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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: October 2005

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Control
  3. Musings: Waiting for the Ungaroo
  4. ORTIYKMWOYBNT-O Department

  1. Techniques for balance
    • Bargaining is intelligent when you can get a better hotel rate or airline fare, but it is cruel and inappropriate when dealing with street vendors and those who truly need the money to survive.
    • Don't argue over silly issues. I don't care if someone at a party praises an abjectly awful theatrical event, but I'll take them on if they contort history to make a political point. Pick your battles.
    • Recent events have demonstrated the wisdom of having an emergency kit in your garage, basement, etc. It should include pre-arranged items (e.g., medical kit, latex gloves, flashlights, batteries, etc.) and a list of things to take in addition (e.g., bottled water, canned food, gasoline, pet leashes and food, etc.).
    • I've been ordering wine for 30 years in restaurants and have never returned a single bottle. If you're uncertain, ask the sommelier to taste it. If you're shy, ask someone else at the table to taste it. And don't forget that the second bottle is always great.
    • If you don't know how to use silverware, either European or American style, it will take you about 10 minutes to learn from someone who knows. It's jarring to watch people in even good restaurants attack their food like muggers, and it's criminal to pass on poor table manners to your children, who might lose a job or an opportunity because they never learned to dine correctly.
    • Tell any fundraiser on the phone: "I'm sorry, but I can't respond to phone solicitations. Please send me something in the mail." Few will, and of those who do, you can take your time considering the request.
    • Some GPS systems will now provide detours around traffic, and some can even identify the traffic in advance and give you early warning.
    • Show up early for everything. If something is wrong (a flight cancelled), you'll have more time to go to Plan B. You'll get a better seat. You'll be able to read the playbill. You can chat with your colleagues casually. Sometimes it's "better never than late."
    • If you like Japanese food, try cold sake. There are premium brands which are delicious, and some places offer a "tasting" of several different kinds. (I learned this from a Dutch employee of a client in Brazil!)
    • You can't go wrong bringing your host a gift, even if no one else goes to the trouble.

  2. The Human Condition: Control

    Why do people push elevator call buttons repeatedly when they know that the act has no bearing on the elevator's response time? I think it's because we have a need to "take action" rather than sit passively and wait, without control. (I've never believed the "open" and "close" door buttons inside the elevators actually work at all, but are merely there to give riders the sense that they can exert some modicum of control.)

    Drivers honk their horns in traffic tie-ups as if someone up ahead had simply dozed off. We flip through channels using a remote control as though it's imperative to find every single program being broadcast in the universe before we can choose one (which has inevitably concluded by the time we've examined all 983 channels, requiring us to start all over again).

    We seem to be in a frenzy to take control in a society where control is increasingly problematic. We're searched in airports in a rather intimate and embarrassing manner, but we accept it, either philosophically (we have to ensure our safety) or pragmatically (they won't let me on the plane if I don't submit to this). Cameras take our pictures in supermarkets, at toll booths, in banks, and sometimes on street corners. Email can be read and even identities robbed.

    The more devices of control that we've created, the less control we seem to possess. Mercedes puts a governor in its cars so you can't go any faster than they allow you, and theme parks place you on moving walkways through exhibits so that you can't go any slower than they allow you.

    The more sophisticated life becomes—and these days people are using lap tops and cell phones while they camp in the woods—the more we'll fall prey to both formal control (prohibitions on water usage), societal control (limitations on how long you can spend in a museum exhibit), and accidental control (traffic jams).

    It seems to me that the inescapable conclusion is that we have to exert control over what is important and reasonable to influence. For example, we can decide to take a vacation, to spend time with the kids, to study a new language, to contribute to charity, to remove (some) unpleasant aspects of our lives. Yet I find people actually surrendering much of the sphere that remains within their control. They work far longer hours than the job demands; the allow others to usurp their time with selfish needs; they don't try new directions or experiences.

    That leads to a life of no control, of plankton-like existence, subject to the winds of fate and the tides of caprice, awaiting the giant whale which will ingest a ton of the stuff at a gulp.

    Somehow that's not exactly what I envision by "a day at the beach."

    Societies which offer more sophisticated challenges, more recreation, more safety, more diversity, and more change will also demand more control over its individuals. That means that we have to relish and exploit the control that remains, which can be considerable. We can start or improve that process tomorrow. What's stopping you?

    Life isn't a mindless drift through those oceans of external forces. It's a deliberate path using the choices and motive power we can muster. It means you should stop pushing the elevator button and think about taking the stairs.

