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.

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?