Do They Bite?
You realize I don’t always tell the “exact” truth here, right? Memory is a vague and faulty creature, and sometimes I embroider things in an attempt at “humor,” or to make myself look better, or worse.
Perhaps I need to embellish things even more. Be outlandish in order to gain the attention I crave. But I have to be me, so I’m just going to talk about walking the dogs yesterday. (Although remember: this is not a pet blog.)
I like going for walks. They’re good for exercise, family time, alone time, and as a way to temporarily feel less guilty about my failures as a companion to our dogs.
Yet I’ve neglected the walking this year, disappointing the dogs more than usual. The new one didn’t know what she was missing, but the older one knew. And she knew I knew, and she made me keep knowing.
We’ve been having a mild winter for Minnesota, with temperatures above freezing and no snow on the ground. Good walking weather. I look out the windows of my house and car and see a lot of people walking their dogs, and I think about how good those people are, and how happy their dogs must be.
I hadn’t taken the dogs out in weeks. Yesterday, I decided to get with it.
The older dog started to believe when she saw me get my mp3 player. Walking has become more of a solo activity. My wife and I enjoyed it together for many years, but having a kid has ruined that. Kids of a certain age, say five years old, are terrible walking companions. They start dragging their feet after half a block and then they want to go to a park.
So I usually go by myself now. But I like my walks alone with the dogs. It’s a time to think, and a time to listen — really listen — to music that inspires me. I get ideas for things I’m working on and I refill my soul.
Sometimes more, sometimes less. I like having the time alone in my own head, but it can be ugly up there and I often don’t overcome the demons. The success of yesterday’s walk was challenged even before I got out the door.
I had my headphones on and the music playing, and as I finished putting on winter stuff my daughter appeared in the mudroom. The music wasn’t that loud so I could hear some of her words. The sense I got was that she wanted to gear up and come along. I want her to become a walker, and I’m glad that she likes doing things with me, but I was all set on a real walk with the dogs. At least two miles long. Sam’s range is about two houses. With the music still playing in my ears, I regretfully started explaining that she couldn’t come along today. She didn’t argue about it, but she didn’t seem to accept the rejection either. After I patiently tried refusing her in a different way, my wife called out that she wanted to go to her friend’s house.
The friend was in our house at the time, and we all walked out together, with me feeling like a jerk. As I collared up the dogs, the friend started asking if they could come along. Now I had to reject both of them. This was not helping my pre-walk mental state.
I finally got away from the two guilt generators, and the dogs and I were on our way! The promise and hope of the whole walk lay in front of us. It only took me a couple of blocks to tamp down the self-loathing from my handling of the departure.
It was going well. The dogs’ tails were up. I had yet to yell at them for not walking perfectly. The temperature was right in the Goldilocks zone. Comfortable for walking, but cold enough that not many people were out.
There are so many problems with encountering people on a walk. I’m a hardcore introvert. I can be friendly to passing strangers, and I think it’s good to be friendly — I really do — but when I have my headphones on, I want to stay in my own head. If I see where I’m going to pass or be passed by someone, it disrupts everything I have going on up there. I have to shift into anticipating the social dynamics of our interaction. Are they going to say something? Will it be more than just a brief pleasantry or head nod? Will I be able to hear with my headphones on and will I appear rude if I don’t respond appropriately? And if they’re walking dogs also, then it all goes to hell because my two dogs will start pulling and jumping around like idiots, aggravating me and totally wrecking my spiritual enlightenment.
But yesterday, thankfully, we didn’t encounter any pedestrians for most of the way.
I thought about the near freezing temperature. The breeze made it cold, but not too cold. I could feel it on my exposed skin, and in my ears under my knit hat, and I embraced it. I pictured myself as a hearty Norseman, thriving in this northern climate. I would revel in it. I took off all my clothes and I began to run mighty and naked along the path. I let the dogs off their leashes, and we all ran through the tall grass, barking with joy and excitement, chasing small woodland creatures, and rolling around in the mud.
Then we were back to walking along the path, me with my clothes on, the dogs on their leashes. I was having a hard time losing myself in the walk. The dogs walked erratically, stopping to sniff things and pulling in odd directions. They were kind enough not to poop, at least. (Carrying around dog feces in a baggy also detracts from my meditations.) The music wasn’t quite making it to the right place in my brain. We had somewhere to go when I returned home, so it felt like I was working on a deadline.
We came to a crossing with a street, and here I encountered another thing that annoys me on walks: considerate drivers. There are those times when you’re not that close to crossing the street, but some gracious do-gooder waits for you. I feel conspicuous. I’d rather they just went on their way. I give them a grudging hand wave and a grimace, and then as I cross in front of them I feel like a jackass for not having a bright smile for their token of good will. Yesterday I felt even worse during one of these incidents, because in a moment of spite, I decided to lay down on the road in front of the car. “There! How do you like that? I bet you’re sorry you waited now, aren’t you?” And then it was kind of awkward. Now what? The dogs stood over me, licking my face. I was afraid to look up for fear of making eye contact with the driver. Embarrassing!
Eventually we resumed the walk, after a short meeting with the police. (I was glad I had my clothes back on.) Now the walk was winding down, but we would face one last bane.
A specific kind of walking social obligation bothers me more than others: Kids wanting to pet my dogs. When I approach a house with kids out and about, I cross the street. It’s too risky. It’s not that the dogs are unfriendly or aggressive. They’re good with kids. And it’s not that I think the request is unreasonable. I have a kid of my own; I get it. Who would deny a child this small, innocent pleasure? But when I have those headphones on and I’m busy shutting out other people, and as we’ve seen, a head nod causes me pain and suffering, then I especially don’t want to break out of my zone by coming to a complete stop.
Yesterday, with a few blocks left of the walk, time still to immerse myself in one more song and dream, I got it. The Request. “Can I pet your dogs?”
“Sorry, they bite,” I said, and kept walking.