Tuesday, January 18, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

Self-help books and fries


We are late, my friend and I. The doors to the hall at Hoyt Sherman Place are already closed. We can hear the murmur of voices as we rush up the stairs to the entrance. He and I are breathing hard and still sweaty from our noon workout.

We pull open the double doors with a whoosh and a bang.

We stop. Jaws drop. Eyes widen.

Hundreds of women. Row after row after row. Not a man in sight.

“In the majority of couples, men sit at the bottom of the seesaw when it comes to emotional competence.” Harriet Lerner, “The Dance of Anger.”


Of course we do.

Harriet Lerner is moments from being introduced. Women are frowning and shaking their heads at the two of us. There we are — sweaty, late, standing in the middle of the aisle. Men.

We are definitely at the bottom of the seesaw, or perhaps something on the bottom of their shoe.

We spot two empty seats toward the front.

Let’s pause for just a moment to wonder why I am at a Harriet Lerner lecture. It’s simple. I LOVE self-help books.

One of my earliest self-help books was “Thirty Days to Better Spelling.” I needed it. I’ve always been a rotten speller. And in just 30 days, the book promised I could be a better speller. No small order. But this wasn’t about spelling alone. No way. A self-help book, no matter the subject matter, promises that you will get the girl or boy, be happy, and defeat death.

Getting the girl or boy, being happy, and defeating death does not seem like a big ask. Right?

“8 Weeks to Optimum Health,” by Andrew Weil, says that his program will get you started in “building a lifestyle that will protect you from premature disability and death.” Hmmm. That’s a tough call: option 1 – premature disability and death; or option 2 – normal disability and death. But what if I want option 3 – NO disability and NO death?

Fortunately, we have Ellen Langer. Dr. Langer, in “Counter Clockwise,” found that giving the elderly autonomy to make decisions and responsibility over a plant (yes, a plant!) resulted in greater happiness and AFFECTED MORTALITY RATES. I love this! Dr. Langer goes on citing study after study suggesting we control our own illnesses, we control our own health, we control whether the Hawkeyes win or lose (OK, I made that last one up).

But this is awesome!

Although, the dark underbelly of Dr. Langer’s theories is that, if you die, it’s your own fault for not controlling your death. The graveyard is apparently full of losers. Ouch.

But, on a happier note, let’s not forget Paul McKenna of “I Can Make You Thin” fame. All diets are thrown out the door, and you’re left with four simple rules — eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, slow down and pay attention to your eating, eat only food you like. Wonderful. Particularly for someone like me who is always hungry, never full, and prefers french fries.

This is why I eat french fries mindfully as directed by Thich Nhat Hanh in “Peace is Every Step” and Jon Kabat-Zinn in “Full Catastrophe Living.” Instead of going to some long weekend meditation retreat, I just order the large fries. Same same.

Listen, my love of fries makes me sound less than perfect. And that’s OK, according to Brené Brown, author of “The Gifts of Imperfection.” The gifts of imperfection, according to Dr. Brown, are “courage, compassion, and connection.” And, I’m sure she just forgot to add … “french fries.”

This, of course, gets us back to Harriet Lerner and her seminal book — “The Dance of Anger.” I think Harriet Lerner is brilliant. I think she is speaking to me in her book. I want to hear her in person. So does my friend. So we hustle to the two remaining seats in the auditorium.

I sit. I give a quick nod to the woman at my right. The woman stares past me at my friend.

“Hello,” she says to my friend.

Yup, you probably guessed it, the woman to my right, among a whole throng of anonymous, faceless women, is MY FRIEND’S EX-WIFE. I am not making this up.

Amidst a sea of roiling, angry women.

Blood misting in the air.

A quick, merciful death the only hope.

I slump lower in my chair.

Fortunately, I have other self-help skills. I’ve read Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication.” He recommends a four-part approach: observe what’s happening, what feelings result from this observation, what are my needs, and do I have a request.

OK, let’s give it a shot.

1. I’m observing that we are going to be killed.

2. I feel badly about dying in a riot of angry women.

3. I need an escape.

4. Can we go get french fries?

So we do.

Self-help books and fries. Need I say more? ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www. joesneighborhood.com.

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