Tofu or Bust



Yes, We Have No Chihuahuas – Part 3

Mutt is tall, dark, short-haired, somewhat awkward, and looks as if he could be a little slow on the uptake.  He reminds me of the classic dumb-buddy character from the old Saturday morning cartoons.  While Jeff, his partner in guard duty, is diminutive and light-colored, and moves, herky-jerky, as if he’s been drinking double lattes all morning.  He reminds me of the Joe Pesci character in Lethal Weapon II.  Every time I see these two dogs, I stretch my neck to look up at them on the roof they guard.

Not today, however.  Jeff was on the ground barking and Mutt, still on the roof, was barking back at him.  They were oblivious to anyone else around, including Cassie, and were hardly guarding the premises.  Instead, they argued back and forth.  Although their argument consisted of various barking sounds, in my mind’s ear I heard the real story.

“How’d you get down there?” barked Mutt.

“I don’t remember,” barked Jeff.

“What are you doing down there?  You’re supposed to be up here with me,” barked Mutt.

“No shit, Sherlock,” barked Jeff.

“Get back up here,” barked Mutt.

“Duh.  What do you think I’m trying to do?” barked Jeff.

“Get up here before you get us both fired,” barked Mutt.

“You see steps?  A ladder maybe?” barked the exasperated Jeff.

“How’d you get down there?” barked Mutt.

“Don’t you listen to anything I say?” barked Jeff.

“Get back up here now,” barked Mutt.

We left the Bickersons to work out their differences and continued on our walk, turning right, and heading east, up the slight hill.  We passed several examples of Canis roadkillsimilaris, sprawled out in doorways and sidewalks.  At the top of the hill, we turned south and it was then that we noticed the change.  We heard barking from a house that had been previously “dogless.” Cassie and I looked at each other, confused: a tourist or a new resident?   Just then, a man and his dog emerged from the house.  But it wasn’t just any dog—it was a small Poodle!

The owner walked over with his dog and we stared, smiling, at each other for a moment, standing in the middle of the quiet street with our dogs, bound together by the timing of our dog walkies.

Me: Hola.  Buenos dias.

He: Hola.   Buenos dias.

So far so good.

Me: ¿Estoy bien?

He: Bien, bien.  ¿Usted?

Me: Bien, bien.

He: Bien.

Me: (pointing to his dog) ¿Esta es tu perro?

He: Si, si.   (pointing to Cassie) ¿Tu perro?

Me:  Si, si.

We stopped talking for a few seconds and looked at each other.  Before saying another word, we both knew any conversation beyond this point was problematic.  He understood my Spanish would not be up to the task and I had yet to hear any English thrown my way.  So we did the next best thing.  We petted each other’s dogs for a few awkward seconds and continued to smile.

He: ¿Nombre?

Me: Cassie.

He: Ahhh.   Cussie.

Me: No.  CA-sie.   Cassie.

He: Ahhh.  Cassie.

Me:  Si, si. 

I pointed at his dog and asked its name.

He: Rocoso.

Me: ¿Rocco?

He: No.   Rocoso.

Me:  Ahhh.   Rocoso.   ¿Que es?

He:  ¿Como?

Me:  ¿Como se decie in English?

He:  Rocoso.

Me: No comprendre.

Still smiling, the man started shadow boxing.   I ducked.   Then he raised his arms in the air, in a victory salute, and danced in circles.   When all else fails, play charades.

Me: Ahhh.   Rocky.

He:  Si, si.   Rocky.

We were done sniffing each other, so it was time to move on.   He said goodbye and took Rocky down the street.   Cassie and I continued in the opposite direction.

Within the week I noticed two other Mexican families with Poodles living on the next street and several more Poodles in town, mostly the smaller breeds of Toys and Minis.   Suddenly it seemed as if we were in the middle of a Poodle population explosion.

It’s been said that Americans are appalled at how Mexicans treat their pets and Mexicans are equally appalled at how Americans treat their children.  But I’m no longer sure the old clichés still apply.  For with Rocoso and others of his breed in the neighborhood and across town I realized we had a new canine sub-species in our midst.  This new sub-species is perhaps best represented by upwardly mobile Mexican dog owners who are treating their pets in the well-coddled tradition of their neighbors to the north: professional grooming, long walks, plenty of food and water.  Accordingly, I now submit two new classes of dogs be recognized: Canis gringo spoiledrottenus and Canis mexicano spoiledrottenus.  Of course, this means we now have even more classes of man’s best friend South of the Border, which is a good thing because, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to dogs the more the merrier.


