Morning Has Broken

2014-08-29 07.58.05

Action shot, on the road to school

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, August 31, 2014 – Life is starting to take on something that resembles a routine.  Just like for families all over the world, for us here it coincides with the start of the school year.  While everyone loves summer and the freedom it brings, it’s undeniable that the return to school restores order and routine to life for those of us with school-age children.

Our mornings here begin while it’s still dark.  Mexico observes daylight savings time, and it ends in late October, but right now it’s full-on dark when the alarm goes off at 6 A.M.  I used to be the first one up, but now Wiley gets up first and does some work before breakfast.  I’m up by 6:30 and I try to rouse the little man starting at around 6:40 or so, with varying degrees of success.  Sometimes getting him up and going requires more than one trip to his room.

After the dogs go out for a quick walk, we all sit down to breakfast together.  On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we all walk to school together, since those are gym days for Wiley III and me.  The walk takes fifteen to twenty minutes, depending on how hard I’m driving the pace.  The school doors open at 8:00 and stay open until 8:15.

On the way to school we share in the mundane tasks of daily life with those around us.  We become just another family walking to school.  On the way we see lots of kids, freshly scrubbed and combed, sporting backpacks and lunchboxes adorned with Despicable Me’s minions and mindcraft icons.  My understanding is that all Mexican schools in San Miguel require uniforms, so everyone, including Wiley, is dressed in the uniform of their particular school.  One school close to us requires that the boys wear white wool pants – I can only imagine what kind of laundry nightmares those produce.  It’s a new experience for us, and while donning a white polo shirt and khakis every day takes away any ambivalence about what to wear to school, I kind of miss seeing Wiley in his wacky t-shirts and well-worn jeans he typically favors.  So far he seems resigned to the idea of wearing a uniform, although he typically rejects the navy blue cardigan.  Perhaps it’s a tad too preppy for him.

2014-08-30 10.58.57

Garbage truck and workers in the back, with the garbage. Co-mingled recycling takes on a whole new meaning.

Around here the garbage gets picked up from the curb.  The ancient narrow cobblestone streets make getting the truck directly to everyone’s door impossible, so we carry our bags of trash up the hill to the road behind us twice weekly.  The garbageman signals his arrival by clanging on a long piece of metal with another piece of metal, a la dinner bell-style.  The men working this job are abnormally cheerful, given the time of day and the nature of their job.  They are typically seen in the back of the truck, sorting the trash into its various categories, by hand and with no gloves.  Wiley IV claims he saw one of them finish off a half-consumed carton of chocolate milk the other day, but I choose to believe that this had been his carton all along.

A common morning pursuit in San Miguel seems to be the daily sweeping of the street.  This is often accomplished with a rough broom made of twigs, but we also see regular brooms being used.  The street is being cleared of small debris, such as fine gravel and fallen blossoms.  The streets are typically very clean because of this.  An older man who is the caretaker at one of the houses on our road greets us every morning as he sweeps with, “Hola!  Buenos Dias, como esta?”.  On our way home we often find him exiting our neighborhood tiena, or small store, with his morning refreshment of two bottles of Victoria beer.

The tienas are an interesting phenomena.  There are three or four in our block alone, some almost right next to each other.  Some of them, like the one directly behind us, sell only a few items; others have packed a sizable inventory of cleaning supplies, canned and fresh food items, and drinks into a space the size of the average American walk-in closet.  Most mornings we are cheerfully greeted by the couple that runs our go-to tienda.  Sometimes we’ll stop and buy six or seven eggs to round-out breakfast, which the shop keeper puts in a plastic bag with no carton for us to carry home.

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Typical sidewalk stand selling breakfast

Along with way we see lots of Mexicans making their morning meal at little taco stands.  Many are large and quite elaborate, offering several kinds of tacos and/or tamales, which are a staple of both breakfast and lunch here.  Often they sell fresh-squeezed juice as well.  Most patrons eat their meal while standing and then return the plastic plate to the seller.

2014-08-28 07.52.03

Single file on the shady pathways of Parque Benito Juarez.

On our way to school we pass through Parque Benito Juarez, which is only four or five blocks from our house.  It’s the only substantial green space around, and it is heavily and lovingly used.  In the mornings the paths are crowded with joggers and walkers, there’s usually a couple of games going on at the basketball courts, people are walking dogs, doing yoga and tai chi, and chatting with neighbors.

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The front of Wiley’s school, where we drop him. On the banner is one of the few things Hillary Clinton ever said that I agree with.

Once at school Wiley heads inside and we go to the gym just down the block.  On Fridays parents can come in and participate in or just watch the morning “focus time”, during which the dance teacher, who I understand to be a semi-professional tango dancer, leads the group through the paces of a raucous Latin dance routine in the courtyard.  The kids then settle down to their work, and parents chat for a while (it’s an incredibly friendly group) before heading off to start their day.

It’s a very different way to start the morning from the routine we established at home in Colorado.  We always had breakfast together, then I bolted out the door to get to work by 7:30, Wiley III “commuted” downstairs to his office, and Wiley IV rode the five blocks to his school on his bike or scooter with friends.  It’s nice to be able to send Wiley off to school together, to hear about each other’s upcoming plans for the day, and to start the day with some shared exercise and conversation.

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Let’s Stay Together

Just Married

I’ll apologize for the general quality of our wedding pictures. The guy was a newspaper photographer posing as a wedding photographer on the weekends. At this point I wanted desperately to get to the reception. Not sure what Wiley was looking at.

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, August 26, 2014 – For half my life, I’ve been married to Wiley.

I met Wiley barely one month after graduating from college.  The year was 1986.  We had both been hired by EDS, the systems integration company once owned by Ross “Giant Sucking Sound” Perot, and had just shipped off to Dallas for two week’s worth of training and corporate Koolaide consumption.  So completely awash in Perot-ishness was the culture that an entire day of training was devoted to absorbing his life story, including tales of how he delivered papers on horseback as a child and used $1000 borrowed from his mother to start EDS.  Several hours were set aside to review “WWRW”, or What Would Ross Wear, also known as the Dress Code Lecture, or Blue Shirts Might Be OK on An Average Tuesday, But I Wouldn’t Wear One to a Customer Meeting.

