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.

Geocaching—Get Out Your Fedora, Whip, and GPS Device

by Catherine Breese

Bryan lookingI don’t remember how we heard about geocaching the first time, but we loved it from the get-go. It involves cognitive exercise, bodily feats, teamwork, and, my favorite part, celebration.

Geocaching is cool, and we want all our friends to try it. Geocaching is like a Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino. Before you’ve had one, you don’t know what the hell it is. Then you have one, and boom! You’re hooked.

What is geocaching? Well, it is an activity—not really a game and not really a competition, although there are competitions and you can make it quite competitive if you choose. It’s something like treasure hunting for techno-nerds. Anybody with a smartphone or a handheld GPS device can geocache.

boysHere’s what you do. You go to a computer and you look up the location of hidden boxes called caches. You write down their GPS coordinates and any other clues offered by the person who hid the cache. Then you get some friends or family members together, get in your car, and drive to the closest parking area. Everybody piles out of car and the search is on. Some caches involve big hikes and some caches are hidden just steps away from your vehicle.

Typically you can get within about 25 feet of a location with your device, sometimes closer. Then it’s all brain and/or brawn. You look under rocks, up in trees, inside old logs, under overhangs and in the rims of discarded tires. Easy finds take only a few minutes; difficult ones can take an hour or more. Eventually, someone finds the cache and everyone one else either groans in disappointment or screams in delight.

CacheAs an aside, there is no actual treasure involved, no gold bullion or ruby necklaces. You have to be excited that you found something hidden. On one occasion we were traipsing around the wilderness when a nearby homeowner warned us that there were bears “up in there”. We persisted in our quest, albeit more loudly than we might otherwise have. When we found it, we celebrated not only finding the cache but also avoiding being eaten.

Inside the box there is a list or book to sign with your name and date. Sometimes there is other stuff too: small toys, coins, or objects that you can keep, as long as you replace it with some other small object. (The cache we found this morning had a $1 bill–we saw it as a test of our character and, of course, we left it.) You return the box to its hidden location for others to find. That’s all there is to it. Occasionally, you can’t find the cache. A consensus is reached that it either isn’t there or the clues were wrong…it could never be the intellect of those searching, at least in my family.

Sometimes people who happen to be in the area wonder what the heck you are doing. Those people are called “muggles.” You are not supposed to talk to them. Other geocachers know what you are up to, but watching a large group of people dig around under a pine tree in a roadside picnic area might be a pretty darn entertaining sight to the uninformed.

handIf you want to try it, we recommend the Garmin etrex 10, a handheld GPS unit that sells for about a hundred bucks. We have been very successful with it. The battery life is superior and it works everywhere, with or without 3G/4G cellular coverage. (Use our link to the left to order it from Amazon.com!)

If you like apps, go with Geocaching by Groundspeak, Inc., available in the iTunes store and on Google Play. There is a free version, but we bought the $9.99 version, which worked beautifully. This app coordinates with Geocaching.com. Remember that using app picGPS on your phone is a battery life sucker. Make sure at least one member of your party doesn’t use it, so someone can still call 911 if one of you breaks an ankle or gets lost in a corn maze.

Geocaching has something for almost everyone, except the most incurable sour puss, to enjoy. So get out there are try it. Yes, we mean you.


Alta Blue Birthday

birthday Cake final

This week’s episode comes in two parts, one from Bryan and one from Catherine.

Happy Anniversary Alta Blue Skies, and I Mean That

By Bryan Ward

As I write this, I am in a horrible mood. I rarely get this cranky, but Catherine has confirmed my state of mood most fervently. She is right, of course, but she better watch it or I will be forced to keep my unrelenting bitching and complaining to myself.

Why is my mood so awful? Maybe it’s the weather, which has produced three days of rain interspersed with periods of foreboding clouds. May be it’s the stale convenience store coffee. Or, the screaming kids across the campground that just won’t shut the @#$#&^ up! Or it could be the male authority figure feigning to be the children’s caretaker as he plays a really bad guitar while the kids fight at the top of their lungs. Maybe it is because I feel really old today because of the fact that I want those damn kids to “stay out of my yard.” A cow has been bellowing in the distance for hours, he/she obviously shares my distaste for the screaming kids and the wounded guitar. It is never good when your first thought in the morning is “what is wrong with those people?”

