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Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 106: June 2008)

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Why do these things happen?

  • Invariably, when I tell a someone that I only have a minute, they acknowledge that statement but then go on to talk at great length. Do they think I'm kidding?
  • If you call and say, "Hello, this is Mary Thomas, may I speak to Maria, please?" I'm going to be a lot more cordial and more carefully take the message than if you call and demand in a screechy voice, "Is Maria there???!!"
  • I ask the directory assistance operator for a number which she cannot find, and I explain that I've called and been given the number before. The operator's response isn't to try again, even though the number clearly exists in the records, but it's to tell me, "Well, I'm not finding it, sorry."
  • I'm told that my call "may be recorded for training purposes," but the service never improves.
  • You tell the speaker, presenter, moderator, or anyone else with the mike to make a few brief comments, and they agree, and then spend 20 minutes attempting to show everyone how brilliant they are.
  • You make a speech, it's received well, and as you're leaving and several people are attempting to talk to you, one guy always gets hold of you to dazzle you with his favorite story and his best anecdote, and his approach to your topic.
  • When I call a service department that forces its people to loudly state to callers, "I can help you!" they invariably can't.
  • Many luxury hotels charge $9.95 or so a day for Internet service in the rooms. That is appallingly poor judgment. They should just raise the room rate by $10, which no one would notice at those rates, and none of us would feel that they're being what we used to call in the neighborhood, "chintzy."
  • My wife is usually furious when I buy new shoes and make it a habit to wear one new pair immediately out of the store. She has to "break in" her new shoes, and often doesn't find them comfortable at all. Why would women put up with that?
  • Why is it that post office cannot change a hundred dollar bill, but the local coffee shop can?

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Swing states

I was returning from a speech in Santa Barbara via Denver. Right at the 6:30 pm boarding time, the gate agent informed us there was a "throttle problem." In another half-hour we were told the plane was unserviceable, and United would search for another. (I could see about 50 planes from the window, but they had to search.) Then we were informed that the next available replacement wouldn't arrive until after 9, and most of us veterans knew that Boston has a curfew.

We were told that they would, therefore, continue to try to fix our plane but no one could guarantee anything. I called my wife to make some emergency arrangements for my next day's calls and interviews (a crowded day since I was away for two days, and my kids were coming home to celebrate Mother's Day), and then went into the Red Carpet Club to try to get a flight to New York (and take a limo home) or Chicago (and spend the night so that I could fly from there on a sunrise flight). Chicago was available and New York wasn't, and I returned to the boarding gate to make a duplicate reservation by phone, since United won't do that if they can see that you're trying to hold two reservations, but it's possible over the phone.

While I was on hold for United reservations, the gate agent told us the throttle had been wondrously fixed, and we all sighed in relief as we trudged on board, almost 90 minutes late and due into Boston at 2 am (with an hour's limo ride awaiting me there). Yet we kidded with the flight attendants and joked with each other.

That illogical positive behavior was caused by stark disappointment and great discomfort being turned into relief and positive resolution. It's the equivalent of the old saw: The good thing about someone twisting your arm is that, when they finally stop, it feels so good. I thought about this as we were taxiing, worried a bit that the problem might return as the pilot applied power, and realized that if we had to return to the gate after boarding and heading toward the runway, the disappointment would create a far greater plunge into the depths.

Each successive swing is dramatically more emotionally intense.

I call these "swing states" because they represent rapid changes in attitude that are sometimes irrational. United did cause us all severe inconvenience in getting us to Boston in what Sinatra used to describe as "the shank of the night." But in fixing their own problem, they created elation in every passenger I observed. If they had to return us from the brink of departure to the terminal, the anger would have been exponentially greater than what had existed before.

We experience this all the time in terms of our expectations. If you're not expecting a reward or honor, and don't receive it, you're still going about your day unperturbed. But if you expect it and it is denied you, you're pretty bummed out. In mentoring people I try always to help moderate their expectations. The best hunters are successful one time in ten; the best baseball players get a hit three times in ten; you're probably only going to greatly enjoy about half the plays and movies you see.

I heard a colleague at an awards ceremony say, after being nominated for 17 consecutive years, "When I most wanted this, it was denied me, and I was terribly disappointed. I got to a stage when I realized I might never get it and that would be all right, and now that it's been bestowed upon me, I'm overwhelmingly delighted."

We need to avoid swing states and try to maintain equilibrium no matter what is occurring. If you're constantly swinging, you get real dizzy.

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Did you know, my friends, that Yellowstone National Park is a 40 mile wide caldera? (This and other statistics from the perpetually intriguing book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything"). A caldera, by the way, is a volcanic field which can suddenly blow, one of two kinds of such monsters (the other being the conical, represented by Mt. Fuji or Vesuvius). The Yellowstone volcano explodes about once every 600,000 years, so far as scientists can tell. The explosions obliterated everything for thousands of miles.

When was the last explosion? Exactly 630,000 years ago. Uh oh.

When Mt. St. Helens blew, it produced a quantify of ash that would have buried Manhattan under 40 feet of the stuff. An airliner 30 miles away was pelted with rocks form the blast. The magnitude of the explosion was in the order of 50 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs.

The earth is spinning on its axis several thousand miles an hour, while racing in orbit about 85,000 miles an hour around the sun, which is an exploding star. There are any number of large and small rock piles in space which could collide with the earth before we ever knew it. Over the past several years, two such objects flew by us closer than the moon. We only knew it after they had passed. Even an object the size of a house hitting the earth at great speed could wipe out a billion people.

The dinosaurs, extremely successful and constantly evolving over more than 130 million years, met their demise relatively quickly when a space object struck the Gulf of Mexico.

I could go on, but my space here (and your attention there) is limited. Forget our enemies and misguided human efforts, there is quite a lot of natural phenomena which can pretty much ruin our day.

I would therefore submit that the only real choice we have is to live our lives boldly and assertively, filled with the wonder of the universe and the delicacy of our lives. In the best of lives our time is limited to less than a hundred years of quality life. In the worst of times our lives can end quite prematurely and unexpectedly.

The sin, as I see it, is sacrificing and not respecting what time we have.

I've actually met people who have bragged that they've never read a book, or never traveled more than a few hours from their homes, or never dine out or go to the theater. ("Why on earth would you get us theater tickets?!" heard a man exclaim to his wife when she came home with an impulse purchase.)

Why is that people abhor the sudden destruction of life in war or accident, but think it to be no great loss to fritter life away in part and piecemeal? If a racecar driver dies in a wreck at the track, doing what he or she loves to do, is that death to be mourned more than an individual who lives to 80 and spends all of that time reading trashy novels, watching television reality shows, and putting in eight hours a day at work that he or she despises?

I don't mind if my last act finds me racing around third base heading for home, and being tagged out in an explosion or dust, sweat, and fury in a close call at the plate. I just don't want my last act to be standing with the bat on my shoulder looking at a called third strike.

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I was working for an ad agency in the basement of a building in Newark, NJ over a summer while working my way through college. I had driven back from delivering some art work to a client, and went in the rear, basement door as we were instructed to do. It was a giant, metal fire door, heavy as hell, and when it swung back it hit me on the head and everything went dark as it shut behind me.

I couldn’t see a thing, and wasn’t yet familiar enough with the place to have any orientation. I was wandering around with my hands in front of me shouting, “Help, I’m hurt. I’m blind. I can’t see!!”

Finally, after bumping into walls and fire extinguishers, someone grabbed my hand and held a bright light to my face.

“Kid,” he said, “stop screaming. The power is out. Get a hold of yourself!”

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