A lot of the time I look at my world—admittedly limited—and I think there are two camps: such as those who prefer mayo vs. Miracle Whip, those who favor dogs vs. cats, American car owners who look down their noses at imports, and those who choose non-fiction over fiction for reading. Then there are Mac users vs. PC users, and of course, Republicans vs. Democrats and believers in God vs. non-believers. All this means I am thinking categorically, and I realize that evolved beings are supposed to try to move beyond categories. But, gosh, sometimes they are useful, at least for having a discussion.
The true reality is that life doesn’t fall neatly into two categories hardly ever, but for the sake of this exercise, let’s say it does. Let’s start with mayo vs. Miracle Whip. I happen to be a mayonnaise person myself, and even then I don’t like it slathered on too thickly. Many times I have been disappointed at a potluck, taking a first mouthful of potato salad or macaroni salad or a deviled egg, only to find that they were made with Miracle Whip. What a way to ruin a perfectly good dish! Of course fans of the other product could argue, conversely, that Miracle Whip is the greater good. And, of course, never the twain shall meet. What gets me, though, are those who refer to Miracle Whip as mayonnaise, as if it is just another brand – like Kraft vs. Hellman’s. WRONG!
Whole volumes could probably be written about dogs vs. cats. In fact, if you collected all the stuff already written by ardent supporters of either species, the serious and the funny, it would fill volumes. So the addition of my two cents is certainly superfluous. But I am a cat person. At a very young age, even around one year old, I was already captivated by cats. That is “captivated,” not “captured.” I’m sure some of my friends wonder. I have looked at childhood snap shots and I see those of me, barely able to walk, chasing after a neighborhood cat. My mother said that I would ride in the car and see a cat out the window and make a comment. In those days, before car seats, a child could stand up in the seat and look out the window. She would look where I pointed and not see anything. But I kept insisting and pointing. And then she would look, blocks down the road, and there was a cat, barely in view. I had eagle eyes back then. I recently read a comment, attributed to the poet Marge Piercy, who cited “sleeping with cats” as one of life’s six underrated pleasures. I heartily agree. I have a cat, Tiger, who sleeps on my pillow. She sleeps on the back half, next to the wall, and my head occupies the front half. She purrs me to sleep at night. It is like white noise or the sound of the ocean, soothing. Once in a while she will stretch and put a paw on my face (she’s declawed, so no scratches). I see it as her way of showing affection. My detractors, the dog people, will roll their eyes, or cringe, or both. My biggest issues with dogs are doggie drool and that wagging tail. With a medium or large-sized dog, the force of the tail alone could knock me over. I understand the enthusiasm, but sometimes it feels like I’m being flogged. And it can be disconcerting after a dog has just spent a minute slurping at the water dish, to have it then come over and rest its chin on my knee.
American car owners sneer at those who prefer imports. They even accuse the foreign car owners of being unpatriotic. For the first 15 or so years of my driving life, I drove an American car. I owned several Plymouths. They always had issues—with alternators, fan belts, ignition switches, starter solenoids, exhaust manifolds, valve cover gaskets, oil leaks, radiator leaks, overheating, and the like. Meanwhile, those friends who drove Nissans, Toyotas and Hondas would say: “I’ve never had to do anything but change the oil.” I thought surely they were joking. Finally, I got a clue. I found they were right. Then, within the foreign car camp, there are those who favor BMWs and Mercedes vs. the Japanese brands. Never the twain shall meet there either. I remember when I bought an Acura, and a friend of the BMW persuasion asked me why I would buy “that Jap crap” when for a few thousand more I could have bought a bimmer. Well, to each his own. That is a nice thing about living in a free country.
Non-fiction readers rarely read novels. In fact, I know a lot of non-fiction readers who may be able to count on two hands the novels they’ve read, and probably three of them were in high school – The Scarlett Letter, Great Expectations and The Return of the Native. I think there is a hard wiring issue at work here. You’re either hard wired to prefer non-fiction, or fiction. There is no scientific evidence I can offer to support my premise, however. A Renaissance Man or Renaissance Women would be balanced and have read some of both genres. Ben Jonson is said to have opined that “a multiplicity of reading maketh a full man,” or words to that effect.
