Music and Race: That’s All Right, Mama

by Catherine Breese

I thought watching Elvis’s Live Birthday Proclamation on Livestream television would be a kick. I’ve been to Memphis a couple of times, I have toured Graceland and Sun Records Studio, I like Elvis music, and most of all, I find the tacky-kitschy element all too delightful. So when I tuned in on the morning of January 8th, I was hoping for some spectacle and just maybe a glimpse of a crowd of spectators all wearing gold rimmed sunglasses.

I wasn’t disappointed. Also, I learned something.

Here’s what I saw: in honor of Elvis’s 79th birthday—not to mention the 60th anniversary of rock-n-roll music—a proclamation was read by two Memphis officials declaring January 8 to be Elvis Presley Day. A 4-foot tall layer cake was ceremonially cut, and a few people gave brief remarks including Knox Phillips (son of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips), Jenna Bush Hager (NBC correspondent and daughter of George W. Bush), and Wink Martindale (lifelong friend of Elvis, DJ, game show host, remember Gambit?). The ceremony took place on the lawn of Graceland. The temperature was in the low 20s. The emcee’s quip “Even the polar vortex can’t stop Elvis fans from coming out,” drew a big cheer from the crowd. I don’t know how long it was outside, but the cake was challenging to cut into and may have frozen outdoors. The YouTube Elvis-style singer David Thibault’s cheeks were bright pink, and he appeared to have trouble singing the words to “Happy Birthday.” Luckily Jenna Bush Hager was there to help him through. The event was almost dignified, at least more so than I was hoping it would be, and the crowd was not dressed like Elvis impersonators. Oh, well.

Love for Elvis was omnipresent, including on Livestream video where I watched thousands of comments flow by on my computer screen from all over the world, in many different languages, wishing Elvis a “Happy Birthday.” I assume that most of those well-wishers did in fact know that Elvis is deceased and were simply expressing their gratitude and love for his music to the universe at large. It was a tangible reminder of the enduring popularity of Elvis.

Elvis’ adopted home of Memphis, Tennessee, is an important town in the history of American music. Blues music, gospel music, country music, rhythm & blues, and of course rock-n-roll can all trace roots through the city. But the 1954 moment when DJ Dewey Phillips played Elvis’ “That’s All Right” on his nighttime radio show did something much more important than give birth to rock-n-roll (some others have a claim to this as well). It also marked a significant moment in race relationships in the United States.

On the evening of July 5, 1954, Elvis was hiding in a movie theater, avoiding listening to his first ever recording being played over the radio on WHBQ. Wink Martindale was there on the night that Sam Phillips gave Dewey Phillips (no relation) the acetate of “That’s Alright” to play on his Red Hot and Blue radio show. It stirred up a fuss right away and Martindale described Elvis being dragged from the movie theater back to Sun Studios for an on-air interview. The story goes that Elvis was so nervous that he didn’t realize that his interview was being broadcast and asked later when the interview would be.

What’s so groundbreaking? Memphis radio was segregated at the time, both playing and listening. Martindale described that as a DJ at the same station, he wasn’t allowed to play “black music” [his term] on his daytime radio show. He played artists like Perry Como and Doris Day. It was Dewey Phillips’ nighttime show that played what is also called “race” music. This is music by black artists designed for black audiences. He played artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding, and B. B. King.

At the time WDIA, America’s first black radio station, went off the air at night. But they were doing well financially, and advertisers were seeking out the growing marketplace offered by the station. This same year, in fact, WDIA became a 50,000-watt AM station, broadcasting as far and wide as any of the largest radio stations in America. Since they were off the air at night, WHBQ, the station of Red Hot and Blue, was interested in the market, seeking out the evening audience. Dewey Phillips was different; he attracted younger listeners who were both black and white, ignoring color in appreciation for the power of new music. White singers and black singers—black audiences and white audiences. Music was the crossover point. It was a bridge that brought people together, and it became another force to increase the pressure on the larger American society to change its racist laws and practices.

The transcendent power of music is real. You can’t intellectualize it, or quantify it; it is processed in a unique part of the brain, and our ability to describe music in words is quite limited. It is this quality of music that unites human beings in its enjoyment and awe.