Each of us vividly remembers meeting the other.  The rent-a-car shuttle picked me up from the curb at the Dallas airport, and Wiley was the only other rider on the bus.  I’m not sure I would characterize it as love at first sight, but there was an undeniable attraction that we both felt.  I remember instantly liking him, and at the same time being somewhat uncomfortable around him because of that.  I had left a perfectly good boyfriend back in Tennessee, one that my parents liked and that I may have married one day, had I not met Wiley.  After a playfully aggressive discussion of Southeastern Conference Football (bowl season had just ended and we were then and remain now fiercely loyal to our alma maters, mine the University of Tennessee and his the University of Alabama), I purposely bolted down the bus steps once we arrived at the rental agency to get away from him.  In case my striking beauty did not cement my image on his cortex, I guaranteed it by falling and tumbling down the bus steps, landing in a messy pile of scrunchy boots and bangle bracelets on the sidewalk.  He was immediately there, helping me up, picking up my things, and asking if I was OK.  I sheepishly expressed my thanks and hurried away.

As it would turn out, Fate had other plans, and placed us in assigned seats next to each other for the duration of class.  A large portion of the material was ridiculous, and from our spots in the back row we began a fairly intense flirtation based mostly on sarcastic comments scribbled on each other’s class notes.  As will happen in groups of people thrown together by chance, we gravitated towards other people in the class who eschewed after-hours group study sessions in favor of a detailed review of Dallas’ finer watering holes.  When we parted at the airport at the end of the class we made plans to meet in Cincinnati in a few days, as we were both being assigned to jobs in the greater Detroit area.  EDS had just been bought by General Motors, and around that time they hired thousands of new college graduates to staff the account.  Wiley was being sent to Flint, Michigan, and I would be working just north of Detroit in a white-collar suburb called Troy.

At that point I had never traveled north of Washington, DC, so I’ve no doubt that my parents were pleased that I had a “friend” with which to make the trip.  The boyfriend and I had agreed to date other people during our separation, so at that point I did not feel as though I was cheating, and truly, I wasn’t; at least not at first.  I didn’t plan to fall in love with someone else.  Gradually, though, Wiley became a part of every weekend, and many weeknights.  We were separated by about an hour’s drive, but our desire to spend time with one another superseded any concerns about the necessity of sleep. 

I have always been physically attracted to Wiley, but if somehow he was gone tomorrow it would be the more intangible aspects of his person that I would remember.  He is incredibly kind and caring.  He is smart in a genius sort-of-way, which means that he often has no idea where he left his keys/sunglasses/wallet/insert any personal item here.  He is generous and patient, especially as a father.  He is truthful almost to a fault, and I have always known not to ask him questions to which I don’t want to hear an honest answer.  Here’s an example.

About six months after we met I knew that I had fallen in love with Wiley, and I flew back to Tennessee and broke up with my boyfriend.  In the interest of full disclosure I’ll add that he, too, was getting seriously involved with someone he would eventually marry.  Shortly thereafter Wiley and I were out one night at a blues club in Detroit.  At some point in the evening, my tongue loosened no doubt by a few too many beers, I told him that I loved him.  He politely and sincerely thanked me, and I was understandably shattered.   His position was that he didn’t not love me, he just hadn’t really thought about it up until that point.  After listening to my sobbing, and generally having the entire evening ruined, it probably occurred to him that it would have been easier just to lie and say, “I love you” back, but that’s not how Wiley rolls.

After that night we picked up the pieces and moved on, and about two weeks after that incident he did tell me that he loved me, and I certainly believed him.  We made it through a six-month separation and two more years of the kind of good times you have when you are young and in love and responsibility-free.  He took me back to Stan’s Blue Note Café on Greenville Avenue in Dallas, where we went for our first date, and proposed in late 1988.  We got married twenty-five years ago today, in my hometown, and the rest, as they say, is history.

2014-07-05 20.52.22

Apparently still incapable of taking a serious, adult photograph.

I really haven’t the foggiest notion what it takes to be married for twenty-five years.  We’ve probably all known couples who haven’t made it, when everyone involved was sure they would, and vice versa. I’m not exactly sure why we have made it where others have failed.  I do know that it’s not always easy, but it should be, most of the time.  I know that sometimes you have to shut up and listen even when all you want to do it punch the other person in the gut and walk out of the room.   I know that setting out thinking that you can change the other person’s basic nature isn’t fair to anyone. I know that if you’re not prepared to sacrifice at least some of the time and compromise most of the time, happiness will be elusive.  And I know that while lust and passion aren’t absolute requirements in a long-term relationship, they sure as hell keep things interesting.

So here we are.  Twenty-five years in, five cities, six houses, one kid, four college degrees, six cats, two dogs, a whole lot of travel, some fights, and a ton of laughter.  Thanks for the times, Hon.  I’ll always love you.  In the immortal words of the Reverend Al Green, let’s stay together.  Not that it was ever in question.

Everybody says, “Let’s stay together”
I’ll keep on lovin’ you whether, whether
Times are good or bad, happy or sad 

 

 

Dog Days Are Over, Parte Dos

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Sweet girl waking up from surgery, successfully

(To read Parte Uno, click here).  San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, August 24, 2014:We had to give our patient, recently anesthetized to repair a tongue injury and undergo sterilization, to the technician to care for because we had a very sick three month old puppy with Parvo that had been dropped off by its owners.  This dog was fading fast, but we did get fluids started, having to place a catheter in the jugular vein because it was so dehydrated that all of its peripheral veins were impossible to find.  When you place a catheter in the jugular vein you use a specially-designed long catheter, since this is clearly a high-motion area, and the typical short catheter will always kink when the patient moves its neck, and stop working.  The rescue doesn’t have these long catheters, and this is exactly what happened with this puppy’s catheter.  The vet made a decision to give it a small dose of “anesthesia” to keep it quiet while fluids were running. Once again, I’m standing there, not saying anything, and watching this dehydrated, minimally responsive one and a half pound puppy get xylazine.  Into his kennel he goes, so that we can look at the next Parvo puppy.

Turns out that puppy had died, waiting to be seen.  We all felt terrible, but the vet had to keep moving because another puppy that has been brought in for vaccinations.