Yes, We Have No Chihuahuas – Part 2

Regarding the canine species in Mexico and a commentary on how at least some dogs are doing in the central highlands these days, cont’d

The most recent addition to this canine mix, of course, was the transplant known as the expat dog, or Canis spoiledrottenus.  This breed stood out from the rest by its well-groomed and well-fed appearance, and the confidence the dog had in knowing it would always have “three hots and a cot.”  Smaller versions of this breed were often carried in Frida Kahlo handbags by senior expat women in wide-brimmed hats.  Larger ones grudgingly followed their owners up and down San Miguel’s narrow streets.

Our own dog, Cassie, belonged without question to the Canis spoiledrottenus camp.  She was a nine-year-old black standard poodle who possessed a classy bearing—unlike her owners, who could best be described as a motley crew of two.  We would sometimes catch Cassie glancing at us out of the corner of her eye, disapprovingly or condescendingly, as if she were wondering how we ever ended up ahead of her on the evolutionary chart.  I often asked myself the same question.  With an intense expression on her face, Cassie sat rather formally in a chair, with her front paws crossed and dangling.  Her pose was simply regal.  She looked as if she were waiting for someone to light her cigarette or peel a grape.

On the other hand, both Arlene and I tended to slouch when we stood, sat, or walked.  And when God was passing out tall, dark, and handsome, I was in the men’s room taking a whiz.  It was not as if Cassie would have ever said anything openly to us about it, even if she could have articulated her disappointment.  She was too well-behaved and far too shy to take a public stand, and, as a result, was all the more willing to suffer fools quietly.

We called her Cassiopeia when she was good and Cassandra when she was bad, but most of the time she was just good ol’ Cassie, the sweetest dog we’d ever known.  When introducing our dog to another dog owner, we would brag that Cassie came before Lassie in the phone book.  She was small for a standard, and since I’m never one to pass up a cheap joke, I usually introduced Cassie as being “sub-standard.”  She seemed repressed, at times, but ran with such enthusiasm that her butt would swing out ahead of the rest of her body, much like a gate swinging back and forth.

She was, to borrow the words of a Tom Robbins novel, skinny legs and all.  Whenever three neighborhood Chihuahuas escaped their house during one of our walks, the little yappers went right for her legs.  In the scene that ensued, Cassie would watch helplessly, as if the tiny dogs were midget lumberjacks trying to saw her down.  It was funny to watch, even if Cassie failed to see the humor in it.

To my larger point, Cassie was not just a dog.  She was a girlie-girl who ran side-saddle and walked like Charlie Chaplin in high heels.  So I made an effort before we left for Mexico to get Cassie to look like a normal dog.  No nail polish.  No ribbons or bows.  No frou-frou haircuts.  Still, I worried that a poodle in Mexico would turn out to be too much of an oxymoron.  Worse still, whatever macho points I might have left on the board were sure to be scratched the moment I walked Cassie in our traditional Mexican neighborhood.  But the outings were not as publicly humiliating as I had imagined, since most people either weren’t out or didn’t care.  Thus, we quickly settled into a twice-daily routine of “walkies,” checking out our neighboring streets together, once in the morning and again late in the afternoon.

We lived in La Lejona, a mostly Mexican middleclass neighborhood with wide, cobbled or unpaved streets, dust everywhere except during the rainy season, and an impressive backdrop of cacti and mountains.  The area consisted of about one hundred houses, in various stages of development, from abandoned ruins to brand new structures.  La Lejona is Spanish for “far away” and, as I understand it, was the name of the original hacienda in the area, which still exists tucked up against the hillside along a ravine.  But far away is a relative term, and our neighborhood was less than a thirty-minute, mostly flat trip into the popular historic Centro on foot, a fifteen-minute bus ride, ten minutes by car or taxi.

Something strange happened one morning during our walk.  As always, our first challenge on these walks was to get by two examples of barkus obnoxious directly across from our house without creating too much noise.  They manned—or dogged—a large, one-level, empty house of brick and wrought iron.  One of the dogs was older, a little feeble, gaunt, with skinny legs, and deep-set but very woeful eyes.  The other dog was much younger, more energetic, quick to wag his tail, even quicker to snap at other dogs, including his older companion.  I named the older dog “Quixote” and the younger one “Sancho.”

