For most of my life, I was the last person on earth you'd have expected to find malingering at the dog park, laughing openly like a fool with a muddy leash around my shoulders and with broken biscuits and poop bags in my pockets. I was that guy who rolled his eyes at people who treat their dogs like children. Dogs were dirty and scary, I felt, and I would cross the street or charge forward when faced with a person leading his or her dog on the sidewalk. I wasn't Cruella de Vil, but all my thoughts regarding dogs and dog people ranged from negative to indifferent.

But I fell in love with a dog person, and then I fell in love with dogs. And in the year plus since my husband, Tom, and I got the seven-week-old Toby from a New Hampshire breeder and he began pulling me to Amory, I've fallen in love with the dog park. I have changed, let go of so much baggage, opened myself up to the eccentric ways of dog communities. I still have moments of cynicism and fear and judgment, like just about every good person I know in this world; reports of the existence of pure unending happiness and acceptance and compassion are greatly exaggerated. But now I have a guaranteed daily chance to feel a part of something live and kicking. Over the past year, I've undergone a shakedown by a chaotic puppy regarding my control issues; I've become part of a loose community of weirdly wonderful dog people—a pack of freaks; and, on a deeper level, I've shed my hyperawareness of the inevitability of loss. Shadowed by the death of my father when I was three, by the emotional knowledge of where this all goes sooner or later, I finally got dragged into the lighter, more light-filled world of dogs and the people who accompany them. Dogs, those gusts of spirit, bring us into our own hearts, but they are also a bridge to other people.

It's a cliché; I totally know that—dogs as savior, dog people as lovably crazy. And yet there is it, my truth and the truth of many of the dog owners I've gotten to know so well from the park. We watch the dogs run free and feel their freedom. The nakedness of their desires amuses and inspires us. They get us out of bed and to the park on brain-clouded mornings. They are little gusts of spirit that can transform us, put us on track.

Sometimes you're not a cliché, but sometimes, it turns out, you are.

* * *

Amory came into our lives when Toby was about three months old. The little guy clearly needed to get out of our third-floor Brookline walk-up and run—a lot. He was scrambling, from the den couch to under my desk and into the radiator covers, with his oversized paws slipping and sliding on the hardwood floor.

I would have preferred to stay one-on-one and two-on-one with him, finding places to take him and Tom on nature walks, since urban sidewalks can be trafficky. I had an old-fashioned image of a boy and his loyal dog somewhere in the back of my mind, and so did Tom. Newly married—our ceremony was one month after gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004—we fantasized about having this alternative nuclear family, with Toby running ahead of us as we hiked through the wilderness, looking back at us as he led us forward. Two boys and their dog, a tacit and protective union, free of the grown-up world—maybe there were singing butterflies buzzing around us in that picture...

But Toby was having none of that. It wasn't that he tormented Tom and me about getting out and mingling; but once he was outside and near other dogs, he was so crazy with happiness and ready to throw himself around, we couldn't resist giving him that experience. He'd tear ass in circles whenever he was in an open field with playmates, a yellow whirlwind, his silky ears dancing up from his head. It was deeply satisfying to watch him find his footing.

Amory is only seven or eight blocks from our apartment, right by the Boston-Brookline border, a pastoral few acres with two flat, open baseball fields. Bordered on one side by a tree-filled slope down from Amory Street and on the other with a row of weeping willows sheltering a few picnic tables, it is tucked deep into the moderately busy neighborhood. You can walk by Amory without quite realizing you're on the edge of a little pastoral haven. If you're a distracted Boston University student in flip-flops, or a nine-to-five carpooler heading to downtown Boston, or a local pizza shop owner, or me about a year ago, you probably buzz by the park a few times a day without thinking twice. But if you are a Frisbee player, or a jogger, or a new mom with a carriage, or a dog owner, or a do, you probably know the park inside out, from its stinky green plastic garbage cans to the textures of its spongy, sometimes muddy turf. Sometimes when neighborhood dogs get loose and run off, the owners find them at Amory, their second home.

