Bright Lights, Big Cacti

Arizona through the Eyes of a Native

Category: Childhood

A Most Unappealing Camping Site

I may have mentioned before that I’m not exactly a fan of RV travel. My parents dragged me on way too many long driving trips when I was a child. For a while, they owned a motorhome in which only two of the seats faced forward. Before that, they had a truck with a camper on it with bench seating along the sides. Riding sideways makes me nauseous; therefore, these vehicles only succeeded in making me dislike camping even more. As an adult, other things have kept me out of the woods: namely, Lyme disease, bubonic plague, and West Nile virus. Why anyone would purposely go where the carriers of these diseases are known to live is completely beyond me; yet, my parents persist in their RV-ing ways.

The other day, as I was innocently perusing the Internet, I stumbled across the most horrifying use of an RV yet: assisted living. That’s right: if you are so inclined, there are assisted-living facilities  where the “residents” simply pull their RV into a space and enjoy three square meals a day and basic care for about $1,200 per couple. I know some people — including my mom and dad — who actually think this sounds like a good deal. However, I have a few concerns:

  • Is it really a good idea for elderly people who need assisted-living services to be climbing in and out of trailers? Let’s face it — most of them are probably pretty brittle. One false step and *wham!* broken hip. Of course, maybe they get a referral fee from the local hospital. If I were an orthopedic surgeon, I’d put a billboard where the residents would see it everyday.
  • Is it wise to allow Alzheimer’s patients to live in a home that can literally be driven away? Does the facility have some kind of guard at the front gate to stop them from leaving?
  • What about the cramped living conditions? I understand that most RVs these days have slide-out features that make the interior space larger, but you’re still looking at less than 500 square feet of living space in most cases. A few months of that and most couples would be certifiably stir-crazy. I would hope there are a lot of psychologists nearby. Maybe one of them could split the cost of the billboard with the surgeon.
  • One of the few advantages of RV travel always seemed to be the ability to pick up and move when you got tired of a place. Parking your RV in what is more or less a permanent position within a park begs the question: why are you still living in an RV?

Then again, I guess I would always be skeptical of the benefits of this sort of retirement. If I were to go to Hell, I’m pretty sure Satan would send me on a never-ending RV road-trip up that region’s version of Kilimanjaro. Oh…and I’d have to sit sideways.

Satan probably likes to camp.

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On the Run

When I was young, I ran away from home.

I clearly remember plotting my escape: secreting clothes into a small overnight case I had, imagining a different life somewhere far away (probably California), and forcing myself to wake up early since my mom always slept late. If my plans weren’t exactly well developed, at least I have an excuse: I was probably nine or ten at the time. So, one morning, I snuck out of the house with my bag and started walking.

I don’t remember exactly why I wanted to run away. Maybe I had read Huckleberry Finn or seen something on television that made running away seem like an option. It’s not like I had a bad childhood. I didn’t have any siblings to annoy me. There was a pool in my backyard and I always had more than enough books to read. My mom and dad were, and still are, good parents. I just wanted to start over.

I only made it to Campbell’s, a small convenience store less than a mile from the house. The sun was coming up by then and I had started to worry about how my mom would feel if she woke up and found me gone. All of the triumph drained from me as I thought about her crying in my room, becoming more and more panic stricken by my absence. I turned around and practically ran back. I let myself in quietly and tiptoed back to my room. I’m pretty sure Mom was still sleeping; as far as I know, this will be the first time she hears that I once ran away. And that’s probably a good thing, since I’m now much too big for her to spank. She’s probably going to freak out at the thought of her young child walking down the street with an overnight case, just begging to be abducted. Calm down, Mom. I was probably five-foot-eight and a hundred-and-thirty pounds. And we lived in the middle of the freaking desert — not too many cars out there.

That may have been the first time I thought I wanted to run away from home, but it certainly wasn’t the last. I still wake up some mornings and wish I could just get in my car and drive. Of course, these days I’d have to pack Dan and our dogs with me. What keeps me from running away…  Actually, what keeps most people from running away is the inescapable shame of disappointing those we love and respect most in this life. Running away is the easy route; staying and taking your share of responsibility is the mature, adult route.

Someday, though, when there’s no one left to disappoint…I am so running away.

Exactly.

