Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Very Soul of Tact

I need a break from telling you stories about his dogs. So I will tell you this about him, instead:

He had a—to him—puzzling reputation—to the extent that a person with so few acquaintances could be said to have a reputation at all—for being blunt. Refreshingly candid, if you liked him. Tactless or even insensitive, if you didn’t.

And he honestly didn’t know how that had happened.

People seemed to think that he blurted out whatever he happened to be thinking, without regard for what anyone else might think or feel about it. And that was so very far from the truth as to strike him as comical.

If other people thought that the things he said were the same things he thought, then perhaps the things he said were the same things they thought, but would not say. Then, were the things he thought but would not say monstrous, beyond-the-pale things? Because, believe me, he had plenty of unexpressed thoughts.

He edited most of what he said carefully, taking into account both the feelings of others and the impression he wished to make on others. He was, in his own opinion, most of the time, the very soul of tact. He was, in fact, often so tactful as to fail to make himself understood—a situation that any Nihon-jin trying to deal with America-jin will understand completely.

He was afraid that, if he told you too explicitly and directly what he meant, you might think, not only that he was rude, but that he thought you were stupid—why else so belabor a point? So he would often merely call a subject to your attention, hoping that you would draw the obvious conclusions. And when you didn’t, he tended to think you were stupid. But wouldn’t dream of saying so, of course.

It’s true that he was constitutionally capable of being quite deliberately blunt, rude, or even unequivocally offensive. But that, he maintained, was entirely different from tactlessness or insensitivity. He would maintain, in fact, that to effectively offend someone you wanted to offend, it was necessary to be as sensitive as possible to the intended victim’s feelings. How else would you know just where to stick the knife?

But even then, he took pride in not sticking the knife where it would do the most damage, but only where it would do the desired degree of damage. Again, it required sensitivity—even tact, if you bear in mind that, at bottom, tact means touch.

His father had been tactless and insensitive. His father had been the kind of guy who would thank you for a Christmas or birthday present and, in the same breath, tell you that he actually had no use for it. And make you feel like an asshole—as if you’d given mittens to someone who’d just lost both hands to frostbite.

But he, himself, was not tactless or insensitive. He was sure of it.

But here’s the thing: Sometimes, he would make the mistake of getting comfortable with someone. If he liked you a lot, if he thought you liked him some, he might think that meant that you got him, that there was no need to be guarded around you. That you did not require tact because the two of you were somehow in sympathy with each other.

And then he might say something that would turn out—to his genuine astonishment—to be... well, unfortunate. And he would beat himself up later for being so stupid. And then, very likely, he would come to resent you for thinking him capable of intending the insult that you perceived. It was disheartening.

Whether it was to his credit or otherwise, he had the Peter-Pan-like quality of never seeming to learn from that particular mistake—he did it over and over and over again.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Dogs III: Toby

The boys were briefly disconsolate about Bob.

He and his wife decided it would be best to get another dog. This time a puppy, so that they would not be inheriting the victim of someone else’s abuse. And this time a purebred dog, so that its temperament might be predicted.

But what breed would be best? They approached this question with seriousness, going to the library and checking out a book that described the characteristics of many different breeds. (This was in the days before the internet, when there were still some things that could only be found out from books.)

After a lot of reading and comparing and making of notes, they decided, for reasons that he could no longer remember, that a Bernese Mountain Dog was the breed that would suite them best.

With a naiveté that astonished him in retrospect, he opened the local newspaper to the Pets & Livestock section, expecting to find Bernese Mountain Dog puppies for sale. He didn't.

But there were Golden Retrievers, which were his second choice.

They phoned and made an appointment with the nice young couple with the Golden puppies for sale. The couple owned both the sire and the dam, and had a litter of seven puppies almost old enough for adoption: three females and four males.

So that he and his wife could get a better look at the puppies, the couple put the sire and dam outside. And because they knew they wanted a male, the couple put the three females out with their parents, leaving the four males inside for them to choose from.

One puppy pressed his nose against the sliding glass patio door and whined for his mother the whole time they were there. One hid behind the upright piano. One, the biggest and best looking of the litter, lay down sphinx-like in the middle of the rug and maintained a magnificent aloofness throughout their visit—he did not need his mother; he did not hide from strangers; neither was he interested in strangers.

The fourth puppy gamboled to them, and sniffed them, and untied their shoelaces, and seemed, as so few people did, to find them fascinating.

They paid $300 for that puppy (a 10,000% increase over Suzie) and took him home two weeks later.

And that is the beginning of Toby’s story.

He was still not prepared to have a dog living—and shedding—in the house. He built Toby a pen in the back yard and bought a nice dog house to go in it. And Toby slept there from his first night with them.

Looking back at it now, he was a little ashamed not to have made Toby more completely a member of the family or to let him sleep in the house.

Toby was allowed in the house frequently, though. And was always let out of his pen whenever any part of the family was outside. He seemed to be a happy dog. And seemed to thrive for the four years they had him. He never barked or whined, and was always enthusiastic in playing with his people.

Toby got a long walk every day, without fail, most of it off leash.

And that was Toby’s undoing.

From where they lived, it was a quarter of a mile or less to the vegetable fields that surrounded the town. In the early evening, or sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, when the fields were likely to be empty, he and his wife would put Toby on leash, walk him to the nearest farm road, and then let him run (Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of youthful exuberance!). Toby recalled well and always seemed to show a proper respect for motor vehicles. It seemed safe enough.

The fields were divided by a grid of dirt access roads. When any particular field was being irrigated, or had been irrigated earlier in the day, the roads around that field became impassably muddy. Usually that wasn’t a problem—they’d just turn right or left at the last intersection before the muddy stretch, and walk a different route.

One weekend afternoon, though, the irrigators succeeded in thwarting them completely—every route was wet.

The paved public road that ran along next to the fields had little traffic and very wide shoulders—effectively, it was flanked by another dirt farm road on each side. They decided that it would be safe enough to walk Toby along next to the paved road, given that he had never shown any inclination to chase cars and that he shied away from the noise of them.

About half a mile outside of town, as he and his wife were walking along talking, and paying imperfect attention to Toby, Toby discovered some road-kill at the very edge of the pavement and stopped to investigate. By the time they noticed that he was not keeping pace with them, they had left Toby behind by perhaps 50 yards.

Looking back towards town, he could see beyond Toby a car coming a quarter of a mile or so away. He called Toby. Toby, fully engrossed in smelling the road kill, ignored him. He called repeatedly, with growing alarm as the car came closer. Toby continued to ignore him.

He was worried, but not inordinately. Toby was very close to the road, but Toby was not in the road. And surely, the driver of the car, seeing an unleashed dog at the side of the road, would slow down and give the dog a very wide berth. It was a threatening situation, but not irretrievably so, he thought.

But the car did not slow down. Or give Toby a wide berth. (He found out later that something on the other side of the road had caught the driver’s eye, that the driver never saw Toby at all.) As the car got closer, Toby stayed right where he was, close to the road, but not on it.

Half a second more, and the car would have been safely past. But, at that last moment, Toby finally heard the car. Startled, Toby leapt directly into the car’s path. And, mercifully, was killed instantly.

The driver was very sorry, of course. He helped them move Toby’s body off the road and well onto the shoulder. And then the driver went on his way.

He and his wife walked home and told the boys what had happened. His wife stayed at home with the younger son, while he and the older son took the minivan to retrieve Toby’s body. They brought it home and buried it in the garden in front of the garage.

And that was Toby’s story.