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.


        “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

March Madness: Sassy vs. the Weatherman

by Catherine Breese

Sassy v snowPreviously here at Alta Blue Skies we have expressed our annoyance with the weather forecasting community, specifically, their unaccountability. (See No Accountability: The Best Reason to Get a Career in Weather Forecasting).  A couple of weeks back, our feelings of disgust were reignited. As we crawled along Interstate 81 in a blinding snowstorm, perhaps one of the worst we had ever driven in, we swore an eternal oath of infidelity to weather forecasters everywhere.

We were about 75 miles from home, and we had left that morning having dutifully checked the weather. The forecast was for a high of 45℉ with a slight chance of flurries–nothing that should stick. We left our heavy winter coats, scarves, and hats in the closet and took the fun little car with the low-profile sporty tires. The all-wheel drive sport utility vehicle sat idle in the garage.

Fast forward five hours. It is 25℉ and snowing sideways. Visibility is about 20 feet, and the road is completely snow-covered.  We stare in horror as we pass a tractor-trailer facing the wrong direction in the median.  Several cars share his fate on either side of the single lane of cars slugging along with their white knuckled drivers. Did I mention we were on Interstate 81, a major US north/south throughway?  We are following behind some poor bastard in a Pontiac LeMans who might also have listened to the day’s weather forecast. We hoped he could see better than we could. We knew he couldn’t, but it was irrationally reassuring to believe that he could since he was in the lead.  Lemmings.  We debated staying in a motel in Wytheville, (the high school swim team bus behind us was forced to make this choice) but we had stayed in Wytheville before. That particular trip resulted in the family rule: never stay in a hotel/motel with a number in its name. We decided we would rather sleep in a car stuck sideways in a snow bank huddled together in our  spring jackets than a dirty motel room.

We did eventually make it home safely.  It was dangerous and horrible, and we were entirely relieved when we pulled into the garage. 

PicMonkey Collage 2“I could do better than the weatherman by guessing!” I exclaimed. Yes, I still utilize the sexist term weatherman–although a growing number of TV forecasters appear to be a herd of D-cupped, quaffed women with degrees in meteorology–or as a group, weathermen. (Yes, in my cerebral cortex certain language imprints exist as though I am a 75-year-old man. So, if the term “weatherman” offends, you may want to skip to the end because I am going to use it six times in the next three paragraphs.) Besides, most of us look at apps on our phones or to the Weather Channel’s scrolling news ticker for the weather forecast, rather than look to a human being on the 6 o’clock news team. Semantics aside, I think I can do better than the professional prognosticators by looking out the window and guessing.

Thus began the seven-day contest. Rules for the contest: record the weathermen’s forecast at 7a.m. each day. While driving to work, I dream up the day’s forecast by looking at the current temperature and general weather conditions as I roll along Route 11.  When I arrive at work, I make the forecast.  At the end of the day we record the actual weather conditions for the day and a winner is declared.  I am to purposefully avoid discussions of the weather, radio or TV weather forecasts, or looking at an app. No radar, no barometer, no computer modeling–nothing except my five senses and my car’s thermometer.  Bryan Ward would judge the winner each day.

sassy v wmAt the end of the week, we tallied the results (see spreadsheet). And, in the battle of Sassy vs. the Weatherman, it was a tie. I was right three days, the weathermen were right three days, and one day was declared a draw because we were both equally wrong/right.  Unlike kissing one’s sister, this tie is all victory for me. Oh, yeah! Sweet! Without any special knowledge or equipment, I was right as much as the weathermen were.

Do I think I have some special gift? Absolutely not. I have the same cultivated common sense of any person of my age. So, what’s my point? Weather forecasting is just guessing based on current circumstances, and frankly, the people who do it are wrong a lot. If they were doctors, you wouldn’t go to them for medical treatment.

However, it is hard to predict the weather…except in Hawaii. Weather forecasters are doing the best they can with the information they have. Their regular failure is reminder to us all that failure is a big, big part of life as a human being.  If you are out there in the mix, living life fully, you are guaranteed to fail. And succeed. And fail again. Life’s not like overtime in the Final Four; it’s mostly a tie. Which is sweet.

