When I moved the mouse over “send” and squeezed my finger, I noticed I’d selected “reply all.” Crap. Fortunately the results were not as disastrous as those in Robin Hemley’s short story, “Reply All.” where two members of a poetry association secretly having an affair made the same error. Mine was merely a mild frustration I’d discussed privately, and wanted to keep it that way. This isn’t the only hazard inherent in electronic communication.
There’s autofill. My contact list includes several Susan’s, Katherine’s, and names that begin “Ch.” I’ve texted the wrong Susan, added the wrong Katherine to a group, or emailed a “Chris” when I wanted a “Charles”. Autofill nonsensically changed “iTunes” to “sewer” and continues to do so. Dinner plans to meet at “Authentico at 8:15” carried a new guarantee – “authenticity at 8:15.” To outmaneuver autofill is to win a battle with a relentless, unseen opponent.
A return to pen and ink would minimize these challenges and potentially resuscitate the USPS. Multiple recipients would require multiple physical copies, and end unintentional group mailings. A physical envelope needs a first and last name, street address or PO, city, state and zip code, and can only be sent to one location. If a letter ends up in the wrong hands, it’s the Post Office’s fault, not mine. If the address is incorrect, it will be stamped “Return to Sender” and mailed back unopened. Spelling errors will happen, but with less dreadful results.
The Volume Trap. Anything as cheap and easy to send as email, texts and instant messages breeds like rabbits. Mass mailings, multiple recipients, multiple responses—with hundreds of items a day in the inbox who can keep up? Any company I purchase from or donate to online interprets the exchange as license to communicate regularly, Williams-Sonoma, Talbots and Sur la Table on a daily basis, Abebooks weekly.
I spent the summer after my college freshman year working at a summer camp’s ice cream shop in upper state New York. Without texts, cheap long-distance phone calls, email or Facebook, I wrote letters to my family and classmates. During my free time, I’d pull out my flowered stationery, pick up a Paper Mate pen and write. Then I’d insert the folded pages in an envelope, address it, lick a stamp and walk to the mailbox. With the physical effort involved in sending a message, inbox overpopulation was not a concern, and nobody (well, maybe a lovesick boyfriend) send something daily.
Comment boxes are well-designed quicksand and deserve warning labels.
The antiquated process of mailed communication provides safeguards the instantaneous “send” and “publish” buttons can’t offer. Not all the angry “Dear John” letters or adolescent diatribes about an unfair mother I wrote were sent. Before I walked out the door or released the envelope in the slot, I could throw away the harmful letter without anyone knowing I’d thrown a tantrum. Trolls, take note.
Old-fashioned snail mail still moves at a slower pace. It isn’t picked up on Sundays, after 4:00 pm, or before 9:00 am. Unless someone lives in the same town, days pass before a letter lands in an inbox. If I change my mind before the postal carrier delivers, I can make a call and diminish the damage. “If you leave the letter I sent on Friday unopened and throw it away, I would be ever so grateful. If you must read it, know it doesn’t reflect my thinking now. Please call me back. We need to talk.”
A genteel elegance and gravity accompanies the handwritten missives, reserved primarily for wedding invitations and “Thank You” notes now. They convey a sense of taste, a hint of style through paper choice, ink color, and stamp–a something the “you’ve got mail” pings and honks can’t replicate.
The nostalgic appeal of the slow letter in a mailbox practice pulls on me like a like an eager puppy on the end of a leash. But I regularly prize expediency over uniqueness, and let broad distribution trump the intimacy of a one-of-a-kind note. So I’ll continue to slip-up, bemoan the inherent hazards, mourn the loss of recognizing a friend’s handwriting, and leave the USPS to survive by itself.
I’d rather send my musings on embossed, heavyweight stationery with a collectible stamp, but I’m in a hurry, and I don’t know your address.