Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Second Open Letter to Lifetouch School Portraits

Dear Lifetouch School Portraits,

I wrote you a letter at the beginning of this month, but it seems you didn’t get it. Since I only posted it in this column and never actually mailed it - like you were so kind enough to do with all those pictures I never ordered - I thought I would at least follow up in hopes that this finally reaches you.

I’ll start with a short recap of my last letter, in case this letter finds you still too busy to read your correspondence, what with all the printing of large quantities of photos that no one ordered.

A) I was satisfied with the pictures from the first time you came to my sons’ elementary school in September.

B) I did not understand why you showed up again in February.

C) I did not order pictures in February.

D) I really did not understand why you then proceeded to take pictures of all three of my sons in February when I had not asked you to do so.

E) Since I really didn’t understand why you took pictures of them in the first place, I really, really didn’t understand why you then took it upon yourselves to print a bunch of pictures of each one of them, including pictures of them on plastic items that heretofore have never needed pictures of children’s faces, such as poorly gradated rulers and hotel Do Not Disturb door hangers.

F) After printing all the pictures and handy plastic devices that I did not order, I further did not understand why you spent even more of your money to send me the three full packages of pictures I did not order. Each large envelope was stuffed to the bulging point with photo upon photo of my sons, proudly displaying the fact that they were not dressed for pictures that day, and in the case of Son Number Three, the fact that he had also recently eaten something, as evidenced by the food stuck to his face, so masterfully captured for posterity by your skilled photographer.

G) You told me I should buy the pictures or give them back to the teacher. I told you neither of those things were going to happen.

H) I was amused to learn that you thought I would think it was in my best interest to trust you with the disposal of all these pictures I did not ask for or want. After all, each package you sent me had my child’s full name, grade, and teacher’s name printed on the front, along with no less than twenty-four photos of how they look on any given day - not on picture day, since as I mentioned earlier, we didn’t dress them for pictures since we weren’t expecting you to take their pictures since we didn’t ask you to do so.

So, there’s the recap of the first letter. You can imagine my surprise when I received a “Final Reminder” notice from you the other day. I sincerely hope you meant it when you chose the word “final,” but somehow, I doubt it.

Far be it from me to tell you how to run your very successful business, but since you seem intent on wasting our teachers’ precious time by sending unsolicited correspondence home with my children, the least I can do is reciprocate. Here are my thoughts on your latest communication:

For starters, your “Final Reminder” team seems to be running at around 66% efficiency, because I failed to purchase or return three full packages of studio-quality portraits of my sloppily-dressed, dirty children, and you only sent me two final reminders. I anxiously await the arrival of the third as soon as someone over there comes back from their excessively long coffee break.  
Secondly, I think a little note editing is in order. Your bright pink final reminder notice invites the reader to “take this time to review your options,” which you list as:
Purchase the entire package
Purchase the package sheet(s) you want and return the rest
Return the complete portrait package

While I appreciate your starry-eyed optimism with that first option, I want to call your attention – if my original letter and the recap of that letter in this letter have not done it for you yet – to the missing fourth option available to me, the guy who did not ask you to take pictures of his children, nor ask you to then print those pictures on four plastic key fobs and a wallet-sized calendar. That would be: Take a moment to wonder in amazement at our business model and then dispose of the entire picture package yourself. As I outlined in my original letter, Option Four saves you quite a bit of money, assuming, of course, that your “Final Reminder” notices are not too costly.

Thirdly, I noticed that you offer a family plan, where the first two children’s portraits are full price and any addition children’s portraits are half price. That is a great option, especially at our school, where so many of the families have three or more children. I was able to notice that you offered this discount through my deft use of a magnifying glass. I was not aware that there was a font size smaller than 2, but you obviously found one. I guess my advice is this: If you don’t want people to know about the discount, then don’t print it on the order form at all, but if you do, you might want to print it large enough to be readable without needing Mr. Magoo’s glasses.