It’s Not the Blues If You’re Looking Through the Knife Drawer

by Catherine Breese

winter windowLike hundreds or thousands of other people in our part of the country, I have spent the last seven days stuck in my house. (And if you are weary of hearing people complain about this, do not read on.) Knowing that many others share my pain should console me, but it does not. In fact, I would say that I am approximately 100% inconsolable. At this moment, if someone were to say to me that tomorrow offered another day off from work, stuck inside of my lovely new home, I would likely respond by screaming “Liar!” and running off to the laundry room to either A. drink bleach, or B. drown myself head first in the utility sink. I remember that poet Sylvia Plath did the head-in-the-oven thing, but we don’t have gas and I think baking one’s head at 350℉ is not sound methodology. We don’t own guns, so creativity is the call of the day. We have a second floor balcony, but I do so hate the idea of ending up in the emergency room not-dead. We do have some good knives in the kitchen. But these might be more aptly applied to someone other than myself–you know, maybe someone who is watching the seventh consecutive episode of “Mountain Men” on the living room television with the volume turned up so loudly that the actual mountain men could hear it in Alaska.

chairI’d also like to offer a big gratuitous “You’re Welcome!” to the Kroger customers and employees who were entertained by Bryan and me  this morning. I clearly saw the produce supervisor snickering as we “debated” our way through the store. We weren’t “bickering,” or so I am told. However, I’d say we were just like one of those old couples, talking too loudly and taking things out of the cart that the other puts in. “How much was that, $1.79? No, that’s only if you buy six. Well, who the hell needs six of these? You don’t have to buy six of this item–it’s six of anything with this blue label. So we need six, right? No, we already have one so we just need five. I don’t think that other blue label said six. Yes, it did. Etc., etc.”

What else have we got, except for the joy brought to us by scorn and disdain? We have cooked, cleaned, watched endless hours of Netflix and Amazon Prime movies, read books, napped, checked the weather forecast, shoveled, napped, and napped. We even played Yahtzee. Bryan re-caulked the shower. I stained some trim pieces for the new floor and did some plastering. (Yes, I know it’s joint compound; but that fact that I just called it “plastering”stupid bird annoys Bryan.) Then there were all those videos of cats, dogs, and waving bears on YouTube. I deleted all my bad Pandora channels, vacuumed, and organized shoes in my closet. Bryan determined the precise number of photos of birds it takes to make me say the words, “Stop playing with your stupid bird pictures and come eat a salad!”

Last night Bryan said the words, “You know, there might be something to that cabin fever thing.” Uh, ya think? Heeeeeeere’s Sassy!

If all this sounds like a cry for help, it probably is. I am going to work tomorrow. No matter what. I think my family will be safer that way.

bryan sad face

I Just Want Dry Hands

by Catherine Breese

trees and paper towels blendedA recent discussion in my home about using paper towels in the kitchen evolved into a brief and silly argument. The discussion traveled a bumpy, winding route ultimately arriving exactly nowhere. I assume that is how many discussions about our environmental concerns must go. It’s a sticky mess, trying to be good to the earth and make both logical and ethical decisions about the minutia of living: paper towels, grocery bags, cleaning products, car mileage, home improvement construction materials, bla, bla, bla.

One problem with our debate–we do not know enough about how things are made, nor do we understand the actual environmental impact of the products. (That didn’t stop us from debating, of course.) When I did the research, I discovered more anxiety than answers. In summary:

paper towels at Food Lion 1Paper Towels

· Paper towels are convenient and sanitary, but mostly really, really convenient. Who doesn’t love clean, dry hands and no laundry? What else are you going to sop up doggie vomit with?

· They aren’t generally recyclable or compostable (New York Times reports these pilot project exceptions). Paper towel waste is at least some part of the 30% of paper-related waste going directly into landfills. Paper waste takes up valuable landfill space as it decomposes, expiring methane gas and contributing to global warming.

· The production of paper towels uses bleach. A certain bleach called Elemental Chorine is terrible for human health and the environment. Some other bleach called Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) might be less harmful. Either way, a nice bright white color is both the aesthetic ideal for a paper towel and a bad deal for the earth.

