Monthly Archives: February 2010

Living with embarrassment…

It seems to me one of the impediments to letter writers is the fear of embarrassment.  It can terrorize budding authors as they stare at a page or quake at the thought of saying something wrong (heaven forbid).  If you can’t corral your anxiety, it can cripple what should be a pleasant endeavor.  If you fret too much about “did I say this right?’ or ‘what will they think of this?’ you’ll never get past word one.  Writing is a practiced art.  The notion of embarrassment will ease as you find your style and your comfort zone.  In all honesty, I cannot recall a single instance where I had a moment’s doubt or angst about ‘what will Ellen and Reid think of this?’  Not once.

Every good writer sets aside or comes to grips with the idea of exposing themselves to folly.  They are all too willing to try a new word or toss out a new phrase or push the literary boundaries in some other way.  None of this (or us) will ever be perfect. You’ll be surprised at how liberating freedom-from-turning-red can be.  As for your recipients, they are by and large a kindly audience.  They’ll just be glad to know you sent them your very best.

My counsel to help you over the speed bump of self consciousness: let it go.

Here is today’s letter to mom and dad.  550+ words in about 11 minutes.  The momentous news is in the first paragraph.  All the rest is window dressing.

February 26, 2010

Mom and Dad: It was good to hear that you two have been talking about another living situation.  Honestly, it is probably time.  After the rough winter you’ve endured and all that goes with pushing snow aside let alone maintaining the place, we can do better to make things a good bit easier for you.  I know this sounds like a broken record, but the best decision I made after coming down here was to get a small place where none of the toil and upkeep was onerous.  It’s just a matter of perspective.  No matter where you are you can still watch TV, heat your tea, read and lounge about.  I’ll help out however I can in terms of helping downsize and/or get your place ready to sell.  You guys have no mortgage, so the sale issue isn’t all that big, either.  A few years ago I wrote a column for the Chicago Tribune on ‘move managers’, the unbiased people who come in to help decide what goes and what stays and get a new place settled to approximate your prior situation.  It’s a pretty good concept.

Went to the store last night, list in hand, and spent $134.  But the big news is I saved $122 on the total order.  Literally everything in the cart was on sale or two-for-one or buy-one-get-one-free, and the rewards card that is scanned at the checkout station keeps tabs on the total savings.  The bad news is that I now have 39 cups of yogurt in the fridge, and untold pounds of beef and turkey in the freezer plus 27 boxes of cereal in the pantry.  I hope the independent audit verifies my count of pasta boxes.  The only guy who can probably help me is Dr. Phil, and he’d probably turn down my kind of problem because I am so far beyond help.  How can one guy spend $134?  That’s a rhetorical question that does not demand an answer.

Well, the lettuce (Romaine) is in the ground, if you count a dirt-filled shallow pot on the front stoop as counting for “ground.”  Used my finger as a dibble to poke holes in the soil for the seeds.  It occurred to me that this was the first real gardening – faux gardening, if you will – I’ve done in better than three years.  It felt good to get my hands dirty.  Now if it will just sprout and grow.  Bought a couple of trellises for the English ivy.  Even though it wants to crawl on the ground, it’s gonna damn well be trained to climb upward.

As you can guess, this weekend will be golf.  My friend Mike and I will have a grudge match over two days, and scarcely a civil word will be exchanged although it will all be in good fun.  I have to grant the thief three shots a side, which is borderline criminal.  That’s why I never win because he rigs the games.  He’ll will be reminded as such as the round progresses.

Ellen’s couch arrives this weekend and she is as antsy to have it as a cat on a hot tin roof.  The thing is really delayed, but it feels like a victory because it’s coming in sooner than predicted.  No word from Reid, but what else is new?  It’s a guy thing.


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Of cheap postage and ROI…

If familial communication were all about dollars and cents, I’d ditch letters altogether and recoup monies already allotted to the other mediums I use all day every day, namely my expensive Internet and the $80 or so spent monthly with Verizon to send unlimited text messages.  (I “Tweet” a little bit, too, but the 140 character limit doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to me. And why in the world would people want constant updates from me?)

