Runcible Blog

Dear Ndugu

I really like About Schmidt. I had nothing to do one night, so I watched it on on-demand cable and transcribed Warren Schmidt's letters to Ndugu. I didn't realize how good they were until I spent a lot of time pausing, rewinding, and writing them down. Obsessive? Maybe. Here they are:

Dear Ndugu,

My name is Warren R. Schmidt, and I am your new foster father. I live in Omaha, Nebraska. My older brother, Harry, lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his wife Estelle. Harry lost a leg two years ago to diabetes. I am 66 years old and recently retired as Assistant Vice President and actuary at Woodman of the World Insurance Company...and God dammit if they didn't replace me with some kid who, alright so maybe he's got a little theory under his belt and can plug a few numbers into a computer, but I could tell right off that he doesn't know a damn thing about genuine real world risk assessment or managing a department, for that matter. Cocky bastard...

Anyway, 66 must sound pretty old to a young fella like yourself. Truth is, it sounds pretty old to me, too. Because when I look in the mirrors and see the wrinkles around my eyes and the sagging skin on my neck, and the hair in my ears, and the veins on my ankles, I can't believe it's really me. When I was a kid I used to think that maybe I was special -- that somehow destiny had tapped me to be a great man. Not like Henry Ford or Walt Disney or somebody like that, but somebody, you know, semi-important.

I got a degree in business and statistics and was planning to start my own business someday, build it up into a big corporation, maybe make the Fortune 500. I was gonna be one of those guys you read about. But somehow it didn't work out that way. You gotta remember I had a top notch job at Woodman and a family to support. I couldn't exactly put their security at risk. Helen, my wife, she wouldn't have allowed it.

But what about my family, you might ask. What about my wife and daughter? Don't they give me all the pride and satisfaction I could want? Helen and I have been married 42 years. Lately, every night I find myself asking the same question. Who is this old woman who lives in my house?

Why is it that every little thing she does irritates me? Like the way she gets the keys out of her purse long before we reach the car. And how she throws our money away on her ridiculous little collections. And tossing out perfectly good food just because the expiration date has passed. And her obsession, her obsession with trying new restaurants. And the way she cuts me off when I try to speak. And I hate the way she sits and the way she smells. For years now she has insisted that I sit when I urinate. My promise to lift the seat and wipe the rim and put the seat back down wasn't good enough for her.

But then there's Jeanie. She's our only. I'll bet she'd like you. She gets a big kick out of different languages and cultures and so forth. She used to get by pretty good in German. She'll always be my little girl.

She lives out in Denver, so we don't get to see her much anymore. Sure, we stay in touch by phone every couple weeks, and she comes out for the holidays sometimes, but not as often as we'd like. She has a position of some responsibility with a high tech computer outfit, so it's very hard for her to break away. Recently she got engaged, so I suppose we'll be seeing even less of her.

The fellow's name is Randall Hertzel. He's got a sales job of some sort. Maybe Jeanie's a little passed her prime, but I still think she could've done a heck of a lot better. I mean, this guy's not up to snuff, if you ask me. Not for my little girl.

I'll close now and get this in the mail. Here I am rambling on and on, and you probably want to hurry on down and cash this check and get yourself something to eat. So take it easy, and best of luck with all your endeavors.

Yours Very Truly,

Warren Schmidt

Dear Ndugu,

I hope you're sitting down because I'm afraid I've got some bad news. Since I last wrote to you, my wife helen, your foster mother, passed away very suddenly from a blood clot in her brain. The services were lovely and very well attended. Jeanie came in from Denver with her friend, and folks drove up from as far away as Des Moines and Wichita. It was a very moving tribute any way you look at it. I wish you could've been there. But now that all the excitement is over and the smoke is clear, it's just me and my thoughts, knocking around this big old house.

I believe I mentioned in my previous letter that I was an actuary at Woodman of The World Insurance Co. If I am given a man's age, race, profession, place of residence, marital status, and medical history, I can calculate with great probability how long that man will live. In my own case, now that my wife has died there is a 73% chance that I will die within 9 years, provided that I do not remarry. All I know is I've got to make the best of whatever time I have left. Life is short, Ndugu, and I can't afford to waste another minute.

