Dog Walking Rhetorics
When I got this dog, I knew I would have to walk him. I walk my dog approximately five miles a day. I walk him through alternative paths and routes I have chosen for that day. These routes carry us through the neighborhood and into the next neighborhoods, offering variety to the mundane task of leading an animal toward a place to piss and shit more than once a day. I try to walk him along a route where a public garbage can may be located so that I can throw out his shit half way through the walk. I walk him past barking, angry dogs and lawn ornaments and painted fences and playgrounds, and kids playing, and yard art, and even a small grocery. “What a beautiful dog,” people say to me as my dog urinates in their yard. “He’s too energetic,” I say.
Out of all the animals, dogs must walk. They don’t walk the way other animals do — merely for the sake of movement or to forage for sustenance or even to create meaning out of space. They have to walk in order to pee and shit in places outside of one’s home. A cow shits in place. A deer shits in place. A dog, on the other hand, must walk away from the place it inhabits and find somewhere else to shit. Humans walk as well; but typically we pee and shit in our homes, not on the sides of trees, bushes, poles, and our neighbors’ garbage cans. Humans have mastered the art of shitting and peeing like no other animal. We only need to walk to a bathroom in order to do so.
For some time I have been interested in walking. There is no shortage of literature and writing on walking. “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” Nietzsche said. W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn presented walking as a way to overcome the emptiness work creates and the history geography provides. The Norwegian writer Erling Kagge writes “I walk away from my problems. Not all of them, but as many as possible. Don’t we all? Some of my problems fade away as I walk. They might vanish within an hour, or a few days. Perhaps they weren’t as big as I had imagined? It’s often like that.” One myth is that by moving one foot after the other for a mile or two or longer, our problems will vanish. Spend time meandering and wandering through a city, neighborhood, or countryside, and all of life’s ills will improve. Of course, if that were the case, we wouldn’t need therapy. We would only need comfortable shoes.
The contemplative stroll. The preference for observing from the street and not from the moving vehicle. The feeling of the drift. The clearing of one’ soul and head. Cheryl Strayed walked the Pacific Crest Trail in order to overcome her marriage infidelity and life crisis. South Carolina governor Mark Sanford pretended to walk the Appalachian Trail in order to hide his affair with an Argentinian reporter. Michel de Certeau famously applauded the walk for how it avoided “the view from above,” the overly generic, broad and sweeping understanding of place or idea. Metaphorically, though, the walk, for de Certeau, also meant avoiding broad gestures that ignore the details, intricacies and nuances “street level” provides. Politics. Ideology. Belief. Grand narratives. These are “views from above.” They summarize and generalize experience in ways that ignore the “ground” or “street.” Walking allows for what such views deny. Walking allows for nuance. Detail. Walking the street reveals the less than obvious, the hidden, the unknown. Shops. Graffiti. People. Trash. Dog shit. Someone else’s infidelity. Someone’s own frustrations.
There exists the cliché image of old people, donned in head to toe sweat suits, exercising by walking in a mall, following the same circular path around Radio Shack and Barnes and Noble over and over again. Some people shut out the world during walks by listening to music or podcasts. Forest Gump ran away from his troubles; he did not walk. Many studies promote walking as an ideal form of exercise. Running hurts my knees. I prefer to walk. I think of John Travolta in the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever, walking through Brooklyn, his shirt collar open and starched, the sound of the Bee Gees making his strut cool, his purple red shoes making pace, a paint can in his hand. They either walked or eased on down the yellow brick road in Wizard of Oz. Where were they going? To find out that there is nothing behind the curtain. No solution. No magical force. The walk did not clarify anything.
In Tel Aviv, I love to walk. For a city with convenient public transportation, Tel Aviv is still to me a walking city. I have walked from the south part of the city, past HaTikvah Market or the new Central Bus Station and up to Yarkon Park on the north side. Along Rothschild Boulevard, everyday people walk their dogs. For a city with minimal home space, people own a lot of dogs. These dogs shit and piss along the boulevard as well where Tel Avivians sit in cafes smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee or water with mint. I love to walk from one part of the city to the next, ignoring the complaints of my children who hate to walk and plead for taxis or even the bus. I don’t find walking the city to be a burden. Such walking provides me with the details of city life, the belief in secret falafel or humous joints I have yet to discover, the windows of bakeries displaying various baked goods that attract my attention, the smell of pizza and meat grilling, the street art nestled in alleyways and below windows, the cats peering out from garbage cans and café entrances, someone pissing behind a building. Walking is revelation.
