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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: November 2000

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Obliviousness
  3. Musings
  4. The reading list

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  1. Techniques for balance

    This month: Humor. I'm asked all the time how I can be so "funny" (and I take that to mean "generating mirth" and not "peculiar"). So, I've given that some thought at 35,000 feet en route to Phoenix.

    • Virtually all humor is based on pain, yours or someone else's. It is a form of stress relief and "belonging." Slipping on a banana peel is the classic painful scenario, but I've also heard hilarious stuff from someone who's just lost a bundle in the market. I'm convinced that humor evolved so that we didn't all become clinically depressed as a condition of life.

    • Someone listening to me once said that "Your stories of success are largely about others, and your stories of mishap are generally about yourself." The safest humor is self-effacing. Others will like you all the more for it, and it prevents your ego from becoming a float in the Rose Bowl Parade. (Or is that now the Weed Whacker/Alpo/Roto Rooter Parade?)

    • Irony is the mother lode of humor in my opinion, from Voltaire and Swift, to Seinfeld and Sahl. When ousted from Emmy nomination by Michael J. Fox's portrayal of a political operative, Seinfeld, playing the title role in his own series at the time, observed, "Evidently the academy members feel that Michael J. Fox is better at playing a fictitious person than I am at portraying myself." It brought the house down.

    • Humor involves risk. When someone is vehemently attacking a position, I invariably comment, "Don't repress, tell us how you really feel." The subsequent laughter provides a tension release and an opportunity to think about a measured reply. On occasion, someone might think I'm being flip, but I find the potential benefit far outweighs the risk.

    • Humor is less effective, somehow, if you break yourself up. That's why I find Dennis Miller smug and not terribly funny. He's too in love with his own wit.

    • Timing is everything. Jack Benny used to simply pause, and the laughter would escalate. After a robber had to ask him three times, "Your money or your life?!" Benny, a notorious tightwad, finally yelled, "I'm thinking about it!"

    • The funniest stories are absolutely true. "Jokes" and artificial contrivances are seldom really humorous, and are seen as deliberate attempts at mirth. Consider what happens to you every day for side-splitting, funny reminiscences. What has happened to me in immigration, sailing, and most recently nearly wedging a Mercedes between two buildings in an alley in Spain (see below), are classics that I could never invent.

    • People learn best when relaxed, and humor is relaxing. If you want to accomplish an objective, influence someone else, or make progress with your own plan, try to remember to lighten up. I don't know about you, but I haven't been in the position lately to change the course of Western Civilization. I'm constantly trying to determine, "Do I have the proper perspective here?"

    • Allowing others to engage in humor is as good as using it ourselves. Laugh at others' stories, even if you have a better one. Don't engage in oneupsmanship. (Sorry, but "oneupspersonship" just doesn't work for me.) It's the laugh, not the source, that's important.

    • Allow yourself to laugh. I kid you not (as Jack Paar used to say). I drive my wife crazy by laughing out loud at books I'm reading while sitting on an airplane. One time, someone approached me at a resort and said, "What on earth are you reading, and how can I get it?" (It was a great book called, "Abbreviating Ernie.") Don't be selfish about laughter. Share it.

  2. The Human Condition: Obliviousness

    I thought I had invented a new word in "obliviousness," but my spell checker accepted it without so much as a grumble. Too bad.

    In any case, I'm talking about a pragmatic "blindness" that descends over all of us at times, inexplicable in its callousness, unpredictable in its frequency, but superbly annoying all the same.

    For example, at least twice a week I receive calls from people who leave lengthy voice mail messages (when a simple "Hi, this is Joan, please call me at this number…" would serve just fine) and then state their phone number at the end as if they're late to catch a train. That's right, after listening for five minutes, I can't comprehend the phone number and have the agonizing choice of listening all over again or, well, listening all over again. Then there are those people, including a recent vendor I wanted to use, who call and don't even leave a number.

    What accounts for this level of oblivity? (Aha, that one threw the spell check!) It's not self-absorption, because I doubt it's ego based at all. It's simply a failure to be connected to the environment.

    Have you encountered the people who step off a crowded, "down" escalator and then pause immediately in front of it? The possibility of their getting trampled does not motivate me to rush to save them, since I'm usually too busy trying to save myself from the crazed shoppers behind me. Then there's the person at the lone public phone booth, staring straight at the line forming behind, engaged in banalities with an office colleague. On several occasions I could swear that the person in the car at the toll booth in front of me has not only placed the change carefully in order by serial number in a vault, but has also begun to eat lunch in the car before proceeding.

    Lest I become Andy Rooney here (and, should that ever happen, I've given family members legal sanction to shoot me into space on a Russian transport), I want to admit two things: First, I'm sometimes the obliviator, and, second, I think I know what's going on.

    We all become so intense in trying to achieve personal stability in a world full of all-consuming stimuli, that we tend to draw into our own immediate universe at times. We want an extra few assurances from the air line ticket clerk, despite the 3,756 people behind us in line. We're so exhausted from waiting for endless, circuitous voice menus when trying to get phone help that we consume attention when we have it live. I'm so focused on what I have to do next, amidst the crushing weight of New York all around me, that I tend to watch out for myself at the inadvertent exclusion of the next person.

