Of Dogs and Books that Bind
It was pretty darned chilly at the off-leash dog park this morning. The sky was overcast and a mean spitting of unexpected snow was pelleting those of us who were huddled near the picnic table as our dogs chased and romped, unconcerned with the elements. “Colder than I expected,” was the general consensus, but like true Minnesotans we tended to all have hats and gloves anyway. The wind was what punctuated the chill, like usual.
It’s a somewhat regular group that comes together at the dog park; nothing organized, just a familiarity that comes with constantly bumping into each other. We tend to know each other not by our own names, but by the names of our dogs: Gracie, Diego, Lucy, Lenny, Teddy. We keep an eye on each other’s dogs to make sure our own are playing nicely, commenting on age and breed and temperament. After a while, the conversations seep into other topics: families, work, travel, hobbies, the search for a new car or hope for a good season for the Twins. And in this particular group – books.
Most of the folks who gather at this time on weekday mornings are readers, and lovers of good books. When someone makes a recommendation, many, including me, take mental notes. Science fiction and fantasy is, surprisingly, a favorite (I find that many adults are reticent about admitting a liking of fantasy, unless someone else has mentioned it first, almost like it’s a guilty pleasure), as is a good detective story or a baffling mystery, and of course, anything set in Minnesota. One gal was brave enough to say she likes a busty romance every once in awhile, and I admire her all the more for that. We throw out names and titles, and occasionally upcoming local events where an admired author will be reading, or has been interviewed in the hometown newspaper.
We’re not organized enough to have any kind of network beyond this one dog park and a sweeping view of a surprisingly rustic urban lake (and occasionally a chance encounter with a hawk or even a bald eagle, if we’re lucky) – and a love of man’s best friend, of course. People come and go, there isn’t a schedule or a rigid expectation. Newcomers are welcomed and often a question is thrown out (“How old’s yer dog?”, “What kind is she?”) in place of a hello – it just seems more apropos, at a dog park. Yet most often the talk is of the dogs, just as one would expect.
But I’ve had nice conversations that range a bit further with lots of people there, like the gal who is an English professor at the local community college, the same one that my daughter attends. While our dogs wrestled and ran, we talked about the joys of books and reading, but also she spoke about a love of teaching, of the delight of seeing young minds engaged, and the challenges, both academic and professional. It reminded me to always thank those who undertake such an important task.
One fellow often brings his fancy camera and takes photos of the dogs in the park for his website, of which he is forward-thinking enough to have a business card at the ready for those who want one; he has a few emails of others in the group, as well. This morning, he mentioned that he was thinking of publishing a book of his photography, and wondered that if he did follow through, would he need to get release forms from the dogs’ owners? A daunting task, given the fluid nature of the people and dogs that come and go here. Another gal was a lawyer and thought she might have a contact who could give an informed answer. Most folks there had some sort of opinion (mine was that I thought he might need a release if he named the dog, but perhaps not if they were just anonymous images. I have no idea if that’s right, but it made some kind of sense to me… which probably means I’m way off base). I think, though, that we all would be secretly pleased if our dogs graced the pages of a published work. I certainly would be proud to see the mighty Belle included, but, of course, being Minnesotan, I don’t count on it. Circling back to talk of books, the photographer encouraged me to read Connie Willis; I gave him China Miéville.
Beyond conversations at the dog park, though, there does not seem to be any pressure to widen the networking. Some of the regulars know each other on Facebook. There is an occasional sharing of email addresses. A few are aware that I write for a literary website and there has been some interest in that. Occasionally I will hear about this person or that person who met for dinner or coffee at a local restaurant; some of the folks are actual neighbors. But it almost feels that contact information is sacred. Not guarded, no, not withheld, certainly not suspect, but something that, if given, has to be done carefully, organically, so as not to upset the dynamic of the dog park. We meet together for the love of the dog and all else is the proverbial icing on the cake, the butter on the biscuit, and were there to be an organized interaction then the impetus would be on the human connection and not the canine one. Then something would be lost. Something simple, whose only obligation is the welfare of the furry beasts cavorting and wrestling and chasing bright yellow tennis balls. After all, it is a dog park.
Or maybe its just that it’s cold out and no one thinks to carry scrap paper and pens in pockets filled with gloves and stocking caps along with car keys and leashes, poop bags, cell phones, tissues and chew toys, and occasional training treats. It could be that, too. Because it’s still winter in Minnesota, and it was colder than expected today.
*Previously posted on LitStack 1 March, 2013*