Finally, regarding Son Number Three who is in kindergarten: As I said, I was amazed and amused to see food prominently displayed on his face in the fine quality portraits you sent me that I did not ask for. In my original letter I suggested that your photographer might not have been on his “A-game” that day. I have since learned from Son Number Three’s teacher that it may not have been your photographer who was asleep at the wheel, but your scheduler instead.

It seems that – for obvious reasons – the kindergarten classes are normally photographed first thing in the morning on picture day. Your scheduler, for reasons unknown, brought the kindergarten classes to the camera in the middle of the day, after lunch. Knowing that fact now, I would like to formally apologize to your photographer, and commend him or her on the fine picture taken of my youngest son.

I have seen Son Number Three eat, and if your photographer was presented with him after lunchtime, receiving a picture with only food on his face is nothing short of a miracle. When he eats by himself at home he is able to get almost 80% of whatever the meal is into his hair. I’m quite certain that when he sat down in the photographer’s chair after eating lunch with forty-seven other kindergartners, he must have been covered from head to toe in meat, produce, and condiments. There is only so much one person can do, so kudos to your photographer!

Again, I hope my observations will help you to improve your business model. I will patiently await my missing final reminder notice, and I look forward to any “final, final reminders” you see fit to send my way.

Keep up the good work,


Copyright © 2014 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Google Some Life Insurance

I don’t know if you knew this or not, but Google is very handy. Not only can you use it to instantly find information on the theory that Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber are really the same person, or how to get your hand unstuck from a Pringles can (Note: I have only Googled one of those things), it also has a feature called Google Alerts.

Google Alerts allows you to create an alert based on any keyword or phrase, and once a day, Google will scour the web for you and email you the results. I like to keep tabs on my books, so for The Tree of Death, and Other Hilarious Stories, I created a Google Alert for the phrase “tree of death.”

That may have been a mistake.

The book is a collection of humorous essays, and its title comes from the smell the tree in my front yard gives off in the springtime. It has nothing to do with actual death, but once a day, I get a nice email from Google giving me all the stories from around the world about people who have died in some gruesome manner due to trees.

It’s kind of depressing.

There are an inordinate amount of people who are killed when the tree, which they themselves were purposely chopping down, falls on them. You would think that would be something you would be keenly aware of as a possibility, when chopping a tree down, and take the necessary precautions to avoid. Like, jumping out of the way, for instance. Many people – especially a surprising number in India – are apparently unable to jump out of the way in time.

I can see getting hit by a tree that someone else is chopping down, I guess, if they fail to yell “Timber!” as is the standard requirement obviously set forth by the International Congress of Lumberjacks sometime in the early 1700’s. This is never one of the news stories, though. No one ever gets killed by a falling tree that someone else was cutting down. It’s always the cutter himself. Go figure.

The other people that are getting killed by falling trees and large branches out there are all either in a car or a tent. Those are dangerous places to be, based on my Google Alert.

I have also learned that stationary trees can be just as dangerous. Besides the countless stories of out-of-control vehicles and skiers running into trees, many other folks climb trees for one reason or another, only to meet their maker when they touch a power line. That seems easily avoidable to this casual observer.

All this news of death at the hands of trees got me thinking. I own six trees. Two in the front yard and four in the back.

Holy crap. This place is a deathtrap.

This sobering revelation caused me to increase my life insurance recently. If Google Alerts is any indication, with this many trees – surrounding me constantly, I might add – I could go at any minute.

I applied for a new policy and had a phone interview. To tell you the truth, I don’t think the people at Minnesota Life have any idea what they’re doing over there. I mean, do they even have trees in Minnesota? The lady on the phone was perfectly nice, and made more than a few inquiries about my life and habits, but missed the big question.

Life Insurance Lady: “Do you currently engage in, or plan on taking up in the next five years, any of the following activities: Aviation, parachuting, skydiving, BASE jumping, bungee jumping, car/bike/powerboat racing, hang gliding, hot air ballooning, rock climbing/mountaineering, SCUBA diving, skiing, surfing, white water rafting, rodeo, professional or amateur wrestling, boxing, or demolition derby?”

