The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: January 2003
Balancing Act® is in three sections this month:
- Lose weight and/or get into shape. Map out your regimen for the entire year. Reward yourself when key goals are achieved.
- Repair a broken friendship. Why go through another year agitated? Reach out and patch up one of them.
- Plan your vacations, even if long weekends. Don’t wait for the “right time” or until things “slow down.” Place them in the calendar now, and work around them for all other purposes.
- Develop a new skill or acquire new expertise. Learn to sculpt or play an instrument. Study Japanese origami. Become a gourmet cook. Learn to play bridge or chess. Go back to school part-time.
- Spend more solitary time with your significant other. Plan events for the two of you rather than being together for some other purpose (or someone else’s other purpose). Arrange a weekly dinner, movie, or even private time watching rented videos.
- Stop procrastinating (or at least reduce it). Call that relative, fix the bathroom sink, change your investment portfolio, paint the bedroom, clean out the garage.
- Reduce debt (which is almost the same as saving money). Attack a particular credit card or outstanding loan. If you’re virtually debt-free, then pay down the mortgage more quickly.
- Volunteer for something. Help a charity, raise funds for a theater group, serve on a town board, become a tutor. If all of us did this, not only would the world be a better place, but we’d all be better people, since the experience is so rewarding.
- Exploit a strength (most people would advise you to correct a weakness, but that’s not how we grow). If you are a good writer, submit an article to a magazine. If you’re witty and extroverted, join a theater group. Enlarge upon your skills.
- Resolve how this year will be different from last year. We really don’t contribute or grow much when we simply replicate the past. Make this new year better than ever. That’s easiest, of course, when you still have most of it in front of you.
Recently, the final episode this year of The Sopranos was broadcast. As usual, my wife and I watched with avid attention, and the next morning I listened to the Don Imus radio program in my car returning from my workout, because Imus always reviews the episode with carefully selected accomplices.
(For those of you returning from a pilgrimage to the headwaters of the Amazon, The Sopranos is a ground-breaking drama about a mob boss and his families—one by relationship, and one by criminal intent. It is a huge hit, with graphic violence and sex, and will conclude next season after a limited run. It can also be roaringly funny—the boat of the crime king is called “Stugotz,” which in Italian pretty much means “stupid.” At the conclusion of the last episode, the “Stugotz” was docked outside an adversary’s luxury home constantly blaring Dean Martin lounge songs and patter, a despicable act if there ever was one.)
I don’t ask that you share my taste and I respect yours if you think I’m wasting my time. I do ask that you consider this: We are all voyeurs to a large extent, intent on peering into our neighbors’ windows, albeit in as safe a manner as possible.
Television soap operas, “reality” television (Will she eat those maggots?), “exposure” television (My best friend is really my mother’s ex-husband), crime shows, scandalous newspaper stories—even “serious” news sources such as “60 Minutes” or “20/20”—allow us to stand on tip-toes and peer over the hedge into the next yard. What are they doing over there, anyway? Are they as boring (or wild) as we are?
We no longer live in neighborhoods or communities. Even people in vast high-rise, city apartment buildings seldom see their neighbors. Kids rarely play in the street any more, especially in suburbia. We see only brief glimpses of others in half-light, while jointly attending a child’s soccer game or meeting at a club for a drink.
We’ve become insulated from our common kind, and only see the varnished, dressed, and accoutered aspects of others’ lives. I’m wondering if we indulge in less and less subtle forms of trespass because we want to know that our foibles aren’t solely our own, our defeats not purely personal, and our enjoyments nothing to be ashamed of.
How else does one explain “America’s Funniest Home Videos”? (This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. I’ve seen the exact same thing in Japan, Australia, and most of Europe.)
There is no longer sufficient connection to other people to comfort us in our choices, to demonstrate that we’re neither slothful nor extravagant, or to assuage us with reminders of our common humanity. We’ve build too many walls, hedgerows, fences, window shades, and suits of armor, literally and figuratively. Islam is mostly a mystery to the Judeo-Christian West, because the latter citizenry can’t really even understand each other, let alone a fundamentally different ideology. Yet in a pluralistic society, it’s more important than ever to understand and rejoice in our common humanity, and not focus on our superficial differences.
I have to admit that I like peeking in on the Sopranos’ crazed existence. But I also need to understand the real people with whom I interact every day. Understanding others is not prying, and seeing the best in them is certainly not voyeurism. If we’re connected in the streets, we don’t really need to stare through the hedges, or believe everything we see on TV.
Scientists have recently discovered that all dogs, no matter what their breed or location, are descendents of one group of small East Asian wolves. They know this because a comprehensive study of dog DNA around the world proved that dogs are far more similar to each other and to those small wolves than they are to local wolves in their locale.
Thus, dogs did not arise independently around the world as local people adopted abandoned wolf cubs or formed arm’s length relationships with nearby packs. Rather, some rather bright East Asian wolves realized that there was far more reward and far less risk in hanging out around human encampments rather than doing battle in the wild. In so doing, they proved their worth as companions in terms of camp guards, hunting assistants, recreational partners, and— during tough times—a fall-back food source.
Apparently, there were no indigenous dogs in the New World, and the original settlers of North and South America, traveling by way of the Siberian/Alaskan land bridge, deliberately brought dogs with them. This realization led one researcher to make a fascinating observation: He said that the dogs must have been of tremendous value, because they were very expensive.
They were expensive because dogs are carnivores, and consequently had to share in the results of the hunting and trapping, even if for scraps and bones (and more important helpings they would no doubt steal, just as my Shepard, Koufax, can make a newly-created sandwich disappear while I turn to pour a drink).
All of this, of course, has set me wondering about the wisdom of having expensive friends. We’re acculturated to place a premium on “low maintenance” relationships, which basically denotes a connection which requires relatively little of our time, emotional energy, material goods, and so on. But I wonder if low maintenance relationships are really all that valuable. Sure, we save some time and psychic pounding, perhaps, but what of the return?
I’ve found “expensive” relationships to usually offer valuable returns. People who require your attention are often interesting, provocative, confounding, stimulating, and generally enjoyable. Anything taken to an extreme can be agonizing, naturally, and I always stop short of the “needy” individual who is an energy consumer with no palpable return of heat or light. But why not embrace a stable of friends and acquaintances who require some of your “meat” but return the investment in terms of bonhomie, objective feedback, new ideas, and even healthy competition?
Dogs remain very expensive today. They extract a huge emotional toll when they are injured, ill, and, all too soon, pass on. The might provide unremitting love, but they also demand play time involving irrational rules and a fixed outcome (you lose). They make a commotion at the most inopportune times, require periodic outdoor jaunts, and demand to ride in any and all vehicles, preferably with their heads maximally extended out the window.
In other words, they are fascinating and captivating companions, and we can use more such relationships in our lives (with human beings, who are at least capable of not howling at the moon nor tearing up the new rug). In other words, we need more expensive relationships, taking our cue from the dogs.