Monday, October 31, 2011

And Then Someone Surprises Me.

Most days I wonder if we’ve lost all sense of compassion for one another. Specifically, I ponder this sort of thing while driving. You know those days when you just want to pull over on the shoulder and call a cab to take you home?

 Have you met the little old lady in the VW Bug? She flies around you, honking her horn, shaking her fist and displaying that one finger grandmas should never wag around in public? Or the pretty blonde who can’t seem to pick a lane because she’s too busy yelling at her cheating boyfriend via text message (probably in all caps), applying lip gloss, sipping her soy latte, and  fumbling around for the map quest directions she just knows she remembered to bring with her.  What about the boy who can’t be a day over sixteen in the lifted pick-up? He travels ten miles under the speed limit, black smoke billows out of his modified—to the point of being obnoxious—smoke stacks which seem to be at just the right height to asphyxiate you on your journey through the harbor tunnel. There’s usually a street racer somewhere behind you, too, but he’s so close and his car is so tiny that you can’t see him in your mirrors. And as if you haven't had enough fun for one day, he’s about to play chicken on the double yellow lines.

A few days ago I had the privilege of sharing the road with all of these people. But just about the point I was ready to tuck and roll into oncoming traffic or call that cab, I got stuck in a long line of traffic that inched toward the toll of the Key Bridge. If anything makes already frustrated drivers even more erratic and nonsensical, it’s being forced to sit still.

After about two hours and forty minutes of people honking and getting out of their vehicles to throw their arms in the air (as if that gesture would provide them with the knowledge of what was causing the holdup), I was next in line to go through the toll. There was a tractor trailer in front of me, so I couldn’t pull all the way up. When I glanced over to my left, there was a pickup truck sitting next to me, with his blinker on trying to merge in my lane. He was in the E-Z Pass lane and I assume he didn’t realize his mistake until it was nearly too late. When the truck in front of me moved, there was enough space to let the guy over. So, I wound down my window and waved to let him know it was okay to switch lanes. As the guy pulled over a round of horns sounded. The people behind me were not thrilled that I’d set them back another vehicle.

It was then that I really wondered about our society. Is everyone really so stressed out that helping someone who accidently got in the wrong lane will send them into an uproar? It saddened me to think that doing something nice for someone isn’t second nature, but tearing each other down seems almost automatic. I understand that everyone is in a hurry, but at what cost?

I was pleasantly surprised when it was my turn to go through the toll and the woman in the booth wouldn’t accept my two dollars. At first I thought she was merely signaling that she wasn’t ready yet. But as I sat there, still patiently holding my bills, she gave me an annoyed expression.

“That guy in front already paid for you.” She said loudly, waving me to pull forward.

Most days I wonder if we’ve lost all compassion for one another…

 And then someone surprises me.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What’s the Definitive Line Between Kind of Wrong and Really Wrong?

                After marveling at the tricks Dean’s dog was able to learn, I started reminiscing about how she came to be his dog. This made me wonder: when exactly is it okay to break the law and still have a clear conscience? Is it okay to do something we’d usually think of as wrong if our actions will save someone else’s life?
              I’m not talking about full blown Boondock Saints mode. What was that line again? “Destroy all which is evil, so that which is good may flourish.”(It sounds so much cooler in those fake Irish accents). I’m talking about something simpler, something involving less gratuitous violence and significantly less rope (this will be funny if you’ve seen the movie. And if you haven’t, stop reading this and go watch it! It’s a good movie).

The day Hurricane Irene was to hit our state, I had to visit another office to make sure everything was running smoothly. The town I was sent to was—for lack of a better term—unnerving. There were bars on the windows of the homes, cars were on cinderblocks instead of tires, and the glares I received as I walked down the sidewalk made it clear that my shiny car and I stuck out like sore thumbs.

After walking out of the building I had to inspect, I passed a yard littered with garbage. It wasn’t the seemingly broken washer  pressed up against the rusted chain link fence or the fact that two windows in the dilapidated house were covered with a blue tarp and what looked to be electrical tape that caught my eye. It was the Dog—some type of large, white and fluffy mixed breed—that was chained to a tree near the back of the house. She was whining and there was no indication that she had a food or water dish anywhere near her. When she saw me she started jerking on the chain and howling as if she were in pain.

Two beer toting men—who’s appearance made me certain that the washer in the yard was , in fact, out of order—came out of the house and didn’t acknowledge me except to leer in my direction. The poor dog cowered down when she saw them and began panting either from dehydration or because she was afraid.

