Bright Lights, Big Cacti

Arizona through the Eyes of a Native

Month: October, 2012

An Arizona Halloween

I have to admit that when Halloween comes around, Dan and I usually find something to do away from home. Sometimes, we go to a movie. One year, we bought a car. Since neither of us have a strong affection for this particular holiday and our neighborhood doesn’t have a lot of children, we tend to skip it.

Our neighbors across the alley, however, are apparently big fans of the holiday. For two years running, they have had Halloween parties that necessitated the use of a sound system. There may have been some karaoke involved as well, based on the number of “Rolling in the Deep” renditions I heard last weekend. While Dan and I were outside with our dogs, we heard the emcee announce the winners of the costume contest. Apparently, someone came as Honey Boo Boo’s brother, Bubba. As far as I can tell, there is no Bubba Boo Boo, but the guy who decided to dress that way won the competition. I would have liked to have seen that.

Just in case you woke up this morning in Arizona without a costume, here are a few suggestions:

Dress as Sheriff Joe!

This one is easy. Get an old-man mask, a cowboy hat, and a pair of cowboy boots. For bonus points, find a sheriff pin – the biggest one available. If you are thin, stuff a pillow in your shirt to get a decent pot belly going. If you are going with a spouse, have him or her dress up in striped “jailbird” pants and a pink shirt at least two sizes too big. Whenever anyone accuses you of being an idiot, deflect attention by asking why the President hasn’t presented a real birth certificate yet.

Dress as Jan Brewer!

You will need a blonde wig and business dress with a jacket. Wear a shade of lipstick two shades brighter than you would normally consider. Be sure to keep your best “church-lady” expression all night. Never, ever smile. Whenever anyone talks to you, be sure to wag your finger at them as if you were their mother. Don’t be too surprised if some people think you are not the governor but, in fact, a witch.

Dress as a potential illegal alien!

If you are white, this costume will require using a bronzing lotion. When you are an appropriately dark shade of brown, put on your everyday clothes. No need to speak with an accent – your skin color will say it all. (Note: if you choose this costume, please be safe out there. Drive carefully, avoid loitering, and generally stay clear of the police. Just in case, be sure to have your “papers” available to prove your citizenship. Of course, if you go overboard with the bronzer, the cops may think your driver’s license is stolen.)

Happy Halloween!

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Orange Tights

When I was twelve, my mom decided that we, as a family, should learn to square dance. I’m not sure exactly where the idea came from, but I was such a nerd that I actually agreed to attend lessons with her – something she didn’t get my dad to do right away.

As hard as it is to believe today, square dancing used to be fairly common in this country. In fact, it experienced a bit of a renaissance in the 1940s and 1950s, due primarily to a resurgence of folk and country music and a fascination with the cowboy culture in the western states. By the time we started dancing in the 1980s, it was already well into its downward slide as far as popular cultural activities are concerned. There are still a few dances in the valley, but, overall, square dancing is unlikely to be revived within my lifetime.

The reason I bring up this aspect of my adolescence at all is because Halloween is fast approaching. In fact, Dan and I are supposed to attend a costume party tonight – though we have no costumes to wear. This is actually the first costume party I’ve been invited to since my family’s square-dancing days. Thinking about the Halloween dances reminded me of my mom, who is an amazing seamstress.

You see, when I was young, my mom always made my costumes. I could be just about anything I wanted, except for anything store-bought. I had a witch’s costume, a princess costume, a bunny costume…but never a rubber mask. By the time I reached twelve, I was pretty sure that having a home-sewn costume was lame. Of course, I was wrong, but tweens and teens always think they know best.

My mom, freed from costume duty where I was concerned, focused her creativity on costumes for herself and my dad. She dressed my 6’4” dad as the Pink Panther one year. But I remember the Donald and Daisy Duck costumes the best. The body was made out of felt, I think. The stuffed heads engulfed their entire heads, leaving only their faces exposed. The beaks stuck out over them like the rims of baseball caps. Their shoes were covered by orange-felt duck feet. But the best part of all were the tights. Remember, my dad is very tall. My mother searched the valley high and low for a pair of tights that would fit him. I honestly don’t have any idea where she found them! Once she did, though, she dyed them orange and convinced Dad to put them on. Best costume ever!

At the dance, my normally reserved father actually duck-walked. Someone was quick enough with the camera that we have a picture of the moment. What I wouldn’t give for the chance to go back and take a video, though.