As soon as we left our house, Quixote and Sancho, without looking up, barked and howled and snarled and carried on as if the entire country were under attack.  That is, until they recognized me, and when they did, they quickly replaced their barks with wagging tails.  I had been bribing them with treats since our first day in the neighborhood, and, let’s face it, a little protection money goes a long way no matter where you are in the animal kingdom.

After leaving Quixote and Sancho, we wandered to the end of our block, turned the corner and headed north.  Two of the better examples of Canis rooftopus in our neighborhood ruled this street, two dogs I nicknamed Mutt and Jeff, for they were as dissimilar as two dogs could be and still belong to the same species.

Yes, We Have No Chihuahuas, Part 1

In honor of the upcoming one-year anniversary of returning to Oregon, I’m going to post the first essay I wrote about living in the middle of Mexico. At the time, it was a stand-alone essay. I did not know it would become a chapter in a book about our experiences south of the border (ahem, Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak). The essay became the chapter titled “Yes, We Have No Chihuahuas,” which, as you can guess, is about dogs. I am including it here in three installments.

If you’re interested in reading the entire book, please visit my publisher’s web page:

Or order the book from Amazon. Vaya con nachos! Here’s the first passage:

Yes, We Have No Chihuahuas

Regarding the canine species in Mexico and a commentary on how at least some dogs are doing in the central highlands these days

There are several fine books, chapbooks, and even coffee table books available about the doors, windows, and churches of San Miguel de Allende.  But what about the dogs?  I asked myself that question as I made my way through the town’s small, eclectic bookstore for non-Spanish-speaking types.  After all, in the short time we’d been living in that beautiful spot, I’d noticed at least six distinct subspecies or supraspecies of canines.  Surely, I thought, these dogs deserve as much attention and photo-spread space as a mere door.

Take Canis barkus obnoxious, for example, a mixed breed with an obvious chip on its shoulder.  This dog was usually kept locked inside of a casa or courtyard, and was always heard but rarely seen.  Highly valued by Mexicans and expats alike, especially homeowners of the paranoid sort, this local celebrity dog was worth his or her weight in table scraps.  Much cheaper than a home security alarm and consistently more effective, the dog could be found in most neighborhoods, from the center of town to the outlying residential areas.  However, if you lived next door to this breed you could kiss a good night’s sleep goodbye, for they were relentless barkers.  They had one skill, barking, and they knew how to sell it.

A similar breed to your basic courtyard guard dog was Canis rooftopus, a subset of highly specialized canines that guarded a house from the roof only.  These dogs were always seen and usually heard.  Apparently, any size canine qualified for this, ahem, lofty position, and it was not unusual to see two pint-sized terriers working the same roof.  Or two German shepherds.  Or a rottweiler and a Shar-pei.  More so than your average guard dog, this breed typically worked in teams of two and three.  Canis rooftopus was as effective as broken glass cemented to the top of an exterior wall and much more ecologically and esthetically pleasing.

Just below rooftopus sat and barked Canis balconynonus, typically a breed of a very small type that appeared infrequently at a balcony’s iron grill.  This dog was clearly well taken care of, preferred to work alone, and only visited the balcony as the mood struck, which meant you had to show ample patience when looking for it.  However, a sighting of balconynonus was worth catching, for its bark was often both enthusiastic and hilariously high-pitched.  If you didn’t catch this dog on a balcony, you needn’t worry.  This species was often seen around town pulling its frustrated owner in several directions.

On the ground was where you usually found Canis roadkillsimilaris, otherwise known as the “Is It Still Alive” dog.  These dogs were everywhere and resembled some expat retirees in their fascination with siestasCanis roadkillsimilaris was the very definition of sloth.  In fact, it was often hard to detect if this species of dog was still breathing, short of performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on it.  This breed was usually found sprawled out in a driveway or on the side of the road.  Although roadkillsimilaris preferred to sleep in the sun, during the hotter periods of the day or year it usually curled up in whatever shade it could find and considered itself on the job.  I’m not sure how or what or when roadkillsimilaris ate, since I had never seen any of these dogs actually move other than to swat a fly.

