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Op-Ed

In praise of snail mail

E-mail, Twitter, Facebook -- they're fine, but nothing can really replace the real deal.

February 03, 2011|Meghan Daum

I've always loved mail. By that I mean the mail that arrives in a physical mailbox six days a week, not e-mail. Well, I love that too, but it's a cheap thrill. My heart belongs to snail mail.

This love affair began decades ago, back when the "snail" qualifier wasn't necessary. As a child, I'd sort through the mail that came every afternoon, seeing in it clues to the inner lives of my parents. Among the bills and bank statements there would sometimes be a letter from a faraway friend or relative, handwritten on stationery or typed on an IBM Selectric and stuffed with photos showing how fast some kid was growing up or how great the kitchen remodel was. Even more fascinating were the holiday cards and newsletters from classmates and roommates and neighbors my parents had known before I came along, a barely comprehensible concept that made those correspondents seem to me like characters in a book.

So when I read the news last week that the U.S. Postal Service plans to close or consolidate as many as 2,000 branches in the next two years, my heart sank a little. There's something wistfully beautiful about the idea of the doors staying open at some remote post office whose main customer is a bearded old codger with an EBay habit.

And if the offices go, will the rest eventually follow?

Probably not for a long time. It's not as if young mail enthusiasts will suddenly be deprived of the thrill of opening the mailbox. But even as postal delivery trudges on, you have to admit that the soul of the whole enterprise — the sweet ache of anticipation — was lost long ago.

Sure, the sound of a mail carrier's footsteps is still more pleasant than an automated "You've got mail," but the end result is almost always disappointing. More often than not, I find myself taking the mail from the box and depositing it directly into the trash — "mail" apparently also being a euphemism for fliers from carpet cleaning companies. This kills me just a little bit each day because, like many people who work from home, I revel in any distraction, and retrieving the mail still seems like a legitimate reason to rise from my desk. When I lived in an apartment in New York City, it was not unusual for me to sprint down many flights of stairs three times a day to check if the postman had filled the boxes in the lobby.

That may sound excessive, but in some eras and places, it would have been positively restrained. In late 19th century London, the mail came 12 times a day! No wonder we so often imagine Victorians lollygagging about their houses awaiting replies to their latest witty ripostes; with that much mail delivery, how could they possibly have focused on anything else? If my mail came 12 times a day, even in its current direct-to-recycling-bin state, I would get nothing done.

For me, it's the trip to the mailbox, the opening of the lid, the retrieving. E-mail offers no such pleasures, nor can it do that magical thing that real mail can do (and that Facebook tries to do but never succeeds at): reminding you intimately and tactically of who you are. You linger over a letter from a friend; you don't hit delete. A child cannot sort through a stack of printed e-mails, or the online log, and sense the very outline of her family: This is my aunt's handwriting; these are the magazines my parents have subscribed to for years; this envelope touched my brother's desktop at college; this is who we are.

Yes, there are other options. Objectively speaking, a child now could spend five minutes on her parents' Facebook pages and glean 10 years' worth of annual-newsletter clues; she could chat in real time with her brother; and Twitter has "witty riposte" texted all over it.

But as the Postal Service continues its slow fade into history, something will be missing. Not written communication — indeed, it's only multiplying — but the small comforts that come from waiting for it, handling it and smiling whenever you pass the table you've placed it on. For that, nothing beats the U.S. mail.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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