While my sons were growing up, we were privileged to be adopted by a motley collection of animals. We first had a white male cat named Cashmere. Now, my father insisted that there is no such thing as a male cat, that cats are asexual and reproduce by autogamy like some flowers since all cats eventually have kittens if left able, but Cashmere proved Dad wrong. And then Cashmere was followed by a long line of male pets, including a black cat named Satan, a black cat with white paws named Boots, and gray Persian kittens named Joy and Joy II.
We also had male dogs beginning with a rescue lab mix named Spanky, the only pet that did not stay with us until death because he would not ride in a car and, therefore, could not move with us when we had to go. Spanky was re-rescued, and we were reassigned to a purebred sheltie named Rhett’s Highland Prince. After Prince’s death, we belonged to the two dogs that entailed our love and care the longest.
Le Caniche de Noël (The Little Poodle of Christmas) was a Santa Claus delivery in 1974. In 1977, Noël mated with a beautiful white poodle named White Brandy to produce a male offspring we named Noël Brandy (Christmas Brandy). Both male purebred toy poodles, sire and offspring, were as different one from the other as black is from white in every other way except gender and breed. Noël was silvery black, short, and sturdy. Brandy was black with a white chest spot, tall, and lanky. Noël was dominant and strong. Brandy was well aware of Noël’s alpha-dog status and fragile. Noël was smart, sharp, quick. Brandy was . . . well, he was sometimes affectionately called Dummy Dog. But he did have a survivor’s instinct that served him well most of the time.
Both dogs lived outside in our fenced-in backyard in Columbus, Mississippi. When people were astounded to learn that toy poodles lived outside year-round, we simply explained that we had not told them they were toy poodles. They thought they were large guard dogs with responsibility to mark chain-link fence posts all day every day against the hordes of intruders they imagined might attack at any time.
Being poodles, they were rather good problem-solvers. It is true that Noël had a little fear of the dark, for instance. When we lived at the Skylark house, we placed Christmas lights in the doghouse during summers and a warming bulb there during winters to comfort him. But after we moved to the Griffin Road house, being the smart dog he was, he solved the problem himself by simply walking from one motion light to the other and back to keep the yard lighted when he was checking for invaders. Brandy, too, had a problem. His was Noël’s tendency to command the food bowl, so he stored Purina Puppy Chow in his jaws, stashed it behind the pillow on which he sometimes slept in the playroom, and came in for the night when he was feeling a bit peckish. Thus, we had their help while caring for them for fourteen Noël and eleven Brandy years.
Not only were Noël and Brandy loving, resourceful, and entertaining, but they were also thought-provoking. One time is especially memorable because it was Brandy who made us think. As they patrolled the yard, the dogs wore several paths in the grass. They were not wide paths, just toy-poodle-sized furrows, but they were enough to annoy the alpha human at our house, Everett. Everett’s solution to the path problem was to encourage a new route while the grass recovered by driving a couple small stakes into the middle of the furrow where it curved around the patio. Then, he brushed off his hands and sat down with a Diet Dr. Pepper, assuming the job was done.
On his first trip along the old path, Noël reached the first stake, stopped, studied the situation, marked the stake, and then went around it. After that, he began creating a more interesting path that exactly followed the old path to within a foot of each stake and then curved out and back to miss the stake. Nothing much was gained, and nothing at all was lost.
But Brandy was unable to make the adjustment. Not long after the stake appeared, Brandy trotted along the path as usual until he reached the stake and walked headfirst into it. He shook his head, clearly puzzled by the stake’s appearance, and then he walked into the stake again. By chance, he was knocked enough off course to continue on the path. Every time he went down the path, however, he again walked headfirst into the stake. He could not or did not learn to go around the stake—to change his notion of the path he had always scampered along. Nothing at all was gained, and everything could be lost.
By the time I went out to the patio the next morning, the stakes were gone. Little Dummy Dog Brandy had prevailed. He had convinced Everett that he would continue to run into the stakes until he bashed out his brains if the change were not undone. He had proven himself unable to adjust his thinking and behavior.
Sitting on the patio, watching the dogs on patrol duty, I mulled the situation myself. The obvious comparison to be made was the dogs to the people I knew. How many, what percentage could not or did not learn when the lesson was so clear to others? How many preferred to bash out their own brains than admit to the real need for inevitable change, than admit that the path on which they were determined was injurious to multitudes of people or even to themselves or someone they loved? For how many was the decision to continue to stalk an impossible goal all the way to a tragic end made without reassessing the situation, without considering what was clearly square before their eyes, without realizing that nothing would be gained by refusing to make the change and nothing would be lost by making the change?
The obvious application sitting there in early 1980s Mississippi and having grown up in Alabama and South Carolina was to the civil rights question. But that was not the only place I went in my mulling. I thought of the view our pastor had recently voiced of life in the Soviet Union (which it still was then) versus life in the United States. I thought of the pro-choice versus pro-life movement. I thought of women’s rights, gay rights, tax reform, minorities’ and women’s right to vote (still not ratified at that time by the Mississippi legislature).
I thought of the motley collection of people I knew. Many were determined to stay mainly on the old path but were reassessing at each jog along the way, adjusting when and where adjustment seemed justified, reaching toward change, albeit slow. But others were determined on the old path come hell or high water and everyone who disagreed with them be damned. Some had lost patience and were determined on clearing a completely new path without empathy or compassion for those who were struggling with change. Others were determined on all-encompassing change because what they had seen or experienced personally had shown them the devastating consequences of the old ways, yet they wanted to work from compassion for the strugglers.
Since that time, I try to walk many paths, avoiding the furrows, before I reach positions and mark them as mine. Mostly, I run everything through the many experiences I have had personally because I know those experiences and the truth of them and the smell, taste, feel of them. I know that I have empathy and compassion for those I love and can well apply how I feel as the standard for treatment of all others. Only then do I think about taking a position.
Everett’s studied adjustment was the critical one. Determining straight, narrow, undeviating paths or rules for paths for others makes everything exclusive for the minority. It does not invite, satisfy, or even accommodate the needs of the majority. Experience and empathy must be present at the mapping or nothing at all will be gained and everything will be lost. Grass is not important when compared to a sweet, fragile, all-heart, not-terribly-bright toy poodle. And taking stands on issues based on prejudice, bias, tradition, pure stubbornness, or fear of change is damaging to all we love.