Bright Lights, Big Cacti

Arizona through the Eyes of a Native

Category: History

What’s in a Name?

Did you know there are people naming their children after heroes of the Third Reich?

The first thing I saw this morning was an article about the family who named their child Messiah. A child-support magistrate changed the baby’s name because she believed Messiah wasn’t a name — it was a title reserved for Jesus Christ. Um…no, not exactly. The messiah is the Old Testament term for the prophet who would save the Israelites. Christians believe it refers to Jesus, but I’m thinking Jewish people have a different idea. In any case, what was that judge thinking? You can’t rename a child just because their given name offends you. That mightily oversteps the boundaries of someone whose job is to make rulings on child support. I’m wondering how she deals with babies named Jesus. All’s well that ends well though: another judge has overruled the bossy magistrate and little Messiah reigns once again.

Unfortunately, this first story led me to half a dozen more stories about questionable names. One man, in particular, has had eight children with four wives. At least five of them carry names meant to show their parents’ support of white supremacy. Who does that to a child? Isn’t that a form of child abuse? Apparently, New Jersey thinks so. Four of the children were removed from the man and his third wife because of the names — but the children’s names have not been changed. I don’t know that I agree with removing the children if the only evidence of parental abuse is in how they named their children, but I sincerely hope little Adolf and his sister Aryan Nation are being fostered by peace-loving, granola-eating types who are teaching the kids that all races are the same.

This is why I shouldn’t surf the internet.

Let’s hope the name works out better for little Adolf than it did for this guy.


The Twelfth Anniversary

I don’t write a lot of poetry, but this is one I wrote about 9/11 a few years back.


A grandfather stands under
The shadow of a prone hurricane
Created by a predator,
Now streaming blood.

In white-knuckled fear,
He casts broad his sight
And watches a skydiver
(Thrill-seeker, risk-taker)
Break out, spring off
The downward-spiraling storm
Of glass, metal, fire,
Assessing the risk,
Plummeting to where
People lay,
Now streaming blood.

That horrible day.

Birthday Dental Appointments are a Bad Idea

My grandmother turned 86 yesterday. She also scheduled a dental appointment that made her mouth hurt.

“Why did you schedule a dental appointment on your birthday?” I asked when I finished singing to her (I always call and sing to her on her birthday — you’d think she’d stop answering my calls on June 25th).

“I forgot.”

Really? Does that happen? I mean, I frequently forget how old I am (I’m either 41 or 42…I think), but I always remember when the actual birthday is because of, well, the presents. It’s not that I’m greedy, but I do love to get presents. There are exactly three days during the year that I expect presents: Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and my birthday. Therefore, it seems incredibly unlikely that I will ever forget my birthday.

In any case, Dan and I will be taking her a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza tomorrow night. Mom and Dad are bringing a rum cake. That’s right — we’re party animals.


I think it’s only right to acknowledge this historic moment. Anyone who has read my books has probably figured out that I support the gay-marriage movement. I believe everyone should have the right to promise to spend forever with their partner — in any combination of genders that works for them. Apparently, the Supreme Court agrees. When will we as humans learn that it’s never a good idea to step on someone else’s rights in an effort to enforce a (insert religion here) agenda? We don’t live in a theocracy. No matter what the Founding Fathers had in mind, the United States of the 21st Century is a multi-cultural democracy with no “official” religion. I thank God for that — and, if you live in the U.S., you can thank the same deity or any other one you might prefer.

Love is in bloom.

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…

May Sucks.

My mom fell and broke her arm on Monday, thereby pushing May into the clear winner as my least favorite month. So, in honor of that fact, here are the Top 10 Reasons I Hate May:

10. In Arizona, April showers never bring May flowers.

9. Leonardo da Vinci died in May 1519. He was really old though — I suppose it was his time. Still, the world lost a genius…in May.

8. My maternal grandmother died in May 1988.

7. In May 1970, four anti-war protesters were killed at Kent State by Ohio National Guardsmen.

6. My father-in-law died this May.

5. It was a bad month for Anne Boleyn, too. She was beheaded in May 1536.

4. The Hindenburg crashed in May 1937.

3. As previously mentioned, my mom broke her arm, which really sucks because she and Dad were preparing for a driving vacation to Alaska…which may or may not be on hold now.

