July 07, 2011


Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race. By Todd G. Buchholz. Hudson Street Press. $25.95.

Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens. By Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke. Zest Books. $14.99.

     It’s been said before: even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. Harvard economics professor and former White House economic-policy director Todd Buchholz thinks that’s just fine. In fact, he argues, the rat race – setting and achieving goals in a competitive environment – is what life is all about. Give it up because of some belief in a mythical Eden where life was slow, easy and altogether better, and you will vegetate. “Simpler times” are as much a myth as the “noble savage” was in an earlier era. Buchholz’s Rush is part analysis, part intellectual argument, part sheer hyperbole – and, for the most part, an effort at debunking the “happiness industry.” Buchholz worries that many researchers are far too willing to extrapolate small-group findings onto society at large, then urge actions based on an inadequate sample and faulty assumptions. “It is one thing to observe limbic brains light up in a few dozen graduate students; it is another to want to tear up social and economic systems affecting hundreds of millions of people,” he writes, commenting on certain other economists’ use of studies of human kindness as a basis for arguments that people in general are born to be nice. Buchholz believes that it is impossible – and, if possible, would be undesirable – to avoid the sort of anxiety that work and freedom bring: “There is an exhilaration in facing up to the twists of life. …We are, simply put, programmed to take risks, to create something better out of chaos.” Thus, Buchholz cites a variety of studies that show a drop in people’s cognitive abilities after retirement – although it is not 100% certain that such drops are caused only by the cessation of work rather than by internal physical causes. Still, Buchholz has a point – quite a few points. He does, though, sometimes make them a little irritatingly. On one page, for example, he writes, “When we see a pattern repeat, bumps literally grow on the dendrites, reinforcing the recognition. If you watched dendrites through an electron microscope while a patient listened to a repetitive, catchy tune…you might literally witness the dendrites transform.” And on the next page: “Neural pathways make good metaphors, but they literally reflect social pathways.” Now let us literally wait a minute and then, 60 seconds later, think through all those “literally” uses, from the accurate to the insipid to the exaggerated. Buchholz’ style does him few favors. Nevertheless, he offers some solid thinking and some genuinely interesting ideas – often, if not always, well expressed. Take the distinction that Buchholz (and others) make between positive and negative stress. Buchholz sums this up neatly, and in a way to which readers will readily relate: “Dangerous stress does not come from engaging in a free-ranging, flexible, and ever-changing economic system. Dangerous stress arises when you come home from work to a home vibrating with rage and disappointment. It is not the rushing that hurts your soul, it’s the thud of a paralyzed situation.” Of course, work itself can be “a paralyzed situation,” and many studies have found that people with little control over their jobs develop a variety of health problems as a result. So Buchholz is not saying that all work is good or all relaxation bad. What he is saying is that humans are not built for vacations, long-term relaxation, or a return to a mythical time of lower stress. Biology, psychology, evolution and economics, he says, all point to humans as doers, needing activity and work to keep their minds sharp and their bodies functioning at optimal levels. The proposition may be arguable – the whole book is, after all, an argument for it. And this is an argument worth having at a time when advocates of bubble baths and yoga persist in telling people that if they would only slow down enough, for a long enough time, they would be better. Better vegetables, maybe, Buchholz would retort; but not better human beings.

     Human beings come in all shapes and sizes, and with all sorts of predilections, so exceptions to Buchholz’s arguments are easy enough to find: exceptions to any wide-ranging argument are easy enough to find. But the old saying that the exception proves the rule remains valid – “proves” in the sense of “puts to the proof,” or “tests.” Societally, one of the things that tests a nation’s claimed openness and commitment to freedom is its handling of people who live in ways that are well outside the mainstream – such as people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT). Queer is a book designed to help teenagers, who are most likely to be developing their adult sexuality and coming to terms with it, understand and cope with a realization that they are members of the LGBT community. Indeed, one of the most important things Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke do is show teens that there is an LGBT community: both authors are members, and both share some of their own histories as well as offering teens methods of coping with their non-majoritarian sexuality. The book’s seven chapters do not offer enough depth to justify the authors’ calling Queer any sort of “ultimate” guide, but it is a good introduction to LGBT life and to ways of living within a society that is not fully comfortable with sexual minorities. Belge and Bieschke do not begin with sex – it is their last chapter, not their first. This is refreshing, allowing the book to be mostly about societal issues rather than private ones. The authors cover deciding whether you are queer; when and how to “come out”; finding other LGBT people; dealing with “queerphobia”; dating; relationships; and, finally, sex. Their point is that being queer is not something teens will necessarily find out only after they start having sex: “Most people say that if you are queer, you’ll know it on a much deeper level. …Obviously, sex is part of the queer equation, but it’s definitely not the whole thing.” This is quite a healthy attitude and, when you think about it, quite a logical one: most people would not define someone’s entire being because that someone was heterosexual, so why do so when someone is homosexual? But society does not see things the same way where majority and minority sexual preference is concerned – and that is a big part of this book’s point. In fact, boxes called “On the Queer Frontier” specifically deal with such societal issues as gays in the military, historical lesbian socializing and activism, queer marriage, and more. Queer is full of suggestions on managing in society, managing with one’s peers, managing with potential lovers and actual ones, managing life in general. It also offers the message that there are “cool people in the world to balance out the jerks” – which should be reassuring to teens just discovering their minority sexual orientation. Queer is, however, stylistically a little too earnest, a little too determinedly upbeat. For example, the authors urge political participation in these terms: “Always try to stay positive and make good connections with people – both queer and straight – who are on your side. In the end, if your campaign loses, remember that it’s just one battle. Real change often takes a few tries. So don’t give up hope. Instead, know that you did everything you could to stand up for what you believe. And the next time the issue is up for a vote, jump back in again and go for the win.” This is all a bit Pollyanna-ish, as are many of the fairly rosy scenarios painted in the book for teens grappling with bullying, parents who do not understand, difficult peer groups, and hormones. Still, Queer does provide LGBT teens with a good starting point for self-analysis and interaction with the world at large. It is far from an “ultimate” book, but it is certainly a useful starting point.

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