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Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 114: February 2009)

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Techniques for balance

When you're in unfamiliar circumstances (a party, a social event, a business meeting, a vacation activity, etc.):

  • First, take in the environment. Look around and see what and who is there. This is a common technique for speakers, who try to comprehend the environment in which they will be speaking for the first time.
  • Smile. You're more approachable and less threatening to those who may want to come over and introduce themselves, flesh and blood and not marmoreal.
  • Make overtures to an individual, couple, or small group. Don't barge into a large group or interrupt someone's story. Look for some other people who are smiling and seem friendly.
  • Don't be the first-to try the buffet, dive in the pool, buy a raffle ticket, turn on your microphone, whatever. You don't know the protocol, so why take the chance?
  • Find the host, chair, coordinator, whomever, and introduce yourself. If appropriate, thank them for the invitation. But don't monopolize their time.
  • Don't be the first to arrive or the last to leave, unless it's a business meeting and you need to prepare something or talk to someone afterwards.
  • Don't mix your messages. If you're on vacation, don't attempt to sell the people sharing a fishing boat your products or services. If you're seeing people at a social event for the first time, don't invite them to something else you're attending.
  • Don't be the "expert." If someone cites their favorite hotel in Venice, don't suggest that you've stayed at an even better one a bit farther down the Canal Grande.
  • Offer legitimate help. If you do know of a book, or web site, or travel agent, or course that seems to match someone's stated needs, by all means suggest it. (Make sure it's a "stated need." You won't endear yourself by saying, "I'm sure you could use the name of my hair stylist, right dear?")
  • If there is someone to thank, do so. Thank the host or the chair or the event planner or whomever made the arrangements.

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Like most houses of the type we own, there is a huge master bathroom, which my wife redesigned some years ago. It's at least the size of a large bedroom, with Jacuzzi, two vanities and sinks, and so on. And smack in the middle is a large dog bed, big enough to accommodate Koufax, our Shepherd. (Occasionally, Buddy Beagle will use it concurrently, to Koufax's annoyance.) There is a lot of light, but also umbrageous corners for the dogs.

The other day I'm finishing shaving, and Buddy is in the dog bed, staring at me. He knows that the dog treat drawer is right below my shaving drawer, and once I'm done he can hit me up for some Pupperoni. Koufax is downstairs with my wife.

All of a sudden, from two levels and at least ten rooms away, I hear my wife call, "Buddy!" I know she's about to leave and wants to take both dogs with her in the truck. Buddy cocks his head, and he's clearly starting to debate whether to give up his treat patrol, or try to snag one before the ever-appealing lure of a ride ends its siren song. He looks at me and raises his eyebrows. I move slowly to the drawer.

Then, my wife again: "Buddy, NOW!!" He swivels, his ears whipping, and he realizes there is a clear and present danger of his being left behind. Off he goes on a tear, with his low center of gravity fortunately keeping him safe in the turns.

He made a decision. He was processing information. I am not anthropomorphizing, I am the guy who read all the dog psychology books, plus Margaret Wheatley's excellent Leadership and the New Science, where she talks about consciousness being a function of how well we process information (dogs having a higher consciousness than, say, frogs, and me having a higher consciousness than, say, professional wrestling fans).

I don't think enough people ponder their decisions. They either stay the inflexible course, don't respond to stimuli, ignore enticing opportunities, and "dig in" for the duration, awaiting that dog treat; or, they dance around like water bugs, losing interest in a nanosecond, never following up or seeing anything to its conclusion, constantly enticed merely by the latest event.

The fact is, we have choices. And if we take the time to evaluate our decisions, pro and con, risk and reward, logically and emotionally, we might just be able to maximize our happiness and effectiveness by doing what's right for us at the moment. Sometimes it's the treat, sometimes it's the ride. Very infrequently will it be both.

And of course, if you run down the hall, stop, look over your shoulder, vacillate, and change your mind repeatedly, I'll be back in my den and my wife will have left.

You won't have the treat or the ride, and you'll be lost in the middle. Even Beagles are smarter than that.

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I receive selected headlines every morning from The New York Times, in categories I choose. I can click on them to read the entire story. As you might expect, one category comprises op ed pieces.

This morning I was amused to find that ALL FOUR op ed columns were critical of Barack Obama or his policies or his appointments. The vultures had begun to circle. And this from a newspaper notoriously pro-Democrat and pro-Obama (including these op ed writers).

We've moved toward a period of vulturism in the media. At least among animals, scavenging is a necessary pursuit. Scavengers cleanse the environment of things others wouldn't touch and they perpetuate their species. I have to admit that I've followed the scientific debate about whether Tyrannosaurus Rex was the fierce predator always believed, or merely a really giant hyena who ate things already dead. I would like to think of the beast as a killer, not a street cleaner, just for romance's sake.

But among humans, we're on the verge of eating our young. As I write this, Obama hasn't even been sworn in, hasn't even begun his honeymoon period, which apparently is going to have the half-life of a quark. We are besieged with criticism, dour faces, bad news, and warnings of doom. If you watch the network news, they are inclined to include one positive topic, at the very end, as a whimsical piece, as if it is so flimsy and evanescent that it should be chuckled at but not taken seriously. Blague has taken over.

I read a story the other day about a bank robber, stereotypical ski mask in place, who dutifully stood in line to wait to get to the teller's window to announce his holdup. It was about then that his toy gun broke when he tried to pull it out of his pocket, and he was subdued by customers, no doubt upset (like me) that he was holding the line up. If crooks and criminals were so smart, they wouldn't be crooks and criminals, which is the last resort for those who are out of ideas and intellect. Anyone who believes that a stranger in Nigeria is holding a million dollars for them, and they need only send their bank account number, social security number, and $25,000 to collect it, is dumber than the crook.

Yet it's the crooks and the bad guys who get the air time. It's the frailties and failings of the good guys which get the spotlight. We want to tear down our public servants whenever we can, and focus the light on the next C-level star in rehab or someone who has defrauded people who were too greedy and gullible not to be defrauded.

The vultures circle. They seem to know that no one lasts long in the heat of the media sun. But you can't blame the vultures.

At least THEY do their job conscientiously and well.

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I stood on line in Citizen's Bank for 15 minutes, rapidly growing upset with the merchants who came in with their coin rolls, people who wanted certified checks, and customers who insisted on counting their money nine times.

Finally, it was my turn, and I handed my deposit to the teller, who didn't move, but looked at it quizzically, and then at me twice, trying nonetheless to avoid eye contact.

"What is it?!" I demanded, "you know me and you're not going to ask for ID for a deposit, right??!!"

"No," she said, "but the endorsement on the check and the deposit slip are for Bank of America. You've come to the wrong bank."

I left, pretending I was counting my money.

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