Me: “No, I don’t do any of that stuff, and I’m not planning on doing any of it.”

Life Insurance Lady: “OK, sir, moving on…”

Me: “Wait, don’t you want to know about my trees?”

Life Insurance Lady: “Your trees?”

Me: “Yes, I’m not going to take up bull riding any time soon, but in the interest of full disclosure, I want you to know that we own six full-size trees, and there are at least three more owned by our neighbors that are near our fence.”

Life Insurance Lady: “OK, sir, that’s fine. Moving on…”

Me: “We also own two cars and a tent!”

Life Insurance Lady: “Have you or anyone in your family ever been diagnosed with a mental disorder?”

Me: “No, why?”

Life Insurance Lady: “OK, sir, moving on…”

They didn’t care. I own six whole trees and they didn’t even care. Well, the joke will be on them when they have to pay my wife big bucks after I’m inevitably attacked by one of these killer trees. They can’t say I didn’t warn them.

I was raving about this to my wife after the phone interview, and she suggested that maybe I should cancel the “tree of death” Google Alert.

Maybe she’s right. Google can be very useful, but it can also be scary.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find my axe and take care of all these trees before they kill me.

Actually, I think I’ll practice jumping out of the way first.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2014 Marc Schmatjen

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Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Four-Way Stop

I always thought operating a car was fairly simple. You have a steering wheel, a gas pedal, a brake pedal, and if you’re really sporty or from a third-world country, a clutch. Go early and easy on the brakes, unless you are from a third-world country, or a city like Los Angeles, then you drive seventy-five miles per hour toward the stop sign and decide when you are twenty feet away whether you will stop or just blow through it.

Keep a safe following distance when at highway speeds, which is a three-second gap for most of us, barring again, third-world countries and cities like Los Angeles. In those places, safe following distances have been replaced by simply connecting all the cars at highway speeds, bumper-to-bumper, with only an imperceptible air gap between them.

If the weather is wet or icy, you should slow down and remember that brakes only work when the tires are in contact with the actual road. If you accidentally go too fast in inclement weather and end up sliding, remember to maintain positive acceleration and steer into the skid. In practical terms, this means to scream, “HOLY CRAP WE’RE GOING TO DIE!” at the top of your lungs while using both feet to attempt to push the brake pedal all the way to the front bumper, and allowing the highway guard rail and adjacent cars to act on behalf of your steering wheel.

Yield to oncoming traffic, stop on red, go on green. It all seems simple enough, but there is one traffic control situation that tends to cause a lot of people grief: Four-way stop signs.

The four-way stop need not be difficult, since the rules are quite simple. The entire concept of the four-way stop has to do with Right of Way. This literally means that when two cars arrive at adjacent stops signs at the same time, the car on the right has priority. The driver of the car on the left must hang his or her head in shame and meekly wave for the other driver to proceed. Driving statutes vary, but in most states, the driver with the Right of Way is required to give a friendly wave, and a visibly smug smile.

If the two vehicles have arrived simultaneously at opposing stop signs, the car going straight has priority, and the other car needs to wait for them to pass and turn around them. It is not always easy to know the other driver’s intended path, however, since the turn signals on most cars operated by drivers under the age of twenty-five have apparently been disabled, while many of the over-seventy crowd’s turn signals have been cleverly rigged to remain on constantly.

In either case you will need to be cautious as you approach the center of the intersection. It helps to notice where the other driver’s eyes are focused. If the driver is young, their gaze will invariably be directed downward, into their lap, where their phone is. These drivers often do not even realize they are in an intersection. The older drivers often have a dazed look, similar to a deer in headlights. They may realize they are in an intersection, but they are likely terrified to be there. In either case, the other driver may do something unexpected. Be prepared. Many times it is best to just remain at your stop sign, ignoring Right of Way, and wait these people out. The young drivers will proceed on their way after they get done typing “OMG LOL,” making the decision to turn or go straight in the half-second they are able to devote to driving the vehicle before they receive their next text message. The older drivers often fall asleep, and after their car has rolled harmlessly onto someone’s lawn or slowly through the front window of the corner store, you may proceed on your way.

