Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Cats (and people) are not defective dogs

Book cover: 100 Thing Challenge by Dave Bruno
In what has earned my pick for the worst beginning to a book, Dave Bruno risks alienating a sizable portion of his readership in "The 100 Thing Challenge" (Harper, 2010).

The book arrived in our newsroom just in time for the New Year's holiday with its accompanying focus on new year's resolutions. In his book, Bruno documents his effort to reduce the number of his personal possessions to an even 100.

With his preface, Bruno sets the scene for his "contented middle-class lifestyle." All well and good so far -- until he brings up the subject of the cat that "we have living with us."

Unlike his dog, whose faithfulness Bruno praises, he says cats have their own agenda. To which I respond,  "You say that like it's a bad thing."

Bruno claims that no one ever equates cats with being a part of the "good life." He repeatedly stresses that pet cats  are replaceable.

There is no other word than  "whomperjawed," coined by my heroine Molly Ivins, to describe my reaction to these statements. Setting aside the possibility that Bruno will alienate lovers of cats, what do these statements even have to do with the subject of his book?

Apparently Bruno is making the point that "replacement" is more emblematic than ownership of the American dream but the illustration was lost on me.

Bruno may view cats as interchangeable but a cat will disagree. His cat Beatrice knew that a new cat was not her companion Scrubb who had been lost to coyotes. Whatever dynamic would exist between Beatrice and the new cat would have to be predicated upon each cat's individuality.

To provide an example from my own experience, there was a particular cat -- I called him Joxxer the Mighty -- who viewed our yard in the Clear Lake Riviera as being part of his territory. He and my cat Elizabeth would glare and scream obscenities at each other through the window or glass door. Let any other cat enter our yard and Elizabeth didn't care. But somehow Elizabeth and Joxxer the Mighty were eternally antagonistic.

I disagree with Bruno for wanting cats to be more like dogs. Life just won't work that way.

A cat is not a defective dog and it troubles me when people who have a clear preference either way, fault the other animal for not being like the animal they prefer.

This tendency isn't just limited to animals but to people as well. How many readers with a sibling have been asked, "Why aren't you more like your sister/brother?"

Speaking again from my own experience, I used to work for a female employer who believed that women had to prove themselves in a male-dominated industry. She was entitled to her beliefs of course, but I think this woman crossed a line when she tried to pressure me to become a copy of her: to wear women's suits and to join a civic club. I resisted because I was of the opinion -- and quite rightly, I believed -- that just because I worked for this woman did not give her the right to tell me what to wear beyond a company dress policy or to pick my friends for me.

Or speaking as a person on the autism continuum, I regularly encounter people's expression of belief that the lives of people like me are somehow ruined or flawed, that we are a burden on society, that we are soulless husks.

If you are a woman who is told you should be more like a man, if you are a member of any demographic group that espouses an acceptable "norm," you run the risk of being viewed as defective if you deviate from that standard.

So while I appreciate the timing of Bruno's book and the antidote that it might provide to materialistic striving, I think a better resolution might be to accept people -- and animals -- for what they are instead of expecting them to be something that it is alien to their nature to be.

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