Every veterinary clinic has to have a system, or some type of structure.  This not only helps to ensure the safety and well-being of the patients but also the sanity of the staff.  At my hospital our system is that while one doctor is performing surgery another doctor is seeing appointments, in order to minimize anesthesia time and allow the surgeon to focus on surgery.  In addition, the number of people involved with animals suspected of having infectious diseases is limited to one technician and the doctor who is caring for the patient.  Gowns, gloves, and foot baths are utilized to lower the risk of transmission to other patients. I could write a book about how we do this, but suffice it to say when we follow procedures we have good outcomes, and that’s what we’re all striving for.

At this rescue there really isn’t a system.  People bring in their pets and wait out front until they can see the vet.  At the same time the vet has to work in surgeries for both shelter animals and paying clients as well as take care of sick patients.  This means that she’s often forced to take care of an animal with an infectious disease and then move right on to seeing an animal that’s never been vaccinated against the disease she’s treating.  This actually happened twice that morning, and I asked her if she was worried about transmitting Parvo to these healthy puppies.  She washed her hands and sprayed her clothes with disinfectant and shrugged, and told me that yes, she was.

At this point I was developing a severe case of anxiety, along with a deep longing for my beautiful, sparkling clean hospital back in Colorado with its isolation ward, its highly educated staff, and its seemingly endless reserve of top-of-the-line supplies and medications.  An ominous feeling started to wash over me, and I went back to the isolation room to check on the first dog, the one with the tongue injury.  I put my hand on its femoral pulse; nothing.  Hand on its chest, nothing.  Pulled it out of the kennel and shouted for a stethoscope.  Nothing, nothing, nothing.

There are no words to describe what that realization is like, not feeling that reassuring thump, thump, thump that was just there thirty minutes before.  Your first thought is that you’re crazy, the dog must be alive, it has to be.  Maybe you’ve just contracted a serious neurologic disease and your hands have lost feeling?  Maybe your stethoscope is broken, or turned around backwards?  Perhaps you’ve lost your hearing?  But no, none of those things have happened, and a life that was in your care is extinguished.

I’ve been lucky that in seven years as a vet I’ve not had this experience often, if ever.  But having seen two dead dogs in a thirty-minute span I walked over to the kennel holding the tiny puppy with Parvo in something of a dream-like state, only to find it dead as well.  I somehow knew before I got there that I would find it dead.

Chances are good that the two Parvo puppies would have died even if they had immediate and aggressive care, but it’s also likely that the sedation hastened the second puppy’s death.  Without the additional dose of sedation the dog with the tongue injury would probably have recovered from the anesthesia, but possibly died anyways, since it’s likely that there was something very seriously wrong with it that we didn’t know about.  I’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard to find a place to put these things.  You can’t neatly file something like this away under “Experiences Encountered While On the Job”.

As a veterinarian you’re expected to counsel families through the difficult and final act of euthanasia, perform the act with compassion and skill, then compose yourself in sixty seconds and walk beaming and blissful into the adjacent exam room to see an exhuberent family with brand new puppy.  But private practice veterinarians walk a flower-strewn path compared to our colleagues who care for homeless animals.  They see the abuse, the neglect, and the overpopulation every minute of every day.  This rescue is a wonder and a gift – a no-kill shelter in the middle of Mexico, a country where just a few minutes ago a woman knocked on our door and had her little girl ask for money for food.  They are doing what they can with what they have, but hopefully I can help them do better.

I walked out of the rescue that first day, bought myself a Coke, and walked the thirty minutes home, lost in my thoughts.  I began to imagine what I would tell them, such as “Hey, listen, I know I said I’d help you guys out, but I just don’t think my schedule will allow it”.  From somewhere else in my brain came a chorus of taunts, such as, “Liar. Coward. These people need you, so step up your game and figure out how you can help them.”.   So I went back the next week, and the next, and the next.  Every day has been exponentially better than the first.  I feel a bond developing with Roxanda, the vet there, and I am slowly starting to talk to her about better anesthesia techniques and infectious disease practices.  She still feels unsure of herself when performing spays, so I’ve been handling those, and we’ve done four or five together with great results.  I showed her how I remove dew claws and tie a Miller’s knot, and I’ve gotten her to start treating Parvo cases more aggressively.  There is a big veterinary conference in Leon (about an hour away) in September and the rescue is paying my way so that I can help her pick out some new equipment and supplies.  We joke about Cat Ladies and clients who lavish praise on the guy at the front desk for saving their dog’s life.  It seems that at least some part of the veterinary experience is universal, and for that I am grateful.

 

 

 

Dog Days Are Over

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Being a veterinarian certainly isn’t all puppies and kittens, but times like these make the tough ones easier to bear. Me and Magnus the adorable bull terrier puppy.

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, August 22, 2014 – For the past several weeks I’ve been spending some time at the local animal shelter.  I usually go on Thursday, and I see cases and do surgeries with the vet there.  She thinks I’m some kind of surgical genius because I can spay a dog that’s in heat with minimal bleeding; I’m not telling her otherwise.  On my first day I successfully suppressed an overwhelming urge to run into the street and away, never to return.  I’ve had my share of rough days in my seven years as a vet, but seeing three dogs die in the space of 30 minutes was almost more than I could take.

The vet on staff there is a very nice woman, who cares a lot for her patients and their owners and is doing an admirable job considering the facilities and supplies that she has.  I am fairly certain the x-ray machine was built by Marie Curie herself.

They taught me lots of things in vet school, many of which I promptly forgot right after national boards, including the twenty-three causes of diarrhea in neonatal pigs.  But I very well remember being told that there is no such thing as “safe” anesthesia.  You are giving dangerous drugs that depress the respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, and even in healthy patients things can go wrong.  Your training is focused on how to administer these substances at what we know to be the safest dosages in the safest combinations, and what to do if the animal’s body reacts aberrantly.

On my first day at the rescue I was putting my stuff away and I saw an injectable drug bottle on the top of the refrigerator.  The manufacturer’s label was somewhat obscured by the hand-lettered word “ANESTHESIA”, and this is how the clinic staff referred to it, as in “give me ½ ml of ‘anesthesia’”.  The bottle actually contained a combination of two drugs.  The one that truly provides anesthesia is xylazine, a drug that I have almost never used.  It’s very widely used to knock out horses and cows and other such creatures but we have drugs in this class, known as alpha-2 agonists, that were developed especially for small animals.  In this combination the xylazine was mixed with another drug similar to Valium, which provides some sedation and muscle relaxation.  The rescue typically gives the drug combination in a muscle, and is used for everything from mild sedation for an orthopedic exam on a painful patient to abdominal surgery and dental cleanings.

