The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: April 2005
Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:
- Once a month, tackle something that's been bothering you like a rash that won't depart: an outfit that doesn't fit correctly, a dripping faucet, something in the car that you can't get to work, a bothersome neighbor. Take care of it. In just a few months, you'll be rid of the rash altogether.
- Make an effort to get to know the owner of the gas station you usually use, the printer, the tailor, the restaurant owner. When you need a favor, you'll have a good chance of obtaining it.
- Tell phone solicitors the following: "I'm sorry, but I don't respond to phone solicitations because I never know to whom I'm speaking. Please send me something in the mail on your letterhead." That will end the conversation quickly and politely.
- Voltaire said once that "God is on the side of the heaviest battalions." Why on earth play "chicken" with a vehicle larger than yours? An SUV will cream any smaller vehicle, and it doesn't care who's right and who's wrong.
- Diets and exercise programs work ONLY if they are integrated into your life style, not superimposed on your life style. Consult professionals who can design programs that allow you to lead your normal life with minor readjustment. These will be the most effective programs for you.
- If you're uncomfortable bargaining about price, but you believe it irresponsible to ignore the possibility of a better deal, then simply ask the following question, "Is that your absolute best price for me?" The response will tell you immediately whether or not there is room for negotiation.
- You can print out your boarding pass for most airlines from the Internet within 24 hours of your travel date, eliminating the need to stop at the airport before security. That can buy you a lot of time.
- Please forgive a single piece of sports advice, but if you enjoy American football, watch what the two guards do (the linemen on either side of the center) when the ball is snapped, and you'll be directed right to the action.
- In this technological age, you need to read through your car's owner's manual once every six months. Otherwise, you'll forget about certain features you seldom use, and you won't be making the most of the ubiquitous information systems. (I recently found out by accident that I have a separate control to heat my steering wheel.)
- "Prix fixe" in restaurant menus (meaning a several-course meal for a fixed price) is pronounced "pree fix," and you might want to remember that if you want to impress the person you're with. And the word "forte," meaning strength, is pronounced "fort" not "fortay." Yes, you heard it here (again).
Some people are so totally inward-looking, so hugely insulated from the outside world, that you're forced to wonder how they manage to notice a speeding car heading toward them or a flight of steps requiring their attention.
These are the people who immediately realize that someone has neglected to send them a birthday gift or congratulatory letter for some minor accomplishment, yet consistently fail to send "thank you" notes themselves. They blithely inform you that your driving is dangerous while they talk on a cell phone at 35 miles-per-hour in the left-hand lane of the Interstate.
Recently, a man wrote to inform me that he appreciated the hundreds of free articles I provide on my web site, including the total archive of Balancing Act®, but that he had found some typos. What I needed, he pontificated, was the proofreading services of his wife at $90 per hour. (We'll ignore, for my purposes here, the idiocy of that fee schedule.) So, let's recap: Here is a man benefiting from value I'm providing for free who, in return, wants to charge me to fix some errors that aren't bothering me. (Most people who find typos politely inform me and give me the location, so that my web guru can fix them—this guy wouldn't even list the locations!)
How does one go through life so wondrously self-absorbed, so tendentiously focused on one's self? It is a disturbing, but not rare condition. These are the people who stop at the bottom of the escalator. These are the people who pause to talk in the aisle as the theater audience is trying to escape into the night. They are adamantine in their obliviousness.
These are the people who take ten minutes to request a customized order to the person dishing out ice cream at the Hilltop Creamery, as though they are ordering high tea at the Ritz, while the rest of the line that snakes down to the curb broils in the sun.
Like a star consuming itself in its own heat, these people are imploding, crashing in upon themselves, increasingly subsumed by their own narrow world until they collapse, inert, spent, desiccated. The question, of course, is:
How many of the rest of us do they trap in the debris?
