Thursday, January 29, 2009

You‘ve (Still) Got Mail

It was in the fall of 1969, when we were sitting at the dinner table, the six of us. The phone rang, and Dad went to answer it. It was a telegram informing us that Grandpa Alexander passed away.

I believe we got only two or three telegrams that way while I was growing up, but that was the last I remember. These days, Western Union is in the business of person-to-person money transfers and money orders, having finally closed down its telegraphing services in 2006. I was surprised to learn that such services are still available in North America, if by smaller carriers.

I thought of that day nearly forty years ago, when I read that the United States Postal Service may be cutting back to five-day-per-week delivery as a means of cutting costs.

Massive deficits could force the post office to cut out one day of mail delivery, the postmaster general told Congress on Wednesday, in asking lawmakers to lift the requirement that the agency deliver mail six days a week...

Faced with dwindling mail volume and rising costs, the post office was $2.8 billion in the red last year. “If current trends continue, we could experience a net loss of $6 billion or more this fiscal year,” Potter said in testimony for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee.

Many have suggested Saturday delivery to be dropped, as it is on the weekend, but it might just as easily be a typically slow weekday such as Tuesday. Maybe it's my imagination, but they may not be waiting in some areas. In Arlington, Virginia, I seem to have noticed an occasional Friday or Saturday in recent years, when there's nary a mail truck in sight. Most of us don't send cards or letters anymore. "Sal" and I sent out about a dozen or so cards this past Christmas between the two of us.

It might surprise some people to learn that the USA has what is probably the most efficient postal system in the world, second only to that of Great Britain. There has been private-sector competition for parcel delivery for several decades now. I wonder how that will change by the time my son is my age; say, in the next thirty years.

I remember when I first started using electronic mail. It began at my office. Then I realized I had to have a personal address if I was going to indulge in personal use. It had the immediacy of a telephone call, but the lingering effect of print. The combination made for misunderstanding on e-mail discussion lists, and brought about the need to establish "netiquette." Now we have all manner of internet-based messaging. We can use instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else comes down the pike.

The result may make life easier, but I wonder, what does quantity do to quality? Has making the world smaller brought us any closer together, or does it simply make our differences more obvious? Does the beeping sound coming from the PC telling us "you've got mail" carry the same thrill of that brightly colored envelope with the hint of its origin in the return address? When it is easier to send our words around the planet, do we choose them more carefully?

Time marches on. Things change around us. The older we get, the more overwhelming those changes are. That lesson hit close to home the other day, when I was telling my mother over the phone, about some work I was doing. It didn't matter how simply I explained, she didn't get it. How could she? There was no working computer in the house that once received telegrams. There probably never will be.

I wonder how well I'll handle progress when I'm seventy-four. Will I be waiting by the mailbox, for letters that no longer come?


Dean Whinery said...

It's good to hear that our postal system is that good. I'm not from Missouri, but I must say, "Show me!"
When it can take a letter four or five days to reach its destination in the same city of 35,000, is it any wonder that folks have found other, more efficient ways of communicating? Postage keeps increasing, but the service continues downward. Yesterday I received a Christmas card, one of few, that was mailed a week before that holiday from a city that is a 25-minute drive. A letter between Southern California and my tiny village in the middle of México fewer than 20 years ago took 4-5 days, now it takes 3-4 weeks.
I probably wouldn't miss having the monthly bills on Saturdays--even they don't arrive as promptly as they once did. Would cutting out Saturday delivery improve service the rest of the time?

GOR said...

More memories…! In my younger days (like 50+ years ago…) in Ireland, one of the highlights of the Christmas season was the sending – and especially the receiving – of Christmas cards. My sisters and I sent out dozens to all our relatives and friends and watched avidly for the postman. Because of the volume of Christmas mail the Irish Postal Service (Oifig an Phoist) put on extra deliveries in the days leading up to Christmas – two deliveries a day!

Like kids outside a candy store, our faces would be glued to the front window watching for the postman’s arrival. Once we heard the sound of envelopes dropping through the letterbox in the hall door, there was a mad dash to see what we got (“I got three. How many did you get?”). Once opened and read, the cards served another purpose: as Christmas decorations! They were strung on a line from corner to corner of our Living Room-cum-Kitchen (it was a small house) and colorfully augmented our meager decorations.

Somehow E-cards today don’t provoke the same reactions…

Dad29 said...

Not to worry.

You'll still get directmail solicitations from the Bishop of Alaska and OldFolks'Living magazine.

mrsdarwin said...

Maybe more people would send snail mail more often if the PO didn't keep jacking up the price of stamps. Just sayin'.