Saturday, December 23, 2006

Letter perfect

It's time to defend the (nearly) indefensible.

The annual holiday letter.

I know, I know. They are admittedly impersonal, since they are copied and sent out to a few dozen people. They take time to prepare, and some think they can't spare that time in the month of December.

The intent of the letter is great. I like to know what my friends are up to, and December is a great and traditional time of the year to catch up.

However. Most of them are simply awful. Part of the problem is that the people doing the writing only put pen to paper during the course of a year for a grocery list. It almost hurts to read those letters.

Even when they are in English, they are troublesome. The biggest problem, of course, is the issue of the kids. Let's face it, MY kids are all doing fascinating things that deserve to be mentioned to everyone. YOUR kids are doing things that no one cares about. It's not easy to turn such activities into general interest reading. I like to think of it as something like working with blasting caps -- leave it to the professionals.

We get a handful of letters every year. My favorite is from the wife of a college friend. She always writes it in the first person even though it's from the whole family, which hurts my sensibilities in such matters. But the "fun part" comes from the fact that my friend, the husband of the household, is barely mentioned in his own family newsletter. And when he is mentioned, it generally centers around the fact he works too much. Then the letter moves on. I'd kind of like to know what he's doing, how his golf game is, what he does in the workday world, how he liked the Red Sox' signing of Dice-K -- something.

In spite of this mountain of obstacles, I write a holiday letter that actually seems to be read and enjoyed. Granted, part of that is that some of the people on the mailing/e-mail list aren't members of the media, and aren't used to getting letters where most of the words are spelled correctly. But plenty of others write to say, "You have the only holiday newsletter I actually like to read."

Therefore, here are a few tips for the amateurs out there:

1. Don't have children. This may be difficult if they are already here, and they certainly have other advantages, but they don't do much for letters. If you do have kids, think of family activities rather than an individual's soccer award for perfect attendance.

2. Be positive. Had some bad news during the course of the year? Job still stink? Favorite baseball team lose five straight games to the Yankees in late August? Don't even think about mentioning it. (Exception: a death of a loved one deserves a note at the end.) No one wants to read about your problems, because they can probably top you.

3. Be funny. David Letterman's monologue doesn't get the care and attention I give to the holiday letter. I write a rough draft, and then try to sweeten the jokes. And then do it again. And again. I've even mailed out a few, thought of an improvement, and made new copies of the letter with the new joke. Mel Brooks I'm not, but people seem to laugh.

4. Keep it to one page. No one had THAT interesting of a year to expand to two pages. Well, maybe Donald Rumsfeld. But he has more time on his hands these days.

I try to keep up with my friends during the course of the year, and I'm pretty ruthless with my mailing list, so this isn't a case of a letter being the only piece of communication I have with people during 365 days. I'd like to think of it as a present, something personal that comes from me that can't be purchased at a store. It's worth my while to make time to send them a quality note.

In other words, I treasure my friendships, and this is a way of giving a piece of myself back to them on an annual basis.

Happy holidays.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

"I am not a crook" either

A while back, I wrote here about how I had discovered that someone had researched some of my family tree. It's time for an update, and the title gives you a clue about the outcome.

I have loaded the family tree into, which does a fine job of pointing you in other directions about distant relations. It's especially true for pre-1800 names, which have been researched, posted and shared by others. After a while, the family trees tend to intertwine.

I've got something like 450 names up now, including everyone, dating back to pre-1492. I have visions of my relatives standing on the docks, waving goodbye to Columbus, even though my relatives were in England, Scotland and Ireland while Columbus didn't start anywhere near there.

Just the other day, added a new feature: connections with celebrities. It looks over your tree and the trees of celebrities, and lists the results. It's not quite perfect yet and is in the Beta mode, since the computer takes in some information that is at best iffy. For example, in one of my connective charts, there's someone who allegedly had a child at age 12. That seemed a little difficult for me.

However, one name did jump off the chart for me -- Richard Nixon. Since much of my main branch had Quaker ties before 1860, I should have guessed that America's leading 20th-century Quaker might have a connection. Still, I looked over the names. I assumed that Nixon's line was pretty accurate, since Presidents usually get a thorough job of research in such matters. And while I haven't searched SE Pennsylvania cemeteries yet, the names on my list seem to be well-researched too. So, I think it's fair to guess that there is a very good chance that President Nixon and I had the same ancestor, Gayen Miller, around 1700.

I broke this news to some of my relatives, but they haven't checked back in yet. Maybe they are too stunned. Maybe they haven't opened their e-mail.

A couple of other celebrities on the list seem like a good connection too -- Shirley Temple, Raymond Massey, Mrs. Herbert Hoover. But Nixon is the one I'll remember.

I always wondered why I had such a heavy beard.

Friday, December 01, 2006


I'm sick.

Not sick over world hunger and famine, or sick over a Yankees' free-agent acquisition. Sick as in cough cough, sneeze sneeze.

Luckily, I don't get sick very often. I attribute this to the fact that I don't work with many people, and I don't have any children. So I don't pick up any bugs from the office or Johnny's school very often. Teachers spend the winter sneezing; usually I'm the one usually dodging such problems.

This time, though, I wasn't so lucky. I came home from a Thanksgiving trip to Tampa with the chills -- I either blame Mom or the airplane, which is a great place to pass germs around -- and haven't felt great since. In fact, I've had three straight nights of waking up frequently with a coughing fit (which means a trip to the bathroom), to the point where I fled the bedroom for the sanctuary of a reclining chair in order to sit up while trying to sleep and letting my wife sleep in peace. I know, darn considerate of me.

Here's the tough part of about getting sick: What exactly are the rules anyway? They seem to be a little unclear, and I can't find them published anywhere.

Rule one is you don't miss work, at least in my circumstance. Some jobs have daily deadlines or no extra people, and I have one of those jobs. Which means that if there's a small doubt that you should go to work, you should still go to work. But where's the line? Of course it's better to miss a day or two rather than infect an entire building, but sometimes the only thing matters is that night. From that night's perspective.

Then again, no one likes to sit next to a sick person at work. You've done it. I've done it. I used to work with a person who, when sick, made all sorts of disgusting noises in the coughing/spitting family. It was torture to sit next to the person for eight hours. I don't want to have other people thinking those thoughts about me. Add in the threat of picking up or giving the bug to someone. But -- the night's work needs to be done. So, what to do?

Rule two is you don't call the doctor. Unless you're sure you have to do so. But when are you sure? Answer is, you usually aren't. So you don't. If you can physically call the doctor, you probably don't need to do so. With some exceptions.

Rule three is people who are sick always think they are bravely coping with the disease. Onlookers always consider that same behavior as evidence that a "big baby" has entered the room. It never fails. You answer the question "How are you?" honestly ("Mediocre"), and you're a big baby. The great thing is, people fall into those roles without any hesitation no matter how they act when they are on the other side of the fence.

I'd argue about where the rules should be, but I'm not in the mood.

After all, I'm sick.