Toluca Gringa

8,700 feet does more than simply turn you into a cheap date

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Citizen's Arrest


Not long ago, a truck driver with a national hauling license was given a ticket because the police officer claimed that the driver’s English wasn’t up to snuff. The driver had long ago passed the test to qualify for a national license (which requires an English proficiency test) but evidently this one cop couldn’t or simply didn’t want to understand the guy’s English. I think the article said the fine was $500. Hopefully that makes you say, “huh?” in one way or another. So, by this logic, if a driver is native speaking but has a speech impediment, to be fair, he should receive the same citation. It’s one person who claims not to understand another. How is this based on the law? Those of us who have traveled or taught English or simply made an effort to have acquaintances that don’t look like the cast of 90210 or Friends are used to English varieties. We’d all understand this driver and if it took a repeated utterance or two, well so be it. I have a native speaking friend who talks like he has Junior Mints squirreled away in his cheeks. I’m lucky if I understand him after three takes.
Anyway, not long after I read about this poor driver, I was coming back from Mexico waiting in line at the Homeland Security, which was much more efficient back in the day when we just called it immigration. The guy in front of me, although he seemed well-traveled, obviously had no prior exposure to a native Texan. The officer said (exactly, I’m not joking):
“You ain’t brining no food or meat in with ya, are ya?”
And literally every syllable was pushed through his nose without moving his lips. It was as if he were practicing a ventriloquist act and the doll was from the back forty, the kind of marionette who sits on the porch and talks about how foreigners are takin’ our jobs and Bush is a good guy because he’s protectin’ the country, and all the while he’s got a wad of dip between his cheek and gums that drips sublimely down the corner of his mouth and some cute little gal chewin’ on a straw with two pony tails and several missing teeth thinks that’s cute and funny and clever.
So, that’s the Homeland Security officer, if he were a puppeteer practicing for a ventriloquist act. The guy ahead of me asked him to repeat the phrase, and the officer did. One more time and the northerner got it and the officer waved him on, which may or may not have included a good ole boy nod.
So, let’s get this straight here:
A truck driver who is communicating with his brethren via CB, but happens to do so with a non-native accent receives a ticket for 500 bucks. However, the guy who is protecting our (ahem) “homeland” can slaughter his mother tongue as he greets everyone in an official capacity, in a position that is meant to evoke a sense of protection and a certain level of, let’s say, schoolin’.
I work with first semester English language learners who, at the very least, have mastered double negatives. This guy was like Gomer Pyle after a bad acid trip. So, I’ve decided to make my own citations, which I will issue in the form of a citizen’s arrest the next time I am faced with one of these Jeff Foxworthy-loving characters. It will look something like this:
Name:
Date:
Offense: Public display of dumbassery

And that last bit will already be filled in because everyone will essentially have committed the same offense.
The next person to receive the citation will be a girl working at the Lewisville, Texas Target store. I experienced her a few days later. I had been talking on the phone as I approached the check-out, so I told my friend I would call her back. The girl working the register, now that I mention it, was the exact same girl I was talking about before, minus the straw in her mouth. I do remember a great deal of hair twirling, though. So, she began a conversation that went like this:
Girl: Who was that?
Me: Excuse me?
Girl: Who was that you were talkin’ to? Was it your husband?
Me: [contorted, confused face; taken aback] Um, no, actually it was Dick Cheney. I gave him my cell phone number and he won’t stop calling me.
Girl: [lowered brow of concern] Aw, man. That sucks.

Yes, it really did suck. That’s something we could all agree upon. It sucks that a young adult actually believed me when I told her that I was talking to the Vice President of the United States of America and that he called me way too much. Then I got to thinking that Dick Cheney’s diction is not winning any prizes either, so that would probably be a frustrating phone call filled with, “Excuse me Mr. Vice President, I didn’t get that last part.” And he definitely strikes me as the kind of guy who doesn’t like to repeat himself.