While the campground Bumpasses are contributing to my current mindset, it is not they who are the root of my dismay. I am acutely aware that my discontent comes because travel season abruptly ends tomorrow when we all go back to work at regular jobs like regular Americans. The only thing to placate my restless spirit would be another year on the road.

The past year has been truly remarkable. We have traveled bunches of miles and visited bunches of places. We have seen the sublime, obscure, awe-inspiring, and downright disgusting. We have pushed the limits of what I thought we could do, or probably even should do. Homeless and adrift is not necessarily good for most relationships, but it works for us. We travel well together, which is nice, so we’ve got that going for us. The more time we spend together, the more I like her. I will miss spending every waking moment with her the most — except for bathroom breaks — we aren’t gross like that.

I guess I will head off to work tomorrow. However, I will not promise to be a rosy piece of sunshine. I will promise to search for the next great place to travel and to keep looking for adventure.

I now am going out to throw rocks at the Bumpasses. Let the adventure continue. As Samuel Beckett sort of said, “…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”.

An Anniversary Toast(s)

by Catherine Breese

I don’t know how it happened but somehow a whole year has passed. That’s the way life seems right now to me–as though I’m on a train watching out the window. It is accelerating as it races across the wide-open American plains. The world appears a blur.

When I was younger, this part of my life seemed forever away, and now I’m old-ish and the moment is real. But there is still a ways to go, I suppose, before the train pulls into the station. We have no choice but to do our best to make the world slow down just a little bit during the really good parts, to stop the blur long enough to savor the moment. This year has brought so many good parts, I happen to be feeling rather lucky right now.

Alta Blue Skies is one year old. We plan to have cake and champagne but for now I am raising a cup of gas station coffee outside of a KOA campground and making some toasts.

Here is to one damn good year.

Here’s to Bryan E. Ward, Jr., my fellow traveler, my co-worker, my staff photographer, and the lifter of all things heavy.

Here is to Canada. You have played a big part in our year and we are grateful for all things Canadian, except the beer. (It is boring and expensive, but nobody’s perfect and we wouldn’t want you to become conceited.)

Here is to the Wojdas, the Libertys, the Elmores, the LePontois, and Breeses who put us up and put up with us when we had no home and when we just wanted to stay.

Here is to the KOA Natural Bridge with your white chickens, your red wheelbarrow, and your rain. You’ve got all the ingredients for a cool poem.

Here is to you, our kind readers. Thanks for coming to our page. We appreciate it. Keep up the good work. And, please order something from Amazon using our link. No really.

Well, I Didn’t See That Coming!

By Bryan Ward


As is often true in life, the best things come out of the blue. Recently, we rented a pontoon boat that was described by one of our guests as “just the right amount of crappy.” The description was accurate. But in defense of the Little Red Bay Marina, what type of boat would you rent to a group of people who walked in off the street and plunked down some cash to take a boat out for the day? The whole idea almost fell apart when the kind young man at the counter asked if someone had a boater’s license. Luckily for us, the whole matter could be rectified with cash-in-hand and a checklist of things that we promised not to do. While all of the red tape was being taken care of and the nudge-nudge-wink-wink of the things we promised not to do were checked and initialed, the young man pointed out the window and said, “if you go over by that island, there is a shipwreck about 100 meters off that dock.”

Needless to say, I was quite intrigued and 100% willing to ruin everyone’s day by spending hours searching for a shipwreck that some guy in a boat shop (one who was silly enough to rent a boat to us) offhandedly suggested.

Now, truth be told, I never expected to find the above-mentioned shipwreck, but all I knew was, we were going to look for it. So, after some watersports and tooling around in the old party barge, affectionately dubbed The S.S. Tub-o-Lard, we went to search for the wreck. Contrary to all likelihood, we drove right up to it. It was exactly where we were told it would be. While the thrill of chase was short, the ship’s wooden skeleton resting on the bottom of the lake was beautiful. Below are several pictures of the wreck we took while snorkeling. We later learned the ship may be the Sara, which sank in the 19th century off Little Red Bay Harbor in Lake Huron. We, like the sailors on the Sarah when she sank, really didn’t see it coming. Their really bad day made for a really great day for us.


sarah-shipwreck 02sarah-shipwreck 05sarah-shipwreck 07sarah-shipwreck 08sarah-shipwreck 04sarah-shipwreck 09sarah-shipwreck