· Plenty of energy is involved in the making of a paper towel. Then they are shipped across oceans, or at least across the country to a store near me. Like all things that travel distances to a store, paper towels have a big carbon footprint.

· I almost forgot the biggie–paper towels are made from trees, a lot of them. Yes, trees are renewable. Great! However, humankind is using trees faster than it is replacing them. We need trees as much as we need clean water. In addition to being fun to climb and offering shade, trees absorb carbon dioxide, helping the earth’s atmosphere stay both cool and breathable.

Cloth towels…

· Cloth towels, at least the good quality ones, last many years, thus making them more cost-effective. Surely, a clean dry dishtowel is as pleasant to use in the kitchen as a paper towel, and often works better depending on the job.

· A sparkling spot-free Martini glass can only be achieved through proper wiping with a 100% cotton towel called a “bar mop”.

bag from Kroger· Cloth towels retain bacteria, viruses, and germs; they must be washed often.

· Washing towels uses water—and soap, which is likely to contain phosphates and other chemicals that pollute the earth’s fresh water.

· Cloth kitchen towels, too, have a production cost. Let’s not forget that the fibers used to make them can be organic materials grown using methods either mindful of the environment or sprayed with noxious chemicals. Or, they can be synthetic, made from petroleum products and I know you don’t want me to go down that road.

AND…what about all those paper towels that we devour in our public and workplace restrooms? The paper towel vs. electric hand dryer battle rages on in restrooms everywhere. But in this case, the answer is obvious, and here it is:

official ABS hand dryerThe Dyson Airblade. It is the Official Hand Dryer® of Alta Blue Skies! In the few places that I have used one, it is the most effective, fastest, cleanest all-around super-fantastic electric hand dryer. It uses a clever design of fast, cool, filtered air to whisk the moisture right off your hands. According to Dyson’s figures, it’s 69% more cost effective than other electric hand dryers and 97% more cost effective than paper towels. Their environmental impact is far less than either alternative. Even if Dyson’s figures are exaggerated, it still beats every other choice, with the exception of drip-drying or wiping your hands on your pants. Why doesn’t every business have a Dyson Airblade in their restrooms? Cost, silly. Over the life of a hand dryer, however, this thing is the top monkey in the tree. It’s a must-have item if you want a four-star restroom rating from Alta Blue Skies.

What if there is no Airblade? If you must use a paper towel because that’s what is offered, watch this TED Talk video. A small change in behavior can conserve a lot of trees.

Yes, it appears that drying one’s hands is a perplexing decision. But let’s not get into such a tizzy that we don’t do something to demonstrate our love for the planet. So put down the anxiety meds because here’s what we’ve decided. One, when possible, air dry our hands. Two, we are going to use paper towels for a small number of jobs such as dog vomit or spilled paint, so we will buy the kind made from recycled paper that also doesn’t use chlorine bleach in its production. Today we bought Seventh Generation brand. Mostly, we will use cloth towels. Three, we will spend the extra 20 seconds it takes to shake excess water from our hands before we use paper towels in a public/business restroom.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Earth! We will try to love you the best we can, but as in all real love, it’s complicated.

Are You Okay? and Other Distressing Expressions

by Catherine Breese

Catherine Mirror 2Once someone during your day has said the words, “You look tired,” well, there’s not very much that can make you feel great after that, especially if you’re not particularly tired or you’re feeling just fine. But today an even worse sentiment was uttered to me. A colleague gripped the top of my forearm and inquired, “Are you okay?” Uh, yah. I’m fine. I went into the ladies room to look into the mirror–it wasn’t my very best effort, true, but it wasn’t that bad. I mean you can’t be a ten every day.

In general, I recommend compliments over inquiries for most occasions. You look great! Nice tie! Cute shoes! These expressions at first may seem banal, even disingenuous; nonetheless, compliments generally serve the purpose of making others happy and spreading positivity in the world.

May I see your ID, please?

