October 21, 2014

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Free Expense

Today I would like to discuss: The high price of Free Baseball Tickets, Conflict of Interest, Cognitive Dissonance and The Simple Life.

Free Baseball Tickets

The deal was agreed to. The salesmen mentioned that their company had tickets to a game in the new baseball stadium; tickets that often went unclaimed. They offered us some. Silence. Silence again. I will take some, I said. What date? asked the salesmen. Who is on? I asked. The Cubs. Great, we can beat them, I said.

The tickets arrived. I was a little nervous about taking them. I asked the boss. No problem, he said. Did I mention that he is head of Sales and Marketing and sponsor of numerous giveaways? There was no problem.

The tickets were good, just past first base, 10 rows from the field. I went to the game. I took my wife, my 11 year old child, her friend. It was a warm spring day. We were there alone. We were enjoying the game. When it happened, the conflict. The salesmen arrived. Did I mention that my boss had changed the terms of the deal, just that morning? No? Well he had, and the salesmen were curious about that. Very curious.

For 7 innings, the 2nd thru the 8th, instead of keeping score, I was grilled by the salesmen. I tried to answer their questions about my boss and his psychology without being either false or revealing. My wife enjoyed the game, so did the girls. I paid for the tickets with interest. Next time I will pay with cash.

Conflict of Interest

The dictionary says, well you know, it's that thing in the Bible, "a man cannot serve two masters". And at that time I had two masters: a debt, a mere social politeness debt, to the salesmen who gave me those nice free tickets and to my boss who has a right to expect me not to reveal his business strategy. After all, it wasn't as if the deal were signed. And only two of three parties had agreed. Either side was free to modify the terms until it was signed. We all knew that. There was no problem. Just curiosity.

The salesmen kept trying to ask one question without asking it. How do we sell this deal to your boss? Offering advice to salesmen on how to close a deal with my boss, also a salesman, seemed not just risky, but downright silly. Just ask him what he wants, I said. He will tell you. You don't have to worry about that. Then you tell him what you want. If you are close, you will get a deal.

I know that sounds simple. [By then we had had a couple of beers.] But often restating the obvious is necessary because in our desire for something, we see not what is there, but what we want to see. It is amazing how desire can distort our perceptions.

Cognitive Dissonance

That is a funny term. Cognitive means thinking. Dissonance is that funny baseline sound that a bagpipe makes. So cognitive dissonance refers to thinking bagpipes. This funny term has also been defined to mean the ability to keep two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time.

Some people can do this easily. They tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. They tend to become lawyers, salesmen, academics, even Unitarian Universalists. Some of these people are, shall we say, less sensitive to potential conflicts of interest. That, or, they are very good at rationalizing what they did or want to do.

Some people cannot do this easily, this keeping or believing of contradictory ideas. These people tend to become policemen, high school vice-principals, or fundamentalist Baptists. They are also occasionally blind to conflicts of interest because they see only the one side clearly and the other side dimly or not at all. No conflict because this side wins, hands down, no question, absolutely positively certain. Because that is what my daddy says, or the bible, or the king, or the party says.

For some of us the ability to find two ideas that agree, and keep them in your head, is deserving of its own funny term. Epiphany. Revelation. Like when you see the salesmen coming, and realize there is no free lunch.

The Simple Life really is best

My Zen Buddhist conscience tells me that going to a baseball game, even in a new stadium, is not evil. It is simply one of the small pleasures of life. But desiring it is... not evil, but a source of pain. I could easily have paid for similar tickets to a later game. I did not need to accept the gift to see the game, at the new stadium, on the warm spring day, just past first base, 10 rows from the field. But accepting those free tickets, made the game seem that much sweeter, at least until the salesmen showed up.

So how do we avoid these kinds of pains? By keeping watch over our own desires. Our desires are something to manage, to control, and if we wish to be free, we should abandon our desires.

One trick we can use, to make abandoning desire easier to do, is to recognize the equality of experience. I could have had just as much fun walking in the park on that fine spring evening. Or buying the tickets and keeping score, like I usually do, using my own system.

Another trick to make abandoning desire easier to do is to have no expectations. I should not expect perfection, to have the tickets without the salesmen. And when the salesmen show up, I should not expect them to want to watch the game. I should expect them to ask questions. I should expect to answer their questions, without being false to them or false to my boss.

Having no expectations, that too is a Zen Buddhist exercise. Perhaps it is not as much fun as watching baseball or practicing golf or windsurfing, but in a hundred years the loss of the those 7 innings will have as little or as much impact as the beating of the wings of a butterfly does in the mathematical theory of chaos.

So how do we avoid the problems? It is simple. Be sensitive to your desires. Try and see where they are leading you before you get there. Be aware, of how many masters you serve, and of the competing interests of each. What is good or desirable for you in the short term may be bad in the long term. What is good for you, may be bad for your family. What is good for your family, may be bad for your community. What is good for the community may be bad for the environment, or the nation, or the world. It is life. It is not simple.

So when in your life the salesmen show up, or the tax men show up, or the police men show up, or the oncologists, answer their questions, without being false to them, without being false to your family, without being false to your god, without being false to yourself.

Closing words: I Will Arise & Go Now by Ogden Nash in Family Reunion Little Brown 1950, p.86

"In far Tibet
There live a lama,
He got no poppa,
Got no momma,

He got no wife,
He got no chillun,
Got no use,
For Penicillun,

He got no soap,
He got no opera,
He don't know Irium,
From Copra,

He got no songs,
He got no banter,
Don't know Jolson,
Don't know Cantor.

He got no teeth,
He got no gums,
Don't eat no Spam,
Don't need no Tums,

He love to nick him,
When he shave,
He also got,
No hair to save.

Got no distinction,
No clear head,
Don't call for Calvert,
Drink milk instead.

He use no lotions,
For allurance,
He got no car,
And no insurance.

He live just like
The lower an'mals,
Got no sore throat,
From not smoking Camels.

No Winchell warnings,
No Pearson rumor,
For this self-centered,
Nonconsumer.

Indeed,
the Ignorant Have-not,
Don't even know
What he don't got.

If you will mind,
The box-tops, comma,
I think I'll go,
And join that lama. "

Go now in peace, and don't take any free baseball tickets.