Friday, August 24, 2012

The Potential Dog Poisoning Misanthrope of Cambridge

Some time ago Maggie the therapy dog and I were taking an afternoon walk through Cambridge. An elderly man, perhaps 80, was walking around in house slippers with black polyester socks on that were pulled up past the hem of his bathrobe. He shuffled down the sidewalk with a plastic bag in hand. The sight of him made me want to cross the street and get away. I felt uncomfortable at the sight of his decaying and disheveled appearance. I also wondered if he was naked under that bathrobe. I wasn't mentally prepared for a flasher.

I couldn't get away fast enough. He asked if he could give Maggie a treat. Hand coming out of his plastic shopping bag, he produced a large sized Milk-Bone. Maggie sat down, tail wagging and eyes making excited contact with the elderly gentleman. Maggie loves treats.

I had just read an article about dogs being poisoned by treats left out on a sidewalk. I was a worried pet-parent. What if he was a crazy deranged dog poisoning misanthrope? I said no thank you, tugged Maggie a bit, and kept on walking. Just as I was starting to feel smug in my self-empowered confident "no" skills I saw the man's face. 

He said to me "Really? It's just a bone." His face, formerly lit up by Maggie's excited eye contact, fell back into a decaying sadness.

My smug pride was tempered by sadness. Not by my actions, mind you, but by a world in which we have to worry about people poisoning dogs.

I ran into the man again just yesterday. He saw us and came shuffling down the sidewalk. While he didn't appear to remember us, I remembered him. He was wearing the same tattered robe. The same style of black polyester socks. The same house slippers. I was again caught off guard by the potential dog poisoning misanthrope of Cambridge.

Again he asked if he could give Maggie a Milk-Bone. I remembered the stories of dogs dead from poisoned treats. I also remembered how his face fell into a lonely distant sadness when I declined his treat the last time. 

Maggie and he locked into an eager gaze and time seemed to stop for a moment. 

A loving dog wagging her tail, an elderly decaying man brandishing a potentially poisoned Milk-Bone, and an anxious psychologist. For a moment I saw everything clearly. My own irrational fears about things that haven't happened. The ugly world we live in were acts of violence happen. My lack of control over those random acts of violence. My own revulsion at the sight of the decaying lonely man who reminded me of my own process of decay.

Perhaps at that very moment a Buddha, living on a dust mote, passed in front of my eyes. There was a moment of enlightenment (don't worry, it'll quickly pass). The thought occurred to me that I have an infinite number of choices that I can make in that moment. Some lead to more happiness, others lead to more misery.  

Great, dust mote Buddha. Give me the right choice. Time can't stand still for much longer.

Buddha of course didn't have a single damned answer for me. He blew away and time started moving again. Both Maggie and the decaying man looked at me. 

He asked "Can I?" 

Maggie gave me an expectant hungry look. The tip of her tail thumped on the sidewalk.

"She's sometimes a little anxious when strangers put their hands near her," I said. "This is very kind of you. Perhaps you can give it to me, and I can give it to her?"

I wanted to make a choice that lead to more happiness and less misery for all involved. Buddha still wasn't helping me out. Now I had a potentially poisoned Milk-Bone in my hand. Would I somehow instantly drop dead? This isn't what I had in mind with the less misery  more happiness thing.

I turned the Milk-Bone over in my hand looking at it. The decaying man said, "Well I've got to go. I just came out to wait for the mailman and saw you two. I wanted to say hi." With that he turned around and shuffled away from me. The potential poison dispenser was slipped into my pocket and we discreetly walked away from the elderly gentleman who was smiling and whistling.

It all worked out.

Thank you, Buddha of the dust mote, for giving me that moment to see clearly that I could choose more happiness or more misery. The first time I met the decaying man I brought violence into the world. I hurt him while trying to protect Maggie. Yesterday I made a different choice. 

I hope you come to see you have that choice too.

Update 8/26/2012

This blog post received some interesting interactions on Twitter. I thought I'd post a three of them here.

I'm not particularly proud of the fact that my first reactions when encountering this elderly gentleman was fear and revulsion. However, this is my true reaction and I think when engaged in self-reflection being truthful is important. We all have parts of ourselves we don't like. I'm reminded today that when any of us engage in public self-reflection of our own shadow-selves we also provide a mirror for other people to see the reflections of their own shadow.

I'm curious if you all find this to be true. When you watch me--or someone else--look at their shadow do you see parts of yourself that are difficult to see? Do you look away? Do you push back and try to denigrate the person who is reflecting? What do you think?


