If you’re so inclined, here are some links to help you plan a trip.

The Official Map of the Blue Ridge Parkway

National Park Service: Blue Ridge Parkway

Driving Through Time: The History of the Blue Ridge Parkway

Bonus pics:

Catherine and Pancake-101

Jack on the rocks-101