Eddie:  Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?… I bet I been bit a hundred times that way.
Slim: You have? Why don’t you bite them back?

In the light of recent events, I can’t help but thinking that this exchange between Eddie, played by Walter Brennan, and Slim, played by Lauren Bacall, in the classic film “To Have and Have Not”*, casts an interesting light on the litigious society in which we live. Permit me to explain…

You see, a couple of weeks ago, I was bitten by a dog.

Yes, me. Someone who had never met a dog that didn’t like me, and has had a couple of my own. Someone who has been referred to by my wife as big old shaggy dog as she has watched me happily roll around on the ground with slobbery newfound friends.

In this instance, my wife and I were walking in NYC and met a dog owner with a beautiful 2-year old female Newfoundland (my favorite breed). We did the standard NY thing, and asked if it was okay to pet the dog. The owner said, “Yes, she’s friendly and she loves being petted.” As I reached down to pet the dog, she lunged, tearing open my lip and my hand in an instant.

After much shock, blood, and a couple of cab rides we ended up at Beth Israel’s emergency room, where the staff and an on-call plastic surgeon did an amazing job of repair. (Even with 20 stitches, you can barely see the scar, although the shock of being bitten by a dog is still resonating through my soul, as I give dogs on the street a wide berth and contemplate a shift in my own personal alignment with the universe.)

Before we headed off to the emergency room, though, we reassured the owner, who was shocked at her dog’s unprecedented actions, and no doubt terrified that we would report the dog, that we would not in fact report the dog. My wife and I are both animal lovers, as well as vegetarians (okay, pescatarians), and wouldn’t want our actions to cause a dog to be put to sleep. And yes, if the dog ends up attacking someone else, we know we bear some responsibility for that.

But in my mind, had we not stopped to pet the dog, the attack would never have happened. Who knows why it decided to attack me when it had never attacked anyone else? Maybe it thought it was protecting her. The owner is covering all medical expenses, bought a muzzle for her dog the next morning, and is getting the dog behavioral training. There was no chance of rabies or other complications, as the dog had had its shots literally less than 2 weeks earlier, which she proved by emailing us copies of the records that weekend.

Other than the attack itself, what surprised me most was the response from my friends and business associates, who overwhelmingly thought we should not only have reported the dog, but sued the owner. And while only a few of them brought up the notion of future victims, most felt it was a lost financial opportunity.

I’m not knocking them, by the way. We hear it all the time, that we live in a litigious society. People have the right to use a system the way it advertises it should be used.

In an interesting, coincidental confluence of legal events, I also recently had the chance to opt out of signing a contract which might have cost me the ownership of a book I’ve written. Thanks to the advice of a close friend, combined with the opinion of an Intellectual Property attorney, I chose not to sign the contract.

But what stuck with me most was something the IP attorney said. He said that many contracts are just as bad, and that frequently the creator has no leg to stand on in negotiating a better contract, because the people on the other side of the equation have the power. As he said, if you have another option, take it.

Thankfully, these days, the little guy has many other options.

First of all, self-publishing is a much more valid solution than ever before. From Radiohead’s self-released, pay-what-you-want album In Rainbows, which changed the music paradigm and still made money, to self-published authors like Amanda Hocking, who made over two million dollars on her own before eventually being picked up by a major publishing house, the keys to the kingdom are no longer exclusively held in the hands of the self-proclaimed kings.

Second of all, social media is coming into its own in a big way in terms of raising public awareness. And if you don’t think so, look at the impact of social media from Twitter to YouTube to Facebook in three stories currently in the news:

  • The 85 million plus views of KONY 2012, the YouTube video about indicted Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony, where according to CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, mainstream media’s coverage of Kony over the years was unable to gain any traction at all.
  • The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, whose family, along with their supporters, used social media to fan the otherwise dying flames of attention into a Federal Justice Department investigation and nationwide coverage.
  • The “Etch-a-Sketch comment by Mitt Romney’s campaign staffer, which only really became an issue for the mainstream media after rising as a trending topic on Twitter, according to CNN’s Howard Kurtz, host of the CNN program Reliable Sources, which focuses on the news media.

But back to the issue at hand.