  1. What a poignant, thought provoking, lovely story. Might I suggest that perhaps the man himself might have been a Buddha or a Master in disguise? I had a similar experience but my Buddha/Master was in the form of a man who so wasted & inebriated that he had wet himself. While sitting beside him on public transportation I sent him lovingkindness, but I was too afraid to speak to him when he acknowledged something was taking place by saying, "You & I have a thing going on here." He being a male & me being a female, I allowed my fear to take over & became so frightened that I could not acknowledge his humanity & so I just shook my head & didn't speak...that is, until he spoke to me & said something that indicated that he "knew" me, or in any case, he knew that I worked with kids. He began to say something & then abruptly stopped & when I summoned the courage to speak to him, he was no longer willing to speak to me & soon after he left the train leaving me to wonder what bit of wisdom he had to share with me. I never encountered him again & so I will never know what he was about to say. Nonetheless, he taught me an important lesson: Masters do indeed come in many guises & we do indeed have the choice both to recognize them & to acknowledge them regardless of how well disguised they might be.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I'm going to have to think long and hard about the possibility of the Buddha appearing in the form of an elderly man who may or may not have been a flasher. :-)

    2. My Buddha, or Bhuddess (?!) would be a lady I came across. She came on Friday instead of her routine Saturday visit to tell me I need to "broaden my horizon."

      The word lingered around me because I came across the same phrase from one of my blog readers a few days later. It was such an uncanny, irrelevant, and out-of-context encounter that the word became my unexpected mandala.

      If I borrow a popular Japanese thought, you guys might meet and experience similar incidents in your countless before lives. Each time you might have a different interactions with him ...

      Remember! Fear is a mind killer and you conquered that killer ;)

    3. Hi Shuko, thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I like the idea of a Buddhess. This might require a future photo project!

      Fear is indeed the mind killer. So complicated to figure out how to walk gently--act gently--and be protective.

      What I like most of all is encountering the other and seeing myself. And when I see myself figuring out just exactly what I'm supposed to do with that.

  2. If Jason were female, would the comments have been so harsh?

    As a woman, I must rely on my gut instincts all the time. And they are often correct. I spot as "odd" the classmate who later harasses me by e-mail, the guy at an event party who gets escorted out a few minutes later by security.

    I walk my dog in an area where homeless people often hang out, and I must make the choice whether to engage based on these instantaneous impressions. I don't always get it right, but I try to engage as often as I can without putting myself or my dog at undue risk.

    1. "If Jason were female, would the comments have been so harsh?"

      They might have been. Internet reactions aren't limited by sex/gender. Just last year, Richard Dawkins laid into Rebecca Watson of Skepchick for feeling uncomfortable being in an elevator with a man who unsettled her: That we as a sex have been conditioned by Society to worry about such things didn't seem to matter to him.

    2. Barefootwriter-- I wondered that, too. I believe, in part, that a violated a cultural expectation that men don't express fear.

      That sense that something isn't safe--I think it's an important thing to notice carefully when it happens. I've learned over the years that we take in information in all sorts of complicated ways we don't really understand.

      Thanks for stopping in and commenting!

    3. Rebekah -- what a interesting read. I'm so glad you shared that link.

      I particularly liked:

      "Every time I mention, however delicately, a possible issue of misogyny or objectification in our community, the response I get shows me that the problem is much worse than I thought, and so I grow angrier."

      It's so hard to talk about racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. etc. The mere mention of it stirs up such complicated feelings in folks, as evidenced by some responses I got on Twitter in response to my own reflections of what it was like to meet an older man stumbling around in a bathrobe.

  3. Here's a question: If this had been a child being offered a treat by a stranger and not a dog, would the reaction have been the same?

    Personally, if I "had just read an article about dogs being poisoned by treats left out on a sidewalk", I wouldn't accept a treat from a stranger no matter what the person looked like: well-groomed, disheveled, or something in between. My first concern would be protecting a member of my family, not the stranger's feelings. But I think you handled it well in the end: taking the treat, saying you'd give it to Maggie later, and pocketing it.

    I suspect "Stan C." and similar repliers read only the first paragraph and started reacting. They may have passed their eyes over the rest of the text, but I don't think they truly *read* it.

    1. I'm sure the reaction would have been different. Probably no one would have noticed the post as we are all taught as children not to take candy from strangers.

