The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: November 2006
Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:
- Learn to rest. Whether a nap, or simply reflective time, or staring at the horizon, recharging batteries is important. I've never seen anyone who was a better decision maker, performer, or comforter when fatigued.
- Get a second opinion. The world is so complex, technology so fungible, medicine so controversial, that it's often safer to hear from several experts on any one issue. In any court case, lawyers usually have equally impressive "expert" witnesses making completely contradictory points based on the exact same evidence.
- Resist peer pressure. This is usually worse among upper income families and friends. No teenagers need a "keg party" supported by their parents. Juvenile behavior among adults is not the result of contagion. It's voluntary.
- Deal with unfairness. Bad calls go against your team. Someone else gets a break you deserve. Your best efforts went unrewarded and unrecognized. Get over it. Stop whining. Deal with the here and now, not what might have been.
- Volunteer and contribute. No matter what our status or economics, we can all spare an hour and a dollar. There is a significant invigorating affect in volunteering, and the impact on others is inestimable. If we were all involved in this process, even to a small extent, we'd have a healthier society.
- Demonstrate empathy. Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Are you telling them what they need to know, or everything you know? Can you be brief yet still effective? Are you treating them the way you'd like to be treated? Self-absorption is toxic to everyone within distance.
- Develop perspective. Don't overreact to trivial setbacks and inconveniences. Save your outrage for major issues concerning values, ethics, safety, health, and urgency. If every slight issue sets you off, you'll soon run out of fuel.
- Appreciate beauty. Aesthetics involve more than arbitrary taste and visceral reaction. There are skills that can be acquired to enhance your ability to appreciate music, understand art, and interpret literature, for example. Light in a painting, minor chords in music, and recurring themes in literature often require guides to help you appreciate their significance.
- Treat yourself. Don't depend on the "kindness of strangers." Do something for yourself each week that constitutes a reward, or fun, or a break. There's nothing selfish about that. Life is short, and some things—a child's soccer game, a new movie, watching the fall foliage—can only be enjoyed at the moment.
- Don't obsess. We're all after success, not perfection, and success itself comes in stages. Life is like racquetball—it usually gives you a second chance to hit the ball after a miss, the game is fast but you can play repeatedly, and you can improve your game even in a loss. Just remember to wear protective goggles and good sneakers.
I have been guilty of dropping into a conversation a particularly apt apothegm from Nietzsche or the name of an obscure restaurant featuring a rare pasta along the Rialto. Yet I also freely confess to loving non-cerebral activities, such as American football, Australian rules, and British pubs. I watch American Idol and adore Dancing with the Stars.
But my apotheosis of mindless fun is the television game show "Deal or No Deal."
If you've been under a rock (or living in rural Idaho), this show, originating in Europe, features two dozen beautiful women holding suitcases representing various prizes from a cent to a million dollars. The contestant has to choose the cases at random, eliminating various amounts, deciding whether to periodically accept an offer from the show's banker or continue in the hopes that the final case holds his or her million dollar payoff. The odds, as they say, are strongly against.
It is all dumb luck, no skill whatsoever involved except the ability to state aloud a number still remaining in play held by one of the women 20 feet away.
All of this is presided over by a recycled comedian, Howie Mandel, who good-naturedly and compassionately guides the preternaturally ebullient contestants through the sequence.
Scientists study the show to research game theory and odds, since there is, literally, not a scintilla of intelligence, skill, or competence required to play it. (I've always thought it would be fascinating for a monkey to concurrently choose the cases to see who did better.)
The show is a huge hit and I love it, because it is so random, alternating between ecstasy (the banker offers $100,000 if you quit now) and depression (the final large amount is eliminated early in the selection process). I emerge energized, having enjoyed the foibles and the swings of random choice. No one leaves poorer than they came, everyone has their classic 15 minutes of fame, and some people do manage to take home sizeable amounts. It's all great fun. After all, you can't be critical of someone's guess at the next case, since education, experience, and expertise count for absolutely nothing. Your guess is no better or worse than mine until the case is opened.