I’m a Believer

I have what most people of my generation would consider “questionable taste” when it comes to music. I was raised on a steady diet of 1950s pop and country music, with occasional Carpenters and Helen Reddy interludes. I never heard of heavy metal until I was well into my teens, and I had no idea who the Doobie Brothers or Steely Dan were until I was married in the 1990s. My friends have long thought I was beyond odd when it came to my musical choices — and they get quite a bit of amusement from my taste. Around 2001 or so, I heard a catchy tune on a car commercial and had to call one of my best friends and her husband to find out who the band was. Her husband wanted her to tell me the group was called Buck-Naked Bitches, because he thought it would be hilarious to send me into a music store to ask for one of their albums.

When I was around eleven, I discovered the Monkees, thanks to afternoon repeats of the late-60s television show. I not only watched the episodes, I taped them! I had a collection of forty episodes on VHS tapes that I would watch over and over again…because I am a big nerd at heart. I liked Peter, the naïve ding-a-ling, the best, which I think partially explains my first husband. Dan is more of a Mickey — witty, silly, and prone to bursting into song. In any case, the first concert I chose to attend was the Monkees — just Davy, Mickey, and Peter. I screamed as loud as any of those original fans from the 1960s. I saw the trio twice more — once toward the end of the 1980s and again in Vegas around Thanksgiving 1995. The shows were always good. Davy, Mickey, and Peter seemed to have a fairly warm relationship, but Davy was definitely the most comfortable with live performances.

A few years ago, Dan took me to see Davy at the Cannery in Vegas. More than ten years had passed since I had seen any of the Monkees, and Davy was starting to show his age. He was still a great performer though. He also told a number of anecdotes from his life and expressed his wish that the Monkees would tour together again. When he died unexpectedly last year at just 66, I’m sure most fans were as certain as I was that they would never see another Monkees tour. And yet…

Last weekend, I saw the three surviving Monkees — Mike, Peter, and Mickey — at the Green Valley Resort in Henderson, Nevada. I had never seen Mike in concert before, so I was overjoyed to finally have the opportunity. However, after the initial thrill, I have to say I was most impressed with Mickey, who I actually think has improved with age. The concert was 46% Mike, 46% Mickey, and 4% Peter, with the final 4% used as a tribute to Davy. Mike’s songs are the most musically interesting, but Mike was having trouble remembering the lyrics and his voice took a few songs to warm up. Mickey, on the other hand, sounded terrific and has the most energy of the trio. It’s a shame they couldn’t have gotten together before Davy died — I would have loved to see all four of them together.

Hearing their music again has renewed my love of the group. They may have been the “Pre-Fab Four,” but they still managed to create some amazing, memorable music. And if you still have no idea who I’m talking about, the Monkees recorded I’m a Believer long before Smashmouth did it for the soundtrack of Shrek.

The Monkees in all their groove-tastic-ness.

Buffalo

When I was fifteen, I took a driving trip across the country with my mom and her mother. I realize now that Grandma Millie was, in fact, making a final pilgrimage of sorts: she would be gone in less than a year. Grandma Millie was a devoted letter-writer, a habit I sincerely wish I had picked up. In addition to writing a letter a week to her mother, she also corresponded with several other relatives and friends. She hadn’t seen some of those friends in thirty years, but still she wrote. The ultimate goal of this trip was to see a woman I knew as Aunt Rose — my grandmother’s best friend — who lived in International Falls, Minnesota.

A few days into the trip — I can’t tell you exactly where we were because I honestly don’t remember — Grandma spotted buffalo in a field. “Look, Susie! Buffalo!” she said excitedly, no doubt rousing me from what appeared to Mom and Grandma to be a sound sleep.

“Where?!” I promptly sat up and looked out the window, excited to see an animal that I’d only read about in books.

For some reason, Grandma found this very amusing and infinitely entertaining. A few hours later (I’m sure I was asleep again), she said it again: “Look, Susie! Buffalo!”

Again, my eyes popped open and I scanned the flat lands surrounding our truck for the animals. There were no buffalo, though — just rolled haystacks. Grandma laughed like a lunatic. From then on, and for the rest of the trip, Grandma would regularly awaken me with “Look, Susie! Buffalo!” And right down to the last time she said it, I couldn’t keep myself from at least checking to see if she was telling the truth. In all the years since then, I have never seen another one, until very recently.

