Thursday, December 8, 2016

Tepid Book Review, with Rant: Life Is Not a Stress Rehearsal

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Life Is Not a Stress Rehearsal

Author: Loretta LaRoche

Author's web page:

Date: 2001

Publisher: Broadway / Random House

ISBN: 0-7679-0665-9

Length: 219 pages plus 3 pages endnotes

Quote: “We wake up, probably in a room that has some sort of electronic climate control and enclosed windows, because who would dare take the risk that we might get an unscheduled breeze?”

Loretta LaRoche was blessed with good timing. She was a counsellor during the Age of Therapy. When the “health management” racket decided to replace counselling with instant prescriptions for feel-good pills (that unfortunately happen to induce violent insanity in three to ten percent of users), LaRoche had the credentials and the grandmotherly image she needed to shift into comedy, helping people fight the emotional effect of stress by laughing at it. Hence the jacket photo, in which her combat vest sports a phone, computer mouse, calculator, calendar, stopwatch, correction fluid, Swiss Army knife, assortment of writing tools,  tube of sunblock, and everything else she could stick onto it.

While the gadgets LaRoche wore for the jacket photo have gone out of style, the frantic pace with which some people approach life has not. If anything it’s become worse.

I blame this frazzle effect on the craze for increasing population density in the cities, where some people think everything needs to be happening. Normal people reflexively react to crowding by stepping away from other people. When stepping away from one person only puts us too close to another person, normal adults can tell ourselves to behave rationally, but we can’t be really comfortable until a healthy level of interpersonal distance has been achieved. While detaching our attention from our sense of stress, telling ourselves that the crowded situation is acceptable, helps us cope with crowded conditions, at the same time our reptilian brains continue to prepare to fight or flee. Often this preparedness generates flashes of emotion that we may rationalize in one way or another, but that are really about the fact that too many bodies are occupying too little space.

I think most of the “road rage” and miscellaneous frenzy we observe these days is the result of crowded conditions. It’s not natural for humans to stand still, or sit still, as long as they’re within touching distance of people they're not trying to touch. “Office building managers say that the reason windows don’t open is to protect people from jumping out…Maybe they should look at what’s going on inside that makes people feel that they want to jump out a window,” LaRoche says. She’s thinking of the obvious verbal abuse and backstabbing that go on in many corporate offices. I wonder, though, whether even that overt hostility toward co-workers is just another symptom of the same basic problem: too many people working in one building. Maybe Jack falsely claims credit for Joe’s idea and Jane deliberately delays the report Mary needs because they don’t like working in a “bullpen” or cubicle maze with those people; but maybe, too, when Joe and Mary aren’t in the office, the sensation of being trapped in between strangers upstairs and downstairs and out on the street still pushes Jack and Jane to want to jump out of windows.(Extroversion, a tendency to cope with chronic internal emotional conflicts by constantly, aggressively seeking to control others, is present in some extremely sick minds.)

LaRoche not only doesn’t reach this insight in Life Is Not a Stress Rehearsal; she deliberately clutches at “solutions” that, toward the end of this book, are dead wrong for at least half of humankind. The result is a very witty description of a problem that ends with an incredibly unhelpful attempt at a solution.

For much of the book, while she’s skewering the stunata or meshuggeneh or just plain duh in turn-of-the-new-century U.S. culture, she’s right on. Trying to be or seem just like other people (camouflage, for safety in a crowded environment) is a source of stress. Trying to convince ourselves that we’re important to a corporation (to which we’re not important, anyway) by dragging out jobs so that we can make sixteen hours a day “billable” is a source of stress. Paying three times as much for the fashionable brand of something (when the cheaper version may be better) is a source of stress. Trying to be available to everybody all the time by leaving cell phones connected and then programming them to go to voice mail is a source of stress…and mutual annoyance. Watching inane television instead of actually having fun is a source of stress. LaRoche is observing efficiently, in this part of her book, and reporting wisely and wittily. She doesn’t understand why so many of the people she sees are doing such stupid things, but she can’t miss the fact that they’re doing them, and she does a good job of channelling the grandmother who, she convinces us, would have told them just to stop the stupidity.

