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Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 118: June 2009)
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Techniques for balance
If we can create huge security systems at airports, with tens of thousands of employees, metal detectors, "sniffers," supervisors, explosive testers, and the like, all in a very brief time, then one would think we could create a great many things quickly if we felt our safety and well being depended on it.
The Chinese are allegedly trying to put someone on the moon, which is laudable, but they'll just be doing what President Kennedy did within a decade forty years ago, using now-primitive technology. He created volition, gained public support, and raised the funding.
Why can't we do that for national health, or education, or environmental clean up, or job creation? Why don't we regard a lack of basic health care for everyone as serious a threat to our well being as the terrorists' hijacking aircraft? Isn't it a grave threat to our future that too many of our children receive substandard educations?
My point here isn't to be political or partisan, and if I've offended you or omitted your favorite cause, I offer my apologies. Because my point is that we, as a people (and I mean this internationally, not merely here within the U.S.), are capable of extraordinary accomplishments. Yet we don't seem to organize and gain critical mass for most of them, no matter how much in agreement or how much consensus there may be. It seems the threat must be immediate and physical in nature, even though longer term threats can be equally devastating in terms of values, ethics, environment, aesthetics, equality, and safety, to name just a few.
We sacrifice every time we are in an airport. We are guilty until proved innocent. We remove clothing, allow our personal items to be handled by strangers, justify our right to be present through precise identification, and are very careful with our language. We sometimes do this even in the face of rudeness and apathy. But we seem to justify it with a belief that it helps, a need to get other places with no alternative, and the normative pressure of watching others submit.
What if great leaders could convince us that health, education, environmental safety, and other issues could be addressed with even less sacrifice, with more respect, and with greater support? Are we really incapable of finding a substitute for petroleum fuels, or improving the educational system, or providing basic health care for everyone within the next decade?
It's certainly easier to provide universal health care in 2010, than it was to place a man on the moon in 1969. What's stopping us?
The good try
At a ballgame I attended not long ago, I was seated in an upper, covered deck behind home plate. The ballpark was packed, and the scoreboard stats showed that the pitcher was throwing at just under 100 MPH.
A batter swung and fouled the ball back slightly to the left of our position, but even with our row. I'm not sure of the physics, but the ball still had to be traveling at 75 MPH. Its trajectory took it right into the hands of a fan who, fortunately, had seen the entire thing.
Not so fortunately, he dropped it, the ball took two bounces, and dropped into the deck below us. Not so surprisingly, the crowd around him booed lustily, as if the leftfielder had just dropped a routine fly.
Everyone laughed, including the guy who made the unofficial error. But it was emblematic: A good try is, well, just not good enough.
We applaud the winners. With rare exception, we forget about second place, about the also-ran, about the "almost made it." With the sole exception of the almost equally-legendary War Admiral, no one discusses (and I can't think of) any of the horses that finished second to the illustrious Sea Biscuit. They are not even footnotes in oral history.
We don't remember the vice presidents, nor the seconds-in-command, nor the understudies, unless they ascend to the top spot. I'll grant you that some of the American Idol runners-up go on to major careers, but I'll also make a case that just appearing in the top ten means you've won a great deal already.
Upon finishing eighth of eight boats in the Olympics one year, the coach of the Harvard 8-man scull commented, "There's nothing wrong with being the eighth best in the world." Maybe, maybe not, but it's certainly not as memorable as being the first.
I understand that not everyone can be first or best, boat, racehorse, or human. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't at least be trying. I don't believe anyone goes to the Olympics shouting, "Let's go for the bronze!" or "It's not whether we win or lose, it's how we play the game!" I don't think that attitude would have gained Mary Lou Retton that "10" in one of the most highly pressured single vaults of all time. Michael Phelps didn't say, "I've got four gold medals, the rest will just be gravy."
That guy who almost caught the ball took things in stride and will probably tell the story a thousand times or two. But wouldn't it be better if, when he told the story to his grandchildren, he was then able to say, "But I caught it, and here's the ball for you to keep...."
I was pulling into a seafood restaurant on the water in Newport with my buddy Chad, and we were talking about several projects we had underway together. It was too cool to have the top down. I was multi-tasking, aligning the car with the guard gate where you get a ticket, chatting away, and watching for an acceptable parking space, while stopping short of the guard's lowered barrier.
I asked the guard, without paying much attention, if I paid at the time or when I exited. It was my first visit of the season and I wasn't sure if the usual routine was in place yet. He just stared without speaking, I assumed at the car, while I continued with Chad.
When I heard no response, I half-turned and asked him again about payment, since he hadn't yet raised the gate. But he just continued to stare as I turned again to Chad. That's when Chad broke into my racehorse pace.
"You know," he said, "you're trying to talk to him but you haven't lowered your window."
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