Dan, of course, has heard this story. So, a few weeks ago as we passed through Texas, he thought I was kidding when I said, “Look, Danny! Buffalo!” Just like I had all those years ago though, he looked. And there it was: a single buffalo in the middle of a field.

Grandma Millie is probably laughing her butt off right now.

Look, Grandma! Buffalo!

Overflowing Joy

I haven’t really watched a Disney parade in quite a few years. When I was a teenager, I figured out that the lines at the attractions thin out during the major events (Fantasmic! is a good example), and so I head for something with a ridiculously long line, like Space Mountain or Star Tours. While half of the crowd is stopped dead in their tracks watching the spectacle, I get to stand in a line that is half as long as normal.

However, on this trip, I was with Crista, who had only visited Disneyland once before — and that was before California Adventures opened. Therefore, I found myself willingly waiting for the Main Street parade in Disneyland on Sunday. We found a spot near the front of the park — right across from Mr. Lincoln’s hangout — and settled in about fifteen minutes before it started. We sat down next to the model cannon where a couple of little boys were playing happily as their parents rested on the benches behind us. One of the little boys repeatedly used my leg as a hurdle; I was happy to oblige as long as he kept clearing it!

Not long before the parade started, a little girl, her blonde hair in braids, moved to the edge of the sidewalk in front of us. Her mother and father — at least, I assume that’s who they were — sat behind us on one of the benches. As soon as the music started, this little girl began to dance and spin with abandon. She didn’t care who saw her — she was having the time of her life! As each float came by, she waved wildly and smiled up at the performers — particularly the princesses. When they noticed her and waved — and nearly all of them did, starting with Cinderella all the way through to the non-princess Mary Poppins — her smiled grew even wider and she waved even more frenetically. Then, as the performers moved on, she would turn back to look at her mom with so much joy that it seemed to spill out of her and reach everyone around. Crista and I spent more time watching that little girl than we did watching the parade.

That little girl’s outward appearance is how I feel inside every time I enter the Disney parks. I know it’s not rational; I even know that it’s not cool to be a forty-one-year-old Disney enthusiast. But very few things fill me with the kind of overflowing joy I feel when enveloped by the Disney brand of magic. I’ve just learned not to dance and twirl when other people are watching.

Here she is -- from the back!

Here she is — from the back!

The D Word

Once upon a time, I worked in a call center. One day, I spoke with a Disney executive as part of my job. I mentioned that I loved Disneyland. He asked me how old I was the first time I visited.

“Probably four or five,” I answered. “Maybe younger.”

“You’re a lifer. If we get you by the time you’re five,” he explained, “you’ll always love Disney.”

I didn’t really understand how true his words were until I met and married Dan, who was not exposed to the Disney mystique at a young age. Before Dan, I visited Disneyland an average of once every two years. In fact, my first honeymoon was at Disney World — something my first husband and I both loved. However, Dan does not share my memories nor my affection for the Happiest Place on Earth. Therefore, I have only been three times in the last ten years — twice with Dan (who was clearly humoring me) and once with my niece’s choir (because I was that desperate).

Crista, my wonderful sister-in-law, also loves Disneyland. I don’t know if she was ensnared by the “under-5, got you for life” theory or if she just shares my fondness for amusement parks in general, but she, as the wife of another Bennett, has chafed at her husband’s refusal to consider Disneyland as a viable vacation spot. About a month ago or so, we were chatting and came up with a solution: we could go to Disneyland without our stick-in-the-mud husbands! As it turns out, the brothers were pleased with this solution, so we booked our trip.

Which leads me to why I’m writing about Disneyland: I seriously can’t think of anything else right now. All the voices in my head are chanting the Mickey Mouse song as I type this. They’re going to move on to “It’s a Small World” any second now. In one sleep, as my college roommate puts it, I’m going to be in Disneyland!

I can pretty much guarantee that my next post will also be about Disneyland too. I get home on Tuesday.

Disney

The Weight of Words

After rereading my blog post from Wednesday, I realized that I may have left you with the impression that I have always been a proud tall woman.

That, in fact, is a lie.

When I was very young, one of my friends was about the size of a pixie. She walked on her tiptoes to compensate, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Instead, I was jealous: she was Tinkerbell incarnate. Once, when we were probably seven or eight, I observed our shadows against a wall. I was horrified to realize that my shadow was nearly half-again as wide and twice as long as hers. The impression stuck with me – I can still see those shadows in my mind.

