Sign of the Times

We’re at Waterfront Park, off Colbert Lane, in Palm Coast, Florida. We’re at a covered picnic table, steel-latticed and sealed in brown plastic, set perpendicular to a walkway several feet away. The site overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway that extends the length of Florida. It is 3:34 Thursday afternoon, February 16, 2012. It’s probably 100 feet back to the parking lot from the table. I’m using a walker. I’ve shuffled that distance to get a little exercise, recuperation for a hip contusion. Beverly, my partner in life, is seated beside me, our backs to the table so I can keep a hand on the walker. We’re looking down the Intracoastal toward Flagler Beach to the south and points beyond. We’re halfway through an apple. The walkway extends from the parking lot here two miles north to a companion terminus under the Palm Coast bridge, the toll bridge that transports tourists east across the Intracoastal to Route A1A. This part of the walkway, a mile section, opened just last year. It is a valued addition to the St. Joe Walkway and Linear Park system that circles the section of Palm Coast nearest to the water, on this side of the Intracoastal.

A man our age, mid seventies, is giving his dog a walk up the walkway behind us. The dog, while leashed, is bumptious; she jumps up on the table and gives me a sweet nudge unbeknownst, and befriends Beverly with a like gesture. Bev turns to nuzzle with her a bit. We strike up a conversation with the man, who has the appearance and demeanor of a quiet Alec Guinness. The dog is a designer dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel crossed with a poodle. She is a year and a half old, with curly beige and white hair.  A great dog so far, the man says. He’s retired. He has lived in Palm Coast seventeen years. His house was mostly in a wooded area then. Now it is in a fully developed neighborhood. We love the walkway for biking, when we are able to bike. He loves the walkway for the exercise and for walking the dog. He does so daily. Nice man. We’re about to get the man’s name, and the dog’s name too. But there is an interruption.

A man has risen from his bench, twenty feet away, on the same side of the walkway as we are located, where he has been sitting with his wife. He is walking up toward us, probably, one surmises, to exchange pleasantries. His wife remains seated. He looks to be another senior retiree enjoying his afternoon. He’s younger than we are, perhaps in his mid-sixties. He is dressed in a blue t-shirt, advertising some company or other, there’s a phone number set out on the front, and he wears a blue baseball cap. He looks like a younger us. Somehow he reminds me of Robert DeNiro.

When he comes abreast of the three of us, so that we can all see him, he turns to directly face the man with the dog and addresses him thus:

What in hell is wrong with you, letting that damn dog run all over the picnic table? Don’t you know people eat on that table? Don’t you know that is what tables are for? Do you think people would want to come here and spread out their picnic lunch after that filthy thing has been running all over it? Use your brains, man, if you have any, and get that dog off the table!

That’s how it went down. No preliminaries. No “Could I have a word with you in private?” No “I have a concern I’d like to mention.” No “Pardon the interruption.” No “Don’t take this personally, but I need to get something off my chest.” Instead, out of the blue, from nowhere, total disrespect and a direct ad hominum attack on a stranger. This is reminiscent of Dan Axelrod denigrating Jane Curtin on Saturday Night Live, “Jane, you ignorant toady…” And this attack comes from out of left field from an otherwise nice appearing man who had been watching from 20 feet away.

The dog owner, diatribe ended, says: “Sweetness, jump down from there so we can please this man and make him happy,” to which Sweetness, who had been watching the interloper eye-to-eye from all four feet, promptly sits down on her hind quarters.

“Please me? Make me happy?” the DeNiro character says, as if enacting a scene from the movie Anger Management, and takes two steps straight toward the table as if to deal with the dog directly. “Don’t talk about making me happy, don’t talk about pleasing me, dammit, please them,” he scans his arm so as to indicate the people of the world, “please the picnickers, please the users of the park, please them,” indicating with another sweep the users of the walkway and Intracoastal. “This is only about you buddy. Didn’t you just see that filthy dog sit down just now and wipe his ass all over the table?”

Just then, the wife, as if responding to an understood cue, arrives from the bench she has been sitting upon, having departed apparently when the first salvo was fired by her husband. She arrives just as the “please me?” soliloquy is ending, and just in time to touch his left arm as she proceeds to walk toward the parking lot, without stopping, and without looking at him or at us. He falls in step with her and joins the exit without further threat to man or dog, but muttering audibly as he walks, for the next twenty seconds or so, “inconsiderate fool,” “unbelievable,” “dirty-ass dog,” and the like until they turn from the walkway toward the parking lot and places beyond.

That’s all there is, folks. It had all happened so suddenly and ended so quickly, entirely without our participation, with the exception, of course, of the dog owner’s single sentence to his dog. The mood afterward was identical to that of an audience after a play: “that was shocking;” “never saw that coming;” “what an opening act;” “how about the wife’s performance?” “What a show.”

In this instance, the follow-up dialogue included: “Did you know him?” “No, I’ve never seen him before.” ”Nor her either.” “Is he from around here?” “I have no idea.” “He never even looked at either of you.” “No.” “He knew we didn’t have a dog in the fight.” “Oh, funny.” “He must do these riffs regularly.” “Do you suppose he hates dogs?” “I’d say so.” “I thought he was going to hit the dog.” “Or hit you.” “Yes, I was thinking of lending you the walker.” “I hope he’s still in the parking lot, I have something to say to him.” “What?” “I’m not sure.” “His poor wife.” “Yes, bet she’s seen that act before.” “Probably three times a day.” “Probably directed against her!” “Yes.” “What’s this crap in the soup, or something like that?” “Yes.” “Women are often told by men what they should do,” Bev says, “That’s nothing new.”

