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Those Year-End Recap Letters | blog.deanland.com

Those Year-End Recap Letters

The Year-End Letter

Back about 25 years ago...

Some call it the Christmas Letter. Others call it the Year-End letter, or the Yearly Recap. Some call it the Personal or Family Annual Report. Others refer to it as ”that damn letter from the Smiths about their perfect f*#%cking family.”  That’s usually followed with a glare or subtly implied grrr.

We all know what this is: the year on a page or two.   The accomplishments and kudos, the travels report and update on who got a new job or promotion,  who graduated, who had a baby, who won an award, who got married, and so forth.  Some even include who happily got divorced.

Rarely do these glamorous, sunny year-end letters include any of the woes of the year, except in some cases to let everyone know that beloved aunt, uncle or an aging parent has gone on to their most certain and deserved greater afterlife reward.

Many years ago one of those letters arrived at our home.  This was a surprise, in that it came from a client. Yes, we were very friendly with them, and yes, they knew our home address.  But almost all postal communications from them came to my office. I opened it up and there it was.  Printed, but with a calligraphy style that seemed intended to make it look handwritten, was the story of their year.

Remember: this was a client.  I knew their business. The ups, the downs, the challenges and the good things.  I also knew the family dynamics and family issues.  This was a family business, and I was the not-family consultant to a number of their operations.  I knew about the ne’er do well sibling on the payroll who contributed nothing to the business.  I knew about health issues in the senior generation (and top management of the business).  I knew about matters of great concern regarding one of the children of the couple who penned this the year-end letter.

This letter made it seem as though they were on top of the world!  The family business, it said, had enjoyed a banner year.  Well, yeah true, and I took joy in that.  Especially so, since I knew that my work significantly contributed to that success. It seemed, from the letter, that the husband had single-handedly shepherded the business to its success.

Uh, no.

It was that guy’s father who had the vision and the gumption to make some big changes (which, ahem, I had suggested and crafted the strategy and tactics to accomplish) and who had made the decision to put a great deal of capital at risk by going with this plan.
But according to the letter, the husband was the originator, initiator, and implementer of this plan.

Their children, the letter informed us, were perfect.  They’d received top grades, were in the band and on the sports teams and were all honor roll students.  

Well, yeah. In Grade School!  Have you ever heard the Grade School band or observed Grade School sports?

No mention of the middle kid being in fights and sent home so often that the principal demanded that the kid see a psychologist.  No mention of the urinary tract control problems of the little one.  And nothing about how the eldest kid (11 years old at the time) often brought letters home from the principal and the teachers with regard to what the mother liked to refer to as the child’s “potty mouth.”

I recall thinking the kid was going to school with either sailors or low-level mobsters, the way he spoke.

The letter came with a picture of the five of them.  An idyllic shot, everybody smiling and looking pretty darn well perfect.  The picture was accompanied by a description of the room in which is was taken: the renovated Living Room of their new house, with three working fireplaces and a three car garage.  Yes, not only did they both have a car, but the family also had a camper for their mountain and ski trips, and to the Summer enclave the entire extended family shared.

You’d think these were people living like the Kennedys, but without all the tragedies.

They even got in a mention about how wonderfully behaved and intelligent was their family pooch.  And that the husband won some sports trophies and the wife was celebrated and honored for some charity work.  And both of them were active in their church and had received acknowledgement of that, which the letter told us, was framed and could be found on the wall of the den in their new, roomy house.

After reading this impressive missive, I wondered, gee … could we send out such a letter?  How had our year been?  Did it even begin to compare with the wondrous glory of what I’d just read?

So I thought about the past year.  I’d had a good year on paper, but collections were killing me. The slow pay clients (most of whom were making very good money, in large part due to my consulting efforts) were dragging me along. 

This is the travail of many small or one-man-show firms.  When I received that year-end letter (from a client, about whom I should say in appreciation and in their defense, who was always current and always paid the contractually earned ratings and sales bonuses on time, as well) I was also under major stress due to health issues (an extremely ill wife whose medical expenses were far beyond what our very expensive small business health insurance covered), some unexpected and extremely costly and critical home repair issues, and the like.