Since the first letter to Ellen was postmarked in 2001, I have withstood six incremental postal service rate hikes (34 cents, 37 cents, 39 cents, 41 cents, 42 cents, and most recently, 44 cents).  My guesstimate in postage alone is about $250 based on a 41 cent stamp.  I haven’t the foggiest what paper and envelopes have set me back, but it’s just the cost of doing business.

But in terms of return on investment, there is no better bang-for-the-buck.  It’s a steal as far as I am concerned, because my kids, parents and friends get something hand-made and for their eyes only (until letters are posted here, of course) but you see where I’m going.  When you factor in relaxation, creative impulses, desire to stay in touch and satisfaction every time that letter hits the bottom of a mailbox, well, it is the bargain to end all bargains.

Dipping again into the archives, here’s a letter that stretches back into the kid’s early college years.  Please don’t ask about the 2001 letters; my lapse in judgment about “storage” is too painful to bear.  I’ll tearfully cover that sometime soon.

April 18, 2003

EB and Reid:

So, Scoots and I were stuck at home this weekend while your mom was at her women’s retreat (aka, “Retreat from Men), him unable to tell me what he wanted, me unable to stop telling him I couldn’t understand what his whimpering meant.  I think it’s one of three things: ‘I’m hungry’, ‘Give me a treat’ or ‘Let me outside’.

It seems like everything has instantly gone green.  The trees are blooming and the daffodils are done already.  We’ve had a fair amount of rain, which activated the fertilizer, meaning the mower is in full swing every 4-5 days.  The best $40 I’ve ever spent was to haul it in to Sears for a tune-up and overhaul.  Starts a little easier now after only 3-4 pulls.

This Sunday we head to Charlotte, North Carolina for a few days.  We’ll tour the area and have dinner with a guy at a bank who wants me (knock on wood) to do some PR work for the bank.  Your mother has never been to that part of NC, so it will be a good trip.  She’ll come back Tuesday, I stick around until Wednesday afternoon.  I’m not keen on moving down there so maybe it will amount to a lot of freelance work.  That would be the best thing.

Was in NYC last week for three days.  That’s almost two days too many.  I know the city is full of gonzo shopping and tourist spots galore, but I never stop into the stores.  Or the museums.  I just stay in my room and watch TV while eating pastrami on whole wheat with Swiss and mustard.  Went there for a workshop put on by a tool maker and garage storage manufacturer of an upscale garage organization system.  Without exaggeration, I’ll wager there were 14-15 people from _____ and ______ in the session (we had to make a wine rack out of wood, which was a total disaster) and there were only 3-4 media types in the room.  And that’s not counting the PR agency folks milling around.  It easily cost them $100,000 to put this show on.  No kidding.  And they paid my way to NYC.  Too bad I didn’t like any of the tools or the garage thingy.

Moving out of this office later in the week.  It will be good to get home.  The four windowless walls are not as inspirational as they might be.  It’s like be cooped up in the basement, only without the TV and refrigerator.

Mike is coming over for golf on Thursday.  Don’t know much about his new movie, Cinderella Man, with Russell Crowe.  He starts the Da Vinci Code this summer over in Paris.  Tough life.

Almost rode Saturday to Grand Island to see Ralph.  But it was raining when I got up at 6:00 a.m. so those plans were scrubbed.  That would’ve been a fun road trip, just put the hammer down at 80 mph once I reached Nebraska.  The old girl just passed 18,000 miles.  Was thinking about an Electra Glide Standard, but the thieves at the Harley dealer wouldn’t budget on trade in value.

Well, gotta go.  Columns to write, people to talk to, web sites to be surfed.  You guys be good.  Hard to believe we’ll be there in a month.  Again, no lettuce wraps, please.

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Guilty as charged…

Nine years of non-stop, gotta-get-’em-out letters might earn one the rep as borderline (okay, maybe just over the edge) compulsive.  Apparently it is a label with legs; a few years back someone noted my “habit” was just that.

Here is my plea to the charge of  “exhibiting a willful and overt display of OCD in the first degree”: guilty as charged.  Lock me up.

