It was overcast and drizzly so we knew the playground would be all wet but we decided to stop and play on our way home from orchestra, anyway. I used an extra sweater we had in the car to dry off the slides and swings somewhat so the kids wouldn't get soaking wet and they had a great time running around playing pirates.
"Ahoy! I spy a little dog!" Benjamin called out from the designated crow's nest.
And, indeed, there was a sweet little puppy running around (and by my using the word "sweet" you must really know that this dog was, indeed, sweet because it's against my natural inclination to consider unknown dogs "sweet"; but this dog looked kind and happy and gentle and sweet).
"DOGGY!" Alexander gushed, rushing towards it.
As sweet as the dog looked, rushing toward a dog isn't very good etiquette so I stopped Alexander just as the dog's owner came around the corner, his shuffling gait had trouble keeping up with spry little puppy, and he had the leash draped around his own neck instead of the dog's (which is technically against the rules of the park).
"Does he want to pet the dog?" the man asked.
"ME PET A DOGGY!" Alexander agreed.
So we went over to pet the dog.
"Do you know what kind of dog this is?" the man asked.
"I don't," I confessed.
"It's a Basenji," he said. "It's an African breed. Very quiet dogs. They can't bark."
"Sounds like my kind of dog," I said.
By this time Benjamin had run up to pet the dog, too, while Miriam and Zoë lagged behind a bit, still unsure about whether or not this was alright.
"Let's see you have one, two, three, four. Four?" the man asked.
"Five, actually," I said. "Three girls and two boys. The oldest is at school."
"I had five, myself. Four girls and a boy."
He told me all about his family, about how proud he was to have been their dad, about how his girls each had him wrapped around their little finger, about how magical it was to become a grandpa, about watching his own children become grandparents.
"Let me see your pinky finger," he said to Miriam, so she showed him (and when she told him her name he sang, "Miriam. Miriam. Mi-ri-am! I can hear-i-um loud and clear-i-um!").
"Just as I suspected," he said. "I can see your dad's wrapped right around it. That's just the way it is with little girls and their daddies. Do you speak Spanish?"
Miriam shook her head.
"I will teach you some. Say Я люблю вас," he said.
Miriam and I looked at each other knowingly (a look that said, "That wasn't Spanish!") and she just shook her head.
"You won't try it. Let's have your mom try. Say Я люблю вас."
"Я люблю вас," I said.
"Very good! Do you know what that means?"
"It means I love you."
"How do you know that?!" he asked.
"Потому что я говорю по русски," I shrugged.
"What? How?" he asked (and we spoke in Russian a little bit more).
"I studied Russian and went over there to teach English when I was in university," I said. "But how do you speak Russian?"
He didn't have even a trace of a Russian accent when he spoke English.
"I was an intercepter during Vietnam," he said, standing a little taller than he had before. "Worked in intelligence; I was a spy. You're talking to a spy! I spoke six languages. Spoke 'em well, too—lots of training. But not anymore. If you don't use 'em you lose 'em. Let's see: Russian, Spanish, Tagalog... English, of course. Do you speak Tagalog?"
"I don't," I said.
"Mataba kang nakatutuwang unggoy!" he screamed at the sky. "That means, 'You fat, crazy monkey!'" he said, and the kids all giggled. "But I don't remember much else. I haven't spoken Tagalog in many years. If you don't use it..."
"You lose it," I finished for him. "I know."
"Not many people to speak Tagalog to around here. Lots more Russians."
We talked for a few minutes more while the kids played with his very good-natured dog, Tucker.
"Now that you've pet my dog, can I pet you?" the man asked Alexander.
"You can pet my head," Alexander told him, so the man reached out his wrinkly, age-worn hand and stroked Alexander's sweet baby head.
"It doesn't get better than this, you know?" the man told me and then he decided that he'd better let us get back to playing (and that he'd better let his little dog, who'd started shivering with cold, start to run again), so he headed off on the path through the woods and we'll probably never see him again.
And maybe that's fine, and maybe it's not.
I fear we have a loneliness epidemic in our society.
So many houses on our street, for example, are, in my opinion, fairly large (though, I mean, like, if you ask my kids who are having to share bedrooms they might not be quite big enough) but most of them have only one or two people left living in them. I think it's great that they can be so independent but I also worry about what that means for their spirits when they run into me at the park and hold me captive with stories of Vietnam and raising children and telling jokes for a half hour.
I'm not a good conversationalist so I know that poor man must have been starving for conversation.
We have some beautiful parks here, it's true, but they are often empty and I wonder if they shouldn't be full—full of people seeking exercise and friendship (as this article about the use of parks in China says). I personally love public spaces, not necessarily to make small talk, but just being around people (who I suppose you could meet if you wanted to).
My friend Bridget has written about how America and Finland differ, for example, in America we smile and make small talk. In Finland you avert eye contact and avoid speaking...but also she's written about sharing a stranger's fire to cook sausages while out and about... So there's that.
I'm honestly not sure that's a thing that could happen in America.
If we were to try to co-use someone's grill at the park (assuming we were at the park on a day when anyone else were there), there would be a lot of awkwardness going on.
Of course, that's just an assumption. I've never actually tried to do it, but I think we're not collectively minded enough over here to embrace something like that. Chances are there would be feelings of encroachment ("this was my spot") and entitlement ("they should have brought their own charcoal"). But that's my assumption. I could be entirely wrong about this; it's just not something that I've seen happen here—spontaneous gatherings, I mean.
There are planned things—playgroup and things like that—but there's nothing dependable. There's no group of old ladies doing tai chi every morning at 8:00—just for exercise and companionship.
I wonder if that's one of the costs of having such an individually minded society, rather than a collectively minded society: an old man hungry for the sound of his own voice shuffling around a small pond over and over again, his only companion a dog that can't bark.
And maybe that's fine, and maybe it's not.
It's "not good for man to be alone." Yet too many of us are.
I hope that when I'm 85 and I'm out walking my dog in the park (hahaha—the very idea of me ever having a dog!), I hope I can find someone (or five someones) to be with me and listen for a minute.