While Canis roadkillsimilaris never moved, Canis wanderlustus was always on the go.  Usually traveling in packs of three or more, wanderlustus moved, shark-like, from house to house and neighborhood to neighborhood, searching for food and water.  Put your garbage out for collection too soon, and you could bet that wanderlustus would find and “trash” your trash faster than you could say, “Beware of dog.”  Although they often traveled in packs, I never felt threatened by their presence.  If I encountered one of these dogs, I simply picked up a rock and pretended to throw it.  The dog was sure to leave me alone since this bohemian breed consisted mostly of lovers, not warriors. — to be continued…


A Short, Silly Valentine’s Day Play



A struggling ad agency pitches an unusual pro bono account.



OLIVER – 30-something male, high-energy and confident

ALLEGRA – 30-something female, a bit shy and conservative

ROMERO – An “ageless” well-dressed zombie in a suit who shuffles when he walks

SETTING: Contemporary small ad agency board room.

TIME: Present day, afternoon

AT RISE: Oliver and Allegra scurry about, setting up the conference room table for their next meeting.

OLIVER: How do I look?

ALLEGRA: Killer, as always.  You’ll knock ‘em dead.

OLIVER: Not sure that’s necessary with this client.  Or even possible.

ALLEGRA: You’re so talented.

OLIVER: Why should that stop us?


OLIVER: You know what.  The money.  Do I have to ask again?

ALLEGRA: I won’t start off in debt.  Financial problems are the leading cause of failed marriages.  I’ve seen the stats.

OLIVER: Statistics have nothing to do with the heart.

ALLEGRA: The heart has nothing to do with paying the bills.  Let me put it this way, if we don’t land this account, we’re goners.

OLIVER: As in dead meat?

ALLEGRA: The deadest. … Don’t worry. He’ll love the campaign.

OLIVER: My dear, I hope so. You inspired the campaign.

ALLEGRA: You did such a great job with the nail biters group.

OLIVER: I did, didn’t I?

ALLEGRA: Getting Nine Inch Nails to perform at the closing ceremony was brilliant.

OLIVER: Didn’t do so well with the Hemlock Society.

ALLEGRA: What do you mean?  Reusable membership cards is saving them thousands of dollars each year.  And those Hemlock action toys for seniors you placed in the fast food hamburger chain boxes?  Big hit.  Huge.

OLIVER: Perhaps.  But organizing their Christmas Party was a disaster.

ALLEGRA: Guests should have known better than to drink from the punch bowl.  I mean it was the Hemlock Society.  Hello!

OLIVER: Allegra?


OLIVER: Would you help me with the pitch?

ALLEGRA: You know better, Oliver. You’re the creative genius around here.  I’m just the bean counter.  I answer the phone, order supplies, do the books.  You do all the magic.

OLIVER: It’s the kind of pitch that would work better with a partner.  You wouldn’t have to say much, just read a slogan or two from the comp boards.  Besides, he’s not a very talkative client.  He mumbles and groans a lot and feels a little insecure because of it, I suspect.  Nice man, though, with a great sense of humor.  They have a huge budget for the campaign and the deep pockets to back it up.  This could be the break we’re looking for.

ALLEGRA: Who is it again?

OLIVER: Mr. Romero.  He’s the publicity director for ZONA, Zombies of North America.  They’re trying to upgrade their image.

ALLEGRA: And I inspired this campaign?  I don’t know whether to be proud or to run for the door.

Several clumsy KNOCKS on the door.

OLIVER: He’s here.  Please let him in.

Allegra opens the door and is startled by what she sees: a Zombie in a suit.  He enters stiff and zombie-like, because that’s what he is.

ALLEGRA: Oh!  [beat]  Welcome.  Please come in.

ROMERO: (Mumbles a greeting)

Romero leans in to kiss her on both cheeks.  She’s appalled. 

OLIVER: Welcome, Mr. Romero.  I trust you had an enjoyable flight?

ROMERO: (Mumbles a response)

OLIVER: I share your pain.  The TSA lines can take forever.

Oliver shakes Romero’s right hand and the zombie’s arm falls off.  It drops to the floor.

ROMERO: (Groans)

Allegra gasps.  Oliver picks up the arm and hands it back to his client.

OLIVER: So very sorry.

ROMERO: (Moans)

OLIVER: Yes, I imagine it does happen all the time.  But we all have our little embarrassments, don’t we?  Sometimes I whistle when I talk.  Don’t mean to.  Never could as a kid.

ALLEGRA: I always spill food on my blouse.

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: No.  The campaign’s not going to cost you an arm and a leg.  Good one, though.

ALLEGRA: Could I get you something to drink, mineral water perhaps?  Coffee?