    Maybe taxi drivers are simply acting rationally.

    Although I feel I'm usually the oblivitee (I'm ALWAYS in the wrong lane when traffic is moving slowly) I'm probably equally at fault at other times. For example, I'm so hyped to avoid lines that, as soon as first class is announced, I hurry onto the plane, once to the vocal disapproval of what I thought were coach passengers, but who turned out to be my first-class seat-mates who had formed a queue I hadn't seen or respected. (Who queues up in this country voluntarily? Were they British expatriates? Sheese…)

    My point is that we all need to look around in awareness a bit more than we do. We ignore the environment at our own risk. Looking across the aisle by accident on a trip to Australia, I saw Dolly Parton smiling at me, and we went on to become buddies for the entire trip. Now I always look around.

    I'm waiting for Michelle Pfeiffer.

  3. Musings

    There is an old story about a wealthy Arabian potentate who had no heirs and decided to leave his kingdom to a deserving commoner. He had his staff gather two dozen young boys from the streets and invited them to dinner. He decided that the one with the most proper table manners and courtesy would be a fit ruler, one who could learn the most in what time the potentate had left to teach him.

    Every one of the boys tore into the feast set at the table, gulping down food and fighting over the largest share, except one, whose manners mirrored those of the host. The selection was thus made easily, and the boy was installed as the heir apparent. Many years later, after his benefactor's death, the new ruler confided that his success that night was simply based on watching his host, and doing precisely what he did.

    That's not such bad advice today. In fact, you could do a lot worse.

    During our recent trip to Spain, we visited a lovely village called Monda, high up in the mountains. I parked in the town square, while my wife visited the church and my kids wandered about. Men who had probably been sitting on the same benches in that square for decades idly watched us as they engaged in their daily discussions.

    I noticed that some local residents parked their cars in the square and walked up some of the steep streets leading off it. I decided that their cars probably weren't powerful enough or lacked power steering, but that our rental Mercedes could make it easily. So, when the family returned, I boldly set off up one of the smaller streets with my wife's usual navigational direction: "Is this really a good idea?"

    We had only about two feet between the sides of the car and the houses on either side (there were no sidewalks) and it occurred to me, as I turned left onto an even narrower path, that these weren't streets at all, but alleys meant for access to the houses only. My daughter observed that the men in the square were looking up the hill from the side streets trying to gauge our progress.

    The alley narrowed at a "T" and I had to turn left, down a steep incline which allowed only four inches or so on either side between the car and the house walls. More people were at the bottom watching, the benches long since abandoned. I assigned each of us a "lookout" position as I crawled along, and finally my daughter, son, and wife-each at a different corner inside the car-said in unison: "You're going to hit."

    I was virtually wedged into an alley, thousands of feet up in the Andalusian Mountains, and couldn't open a door or a window. I was considering calling Hertz, telling them their car was stuck and just abandoning ship, until I realized that someone would have to break the windshield to get us out. Can they use the "jaws of life" on a perfectly intact, functional car? Are there "jaws of stupidity"?

    At the next intersection, literally moving the car to and fro 40 times, each move gaining us an inch of steerage, I was able to turn left and go back down the hill again, to a square crowded with people. They applauded politely. The four of us looked straight ahead, and I left the plaza the way I had originally entered-45 minutes earlier.

    Why didn't I think about what I had seen? People who lived in that village acted in a certain way-they didn't drive up the hill. What makes me think that I'm smarter than their daily experience?

    Time and again, we look but do not see. We fail to understand that people often act in a certain way because they have found the value of their actions over time to be significant. Are we watching others in awareness to try to learn what they may already know?

    If we don't learn from others, we limit our own vistas. Instead of finding the open road, we might just wind up in a blind alley.

  4. The reading list

    Thanks for the feedback from those of you enjoying some of the selections. This month, some off-beat, non-fiction about the saga of life:

    "Subway Lives," by Jim Dwyer. Twenty-four hours in the life of the New York City subway system. Yes, there is a money train, that simply hauls cash.

    "Why Things Bite Back," by Edward Tenner. Did you know that the Chernobyl disaster occurred during a check of enhanced safety systems, or that the invention of justified, right-hand text made things harder to read? Read on.

    "The Killing Season," by Miles Corwin. Another deadly season within the Los Angeles police department, the most violent in the nation.

    "High Rise," by Jerry Adler. Recommended to me by a client, the American Institute of Architects, it's the story of a high rise built in the middle of Times Square which is a marvel-that it ever got built!

    "A Prayer for the City," by Buzz Bissenger. The story of Philadelphia mayor Edward Rendell, one of the good guys, and why all local politics are becoming racial. (If you've never read this author's "Saturday Night Lights," about Texas high school football, put it on the top of your list.)

    "The Truth About Dogs," by Stephen Budiansky. Brand new and well reviewed, it explains that they don't engage in cute habits but rather determined and conniving subversion to rule our lives. Trotsky recently peed on the book, which tells me something...