My baby, she wrote me a letter

English: Postal card mailed from Washington, D...
Image via Wikipedia

When was the last time you wrote — (yes, by hand, using a pen) — a letter or note on a piece of paper, let alone chose a lovely card or piece of quality stationery? Foolscap, notebook pages, the back of a receipt or a Post-It note do not count!

Did you put a stamp on it and mail it to someone: a business associate, a former professor or mentor, your sweetie or mom or nephew or former college room-mate?

When was the last time you received a card or letter and ripped open that paper envelope, wondering who had been so thoughtfully old-school to choose it, write it, buy a stamp, find your mailing address and, in time for an occasion, send it to you?

Here’s a recent op-ed in The Guardian making the same argument in favor of paper-based communication:

A letter is a letter no matter whether it lands on the doormat or pings into your electronic inbox.

Actually, though, there is a difference and it is one that worries historians like myself who spend their days combing the correspondence of ordinary people written 150 years ago. The protocols that govern letter-writing mean that even the simplest of communications come packed with extra bits of information that never make it into an email. “A … letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay,” Saul Bellow once wrote – and while most peoples’ communications don’t quite match up to these exacting standards, they do strive to do more than simply arrange where to meet tonight, FYI, or chortle over last night’s debauch down the pub, WTF. Even the most listless letter-writer generally includes a bit about how they are physically and emotionally, a snapshot of their recent activities, a nod towards future holiday plans and a final comment on the state of the nation.

To a historian this stuff is gold dust. For buried away in the interstices of the most apparently banal note you will find all sorts of data, not just about how people lived, loved, ate and dressed a century ago, but – and this is the important bit – what they thought and felt about it all. Letters are a prompt to reflection and what cultural critics call “self-fashioning”. Put bluntly, we get to know who we are and what we think by writing about it to other people.

I recently had major surgery and cannot adequately describe the pleasure, comfort and moral support I got from the many cards and notes I received, whether slid beneath my apartment door by neighbors, sent from old pals in Canada or mailed by members of our church.

(I loved getting e-cards, too.)

But, years from now, when I sort through my papers — literally — these pretty, physical, time-specific memories will fill my hands: Valentine’s, birthdays, weddings, condolence, congratulations.

Here’s a link to 30 gorgeous modern thank-you notes, from one of my favorite daily blogs, Design Milk.

Especially at times of sorrow and stress, a thoughtful, personal note on lovely paper is an air-borne hug.

Here’s a great story from NBC Nightly News about why sending cards matters so much.

And a year-old blog devoted to saving the use of snail mail.

Writing a novel? Here’s a fascinating argument by one writer why writing letters is so beneficial to writers of fiction.

Mail one today!

TapTapTapTapTap — Ding! The Return Of Typewriters

Typewriter adler3
Image via Wikipedia

Typewriters are back!

Not only are they back, but hipster kids newly discovering the joys of a Smith Corona (not some obscure beer) or Olivetti (not an olive oil!) are even holding type-ins to celebrate these quaint, sturdy little writing machines, reports The New York Times:

“Can I touch it?” a young woman asked. Permission granted, she poked two buttons at once. The machine jammed. She recoiled as if it had bitten her.

“I’m in love with all of them,” said Louis Smith, 28, a lanky drummer from Williamsburg. Five minutes later, he had bought a dark blue 1968 Smith Corona Galaxie II for $150. “It’s about permanence, not being able to hit delete,” he explained. “You have to have some conviction in your thoughts. And that’s my whole philosophy of typewriters.”

Whether he knew it or not, Mr. Smith had joined a growing movement. Manual typewriters aren’t going gently into the good night of the digital era. The machines have been attracting fresh converts, many too young to be nostalgic for spooled ribbons, ink-smudged fingers and corrective fluid. And unlike the typists of yore, these folks aren’t clacking away in solitude.

They’re fetishizing old Underwoods, Smith Coronas and Remingtons, recognizing them as well designed, functional and beautiful machines, swapping them and showing them off to friends. At a series of events called “type-ins,” they’ve been gathering in bars and bookstores to flaunt a sort of post-digital style and gravitas, tapping out letters to send via snail mail and competing to see who can bang away the fastest.

As someone old enough to have begun her journalism career working on a typewriter, I remember well the joys and frustrations — fingers covered in Wite-out! No delete key! Physical cutting and pasting! — that went along with it.

My first typewriter was a lightweight correspondent’s model with its own vinyl shoulder carrying case, a Hermes Baby. My lifelong dream was to file from exotic locales and, for decades, this was the tool to use! I loved its turquoise letters and drop-proof metal casing. As long as I had the essentials — paper and a fresh ribbon — I could write anywhere, anytime, knowing, and feeling a cool sort of kinship with, all the others before me who had filed their dispatches in similar fashion.

The part I miss the most?

That delicious Ding! when you hit the end of a line.

Not to mention the delicious crunch-and-toss of every offending page that just wasn’t good enough.

The End Of The Post Office

Truth or Consequences Post Office
That's the one! Image via Wikipedia

The last time I enjoyed being in a post office — sort of like enjoying being at the dentist, these days — was in the small, funky town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico with a woman who owns a house there on a ranch outside of town. When we dropped in to pick up her mail from one of the tiny gilded post office boxes, (and they really are boxes, one forgets), we had a great chat with the lively woman working at the counter. We admired the WPA murals and went for lunch.

Now that the U.S. Postal service is about to shut down thousands of post offices, many of them in small towns and rural areas like T or C….does it matter?

I think it does, as Walter Kirn wrote recently in The New York Times magazine:

The painful truth, of course, is that the post offices most likely to vanish also happen to function as the centers of the communities in which they’re situated. Social-networking sites aren’t just Internet phenomena. In Livingston, Mont., my current hometown, the post office does what Facebook only purports to as far as promoting human interaction. On the wide granite steps of the neo-Classical edifice that stands as one of our few local reminders that we 7,000 people of the Great Plains belong to a civilized modern nation, my neighbors and I trade news, contract for services and generally mix and mingle in a manner that permits us to feel like neighbors rather than strangers subject to the same weather. For people who live far out in the countryside or who are too old and frail to get around much, this can be a life-sustaining service, particularly in the winter months. The chance to chat improves folks’ mental health, and the failure of an old man to fetch his power bill for several days alerts others to go check on him.

I like the physicality of letters and packages, wrangling tape and cardboard and wielding a Sharpie pen for the address. I like the idea of a post office as one of the few services we all use, whether rich or poor, whatever our political views. In an increasingly divided country, it’s one of the few glues left.

As I prepare to launch my new book, I’ve sent a dozen of them out to reviewers in those little padded envelopes, lining up each time with a little bit of hope.  With a mother living in another country, I’ve become adept over the years at minimizing the cost of the real contents I mail to her, and at finding gifts that won’t shatter or spill en route.

I have many great memories of post office visits while traveling — in Antibes, Florence, Paris, Venice, Sydney — but, sorry to say, very few as nice as that T or C encounter.

For me now, living in a small town north of Manhattan, my post office in recent years has beome a true circle of hell — dirty, understaffed and with clerks who seem to take a special delight in being rude because they know no one will discipline or fire them.

I’ve started to avoid the post office whenever possible, and that makes me sad and angry. I used to enjoy it.

And my damn taxes are paying for it.

What’s your local post office like?

Would you miss it if it were closed?