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: I hear you, staying awake is not your problem.  The last thing you need is caffeine.  I’ll get right to the point.

Romero sits, puts his detached arm in front of him.  Oliver stands next to the flip chart, ready to turn the first page.

OLIVER (CONT’D): Our market research indicates that most people associate zombies with Latin America, especially Haiti, and not the United States.  I can imagine your organization is tired of living in the shadow of your cousins to the south.

ROMERO: (Moans)

OLIVER: We have found that one of the best ways to improve a group’s image is to tie the group to a holiday.  Mothers have Mother’s Day.  Fathers Father’s Day.  There’s Veteran’s Day.  Boss’ Day.  Labor Day.

ALLEGRA: Groundhog Day.

OLIVE: Guy Fawkes Day.

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: I’m not sure who he was but he has a whole day to himself. He’s listed on our events calendar.

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: Well, no.  I’m not proposing a Zombie’s Day per se.  I suspect that would be a little too ambitious at this point.  Instead, I’m proposing –

Romero raises his one good arm.

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: Yes.  I know your group is normally associated with Halloween but that’s one day a year and there’s so much competition, what with monsters, witches, animal masks, masks of former presidents.  It’s hard for you and your fellow zombies to get the attention — and respect, I might add — you all deserve.  The Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, for example, lasts for two-three days.  That’s why I’m proposing we think out of the box.

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: No pun intended, sir.  Out of the box is, yes, well, what I recommend is that your organization actively promote zombies during …

Finally, Oliver lifts the first sheet off the flip chart to reveal the words: Valentine’s Day.

OLIVER (CONT’D): Valentine’s Day.

Romero grabs his severed arm and stands.  He’s heard enough.  Allegra jumps in.

ALLEGRA: Picture it, sir.  It’s that time of year again.  Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.  What better time –

OLIVER: What better time to crawl out of the grave and celebrate with that significant other?

ALLEGRA: And now you can.  With… with …

Allegra flips the next page and it has the word “Zombieseez” on it.  She stares at it for a moment.

ALLEGRA (CONT’D): … with Zombieseez. [pause]  Oliver?

OLIVER: Zombieseez.  The love candy created by Zombies for Zombies.  Just for you and what’s left of yours on that special Night of the Living Dead.

Romero sits.

ALLEGRA: Remember, anyone can give decaying flowers –

OLIVER: — But it takes a special someone to give rotten candy.  Zombieseez.  When you care enough to say, “Because you’re dead and I’m grateful.” Now with sixteen decomposing colors!

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: Yes, we took into account the special dental problems of your membership.  I assure you, these candies, unlike the typical hard Valentine’s Day message candies, will be soft and chewy, almost fleshy in texture.

Oliver and Allegra are on a roll.  When one flips, the other reads.  On each page is a different saying for a piece of candy, similar to Valentine’s Day heart-shaped message candy. 

OLIVER (CONT’D): Be My Corpse!

Oliver flips another sheet.  Allegra reads.

ALLEGRA: You Look Like Death Warmed Over.

Allegra flips, Oliver reads.

OLIVER: You Make My Skin Fall Off.

Oliver flips, Allegra reads.

ALLEGRA: Let’s Go Gnaw On Someone.

Allegra flips, Oliver reads.

OLIVER: I’ll Be Your Ghoul Fool.

Oliver flips, Allegra reads.

ALLEGRA: Let’s Share Some Worms.

Allegra flips, Oliver reads.

OLIVER: Be My Mummy.

Oliver flips, Allegra reads.

ALLEGRA: Zombies Rule The Night.

Allegra flips.  They read it together.

OLIVER/ALLEGRA: Your teeth are rotten. Your eyes are missing. Your limbs are forgotten. Let’s do some kissing.

Oliver and Allegra embrace and kiss.  They knock over the chart. 

ROMERO: (Coughs)

OLIVER: My apologies, Mr. Romero.  But do you understand where we’re going with this, sir?  The campaign?  Love conquers all.  Love and Death.  It’s as simple as that.  Love.

ROMERO: (Grunts and nods in approval)

OLIVER: It’s nothing less than Romeo and Juliet.

Romero stands, walks over to Oliver. 

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: I’m very pleased to hear that, sir.

Oliver extends his hand to Romero’s as if to shake on it.  Romero shakes his head No and holds up his severed arm as a reminder.

OLIVER (CONT’D): Of course.  How silly of me.  It’s a deal then?

