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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Columnist Valerie Schultz

In the sunlight, the car was definitely purple. "Since it's been on the lot for a while," the salesman said, "we can negotiate on that one." I asked him if he'd get a special bonus for unloading the purple car. "A pat on the back, maybe," he said. He didn't smile. No one liked the purple car. Who would want a purple car?

Of course it's sitting in our driveway now.

I like a deal, but more than that, I seem to have a soft spot for the underdog. Maybe it's because I was never the popular girl when I was young: I know what it's like to be a nearsighted nerd. Maybe it's because I grew up with a mother who took in every odd friend we ever brought home, without question and without limitation on the length of anyone's stay. Maybe it's because I was raised by a father who consistently rooted for the New York Giants through their years of utter stinking. Maybe I just want to be different.

Or maybe I am chronically, or at least stylistically, a day late and a dollar short. I often benefit from great sales on shoes because I discover that I like them just after everyone else has moved on and those shoes gone out of vogue (think Uggs). This may also explain why I usually find clothes I really like at thrift stores: Everyone else has already sported them, let them fade to the back of the closet, and then given them to charity before I develop a fondness for them. Regarding shoes and clothes, I may be confusing cheapness and my lack of fashion sense with an affinity for the underdog.

But we all like to empathize with the underdog. A classic character in literature, the stories of underdogs draw us to them. We journey home through unthinkable perils with Odysseus; we pursue the one ring with Frodo Baggins and his ragtag hobbit friends; we stand against the evil Voldemort with the boy Harry Potter. Our Judeo-Christian heritage includes young David somehow managing to vanquish the formidable Goliath. The lives of the saints are a rich collection of underdogs, from the apostles to Joan of Arc to Maximilian Kolbe, and the life and death of Jesus Christ may be the most moving underdog saga of all time.

Popular movies and television shows oblige our love of the underdog by giving us characters like MacGyver, Jessica Fletcher ("Murder, She Wrote") and John McClane ("Die Hard"), regular folks who find themselves in extraordinary situations, who must think outside the box because they don't have a prayer inside the box, and who manage to prevail against all logic. There was even, for those of us who remember the 1960s, a cartoon superhero named Underdog, a caped canine who spoke in rhyming couplets and whose mild-mannered alter-ego wore glasses like Clark Kent. As Underdog's theme song proclaimed: "There's no need to fear! Underdog is here!"

Rooting for the underdog is in keeping with the American tradition. Who would have thought our founders had any chance of victory against the mighty British Empire? We love to see the scrappy fellow win, the underfunded business succeed, the dreamer change hearts and minds, the last-place horse come in first. We like daunting prospects, ridiculous odds, long, long shots. Pulling for the underdog is in our national DNA.

Or is it?

It occurs to me that we Americans are also sometimes the bully, the muscle-bound oaf who kicks sand in the face of the scrawny kid, the entitled, extra-loud-English speaker in a foreign land. Like the abused child who grows up to abuse others, we sometimes behave in ways that contradict our underdog beginnings. As a world superpower, we have been known to give only lip service to standing with the underdog. We have, in fact, propped up tyrants. We have a bit of a national split personality when it comes to this subject. Perhaps we need to rediscover our underdog roots.

But there's no need to fear: there are still those of us wearing the so-last-year shoes, driving the purple car, voting the blue ticket in red Kern County, mopping up after our bleeding hearts, and buying enough kibble for the three stray dogs that have become part of our family. Let's hear it for all the underdogs.

These are Valerie Schultz's opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.