Saturday, November 1, 2008

Why Life Sometimes Needs a Rulebook..

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be." -- Polonius, to Laertes, Hamlet

Three months ago, a co-worker dropped a thick, 600-page hardcover book about foreign policy on my desk with a Post-It note on the top saying, "This is a great book, you'd like it." I saw him later that day, sincerely thanked him for thinking of me, and put it in a corner on my desk where it hasn't moved since.

It's not out of spite or any other negative (or even calculated) emotion that I haven't read it, it's just that (1) We're talking about a book that would require an investment of dozens of hours, and (2) I usually have, at best, a couple hours' free time at any given pop -- weekday or weekend, and (3) I don't always have the best track record at maintaining things -- particularly books -- in the condition that I got them in. So I never took the book away from work with me, never brought it up to Lowell, or anywhere else, and basically just never read it. In fact, I never even opened it. But the good news, from the lender's perspective, should be the fact that it's in the exact same condition in which it was given.

However, the other day, I thought back to the book when I saw the guy (he had just returned from what I'll call a 'mini-deployment' aboard a submersible vessel) and said, "Hey, that book you lent me is on my desk, can I give it back to you?"

Hoping for a quick 'yes' and a conclusion to the story, I was rebuffed.

"Well did you read it?"


Obviously not happy with this answer, he responded, "Well, the reason I gave it to you was so that you could read it, so just give it back to me when you're done," and abruptly ended the conversation.

So the book remains in its original position on the desk. Again, on the bright side, it hasn't been dog-eared, underlined, highlighted, ketchup- or soy sauce-stained, and the dust jacket is still pristine.

But it also hasn't been read by yours truly. For the record, it won't be -- but, I would posit, that's not justification for the ire of the lender.

So back to the way I titled this entry. There's no Rulebook sitting on a shelf somewhere that guides the way friends, acquaintances, and co-workers handle these sorts of things, but oftentimes I wish there was (maybe I need to write it). But if there were, I would hope it said something like, "If you give someone something that they never asked for in the first place, even with the best of intentions on your part, don't assume this means they incur some multi-hour obligation to try it/taste it/read it/watch it/use it. Just be glad to get it back in its original condition, and move on.

And the corollary would be that when you do offer up something of yours to a friend/neighbor/colleague, etc. try to do a quick check ahead of time to verify the items are desired on the recipient's part, and not just some unsolicited burden.

When I borrow, I'll always prefer to do it from a nameless, faceless institution. The terms are clearly spelled out -- literally, with a signed contract in the case of my Pollard Memorial Library Card or my Bank of America Credit Card -- and I know that if I somehow screw up my end of the deal, there will be clear consequences that may hurt my pocketbook (say, if I lost or ruined the great book the Rand Corporation I just got from the local library) but wouldn't ruin friendships or business relationships that are more fragile and subjectively based.

Believe me, I'm not writing to say that I'm in any way against borrowing or lending among friends. Please don't read this entry that way. However, I've seen the movie enough times to know that it doesn't always end well. Borrowing definitely has its place, but it needs to be kept there, and it never needs to be forced on someone -- in business-ese, the *demand signal* should come from the borrower vice the lender.

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