When I was younger, yet past the age of 21, I thought it was cool to be carded. I no longer feel an ounce of flattery, however. These days, the only time anyone wants to see my ID is to fulfill some misguided attempt to keep America safe from terrorists, to track my purchasing of cold tablets, or to keep less fortunate citizens out of the voting booth. While we’re on the subject of identification, let me say that the last time a store clerk asked me to see ID in order for me to use a credit card was… never. Apparently, we are not too worried about that kind of theft. Meanwhile, Target stores clerks insist on scanning the barcode on the back of my driver’s license whenever I purchase a six-dollar bottle of Sauvignon blanc. Sorry, Target, but you’re not going to get my middling booze money anymore. I can buy crappy wine almost anywhere.

Please call to confirm your appointment.

Listen, I already made the appointment and now you want me to wade through your labyrinthine automated answering system to “confirm” an appointment I successfully made previously. Some time ago, I tried to just-say-no to this bureaucratic nuisance. I refused to play my dentist’s silly little phone call game. When I showed up, he had summarily given away my appointment to someone else and his receptionist, somehow offended at my appearance in their office, sent me away with little more than a dirty look. How dare I just show up on the agreed upon day and time and expect to be seen?

This endless appointment confirming has become standard practice at oodles of places I go and I have been forced to succumb. I do have a doctor who does it by text message. This is entirely tolerable and should be the industry standard.

May I have your phone number?

No, for goodness sakes, no. I don’t want you to call me and I don’t want you to track my purchases and I have a name, which would be a great mode of identification, in case you felt the need to label me. But really, I just don’t like talking on the phone, and we don’t know each other, so, no!

Welcome to ____________. Would you like to try our all beef double bacon jumbo whole-wheat artery blocker?

Nope. And I am terribly sorry that your employer forces you to articulate such utterances.

The doctor will be right with you.

No he/she won’t, and you know it! You’re going to leave me sitting on this table in this cold room without so much as an old magazine to occupy myself. I will gaze off for a while, and spend time guessing what is in the locked cupboards. Then, I will entertain myself by imagining the horrible disease that I may have that has brought me here. I will go over and over my hypothetical conversation that we will have when the doctor finally does come in here. Then I will devise a treatment plan, and finally I will start mentally shopping for rehab centers and/or wigs. Isn’t there a way to wait to see the doctor in the comfort of, say, my own car in the parking lot? You could text me when the doctor is actually ready.

Have a blessed day!

Okay, I know someone is going to take offense at this one, but I just cannot endure this expression. It makes my toes curl. Beneath the word “blessed” there is an irritating little connotative message that goes something like…”I am a fanatical and narcissistic Christian whose feelings of spiritual superiority towards others compel me to suggest with my every syllable that I am one chosen by God to ascend to heaven at the Rapture.” Hey, it’s not that I don’t want blessings. I just don’t think the convenience store coffee lady has the power and authority to grant them.

Ahhh, got that off my chest. I feel better now. Thanks for reading. By the way, you look fabulous!

Suburban Utopia: No Fences Allowed

by Catherine Breese

IMG_0526After years of filing planned subdivisions away in the mental folder labeled No Thank You (“little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same…”), I have arrived at a change of heart. My two-car garage is just the beginning of a long list of minor luxuries that I adore about our new home. Not that I didn’t get a thrill from being outside in the dark, freezing morning, scraping ice off my windshield and dropping my glove into a slush puddle. But climbing into a warm dry car every morning is, well, pretty damn awesome, in comparison. The efficiency, speed, and beauty of my Sears and Roebuck Door Genie as it raises and lowers the garage door makes me feel as though I am a member of the Granthams, or at least the Beverly Hillbillies.

Henry (101 of 1)Nonetheless, the happiest new homeowners in our family are not the people. Our two dogs Henry and Pancake love our new place, especially our backyard which is spacious and green and surrounded by cedar trees. To fully grasp their joy, you must endure the backstory, which is thus. For the last seven years, since we brought them home from the Kanawha County Animal Shelter, they have been walked on a leash. Three walks a day (sometimes four) times seven years equals an approximate 7665 walks on a leash. Most of them involved a lot of pulling as neither dog ever really mastered the command “heel.” And with the exception of a trip to the dog park, or an occasional jailbreak, they have never been able to run around freely. Now, dogs are domesticated animals and I don’t feel a bit guilty about the fact that they have been kept on a leash for most of their lives. In fact, I’m sure that being on a leash has saved their lives many times. But no matter how many hundreds of walks they were taken on, they have never overcome their more beastly instincts to chase squirrels and other small animals (see below) or to just try to dash out the front door, if perchance, some oblivious teenager has left it ajar.

