BalanceAs long as the politicians in Washington are going on about balancing the budget, I thought I would jump on the proverbial bandwagon and put in my two cents about balance. But I don't want to talk about problems as simple as balancing a budget. I mean, kids learn how to add and subtract in grade school. That's all a budget is, adding and subtracting until you come out with zero. How hard can that be? No, I want to talk about a sort of balance that's much harder to achieve, so hard, in fact, that I call it a conundrum.

Root Beer FloatSpecifically, I call it the "Root Beer Float1 Conundrum".

Before we get to a really difficult example, let's examine one that at least has many solutions: hot dogs. Now, it's possible there's no conundrum here at all. Some hot dog makers actually package their dogs in packs of eight. And most bun-makers package their buns in packs of eight. No problem. But what if you like Hebrew National brand? They come in packs of seven! Now I can understand this from a religious point of view, but really? No one packages buns in groups of seven. What's a poor hot-dog-eater to do? You've got to buy eight packages of hot dogs and seven packages of buns just to come out even! Unless you're in a contest, even a large Mormon family couldn't eat that many hot dogs before they expire!

So what do you do if you happen to like hot dogs that are only packaged in sevens or tens? It's not really the kind of thing you can offer to your neighbor: Knock, knock. "Oh, hi, Liz," neighbor says. "Um, hey, would you like two hot dogs?" I ask, holding up a ZiplocĀ® brand storage bag containing two franks. People would start to talk! Still, there are a few options: you could feed them to the dogs (or the cat); you could buy a can of crescent rolls and make two pigs in blankets (that there are extra rolls doesn't matter; unlike buns, crescent rolls are good without the hot dog inside); you could buy a can of beans, chop up the dogs and have franks and beans (you could do this with Spaghetti-Os too); you could feed the extra bun to the birds. So you see, while it's still something of a challenge to balance franks and buns, it's not impossible.

Let's look at a slightly more difficult balancing act: cereal and milk. Unlike hot dogs and buns, which have a one-to-one relationship, cereal and milk aren't so easy to match up. How many boxes of cereal go with one gallon of milk? The reason that question is so hard to answer is that there are so many more variables. Let's look at a few. First, there are matters of preference, like whether you like to fill the bowl to almost overflowing, put the box away, and then go eat. If you do this, I guarantee you'll be out of balance, with lots of milk left over. (Also, you'll probably make a mess and have the person who has to clean up your messes angry at you. If you cleaned up your own messes, you wouldn't eat cereal like that, so don't try to convince me no one's going to get mad at you.) At the other end of the spectrum are those who measure out a fixed amount of milk and take the box with them, adding more cereal as they run low until they run out of milk. These people only have to worry about which runs out first, the box of cereal or the jug of milk.

Next there's the question of your spoon-loading technique. Do you pile it high? Do you drain some of the milk out before you raise the spoon to your mouth? Or do you like a few bits of cereal floating in a spoonful of milk? Closely related to this is the size and shape of your spoon. A spoon with a deep bowl will hold more milk than one that's closer to a fat, dented butter knife. The absorbency of your favorite cereal comes into play as well. And, of course, there's the question of whether you like to drink the left-over milk (or feed it to the closest pet). With all these variables, it's pretty much impossible to strike a balance between a box of cereal and a jug of milk. This conundrum is not, however, as serious a problem for most people as it could be, because they buy milk and cereal pretty much every week. This means that every now and then, the perpetual imbalance balances out. The rest of the time, we just don't worry about it, because we'll be getting more next week.

Root Beer FloatWhich brings us to the most difficult example of the "Root Beer Float Conundrum": the root beer float. The balance between root beer and ice cream is not only difficult to accomplish, but fraught with temptations and dire consequences. The underlying issue is, of course, how do you make sure you run out of ice cream and root beer at the same time? (And this problem scales from small to large, from the float in your hand, to the root beer in the fridge and ice cream in the freezer, right up to whether the store runs out of your favorite of one before the other.) This balancing act includes variables not unlike those in the cereal-and-milk challenge. Do you add ice cream to your root beer, or root beer to your ice cream? Do you keep adding more ice cream, or drink what's left of the root beer? Do you like to fill your spoon with lots of ice cream with a small amount of slushy root beer clinging to it? Or do you prefer to float a bit of ice cream in your spoonful of root beer. These are all problems we've seen before. But the root beer float presents greater challenges...

The first is how large a mug to use to make your initial root beer float. Let's just scratch that problem off as a lost cause, get out the largest mug/glass in the cabinet and move forward. The next and main challenge is how persistent (and immediate) you are in trying to obtain balance. Your doctor and dentist might recommend you stop as soon as you run out of one ingredient, finish the rest of the other, and then go brush your teeth. What do they know!? Clearly it's been far too long since they had a root beer float. No, the real dilemma is how careful you are about adding more of one or the other to balance out what's left in your mug. I mean, if you're not careful, you could add so much ice cream that you can't get to the root beer, thus leaving you with no other option than to add more root beer. And having just carelessly increased your float intake once today, do you follow your doctor's and dentist's advice and stop compounding the problem, or do you just try to be more careful next time? The escalated version of this dilemma comes when there's no more ice cream in the freezer (or no more root beer left in the bottle). Do you run to the store and get more of whichever one ran out first? Or do you resist temptation and finally allow good sense (and a fear of the bathroom scale (where balance is never reached)) to exert itself to the point of self control?

You'll have to make these difficult choices yourself, find your own balance, and excuse me now; I forgot something at the grocery store!

1For any reader outside the US: Root beer is a carbonated soft drink (like Coca-Cola or Pepsi, but with a different, non-cola taste); a "float" is where you put ice cream (usually vanilla) into a glass/mug of said soft drink.