March 1, 2012
I used to love writing letters. Even as a boy, I wrote to anybody I thought would write back — aunts and uncles, cousins by the dozens, kids I'd met on summer vacation. In high school, I joined a pen-pal club and found new correspondents in Holland, Slovenia, Poland, and even a girl in the Soviet Union during a mid-1960's thaw in the Cold War (after about a year, no more letters came). By the time I was 16, I fancied myself a polyglot — I knew at least half a dozen languages, but only two words in each: Par Avion, Mit Luftpost, Correo Aereo. I met people all over the world without leaving my bedroom.
I visited our post office regularly, spending chunks of my allowance on the latest commemorative stamps. I never became a stamp collector because stamps weren't meant to be kept, they were meant to be used.
For my foreign correspondence, I bought aerograms, long sheets of delicate, sky-blue paper that you folded in thirds and sealed up on three sides. I doubt the Postal Service even makes them anymore.
I also used to love getting mail — not just letters but magazines, newspapers, sales pitches for electric trains and baseball souvenirs. I'd send away for just about anything to keep the family mailbox full.
As far as I can remember, throughout my entire childhood our neighborhood in Norwalk, Calif., had exactly two mailmen, now for correctness called letter-carriers. They knew not only the numbers on the houses but the people inside them, taking time for a friendly chat as they handed over the cards and letters. Mailmen in those days were an essential part of the fabric of the community, and some of them, I'd bet, knew more about the personal lives of the folks on their route than even the parish priest.
I hardly write a letter anymore, and I hardly ever get one. The mailbox is still full, but now it's mostly junk — and as advertising becomes more and more Google-specific, even the junk will eventually disappear.
My passion for letter-writing started evaporating maybe a decade ago, along with practically everybody else's. This is commonly attributed to the advent of e-mail, but I know there's more to it than that; the dynamic is more complex than the mere substitution of one medium for another.
The difference between an e-mail message and a handwritten letter is both quantitative and qualitative. E-mails — and now Facebook and, quintessentially, Twitter — are more like the long- gone telegram, where you say what you have to say as if you were paying by the character, complete with a clever vocabulary of abbreviations: "r u ok? :)"
The handwritten letter is just the opposite. It demands the lavishing of time on your recipient, allowing your mind to range widely and creatively. Even on the rare occasions when I do write a long and thoughtful e-mail, sitting at a computer screen can never produce the intimacy elicited by putting pen to paper in a unique hand that has evolved since childhood. Sure, you may change your e-mail font to Comic Sans for a supposedly personal touch, but typefaces are just a bunch of pixels designed by somebody else.
I know all this, I believe all this, I love all this — but I can hardly bring myself to write letters anymore. Why?
There is something in the "communications culture" that thwarts me. Being in constant contact with everybody everywhere has diminished my desire to be in close contact with somebody somewhere. I no longer "have time" to sit at my desk, pen in hand, chewing on the top and staring out the window, thinking of just what to say and just how to say it, devoting my whole attention to one single special person even for 20 minutes. Now I can FW some cartoon or article to a dozen people at once, personalized only by a message that reads: "What do you think?" The ease of instantaneous, worldwide communication has rendered me unable to communicate.
This whole column has become a bittersweet digression from my original intent for it — to write about the financial woes of the United States Postal Service and its latest proposals to do something about it: close half of its 500 mail-processing facilities, eliminate "unprofitable" post offices, halt Saturday delivery. I'll have to deal with those issues later.
Several weeks ago, amidst the detritus of the daily mail, I found a handwritten envelope. I tore it open, half-crazy with anticipation. Inside was a three-page letter from a friend I hadn't heard from, e-mail or otherwise, for months. For a brief moment I felt the exhilaration of years ago, devouring the contents, delighting in her cursive style and even in the crossouts. Especially the crossouts.
It took me nearly a month to "have time," but I wrote her back yesterday. It was an attention-deficient agony, but it put me in touch with a person I'd long forgotten: myself.
A 1974 10-cent stamp commemorating the Universal Postal Union features a Gainsborough painting of an elegant woman pensively reading a letter; the caption on the stamp is: "Letters mingle souls."
I used that stamp, plus 35 cents' worth of others, on my envelope to her.