H&PWhen we first brought him home from the animal shelter, Henry had pneumonia. He recovered with the help of a strong batch of antibiotics, climbed off his deathbed, and began pacing around our house like a caged lion. Once the front door was opened, he dashed out. We set out around the area looking for him and discovered him at the home of the Kanawha County Sheriff, where he jumped right up on the man and urinated on him in enthusiasm. The auxiliary dog, Pancake, has never had a thought that Henry didn’t have first, but occasionally Pancake sees some critter that Henry does not. Somewhere deep in Pancake’s complex breeding there must be a voracious rat terrier. Once he got away from me during the height of a winter storm when there was a foot of snow already on the ground and it was falling steadily. I corralled him in the front yard but he zipped by me, barking with glee. (Canis Montani Semper Libre! – Doggie Mountaineers are Always Free!) I was miffed, and so I just sat in the living room, refusing to go out in a blizzard to look for him. A half hour later, a cold and snowy Pancake appeared at our sliding glass door. His posture was submissive, but there was a glint in his eye that no amount of scolding from me could remove.

More recently I took the dogs out for their last walk of the night. There was a flash of movement in the bushes and they ripped the leashes out of my hands before I could adjust for the pull. I smelled it before I saw it and ran screaming back to the house. Henry and Pancake (mostly Pancake) valiantly battled the skunk as though they were something to win. Pancake bit him “right on the skunkhole” (Bryan’s term) and then proceeded to drool and vomit for several minutes.IMG_0088 After a quick look at all the suggested remedies on the Internet and an assessment of the various soaps we had on hand, we settled on vinegar and water and proceeded to give our poor smelly dogs outdoor baths on a 42 degree evening. A fine reward for such bravery! More than three weeks have passed since then. We have thrown away collars, dog beds, rugs, and towels. Pancake has suffered several baths with a variety of products both home remedies and store-bought skunk remover. His head still stinks if you put your nose up close. (Please do not put any magical recipes in the comments section of this article about how to cure the smell–we stubbornly insist that Pancake continue to stink ad infinitum.)

henry close upDespite this incident, we have taken a big step in the dogs’ lives by purchasing an underground fencing system. (Our little slice of suburban paradise comes with a 40-page homeowner’s association rule book—no fences allowed.) We buried the wire, displayed the flags, and read the direction book. Then, we did absolutely nothing for over a week. The training process was daunting and we both felt that it seemed unlikely to work on dogs that come from the stalwart West Virginia breeding stock as our two canine specimens.

Finally we stopped worrying about it failing and started the training. The idea is that for a few days you walk them around the flags and let them hear the beep and then pull them back into the yard and reward them for doing so. IMG_0521Neither dog has a clue what the heck we were doing for three days. Pancake acted as though he didn’t even hear the beep. They were just happy to be outside and receiving so much praise for so little effort. Then on day four we turned on the “static correction” (that’s a pet store euphemism for electrical shock) to its lowest setting and repeated the process. Henry noticed right away when he crossed the line. He acted like a horse fly had bitten him. Sadly, Pancake didn’t seem to even notice he was getting a “static correction.” There is a scale of 5 for the shock: 1 being a gentle annoyance and 5 being akin to the doggie electric chair. Henry learned at 2. Pancake required a 4 to get the idea. It was as horrible as you think it might be as he yelped girlishly, came and sat down right next to me, and looked me in the eye. Yes, now I felt guilty. 

Henry (100 of 1)We have officially, though perhaps tentatively, declared the underground pet containment system to be a success. They have played outside without a leash or a fence for a few days now. They run as fast as they can from one side to the other and Henry can retrieve the Frisbee to his complete exhaustion.

