Bright Lights, Big Cacti

Arizona through the Eyes of a Native

Month: August, 2012

My Dad, “Evel Knievel”

When I was seven or eight, my parents decided that motorcycles would be a great way for us to spend time together. I’m not exactly sure how my dad convinced my mom of this, but one weekend we drove off to the Honda showroom and came back with three dirt bikes: a Papa, Mama, and Baby Bear trio of red machines.

(Keep in mind that this was in the 1970s, back when the Valley of the Sun was still mostly desert and not housing developments. Also, this was a time before kids were made to wear helmets before they could hop on their bikes for a cruise through their neighborhood.)

In any case, soon we were riding out into the desert, the wind on our faces and the sun on our backs. I have a lot of good memories related to riding my motorcycle.

I also have a few not-so-great ones. For instance, one day I went out with my father to ride on a dirt-bike track some kids had created on an empty piece of ground. I was driving cautiously around the track, avoiding taking the bumps at too high of a speed, because I didn’t want to catch any air. My dad, who has what some would call an adventurous (my mom would probably call it a “reckless”) spirit, was approaching those bumps in quite the opposite manner. I watched him jump more than few times as I made my way around the course.

I don’t remember if I was watching when he lost control of his bike or not, but I do remember finding him on the ground, his teeth gritted against the pain. He told me to go home and get Mom, so I did.

We came back in the car and picked him up, taking him directly to the hospital. One of his friends must have retrieved the bike for him, because I know it made it back to our garage. At the hospital, the doctors diagnosed a broken collarbone and sent him home with his arm in a sling and instructions to “rest.”

He settled into his big recliner, moaning a little and looking terribly unhappy. Being the helpful daughter I was, I retrieved a bell from one of my games and gave it to Dad so that he could let us know if he needed anything. And, of course, he wasn’t shy about using it. He rang it when he needed the channel changed on the television, a fresh glass of tea, some food, a book…you name it. And each time Mom answered the bell, my dad seemed a little more amused.

A few days passed, and Mom needed to go to the grocery store. The nearest one was a good twenty minutes away. A typical shopping trip took at least an hour and a half, if not longer. As Mom and I drove off, I remember hoping my dad would be all right without us there. However, we didn’t get far before Mom realized she’d left her checkbook at home and turned around to get it.

As we turned into the driveway, I saw something I couldn’t believe: my father, one arm in a sling, driving his motorcycle in circles in the driveway. When he saw us, a moment of panic slid across his face, followed quickly by the impish grin he always wears when he knows he’s been caught.

Mom took the bell away immediately.

English: Honda dirt bike

Honda dirt bike (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Never Name Your Food

Even as a very young child, I had a realistic view of nature. I never believed that claptrap about all the animals living together in some sort of vegan paradise – I knew better.

This authentic view probably came from the fact that I am the daughter of a farming and hunting family. My mom likes to recount the story about the pig roast when I was three or four years old. She wanted to protect me by keeping me inside and away from the blood and gore of killing an animal, but all I wanted was to be outside. Finally, Fuzzy told her that if I wanted out so badly, she should let me go. My mother remembers me dancing around the fire pit “like a wild indian” as the pig was roasted. I don’t actually remember the event at all, but I don’t doubt the veracity of my mom’s account.

When I was in grade school – probably around the first or second grade – my mom volunteered to be a chaperone on a school zoo trip. My mom was left with five little girls, including me. As we were watching the crocodiles that day, a duck landed in the water near a lurking amphibious creature. Mom, being a relatively squeamish person, attempted to turn the group’s attention away from the bird’s impending death. However, I was quick to get everyone’s attention with my announcement that the crocodile was going to “have lunch.” Sure enough, a few seconds later we were rewarded with the sight a crocodile smiling around the spread wings of his unsuspecting – and now very dead – prey. The other girls were screaming bloody murder, my mother was trying to draw them away from the traumatic scene, and I was saying, “What? Why are you crying? Crocodiles have to eat too!” Needless to say, I was the most popular girl in class – at least as far as the boys were concerned. The girls…not so much.

