A couple of weeks ago I was struck with a rare desire to organize my financial accounts. After spending an hour trying to recall the password to my 401k account with Vanguard and find my way through Schwab’s passive-aggressively counter-intuitive navigation menu, I ended up staring at all the pretty round numbers in my accounts, opting out of receiving paper statements from Schwab and spending 20 minutes on the phone with Vanguard and trying to prove that I am, in fact, me.
I thought that was the end of it, but that would have been way too easy, wouldn’t it? The other day I was feeling particularly adventurous and decided to venture out of my beloved apartment, risk the exposure to dust storms, bravely fight my way through 20 yards of urban Las Vegas and explore the quantum uncertainty that is my mailbox. (I don’t get out much…) Lo and behold – right next to the usual junk mail (death threats from creditors, love letters from stalkers, that kind of stuff) were three letters from Schwab and Vanguard. The white, crisp, official-looking envelopes bore a wide variety of stamped messages ranging from mildly cool (“Personal and Confidential”) to downright mysterious (“D/S Reading PA auth 2E-785″). My pupils dilated. My heart started racing. (Speaking of which, 120 beats per minute is about average, right?) My palms got sweaty. Excited, intrigued and horrified by mysteries the three letters may contain, I tore them open right there and then.
I read their contents. I re-read them. I sniffed them. I stopped just short of licking them because the only thing worse than getting a paper-cut on your tongue is getting an ice-cube-cut. (Don’t ask.) I shook the envelopes to see if the letters were merely a decoy cleverly designed to distract me from some secret object glued to the inside of the envelopes. They weren’t. I was left with no other option than to take the letters’ content seriously. Here is what they said:
“Dear Valued Client: Thank you for choosing Schwab eStatements. We received your request to stop paper delivery for your account,” said the letter from Schwab. Two of them, actually. Completely identical and printed on paper, thanking me for opting out of paper-based notifications. Smooth, Schwab. Very, very smooth. With my luck, the paper that was wasted on these letters probably came from a tropical rainforest tree that was cut down in its prime for the very purpose of thanking me for refusing to use paper – a tree that may have been vital to its tiny tropical rainforest biosphere and whose subsequent destruction may have set off a domino effect that will destroy South America’s economy, trigger World War III and leave the scant remnants of hitherto great civilizations wandering the radioactive landscape and asking their gods what they did to deserve such a fate. Great job, Schwab. I hope you’re happy, you genocidal paper fetishists.
The letter from Vanguard was only a little bit less likely to cause irreversible brain damage. A laconic tale of suspense and mystery, it described in stern, dry tone the saga of my unsuccessful attempts to guess the account password, their locking the account and subsequently restoring my access to the aforementioned account a few hours later. One could view this letter as a completely pointless and unnecessary waste of ink and paper which merely stated the obvious, but I like to think of it as the world’s shortest three-act play composed by Vanguard’s valiant Participant Services, whoever they may be. The titillating summary of those events was sent to me not by email, nor by fax, nor even voicemail, but by that most efficient of all communication media – snail mail.
But wait! That humble piece of paper has even more entertainment value to offer to the discerning reader. On the back side of the letter, the unsung heroes of Vanguard’s Participant Services created a piece of truly mind-bending, koan-worthy abstract post-modernist art. In the top left corner, there was Vanguard’s logo. Slightly to the right of it was the date the letter was printed. (For reasons that remain unknown, it hadn’t been mailed until two days later.) In the top right corner, “Page 2 of 2″ insulted my AP-style sensibilities but appealed to my OCD nature. At the bottom of the page, the string of mysterious symbols read “017210 2- 2 8508 WEBL D1 1 X.” And at the very center of the page was the message whose existentially mind-boggling self-imposed contradiction rivaled those offered by the finest works of postmodern art. It resembled a Zen koan. It reminded me of the riddles and no-win scenarios we once discussed in my Bioethics class (which, incidentally, is the only college course I ever failed). In terms of absurdity, it was much like the set of instructions on a bag of toothpicks that drove one of the characters of Douglas Adams’ So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish insane. I’m sure that by this point you’re either at the edge of your seat, trembling with excitement, or waiting for the end of this tale of adventure, danger and 21st century’s bureaucracy, having come too far and wasted too much of your time to quit reading now. Well, wait no longer! The message that was printed in black size-12 Times New Roman font right in the middle of the otherwise mostly empty page read, “This page was intentionally left blank.”
And that, my friends, is the greatest piece of abstract art I have ever had the pleasure to see, let alone own. In fact, I’m probably going to frame it and hang it in my living room. Thank you, Vanguard Participant Services, for making my week! (And yes, I really am easily amused.)