As fate would have it, I eventually went to Cottey College – which happens to have the duck as its senior mascot. I talked my mom into giving me the costumes, both of which were turned into senior pass-downs. I like to think they are still in circulation today – but they could have been trashed long ago for all I know.

But I’ll always have the memory of my parents waddling off to a square dance in matching orange tights.

I think I knew this couple…


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Happily Ever After

This past weekend, another charming European prince married his princess. I had never heard of His Royal Highness Prince Guillaume, The Hereditary Grand Duke of Luxembourg. However, I can’t help but be reminded of every fairytale I ever read that ended with: “…and they lived happily ever after.”

When I was very young, I saw Snow White –  the Disney version, of course. I still remember sitting on the swings at recess as a young girl singing, “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Even though I was an intelligent girl with a  (since-abandoned) dream of becoming president of the country, I still believed that I needed a prince to come along and sweep me off my feet. I suppose it might have been useful for one of the adults in my life to point out that princes weren’t actually all that common in the United States.

When Prince Charles married Lady Diana, I read everything I could about the royal couple. I wanted nothing less than to move to Britain immediately and locate Charles’ younger brothers. I was heartbroken when Andrew married Fergie – even though he was eleven years older than me. Of course, by the time I was in my twenties, both of the marriages had dissolved, proving once and for all that “happily ever after” wasn’t the most accurate ending to princely marriages.

Even so, I wanted to fashion my first marriage into a fairytale. My invitations featured a princess kissing a frog. I had a grand wedding with a big white-silk gown, a hundred-and-fifty guests, and a cake that would make a standard wedding cake crumble in shame. Unfortunately, my frog failed to transform into the prince I needed him to be.

After that marriage failed, I spent some time figuring out who I was. I realized I wasn’t Cinderella – for one thing, I can’t keep house worth a damn. I wasn’t Snow White – I was much more likely to have seven dogs around me than seven dwarves. And I wasn’t Aurora – although the chances of me pricking my finger on a spinning wheel were much better than me actually spinning anything. When I met my second husband, I put all my cards on the table – and he chose to love me anyway. I didn’t have to mould him into a prince, because he already was one.

Maybe we should write new endings for the old fairytales. Instead of Snow White taking the “beggar woman’s” apple, she should put a “no soliciting” sign on the door. Little Red Riding Hood should learn how to wield her own ax. And Cinderella shouldn’t run away when the clock starts tolling – if the prince can’t accept her as she really is, maybe he’s not the right royal for her.

In other words, if we women weren’t raised to believe that a man would come along and save us if only we were perfect enough, maybe we would use the brains God gave us to find our own “happily ever afters” – with or without a prince.

English: Henri and Maria Teresa, and their son...

Prince Guillaume, looking very charming. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Fear, Evolved

At my sorority meeting on Wednesday night, one of our members did a presentation about the Salem witch trials. For anyone who thinks otherwise, no actual witches were harmed during that shameful period. Think about it: if you were actually a witch, why would you hang around and wait for the persecutors to bang on your door? You’re a witch! Do a spell and disappear! No, the actual victims of the witch trials were mostly widows and a few men who had the temerity to stand up against the mob mentality.

Sometime in my early-childhood years, my mother acquired an oval, sepia-toned portrait of an ancestor. Her hair was pulled back in a severe bun and she was dressed all in black – probably widow’s weeds, now that I think about it. In addition to those factors, she had suffered a stroke, so half of her face was marred with lines while the other side was smooth. One eyelid sagged closed, leaving my ancestor with a single amber eye that, thanks to the beveled glass over the photo, always seemed to be looking back at whomever was looking at the photograph. My mom, who has always had a passion for antiques, hung the darned thing over the fireplace in the living room.

I’m not certain, but this picture may have been the source of my fascination with witches and witchcraft. I remember checking out a number of library books on the subject. I wanted very much to be a witch; alas, I never really had the knack. My friends, however, were less inspired. Most of them found the image creepy – even a little scary.

Like most supernatural creatures in the last few decades, witches have also received a kinder, gentler image. As a result, it’s not unusual to find people claiming to be witches without fear of persecution. Culturally speaking, the idea has gone from terrifying to exotic – even glamorous.

Perhaps it is the rise of science – its own practitioners once thought to be magicians – that has cleansed the image of the witch. Or, more likely, the things we have built with science and technology – automatic weapons, man-made toxins, and nuclear bombs, to name a few – are more frightening than the supernatural ever was.

We no longer cringe in terror at the concept of witchcraft; too many other real-world threats have robbed our superstitions of their fear factor.

