Forget pedigree - elitism may be waning

For sheer offbeat and unpretentious entertainment last weekend, it probably would have been hard to beat an event in New York whimsically called the Great American Mutt Show.

About 500 mixed-breed canines showed up at Pier 92 with their owners for the day-long gathering. Their purpose? Simply "to strut their stuff, compete in their classes, and have a doggone good time," as organizers described it.

Although the purpose was serious - to raise money for organizations that help animals in need - the event also served as a celebration of the virtues of the ordinary.

These beloved canine commoners, these Heinz-57 pooches of uncertain ancestry and unpredictable appearances, might not be able to compete against such currently popular aristocratic dogs as Lhasa apsos and

Chinese Shar-Peis. But on this day, at least, they could happily hold their own in such tongue-in-cheek award categories as "Best Lap Dog Over 50 Pounds," "Dogs Who Look Most Like Their Owners," and "Longest Tail."

The timing of this first-annual show couldn't be better. Mutts may, in fact, be the perfect, humble symbol for uncertain times.

As the stock market tries to

decide which direction to go after more than a decade of unprecedented prosperity, at least some Americans are reportedly beginning to scale back their expectations on various fronts. They are forsaking ever-more-exotic, ever-more-expensive purchases and pursuits in favor of simpler, more budget-friendly options.

Instead of a pricey adventure-travel vacation - mountain biking in the highlands of Ecuador, perhaps - they might be settling for a week at a lakeside cottage with the kids.

Instead of dinner at a trendy restaurant with pretentious menus and even more pretentious prices, some are cooking at home.

And instead of shelling out $150 for a spray of orchids, some may be finding new beauty in a $10 bunch of daisies.

In the process, they're getting a useful reminder that not all of life's pleasures come with a fancy label, an exotic pedigree, or a hefty price tag. No longer is it considered chic to spend as much as possible. The new challenge, worthy of boasting about, is to get the best value, or to settle for a lesser brand, perhaps just as functional but lower on the status ladder.

These early signs of downscaling, of a renewed emphasis on moderation, come almost as a relief after the intense one-upsmanship that has prevailed in recent years as portfolios have soared in value. In some circles, it became no longer enough simply to keep up with the Joneses. The new demand was to be the Joneses. From designer clothes to designer cars to designer pets, the snobbery knew no bounds.

Not surprisingly, this nothing-but-the-best attitude also prevails in education. Even 2-year-olds find themselves facing intense pressure to compete for slots in elite nursery schools, as if a pedigreed preschool education is the only ticket to later success. Similarly, a few parents have reportedly paid as much as $30,000 to education coaches to get their offspring into the "right" colleges. What a recipe for parental disappointment.

As financial markets undergo their "corrections," to use the Wall Street euphemism, the heady, unofficial motto of the 1990s - "Let the good times roll" - is being amended with the phrase "in moderation."

No one can pretend that the Neiman Marcus crowd will start heading to Sears, or that owners of BMWs and Mercedes Benzes will trade down to a Ford. And don't expect Gourmet magazine to feature meatloaf on its cover.

Still, a little lowering of expectations just might be a winning formula for greater satisfaction and happiness. The next time a gloomy hand-wringer moans that the world is going to the dogs, think of it in an optimistic new way: The world may be going to the mutts, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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