The Great Divide

It’s been kind of an intense week.  After our second publically televised presidential debate I’m sure most of us have already drawn up divisive lines and made up our minds, irrespective of the latest round of online memes.  Are you pro Barry or Mitt?  Are you Blue or Red?  Which side do you stand on?

Now I don’t know about you, but this second town hall-style debate seemed more testy than the first, so much so that I could literally only watch about 15 minutes of it before becoming uncomfortable, jittery, and (excuse the TMI, but) awfully sweaty in the ‘pits.  With so much tension in the atmosphere, the verbal sparring made me feel, well… so terribly AWKWARD.

I literally had to leave the room and listen to the conclusion of the debate on the radio in the car because I couldn’t handle the stress.  I was also saved by the fact that we were running late and had to be somewhere else that evening.  Not seeing the aggressive visual cues helped a bit, but still, I just absolutely hate intense verbal disagreement.  I think this may be partially attributable to my conflict-avoiding INFP-personality type.  (Passive-aggressive conflict, on the other hand, is totally up my alley, but that’s another post.)

But what mesmerized me on Tuesday evening wasn’t the debate itself, but various reactions to the debates.  We were with a group of friends afterwards, and each person had a very different reaction.  Case and point were DH and I.  While I was literally pacing or squirming around in my seat, about to implode with unbridled anxiety, DH was transfixed, relishing every verbal blow-by-blow between President Obama and Senator Romney.  DH loves watching the presidential debates because to him it’s sport: a verbal boxing match where this mano-a-mano slugfest unfolds, just as it’s depicted on the September cover of The Atlantic.

The presidential debates are like a debate plus an improv performance plus verbal data jousting plus oration at the most intense and highly scrutinized level.  It’s gotta be crazy hard to do.  There’s nowhere to hide because you are alone out there in the bright lights.  And any mistake, no matter how small, is going to hurt.  It must be utterly terrifying.

As a humorous tangent to keep things interesting (and certainly more time-adherent,) I propose to the Commission on Presidential Debates that in the final debate next week, Bob Schieffer should be armed with a loud customized buzzer—used at his discretion—to blast out the hilarious-but-appropriate phrase Miracle Max’s wife screams in The Princess Bride.

Here’s the longer video clip for context (go to 3:00 for Carol Kane’s money line):

I guess now you know how I really feel about politics!

In all seriousness though, I thought both candidates performed impressively, particularly in their ability to think on their feet, dodge pesky questions, recite data, attack their opponent without looking desperate, and spew forth rhetoric in the allotted time without directly answering said questions.  Today’s presidential debate stage, with an army of instantaneous fact-checkers and online resources is truly a grand stage upon which only a truly gifted politician can shine.  The plain-talking, simple answers that might have sufficed say 30-years ago would not survive in today’s media.  And so I’ve personally concluded that both President Obama and Senator Romney are good politicians, in addition to being good people who care deeply about our country.

But in addition to stressing me out in this season of debate mania and last-minute political campaigning, I often find that our political machine can sometime degenerate into juvenile name-calling that pretty much annoys the hell out of me.  Now I know that politics, dialogue, and debate are all absolutely necessary for a healthy functioning government and society.  We are infinitely blessed and privileged in this country to have a mostly working government, and to be able to engage in choosing our own leaders.

But so often I feel torn in our political system, as its inherent partisan structures force me to draw up battle lines so that I must literally chose a side, and then immediately turn around and vilify the side I didn’t choose.  Just look at your Facebook or Twitter feeds, and what some of your friends are posting.  It’s getting a little bit ridiculous, and all of us could use a dose of civility and respect for each other, no matter which side we lean towards.  I’m not against dialogue and civil discourse, but I am a little tired of people ranting in All Caps on FB.

We all have our own preferences in the political and ideological sense, much like we do in our everyday mediocre and mundane lives.  So I thought in this post, I’d explore a little more about another Great Divide that may very well be ripping our country apart… the Great Coffee Tea Divide!!

