Saturday, June 4, 2011

You've got mail !

When I was in basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 1970, one of the few things that I looked forward to every day (other then cleaning my rifle and polishing my boots) was the daily mail call.

Getting a hand written letter from one of my friends or relatives back home was a welcome relief from those long marches, and was one of those precious few moments when the drill sergeant left you alone for some “personal time”.

Although it seems like most of our communication with each other is either by email or texting, the fact remains that there are still an awful lot of personal letters that are being mailed in America today. In the first quarter of 2010, there were 8,143,988 letters mailed, which was a 7.2% decrease from the same period in 2009.

In the 10 year period from 1998 to 2008, First Class mail volume declined 29%, in large part due to the increased use of the internet. At the end of 2009, the 286 million cell phone users in America were sending an AVERAGE of 152.7 billion text messages per month.

The United States Postal Service operates the largest civilian vehicle fleet in the world (over 216,000 vehicles) and has the second largest number of civilian employees in the United States (596,000), second only to Wal-Mart. Due to its large fixed costs, and its declining revenue, the United States Postal Service lost $8.1 billion dollars in 2010.

I recently received a HAND WRITTEN LETTER and a photograph from my sister in California, and it brought to mind the good feeling that I got back in basic training when I got an unexpected letter from home. In addition to the letter and picture, she also included an article that she had clipped from the L.A. Times about online dating.

In the last half of the 19th century, about the ONLY way for all those miners and railroad workers in the western frontier to find mates was by mail, and all those educated women from the East coast became known as “mail order brides”. Surprisingly, mail order brides still exist today, but it seems like an awful lot of them are from Russia or the other former Communist bloc countries.

Although modern technology hasn’t made dating any easier, at least it offers more and better opportunities. There are DOZENS of online dating service. Both of our kids have used a few of them, but have had the best luck so far with “plenty of fish”.

Another interesting benefit is that online communication can sometimes overcome real life adversarial relationships, as exemplified by Tom Hanks in Meg Ryan in the 1998 movie,“You’ve Got Mail”. You still need to exercise caution and good sense, since those 14 year old girls in a hotel room usually turn out to be members of the local police department.

Even though communication by letter seems antiquated, it’s appeal comes from the fact that it is perceived by different senses than the communications we receive electronically. A letter is both tactile and visual, and can also be olfactory (if perfumed properly). An email is visual, but can also be auditory. If you’re not sure what those adjectives mean, you can look them up in your on-line dictionary.

If you still have one, you can also learn their meaning from your PRINTED dictionary. When I was a kid, our dictionary of choice was Funk & Wagnalls.. Sadly, the company went out of business in 1997, depriving future generations of parents the opportunity to tell their children to “look it up in your Funk and Wagnalls”.

Printed dictionaries have been around for a LONG time. The University of Chicago recently completed a 21 volume dictionary
of the language of ancient Mesopotamia and and its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects. Although the languages have not been spoken for 2000 years, they've been preserved on clay tablets, and painstakingly translated over the centuries. You can buy the full set for $1995, but it can also be downloaded - for free.

Although its unlikely that mail service will ever stop completely, it’s not impossible to envision that situation coming about. No company can continue to operate indefinitely if it’s hemorrhaging billions of dollars every year.

When my dad was a mail carrier, the Parcel Post was a big part of postal deliveries, but a large chunk of that business is now done by UPS, a company that’s been around longer than most people realize.

Western Union introduced the telegram in 1851, but discontinued them on January 27, 2006 due to declining volume. By late 2005, only 20,000 telegrams were being sent each year, a significant drop from the early decades of the 20th century. In England, the peak year for telegrams was 1913, when an astonishing 82,000,000 telegrams were sent.

The final advantage of sending letters through the mail is that when open up your mailbox, you won’t hear this slightly annoying disembodied voice talking to you:

“you’ve got mail!”

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