Setting Mom Free

by Catherine Breese

IMG_1689It comes as a huge relief to a child when a parent with Alzheimer’s or advanced dementia finally dies. You do not cry, not even in private. You are not depressed. You are effective at work. In fact, you might even be a little more focused and able to enjoy your day in a way you could not when your mother was alive.

It’s probably off-putting to some people. We all have an idea of how we are supposed to act when someone we loves dies, and we know others expect us to behave in a certain fashion. However, we experience the loss of others only through the window of our own loss. People seemed to feel about my mother’s death the way they felt about their mother’s death, no matter the situation. Those that lost their mother’s early in life or in a tragic way make a long excruciated breath when they utter their condolences. And they almost always talk about their loss. I have little in common with those who had a best friend relationship with their mother, or those who languish in the romantic tragedy like a scene from a grocery-store novel.

Despite the fact that mom died in February, I lost her a few years back. I have had plenty of time to grieve. In fact, the last few years with mom haven’t been much except grieving and anguish. So, it should not be surprising that the end brought respite to my sister and me, and to many of mom’s close acquaintances.

Life, like death, is socially messy. We all do our best. It is not that no one knows the right thing to say, it’s that there really isn’t a perfectly right thing to say. I do find comfort in others’ expressions of compassion, regardless of how awkward or eloquently stated. Loss binds us together as a human family.

So does the necessity of dealing with the more practical aspects of death. My mother’s cremated remains reside on a small table in my kitchen. I remember my mom being in the kitchen a lot, so I believe she would be content in the center of our family activity rather than on the mantle, or in a closet. The urn is a beautiful sea blue metal one that I purchased on, where you can buy pretty much anything these days. I was both grateful and lucky that when we drove to Ohio to pick up mom’s ashes, the funeral director offered to transfer them into the urn for us. He took mom’s box and the urn and disappeared, returning a short while later with only the beautiful blue urn, just a bit heavier. I was envisioning some terrible scene in our hotel room where ashes were spilled and chaos ensued. Didn’t happen.

In June we are traveling to Florida to set mom free. Like my father, my mother loved water, boats, and swimming, so I think she would be pleased. I have purchased a special biodegradable container used for water interments. It is a simple design: water-soluble plastic liner, biodegradable cardboard, no tape or glue. The ashes sink within a few minutes and the container dissolves. “Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me! And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea…” I imagine that we will play some music or maybe even sing mom out to eternity. It will be lovely. And legal, don’t worry. You can dispose of cremated remains three nautical miles from shore. However, I will actually have to transfer the ashes from the urn to the new container on my own. I have read that this can be disturbing, but I know I can do it. I got my fortitude from my mother.


Crossing the Bar by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Like a Rug

By Catherine Breese

lier lier“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” This quote is often attributed—on the Internet—to Vladimir Lenin, and, although he may have said something like it, he didn’t say it first and those weren’t the precise words he used. Some people attribute it to Hitler, some to Goebbles, and one source attributes it to Isabella Blagden in her1869 novel The Crown of a Life. None of these people said exactly this in writing. Why am I sweating this? Hey, I don’t want to start off an essay about lying by telling one. Basically it means that if you tell a lie often and vehemently, it will become accepted as true. Telling this type of lie is a technique of the propagandist. And it is a technique of our President. The spokespersons he has surrounded himself with employ it as well. In articulating the “alternative facts” that hold together the architecture of Trumpland, they perpetuate some lies that deeply concern me. They should probably concern you as well.

Look, people tell untruths and exaggerate every day. They lie to make their way through life, to survive, to enrich themselves, and to enliven their existence. Lying as an unfortunate fact of life: I brushed my teeth, I emailed you my essay, I’ll be right back with your order, the doctor will be with you shortly. These lies I get. I don’t like them, but they don’t disrupt my opinion of mankind or my grip on reality.

Then there is the lying of politicians. We not only accept lies from politicians, we expect it. It’s a team sport. We ignore or forgive the lies of the fella we like and become furious over the lies of the fella we don’t like. This is not the kind of lying that concerns me now.

liesFirst, let’s talk about quantity of the president’s lies. Our President seems to be lying only when his lips are moving. During the campaign he lied 70% of the time, according to PolitiFact. (Hillary, judged on the same PolitiFact scale, lied 26% of the time.) Since taking office his lying streak has continued. According to the Washington Post, which is keeping a running tab, he has lied 190 times in his 43 days in office. That’s 4.4 lies per day. You doubt it is this high? Let’s say they are off by half because of bias. That’s still a barnyard of bullshit, much more than your average politician.

