A while back, our neighbors adopted a border collie. If you're not familiar with the name, they're a type of dog that's been bred meticulously over hundreds of years, since all the way back to the British Isles, for their skill in herding sheep and other livestock.
Our neighbors somehow thought this border collie, who had grown up in a big field down in Shelby County, would enjoy a change of scenery — i.e., living on the Southside of Birmingham. In hindsight this was a leap of faith on their part, to say the least.
I still remember the first afternoon I went with them to walk the new dog. It started off promisingly enough, with the collie's nose eagerly sniffing the sidewalk, apparently reading all the messages of greeting that had been left for him earlier by other dogs.
But that was before we reached the corner crosswalk and had to wait for traffic, at which point the collie raised up his head and looked around him.
I'll never forget the expression in his eyes — panic and indignation, for starters — when he realized that there were groups of people actually walking in all different directions at once, with no rhyme or reason, instead of lining up in a neat row the way creatures are supposed to.
He started jumping up and down in the same spot, growling and barking and whimpering all at once, and when he finally got his wits sufficiently together to take off chasing these stragglers, it was all the three of us could do to restrain him with the leash.
I remember that scene because it was simultaneously funny and sad, but also eerily familiar. I understood where the dog was coming from.
A writer friend of mine once argued that there was a very thin line between writing for a living and having obsessive-compulsive disorder, and over the years I've judged him to be increasingly correct.
Be aware, this is NOT the kind of obsessive-compulsive trait that results in fanatically organizing one's personal belongings, such as having all your tools and yard implements carefully polished and hanging by hooks on pegboard walls around your basement — as anybody who's ever seen our basement (or my office, for that matter) can attest.
Nope, this kind of fanaticism applies only to intangible things such as information and ideas. Is everything in life somehow connected, or not? If not, it ought to be. Case closed.
When all is said and done, a story is nothing but a bunch of random information that nobody knew belonged together until they see it all pieced together in a lump and somehow it works.
The phrase “connecting the dots” has gotten to be almost a cliché nowadays, especially in government and law enforcement circles. But if your brain is wired to do nothing BUT connect stray dots, it's a full-time job in itself.
As a result, both writers and border collies tend to have similar levels of success in social situations. Namely, not much.
Another writer I know says it's easy to spot the writer at any social gathering that includes strangers. He or she is off to the side somewhere looking lost and confused, searching for a nonexistent pattern in what everybody is saying and doing.
Whereas, truly skilled and experienced partygoers know that if you're convincing enough at just making up the pattern as you go along, everybody around you assumes you know what you're doing.
I've actually had lessons in this from social-type people, but the lessons have never stuck.
At some point my eyes glaze over and get that border collie look again, and I'm at a loss for words.
Until later. Actually, much later. Depending on when the next writing deadline or the next utility bill is due, whichever comes first.
There are worse ways to make a living, I'm sure. But if you ever see me contentedly sniffing the sidewalk, taking care not to look around too much and get upset, you'll know I'm checking out another line of work.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, books, photos, and stories are available online at carrolldaleshort.com. His radio program “Music from Home” airs Sundays at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM.