In the grip of experts

THEY appear in our mailbox almost as often as L.L. Bean and Victoria's Secrets catalogs: page after glossy page of advertisements for books, manuals, audio and video tapes that will improve me. If I call the 800 number and order, I can reduce stress, improve my professional image, maximize my impact, lose weight, assert myself, stop procrastinating, repair my marriage or find a man (or woman) to marry me. All of this without ever leaving my home.

These are the experts, and it's a funny thing about experts these days. They're everywhere. On the afternoon it took me three hours to locate a plumber who would make a house call, I could have (for $67.99 plus shipping and handling) taken a crash course in something called "Image and Self-Protection." When finding an algebra tutor for our son proved difficult, experts were waiting in the wings to enhance my life with something called "Emotional Control," a set of two video tapes with a money-back guarantee.


Experts have now taken over two rows in my favorite bookstore. I survey the shelves, wondering if we can possibly be in this much trouble that we need to be taught "self-empowerment," which, from what I can see, goes under several titles. I can learn how to be organized, how to let go, how to gain power, how to live with it. I can make my kids eat, keep my kids from eating too much, cook for them, control their behavior through food and toilet train them in a day.

Here's a book called "Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin," described on the jacket as "the first step to true autonomy." It's by the author of "Anatomy of a Food Addiction." Here's another book just out: "Raising the Rainbow Generation: Teaching Your Children to be Successful in a Multicultural Society." The experts here are a pair of clinical psychologists.


Often, they show up on talk shows. There is a special place in my heart for these experts. They sit in the front row patiently, omnisciently, on Oprah, Sally Jesse and Phil, always well-dressed (perhaps fresh from a professional image seminar themselves). The guests spend most of the show exposing their intricate family horror stories, which flow like a Faulkner novel.

Then, after the commercial break, it is the experts' turn. In the allotted three minutes or so, their charge is a serious one: They must solve the problems of this family in crisis as well as mention the title of their book as often as they can. They do it every time with consummate skill.

Newspapers and magazines are full to the brim with experts, too. Not long ago I read a feature about putting some zip back into marriage. I've been married a long time, and I was thinking some zip was probably in order. There were five sets of experts quoted, married couples who also worked as marriage counselors. Sounded like experts to me. They were full of good, if not common-sense, advice. They also had years of practice (I couldn't help noticing), since three of the couples were on their second marriages. Although I'm not an expert on anything, it made me think that perhaps I could have been the zip-giver instead of the zip-receiver in this case.

I won't be buying those tapes and books that promise me love, wealth or happiness. And I'm going to avoid the east end of my favorite bookstore for a while and make sure the TV is off before the Oprah theme sucks me in. I've decided to live my life according to the words of Alice Roosevelt Longworth: "Fill what's empty. Empty what's full. And scratch where it itches."

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Linda DeMers Hummel writes from Timonium.