One of the dogs in my care, a dachshund, will bark at anything that moves. I’m told it’s what that breed does and there’s nothing much one can do about it. I’ve gotten accustomed to it since Lilah came into my life. When we’re out walking in the neighborhood and she starts barking at another dog (or sometimes a person) I preempt any comment or response by saying “Oh, there she goes again. Dachsunds!” Usually that suffices and the target of her displeasure will just shrug and walk away or, more often than not, linger for a bit and make a remark about how cute and little she is. Lilah knows this and will bask in the admiration for a moment before pulling away to search for her next victim.
I also have another dog in my life, a high-strung creature named Molly who is of an unusual breed called a Puli. Her hair forms naturally into dreadlocks so she also gets a lot of attention on the street. However, Molly doesn’t particularly like strangers and is the most anxious and jumpy dog I’ve ever known. Any loud noise will set her off. Even silence makes her nervous. After having lived in a house with a yard she’s never adapted to apartment life. She thinks that any space in the building other than the apartment is outside so will pee and poo in the hallways. In order to keep that from happening she must be carried down from the top floor to the street outside.
So it was one night that I had Lilah on one lead pulling me down the stairs while I was holding Molly in my arms. When we got outside I set Molly down and realized that her lead had gotten tangled up in her legs. While I was bent over dealing with that I sensed someone with a dog a few feet away on the sidewalk. They stopped and Lilah started barking at them and pulling on her lead, which then made it more difficult to try to untangle Molly, especially since the light outside was very dim. I then heard a man’s voice say, “Could you hurry it up?!” Frustrated, I muttered, “Bugger off.” (I watch a lot of British tv shows.)
I was then able to free Molly and turned to walk to the corner with Lilah still barking at the stranger’s dog. The guy followed us and yelled, “You better watch yourself, you fucking old man!”
“Oh, really?” I replied while turning back around to see who was threatening me. I immediately recognized him as the new boyfriend of one of my neighbors.
“Yeah, really!” he spat out at me before turning around to go up the stairs into our building.
“Fucking old man?!” I was so taken aback by his insult that I was barely able to walk the pups to the spot where they always pee. Wow. I’d never before had someone try to offend me by calling me old or an “old man,” which for some reason has a connotation that “old woman” doesn’t. Being an “old man,” especially a “fucking old man,” is a bad thing. A very bad thing.
After returning to the apartment I had to sit down and process what had happened. Why did this young man feel the need to denigrate me? Because I was impeding his movement for a few moments? Making him wait? From where do insults arise? The light was dim so he could barely see me, but enough so he could make out my features and movements. He saw an old man.
I must admit I am still finding my way with this ageing thing and my perception of my physical self still hasn’t caught up with the reality of what time has wrought. But I’ve never considered myself less than for being old. I’ve always appreciated those cultures and communities that have respect for elders. I was raised to have deference for older people no matter what I thought of them.
As I sat there I realized how that guy’s words had wounded me. Granted, being a gay man I’ve been called worse things than that, but it still took me awhile to overcome the hurt and to then in a rational manner unpack what had happened: the guy was in a hurry, I was in his way, he was a jerk, he disparaged me by noting that I was old—fucking old. That’s his stuff, not mine. “Sticks and stones” and all that.
But still, it was an awakening for me to experience firsthand how elders in our society are often not valued, are held in contempt, or are considered to be a bother; things learned by children observing the dynamics within their own families and reinforced by the institutions of our culture. I just hope it won’t become a routine occurrence.
Fortunately, Lilah and Molly don’t care whether or not I’m old, they just want to be taken out for walks, to be given treats, and to be loved. Same as me.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION OR DISCUSSION
- If you’re an elder, have you ever had something like this happen to you?
- Did you respond to the person(s)?
- How did it make you feel?
- How did you handle it afterward?
- If you’re not yet “of a certain age” what would you do if you witnessed and elder being disparaged in such a way?
- What in our U.S. American culture creates this dynamic?
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Featured photo by Nate Gowdy. http://www.nategowdy.com