My Love/Hate (But Mostly Hate) Relationship with Mail

What began as a confession about my only-every-three-months mail-opening schedule turned into a post about the changing state of the US Postal Service. This is what I do, folks.
Publish date:
January 31, 2012
nerdery, complaining, fun with the USPS

This weekend my husband and I engaged in one of our sporadic tidying fits. These fits are not cleaning, exactly, as there is no scrubbing or wiping or Swiffering, but are rather an effort to collect the stuff in our home that has migrated from its intended permanent home -- should such a space exist -- back to where it belongs.

Because we have a lot of stuff, and we get tidy-minded on an infrequent and unpredictable basis, this can mean a lot more heavy lifting than you might think.

But more than that, it reminded me of how much I hate mail, because the biggest portion of any tidying process is always tending to the heaping drifts of dead-tree mail clogging up every available horizontal surface in our kitchen/dining area.

Indeed, the dining table itself, when we do not have company staying with us, serves a primary purpose as Mail Collector, on which mail and other paper stuffs we don’t know what to do with piles up until finally one of us says ENOUGH and we haul out the shredder and spend a couple hours going through it all.

Today, mail is the least effective means of getting my attention. I check the mail daily with a religious fervor, though anything that is not a package rarely gets more than a cursory look from me.

I check for the magazines I subscribe to (New Scientist, The Boston Review, Real Simple, and Teen Vogue -- no, I am not kidding). I check for anything that might be a freelance payment; these mostly belong to my husband, but we’re married so technically it’s my money too. I check for my whoa-girl-you-buy-a-ton-of-shit-here coupons from Ulta.

Almost everything else I ignore until some future date when I might suddenly give a crap. This usually takes about three months, at which time the heap of untended mail becomes such an eyesore that it must be expunged.

Why do I even get this stuff in the mail? Bills are paid online, and their paper simulacra are summarily shredded without a passing glance.

If I feel the need to donate to Doctors Without Borders or Planned Parenthood or The Sierra Club, I will do so via their website, and no amount of !!free!! notepads and/or address labels are going to change my mind about that.

There’s my MFA membership magazine, which I’m sure is a lovely publication but which in six years of membership I’ve never read.

There are university alumni magazines -- I have degrees from three different institutions, and my husband reps two, and they all seem to think our studies in film/video production/screenwriting/new media/developmental psychology/cultural theory/feminist theory/media literacy have made us wildly wealthy because they want us to donate thousands of dollars while making us feel inadequate because everyone profiled in said alumni magazines is building a space elevator to the moon or developing a 10-minute cancer cure. (Also, the people doing these things are younger than me; they’re ALWAYS younger than me.)

Parking tickets get paid when the powers that be threaten to non-renew my registration. I once had to pay a Somerville parking ticket (it would be inaccurate to say that most of my parking tickets are issued in Davis Square, as I am not in the area that often, but it is fair to say that every time I park in Davis Square I do wind up getting a parking ticket) that was EIGHT YEARS OLD, because evidently they sent a couple of mail notices and then for several years forgot to alert the Massacusetts RMV to my deliquency.

Once every three months we go though and shred the stacks of credit card offers and shady student loan consolidation deals, the cable bills that persist no matter how many times I sign up for paperless billing. We throw away the junk, the sales circulars, the absurd number of plus-size grandma-clothes catalogs I get, the occasional poison pen letter against someone in our condo building written by some other “anonymous” person in our condo building, except everyone knows who the letter-writer is because he has a weird hate-on for the letter’s target. People who have lived in condos, you know there is always one unit that houses some weird unbalanced energy on the part of its occupants.

I hate it. I wish I could abstain from mail, except for packages from Amazon and the occasional catalog from ThinkGeek.

According to the US postal service’s own numbers, first-class mail service has declined by 42% between 2001 and 2010 -- that represents a total of nearly 23 billion fewer pieces of old-fashioned single-letter mail, probably a victim of the growing national use of email, which is both faster, often more reliable and free.

In the meantime, the use of the postal service for “direct mail” -- that’s the sales-y stuff you get addressed to “resident” -- is on the increase. The new Every Door program makes it even easier for companies to send you bits of paper you can throw away, by cutting out the need for direct marketing to buy mailing lists and enabling them to pay to put promotional materials in every mailbox in a particular zip code for a flat per-piece fee.

It’s little wonder that they’re getting creative. Over the next decade the US Postal Service is projecting a $238 billion dollar budget shortfall, which has led the agency to take action by closing thousands of processing centers, thereby lengthening the amount of time it takes for first-class mail to get anywhere. Plans are also in place to further raise postage rates and possibly, should Congress approve it, to end Saturday mail delivery.

The latter has raised the most hackles, and not simply because it would be a minor inconvenience. Earlier last year the Postal Regulatory Commission found that ending Saturday delivery would negatively impact the speed of all first-class and Priority Mail, and would especially cause problems for people who receive medicine or other perishable goods by mail.

More than that, a lack of Saturday delivery would unfairly affect people living in rural areas, for whom even Express mail can arrive slowly, owing to their distance from postal processing centers.

As an interesting historical aside: the US Postal Service delivered mail seven days a week -- yes, even Sundays! -- until 1912. Why did they stop? Evidently church leaders noticed that attendance at Sunday services was falling as a result of the popularlity of post offices as local gathering places. Thus, churches pressured the USPS to cease Sunday delivery to beef up the number of bodies in the pews. Fascinating stuff, huh? (More US mail history here, if you’re a giant nerd like me.)

Opponents say all these proposed changes and budget cuts are making old-fashioned mail less relevant in a digital age, when the USPS should be doing more to keep up. Instead, faced with such a shortfall, the US government seems set on shrinking mail services to be less useful to anyone still reliant on them -- and for many people in lots of less metropolitan areas of the country, reliable mail service continues to be a very necessary convenience.

As much as I get annoyed with my ever-towering mail pile, I don’t know that I’d like to see the institution go the way of the telegram. The fact is, living in an urban area, I don’t rely heavily on mail delivery for life’s necessities, but many people do. It’s easy for me to shrug off a five-day-a-week delivery schedule because I have options; I can always find a post office open on a Saturday, even if delivery isn’t taking place. Lots of other Americans do not.

Even from a romantic perspective, I’ll admit there is something warm and wonderful about a holiday card sent through the mail with a handwritten note and a couple of family photographs, to know that someone cared enough to put that together, stick a festive stamp on it, and drop it in a box, in the hopes I’d receive it and know that I was present in their hearts during that magical time of the year.

And you know, I’d probably appreciate it even more if I’d opened that card in December, instead of late January. I guess it’s the thought that counts.