Bright Lights, Big Cacti

Arizona through the Eyes of a Native

Category: Education

Fat Girl Running

Nearly 25 years ago, I had the great good fortune of being assigned to the same college dorm as Kristann Monaghan. I was a fairly quiet, naive sixteen year old from Arizona. She was eighteen and, at least from my perspective, quite the opposite. She had a big personality, even back then. She always played the best pranks, had the wildest adventures, and told the most exciting stories. And, on top of it all, she had — and still has — the most joyful smile of anyone I’ve ever met. At the time, I wished I could be more like her; failing that, I wanted to be her roommate.

So, in our second year of college, we were roommates — for about two months. As I recall, she had the best collection of posters, including a Murphy’s Law graphic that took several minutes to read. It wasn’t long before our differences became too much for either of us to bear. When a single room became available, I moved out — but, thankfully, we remained friends.

Fast forward a couple decades. Thanks to Facebook, I reconnected with quite a few of my college friends, including Stann. I became an author — a profession some would say is perfect for an observant, if occasionally gullible, woman. Kristann, a former ballerina, is now a slightly heavy PICU nurse with one of the most consistently funny blogs I have ever read. Her words routinely make me giggle uncontrollably. In many ways, she is the living embodiment of that Murphy’s Law sign that used to grace our shared room in college: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Hilariously wrong. But it’s only funny because Kristann — our heroine — can laugh at herself. And no matter how wrong life goes, she just keeps on running…because that’s the only way a self-proclaimed “fat girl” can get to where she ultimately wants to be.

Congratulations on your first book, Kristann. I’m so pleased that you are sharing your wild adventures and exciting stories with the world.

Run, don’t walk, to buy this book. Visit the Inknbeans website for the links to The Running Experiment: A Weekly Walk Away from the Sofa.

It's a Cottey thing...

It’s a Cottey thing…


Halfway Home

To quote The Grateful Dead (a band to which I have never intentionally listened), what a long strange trip it’s been.

Driving my sister-in-law’s SUV, Dan and I left Chicago Tuesday morning. We made it to Quincy that afternoon, where we spent the next several hours with one of my cousins that I hadn’t seen for more than twenty years. Russ and Judy have us a tour of the town and took us to dinner at a great restaurant on the Mississippi. Dan was pleasantly surprised to discover that these relatives were cosmopolitan types: they have traveled extensively and are well read.

We left for Hannibal in the middle of a rainstorm, which we should have taken as an omen.

The next morning, we started toward Kansas City. However, Dan’s brother alerted us to the severe storm warnings looming over the Midwest, and we soon altered our course, heading directly to Nevada, Missouri, instead.

Nevada is both just like I remember it and completely changed. It seemed so sleepy back in the late Eighties. Cottey College, the women’s school I attended, is still beautiful, and most of the traditions are still in place. A current student led us on a tour of the greatly improved and expanded campus. I wish I had a daughter to send there.

We headed toward Bentonville, Arkansas, and the Crystal Bridges Museum, which was open until 9:00 on Wednesday. Dan and I arrived a little after 7 pm and Dan was able to see everything he was interested in with time to spare.

After a good night’s sleep, we awoke to discover that we were once again in the path of the storms. Our original intention was to go through Oklahoma City; instead we dropped down into Texas. Dan really doesn’t like Texas.

I’ll tell you more next time.


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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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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Mom, My English Degree, and Me

When I was fifteen, I decided that I was done with high school. I had good reasons to feel that way:

  • I was ridiculously tall for a girl.
  • I had a vindictive ex-boyfriend who mooed every time I walked by.
  • I was bored out of my mind in most of my classes.

If it hadn’t been for a sweet girl (whose name I can’t remember for life of me) handing me a brochure for Cottey College, I would have dropped out and gotten my GED. Instead, I made early admittance to that small women’s college in Missouri my goal. I spent my Junior year working my butt off to get letters of recommendation from my teachers and straight As in my classes. And, by some miracle, the stars aligned and my mom and dad allowed me to go.

Cottey, a two-year program at the time, had only 350 students. At just 16, I lived in a dorm with a hundred other young women and learned how to be relatively self-sufficient. I tried out for and earned parts in every play during my two years there. I discovered that I wasn’t really a “roommate” kind of a girl (I did try sharing apartments with others later on – mostly with disastrous results).

When I came back to Arizona, I decided to major in English at ASU. I spent two years mostly avoiding classes (though I somehow managed to earn all but twelve credits toward my Bachelors). Bored with English studies, I switched to Sociology. One year later, at the ripe old age of 21, I dropped out and found a “real job.”

I always intended to go back – someday. Nevertheless, as the next decade slipped past, I never seemed to find the time or have the inclination. My mother, in a misguided attempt to encourage me, would joke that she would extract a deathbed promise from me that I would finish college. Obstinate child that I am, I would simply ignore her pleas.

I know Mom spent most of the 1990s and the 2000s frustrated by my lack of ambition; she was certain that I was wasting my gift. Patience has never been her strongest virtue.

After I married Dan in 2005, the idea of actually finishing my English degree began to gain importance. Finally, in the summer of 2006, Dan and I decided that I should take the fall semester and finish college. I enrolled in the four classes I needed and proceeded to diligently work toward my goal, eventually earning three A-pluses and an A.

When it became clear that I was going to graduate, I asked my mom if it mattered to her whether I walked in the ceremony or not. I would have been just as happy not to, but she felt strongly that she needed to see me cross the stage and get my degree. I acquiesced.

The weekend before my graduation, Mom was painting one of the room in her house. She stepped backward to admire her work, caught her heel on an iron turtle doorstop, and landed hard on her side, breaking her hip. The day of my graduation, she was lying in a hospital bed. Somehow, it just didn’t seem fair.

However, those four classes gave me more confidence in my writing skills than I had ever had before. Even though I had worked as an editor in the years prior to finishing college, I hadn’t really considered myself a real “Editor.” Even though I had written stories, I hadn’t believed I was a writer. It’s amazing how much a single slip of paper can change your outlook. Mom was right – I needed to finish college.

Last Tuesday, my mom told me she was proud of me. She has been reading this blog and, of course, she has read my books. I just want to thank her for believing in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. She and I may not always see things exactly the same way, but she always saw my potential. And that’s what makes her a great mom.

An illustration of Cottey College in Nevada, M...

An illustration of Cottey College in Nevada, Missouri: Rosemary Hall and Main Hall. I actually performed in Rosemary Hall — it was torn down during my years there. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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