"Tituba and the Children"

Tituba and the Children — the manufacturers of the Salem witch scare (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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Spoiling a Generation

When I was in school in the 1970s, I used to have a half-hour bus ride to school every day. I don’t remember the bus driver having to raise her voice in anger more than a few times over the course of nine years. There were no monitors on our bus, either – we simply behaved. Maybe we understood that distracting the person who currently held our lives in her hands was a bad idea, but I would guess it had more to do with how our parents were raising us.

At the beginning of every school year, my mom would walk me up to my teacher and give him or her permission to spank me if I was disobedient. This was around the time that corporal punishment was becoming anathema in the schools – though I know our principal wasn’t shy with his paddle when the occasion called for it. Most of the teachers accepted Mom’s permission with a friendly smile. I only recall one teacher – a young one who probably had only been teaching a year or two – reacting with shock. None of my teachers ever had to spank me or, for that matter, send me to the principal’s office to be disciplined.

I like to think that I was raised to be a decent kid and therefore never even thought of doing anything wrong. That’s not true, though. I weighed each decision I made against the possibility of getting a spanking. Most of the time, I came down on the side of caution. That caution kept me from making a lot of mistakes – shoplifting, fighting, and sex, for instance.

I’m not suggesting that life was a rosy sitcom filled with precocious scamps and Cosby-like adult mentors. There were kids who didn’t toe the line. My first boyfriend was one of “those” kids, and he cured me of bad boys at an early age. He’s the reason I know the principal wasn’t shy with the paddle. But, all in all, things were different then. If you got into a fight, the adults were going to separate you from your enemy, not throw a few punches of their own. If you mouthed off to a teacher or a bus driver and your parents found out about it, they punished you; they didn’t threaten to sue the school.

I remember the first time I heard an adult tell me – and a classroom full of kids my age – that we should tell a teacher if any adult was hurting us. I was so young that I remember wondering if my parents’ version of punishment – a leather belt to the backside – qualified as “hurting” me. As an adult, I can honestly say that just the threat of that belt kept me on the right path more than once.

This is what happens when we tell two generations of children that they have all the power: eventually, they believe it.

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An Arizona Original

I’ve told you a little about each of my grandparents, except my Grandpa Howard, who was married to Fuzzy for sixty-plus years. Since I learned this week that his sister-in-law, Florence, has recently taken ill – she’s 102 – today seemed like as good of a time as any to tell you about him.

It is through Grandpa Howard that I and all of my paternal cousins are third-generation Arizonans. Grandpa’s parents arrived in Arizona in 1912 – the same year Arizona became a state. They came here because one of their older sons suffered from breathing problems and their doctor advised them to seek out a warmer, dryer climate.

Life in Arizona was not easy back then. Grandpa Wells struggled to find permanent work and support his family. When Prohibition was declared in 1919, Grandpa Wells and his oldest son saw an opportunity and built a still. They sold pints at the local dances – always giving the deputy on duty his pint for free. He also bought an abandoned gold mine and worked it for a number of years.

Howard was born in 1926, the last of four children spanning more than two decades. He grew up in Kirkland, Arizona, living on his dad’s mining claim. Some years later, Grandpa Wells would sell that claim and give Howard and Fuzzy the money for my father to be born in the hospital.

Grandpa Howard spent a lot of time outside and, consequently, maintained a deep tan for much of my childhood. He was quiet and gruff. Based on everything I saw on television, I incorrectly surmised that he was a Native American. I still remember the stunned silence and the laughter that followed when I floated my theory at a family gathering.

I spent a lot of time with Howard and Fuzzy when I was a child – mostly because I adored my grandma. Grandpa Howard, however, could be a little intimidating. He was a slow talker – he always seemed to chew on his words a bit before he actually spit them out. It could make it hard for someone like me to know when he was actually done speaking. And when he reprimanded me? Well, I never wanted to make him angry. Once, when I was eight or nine, he or Fuzzy almost stumbled over some shoes I’d left in the middle of the floor. In his deep voice, he told me never to do that again – to either keep my shoes on my feet or put my shoes out of the way. To this day, when I take my shoes off at Fuzzy’s house, I still stick them under an end table.

He was always calm and had an amazing poker face. He could make anyone believe anything. He knew the difference between a buyer’s market and seller’s market and how to capitalize on either one. He told me that the secret to a happy marriage was never to fight – though I’m not sure I believe that. I guess it worked for Fuzzy and him, though I think Fuzzy actually has a pretty high temper.