Henry and Pancake are thrilled with their new residence. In fact, they have rejected their Appalachian roguish breeding, evolving into canine suburban snobs. Yes, they are in fact the only dogs in the entire neighborhood that are not registered with the AKC, but they don’t know that. And who needs good breeding when you’ve got a sweet backyard to play in, and a bunch of French doors to smudge up with nose prints, and a soft new doggie bed to sleep in?

Home Buying Ain’t What It Used To Be

by Catherine Breese

fOR sALE WONT BE EASY copyIn 2007, right before the sub-prime mortgage fiasco and economic recession, we bought a house.  We think fondly of those days.  referring to that mortgage as the last sketchy loan made in America. Ahhh, those were the days.  Basically, we picked out a house–Bryan alone qualified for the loan as I had not yet procured a job–signed a few papers and…voila! We were homeowners.  Could we borrow an extra 10,000 dollars above the purchase price to have some foundation work done?  Can we get some cash back at closing? Why yes, of course we could.  Could we lend you more, the bank politely inquired?

This past week we completed, finally, the purchase of a new home, and we are, to say the least, exhausted.  Getting a mortgage today can only be described as a crucible, one designed to push even the most creditworthy, deserving American citizen to the limits of their patience and endurance.

To begin with, we shopped for a mortgage the modern way–on the Internet.  Once we had determined the best interest rate for what we had in mind we proceeded under the foolish notion that our stellar credit, healthy dual income, and modest down payment would carry us over the threshold of our 3-bedroom dream house with ease.  It played out a little differently, though. Of course we pre-qualified easily, getting that useful letter that allows the potential buyer make an offer with only one evening spent scanning and emailing documents.  But that one evening quickly turned into evening after evening of digging up bank statements, scanning contracts and pay stubs, and writing letters of explanation.

Yes, the dreaded letter of explanation.  I had to write two.  The first letter required by our chosen lender was to explain the one—yes, uno—late payment I have ever made to a creditor.  (This isn’t bragging, but we have exemplary credit scores.  Bryan scores in the mid-800s and I’m above 760. Why is his score higher than mine?  Good question. Especially since I pay all the bills and have paid all the bills for the last ten years.  But let’s just say Bryan is a credit score god and I am only a minor deity.)  In point of fact, I did make a car payment 31 days Key in doorlate.  I don’t have a witty story to go with it—I just blew it.  When I figured it out, I called and paid by phone.   But seriously, it is the only late payment I have made as an adult. That is to say, in the last thirty years, I have made ONE late payment. I think you get my point here.

So, when I was asked to write a letter explaining it, I was, well, indignant.  What the hell was the letter supposed to say, anyway?  The dog ate my car payment?  My checkbook was lost in a fire?  My annoyingly incurable honesty kept me from working up something false.  So I wrote the worst explanation ever, a circular little inversion that went something like my payment was late because late was my payment.  It ended with the  line, “Kiss my ass, Bernice!”  but Bryan deleted that part. Apparently my letter satisfied the mortgage broker, who shall remain nameless in this article, except for a shout out to Randell, (Hey! Randell!) our salesperson, who texted Bryan pretty much every day for 45 days.  He really wanted to get paid, and I don’t fault him for it.  

Just a few days before our closing date, came another demand to write a letter explaining my being a co-signer on a student loan.  We had included this loan in our debt disclosure on our application and it also appears on our credit report, and the bank suddenly wanted a letter about it.  Uh, yes, I am a co-borrower on a loan that we disclosed to you weeks ago and that was on our credit report.  Yes, yes, yes.  (For the love of Pete, doesn’t just about everybody have to borrow money for college?) Of course, I wrote the stupid letter. They’re the ones with the big dough and I still wanted to buy my slice of the American pie.  

Some other differences between then and now: before the housing bust, almost all of the extra costs associated with the purchase came out at closing.  Many of them could even be financed.  Those days are over.  Now the appraiser, the surveyor, the inspector, well, just about everybody wants a check long before the names are signed on the closing documents.  Additionally, we were specifically told not to move money around, take money out of savings, or make any major purchase between the contract and the closing.  Then everybody and his brother asked us for money.  We paid them all, enjoying dinners of Ramen noodles and planning our weekend’s entertainment around the question “What can we do that’s free?”