Fire, Bad

by Catherine Breese

fireI have a burning question. Why do men love fire so much? Not just fire itself–which suits only a certain category of psychopath–but anything at all to do with making fires, building fires, lighting lighters, playing with matches (despite all parental instruction to the contrary), lighter fluid (they buy gallons of the stuff) and, of course, the pinnacle of all fire-related enjoyment, the firework. Men love fireworks, a lot more than women do. All the Title IX funds in the USA are not going to balance this one out. Yes, I’m sure there is a woman or two out there who share the enthusiasm for flames, but I purport that if you put two men in a room (gay or straight) with an incendiary device of any kind, one of them will light it and the other will suggest an object in the room that could be set ablaze. When the Chinese invented fireworks a few thousand years ago, I can assure you there was not a woman for miles.

Fireworks 2This isn’t criticism–it’s just a puzzling observation. Hey, fireworks are dangerous. Not a July 4th has gone by during my lifetime that the local newspaper hasn’t published an article about a young man who blew off a few fingers or received burns requiring hospitalization while using fireworks. These stories are meant to be didactic, designed to scare young people into having common sense. However, what most Americans seem to believe is that this one injured individual is exceptional; he is nothing more than collateral damage in the battle for fiery flaming fun.

When I was a young, more than a few of my teenaged male friends received scarring burns from a little game of shoot the bottle rocket at one another. In my own family (two female children), we girls were allowed to play with sparklers and attend publically sponsored fireworks shows run by professionals. Fireworks 3My dad, on the other hand, had a different set of rules for himself. A high school principal, my father occasionally confiscated illegal fireworks from rule-breaking students (M80s and H100s were the popular models). Yes, he brought those loud nuisances along on our lakeside vacation and set off every one. He was not alone. My uncle never failed to purchase some giant box of glorious danger with all of the instructions conveniently written in Chinese. Strangely, it was claimed that these fireworks were for the entertainment of the children, but we children were not allowed anywhere near the fun of lighting the fuse.

Recently, I was in a Canadian bakery purchasing some delicious sugary baked treats. The baker reminded us that it was actually the 4th of July, and if we were good Americans we would set off some fireworks in celebration of manifest destiny and American imperialism. We agreed. So we immediately set off for the Gift Bowl, a beachside junk store where one can purchase highly dangerous and probably illegal fireworks alongside of assorted other inflatable toys and hand-crafted wool blankets and socks. photoMy enthusiasm for the whole fireworks thing was minimal at best, but I have always wanted to try one of those Chinese lanterns that are illegal just about everywhere because they have frequently burned down forests and homes. They look so pretty, though. So, foolishly, (sorry ladies) I not only allowed the purchasing of a large wad of fireworks, I actually paid for them. I did get my lantern, however. I had nothing to do with the selection of fireworks, which seemed to take the two males involved very long time. Additionally, a big boom item was purchased–you know those loud bangs that reverberate through your chest and make lantern 2you a wee bit deaf for a couple of days?

When it got dark my 15-year-old son took a Roman candle outside. I don’t know exactly what happened, or what a Roman candle even is, but all I know is he came back in rubbing his hand and saying he was done with the fireworks for the night. Of course, we couldn’t have that! So, the elder male of the house gathered up the fireworks, set up a camera, and set out to celebrate American Independence Day with additional fire and injury. Well, let’s just say that fireworks were lit, there was a pause, and then a really big boom. Another long pause and then the door opened and everybody slogged back inside. Here is a direct quote: “They should put better directions on those things.” Me: “Do you need ice?” Elder male: “No…oh, give me the damn ice.”

It may have been evolutionally advantageous to be a caveman (cave dweller?) who could start a fire, but it’s just silly now. Our human attraction to fire is inexplicable.

Okay, so in summation, fire is bad. Women are burned a lot less often than men. Fireworks are pretty, though. Sometimes beauty hurts.

Alta BLue Fireworks final

Staycation? Um, I’ll Pass

by Catherine Breese

Radford Staycation-0016When the economy tanked a few years back, some optimist dreamed up the “staycation”–a break from work in which you stayed in your hometown and enjoyed all it has to offer in lieu of traveling. Over the past Memorial Day Weekend we decided to try our hand at the staycation. A real vacation requires saving, planning, and preparation. A staycation requires little, other than willpower. Rules we followed: 1. try something new, 2. no leaving town, not even to the next town over, and 3. have vacation-like fun. Pretty simple really.