My cavalier attitude toward animal deaths came to an abrupt end around the age of nine. Fuzzy took me out to meet the new calves my grandfather had bought at auction. There were four of them, and I named them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were cute, all black and white and still a little playful (well, as playful as livestock can be). I visited and petted them over the course of a summer. In short, I thought of them as pets – not food.

Several months passed. One night, my parents and I went to my grandparents’ house for dinner. Now, I am anything but a vegetarian – I enjoy meat, especially steak. Grandpa dropped a nice cut of beef onto my plate, and I dug in. I was maybe a quarter of the way through that steak when Grandpa said, “That’s Matthew you’re eating there! Tastes good, huh?”

My stomach rolled in horror and I seriously thought I was going to throw up right there on my plate. I must have blanched, because all of the adults looked at me with a mixture of concern and amusement. I pushed the plate away with three-quarters of a tasty steak on it. No matter how the adults cajoled me, I would not eat another bite.

That was the night I learned the most important lesson of an omnivore: if it might end up on your plate, don’t hang a moniker on it – no matter how cute it is.

English: Rump steak on griddle pan

Steak — not Matthew. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Grandpa John

Not long after I separated from my first husband (after the scorpion incident), I moved in with my widowed Grandpa John. Grandma Millie had died years earlier, shortly before I started college. In the intervening years, John’s true character had revealed itself.

He was, without a doubt, a hoarder. Oh, he wasn’t as bad as the ones you see on television – we never found any dead animals buried under piles of rubbish – but he couldn’t seem to stop himself from collecting things. By the time I moved in, he had focused his attention on cameras.

In addition, he loved a good argument. Once, when I was a teenager, he attempted to provoke me into an argument. “There’s no such thing as ‘herstory,’” he pronounced in a loud voice. While I had already developed feminist leanings, I wasn’t stupid – I thought the concept of “herstory” was ridiculous. So, I shrugged and went back to whatever I was reading. Not getting the response he was looking for, he tried again, this time with a grandiose throat clearing. “There’s no such thing as HERSTORY,” he repeated.

“Okay,” I answered.

From the kitchen, Grandma Millie admonished, “John, you leave that child alone!”

Grandpa, chastened but not beaten, set aside the argument for another day.

Emma and rest of my friends came to my rescue when I separated from my first husband; Grandpa John made sure I divorced him. When my ex refused to sign the divorce paperwork, I was left in a difficult position: I had no money to hire a process server. When Grandpa realized that money was what was preventing my divorce from moving forward, he loaned me the money and even made the arrangements for the papers to be served. But then, like Fuzzy and my other grandpa, John didn’t like my ex much, either.

Life with Grandpa was pretty good, except for his occasional public displays of antagonistic racism. At least I can say this for him – he was an equal-opportunity racist. I even heard him badmouth Swedes a few times…and he was Swedish! It didn’t take long for me to come up with a cure for his mouth. “Grandpa,” I said, “the next time you say something insulting in public to anyone, I will apologize for you and tell the injured party that you have Alzheimer’s.”

Grandpa, who was very proud of his intellect, was appalled. “You wouldn’t!”

“Try me,” I said, smiling.

From then on, he was always on his best behavior when we went out. My mom told me later that he had groused a bit about my threat to her, but she could tell that he was actually proud that I had outsmarted him.

Cameras and Misc in the Case

Cameras and Misc in the Case (Photo credit: alexkerhead)

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A Rock-Solid Friendship

Emma and I have been friends since we were in our early twenties – nearly twenty years ago now. I have seen her through the beginnings and endings of two marriages; she has seen me through the beginning and ending of one, as well as served as my Matron of Honor at my second wedding.

Seeing her again after five years brought a lot of memories to the surface – not all of them good. Our relationship has, at times, been rocky. I’m sure she sees me as a “Goody Two-Shoes.” I worry about her depression and her need for men. We have different tastes in music, entertainment, and recreational activities. But she has proven to be as rock-solid as a friend can be.