  3. Musings: Waiting for the Ungaroo

    Sitting on the beach in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, you can take a water taxi across a mile of Pacific water to Lover's Beach, a pristine stretch of volcanic rock and sand jutting out of the water as though signaling for help.

    The water taxi must carefully negotiate huge breakers and time the approach so as: a) not to rip apart the boat; b) not to break the passengers into smaller parts; c) not to lose cameras and backpacks into the sea. It's a dicey proposition, and as I hurled myself, like some kind of mammoth hand grenade, into the boat, I noticed that my wife had retreated up the beach, yelling at me. I strained to hear, "I love you, have fun!" or "Come back for me!" but I finally heard her to say, "You're crazy, go without me!"

    And so, I found myself on the water taxi Ungaroo, piloted by Amando, heading for Lover's Beach--as a solo.

    When we arrived, things got really chaotic. There is only small stretch of sand to "land" on between truly threatening monoliths, and the breakers roar in like a B-52 hitting the tarmac. Roberto is sort of the landing manager, and he and Amando screamed at each other over the ear-splitting roar of the engine. I know enough Spanish to have understood they were often disagreeing with each other.

    Roberto, in chest-deep water, grabbed my gear, and then I didn't disembark so much as become ejected by the bobbing craft. Just as I righted myself in the surf, a massive breaker hurled me barely past the rocks and Roberto, up onto the shore. Roberto deposited my gear and me in the mouth of a cave, and politely asked for a tip. I sputtered, "Momentito," with my hands on my knees, desperately searching for oxygen. Roberto calmly waited for my episode to pass, received his generous lagniappe, and raced down to help the poor travelers on the next ship of fools.

    I snorkeled for about 20 minutes, but the effort would have tested Lloyd Bridges. The current was wicked, you had to avoid the water taxis (whose pilots were totally devoted to preserving their own lives), and the fish had an evil habit of sticking by the rocks, which meant that if you came too close you might be pulverized by the next meteor-like wave. (In all of my snorkeling and scuba experience, I have never before seen current which knocked fish over like drunks and drove them upside down until they could regain their equilibrium.)

    I struggled to shore and hunkered down in my cave to await the promised return in 40 minutes of the Ungaroo. My cave seat was five yards from the high water mark of the most vicious waves. I sat in astonishment as a succession of water taxis delivered people who flew off the boats as if they were corn just popped. They went in every direction and landed in every position. Picture someone trying to alight gracefully from a bucking bronco which is in a bad mood.

    Roberto and his assistant ran every which way pulling people out of harm's way. At one point, a smug looking couple surfed a wave on a kayak, and they thought they had timed it perfectly. I could see that the wave was far too large, and the kayak smashed against the rocks like peanut brittle. The couple flew in two opposite directions. Both were limping but miraculously unharmed otherwise. As I watched the kayak launched skyward, I noticed huge hawks overhead, not a familiar sight at sea. I imagine they were waiting for carrion.

    I must have watched 50 people thrown hither and yon while I awaited the Ungaroo. After rescuing an entire family, Roberto was told by the father of the brood that he only had a U.S. $50 bill. Roberto explained in Spanish and English, just to make sure, that he could change it, and he did so behind a group of rocks that served as his office.

    The Ungaroo miraculously returned right on time, and five of us threw ourselves into the boat, winding up like sardines, head to tail, in the bottom. Roberto carried out our bags and we departed.

    One of the woman asked me what I thought of the trip. "I was just wondering," I mused, "that Roberto and his wife probably never have a boring dinner conversation."

  4. ORTIYKMWOYBNT-O Department

    ONLY READ THIS IF YOU KNOW ME WELL OR YOU'LL BE NEEDLESSSLY TICKED-OFF DEPARTMENT

    The first time I parasailed was in the Bahamas. I was 1,200 fee in the air, under a huge parachute, being towed in a harness by a dilapidated speed boat being run by two guys who thought everything was a riot. (I had signed a waiver about injury while riding in the boat at 30 knots on a drenched contract with an inkless pen.)

    The view and sensation were fabulous, however, and I soon identified a large fish beneath me which seemed to be tracking our path. I felt this was a happy coincidence.

    At a given point in the ride, the guys slow the boat so that you eventually float down to water level before they elevate you again. To my horror, I realized that the big fish was, in fact, a shark which was getting closer every minute, and it wasn't tracking the boart, it was tracking ME. As I descended, I began to scream madly to the laugh brothers, "Shark! Shark! BRING ME UP!!" They simply doubled over laughing and I realized that I had become a huge piece of bait dangled by homicidal fisherman.

    As I reached the water level I had shouted myself hoarse, and ineffectually tried to pull my legs up into my body, but it was no use. I gradually touched the water, and the beast below—my shadow.