Ah, Westminster! Where else can a trapezoidal head, or an egg-shaped one, be a mark of honor?
Dogs are my favorite sport, and dog shows one of its spectacles. I watch rapt, drinking in the elegant curve of a whippet’s underside, the big soft eyes of the Pyrenees, the romp of a giant Schnauzer happy just to be alive. All these sizes and colors, such an infinite variety, with weird new breeds each year—yet the capacity for undying loyalty (so rare to us) is tucked inside every package.
The judges’ comparisons can seem arcane. In their sensible shoes and slit skirts, they bend to check: Does this bulldog’s jowl drape and swing fully? Does this Biewer terrier have the breed-signature ponytail? Does the Shar-Pei have a horse coat or a brush coat, and is its texture sufficiently harsh? But as much as I love mutts and mixes, they all start somewhere, and I do understand the need for breed standards that push for health, stable temperament, and particular qualities. Years ago, before we discovered a rescue group for standard poodles, we bought a puppy from a breeder, and I was tickled when the woman told us she bred for “a long nose and a sweet disposition.” Humans do not pop out according to order; our traits cannot be selected so neatly, not even when a rogue physician decides to redesign the embryo.
Still, the show does feel a bit like a sophisticated state fair—the handler’s dresses sequined yet somehow still frumpy; the dogs like prize rutabagas, their “owners” (as if) swollen with pride at their perfection. Category after category, I sit at home groaning over some ridiculous Zamboni hairdo (yes, Wasabi, champion Pekingese, I mean you) or gushing, “Oh, I love otterhounds!”…. “I have always loved Airedales”…. “Love bouviers”…. “Oh my God, I love Frenchies!”…. and “Personally, I loved Striker,” that gorgeous Samoyed who should have won. (Sorry again, Wasabi.)
I cannot love all those dogs. All I know is their shape and color. Why do I feel this strong pull toward certain pups—a mix of aesthetic preference, memories, quirks of association? Surely love is too big a word for that.
Or is it?
“We can miss what’s happening in love when we think about it as a relation between two things: the lover and the beloved,” writes philosopher Chad Engelland. Love “is in fact a way of taking in the whole world.” It is an open stance, a hand outstretched to be nuzzled by a dog we already like the look of. Some sort of connection has been forged ahead of time, and it predisposes us to enjoy what we encounter. And then, the real point: Once we know a creature well enough, we can see the world through their eyes.
I can now spot a squirrel before Willie does, though this trait will not assist my species’ evolution. We stand together at the screen door before bedtime, watching for stray cats that hunt in the moonlight, and I feel as haunted by their presence as he is. I see fresh, bright spring grass and think how tender and delicious it would be to munch. The gift of this sort of love? “A world washed of stultifying obviousness and freshly revealed,” Engelland writes.
I defy anybody to watch the dog they love dance in the snow, zoom across its crunch surface, skid happily into a snowdrift, and still whine about having to shovel. Charles Schultz was able to ink the sweetly inane sentence “Happiness is a warm puppy” and know we would parrot those words for generations, because in their uninhibited enthusiasm, curiosity, and exuberant joy, puppies show us the world all over again.
Children show us even more, because their scope is wider, their intelligence constantly seeking. Inanimate objects receive our love, too, and teach us things in return. Convention has painfully narrowed “love,” tying it either too tight–restricted to sex, family, and our dearest friends—or too loose, looped to such abstractions as the love of country or the love of God. Yet our own natural, everyday usage corrects this automatically. We talk freely of loving pepperoni pizza or Duke Ellington or panda bears. And why not?
“Love calls us to the things of this world,” writes the poet Richard Wilbur. He means this as a slap to St. Augustine, who whined in his Confessions that the beautiful things of the world had distanced him from God. Augustine was perhaps taking the Gospel of John a little too literally, in his admonition to “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” But Augustine did love drama.
As Engelland puts it, “To be a being that loves is to be a being open to the things of the world, things that can subsequently be known or chosen.” Love is not a marital status or a loyalty oath. It is receptivity. It breaks open our heart and readies us for joy.
Does that mean I have to love Chihuahuas and Affenpinschers? Ah, no. Engelland says we need not muster fake sentiment: “Love orients us in the world and allows for some things to be interesting and some things not. The whole shows up to love in a variegated way, colored by it.” I can pick and choose my aesthetic preferences, the sturdy bodies, soft coats, and steady affectionate temperaments I favor, knowing all the while that such discernment is only possible because I love dogs, period.
We are, I have begun to think, far too serious about love. “But do you love her?” we ask, leaning forward with a worried frown. “Are you in love?” we demand to know. The proper question might be only, “Is this someone you could spend the rest of your life with and not want to kill them?”
Loving freely and widely is not shallow; nor is it a promiscuous distraction from what matters. “Walk in love,” the Anglicans say. That is far lovelier and less persnickety than Augustine. But spoken in church, the words can sound prescriptive, urging us toward a way of being moral and holy and saintly.
I think it might just be a way of being fully alive.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.