Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Lament for an empty mailbox

Back in the mid to late 90s, I edited several zines... cheap DIY magazines I photocopied at Office Depot and traded with other folks through resources like Factsheet Five.  I certainly never made any money from these efforts, but I took them very seriously.  There was something about networking with a secret underground, receiving submissions of poetry, art, comics and fiction from around the country, playing editor, and seeing all the creative zines other people had come up with.  Whether the product was good or not wasn't the point; I was plugging into a network of like minds, and as a reward, I often had a full mailbox.

Widespread broadband access to the internet changed things.  Email was faster and easier than snail-mail, and for most folks, "making a zine"' became "coding a website", or later, "blogging about blogs in a blogger blog".  I was resistant at first, but like most people, I eventually accepted the new formats.  But this blog entry isn't really about zining, really, it's about loss.  At the risk of being 'that old guy', I'd like to take some time this morning to lament something that's been lost for many: the joy of the visceral experience of handling physical mail.

When I was zining, checking my mail was often the most exciting time of my day.  I never knew what might be coming on any given Wednesday.  Sometimes the mailbox would be overstuffed and I'd have to make a special trip to the post office to pick up all the things that wouldn't fit.  What would I find waiting?  Submissions for a zine?  Someone else's magazine to read?  Hate mail?  A flirty letter?  A check for $3.00?  Envelopes with crazy drawings and collage all over them?

A crepe
Sure, going through an email inbox can sometimes yield these kind of dopamine hits.  But with physical mail, you hold something actual in your hands.  Each item has a distinct mass and size and texture.  You anticipate what you'll find upon opening.  You mentally shake each box.  Every day is Christmas.

When your fingers are ink-stained, you know you exist.  You can prove it with the ink stains on your fingers.

Like old books, letters have distinct smells.  They may be naturally woody, or sharply acid.  Sometimes they're perfumed.  They smell like cigarettes or animals or pine.  A love-letter smells like the damp fingertips of someone you long to taste.

Email doesn't activate the senses.  A tweet doesn't impress itself upon your memory.  You don't treasure a text message and save it in a shoebox.  These things electronic are disposable, temporary, insubstantial.

Being able to check your email messages throughout the day is wonderful.  But there's value in ritual.  In the past, mail was part of the daily cycle: the sun rose, you ate, you worked, you ate, you looked to see if the mail had come and it hadn't so you looked again and kind of paced around and looked up and down the street and you thought where the heck is the mail truck and eventually you saw it coming and you met at the box and you finally got to go through the day's treasure, you ate, you bathed and you slept.  Now, the patient's pulse has become erratic.  Anticipation has bled infiltrated every hour.  The patient may need to be sedated.  

When you receive a hand-written letter, you know that someone took the time to sit down and think through what he or she wanted to say to you.  There was no cutting and pasting and editing after the fact (though I do remember a lot of wadding up of paper and starting over of hand-written letters I wrote -- drafts are drafts).  When someone writes you a letter, he or she has crafted for you a gift.  When you hold the letter in your hands, you know that person spent their time thinking of you.  Someone has made you a paper flower, and it has floated downstream, and now you can hold it to your breast. 

What brought back all these memories for me was a visit to the website of the International Union of Mail-Artists.  The photos of postcards, letters, and collages in this blog entry were found on that site.  It warms my nerdy little heart to know that there are people out there still sending each other physical mail -- that they never stopped -- that people still take the time to create unique and personal artworks and send them to each other.  I urge you to take a look around their website and see if it doesn't inspire you to dig out your paints or scrap-booking materials and create something nice for someone you know who's far away.  Or maybe even to take a few minutes to make the day of someone you've never even met.

As for me... it's time for me to go.  I think I hear the mail truck.  

Artworks in this blog posted at IUOMA by members Janine Weiss-Vuille, Denis Charmot, Valentine Mark Herman, HouseOfHearts, Douglas Galloway, and Amazon59.

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  1. I'm glad you discovered IUOMA and glad you rediscovered your mailbox! I am Andytgeezer on IUOMA and also lamented my poor deficient postfix for a while, but thanks to IUOMA I no longer have that problem! Yay!