“Did you ever walk in a room and forget why you walked in? I think that’s how dogs spend their lives.”
In this example from Mark Twain’s Roughing It, the protagonist (Twain) has just moved to Carson City, Nevada, from Missouri and is considered a tenderfoot, aka a sucker. Although the Twain character is holding on for dear life, the stranger watching makes a casual comment about the horse, ignoring the airborne Twain’s pain and plight.
I could scarcely contain my exultation. I paid the money, and put the animal in a neighboring livery-stable to dine and rest himself.
In the afternoon I brought the creature into the plaza, and certain citizens held him by the head, and others by the tail, while I mounted him. As soon as they let go, he placed all his feet in a bunch together, lowered his back, and then suddenly arched it upward, and shot me straight into the air a matter of three or four feet! I came as straight down again, lit in the saddle, went instantly up again, came down almost on the high pommel, shot up again, and came down on the horse’s neck—all in the space of three or four seconds. Then he rose and stood almost straight up on his hind feet, and I, clasping his lean neck desperately, slid back into the saddle, and held on. He came down, and immediately hoisted his heels in the air, delivering a vicious kick at the sky, and stood on his forefeet. And then down he came once more, and began the original exercise of shooting me straight up again. The third time I went up I heard a stranger say: “Oh, don’t he buck, though!”
Context: Jerome describes traveling by boat and the stages of getting sea sick. He walks us through an overview of a water-based trip, from the confident pre-boarding sensation through the pain of being sick while on board to the end of the trip, when things are looking up again. It’s a whimsical piece of writing that uses both specifics and generalities.
You start on Monday with the idea implanted in your bosom that you are going to enjoy yourself. You wave an airy adieu to the boys on shore, light your biggest pipe, and swagger about the deck as if you were Captain Cook, Sir Francis Drake, and Christopher Columbus all rolled into one. On Tuesday, you wish you hadn’t come. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, you wish you were dead. On Saturday, you are able to swallow a little beef tea, and to sit up on deck, and answer with a wan, sweet smile when kind-hearted people ask you how you feel now. On Sunday, you begin to walk about again, and take solid food. And on Monday morning, as, with your bag and umbrella in your hand, you stand by the gunwale, waiting to step ashore, you begin to thoroughly like it. (from Three Men in a Boat [To Say Nothing of the Dog] by Jerome K. Jerome)
While living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the first time, from 2005-2007, I drew a weekly cartoon panel for Atencion, the local bi-lingual newspaper. Mas o Menos (More or Less) focused on the expat community. Here’s one example of the panel (I’ll share others in future blog posts).
Vaya con nachos!
If my present life were a weekly TV show it would be called “The Clumsy Expat.” Voice-over narration would open each episode with words along these lines: “Somewhere between The Invisible Man and The Ugly American stands The Clumsy Expat, unknowingly asking directions to where he’s already standing and ordering a leather shoe for lunch.”
I may not have been the last guy from north of the border I thought would end up living in the middle of Mexico, but I was close to the end of the line. Then again, I once owned a Yugo and still can’t remember why. I guess the takeaway is I’m easily confused.
Nonetheless, and my confusion notwithstanding, I’d like to discuss a topic that’s close to my heart and legs: namely, walking a dog in the streets of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Since the last time I lived here, mas o menos eight years ago, the dog walking scene has changed dramatically, and, I might add, for the better. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of such groups as S.P.A. and Save a Mexican Mutt, and their generous supporters, I notice fewer stray dogs wandering the streets or working the rooms. I’ve also noticed more professional dog walkers, who are usually fanny-pack-wearing males tethered to a pack of mismatched breeds, a motley crew of ears, legs, and tails.
In my own case, I walk one poodle. (This is the point at which I pause for a few seconds to let all the cheap poodle jokes get out of the way.) My dog, Duke, is an 80-pound, apricot-colored Standard poodle who looks like a baby Wookiee. He has long legs and sits on the sofa like a human, with two legs on the floor. When we leave a book on the coffee table in front of Duke, it looks like he’s reading it. He very well could be.
And, of course, Duke loves to bark and has the deep bark of an opera baritone who is enthralled to hear his own voice. I’m training him to bark to “Old Man River,” thinking if I can pull it off we’ll both get on the Letterman Show.
Genetically, Duke is a waterfowl retriever. In reality, he hates water. As a result, he’ll walk out of his way, off the San Miguel sidewalk that’s just been swabbed with soapy water, and into a moving vehicle or a mob of people, if need be, to avoid the wet stuff.
As far as I can tell, Duke hates two other things in life: pretzels and bark-bys.
Pretzels have been well covered by the mainstream press. But, for those who don’t speak Dogish, a bark-by is the canine equivalent of a drive-by shooting. Dogs in the open bed of a moving truck bark at street-side dogs who, until that moment, were having a pretty quiet day. Whenever I walk Duke and he’s the recipient of a bark-by, he rears up, horse-like, and barks back. He continues to bark, twisting like, ahem, a pretzel, even as we’ve trekked on and the truck, by then, is halfway to Cancun.