But then…tragically, LaRoche wants to stop where her grandmother stopped. She doesn’t raise the question whether, if her grandmother had been young in 2001, the influences that produced the stupidity of my generation would have made her grandmother stupid too. Or would Grandma Fran have defied those influences and, in 2001, actually been happy? LaRoche is funny, but she does not sound funny in a happy way. She sounds frazzled by other people’s frazzlement.

One part of her evident confusion seems to be the “Mars and Venus” blather with which our pop culture burdened itself in the 1990s. Human beings are not built in identical gender-types like Barbie and Ken dolls. We are individuals. Somewhere out there are a man whose nurturing underside is warmer and fuzzier than mine, and a man whose hunter-type skills are further below mine than his nurturer-type talents are—and I’m still a Real Woman, Strictly a Female Female, and both of them are still Real Men too. 

But the media gave us, just in case it might have been news to somebody somewhere, these reports that some people did not feel sexy when they were doing their jobs. Well, unless you’re a porn star, you’re not supposed to feel sexy on the job. You’re supposed to be sexy in your own private bedroom, and the rest of society is not obligated to listen to any further details. If some baby-boomers were not feeling sexy in their bedrooms, either, this might have been because, in 2001, people born in 1946 were reaching an age at which many people are postsexual.

Need it be mentioned that, although I’ve not been a great success at making money, I was more successful at making money than at making babies, and although my husband was very good at making money (and even at shooting targets) he was also very good at bonding with children. It’s probably true that HSPs compensate for being more shy as teenagers by having more fun in bed, longer, as adults. Left to ourselves HSPs would probably never have wanted to torture non-HSPs with this information but, whenever I’ve met an eighty-year-old who still had any noticeable sexuality, it was always a fellow HSP. What attracts me to people, as people, is being able to work with them as synergistic partners, which is what C.S. Lewis described as philia love. Gender polarity is involved in what Lewis called eros love, which is also interesting but which, in the absence of philia, I’ve always managed to ignore. 

I can imagine a few things that might be less sexy than John Gray’s descriptions of a “Mars and Venus” marriage...stomach flu? Root canals? Suffice it to say that, ridiculous as “Sensitive New Age Guys” used to be, and I say this as a woman who once waited six hours for a whiny little boy trapped in a 250-pound, 35-year-old body to turn up crying real tears because he’d failed to allow enough time for the usual volume of traffic, guys who think “I’m so different from you that I can’t possibly be your friend” is going to make a favorable impression are even worse. If you’re all that different from me, please find a member of your own species with which to mate.

But crowded living conditions are not helping anything. In animal populations, an early effect of overcrowding may be hyperfertility and hypersexuality, as individuals react to high doses of other individuals’ sex pheromones. Next, a more reliable effect is the appearance of behavior that tends to lower the birth rate: more sterility in individuals that mate normally, more asexuality, homosexuality, transference of sexual impulses toward anything and everything but reproducing more of the species.

If you are a reasonably humane animal raiser, the appearance of genuine homosexuality should indicate that it’s time to thin the herd now. Animals have a limited range of behavior displays that humans are able to recognize, so same-gender "courtship displays" that aren't really sexual are normal in some social animal species. Forced homosexuality, in which two animals forced to live celibate lives in the same space set up something resembling a “couple” relationship, is sometimes found in very social species. Real homosexuality is a natural animal reaction to conditions that are unsafe for the whole colony. That we currently have a loud, noisy minority of “gay” activists, in the human population, need not cause fear or hate toward the “gays” themselves but it should cause concern about our society.

Now that the baby-boomers are indisputably aging and a lot of young people are coming out as asexual, we need to think about what happens next when animals continue to live in crowded conditions, when sexual aberrations fail to thin the population fast enough. Two further developments are possible, and not mutually exclusive. Viciousness, violence, especially attacks by adults on the very young, and cannibalism are one possibility. Plagues and mass deaths are the other.

Postsexuality is normal for the generation that’s now between the ages of 50 and 75. Asexuality and homosexuality in the young are the non-species-specific reflections of the kind of stress whose human-specific reactions LaRoche has been describing and expressing in Life Is Not a Stress Rehearsal. If differences of temperament allow us to overlook the human-specific, individual-emotion-shaped reactions, my interpretation of the data is that wide-scale sexual aberrations should be ramming it into our brains by now: We need to reduce population density by every ethical means necessary, and we need to do it fast.

