At this time of year, friends, relatives and colleagues whom you never
really cared for and haven't seen in years are jamming your mailbox with
their annual New Year's letters. These salutations are often Jamesian in
length and contain more cheery news than could fit on the Good Ship
Lollypop. I wonder: is any real family's life filled with so much
unremitting happiness and success?
Last week I got one such missive from Ruth, a fourth cousin eight times
removed. I probably have more genetic similarity to the Sultan of Brunei
than I do to Ruth, whom I may have met when I was 4 years old. Still, our
familial and geographic distance hasn't dampened her enthusiasm for
keeping me posted on her family's uncanny tidal wave of success, year in
and year out. Enclosed with a glossy, color photo of Ruth, her husband
Sherman, their three smiling kids and Labrador, was this letter:
"Dear Friends and Family,
Wow! Can the year be ending already? It seems just yesterday I wrote our
2003 letter and told you about Sherman's winning the Ironman triathlon and
his being promoted to district supervisor for Big Loans 'R Us Bank &
Trust. Honestly, I couldn't imagine that anything could top that!
But Fortune has smiled on our family again in 2004. Sherman's cost-cutting
analysis at Big Loans 'R Us earned him a cruise to the Caribbean for the
whole family, and it was the trip of a lifetime! If they hadn't had all
those jazzercise classes on board, I'm sure I would have come home as big
as our breakfast nook! Sher's athletic training continues to pay off, and
he kept the Ironman title he won last year, beating out guys 10 years his
I may have mentioned last year that Garth won a full academic scholarship
to Duke, but in case that detail slipped my mind, Garth won a full
academic scholarship to Duke. In addition to making Dean's List, he's also
the youngest starter Duke has ever had on their basketball team! Not bad
for a kid who's only 5'8"! Lydia is drum majorette in the high school
band, and also heads the Teen Division of our neighborhood's anti-poverty
campaign. Between school, band practice, and the anti-poverty campaign, I
don't know how she also finds time to tutor learning disabled kids, but
somehow she manages. Not to be outdone, Emerson has won the national
Spelling Bee (you may have seen his photo in USA Today). This was the
first time a private school student beat those pesky homeschoolers, who
had wrapped up the National Spelling Bee for several years running. You
can imagine how proud we are!"
I wasn't sure how much more of Ruth's letter I could stomach without
needing an injection of insulin, but like a lookie-loo slowing down to see
a traffic accident, a perverse curiosity drove me forward. I continued
"As for me," Ruth rattled on, "The government finally granted my patent on
a herbal-based skin cream that does everything that Botox can do, only
without freezing your facial expression. And to think I came up with the
idea while pruning our garden! (You may recall that our garden was
featured in an issue of Metropolitan Home as an example of what you can
grow in a small space). Now that I have secured investors, I'm hoping to
take my new company public sometime in 2005. I must say I'm pretty darned
Finally, we can't neglect our faithful dog, Gastro. After extensive
research, we found a suitable female purebred Lab whom Gastro could "get
to know," in the biblical sense. The results are seven adorable Lab pups
who fetched top dollar! Gastro will also appear in a new book to be
published this year featuring dogs in comedic situations. He will star on
several pages, including one where he looks "doggone" dashing, donning
sunglasses and a visor!
I hope the New Year brings good things to all of you. Remember, you can
always catch up on our family news and see new photos of us on our web
site, tooperfectfamily.org. I look forward to hearing from all of YOU!"
Ruth signed off just in time, because by this point if I saw another
exclamation mark I think I would have screamed and frightened the
neighbors. I considered Ruth's invitation to write about my family's news.
But how could I compete? Still, my family was nothing to be ashamed of,
and I sat down to type my own end-of-the-year summary.
"Dear Friends and Family,
The Gruens are closing out 2004 in much the same way we did 2003: the
garage still needs clearing out, the toilet in the guest bath still
doesn't flush quite right, and I really do mean to fix that this year
since it sometimes causes anxiety among visitors. Once again the family
business nearly lost its lease and this caused much nail-biting, but
fortunately the landlord was indicted on tax fraud and while he's in the
poky our lease automatically renewed for another three years, so we are
sleeping easier at night.
We were honored in a manner of sorts by the local library as the patrons
with the most overdue books and heaviest fines. They even took a picture
of us holding a pile of overdue books and hung it up in the branch for a
whole month. Some folks from the neighborhood even began to recognize me
in the grocery store. It may not be fame exactly, but it's nice to be
I also received a record number of rejections from book publishers this
year. However, I don't plan to rest on my laurels and certainly plan to
top this number in '05. Everyone knows that the most successful authors of
all time boast of having collected hundreds of rejection slips before they
made the big time. I'm just making sure I cover all my bases.
The kids are doing swimmingly as well. In 2004 we received far fewer phone
calls from the school principal than in previous years and the boys have
logged fewer hours in detention, so we are clearly moving in the right
direction. I'm pleased to report that during our last dental visits
everyone in the family was found to have less plaque than they had the
year before, and we are really taking our gum health more to heart (if you
can excuse the mixed metaphors). Also notable in 2004: our youngest took
the bold step of agreeing to eat a green vegetable, and her essay, "The
Secret Life of Plankton," was published by the fifth-grade newspaper. We
are, as you can imagine, quite proud."
I stopped to review my letter. My family's achievements were so lackluster
compared Ruth's family's plucky accomplishments, but we all can't be
overachievers. Besides, overachievement is overrated in my opinion. Too
many of them flame out too quickly, having had no experience dealing with
adversity. Slow and steady wins the race, I always say.
Because I had exhausted myself trying to think of more impressive
highlights of our year, I took a break to get some vital projects done
around the house. After clearing the garbage disposal of a plastic bottle
cap and cleaning the hamster's cage, I felt a renewed sense of
accomplishment (perhaps the type that eluded my distant cousin Ruth) and
got back to the computer to finish off my letter.
"In addition to several new writing projects, my goals for 2005 include
finding an auto mechanic who will finally find out why the car keeps
making that awful rattling sound when I put the gear in reverse, and
making an appointment to have a family portrait taken. I realize that if I
continue to wait until everybody is out of braces, some of us may be in
dentures. To think that the youngest didn't even have teeth when we took
the last professional photo is, well, kind of embarrassing.
In short, nothing extraordinary happened in 2004, and for that I am
grateful. No one is sick, in the slammer, in the nuthouse, or on the
street. The kids may sometimes have attitude, but they don't have tattoos
or body piercings, at least none that I have seen.
Wishing you all a terrific 2005!"
I mailed my letter to a few friends, and even to Ruth. I indicated a new
return address on Ruth's envelope with a big fat arrow, so she would think
we had moved. This was my only assurance that I wouldn't receive her 2005
letter, in which Ironman Sherman would no doubt have become governor of
their state and Ruth would have made the Fortune 500 list.
Now I'm off to check my mail. Wish me luck that today it's only bills and