By the time I reached the eighth grade, I was the tallest girl in my class despite my persistent slump. I equated my height with unattractiveness, especially after my seventh-grade teacher told my mom how much she preferred working with the “cute little girls” (i.e., my pixyish friend).  I was so tall that strangers assumed I was a college student – or, at the very least, a high-school senior.

Though my posture improved when I started high school, I was still self-conscious. The boys that I liked were, almost without fail, shorter than me. If they liked me back, they certainly weren’t saying – which only further embedded my “ugliness” in my mind. In fact, a boy I dated briefly in my freshman year made it his self-appointed role to moo at me whenever I passed. A few years later, a college acquaintance described me as frumpy, which was probably as accurate as it was hurtful.

When I married my first husband, I thought I had found someone who believed I was pretty and would love me for me. I discovered my mistake the day he turned to me and said, “We may not be good-looking people, but at least you’re smart.” Surprisingly, I didn’t leave him immediately (or stab him in the eye while he slept).

I only truly became comfortable in my own skin after the end of that marriage. Slowly but surely, I began to recognize that I was beautiful – inside and out. That’s not to say that there weren’t setbacks. A former boss thoughtlessly laughed at my attempts to “improve the packaging,” so to speak. He implied that there was only so much that could be done. But, as I’ve said before, when I ended my first marriage, I was prepared to be alone for the rest of my life. That resolve led me to work on loving who I was and not worry about what the rest of the world saw – or didn’t see, for that matter.

I’m one of the lucky ones: no one’s words can make me any less happy today, and, as it happens, I did find a man who believes I’m beautiful.

But you never know how long it will take a person to shed the thoughtless words you lay across their shoulders. Some will never be free of them. And that’s got to be bad karma, right?

English: Tinkerbell by Diarmuid Byron O'Connor...

English: Tinkerbell by Diarmuid Byron O’Connor commissioned by Great Ormond Street Hospital London 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Faith

I know that I share a lot of my life here, but I usually keep my faith out of my writing entirely. I don’t want my readers to immediately recognize who I am or what I believe by reading my works of fiction. If they do, I believe I’m doing it wrong. One of the best compliments I’ve received is that one of my books (An Unassigned Life) has been called both too Christian and anti-Christian by different readers.

Recently, though, an acquaintance asked me about my walk with God and I took the time to share my story with him. After I had done so, I realized it was a story that was both very personal and universal at the same time. I am not saying that what I believe is what you have to believe. I merely want to share my spiritual walk with you.

When I was young, my parents took me to a small home church. One Sunday, I felt pinpricks in my heart during the altar call, but when I tried to go forward, my mother held me back, believing I was too young to understand what I was doing.

After that, I sought spiritual fulfillment from other sources. Eventually, I turned to the occult, even studying astrology and reading tarot cards — quite accurately, as it turned out.

In 1997, I married my first husband. Within his extended family were five preachers. The next year, I volunteered to compile and edit the family stories for their reunion. Within those stories were numerous testimonials to the power of Christ. I was moved by their words, and I began to wonder if Jesus was who I was missing.

At the reunion that summer, I met some of the most wonderful people. During an impromptu praise service on Sunday morning, I swear that the believers were glowing! The unbelievers, however, looked like dark spots in their midst. I came home determined to figure out who Jesus was. I promised myself that I would read one chapter a day, starting in the New Testament. By the end of the week, I had sought out a woman at work who glowed like my husband’s family did. I asked her where she worshiped and she invited me to her church. That Sunday, I went — alone. My husband refused to go. Sitting in that strip-mall makeshift church, I felt the pinpricks again, but I didn’t go forward. I managed to keep my composure until I got out of there. I spent the rest of the day in tears.

The next day, I made a deal with God (note to self: don’t bother…He always wins). If Mary (my glowing coworker) was still at her desk when I finished working, I would go talk to her. At 5:15, she was still at work. I found more to do around the office. At 5:30, she was still there. I took care of some tasks I’d been putting off. At 5:45, Mary still hadn’t budged. I walked over and sat down at her desk. I told her I thought I needed Jesus. She was a little flustered — that was the one day she didn’t have her Bible in her purse — but she found a Romans Road tract in her desk drawer and led me to Christ right there!