Not to get too geeked-out on the veterinary stuff, but the majority of American vets would never perform abdominal surgeries using injectable anesthesia only.  It’s unreliable, and frequently patients start to wake up during surgery and have to be re-dosed.  This means if the patient starts to wake up five minutes before you’re finished, once you re-dose them you can expect them to be anesthetized an hour or so longer.  Gas anesthesia is by far the preferred method, as it provides a rapid way to change the depth of anesthesia, i.e. how asleep the patient is, as well as gives you a way to deliver oxygen directly into the trachea via the tube that is placed there to deliver the gas.  This tube also occludes the airway, so that fluid cannot get into the lungs.  This can easily occur during dental cleanings, or if the animal regurgitates stomach fluid during recovery.

But machines that deliver gas anesthesia and the assorted accoutrement that goes along with them are expensive, and it is unlikely that most vets in Mexico have them, much less any rescue organizations.  In addition there is a definite shortage of skilled veterinary technical staff, so most staffers probably wouldn’t even know how to use these machines if they had them.  So, they’re using injectable drugs to anesthetize patients.

OK, xylazine.  I’ve known small animal vets who used it and were very comfortable back in the day with it.  It’s a good drug when used properly.  The main reason vets use alpha-2 agonists is because they provide deep, reversible sedation.  Reversible, meaning there is another drug that is given once the sedation is no longer desired, and the act of giving the second drug makes the animal wake up.  We use drugs like this in my clinic to do things like suture lacerations in otherwise healthy animals.  Give the first drug, dog goes to sleep.  Fix up the mess.  Give the second drug, dog stands up and goes home.  It’s a beautiful thing, and in a healthy animal with a good heart it’s a good choice.

But the rescue doesn’t have the reversal agent, for reasons I’m not yet clear on.  I don’t know if it’s not available in Mexico, or if Mexican vets just aren’t trained to use it.  This is especially surprising in a situation such as this, where there is limited staff of varying skill levels and less-than-ideal monitoring capabilities.  And by “less-than-ideal” I mean “none”.  No heart-rate monitors, no pulse oxygenation levels, certainly no EKG or blood pressure.  We can see that they are breathing, and look at their gums to see that they are pink.  If we’re not performing a sterile procedure we can certainly listen to their hearts and lungs, and feel their pulses.  So our patients wake up when the drugs wear off.  At least, we hope they do.

But the vet seems extremely comfortable with using this drug combination in many circumstances.  On my first day at the rescue we started to see patients shortly after I arrived.  One was a puppy with parvo (a highly contagious gastro-intestinal virus that causes vomiting, severe diarrhea, and decimation of white blood cells) that’s had been in the hospital all night.  He was supposed to be getting intravenous fluids but his catheter failed.  Overall he was doing pretty well, though.  He was being cared for in the shelter’s isolation ward, along with several very loud cats and kittens with ringworm, who clearly felt fine and wanted out.

Later in the morning a teenaged boy left a middle-aged poodle-ish dog with us.  I understood from the vet’s explanation that she saw the dog last week, and that at that point he had just returned home from being missing for three days.  At the time his tongue was black, his mouth full of ulcers and abrasions, and he wasn’t eating.  She had given antibiotic and anti-inflammatory injections, but the dog was back today, still not doing well, not eating, and clearly not feeling well.

We were able to examine the dog and see that the entire end of the tongue was black and dying.  This looked extremely painful and infected, and was very likely the primary reason why the dog wasn’t eating.  We speculated about the possibility of electrocution (dogs will bite onto electrical cords and get these types of lesions in their mouths) or chemical burns.  There didn’t seem to be any fractures to the jaw or any pain elsewhere.

The shelter vet  felt that we could anesthetize the dog, remove the dead tissue from the tongue, and this would help him to feel better and hopefully start eating.  I couldn’t disagree with this theory, since there were no other diagnostics to support any other troubles.  He went quietly down with his anesthesia  dose and we cleaned up the mouth.  Throughout this procedure his heart rate was stable and his breathing was normal.

Noting that he still had his testicles I wondered aloud if his owners realized that he would probably stop running away and getting into trouble like this if he were neutered, and the rescue vet agreed.  She laughed and said they probably wouldn’t even notice if we neutered him today, and I laughed too, until I realized that she was serious.  Before I knew it he was given more “anesthesia” and was shaved and scrubbed for surgery.

Now, this would likely never, ever happen in the U.S., or at least not at my practice.  At home, this is malpractice plain and simple; performing a surgical procedure without the owner’s knowledge or consent.  But clearly, I’m not at home anymore, and the vet in charge believed that this was reasonable.  The clinic doesn’t obtain informed consent for anything they do; they are providing free or very low cost care and basically the owner provides information about what is going on with the animal and leaves it, hoping to get call later that its better.  The clients seem to trust that the vet knows best, and it’s up to her to do what she thinks is necessary.

During the neuter, the dog’s vital signs again stayed in the normal range, although the heart rate came down a little more, and afterwards we placed an IV catheter and started fluids.  I gave him to the technician to continue his recovery in the isolation room.  Final check of his vitals: still good, but he was still completely anesthetized.

Are you outraged at me?  Because I’m fairly outraged at myself.  Why didn’t I speak up and say you can’t do this procedure on this dog, you don’t have informed consent?  Why didn’t I stop everything and go look up appropriate dosing guidelines for xylazine, like how soon after a first dose can you give a second dose?  Why didn’t I say that I didn’t think it was a good idea to give an obviously dehydrated animal more anesthesia than necessary, especially not xylazine, which is contraindicated in animals with cardiovascular compromise?

I don’t know why I didn’t say anything.  I suppose the vet seemed very confident in her actions, and I am certainly a stranger in a strange land is so many ways, that I just didn’t feel right saying anything, and I was really hoping everything would be alright.  And quite honestly I did think the dog would be OK; he was doing well the entire time we were working on him and based on the information I had to hand I had no reason to think it wouldn’t be alright.  But in the end it wasn’t.  It went completely and horribly wrong.