One afternoon when I was walking down Zacateros Street, without Duke, I noticed a couple ahead of me walking their dog. The dog stopped suddenly, squatting on the sidewalk to take care of business. The man did what many American husbands would do and picked up his pace, putting some serious distance between himself and the dog. The woman did what many wives would do. She opened her purse, took out a small tissue, and bent down to pick it up. I rushed over and handed her a doggie pick up bag (Aside: I always carry with me Benadryl, Imodium, and doggie bags; I call it my San Miguel Survival Kit). I said, “Ma-am, don’t use that. Use this.” She looked up at me, thanking SuperDogPoopBagman with her damsel eyes for coming to her rescue, and used the doggie bag. The woman, at least my age or maybe younger, stood up and pulled my cheek affectionately. She said, “What a sweetie you are.”
Now the last time I had my cheek tugged like that I was ten. And that’s the beauty of living in San Miguel. No matter how old you are, this town finds ways to make you feel younger.
When I’m back in the USA and people find out I live in Mexico, they always ask the same three questions. Is it safe? What do you do for healthcare? And what’s on TV? Because I’m not sure how much time I have left in life, based on my answers to the first two questions, I think it’s a good idea to prioritize and tackle the most important question first: namely, our TV viewing options.
We have plenty. Our standard cable package includes more than 80 channels, and, as in the USA, most of those channels are filled with spouses screaming at each other, boring community board meetings, fake reality shows, inane comedies targeted at prepubescent children, and the same sexy woman who appears just about everywhere in the world, wearing a tiny bikini and showing viewers how to tighten their abs. I suspect she’s been air-brushed.
Much like how they keep old Detroit beater cars from the 50s and 60s running, Mexico is also keeping old USA television shows alive and well. My favorite is the “Bonanza” channel that runs the old Western show starring Ben Cartwright and sons around the clock—and in Spanish. Have you ever gotten a good look at those three boys? Adam, Hoss, Little Joe? They don’t look anything like their father. So I’m guessing there once was a ranch hand named Very Big Joe who was pretty handy with a lasso and branding iron.
Curiosity got the better of me one afternoon, and I did a little research and learned that the three boys all had different mothers. By the time the series began, all those moms had died. Hmm. Makes you wonder what — or who — is buried on “The Ponderosa” besides fir trees.
Watching shows in Spanish with English subtitles—or English with Spanish subtitles—is an excellent way to improve one’s foreign language skills. But it has its limits. In an English-speaking show, for example, when a character, usually male and usually in a violent scene, wildly drops the F-bomb as if he were carpet bombing a jungle, the polite Spanish subtitle editor shakes its head in dismay and merely writes “malediction.” Or, in other words, “bad word.”
I love that about Mexico, the politeness and awareness of others in the room. Unfortunately, if you find yourself in a heated argument in Spanish down here, I doubt shouting malediction at your opponent will get you anywhere. I’m not willing to test my theory, so I merely shrug and say, “No comprende.”
In this example of humor through pain, Jean Shepherd recalls a family trip to the county fair.
Context: the “old man” takes his two sons on his favorite amusement park ride, a “real gut buster” called the Whirligig Rocket Whip. Once suspended in air, the old man loses his pocket change and his favorite fountain pen (the one with his name on it). That’s when the ride starts getting serious, as described in this excerpt:
Higher and higher we flew, swooping low to scream upward again. My kid brother, chalk white, whimpered piteously. I hung onto the iron bar, certain that my last hour had arrived. My head thumped the back of the car steadily as it spun.
“Ain’t this fun, kids? Wow, what a ride!” shouted the old man, sweating profusely. He made a grab for his hat as it sailed past.
“Wave to Ma, kids! There she is!”
It was then that the operator turned the power on full. Everything that had gone before was only a warm-up. Our necks snapped back as the Rocket Whip accelerated. I was not touching the seat at any point. Jack-knifed over the bar, I saw that one of my shoes had been wrenched off my foot. At that moment, with no warning, my kid brother let it all go. His entire day’s accumulation of goodies, now marinated and pungent, gushed out in a geyser. The car spun crazily. The air was filled with atomized spray of everything he had ingested for the past 24 hours. Down we swooped.
“My new pongee shirt!”
Soaked from head to foot, the old man struggled frantically in his seat to get out of the line of fire. It was no use. I felt it coming, too. I closed my eyes and the vacuum forces of outer space just dragged it all out of me like a suction pump.
From “County Fair,” in Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories by Jean Shepherd
Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Mad Magazine proposed a similar definition when it said (paraphrasing from memory): Humor is something funny that happens to someone that if it happened to you it wouldn’t be funny. Likewise, Erma Bombeck offered this explanation: “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”
Here’s playwright Nicky Silver speaking about the connection between pain and humor:
Like most couples [referring to his parents] they certainly weren’t always happy, but somehow I saw the violence of their pain and their humor simultaneously. There is a moment in Raised in Captivity [one of his plays] that really exemplifies this. The play opens at Bernadette’s mother’s funeral, and she is distraught to the point of near-hysteria. At one point she wails ‘I never said goodbye! I never told her I loved her!’ Her husband tries to calm her. “Yes you did, I heard you.” She replies: “But I never meant it!!”
Every night the audience would howl at this line. But to me it’s really slice-of-life stuff. I mean the character is simply being honest. Her pain is so oversized that it erupts in this grand explosion of sadness and rage all mixed up together. It feels theatrical to some people. It feels like home movies to me.
From “On Comedy,” Nicky Silver, The Dramatist Magazine