My wife asked me recently if I would mind having dinner with some people we know, and I replied it would be a pleasure, because there was no effort involved. "What does that mean, exactly?" asked my wife, with 36 years of suspicion dripping from her inflection. "Well," I said, "you only have to ask Norma one question upon arrival and she'll talk for the rest of the evening, without stopping, without caring whether you're listening, without any awareness of her affect, and without anything of interest passing her lips, which means I really don't have to pay any attention."
Of course, I always sit across the table from Norma, because I don't want to be caught in the inevitable collapse.
I'm confessing here to an addiction I'm not proud of, but clearly can't shake and refuse to obtain help to combat.
I'm crazy about the television show "American Idol." (For those of you habituating deep caves on the dark side of the fourth moon of Neptune—Detachedus—American Idol pits winners of singing competitions against each other before three celebrity judges and then viewers' call-in votes. It appears in about 20 countries, and in the U.S. regularly draws almost 30 million votes weekly, more than ten percent of the entire population, which puts it up in the very top echelon of popular shows.)
My addiction is caused to some extent by the talent, which is quite good and, on occasion, amazing. And to some extent it is the result of enjoying the pressure of the event and how that stress affects performance. But to a far greater extent, American Idol has become the equivalent of crack cocaine for me because one of the judges, Simon Cowell, is as acerbic and brutally honest as anyone who has ever put on stage makeup.
Cowell's colleagues, Randy Jackson (a record producer), and Paula Abdul (a sort of singer and dancer who once was a Los Angeles Laker cheerleader), strain to find positive things to report for even ghastly performances. Their worst epithets are confined to "That was just all right for me," and "I admire your taking the risk."
This is hardly the stuff of Torquemada.
But Cowell is friction-filled candor to a fault, a sort of sandpaper feedback machine out of Black & Decker's worst nightmare. Some samples: "My advice is to pack your suitcase, because you won't be back here next week"; "I feel like we just heard someone who was drunk at the end of a party grabbing the mike and saying, 'Let me sing!' "; and, "That was awful, I don't think you hit a single note."
Cowell is usually right, and he's doing more of a service to the contestants than his two equivocating colleagues. When we hold back on the truth so as to spare feelings, what we really do is prevent behavior change and create false expectations.
And, of course, when Cowell compliments, which he will, it's received as a far greater beneficence than if it had come from Randy or Paula.
We need to be honest with our family, friends, and associates. Honest truth is always superior to perfidious falsehood. We withhold the truth ostensibly to "protect" the other party but, in reality, to protect ourselves from discomfort, confrontation, and possibly return vituperation. Protecting ourselves that way—at the sacrifice of providing honest help to another—is basically a selfish act.
We need to tell people when they're singing well and when they're not. Life is a competitive game, and you can't compete effectively if you're uncertain of your performance or, worse, have been told by others that it's better than it actually is.
There is no harmony in lies, only discordance. Just ask the real judges.
ONLY READ THIS IF YOU KNOW ME WELL OR YOU'LL BE NEEDLESSSLY TICKED-OFF DEPARTMENT
My wife and I stopped in San Francisco for a night to break up a long trip to Australia. It was late, the top-end restaurant in the hotel was closed for renovations, not much was available in the neighborhood, and I refused to eat in the chaotic sports bar. The concierges had long since gone home.
I insisted on a good meal and was quite peeved at our inability to find a great restaurant. My wife tolerated my pique, and finally I pointed out a steak joint down the block. We walked over and I stood in the entranceway waiting, looking at the customers.
After a few minutes, my wife said, "What are you doing?"
"What do you mean?"
"Why are you just standing here? Do you want to eat here or not?"
"I want to eat here and I'm waiting for them to seat us. What do you think I'm doing?"
With this, my wife broke up to the point that nearby diners looked up to find the source of the outburst.
"Are you crazy?!" she screamed between fits of uncontrollable laughter. "This is a Sizzler! They don't seat you! You sit down wherever you can and choose your meal from the menu posted on the walls!!"
As I crept into a primitive wooden booth, my wife snickered, "Shall I call the sommelier over?"