I’ve got lots more to say about my experience that first day, and on those that followed.  Since Google tells me the optimal blog post is 1900 words long, I’m going to end this post just over that, and continue tomorrow.

Teach Your Children Well

Front door of the casa, 7:30 AM.  Ready to rumble, let's do this.

Front door of the casa, 7:30 AM. Ready to rumble, let’s do this.

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, August 18, 2014 – I reluctantly acquiesced to the idea of becoming a parent over three stiff margaritas and some pretty impressive fourth of July fireworks.  For the majority of the past eleven years I’ve felt a near-constant sense of mild, low-level panic, like I was somehow allowed to leave the hospital with a baby that I most assuredly had no idea how to raise.  It’s funny how they let you just waltz in there, spend several hours in labor, eat a couple of bad meals, and leave the next day with a child.  Despite my initial and on-going trepidation, being Wiley’s mom has taught me more about the human experience than anything else in my fairly eventful life, and he has been a complete joy and blessing to both of us.

This morning I dropped my only begotten son off for sixth grade.  In this I’m not alone, as surely some of you did the same.  My morning likely went a little differently than most parents, however, because I left my kid at a school that he has never been to before, and where he knows almost no one.  He doesn’t even speak the language we predominantly heard walking through the courtyard to his classroom.  He had very little idea what to expect about how his day, week, month, or year will unfold.

I thought about this as I sat down on a bench outside the school, once I had left.  What have we done to him?  Moved him out of his home, taken him away from his friends and activities, and plunked him down in a foreign country to live for a year.  We have just assumed that he will adapt, but clearly there is no guarantee of this, and things could go seriously off the rails.

Despite this looming uncertainty, he didn’t seem nervous or upset.  On our twenty-minute walk to school he joked and talked with me as if he had not a care in the world.  Once in the classroom he hovered around, wandering from table to table.  The other kids seemed to know each other quite well, and were plainly getting reacquainted after summer break.  Eventually he found a boy he met at camp a few weeks back, and they sat down together at a table.  He seemed completely at ease, or else he’s very good at faking it.  I certainly felt anxious myself, listening to all of the interactions and conversations going on, Mexicans and ex-pats shifting easily between English and Spanish.

I’ve mentioned before that finding out about this school was one of the things that moved San Miguel to the top of the list when we were considering where to move.  Since we’ve gotten here we’ve heard both positives and negatives about the school.  It’s been in existence a little over two years, and it has been an overwhelming success as far as enrollment goes, but there have been growing pains.  One person who was a very enthusiastic advocate of the school on our first visit has moved her child to another school, becoming frustrated with the Academia.  Others we have talked to have been solidly pleased with the education their children have gotten.   We have heard wonderful things about the sixth grade teachers (there are two teachers in Wiley’s class) and also about the kids themselves.  Everyone we have worked with so far has been very responsive and helpful.  We hope for the best.

When I picked Wiley up this afternoon, he remained cheerful and upbeat.  The day had gone much as the first day of school does anywhere in the world, with the distributing of books and supplies (The Academia charges parents a “technology fee” and then provides each child with the necessary supplies, sparing parents the yearly scavenger hunt for specific items.), discussions about rules and dress code, and claiming of personal space.  It was pointed out to him by a teacher that his footwear was unacceptable, which was a little difficult for a guy who is used to wearing flip-flops to weddings.  He seems a little hesitant to make friends just yet, but he’s a confident kid and I’m sure that soon enough he’ll find his place and his people.

This journey has so far been a leap, for all of us.  On a daily basis we’re all well outside our comfort zones, but none of us probably so much as Wiley.  I admire his style, his fearlessness, and his joie de vie.  He makes me proud.

Carpe Diem

18459-1023San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, August 11, 2014: Today the actor and comedian Robin Williams was found dead of asphyxia in his home.  He was sixty-three years old.  His death is widely believed to be a suicide.  Williams suffered from severe depression and alcoholism.  Some accounts say he was bi-polar, which explains his almost manic-style of stand-up comedy.

Social media is alight with eloquent remembrances of this much-beloved man.  I certainly don’t have anything exceptionally poignant to add, except that I loved much of his work and it makes me sad to know that he is gone.  It’s strange to feel a sense of loss over the death of someone you never knew, but I suppose that is what makes one a “celebrity”.  People feel like they know you, and they often do know many details about your personal life that you might just as well wish had remained personal.

I have known only a two people in my life who committed suicide.  One was a guy I worked with at my first job out of college, managing software implementation projects for EDS.  We were all young but John was probably no more than twenty-five.  He used to come and sit in the office that I shared with another co-worker, talking incessantly about seemingly nothing.  There was a NERF basketball hoop in our office, and John would come in a play, alone.  We were always insanely busy and behind schedule, and I looked at his visits as a nuisance more than anything else.  When he didn’t show up for work one day, and didn’t answer his phone, I knew.  After he was gone it was clear that he was reaching out, begging to connect, wanting *something*, and not getting it from me, or anyone else in his life.

The other was a veterinary client.  He owned an excavation business and most days looked as though he had been excavated from somewhere himself.  He had two cats that were old when I first started seeing them, just a few months after I had graduated from vet school.  The older one was twenty-one, I believe, and I diagnosed him with squamous cell carcinoma, a very aggressive oral cancer, under the tongue.  Typically this disease is not amenable to surgery, but Bob wanted to know every option.  He ended up taking the cat to an oncologist, who did experimental radiation therapy on the lesion.  The cat lived a few more months but ultimately succumbed to the disease.  Bob never looked back and always treasured the extra time he had.

But Bob and I really got to know each other over Biscuit.  Biscuit was a big orange cat that had gotten down to six pounds or so by the time I met him.  He had severe hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, and pretty much every complication that comes along with it.  We worked to get Biscuit’s problems under control together.  Bob took Biscuit to have radioactive iodine therapy, essentially curing the thyroid disease but leaving him with several life-long complications to manage, including heart and kidney failure.

With Bob it was never a matter of deciding whether to treat Biscuit’s complications.  If there was fluid in his chest because of the heart failure, we didn’t sit around and talk about whether we should pull the fluid off of Biscuit’s chest.  We tapped Biscuit’s chest.  If Biscuit stopped eating or seemed lethargic, we didn’t sit around and talk about whether we should do bloodwork or x-rays.  We did bloodwork and x-rays.  When arthritis started really slowing Biscuit down at age sixteen, he became a weekly acupuncture patient, sauntering out of his carrier and assuming the Sphinx position in preparation for his treatment.