Because I felt it was important to understand fully what I was professing when I called myself a Christian, I read the entire Bible in the next nine months. My husband claimed to be saved, so I hoped that our marriage, which was a little shaky, would be strengthened by my new belief. Unfortunately, it was not. After a few more years of misery, I finally decided to divorce him.

My divorce earned me disdain from many of my fellow Free Will Baptist congregants, but I persevered. Then, one Sunday, the preacher’s wife used a passage from the Old Testament to “prove” that God disapproved of interracial relationships. I disagreed — vocally. That passage was clearly meant for the Israelites, whom God considered a race apart. The New Testament, on the other hand, says that all believers are equal, no matter their race.

After that, I left the Free Will Baptists. I have attended a number of other churches, but I haven’t found a place that feels right to me. I still hold my faith in Christ close. I maintain strong friendships with good Christian men and women. But that doesn’t mean I exclude non-believers from my life.

I believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save me from my sins. I believe he did that for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. However, I also believe that this salvation is a gift that every human must accept for himself — we, as Christians, cannot force our will on our fellow beings. To do so is to usurp God, who gave us free will in the first place.

Stained glass window of the sacred Heart of Je...

Stained glass window of the sacred Heart of Jesus Christ in the former Mosque (Cathedral) of Cordoba, Spain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Chocolate and Him

When I was a child, Valentine’s Day was one of my favorite holidays. This had a lot to do with my mom. Every year, we would go to the store and buy paper heart-shaped doilies and Valentine’s Day stickers to make homemade valentines. While everyone else was struggling to figure out which one of the preprinted messages would be acceptable to give to the kids they really didn’t like (because back then mothers always made their children give a valentine to every kid in their class), I put together a classroom’s worth of cute, non-committal cards. If I really liked someone, I could always write on the card; otherwise, a paper heart with a sticker was sufficient.

Valentine’s Day isn’t nearly as great once you grow up. I realized a long time ago that if you expect more than a bit of chocolate on Valentine’s Day, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. You see, most men don’t really get Valentine’s Day. They don’t understand why there is another holiday so close to Christmas where they are supposed to spend money on gifts and flowers. If it had been up to men, Valentine’s Day would be on June twenty-fifth and the appropriate gifts would be sports-related.

That’s not to say that Dan isn’t surprisingly romantic. He has done some amazing things for me over the years. He has taken me to Disneyland, despite his better judgment. He planned a trip to Italy because I wanted to go, not because he did. The fact that he loved it was just a bonus. And he proposed to me during a Shakespearean play. None of these events were even remotely associated with a holiday.

Therefore, all I want is a single box of See’s chocolates and my husband’s love every day of the year. Nuts and chews, please.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Anthropomorphic Valentine, circa 1950–1960

Gotta be careful who you give this one to. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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The Ancestor’s Portrait

The other day, Nikki and I went to the museum. As we were examining some of the pieces on display, we were discussing which items we would like to have on our walls in our respective homes. She pointed to a pair of portraits from the nineteenth century and said, “You’d probably like those, right?”

No. No, I really wouldn’t.

When I was a child, my mother had a thing for antiques. I remember that we had a bronzed milk can, antique toys, and, among a number of other things, a framed sepia photograph of an unsmiling ancestor who had suffered a stroke sometime before the photo was taken. The woman’s face was completely smooth on one side, and one of her eyes drooped closed. Her hair was pulled back in a severe bun, and she was wearing black. To top the whole thing off, the glass in the frame was convex, which caused her one good eye to follow you no matter where you were. Naturally, I concluded that the woman in the photograph was a witch.

My mother hung this terrifying artifact over the mantel. Before long, I was known as the kid with the creepy picture. Other children would come over and stand in different places in the living room to experience the never-ending glare. If I ever needed to pass through the living room alone at night, I scurried past the picture. The thing creeped me – out big time.

It hung there until the day we left that home. In the new place – where I spent my high school years – I think it was placed in a room I was seldom in. Maybe the dining room. In any case, I didn’t have to look at it every day.

Finally, when they moved to their most recent home, my mom left the photo out of her decorating scheme entirely. I didn’t wonder too much about it – I was just relieved to not have to see it. One day, though, I was in their garage and noticed the distinctive curve of the frame and glass. It’s not gone…it’s just lying in wait.

And that is why I prefer surrealist landscapes.

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