2. I married my first husband in May 1997.

And the #1 reason I dislike May so intensely is…

1. Temperatures reach 100 degrees in Phoenix by May; there will be no substantial break in the weather until October.

I may be wrong, but I think Anne would agree with me.

I may be wrong, but I think Anne would agree with me.


Not Quite Romeo and Juliet

Back in January of 2004, a friend of mine insisted that I put an ad on Yahoo! Personals, a now-defunct online dating site. I had been single for a few years at that point, having offloaded my first husband after three mostly unhappy years of marriage. (My friend Emma once asked me how I knew I should get a divorce. The answer: when you would rather spend the rest of your life alone than one more night with your husband, it’s time to end your marriage.) In any case, I decided to give the internet thing a try. After reviewing some of the rambling ads that discussed everything from the importance of astrological compatibility to the necessity of athletic (or even acrobatic) bodies, I wrote my ad. This is, as best I can remember, what it said:

“Tall quirky writer seeks someone who can laugh at himself and the world. Must be at least 6’0” tall. Sorry, no cats – I’m allergic.”

There were probably a few more words, but that was the gist of the thing. Alongside it, I posted a picture of me standing next to my grandparents’ Rottweiler. The dog might have been a deterrent to potential suitors. In any case, over the course of the next four months I received a grand total of three notes from men who were interested in getting to know me. All three of them started with “I’m not quite six foot, but…” I wrote all three polite notes that basically said the height issue was not negotiable.

Then, in April – right after Easter, as a matter of fact – I received a note that read, “I believe I meet your specifications. Please review my profile to confirm.” (Again, I’m paraphrasing, but this is close to right.) I laughed and checked his profile. Six-foot-three! Yes! Funny and tall!

We exchanged two or three emails before I sent him my phone number. He called me for the first time on April 15th. I remember because I was driving my parents’ tax return to the nearest late-night post-office drop off. He was even funnier on the phone than he was in emails. After some discussion, we set our first date – miniature golf and dinner.

Now, to be fair, this was not Dan’s first choice. He would have preferred dinner and a movie, but I think that movie dates are the worst. This is probably because many years before I went on a movie date with a guy who then decided to lay the worst kiss of my life on me – way too much aggressive tongue action. Bleh. I did offer a zoo option for the first date, but Dan later told me that he wasn’t driving that far or spending that much for some girl he didn’t know. Can’t blame him – he’d already been on a few bad dates through his Yahoo! ad.

When we met at Castles’n’Coasters, he seemed like a nice guy. However, as soon as we started playing, he stopped talking, other than to complain irritably about the woman and two teenagers who were crowding in on us from behind. Finally, we let them play through; then he complained about how slow they were. By the time we finished, I was pretty sure this relationship was DOA. I called my mom from the car to let her know I was going to dinner with him (I intended to pay, since he insisted on paying for the mini-golf game), but that I would be home in no more than two hours.

We drove our separate cars over to Mimi’s. As soon as we sat down at the table together, our conversation began to flow more smoothly. Soon, his impressions had me laughing and we discovered a shared fondness for Britcoms and Shakespeare. We talked about our first marriages – he was still a little bitter about his – and our childhoods. Before we knew it, we were the last patrons in the restaurant.

As he walked me to my car – the back of which was plastered with Christian bumper stickers that might have scared a weaker man off – my phone rang.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Are you okay? Are you in the trunk of a vehicle somewhere?”

“I’m fine. Dinner went well.”

“Are you telling the truth? Can he hear you?”

It took me another minute to convince her that everything was okay and that I was getting into my car to drive home right then. I think Dan and I hugged good night.

The very next day, Dan called and asked me to a Shakespearean play. I guess you could say he had me at “Wilt thou…”

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...

Our matchmaker. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Cowboys Aren’t Really Art Aficionados

Back in the 1930’s, Clare Boothe Luce, a well-known playwright and the wife of magazine king Henry Luce, commissioned Frida Kahlo to paint a portrait of a mutual friend who had recently committed suicide. Kahlo’s portrait, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, was not exactly what she was expecting. In fact, she so disliked the portrait that she planned to destroy it. However, cooler heads prevailed, and the painting was instead put in storage. Years later, she donated it to the Phoenix Art Museum, reportedly telling others that no one would ever see it there.

