The stories come out when I walk the dog and another person with a dog seems interested. I talk about what it was like to be there and do this, or have that thing happen to me.
I listen to the other dog walker and try shape my response to the flow of the conversation. I did more of this shape shifting when I was a journalist to pry from sources the telling quote, the admission or confession that elevated frequently trivial, always evanescent reporting to a human level, as if by listening to a cop, a lifeguard, a chef, a maitre d’, or somebody who has been pretty much doing the same damned thing for an entire life you could hear the universal beating heart, or touch lthe strange glue that holds us all together.
I sense, sometimes, that some people who walk dogs feel a spiritual pain that makes them drink, or they are angry at what they see and hear about the world. Occasionally, it’s a genuine pain. As guy who is not quite old enough to be called a senior citizen, I am included in that demographic group that gets sick too much, or needs surgery, and takes too many pills. .
It’s easy for me to be positive when the other dog walker is so negative. Because of the numerous political divisions lurking in our quiet, safe, suburban sprawl town, I’ve learned to go for universals when particulars are discussed, especially those that are intended to arouse the addictive, hateful spite that motivates so many people to behave so badly in public.
I mention many things for which we can be grateful, starting with roofs that don’t leak (not to mention the ability to hire people to fix the roofs when they leak), heaters that roar to an anticipated temperature, water that goes only where we desire–when we desire it, a washing machine and dryer that accepts the soiled and the smelly and restores it to the (reasonably) pure and perfumed. Think about all that food in the refrigerator (and more that can be bought for ridiculously low prices in any of the dozen or so places that sell groceries that are less than a twenty minute drive away) and a kitchen that fills a house with aromas that say, good food is being made here.
Then there’s a personal benefit: my two sons are healthy, employed and–based on phone conversations and the occasional “face time” visit–reasonably happy. That they make more money than I did as a writer is to their credit.
I usually don’t discuss my spouse, though one dog walker complained a few time about his. I know that ragging about the accidental or intentional wounds afflicted by females is a way for guys to feel closer. I used to do this. I acquired a long list of scars that refused to heal. But, as I walk the dog, I am not wounded. I am deeply, sincerely, gently, easily and triumphantly in love with my wife to the extent that it is very easy to bring her roses and gifts and go out to dinner. But other guys aren’t in the same place, and when I hear this, I let it go, and, like the fumes that make you wrinkle your nose for a few seconds, it goes away, and the conversation goes elsewhere.
I happen to be highly educated, but people I meet don’t want to hear fun facts about the evolution of the neck tie, the discovery of America’s first dinosaur, or that the word “lord” originally meant “keeper of the loaf.”
I am somewhat well traveled. When I was last in China, I found out cool things about the price of tea. But that was a long time ago and the price has certainly gone up since then.
As the hair that remains on my head goes gray, I notice that most people rarely feel appreciated in their daily slog. I try to say thank you often, especially when they notice the dog.
And yet, there are people who don’t like dogs. There are people who look at those with gray hair as inconveniences. We are gaunt, misshapen caricatures of Leonardo DaVinci’s perfectly proportioned Vitruvian man, who is drawn with his arms stretched out and is clearly not holding a leash that connects to a harness that encloses a dog with its nose to the ground. We are the people who are supposed to need the drugs that inspire those horrible commercials that clutter the evening TV news programs. Parts of me aren’t working the way they used to. But I am not sick.
So I tell the person going into the hospital that he or she will be up and about soon. I mention a person I know who was given six months to live and is still with us, eight years after that gloomy prognosis.
Am I looking on the bright side of life? Have I finally arrived at that understanding that helps the world turn? Am I just lucky that most of my needs have been met and all I have to do is walk the dog a few times a day, pick up what the dog drops, and deposit the droppings in convenient receptacles?
About that I keep still. It is no longer necessary to answer to every question. I am far from the social and workplace whirls where you distinguish yourself by having opinions, telling a funny joke, come up with great ideas or solve other people’s problems in a flash of creative insight.
I’m just a guy who walks a dog.