The current personal crisis of faith I’m going through as a result of both being bitten in the face by a dog that loved people and narrowly missing being bitten in the ass by people I thought had my best interests at heart is more about my own complacency than anything else.

My favorite quote from Thomas Jefferson is, “Our own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable for, not the rightness, but the uprightness of the decision.”

We are the only ones responsible for our own lives and our own actions. The day we entrust that responsibility only to contracts and laws and those who manipulate them, the day we decide to play along and get what we can rather than what we should, is the day we cede control of our lives, our Fortunes and our sacred honor to systems that not only have no honor, but shouldn’t be expected to.

I know why those systems want to obscure that fact and encourage us to play along. But can somebody please explain to me why we silence our inner voices when they try to remind us of the truth we know in our hearts?

* If you’ve never seen To Have and Have Not, you’re really missing a great movie. It’s based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway, with a script by William Faulkner, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Walter Brennan, and the dialogue is some of the best ever. Here’s the full exchange:

Eddie: Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?

Beauclerc: I have no memory of ever being bit by any kind of bee.

Slim: (interjecting) Were you?

Eddie: You’re alright, lady. You and Harry’s the only one that ever…

Morgan: Don’t forget Frenchie.

Eddie: That’s right. You and Harry and Frenchie. You know, you got to be careful of dead bees if you’re goin’ around barefooted, ’cause if you step on them they can sting you just as bad as if they was alive, especially if they was kind of mad when they got killed. I bet I been bit a hundred times that way.

Slim: You have? Why don’t you bite them back?

Eddie: That’s what Harry always says. But I ain’t got no stinger.

Comments
  1. Well said. Let your conscience be your guide, was an old saying too. “Your conscience” is your guide! Your oracle. Good for you.

    • jlsimons says:

      Well, credit where credit is due, I didn’t say it Jill. Thomas Jefferson did. But thank you for complimenting me on my good taste to quote TJ, Hemingway and Faulkner. All in all, not a bad set of influences.

  2. A Fan says:

    Having had a similar experience years ago, I am still leary of other people’s canines, much as I love them as a general species and would have one of my own if I could. I suspect the universe might be warning us: it’s o.k. to seek the best in those who cross your path — dogs or humans — but protect your idealism, and your butt, with a little healthy scepticism.

    • jlsimons says:

      Well said, AF. Of course, while healthy skepticism might protect one from humans, it does little to stop a lunging Newfoundland who thinks you might just taste like liver.

  3. Josh says:

    Ouch! Jeff, you seem to have the worst luck about getting injured. But I applaud your class in not rushing to the lawsuit. As our mutual friend might say, “Admirable restraint, citizen.” These days I’m inclined to let small stuff go, but stitches would probably have exceeded my definition of small stuff. PJ, who used to work for a law firm, said her comment to the woman would have been, “I own you.”

    • jlsimons says:

      True dat, Josh. Like my other injuries, it was my right side, too: hand and lip. I love what PJ said –she has style — and my guess is, the owner was expecting that response, from her demeanor. In all honesty, if the stitches had been on my daughter’s face, I might have responded more like PJ. My ugly mug isn’t worth taking a life, but when it comes to my daughter, I’m much more likely to act like a mamma grizzly. (Oh wait…I’m not allowed to use that phrase anymore, am I? Darn you, Sarah Palin!)

  4. Morten S says:

    Owning a dog yourself, perhaps you should know, never to “reach down” to a down that doesn’t know you, some dogs will see that as a threat or it may simply surprise them.

    Kneel down before the dog and reach slowly towards it the first time…

    Kudos for now filing a lawsuit, respect from someone who does not live in the United States of Lawsuits 🙂

    • jlsimons says:

      Morten, thanks for the comment. It has been a while since I owned a dog, and while I did crouch, I didn’t kneel, it being a NYC street. My mistake, and thank you for the reminder. But this is why I don’t blame the dog. Not her fault.

  5. xxxxxxxx says:

    I like dogs, I like cats, but I do not pet them on the street because I don’t know what they will do (and neither do their owners). If I enter a home and the cat or dog approaches me and clearly indicate its okay, then I will pet them. One thing I don’t do is *lean* down to pet them. Maybe you leaned and the dog perceived it as a threat.

    …or maybe she hates men with beards

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