Yet, on paper, I was doing great!  But paper does not pay the mortgage, the car notes, the usual monthly bills, etc.  We had serious pressures, health and money related, taking a certain toll on us at the time.  Living mostly off our reserves as opposed to current cash flow, no matter how impressive the receivables were, made for difficult decisions and mood.  The ex’s health problems alone were immense. And I was taking time off work to be Mr. Mom for the kids.  Driving them to and fro, picking them up from school, all of that time not in the office, not pursuing new clients.

I commented to my then-wife, who also had just read the year-end letter from our friends and clients.  “Yes, I know we know them really well and are aware of some of the downsides of their year.  But this letter makes it seem like the Cleavers (Ward & June), the Nelsons (Ozzie & Harriett) and whatever the name was of the Father Knows Best family, would all be envious of this couple’s lives.”

The ex struck a scary facial expression, cocked her head back, and said, “Oh yeah? We could write a letter just like it.” 

I questioned that.  Our difficulties were top of mind to me.  I could not imagine penning such a letter.

Later that evening, after I’d gotten both kids bathed, into their beds and ready for the next school day, the ex says she has a letter for me to read.

Oh, no, I thought.  A letter she doesn’t tell me about until the kids are asleep.  A letter about her healthcare or some other bad news.  Egad, what could it be?

But no, it was none of what I feared.  She’d composed a year-end letter in much the same manner as the one we’d just received.  It spoke of how well my business was doing, with clients being #1 in their markets and setting ratings records (all true, except for collections, the company was doing great).  I’d been asked to speak at numerous industry meetings, and had been the subject of a good many trade press articles that year. It addressed the wonderful progress of our children in school and their extra-curricular activities. It went into some detail about a side business the ex had dabbled in, as though she was setting the world on fire with it.

No mention of cash flow problems.  No mention of her very ill health or her hospitalization or that she was on a regimen of drugs that took up so much room we ended up allocating space on the Dining Room table to keep them sorted out.  What I’d thought of only as costly home repair had become home improvement in her version.

“See?” she said to me, ”We could send out a letter like this, too, if we wanted to.”

We never did send out that letter.  It was just an exercise, not an action plan.  

Back to the present...

This week Mrs.Yankfan and I received a lovely annual year-end letter from some friends.  He writes about their year, and it is lovely.  His writing style is engaging, he has wit and a soft touch. A few years back, when his father had died, that was the majority of the year-end letter.  And rightfully so, since for them that was the major event of their year. It was very touching. This year it is mostly about grandchildren and the unexpected rekindling of some old friendships and acquaintances.  And about aging.  No bragging, just a report written with elan.

We have other friends, a couple living in one of NYC’s outer boroughs, who send an annual letter with pictures and an update.  They do a lot of travel (business and family) and he leads a very interesting professional life.  Theirs is homespun, printed card-like and always features their pets. We also look forward to their annual letter.
A radio business buddy of mine flies his own plane, and each year he and his wife send out a card with a different airplane on it.  I look forward to that each year, as much to see this year’s plane as to read the card.

We’re getting fewer of those maddening “life is perfect and so are we” missives. And that’s a good thing.

My Facebook radio business (and life itself) buddy Dan Hughes posted a very funny take-off on the annual “our lives were stupendous this year” letter.  With Dan’s permission I am happy to present this link for your reading pleasure.

Dan’s also got a neat site with information about his hobbies, books he’s written, and more. What I like best about Dan’s site is his telling of his times in commercial radio, and then his career running a college Radio Department.  Dan did right by his students, showing them the ropes instead of the more common ivory tower/old-timey radio that was offered by so many colleges. Instructors with real world commercial radio experience are few and far between.  Dan’s students lucked out with him at the helm. 

Take a look at that satirical year-end letter Dan posted, and while you’re there, checkout other goodies on his website.