Shortly after moving to Portland, Oregon, I created a weekly cartoon panel named “OREgroaners.” It was only marginally successful, although I had a lot of fun with the gags, and appeared in a small number of newspapers for a year. I consider myself better at sketching cartoons than scanning the finished pieces. So if the below cartoon looks tilted to you, don’t worry about your eyesight. It is tilted. I plan to share several other of my OREgroaner cartoons in this blog. Cheers!
We called them the Pug People. They lived in our subdivision, twenty miles outside of Portland, Oregon, and every where they went they took their dog with them, a Pug. Now I’m sure Pugs make decent enough pets and, indeed, they have the reputation of being a much-adored addition to anyone’s family. In fact, I don’t dislike Pugs in general. Asian royalty loved them. Goya painted them. And one of my favorite Hollywood performances of modern times was a Pug named Frank in Men in Black.
The real problem with the Pug People was they took their dog everywhere and carried him in one of those close to the chest baby carriers with Velcro straps. Not only that, they dressed him up and, get this, their dog had more than a dozen outfits from Nordstrom. When it comes to pets I’m fairly open-minded but I have no interest in a pet that’s dressed better than I am.
Cassie, our black standard poodle, moved with us to Mexico. She may not have dressed better, but she was my superior in other ways. One look at her and you could tell she had class. Looking at me and you wonder what class I had dropped out of. Standard poodles, by and large, are graceful creatures. They don’t run so much as they gallop, like a well-trained circus horse.
Cassie, on the other hand, 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. Even her walk was something of a fashion statement. We called her walk “ditty-bopping” and it seemed to fit.
Standards are hardy and strong, and they like to pull. An Alaskan named John Suter ran a team of standards in the Iditarod many years back, and they performed quite well. At some point, the Iditarod folks changed the rules so that only “northern breeds” could compete and that was the end of that. I like to think the poodles were in the lead in their first Iditarod until they hit a saloon with a cheese spread and show tunes on the jukebox. They’re smart and know their priorities.
The history of poodle ownership is dotted with famous names. John Steinbeck, of course, owned a standard poodle named Charley. Other writers who owned poodles include Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Thomas Mann, Gertrude Stein, Erma Brombeck, Neil Simon, and James Thurber. Many poodle owners come as no surprise, from Josephine, the Empress of France, to Marilyn Monroe to Mary Kay. Other owners, such as Vladimir Putin, are head-scratchers.
I came across a veritable dog crate of ownership stories from poodlelore and wish to close this blog post with one such, uh, tale. When Sir Winston Churchill’s mini-poodle was run over and killed, a leading breeder of English bulldogs offered him the pick of the litter. She was appropriately thanked and then told, “If Mr. Churchill has another dog it will be a poodle again.” I fully understood the sentiment, for having Cassie had pretty much ruined us for any other breed. Standard poodles set a very high standard, indeed.
Cassie died in 2008. When she passed away, I thought of the words from the song “Mr. Bojangles,” the dancer whose dog “up and died, he up and died… And after 20 years he still grieves.”
A good dog is hard to find and even harder to lose.
In the latest installment in our long-running (at least two days) “A Reader Asks” series, I was asked what it was like traveling for six days across country ― and into another country ― with pets.
Making a road trip with pets is much like making the same trip with kids, except pets never complain about your choice of music or pinch each other when you’re not looking.
Furthermore, you can’t leave your kids behind in the car with a window cracked while you go inside to get something to eat.
In my case, we were making a six-day drive with a dog who had a bladder the size of a caper, a Standard poodle named Cassie, and a part-Siamese cat named Sadie (she who believed a cat’s reach should never exceed its sharp claws).
We were traveling from Portland, Oregon, to San Miguel de Allende, in the middle of Mexico. By the end of the trip, we were all tired of the road and of each other.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In an amazing feat of both endurance and stubbornness, Cassie stood the entire way, in the backseat just behind the driver.
Not only that, she had to have the window rolled down, at least halfway, so she could stick her head out. We suspect Cassie was prone to motion sickness and required deep breaths of whatever was passing for fresh air at the time. By the end of a typical 10-hour day of standing in the car, our black poodle had usually turned green.
Sadie was a different story. Once she was inside the car, you barely knew she was there.
The catch was getting her in the car, a cross between a Herculean task and a Three Stooges routine.
The morning after our first day on the road, Sadie hid under the bed, hanging tough on a carpet that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since Y2K.
When my efforts to grab her failed, we tried Plan B and began sweet-talking her with soft chants of “Kitty, Kitty, Kitty.”
And when that inevitably failed, it was back to Plan A, only this time I used a long piece of wood, sweeping it under the bed like a broom, which worked.
The second morning gave Sadie new hope, since the night before we had upgraded to two beds. She scurried back and forth, from bed to bed, until I tipped one of the mattresses on end. She hit the mattress, scaled it like a rock climber on amphetamines and reached the top, just as I grabbed her.
The third morning, we checked everywhere, from under the bed to behind the armoire, as well as all points in between. I turned on the closet light to find Sadie crouching inside a trough of transparent plastic that served as a tacky storage unit above the closet rod.
Cat nabbed, case closed.
Three weeks after we arrived in Mexico, Sadie disappeared. We searched every corner of our house, inside and out. We walked up and down the street, calling her name as if a cat would ever deign to respond.
We found her, of course. Sadie had burrowed her way inside our bed’s mattress batting. Even with six days of cat retrieval experience, it took me twenty minutes to extract her.
But now, with the mystery solved, we knew Sadie’s hiding spot and the next time she crawled in there, we let her stay.
