Featured

Dog Day Afternoon

June 19, 2022

The rains came early this afternoon, so I let the dogs in from the corral before they were soaked. Dori had found a piece of pig bone that she sat with and proceeded to reduce to fragments, Scarlett the pug decided to take yet another extended nap, and the others just chilled, waiting for the rain to let up.

Breaking news – Scarlett the pug naps yet again.

Dori’s teeth rather preoccupy right now. She is still, after months living here, semi-feral in her ways, and often sets on one of the other dogs right after eating. My theory is that eating triggers some primal hunting instinct, and she can’t simply gulp her food like the others, then chill while she digests it. Friday evening, she set on Rem as they finished their food – he is nearest to her in size – and I tried to separate them. 

Bad move.

Fortunately, Dori didn’t bite through my forefinger. But it still hurts, two days later. And until the rain hit that night, there were drops of my blood all over the patio outside the kitchen. I even found some on the kitchen wall. And yes, I did get mad and I whacked her. She didn’t seem impressed.

Dori reducing a pig bone to fragments. I prefer her doing this to chomping on my fingers.

Her first owners were careless, and left her to roam the streets much of the time. This isn’t abnormal in Mexico, but the consequences are obvious. A dog learns what it must, and if it has to survive in a rough environment, it learns to be rough itself. When we acquired her, she needed chemotherapy for an infectious genital cancer, and she has various scars on her from previous violent encounters. She is also very domineering towards the others, and can’t relate to my efforts to reduce this. 

By contrast, Vicki, her ailing and aging kennel-mate, who was brought here as a puppy, just doesn’t have that aggressive streak. She bit me once years ago, when I and my friends moved to the two houses on this site, but solely from fear over what was happening to her. I once had to separate her from a rival dog who had attacked her, felt her teeth on my arm, and saw her move them away fast – in the middle of the fight. 

The individuality of different dogs is still astonishing to me. The actual limits of dog powers of reasoning and the personalities they develop are always fascinating. Rem is the most intellectual, and has learned to avoid Dori much of the time. He was a total pain for his first six months here, but he and I finally worked out a modus vivendi, and he goes along with that. He’s four or five years old now, the age of wisdom for a dog I think, and realises it’s cleverer to manipulate me than to defy me non-stop.

Rem is, for some reason, camera-shy, and I can never capture his goofily cheerful doggie-smile.

It’s also more entertaining for me, something he has possibly figured out. Do dogs know what a smile means? I’m not sure, but at times I look sardonically at him when he has outwitted me, and I often think he is looking sardonically at me. It’s a weird relationship, perhaps, but a treasured one. 

Do I spend that much time trying to figure them out, these unruly quadrupeds? Maybe not. I let them in out of the rain, and I started this piece because my internet connection went down in the storm and a thought-train started. With the rainstorm preventing other activities for a while, I can’t help but wonder what actually goes through those doggie brains as they wait for me to quit playing with this laptop, and get them their dinner. 

Featured

Dog Treats

December 22, 2021

‘Tis the season for feasting. And no-one believes in this more sincerely than my alpha dog, Rem.

I was blinking at the light this morning when I glanced out of the bathroom window. I’ve never understood why the house’s builder made this a large picture-window as opposed to the usual privacy-protecting piece of glass, but it does give me a fine view of the dogs’ corral beside the house. And I noticed there was a plastic bag there. This seemed unusual, since we get almost no real wind at this time of year, and nothing is likely to blow onto the property over the perimeter fence, apart from the occasional piece of ash from someone’s backyard fire.

“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

I forgot about the bag while I fed the dogs, checked email and went through the rest of my usual morning routine. Finally, I went into the kitchen to make my own breakfast, and couldn’t remember what I’d done with the loaf of bread I bought yesterday. It wasn’t in the fridge. And after running through the list of possible locations, it dawned on me that I’d left the loaf on the kitchen counter overnight.

Now, Rem has made plain to me the rules of the kitchen many times. Simply, if it’s in a cupboard, or the fridge, or out of his reach, it’s mine. If it’s accessible to a large-to-medium dog (him, for example), it’s his. Oatmeal, cheese, pecans, raisins – which he threw up, because grapes and raisins are toxic to dogs – and other stuff have often disappeared because I don’t follow the rules he laid down.