You see, around this time eleven years ago, I asked my first husband to remove himself from our apartment. I gave him two weeks to get his crap together and find somewhere else to live. Emma and her husband at the time were our closest “couple” friends. I still remember Emma asking me if I was sure I wanted to end the marriage. She said something to the effect of “You might spend the rest of your life alone.” I told her I’d rather be alone forever than spend one more miserable year with my husband. She was completely behind my decision from that moment on.

When moving day came, Emma called me at around 10 a.m. “Is he moving?” she asked.

I was already beside myself. My husband hadn’t yet lifted a finger to pack, despite my repeated admonitions that he would not be staying in my apartment that night. “No!” I practically shouted into the phone.

“We’ll be right there,” Emma said and hung up.

Within the hour, five of my friends, including Emma and her husband, were removing my soon-to-be ex’s belongings from my apartment. At the end of the day, my new life was starting, thanks to them.

Since then, there have been times when our friendship has been tested, and even stretched to its breaking point. But, when it comes right down to it, Emma will always be my friend. If she called tomorrow and needed me at her side, I would go, because I believe she has done – and would do – the same for me.

Photo credit: Susan Wells Bennett

The “little rock” of Little Rock, Arkansas — the city where Emma now resides.

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Overcoming Aerophobia

I hate to fly.

I know aerophobia isn’t a particularly unique affliction. I also know that because I suffer from a fear of heights (acrophobia), a fear of flying was almost inevitable.

In the past, I managed to overcome both fears because of my love of traveling. Nothing makes me happier than stepping into a city I’ve never explored before. Be it Chicago or Rome, the prospect of seeing new sights and encountering unfamiliar people is thrilling.

A few years ago, though, my aerophobia got the best of me. On our way back to Phoenix after an amazing Italian adventure, Dan and I found ourselves sitting just in front of an old man who insisted the engine “sounded funny” to him. He even called the stewardess over – repeatedly – to tell her to alert the captain. By the time we touched down in Phoenix, I was a nervous wreck. I got off the plane wanting to kiss the ground. For more than two-and-a-half years, I blanched every time Dan talked about us taking a flight. I all but convinced myself that if we couldn’t drive to a destination, it simply wasn’t worth going. My dreams of seeing London, Paris, and Sydney faded. Even the thought of visiting New York seemed nearly impossible – the drive was simply too long. In fact, the only places I have been in the last two years are California and Nevada.

Of course, I knew my fear was ridiculous. Fewer people die in airplanes than are killed by hippos annually. Admittedly, I don’t encounter huge populations of hippos in Phoenix, but still – the odds seem to be in my favor regarding air travel. So, a few months ago, I booked a flight to Little Rock to visit my friend Emma and her daughter. I hadn’t seen Emma since right after her daughter was born – when she packed up and left Arizona for good.

As the day of my flight approached, I fought off multiple bouts of nerves. I would be sitting calmly, not thinking about anything in particular, when suddenly I would remember my upcoming trip and recognize that tremor of fear at my core. Dan, who was not traveling with me, offered to cancel the trip more than once, but I knew I had to take the flight if I were ever going to overcome the fear. It helped to know Emma was looking forward to my visit – I would be disappointing her if I didn’t go.

Last Tuesday, the day before my flight, was busy. I had every minute scheduled: packing, writing blog posts to cover the days I would be gone, finishing edits on a book, even attending a birthday party for my father. The tight schedule left me exhausted and lacking time to contemplate the horror of flying.

The next morning, Dan drove me to the airport and dropped me off. I made it through the checkpoint without incident and found a restaurant in which to eat breakfast. I had a mimosa, too, just in case you were wondering. By the time I sat down on the plane, I was mellow. After takeoff, I pulled out my Harry Chapin music and slid into a comfortable half-sleep. No one tried to talk to me – of course, the huge headphones I wore definitely conveyed the message that I wasn’t interested in a chat.

