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Lilly and Me: learning responsibility

There was still about an hour of light left before the sun set on the weekend, so I grabbed Lilly's leash and led her to the dog park yet again. Now that I've stopped letting her off the leash on our walks, I've been making an effort to visit the park at least once or twice a day since it's the only remaining place she can run freely. I figured that, at this late hour, there would be few other dogs to distract her and we could practice playing fetch, an activity I'm happy to report she is starting to figure out. She's now at the point where she'll chase after the ball when I throw it; the second (and rather important) half of her game still needs some work.

When we arrived, there were two other pooches at the park: a beautiful, brown-and-white husky a little bigger than Lilly, as well as one of those little, white, fluffy, two-pound squeaky toys some people refer to as dogs.

Normally, Lilly is fine with tiny dogs. She doesn't have a mean bone in her body and would never intend to hurt another canine. That said, she often underestimates her own strength and, in an effort to get the little yappers to play, will nip or push a bit too aggressively. It's rarely a problem; I just have to pull her off for a moment, instruct her to calm down and then let her play again, which she will usually do more responsibly the second time around.

Sometimes, like this past Sunday, she doesn't learn her lesson. In those cases, I'll have to get her back on the leash and take her for a walk elsewhere so she can expend her energy in a less hostile manner. The nice thing about Oxford's park, however, is that it offers a separate, smaller play area, a miniature park for dogs under 20 pounds. Often, when two dogs are experiencing compatibility issues, the owner of the smaller dog will take them in there so each of the dogs can enjoy the parks separately.

That only works if the dog's owners are paying attention.

If, as was also the case on Sunday, they happen to be sitting on a bench, their noses buried in their phones, oblivious to what their chew toy is getting himself into, they're not available to help fix the situation. You see, there's a sizeable fence separating the two parks, and a dog that, in a game of 20 Questions might be described as "smaller than a bread box," needs its owners to haul it over said fence in order to access the park that it's best suited to. When those owners are otherwise preoccupied, I'm the one who's forced to take action and remove my dog from the park she should be allowed to enjoy.

Okay, I'm aware of the obnoxious and entitled tone in my voice here. But I find it's hard to not adopt a sense of entitlement whenever you assume responsibility -- even outside the confines of the dog park.

This past semester, for instance, I've made a concentrated effort to help keep my house tidy. I always rinse my dishes and put them in the dishwasher, and I start every Sunday morning by putting the kitchen and living room through a deep clean. From this, I've gained a clearer and more relaxed headspace, a self-motivating sense of accomplishment and an irrational response of immense anger whenever I watch one of my roommates dump a dirty dish in the sink and carry on their way. Never mind that just a year ago, I was the roommate who would get blackout drunk, trash the living room with empty beer bottles, leave the kitchen counter riddled with half-eaten pizza crusts and lie in bed until noon the next day as others picked it all up. Now, I'm responsible, so how dare my other housemates not leave an equally spotless trail behind them?

If you read my spring break column, you'll recall that our camping trip was cut short by a storm, and Lilly and I were back in Oxford by Tuesday evening. This left us a solid four days with the campus virtually to ourselves. Each morning, Lilly and I would walk our usual loop -- down along the Miami trails, up through Cook Field and back through campus. One day that week, Oxford got hit with its own snowstorm, and we were able to trek through the grassy fields and red-brick quads as white flakes drifted down silently around us.

Even when cluttered with students hurriedly making their way to class and tour groups clogging up Slant Walk and the Seal, Miami's campus is undeniably brilliant. But, seeing it like this, untarnished by any other sound or soul, I was left speechless by its ethereal beauty. That 15-minute trek from Bachelor to the Phi Delt Gates was like a walk through time, a chronological tour of the four years here that changed my life.

I walked under the arresting tower of Upham Hall, the astounding building that caught my eye when I first visited Oxford as a high-school senior, when it was promised to me that during my time at Miami I would find my soulmate and kiss her under the arch -- not every campus-tour promise comes true, it seems.

I walked through the now-bare Bishop Woods, whose once-lush forest provided cover for me to take a drunken leak one night early my freshman year, a poor decision that almost earned me a public urination citation -- luckily the MUPD officer who caught me was in a good mood that evening.

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I walked past Armstrong and down Slant Walk, the same route I followed countless nights after exiting the newsroom at 2 a.m. to trudge back to my off-campus house at the corner of Vine and Poplar.

I walked by academic buildings and campus dorms, dining halls where I'd shoveled stale pizza before class and libraries where I'd crammed for final exams. I walked by gardens and bell towers, birds and squirrels (yes, even in the snow), brick and ivy -- all of it snow-covered and quiet, there for only me and Lilly to enjoy.

And throughout this walk through the past, it was difficult to not think about the future. In less than a month, I'll leave this campus behind and embark into that frightening realm that college seniors refer to unnervingly -- and often in hushed whisper -- as "the real world." The real world with its nine-to-fives, its bills and taxes, its lists of chores and errands and jobs to apply for and older relatives to take care of... its endless responsibilities.

It was those very responsibilities that were running through my mind as I stood with Lilly outside the main dog park, waiting for the owners of the combative little fluffball to finish up and leave so we could go back in and enjoy the open space. I had done my part. I had been the responsible owner. So why was I the one being punished? And how was I going to survive in a world of responsibilities where other adults can't always be counted on to do what they're supposed to?

There's a lot I didn't accomplish in my time at Miami: classes I failed to attend, awards I didn't win, papers and stories I didn't put my all into, opportunities I never capitalized on, chances I never took, things I wanted to say or do but never could bring myself to out of fear or anxiety or whatever it was that held me back.

But, if I could sum up everything I've learned these four years into a single lesson it would be this: There's nothing to be gained from dwelling on the past. You can't fix what you've done wrong; you can only move forward. Sometimes you're going to mess up, and the best thing you can do is try better in the future, whenever your chance may arise again.

And sometimes, others are going to mess up too. They're going to make a mistake or flake on their responsibility, or maybe just make the decision that's right for them, and you're going to be the one negatively affected by it.

You can't decide what others do or think or feel. Sometimes, all you can do is step outside the park, find a way to appreciate the present -- the moment -- for what it is and enjoy yourself once it's your turn again.