When I walk my dog Java, we two are of three minds. There’s Java’s doggy brain, hardwired by the genes of a black lab and pointer. I, the dog walker, have one mind. I, the writer, get my own complete set of neurons. The three set out on the same walk, different paths.
In Java’s head, a walk means more than taking care of business. (And, it’s a good thing she’s a girl. Our walks would be punctuated with more stops if Java had to let everyone know that the entire neighborhood is hers. A guy dog pauses at every tree, fence post, fire hydrant and whatever else stands perpendicular to the ground to leave that unmistakable sign of ownership in a game of hound-upmanship. Java, being a member of the superior sex, need not waste her time with pointless territorialism.)
A world full of squirrels and birds awaits her. Like a sentinel, Java glances in all directions on the lookout for anything that moves. She inspects driveways, roofs, bushes and trees, which she sometimes attempts to climb. But looking is not enough. She tracks scents left behind by animals who passed through before her. She cocks her head to listen to a bird chattering and zeroes in on it.
Her dogged optimism doesn’t stop there. She rechecks every spot where she has seen squirrels on past walks. Even the leaf swept up by the wind deserves a glance because maybe this once it’s a bird. You just never know.
When Java does set her sights on a bird or squirrel, she pulls the leash with all of her 55 pounds toward it. That I am on the other end hanging on to that leash does not faze her. If I were made like a Barbie doll—not that way!—my arms would have snapped off long ago. At least, I get stronger biceps and triceps out of this.
However, my well being is not what motivates this dog of mine. It’s the instinct, stupid. Her genetic makeup--labrador retriever cross with pointer--tells her: Must get to that squirrel. Must...get…to…that…squirrel. On cue, her body becomes rigid and straight from snout to tailbone. She walks slowly toward the target. She freezes in place. The muscles beneath her coal-colored coat quiver. She fails to realize that her tags jingle a warning to them.
Oh, well. Squirrels gotta run. Birds gotta fly. And, Java’s gotta get the tennis ball in the gutter. In Java’s hierarchy, nothing beats a yellow fuzzy ball. Nothing. Forget fur and feather. Stand between her and a tennis ball and be prepared for her to plow you down on her way to it. She has run under dogs with legs shorter than hers to reach a ball. With ball in jaw, she walks miles without pausing for a single squirrel or bird. Passersby smile at me upon seeing the yellow against her blackness.
Meanwhile, the dog-owner brain concentrates on Java’s every move. I’m in charge. Yessirree, I am the alpha dog in her pack. At least, that’s what Java’s charm school instructor told me. He trained me so that I can keep her in line. That said, here’s what our walk should look like:
Owner and dog leave house. We walk at my 15-minute-a-mile pace. We stop before crossing streets, at gardens lacking the weeds that mine has, and on unkempt lawns for Java to powder her nose. No pulling, no excavating, no chasing after fauna, no chomping on used bubblegum, no picking up coffee cups, fast food wrappings, tissues. We return home 45 minutes later. Alpha dog is pleased that she got in her workout. Java is worn out. A tired dog is a good dog.
The reality? I spend three miles saying the following ad nauseam: No! Drop it! Good girl. Sit. OK! Java, come! Down! The dog trainer arrives home weary. The dog runs full speed into the house.
Fortunately, my writer’s mind gets to have a walk unspoiled. My brain wanders. At its own pace. In its own direction. Sometimes, I come up with an idea for a story. With luck, the paragraph or sentence that I had wrestled with before we set out finds its flow, its rhythm--even when I am not really thinking about it.
All the while, my senses nourish my writer’s brain. I smell the butterscotch-yellow maple leaves damp with dew on a fall morning. I watch toddlers wearing reds and blues play in the park. I pick up bits of conversation. You may call it eavesdropping, but I deem it research. It’s not as if I’m the town’s Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor on “Bewitched.” How else could I gather delicious morsels of dialogue to use later? For example, I heard this once: A woman says to another, “I’m sorry that I’m so spacey right now. I just had my upper lip waxed.” That, my friends, is priceless, useful. You never know what you might hear or see or sniff. That’s why I stay alert.
I would perish as a writer if I weren’t a keen observer. Lucky me, it’s instinctive. I am driven to look, sniff, pursue, check, listen. On that autumn morning when I was getting a whiff of those maple leaves, I realized that’s exactly what my dog does on her walk. But I’m not even going to consider what that may say about my writing. I have a better idea.