Sunday, February 19, 2006

Another gilded age

LADY LAKE, Fla.—This is not the first bout of histrionics over the evils of lobbying to infect Washington," the Chicago Tribune's Michael Tackett reports today on the Abramoff scandal. His time horizon is much too short: Some of the most delicious satire In Mark Twain's The Gilded Age involves the amount of bribery required to secure the favor of congressmen—"the high moral ones cost more because they give tone to a measure."

Congressional pork and financial legerdemain are the grist for The Gilded Age, written with Charles Dudley Warner in 1873. I had expected the age of Ulysses S. Grant to have its share present-day parallels and was not disappointed. When one of its members is charged with taking bribes, the Senate preserves its good name by investigating the whistle-blower. A lobbyist cleared of the only slightly more notorious charge of murder attempts to cash in on the lecture circuit. And land speculators hoping to make a killing get dragged in the deeper undertow of the their bankers' schemes.

Such plot lines resonate in boom-town Central Florida. An online real-estate ad reads: "Perfect for the investor wanting to break into Florida's Hot Market!" This for a five-unit apartment building. The Villages, a Sun City-style seniors development, rose quickly from the palmetto scrub but has doubled again in size and scattered copycat retirement villas 10 miles in every direction. Stores and schools followed, and finally a hospital. (When I retire, Ground Zero of my condo search will be Northwestern Memorial Hospital.)

Friday, February 17, 2006

Public domain Twain

"The children were put to school; at least it was what passed for a school in those days: a place where tender young humanity devoted itself for eight or ten hours a day to learning incomprehensible rubbish by heart out of books and reciting it by rote, like parrots; so that a finished education consisted simply of a permanent headache and the ability to read without stopping to spell the words or take breath."

Mark Twain, The Gilded Age (1873)

(Attributed to Twain in Charles Neider's 1965 edition "The Adventures of Col. Sellers," which drops material written by Charles Dudley Warner.)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Big Drama taking a nap

Bobby Darin's "Sunday in New York" has been running through my head for the past week since seeing Richard Greenberg's "The Well-Appointed Room" at Steppenwolf Theatre. The play, not so much.

Like "Three Days of Rain" the new Greenberg play has two acts with common themes separated in time — in this case, the same apartment before and after the World Trade Center attacks. The first act presents a glib playwright oblivious to the present, and a whip-smart partner weary of his living in the past. Tension in the second act is between the apartment's next owners, a husband living in the moment and a wife looking years ahead.

There's room for a grand statement about the course of human events in all this, but "The Well-Appointed Room" keeps to confined quarters. The Darin swinger provides one of many throwaway first-act lines in what would seem like a 1930s romantic-comedy pairing gone wrong — that is, if the couple presented at least a fading spark of attraction. The half-hour is malnourished despite the onstage preparation of multiple omlets. By cracking a few more eggs the playwright could have brought this couple at least a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" edge, and introduced ideas to inform the second act.

The post-9/11 world is fraught with humanity, but the new tenants hash over much of the same turf Greenberg covered in "The Velvet Hour." Steppenwolf usually acts the hell out of a bad script, but the four actors come off unusually flat with this little to work with.

A quartet on the upstairs stage brings more empathy, and more of the sweep of calamity, to Frank Galati's economical but rich adaptation of Haruki Murakami's "After the Quake" short stories.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Do unto others as your BATNA dictates

Audio books aren't for me: El trains rumble by and I miss the speaker's main point. But a co-worker offered his copy of the negotiation primer "Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In" and after months of delay I became a quick study. Most curious were the detailed answers to "Ten Questions People Ask," particularly one which seemed to need no reply: "Should I be fair if I don't have to?"

Getting to YesYet when "Getting to Yes" was first published in 1981, it seemed common sense that the negotiation playing field needed a winner and a loser. The authors popularized the notion that bargaining could get both sides what they want, making them more satisfied with their deal and more committed to making it work.

Harvard Professor Roger Fisher, the primary author, does not narrate the audio book, which sounds more like cable reruns of "Win Ben Stein's Money." Too bad, because Fisher coached negotiations at a high level, including advising on the Camp David accords. Now, his conflict-resolution strategy is heard all over.

Tenant's advocates use it to iron out landlord disputes. Multinational treaties attempt to to give all parties bragging rights. It even came into play in our household's early spring cleaning: My wife seems to want everything thrown out, but what's she's after is simply cutting the clutter. If I find a way to organize it, I can keep it. This can mean a trip to Container Store for even more stuff.

Two important things to remember are that win-win negotiations aren't necessarily about money, and they demand better communication skills. The long view of negotiation is that people need to be treated fairly, they don't want a drawn-out negotiation, they want a predictable result and one that's easy to explain.

So it's not a matter of meeting in the middle, but finding common ground wherever it lies, or at least sizing up the other-side's Plan B -- what Fisher called the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA -- and trying to offer something more appealing.

Like building any relationship, a lot of this comes down to listening: Instead of thinking ahead to their next statement, bargainers have to hear what the other side is saying and react in imaginative ways -- perhaps laying out not one solution but a number of them, without committing to any of them.

Familiar coaching skills also come into play; Keep the discussion helpful and upbeat, show that you appreciate the other side's position, and make yours more appealing by addressing the other party's concerns.

Most important, be prepared. Know your alternatives, and the other side's as well, and the outcome stands a better chance of being an improvement for both.