And at this point I recalled the bag in the corral.

Rem always asks to have any crumbs resulting from my slicing bread. So, when I reclaimed the bag, and menacingly shook it at him, he was excited because he thought I was giving him the crumbs left in it. You can’t, of course, punish a dog unless the dog knows what he’s being punished for, so all I could do was make the sort of threatening noises he interprets as “Human having a bad time, which is irrelevant to dogs.”

What I couldn’t understand was how Rem could have eaten an entire loaf – I found no leftover crusts – without harmful consequences. Dogs here often get tortillas, which are made from maize, as either a treat or (more sadly) a substitute for proper dogfood, but I’ve never known one to eat that much wholewheat bread at one time before. Clearly, Labrador-crosses in Mexico don’t suffer from gluten intolerance.

Later today, I was back at the bakery buying more bread, and the señorita in the shop smiled at my story of how this mutt had devoured an entire loaf. 

“I know the owner always wants to expand into new markets,” she grinned.

Maybe I should have asked if they’ll pay for Rem to be a model in an advertising campaign. After all (see photo above), he’s quite photogenic.

Somehow, though, I can’t see even good wholegrain bread replacing Dog Chow in the Mexican market.

Featured

A Morning Bird Hunt

May 27, 2021

My dog Rem has a loud bark, and he’s particularly fond of using it at night and in the morning. A lot. What can I say? He takes his guard duties very seriously, and I’m probably all the safer for it.

He wouldn’t stop his racket this morning, just as I was stumbling around in the mental fog of waking up, but he wasn’t at his usual post from which he can issue threats to other neighbourhood dogs. So, I went to see if something was up. It was – a zopilote, a black vulture (Coragyps atratus) was sitting in a tree in the garden. 

Rem taking a well-earned rest after barking at a vulture for 15 minutes.

One of the pleasures of being here in the mornings is seeing the zopilotes circling on thermals close to the cliffs that surround the village. They are very graceful birds – not huge, but with wings tipped with white feathers, and a span of close to five feet. Up close, they can be disgusting owing to a habit they have of soiling themselves to cool their legs (Nature has no class at all sometimes), but from more than 15 feet away, they are compelling.

I don’t have a camera that can do a decent job of photographing them when they circle hundreds of feet up, but with one right in the tree outside, I decided I’d try to get a shot. I went up to the roof, and tried from three angles. Each time, as I suspected and later on confirmed, I registered a black blob against the dark leaves of the trees.

My least black blob-ful photo of the zopilote.

But at one point, the bird spread those graceful wings, and hopped to another branch. Did I capture the image? Er, no, I just missed it. And missed it again twice more. 

Then it flew off. And then it came back again, up in the back garden, which is on a steep slope.

The main garden area is closed off, since Rem has used it in the past as an escape route off the property and out to mischief. For his own safety (people here own a lot of sharp machetes) I keep him within fenced bounds. But feeling the spirit of National Geographic descending on me, I unhooked the gate and headed up through the vegetation, which is rapidly sprouting after the onset of the rains. It was hard to find my footing with all the strong new stems that have come up, and soon, I was being bitten by ants. I don’t know why, because I was no threat to them, but I think being an ant might be boring, and having a large bipedal mammal to bite is possibly fun for them. So, they had fun.

Looking up from brushing them off my arms, I noticed the zopilote had once again spread its wings, so I swung my camera up to eye level. And of course, the wings folded once more. We did this twice more, until it became alarmed that I was coming close. It spread its wings yet again, just as I pushed aside some more tenacious vegetation, and … I missed the shot once more.

The wings are half open in this shot.

Rem, throughout all this, had stopped barking, satisfied that I was doing something to get rid of this intolerable interloper on the property he guards so determinedly. And in his terms, my mission looked successful, and he could go back to watching out for other dogs, at which he could bark from his favourite spot on the wall of his corral. As for me, I just decided, as I have before, that I wasn’t cut out to be a wildlife photographer, who needs things like telephoto lenses and very rapid responses from his camera. 

I’m still glad the vultures hang around here. If nothing us, they indicate there’s still a vibrant ecosystem here that can support scavengers and occasional hunters like them.