But there’s not a jail secure enough to hold me.  I’d bust out of lockup in a heartbeat.  Let’s face it, the kids live nowhere near me.  Reid lives 823.33 miles away and Ellen a staggering 1,224.35 miles.  As much as I’d love to be near them and see them way more often than is possible, it seems to me that every letter is the next best thing to being there.  Each page is my chance to check in, keep in touch and – at least mentally – shorten the distance.

Trust me, there are a lot worse things to be addicted to than sending a note to your kids once each week.  On that note, here is last week’s letter in it’s full, yet boring, glory:

February 16, 2010

Ellen/Reid: Things are not so good with your grandparents.  Your grandmother was rushed to the hospital the other day with some more stroke-like symptoms, but your grandfather says they couldn’t pinpoint the cause.  He just sounds exhausted on the phone, and last night I broached the topic of moving to a new situation with both him and her.  They are steadfast in wanting to stay in their home, but something is going to have to happen, and soon.  It’s just not a healthy environment for either of them.  He’s tired, she’s confused.  Andy and Steph stopped by with their two little ones the other day, and I asked mom if she remembered their names.  She didn’t.  I am glad you guys will pay them a visit this spring.  They need it.

On a similar note, I am having a will drawn up (in honor of my 60th b-day) and Ellen, I’ll send a copy to you for safekeeping.  Nothing drastic about this, mind you, it’s just that your grandparent’s situation has hastened my desire to not be in the same predicament, or at least plan for it, if you call a will a plan.  Your uncle has told me to include some health-related indicators in there, and I will.

Managed to squeeze in some golf yesterday with a couple of buddies from the bank.  We had the day off.  The weather started out in rain, but by the time we made it to the course that had ceased and the sun broke through.  It was pretty sloppy but the round itself was much needed.  Had a passable score but we all blamed the conditions for our generally spotty play.

Was sitting in Caribou the other day when the guy, a ‘suit’ no less, across from me really lets one go.  Not once, but twice.  Never in my adult life have I heard an adult fart in a public place so loudly and so brazenly.  I looked up, and so did he, but he moved on about his business without batting an eye.  Incredibly sordid.  If I ever do that in your presence, well, you know what to do.

Reid, Betsy and Bob both give a good report of you at their dinner on Michigan Avenue.  They are quite impressed with you and they are hopeful of your job situation.  I’d like to get to Chicago in the very near future if that’s okay with you.  That was a riot to hear about an earthquake in Illinois, although it would’ve added drama if you said it rousted you from your sleep.  It would have had to have been much stronger to do that.  Say, 7.0 on the Richter Scale.

Ellen, just keep plugging away on the job deal.  I think that a lot of employers are buried in faceless applications, and my guess is that perhaps it would be good to zero in on a couple and try to meet them for coffee or a brief ‘fact finding’ visit in person.  That way they can put a face with a resume.  You would shine in those situations.  Have you met with my cousin Tim, who is the head minister at the big Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis?  He might have some connections and some thoughts for you.  Just say the word.

Ellen, your b-day card was great – pointed, but great – and Reid, I appreciated that Betsy would hand carry your handwritten note with birthday wishes.  Let it be known that I have heard all the 60th birthday jokes that have ever been created.  I’ve had my fill for at least the next 10 years.

I told your grandparents that I had the unsettling feeling that I felt like Mr. Rogers when I donned a vest the other chilly morning over a shirt and tie.  It struck me funny, but in a weird way.  Maybe it’s an age thing.  Hey, deadline Sunday 9:00 p.m. for mini-cash grab.  5x5x2 deep of found change.  Four times to the winner, two times for the loser.  Make your best guess.

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“Where’s the beef?”…

Ol’ Clara really took corporate skimping to task in that classic Wendy’s TV spot (ah, the Golden Age of Advertising).

The same has been asked of me: do you ever deviate from single paragraphs to beefier single topics?  The short answer is ‘yes’.  The longer answer takes a bit more explanation.

