Living out in front

Leo loves other dogs. I mean he LUUUUUUHVS them. But due to his questionable manners, we don’t offer him many opportunities to meet his fellow canines.

One of his first trainers (he’s had half a dozen) diagnosed him as not really knowing how to be a dog. Sure he’s got the sniffing and peeing on things down, he’s pretty good at fetch, and he is definitely a treat-seeking missile.

Where he falls a bit short is in knowing how to politely approach other dogs. His strategy, despite his lessons and coaching, continues to be more reminiscent of a freight train: As soon as he spots another dog, he shines his eyes at them, blares his deep “happy hello” bark and, if allowed, races toward them.

He never has hurt anyone—human, dog, cat or otherwise—but his friendliness is unpredictable and not always appreciated. Is he going to sniff the new dog? Jump on the new dog? Dance with the new dog? All of this ambiguity can be rather intimidating to other dogs, not to mention their owners. That’s why when we see other dogs coming, we usually cross the street. It’s easier that way.

An empty, wide-open trail is perfect for Leo.

That said, soon after arriving in Minnesota, we did walk Leo a few blocks over to meet his cousin Dublin, a hulking yet placid yellow lab. Even a charging, excitable freight-train-of-a-dog fails to rattle Dublin, who has the confidence of a boulder.

After their first meeting, Leo locked in his memory exactly where Dublin lives. It isn’t on our regular jogging routes, but once we get within a four-block radius of Dublin, Leo knows exactly where to go, and that maybe, just maybe, Dublin will appear in his front yard for sniffs and pees.

It has happened before, more than once, when we have slowed our pace and peered at my sister-in-law’s picture window. Once I didn’t even think anyone was home, but the front door suddenly swung open wide, and there were my sister-in-law and my mother-in-law, wearing masks and calling out to us.

“How did you know we were here?” I asked.

“We saw you,” they gestured vaguely at the living room picture window as Dublin lumbered out to be sniffed and jumped on by Leo.

Leo has taken these spontaneous visits in stride, but for me, being seen like this feels new. Not intrusive but surprising. Five months after relocating from Washington back to my Minnesota hometown, I’m realizing a major difference in lifestyle here: In our new neighborhood, people tend to live at the front of their houses.

An art installation or misplaced optimism?

This is not a Washington versus Minnesota issue. Rather, it seems to have more to do with the vintage and style of housing. Over the past thirteen years, it just happens that we have lived in three different houses, in three different neighborhoods, where most of the living took place at the back. The fronts of our houses were dedicated to offices, entryways and, in one case, a kitchen sink window and bedroom.

The result is you can walk through our old neighborhoods and feel almost completely alone. In our final Washington neighborhood, packed with new houses, we walked the sidewalks relentlessly, due to Leo’s need for exercise and our pandemic life, but I can’t think of a single time when anyone popped out of their house at us. Or even waved out a window.

Truth is, I never acknowledged anyone I saw inside another house either. Come to think of it, in our three and half years in that neighborhood, I only recall one time when I saw a person inside another house. The fronts were all curtains, blinds and garage doors.

Even if there had been a clear line of sight into a neighbor’s house, acknowledging them inside would have felt like a breach of some unspoken agreement, like breaking the fourth wall in literature, when a character addresses the reader. Entertaining but startling.

No, it seemed that the deal was, if you were inside, you were invisible to anyone outside. If you were outside, you did not see anyone inside. If you wanted to visit a neighbor, you would walk up to their front door and ring the doorbell and then wait while they tunneled out from the family room, kitchen or patio, all the way to the front door.

But here, in this Minnesota neighborhood filled with 1950s-built ranches, there is a whole lot of living going on, practically out in the front yards. On evening walks, when it’s dark outside, I see people eating dinner, families studying, kids playing video games on living room sofas—all in full view.

We too are on view at our house, where we spend long spells sitting at the kitchen table looking out a large window, watching passersby (humans as well as deer and wild turkeys). We recognize many of the people now, and I feel a funny sense of companionship when I see that one woman in the stocking hat blaze by on her second or third walk of the day, or that brave woman hurry by with the little dog that Leo once pounced on, or that man who reminds me of one of my mentors in Vancouver. Sometimes people see us in our window and wave, and we, a bit surprised, smile and wave back.

I love a parade!

One day I was in the living room, which also is at the front of the house, helping my son practice for his piano lesson. A guy on a bicycle stopped at the curb and appeared to be looking in through the window at us. We looked back out at him.

It felt like a looking-standoff.

Our house is situated in such a way that it seemed he could have been looking past us down the street, so I followed what might have been his gaze. But no one else was around. That was when he yelled.

Was he yelling at us? Inside our house?

We froze. This was different. My son sat very still as I flipped through my mental catalog of Minnesota memories. Is this what we do here? Break down the wall and call to people through their closed windows?

No, I decided. We don’t.

But the guy on the bicycle wasn’t going anywhere, and neither were we, so I opened the window. He yelled again.

“What?” I asked.

And then he called out more clearly, asking if he was near the corner of Thus and Such.

Being new to the neighborhood (and having just been bellowed at by a stranger while standing in my own living room), it took me a moment to get my bearings. But I came up with an answer that sent him on the right path. He gestured, not unkindly it seemed, and pedaled off.

That would not have happened in Washington, I thought. It probably was a rarity in Minnesota too, but here, in our new neighborhood, it was indeed a possibility. My son and I turned our attention back to the piano, feeling more visible than before. This front-of-the-house living would take some getting used to.

Last Sunday, when Leo and I were homeward bound on a jog, I called out, “Leo’s choice!” Leo excitedly veered east and then south again, trotting the next several blocks, nosing forward with anticipation, until we arrived in front of Dublin’s house. There he stood expectantly, like a kid who had just performed a magic trick: Ta-da! I’m here!

But no Dublin. Leo sniffed the ornamental grasses, winter-killed but still standing tall, and looked meaningfully at the front door. I found myself looking too. Fresh car tracks in the previous night’s snow and an empty, mostly dry parking spot told me that at least one person had already left the house. I could see through the window at the top of the front door that a light was on inside, probably in the kitchen, but the living room window was curtained and dark.

I stood there for a moment with my hopeful pooch, thinking that if Dublin and his family were visitable—home, awake, and not in the throes of preparing breakfast—someone would probably spot us and open the door. That is how it’s done here, right? But the house was quiet.

“Come on, buddy,” I said to Leo. “No Dublin today.”

Leo hesitated. He took a few more good sniffs as we turned the corner westward, back toward home.

Then he resumed bounding along the snowy sidewalk looking for squirrels, as if he’d never known a moment of disappointment in his life.

More stories about our transition back to Minnesota are available here.

If Japan is more your speed, here’s a link to information about my memoir, The Same Moon, and Inaka, an anthology on rural Japan.

Interested in writing about your own life? I’m teaching Memoir Moments classes — more info here.

6 thoughts on “Living out in front

  1. Architecture was never the way I would define the way people live. but my kitchen is in the front of the house and my living room is in the back. Sometimes, in the evening, when I am cleaning up the dinner dishes and any other stuff I have left in the sink or on the counter, I have the distinct feeling that someone is watching me through the large kitchen windows. I look suddenly to my right and out the windows as best I can, but no one is there and if anyone walks by, they just keep going. Am I being ignored or maybe they are just preoccupied with their tasks at hand, like finishing their walk. You always manage to get me to look at my life by sharing yours. Thanks! carolann.

    1. Interesting, Carolann! I think there is this funny indoor/outdoor divide … and we tend to pretend that even when we can see each other we’re occupying separate worlds. Humans are fascinating! ❤

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