“Um—is she okay?” I asked dumbly, not knowing what else to say. I mean, I was kind of the creeper in the situation. I was standing on the sidewalk looking into their yard and asking about their dog.

“Better than she’s gonna be when Irene hits.”  The tall skinny one cackled and took a swig of his beer.

His shorter, grinning buddy chimed in, “We found her digging in the yard for food couple days ago.”

My stomach revolted at the thought of her being tied up to a tree during a hurricane, with no way to seek shelter. The way he laughed  made me think he was trying to intimidate me and I wasn’t sure if he’d really leave a defenseless dog chained up to die.

 I mean surely, no one would be that inhumane.

Then the tall skinny one hurled his beer bottle at the dog, but fortunately missed and the glass collided with the tree to which she was shackled.

I quickly realized that the more upset I became, it would only encourage them to taunt me by hurting the dog. I blinked back tears that I figured they were too far away to notice and calmly walked away from their drunken laughter and the scared dog’s whimpering.

Then I made two phone calls.

“I’m not stealing a dog for you.” Mark, my baby brother, said somewhat convincingly.

“I’m just going to wait in my car ‘till you get here.” I said, ignoring his protest.

“Just because we’re older and you’re a girl doesn’t mean you always get to win.” I heard the rustle of his boots as he presumably pulled them on and I was hopeful he was only pretending he wouldn’t help. “Why don’t you get Dean to do it?”

 I didn’t have time for sibling banter. I had a pup to rescue. “He actually gave me a speech similar to the one you’re giving me now. He’s on his way, and how much did you really win when we were young, anyway?” I heard the wind blowing against his phone and I crossed my fingers in hope that he was leaving the house.

There was a palpable silence and then, “It’s not foaming at the mouth, is it?”  His truck fired up.

            Meaghan Infinity, Mark Zero.

It was already starting to get dark when Dean and Mark arrived, and I was happy to report that the two boozers had been inside the remainder of the evening.  My heart was in my throat as we crept slowly around the disgusting yard to steal a dog that wasn’t even really owned by anyone. I mean, she wasn’t their dog, the short tubby one had told me himself. She was more like a prisoner being held for trespassing.  I was saving her.


I remember wondering if a judge would buy that explanation if this ended up in court. But as Dean unchained her, she licked my hand and silently thanked me with those big, sad, brown eyes, and I decided that a criminal record would be worth it. Would it have helped my case, I wonder, if I showed the report from the vet we would later get that asserted she’d been deprived of water and food for several days, been hit or kicked in the sides, and had a fractured back foot? Or were my crimes still crimes, no matter my reason for committing them?

“You could have just reported it.” Dean said, once we were back at his apartment. But he couldn’t hide the look of affection for the scruffy mess curled up on the couch next to him.

“They wouldn’t have gotten to her until after the storm.” My brother answered for me, and gestured toward the window where Irene had already begun wreaking havoc. Dean nodded in agreement and fed our new friend the chicken nuggets I’d bought her on the way home.

I suppose what is plaguing me is that I generally see things as black or white, with no overlapping grey area. Right or wrong. Yet, when I step back from the emotional part of this whole puppynapping fiasco, it seems all sorts of grey. What’s the definitive line between kind of wrong and really wrong? Will we inherently know when we've crossed that line? I suppose the answer lies within the intent of the act. I didn’t break into someone’s backyard and steal their faithful sidekick out of malice; I did it to help a defenseless animal because she couldn’t help herself.

Looking back, and knowing Espen (who I later found out the boys actually named ESPN after their favorite channel.  Dean and Mark 1, Meaghan Infinity) has a wonderful home with my best friend, I’m not sorry for the laws I broke that night. But I can’t help but wonder how we morally reason what is concretely wrong and what is generally wrong, but we’ll make exceptions for in some cases. Some of you might agree with what I did (and coerced Dean and my baby brother to do) and some of you might think I’m no better than the two men who were abusing Espen.

I can live with that.

I guess this brings me back to my Boondock Saints analogy and the concept of vigilante justice.  For me at least, if I had left her there, I would have been just as guilty for her pain as the two men who were the direct cause.

Through writing this, I’m reminded of an episode of the Big Bang Theory when Sheldon and Stuart are arguing over whether the word “wrong” is an absolute or if there are varying shades of wrongness. I’ll leave you with their thoughts on the subject.

Stuart: “Oh Sheldon, I'm afraid you couldn't be more wrong.”
Sheldon: More wrong? Wrong is an absolute state and not subject to gradation.
Stuart: Of course it is. It is a little wrong to say a tomato is a vegetable, it is very wrong to say it is a suspension bridge.