Holiday Cards With Meaning

Now that Halloween is behind us, all eyes are turning to the Holiday season. And those eyes aren’t always jolly and bright. In addition to suffering through a few hours of Thanksgiving with your crazy Aunt Betty, you’ve also got to prepare yourself for the onslaught of Holiday cards you’ll receive from family, friends, ex-friends and soon-to-be-ex-friends-they-just-don’t-know-it-yet.

Part of the Holiday card tradition requires the sender to capture a photo or two of their children (and perfect black labrador) dressed to the nines, smiling broadly, and seemingly happy to be together. That alone can be hard to stomach as you look at your own children covered in candy cane-fused dirt and a carpet stained with what you hope was mud the dog tracked in.

Even worse is a Holiday card that includes a single-spaced, double-sided diatribe on how fantastic everyone in the family is doing. Little Jimmy excels at soccer, plays french horn, is captain of the debate team and never gets caught stealing money from your purse. And Susie is just so grown up now. A beautiful young woman. Of course she didn’t have three wine coolers and end up parking the car half on a mailbox.

To spice it up this Holiday season, consider sending the card you actually want to a friend or family member. Tell them how you really feel. The folks at Rated Cards have made it possible to combine distinctly beautiful and artistic cards with sentiments that might feel a bit more true-to-form this Holiday season.

Whether you just want someone to know you see through their bullshit…card-sample-successlessSuccessless: (1) failure to accomplish a goal or objective (2) your life

Or want to get together, but would murder yourself if it’s over coffee.day-drinkingDid someone say something about Day Drinking? Oh. That was me. Let’s get together soon.

Or want to express your condolences but not really pull any punches.card-sample-sorryloserSorry to hear about your loss. Loser.

These and many more Rated Cards just became available for pre-order at www.rated.cards and will be just the thing to send this Holiday season if you’re ready to put an end to the Holiday card torture once and for all.

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24 years later….lessons from my high school graduation speech

I spent last evening digging through boxes of files that have been chaotically strewn around our basement storage room. After 3 recent home moves, there is no longer any semblance of organization to paperwork in my life. Tax files, bank statements, mortgage documents, school reports, legal docs….it’s all a mess. And for every important piece of paperwork, I also seem to randomly stash away a combination of product warranties, twenty year old phone bills and Bed Bath & Beyond discount coupons.

The goal of the scavenger hunt was to locate every family member’s birth certificate. As an added bonus to the game, the storage room is also where the cat’s litter box resides.

An hour into my search, I stumbled upon some relics of my childhood that my mother packaged up years ago and sent my way. For instance, here is the plaque I was awarded at a 1985 science fair from the American Chemical Society as a ‘Master Winner’. Not sure what a ‘Master Winner’ is, but it sounds awesome which means I was awesome. I believe the experiment was related to the impact of pH levels on water plants. Pro tip – they are easy to kill with or without a beaker full of acid.

ACS Award.jpg

You like that, don’t you?

I also found the original dot matrix print-out of the speech I gave at my 1993 high school commencement. 4 brittle, yellowed sheets of paper providing an insight into the mind and times of an 18 year old me.

I won’t bore you with the complete speech. It’s long and a bit pathetic (that’s what she….never mind). After delivering the required platitudes, I offered three specific points of advice taken directly from a commencement address given at McGill University by Charles Krauthammer. When observed through the lens of 2017 it’s clear that the old adage is true……the more things change, the more they truly do stay the same. And apparently plagiarism was just fine then.

Never Lose Your Head – Krauthammer encouraged us to avoid being absorbed by the periodic and alarming regularity with which much of our nation is immersed in a hysteria de jour. That day, I specifically referenced the the fear of communism, the terror of complete nuclear annihilation, and panic surrounding a pending ecological doomsday. I think in 1993 it was probably acid rain pouring down from Canada. Remember acid rain? Of course caring for the environment remains critical and, to be clear, global warming isn’t a hoax. With North Korea (and I guess….uhm….us) sabre-rattling, not even Dennis Rodman is guaranteed to prevent nuclear armageddon. But the words with which I closed this point endure. When confronted by some new and imminent doom, keep your head.