Memorial Day Celebration RadfordLet me confess that I am convinced that the staycation is a flawed concept. Only a fool believes that you can have the same kind of fun and relaxation at home that you can someplace else. Remember sleepovers when you were a kid? It was far more fun to go to someone else’s house, eat someone else’s food, and be yelled at by someone else’s mom than it was your own. Plus, when you travel, you get to put aside your daily agitations. Nobody organizes closets or scours the kitchen sink on vacation. On a staycation you have to pretend that normal household chores do not exist. And you have to act like mediocre food at mid-priced restaurants in your own town is somehow as fun and delicious as mediocre food at a different mid-priced restaurant at, say, the beach. It’s not.

Catherine and Jack 1The vacation-simulation-like highlights of the weekend included antiquing, bike riding, kayaking, a formal dinner, an uninspiring meal out, and a failed museum tour (The Glencoe Museum was closed–yes, closed, on a holiday weekend. Picture of the exterior is below). The highlight of the weekend was “fancy Sunday” in which we put on our best clothes and ate upscale food (lobster bisque, caviar, etc.) from our antique china in our very own back yard.


Fancy SundayHere’s the breakdown, as I see it.

Pros of the staycation:

● don’t have to worry about bedbugs or the unhygienic practices of other travelers

● no long car ride; no unpleasantries with NSA-trained airport security people

● don’t have to unpack your suitcase when you return

● much lower cost (unless you go wild at the mall or on Amazon.com)

● don’t have to worry about forgetting your toothbrush or losing something valuable

all the comforts of home

House FinalCons:

● no pool

● no room service or cleaning service

● hometown rather disappointingly boring–some shops in Radford, Virginia, actually closed on Memorial Day weekend. I am reminded of a few John Denver lyrics that go “Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio… well I spent a week there, one day. They roll up the sidewalks precisely at 10, and the people who live there are not seen again.”[i]

● nothing to brag about when you return to work

Winner? Vacation—by a mile. Hey, don’t get me wrong. It was a fun weekend. But it lacked the sparkle and excitement of going someplace new. Yes, the bathrooms were cleaner and the cocktails were much cheaper (and properly mixed), but the sense of adventure just wasn’t there. Vacations are worth saving for. Staycations are for people that have to take them.

[i] Oh, don’t even try to make fun of me because I know some John Denver lyrics. Everyone knows “Country Roads” and I’ll bet a buck you can sing the first line to “Annie’s Song” as well.

A Sharp Roadside Attraction: The Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum

By Bryan Ward

000bryanAs I have written before, pencils are very important to me (American Pencil Tragedy). Judge me if you will, but they are the most humble and democratic of writing utensils. While I know there some who share my appreciation of the pencil, there are also many who say, “So what?” For those who harbor such apathy, I add them to my list of despicable types who deserve ridicule and derision in a blog post, like those people—and I mean “those people” in the worst possible way—who skip line, litter along our highways, pee on public toilet seats, and drive slow in the passing lane. I don’t expect everyone to understand or harbor the same fervor for the pencil that I do, but it does my heart good when I learn of someone who shares my pencil passion.

000Welcome CenterIt was a monumental day when I discovered the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio. Dubbed the world’s only and largest, the pencil sharpener museum’s collection includes over 3,400 pencil sharpeners. Johnson began collecting  in 1988, when his wife Charlotte bought him three metal pencil sharpeners as a gift for Christmas. From that point until his death in 2010, Johnson built his collection and began sharing it with the public. Today, the museum is located on the grounds of the Hocking Hills Regional Welcome Center at 13178 State Route 664 South, in Logan, Ohio. The Hocking Hill Regional Welcome Center is a board and batten clad construction with a working water mill on the side. The nod to a quaint pastoral history speaks volumes about the intent of the local tourism efforts. The restrooms were clean and well-kept which is a lesson to other states who take the tourist’s toilet-related comfort with less seriousness. I am looking at you Indiana, directly at you!

