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THE CEILING IN THE BASEMENT CONFERENCE room at the Pasadena Sheraton is oppressively low. I hand a dressed-for-church young woman my confirmation letter for "The Essentials of Credibility, Composure and Confidence, a One-Day Seminar for Working Women," and in return am given a packet titled "Pick a Destination and Grow." Along the back wall is a groaning table laden with books and courses on tape "The 12 Secrets of Self Esteem" and "Power Phrases!"
Today's "3 C" seminar promises to teach each participant how to "feel good about yourself even when you're not getting any positive feedback" and to "stop running after unattainable 'super woman' ideals."
By 9 a.m., the room is packed with women (and, inexplicably, two men) of all ages, races and sartorial stripes, yet it is easy to spot the speaker. Carolyn is over 6 feet tall, and verily swaggers as she shakes a hand here and laughs about bad hair days there. She makes her way to the lectern, where her erect, energized body language emits the message Time to settle down.
"This is a self-indulgent day focusing just on you," Carolyn says, her voice both didactic and sympathetic. "I've taught this course for seven years, and I know people do not feel appreciated. What do we do when we don't feel appreciated go to a spa?"
The room murmurs, though to my eye, the women in attendance look more likely to indulge themselves at Claim Jumper than Burke-Williams. After filling out the 21-point checklist, "Is Your Self-Esteem Working for You?" (Yes or No: "I'm not intimidated by loud, overbearing people"), Carolyn runs down a few basics: Always stand when you meet someone; make direct eye contact; don't give a fishy handshake. She has us shake hands with our neighbors, and tell each other why we are taking the course.
Nancy, who looks alarmingly like the farm wife in American Gothic, whispers, "I've come to become a confident woman."
"I have a new boss and I just . . . can't . . . deal," says Diane, who has a large bust encased in a colorful top.
Not wanting to lie, I say, "Curiosity."
We are asked to shake hands again, and this time to give the person a compliment. For some unfathomable reason, I tell Diane, "You have an alluring blouse."
She gives a short frantic laugh and says, "You have a sparkling personality."
For the next 90 minutes, we sit back and watch The Carolyn Show. Her shtick is not unlike an extended episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, the delivery peppy and earnest as she tells self-deprecating tales about her wacko Italian family, her long-suffering husband and dead relatives. Also like a sitcom, each tale has its complementary lesson: Daddy didn't pay attention to you? Become a better listener by carrying a pad and taking notes. Kids shunned you because you were fat/lisped/laid a terrible fart at your first boy-girl party? Accept that other people's opinions of you are that and no more.
"You need to access your own personal wisdom," says Carolyn, as she reaches for a stack of books that will inspire and touch the hearts of would-be 3-C women like us, available for only $361 . . .
I lunch with Diane, who tells me her employer requires she take two self-improvement courses a year. Does she think they help?
"No," she says, over a plate of cheap Chinese food. "Maybe you remember one thing. For me, it's a day off with pay."
Does she think the speakers are required to sell tons of ancillary stuff?
"Oh, yeah, and I'm sure they get a commission," she says. "They're like Mary Kay saleswomen for your head instead of your face."
After the break, I see the book table has been picked clean. Carolyn congratulates us on making a commitment, and then makes good on a point she'd teased us about earlier: instructions for how to "die before you cry."
"You will lose all credibility if you cry," commands Carolyn, "so here are my five tear tips. One, you can address the emotion. Say, 'I am very passionate about this, and a little water may escape, but if you can ignore it, so can I.' Two, before the meeting, get yourself a glass of water; you cannot drink water and cry at the same time. Three, drop your pen; when you pick it up, the blood will rush up and you won't cry."