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In Longhand and Letters

Just the other day I received a letter in the mail from my friend James who, at the time, was completing a writing fellowship in Moveen, Ireland–a remote town that from what I’ve been told boasts scenic green pastures, writerly solitude (with the exception of an occasional peeping-tom-type visit from the neighborhood goat), and complete radio silence. That’s right… it’s a technological freezone… a place to escape the quick and easy distractions of cell phones and the internet so you can focus on reading and writing. As I read James’ letter, I realized something: It was the first real letter I’d received in years.  It wasn’t mail sent for an occasion, not a birthday card or a baby announcement. It was just an honest to goodness, hand-written letter to say, “Hey. What’s up? I’m in this great place doing this and that. What are you doing?”  

Granted, the letter was written on 3rd of the month and I didn’t receive it until the 19th, so “this and that” probably changed quite a bit.  But as I held the paper in my hand, I knew it was something I’d keep forever–not an email that would get filed away into the virtual abyss–but a paper letter marked with a culturally relevant stamp redeemed at the Cork Mail Centre, flown across the Atlantic Ocean and hand-delivered to my Chicago address. It’s a painstakingly slow process–but I think this time makes the writing and sending of letters precious and it’s sad to think that fast-moving electronic age may be putting an end to this careful, age-old craft.

You’ve probably heard the news…The U.S. Postal Services (USPS) is on the fritz — bleeding out and barely conscious after getting shivved by the Internet, whose long and frighteningly capable arm has reached into just about all formerly snail-mail-dependent arenas (i.e. banking and bill payment, marketing and advertising, personal communications, just to list a few). And yes, there are a bunch of completely valid, common sense reasons that no one has come to USPS’s rescue…  Paper mail is exactly that: it’s paper, and a LOT of it. Especially when sent in mass, it’s terrible for the planet. Postal mail is slow, inefficient, and due to human error, can be unreliable. And physical mail requires a little physical effort (!!)… many people are too lazy to take the steps required for handwritten correspondence. In the era of texting, tweeting, twerpin, tootin, where everything you need to accomplish in a day can be done from your cellular phone… locating a pen, an envelope, a stamp, and a friend’s home address seems utterly out of the question.

Currently, the USPS just barely hangs on as a semi-governmental institution that is “overseen” by the federal government but receives little-to-no taxpayer money. Why not just put USPS out of its misery and move to a privatized system  (which to many would be preferable to watching our postal service die a slow, tedious death as hundreds of branches are being shuttered and  tens of thousands of employees fear for their jobs.) Because the Internet hasn’t made postal mail obsolete… and people still need access to physical mail. In fact, it’s the mission of USPS is “to serve everyone, everywhere,” and currently, private businesses like FedEx, DHL, and UPS don’t have the infrastructure or manpower to handle a complete transfer of all postal mail. ( Policy Report on Postal Privatization, September 1995 and May 2011) And even if they did, mailing costs would skyrocket, resulting in just one more institution that limits access to the poor.

Aside from mailing costs, accessing the internet requires a computer and an internet connection… which both require money. And with unemployment rates still hovering around 8-10% in most states (, many people have bigger financial issues to deal with than buying a ‘pute (pronounced pyoot) and getting online. Aside from financial access, there’s an insurmountable generational issue. With at least two living generations of folks who haven’t made a full, comfortable transition into the electronic age, striking down the USPS would be alienating a significant segment of the population.  And since we still haven’t figured out how Scotty beamed Dr. Spock from the Starship Enterprise to the Earth’s surface via Transporter, items such as gifts, legal documents, and that thing you ordered from will likely require physical mail for a long, long time.

The practical list of reasons for saving USPS goes on… but as a notorious sentimentalist, James’ letter represents what I think is the most important reason: postal mail is a part of our history and for centuries has helped people mark important occasions and accomplishments.  James’ letter is tucked into a shoebox in my closet labeled “Keepsakes” and every Spring when it’s time to clean, I’m going to run across that letter and remember when my uber-talented friend was in Moveen, Ireland, writing his book of short stories that will someday be a huge success.

Facebooking, Emailing…. these modes of communication are vital for quick transmissions of time-sensitive information (i.e. “Hey, can’t meet up this Friday for drinks…. how about Saturday?”) but they turn important thoughts and events into a fleeting and quickly forgotten blip in time. That photo you posted on Facebook of your baby… I looked at it and I loved it, but then someone else posted a video of Mitt Romney saying something stupid and Mitt quickly replaced your baby in my brain. But the photo my high school friends T.J. and Val sent via postal mail of their three hilarious children making monster faces…. that photo is up on my fridge and I see it and think of them everyday. And eventually, I’ll tuck it away, run across it during Spring cleaning and then call T.J. to see how the kids are doing.

The effort it takes to send mail makes thoughts, events, and gestures memorable, special, and significant. And let’s be honest, there are certain “thoughts” that don’t need to be communicated at all and likely wouldn’t be if effort were required to blurt them out. (If you haven’t seen the Conan O’Brien sketch, “Nick Offerman Reads Tweets from Young Female Celebrities” click here right now: . It’s amazing what some people think is worth sharing.) I suspect you might agree that certain occasions, certain people, certain sentiments in life deserve better than this… and letter writing helps us set a standard–a precedent for what’s worth saying, for ideas that actually warrant communicating to people who merit more than a tweet’s worth of your time.

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