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2006 07 24
Philosopher’s Walk IV: City of Fear
Returning from school, I’d start calling half a mile from home. Never timed how long it took. Fast. Incredibly fast. He’d be leaping for my face within a minute – long before any human being would even have heard my calling.

So there he’d be, leaping for my face. While I was ducking, spinning, weaving. Once in a while, he’d knock me over. There was no avoiding it then – his tongue slathering my face from brow to jaw.

Rocky wasn’t my dog. Not officially. His people lived over a hundred yards down the street. We were inseparable, though. We were best friends. And that’s saying something, since I used to run with all the dogs in the neighbourhood. I used to run with the dogs – and the dogs all ran with me.

And there was the game. One kid would play quarry while the rest of us gave chase. Whooping and barking. A good quarry might climb over stone fences, or scramble up trees, fanning our excitement to total pitch. The excitement of chasing.

There’s no better game. Like fox-hunting without anyone hurt. Mostly. Except for the final time we played. This new kid on the block wasn’t familiar with our game, and the dogs started chasing him before we’d had a chance to select quarry. The rest of us joined the chase. We shouldn’t have – and we wouldn’t have, had we thought about it. But we didn’t think. We were too excited to think. It was unmistakable, exaggerated, his feeling himself set upon by a wild pack – his feeling in fear for his life. It boosted our excitement, enhanced the game – that, for him, our game was real. We knew better – but we didn’t stop to think. It was too exciting.

He did get hurt. Not by us, of course. We were nice kids and nice dogs, all of us. He just fell badly.

That was the final time we played the game. There followed too much outrage, and punishment, for us to keep playing the game. There was too much outrage in my old neighbourhood, in the city I grew up. Which, obviously, wasn’t Toronto.

Of course it wasn’t Toronto. Not any of it could have happened here. Here, but for designated exceptions, dogs must invariably be leashed. Also, since fairly recently, some breeds may only go muzzled. And, come to thinking, some breeds may not breed.

Couldn’t happen here. No way. It was horrifying, from my current, 30 year later Toronto perspective. Wouldn’t even have remembered any of it, from my Toronto perspective. So reminiscent – so redolent of Lord of the Flies. Best forgotten.

I wouldn’t have remembered, but for something quite odd happening not too long ago.

What happened was I came out the front door right onto a pit-bull running around our front yard. Had a collar on, but nothing else – no leash, no tags, no nothing. Anyway, I froze. Too scared to run. And no ignoring realizing my reaction to the pit-bull in the front yard was identical to the reaction of that new kid on the block.

Continents away and over 30 years later – but just about identical. Except that he, at least, had run.

Anyway, Amy came out the house and fearlessly proceeded approaching the animal. At which point, nudged by silly gender protective impulses, I did as well. We then brought the animal into our house. Subsequent to which, following numerous adventures – including running the streets with the animal on a makeshift leash, hoping it would lead us to its home – and with telephone help from the Toronto Humane Society, there resulted a fortunate, tearful reunion between the escaped animal and its fraught people.

But the episode got me thinking – and remembering events over 30 years past. Because, back then, I would not have frozen. Not in reaction to circumstances involving a dog. Absolutely not in reaction to any dog providing every cue, every indication of being lost and excited – but by no means whatsoever aggressive. Yet, nevertheless, I froze. How come? What happened to bring about such change?

Living in Toronto over the intervening years is what happened. For here, in Toronto, a dog slipping its leash signifies danger as definitively and more surely than a convict escaping jail. There’s no opportunity to acquire cue discriminating familiarity – as between, for instance, a curious and an aggressive dog. No chance. We have defined off-leash dogs to signify hazard and danger. Consequently, we are bound to over-react – regardless what cues dogs might provide. We have become far too dogmatic to pick up on cues.

Trouble is, of course, that not picking up cues and chronic over reacting do nothing to enhance safety. Just the opposite. Impoverishing experience to such extent transforms all un-planned event, however innocuous, into hazard.

Admittedly, our game – over 30 years ago, in Haifa – wasn’t really innocuous. But the hazards of excessive safety are greater. I can conceive no greater. There’s no rescuing from mortality via eliminating danger. What follows from excessive safety is failing to live.
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 07/24 at 10:46 AM

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