I rarely pre-meditate places before I go—that is, rarely wonder about what they'll be like when I get there. Because what I find is invariably so completely different than what I would have anticipated.
Take Saturday. The Chicago Botanic Garden had its "Spooky Pooch Parade," a once-a-year chance for canines to be dressed up in their Halloween best and invade the Botanic Garden's otherwise pet-free environs. I'd never gone before, but they asked me to be a judge, and of course I said "Yes." How could you not?
If I had to guess, I would have pictured a smattering of costumed dogs. Some owners. Maybe they'd saunter by while the judges scowled and scribbled. Maybe we'd hold up panels with numbers on them. It would be casual, meandering, low key.
Instead it was surprisingly busy, frantic. Dogs of all sizes, teacups to cattle, owners from infants to oldsters. Meanwhile, I was busy, asking questions, trying to be fair en masse and on the fly
What is fairness? What did being a judge mean? It meant I was given a clipboard and a pen and set before a long line of people and their dogs. Some judges were picking best overall costume, or best puppy, or best senior—owner, I think. My task was to pick the owner who most resembled their pet. "Resemblance" is key, the judges' instructions explained.
|I put Kitty in costume but didn't enter her.|
Most people do not actually look like their dogs. Nowhere close. Particularly the young people who were competing—I'd say half were children. And the costume ensembles did not really resemble their dogs either. So they'd be Dorothy and Toto—I had several of those—or R2D2 and an Ewok. Nicely matched, but not looking like one another in the slightest, supposedly my most important metric.
A consideration I instantly considered setting aside. You want to give it to a kid, right? The prize would mean most to someone young. They feel life most keenly, its frequent slights and occasional honors.
Or would that be bad? Skewing the contest in a way it shouldn't be skewed? There was nothing about the worthiness of the recipient in my instructions. And where does spookiness come in? Should I favor the rare scary costume over the sea of cute?
My scoring settled into giving 11s and 12s to people who had tried but weren't in the running—slapped together costumes—and 13s and 14s for those worth considering, rigs where dog and owner matched to a laudable degree.
My initial favorite was a guy who dressed as peas in a pod and a dog also dressed as peas in a pod. They matched closely. "Did you make that?" I asked, and he said he did, radiating a certain sincerity, almost a sadness, that made me want to choose him. What kind of guy makes a peapod costume for his dog?
But really? Give it to the adult man rather than the three girls who dressed as crayons with their dog—albeit in store-bought Crayola t-shirts. Does store-bought disqualify them? Why? I was swayed for a while by two teens who dressed as shark victims—it was a Spooky Pooch parade, and this was one of the few creepy costumes. Plus it was hand-made. So points for concept. But, again, they didn't match their shark-dressed dog at all, which is what I was supposedly judging.
We broke for lunch and I shared my dilemma with the other judges. They, in essence, shrugged. Afterward, we assembled on a riser with the people before us. The throng gathered around us, expectant. I scanned around for my peapod guy, but he was nowhere to be seen. Would it be bad to give the prize—a bag filled with $500 worth of dog goodies and coupons—to someone who wasn't there? Nor were the crayon girls nor the shark victims, as far as I could tell. There were a lot of people. I hoped for time to puzzle this through, but the host called on me first, standing on the far left, to deliver my winner. At that moment my gaze fell upon a couple dressed as the Minions, in yellow terry rompers, with their goggled dog also very Minion-like. They certainly resembled one another. I called an audible and gave the prize to them, immediately wondering if I had done so too precipitously. They seemed happy. The adults I mean.
Judging is hard. What criteria is most important? The guidelines set out by the Botanic Garden? To reward effort—there was nothing in my instructions about favoring something homemade; just the opposite, they pointed out, for my purposes, costumes weren't even necessary. And how about the desire to give the prize, and the measure of happiness that prizes bring, on someone deserving?
No doubt I was over-thinking this. It was just a dog contest. I came away not so much gladdened for giving the prize to the winners, as sorry that I had to ignore so many losers. Some of us are not cut out to be judges.