The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: January 2006
Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:
- Techniques for balance
- The Human Condition: The End of The World (or not)
- ORTIYKMWOYBNT-O Department
- Stop whining. Fix it, move it, ignore it, or destroy it, but whatever it is, stop whining. You're stressing yourself and you're annoying everyone else.
- Learn your language. It's embarrassing to hear the malapropisms. Your friends are too embarrassed to tell you, and your adversaries snicker. If you're not sure of a construction, get help.
- Perform a life inventory. Where are you today compared to where you'd like to be? What's the stretch you need to get to the next milepost? How will you attain it? It won't occur magically by itself. (You're already where you want to be? Then stop whining.)
- Never allow your computer to tell you that email has been received so that you stop what you're doing and respond to it.
- Never interrupt a conversation to answer your cell phone.
- Don't look around a room while you're talking to someone trying to determine if there is someone "better" you should be talking to.
- Listen to people who are talking to you. You may not be as smart as you think you are. One person alone, to whom I raptly listened for one minute, gave me an idea that immediately generated nearly $100,000 just the first time I applied it.
- If you can't say something nice, say it anyway. Brutal honesty is more supportive than disingenuous praise.
- Create a "payment plan" for yourself. Put something away every month, as if you were paying a bill. If you obtain an unusually large piece of business, then give yourself a "bonus" payment.
- Reduce indebtedness so that on December 31 it is 50% or less of what it was on January 1.
- Don't talk with your mouth full. Nothing is that important, and we can all wait another 20 seconds.
- Say "thank you" and "you're welcome" every time they are appropriate. Err on the side of saying them too much.
- Don't play one-ups-man-ship. Let the other person shine. Otherwise, you just come across as needy.
- Always leave them wanting more....
Why do people who cheat on their income taxes, change lanes without signaling, and keep money they find on the street act so shocked when executives cook the books and spend lavishly on themselves in major corporations? Why do people who have never bothered to vote locally bother to complain about the schools or the streets? Why do people who lead imperfect lives become outraged when a politician is proved by the media (the members of which also lead imperfect lives) to have led an imperfect life?
We live in the kind of world we, collectively, deserve to live in. That doesn't mean it's always good or fair or balanced. But it does mean that we shouldn't be so shocked when others demonstrate the same errors in judgment or venality that afflict virtually all of us.
This is not the end of the world. I don't believe that corporate greed and malfeasance are any worse today than 50 years ago. They are merely more reported in more effective media channels. I don't believe the world is more dangerous today than 50 years ago. We lived through nearly a half-century of devastating nuclear weapons pointed at us by an enemy who could effectively target and launch them. I don't believe the world is even more polluted today. It's merely polluted in different ways. One simple and distasteful example: In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the horse defecation alone on New York City streets necessitated shovelers at corners to clear paths, and constituted potential disease, filth and pollution volumes far worse than today's internal combustion engines. (The few horses pulling hansom cabs around Central Park in New York today are required to wear a kind of equine diaper, and there are heavy fines should the horses foul the streets.)
No, not all is well. There appears to be global warming above and beyond normal cycles (or repeating the worst of previous cycles). (Polar bears in the arctic have changed their habitat from ice floes to beaches in Alaska because the ice has retreated a record 160 miles from shore.) Ancient religious strife has inherited modern weaponry. We have been able to conquer diseases and extend life to record ages, but we face very complex ethical questions about proper treatment and sources (the first face transplant is now embroiled in tremendous controversy in France, and a Korean scientist has admitted to falsifying research in his cloning work).
So my picture is not intended to be anodyne. But we control more of our destiny than ever before. Human beings, after all, brought down the Iron Curtain, and passionate groups monitor ethics, animal rights, prisoner treatment, nuclear proliferation, and a host of other issues. Locally and nationally, we can affect our governments, our businesses, and our schools, IF we choose to do so.
But we "gotta wanna." Emerson said that "He who has a mind to meddle must have a heart to help." Fair enough.
It's not the end of the world. It's what we make it.
When I was very young, living in a first-floor apartment in Union City, NJ, about once a month the neighborhood was visited by "the sharpener." The sharpener was a man of about 70 in a suit at least that old. He carried a large grinding wheel in a harness on his back, and a small black bag in his right hand. In his left hand was a huge bell, which he rang continually while yelling "Sharpen your knives, scissors, tools—anything sharpened!!"
He would pause on certain corners, surrounded by multi-family houses, and people would eventually drift toward him, carrying assorted cutlery. He would set his bell aside and his grindstone on the ground and begin the sharpening process, sparks flying, charging 5 or 10 cents for each implement. When the final customer disappeared, so would he, off to another corner, bell receding in the distance.
The sharpener himself disappeared only a year or two after I first remembered him, never to return and never to be replaced. For many of you reading this, I am the tenuous connection between the sharpener and your current, modern lives. It's hard for me to convey, even to my kids, what it was like to hear that bell, look out the apartment window, and see the ageless sharpener trudging up the block with 20 or 30 pounds on his back.
It was another age, but I lived in it. (To put a finer point on this, my son was astonished when he learned that I was alive when Kennedy was shot. I was astonished I didn't smite him on the spot.) So many cultural artifacts, like ancient lumbering sauropods, have disappeared from the landscape.
Do you remember ice cream scooped into cones at a corner candy store? Trucks with small cars and amusements that came into the neighborhood, double-parked, and offered rides for a nickel? Good Humor trucks? "Rabbit ear" TV antennas? Heavy delivery trucks with chain gears and solid rubber tires? Dump trucks sending coal down a ramp into apartment house basements? Ice men hauling huge blocks of ice on their backs, clamped with giant tongs, for delivery several floors up to ice boxes? Milk men making rounds every morning? Radios requiring huge vacuum tubes to be replaced? Party lines on phones? Stickball in the street? The Fuller Brush, door-to-door salesman?
Our past informs our present, which shapes our future. We are what we've experienced. I worry about homogeneous lives, lived without local neighborhoods or flavor, processed through soccer games and dance recitals, car pools and electronic media, instant gratification and fast food.
It's not that I'm against modern life or modern convenience. But the richness of life and experiences arise out of singular views and unique perspectives, not mass endeavors and mindless conformity.
You can play at life on the Internet. But you can only understand life hearing the bell of the sharpener in the distance, running to the window to watch him trudge up another hill, crying his trade, demanding to be heard.
I was awaiting a client in a conference room, since I was about 10 minutes early. As I read the paper I tried to scratch a very annoying itch in my right ear. Although it's against every mother's advice, the warnings of the American Medical Association, and several religions, I reached for the Palm Pilot stylus to exorcise the itch. After some vigorous work, I was fine and never missed a word in the article I was reading.
A few minutes later, the client entered, sat across the table and we began our discussions. He asked me for a copy of a memo in my briefcase and after turning to my left to retrieve it, I found the client staring at me oddly.
As I tried to resume the conversation, the client finally said, "Alan, what on earth happened to your head? Are you okay? Do you need assistance?"
I hadn't retrieved the stylus when I distractedly reached for it, I had retrieved my ball point pen which, of course, has the point exposed. Most of my right ear was blue, as though I were disgorging antifreeze. "Apparently," I said when informed of the situation, "it's just my brains flowing out. No great loss."