It has long been the custom of newspapers to give readers the bad news up front. War. Earthquakes. The latest inflation rate. A tidbit or two of local crime.
Then back, way back, in a little oasis called the Living section, or the Living/Style section, there is surcease. A giggle or two with Erma Bombeck, or an unreasonable facsimile. A list of seven irresistible things to do with leftover artichokes. An in-depth interview with the latest '50s movie star to write her autobiography. a probing piece on jogging, reconsidered. Another anguished dilemma of manners and mores shared by you, Ann Landers, and "Scorched in Chicago."
All this really ought to be enough, on a sunny morning, when the toast hasn't burnt, to make you forget the gloomy news you read up front. But the headlines have been so bleak lately that nothing -- not even "Peanuts" -- seems to work. To fulfill their assignment of comfort and diversion, Living/Style editors have had to resort to a desperate new strategem: the resident, practically live-in psychologist.
The Living/Style psychologist may speak through his own byline. He may speak through interviews. He may use a number of pseudonyms, favoring names like Jeremy and Schuyler. But his message is always the same. Whatever his subject pretends to be from day to day, he is giving you the same article again and again: "Coping With Stress." Coping with stress in marriage. Coping with stress on the job. Coping with stress in the traffic jams in between.
Despite his incurably bouncy tone, the Living/Style psychologist has strange ways of cheering us up. His standard approach is to accept as inevitable the war, earthquakes, and miscellaneous disasters recorded on page one. Then he tells us: But don't worry.m
If we do worry, he repeatedly warns us, we will do ourselves in faster than any war, earthquake, etc. Can manage the job.
Readers are now thoroughly familiar with the "Type A personality" -- a cautionary tale beloved by all Living/Style psychologists. The Type A personality, poor fool, wants to change things, make life better, get that front page to come out right. The Type A personality simply has not caught on the Living/Style secret of life: Go with the rotten flow.
Our all-time favorite example of coping-by-not-coping was reported the other day by a Living/Style correspondent who visited the Mental Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif. The case read as follows:
"A neighbor's dog begins barking at 3 a.m. John grumbles and covers his head with his pillow in an effort to regain sleep. He fails."
What should John have done? Called his neighbor? Called the police? Called the dog?
Not at all. Such responses would mark the behavior of a Type A personality, an unreasonable perfectionist, a fanatic, who expected something close to silence to be the normal state at 3 a.m. Can you imagine? Hadn't the fellow been reading his front page?
A Mental Research Institute spokesman, our Living/Style psychologist of the day, quickly straightened everybody out. John, it seems, should have tried listening to the dog's barks instead of attempting to shut them out. This, the reader was assured, would have put John to Sleep -- "like counting sheep."
We don't know what kind of barking dogs the folks at Menlo Park are listening to at 3 a.m. But somehow the answer didn't satisfy us.
We don't think dogs should bark at 3 a.m. We don't even think wars, earthquakes, etc. should happen.
We have our own method for coping the front page, thank you. It's the Living/Style section that's beginning to give us trouble.
We are very suspicious of the idea that one solves disaster by adjusting to it. But even more than the idea, it's the sunniness of the Living/Style psychologist's manner that darkens our day.
Roman stoics preached pretty much the same advice, but at least they had the simple decency not to smile when they said it.
Has any Living/Style editor checked to see if Marcus Aurelius would be interested in syndication?