Without masks, it’s a dog’s life

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Every evening my family walks five blocks from our house in Outer Sunset to Ocean Beach after some back and forth. We cross the Lower Great Highway at our new stop sign and the Great Highway, blissfully closed to cars, and scurry over the dunes to the beach. We worked from home all day – not quite on top of each other thanks to my small office in the garage – but still navigated work and grooming and errands and feeding and nap times, and where it will be quiet and uninterrupted enough to be around Get on zoom. Our daily beach excursion is a part of our routine that we can look forward to without the added logistics of the COVID era. We can even drop the face masks these days.

Outer Sunset Beach is a locals-only eatery during the week at sunset. Even on the foggy and windiest days, we’re out there. The lack of parking prevents even the toughest tourists from camping in our quiet streets. Before the pandemic, we might all miss each other due to post-work events and personal commitments. The bustle of our lives prevented us from going to the beach at the same time every day. Now our sunset routine is quarantine activity. No planning, no awkward conversations about wearing masks and sharing food and who was where and around whom. We can greet each other with a wave and either go further in our separate directions; or we linger a while, do the dying art of small talk, stretch our legs and enjoy a little company after our isolated days.

We don’t even have to find things to talk about – we comment on gaming behavior, current learning challenges, favorite toys, and the latest mishaps. We don’t ask about jobs or what someone is doing when they’re not here on the beach. The pandemic is rarely mentioned, and questions are usually asked about what a year of quarantine will mean for our families. Will there be fear when we leave the house? To travel? Invite other families? How will the behavior change?

We don’t even know all of the names. Well, we know the names Bear, Boogie, Sonoma, Lincoln, Penny, and Scout. We are known as “Sequoia’s Parents”. Similarly, we know very few names of the other people standing in approximate circles, holding leashes and poop bags, throwing balls and frisbees, and breaking up fights.

The dogs run away and return with silly smiles on their faces, tongues sticking out and tails wagging. We can observe all the different dog personalities: those who face the waves head-on and those who are more hesitant; those who want to run and those who prefer to wrestle; those who love to hunt and those who love to be pursued; the ones who steal a whole plastic bag of cooked chicken out of my pocket and then panic and swallow the whole thing, the bag and everything.

It is also possible to leisurely watch the other people, as is rare in this pandemic year. Those who apologize when their dog steals a ball and those who actively promote it; those who are concerned when their dog is ten feet away and those who don’t notice when their dog is a quarter of a mile up the beach; those who play with all dogs and those who hardly recognize the other dogs, let alone the other people. I return home from the beach and find that I haven’t thought about work, politics, or the virus – not because I deny the existence of problems, but because I can live in the moment and see the world through the eyes of Sequoia.

We haven’t seen our own species in the wild for over a year. And when we did, it was in pandemic terms. It’s like we’re all doing some kind of experiment: locked up and exposed to abnormal stress so a scientist can learn about our reactions. Who wears masks, who distances themselves socially, who stays at home, who closes, who thrives? As the restrictions wear off, we need to set new conditions for navigation: should we really take off our masks, who is okay to see, what is the correct etiquette when you don’t know if someone is vaccinated? We observe our fellow experimentalists with judgment, contempt and jealousy, forgetting that we are operating under the most unusual conditions that were imposed on us almost overnight and which now span 14 months.

Remember to watch dogs in a shelter as if they were adopted. Those in kennels grind their teeth or duck or kick out. Even a few months after his adoption and after he has improved a lot, Sequoia is still responding on his leash and barking more than we’d like from things that go by our windows. The FedEx truck can always be its nemesis, and it can always be a different dog on a leash than on it. But he no longer loses his mind by the garbage truck or street cleaner, and there are always more times when he is more interested in his goodies than the dog across the street. So, progress.

Progress looks like a vaccine to us humans. I hope the progress looks like this for Sequoia too: maybe still triggered for inexplicable reasons, but slowly learning how to adapt to a new way of life. One that enables him to look at the world in amazement and not with fear. Just like my husband and I, when the first night after the restrictions on wearing masks outside were lifted, Bear’s dad said, “I think this is the first time I’ve seen your faces.”

A few weeks ago I was alone and went to the beach with Sequoia. He was in a terrible mood and responded to absolutely everything in the big bad world: people, cars, bikes, leaves, ghosts. As we were walking down a particularly narrow section of the sidewalk trapped between a wooden fence and parked cars, a gray-haired woman got out of her car and stepped onto our path without me having enough time to placate the dog with treats or take him away. He pulled, growled, barked in what my husband and I call cujo mode. I tried to calm him down and this woman decided that she wanted to talk to me about him. Is he a salvation? Has he been abused? The longer she stood in his fear bubble, the more he fell. I tried to bring him down the block where I could calm him down and let him refocus. He was finally sitting there and looking at me with his cute expectant face as she approached again. Snap, he was back in Cujo mode (and I was back in “leave me alone” mode, which I honestly had perfected before the pandemic).

“Sorry, I just want to say he’s lucky to have you.”

This stranger, although he witnessed the fear and reactivity of this poor dog, saw the most important thing: As amazed as I was, I was just trying to help him. I didn’t do it perfectly, and someone who watched it might have pointed out things I did wrong, but I did the best I could.

This pandemic has made it impossible to observe our own species – or even individual functions – in our natural state. But on the beach we all got one step closer to this state of affairs with our dogs. By default, when the world opens up again, we resort to our innate personalities: cautious, adventurous, sociable, shy, serene, hyperactive, talkative, vigilant. Personalities who provide information on how we will respond to the transition from quarantine: immersing ourselves headlong in social engagements and travel, delaying the first meal in an indoor restaurant, or leaving the mask on just a little longer (or forever if we have one Cold not missed).

I wish we humans could see each other the way we do with the dogs: watch, know what behaviors can emerge without judgment, celebrate as we progress, and give each other mercy when we don’t understand each other.

Quarantine Thoughts is an on-going personal essay series that explores the impact of the coronavirus, social distancing mandates, and the economic impact of COVID-19 on locals. Read more essays here.



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