Young couples should be taking a pledge: One child or none. (If you want a big family, you can always adopt.)

Cities should be banning the construction of office buildings more than three storeys high or houses on lots smaller than one acre.

Immigration should be…not so much forbidden by laws that are expensive and dangerous to  enforce, but intensely, unrelentingly discouraged by all communities with any noticeable incidence of unemployment, road rage, suicide, abortion, or “sexual minorities.”

People should be abandoning cities, pulling down surplus buildings, living in houses with generous private green space and well-maintained fences that block out the sight and sound of their neighbors.

Business should be conducted primarily from home, taking advantage of technology to limit face-to-face meetings to once a week, or maybe once a month.

International organizations that have published “agenda” documents calling for an increase of population density, in any part of the United States, should be recognized as having committed subtle acts of war, and treated like the enemies these acts have shown them to be.

Why do I say that these are obvious solutions to the problems LaRoche has described so well in Life Is Not a Stress Rehearsal? Because I tried them, because in Washington a whole lot of us Bobos tried them, and to the extent individuals can do them, they work. You don’t even have to agree with them to feel them working. If you’re feeling stressed, spend more time alone, and you’ll feel less stressed. (Sometimes telling my coevals this is exactly like telling teenagers that, if they’re showing every possible symptom of sleep deprivation after sitting up late last night, they need just to lie down and relax, and they’ll feel less angry / restless / spacey / depressed / anxious / whatever.)

Nevertheless, LaRoche closes her book with a big display of active resistance to insight. “[A]mong many of the groups that tout spirituality…we are told…that we have to look inward, we have to heal ourselves, we have to become more self-aware and self-actualized. We’re told ‘you can’t love another until you learn to love yourself.’ I think…[t]he truth is often just the opposite: You can learn to love yourself by loving other people!” LaRoche rants on page 206. (Most psychologists would say that we learn to practice love by observing other people practice love.)

On page 208, in denial of actual scientific data, “It’s been proven that married people live longer than single people.” (Actually, the numbers proved that married men live longer than single men. Single women who don’t have a few specific diseases live not only longer, but healthier, lives than married women—on average. Older women who’ve been married only once are more likely to survive a first heart attack longer than older women who are single or divorced, but complications of childbirth, domestic abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases make celibacy seem obligatory for younger women to maintain good health…if they go by statistics.)

“[P]atients who are socially isolated are twice as likely to die than (sic) those with social interactions.”  (It’s true that, for almost any group of sick patients, the ones who receive and enjoy visitors are likely to live longer than the ones who don’t. This is a correlation, not a causation. While it’s hard to study this in any large-scale objective way, anyone who visits sick patients notices that the ones in the worst physical condition tend to be less interested in social interactions.)

“We’re missing real human connection…It seems to us that the way our grandparents lived lacked privacy,” LaRoche says on page 209. “Doors open all the time; people running in and out…” (She’s describing her grandparents, not mine. One thing that stands out when I consider the way my grandparents lived is how they balanced family intimacy with privacy. They had a whole set of rules of etiquette to offset the fact that they had more children than bedrooms.)

“But the fact that they had people around them all the time made their lives saner,” Laroche continues on page 210. Did it really? In the 1990s we all heard a lot about how much warmer and chummier Latin-American subcultures were, relative to Anglo-American subcultures. Latinos touched more often, stood close enough to smell each other’s breath, etc. etc. Hello? Was that really a point anyone wanted to emphasize if they wanted more touching and chumminess? Anglo-Americans consistently average longer healthier lives, higher test scores, and higher incomes…so we should be more like the demographic group that score lower? ??? The lifestyle of “The Sopranos” is saner than…what?

“We need to fill our lives with untidy, invasive, knock-on-the-door-unexpected relationships that help prove to us, every minute of the day, that we are cared for,” LaRoche gushes on page 212. (Thus showing that she’s never experienced an orderly, mutually respectful relationship that not only proved to her that she was cared for but also enriched her life. I have, and I’m not going back: that’s the only kind of relationship I want.)