Those first weeks when I started taking Toby to Amory, I felt like an outsider among the chance groupings of dog people; it was my default social position. I automatically retreated to the periphery. Plus, what little I'd heard and seen during my visits was not tempting. At a glance, dog people can seem like a thorny crew. There was something about full-on dog play, with its attendant dogfights, that seemed to amplify the human interaction nearby; it was like everyone had downed a few cans of Red Bull. Dogs in groups can create an atmosphere of extroversion and expressiveness among the owners, and that isn't always pretty. “Get a handle on your damned dog, man.” I heard a young guy with a beagle yell at a bent-over elderly dog owner early on, his voice dripping with contempt. Like the dogs, the people at the park sometimes broke their training, slipped the hold of civilization, dropped their adult masks, and became emotional children throwing sand in the sandbox.

During my initial visit, I overheard angry complaints about how this one never stops talking, and talking loudly, and how that one doesn't have enough control over her dogs. Poop—he doesn’t pick his up; she doesn’t pick all of hers up. I heard hostile chatter about Officer Marv, a cop who liked to harass dog owners. People would say “Marv” with ironic affect, sinking their teeth into the name. When I got a load of said Marv, a runty fellow who looked like a pint-size Archie Bunker with a badge, I felt instant acrimony from him and toward him as he brusquely checked Toby for his registration tag. At first, the dog park seemed kind of tense.

And truly, it is a strangely random and, with the ballooning number of dog owners in the United States, a growing subculture. These were people who would not normally intermingle—some of whom were the social fringes and would not usually blend with other people at all—except that their dogs had insisted on it. All that the dog park people definitely had in common were feelings for dogs and a commitment to letting their dogs have time to be with other dogs. They were thrown-togethers, like the cast of Gilligan’s Island, group therapy members, or Canterbury Tales pilgrims, and so there could be raw psychodynamics and huge cultural gulfs, on top of the spats about the subcultural rules and rituals involving dog toys and dog poop and humping. It was a microcosm, a compact and somewhat peeled-back version of the social world at large, with its conflicts and ganging up and partisan splits. And there were fewer places to hide at the park than there were out there, and less insulation, as the colliding dogs forced interaction among strangers.

But Toby needed to be among his kind, and he pulled me into the park, unable to understand or care that I'd rather sit at home stopping time, lost in staring at him while he wrestled with a stuffed hedgehog on his back, using his big yellow paws like hands, or while he slept, his eyelids closed but blinking. He was innocent and hungry to play and always at the ready for what writer Tony Kushner boiled down to an essence in Angels in America: “More life.”

And eventually, as the months of my first year passed, I also became fully engaged in the dog park, just as much as Toby. Toby would cry with excitement and pace in the backseat of the car when we'd pull into the Amory parking lot, his tail like a bongo player against the fabric, and I began to feel the same anticipation. I became smitten with the place, with the people, with the commotion, with the pack energy. And I became fascinated by the liberating effect that dog play can have on the people watching it.

Toby gradually drew me into a more spontaneous and playful state of mind, where the specter of loss no longer served as my guide. Ultimately, I would let go of Toby's leash at the park, and I'd let go. Some people find their daily Zen in meditation, or in jogging, or in playing guitar. Many, like Tom, feel the invitation to love alone with a dog. That first year of Toby's life, I found my way into the moments of my own life in the mundane improvisations of the park universe, with golden days of dogs playing and jumping on my feet, with unplanned meetings with new friends and weird strangers, with impromptu beers and the kind of loyalty that comes with surviving dog illnesses and dogfights and people fights, too.

It was a sweet evolution, a falling up, the way Toby and I found a park rhythm that year.

Off the Leash Reprinted from Off the Leash by Matthew Gilbert. Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Gilbert. Published by Thomas Dunne Books.


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