Bob never asked what something was going to cost, and he always pulled a grubby checkbook out of his back pocket and paid.  I think once we held a check for him for a few days.  It was clear he was completely devoted to Biscuit, and even when he took in two feral kittens he found at a job site Biscuit remained his soul mate.

I didn’t know a lot about Bob’s personal life.  I knew vaguely what part of town he lived in, and that he drove a beat-up Honda Accord.  We talked about music and travel and other general things when we saw each other, but mostly we talked about his cats.  I dreaded the day that I knew was coming, but when it came Bob just knew that it was time to let Biscuit go.  There were tears, but there was love and genuine affection, and an acknowledgment of what this cat had meant to this man.

After Biscuit’s passing I didn’t see Bob for a few months, and then he came in and gave me a picture of Biscuit with a poem that he had written for him printed below it.  He seemed like he was doing OK, but I was busy and didn’t have much time to talk with him.  Several months later I was reading the paper on a gorgeous spring Sunday morning and found myself staring at Bob’s obituary.  It was no more than two paragraphs in length, and stated that he had no surviving relatives, and his adoptive parents were deceased.

I knew that Bob still had the two feral cats that I had seen, and if there were no surviving family members I knew I had to find out what had become of the cats.  I drove to his house, which was a tiny, dilapidated shanty, and spoke to a neighbor.  Bob had closed the garage and started the engine of that beat-up Accord.  They found him with a copy of the poem he had given me on his lap.  His cats were taken away by Animal Control and because they were still essentially feral, they failed the Humane Society’s behavior test and were euthanized.

While I suppose suicide brings peace to tormented souls like John, and Bob, and Robin Williams, it leaves the rest of us in the dust, pondering what blame lies at our feet.  Could I have been kinder?  Listened better?  Asked more questions?  Gotten more involved?  How can we recognize these tormented souls before it’s too late?

Robin Williams had it all.  Fame.  Money.  A rewarding career that he loved and was remarkable at.  And he probably had access to the best psychiatric help available.  But in the end it wasn’t enough, and the pressure of keeping on one more day became too great.

In one of his most famous movie roles Robin Williams plays a high school teacher who implores his students to “seize the day”.  It’s easy to write that off as talk of a manic mind; as advice to plunder forward without regard for consequences.  But perhaps the interpretation we should focus on is more to live in the moment, to care for one another, to be present and mindful and more aware of our fellow human beings and less aware of deadlines and appointments and responsibilities.

Ultimately I’m just trying to make some sense of it all.  And maybe get better at being human in the process.

 

A Very, Very, Very Fine House

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My courtyard, where I’m writing you from. You can see my wine glass. Where’s yours?

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, August 10, 2014: I think I’ll pour a glass of wine and tell you about our house.  Feel free to get one yourself while you read; it will be like we’re have a drink together.

We live really close to our neighbors here.  Like, we share walls with them.  There is no space between houses, and all of them have very high walls around them; at least 15 feet high.  Currently our neighbors to the west are enjoying Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” at what is likely a normal volume; however, due to the proximity of our living quarters it might as well be coming out of my speakers.

I’m OK with this, but if they break out anything later than “The Stranger”, it may be time to go meet them and have a discussion about selling out in popular music.

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Gizmo beckons you from the entry way. Front door’s open, come on in.

We used to live in downtown Atlanta.  You get used to a certain amount of noise when you live in the center of a city; you’re not alone and things are going on around you most of the day and night. During the 1996 Olympics I was awakened most mornings by the droning of the Goodyear blimp outside my window.  You get pretty good at tuning out the noise, and I think I’m finally getting there at this house, although sleeping soundly through the night still eludes me most of the time.  I have mentioned the locals’ penchant for early morning fireworks before – these are not the pretty, sigh-inspiring showers that we do get over the city center fairly frequently during celebrations .  These are just the loud, panic-inciting M80-type fireworks, and they are typically shot first thing in the morning around 6 AM, although you can really expect to hear them at any time.  If you were particularly paranoid I suppose you could be convinced that the city was under siege, but as they are not followed by screaming or sirens you rightly assume that someone is celebrating some significant milestone with explosives, again.  Currently some gringo is trying to get a petition signed to stop these celebratory fireworks, but it’s likely that hell will be a frosty cold place before this happens.

The street directly behind our house is a major road, and it’s steep, so we can also hear buses struggling up it during the daylight hours.  Trollies carrying tourists stop at the top of our street for a quick look and photos, ostensibly so that the occupants can gasp at the incline and wonder who would possibly live at the top of a hill like that.  Ahem, actually, that would be us.

But our house is quite comfortable and we are at peace here.  We’ve added a few of our own touches, like some potted herbs and a tomato plant – seems kind of silly to grow them when a kilogram of them costs less than a dollar, but growing things makes a house a home, I think.  Our house is over a hundred years old, and has been completely renovated.  The owners are two guys who are interior designers, so our surroundings are beautiful and tasteful, although the master bedroom artwork trends towards nude men, but I’m OK with that.  There are only two original walls remaining, so they completely gutted it twenty years ago during the renovation.  Like all of the other houses in town the exterior walls of our house are substantial; they top twenty feet high and are nearly a foot thick.  As we sit at the top of our street and very near to the top of town we command an amazing view from our rooftop terrace, which is more than fifty steps up from the street level.

From what I’ve seen most houses here do not have yards, and we’re no exception.  That means every day starts and ends with a dog walk.  Gizmo has no problem with TCB (Taking Care of Business, for those of you too young to remember Bachman-Turner Overdrive) just about anywhere, but Pancake has always been what I’d call a Selective Pooper, and seems to have a very defined set of criteria for the PPS (that’s Perfect Pooping Spot, might as well continue this awesome acronym roll I’m on) that no one understands but her.  Lately it seems to be right in the middle of the street, and I’ve annoyed more than one cab driver while we all wait for my dog to finish pooping and get out of the street.  Also, so sudden is her selection of the PPS that it often causes her to dart quickly and forcefully into the street, which has almost gotten her run over once and caused me to disallow the holding of the leash by anyone but me.

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Here’s the kitchen.

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A view into the antique bar.

