Bright Lights, Big Cacti

Arizona through the Eyes of a Native

Month: July, 2012

Dad’s Fishin’ Hole

When I was thirteen, my parents sold the house where I grew up and bought a home in the city. One winter morning, I was standing in my parents’ bedroom in the new house looking out the window at the backyard, which was dominated by an in-ground swimming pool. This being winter, the pool was green — the normal color of unused and untreated pools. What had drawn my attention to the window was Mom’s cocker spaniel, Rusty. He was running around the edge of the pool, barking and staring into its depths. Suddenly, the dog gave a flying leap and landed with a splash in the middle of the pool.

Mom and I rushed outside to rescue the psychotic dog only to discover that there were fish in the swimming pool — actual, honest-to-God bass swimming around, eating the algae. We didn’t know exactly how they had gotten there, but we suspected who did. You see, my father had cultivated a fishing habit.

When Dad came home that afternoon, Mom confronted him. “Why are there fish in the swimming pool?”

I watched as my dad stammered around the question for a minute or two before finally admitting he had caught them on his last fishing trip and brought them home to “practice.”

“Practice? Why would you need to practice fishing?”

“Oh, you know, to learn what bait works best. But the fish are smart. They only let me catch them once a day.” My dad had been in the habit of floating his aluminum boat in the middle of the pool and fishing off the side of it, as if he were in the middle of a large lake. He did this in the early morning hours, long before Mom and I were awake. Apparently, the bass had been there for weeks before Rusty happened to spot them and alert us to the backyard fishery.

A week or two later, Mom invited a bunch of friends over for a fish fry. I actually got to see my dad fishing in our pool. I wonder if it bothered him to kill the fish — after all, he must have been extremely familiar with them after so many games of catch and release. And the fish were probably shocked.

English: This is a picture of a small aluminum...

An aluminum boat in a lake — where it should be. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Scorpion Queen

I was thirty years old before I ever encountered a live scorpion —  outside of a zoo exhibit, that is. Unfortunately, I found it in my dream apartment: a thousand-square-foot loft-style space overlooking a pool and with a garage underneath.

The scorpion – about two inches long and creepy looking – was brought to my attention by my two pugs, who were both just as freaked out by it as I was. I trapped it under a glass and put a telephone book on top. You never know – that sucker might have been strong enough to turn the glass over! Then I called apartment maintenance to come and remove it, all the while making a wide circle around the glass and warning my dogs to stay away from it.

I thought that would be the end of it – after all, it was just a single bug, right? Wrong. A few days later, I picked up my washcloth and jumped three feet off the ground – a scorpion was soaking up the moisture underneath! Once more, I captured it under a glass and called maintenance.

Now, one scorpion is a fluke. Two are a trend. The next day, I went to the office and asked to be moved to another apartment or released from my lease. I was told there were no other apartments like mine available at that time and that the complex was not responsible for scorpion infestations because they are indigenous to the area. When I pointed out that I, a Phoenix native, had never seen one in any of my various homes, they said I must have been lucky. In an effort to reassure me that the apartment was clear of the poisonous arachnids, they agreed to have it searched via blacklight. They found half a dozen small scorpions – babies. Now, the smaller a scorpion is, the more poisonous. Despite the complex’s effort to exterminate them, I was in full freak-out mode. I shook my shoes every time I went to put them on; I never went barefoot in my apartment; I even shook my clothes and towels with vigor. Scared for my dogs, I asked my grandfather to take them in – leaving me alone in the infested apartment.

I was only six months into a year-long lease. I was irritated, but I didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. However, that didn’t mean I had to be silent. In a move that earned me the nickname of Scorpion Queen from my friends, I made a sign: “Ask me about the scorpions in my apartment at T** T***.” I taped it in the back window of my car. Every afternoon when I gathered my mail, I parked the car right next to the Prospective Residents’ spaces. More than one person asked me about them, even as my friends laughed at me and my sign.

The next time I went into the office to pay my rent, the apartment manager took me aside and asked what she could do to help me in my situation (and get me to take the sign out of my car window).

“Let me out of my lease.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Then I guess I’ll be leaving the sign in my car.”

With only four months left on the lease, the agreement we came to was this: she would have an exterminator visit my apartment weekly to check for scorpions. After that, I never found another one in my apartment. In fact, I only saw one more while I lived there: a huge granddaddy of a scorpion that seemed to stare at me through the glass doors leading to my balcony for at least an hour one afternoon. I didn’t have a glass big enough to trap him under – and besides, he was on the wall. There was no way in Hell I was going to knock that sucker down. He was gone before the maintenance guy showed up.

