My sister Grace once owed a coffee shop two cents, and went back to pay up. And I owe my friend Tara lunch and have for five years or so, since she picked up the tab and said I could get the next one, which hasn’t happened yet. I’m sure she doesn’t ever think about it, but it’s there in my internal ledger. God help the world if I was Santa Claus. But this is how I was brought up. It’s freakishly important to me that people think I am a responsible person.
This does not mean I always follow the rules (not by a long shot), but it does mean that I don’t like getting in trouble for breaking them. In fact, it generally strikes me as a deep injustice when I do get chastised for being irresponsible. I think my decisions through! I am not intending anybody harm! Sure there is a law, but it’s not for me, because I am responsible!
I don’t feel this kind of bad about getting parking tickets, or getting pulled over, or when I mess something up with disastrous consequences. But when someone implies that I might not be responsible, oh geez.
For instance, last week, I was walking Squinchy in Seward Park. It was mid-day on a rainy weekday, and we were up on the windy little woods trails that hardly anybody was on, so I didn’t have him on the leash. He was sniffing things. I was angsting. Rainy woods are good for both of those things, and we were really getting into it. We had hardly seen anyone.
Then up came a woman. Squinchy sniffed her. And she said to me, “I just have to tell you, there are a lot of good dog parks in Seattle, but this is not one of them. I don’t really like dogs, and my four year old is terrified of them, and sometimes I take him up here, so I would appreciate it if you would obey the leash law.”
“Ok, sure,” I mumbled, grabbing Squinch’s collar. Then she was gone, and since there was nobody else up there, I let Squinchy go again. But boy, was I upset! I mean, I had weighed the decision to break that law carefully. And as for the dog parks, sure Squinchy could run around in one, but I would have to stand in the open in the rain, which while it allows for a certain kind of angst, is not nearly as cathartic as walking in the woods. And leash laws are meant to keep mean or wild dogs from hurting people. Squinchy didn’t cause any harm. Hell, back in Missoula, dogs were always off leash and it was up to you to keep them from jumping up on you if you didn’t like mud on your clothes.
Sure, that lady sounded reasonable, but that only made it worse. If she had just said, “Put a leash on your damn dog!” it would have been so much better. Then we would have been on equal footing: I would have had a dog off leash, and she would have been yelling at a stranger. But she was so non-violent-communication nicey-nice, like she was some really awesome person and I was a delinquent she could condescend to inform.
Yeah, it really hit a nerve. Maybe if I had not been feeling already upset it would have rolled off like the rain on my raincoat. I’m pretty sure at this point the good dog-fearing woman was mostly standing in for other people I was already upset at, which is probably obvious. And I know that my belief in my own upstandingness blinds me at times to my own disreputable actions. I mean, it can’t be that bad if I did it: I’m a responsible person!
As Kayla says in Good Like the Sea, “Ah, the folly of believing in the immunity of one’s own goodness.”