Featured

Vaccination Day

March 18, 2021

The past year has been hard on friendships. Some of us decided early on to mask up and avoid group situations, while others became anti-vax and anti-mask evangelists, and began delivering a relentless sermon that lasted all summer, all fall, and all winter. I now know every silly, unscientific theory in existence about vaccines, viruses and mendacious governments. And, of course, all about Bill Gates and his microchips. My social circle has been judiciously pruned as a result.

Finally, just before last weekend, Tepoztlan announced that the Pfizer vaccine would be made available to people over 60 for three days starting on Tuesday, March 16, the day after Benito Juarez Day. Two locations, a school in town and a soccer field, were being used for this.

There was widespread anticipation, and I planned to go in with my friend Ixchel as soon as a long-awaited plumber had turned up to install a water filter. However, by the time he was done and had left with my cash in his pocket, she had messaged and phoned me to tell me that the lines were insanely long, everything was backed up, and she was going home. 

A spontaneous protest by angry people who had waited in the sun with aging relatives closed the day’s operations, I heard. The cult of the abuela, the grandmother, is a strong one here, and protecting family matriarchs, or at least looking like you do, is a significant part of the social structure. 

The line-up on the first afternoon. Cannier people brought chairs for family matriarchs (and patriarchs) to sit on.

We both considered waiting for an opportunity next month, but decided to give it a second try today, Thursday, the last of the three days. So, this morning we put ourselves in the line for the school vaccination centre, and waited.  And waited.

After 20 minutes, the line had not moved. Fortunately, the staff for this operation, which was admittedly a big one for a town this size, were now on top of what was going on, and came to recommend we go down to the soccer field, where there were few people waiting. We did this, and while a couple of hundred people were already there when we arrived, people were moving on through the system. Just getting under the protective awning past the entrance gate felt like hope. We kept having to shift forward one row of seats as people moved through the system, so we finally had the sense of making progress.

Sure enough, around an hour later, we had moved to the fronts of two different lines, and the anticlimactic moment of the actual jab happened. We were asked to wait another 20 minutes to ensure we had no adverse reactions, then left after receiving a basic certificate of vaccination, and a provisional date for the second injection.

We had to play musical chairs under the awning, moving ahead to the next row of seats as others received injections.

The feeling of freedom from anxiety wasn’t what I’d expected. But finally, other than being careful and avoiding the conspiracy-theory crowd entirely, we had a realistic protection against the wretched disease. After just one jab, it’s not the whole deal, but my body now has the tool it needs to build advance resistance to the virus, assuming I’ve not already encountered and defeated it sub-clinically. 

And the day just looked brighter as a result. We walked to a place for lunch, ran into a mutual friend who had also just had her jab and was feeling similarly relieved, and felt more gratitude than we had in months.

I had to go home to wait for a man to deliver a load of water, as I mentioned in my last post, so home I went after finishing my enchiladas. He came when expected, and later so did Jorge, our local blacksmith, who was coming to examine the front gate of the small house I’m fixing so I can rent it out. 

Indeed, if the pump on the water truck hadn’t surged fiercely, making the hose jump so that it bent the inner security gate out of alignment, and soaking the garage area, I’d have had a perfect day. But jump it did, and Jorge has to see if he can fix that gate, too. And Rem, my canine anarchist for whom the inner gate had to be installed in the first place, tried to bite Jorge, though thankfully he only chomped on a mouthful of jeans.

Rem, the canine anarchist.

So, apart from facing a combined 1,300 peso repair bill, and having to apologise for Rem’s over-protectiveness, this was a semi-perfect day. Either way, I have the jab now. If I do run into anti-vax evangelists in town, I can tell them I put my deltoid muscle where my mouth is, and I now consider myself a superior human as a result. Or at least a pandemically insulated one.

They’re Ba-a-a-a-ck

June 21, 2020

The rains are here, fitfully. That means the mosquitoes are multiplying. Hi, kids! We didn’t miss you.

Mosquitoes, if you look at them in real life and not in one of those blown-up photos, are oddly elegant little critters. Close up, they look like terrifying monsters, but in the normal range of scale, they’re oddly delicate, well-designed bugs. I try to focus on that when I realise three of them have bitten me on the ankles in five minutes.

