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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: September 2004

Balancing Act® is in five sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Rubbernecking
  3. Musings
  4. The Language Doctor is IN
  5. Gift Ideas

  1. Techniques for balance

    • Don't argue. Fight to win. That means you must decide whether a battle is worth it. If someone moves ahead of you in a movie ticket line, it really doesn't matter, and the argument is unduly stressful (you don't really gain anything). If a company cheats you, then launch an all-out effort to find whatever resources are necessary to get your money back. Choose your battles, and if they are frequent, you're choosing incorrectly. (NEVER argue with a cab driver. Get out of the cab.)
    • Apply reason, not ego. If you want a larger table which the host says is being saved for a party of four later, explain that you promise to be finished well before that time and would appreciate the courtesy. Don't start explaining who you are or who you know or claim that there is favoritism.
    • Organize by frequent need, not with an arbitrary, all-encompassing system. If you try to organize your entire life or work, you'll be frustrated beyond repair. Simply assess which things you use daily (e.g., your closet, your computer client files, your kitchen supplies) and organize them so that you have access speedily to what you need. Ignore the rest. (So what if you have to dig around once a year on the garage shelves, or in the storage shed, or in the attic? Organizing little-used items or activities is pointless, because you don't use them frequently enough to recall the system.)
    • Take a half-hour to pre-program your dozen or so most frequently needed destinations into your GPS system so you don't have to do it while trying to drive, late, or distracted. (Of course you know where you live, but you don't know how to get there if you're lost somewhere….)
    • Do not "unsubscribe" to spam. That merely alerts the perpetrators that your address is active and you are breathing. You're better off creating filters which send the subject or the address of origin directly to the junk mail folder.
    • There are abundant sites with free dictionaries on the web. Find one and place a bookmark in your browser. When using the computer and you read a word you don't know, or aren't sure of one you want to use, or need a synonym, go to the bookmark and write the word. The entire process should take about 20 seconds.
    • Set yourself activities to accomplish (business and/or personal) for each day, and then relax after they are completed. Otherwise, you tend to spend the day in a mild anxiety caused by the unsettling feeling that you should have accomplished more. Remove the stress by identifying what you want to accomplish, from the grand (write an article) to the innocuous (return a library book). Break large projects (clean out the garage) into manageable chunks (clean out the shelves today, clean out the cabinets tomorrow, paint the walls on Saturday).
    • If the airport is an hour or more away, and you have a very early flight, might you be better off spending the prior evening at an airport hotel and avoiding the loss of sleep, early commute, and anxiety about arriving on time?

  2. The Human Condition: Rubbernecking

    All of us have been in terrible traffic jams on major highways where we creep along in agonizingly slow motion or actually stand planted and at rest, watching ants and small rodents trot past us on the verge. Our initial reaction is that there must be a whopper of an accident blocking the road.

    The truth is often half of that: There is a huge accident, but it's on the OTHER side of the highway, across a median, involving traffic headed in the opposite direction. Yet every single car on your side slows to a glacier-like pace to absorb the events on the other side with all the attention usually lavished on the Pieta or Paris Hilton. Traffic reporters even have a name for it: rubbernecking.

    A phrase has entered the lexicon related to this phenomenon: "It's like watching a train wreck," meaning that you know something horrible is occurring but you just can't take your eyes off it. You can't convince me that most people attending those Nascar races don't go to observe the occasional fiery wreck, about which they compare notes with other aficionados around drinks. (I drive exotic cars, and the notion of sitting in uncomfortable seats for hours watching other people drive interminably around an oval track with zero left to the imagination under normal conditions just bores to me tears.)

    Recently, two star Greek athletes, one of whom was to light the Olympic flame, dodged another drug test, apparently faked an motorcycle accident, and hid in a hospital with the obvious intent of cleansing their systems before submitting to the test. This made headlines in U.S. newspapers and was a featured part of the Olympic coverage on television in Vancouver, Canada when I was there in mid-August. It's an embarrassing situation for the athletes and the host country, yet everyone seems to be taking the time to rubberneck, slowing speed toward more important coverage of news and sports.

    Why do we do this? How is that people loll off during a performance of Shakespeare or Chekov (well, okay, Chekov IS tedious), but gape in riveted attention when two cars have a fender bender or Michael Jackson embarrasses himself once again in an interview? What's the motivation in watching a wreck, a disaster, a plague on someone's house?