Arkansas, which has been suffering a terrible drought this summer, actually had a rainstorm the afternoon I arrived. The landing was a little on the bumpy side, but nothing I couldn’t handle. In fact, the whole flight was fairly anticlimactic.

I stepped off the plane and felt that rush of adventure again for the first time in two-and-a-half years. How ridiculous that I let the words of some old man keep me from traveling! I swear I won’t do that again. Ever.

The Old Mill in Little Rock — just one of the many sights I would have missed if I had let aerophobia win.

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She Looks Good for Her Age

Fuzzy recently became a great-great-grandmother, thanks to my eldest cousin’s eldest daughter. The baby, who is named after Grandma (and no, they aren’t calling her “Fuzzy”), is pretty cute, for a baby. Now is a good time to note that your faithful blogger is NOT a mother, nor have I ever changed a diaper in my long life – and I plan to keep it that way. So, as I said, for a baby, this one looks good.

Everywhere we go these days, Grandma pulls out a picture of her great-great-grandbaby and shows her off. Generally, people are polite – they ooh and aah and coo over the picture and congratulate my grandmother. (Though, to be honest, I never understand why people are congratulated for grandchildren – after all, if the grandma or grandpa had anything to do with the conception, that’s just wrong.) Some offer the more appropriate response of, “You must be so proud.” I like that one better.

Anyway, Grandma recently had the opportunity to show off the baby’s picture to another shopper while standing in a grocery-store line. When she shared that this darling little girl was her great-great-grandchild, the other woman said in a vaguely insulting tone, “You must have all started early!”

Grandma was incensed; while it is unusual that, in that particular lineage, each of the generations is almost exactly twenty years apart, Grandma didn’t see the relatively close generations as socially unacceptable. But she had no suitable comeback for the occasion, so she stewed in silence.

A few days later, she came to see me and told me the story. “Did she know how old you were?” I asked.


“Clearly, she assumed you were younger than you are. Take it as a compliment! The next time someone says that, just say, ‘Why, thank you! I know I look young for my age, but it’s always nice to hear!’”

Grandma laughed, then thought about it and laughed again. “By George, I think I’ll do that!”

So, if you are ever in line with a woman who is showing you a picture of her great-great-granddaughter, don’t insult a branch of her family tree by insinuating there was a streak of teen pregnancies. If you do, you might just get slapped down by a quick comeback!

Or punched in the nose. Hard to tell with Grandma, sometimes.

(Photo credit: Theresa Howes)

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Fuzzy’s Secret Recipe for a Long and Happy Life

I don’t think I’ve got my grandma’s whole recipe here, but I’m pretty sure these are two of the main ingredients:

Age is not a number – it’s an attitude.

When my grandma was 17, she went to visit her grandfather. One day, as they were walking through a watermelon patch on his farm, he asked her, “How old are you now, Fuzzy?” (He probably didn’t call her Fuzzy; but that was her father’s nickname for her. Since I’m not going to tell you her name, I’ll be calling her Fuzzy too.)

“Seventeen,” she answered.

“Me too!” he said with a playful laugh.

“You are not!”

“Well, my age has a seven and one in it…that’s the same thing, isn’t it?” A moment later, he bent over and picked out a watermelon, cracked it open on a rock, and shared the “heart” – the really sweet part right in the center – with her right there in the field. Her grandfather – my great-great-grandfather – lived long enough to hold Fuzzy’s eldest grandchild. He was in his mid-nineties when he died.

My grandmother took his lesson to heart – just because the world says you’re old doesn’t mean you have to believe it. She still tells me that she feels like a seventeen year old on the inside – it’s just her body that disagrees.

Embrace useful technology.

Fuzzy was born in 1927 – eighty-five years ago. Her family had a vehicle, but I’m fairly certain it never went faster than thirty miles an hour. Of course, that was a huge advantage over the alternative forms of transport available at the time. Commercial planes existed, but somehow I don’t think she saw many, living in the small towns of Arizona and New Mexico. Telephones – the old-fashioned kind that hung on the wall – were also a rare commodity. In short, life in the Southwest more closely resembled the previous thousands of years of human history than it did our current world.