Sometimes, I’ve clapped my hands and caught one, only to see it fly off when I open them again. They don’t crush easy. They’re flexible, like arthropodic ninjas. And they seem smart. I swear our local ones have psychic powers that tell them when they’re about to be swatted. Three times last night I had one touch down on my wrist, and was sure I could splat it. Each time, it was gone by the time my other hand struck the wrist, so the whole exercise seemed like a weird exercise in masochism.

I use a mosquito net at night, but often there’s at least one enterprising bug that makes it in under the hem of that. I read they’re attracted to carbon dioxide emissions, and other things the chemistry of our bodies produces. They’re amazingly well evolved for what they have to do, but I still wish they didn’t do it.

Now, dogs it seems, don’t react to mosquitoes’ anaesthetic saliva the way we do. They don’t itch. They get bitten, but when they’re scratching, it’s because of something else, not the mossies. I envy them that.

My four-legged buddy Rem, for example, has a particular sardonic expression for me when he sees me trying to swat the things. He looks up and out from the corner of his eye, giving the impression he’s seen through human antics by now, and thinks we’re nuts. At least, when I’m not feeding him, that is.

Mind you, he has thick fur, so he’s mostly protected against skeeters anyway. I’m getting him some anti-tick meds, because they also emerge with the rains, but mosquitoes aren’t his problem. And when I’ve tried explaining to him the drawback of not having thick body fur, he just gives me that look again, and goes back to sleep.

Sardonic

Rem being unconcerned about mosquitoes. (He was too wary of the camera to look properly sardonic).

He does, though, lunge at bigger bugs, snapping his jaws. And every year when we get a kind of round, brown flying beetle that comes into the house at night, he makes himself ill by trying to eat a few. But I get no help with controlling the mosquitoes, not from him nor from the other dogs.

Citronella, despite its reputation, doesn’t seem to deter them much, and while I’ve heard they dislike cigarette smoke, that’s an aversion I share, so I’m not trying it. They come, they bite, and they ebb with the rains. That will put us in late October.

I’ll just have to keep swatting when I can, and being as tolerant as possible when I can’t. And Rem can keep on giving me that “Uh-huh, more useless effort” look.

Requiescat in Sartagine

The time had come, we agreed, to give Rem the dog a bath. He had roamed freely in our large back yard (or wilderness) for months, and rolled in a few too many patches of mud. He had been white and brown, and now he was several blended shades of murky grey. This morning being the first sunny one in days, and good for drying wet dogs, my friend Lucero and I warmed some water, and began the assault on his fur.

All considered, he didn’t take it too badly. Perhaps he was exhausted after barking at a cornered squirrel for most of the previous evening, or maybe he’s a masochist and only pretended to resent it to maintain his canine credentials with the other dogs.

Sure, he tried to make a bolt for it three of four times, but between my efforts and the leash that anchored him to a window grille, he didn’t get anywhere. Even when Lucero was working on the thick mass of grit and plant material in the fur around his neck, he largely tolerated the insult in silence. Finally, Lucero rested her tired arms, I let him off the leash, and we jumped away from the inevitable wet-dog-shaking-itself shower-bath. Then I gave him a late breakfast, which he accepted with grace (by then, he was starving, a condition he insists is constant), following which he took advantage of the morning sunshine to dry off. And, we concluded, he probably felt better for getting rid of all the crap in his under-fur.

Rem cropped.jpg

A washed Rem dries out in the sun.

A short while later, Lucero had to visit friends in the village, and left in our neighbour’s car with a cheery wave. But Rem, ever swift and resourceful, slipped out the door as the neighbour held it open. At night, he roams around if he escapes. In the daytime, he chases the neighbours’ chickens.

Maybe his bringing us a freshly killed hen in his jaws was his way of saying “Thanks for cleaning me up.” That’s Lucero’s take, anyway. Ever the cynic, I wondered if it was his way of saying “F*^% you and your petty rules, unworthy owners of a noble hound and fierce hunter like me.” Also, he might have felt piqued over last evening’s escaped squirrel. Either way, there he was, trotting home with a dead black chicken in his jaws, and the neighbour and two of her kids in determined pursuit.

This was chicken-hit number three for Rem. His reputation as a chicken-killer is now established. The woman was easier to deal with than we expected, however, and asked only for a modest payment. This was a creature grown for meat, after all, not a pet. We doubled the amount, as a goodwill gesture. I half-heartedly spanked the dog (I dislike hitting animals, even naughty ones) and made penitent faces at the neighbour, and Lucero left.