A part of me aspires to be a Renaissance Woman, and I admit to liking some biographies and autobiographies. But fiction is, far and away, my chosen genre. A blogger on the internet said it this way:
Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.
Another blogger said:
Reading fiction can be a gateway to new insights about the world – and about yourself. Perhaps you’ll meet a character in fiction who’s uncomfortably similar to you; and you’ll recognize the solution to a flaw you’d never quite admitted you had. Maybe stories of courage against all the odds will inspire you.
Some critics have said that reading fiction sparks creativity. And it certainly can provide an escape. And good historical fiction, well-researched, can be as great a teacher as a history tome. And far more fun to read. I learned a lot about apartheid reading Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. And I learned a lot about Chinese culture from reading books by Amy Tan and Pearl S. Buck. And the lessons about slavery are many from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And reading fiction has cemented my view, not an original one, that very little in life is black or white, but only a thousand shades of gray. This pretty much shoots down my idea about “two camps” because in reality there are hundreds of camps, all colored or influenced by time, circumstances, background and social stratum. We learn that Jean Valjean (Les Miserables) spent years in the galleys and in jail for stealing food because his family was starving. How different is that from the plights of people we hear about on the news, the poor more and more forced into shelters because of unemployment and the inability to provide for several children? And we were exposed to horrendous social atrocities through the fiction of Charles Dickens. Social outrage, cloaked in fictional garb, can make a powerful impression on readers. And in the world of today there is The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls – mostly biographical) and the fiction of James Lee Burke. Both offer lessons in “life isn’t fair.”
This is more support for my opinion about reading in general: read, read, read, then read some more. I think there is value in reading most anything and everything, from billboards, to bus benches, to comic books, to cereal boxes, to blog posts, to Wikipedia, and even dictionary entries. And books and periodicals of all sorts. Not only does it widen your social landscape, but it takes you beyond your own little patch of earth. It may spur you to travel, to write something yourself, to be a social critic, to become a social activist, or to go into a profession you wouldn’t otherwise have considered.
Getting into the next tier of camps is going where angels fear to tread: Macs vs. PCs, Republicans and Democrats, faith-based believers vs. humanists or skeptics. Those who prefer one or the other in these spheres have their reasons and are unlikely to switch, certainly not easily. So I shan’t waste my breath defending one side or the other. Much exists elsewhere to make one’s eyes glaze over. Just watch TV for a few weeks and you’ll find plenty on both sides to support your preference, from Sunday morning pundits to commercials.
I will say just a few words about faith in a divinity vs. non belief. According to recent polls, the breakdown and percentages vary by country, and within the US there is wide variation by geographical region. Belief in a god is not as widely held as it once was, and affiliation within any specific religious denomination is even less prevalent. In this sphere, I say pick your preference. Practice it, or not. Be zealous, or not. Be a volunteer in your denomination’s activities and fundraisers if that is your bent. But, my preference is that unless you are invited to do so, do not pontificate, tell me I am going to hell for my beliefs, or condemn my choices. In general, I feel faith-based and religious views should be kept out of educational institutions except in colleges, where such courses as “comparative religion” and “the Bible as literature” have instructional value. Similarly, I feel religion should be divorced from politics and I firmly support separation of church and state. When you add religion to the mix of other spheres of existence, it gets powerfully messy and there are many, many examples to support my contention. It is like trying to tie the tail of a cat to the tail of a dog. If you do so, a huge fracas breaks out. Then you act surprised. I say, better not to even go there. Wars have been fought, and continue to be fought, in the name of religion. “How many years will it takes til he knows, that too many people have died….” as Bob Dylan penned in “Blowin in the Wind” – too, too many. So again I say, don’t go there.
So, I have probably proved nothing. Except, perhaps, that variety and diversity make for a more interesting world, though often maddeningly so. And that preferences are deeply entrenched and change is difficult – in both the mundane and the metaphysical realms. And, pretty much, we already knew that and I have succeeded only in bringing readers what one of my mentors calls “blinding flashes of the obvious” (BFOs). And I have amused myself while listened to the clicking of my finger nails on the keyboard. So this was an interesting writing and thinking exercise and I gave myself some more to ponder about – whew! I was beginning to think I had wasted my time.