When I was twelve or so, I received my first computer – a Commodore 64. I loved it and couldn’t wait to demonstrate it to anyone who came within ten feet of me. Grandma, however, was the only one who saw its possibilities. “Could I do bookwork on that thing?” she asked (she always had a lot of bookkeeping, since she and Grandpa loaned money to people).

I remember telling her I was pretty sure it could; we’d just have to work out the details using the spreadsheet program. Before long, Grandma had her first Commodore as well. I showed her how to use it and helped her set up the formulas for her bookkeeping. Before long, she was handling all of her books with the use of a computer. As the years have passed, she has updated to the latest technology as it became available. She now does her bookkeeping using MS Money.

When I received my first Kindle, I couldn’t wait to show it to her. I was sure that she, as a lifelong reader, would be amazed and thrilled at the possibilities. At first, she wasn’t so sure. But, after a few months of thinking about it, she decided she’d like to have one. Now, you couldn’t pry that thing from her hands with a crowbar.

I won’t say she accepts every techno-gadget that comes down the pike. Though she has a cell phone, she rarely uses it. But if she can find a way that a gadget would be useful in her life, she doesn’t hesitate to incorporate it.

Not too long ago she called me, excited about a video showing all the latest technological developments – things like windows that only let in the light after your alarm goes off and glass counters on which you can set your smart phone and drag information from the device to the larger surface. “I can’t wait to do that!”

“But, Grandma,” I answered, “it’s going to be a few years before that sort of technology is common.”

“I guess I’ll just have to live to be 100, then!”

I sure hope she does – and then a hundred more.

English: Commodore 64 computer (1982). Post pr...

Commodore 64 computer (1982). Post processing: BG, B/C, noise, dust, spot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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The Best Person I Know

Born in Texas at the end of the 1920s, my father’s mother spent her childhood moving from place to place as her father tried to make enough money to support the family. He worked a number of different farming jobs, eventually migrating through New Mexico and Arizona to Phoenix over the course of a dozen years.

At one point, the family lived in a dugout – basically a hole in the ground with a roof built over the top. One day, my grandmother was playing peek-a-boo on the bed with her little brother, dropping a cloth over his head and then raising it at intervals. Without warning, the roof over the bedroom collapsed, trapping her and her baby brother beneath. When the frantic adults dug them out, they were both fine – Grandma had been looking down at the baby, who was covered by the cloth.

Grandma met Grandpa when they were both attending high school at Phoenix Union in the 1940s. There’s a single picture of them before they were dating – him in a leather jacket and high-water pants, her leaning back against a rail and looking exceptionally cool. At that point, they didn’t know they will be spending the rest of his life together.

They started dating after high school. He was drafted in February of 1945. He proposed to her in a letter as he was preparing to be shipped out to Japan for an all-out invasion on Tokyo Bay. Japan surrendered before they arrived and he was diverted to the Philippines instead. When he came home in November of 1946, they were married by my grandmother’s pastor.

There’s more to tell about my grandma and grandpa’s life, but I’m going to skip ahead a bit right now. I was born in 1971, the third of their four grandchildren and the only one by their eldest boy. Due largely to my uncle’s divorce from his first wife, my grandparents didn’t get to spend much time with my older cousins. I, on the other hand, lived right down the street.

My grandma and I have always had a “mutual admiration society.” She is the best person I know, and someone I can always rely on to tell me the truth – eventually. She likes to pull off those band-aids gently. I do wish she and my grandpa had been a little more forthcoming with their dislike of my first husband; but then, they always made an effort to stay out of the affairs of their children and grandchildren. My grandma wisely believes that a parent should raise their children well and then trust them to make the best decisions for themselves.