When I first read this story – which was hanging next to the painting at the museum – I laughed. I thought that Luce had clearly failed to see how metropolitan Phoenix would eventually become.

Then at lunch with my Beta Sigma Phi sisters last weekend, I realized I may be the one who is deluded. None of my sisters are from Arizona originally, and their perception of the state is considerably different from my own. Apparently, we live in the Wild West. Cowboys still walk the streets – at least as far as much of the rest of the country is concerned. When I mentioned this to my husband, I was surprised to find that he agreed with them. “It’s the Del Webb commercials from the Sixties,” he said. “All those commercials about the Sun City retirement community sold a version of Arizona that relied heavily on the ‘Old West’ perception.”

I never saw those commercials…I lived here, you see. So, here I am, stripped of my delusion at last. It appears that my father-in-law’s perception of me as “pioneer stock” may, in fact, be the way all non-Arizonans see me. My belief that Arizona is as metropolitan as the next major city is not shared by my fellow residents. And, in a state where a striking majority of the population is transplanted from elsewhere, Joe Arpaio suddenly seems like the obvious choice for sheriff – after all, he looks pretty good in a cowboy hat.

I suppose Phoenix’s image isn’t too unappealing, since we still draw a ridiculous number of people from other states. Dan, who is originally from Chicago, tells me it’s not unusual for people to ask him about the corrupt politics and mob activity of his home city. To be fair, though, Chicago politics haven’t changed much in the last hundred years. Phoenix, on the other hand, is nothing like the dusty desert town that existed before air conditioning.

So, for anyone who has never been here, you should know that few, if any, real cowboys roam our streets. While some people go for sunset rides on their horses, I would venture to guess that more people take that twilight cruise on a motorcycle. If you ever do get to Phoenix, I recommend a visit to the art museum, if only to see the Kahlo that Clare Booth Luce tried to hide.

If you want to see an “Old West” town, try Tombstone. Of course, their cowboys are mostly fake too.

Suicide of Dorothy Hale

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41 Down, 59 to Go

I am 41 years old today, which means I’m one year closer to my ultimate goal of 100. I set this goal a long time ago, after thinking of all the changes Granddaddy had seen in his lifetime. During his span of years, our country went from primarily agrarian to dominantly industrial. He was alive when the Wright brothers made their first flight and when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.

We haven’t made any giant leaps in my lifetime; instead, we have steadily grown into technology that would have made Granddaddy’s head spin – smart phones that are more capable than the room-filling computers of the Fifties and Sixties, for instance. I’m pretty sure I read once that cars would be driving themselves by now; I’m still waiting for that one. I hear it’s going to happen in twenty to thirty years.

This year, after sitting in my office writing for the last three years – essentially hermetically sealing myself inside – I made the decision to venture out into the world. This change was not something I approached randomly – I had been thinking about my isolation for some time. My natural inclination was to stay where I was, since I am a loner by nature. However, I feared that one day my niece or nephew would find my hundred-year-old corpse mummified within my little house. (I can even imagine the interview Jan would give to the newspaper: “Aunt Susan was strange. We only heard from her around the holidays – when she didn’t show up for Thanksgiving, we figured something might be wrong.”)

So, taking the lead from Grandma Millie, I joined Beta Sigma Phi this fall. So far, it has been a great experience. It turns out that I might not be as socially awkward as I assume myself to be, though I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with Dan’s assessment that “everybody loves the Susie.” I am not, in fact, all that loveable. I’m opinionated, occasionally bossy, and frequently annoyed by the bad grammar of others. In fact, I have a pesky urge to whisper corrections when people misuse language in my presence. Nearly nine years with Dan have made me more aware – and, therefore, more in control – of that particular tic.

I have also, in recent months, taken a more active interest in my health. I have been working out regularly since October and I am starting to feel, if not see, the benefits of that activity.

All in all, I would have to say that my 40th year was a good one. No one close to me died (though a couple of my friends tried to off themselves by participating in obstacle-course races designed for people half their ages), Inknbeans Press published two more of my novels, and my husband still thinks I’m universally beloved (boy, have I got him snowed).

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Me, back when I really was universally adorable.

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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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