Failure is one of my least favorite words, and the sinking feeling it generates is all too familiar. I don’t think I’m alone; it’s pretty safe to assume, if you’ve lived past the age of 6 or 7, that you’ve had a few up close and personal encounters with failure. Sometimes you can see it coming, far off in the distance, edging ever closer, and other times it arrives with no warning. Yesterday, I had anticipated a great day off from work, instead, failure paid me a visit. It swooped down and smacked me in the face.
I was returning home after a bike ride with my 10-year-old granddaughter, my left knee and shin covered in Band-Aids (more about that later). I spotted The Man walking his two Alaskan Huskies as soon as I pedaled onto my street. The Man, as wide as he was tall with oddly blunted edges, reminded me of an oversized coin. If tipped unto his side, I imagined him rolling down the sidewalk, the two Huskies nudging him along.
I slowed my bike and watched one of his dogs stop right in front of my house, squat and do what dogs do on walks. My gaze shifted back to The Man; his plump hands held only the leashes, not a poop bag in sight. He waited for the dog to finish his business as I approached on my bike. Then he walked away leaving behind the souvenir.
I said, “You do know you are supposed to pick up after your dog." His response: a stream of obscenities unfit for print. That response did not surprise me. I thought back to my first and only face-to-face encounter with The Man.
Every morning I walk my two dogs Kyra, a glossy-coated Golden Retriever and Abbey, a black and white terrier mix with a wild natural mohawk that perfectly portrays her personality. We often stop along the way in the open field on the corner to play fetch. Kyra is a pathological ball player. On that particular morning, I was accompanied by my sister who was visiting from Indiana. We stood in the middle of the field simultaneously talking and throwing the saliva-covered ball. Abbey, who thinks playing ball is a complete waste of time, ran around smiling and panting, reveling in her temporary off-leash freedom.
Directly across the street, The Man exited his house with the two Huskies straining at their leashes. Abbey, not the most dog-friendly of dogs, spotted the Huskies and headed straight toward them, almost flying above the grass. I took off right behind her. Unfortunately, I don’t move as fast as a 20-pound terrier, nor am I as graceful.
I slipped in the dew covered grass in an unattractive, embarrassing and klutzy tumble as I skidded along the ground first on my side then coming to a stop on my belly. I looked up to see Abbey in The Man’s front yard barking her head off. The Man was red faced, his arm straining to hold back the growling, lunging Huskies.
With legs covered in dirt and grass, I raced across the street, leash in hand, intent on retrieving Abbey. The Man looked angrier than his dogs. A stream of obscenities flew from his mouth, and had Abbey not needed rescuing, I would have immediately fled. “You stupid bleeping bleep, get your bleeping dog, and get the bleep off my Lawn!” The man roared above the barking dogs.
I might have laughed at the absurdity of the situation if I wasn’t scared for both my safety and Abbey’s life. I spoke to The Man, “I’m sorry. I’m trying to get her!” I wondered; did he miss me racing like a lunatic trying to grab my dog? I managed to nab Abbey, despite the throbbing pain pulsing through my entire right side. The whole while The Man kept screaming; his ability to articulate the most vulgar obscenities was truly amazing.
My sister remained in the field holding Kyra’s collar, keeping her in place until I returned with Abbey in my arms. “What is wrong with that man?” she’d said.
I’d spotted him several times since, walking the Huskies, and always headed in the opposite direction. I suspected he did the same. Now, with prickling trepidation, as I rode my bike up my driveway and dared to comment about his failure to pick up after his dog, I realized my reprieve was over. And my response, this time, was very different.
In our first encounter, I did not react to the verbal abuse. I remained focused on the task at hand: rescuing my dog. I did not lower myself to his level, did not take the bait, did not utter more than a few sentences to The Man—an apology and a confirmation that I was trying to get my dog—and I was proud of that response.
Unfortunately, my behavior during the second encounter was the opposite. The Man’s ugly words were like gasoline thrown on a fire, igniting my anger. I was immediately transformed into someone I didn’t recognize. I opened my mouth and parroted back every expletive. And when he threatened my dogs my anger escalated, heightening the creativity of my word choices.
My husband, having heard the raised voices, met me at the front door. I briefed him on the disturbing interaction. My husband is usually very calm and easy-going, but my first encounter with The Man had angered him; he would not tolerate the same behavior a second time. He was out the door in a flash and the shouting match continued, profane language included. My husband instructed The Man, in his authoritative police officer voice, to return and remove his dog’s deposit.
Although I felt uneasy listening to my husband exchange angry words with The Man, I thought I had valid reasons for my bad behavior. My knee was a throbbing, bloody mess, my shoulders aching, my palms tender from the spill I had taken earlier when trying to navigate my bike off a curb. The bike baulked. I flew over the handle bars onto the street and scared the bejeezes out of my granddaughter. Not wanting to cut short our much anticipated bike ride across town to the Dairy Queen, I convinced my granddaughter that I wasn’t “going to die.” And after a short pit-stop for first aid—she lovingly applied both antibiotic ointment and several Band-Aids to my battered leg—we continued on our way. When I arrived home I was irritable, in pain and experiencing the first symptoms of stomach discomfort, compliments of the ice cream. I used all these reasons to convince myself that my behavior was justified.
Then I thought about the plaque that hung on my bedroom wall, Be kinder than necessary. That plaque is the first thing I see when I climb out of bed each morning. I’d purposely placed it there as a reminder of my quest to become a kinder person. I released a sigh of regret and realized that despite my attempt at rationalization, there was no excuse for my behavior.
I never thought The Man would return, but a short while later he did, poop bag in hand. When my husband slipped out the front door again, despite my plea that he stay put, I felt shame, and hearing their angry voices intensified that shame. I took a deep breath and followed him out, determined to redeem myself.
The Man held the plastic bag containing his dog’s droppings in one hand, and a black night stick in the other, as angry expletives continued to fly from his mouth. I eyed the menacing night stick and thought, all this over a pile of dog crap and my inability to handle this situation like a rational adult.
I interrupted the shouting match. I spoke in my professional voice, the calming nurse voice I use for out-of-control women who are about to give birth. “Sir, please. Can we handle this in a more productive manner?” To my surprise both The Man and my husband stopped speaking and looked at me. Their faces held identical, dazed expressions.
We talked. I don’t remember the exact words, but I do remember none of them were obscenities. It took awhile but somehow we ended the encounter peacefully. Still, the bad feelings lingered.
Later that night as we got ready for bed my husband said, “What a crazy nut case!” I agreed. I also thought of how easily I’d slipped into the oblivion of bad behavior, and I silently rededicated my resolve to be part of the solution. I did not want to add to the multitude of bad behavior I witnessed each day: the increasing violence and hatred reported on the nightly news, the road rage on my drive to hospital, family dramas at work, with language and anger very much like The Man’s: my private version of Jerry Springer’s, Who’s your baby’s daddy?
I sighed, climbed into bed and nestled into my husband’s embrace. My eyes grew heavy, but before I fell asleep I glanced at the wall and read the plaque again. Be Kinder than Necessary. Maybe tomorrow.