Now, I am familiar with some audio tapes released in the last 20 years revealing Elvis to be racially prejudiced person. Fans may not want to know this or to believe it. Nonetheless, our modern sensibilities, no matter how unbiased and well-intentioned, can’t wipe away the pervasively racist history of this country. However, what Elvis did musically was a lot more important than what he said or did in private. His music changed the world of music. DJ Dewey Phillips’s actions, on the other hand, actually changed the world. So, Happy Birthday, Elvis. And thank you, Dewey Phillips.

13 Things You Should Not Talk About at a Party

by Catherine Breese and Bryan Ward

MANNERSRules for polite conversation vary from group to group, culture to sub-culture, but everybody has some guidelines. No one wants to be the bore at a party, so it is good to review some of these guidelines from time to time. Recently, we listened to our favorite radio show This American Life during a long road trip. On this particular episode (link below), the writers at the show challenged the ideas of one of the producer’s mother, who lives by a set of conversation rules. Her list of off-limits topics are these: how you slept, your period, your health, your diet, money, route talk (how you arrived at the party), and your nighttime dreams. We love this list and whole-heartedly agree with it! These topics are gross, tacky, or downright boring.

In fact, we loved the list so much, we have arrived at a few additions:

8. your children

These discussions always turn into a bragging contest ending in someone’s tedious story about early admittance to advanced private kindergarten. Hey, we have kids. They do both wonderful and stupid things, just like yours. Save those stories for family-only gatherings.

9. what’s on our plates

Feel free to compliment the cook or ask for a recipe, but do not instigate a discussion about what we are eating or why. As Dwight Yoakam wisely put it, “You’ll be sorry you asked me the reason…”

10. college football (Oh, yah. We went there.)

Look, it’s one thing if you are in a room with a bunch of folks watching a game on a big TV—that is the appropriate time to talk about football until someone faints from exhaustion or chokes on a hot wing.

11. why we moved here

Hey, if you can’t find anything to like about this town, don’t expect us to.

12. ex-husbands, ex-wives, just exes in general

Again, these quickly devolve into braggadocio. Also, alcohol often acts as liquid truth serum. If exes come up, leave the space immediately or you may learn something that you can never unlearn.

13. your cats

Sorry cat people, but only dog stories are funny. In general, cat stories aren’t even mildly entertaining unless your cat has some obscure talent like opening beer bottles or playing the accordion.

ETAKITSo…what can you talk about?

While a widely accepted rule of thumb is never to discuss politics with strangers, we are okay with politics at a party or dinner. We especially like to talk politics with likeminded people. However, any articulate well-reasoned argument is interesting and enjoyable to us. If you are a Tea Party member, well, we are probably not at the same social occasion anyway.

What else can you talk about? Books you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, an art exhibit, famous people, academics, history (except for the Civil War, ugh!), travel, music, hypotheticals (would you rather…), abortion (just kidding!), architecture, design, your own childhood, favorites (my favorite holiday is…), goals and aspirations, clean energy, water sports, and, of course, dogs or dog adoption.

Remember, good listening is the key to good conversation. Care to share a rule? Please comment.

Link to This American Life Episode The Seven Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About

Wigilia: Hard To Say, Delicious To Eat

by Catherine Breese


Nobody starts a diet on Thanksgiving Day. That’s because Thanksgiving is only the beginning of a month-long season of excessive eating at holiday dinners and parties. Thanksgiving is like the Friday night of the weekend, when the whole weekend is ahead and you eat and drink voraciously, with all the hope and enthusiasm of an 8-week-old puppy. As the season progresses each meal presents itself as a joy and a challenge. Can these pants make it until January 2nd?