Years ago it occurred to me that teenage attention spans being what they are, maybe it was better to cover a lot of little things in brief.  For better or worse, that formula has seemed to work.  But to be blunt with you, there are topics I have addressed in length: divorce, a relocation, grandparent’s health (and recalcitrance), to name a few.  At some point you will see some of those painful letters.

A little housekeeping.  The mushrooms that “rocked my fiscal world” are on full display in the original cell phone photo if you scroll to the February 3 post.  Housekeeping II: all letters are now shown on the same page as the post to save you a few unnecessary clicks.  Housekeeping III: if you think this blog is worth its salt, would you mind passing it along to 1-2-3 friends for whom the e-world is not the be-all, end-all of communication?

Finally, here is today’s letter to my parents, including a sordid update on yesterday’s physical.  “Turn left and…”

February 19, 2010

Mom and Dad: In view of the punky weather we’ve had, I have barred weather forecasters from joining my golf group.  They have done us no favors this winter and their exclusion is their punishment.  But it looks in the upper 50s tomorrow, so maybe their ban will be temporary if they play nice, forecast-wise.

Other than the turn-left-and-cough and bend-over-and-spread-‘em instructions, my self-imposed annual physical yesterday went pretty well.  A clean bill of health for the most part.  My doc chewed on me about seeing a dermatologist, and he’s thinking of putting me on cholesterol medication even though my numbers are borderline but he wants to see the latest blood workups first.  He mandated I get two shots on the spot (on the shoulders actually) for H1N1 and for shingles, which I guess is the adult version of measles.  He’s a young guy and says I’m in good shape for my age – another allusion to the 60-plus crowd.  Geez, I can’t escape it.

Bought me some romaine seeds the other day at Lowe’s, partly because I want lettuce and partly because it will at least mentally speed the onset of spring.  In the next week or so they will go into a shallow but wide pot on the front porch.  I’ll practice the old square foot gardening philosophy of poking a hole 3” apart in all directions so the pot is completely filled with lettuce.  On my oath I promise to faithfully use Miracle Gro to bulk things up.  Potting soil seems to wear out pretty quickly.  In an amazing turn of gardening events, the parsley on the front porch has outlasted the winter.  It looks frozen solid only to spring to life when the sun hits.  It’s not an annual, it’s a perennial.

Dad, by now you have no doubt marked all the typos in my church newsletter, and if you have done so, you need something better to do with your time.  I will personally come up there and throttle you.  I do think you guys ought to start – no, not start, but finish – thinking about another living situation.  I really do.  One of the best things Kathy’s mom ever did was ditch the house and go to assisted living.  It has made a world of difference for her, and you guys should do the same.  I volunteer to come up there and help rid the house of stuff and get it on the market.  Okay?

The apocalypse is upon us, or at least it is upon South Carolina.  They have a ditz in office who hosted – this is totally without exaggeration – a shoot-‘em-up fundraiser to show his arch-conservatism.  The Observer’s headline was “D’Annunzio hosts machine gun social” whereby for $25 you could fire Uzis and other weapons “until the ammo runs out.”  What lunacy is this?  We’ve got, or he’s got, bigger fish to fry.

The kids seem good.  Ellen is buying new dining room chairs, and there has not been a Reid sighting in a couple of weeks which I interpret to be good news.  His nose is to the grindstone, where it should be.  Come to think of it, that’s where mine should be, too.

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Letters to one, not two…

There are circumstances that demand a temporary suspension of a single letter to both kids.  There are more of those than you’d care to know or read about.  (The singleton letter concept also applies to other folks, too.)

Job situations and other fortunate or unfortunate events warrant a one-to-one letter from dad.  This dovetails slightly with the February 16 posting whereby I professed not to be too heavy-handed.  There are some moralisms in what you can choose to read.  These notes are never shared with the sibling.

But enough time has transpired between this note that went to Reid.  It’s okay for you to see it.  It was good news for him, and with it came a stream of encouraging words from his father to help him navigate the workplace of his first real job.  Here is that letter:

September 23, 2008

Reid: It looks like you’re headed for your first full-time job.  You’ve done all the work and most all of the right things to get to this spot.  Good for you – because this economy is not a good one for someone looking to get their career off the ground.  Even though you’ve come full circle back to (the agency), you would have always wondered what else was out there if you’d never looked around.

