The Discomfort Zone
Beth Lisick gives gurus a go for a year
by MOLLY TEMPLETON
HELPING ME HELP MYSELF: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone by Beth Lisick. William Morrow, 2008. Hardcover, $24.95
Within about 20 pages of Helping Me Help Myself, the latest book from California funny lady/writer/performer Beth Lisick, I was a goner. It wasn’t so much the book’s thesis — a year spent in the company of self-help gurus and their books, one per month — as it was Lisick herself, a flawed, recognizable, funny, snarky, totally relatable thirtysomething whose observant tone and frequent cringe reflex sounded awfully familiar. She sometimes enjoys hating things, and she’s not sure she ought to enjoy working as a giant banana as much as she does. When a friend takes her to a fancy store opening, she relies on attitude to get herself in the door and takes advantage of the free fancy champagne. Her story about a Chuck Palahniuk reading is nearly as funny as the reading itself seems to have been. I want to buy her a beer.
The feeling of wanting to buy Lisick a beer only builds with each chapter of Helping Me Help Myself, which begins with a quick introduction and explanation. Why self-help? Because she has problems. Ordinary, everyday, familiar problems: The house is a disaster. The kid doesn’t want to stay in his room. The bank account is low. Exercise? A thing of the past. And so on. There’s a self-help program for all of these things, and one by one, Lisick tries them out. She suffers through Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, which allows a bit more of her partially silenced cynic to creep to the fore (“Just to keep me on my toes, I am going to refrain from using the term ‘blatantly misogynistic’ while referring to this book.”), and finds herself enjoying Richard Simmons’ boundless enthusiasm on his “Cruise to Lose.” She calls up Oprah’s organization maven and discovers that the scariest self-help thing of all is taking pictures of every room in one’s house and sending them to a stranger. She notices overlapping themes from one guru to another, and — naturally — winds up with a copy of The Secret (it doesn’t fit into the year, though, so we’ll have to wait for Lisick’s take on that one).
But mostly what she does is explore what happens when you decide that everything needs fixing. The best parts of Helping Me Help Myself are often the parts that fall between trips to self-help conferences — the moments in a life that really doesn’t seem like it needs all that much work. Gradually, subtly, between moments of hilarity and irrepressible sarcasm, Lisick paints overlapping pictures of her life: In one, she’s broke, doesn’t see her husband enough, works odd jobs intead of writing and worries about what’s growing in her child’s closet. In the other, she’s got a circle of loving, creative friends, a superbly understanding relationship, a sweet child, a sharp sense of humor and, obviously, a book deal. One day, it might look like a life that needs some help, but the next, it might look fine. Better than fine, even — though every so often a nugget of advice from one guru or another turns out to be helpful.
In the end, Lisick doesn’t have any tidy conclusions about what it all means, or what it’s all worth. This is one of those journey-is-more-important-than-the-destination stories, though I’d bet it would make Lisick cringe to read that. It’s a story of fitting one ordinary, strange, messy, fantastic life into a foreign framework and seeing what happens. It takes a certain kind of writer to see the world sharply enough to to make a book like this work, and Lisick is a fantastic chronicler of foibles and awkwardness (both her own and others’) — and of the small moments that have greater effect than any seminar-giving guru every could. I just hope she finds another reason to chronicle more years in her life, though for her sake I also hope it’s a less expensive one.
Beth Lisick speaks as part of the Summer Reading program (the appropriate theme of which is “Metamorphosis”) at 6:30 pm Wednesday, July 17, at the Downtown Library. Free.