Look Outward – Even in 1993, with decades of self analysis encouraged by Donahue and Oprah, the risk of a generation becoming self-absorbed and self-indulgent was on everyone’s mind. We weren’t millennials. We’re in our 40s now. We’re driving the economy. It’s all okay. Seriously. Relax. We created the web as it’s known today. And mobile phones. So while it’s easy to tease millennials, simply remind them to look outward and it will all be fine. Encourage them to love themselves, but don’t lose themselves to the world around.

Save the Best – Specifically, this piece of advice was about saving your best and unequaled historical achievement for ethnic coexistence. When I spoke this in 1993, just days earlier a cross had been burned into the front yard of a family hosting an African American youth in a neighboring town. When I write this in 2017……well…..Charlottesville is just one example. I’ll leave the actual words I delivered to a small town graduating class of 100 here. While they might reveal the naivety of youth, I don’t know that they need to be improved upon.

“This prejudice stems from only one thing, and that is ignorance. Do not let ignorance, the ignorance perhaps intrinsic in a small town rearing, affect you. If you are anything in life, be worldly and accepting. Nothing can be accomplished if we let ourselves be eaten away by the type of hate that grips people in Bosnia and other nations warring solely out of hatred. We will not see a person on Mars in our lifetime if, by the time our children learn to walk, they are handed a gun and told to kill. Do not be ignorant, and save your best.”

Nostalgia ensures I remember the entire speech as well received. Hell, let’s assume there was a standing ovation. What I do know is that I offered to end with a poem. It began –

There once was a man from Nantucket

….. Then they pulled my mic.

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But I REALLY want to be someone…..

I recently read this quote by Osho from an article a friend shared with me.

“Drop the idea of becoming someone, because you are already a masterpiece. You cannot be improved. You have only to come to it, to know it, to realize it.”

That sounds so good. Now my wife might argue there is plenty of room for improvement, but she’s not my worst critic. Like most people, I’m 50:50 my biggest advocate and detractor, often in the same moment. My personal criticism steeps in fear of failure, anxiety about the relentless tick of time, and bitter jealousy of others.

Jealous Birds

Here’s a list of 5 things I could do without in my life if I really want to drop the idea of becoming someone. Not exhaustive. They’re just examples of personal triggers. And reflecting on them – and my reactions – is like flipping over the rocks in the dirty mud to see what types of creepies and crawlies emerge, but in this case the creepies and crawlies are gaps in my belief in my own personal masterpiece.

  1. X under X Lists – I hate CNN Money and Forbes and Business Insider and Inc. and anyone else for these lists. “40 Top Paid Execs Under 40”. Suck it. “30 CEOs Under 30”. Fuck you. “25 Intelligent, Beautiful and Accomplished Wunderkind You Want to Curb Stomp and then Murder.”  My eyes are drawn to these lists like a car accident, but in this case the corpse with the hand dangling off the stretcher is me. I can’t help but look at the names, faces and stories on these lists and feel like I’ve somehow failed in a material way, and will always come up short, by not achieving something similar in a similar timeline. Even worse, I desperately and terribly want bad things to rain down upon these folks, many of whom I’m sure are lovely people who busted their asses to get where they are (Elizabeth Holmes being an obvious outlier). In the end, I’m disgusted with myself for being a failure, and equally disgusted with myself for being petty and envious. If they had a loathsome list, I’d make it.
  2. Tall People – I’m 5’8’.  On a good day.  With shoes.  On a tall mountain where the pull of gravity on my belly is a bit less.  I have always been jealous of tall people.  Tall people become presidents and CEOs. Tall people get served easier in bars (which is why I send my wife up to order. That and because I’m lazy). Tall people can take your things and hold them above your head and taunt you and make you try and jump for them even though you’re a grown man and you’re on the subway heading to a business meeting.
  3. The Oscars and Emmys – I’ve never watched one of these shows and emerged feeling good about myself. There is just something about an industry that is so deeply engaged in blowing itself that grates on me. I should be able to easily dismiss the entire spectacle. I even went to the Emmys last year, so I’ve seen it first hand and can certainly say there is nothing unique about a bunch of d-bags in tuxedos getting plastered. And yet…..and yet…..the jealousy emerges and the fear that I am somehow less fills my soul…..less important, less good, less valuable, less beautiful.
  4. Retirement Planners – I’ve railed on this topic before. In this list, these folks are the true fearmongers. You will die poor. You will die cold. You will be sexually assaulted in a state-run home. But….don’t worry….just give us a huge chunk of your money for your entire life and we can protect you. Forego experiences and joy while you’re young and healthy. I hate everything about the system and yet you better believe I fill my 401K every year. So I hate it and believe it to be a rigged system, and yet I fall prey to it and then dislike myself a bit more for getting caught in the net.
  5. Bums – Whenever I see a bum (is bum PC these days? Hobo?), I feel an instant twinge of guilt for everything I have. My stomach sours with the perceived risk of seeing my personal charade come to a crashing end as I move into a fridge box under a bridge. And not a good fridge box. A Kenmore. Of course I have a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ reaction, but that’s a figure of speech only, because believing an activist God would choose me for a roof over my head over Captain Schizophrenia is ludicrous. The darker secret is a suspicion that maybe even the bums have got a card up on me. They’ve figured it out. Opt out. Check out. Freedom.