A reader of Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak asked what I missed most about not living in the United States. My answer was easy.
Some cultures record their history by cataclysmic events: the year of the big fire or flood, the day the great earthquake or tornado struck.
My history is recorded by my stomach.
In conversations with my wife and friends, it’s not unusual for me to interject a comment along the lines of, “Oh, I remember now, that was the time we were in San Francisco and I took my first bite of monkfish in lobster sauce.”
With such habits, it should come as no surprise that what I miss most about no longer living in the USA is Dungeness crab. I currently reside in the middle of Mexico, six thousand feet up in the mountains and three thousand miles from the nearest Oregon crab pot.
These days, when December rolls around, generally considered the official start of the Dungeness crab season, I am depressed. For me, there’s nothing quite as simple or as bountiful as a meal of fresh, sweet, and meaty Oregon Dungeness crab, a loaf of sourdough French bread, and a green salad, all complemented by an inexpensive bottle of wine from Trader Joe’s. Now that is a meal.
It goes without saying, of course—which is why I’m going to say it—I also miss the friends we left back in Portland, even though we find no shortage of new friends here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a convivial tourist town known for its fiestas.
I miss certain urban conveniences. Portland, for example, believes so thoroughly in public transportation that they let you ride for free in certain areas—or did when we lived there, not sure now.
In Powell’s City of Books, Portland has, perhaps, the best used bookstore in all of America, along with oft-frequented libraries.
I like and miss the fact that Portland is almost equidistant, slightly over an hour each way by car, from either the ocean or the mountains.
I miss the clean air that floats through the Pacific Northwest because it is, at times, so fresh it could serve as a role model for retail air fresheners.
I certainly miss the variety of lush parks full of gorgeous trees and vibrant shrubs, as well as the breathtaking sweep of the Cascades, with at least two volcanoes in easy view.
However, I do not miss the damp weather or gloomy skies or traffic or pace or the relatively high cost of living of Portland.
I’ve replaced all of those things with what I consider to be a kinder-gentler-more affordable way. My new life in old Mexico is full of dry-blue skies (mostly) and a sun at my back (during the day). I walk everywhere and everywhere I walk I see brightly-colored houses, like Mark Rothko field color paintings, that make me smile.
Oregon, it’s been said, is like Ireland: All green and no gold. But if you ask me, there’s plenty of gold in Oregon, and it’s usually panned in crabbing nets during winter.
If you moved to a foreign country, what would you miss?
Post-college my resume read like a good-grief of odd jobs: military journalist, medical librarian, college instructor, book packer, mill worker, business owner, technical writer, software documentation manager, marketing manager, marketing director. If I could have thrown in gold prospector and hobo, I would have been Jack London.
Between and during those jobs, I always worked on creative projects, mostly writing and cartooning and, like many writers and artists, all of it in my spare time.
While at work, in addition to doing my regular job, I’d also be doing what’s known in the computer industry as “background processing,” working out story problems in the garage of my mind and jotting down notes so I wouldn’t forget. If I happened to get mugged coming home from work, the unlucky guy would get scraps of paper and Post-it Notes with bits of dialogue, plot points, and partly developed scenes on them.
Not exactly stuff you can easily fence.
For a few years, after hours, I even tried standup comedy to get over my shyness and really sucked at it—the standup part, not the shyness. Comedy bits about attending the Hemlock Society’s Christmas Party (“Stay away from the punch”), and lines like “What do you say we go up to my place and exchange bilabial fricatives?” did not exactly kill in biker bars.
On the other hand, the tobacco smoke nearly killed me.
One night a member of a successful improv group complained to me that she couldn’t write or tell jokes. In fact, she confessed to knowing only one joke and told it. She said: “I like my men like I like my ham—cured.”
I thought it sounded more like a cheesy pickup line than a joke, and used it as a jumping off point for my first play. When I was done writing it, I gave the play to my wife, Arlene, to read. She’s always my first and most honest critic.
“This play is about dating,” she said. “What the hell do you know about dating?”
Arlene was right, of course.
My name is Mark Saunders, and there’s a lot I can’t do. I can’t tune-up a car’s engine. I can’t cook, unless grilled cheese sandwiches count. I can’t run marathons. I can’t rewire a house or unclog a drain or put down floor tile or build a tree fort.
Or write software code.
I can’t sing. In fact, I had the early, sole distinction of being banished from the seventh grade choir in Holy Family Catholic School, Citrus Heights, California. Look it up.
I’m not allowed near the family bank account.
Both physics and technology baffle me. I can’t understand how a Boeing 747 weighing 900,000 pounds when fully-loaded can stay in the air. I once saw a poster of the insides of a computer; the intricate pattern of a motherboard made my head spin. I felt nauseous and had to sit down.
I currently live in the central highlands of Mexico, and I can barely speak Spanish. In short, if I starred in a Hitchcock movie it would be titled “The Man Who Knew Diddly Squat.”
EXT. STREET – DAY
A rotund Rod Steiger look-alike in a police uniform stares at Diddly. The cop chews on a toothpick. Spits it out. Hikes up his pants. Beat.
ROD STEIGER LOOK-ALIKE
What do they call you down there?
They call me Mr. Squat.
What I can do, however, is talk about humor, because that’s the one link that’s connected me from childhood until now. And that’s what I plan to do in this blog, sharing everything from brief essays to tips on writing humor to samples of my gag cartoons to the occasional funny quote from someone else.
And I’ll share quotes like this:
“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?”
Stick around. We’ll have fun.