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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: April 2000

Balancing Act® is in five sections this month:

  1. Winner of the eVent
  2. Techniques for balance
  3. The Human Condition: fear of ambiguity
  4. Musings
  5. Quandaries answered and asked

First things first. My daughter, Danielle, four years out of the Newhouse School of Broadcast Journalism at Syracuse University, and a producer at MTV in New York City, has been nominated for an Emmy for outstanding news special. Her competition includes Walter Cronkite and Katie Couric. Piece of cake. Awards are announced live on May 19 at the ceremony on the air. I'm preparing my acceptance speech as you read this. This is what life is about.

I've spread around a few comments from readers. I won't make this a practice, but I thought I'd do it this time. One has cited me positively as a sort of curmudgeon. Andy Rooney is a curmudgeon. I am a hip social commentator. There's a difference.

  1. Winner of the eVent

    I had a great many submissions for my venting contest, and the winner of the book for best submission prefers to remain anonymous. However, her winning entry:

    "I am furious at every male who refuses to enter the millennium and see women as equal partners. Recently, I drove a male client to lunch in my car, at a restaurant of my choosing. The valet took my car and, when I momentarily turned around, gave the claim ticket to my client. In the restaurant, the hostess, no less, looked over my shoulder to ask my client what name the reservation was in. And, you guessed it, my credit card and the bill were returned to the client, even though I had placed it on the table and my quite feminine name was on it. My client had a classic line: 'I would never put up with that stuff...' "

    From reader Daniel Pitlik, guaranteed to get into print:
    Alan, your lines from the last newsletter:
    "Now wouldn't that make a terrific cologne?
    My, you smell wonderful! What is that?
    Great line. Brilliant. You are getting better with age.

  2. Techniques for balance
    • Counting to "ten" actually works very well. If you are enraged or deeply hurt, count off the numbers before replying. This is PARTICULARLY true before you hit the email "reply" button!

    • Every study on the subject I've ever read says that a glass or two of wine at dinner is healthy and poses no harm if you are otherwise healthy. Most wine, including red, can be kept in the fridge for a few days, although the quality declines rapidly.

    • Go see the movie Topsy Turvy, about the efforts of Gilbert and Sullivan to launch "The Mikado."

    • I'm asked a lot how I handle the pressures of keynoting in front of high-powered groups. It's simple: I show up on time, do my very best, and then go home. My being and esteem are not wrapped up in that 60 minutes, nor should yours be in whatever the temporary activity happens to be.

    • Your parents are often wrong and your kids are often right. If you don't resign yourself to this fact, you're in for very rough sledding.

    • I hate to admit this, but the absolute best way to quickly end unwanted solicitations it to say, "Sorry, but I just don't need any. Thanks for calling and good luck," and hang up.

    • If you want terrific background music that is soothing and timeless, think about the Baroque school and Vivaldi in particular. Find his lesser works, not "The Four Seasons," which has been overdone. Other good candidates: Telemann, and Pachelbel.

    • So, I'm in this client's office the other day and he's looking in the dictionary muttering, "iatrogenic, iatrogenic." I responded, "Illness caused by the hospital or care givers themselves." He looked at me with wonderment. Now, tell me that you don't think it's worthwhile to improve your vocabulary every week, which costs precisely nothing.

    • Compliment someone when you meet them. About anything. You'll find that the conversation is much easier after that. (Men are even more susceptible than women, don't kid yourself.)

    • Always tip 20% if the service is decent in a restaurant, and treat cab drivers and bell people well. The extra tip is a minor amount, they make their living that way, and most of all, you'll feel better about yourself. I find a lot of grumpy people agonizing over the fact that they paid $2 too much or left too much as a tip. In the course of things, it doesn't matter.

  3. The Human Condition: fear of ambiguity

    I'm drolly amused by people who need everything wrapped up in a tight bow with instructions taped to the side. A Supreme Court justice once commented that he didn't need to define pornography because he knew it when he saw it. I like that confidence in a jurist. There is an old Roman saying: De minimis non curat praetor. (The magistrate does not consider trifles.) Exactly so.

    Lower level people in clients are forever asking me "What are the deliverables?" and "How much time will you spend?" and "What will be the costs?" Higher level executives are usually more focused on "Okay, these are the goals, let's exceed them!"

    In our personal lives, there are those who say, "Let's play it by ear," and others who officiously pontificate, "You can't win without a plan." Another cosmic-sized banality is, "If you can't measure it, it's not worth doing." Well, it's tough to measure happiness, exactly, or love, specifically, but I know it when I feel it. De minimis non curat Alan.

    My son told me once that he refused to go into a dark room. My wife and I assured him that he needn't be afraid of the dark. "I'm not," he stated firmly, "I'm afraid of what might be in the dark."

    Fair enough, that's why they sell flashlights. It's one thing to have a tangible fear, whether of leaving a small, comfortable pond in which you're a big fish, standing in front of an audience, or dealing with a call in the middle of the night. Rational,discrete fears can be dealt with, either through resolution or coping. But it's another thing entirely to fear the outside world, other people, or the night itself.