I like to cook, and my husband and son love to eat, so it was important for us to find a house with a well-equipped kitchen, and we were not disappointed here.  There is a Subzero refrigerator which is lovely and enormous, and freezes my lettuce.  We’re working on that.  There is a six-burner propane stove.  Everyone uses propane in Mexico, and the tank is on the roof, and I’m trying not to think about what kind of tragic accidents could occur due to that.  Seriously, when you need more gas the truck pulls up and a guy climbs a ladder to your roof to fill it up.  I’m hoping that happens when I’m not home.  We also have a dishwasher, something that is incredibly rare in Mexico, as I recently discovered when I went out and tried to buy more Cascade.  There is more glassware, linens, cookware, silver serving pieces, and dishes than you could ever need.  There is a formal marble dining table that seats six.  There is an antique mirrored and lighted bar with linen cocktail napkins and sterling silver cocktail picks, and a stunning collection of barware.  We suffer for nothing, except waffles, as there is no waffle iron (sniff).

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The living room is open to the roof. Upstairs are the bedrooms and the “den”, along with Wiley’s office.

The floors are brick throughout, and there are beautiful area rugs and cow hides on the floors all over the house.  There is a formal living room, two fountains, and speakers in most every room, including outside.  Wiley has a huge antique desk made from whisky barrels.  There are six fireplaces, including one here in the interior courtyard.  The beds are coma-inducing, and the sheets have upwards of ten-thousand threads per square inch, it seems.  All four bathrooms are tiled in traditional Mexican tile, and I can lay flat and float in my bathtub.  We have Mexican cable TV, but we brought our AppleTV and can hook it up to one of Wiley’s big monitors for Family Movie Night (dare I say it?  FMN!!!) with Netflix or Vudu.  We have excellent wifi, and a local phone as well as a Vonnage voice-over-IP line.  The house has an intercom and a security system.  There are fourteen sets of French doors, and all of the ones upstairs lead out onto little balconies, which the dogs languish on in the afternoon sun.  There is a garage with an electric garage door and a whole-house water purification system.  We even have air conditioning, although we haven’t turned it on.   

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Our bed. The French doors open up onto an amazing view of the city. Great way to wake up in the mornings, unless there are explosives going off.

 And then there’s the roof.  I think when we looked at this house the first time both Wiley and me had visions of killer parties on that roof dancing in our heads.  It is three levels, is filled with plants and fruit trees, and you can probably see fifty miles to the west from it.  There are two dining areas and lounge chairs for lying about in the sun.  You can go up onto the roof at most any time of the day and be transported by the sheer magic of the atmosphere up there.  The beauty of the Parroquia, the main cathedral at the center of town, at night when it is lit up is breathtaking.

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Bullfighter’s costume, along with some religious garments, mounted for decoration.

Did I mention the staff?  Well, yes, the house comes with a staff.  We had no say in whether we wanted or needed them or not, they just show up.  Sandra is our housekeeper, and she comes four days a week.  She cleans and washes the clothes, and would cook for us, but then what the hell would I do?  She is a lovely person and we have very halting and often uncomfortable conversations in Spanish that are routinely augmented by Google Translate.  Jesus is the gardener, and he comes twice weekly to take care of what must be more than a hundred plants on the premises.  He used to live in San Antonio, and speaks fluent English.  Thank God he was here when the water man knocked on the door one day to tell me that we had used an exorbitant amount of water in the past month.  I figured it was my floating in the bathtub, but turns out there a leak in the purification system.   

So we’re pretty comfortable, to say the least.  I had to buy a new food processor, because the one here in the house was pretty puny, and I do put my food processor to use several times a day.  I also bought a coffee bean grinder, although for some reason it’s hard to find whole bean coffee here, even though Mexico grows and exports a fair amount of coffee.  We also bought a grill, which is wobbly and small and charcoal comes dear, so we’re not grilling as much as we typically do during the summer.  I left out potentially the most important detail, and that is that there’s a lovely spare bedroom that sits awaiting its first visitor.  As we say in Tennessee, y’all come.

 

Growing Accustomed to Customs

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Dashing husband leaning casually against one of the thousands of shipping containers patiently waiting for their turn with Mexican Customs.

August 6, 2014, San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX – If I magnanimously overlook the morning we spent at the Mexican Consulate in Denver, and quite frankly I’m not feeling very magnanimous right about now, today marked our sixth interaction with the Mexican government, and neither us nor our car is *yet* truly legally existing in this country.  We started the process of getting legal temporary residence status nearly two months ago, and today the saga continues.

Most of you will never stay for more than six months as a tourist in Mexico, so you don’t need to understand the process for getting a Temporary Residence visa.  But perhaps among you there is someone who knows someone who knows someone who is going to Mexico for a year or more, and needs to know this.  Or perhaps I just need to vent.

When you drive across the border to Tijuana for a day of hassling and watered-down tequila, or land at the Cancun airport and head down its sleek concourses past Bubba Gump’s Shrimp and Margaritaville, you are issued what’s called a FMM, or Forma Migratoria Multiple.  It’s most commonly called a tourist card, and lets you stay in the country for 180 days.  If you’ve traveled much outside the U.S. you know that’s pretty generous, and most other countries want your loud-mouthed, spandex-wearing American ass out of their country in thirty days or less.  You only need a passport and $25 to get an FMM.  Typically you don’t even realize you’re paying the $25, as it’s built into your airfare.  If you’re going to be staying longer than 180 days you can certainly still get the FMM, but you’ll have to leave the country at or before that 180 day deadline, which, if you drove into Mexico as we did, means driving back to the border (ten hours away), crossing back into the U.S., and coming back into Mexico the next day.  At this point you can get ANOTHER FMM, good for ANOTHER 180 days.

There’s another option for tourists, and that’s the Temporary Residence visa, which allows you to stay in Mexico for up to a year before you have to leave.  There’s more work to do to get this visa, other than just showing up at the border.  We did some research and while it’s possible to get the visa once you’re inside Mexico, we figured that if it could be done in the U.S. of A. where we had the best possible chance to speaking English with someone, it should be done there.  Checked the Mexican government’s website, boom, there’s a consulate office in Denver.  Decided to spend the morning of Wiley III’s birthday (June 9th) getting this done.

