Men + Dogs
I don’t want dogs or men to look at me. When I am out on a run, I don’t want my stride interrupted, stuttering on the decision to turn back, go around, dodge down a different trail. I don’t want to smile. I don’t want eye contact.
I try not to be anyone else’s problem. When I run on trails, I try to choose ones that have clear leash rules. The trails near my kid’s school require all dogs to be leashed all the time. I recognize that other places allow off leash dogs. That is fine. I do not run in those places. But, on the leash-required trails, most dogs are off their leashes anyway. The time I was attacked and bitten by three dogs, all three were leashed, so my ideas about constraints on behavior, human or canid, are not really coherent.
I was running on one of the leash-required-at-all-times trails the other day and had already passed between the Scylla and Charybdis of two dogs held back by their respective owners as they snarled and lunged at each other from opposite sides of the trail. A bit farther along, regaining my breath, I saw a man walking alone up ahead. I assessed him, as we always do with men, trying to tell which sort he was, and just how much caution he warranted. He appeared young, and just out for a walk in the woods. There’s a different character to those who walk in the woods for their own sake rather than as exercise for their dogs, and I found myself warming to this youngish man out for a brisk walk in the brisk air. I coughed and scuffled my feet so as not to startle him, and gave him a wide berth as I passed. I turned my head, made eye contact, smiled, which seemed like the safest thing to do. He smiled back, had a kind face. Then I noticed a leash draped around his neck like a shawl.
I knew now that there was a dog loose somewhere near me but I didn’t know where to look. I kept running, and the dog appeared ahead of me. I understand dogs, can read them, and I could see that she was relaxed, curious. But I was neither of those things. As she came closer to me, her pointy ears pricked up, still ten feet away, I found myself making a shoving down motion with my hand and saying, “No, no, no” and the leash-draped man seemed to understand and called her back to him and I called back to him, “Please leash your dog,” and I was passing them, then past them, bracing for the word “bitch” to land between my shoulder blades like an axe head. I was running fast but I think I heard the man say only, quietly, “Ok.” and then I was bolting farther into the woods, breathing too fast and ragged.
Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympics because she had lost her air sense. Her embodied genius was compromised. Stress had made what used to be automatic for her halting, jerky. She could not feel where she was in space, or where the ground was to be found. In the end, she had no choice but to withdraw. Without her air sense, the risk of catastrophic injury was too high, and her wisdom was great enough to recognize that.
In her 1975 talk entitled “A Humanistic View” at Portland State, Toni Morrison said,
The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
I thought about that word, distraction, its roots. ‘Traction,’ as in dragging, pulling; ‘dis-’ meaning apart. There is more violence in the word than we commonly recognize, when we use it in common speech to mean a drifting focus, or idle amusement, a partly chosen state of procrastination. Distraction, when applied in the way Morrison does, is malevolent. It’s not merely being busy with work that’s of questionable value compared with what what a person could be doing, making, producing with that time. This distraction tears asunder. It draws and quarters the imagination. The distractors are not demanding pointless busywork, but the endless labor of justifying your own presence, your worth, your genius, to those who are not merely ignorant, but who have a vested interest in not believing in them.
Violence, trauma, abuse—they drag the attention away, focus it on the wrong things, whittle it down to a point that can only fixate on a single thing. They narrow the world, make the vision no wider than a flashlight beam in a blackout. Distraction broke apart Simone Biles’ air sense. It turned what her body knew, fluid, automatic, into disjointed pieces. If this is the function of violence, abuse, racism, sexism—to distract, to pull apart—then the remedy must be to piece back together. The word ‘remember’ has this meaning, to put together again, assemble the pieces. That takes time, and space, and help, and care. And you must understand: it’s never “good as new,” but if the joins are sound, then it'll be good as whole.