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SUNDAY READING

Closing the How-To Book

February 02, 1986|ANN RUDY | Ann Rudy, a Los Angeles teacher and writer, is the author of "Mom Spelled Backwards Is Tired" (Bobbs-Merrill).

Those of us who are not perfect have been occupied for at least part of the last decade searching through an avalanche of self-help books. I don't know about you, but I'm fed up with it. I'm so fed up with it that last weekend I took "The Winner's Notebook," "Will Power in One Minute," "Eat and Grow Thin," "Exercise Without Moving" and "Making Money at Home During the Dinner Hour" and set fire to them.

I fully realize that book burning is a fascist activity and against the fire code in my neighborhood, but they were paperbacks, so I rolled them into logs and did it quite safely in my fireplace. As for fascism, they were apolitical--a-everything for that matter except royalties for the authors. They made a fine fire, giving off more warmth and light in my living room than they ever did in my life.

What, I wondered, as I watched the last pulpy pages curl and glow before final extinction, made me fall prey to their promise of a better me? What's wrong with imperfect? I think it was Thoreau who said something about how boring perfect lilies floating down a stream would be, that nature is wise enough to give us imperfection. Lily or not, I felt liberation of a sort other than what we've been hearing about for the last 20 years; when I left for work the next day, I was not dressed for success.

No, I dressed that morning for comfort with a dash of pizazz. I love my gray jersey dress with the Isadora Duncan scarf of citron yellow trailing over my shoulder. I got through the day without being ticketed, handcuffed, flogged or fired. And, as rebels so often do, I grew bolder. I encouraged myself to feel guilty when I said "no." I said "yes" to watching a friend's 8-year-old so her mother could go shopping by herself. I found out the 8-year-old was great company. We munched hamburgers together while she treated me to her delightfully pure perception of the world. Her mother's warm gratitude made me question the wisdom of being my own best friend--remember that one?

If you aren't careful, all those self-help tomes become simply self books. Contemplation of navel becomes contemplation of elbow, knee, big toe and, the dangerous, one: contemplation of psyche. I'm as thrilled as the next woman that Freud came along when he did to remove the pantaloons from Victorian chair legs, but can't we let it go at that? He himself said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I mean, I'd like to cross my knees in mixed company without having Chapter Two of "How to Mind Your Own Body Language" pop into my head and realize that I've just announced, albeit unconsciously, that I'd like to enter a convent.

The only thing more dangerous than a little knowledge is too much. It can make your disks floppy. So if you see me winning through intimidation, making money in real estate with no down payment, or finishing first because I'm not a nice guy, have patience. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is a new library.

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