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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: August 2000

Balancing Act® is in six sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: "Gotcha"
  3. The reading list
  4. Musings
  5. Quandary answered
  6. The balance test

Welcome to the completion of our first full year publishing Balancing Act. Thanks for your interest and support.

From issue No. 11: Faithful reader (and great cook) Sally Strackbein has written to point out that it was Robert Heinlein who wrote about TINSTAAFL, but that it was actually TANSTAAFL (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch) and it was from "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress," not "Stranger In A Strange Land." Other than that, I was deadly accurate.

You'll find a new "reading list" feature below, in response to a kibillion requests for recommendations, my favorites, etc. I'm providing this on the condition that no one gets upset about it. This is one man's opinion. Of course, it's a very learned opinion...

  1. Techniques for balance

    This month, our balance techniques will focus on relationships:

    • When a relationship is troubled, focus on observable behavior, not psychobabble. "You interrupted me three times during dinner before I could finish my thought" is much easier to talk about than "Your trouble is that you have no respect for anyone else's opinion."

    • Break tension through a nice, minor gesture. Offer a drink, a kind word, a pleasant mutual memory.

    • Try to describe breakdowns as mutual difficulties or challenges, not as something inflicted upon you by your partner.

    • Let silences reign at times. They can be healthy periods for reflection and aren't necessarily meant to infuriate you. Nine times out of ten you will fill a silence with something you regret if you speak too soon.

    • If the sight of the other person or sound of his or her voice triggers a visceral reaction, start with a note. Don't type it-write it.

    • Never universalize a specific. In other words, if the other person acted rudely last night that doesn't make them an ogre for their entire lives.

    • Remember that most anger expressed maliciously at others is actually self-anger which is being transferred to protect your own self-image and efficacy.

    • Be honest about your emotions and don't try to camouflage them. It's healthy to say "You really hurt me by that comment" or "I felt betrayed."

    • Remember that what you feel and what you think are two different things. Logic makes people think, but emotion makes them act. You have to communicate on both levels.

    • Seek third-party help if you're at an impasse. Therapy has a bad name only because people choose bad therapists. Ask for referrals and wait to find one with whom you both feel comfortable sharing and communicating. I'm convinced that 50% of the potential effectiveness of therapy is in simply being patient and diligent enough to find the right resource.


    Deliberate plug, but not for me: "Laugh and Grow Rich," a new book by two buddies, Rick Segel and Darren LaCroix. The Price is $19.95 + $4 shipping from Specific House Publishing, One Wheatland St., Burlington, MA 01803, 781/272-9995, fax: 781/272-9996. They're like Penn and Teller, except they both speak.

  2. The Human Condition: Gotcha

    When "I'm OK, You're OK" was the big hit book, I wanted to write a parody called "I'm OK, You Stink." That's because these "adult to adult transactions" that everyone seems to be so fond of just don't occur on this planet with any kind of normal distribution.

    Not long ago, a man was arrested for assaulting another man who jumped to a newly opened cashier's line in a drug store. The assaulter was next in line and assumed he had priority on any line that opened. The assaultee, third in line, assumed that it was every man for himself if new lines opened.

    Driving back from the Nantucket ferry last week, I passed a small car on a curve, properly, in the left lane. The driver spent the next hour in heavy traffic trying to catch me. If I had wanted to pull away I could have done so in a flash, but I simply stayed in the high speed lane, following the car in front of me, while he wove in and out in a series of dangerous maneuvers. Finally, just before my exit, he pulled ahead in the right lane and smiled triumphantly.

    I'd lay even money that he had already passed his own exit. Would he have raced me down my own driveway?

    Why do we play "Gotcha," exalting in mundane "victories" and enjoying the put-down of someone else which perversely seems to elevate us (which, of course, it doesn't)? I think it's because we are trapped in a mentality that insists that there are winners and losers in all events and in every aspect of human life. Yet in nature, there are no victories and there are no defeats. There are simply consequences. A lion hasn't "won" and a wildebeest "lost" because the lion has successfully managed to hunt and eat. Nor did the wildebeest "win" if it were lucky enough to have escaped.

    In most aspects of our lives, we artificially create winning and losing standards, rather than merely being content with existing, observing, participating, and enjoying. People scoff at the Olympic motto about "how you play the game," but the biggest "winners" (the jocks) in my high school class turned out to be the greatest "losers" in life. Success is never final and failure is seldom fatal; it's courage that counts.

    We play "Gotcha" so that we can believe that we're succeeding, so that we can establish some tangibility for our actions and results, and so that we can seek some relativistic standing versus "the other guy." I used to play "Gotcha" all the time, and became one of the fastest guns around. The trouble was that the only scoreboard was in my own head, and I was never in the lead by as much or for as long as I'd craved. I finally realized that it was easier to simply quit the game.

    "Gotcha" can be an amusing, trivial pursuit, or it can result in friction and even violence. It wastes a lot of time and energy, and can distract us from the enjoyment that would otherwise be available.

    I used to explain to people that I didn't get nervous before major challenges because I realized "it was only a game," or "only a test," or "only a speech." I realized that if I could apply such calm to major challenges, then I could certainly apply it to minor annoyances.

    Try to give up "Gotcha," and, as the man sang, just be happy.