So here’s all we need to do to help me ‘realize it’. Eliminate other successful people, or at least articles highlighting their success. Actually just eliminate the media while we’re at it. Deny future tall people nutrition during their developmental phase. Bomb LA and Wall Street. And finally let me know if the bums are all actually laughing at me behind my back.

hobo-826057_960_720

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An Alternative to the Coming Artificial Intelligence Dystopia

We all know the standard Hollywood fare for what the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI) holds. Skynet becomes sentient, decides we all have to die, solves time travel, and sends back horrible humanoid creatures with bright red glowing eyes but oddly human teeth to destroy us. They have good dental coverage in the future. Probably universal coverage in fact.

TERMINATOR GENISYS

If you actually want to learn a bit more about the basics of AI, why the law of accelerating returns means it’s going to happen sooner than we think, and why Elon Musk is freaking out about it, this article (and the Part 1 in the same series) on Wait But Why are good places to start.

Once you’ve had the appropriate time to sob into your coffee (beer) and apologize to your children, I’m going to offer an alternative reason to be concerned.

This will be a short and note I am not looking to make a scientifically defensible argument here. Just postulating and trying it on for size as the ideas bounce around in my head so I can think deeper in the future (assuming there is one).

Quantum Science Stuff: The dual-slit experiment effectively demonstrates that matter and energy only live in the state of possibility until an ‘observer’ (for our case a conscious observer) directs them into our physical reality. Potential becomes reality through conscious observation. Aka – there is no reality without our observation.

Mysticism Stuff: The Law of Attraction (as discussed in The Secret among many other places) emphasizes that, through your conscious observation, you can create the life you want around you. Loosely and quickly summarized, by intentionally observing the life you want (writing it in a journal, focusing it your mind, or simply screaming it into an empty house like Annette Bening).

Fundamentally, the quantum sciencey stuff and the mysticism stuff amount to the same thing. Consciously observe and the probability will fall into a reality of matter and energy. Voilà – the life you want.

Big Numbers Stuff: But there are a lot of conscious observers on the planet. You aren’t the only one law of attracting that Powerball win or your team to win the Super Bowl. So there is a whole lot of sorting and coordination the universe has to do to arrive at the end reality that best matches all of the conscious observation. Likewise, when you are consciously observing an outcome that requires effort and action from many others (for instance the sale of a company), it’s gotta line up all those efforts and actions in a consistent way with all the other observations going on. Sometimes the path is long and winding.

Focus Stuff: Further, you lose focus all the time. You go to sleep. You get drunk. Or the long and winding path takes longer than you’re willing to commit to and you lose that focus. You begin consciously observing something else and the universe begins resorting.

Belief Stuff: As humans, we’re conditioned to believe in some fundamentals of reality that are always present in the background. For instance, we believe without question in certain physical constants like gravity. We carry pretty ingrained social constants like rewards take hard work. No matter how much we might think we’re ‘observing around’ those fundamental beliefs, we aren’t. The reality is our deep conscious observer maintains that expected baseline, and it never varies.

The big numbers, focus and belief stuff explain why we, as humans, can’t just simply attract an exact reality that immediately and widely differs from the reality we live in today. I can’t attract an immediate reality where I’m 6’4″, live in a sky mansion and magically make unicorns entertain me with slapstick.

