Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Please Mr. Postman

"There must be some word today, from my girlfriend, so far away, Please Mr. Postman, look and see, if there's a letter, a letter for me...."

My favorite cover of the Marvelettes song was the Beatles version, with John Lennon pleading for the postman to just "check it and see, one more time for me" if a letter from his girlfriend was there. 

Sadly, the wait for the poor boy wanting a letter from his girlfriend so far away may now get longer.  Tonight, the US Postal Service, an independent agency and corporation that has been with us since our formation as a country will default on a $5B obligation to fund future health and retirement benefits.  And, unless Congress acts later this year, another $5B obligation will come and go that the Postal Service will be unable to meet. 

Does this mean the end of the Postal Service?  No, but it does mean change.  The obligations to fund future health and pension obligations were passed in Congress in 2006 and that, coupled with pretty bad management and a serious decline in first class mail revenues will force the Postal Service to change significantly and will likely not look like your father's Postal Service. 

This is of course, part of our ever-changing world.  Institutions that have been with us most of our lives are changing or disappearing altogether and that makes me somewhat wistful and nostalgic for days gone past.   I remember as a kid writing letters, putting stamp on them and being amazed that a couple of days later, they would find their way to the intended recipient.  It was amazing to me that all the letters Americans wrote would find their way to the right person within just a few days.  It was also amazing to me that it only cost about a dime (this was a few years ago).  I saw a show on PBS when I was younger about how the Post Office worked, and how all the people that worked for the Postal Service would ensure my little letter made it to my friend just like an important letter or package from one businessman to another would find its way to its proper place.  The mail carriers, the trucks, the distribution centers were all fascinating to me and at the end of the day, the mail arrived! 

Well, today a first class stamp costs a little more than a dime, but it is still a good deal. If you want to send a letter from New York to Los Angeles, it will get there in a few days, and only cost about 50 cents.   Unfortunately for the Postal Service, email, texting and social media allow for more immediate communication and provide a richer experience to the people wanting to interact.   Want to talk to the person and see them while doing it?  Not an issue. You probably have a broadband connection at your house and your friend likely does as well.  Got a PC or a Mac?  No problem.  Get a $25 dollar webcam, download Skype and you can be having a conversation with your friend like you were sitting across the table from them. 

Just a few decades ago, the only way you could talk to your friend across the country was through the plain old telephone line, sending or receiving a telegram or, to sit down and write a letter.   Letter writing has become somewhat of a lost-art.  I confess, I've not written a letter to a friend in years.  I've written several business letters, usually to complain or praise about a service rendered, but it has been some time since I sat down for an hour or two and wrote out a letter in long-hand, cursive writing.   The letters people write to each other are little slices of history stamped with a date on the letter or on the envelope carrying the letter to the recipient.  I still have several letters my wife and I wrote to each other over 25 years ago, and occasionally will pull them out and read what I was like and what I was thinking about a quarter of a century ago.  As much as I like and use email, I think it's not the same to open an email from 25 years ago.  A letter is tactile, there is age, there is time, the paper has substance, the ink and writing have expressiveness.  The pixels from an old email look just like the pixels from a new email, and while the words might have some memory associated with them, it is not the full experience of pulling out an old letter and just reminiscing about when it was written, what the world was like, what the promise of the future held at the time and so on.  

We've progressed as a society and the ways we communicate are certainly more efficient and expeditious.  I use email daily and as with this article I'm writing now, the irony of being nostalgic for a piece of paper with ink on it while I type on my laptop is not lost on me.  I don't want to go back to the old days, I don't have the time.  I do however like to think about it from time to time and it makes me smile.  I remember getting the letters from my wife when I was working in London and she was home with our oldest child, just an infant then but a grown man now.  The letters smelled like her.  They were more personal than just talking on the phone.  They were my life-line to home, and they were very, very important to me.  I wonder how many people have emails that are 30 years old?  

Anyway, this article was about the unfortunate circumstances at the US Postal Service.  We'll see a re engineered service emerge, it will likely be one with fewer Post Offices, fewer Postal employees, and service on fewer days, but it will last.  There are still too many companies that depend on the Postal Service for it to disappear.  As good as Fed Ex and UPS are, they still can't get a letter to someone in a few days for fifty-cents or less. 

Think about some of the letters you have written to your friends? Do you remember actually writing them?  What and where you were when you took out the pen and paper?  What was the cost of the stamp at the time?  Where did the letter go?  Did your recipient write back?  Do you have any old letters from loved ones or friends you've not spoken to in years? Why do you keep them? 

I hope the Postal Service comes back stronger than ever before, and, if I want to, I can sit down and write a letter to one of my friends.  My (eventual grand-kids) can sit down and write a letter to Santa,  I can still relish the task of throwing all the junk mail in the recycle bin without looking at it. 

Besides, no one ever wrote a good song about a text message or an email.  Can you imagine Joe Cocker singing the following lines?

"Give me a ticket for an aeroplane
I ain't got time to take no fast train
Oh, the lonely days are gone
I'll be right home
My baby she wrote me a email

It just doesn't work for me.

Tell me what you think,
Write me a letter.


1 comment:

  1. This reminded me that I am lucky enough to have some of the letters I received and wrote while in college. Love letters from my girlfriend (that romance didn't last)and letters from my best friend. I still keep in touch with both of them 45 years later. Postage was 5¢ for a first class letter and there was "Air Mail" for 8¢. Lotsa good and a few bad memories on those pages.


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