I've watched people in casinos in frantic calculation of odds, who look desperately unhappy even when they're winning. I've seen people in beauty salons who, despite the comforting nature of the experience, are clearly unhappy that not enough is being done for (or to) them. I've observed people in comedy clubs ignore the show on stage because they were so unhappy with their seats.
There is room in our lives for mindless fun: tossing the dog's ball down the beach; watching a baby make faces only slightly less stupid than the one you are making at it; playing solitaire for an hour without winning once; looking at old photos; collecting whatever it is you like to collect.
Mindless joy is important for the psyche. It's the equivalent of a return with no investment, all too rare today. It's extremely salutary as a portion of our lives because, well, I just don't feel like thinking about it....
There were some errors in Balancing Act last month. My apologies. I hate typos and grammar errors as much as anyone. For those of you who sarcastically wrote, "Is this a test?", no, it wasn't. For those who good-naturedly wrote to say they assumed I knew that "it's" didn't need that apostrophe, well, I do know.
I received 12 letters, 9 in varying degrees of wit and fun, and 3 in some form of high dudgeon and outrage. (Which means about 7,239 people didn't comment.) My favorite was a severely chastising letter that, itself, had an error in it!
I bring this up here because, while striving for excellence is a noble pursuit, using perfection as a yardstick will probably result in splinters. I calculated once, in response to an interview question, that I had written to that point about three million published words in books, columns, and articles. I know that several of my books contain typos which I and at least three editors missed each time. (My favorite is "pubic" instead of "public" in a footnote.) Not all of my sentences are perfectly constructed and not all my points brilliantly emblazoned. But, overall, I'm not bad.
I believe that we ought to make our best attempts to contribute—to educate, to inform, to amuse, to provoke, to comfort—and the quality of our contribution lies in the degree of help and improvement discerned by the audience. In so doing, we attempt to use a pure process of delivery: good grammar, clear examples, interesting vocabulary, intelligent structure.
Yet content trumps process (only the "motivational speakers" would have you believe that the sizzle is more important than the steak for long-term nutrition).
The reader who told me that the 8 errors he found in one of my books (6 real, 2 of style he didn't like) "destroyed" the value for him. That's like telling me that writing on the menu spoiled the food. (Have you seen the side dish, "smothered onions"?) If he's looking for a perfectly constructed, vacuous book, I'm sure he'll find quite a few but, one hopes, none of mine.
My auto dealer's service manager, looking at the scratches on my tire rims, said, "We could fix those, but you'd just scratch them again, so why bother unless it's really annoying you?" I like that attitude. It wasn't annoying me, and we all know there's nothing perfect for long about our automobiles. My lawn isn't perfect, my dog is usually dirty somewhere, and my computer has some quirks that probably more properly belong to a microwave. So be it.
Life isn't very comforting or peaceful when the banal and trivial can set us off like wayward fireworks, sputtering and spitting in every direction. I'd never condone sloppiness and the search for excellence is laudatory. But life is full of spatters and streaks, potholes and pimples, that create soil and blemish. Some say the Mona Lisa's beauty is in its imperfection. I've found typos in John Updike's novels. (Has anyone ever watched Jay Leno do "headlines" on Monday nights?)
I am thankful for eagle-eyed readers whom I am hereby dubbing "The Eagle Squadron" who point out from great heights minute errors on the ground for improvement next time. I'd merely admonish everyone to stay focused on the larger vista.
After all, the point of soaring with the eagles is the view from up there, isn't it?
After receiving the wrong luggage in our room at the Peninsula Hotel in New York, management immediately brought in security and they reviewed the in-house videos of my limo being unloaded outside the hotel and the "chain of custody" of my bag through the lobbies. It was verified, as I was threatening to call the police, that the bag now in my room was the same one that arrived with me.
"Where did you come from?" asked the chief of security. My wife shot me a look, as the entire episode collapsed around my ears. I had directed the red cap who entered our train to take the wrong bag, and mine had stayed on the train to Washington. Meanwhile, I possessed the bag containing the clothes and visual aids of a college professor due to deliver a major speech the next day at an engineering conference in Washington.
Amtrak and the hotel straightened things out, and the bags were swapped on the next north- and southbound trains. "It could have happened to anyone," I pointed out.
"No, it couldn't," said my wife, on her way to buy a new outfit.