In December of 2009, he was officially diagnosed with lung cancer. I say “officially” because I think he had known for a lot longer what was wrong with him. Dan tells me that he turned to Fuzzy and said, “Well, we had a good run.” I don’t remember that specifically – but I do remember that he had a speech for everyone, including his grandsons-in-law.

He didn’t linger – he lasted less than a week after the diagnosis. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just about a perfect death: enough time to tell everyone how you feel about them, but not so long that everyone wishes you would just get it over with already. He was 83.

Yes, I know…I’ve used this before. What can I say? It’s my favorite photo of my grandparents!

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I Didn’t Die Today

I only weigh twenty pounds more than I did when I started college, which would sound like bragging if I hadn’t already been overweight at the time. In a lot of ways, I’m very lucky – at 6’0” tall, I can carry a lot more weight before I start to look really fat. But the BMI charts don’t lie: I’m obese. In fact, I’m forty pounds over the maximum suggested weight for someone of my height. Now, the last time I saw 184 pounds, I was a teenager. I’m not opposed to seeing it again – I’m just not sure how to get there.

This week, I finally followed through on my plan to join a gym. This is the third time I’ve taken this step in the last twenty years, so I’m trying to keep my expectations reasonable. Despite the encouragement of the very nice woman selling me the membership, I stuck to my guns and only paid for one month; anything more seems like tempting fate. In the past, I’ve fallen for the year-long-contract sales pitch – the one where they tell you how much better the rate is if you commit. When it comes to fitness, I guess you could call me a commitmentphobe. The fact that I’m joining a gym when I have a perfectly serviceable treadmill at home proves I’m a cheater. So, this time, I’m going with the one-month-at-a-time approach.

The gym I joined has an indoor-walking track that circles over the basketball courts. Fifteen turns around equals a mile. Yesterday, I resolved to walk at least a mile – two, if I were up to it. The joy of speeding along the track, lapping senior citizens like some kind of athlete, was pretty sweet. I made two miles, plus a victory lap or two. Cue the Rocky music.

Coming off that triumph, I resolved to go to a class today: the 9:30 Strength 101 class, to be exact. “101” means basic, right? I set my alarm an hour earlier and ran through my morning routines. At a little before nine, I hopped in my car and sped down to the gym. I was a few minutes early, so I sat and watched the Silver Sneakers class – the class for senior citizens – as they finished their routines. I confided in a friendly woman that this was to be my first class and she swore that I could do it. The classes are geared toward people who are less than perfect specimens. Encouraged, I followed her into the room when the seniors had filed out. The instructor, an enthusiastic young woman who reminded me of Sandra Oh, told us what equipment we would need. The friendly woman helped me gather those items, and I set up right behind her.

Sandra Oh at a Writer's Guild of America protest

Seriously. Just like Sandra Oh. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first twenty minutes or so went fine. As it turns out, I can grapevine with the best of them. I marched wide, lunged, and stretched, all in shoes that are better for walking than aerobics. Things didn’t start to fall apart until we picked up the rubber tubes to start the arm exercises.

Just to be clear, I ate breakfast. I drank a lot of water before I went to the gym. When the thirst kicked in during the workout, I drank some more. The dizziness and the sick stomach were unexpected. I waited a few minutes to see if it would pass, then got back up and tried to join in again. It turns out I may have overestimated my physical ability. My blood sugar crashed through the floor as the class reached the halfway point. Okay…so not what I thought would happen.

I did the fat girl walk of shame, putting all my equipment up before I left the room as the rest of the exercisers – including more than a few who looked to be a lot more than forty pounds overweight – continued to exercise.

Down in the locker room, I managed to open my combination lock and find a bag of peanuts in my purse from that trip to Arkansas a few months back. As I chewed a few of them, I texted Dan to tell him I’d nearly killed myself in a class. At first, he thought I was talking about muscle pain and made a joke. When he realized I’d had a sugar crash, he got worried about me. After a few minutes of sitting quietly and allowing the peanuts to do their work, I grabbed my purse and drove home, where I proceeded to drink orange juice and sulk over my failure.

Then it hit me: I didn’t die today, as one of my favorite bloggers is fond of saying. I didn’t fail. I did half of a workout, which is more than I did last week. Okay, so I didn’t plan well. Next time, I will wear different shoes and carry my purse with me into the workout room, so that I have something with me to prevent a sugar crash from getting away from me. Next time, maybe I’ll make it through three-quarters of the workout before my body gives out.

