BARKING UP THE RIGHT SEA
Today I was reminded, while walking my dog, that making space for the little things in life can restore my faith in the big things.
This morning, Zaby, my eight-month-old Labrador puppy, and I were at Ocean Beach, one of San Francisco’s peaceful sanctuaries that borders the Pacific Ocean, near the Golden Gate Park, just below the Sutro Baths. On weekends, it is often packed with people, picnics and bonfires (and an occasional dog party, like Corgicon). But, during the week, it is virtually empty. Its vast open space and magnificent views create a private playground for seagulls, surfers, dog-walkers, and joggers. Its natural beauty demands the meditative, majestic reverence of a Gothic church.
Ten minutes into our morning stroll, a barefoot surfer, wearing a black wet suit and carrying a white surfboard, started walking towards us. Zaby, who has a calm, sweet disposition and would probably offer a glass of wine to a burglar, started barking ferociously at him. I had never heard her bark and discovered she’s a tenor. She tucked her tail between her legs, started shaking, and looked at me nervously for help. She clearly hadn’t fully been indoctrinated yet to California as I guess she had never before seen a surfer. For some reason, she really didn’t like the looks of this one who looked as you might imagine him: a black silhouette against the backdrop of a blue sky and a white ocean. I knelt down next to her, and stroked her ocean-soaked coat in an effort to calm her down. But, the closer the surfer came to us, the louder she barked.
She really let loose once he was a foot away. Without saying anything, he smiled at me, gently lay down his surfboard, sat down on the sand in front of her, and, calmly, held out his hand to her fangs. He held his palm down while his gold wedding band glimmered in the morning sunlight.
He said nothing. He sat still. She barked again, this time with some hesitation. I smoothed down her raised fur. I held out my hand towards his as if our hands were hovering over a campfire to absorb its heat. She sniffed both of our hands, then only his, and barked just once more. She sniffed again, looked at me, and eventually started wiggling her butt at him. She licked his face, wagged her tail, and started dancing around him.
He had forced her to face her fear of him by standing right in front of her. After staring fear in the eye, she saw that underneath his presumably frightening costume was a kind man. He hugged her goodbye, picked up his surfboard and waded out in the water to ride the waves. All I got out of him was his name – John – and that he surfs there most mornings.
His behavior reminded me how strangers can help each other and those around them if there is a willingness on both sides to work together. (Let us remember this as we set out to vote.)
A half hour later, we encountered another surfer, dressed in a dark wet suit, carrying a surfboard. And Zaby didn’t bark.
All this came the day after Halloween. A day when costumes can be especially frightening to those who don’t understand them. My daughter wore an incomprehensible alien-abduction costume that, thanks to a hidden fan, inflates another “person” behind her so that it looks as if she is being carried away when, in fact, she is actually carrying herself.
When she showed up at her best friend’s house to trick or treat, she greeted her friend’s two-year-old brother and I feared he might be frightened by the alien attached to her. Instead, he only saw her in the costume, and he asked if her “alien friend” was staying for dinner. It was all about the way she wore her costume, and her friendly face that popped out of the outfit.
Cynics may read this and think I’m drinking The California Kool Aid. But really this is simply a story about someone I didn’t know who took the time to help a creature overcome fear. Who didn’t ask questions but responded with kindness. Who made me think about how easy it can be to slow down and listen, and how sometimes simply that can help us overcome what frightens us. Call it a surfer mirage after I’d eaten too many Reese’s peanut butter cups post-trick-or-treating. Or just take it for what moved me about it most: that a stranger took the time to silence the barking with kindness.