Grandma taught me how to play chess when I was very young, and she taught me not to be a sore loser – because I lost, and lost, and lost at chess. In fact, over the course of several years, I always lost to her. Until one day when I was probably twelve or thirteen, I won! I remember being thrilled to have finally beaten her at the game. She congratulated me wholeheartedly – and never played chess with me again!

Grandma also instilled her love of books in me. Though my mom was excellent about reading to me everyday, it was my grandmother’s true love of reading that made me an avid reader. Even today, she reads at least four or five books a week; though these days, she’s reading on her Kindle.

In the next few posts, I’m going to share some more about my grandma and the lessons I’ve learned from watching her over the years.

Grandpa and Grandma Wells at PUHS, 1944

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To Bake or Not to Bake?

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time outside. My mom has pictures of me, summer after summer, with bronzed skin and a big smile. I swam, I rode my bike, I tormented ants, I played with the animals — I was an outside kind of girl.

Around ten or so, I realized that inside was a bit nicer. I discovered that I loved to listen to the adults talk. Books — which I already adored — became even more important in my life. I still swam and rode my bike, but my other outside activities were curtailed.

By the time I started college in 1988, I was an indoors girl. My skin had long-since faded back to its natural pale-ivory shade. Whenever I spent any time in the sun at all, I would burn to an unflattering hot pink. As soon as I learned the dangers of sun exposure, I was done — no skin cancer for me, thank you.

This was something of a problem, since I am from what one might call an outdoorsy family. They love to camp, hunt, farm, and generally spend large amounts of time outside. In order to spend time with them, I had to, at least occasionally, be outside.

I adapted as best I could, spending most “camping” vacations under awnings or inside trailers, usually with a book in my hand. Once I was on my own, I began to take the kind of vacations I dreamed of: ones that prominently featured nice hotels and exciting locations.

Unfortunately, my first husband was an outdoorsman. He had a Land Cruiser that he had outfitted to be a rock-crawler (a vehicle specifically designed to go ridiculously slow — an old woman pushing her own wheelchair moves faster). He liked to hunt and camp, too. I tried to adapt — really I did. But no matter how much I wanted to be a good wife for him, I was incapable of it. He and I were destined to part.

When we did split, one of my friends (we’ll call her Emma) warned me I’d never find a man who would be a good match for me. I remember telling her that I would rather be alone for the rest of my life than spend one more day with my ex. Having nothing in common with the man you have married is the worst feeling imaginable, because you think that he is just as miserable as you are. As it turned out, he was less miserable, though I still don’t know why.

In any case, Emma had good reason to worry I’d never find another mate. After all, I am an Arizonan who is a fan of Shakespeare, classical music, and literary fiction. If there is a rarer combination of locale and preferences, I have never found it. And yet, just three years later, I found Dan — a man with a subscription to the local Shakespearean theater company, a love of all music including classical, and a passion for reading just about anything he could get his hands on. His only flaw? He liked to be outside. In fact, just a month before we started dating, he erected a patio shade out of redwood in his backyard.

Once again, I tried to embrace the idea of spending time — at least in the winter — out of doors. With Emma’s help, I moved the rosebushes that originally lined the driveway to the backyard, believing that if the yard were prettier, I would be more likely to spend time out there. I even talked Dan into investing in a fountain. Alas, even running water couldn’t lure me outside.

Dan’s habits slowly changed. He stopped smoking cigars for the most part, so he no longer went outside every evening. Before long, our yards, both front and back, took on a neglected appearance as we spent our time improving the interior of our small home. Though Dan still works on the backyard from time to time, I’m afraid I don’t venture out there very often. The rosebushes have managed to survive severe neglect; the fountain has been dismantled and is in the process of being moved to my parents’ home.

After many vacations in fine hotels and on cruise ships, we have come to the determination that we like comfortable interiors with balconies. In other words, we are condo people. Someday, we will move to a condo and leave this home and its large yard to younger, more outdoorsy types. I can hardly wait.

The Cosmopolitan

Our idea of perfection: a bedroom with a view.

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