Getting the job is a big, yet in some ways small, part of the battle.  Now the years-long real war of work begins.  One of the harsh realities is that it truly is a dog-eat-dog environment, and you need to go into your new work assignment – wherever that may be – with your eyes open and your attitude attuned toward advancing in the workplace.  That’s just the way it is.

I have seen a lot that goes on in agencies both large and small, and in my own work travails.  Here are my suggestions.  Take these with a grain of salt and for what they’re worth:

Be yourself – but be professional.  You have an incredible personality.  Let it show, but there is a balance between being everyone’s buddy and being the professional that your bosses and higher-ups expect and want to see.  Conduct yourself accordingly when you’re at work.

Speak your piece – when you have something to say.  Don’t be a wall flower.  Your executives want to hear from someone who has something to add to the meeting and workplace conversations.  But make sure what you say truly adds to the dialogue.  Don’t hold back even if others may take umbrage or think you’re trying to make a name for yourself.  You are.

Play the game.  If I’ve seen anything in my years, it’s that office politics are here to stay and alive and well.  I have never played the game, and it has cost me.  It is in part about being a professional, recognizing what others are saying and thinking, and keeping your internal contacts informed.  They call it “being engaged.”  If there is an office language, speak it.  Be aware of your surroundings.  That may also mean having coffee or going to lunch with anyone inside and outside your circle of influence.  If you don’t toot your own horn, no one will do it for you.  Make sure people know what you’re doing.  It’s just the way it is.

Do good work.  It sounds trite, but you must do your best work.  Proofread what you’ve done, read it twice, make sure the right people are cc’d on what you send.  Keep your nose to the grindstone, at least look like you’re working diligently

Don’t forget your contacts.  Keep cultivating the contacts you’ve made: Ferguson, Cyranski, Wagner, Heston, Fisher, Furstenau, etc.  They still care about you and may, from time to time, wonder what the hell Reid Bradley is up to.  You never know if they have other opportunities for you.  It’s all about timing.

Volunteer.  I will go to my grave in my belief that how you get ahead is a by product of how you expose yourself to the broader professional community.  That’s how you network, how you mix, how you meet people and how you simply get ahead.

Keep your resume updated.  You never know when it will be needed.  Keep it short, keep it accurate, and keep it ready.

Start to save.  No doubt (the agency) will allow direct deposit of your paycheck.  If they will allow it, ask them to direct a smaller chunk – maybe $50 – each month to a separate savings account.  You won’t miss that money, and you’ll start to accumulate some cash for a rainy day.

You are everything your mom and I hoped you’d be.  Go get ‘em kid.  Be yourself but be a pro.

Love, Dad

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Heavy-handedness lite…

One of the beauties about a near-continuous string of letters is that an author can pick and choose his or her fights.

Even when she was a college freshman, Ellen never got a steady dose of preachiness that would have amounted to a lecture on paper.  Lectures didn’t work so hot when she was at home and there was no reason to assume she would warm up to heavy-handedness when she was in college.  She was at the age of majority and it seemed then, and does now, that the more prudent path was to lead and suggest, rather than harangue her about eating her vegetables or brushing her teeth along with whatever parents can rail on about.  Some of the harder topics were best set aside when we were face-to-face.  Don’t interpret that I abrogated my parental duties, it’s just that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

That’s what a long term approach to letters will allow.  I use the drip method week after week on Ellen and Reid without resorting to parenting by dictatorship.  Too much stern medicine each week and those two would’ve shut me off quicker than they could say “Get a grip, dad.”  The goal is to get them to open and read the letters, not shred them.

Here is the February 8 letter loaded with woe-is-me tales of my 60th birthday:

February 8, 2010

Ellen/Reid: Well, 60 years ago today your uncle and I entered the world, one right after the other, and things have never been the same, at least for my parents.  Hard to believe it is yet another b-day with a zero at the end.  But if the experts are to be believed, 60 is the new 40.  Another way to look at it is, it’s not the years, its the mileage.  I look in the mirror and see a low mileage model and wonder ‘how can this be?’  But it is and that’s okay.