Ten years later, the thought of that apartment still gives me chills. And, by the way, I’ve never seen a scorpion, outside of a zoo, since.

English: Line art drawing of a scorpion

English: Line art drawing of a scorpion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Lambchop’s Lawn Service

Growing up in a rural area, I received a few unusual pets as gifts from my parents and grandparents. Though things started out normally enough, I suppose.

When I was a toddler, my parents picked out a white puppy at the local swap meet. “What should we call it, Susie?” (I was Susie back then; don’t try that crap on me now.)

“Baby!” I exclaimed – or so I’m told. I don’t remember getting the dog. Baby was one of the three or four words I knew at the time. Luckily, the puppy’s small size inspired me to say that word. It’s a good thing she didn’t resemble my mom or dad. She was a great dog – very fond of bones, as I recall. One day she went off into the desert and didn’t come back. I was sad about that.

My next pet was a kitten named Lazy. She wasn’t particularly friendly; in fact, she spent a lot of time hiding behind things to get away from me. Around that time, I developed a severe, life-threatening form of asthma. Keep in mind that we lived half an hour from the nearest medical facilities. It took a number of months for the doctor to connect the asthma attacks to cat dander. Once the connection was made, a new home was found for Lazy. I’m sure she was relieved.

Not too long after that, my grandparents gave me a black-and-white rabbit that I named Christie Wilkens (this may have been the first sign that I was destined to be an author – who gives their pet a last name?). I am sad to say that Christie spent her life outside. My mom wasn’t having that poop machine in the house under any circumstances. All in all, she wasn’t a very exciting pet – of course, it’s hard to get to know an animal that spends all of its time in a hutch.

Finally, we come to the pinnacle of the gift pets – a lamb presented to me on Easter. I don’t remember being that enthused. Disturbingly, Mom suggested we name her Lambchop. Then she sang a version of Mary Had a Little Lamb that included a refrain: “da-de-da-da-da, lamb chop.” Quite honestly, that name was as good as any, so Lambchop it was.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the acquisition of the lamb had more to do with the backyard needing a trim than with Easter. Lambchop was our new lawnmower.

About six months before Lambchop joined the family, my dad bought my mom a cocker spaniel named Rusty. He lived in the backyard too. Despite the abundance of grass available to Lambchop, she quickly developed a taste for Rusty’s food. The grass went untouched while the dog-food bill grew exponentially. By the time she was fully grown, Rusty was lucky to get a bite or two before Lambchop had the whole bowl empty.

After some thinking on the problem, my dad determined that if he put the dog food on the picnic table instead of on the ground, only Rusty would be able to get to it. (Apparently, my dad didn’t think domestic sheep and Big Horn sheep were related.) At first, this solution appeared to work. Lambchop finally ate some grass – though nowhere near as much as my dad would have liked.

A few days later though, my mom looked out her kitchen window and saw something she couldn’t believe: Lambchop was up on the picnic table, eating the dog food. Rusty was underneath, catching the pieces that fell through the cracks.We have photos somewhere that document the event, but I’d have to dig through a few boxes to find them.

In any case, my dad’s dream of zero lawn-mowing duties was not to be. Before long, Lambchop (whom I had grown fond of, despite my initial lack of enthusiasm) found herself re-homed with my uncle. I’m fairly certain she ended up as mutton on his table. I can’t blame him. Who needs a sheep who thinks she’s a dog?


Sheep (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Baby Ate the Cow

The house where I grew up had a large, grassy backyard and a father who never liked to mow. My grandfather thought he had a good solution for this conundrum: a hungry cow. One day, he brought the creature down and staked her in the middle of a large patch of green, instructing my mother to “keep an eye on her.” If you read my last post, you may suspect that my mother wouldn’t know what to expect from a cow or why exactly she needed to watch it.

You’d be right.

We had a big, white dog named Baby (that’s a story for another day) who usually stuck close to the house, but was prone to escaping. This was the early ‘70s and most of the dogs in my neighborhood operated on a “free range” basis. That day, Baby was out wandering.

Meanwhile, my mom was in the house talking to her mother on the phone; in fact, she was complaining about the massive beast in her yard and discussing what sort of “things” she should be watching for when it came to grazing cows. My grandfather had only meant that she should let him know when the cow had eaten all the grass within her reach, but Mom was certain there were other catastrophes to fear. So, when she glanced out the window and saw Baby in the yard gnawing on a detached leg of beef a few feet away from my grandfather’s cow – who happened to be standing at a three-quarter angle – she lost it.