Second, there is the quality of the lying. The President and his spokespeople deliver a prodigious combination of absurd hyperbole, outright untruths, and those big lies, which are more dangerous. In terms of variety and quality, they are, by the Charlie Sheen definition, totally winning. We see the hyper-hyperbole often from Donald Trump: “Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life…” [i]. And “I’m a very big person when it comes to the environment. I have received awards on the environment.”[ii] These are just silly. He can’t help but talk about himself. His untreated narcissistic personality disorder causes these compulsive fabrications. As the Donald would say, “Sad.”

type fake newsBut here is the kind of lie that’s going to really screw with American democracy: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” This lie and the many, many times he has called mainstream media “fake news” is that big kind of lie in Lenin’s misattributed statement. The more he says the words “fake news,” which he does with clock-like regularity, the greater the distrust grows. Who can we even read? Who can we listen to? They are all lying, unless they happen to support the world view of Donald Trump.

And I am compelled to point out the irony of his hatred of the media—it is the mother who birthed him, especially in the case of CNN, whose endless and nauseating coverage of Trump during the campaign pushed him with gale force winds directly into the Whitehouse. Well, that, and the Russians.

Have you reassessed your news outlets since the election? I know I have. I am reading more and trying to get out of my silo. But in the end, if I am to find truth in the news, I must use my good judgment, my public school and state university education, and my ability to make critical observations. So, we must continue, no matter how excruciating it is, to read and watch the news.

Ultimately, without a free and fair press, Americans will not be able to make good decisions based in reason. The main stream media isn’t fake. It’s biased. It always has been. The news is a commercial enterprise, supported by subscriptions and advertising. There is a natural opposition between the inclination to report “truth” and the desire to please readers/viewers. Journalistic integrity is supposed to keep things tilted towards the pursuit of fact. Journalists, this puts the weight on your shoulders. You can make the ship right if you continue to seek the truth above all else. Democracy depends upon it.

trump and cupidSorry, but I can’t wrap this up without mentioning the Congressional Address of Tuesday evening, widely lauded by the “fake news” media as a triumph of normalcy and a big victory for the Trump Whitehouse. The President sounded just so presidential! He called for unity—oh my goodness! He talked about fixing our crumbling infrastructure, something both parties agree upon. He used Canada as an example of how we might alter our immigration laws! He talked about keeping Americans safe and preserving the middle class. He talked about repealing and replacing Obamacare, not simply repealing it (Who knew healthcare was so complicated? Uh, everybody.) Did the speech contain lies? Absolutely.[iii] But they were the type of lies we Americans are used to hearing in a political speech. Yes, it was wildly successful speech because he seemed like a normal politician. Here’s my instinct, though. The speech was a glitch, an anomaly. He can’t help but return to himself, and he can’t help but tell a lot of lies a lot of the time. It’s what he does.

It’s the job of the journalist to continue to do the hard work of looking for and reporting the truth, or as close as we can get to it, even when Americans are tired of hearing about it, and especially when the man who holds the highest office is feeding the country horse shit day and night. Journalists, we are handing you a shovel and asking you with sincerity, please keep shoveling.

[i] Press conference, 16 February 2017

[ii] Remarks to business leaders, Jan 23, 2017

[iii] See Washington Post

What Good is a March?

Catherine Breese

PoleroidLast Saturday I got to hang out with about a half a million like-minded people, many in crafty little pink hats[i], in Washington, DC. Did it change the world? For a moment, yes. Did it change me? You betcha.

500,000K is a scary sized crowd, especially if you’re claustrophobic or in any way afraid of trampling. Kindness, however, was the rule of the day. Even as we were trapped at a bottleneck, nose to nose with winter coats and signs and people of all shapes and sizes, no one chirped a complaint, and each person waited patiently as a way out was orchestrated.

lockedpottiesSome other things about the Women’s March on Washington: Yes, there were rows and rows of locked port-o-potties. I have my investigative team on this story, but it was a major inconvenience. Scenario 1: they were all full after the inauguration—seems unlikely. Scenario 2: they were locked as a cruel joke—Where do half a million women urinate? Not in these port-o-potties. Scenario 3: The organizers only paid for a certain number of potties and the rest were locked by the company. This seems as likely as not. Also, totally not cool.

No matter. I waited with my friends and my daughter and we waited and waited. Women are talented at many things—one of them is waiting in line for a damn toilet! No pity necessary. The women in my line talked and danced and passed out tissues and hand sanitizer. Friends were made. men of quality

Bikers for Trump, yes, they were still there the day after the inauguration, with their kick-ass sound system playing loud Southern rock (hey, only some of those songs are racist and sexist). My pink-hatted co-marchers took pictures in front of their sign, chatted with them, and danced to the music. A good time was had.




