Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 125: January 2010)
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I was born and raised in a very densely populated inner city. We all lived in apartments, the largest of which would have been four rooms. Occasionally, the outside world would intrude, as in the case of relatives.
Infrequently, we met relatives from the suburbs of New Jersey, or from Long Island. It often seemed to me they looked down on each other, whereas we weren't even on the "look down radar screen." When my wife and I were married in a then-posh place called The Manor in West Orange, I remember a pair of my Long Island relatives (in matching polyester pants suits, no less) giving us a gift of a $20 check and a $10 bill. My wife figured out that once there, they were so surprised that they weren't in a tavern basement that they thought they ought to up the ante, so they pried open the envelope and threw in another ten!
I would hear these folks oft talk of "Finnish basements." I was mesmerized and stupefied by why one would want a Scandinavian-style basement. (I was always shocked that these people actually owned houses to begin with.) What would be the advantage? A built-in sauna? Caribou fur? Superb winter insulation? I didn't get it. But they were so popular that I would listen to these occasional visitors from another planet talk about designing one, finally completing one, and who had the biggest one. (What did Finns know about basements? Could they even build them in the permafrost?)
As life would have it, nothing much changed until I was in high school and had a once-in-a-lifetime lucky break to become an exchange student. I won the competition for my school (out of Ozzie and Harriet: competitors were the president of the student council and editor of the newspaper (moi); the president of the class; the editor of the yearbook; and the quarterback and captain of the football team). And you'll never guess what: The kid spending time in our school, and to whose home we would return over the summer after touring Europe (drum roll……) was FINNISH!! (He is today the Finnish ambassador to Paris, Esko Hamilo.)
As soon as we were introduced, I hit him with my one cultural, relevant question: What on earth goes into a Finnish basement?
His English was idiomatic and perfect: "Have you lost your mind? You WON this competition?"
Well, I came to be apprised that what my cousins had been bragging about were "finished basements," as opposed to cellars where dirt, rocks, rodents, and occasional strange remains were found. None of my relatives were very good with "ed" and "ing" endings to begin with (think Bada Bing and Jersey Shore), so technically, this misunderstanding wasn't my fault.
And, before you laugh too much at me, how much does this phenomenon plague all of us? I always thought that "Jingle Bells" was about a "one horse soap and sleigh," not an "open sleigh." Yet we make similar mistakes in social and business contexts. I've seen people at blackjack tables utter a certain profanity and wind up being "hit" by the dealer when they didn't really request a card yet. I've watched people engage in active bidding at auctions without realizing their body language was triggering the auctioneer's maddening babble.
Listen to what's going on around you and seek clarity if something seems strange. You don't want to have to go to Helsinki just to enjoy a rec room.
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I talked to a guy who is the concierge at the regional theater here where I was on the board for a long time. I wanted to see two plays while we're in New York for New Year's and he has reciprocal arrangements for house seats. He returned my call within ten minutes.
"No problem," he said, "and take my cell number in case you need me again when I'm not in the office."
We went into a packed restaurant recently, where we've never been and aren't known. "Uh, oh," I said, grabbing the last space in the large lot.
The hostess said, "Two for dinner? I'm sure I can fit you in somewhere." The waiter said, "Welcome, let me tell you about our place and the menu." The food matched the service. We're going back. (Antonio's in Cranston, RI, if you're interested.)
I had some minor, elective surgery not long ago. The doctor sent me flowers. The nurse assigned to me called two days later to see how I was doing.
In the past two months, flying to St. Lucia and Key West, I gave out my last six American Airlines recognition certificates to outstanding fight attendants. American provides these so that its best customers can honor its best employees (they receive prize awards). The six were all taken aback and appreciative.
Showing up at a restaurant in South Beach (A Fish Called Avalon), the manager said, "You're a tad early, so take the very best seats you'd like, and I'll work around you."
I've had our two cars coincidentally serviced over one week, and the service manager said, "It's a busy time, don't worry about the bill, we'll settle up when I can get to it." She also saved me $5,000 on a wheel replacement with some internal finesse.
Our snow plow guy shows up like a wraith in the night without ever being called, sometimes comes back to make a second pass, and doesn't bill me until May. Some years he plows a dozen times or more.
Our newspaper delivery woman sent me a note telling me that my Christmas gift was so generous she couldn't believe it, and wanted me to know how important it was toward making this a happy holiday for her family.
I couldn't manage a funds transfer on Citibank's web site, so I called their number and prepared to reread "The Bridge Over the River Kwai." But someone picked up in less than 60 seconds of holding, took care of the transfer, double checked my needs, and wished me happy holidays. The next morning, a second guy called me from the security area, apologized profusely, and said, "There is so much fraud this time of year that we call our customers with major transactions just to make certain it was them on the phone." When I told him it was, indeed, me, he apologized again for the "intrusion" and wished me Merry Christmas.
This could be contagious. I don't know what's come over me, but when an overworked traffic officer finally got us moving out of gridlock near a mall, I waved and said "Thank you" for his efforts. He smiled and said, "Welcome!"
I hope you enjoyed this. But if not, have a good day!
I wish you the best of health, peace, love, and prosperity for 2010. After all, what's the alternative? Be well, and help someone else to be well.
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