“Oh, my God, Mom, Baby ate Howard’s cow! I’ve got to go!” She hung up the phone and dialed my grandfather in a panic, repeating her observation that our sixty-pound mutt was lunching on his cow’s hind leg. My grandfather knew that couldn’t be true; still, he hustled right down the street (they lived less than a mile away at the time) to calm my mother’s hysterics.

When he arrived at my parents’ home, he did, in fact, find Baby gnawing on a cow’s leg. Our neighbors directly behind us were butchering a cow that day and they had given her a juicy leg bone, which she had promptly carried to her yard. The grazing cow, of course, was intact, but Mom was in pieces, completely undone by the thought that our dog could gnaw the leg off a living animal. Even after Grandpa took her outside and showed her that the animal was fine, she still insisted that he take the cow home immediately. In her mind, she clearly could not be trusted to protect livestock.

And so my father was once more faced with mowing the lawn. However, this wouldn’t be his last attempt at using a farm animal to avoid the lawnmower…

English: A cow on Monkton Down

This is what Grandpa’s cow looked like. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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City Girl Meets Country Boy

My mom isn’t what you would call a country girl. Prior to meeting my dad, she had little to no contact with farms or farm animals. Her parents bought a house in a subdivision near 35th Avenue and Bethany Home in 1956. At the time, it was right at the edge of the city. Today, it’s an urban area.

My dad’s family was always involved in farming at some level. My grandmother and grandfather kept chickens, bees, cows, and pigs over the years. They raised their own produce – everything from pecans and apricots to strawberries and tomatoes. They owned a cotton field for a while. As the city grew, they moved to the edge of the sprawling metropolis, eventually settling on twenty acres in the desert west of Phoenix.

The fact that my parents both attended Alhambra High School says a lot about the city in the late 1960s – the farmers were gradually being pushed further and further into the desert as the subdivision builders snapped up land near the city. Small towns that once dotted the area grew toward each other, their borders eventually merging into the metropolis of today.

When she spotted my dad in his Navy whites leaning against a post in front of the TG&Y, she had no clue that he was from a farming family — and she wouldn’t have cared anyway. Dad was six-four, redheaded, and looked damned good in that uniform.

However, my mother learned everything she knew about farms and farming from Looney Tunes. This obvious gap in my mother’s education has led to a number of humorous stories. Mom once remarked that my great-grandfather must spend his whole day turning his windmill in the direction of the wind. When everyone laughed at her “joke,” she was confused.

Have you ever seen the cartoon where the chickens lay egg after egg all day long? That’s not true – chickens lay, at most, one egg a day. Mom thought Grandma’s hens were lazy and told her so. Grandma still laughs about that.

But the story I really want to tell you is about the time my mom thought our dog had eaten a leg off the cow that was grazing in our backyard…


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10 Ways to Recognize a Native Arizonan

Despite a century of attempting to shake off its Wild West reputation, Arizona remains the bastion of cowboys, horses, and shootouts in many people’s minds. This may be because of the number of people who come here and, wanting to look like “real” Arizonans, invest in cowboy hats and boots.

Now, I don’t doubt that many tourists come here specifically for the “cowboy experience.” However, if you really want to meet an Arizonan, look for a few of these signs:

We can spot a cowboy poser at a hundred paces. There are a few real cowboys around, but boots and hat do not a cowboy make. If the man or woman standing before you in cowboy gear doesn’t have a farmer’s tan, chances are you’re looking at a non-native – probably from the East Coast.

We know that Sheriff Arpaio isn’t a native Arizonan. He’s a cowboy poser from Massachusetts.

We smile up at the sky in wonderment when it rains. Because it rains so infrequently here, this recognition tool can be hard to put into use. However, if you happen to be here when the skies open, just look around you: we’re the ones smiling and skipping around like Gene Kelly.

We have no idea how to drive in the rain. The fact that water is falling from the sky tends to distract us from the task at hand, causing our cars to hydroplane. My advice: stay off the streets if the clouds are rolling in. Phoenix’s storm-drain system is so terrible that you, too, will look like an idiot behind the wheel.

When you ask how far away something is, we will tell you in driving time, not miles. In the summer, this is primarily to assist you in planning for the amount of liquid refreshment needed. In the winter, we allow for snowbird traffic.