As a resident of Seattle, I’ll go out on a limb and reveal a little something about myself:  Despite living in the most caffeinated American city (as measured by coffee availability per capita and average monthly spending) I personally don’t actually drink or enjoy coffee at all.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love all of our local coffee shops and I even love the smell of coffee.  In fact, I spend considerable time in coffee shops here.  But simply put, coffee (or more accurately, the amount of caffeine in coffee) makes me a little nervy and crazy.

And actually, the physiological effects of coffee are for me in many respects identical to the effects of watching the recent presidential debates:  I get very uncomfortable, jittery, and (excuse the TMI, but) awfully sweaty in the ‘pits.

So I try to avoid coffee.  But that doesn’t mean that I judge those of you who drink coffee.  I don’t categorize you as weak-minded addicts of this lovely and wonderful, aromatic spice.  And likewise, my fellow coffee-fiends don’t judge me as a boring, herbal-tea-drinking wet rag either.  We have a mutually respectful relationship, because we understand that our various feelings, philosophical ideologies and preferences may be much more nuanced.  Perhaps we love the aroma of coffee, but just can’t handle the caffeine.  Or perhaps we like the bold taste and need that jolt in the morning in order to be alert, productive human beings.  We might even boast of the various health benefits in both drinks.  Either way, neither the Coffee people nor the Tea people tend to judge, poke fun, or vilify the other.  And somehow all the various warm beverage drinkers throughout this great country coexist in coffee shops throughout the land.  How is this possible, and what can we take away from the Great Coffee Tea Divide?

I guess it’s just not that big of a deal.  Your preferences for certain hot beverages probably don’t say a lot about you.  But yet, maybe they do.  Are you a $4.00 latte person?  A $2.00 drip or double-shot espresso person?  A DD cuppa-joe or an at-home-Keurig person?  Or perhaps you’re one of those herbal tea people?

On page 95 of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, (one of my favorite books ever!) Muriel Barbery writes some profound lines about hot beverages in the 12-year old voice of one of her protagonists, French girl, Paloma.  The particular quote below is from a chapter entitled Profound Thought No. 6, and the chapter begins with a Haiku-like poem:

What do you drink

What do you read

At breakfast

And I know who

You are

Barbery later ends the chapter with Paloma discovering that although she is still only a 12-year old child, she is, in fact, a “tea person” despite everyone else in her immediate family being “coffee people.”

But yesterday I asked Maman if I could drink some tea.  My grandmother drinks black tea at breakfast, flavored with bergamot.  Even though I don’t find it particularly good, it seems less aggressive than coffee, which is a nasty person’s drink.  But at the restaurant last night, Maman ordered some jasmine tea and she let me taste it.  I thought it was so good, so “me,” that this morning I said that from now on I want to have tea at breakfast.  Maman shot me a strange look (her “poorly-purged-sleeping-tablet” look) then she said yes yes sweetheart you’re old enough now.

Tea and mangas instead of coffee and newspapers: something elegant and enchanting, instead of adult power struggles and their sad aggressiveness.

Now this book is a fictional work that uses characters and philosophical musings as social commentary and critique about a French class-based society.  There may only be some limited parallels to the U.S.  But I believe that Barbery reveals a potentially powerful truth in how we all tend to lose our childhood innocence and “who we are” in the adult world of “power struggles and sad aggressiveness.”  And she does this through the simple hot beverage.

I’m probably reading a bit too far into the piece, but I still think it’s quite fascinating to categorize people and to judge them by their hot beverage of choice.  We actually subconsciously do it all the time by gender and ethnicity, by type of car, by neighborhood, and by dress.  This beverage analogy leads me straight back to our original discussion about politics, and about which side of the Great Divide we’ve chosen to stand.

Are we Blue or Red?  Are we Coffee or Tea people?

Maybe we can all learn something new from each other if we participate in civil dialogue with each other as individuals, regardless of our preferences for Coffee or Tea, Liberal or Conservative politicians and parties.  We probably won’t end up changing each other’s minds, but we certainly will retain our relationships and friendships with people who may think a little differently from us.  And we must remember that there is value in coexisting with differing opinions so that civility reigns throughout the land.

Besides, studies have shown that in the area of health benefits, the Great Divide between Coffee versus Tea is basically a tie.