Holiday dinners are all about food and tradition and familial love (and anxiety and misery). Traditions are loved, and of course, broken. Holiday dinners are held, paradoxically, in both admiration and dread. Some manage it simultaneously. For example, Seinfeld fans will recall the “airing of the grievances” immediately following the traditional Festivus dinner. In Japan, the theme of Christmas dinner is deep fried and served in a bucket. Courtesy of the successful “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) marketing campaign of the 1970s, KFC has taken over as the Christmas meal in Japan. Go figure, since less than 1% of Japanese people are Christian. In Greenland, where I hear Santa Claus actually lives, one can enjoy Kiviak as a part of his/her Christmas dinner. Kiviak is an auk (bird) that has been fermented whole (beak, feathers, and all) inside of a sealskin under a pile of rocks for 7 to 18 months. And I hesitate to even mention the caganer, a small figurine of a famous person bent over pooping that is hidden in Nativity scenes in Catalonia. Friends are invited to find the caganer in the scene. Through some weird reasoning, it is supposed to be a symbol of fertility and good fortune. When asked about the purpose of such a custom, Catalans answer, “tradition.”

However, Wigilia is all about family kinship and love.

Wigilia (ve gee’ lee uh) is the name for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner celebrated by the Polish. This year we enjoyed the Wigilia dinner and the company, all twenty-six of them, at the home of my sister and brother-in-law. The meal itself cannot be described as anything less than quite a production, with twelve dishes served over a several courses. It takes a full couple of days to wash the dishes afterwards. The blending of custom, religion, fellowship, and lots of delicious food made for an outstanding evening.

The Wigilia evening begins before anyone is seated at the table with the breaking of a thin white wafer called Oplatek. Each person breaks off a small piece of Oplatek and shares it with another while offering wishes of health, wealth, and happiness. The wafer is thin and can be sent through the mail to far away family members. It is also somewhat reminiscent of polystyrene and could or should, perhaps, be considered as a biodegradable replacement for Styrofoam in packaging. (You know me, always looking for ways to make the planet healthier.) Despite the tastelessness of the Oplatek, the positive energy created by all the good wishes sets the tone for a very cheerful table of guests.

Tradition dictates a lot about the dinner. The table is set all in white (symbol of purity of Mary) and there is straw under the tablecloth to call to mind Jesus in the manger. An extra place is set at the table for an unexpected guest, which recalls the Polish expression that “a guest in the home is God in the home.”

Once the meal starts coming to the table, it is important to remember that it’s not about eating as much as you want, it’s about eating as much as you can. If you are not utterly satiated after Wigilia, you are not doing it right. We were served all of the following dishes: white wine, pickled herring, fruit compote, kasha (whole grain buckwheat), makowki bread (bread with a poppy seed paste center—I was warned by the young people at our end of the table against consumption if there was any chance I’d be taking a drug test in the next week), two soups (mushroom and pea), mashed potatoes, mashed cauliflower and turnip, pierogies (If you missed out on this carbo-licious comfort food growing up, it is a dumpling stuffed with potato), and, finally, locally sourced white fish.

The Wigilia meal is a meatless meal by tradition as a result of a long-time Catholic practice of fasting and abstinence on the day before Christmas. The Polish American Center—as well as every other site on the Internet—reports Wigilia to be meatless, although an observant eater may notice that fish is served in two of the courses. Why isn’t fish meat? See below[i] if you care. If you don’t, well, that puts you in a rather large majority. From my perspective, Wigilia is a fantastic holiday menu that can bring people together. It is a meal that vegetarians (skipping the fish), pescatarians (loving the fish), and carnivores (getting their carb on!) alike can deeply enjoy together. Even vegans could eat a few of the courses.

After the huge dinner, everyone enjoys conversation and coffee (or bourbon and dishes in the kitchen). Since the dinner traditionally occurs on Christmas Eve, the family might exchange gifts after dinner and then go to mass. Our dinner was not on the 24th, so our evening ended with a lot of belt loosening and some loud family games of Head’s Up! and Ping-Pong.

But, holiday eating is meant to be heartily enjoyed and then heartily regretted. Ah, success! Now I’m off to the treadmill for some absolution.

