The other day I was out for a walk when I was attacked by a puppy. Not just any old puppy, but an extremely, oh-so-awfully cute one. The kind that makes you stop in your tracks and go, “ohhhwooah.” THAT sort of puppy.
He was maybe three months old, wrapped in a layer of baby fat covered by plush white fur, dotted with pale black spots, ears flopped forward, thin pink tongue, and sparkling blue eyes. I have no clue to which sort of breed he belonged, and can only generate uneducated guesses. Possibly a blue heeler?
Regardless of brand, he bounded down the driveway, out of his yard, into the street and performed, oh horror of horrors, a puppy stretch, a gymnastical maneuver with front paws reaching outward, rear end in the air, all smiles and friendliness, a bow of sorts. Towards me. My irritated response was, “No! Go back in your yard! Now!”
To which he responded by leaping up on me with enthusiasm, and then piddled on my shoe.
Fifteen minutes later, after doorbell ringing couldn’t rouse its owner (whose car was in the driveway,) and five attempts to stuff the dog back into its owner’s back porch failed utterly, I had learned two things. First, keeping puppies inside yards without fences is like collecting water in a sieve. They’re going to get out. The second thing that I learned is that puppies are trainable. Really.
The problem I had with all of this, is that here I was again, faced with an unknown factor thrown at my day, which would only make me late for my impending meeting. It’s one of those over-scheduled weeks, full of meetings, projects and people. The day began just great: I got out of bed immediately when NPR woke me up promptly at 6am, rather than lying there making the excuse that I had to listen to the top of the hour news, and couldn’t possibly miss the local weather report that followed hard on its heels. I’d prepared Isabelle’s gourmet lunch; her new thing is wraps, which are easy, just a swipe of a spread, layer the wrap with spinach, a couple slices of turkey, roll up and voilá! Double the health, with an apple thrown in. I allotted myself time for breakfast and newspaper, finished the dishes and was out the door. Yes, the morning was a forced march, but I was bound and determined to accomplish it all.
The problem is, I exist to let my dogs in and out, all day long. And, I freely admit this: I reorganize my day for random puppies. I add in just-one-more-chore. And because of it, I’m always late, for just about everything I do.
I know this is not good, that some deem it irresponsible; one acquaintance, in fact, has called my behavior, in all capital letters, “extremely rude.” All I can do is point to my success once arrived. I promise capability, if not punctuality.
People have told me recently that I should stop caring so much about things. It makes me wonder, what is happening in the world that it is suddenly a negative attribute to be enthusiastic? Apathy, that chloroformed vapor, can consume a society’s civility. Curious, I referred to The Oxford English Dictionary, my trustworthy friend, in the hopes that it would enlighten me, and provide an element of understanding. What I found was disturbing. According to the OED, 2nd ed., apathy is:
Indolence of mind, indifference to what is calculated to move the feelings, or to excite interest or action.
Read the newspaper, and you’ll find a plethora of reasons to wallow in pity, sorrow and pathos. Does this excess create a lack of interest in each other? Are we so sunk in the miseries of our declining economy, plummeting housing values and rampant unemployment that we’ve pulled a blanket over our heads?
Congress scrabbles with each other, scrounging up insults, and refusing to cooperate; the preference is deadlock over accomplishment. Or, in the words of Steve Inskeep on NPR this morning as he pondered what the Senate would do to the House’s stopgap spending bill, will we be seeing another example of “spirited democracy in action, or another round of government dysfunction?” I dread the upcoming election season, don’t you? Susan Herbst, President of the University of Connecticut, in her article, Rude Democracy in America: Can We Overcome It?, terms this “‘narcotizing dysfunction'”, that “[t]he status quo could not be more depressing.” That “television. . . [has sent] us to our couches. . . dissuade[ing] us from political action.” While Dr. Herbst acknowledges that this is not the first moment in our history where incivility raised its ugly head, that there are swoops and valleys of nastiness threading their way throughout Congressional discourse, this is not democracy at its finest, nor does it define the concept. Alexander Hamilton, in particular, was fearful of the effect of mob rule, should government by the people prevail. And yet, theorists rationalize that “[s]elf-rule is impossible without the bravery it takes to express opinions and do so civilly.” (Herbst) James Madison, the 4th President of the United States, and author of Federalist Paper No. 51, stated the problem most succinctly:
In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
A leader sets an example for conduct. Incivility in government creates unrest and incivility among the populace. While it’s true that we sit back and regard the antics of elected officials from our distant tuffets, I’ve decided to take a tally of the world around me. I believe good social behavior begins at home.
Read Dear Abby on any given day and you’ll find instances of how we care for one another, taking the time, in minuscule ways, to help our fellows. “The Laundry Fairy” comes to mind, an individual who helped a friend, ill with breast cancer, by doing her family’s laundry for the past three years. There seems to be reoccurring activity at our area high schools; the kids are stepping up efforts to clean up their surrounding neighborhoods, facing the realization that adults are much more likely to respond positively to teenagers in their midst if the trash-to-teen ratio is lessened.
Then there are the little things. The practice of “stealth Starbucking” is growing: you treat the driver in the car behind you to the drink of their choice, just by tipping off the barista in the To Go window. Sometimes, a possibly unintended quirkiness can carry forward unknown kindness. Dr. K ordered me the full twenty-volume set of The Oxford English Dictionary last year for Hanukkah. If you are a writer, you’ll appreciate how much this gift meant to me. What made it that much better, was the packing material. The set was used, and the previous owner had packed the boxes (all five of them!) with rolls of paper towels, still in their cellophane. I just used up the last roll, almost ten months later.
While it’s true that buying another a coffee, or preventing a puppy from being smashed flat won’t ensure that Congress passes President Obama’s $447 billion jobs bill, these actions add another positive layer to how we address the rest of the people sharing the world with us.
Yes, I was fifteen minutes late to my meeting the other day, an amount that directly corresponds to time spent with the demanding puppy. It’s the Gerbil Effect: the more I attempt to cram into a day, the more I spend running and playing catch-up on my Gerbil wheel. On the other hand, the puppy seemed to have learned from our interaction. On my return swing back down the street (the walk is a giant loop, given our fairly localized neighborhood) he approached me, eager, at the foot of the driveway. After all, we were now officially friends. Piddling on your tennis shoe will do that. I told him “No,” very firmly, and he stayed put. I guess, what with the time I’d granted to him, we had developed a bond of trust. We’d “played” the game, “stay in the yard,” and he had learned I meant it when I said “No.” I have a scratch on my arm, a badge of honor, to prove it. Some may think my tardiness is rude. When I got to the meeting I worked hard and was productive. I think the time spent slowing down, giving attention to a fellow creature, was worth it.
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