The Man in the Park

The line between forgiveness and blame is creek narrow.

The other day I went to the local dog park with the shepherd Stella, the son Rio, and the ten-year-old friend Xavier. As we walked through the first gate, I asked Xavier to close it behind us. At the second gate, Rio was lingering and Stella was pulling, but  the three of us made it in.

Apparently, Xavier had forgotten to close the first gate and I’d neglected to close the second, because out of the blue a man walked over and yelled “Hey! Close the gates, man! You left both of them open! Jesus!” His tone was so sharp and aggressive my head literally tilted back.

“I will,” I replied. “But you could have said that a lot more kindly.”

“This is a dog park, man!” he screamed. “The rules are pretty fuckin’ simple!” As he shouted these words he took a few steps towards me.

As his words shot through the air, two dogs close by began to attack each other. It was one of those dog scraps when playfulness is not in play. The owners pulled their dogs back, but it was clear that the aggression of this man, and the one that was rising up in me, was not lost on the creatures around us.

For a moment I thought about dropping Stella’s leash and decking the dude. At least, so I thought: I have no idea how I’d really do in a fight. The last time I’ve had a real physical standoff was in fifth grade with a kid named Joel. I can’t remember why we fought, but I do recall that the lead-up was palpable enough to have the word “Fight!” screamed across the schoolyard and a circle of kids to surround us, egging us on. The fight was over in about five seconds: Joel clocked me with a hard right across my temple that sent me down to the ground in a crumple.

So I’m basically 0-1, with a loss by knockout. But I’ve thought about fighting plenty: heroic scenarios where I save the weaker from ruin. Truth is I’m usually quite tame in public. But I’d like to think I’d do pretty well in a fight: I’m not big, but I’m scrappy, and all those years of helping friends move and throwing Rio in the river and hauling beautiful things Annie has found has left me pretty solid.

But, on this day, right as I considered returning the man’s aggression with some of my own, salvation came from those around me.

Rio asked, “Why did that man talk like that?”

“I guess he never learned to talk to people,” I said.

A passerby muttered, “You got that right.”

We stayed at the park for about 30 minutes. Now that we have Stella, Rio likes to talk to other people about dogs. You know: compare notes. He likes to run with the dogs, too, and on this day one particularly beautiful tan-and-brown hound kept bounding over and nuzzling us. “She loves us,” I told Rio, and we rubbed her ears. She’d dart off and then return, tail wagging.  I leaned down to look at the hound’s tags: GRETCHEN.

Just then a woman approached me. “I just wanted to tell you that you didn’t deserve that,” she said. “I know that guy, and he’s…very unique. Let’s just say that his dog is his life. He was probably afraid she’d run through the gate, but, still, he didn’t have to talk to you like that. He might even apologize.”

As I walked around the park the next thirty minutes, eyeing this man occasionally, I thought about how quickly I can damn people for their transgressions: I’m compassionate until I decide someone has stepped over a line. My optimism and openness then drains. It’s like the game is suddenly being played by other rules, and I’ve spent years honing my responses to what I consider the agreed-upon ones. My friend Bruce once told me that we should respond to people only when they hit a shot over the net; when their volley goes out of bounds, it’s not our responsibility to hit it back.

And yet I thought about how much earth I’ve moved when I initiate apologies, even when I’m fairly certain I haven’t done wrong. To break the ice takes courage, and sometimes the gesture is what is pivotal: spirit of forgiveness sparked, the potential violator feels safer to speak. In this life with grey lines so often drawn, to persecute with certainty is a liability.

So I considered walking over to the man and seeing if we could find some peace. After all, I did break the park’s rules, and who was I to judge Mr. Aggressive for less than perfectly alerting me to my transgression? I could wait for Godot imagining that some perfect apology is going to come my way, but my real experience has proven again and again that transgression is a difficult but natural state. At times I am the transgressed: for certain I have been the transgressor. In other words, I must welcome the fuck-up and aspire to forgive.

But, on this Sunday morning, I felt too stubborn. I wondered if he would apologize, but it never came, and I couldn’t find the strength to cross that transom. We walked to the car, and as I drove out of the parking lot, I saw the man leaving the dog park, with Gretchen.

Nicknames

Of the nicknames that Annie and I have given each other over the years, two that have stuck are “Big Shit” and “Little Shit.”

Annie and I are both passionate people. We like to be right, and we’re scrappy in a fight. We don’t argue often, but when we do, it can be a serious bout; judges may score Round 2 to Annie and Round 3 to me, but ultimately, we almost always both end up on the mat. It’s not that we knock each other down but rather that we wear each other down; by the twelfth bell we’re exhausted shadows of our selves.

It’s almost as if I float out of the real Tim, who is generally easygoing and helpful, and come back as rigid Tim, who is uptight and ungenerous. And it’s as if Annie, who is generally sweet and flexible, becomes Annie the drama queen, who is demanding and obstinate. We seem to do our most damage when we slip into these roles.

At this point, we usually resort to opposite strategies. I want to finish the fight with some sort of reconciliation, even if it’s nowhere near forgiveness or redemption and closer to “you’re not that bad.” Annie may have the same goal, but she generally gets so worked up that she needs some distance; she’s not very good at pretending to “make nice,” and she’s told me several times she’s trying to save my ass from further damage when she slips through the ropes and heads to her office upstairs.

But however long our fights last, Annie and I share an understanding that the ugly sides we sometimes show each other are just one face of our multi-sided diamonds. We’re both shits, but it’s aberrant, not normative. We both know that our partnership engenders growth, despite these flashes of regression.

“Big Shit” and “Little Shit,” then, are actually olive branches. They diffuse the imperative we both feel to win the fight. They say “You are wrong” and “I am wrong,” or, just as plausibly, “You are right” and “I am right.”  They concede that we are both imperfect, fallible creatures in love.

When Annie finally comes downstairs and utters my nickname (I’m Big Shit), I know we’re on the way back up.