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One of my all-time favorite sayings states that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It's meant as a warning, but I never took it that way. If only a little knowledge could make me dangerous, wouldn't a lot transform me into a veritable walking time bomb of useless factoids?

With that in mind, I set aside last Saturday to sample some of the educational seminars whose regular availability makes Orlando more than just a home of break-beats and beer busts. I'm all for self-improvement, especially if I don't have to travel more than 10 miles to get to it.

Knows in a book

The first stop was the recently opened Borders Books & Music store in Winter Park Village, where one Kim Marino was to lead a session in the power of positive thinking. It was easy to spot Marino among the afternoon throng of page-turning browsers and cappuccino sippers: She was the one in the businesslike purple dress suit and fierce bob of hair, the one who was pressing the flesh with patrons in the store's cafe before the program had even begun.

I had known nothing of our lecturer's background, but the credentials she shared by way of introduction were fairly impressive. The author of six self-help guides, she said she worked by day as a career coach and corporate trainer in the Business and Industry Services department of Orange County Public Schools. On the personal front, she had been converted to the doctrine of positivity after a hellish year in which she had lost her job, her house and a five-year relationship, all while watching her daughter die and her cerebral palsy-afflicted son be diagnosed with bone cancer. I gave her two startup points for credibility, even though I felt as if I had suddenly walked into a taping of "Oprah."

Given her hard-earned wisdom, Marino's presentation was remarkably trivial. Mostly ignoring the formidable challenges she had laid out in her opening comments, she instead concentrated on the less lofty goals her upward-looking philosophy had helped her to attain -- including working up the "confidence" to drive a friend's rented Porsche.

Help yourself

The crux of her method was the creation of personal-affirmation statements that were to be repeated like mantras on a daily basis. Each day's ritual was to include 21 successive recitations of such empowering proclamations as "I love Rollerblading, and I'm really good at it!" If saying them out loud proved insufficient, she suggested that a pupil put them on tape and listen to them on headphones while working out.

Some images just don't work for me, and I couldn't imagine myself doing sit-ups while a recording of my own voice spurred me to new heights of street-surfing achievement. I'm not ready to become the Egomaniacal Little Engine That Could; moreover, how could I fit such an involved production into my already time-consuming nightly routine of counting my enemies over tequila shots?

I never found out, as the question-and-answer session that followed was monopolized by a strangely hostile attendee who introduced himself as having a "psychology background" as well. As I listened for a rim shot that never came, he all but challenged Marino to prove that her system had been known to work for anyone but herself. Those in the room who had already read Marino's books or availed themselves of her counseling services jumped to her defense, but the guy's antagonism was undeterred. He called for full details of the ways in which the speaker's positive outlook had improved her relations with the opposite sex -- a request that she quite reasonably refused.

"Most men base their impressions of a woman on physical appearance," he pressed on. "How would you overcome something like that?"

I didn't know whether to be amused or horrified by his absurd attack, which basically boiled down to the query, "How can you stay optimistic when you look the way you do?" Marino's previously grinning countenance was now frozen into a death mask; the seminar ended soon after.

Your astral mileage may vary

The mood was much more upbeat later that evening at the Connemara Center, a spiritualists' haven located across town near the intersection of Howell Branch Road and East Semoran Boulevard. The office of the Orlando Religious Science Center was the site of the latest bimonthly meeting of our area's chapter of the Institute of Noetic Sciences -- an international organization that seemed to be a sort of think tank for New Age progressives.

The guest lecturer was Judy Guggenheim, whose research in the field of After-Death Communication revolved around the idea that our departed loved ones often revisit our earthly plane for brief periods of time to offer us solace and guidance. It was a message sure to be eaten up by the IONS crew, who as they found their seats were excitedly sharing their interest in such related topics as alien/human contact and meditation -- oh, and the impending release of the latest "Star Wars" film.

Like Marino, the Longwood-based Guggenheim was also dressed in purple, and was herself an author, having co-penned the tome "Hello from Heaven!" (Bantam Books). The similarities, however, ended there. Guggenheim was a commanding speaker, quickly dispelling any potential misgivings about the spaceyness of her subject by offering commentary that was intelligent, self-effacing and responsible. Though she occasionally relied on the touchy-feely buzzwords of the chakra set to convey a point, she took a consistently scholarly approach to the case histories she had come to share, and avoided the stigma of dogma by paying due respect to the contributions of science, religion and Western medicine to her area of inquiry whenever it was appropriate.

Listening to her stories, it was difficult to hold steadfast to the belief that our lives are over when our last breaths are drawn. That was the ideology that her former husband (and current collaborator) Bill Guggenheim had embraced, she told us, before a visitation from his deceased father had helped to prevent the drowning of the couple's 22-month-old son. Don't look for a joke here -- I don't have one.

Thanks for sharing

Emboldened by Guggenheim's presentation, several audience members joined in with their own tales of interdimensional dialogue. The anecdotes came from young and old, black and white, and male and female sources. It was easy to see why Guggenheim needs a full 22 chat rooms on her website, just to meet the needs of her enthusiastic and ready-to-interact followers.

A devil's advocate might have dismissed the entire meeting as a gathering of harmless loonies -- or at least a comprehensive course in wishful thinking. But I find it far easier to throw my lot in with people who might be coming up with the wrong answers than those who don't even know which questions they should be asking.

"I want to know who I am," Guggenheim had bravely admitted early in her speech. "Who I really am. And I know it's not dependent on how good I am, or (even) how conscious I am."

Or how well she Rollerblades, for that matter.


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