Mexico’s big concern with issuing you this visa seems to be reassuring them that you don’t mean to come into their country and either live off the government or take a job that a Mexican citizen might want.  You’ve got to prove that you have a source of income from outside Mexico that is sufficient to support your household.  They want things like notarized bank statements showing that you earn an income.  Never mind that there’s no proof that that income will continue once you get into Mexico, but apparently they’re not overly worried about that.  We made lots of copies of stuff, got stuff notarized and official-like, got some of those tiny passport pictures made, and headed to Denver.

The Mexican-American bureaucrat who helped us in Denver was very nice and extremely patient with us as we attempted to download an image of our son’s birth certificate, since we didn’t have a hard copy with us.  She finally took our large sheaf of papers into her office and we were left to slump in hard plastic chairs, staring at the cement block walls with our compadres, all of us leading lives of quiet desolation in the dreary, slightly humid and very decidedly “governmental” environment.  Finally she emerged, and we were instructed to go to the cashier and pay and come back with our receipt.  Now we were getting somewhere.

The cost was minimal; $36 per person, and I was pleasantly surprised at this.  In Blanca’s office (we were on a first-name basis at this point) we were photographed again, fingerprinted, and sent back out to wait SOME MORE.  Finally we got our passports back, each now containing a page with a shiny, official-looking Mexican visa bearing a hologram of authenticity, which we all know renders government-issued documents and NFL merchandise legitimate.  As Blanca handed the passports back to me, she looked deeply into my eyes.  At this point we were both clutching the passports, me tugging just a little bit and her holding on for dear life, as she was not quite done with us.  I suspected she was about to warn me about el chupababra, so serious was her demeanor, but clearly I had just watched too much “X-Files” in the 90’s.  What she did tell me was that once we arrived at our destination we needed to go IMMEDIATELY to the nearest immigration office and get something called a Resident’s Card.  Well THAT sounded easy, something akin to getting a library card or a King Sooper’s card, so I thanked her again and the three of us nearly ran out of the place before we could slip deeper into the group coma.

I have mentioned our minor troubles at the border in another post, so I won’t go into that again, except to say that when we were issued a permit for our car the clerk told me it was good for thirty days.  I kind of started to lose it at that point, as I had been stuck at the border for two hours by then, and I wasn’t walking out of there with permission for anything less than a year’s stay in Mexico.  Unfortunately, the clerk I was talking to had exhausted her English once she had said, “good for thirty days”, so she went and got her supervisor, who explained that once I got the Resident’s Card (Oh yeah!   my feeble middle-aged mind shouted, I remember something about that!) the vehicle permit would be extended.  I climbed down off of the ledge and signed the credit card receipt for the $300 required deposit, which the Mexican government will gladly refund upon either 1.) you and your car leaving Mexico in thirty days or 2.) you getting your vehicle permit extended once you get the aforementioned Resident’s Card.

In retrospect, I realize that AGAIN, the supervisor-English-speaking-woman at the border had made definitive eye-contact (AGAIN! with the eye contact) with me and said in her excellent English, “go to the immigration office as soon as possible” and get your Resident’s Card.  But in reality, it was more like two weeks before I got my bearings and got over to the immigration office, in search of the elusive Resident’s Card.

Once again, a very polite Mexican bureaucrat with very good English looked intently into my eyes, only this time he gave me a list of things to do before the Resident’s Card could be granted.  Go to a website, fill out a form.  Fill out the forms he handed me (one set for each of us).  Get more pictures made, two facing forward and one facing right.  Copies of passports and the previously issued visa page of said passport.  And oh yeah, go to any bank and pay around $250USD each, and bring the receipts back.  Put your left foot in, put your left foot out, put your left foot in, and shake it all about.  Check a certain website and when we get notified there, come back and be fingerprinted.  And then, perhaps, the Resident’s Card might be granted.

So now the clock is ticking.  We are waiting for the Resident’s Cards, because without these we cannot extend the life of the automobile importation sticker (or so we thought).  Every day, likely twice a day, I am checking the website to see if our cards are ready.  Finally, an email came notifying me to come to the immigration office to complete the process.  Once there, we were all fingerprinted (all ten fingers!) again and told to come back on Friday, August 8th, to pick up our cards.

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Waiting. Again. In Querretero at the Customs Office. I was reprimanded shortly after making this photo, for making this photo. Perhaps my lawless attitude is the main reason why I can’t obtain legal status in Mexico yet.

That’s ten days to make a freaking card. If you’re keeping score at home you realize that August 8th is well-past our thirty-day window we were given at the border for our car to be imported.  Now we lose our $300, AND we find out that the car importation permit cannot even be extended in the San Miguel office.  We have to drive 45 minutes to Querretero to get this done.  More copies.  More forms.  Luckily no more money, unless you count the THREE HUNDRED AMERICAN DOLLARS that the Mexican government happily pocketed on August 31st. In hindsight, I think Laredo would have been lovely at Christmastime.

An Open Letter to Moctezuma, or Montezuma, or Whatever You’re Calling Yourself These Days

Dear Sir:

2014-08-01 13.43.14This letter is to notify you as to our intent to pursue legal action against you relating to three day’s loss of productivity, diminished quality of life, and generalized pain and suffering secondary to the your namesake disease, “Montezuma’s Revenge”.  It is our understanding that this disease, the symptoms of which include hideous abdominal cramps, nausea, loss of appetite, and diarrhea of proportions which can only be described as “biblical” , was to be targeted towards those of Spanish descent as a curse for the pestilence brought on to your people by Cortez and others of his ilk.

We at The Long’s Strange Trip strongly aver that we are NOT of Spanish descent.  Have you seen us dance?  We are, and we can prove this, descended from the Scots and the English, and we are unaware of anything those countries ever did to you, other than occupy your beaches whilst wearing Speedos and too much body hair.  While we appreciate your sparing of both our dogs and our child in the distribution of your scourge upon our household, we take umbrage with the feelings of dismay, the moaning in bed (not the good kind, mind you), and the general wanting of one’s mommy brought on by it.  Our readers have barely heard from us in days, due to the inability to be witty, entertaining, or informative while begging to be shot.

Being American, our first inclination is to sue you, and now that we are feeling better, sue you we shall.  Please be advised that our lawyers have been contacted, and you shall hear from them promptly.

Sincerely,

The Long’s Strange Trip