Bottom line–buying this house was not fun. It was complicated and stressful and involved hours of finding, scanning, emailing, e-signing, texting, and calling.  I think we were “Conditionally Approved” at least three different times. I wonder how people who don’t own a scanner and a computer even get a mortgage.  

doggies 1No, buying a house this time around was not fun.  It was so unfun, in fact, that it almost spoiled that obvious fact that we were getting our dream home in a nice neighborhood, something we both, for some strange reason, felt we deserved and had earned.

But it didn’t spoil it. We have named our new home Terra Alta and we are having lots of fun picking out furniture and emptying poorly packed boxes.  We had a minor kerfuffle with our homeowner’s insurance underwriter, but we solved that easily enough by going with another company. Suck it, Drema.  Sassy plays for keeps.

Old Stuff That Works

by Catherine Breese

Sewing womanSince I’ve got fifty-year old eyes and fifty year old fingers and thumbs, I find the talk-to-text feature of my iPhone to be extremely useful. I click the little picture of a microphone and say the words, “Awesome pic exclamation point.” My phone then types these words into my text message punctuating them correctly. And no matter how IRONIC every stand-up comedian thinks it is to talk into a phone for the purposes of sending a written message, as opposed to say, using the phone to make a phone call in which you say the same words directly into the recipient’s ear, I still enjoy the feature and rely on it regularly. In fact, I use Siri and Google Girl pretty darn often. Here are the last five things I spoke into my phone’s two audible search features: 1 “What is the kickoff time for today’s Virginia Tech football game?” 2 “Beer cheese fondue recipe” 3 “Set timer for 20 minutes” 4 “Is Facebook Messenger really evil?” and 5 “Tom Petty’s new record.” Yes, I said record. Nonetheless, the results were immediate and correct.

Yes, the 21st century does not include the jet packs, flying cars, and a manned mission to Mars that I thought it would when I was a kid, but it does have some fairly clever conveniences. And then again, I have noticed lately that many of the tools and machines invented in the 19th and 20th century haven’t changed all that much. Many have added digital chip technology, but some are just as they were, mechanical and electric, and working just fine. The chain saw, the cork screw, the refrigerator (not counting the new enviro-friendly coolant), the vacuum cleaner (don’t even say the word Dyson—still works on the principle of creating a vacuum), the electric hair dryer, the sewing machine, etc.

sewing machineHere is a picture of my sewing machine. It was built by Singer in 1953. I got it out of the suitcase in which it lives, plugged it in, and sewed something yesterday. My mother originally owned this machine. She gave it to my sister many, many years ago, and my sister handed it up to me.

Let the record show that I do not enjoy sewing. I do not sew often…maybe once every seven years or so. I am in no way crafty. In fact, my personal hell involves a trip to Michael’s or Joann Fabric and the word “coupon”. However, necessity inspired a bout of sewing. We are walking in a race during the Highlander festival next month and we need some faux kilts. What else?

Singer adjustment leverI learned to use a sewing machine when I was a twelve. At the time, threading the machine seemed so hard to learn, but I can still do it easily, as though it has burrowed so deeply in my long-term memory that I am sure I will be able to do it even when I can no longer remember how to wipe my face with a napkin. I refuse to lament the fact that today’s kids cannot do this. They can do a lot of things we couldn’t. (Hey, who needs to cook a meal on a stove, change a tire, do simple math in your head, write in cursive, or sew a faux kilt?)

The fact that a machine built 61 years ago not only works but works well, well, heck, that’s just amazing. I work with computers all day in my real-life job. They are all new by comparison. One that is ready to be put out to pasture is about seven years old. My Singer sewing machine has kicked the ass of every machine that I put my hands on all day long.

Singer 1953 coverLook, I’m not bragging. It’s not like I wove the fabric and dyed it myself, but it is pretty surprising when old things work. Aren’t we all surprised when an antique car rolls into the gas station next to us? Maybe we shouldn’t be. That is NOT nostalgia. It is just me saying that sometimes something that is old still works.