[i] Duh. Of course, fish is meat. Fish are living, respiring, baby-having, responsive (sentient, even?) beings. So why is eating fish considered meatless? Canonical Law, written in Latin from which the rules for fasting are derived, prohibits consuming carno or flesh. Again, I’m pretty sure fish have flesh. I read some explanations about there being a theological difference between beasts that roam on the earth (with man) and beasts that swim in the sea. I read another explanation that considers the “cold-bloodedness” of fish as the reason, but this line of thinking only makes me picture frog legs and fried alligator, which no one eats at Christmas, except for swamp men. I’m not picking on Catholics here. There are many religions (Islam, Judaism, etc.) that practice food prohibition of one sort or another, but the Polish traditions seem deeply rooted in Catholicism. Of course, I surely remember that my childhood school lunches always included a square of fried fish on Fridays to accommodate the needs of the Catholic students. I read several sources that suggest a more practical explanation in that fish was a readily available food source in early church history and therefore it was excepted because the poor needed to eat. Ultimately, I have arrived at the conclusion that it is by tradition alone that fish is considered “meatless.” It is the least illogical of all the reasoning I encountered on my silly quest to answer this question.

If you want to make your own church sign, you can at

Don’t Cyborg Me, Bro!

by Bryan WardInsert Chip Here

Don’t get me wrong, I like computers most of the time. I assume that, like everyone else, I have a love-hate relationship with them. When they work with me, I love them; when they don’t, well, I curse their very existence, shouting angry cheap jabs at Bill Gates and/or Steve Jobs. In truth, without computers most of what I do during my day would be much more difficult or even impossible. The thing is—I don’t want be a computer or have one inside of me.

Recently (December 22, 2013) the Pittsburgh Tribune Review published a front-page article about hackers who were cyborging themselves. Yes, you read that correctly. These folks, who call themselves “grinders,” are implanting computers under their skin in hopes of becoming cyborgs. After a .003 second review of the Internet according to Google, I found that a cyborg is a hypothetical person whose abilities are enhanced by elements built into the body. While the Internet describes a cyborg as hypothetical, a ragtag group of grinders who are working in a basement lair of a rented house in southwestern Pennsylvania are actually trying to enhance themselves with computer components they have purchased at the local Radio Shack and from online suppliers.

I find this rather disturbing. First, for the obvious medical reasons: from my perspective, implanting stuff in your body is a bad idea, especially if you are doing in it the basement of a rented house. It just sounds a little unhygienic. Also, their choice of a piercing expert to do the implantation of electronics is a concern. Look, I am no great fan of the medical establishment, but I do not think a “piercing specialist” has the same expertise as, say, a surgeon, when it comes to implants. Finally, I am not sure that any of this is or should be legal.

The whole thing has a real life comic book narrative to it with the basement lair, the enhanced powers, and the talk of improving the future. Don’t worry, though. These grinders are far from creating a super cyborg. In fact, the implant that is being touted in the news story is a small flat device about the size of the palm of your hand. The Bluetooth-enabled device can tell temperature and blink an LED. Not to sound judgmental, but do you really need to build the device, convince a piercing specialist to stick this thing under your skin, and suffer pain and swelling just to find out your temperature? For me, I prefer a thermometer that checks my temperature through my mouth or ear and that I can store in a bathroom drawer. In a pinch, I can also ask someone to see if I feel fevered. To tell the truth I am not even sure if we have a thermometer at home because, well, we just don’t seem to need one very often. Plus, does everything need to be Bluetooth enabled?

I am no Luddite. When I was a kid, I LOVED The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. One of the best presents I ever received was a Six Million Dollar Man action figure. He wasn’t one of those little plastic things either. He was big. You could look through his bionic eye and see the bionics under the skin of his arm and legs. And, I don’t care who you are, you have to admit that the Bionic Woman was just smoking hot.

small closeupI guess I want the Bionic view of the future, where technology, science, and medicine meet to replace eyes and limbs when necessary. This is a future where doctors and surgeons at some university lab build upon knowledge developed over years, where people discuss the ethical and medical ramifications of their actions. I don’t want some well-intentioned nerds hurting themselves trying to add unnecessary mechanical parts to the human body, which is already a pretty cool tool. I hope I won’t ever need a replacement body part. If I do, don’t cyborg me, bro! I’m pretty sure bionics are not covered under my current health plan. And I’m no position to meet the deductible right now.

Odds and Ends II: Year End Closeout Sale

By Catherine Breese and Bryan Ward

DSC_0988 A new year is upon us, and so, in homage to American capitalism, we’re clearing out our shelves and getting ready for the spring line to roll in. Enjoy the pictures and moments of weirdness. Have a warm and happy new year!