Sent your uncle a box of stuff, mostly symbolic items that remind him to live while the getting is good; a world map he can put on the wall and wherever the dart lands, travel there; a box of golf balls with the admonition to tee-‘em-high-and-let-‘em fly; crayons and a drawing pad so he can doodle and then send his drawings to his grandkids; and a box of Valentine’s Day chocolates to remind him to be nice to his sweetie.  That sort of thing.  He sent me a Nebraska ball cap and jacket a few weeks back and those were great gifts.

Man, they got pounded not too far north of here this weekend.  Not sure where the snow line was relative to Charlotte, but I do know that it’s a good thing it wasn’t close to here.  We had some rain squalls late in the week that mucked things up, but it didn’t stop me from playing golf on Saturday (37F at the start but no wind) and it was still fun.  But last weekend was the killer; we had a skiff of snow on top of about ¾ inch of solid ice, and that meant I couldn’t get in to work on Monday because my shaded driveway wasn’t close to getting enough sunshine to melt.  For a while there I was transported back to the days in Iowa when all we did was dig out and chip-chip-chip at ice.  I used your great-great grandmother’s garden hoe to help with the chipping, and in a real tragedy, the wood handle broke.  I can fix that easy enough, but it sort of saddened me that my grandma’s hoe wouldn’t be put to use for its original intent which is to whack weeds.  Instead, it was relegated to removing ice.

It sounds as if your mom really got hammered by N1H1.  She’s the first person I’ve know to have it and it laid her low for almost two weeks.  We texted back and forth about it a bit, and it would be hell to be sick and have a big dog, Henry, who wouldn’t understand when his master would not take him for a walk or play.  What a beast he is.  But your mom sounds better and that’s good.  Didn’t realize the extent to which that strain of flu can incapacitate people.  And she had a flu shot.  She said it works on 90% of the people.  She was, unfortunately, in the 10% group.

Your grandfather is about to have his hip replaced and your uncle and I are struggling with how and where to put your grandmother while he convalesces.  It will be very hard on both of them, and your grandfather is of the mind that he will be up and walking in no time.  That surely won’t be the case but the situation is what it is.  You might give them a call just to check in.

I’m sorry the Colts were on the short end of the Super Bowl.  I was rooting for them for no other reason than you both went to school in Indy.  There’s always next year according to the losers.  The game was kind of blah as most of those games are.  The hype always exceeds the reality in sports and most other things.  I don’t quite understand the fetish which surrounds the ads.  Why don’t companies simply tell people their product is better than others rather than try to out-comic the next company?  I don’t get it.  I suppose it’s all about grabbing limited attention spans.

Reid, your attitude is very good given the upheaval in the agency.  You will come out smelling like a rose because at age 24, you have already survived one bout of agency ennui.  Let’s keep talking about a plan to find a new situation or make the best of where you are.

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Now, about Monday…

It’s Saturday and already I’m thinking about Monday.  Such is the fate of a letter writer: always thinking ahead.

Here are topical candidates Ellen and Reid will read later in the week:

  • Betsy and Bob treat Reid to dinner in Chicago.
  • Deja vu all over again with winter weather.
  • Redneck runs into granite pillar.
  • Creating a will.
  • A man rudely passes gas at the next table.
  • Almost time to plant: thoughts about a tiny garden.
  • On to Lowe’s for crown molding.
  • A Harley cruising in salt, brine and slush.

There may be a few wild card items (code for things that have slipped my mind) but this list is the bedrock of Monday’s letter.  (As always, there will be a few add-ins, including a Charlotte Observer story about a teacher who took a cell phone photo of a student sleeping in class and sent the picture to the kid’s father who, rather than take his kid to task, was irate that a teacher would do such a thing.  So much for parental responsibility.)

FYI…my bro’ Ralph got his box of stuff suitable for a newly minted 60-year-old.  Mission accomplished.

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