Romero nods Yes and shuffles off.  Oliver opens and closes the door for him and returns to the room. He’s expressionless. Beat.

ALLEGRA: Oliver?

OLIVER: What a team!  We got the account!

They kiss, then separate.

ALLEGRA: If love can conquer everything, even death, it can surely conquer our financial problems.

OLIVER: It’s just money.

ALLEGRA: And not much of it at that.  Now it’s my turn to ask.  Will you marry me?

OLIVER: You mean be together forever?

ALLEGRA: For better or for worse.

OLIVER:  In sickness and in health.

ALLEGRA: Till death do us part.

OLIVER: We’ll stay together even after death.

ALLEGRA: Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  I’ll be your ghoul.

ROMERO: (O.S. Groans)

OLIVER: And I’ll be yours.

Lights down.

(End of Play)

PEN International Talk – 12

Ideas are everywhere. They’re free. And they’re often funny.

The task of a humorist is to make you see and laugh. But the truth is: there is no bibbidi-bobbidi-boo to writing humor, no secret handshake, decoder ring or chemical formula that works every time.

I was walking in downtown Portland, Oregon, on my way to meet a friend for lunch. Two men approached me from the other direction. It’s as if I had called central casting and asked them to send me two twenty-something males, very Portlandish, Mutt and Jeff-types (but not too Mutty or too Jeffy), both should be wearing ragged jeans and backpacks, leather vests and no shirts.  Chest hair optional. Because it’s Portland, both must have several piercings and tats, and they should be heavy smokers. As we passed each other, I overheard the short one, dramatically waving his cigarette in the air for emphasis, tell his tall friend: “That’s when I had my run-in with the Amish.”

I consider myself fortunate to be a writer. Unlike a mason, who must rely on bricks, or a carpenter, who can’t work without lumber, or even a chef who needs a storeroom full of meats, starches, and greens, I never run out of the raw material I need to tell stories. Someday I might even get lucky and have my own run-in with the Amish.

I’d like to close with my favorite quote about the power of creativity. It’s from a child’s letter to Dr. Seuss. In the letter, the child simply wrote: “Dr. Seuss, you have an imagination with a long tail.”

May your imagination be long, wide, and deep. Thank you and good night.

PEN International Talk – 11

Final Observation: Where do humorists get their ideas?


I wrote “The Job Fairy” after the company I worked for had suffered six layoffs in 13 months. The first one or two layoffs targeted low-performing employees or high-maintenance ones. However, beyond that it was difficult to figure out why the company kept certain employees and let others go. I concluded there must be a job fairy, a creature similar to a tooth fairy that made such decisions for senior management in the wee hours of the night. It made as much sense as their other management decisions.

I wrote “O. Henry’s Shoe” in response to a request for plays that either begin or end with a shoe.  “Oedipus and Hamlet Walk into a Bar” was the title I used for a workshop I gave on humor. I liked the title and wanted to reuse it. Once I realized both tragic male figures had mommy issues, I had my theme for a play about two rednecks, Ed and Ham, sipping on bottles of long-necks in a bar, while arguing about the ethics of dating older women.

I was interviewing a candidate for a job. When I walked into the conference room, along with two much younger co-workers, the job applicant looked at me and said, “Boy, am I glad to see you.” I asked why? He said, “You’re as old as I am.” That was the thread that led me to write “Half Alligator, Half Man,” which is about how one man responds to ageism in the workplace.

I was at a writers’ retreat on the Oregon coast with four other writers. At night, one of the playwrights read aloud to the group from Game Change, the book about the 2008 presidential campaign. She read the part where John McCain’s senior advisor asked a woefully unprepared Sarah Palin if she was worried about the campaign ahead. She told him she wasn’t worried because it was God’s will. I thought, hmm. Why not get rid of the middle man. The next day I started writing my short play “The Running Mate,” which is about what happens when a major political party’s candidate for the presidency picks the Supreme Being for the #2 spot on their ticket.

Vincent Van Gogh wrote letters to his brother, Theo. The letters were collected and edited and published by author Irving Stone, under the title of “Dear Theo.” Woody Allen used those letters and that book as an idea for his very funny parody “If the Impressionists had been Dentists.”