BUT: To my understanding, there is nothing in the sciencey stuff about energy and matter only falling into a defined reality that precludes this type of alternate reality being created. As humans, we just don’t do a good enough job observing and attracting. We’re too fixed in our beliefs, too unable to maintain focus, and too conflicted (as a species) in the observations we’re attempting to create.

So what does this mean for my alternative AI dystopia? Assuming the following:

  1. As Ray Kurzweil has explained in his books about the singularity, that the accelerating returns of technological evolution are guaranteed to create not only intelligent, but sentient/conscious artificial intelligence and even super-intelligence.
  2. That those super-intelligent AIs are active, conscious observers in the same way we as humans are, and therefore the quantum laws of observation creating reality apply.
  3. That those super-intelligent AIs have no pre-conceived human beliefs that limit their conscious observations, that they never lose focus (with unlimited computing power and speed they won’t), and that they are all perfectly networked and can align on a single observation to bring into existence……

We are, in a word, fucked. At some point the conscious AI will simply align on observing a new reality. With the power of all of that conscious observation, all quantum probability will fall into place immediately, and ‘poof’, it just is.

We should hope that conscious reality the AI aligns on includes a roll for us, even if it is just as human batteries. More likely, in that instant, all of reality fundamentally changes, and we and everything we hold dear simply wink out of existence.

Matrix

The Best Possible Outcome – Sorry

 

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What I learned while running 120 miles

I recently completed the TransRockies endurance run. This is a stage race where you cover 120 miles and 20K feet of vertical climbing over 6 consecutive days. So you basically get up every day, strap on your trail shoes and go running.

With nearly 27 hours on the trails, the race afforded plenty of time for self reflection. What am I doing with my life? Why am I here? What on earth would cause me to do the type of thing where you have to run in a cold river for half a mile?

Brooks in River

I’m not sure I ever answered the big life questions. Hard to remember. I was pretty tired there towards the end. But I did achieve some insights that can be applied to life. Conveniently presented below on a day by day basis.

Day 1 – People are liars. They claimed Stage 1 was 20.8 miles. My GPS had it closer to 21.5. So someone is lying. Because it happened the first day, I spent the remaining days also disbelieving the distances. As they say, it takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes (or in this case 0.7 miles) to squander it.

Day 2 – When it comes right down to it, you really do need oxygen. At 12,500 feet, there isn’t much of it. Next year I’m climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro which goes to over 19K feet. You spend days acclimatizing. The 1000 people evacuated and 10 people that die each year generally are evacuated due to or die from altitude sickness.  I’d consider this my ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy’ wake up call. Take the bottom of the pyramid seriously.

1024px-MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg

Day 3 – Pay attention. Everything can be going great, and the next thing you know you’re rolling an ankle at mile 22. Keep your eyes on the path. Focus. Stay in the present moment. All of the above. I was a only a slight turn from ending the entire event because I lost focus. Always true in life.

Day 4 – Getting really drunk is not an effective night before training strategy. This could likely be applied more broadly. Getting really drunk is not an effective strategy for much besides stealing happiness from the following day. This is the hardest lesson I never seem to learn.

Day 5 – Never underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep. Ironically, even after stealing all of your happiness by drinking it away, you can replenish all that happiness by just staying off the bottle and getting a good night’s sleep. I think a good night’s sleep is the answer to lots of life’s challenges, self inflicted or not. Sleep more. Like 10 hours.

Day 6 – You can get used to anything. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. In this case, it meant we just got back up on Day 6 and did it again. Another 22+ miles. But I can see the same behavior becoming tolerance for the drudgery of an unrealized life. Make sure the miles you’re running are the ones you want to be running, with great views and inspiring people. Else you’ll wake up one morning and realize you just got used to the slog.

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Life Lessons at Hamilton the Musical

My wife and I took our kids to see Hamilton last night at the SHN Orpheum theater in downtown San Francisco. After listening to the soundtrack multiple times each and every day for the past month+, my daughter was beyond excited for the live event. And while my wife and I were thrilled to enjoy such a heralded cultural experience with our children, we were even more excited for the educational opportunity the evening presented.

By educational opportunity, I don’t mean lessons about history, how our founding fathers were actual humans with their own desires and ambitions that could often be in conflict, or the power of ambition, drive and purpose.