    Religious beliefs - of any type - help to provide a feeling of centering and safety in a universe about which we actually know shockingly little. We construct mythologies, stories, and belief systems in order to help us deal with the basically unknowable and incomprehensible. (I've heard more than my share of atheists and agnostics say, "Thank God!" on traumatic occasions.)

    It doesn't make sense to fear the ambiguous in the course of our daily affairs, which largely are knowable and comprehensible. There's no sense getting anxious about meeting a new boss, visiting a new city, or trying a new vegetable. (A dinner companion told me the other night that she would not, under any conditions, eat sushi. "Can you imagine where that comes from?" she asked, warily eyeing an aggressive piece of uni. "Can you imagine where the eggs you had for breakfast come from?" I wondered...)

    Let's stop worrying about the dark or what may be lurking in it. And let's stop creating additional fears about the unknown in a world that guarantees we can never know enough. Winston Churchill said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and he said that while bombs were falling around his ears.

    Uni, anyone?

    From reader Jan Jasper:
    I love your newsletter, in particular your directness and sense of humor. Like many smart people with high standards, you seem (I mean this as a compliment) to get impatient, even riled up, but in a very constructive way that helps people grow. It's a wonderful blend of curmudgeon-ness and warmhearted-ness. In a world where so many people only feel safe expressing homogenized, predictable views, I find your candor refreshing.

  4. Musings

    Over the New Year we decided to abandon our annual New York celebration and go somewhere quiet to escape the hoopla. We chose Stowe, since it offers fine skiing which, in turn, attracts our grown kids. (Did I tell you my daughter received an Emmy nomination?) I'm a mediocre skier, and hadn't skied in six years, but I'm fairly harmless on the green (beginner) and easier blue (intermediate) slopes. We had a fabulous time on December 30 and 31, then welcomed the New Year in front of the fire before the kids went off to the obligatory parties.

    On January 1, 2000 I woke up at about 7 am and decided, reasonably, that the slopes would be empty, so I packed up the truck and drove over by myself. I was right

    - no lift lines, no crowding. However, taking my favorite easy trail all the way from the top of the mountain, I kept falling. It was pathetic. I could have been arrested for brutality to a mountain. So, I tried some still easier trails part way down the mountain, but continued to look like a one-person demolition derby. Picture a marble on an escalator.I was about to give up and head back only an hour into my humiliation, when I decided on one more run, but I took the wrong lift and wound up with only the option of tougher intermediate hills down the mountainside. This was clearly not my morning, and I decided to get to the bottom and go home.

    Except, I skied like a champ (or at least a contender). Not one fall and some great fun. So I went up again to the blue slopes, and repeated what was clearly not an accident. A third time, but now to the top, taking all of the intermediate runs I hadn't tried before, including the toughest. I was nearly flawless. Picture Fred Astaire on an escalator.

    I drove back after my three-hour outing, just as the kids were awakening (well, I might have awakened them when I entered the place in full ski regalia shouting "What's for lunch?!"). They regretted missing the empty slopes, and assumed that my vivid descriptions were largely due to my inclination to fall on my head frequently and forget what actually had occurred.

    What did go on here? I'll tell you what I think: When we take it too easy we become bored and inattentive. There is no adrenaline coursing through our bodies, and our synapses are taking a holiday for themselves. But when we challenge ourselves, all the body parts, mental and physical, snap to full alert, sound the alarms, and shout, "Don't let the idiot kill himself!"

    I've stood on a stage and taken questions from over a thousand people. I've told executives that they are wrong when they still owed me money. I allow myself to fly in a metal tube weighing millions of pounds at 500 miles per hour 40,000 feet in the air, steered by someone I don't know and have never met. Maybe next time I'll try one of those black diamond ski trails. Hell, I'm going to buy some new equipment to match my new skill level.

    How about you? Are you coasting well within yourself, or breathing heavily and peering over the edge? "To enjoy the full flavor of life, take big bites," said science fiction legend Robert Heinlein. "Moderation is for monks."

    From reader Patricia Katz:
    Read the reference to philosophy in your recent Balance newsletter. If anyone is looking for an easy-read primer on philosophy, I'd recommend Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. It's a mystery novel of sorts that also happens to be a history of philosophy.

  5. Quandaries asked and answered

    From last issue: Traditionally, both your parents and your spouse's parents have come to your home for the Thanksgiving Holiday. This year your house is being remodeled, so the tradition will be broken. Both sets of parents are adamant that you should come to their home for Thanksgiving, although both are also extending the invitation to the other set of parents. How do you decide what to do, and what would you do?

    I received more responses to this than all the other quandaries from the earlier issues combined. The overwhelming feedback: Go to neutral turf, invite both sets of parents to the restaurant, and if they don't come, that's their decision. That happens to be the correct answer, so congratulations to all of you. (I suggest that the restaurant have a liquor license for heavy drinking, and that you designate someone else to drive.)

    This month: You purchased a gift for a colleague for a special occasion, but since you were tight on cash and aren't especially close, you only spent $7. However, the price tag was mistakenly left on the gift, and the recipient says to you rather loudly, "You'd better get a second job if all you can spend on my gift is $7." What do you do or say, if anything?