We curse snowbirds. We know we shouldn’t; after all, they bring revenue into our state, and most of them are lovely people. But we still believe there is something intrinsically wrong with people enjoying the beautiful Arizona winters without enduring a single Arizona summer. And they clog up our streets.

We have never been to the Grand Canyon. Okay, this one isn’t true for all Arizonans, but probably ninety percent of the native population living in the bottom half of the state have never seen this Natural Wonder of the World. We plan to see it…someday. But do you know that it’s a four- or five-hour drive from Phoenix?

We know the difference between Mexican food and Taco Bell. The meat on a real taco is shredded, the shell is fried (not baked), and Doritos are not involved.

Our homes are not decorated in a Southwestern motif. Apparently, a truckload of howling coyotes, faux Indian pottery, and chunky wooden furniture with pastel Aztec prints is given to every non-native who crosses the border with the intent of living here. Trust me – real Arizonans hate that crap.

We know that the illegal aliens aren’t here to take our jobs. In fact, they are here to do the work that most of us don’t want to do: farming, landscaping, house-cleaning, and anything else that will put food on their tables. However, their children will be taking our children’s jobs, because their parents are instilling a stronger work ethic in them than we are in ours.

And there you have it: ten ways to recognize a native Arizonan in his or her habitat. When my grandmother stopped by a little while ago, she added one more: when you complain about the weather being too warm, we’re the ones answering irritably, “Well, at least you don’t have to shovel it.”

Frontier Fiesta

Frontier Fiesta (Photo credit: D Services)

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Why There are Bridges in Phoenix

Monsoon season has started in Arizona. In a state renowned for its lack of bad weather, the next two to three months are what would be called the off-season. Higher humidity, blowing dust storms, and the occasional rain shower will be in the forecast around here. For a native Arizonan like me, monsoons are something to look forward to: a little less sun, an occasional change from blue skies to gray ones.

When I was a kid living in the desert, the storms provided an explanation for all the bridges around the valley. If you have ever visited our state, you’ve probably seen them: structures to carry the population over brush and sand. One of those bridges wasn’t too far from the house where I grew up. I remember the first time I ever saw that bridge serve its purpose, as a flood of water swept away the desert vegetation that had foolishly made its home in the dry riverbed. I had never seen water like that before: rushing, muddy, and deadly.

The monsoon season is also the reason that Arizona has the Stupid Motorist Law. Every year of my life, I have turned on the evening news to see some latter-day Tom Sawyer floating down an impromptu river on their makeshift raft (previously known as a car). Most of the time, it’s funny. Sometimes, it’s tragic. As if swimming pools weren’t enough of a drowning danger for Arizona kids, they also have to fear that their parents won’t be smart enough to stay out of washes during floods.

Here’s hoping the monsoon is everything it’s supposed to be this year: wet, stormy, and refreshing. And if you find yourself out driving in the middle of a flash-flood warning, stay behind the barricades.

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As American as Prickly Pear Jelly

English: A photo of an a prickly pear cactus, ...

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Fourth of July. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I’m less patriotic than most Americans. I love hamburgers, jello salads, and fireworks as much as most of our populace. Picnics? They are wonderful events…anytime between Labor Day and Memorial Day. And no, I didn’t get that backwards.

The problem with Independence Day is that it occurs at the height of summer: a time that is traditionally better, at least inPhoenix, for frying an egg on the sidewalk than roasting a hotdog on a grill. In addition, the valley is usually pretty dry right around now, adding the potential danger of fireworks displays igniting a firestorm that could take out the entire metropolitan area. “Hey, kids, let’s go cook over a hot grill, get sunstroke, and then tempt fate by sending incendiary devices into the sky over our scorched desert home!” Um…no, thanks.

A year or two ago, the state legislature decided to allow the sale and use of fireworks by the general population. Now, there are restrictions, but I’m not going to bore you with those. What is significant to remember is that either our legislature is largely made up of non-native Arizonans or people with more faith in the intelligence of humanity than humanity deserves. Thankfully, our cities are a little more self-aware: most of them have banned the use of fireworks on private property, in roads, or in public parks. Of course, that won’t stop people from using them anyway, especially since the fireworks are now readily available for purchase, thanks to the legislature.

On the plus side, Phoenix will likely not become a charred hull of itself this Fourth. The skies have opened up and poured down a lovely, soaking rain today that will keep us safe tonight. As for Dan and me, after enjoying a delicious, indoor Rib Fest next door, we will settle down to enjoy A Capitol Fourth on PBS – with no danger whatsoever of sunstroke.

Happy Independence Day!

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