    The obvious reason is that we're glad it's not us, I suppose. But that seemstoo pat. I really don't believe those drivers have slowed to absorb the full panoply of an accident-aware that they're delaying miles of traffic behind them just as they've been delayed to this point-simply to reflect on their good fortune for being uninvolved. No, I think it's rather a case of seizing the opportunity to see something new, or rarely seen, or exciting.

    Perhaps there is a subliminal lesson in avoiding similar fate, averting an identical tragedy. Or perhaps we've simply decided that the people up ahead took their sweet time to take it in and, now that we're finally at the scene, we're taking our turn, too. Perhaps rubbernecking is just an integral, inexplicable, and inseparable part of the human condition, putting the brakes on all of our lives.

  3. Musings

    Two U.S. governors have resigned in recent months, one in Connecticut for allegations of criminal activity, and one in New Jersey who disclosed that he cheated on his wife by having an extra-marital affair with a man whom he had appointed to a six-figure state job.

    In the U.S. election, people are accusing Democrat John Kerry of not living up to his claimed valor in Viet Nam (despite the fact he earned three medals duly awarded by the government), and Republican George Bush of shirking his national guard duty (despite having spent enough time with the Guard to learn to fly a very sophisticated jet fighter).

    Internationally, it's not much better. In the recent years there have been bitter allegations against incumbents and challengers in Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Zimbabwe, Italy, France, Pakistan, and the United Nations, just to name a few. Are there that many dishonest and corrupt people drawn to run for public office, or are we demanding a level of conduct that is unattainable (and not applied to our own lives)?

    Aside from a few exalted people, I'm not sure that anyone can reach adulthood without a share of regrets, peccadilloes, blemishes, errors, and embarrassments. (Even St. Augustine wrote, "Lord, make me a good man, but not too soon.") Maturing is about making mistakes and learning from them, not about leading a perfect existence. One of the saving graces of humiliation is that it lingers in the background with a faint whiff of that horrible neighborhood where our foolhardiness first stumbled upon it.

    I wonder if we are trying to reconcile the balance sheet of our lives by demanding that others perform on a loftier plane than we have at times. We have, most of us, cheated (at games or on tests), lied (often rationalizing the need), broken the law (I can drive safely at this speed), and committed other proscribed acts when no on else was looking (the boss isn't going to know I went home at 3:30). Why do so many of us become outraged when people in public life wind up behaving exactly as we have?

    We should all pursue high values, integrity, trust, competence, and the rest of the liturgy that constitutes commendable human traits and behavior. But to seek perfection in these areas is fruitless and, I fear, somewhat neurotic. The advice about "casting the first stone" is probably one of the few Biblical admonitions which isn't directly contradicted a few pages later. It stands the test of time quite well.

    So let's by all means strive for loftier goals and continually improving relationships with those around us. But let's also understand that a life of perfection has probably been a life of isolation and limit, of never having dared nor failed.

    Not one of us would desire our past to be read aloud, with an emphasis on the mistakes and misadventures. That's because we're different people today, the result of the good and the bad, continuing to grow and improve and, one hopes, becoming still better tomorrow.

  4. The Language Doctor is IN

    • Okay, the Doctor took a lot of deserved heat last month for using, in the description of "gauntlet" and "gantlet" the word "dual" when he meant "duel." Nice catch by the Eagle Squadron.
    • "It's" is a contraction meaning "it is," while "its" is a possessive pronoun. The first takes and apostrophe, the second doesn't. Always. Immutable. If you're ever uncertain, just substitute "it is" and see if the sentence still makes sense. If so, use the apostrophe. If not, omit it.
    • Similarly, "let's" is a contraction for "let us," while "lets" is the third person singular of the infinitive verb "to let," as in "to allow," and the third person singular of the infinitive verb "to let," as in "to rent." Hence: "Let's see if he lets us the space and lets us have pets."
    • If you're talking about the 1950s or any other decade, that's how it's written, or you can use "50s." But 50's is wrong, because it's a plural not a possessive (unless you use it as a possessive, such as, "The 50s' economy," but the apostrophe comes after the "s" because the phrase is plural).
    • Folks, you may not believe this, but the correct pronunciation is "FORMidable," not "forMIDable," and "APPlicable," not "appLICable." Just as "often" is "off-in," not "off-tin" (the "t" is silent).
    From a reader:
    Just one comment regarding the "than I" vs. "than me" rule. Sometimes "than me" would be correct. If the sentence read, "The teacher likes you better than me," that would be correct. If one were to finish that sentence it would play out, "Theteacher likes you better than she likes me." I think it would have been agood idea to point out that the "than I" vs. "than me" can go either way.Thank you for your continuing Balancing Act emails. --T. Benson

  5. Gift Ideas