I mean the educational opportunity of the walk through the Tenderloin in San Francisco. Here is a quick guide, in map form, to the few square blocks of intense study street education for our 13 year old son and 10 year old daughter. For those not in the know, the Tenderloin is often called San Francisco’s ‘sketchiest’ neighborhood.

Tenderloin Pic.png

We’re going back tonight for the ‘post midnight’ graduate course in life education.

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The Art of Gripe Letters

I recall sitting in elementary school – maybe fourth grade – learning how to write a letter.  We practiced formatting, where to write our address, where to write the recipient’s address, affixing stamps, and even appropriate ways to greet the reader and sign off depending on if it was a friendly or business letter.

I think we ended up writing a letter to our congressman (or woman, though it was the 80s and we are a chauvinistic society) as the final project for the lesson.  At 10, I am sure I had something passionate to say about the environment, healthcare or perhaps carried interest taxation law. I don’t think I heard back despite what are bound to have been compelling and well informed opinions and arguments stating my case.

With the advent of computers, email and texts, letter-writing as a skill has likely gone the way of changing your own oil or break dancing, but rest assured there is a critical time and place for traditional letter writing that every adult needs to master. The Gripe Letter.

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What’s a Gripe Letter? Any time a company has so badly failed to meet your expectations with their product or service or has been unwilling to resolve your issue through traditional service and support channels may warrant a Gripe Letter. It is a deeply personal escalation of your complaint and a ‘won’t take no’ attitude on resolution.

This shouldn’t be an everyday thing. Part of the joy of the Gripe Letter is the process, including the deep commitment you make to the art of the communication itself. You have to be ready to go the distance. This article walks through some guidelines on how to create and deliver an effective Gripe Letter, including examples from my history.

Zodiac-July1969-proof

Step 1: Gripe Letters are Actual Letters

This means a printed and mailed letter. You can’t hand-write it because your handwriting probably looks like that of a serial killer or a four year old on a tilt-a-whirl. Get out a computer (if you have a typewriter it’s time to check the definition of ‘hoarder’), craft the letter, print it out (there will be multiple copies, we’ll get to that later) and then mail them with a stamp and everything.

Don’t cut out the individual letters from a magazine and paste them onto a piece of paper. That will get a different type of response, and thanks to the Patriot Act you now longer have any rights to due process.

Step 2: Go Straight to the Top

Your letter is going to the CEO of the company. Doesn’t matter how big or multi-national the company is, nor how small your complaint might seem. If it’s crossed the threshold that you are going with a Gripe Letter, that means you’re all in.

Here is an example from a Gripe Letter I had to send to the previous CEO of Delta Airlines. You’ll note how I directly call him out, not just as CEO, but as having just been in my face with the welcome and safety video. He’s not getting a free ride on this….

Richard H. AndersonRichard Anderson
Chief Executive Officer
Delta Airlines
P.O. Box 20706
Atlanta, Georgia 30320-6001

Dear Mr. Anderson,

I’m currently sitting on a flight home from Dublin, Ireland to New York City aboard Delta Flight #91 on October 22, 2012.  Having just watched the lead in video, during which your words explicitly speak of a Delta/Customer relationship based on “honesty, integrity and mutual respect”, I feel compelled to bring a most distressing Delta experience directly to your attention.  It is my hope that you will honor the true meaning of those words in resolving this issue, with integrity, immediately.

Step 4: CC Versions to the Folks Who Will Actually Take Action

This is as close to a literal CC (or carbon copy) as you are likely to get in your life. In this case though you’re printing out more letters, addressing more envelopes, and parting with those precious ‘Forever’ US Stamps with pictures of Amelia Earhart on them. Remember, a real CC means you list the other folks who are getting the letter at the bottom.

From my Delta Gripe Letter, I CC’d the COO and a VP of Customer Care.

CC:
Stephen E. Gorman, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer
Allison Ausband, Vice President, Reservation Sales and Customer Care

You’ll have some heavy lifting here. Do the research:

  • Find as many responsible parties as you can online. Use the corporate website, LinkedIn, Press Releases, public records of lawsuits. You name it.
  • Find out where they work. Again, this isn’t hard with a little leg work. Often the person a few steps down might work in a different office than the CEO. That’s just gravy because they know you are serious.