Bev and I have been talking about this incident ever since it happened. Bev tends to be a “it happened, it’s over” type of person, while I see meanings, portends, trends. “Could this be a sign of the times?” “What do you mean?” “When the ordinary turns into the extraordinary instantaneously,” I opine, “it must be happening at other places.” “Hm.” “I guess that’s silly,” I censure myself, “that would claim that events come only in abundance, rather than singly; that’s just a statement of faith.” “Yes.” “Well,” I continue, “how about these images? Are they in the ballpark? Politician sticking it to an opponent in an advertisement? Sports radio takes and zingers—”deal with it sucker, over and out”? Young punks dissing each other? President Obama being called a liar and worse? Incidents of road rage? Celebrity character assassination?” “Yes,” Bev agrees, “Those are signs of the time, and they don’t help.” “Well, that’s exactly my point: look at the incivility. Everybody is angry, especially men, and it’s always  the other guy’s fault. No one is going to take it anymore. Time to tell the other person off.” “Forget it. Isolated incident. Book closed. It’s over.”

Will Callender, Jr.©

February 28, 2012


5 thoughts on “Sign of the Times

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  1. Pets–animal companions–they offer us unconditional love in the case of dogs. We spend billions on special food, veterinary care, end of life care, and even commemoration of the dead. TV station switchboards are overloaded when viewers see stories of animal cruelty. Do animals possess a soul? We ponder these theological questions.

    From this point of view, an animal companion deserves a place at the table. Sweetness is a member of the family, loved and cherished. But the angry stranger felt that Sweetness was simply a dog, an animal — filthy and impure.

    Mary Douglas the late British anthropologist who worked in the spirit of Emile Durkheim published an amazing series of essays on Purity and Danger. (I employed her work to understand how people could justify the exclusion of former members of a high-demand sect in my work The Other Side of Joy)

    I write:

    Ideas about pollution have an instrumental dimension by delineating a sanctioned moral code and charging men and women with the commands of good citizenship. At the expressive level, pollutions create symbolic classifications of social order. Douglas explains that “ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the differences between within and without, above and below, male and female, {animal and human} within and against that social other is created.”

    So the story that you relate Will is indeed about civility and good citizenship and the value conflicts between the households with pets and those who view pets differently. I am glad that in this public sphere, the matter was settled without violence.

  2. Wonderful post, Will, about very unwonderful realities that are increasing in our society, at breakneck speed. And you know I am an animal lover!

    Your thoughts point up the danger of the incivility of the Self tipping the scale. Look at our fractious politics, becoming nastier, more divisive, and less productive by the day. Civil, thoughtful leaders who have accomplished much for the greater good through disciplined moderation and collaboration are being forced out as irrational extremism and rigid ideologies dive into a bloodied feeding frenzy. These microbes chew up sound policy intended for the many, and spit it out till it’s unrecognizable and worthless. Instead they prefer the taste of power, politics and control for their singular palate.

    Speaking of politics, due to the insane bickering, the I am Right and You are Wrong rudeness and gridlock in our system, I recently withdrew from a major party to become among the many who are becoming The Unregistered. The Unenrolled. The Unlabeled – yet labeled – Independent. The Free.

    Yes, I believe your observation, painted in such vivid colors, reflect the Signs of the Times. I also feel that like Dickens noted, every age seems to be the best and the worst. We are on the cusp of many positive changes, while we also face retrograde. Many people seek compassion and kindness for each other, animals and the environment, while others practice cruelty, abuse and repression. Hope springs eternal, yet sometimes, a strange weariness glints through young eyes, which often they may not even be cognizant. Has the love of many grown cold?

    1. Elaine,

      I like your idea that the emphasis placed on “Self” is a contributor to incivility; one may feel he has the right to say whatever he likes, because he’s unique and should always express himself. The self thereby asserts itself over others, in domination of others. “I don’t care what you think. Here is what I think. Take it or leave it.”

      I wish you good luck in the use of your newly asserted political freedom. I fear though that your new status as an “independent” will be seen as an invitation for both regular parties to double up on you. After all the common wisdom is that Independents will determine the election. Be ready, The world may beat a path to your door.


  3. Julius,

    Your use of the work of Mary Douglas on impurity and disgust is very helpful and particularly apt in this particular case. The man reeked with disgust. He couldn’t envision dog and food in a unified image. For lack of the love of a dog, humanity falls apart before his eyes.

    In regard to your opening reminder of the companionship and unconditional love of dogs, I recall that the Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago always included a dog in his novels, a different dog, with a new name, for each novel. Saramago seemed to be telling us that dogs know things we don’t know and see parts of the future before it presents itself to us. And they love qualities in us that we’ve forgotten, and perhaps, if reminded of, would think unremarkable.


  4. Thanks for sending this along, Will. I also feel distressed that the human race has chosen the route of incivility over kindness to others. I’m with Bev on the “it’s over and done and no foul ” attitude about most things, but has been becoming increasingly clear to me that there are many more pundits who have a strong desire to have their own voices heard than to engage in thoughtful discusssion about those things that matter to all of us. I have a friend who lets her cat jump up on the dining table all the time and that also distresses me…..but I choose to deal with it by removing myself from the situation when it arises. Maybe we are being bombarded with acts of incivility and that cause us to behave somewhat irrationally when we find something offensive..or maybe it’s just about being less tolerant as we age?

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