Speeches? I watched them all on YouTube. We couldn’t get anywhere near enough to hear the speakers.(Check out Ashley Judd’s and Alicia Key’s–they are inspiring.) The fact that we couldn’t get near the speaker stand is testament to the size of the crowd. And we were not entirely without speeches. We were entertained by a woman speaking impromptu on the edge of the Capitol Reflecting Pool. She was bragging all about the size of her sign, the ability of her sign to make America great again, the tremendous beautiful people looking at her sign, and how her sign will pay for the wall. I adore you, funny lady at the reflecting pool.

pinkforgirlsSo, what good is a march? Marches embolden the people who attend. Marches also send a message, “Hey, you’ve got a lot of unhappy citizens out here and we are going to make our voices heard against your flimflammery.” Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address these words: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

I encourage those who stand befuddled (this is the word Kellyanne Conway used) at the three million women across the county who came out of the cozy homes, dressed for winter weather (Alaskan women, you showed up like a blaze orange purse at a black tie ball! Thousands marched despite falling snow in Anchorage and -19 degrees in Fairbanks) to chant slogans in the streets. Please keep in mind Jefferson’s caution against oppression. Yes, majority rules.[ii] But there is the ever-present duty to defend the marginalized people of American society. That duty is ours. Poleroid

[i] Samantha Bee got it: You’ve got to have a craft, if you want white women to come out and march.

[ii] ”Hey, ho, gerrymandering has got to go!” Catherine Breese

Low Yellow Dirt*

by Catherine Breese

*What is the opposite of Alta Blue Skies? Low Yellow Dirt.

Trump stay tunedI have officially, I guess, decided to resurface. On November 8, 2016, I found it necessary to go deep undercover. Operation: It Didn’t Happen involved staying entirely away from all TV news, Internet news, Twitter, Facebook, podcasts, newspapers, and all fellow humans conducting any conversation that didn’t involve banalities such as tire tread wear, weather prediction (avoiding any reference to climate change), recipes that are made with beer, just beer, and the Netflix series Stranger Things. These I could handle. The bulk of my human willpower was busy burying down deep a mélange of depression and anxiety for which written language is entirely inadequate. I was all Sound Garden and Alice in Chains. The color chartreuse. The smell of fermenting garbage at the landfill. Globs of wet sand in the bottom of my bathing suit.

And finally there was the wholly horrible lifting of the veil.

Don’t misunderstand…I was completely willing to pretend for the next 1459 days that Donald J. Trump was not elected as President of the United States. I would take up ceramics, do yoga, write a fan fiction novel set in Yoknapatawpha County, join a committee at church, refurbish furniture, train for a half marathon, get my guitar out of the closet, and make scented soy candles. I would do anything other than think about America and Americans.

trump lemonUntil a few days ago that is.

Lee Camp straightened me out. I was listening to Redacted Tonight podcast that was a couple of months old (before Trumpocalypse). Camp was telling a story about going through TSA security screening. He refused to go through the full body scanner used in this particular airport. Full body scanners are those giant silly machines that travelers stand inside of creating a rather naked-ish picture of their body and objects on it. This picture is viewed by an underpaid TSA agent and recorded by the government, thus clearing the traveler of suspicion of terrorism and relieving him also of the human dignity he brought with him to the airport. Lee Camp simply refused the machine, which you are allowed to do. If you refuse, you submit to a personal full body physical pat-down and wanding. Anyway he refused. And when asked why, he said “…well, because…fuck them!”

When I heard this story I laughed so hard that I broke the bucket of sand in which my head was shoved. In case the connection is not obvious, here it is. Trumps vangogh

Just because I have taken an ice-water bath and opened my eyes after to admit, out loud, that those whom I previously believed to be of good will were instead vindictive; that white nationalism is still a thing; that some people will vote off their nose to spite their face (West Virginia, please, I’m not defending you anymore); that some people really DON’T CARE about integrity, honesty, or the planet earth; that America is comprised of an actual voting majority[i] of idolizing lemmings, calling themselves proud Christians while worshiping not Christ but a fascist, narcissistic, sexist, racist, wrinkly orange television reality-show star who will show his followers not the love of Jesus but the sharp sword of Wall Street-humping plutocracy…and just because I have recognized the veil as lifted does not mean I have to be okay with who I see.  I can say, well, fuck them.

So, I shall.

I’m not transformed or anything. I still believe that we can all get together and agree on a bunch of stuff and maybe save the world from nuclear destruction. That’d be nice. Amen and Kumbaya and Hare Krishna and gesundheit.  But I’m saying now that Alta Blue Skies is going to the left, to the left, everything you own in a box to the left.

So. Yah.

[i] I’m well aware that the popular vote went the other way by roughly 3 million. But that’s not how you win elections in America. The Electoral College is a problem, but probably of less significance than the absurd primary systems of both parties, questionable security of the voting system itself in various states including mine, gerrymandering of voting districts, and the omnipotent corruptive power of money in our elections.

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.

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


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 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.