Saturday, April 19, 2008




People talk about serendipity. I recently read something from Deepak Chopra (Something about him rubs me wrong. The sound of his name is not at all harmonious, all those consonants fighting over airspace. Maybe that’s it.) Anyway, Deepak was talking about an event so serendipitous I had to call bullshit. Even the way he explained it sounded more like a script for a Hallmark movie of the week. But, the fact is that things like this happen all the time. I think they happen to all of us, maybe every day. Maybe once a year, but we’re too busy or drunk or brain dead watching reality tv that we don’t pay attention.

People I haven’t heard from in years often pop into my mind, I might spend a good chunk of my lunch hour thinking about this person. Or maybe I’ll wake up reminding myself to send an email after all these years. Then (you know what’s next), I’ll open my inbox and there’s an email. Out of the blue (if you like the sound of that cliché). I like to think there’s something magical about human energy that we can connect in such a way. I’d really like to believe that. Politics divides us, but so does this idea of there are no vs. life is full of coincidences.

Which brings me to last night, after drinking one beer each and eating decent but oily fish (still cozy in my gut 12 hours later), Diana, Haru, and I were looking out over the lights of Metepec, the only people on top of this hill who weren’t making out in the awkward shadow of the church lights. We were struggling through a tri-cultural discussion about human connections. I mentioned the 500 theory – the idea that we all have 500 people in our circle of influence. Sometimes we know them on a personal level, sometimes a person enters our lives and alters it in some way without us knowing it. This happened to me on a train from Tangiers to Casablanca and someday I’ll write it all down without sounding like Dpk.


Feeling kind of out of place and not willing to join the make-out fest, we walked back down to the main road to get a cab. I enjoy watching the faces of the cab drivers as they try to follow our conversations. They always ask Haru where she’s from, and she’s usually nice about it, but last night I could tell that she, too, was getting tired of answering the question. Still, being Haru, she answers sweetly, “Japon,” and the driver starts the interrogation, beginning with “Chido” and then, “Que haces aqui?” Last night she dummied up as if she didn’t understand. Life’s too short to answer the personal questions of a guy you’ll never see again. “I’ll pay you double the fare if you just shut up,” I thought. We were tired.

So, we get to a stop light and the driver actually stops. Next to us are two guys, teenagers, in a red sports car with some kind of crazy paint job. They’re waving at us and going crazy with the hand gestures, drinking their air beers and wagging their palms for us to jump in the car. Haru, being Haru, smiled sweetly and waved. Maybe they realized we weren’t going to get nasty with them, who knows, but suddenly they sped off, screeching their tires and spinning out (there’s a phrasal verb for this in English, which I haven’t used since high school, but I think it’s called “peeling out.”) So, they peeled out and passed us, fishtailing and showing off. I had just said something sarcasic about missed opportunity when suddenly the car crossed both lanes in front of us, made a few circles (the cab slammed on the breaks so we wouldn’t hit them) and jumped the curb dead on into a tree. The car was completely destroyed – literally folded in half. The cabbie pulled over and ran to the scene. The sportscar was unrecognizable, a mess of red metal and deployed airbags. I couldn’t go over there. I didn’t want to see them. There’s no way they could survive that. Diana ran over. Someone called an ambulance, and soon every car that passed stopped to “help.” The driver was still alive, the cabbie said. His friend in the passenger seat was trapped inside, but alive.

It’s a miracle of god, the cabbie said. You girls should be more careful, he said, as if it were our fault. Everything was quiet in the cab. The ambulance sped past as we made our way home. Ten more blocks, maybe twelve. Those guys will never do that again, Haru said. Maybe they won’t.

But it wasn’t our fault. We could pass those guys tomorrow in the supermarket and they wouldn’t recognize us. They don’t know us and never will. We’re just part of their 500.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

poor art

I recently discovered a pastry item that is more or less what I’ve always called a cream puff. Or maybe it’s an éclair. I don’t know, but eating it reminded me of the frozen box of pastries my mom used to buy, where they’d enjoy a few good hours in the freezer next to the pizza, pocket sandwiches, and peas before being gobbled up by Kim and me (although I’m sure I could kill a box without any help. Those were the days when I was, according to my father, a tough cookie, and needed cream filling to maintain my superhuman strength.)