In the unlikely event that four cars arrive at each of the four stop signs at exactly the same time and Right of Way cannot be traditionally established, Standard American Rules apply, and the largest vehicle wins. (Note: If any of the vehicles are electric or those silly little Smart Cars, they are obviously automatically disqualified from any consideration.)

In the even more unlikely event that four similar-sized cars have arrived simultaneously at the four stop signs, we default to Majority Rules, and the vehicle with the most passengers wins.

In the even, even more unlikely event that all the similar-sized cars contain the same amount of people (or people and livestock in some rural counties), all drivers must exit their vehicles and meet in the middle of the intersection. They will pair up into their respective east/west and north/south teams, and play a single-elimination, sudden-death Ro Sham Bo tournament (also known as Rock Paper Scissors, or Reaux Sham Beaux if the four-way stop is located in New Orleans).

If the final Ro Sham Bo round ends in three or more tie games, Right of Way is determined by total combined height and weight of each team.

Pretty simple, really.

However, as easy as the four-way stop rules should be to follow, many Americans just cannot seem to grasp them. As a result, some towns are following Europe’s lead and going with roundabouts instead.

This is a mistake. A huge mistake. I beg you, impressionable traffic engineers of America, don’t give in to the hype. Roundabouts will only make the problem worse. All the case studies speak for themselves. Any driver who is even slightly confused about the rules at a four-way stop will be utterly mystified by a roundabout.

Let’s not make the problem worse. Instead, let’s spend all that wasted re-engineering time and energy on re-educating the public on the four-way stop rules. That will be a better use of our money, because it seems that for some of the population, if four-way stops are long division, roundabouts are Chinese algebra.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2014 Marc Schmatjen

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Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

An Open Letter to Lifetouch School Portraits

Dear Lifetouch School Portraits,

What in the world are you people at Lifetouch thinking over there? Our relationship this year started off fine. You showed up at my kids’ school in September and took pictures of them. That was great, with the exception of the fact that two of my three boys have smiling disorders (think Chandler from Friends), so we had to do retakes. While I can’t blame you for my boys’ painful-looking, forced camera smiles, I would think that as professional photographers with digital cameras, you might notice when a child’s smile resembles that of someone passing a kidney stone, and snap another one while trying a little harder to make them laugh or something. Anyway, the retakes came out just fine, and I have no complaints about the September photo session.

What I am a little befuddled by is why you showed up again in February. You realize that September and February are only five months apart, right? Why are we doing school pictures twice in one year? Are you planning to come back in June, also?

“Here’s Hannah’s first grade early year photo, followed by first grade mid-year, then first grade waning year, and finally, first grade graduation.”

Should we ramp it up a little more, so we can really overload the grandparents?

“Here’s little Jimmy on Monday of Week 1. Here he is on Week 2. Look how much he’d grown. Here’s Week 3. He’s getting so handsome. Wait until you see him on Week 4…”

OK, so you showed up twice in one school year. I guess if the school let you in, then that’s just fine. In January, I received all three of your order forms for the second photo session in my three giant weekly stacks of homework and never-ending school notices. I ignored them. (See reasoning above.)

Here’s another thing I don’t understand. Why, then, if I had ignored your order forms, thereby deliberately not returning them to you, did you proceed to take pictures of my three boys?

OK, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt here and assume that maybe you just default to taking pictures of all the kids just in case someone forgot their order form. I did not forget my order forms, nor did I ever send you order forms after the fact, so…

Here’s what has me flummoxed: Why did you then send me three full picture packages, one for each of my boys, all including:
(1) 8x10
(2) Regular 5x7’s
(1) 5x7 with special swirly colored border complete with year and child’s first name
(4) Wallet-size with above-mentioned swirly border
(8) Regular wallet-size

All the pictures listed above were printed on standard film paper. In each package you also sent me pictures printed on a stiff plastic laminate sheet, consisting of:
(1) Wallet-size calendar
(4) Key chain fobs
(1) Ruler (Which handily measures from negative 1/16” to positive 5-3/32”)
(1) Bookmark
(1) Rearview mirror and/or hotel doorknob hanging accessory

Between the standard pictures and the plastic laminate sheet of highly useful picture accessories, that is a lot of stuff I didn’t order (on purpose, I might reiterate).

