Reflection 119: Man and Dog

June 22, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

I am on the street watching a man and his dog. They are linked by a short leash. I can’t tell if the man is walking the dog or the dog is walking the man. They slowly move toward me—very slowly. Dog, from a distance looking like a white Scotty, goes off to the side, sniffing. Man stands and waits. Dog moves forward, man moves forward. Dog stops; man stops. Nose to the ground, dog moves to the side; man waits. Clearly a couple, every motion synchronized in mutual interaction. Two creatures with one mind between them.

Then I think of another such couple I’d seen ten years ago, the man definitely in charge, dragging a beagle across a small wooden bridge, man in front, beagle behind, leash taut between them. On separate missions, the man strides ahead while the beagle, not done sniffing, scrapes wood with drawn claws—I still hear the sound. 

Another flashback: me and Billy Ingram as kids trying to keep up with his swimming-coach father walking home after work. Walking isn’t the word—I am running to keep up, expecting my body language to slow the man down, but he goes even faster. It is dark, probably November. We’d been scouting the college gym after school looking for good stuff, just goofing around.

Then the biggest leap of all: to suicide bombers. Impatient with life here below, eager for rewards up above, not waiting to discover life’s secrets, they blow themselves up—striking down infidels by strapping explosives and shrapnel to their bodies. The more harm inflicted the greater the reward. Voluntary martyrdom is life!

That’s a brief sketch of my travels while eying man and dog for five minutes. Standing idly on the street, I was anything but mindless. Given free rein, my consciousness went its own way. The theme seems to have been states of mind told by how we conduct ourselves in the presence of others. That is, by how we telegraph our attitudes, fears, desires, and expectancies. Do we dance with or lash out at those we claim to love? When our companions prove mysterious, we can at least watch ourselves and discover what kind of persons we are.

Every act is generated by the brain. To learn about the brain, study the acts—your own and those of others around you. Take a levelheaded look at what’s going on. How you act, how you react to the actions of others. Without editing, without judgment. Study how everything makes sense at the time with respect to your situation as you perceive or construe it.

On a trip with my wife over fifty years ago, we are walking down a street somewhere in London, me on the outside. A delivery truck pulls up in front of the restaurant ahead. The driver goes to the back to lower the tailgate. Two employees come out of the restaurant and wait at the curb—a man and a woman, the woman closer to the truck. Heavily, down comes the tailgate—with a blur of some kind of moving parts. Passing by, out of the corner of my eye I see the woman’s cheek ripped open in an instant, revealing white bone and broken teeth against red. I know immediately what happened. The tailgate is held by hinged iron struts on either side, which straighten like an arm at the elbow. The near strut is twisted so not only flips down but shoots out to the side as the tailgate is lowered. Toward the face of the woman just standing there, waiting. I keep walking, talking with my wife as if nothing has happened.

My rationale at the time was that I couldn’t have helped her. And I didn’t want to get in the way of those who could. That was long before cell phones and 911. I didn’t know what to do in such a situation, in London or anywhere. I was out of my depth. So I pretended I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. I protected myself by not reaching out, not getting involved. I could have changed my mind as I walked, but I didn’t. I kept on. And never told anyone—not even my wife—what I’d seen until now, when it’s too late to do anything.

What kind of man am I? Callous, weak-willed, fearful. Self-centered. Those were the judgments I made then, and have carried with me ever since. I have often wondered what happened to the woman, and how her injury worked out. How nice, that I should think of her. That’s me on the sidelines, with my standard-issue brain, getting by in routine circumstances, but just barely. I’m the one in the window watching people get mugged or raped on the street.

That’s as near as my mind came to imagining what it’s like being a suicide bomber. Having people blown apart right at your elbow. I got there by paying careful attention to a man and a dog, which reminded me of seeing a dog dragged across a wooden bridge, which took me back to trying hard to keep up with my friend’s father, which led to the tension a bomber must feel to rig herself with explosives in a crowd she despises, and that led to seeing a suddenly shattered face on the streets of London half a century ago as if it were now. Association isn’t a strong enough word to describe a mind’s headlong rush to construct such a scenario from shards of experience stacked helter-skelter in old boxes beneath the eaves of memory. 

Blogging about consciousness is one step up from being a couch potato. I’ve found my level of engagement with life, and that’s what I do. It’s better than dashing off heated opinions about what other people are doing with their lives. When rats come to a new place, they freeze and sniff the air to see what’s going on. That behavior is called mystacial sniffing, which is meant to get the lay of the land in terms meaningful to rats. Me, when I see a man and a dog, I check out my inner experience, sniffing and waving my whiskers at my own consciousness to find out what’s going on in my head. Not everything I find is that pretty. But I’m old enough to treat the good and the ugly with equal interest and respect.

I began this post by considering a man and dog leashed together in my living awareness, and explored where that image would take me. In seconds I was far afield, but the route made sense because my inner workings are connected by paths I myself have cut through the hills and dark woods of personal experience. When consciousness suggests a pattern is to be found there, I pay attention. As Thoreau wrote in his posthumously published essay “Walking,”

There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.

I am out to discover as much order or harmony in my inner landscape as I can before I die, so to familiarize myself with it and offer my findings to the world for the sake of comparison with its own. What better starting place than closely observing the image of a man and dog going their own ways to see what I can make of that? As always, I am amazed by what I find.

 crescent moon



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