This morning I was eating one of these pastries (flakey dough filled with light and glorious cream, covered generously with a haphazard plop of chocolate) while reading Semantic Representation, which has been in a file labeled "Haj Stuff" for quite a while now. Biting into a glob of cream and frantically maneuvering in order to keep the thing from dribbling onto the keyboard, I read the following sentence:

John doesn’t beat his wife because he loves her.

followed by:

John told Harry that his wife was pretty.

While we can’t deny that John has some issues, the reality is that these sentences affect me as a teacher and a learner. Regarding this guy named John, in the first sentence we can think of a couple scenarios which would be obvious to native English speakers, even those strung out on refined sugars. Either John is an asshole, or John is a decent fellow. And in the second sentence, we as native speakers know that John is either proud of his wife (whom he may or may not beat) or that he is fond of someone else’s.

Interestingly, if you show these sentences to an English learner (my sample size being those who have entered my office in the past couple of days), they will say, in all certaintly, that John is a man who definitely does not beat his wife, but he does have designs on the wife of Harry.

Two cream puffs later, I considered these sentences in Spanish (=me as learner). To me, they’re equally ambiguous. However, when I showed the Spanish versions to monolingual Spanish speakers, they all separately agreed – all three of them – that John does not beat his wife, and he thinks Harry’s wife is pretty.

“But, could it be this….”

No, maestra,” they insisted.

“But, could it be that, although he doesn’t beat his wife because he loves her, he might beat her for a different reason? Maybe she doesn’t dance well?”

No response.

So, this pastry is sold just down the street from my house and I love it very much.
Not the street. Or the house. It’s the pastry that I love.


Monday, March 03, 2008

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Thursday, February 21, 2008



The eclipse on Feb. 20. There's only so much you can do with a low-end camera, but I'm still pretty sure you can see someone's face up there -- it's either gloating or smirking.
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Thursday, February 14, 2008


Everyone needs a hug. While waiting in line for hours to see Ashes and Snow in the zocalo, a group of people came with signs that said "Free Hugs." I love the guy on the top left. It looks like he's been needing a hug for a long time. Such a beautiful day.
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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When I say that I was sick for nearly two months, I don't think it's possible to really appreciate the magnitute of the statement. I wasn't bleeding out the eyeballs, but I really could barely breathe, which meant that I couldn't sleep. And since I live far away from anyone who could shower me with attention and saltine crackers, I'm subjecting all who reads this to my tale of woe. As with all asthmatics, it's a mack-truck-on-the-chest sort of feeling, this time compounded by bus exhaust and the evening steam from tamale carts. Talking was a chore and laughing was out of the question. I managed to go to a doctor here, doctor being a title which should be in quotation marks, but I don't want to be disrespectful because he was a nice guy. But, this nice guy felt the need to give me 13 different meds in a span of 3 weeks. In the beginning, I accepted his advice and swallowed about 5 pills a day out of sheer desperation. Then I decided I didn't want to end up like River Pheonix in the Viper Room, and I chunked it all in the garbage in hopes of strengthening my lungs through the power of mental persuasion.
My students had some amazing advice.
"The best cure for asthma is to drink your own pee," one said. "But, only in the morning."
Another told me to find a rare mouse (the kind that doesn't eat garbage, she said), drop the poor creature in a pot of boiling water, and drink the broth.
Over and over again I was told that my asthma was due to drinking cold liquid.
"Cold liquid? You mean, water?" I queried.
"Yes, water, juice, anything cold."
"But, what about that cold beer that you're drinking right now? Is it going to give you asthma?"
"Well, no. Beer's different."

Turns out cold liquid takes the rap for many health problems. One student told me that her aunt died from drinking cold water with lemon juice in the mornings. It gave her cancer, the doctor said.
Who am I to argue? I'm definitely not a doctor. But I'm also not into drinking my own urine.

In the end, I went to a doctor in the U.S. who gave me steroids so strong I could have won the Tour de France.

Now I'm back in Mexico, breathing like a champ. I'm considering the possibility that part of my asthma problems were from the fact that I didn't drink enough wine over the holidays. I've switched to room temperature red wine, just to be safe.