A Dingo Ate My Baby Ruth

Dark screen. A long pause and then we hear soft human cries and moans and sniffles; the black air filled with sadness. Within seconds a deep male voice commands attention over the darkness: “Per istam sanctam unctionem…” and the lights go up to show we’re in the bedroom of a well maintained house, crowded with mourners.

The camera pans the room, showing close ups of distraught faces. Women and men of all ages weep or stand speechless, full of grief, left with nothing more to say.

Quickly the camera zooms in on framed photos of a family and their dog or just photos of the dog. The camera pulls back to reveal the same dog, now lifeless, in the middle of a king-sized bed. A young girl sits alongside Dexter, for that is the dog’s name, and strokes it affectionately.

The male human voice comes from Father Hannah, local pastor and long-time family friend, who continues giving Dexter the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick with Last Rites: “… et suam piissimam misericordiam adiuvet te dominus gratia spiritus sancti, ut a peccatis liberatum te salvet atque propitius alleviet.” An altar boy swings a thurible, an incense burner suspended from chains. Several people make the sign of the cross as a line forms and mourners approach Dexter, touch his paws for one last time, kiss his forehead or his long nose.

A young boy pushes his way through the crowd to see what’s going on. In one hand he holds a half-eaten burger. Another young boy next to him turns, points to the burger, and asks: “What’s that?” The first young boy replies: “Bacon burger.” “Smells yummy,” says the second boy. “It is. Want a bite?”

Suddenly, Dexter’s head snaps up.  He sniffs the air several times and looks over in the direction of the kid with the burger.  He begins to drool.

An elderly woman in the room clutching rosary beads looks to the ceiling and shouts: “It’s a miracle!”

No. It’s bacon.

I wanted to open with that scene for two reasons. The first is to show how, for many of us, our dogs are family and our love for them is unconditional. The second is to acknowledge that when it comes to bacon, the canine species is all in. So am I.

[to be continued]

The Clumsy Expat – The Pilot Episode

Zacateros Street during the Los Locos parade (it's usually not this crowded).

Zacateros Street during the Los Locos parade (it’s usually not this crowded).

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.

Closeup of the Dukester.

Close up of the Dukester.

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.


Cassie Comes Before Lassie in the Phone Book


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. QT_cassieatgate

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.

Riding in Cars with Pets

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).

Cassie, our female Standard poodle.

I was convinced Cassie, our female Standard poodle, had a bladder the size of a caper.

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.

Sadie, aka Devil Cat.

Sadie, aka Devil Cat, making her grand entrance.

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.