Leashed of My Worries

By Steve Uhler   |   September 21, 2021

Molly’s a grand pooch – astute, alert, intuitively obedient. So, I immediately took umbrage when we found ourselves confronted by a masked stranger over the simple act of taking an afternoon stroll together.

The two of us often take walks around the cliffs overlooking Coal Oil Point. It’s a safe, bucolic, and familiar environment, and I often let Molly loose from her leash there, secure in the knowledge that she never strays from my sight and stays within 30 feet of her safety zone. I like to think we’re both prudent and responsible citizens. We’re both vaccinated – me for COVID, she for rabies. 

It was a fine, late-summer day to be free — the salt-and-kelp scented breeze rising from the high tide below us, angel-hair clouds shifting shape in the endless blue sky above. As Molly was preoccupied tracking the scent of a squirrel in the brush, a woman approached from the opposite direction on the trail, her lower face obscured by a protective facemask, and a huge, fluffy brown poodle parading elegantly in front of her, tugging on a fashionable leash. 

We converged within the verboten social distance of six feet from each other, Molly trotting obliviously onward in front, scanning the trees intent on her squirrel patrol, unfazed by the passing poodle three times her size. The woman attached to the other end of her dog’s leash tugged it tauter than a tightrope. I couldn’t see the hidden grimace obscured beneath the stranger’s facemask, but I could track her angry eyes glaring at me. As we passed each other, she spoke in my direction.

“Your dog is supposed to be leashed,” she decreed in an imperious tone. Then, lowering her voice to a muffled stage-whisper, adding, “Some people just don’t care about others’ safety.”  

The hackles on the back of my neck immediately stood at attention, and I readied myself to return verbal fire.

Experts may differ, but I’m an alum of the School of Unleashed Obedience training. I took umbrage at her remark. This is America, and stupid as it may seem to others – and perhaps even eventually ourselves – we have the personal freedom of choice to break with protocol – and sometimes law – to follow our beliefs. In the end, we all select which doctrines we choose to follow and which we deviate from. We all “make exceptions” to our little laws. I chose to break the mandate of having Molly on-leash, all in the “patriotic” spirit of safe-guarding my precious personal freedom to be an ass and her right to pee where she pleases.

Opening my mouth to respond to the stranger’s chastisement, I suddenly realized something: The lady was masked, but I wasn’t. In my haste to walk Molly, I had inadvertently left my now fairly skanky facemask in the car, a half-mile behind us. Perhaps the woman’s remark about my “not caring about others’ safety” was directed at my mask-less face and not my leash-less dog?

Epiphanies are where you find them, and this one struck me like a karmic thunderbolt. I instantly realized I had no ammunition for any argument over leashes — or masks, for that matter. Was there really any significant difference between my choosing not to wear a facemask and my choosing not to leash my dog? In my mind, both were merely small gestures of civility extended to strangers, a personal choice hardly worth confrontation over. Suddenly I felt embarrassed, exposed, and a little contrite. In that awkward moment I couldn’t, for the life of me, differentiate between the mandate for leashes on dogs and the mandate for masks on people.

As of this writing, we have a seemingly amorphous mandate encouraging citizens to wear masks in most circumstances while out in public, but let’s face it: The window for mandating masks is shattered and shuttered at this late point. We’re a dysfunctional consortium in post-pandemic flux. Similar conflicting paradigms pepper our country, dividing otherwise rational and compassionate people like oil and water. It all seems to come down to that volatile powder-keg of American pride, freedom of personal choice.

Walking on, I flashed back to an earlier episode when Molly was still a frisky young pup. We’d been out walking when suddenly a large German Shepherd — collared but leash-free — galumphed out of nowhere, pummeling into Molly armed with nothing but good intentions and a wagging tail. Poor Molly was so taken aback she pulled at her leash, nipping with puppy-sharp teeth at her much larger counterpart, who promptly – and understandably – retreated into the foliage. Both parties emerged slightly traumatized but unharmed. But it could easily have turned ugly and could have all been prevented if two parties coming from opposite directions had erred on the side of safety and courtesy. I learned that day that one dog’s right to stroll around free from a leash ended where another dog’s leash began.

Turning back to retrieve my mask, I resolved that if I crossed paths with that lady and her tethered poodle again, I would extend the small and painless courtesy of donning my facemask, attaching Molly to her leash, and apologizing for my inconsiderate behavior. Perhaps I’d even thank the woman for pointing my mistake out to me. But the opportunity did not present itself; the lady and her canine had moved on to other pastures. My chance to make amends passed, gone forever like the squirrels that Molly never caught, the discarded facemasks that litter our streets and sidewalks, and the countless small wrongs in my life it would have cost me nothing to have righted.

We live in tempest times; tempers run short; nerves are frayed. Would it really have been that much of a compromise to my core beliefs to leash my dog — or to wear a mask — even if the sole result was nothing more than setting my fellow human being a little more at ease? And the outcome could be much larger than that. A safer dog. One less trip to the vet. One less death from COVID-19 or its insidious progeny, Delta. A hundred more lives saved by a vaccine. Perhaps even a thousand fewer deaths from our peculiarly American me-first, don’t-tread-on-me privileged mindsets.

Leashing my dog? OK. Cover my nose and mouth when I venture outside or in a crowd? Fine by me.


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