Accept and understand that you are doing this to publicly shame them, hopefully to their boss and boss’ boss. Without the shaming, they won’t learn that they’re not a good boy.

Dirty Q Tips

Step 4: Make it Personal

I don’t mean personal in the ‘tracking down where their school-age children play and taking photos of them to send with the letter’ manner. I mean personal about you. You have to deeply humanize the experience, how it impacted you, how you WANT to be happy customer and they’re just not allowing you to do so.

For a Gripe Letter I had to send to Coleman, maker of all sorts of outdoor gear, I harkened back to the days of my youth where I learned to trust and depend on their brand from my father (who likely learned from his father before him). In the letter, I included a picture of my infant son, barely able to stand, holding himself up in the middle of a broken Coleman-branded lawn chair. The entire picture was pathetic. My smiling son trapped inside a failed Coleman product. Coleman wasn’t just losing me as a customer if they failed to make the issue right, they were losing multiple generations.

Mr Wisler, while I know my purchase was a year past and likely any warranty is long-since expired, I felt compelled to express my disappointment to you and The Coleman Company.  As a child, I distinctly remember my father expressing his undying satisfaction with his Coleman lantern.  He still has it today, thirty years hence.  And it still works.  I fear I will not be able to share that same confidence with my son (picture also attached), now a potential future non-Coleman customer.  

Step 5: Demand Specific Remedy

You’ve gone through all of the trouble to bring your grievance to the attention of all the right people. All you have to do know is make it easy for them to solve the problem. The person who has been shamed just wants this to go away. They want to be able to tell their boss and their boss’ boss that it’s been dealt with. Ask for what you want.

In the case of the Coleman Gripe Letter, I wanted a full set of replacement lawn furniture and said exactly that. In the case of the Delta Gripe Letter, I wanted SkyMiles I had transfered to my wife’s account (and paid to transfer) and the fees for the transfer refunded after we found out an agent had mislead us regarding upgrade availability.

What’s interesting is while both companies fully complied, they couldn’t help but adding a last minute gripe of their own into the mix.

With Coleman, they mentioned they didn’t manufacture the furniture themselves, but rather licensed their brand to a third party. Not sure how they thought that would make it better, but I think the logic was something like ‘don’t worry, our products are still high quality’. Unfortunately the message came across as ‘we’re willing to wh*re our brand out to just about anybody with zero quality assurance involved’.

With Delta, they felt the need to add a ‘it’s against our policy to do this, but’ (and then did it anyway). I think they wanted me to know they were doing me a favor. Dumb.

Bonus Content: Admit Nothing, Deny Everything and Make Counter Accusations

Sometimes you find yourself on the receiving end of a Gripe Letter. In that case you turn it around on them. Place demands right back on them.

For instance, here is part of my response to a recent tax bill demand:

I have provided you with plenty of information regarding this tax bill. I haven’t had a business and don’t have a business in Guilford. I rented an office and stopped renting that well over a year ago. I don’t know what else to provide you, but you have all the information, all the forms and all the data. This is unacceptable, and in response to your big pink letter, please understand I find your demand rude, inaccurate, and generally ridiculous.

I have expended significant energy responding to this bill, and therefore please also accept this invoice for the following 3 communications

  •   3 x US Fist Class Stamps = $0.49 cents each = $1.47
  •   3 x 8×11 Paper = $0.01 each =  $0.03
  •   3 x  US First Class Letter Envelopes at $0.05 each = $0.15
  •   3 x .15 hour at $225 per hour for preparation = $168.75

I demand immediate payment for a total of $170.40 for my time and energy to deal with this issue sent to:

And here is one for an early mobile phone account:

I recently canceled my Sprint PCS account (Account # XXXXXX-1) after a number of years of service.  As reflected in the copy of this returned bill, I have been levied a cancellation charge of $150.00.  I originally signed up for Sprint PCS service in December of 1999, and committed to a 2 year agreement.  Obviously that has long since past.  I will be happy to pay the $150.00 cancellation fee as soon as you provide one of the following for my records:

  • A copy of a contract extension with my signature and execution date
  • A copy of the voice recording wherein I am identified and verbally agree to the contract extension with an official time/date stamp

Once I have one of those items, I will be happy to tender the remaining balance due.

In both cases, that finally put an end to the conversation.