And I won’t break up with the gym just yet. Though I might go back to speeding past the over-eighty crowd on the track for a while…you know, just to build my confidence.

A public demonstration of aerobic exercises

No one was actually dressed like any of these people, thank goodness. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Picture Perfect

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my oldest friend, Ella – the one person in this world who has stuck by me through thick and thin (quite literally, when it comes to our body sizes). I wanted to find a photo of us to accompany the piece. Ideally, I was looking for one of those over-the-top cute photos where the two little girls have their arms around each other and are smiling at the camera, full of hope for the future.

Something like this would have been perfect.

So I went to my mom, who has all of my childhood photos. “Do you have any photos of Ella and me together?”

“Probably,” she said, directing me to several photo boxes in the corner of her office closet. Together, we pulled them down and began sorting through them. In those boxes, I found pictures of me with one of my best Cottey friends, with a cousin who hasn’t spoken to me in more than twenty years, with a little girl who was always more of a “frenemy,” even with the two little boys who lived in the house behind me. Of Ella and me? Not a one before we were teenagers. In fact, I was only able to put my hands on a single photo with both of us in it. Neither of us are looking at the camera, and the only reason I know that’s me in the background is because Ella and I were wearing matching jackets.

Mom sorted through all of the photos just to be sure I hadn’t missed any. After giving the subject some more thought, she decided that any photos of us as small children must have been ordered as slides. Mom didn’t start insisting on prints until I was half grown, apparently. I don’t know what to do with that information. The photos aren’t mine; they belong to my parents. If they were mine, I might try to have them converted to digital format so that they aren’t lost forever. But how important are they, really? If I had the photos, what would I use them for, other than occasionally illustrating some tale from my childhood? I have no children. My niece and nephew may love me, but I’m still just an aunt by marriage. Ultimately, they won’t care about my family history.

Still, I find it a little disconcerting that I have no way to prove that Ella has been my friend since childhood. She could have been a figment of my imagination, for all you know.

What would you do: have them converted or forget about them?

The one photo I found. Sad, huh?

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Ella’s Dad

As I mentioned before, Ella and I have been best friends since we were six years old. She spent plenty of time with my family, and I spent plenty of time with hers. Her dad was around a lot, because he worked from home and preferred to work at night. When we would play at Ella’s, her mother would occasionally admonish us to be quiet so that we didn’t wake her dad.

Her dad was a big man – burly, I think most would say. He had a nice smile and a great laugh, and he loved to tease us. I never saw him when he was grumpy, though I know he had severe mood swings. He was one of those adults who talked to kids like we were intelligent creatures. Inappropriately or not, he was the first adult to tell Ella and I that we should be sure to carry condoms – just in case. Good advice, really, though I think we were only thirteen at the time he gave it.

The whole family moved to Washington when I was in my teens, so I only saw him on occasion after that. I remember how uncomfortable he looked in the morning coat he wore when he walked Ella down the aisle nearly twenty years ago. He may not have wanted to wear the outfit, but he was proud of his daughter on her wedding day. The last time I saw him was at a small memorial for his mother, held at Ella’s brother’s home. That must have been at least ten years ago now. He was less imposing by then, but still the same man I remembered from my childhood.

On Sunday, I called Ella to make plans for a Las Vegas trip we had been anticipating for several months. When I asked how she was, she said “Not so good” and asked if I had checked Facebook yet that day. I hadn’t.  If I had, I would have seen a picture of her husband wrapped in bandages after an ill-advised obstacle-course run. (Please, people, stay off these courses unless you really are in the best shape of your life. So far, two out of two people I know personally have seriously injured themselves at these “events.”) Then she told me about her dad. I had known he was fighting cancer, but I wasn’t aware that he had ended up in the hospital due to seizures. I sympathized with her for a while, knowing that our trip to Vegas was shelved for the time being.

A few hours later while I was at a family meal with my niece and nephew, my phone rang – it was Ella. Cursing my bad timing – I had just reprimanded my nephew for wanting to answer a call from a friend while we were at the table – I answered the phone. Ella was crying and I knew almost before she said the words that her father had died.

Through him, Ella is related to one of our country’s best-known frontiersmen, Davy Crockett, and, I believe, John Browning, who designed a number of firearms. Besides Ella, he leaves behind two other daughters and a son, as well as a number of grandchildren.

He was not a perfect person – none of us are. But he was a goodhearted man who loved his children and God. He will be missed.

Godspeed, Ella’s dad – and thanks for the advice.

Davy Crockett

Davy Crockett (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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