000museumThe Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum is situated across a patio from the welcome center’s front door. The building is a small shed-like structure with a pencil on the front. Inside, shelves of the display cases completely wrap the interior. I was not sure what I expected of a pencil sharpener museum, but it was gasp-inducing. As each visitor entered the museum, the experience was weirdly similar: “Wow! Look at those pencil sharpeners!” 000sharp7The collection included the classic teacher’s desk crank models and an unimaginable plethora of pencil sharpeners inside of cartoon characters, cars, planes, trains, animals, musical instruments, historical figures, buildings, and even religious icons. Both in sheer number and variety, the shelves of sharpeners transfix visitors. After a few minutes of looking, someone in each group comes to the same realization that I had, which is that pretty much everything has been made into a pencil sharpener. It’s a bizarrely practical aspect to our unique human desire to make trinkets of tin, aluminum, and plastic.

000sharp8Any first-rate roadside attraction should leave its visitors with a few nagging questions. As I headed down the road, I wished that I could talk to the Reverend Paul Johnson. As a collector of almost nothing, I wanted to learn why pencil sharpeners so struck his fancy. And what were his thoughts on the current state of the American-made pencil? Unfortunately, those questions must remain unanswered. His collection, however, will continue to provide enjoyment to those who visit central Ohio. His advice will also endure as long as the faded dot matrix banner that is a fixed to the wall of the museum continues to hang. The sign reads, “Keep Sharp . . . Be Sharp . . . Act Sharp . . . Stay Sharp . . . Look Sharp.” I cannot conceive of any greater rules for living.000revpaul


Alta Blue Skies Guide to Summer Fashion: Put Some Clothes On!

by Catherine Breese

sand sculptured peopleMoney is not speech. I don’t care what the people with a whole lot of it say. However, what one buys with his/her money can be.

Take, for example, what we wear. It is an outward message to the world about who we are. Thus, there’s something I’d like to say to a few people I’ve seen in public lately: shhhhhhhhh!

Spring is the original season of the fashion faux pas. It is the beginning, the new, the bright shiny opportunity to take off winter sweaters and put on something terrifyingly skimpy or much too tight. It is the chance to show off all those mid-winter gym workouts you’ve been doing, or the lack thereof.

Yesterday I spotted an older gentleman walking to the grocery store in cutoff jean shorts and a cowboy hat, and that is all. I know he was older because of his leathery skin and white chest and back hair. His t-shirt was hanging from his back pocket. Presumably, he needed it in order to get into the store. What is his message to the world? His outfit says, “In my head it is 1972 and I am super-hot. My Camaro is in the shop.” Now, I admit that I did own a pair of faded Levi cut-off shorts. I wore them when I was 15 years old at the lake. I thought they were sexy, but I never wore them in public. They made my mother’s eyes roll backwards into her head.

Last week we were in a local bar/restaurant on trivia night. One young man with a dirty tan and lots of tattoos wore a shirt that was ripped to the waist on both sides and missing its sleeves. Fellas, that is not a shirt. It is a rag, suitable for dusting your home or perhaps cleaning a toilet. It should not be worn as public outerwear. This look is a fashion choice that says, “Hey, I really need a shirt. Please take me to Goodwill.” Show off your tattoos if you must, but if you see them as art, let’s try putting a nicer frame on the picture.

slutty manniquinsHigh school students, especially girls, are notorious for under-dressing. The boys, inexplicably, are under the impression that wife-beaters and other men’s tank tops are attractive. They are not, on anyone. To me, they just look like my grandfather’s underwear. And the girls, who are quite well-endowed these days, seem to be dressed for a SoBe nightclub or maybe a mammogram, rather than World History class. They really put it all in the shop window. I actually feel sympathy for the male teachers who must train their eyes to wander off to the Periodic Table of Elements hanging on the wall. Then there’s the booty shorts/cowboy boot combo. Who can we blame for this fashion fiasco? What is the message? It is supposed to be “I am a hot country girl,” I think. What does it really say? “I don’t know if I should dance on a pole or muck out the barn.” I forgive girls and boys for their inexperience at tasteful dress, but that doesn’t make it less icky.

OMG who would wear thisThe fashion industry can be blamed for at least some of this mess. Take a look around your local shopping mall. Call me silly, but I really don’t want to see the average American girl wearing what is hanging off of the size 2 mannequins. It is time to say no. We can’t go on telling girls that it is the content of their character that counts while simultaneously telling them to dress for a career in prostitution.