In each unsolicited picture package, you also included a handy order form with instructions; I could either buy the whole exciting package for $47, or choose which of the enticing – yet, wholly unsolicited - sheets I so desire. Easy payment options abound for me, the proud parent, and if I found myself not wanting any one of the beautifully printed picture sheets, I was instructed to return them to the school.

That’s not going to happen.

I’m not going to send you any money, and I’m not going to send you any pictures back. Here are the reasons why:

Reason # 1: I’m not going to buy them because I didn’t want them in the first place. That is why I deliberately didn’t order them in the first place.

Reason #2: I’m not going to send them back to you because that would just cost me time, and I don’t have enough time each day as it is. (See evidence of the three children in question that you took unsolicited pictures of.)

Reason #3: Sending the pictures back would also cost my school time, and they have less time in the day than I do. (See evidence of all the children in the whole school that you took pictures of.) They eat lunch standing up in front of a copy machine, for goodness sake.

Reason #4: Sending them back will also cost you money. I know I am saving you quite a bit of money since you will no doubt need to treat these three unsolicited picture packets like any other incredibly precious returned product bound for secure destruction; hiring a secure courier service to transport them to a secure facility to have them shredded and destroyed, documenting their pick-up, transportation, arrival, and destruction at every step of the process.

I mean, we obviously wouldn’t be treating dossiers that have my child’s photo, full name, grade level, and teacher’s name printed on them any other way, right? Right?

Those are just the top-level reasons why I’m not going to do what you asked of me, in an unsolicited manner.

Since I have taken time out of my busy schedule to address your unsolicited picture packets, I might as well take a little more time to explain some of the more subtle reasons why I won’t be purchasing any of these photos to keep. Hopefully you can use these observations to improve your business model.

We allow our three boys to choose their own clothes in the morning. My wife and I developed this revolutionary parenting style: a) to foster independence and self-reliance in our children, and b) to minimize crying fits and keep us from wanting to begin drinking at 7:00 A.M.

As such, since I was not intending to have you take pictures of my children, nor was I expecting you to take pictures of them anyway, just because you felt like it, they were not exactly dressed for posterity.

I see in these pictures that Son Number One is wearing a red T-shirt with a logo on the front. We are not really into free corporate advertising around here. Also, Son Number One is highly afflicted with the Forced Smile Disorder, and in this picture he does not appear to be happy. He appears to be giving a stool sample.

Son Number Two’s smile is just fine, but he is inexplicably wearing what appears to be either a pajama shirt, or some sort of English sailor costume. He must have had a sweatshirt over it when we left the house for school, because I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have OK’d that even on a normal day, let alone picture day.

That brings us to Son Number Three. As you know, based on the printout on the front of his picture packet you sent to us in an unsolicited fashion, he is in kindergarten. I would assume that any school portrait photographer worth their weight in negatives would step up their game, so to speak, when it comes to the five-year-olds, but apparently that is not the case. You spent a significant amount of unsolicited money out of your own pocket to send me a glossy package of assorted photos of a boy wearing an Angry Birds T-shirt, smiling like someone just stepped on his foot, with FOOD STUCK TO HIS FACE in two different places. Not a super-high probability that I was going to rush those off to the grandparents.

So, to reiterate, I will not be purchasing, nor will I be returning any of the unsolicited, and might I just say, somewhat sub-par photos that you decided to send me.

I don’t want you to worry, though. I have a shredder here at home.

I’ll send you the bill.

You’re welcome.

All my best,


Copyright © 2014 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!