New Yorker writer Ian Frazier, author of several books, including Great Plains, On the Rez, and Travels in Siberia, wrote one of my all-time favorite parodies. It’s titled “Coyote v. Acme,” and it is the opening statement in a product liability lawsuit brought by Wile E. Coyote against Acme Corporation. No creature, real or imagined, in history ever had a stronger product liability case to pursue than the much aggrieved Mr. Coyote. Where did Frazier get his idea for this hilarious parody? By watching Saturday morning cartoons.

Here’s an excerpt from The Philadelphia, a play by David Ives, followed by what Ives said about its inspiration. There are two main characters, Mark and Al, along with a Waitress, and the action takes place in a New York City diner:

MARK: What is it? What’s happening to me?

AL: Don’t panic. You’re in a Philadelphia.

MARK: I’m in a what?

AL: You’re in a Philadelphia. That’s all.

MARK: But I’m in—

AL: Yes, physically you’re in New York. But metaphysically you’re in a Philadelphia.

MARK: I’ve never heard of this!

AL: You see, inside of what we know as reality there are these pockets, these black holes called Philadelphias. If you fall into one, you run up against exactly the kinda shit that’s been happening to you all day.

MARK: Why?

AL: Because in a Philadelphia, no matter what you ask for, you can’t get it. You ask for something, they’re not gonna have it. You want to do something, it ain’t gonna get done. You want to go somewhere, you can’t get there from here.

MARK: Good God. So this is very serious.

AL: Just remember, Marcus. This is a condition named for the town that invented the cheese steak. Something that nobody in his right mind would willingly ask for.

And here’s what David Ives said about his play:

“The Philadelphia was my affectionate revenge on the City of Brotherly Love after I’d spent many miserable months there… such as the morning when I tried to get a cheese omelette for breakfast:

Ives: I’ll have a cheese omelette, please.

Waitress: Sure, what kinda cheese you want?

Ives: What kind do you have?

Waitress: Any kinda cheese. You name it.

Ives: Okay. I’ll have Swiss.

Waitress: Sorry. We don’t have any Swiss.

Ives: Oh. Cheddar, then.

Waitress: No cheddar.

Ives: Monterey Jack?

Waitress: Just ran out.

Ives: Jarlsberg …?

Waitress: What’s that?”

PEN International Talk – 10

  1. Humorists enjoy making connections that might escape the notice of other people

Here’s Bill Bryson commenting on a common dining utensil in his Notes from a Small Island:

“… I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?”

The first sentence tips us off. But it’s the setup that works here, as well as the final description of “a pair of knitting needles” as a callback to chopsticks.

In a New Yorker cartoon, the setting is a sparse room where a bearded adult male in a hat stands at a table and makes furniture. A young boy watches. Chairs hang from a nearby wall. In the caption, the furniture maker says to the young boy: “No, lad, we aren’t movers. We’re just Shakers.”

In another New Yorker cartoon, a nervous job seeker sits across the desk from a hiring manager. It’s clear from the drawing the manager had just made a phone call. As he sets the phone down, he tells the job seeker in the caption: “Your references asked me to hold you here until the police arrive.”

Cartoonists, especially, like to twist clichés. For instance, in a drawing by Brian Savage, a man crawls in the desert under a hot sun. His clothes are in tatters, his face and body sunburned. He looks up and sees four people sitting at a table starring at him. They’re all dressed for hot weather and wear wide, shade-providing hats. One person smokes a pipe, another wears sunglasses. In the caption, the crawling man says, “Thank God. A panel of experts.” In a cartoon by B. Kliban, the setting is a highway flanked by smokestacks and ugly buildings. We see the back of a man in a tuxedo running down the highway. The caption? “Houdini escaping from New Jersey.”

Kliban made one of my favorite statements about cartoonists. He said,

“But the technologists have got their toys and they’re going to play with them.  Like, if cartoonists had all that money we sure as hell would use it.  There would be weird cartoon sculptures five hundred feet high, and free rubber chickens, regardless of a person’s religious belief.”

Then there’s this gem of association from comedian Warren Hutcherson:

In elementary school, in case of fire you have to line up quietly in a single file line from smallest to tallest. What is the logic? Do tall people burn slower?

And, finally, this food-related comment from David Sedaris:

“What’s the trick to remembering that a sandwich is masculine? What qualities does it share with anyone in possession of a penis? I tell myself that a sandwich is masculine because if left alone for a week or two, it will eventually grow a beard.”

This is what humorists do best: they make wild yet seemingly logical connections. Who knew a sandwich had gender? David Sedaris, that’s who.