On page 213 she vents the frustrations of an undisciplined, mentally-undiapered extrovert. “I…run into people who talk about ‘loving everyone unconditionally’—but never stop to say good morning!...I know of a major figure of new-age thinking, someone who preaches love and understanding, who has it written into his speaking contracts that the limo driver who picks him up at the airport is restricted from speaking to him.” (Yes, LaRoche…a way we build love and understanding is that we learn not to disturb others, to understand that the speaker needs time to focus on the speech he’s about to make, to recognize that the people at the convention need to reflect on what they just learned at the seminar more than they need to comfort your screaming inner infant.)

On page 214 LaRoche tries to add “Say ‘hello’ whenever you see someone you know. And if you dare, even when you see someone you don’t know” to a list of “basic rules of civility” that include things like “Wait your turn,” “be punctual,” and “If you take the last cup of coffee, make a fresh pot.” (This is so deeply wrong…the older rule of civility was, in fact, “Speak when you’re spoken to and not before,” and specific details included things like “In public places, unless it is really necessary to scream something like ‘Fire!’ or ‘Thief!’ that the whole town needs to hear, speak softly, don’t mention anyone’s name or discuss any personal matter, and don’t stop moving unless and until you agree to move to some place more suitable for conversation.” It is rude to interrupt anyone’s thoughts, much less an actual conversation, just to parrot-squawk “Hello” when you have nothing to say, merely because you need reassurance that you exist.)

So is LaRoche really that rarity, a natural-born extrovert whose brain has developed enough to be able to communicate with healthy, mature introvert minds? It’s hard to say. Many of those who joined the effort to normalize extroversion, in the twentieth century, were in fact self-hating introverts whose extrovert act was a classic Freudian coping mechanism used to suppress grief or other intense “problem” emotions. 

On page 217, LaRoche says, “Fight the urge toward privacy. It’s overrated! Privacy leads to isolation, and isolation leads to loneliness.” On pages 217-218, she expands, “[W]hen you get a group of people together…[y]ou see laughter, you see boisterous behavior, you see people having fun.” When people are so unhappy as to be incapable of having fun, they can mistake “boisterous behavior” for having fun. Probably only about one-third of humankind, and even within that group only the biggest and strongest individual involved in any given act of “boisterous behavior,” actually experience “boisterous behavior” as fun. Most of us, given the chance, would rather be doing something calmer, quieter, more orderly, more useful, and more beautiful. Genuine cases of extroversion—which the data suggests with increasing clarity is a form of brain damage—are not given the chance. Self-hating introverts have stopped giving the chance to themselves.

Solitude is a good thing. The loneliness of bereavement is not pleasant, but there is something worse…the compulsive attempt some people make to replace the person they’ve lost with any old body they can find. Widows who’ve imagined that any husband would be better than none, especially, have learned otherwise—sometimes when they’ve acquired AIDS, sometimes when they’ve been murdered outright.  

So I’m willing to sell Life Is Not a Stress Rehearsal, but only with a warning: If you consider yourself “lonely,” recognize LaRoche’s final chapter as channelling Where Grandma Went Wrong and Created All Those Other Problems. Pity poor old Loretta LaRoche, cut off from happiness with her real self by hoarding all that social clutter of unsatisfactory relationships, and don’t let yourself end up like her.

If you want to laugh at the stress factors and stressed-out behaviors LaRoche skewers in the first 87.5% of the book, and also buy it as a Fair Trade Book, send $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to either address at the very bottom of the screen. (Actually, if you want to risk online payment, you'd ask Saloli the Message Squirrel to send you the correct Paypal address; I recommend U.S. postal money orders anyway, not least because I don't have to worry about collecting a surcharge for those.) 

"Fair Trade Book" means that when we sell a gently used book by a living author, we send 10%, typically $1 per book, to the author or a charity of her choice. Yes, we'll sell you new books by living authors at the full publisher's price, and for those we'll also send 10%, often $2 to $5, to the authors or their charities. You can even mix up Fair Trade Books by different living authors and we'll send the appropriate amount of money to each author or his/her charity. 

(Yes, I do think the number of different ways I've found to explain this web site's "Fair Trade Book" label is proof of my ability to write up fresh, original, non-spun content for clients' business sites...but what do you readers think? Should it go in a sidebar somewhere?)