The woman turned to the out-of-town "expert" and asked earnestly, "How do you lead a balanced life?"

It wasn't a trick question or a surprise one. She'd heard it often enough, especially from women whose lives were changing. But this time the "expert" demurred and hid behind her amateur standing.

Later though, flying home, it occurred to her that she was less sure about the definition of a "balanced" life. What was it now? A balancing act ? A performance or a pleasure?

Over the past decade she, too, had read all the advice columns filled with handy hints about how The New Woman should lead her New Life. They were recipes concocted out of carefully weighted ingredients: equal portions of men, children, work and all the rest. Put them all together and you were guaranteed a perfect life every time.

But now they all sounded somehow mechanical, like living-by-numbers games . . . too neat and too dry. She didn't want to play.

She wanted to tell the woman that there was no recipe for a "balanced life." Wanted to say that there is a difference between a life and an act. Wanted to introduce her to men and woman who now led lives that fit her fantasies and who still wake up asking, "Is this all?"

Funny.

The out-of-town "expert" remembered the women who had begun questioning their lives 10 or 15 years ago. They were often homemakers then. The notion evolved that if women could shift, put some weight on the outside world, and if men could shift, put some weight on the home world, we'd all find an equilibrium.

But "equilibrium" had proved a difficult territory. Elusive. Hard to stake out.

Waiting in Chicago, she picked up Avery Corman's new book, "The Old Neighborhood." This time the author of "Kramer vs. Kramer" portrayed a couple right out of People magazine. They were two attractive adults with two high-powered jobs and two high-acheiving children. But at mid-life, they were like compatible roomates who passed each other in the kitchen and made plans through secretaries.

Corman's message was clear. There is a difference between a working relationship and a deep one. There is a difference between a full schedule and a rich life.

Back home, the same amateur expert went to see Jill Clayburgh's new movie, "It's my turn." There it was again.

The woman in this Claudia Weill film was a brilliant mathematician living with a humorous and decent man who gave her "lots of space." She was the woman who worked it all out, did everything, had everything. And felt an anxious emptiness.

In the novel, Avery Corman's man returned to his neighborhood roots to see what was missing. In the film, Jill Clayburgh's discoveries came when she fell in love with the "wrong man."

Both of them deliberately upset the "balance" of their lives . . . because it wasn't enough.

These two new works are not diatribes against changing roles. Not at all. Avery Corman's character does not wish to be The Sole Breadwinner. Jill Clayburgh does not long to retreat from her math class to the kitchen.

In a sense, they are both post-liberation stories. Successful women are not a problem but an assumption. Yet, under the new circumstances of their lives, the old question persists: is this all?

There is less nostalgia than wonder in this question when it's asked by real-life couples. Wonder that the careful sharing of schedules and roles isn't the solution, wonder that a "balanced" life can still go out of whack. Wonder that you can have it "all" and want something else.

The amateur expert had never put all that much faith in final solutions. She didn't believe you could create a life pattern to be mass-produced, where one-size-fits-all. She didn't believe that life was in balance for more than a day at a time.

But leaving South Dakota, leaving the plane and the movie behind her, she remembered what an 82-year-old suffragist and doctor had said at the end of a long interview. "And my dear, when we solve all the problems that come from being a man or a woman, then . . . then , we face the rest of the problems of human existence."