      And yes. My Twitter feed has ample evidence of reaction rather than reflection. I hadn't anticipated such a reaction to this post--it's racing to the top of my most popular posts (right up there with a post I wrote about white privilege).

  4. When I read your post the first time I just assumed that the fear you were referring to was inspired by a "bona" fide local news reporting of a dog bone poisoning, but reading your post a second time it wasn't clear. If the poisoning was local and recent, then I understand your fear for your dog. But if you were reacting to one of those general news scares that give no specifics, then you are over-reacting and your own willingness to believe the worst should be examined, which you appear to be doing. You say the treats were left out on the sidewalk. Shows cowardice on the part of the perpetrator and an unwillingness to be identified. The man was being open and direct. Of course, you were in the position of having to make a snap judgment and you erred on the side of extreme caution. We often get snap judgements wrong if they are based on hearsay (the goal of unspecified scare stories is to inspire fear).

    The best judge of character might be your dog. Maybe I'm giving your dog too much credit for brains and intuition, but aren't dogs supposed to be able to sniff out trouble? In this case your dog wasn't at all afraid of the man.

    My own judgment of people with certain mental health problems is that they are usually much more at ease and very loving towards animals and young children than they are with adults. As a psychologist, you should appreciate this. But, you had to process a lot of information very fast, and your first reaction was to protect your dog.

    So, was this a local story reported by local news, or was it a type of internet hoax? Be critical of the source.

    1. Hi Rossa, thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond to my post. To answer your question, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist that I closely follow first tipped me off to scores of stories reports from around the country where pet animals were poisoned by ex-lovers, angry neighbors, or strangers. A simple Google search will reveal scores of articles.

      In the end, this isn't a story about poison, my dog, or even the old man. It is a story about my own self reflections about wanting to be a better person in the world and making better choices. My first encounter with the man fear won out and I walked away, hurting him. The second encounter I made a different choice and protected my dog and acted kindly toward the gentleman without violating my own boundaries.

    2. Thanks, Jason. I understand the intent of your story and I think you reflected on your experience intelligently. Readers, like me, have a habit of going off on their own tangents!
      Best regards,

    3. What? Wait a minute. People go off on tangents. :o)

  5. Hi Jason. It's been interesting to see the reaction that your original post has stimulated. Disappointing, though, to see that some readers haven't been able to see past the initial reaction you had to the man (as you did), but have jumped into accusing you of various things.
    I find your piece a nice reminder that we all have biases and prejudices (whether we like to admit to them or not).
    Those who claim to "see everyone as they are", whilst at the same time denying they have unconscious biases, are barking up the wrong tree.
    As Eric Berne said, we all have an Inner Nazi!
    You have made the response, and I agree, that true understanding of diversity involves an honest reflection of one's own prejudices. To try and gloss over this, with a kind of bland 'niceness' however well-intentioned, is to miss the point.
    Thanks for your postings, which I read with interest.


    1. Ian -- Commenting about Eric Berne instantly transported me back to my own childhood in the most delicious and satisfying way. Thank you for reminding me about TA For Tots. One can probably trace back most of what I am as a psychologist to that book. I wonder if my mother still harbors that book?

    2. This is your mother speaking . . .
      I passed that book onto your sister because it was actually her book. I believe I also returned the TA for Teens book that I also had "harbored" for many years. Both of the books made their way from my book shelf to hers when we moved. I'm sure she would be willing to share the book & some memories with you next time you visit. Sending you "warm fuzzies" to counteract all the "cold pricklies" (very appropo since one of your readers called you a prick!) you've received in response to your post.
      MIP (Mother of the Irreverent Psychologist)

  6. I agree with you when you state, "I think when engaged in self-reflection being truthful is important." Also, not a comfortable thing to acknowledge, but you are right, "We all have parts of ourselves we don't like." It is more that a little unfortunate when/if we choose to reveal these personal experiences, we can become a target... Apparently, due to to your profession--you have been castigated for honestly sharing your reactions and reflecting on what it all means to you. In your update you characterize your reactions as something you're not proud of--so ultimately, you are being accused of being "judgmental" and because of your profession, some people are harshly judging you. Truly ironic; a pot calling the kettle sort of thing...ALL people judge and have biases--The best we can truly hope for is to be aware of them; to reflect upon them; and hopefully, find a way to minimize the risk of allowing our human frailties to be the reason we would feel justified in causing further distress, or actual harm to others or ourselves. Thank you for sharing a bit of your shadow-self; it gives me an opportunity to reflect on my own.