CB: “Guess what? I know how to spell nincompoop! Sadly, I don’t know how to spell hygene (hygiene).”

shirts on line

BW: “Wisconsin may be famous for cheese, but every single beer we tasted in Wisconsin was better than any beer we had in Ontario, Canada.”


catherine rutabagaCheckout clerk at Eddie Bauer Outlet store: “And will you be needing any headlamps today?” BW: “Uh, I think we’re good on headlamps.”


CB, purchasing small non-food gift item at Tim Horton’s: “Could I have a bag for this, please?” Disgruntled Counter Server: “Bag? What kind of bag?” CB: “I don’t know. You have take-out food right? How about one of those bags?” Counter Server: “Hrummmmph.”


jack on car

Carty Flora: “I hate zombies. They are ugly and stupid and I do not find them entertaining in any way.”

path through reserve“Clark, I think it’d be best if everyone went home… before things get worse. Clark: WORSE? How could things get any worse? Take a look around here, Ellen. We’re at the threshold of hell.” National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation



BW: “A radio station bought our story on garbage.” CB: “No they did not!” BW: “Yes they did. And you can believe me because I am a professional radio producer.”


CB: “Oh my gosh, did you know Thomas Jefferson is responsible for bring both macaroni and cheese AND the French fry to America? And now we’re all fat. Thanks a lot, Tom.”

BW alley

CB: “What the hell is wrong with that dog?” BW: “I don’t think Henry likes the new Sodastream.”


Heather: “Sorry, kid, nobody’s going to be farming the bunker tonight.” Gabe: “Mom, pleeeeease stop using that expression.”

jack flip

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” Life Magazine motto, from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

What is a yabo? And why don’t they return their shopping carts?

By Catherine BreeseYabos1

During this holiday shopping season, the herd of roaming shopping carts found in many shopping center parking lots is really burning my biscuits. It is just so darn lazy. In general, the cart coral is never more than a few steps away from the place where these yabos (definition below) leave their carts. Here are some measurements: Parking lot aisles are typically 24’ wide (angled lots are narrower) and spaces are 9’ by 18’. So we’re looking at a few steps further than 42’, if the cart corral happens to be in the next row. Even if it is down the aisle a bit, it should be less than 100’ to most corrals. The point is, that’s not very far, especially considering the person who just left his/her cart rolling around the parking lot or with its front wheels stranded on a concrete island, was, in fact, physically able to push the cart up and down all the rows in the supermarket! Returning one’s cart properly to the store or the corral is a matter of civility, of polite and considerate behavior. It should always be done.

We here at Alta Blue Skies have been seeking a new, more rhetorically accurate word to describe the particular type of person who fails to return his/her cart. Our satisfaction landed upon word yabo. Yabo is not an acronym; it is derived from some close counterparts. One is a Japanese word meaning uncouth or unmannered person; another is an Australian expression meaning something akin to the word redneck. The British have yobbo, which equates with the word ruffian, as well as yob, a dolt or unpleasant person. The Urban Dictionary defines yabbo as a person considered to be obnoxious, stupid, or useless.

Our usage is as follows: a yabo is an uncouth, uncivilized, person who is somewhat lacking in good sense. (That extra “b” is just silly, and it’s our coinage so we’ll spell it our way.) A list of synonyms might include the word redneck, but yabo does not carry all the baggage of that particular expression. Yes, there are plenty of Americans who wear that moniker proudly—and we defend their right to do so. A yabo, however, may be from any part of the county, live in any neighborhood, be of any color, any size, any heritage or background. Yabohood is more inclusive than exclusive.

Some generalities include the following: Yabos are often rude, but not on purpose—yabos are not mean or vindictive (with the exception of their behavior at sporting events). Yabos Yabos2are attracted to anything large and loud, while they are repulsed by nuance, ambiguity, or paradox. Yabos break things. Then they fix them with duct tape or an “out of order” sign. Yabos say stupid things, but they rarely have genuine ill-will toward others. Yabos lack self-reflection. Yabos, of course, do not properly return their shopping carts. Yabos live by the motto, “It’ll do.” The official yabo cheer is “woooohooooo!” You get the idea.

We like the word and are working diligently to get it into other people’s vernacular. If you’d like to help, please do so. And remember, always return your shopping cart.