Now, I don't want to kid you. Adjusting to life without Helen has been quite a challenge, but I think you'd be proud of me. Yup, this house is under new management, but you'd never know the difference. Oh sure, sometimes I can be a tad forgetful and miss a meal or two, but I guess that's hardly worth mentioning to someone in your situation. Helen wouldn't want me sitting around wallowing in self pity, no siree Bob. Why, she'd tell me to shape up or ship out. So I try to get out as much as I can. Try to stay active, stick to my routine. That's very important in the face of big changes in life. Oh sure, I'm not quite the cook Helen was, but I remember a trick or two from my bachelor days. It's a lot of work keeping a household together, and I suppose eventually I'll sell the place and move to a little condo. You know, less upkeep and so forth. But for now I'm getting by just fine.

It occurred to me that in my last letter I might've misspoken and used some negative language in reference to my late wife. But you have to understand I was under a lot of pressure following my retirement. I'm not going to lie to you, Ndugu, it's been a rough few weeks, and I've been pretty broken up from time to time. I miss her. I miss my Helen. I guess I just didn't know how lucky I was to have a wife like Helen until she was gone. Remember that, young man. You've got to appreciate what you have, while you still have it.

Dear Ndugu,

How are you? I'm fine. A week or so ago, I decided to take a little road trip on my way to Jeanie's wedding out in Denver. Jeanie begged me to come out early and help her with arrangements, but I told her I needed some time to myself. I decided to visit some places I haven't been to in a long time. So much has happened in my life that I can't seem to remember. Whole sections in my life that are just gone. So you might say that I've been trying to clear a few cobwebs from my memory.

My first stop was none other than Holdridge, Nebraska. I thought it would be enlightening to visit the house where I was born 67 years next April. We moved away from Holdridge when I was not much older than you, and I often wondered what our old house would be like today. Funny, I never forgot the address, 12 Locust Avenue. Yes, sir. 12 Locust Avenue.

An awful lot had changed since my day, but it was still good to be home again. Very good indeed. Next stop, Lawrence, Kansas, where I paid a visit to my old Alma Mater, KU. I hadn't been there in years and years, and now seemed like the perfect time to stop by. I even managed to hook with some kids in my old fraternity, Beta Sigma Epsilon.

Well, Ndugu, I highly recommend that you pledge a fraternity when you go to college.

After that little walk down memory lane, it was tourist time for yours truly. I made my way back to Nebraska and stopped in at the Custard County Historical Museum in Broken Bow to see their fine collection of arrowheads. Later that same day I happened to meet a real Indian, or Native American, as they like to be called nowadays. We had a nice chat about the history of the area, and he really opened my eyes. Those people got a raw deal. Just a raw deal.

Next stop, Buffalo Bill Cody's house in North Platte. What a remarkable man. You can read about him in the enclosed pamphlet.

I pull the adventure over whenever I feel like stretching my legs, taking in a local site, or browsing for antiques. The other day, for example, at an antique store in Cozad I came across a fine collection of rare Hummels. I guess I never really appreciated how exquisitely crafted they are. And each one comes with its own certificate of authenticity. Helen loved Hummels.

And so, Ndugu, I must say it's been a very rewarding trip. And this morning I awoke from my night in the wilderness completely transformed. I'm like a new man. For the first time in years, I feel clear. I know what I want. I know what I've got to do, and nothing's going to stop me ever again.

Meanwhile, along with the usual check, I'm enclosing a little something extra to spend as you please.

Yours Very Truly,

Warren Schmidt

Dear Ndugu,

You'll be glad to know that Jeanie's wedding came off without a hitch. Right now she and Randall are on their way to sunny Orlando. On my nickel of course. As for me, I'm on headed back to Omaha. I'm driving straight through this time, and I made only one stop -- the impressive new arch over the interstate in Carney, Nebraska -- an arch that commemorates the courage and determination of the pioneers that crossed the state on their way West. You've really got to see it to believe it. And it kind of got me thinking. Looking at all that history and reflecting on the achievements of people long ago kind of put things in perspective. My trip to denver, for instance, is so insignificant compared to the journeys that others have taken. The bravery that they've shown, the hardships they've endured. I know we're all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference. But what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me? When I was out in denver, I tried to do the right thing, tried to convince Jeanie she was making a big mistake. But I failed. Now she's married to that nincompoop, and there's nothing I can do about it. I am weak. And I am a failure. There's just no getting around it. Relatively soon, I will die. Maybe in 20 years. Maybe tomorrow. It doesn't matter. Once I am dead, and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None, that I can think of. None, at all.

Hope things are fine with you.

Yours Truly,

Warren Schmidt