  3. The reading list

    I've received so many requests for suggested reading that I'm going to provide some ideas, but only on the condition that I refuse to defend them and will not debate anyone in email who takes offense or issue with my choices. It's my newsletter, and I have terrific taste.

    I've chosen relatively recent works, fiction and non-fiction, for this month. The goal is an eclectic, diverse, and enjoyable experience, and perhaps a nudge out of one's comfort zone.

    • "I Know This Much Is True," by Wally Lamb. A complex, riveting novel of identical twins, one a schizophrenic, and the damage we do ourselves.
    • "Gertrude and Claudius," by John Updike. I've read everything Updike has written, and this is a tour de force about what occurred just prior to the story of Hamlet. It was so good that I reread Hamlet immediately thereafter.
    • "Memoirs of a Geisha," by Arthur Golden. I love the joy and learning combined in historical novels, and this is an intriguing tale of beauty, discipline, and sacrifice that transcends the war years.
    • "The Stork Club," by Ralph Blumenthal. A meticulous account of the ultimate in café society, the likes of which (for better or for worse) will never be seen again. It's not every day that one can use the word "soignée."
    • "The Greatest Generation," by Tom Brokaw. A surprisingly excellent account of true heroes: the people who won World War II, in the trenches and on the home front. I doubt that we are capable of such courage on so large a scale today. Most people can't begin to comprehend what that pivotal point in history actually demanded of our society.
    • "Into Thin Air," by Jon Krakauer. I know people climb Everest "because it's there," but after reading this, with all the amateurism, dandyism, and egoism, you have to conclude that it ain't a very good reason. True life more engrossing than most novels.

  4. Musings

    There's a guy who writes a column for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The column is called "The Ethicist," and he purportedly provides insights to help sort out ethical conundrums. The problem is that he's actually a writer for David Letterman, has no ethical training or academic credentials, and he's often not only plain wrong, but also inserts gratuitous swipes at people he clearly dislikes.

    I wrote to him and asked if such one-sided public attacks were, in themselves, ethical and appropriate behavior for a role model. Astonishingly, he wrote back during a week's worth of heated email exchange that he wasn't paid to be a role model, just to write a column. My letters to the editors of the Times asking them to reveal their columnist's rather shocking lack of both credentials and accountability have thus far gone unpublished.

    All of which has allowed me to vent and finally arrive at my point: To whom are we listening? Who are we using as our exemplars and role models? From whom have we decided to accept advice? These are all voluntary choices, yet we seem to have them often foisted upon us, unchallenged, and wholly swallowed.

    Because Oprah Winfrey has more money than most European countries, does that qualify her to use the media to broadcast her choices of current books and thereby accelerate their sales? Should women really be subjecting themselves to uncomfortable, impractical (and often plain ugly) fashions that are overwhelmingly designed by men? Should we fall into an obedient line behind the latest politically correct movement to ban cell phone use in moving cars, when activities such as eating, changing the music, applying makeup, shaving, and talking to passengers are at least as distracting?

    Bertrand Russell said once, "Don't ever be absolutely sure of anything--not even if I tell you." I've often thought of marketing an emblematic encased grain of salt that people can keep on their desks or next to their beds. High exposure, fame, and fortune don't necessarily experts make. "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" has the nice corollary, "If you're so rich, why aren't you smart?"

    I've learned a great deal from "unknowns" and through casual meetings. I've been bored, and sometimes enraged, by those who are extolled as "experts." It's not because I'm a contrarian, but simply because I refuse to dive into the mainstream without checking the current and looking for rocks. "Always consider the source" is not helpful, since the aphorism claims that worth is established by the recognition of the speaker. "Always consider the value for you" is a more apt criterion, since the enhancement of your condition is the key test. We can all learn from prisoners and be mislead by kings.

    Anatole France observed that "the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and to steal bread." The worth of one's exemplars should not be determined by their station in society or by their bank account. It should only be determined by your thoughtful and highly personal analysis.

    Otherwise, you never know who's posing as an ethicist.

  5. Quandaries answered

    I'm suspending the quandaries department at the request of the editor. It might appear again in the future, but let's try some other things for the nonce.

    From last month: A friend down the street tells you that many of the neighbors are upset that your house has a basketball hoop in the driveway. He says there is an informal agreement to keep all the homes and lawns well-manicured, with no toys or hobbies left in view for prolonged periods. You like the neighbor and you've found the neighborhood to be very friendly and pleasant. What's your response?

    Answer: Most respondents said, "Invite the neighbors to a cook out and a pick-up game." Some said, "Is that neighbor really speaking for others or for himself?" Others said, "Tough!" While I don't like that type of "big brother" neighborhood with everyone having to look the same, nevertheless, if you've decided to live there then you have to play by the rules. Find out if, indeed, the sentiment exists beyond that one person. If so, move the hoop out when you want to play and store it otherwise. If not, tell the "friend" to take a walk.

  6. The balance test

    You have one minute, no cheating:

    • What was F. Scott Fitzgerald's notorious wife's name?
    • What is the capital of Canada?
    • Who is Jeff Bezos?
    • How would you find the area of a rectangle?
    • What three parts of speech can an adverb modify?
    • What is an ebb tide?