A few minutes later, she called me. If the neighbours hadn’t retrieved the dead bird, could I bring it over to Don Aurelio’s? Then he and his family could have chicken for dinner.

feather.jpg

All  that remains – a black chicken feather.

Well, they hadn’t, and I could, so I did, and they will. We sat around Aurelio’s kitchen, while his wife Cecilia plied us with their home-grown coffee and tamales, which are a kind of bean-filled sandwich made from masa (maize dough). And we swapped dog stories, of which everyone in this village of five hundred dogs has many, and reflected on the short life of chickens.

I so easily forget how interwoven with life and death an agricultural community can be. A fact that, I don’t doubt, the delinquent dog who started this incident appreciates better than I do. I just wish he’d realise that when your recreational hunting activities annoy too many people, you become a target yourself. And in case he doesn’t, or won’t, we’re putting an extra gate on the property.

But Cecilia’s a wonderful cook, and I’m now thinking of excuses to stop by at dinner-time. If Rem did bring the chicken to Lucero and myself as a gift in gratitude, it behoves me to check out what she did with it, right?

  • The heading is Latin for “Rest in (a) Frying Pan.”

Rem

“That’s funny,” people say. “Why on earth did you name your dog Rapid Eye Movement?”

I didn’t. I didn’t even name him, for one thing, but Rem’s name isn’t an acronym. My neighbour, V, is an architect, and a fan of the Dutch architectural philosopher Rem Koolhaas (below). So that’s how the name originated.

Rem-Koolhaas-2.jpg

No, not Rem the dog.

Rem was found on the street, and ended up here because … well, street dogs do that. He has a line of four or five previously homeless predecessors. He’s an amiable guy, apart from a tendency to bite visitors (he tried to bite me at first) and another tendency to escape and chase after the neighbours’ chickens. He shows me remarkable affection when it’s feeding time, though, and … sometimes a little attention at other times.

Rem, Jan:19-2 copy.jpg

Yes, Rem the dog.

The strange thing is, he’s a claustrophobe. If I say “Rem, come in,” he takes off like I’d said “Bath-time!”  He occasionally comes into the house that I rent for a few moments, but he won’t stay. At night, even when it goes down to nine degrees C, he wants to stay out and sleep in the grass, or maybe on the rubber mat that goes over the cement cover of our water cistern. I tried leaving the kitchen door open, but he showed no interest.

There are two houses on this property. One, where V now lives, I built for myself six years ago. My friend Lucero and her mom built the larger one, most of which I now rent. There is a dividing fence, but Rem has access to both parts of the property, as well as to a hillside backyard.

So, he can happily go up on V’s roof to watch cows and horses in the field outside. Or, he’ll sit on the dividing wall, waiting for me or V to come home, occasionally knocking over potted plants when he jumps down to greet one of us.

Nope.jpg

No, I will not pose for a photo, thank you.

And if possible, he’ll find a garbage bag and rip it open, even if there’s no food in there. One time, I left my shoes outside for two minutes, and of course, one of them immediately became a chew-toy. Polite manners, I’m sure he’d explain, aren’t “street.” How he ended up homeless no-one knows, but he demands his independence even if he does like regular meals.

So, apart from deigning to come into the kitchen at mealtimes, outside is where he stays. What he’ll do when the downpours start in rainy season, I don’t know. And once or twice a year we get hailstorms, which won’t be fun for him. V has a porch that offers some protection, and the upper floor on this side has a partly covered area, but he’ll probably get his fur soaked.

My considered view of this dog is that we need to change his name, especially since he doesn’t seem to recognise it anyway. Conan, perhaps, since he’s a barbarian dog? Or maybe Lucky, since the neighbours who have the chickens haven’t killed him yet.

But I feel that a creature who’s so averse to any experience of built interiors shouldn’t be named after an architect. Most dogs want to insinuate themselves into the indoors, but this guy says a resolute “nope” to entering human structures. I admire his stand on principles, but I think he’s being unreasonably impractical.

Mind you, Mr. Koolhaas is a bit like that himself: he made his reputation breaking taboos, and having the stamina to follow through on that. So perhaps this dog isn’t that misnamed after all.