So, here are the official Alta Blue Skies summer dressing rules: 1. do not wear your bathing suit anywhere except the beach, lake, or the pool. If you are actually at the beach, it is permissible to wear a cover-up over your suit to run out for ice and beer. Men, put a shirt on. 2. Do not expose any skin that you, yourself, do not want to look at. Use the mirror, people. 3. Just because it comes in your size, do not assume that it will be flattering. 4. If your daughter is wearing a bikini, you should NOT be. 5. Surf-shops are for surfers. Stay away if you’re not one. 6. And finally, when in public, more is more. You can’t send a message with your clothes unless you’re wearing some.

Hey, I know it’s summer, but let’s all put some clothes back on, mmmmmkay?

Everything I Know I Learned on YouTube

by Catherine Breese

haircutYouTube is not yet 10 years old, but no one can deny its bandwidth-hogging ascendance. One kabillion people a day watch a video on YouTube, mostly at work when they should be doing something else, and mostly involving cats being cute or men being hit in the groin. Surprisingly, however, I am here to tout its usefulness, if not its entertainment value.

Despite its dopey name and marginal reputation…there is actually a ginormous heap of educational content available on YouTube. Ranging from the practical to the scientific and even the theoretical, YouTube is one-stop shopping for basic information. There is much, in fact, that could be quite useful to educators, but the website is blocked, for the most part, from students in the American public school systems. Until recently, in many places even teachers were blocked from YouTube. Some school systems are more open-minded, but most still believe that YouTube is the Internet equivalent of the fire-swamp in The Princess Bride, full of hidden shooting spikes of fire, lightning sand, and rodents of unusual size. Yes, we all know that the Internet is the perfect vehicle for the effective delivery of pornography and other depravity. However, it is the equally ideal tool for delivery of human knowledge, noble causes, and “sweetness and light.” YouTube is like a Pneumatic nailer–we can either be afraid of the damage the tool can do, or use it for the purposes of constructing a well-built house.

Youtube2Don’t believe me? take a look…the Mongols, the law of gravity, the role phytoplasmas in plants, the history of Art Nouveau, John Donne, Tao Te Ching, etc. YouTube hosts several channels entirely devoted to cerebral enhancement such as YouTube EDU, TED, and Khan Academy. If you want to learn, YouTube is a smorgasbord. It is not the Library of Congress or anything, but really, given the fact that it is entirely free of charge, I daresay it may be a point of pride for humankind.

There is much there that is practical as well. In the wonderful world of “how to” videos, you can find out how to play a particular song on the guitar, how to straighten your hair, how to read Chaucer in Middle English, how to wipe the content from your old cell phone, how to cut men’s hair, how to cut an avocado, and even how to cut out the parts of a video from YouTube that you don’t want. If you want to quickly learn how to do something, I can only highly recommend YouTube as your very first stop.

Case in point: a few months back, homeless and jobless, Bryan got a phone call for a job interview. It was good news, but he needed to jump in the car and make an 8-hour drive the very next day. He also needed a haircut and the nearest barbershop was 35 miles away. His brilliant solution–I should become his barber. So, I sat down and watched 4 or 5 videos exploring how to cut men’s hair with a clipper. I was nervous, but necessity called the tune. The haircut came out great and he got the job. Another YouTube success story.

This experience brought me to wonder, though, why do people make these videos? Maybe some of them have a financial interest. (YouTube makes its money mostly from advertising but YouTube fame can bring other advantages and offers.) Then, there are a lot of narcissists. Remember that kid in elementary school who jumped in front of every camera grinning, drooling, and aping for his picture to be taken? Well, that grown-up kid and all his fellow narcissists have found their Motherland in YouTube. Want to be the star of your own life in 16:9 aspect ratio? Turn on the camera and let it roll. The resulting hours and hours of idiocracy are mind-boggling. But the good news is, of course, no one has to watch any of it.

Still, there has got to be some human goodness behind the thousands of “how to” videos uploaded. It is the friendly sharing of knowledge, the polite let-me-show-you-how. People who, for whatever reason, deeply care about a subject and want to share a little of their enthusiasm with the world. Regular people, most of them at home in their kitchens or basements, who talk the viewer through the process of doing something useful. It’s comforting, almost, to know that people like these exist.

To close, here’s a gem I discovered last week. If you are like me, you will find it to be quite enlightening and not at all terrifying. The Terrifying Truth about Bananas Enjoy!

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