Walking a dog is a burden. I have to stop what I am doing, leash an excited and overly happy animal who is trying to show me how happy he is by jumping on me, and then devote thirty minutes to an hour walking him even after he has shit and pissed. In the morning, I awake early or by his nuzzle, leash an excited and happy animal, and walk thirty minutes through the cold, dark morning, muttering good morning at joggers and trying to locate where he shit in the murky light of someone’s grass so that I can diligently scoop up his mess. Walking is also wandering, as many writers proclaim. There is physical wandering, which I often did in cities when I was younger, and there is mental wandering. As I walk this dog, thoughts drift around me from my past and present as my feet move along a sidewalk or street. The reality emerges: I am walking a dog, this happened to me, this no longer exists for me, this does exist for me, this was bad, this is good, this is my life. The burdens rise and settle along the newer and more pleasing moments I experience. My brain does not stop and act Thoreau like. It moves alongside me. It walks ahead of me with projections and memories, anxieties and comfort. “Do ideas come to you when you walk,” I ask my writing class early in the semester. “Do you write these ideas down as you walk?” I do not. Ideas appear and vanish easily. Many will return to me during the next walk. Many will vanish.
Our popular vocabulary loves to walk. “Walk this Way.” “Walking After Midnight.” “Walk the Line.” “Walk of Life.” Rufus Thomas, like me, sang about walking the dog. People walk during COVID. They walk for fresh air. They walk to break a daily monotony. They walk as if they are getting away from something beyond the pandemic. The mythology of a pandemic is that one can, in fact, get away from what ails. Even after we have survived, the pandemic will remain as memory, as a virus, as a moment, as a presence. The masks can be removed, the vaccines given, the bars and restaurants re-opened, but the pandemic’s trails remain. People who have passed. People whose health will never be the same. People who lost work. These, too are trails. We will continue to walk those trails long after we have forgotten about the times we walked to get away from whatever it was that killed and hurt. Walk the Pacific Crest Trail or pretend to walk the Appalachian trail and you will still, as well, have that trail with you long after the adventure ends.
Imagine if you left a trail of walking, one only visible to you. Like a radioactive, bright lit path, this trail would mark where you walked, where you ventured off on to a new path, where you paused, where you stopped, where you returned, where you stood for some time not sure where to go next. Imagine that trail obvious to you as you left your home on a daily walk. Imagine not wanting to see that trail, but it is always there, under your feet and in front of you. Sometimes, with or without the dog, I feel that way. I feel that ever present trail among me.
I once taught a class where I asked students to write the city by walking it. I have no recollection of what anybody in the course wrote or how well they did or did not complete the assignment. I began Digital Detroit with a romantic ode to walking. The assignment was tied to my then research interests in space and rhetoric, which became that book. De Certeau, after all, told us that there is a rhetoric of walking. One walks, and one creates meaning out of interactions with and observations of the city. Instead of that class, I remember the striking image of my oldest child, standing on a Tel Aviv street, crying and angry because I am asking us to walk in order to find a place to eat at on a night when most restaurants are closed and it is the first day we are back in the country. “You lived here before!” my child screams at me. “You should know where things are!” Sometimes, though, I don’t. I don’t know the trail anymore. Just because the street name or shop is familiar, or just because I’ve walked a street or city a thousand times, or just because I stick to the route when walking my dog, I don’t necessarily know where anything is. Sometimes, I feel that point reflects my rhetoric of walking. Not remembering. Not remembering those trails I have left marked up and illuminated, not remembering places I have visited, not remembering moments I once had, not remembering every anxiety or disappointment walking may stir up inside of me as I move within a given space for thirty minutes or an hour. I should, indeed, know where things are. But sometimes I do not want to know.
When my dog shits on a walk, he often tries to kick his shit away, much like a cat does. I have to hold his leash tight and close to me while he shits, preventing him from this kick of his own feces and the potential of him stepping in it. I don’t want trails of dog shit throughout my house. He is oblivious to the shit that he could potentially step in. This point confuses me. He just shit. He knows the shit is there. He sees it. He smells it. Why does he then not know he is about to step in it? Maybe that is a metaphor for the rest of us, and maybe that, too, is a reason we walk: we do not know we are about to or we do not know once we were about to step in shit. And then we stepped in our own shit and left a trail as we walked away. As I finished writing this, this dog came up to me and asked to go for a walk. I stopped what I was doing and grabbed a doggie bag. We walked 2.2 miles. He took a shit. I dropped the bag in the trash can of a local park.