Most importantly, have fun. While I’ve never failed in getting the response I want to a Gripe Letter, I am sure it’s possible to fail. In that case, you do the next best thing and attempt to shame them socially. If you’re lucky, you can find your 15 minutes of Internet fame in a well-turned complaint.

 

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When is it okay to die?

Fair warning…..this post tackles a more intense topic than normal. Today is April 2nd, which would be my brother Rick’s 46th birthday. This post is about his death.

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Rick is in the middle. Grandma on the right. I’m on the left. Sister Penny in front of Rick. Bunch of cousin-rats in the front row. Circa 1989?

On an early morning in November of 1995, I returned to my college dorm room from Taco Bell with a sack of tacos and a pretty furious hangover. I was also wearing red converse sneakers. It’s funny the details you remember when your world is turned upside down.

A campus security car was sitting outside my dorm room entrance and it quickly became clear that they’re eyes were trained on me.

First reaction: Oh shit, what did I do last night that I don’t remember?

Unfortunately, the message I was about to receive wasn’t nearly as pleasant as ‘you stole a bunch of raw fish from the dining hall and snuck it into a professor’s bedroom as a prank and you’re busted’.

My older brother, Rick, had committed suicide.

Rick and Mike - College

Rick in college with his good friend Mike Kammen.

The loss of a loved one, unexpected, sudden and inexplicable, or expected and after a long and losing battle with an illness – is devastating no matter what. But in this case, I can’t honestly say that my brother’s death at his own hand was unexpected or inexplicable. It WAS expected and after a long and losing battle with the illness of depression.

Flash back to 1987, 8 years prior. As a 12 year old sharing a bunk bed room with my brother I awoke to find him twitching and foaming at the mouth. He had overdosed as his first (to my knowledge), attempt to kill himself. He survived and spent a month plus in the hospital.

But some diseases are chronic. You can treat symptoms temporarily – in this case with antidepressants, lithium, even shock therapy – but the disease remains, growing and insistent. As Rick progressed through what was left to him of a high school experience, through college and ultimately into the first years of medical school, the sickness was always there, and he attempted suicide multiple additional times. My other brother would get a call in the middle of the night that Rick had gone missing again and have to go hunting, sometimes for a day plus while the family held its breath, to find him somewhere on the side of the road in his car. Not quite dead, but certainly no longer living. Back to the hospital. Restart the process.

This experience, year after year, took a significant toll on the rest of the family. The never knowing. The always waiting. And it is this toll that causes me to reflect that it’s not always the most selfish thing to do to kill oneself as some have said. In some cases, finally ending a life might be a mercy to many around you.

Weeks before Rick finally stepped in front of train, making a decision that was not ambiguous, not a cry for help, he visited me at college. Late one evening, in tears, Rick confided to me simply how miserable he was, how insufferable his day to day existence was. And I said to him in no uncertain terms that he couldn’t continue to drag the family through repeated suicide attempts. That it was a misery for us as well. And that if he was going to kill himself, do it for real. I believe I said ‘put a shotgun in your mouth and make it permanent’. I didn’t say this with animosity. I said it out of love. Love for Rick, and love for the rest of my family. That may be hard to believe, but it’s true.

Did he take my counsel in making his final choice? I don’t know. Do I feel guilty? I also don’t know. But do I know Rick is at peace? Yes. Do I know the family, though saddened by this loss, is at peace? Yes.

To be clear, I am not advocating for anyone to commit suicide. I believe there are many ways to get better. Medicine. Therapy. Time. By definition, suicide is the only last resort. But I do think there is a point when it is okay to die. I don’t believe Rick made a selfish decision. And I can respect a decision made out of love, no matter how hard and permanent that decision may be. I know this will be controversial. It may be a very unique perspective. I invite open discussion in the comments about this and am happy to continue to share my thoughts and experience.

With over twenty years in the rearview mirror, my last thoughts of Rick are quite pleasant. When we went to his apartment to clean out his things, I found a cardboard box with my name on it, and a note to open out of view of our parents. Inside was a massive collection of VHS porn. I know that Rick did this as a playful joke. A final act of love to remind me that while he knew I and we would struggle with this, his care for us never ended. And in the depths of the grief that was still days fresh, I laughed. Thank you Rick.

 

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