Portions of this post originally appeared in another blog of mine. At the time, I wasn’t able to push through to the real story I wanted to tell. With a little more time, however, I think I’ve been able to make the true point I had originally intended.
Westminster is coming in about a month, and as always, I’m pretty excited. I love to watch every year—my favorite groups are the hounds and the terriers. I was over the moon a few years back when Rufus, a colored Bull Terrier, won best in show. Beyond seeing the dogs themselves, I enjoy hearing about each breed: its temperament, disposition, origins. But by far, the tidbit that always makes me smile is when I learn that the dog is part of a family. That it is loved in a way that is similar to how mine are loved, and that it isn’t being used as some testament to taste or affluence, as I suspect some are.
This year in particular, though, I’ve been nagged by memories of an encounter I had with an awful woman at a dog show in Denver, Colorado, about 10 years ago. I can’t remember the breed that was showing at the time, but I do remember this woman saying that she believed all mixed breed dogs should be euthanized, simply because they were mixed breeds. Their existence was an affront to purebred dogs and their owners.
I remember having one of those moments that you hear psychologists and profilers talk about occurring in sociopaths, where they struggle to mimic normal human emotional response to a given situation. I think my eyes widened for a moment, and then I tried to arrange my features in a reasonable façade of impartiality. That’s because the only other emotion I could tap into was blind rage, and I knew that nothing good could come from that. Alas, my efforts must have been a dismal failure, because my partner at the time took one look at me and hustled me away before I said or did something regrettable.
Looking back, I mostly feel sad for that woman. I mean, I still wouldn’t mind smacking her around, but the truth is that she simply has no idea what she has missed. Every dog I’ve ever had has been a rescue, which means that almost all of them have been mutts. And what complete and utter joy they have brought to my life. Sometimes I catch myself just looking at them, and it feels as if my heart literally swells with gratitude. What could possibly be gained from killing someone who offers only themselves, and who asks for so little in return. I always come to the same conclusion: I don’t get it.
I think the root of the issue is this thing I have about elitism. Call it irrational. Call it absurd. Call it, well, elitist. But I cannot fathom how someone could arrive at the conclusion that a job, education, neighborhood, car, clothes, music or reading preferences—or the dog they own—makes them inherently superior to others. I can’t figure out whether inherent or superior are the key terms, here. A person may be born into a life of privilege, but philosophically speaking, that doesn’t make her life any more valuable, her pursuits any more admirable or worthy, or her viewpoint any more relevant or true. Value, worthiness, honesty: these principles are not the exclusive birthright of the wealthy, and possessing wealth does not imbue you with, well, anything. It just means you can buy more stuff.
I remember reading recently about a world-renowned heart surgeon at the ECU Brody School of Medicine who turned down an offer from Harvard to stay at ECU. Harvard! For ECU? I know! So, a cardiac surgeon can earn an international reputation for his skill and expertise, all the way from rural eastern North Carolina. But the only way you can prove your discerning sense of taste is to buy a $2,000 dog. Right. Makes perfect sense.
I am sure that my proclivity for hating pretension is rooted in my geographical heritage. I enjoy the distinct privilege of living in the South. As a native Southerner, when I set foot outside the region, I’m automatically on the defensive, even if I don’t intend to be. A lot of times, I’m seen as a rube. I’m met with (very) poor imitations of a Southern accent, and (I can’t help but roll my eyes here) the inevitable misuse of “y’all.” It’s plural, people. Get it straight.
These feeble attempts at humor belie their disdain. Let’s face it, anyone of poise, affluence, and—here’s that word again—taste knows that being Southern makes a person less-than. Less than what? Less than intelligent, less than worldly, less than cultured, I suppose. What’s worse, though, are the Southerners who believe it. Their feeble attempts at humor belie their shame. They’re quick to reassure everyone that they’ve “escaped.” And they’ve put tremendous effort into stripping away any vestiges of their Southern-ness. I can spot them easily, though. All I have to do is watch for the person who laughs the loudest at the use of terms like “redneck” or “hick” or “hillbilly,” and who can’t wait to change the subject when someone asks, “Where did you grow up?”
I find the whole pathetic spectacle of it to be similar to reactions I’ve witnessed from people I have known who would not be caught dead at the local Human Society or SPCA shelter. For them, adopting a shelter dog is not an act of compassion; it is a testament to their lack of means. My God, you don’t want anyone to think you’re poor or, worse, gauche! Beautiful dogs, with open hearts. That’s not good enough for you? The color is not uniform enough? The head shape isn’t symmetrical enough? I feel angry; I feel nauseous. And when I see this point of view in people that I don’t hate? There is this tiny voice inside me, even if I care about a person, that whispers, “Something in you is not good.”
I may as well go ahead and confess that on top of being Southern, I am 100 percent pure blue collar. One generation between me and farm hands and day laborers. We know from hard work, though. I am proud of this heritage. My dad started working to help support his family when he was nine years old. Nine! My mom was only a few years older when she did the same. And me? I’ve never had to support anyone but myself. My parents made sure of that. They also made sure that I was the first person in my entire family, either side, to go to college, by paying the entire cost out of pocket.
They also taught me that the measure of a person is not in how much money they have in the bank. In my family, a person of pedigree is someone who lends a hand without expecting to be repaid. Who values sincerity and honesty over affectation and artifice. Who is willing to make a sacrifice for the greater good. I remember years ago when my dad took my hand, laying my open palm on top of his. His callused and worn from a lifetime of hard work. Mine soft and unblemished. He looked at them for a moment. I waited. Then he said, “You see that? My hands look like this because I don’t ever want yours to look that way.” Now, if that’s not a man among men—the very definition of elite—I don’t know what is.
Whenever someone talks about privilege, it is this incredible sacrifice—though only one of many—that comes to mind for me. I am driven by the desire to honor that sacrifice—that heritage. And one way I do that is through my love for those dogs deemed unlovable by others. I always say, “Show me the ones nobody else wants.” They are always the ones with the most love to give, if you have the time and patience to tap into it. There are millions of them, just waiting. You won’t catch me buying a dog that costs a month’s salary. That would dishonor everything I learned from my parents about value and worth. So if you’re feeling superior to the lady with the motley crew of pups, don’t. I’m full to bursting with the kind of riches you’ll never understand. And if you’re thinking of running down the plumber or the cafeteria lady, better make sure I’m not within earshot. Or, as we say down South, you’ll tote a cussin’.