NPR logo

E-Mail's OK, But Nothing Beats Snail Mail

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133470773/133470762" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
E-Mail's OK, But Nothing Beats Snail Mail

Digital Life

E-Mail's OK, But Nothing Beats Snail Mail

E-Mail's OK, But Nothing Beats Snail Mail

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133470773/133470762" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The U.S. Post Office recently announced it plans to close or consolidate as many as 2,000 branches. Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum confesses to a love affair with snail mail, and writes that email and Facebook are fine, "but nothing can replace the real deal."

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service recently announced plans to shut or consolidate as many as 2,000 branches. This is sad, even worrying news for Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum.

In her column today, "In Praise of Snail Mail," she confesses a love not of the letter per se but of mail. She fears the days of waiting for your neighborhood mail carrier to bring your birthday card or a note from a pen pal are waning. And she writes that while living in New York, she used to sprint down several flights of stairs several times a day to see whether the mail had arrived.

Meghan Daum is joining us from member station KPCC in Pasadena. And if you're home right now, worried that maybe snow is keeping your mailman from getting through, or if you've ever watched your mailman out of your window when you were a kid, or if your own kids have poured lemonade for the carrier who shows up on your doorstep six days a week, tell us your mail story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Well, Meghan Daum, thanks for joining us. And let me start by asking you, you still get excited, I gather, for that daily mail drop.

Ms. MEGHAN DAUM (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): I do, Mary Louise, and I have to confess it's - it almost always ends in disappointment. Unfortunately, it seems like about 80 percent of what comes in the mail these days can be deposited directly into the trash. We've gone from the sort of letters, personal letters, and maybe a baked item from grandma, things like that, that I remember growing up in the '70s and '80s, to a lot of flyers from carpet cleaning companies, and bills, of course.

KELLY: Credit card offers.

Ms. DAUM: A lot. Yeah. A lot of...

KELLY: Furniture catalogs.

Ms. DAUM: Literal junk.

KELLY: Literal junk.

Ms. DAUM: And one might do, well, to put their garbage can right next to the mail box.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: When is the last time that you actually got a heartfelt personal letter in the mail?

Ms. DAUM: I still get them from time to time. I think people know that I like them, and I like to send handwritten thank you notes, although I had to say my handwriting has deteriorated to an embarrassing degree. I often - I've had letters actually come back to me because the postal service can't read my handwriting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAUM: Can't make out the ZIP code, so...

KELLY: It's the BlackBerry blisters on your thumb...

Ms. DAUM: Yeah.

KELLY: ...prohibiting you from gripping the pen.

KELLY: I do. Yeah. But I mean, you know, for me, what I think has been lost most palpably is the way mail once served as a reflection of your household. I mean, it was something that was physically part of your house, of your personal space. And I think for those of us who grew up before the age of ubiquitous email, there was the sense in childhood of being able to look at a stack of mail in your house and having a sense that this belongs to my family. This somehow reflects the contours of the household. These are the bills that come every month that my parents must pay. These are the magazines we receive. This is what my aunt's handwriting looks like, that sort of thing. And there was a comfort in that, and it pretty much doesn't exist anymore.

KELLY: Well - and you also write beautifully. I thought about - aside from the actual content of the mail, just - it's a point of punctuation in our days, and has been for so long. Most people have a rough idea, particularly if they work from home, or stay-at-home parents, you know, of what time their mail carrier arrives, and you're kind of listening for that thunk out there.

Ms. DAUM: Yeah. You know, as a home office worker, we're always looking for ways to distract ourselves, so waiting, you know, going to get the mail seems much more of a legitimate reason to get up from your chair than opening the refrigerator for the 12th time that morning, or you know, sneaking a peek at the TV.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAUM: So yeah, it's definitely - saying I live for the mail is kind of the universal phrase of pathetic-ness, but unfortunately it's true. It used to be more true than it is now. But it's - there's a kernel of truth there still.

KELLY: You know, it's funny. I remember as a little girl having pen pals and looking forward to their letters and writing back. And, you know, putting perfume on the letters that I was sending to certain people or -you know, one of the producers here mentioned, you know, using sealing wax on letters. There are all of these rituals.

Ms. DAUM: Hmm.

KELLY: And I wonder if, you know, young kids today look up from their iPhones long enough to have some fun like that.

Ms. DAUM: Oh, I don't know. I would be curious to hear from them. They probably just think this is some sort of arcane ritual, I mean, like going to visit Colonial Williamsburg or something, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAUM: This is like a little sticker that we used to put on the back. I had the sealing wax as a kid. I was a huge, huge letter writer as a kid, before my handwriting totally fell apart. And, yeah, I loved the wax, and I love stationery. I mean, going into a stationery store is like this incredibly sensual experience, in a lot of ways, I mean, the colors and the textures and the paper, and it is kind of academic, though, in some ways. You have to be sort of a connoisseur. It's not something that you would use necessarily in your everyday life.

KELLY: You know, one thing I thought about as I was reading is it's not only the art of writing a personal letter that has been lost, but also the art of sending a beautiful invitation to a party, or that type thing. I mean, I receive far more Evites these days than actual paper invitations to just about anything other a wedding, it seems like.

Ms. DAUM: I think you can Evite for a wedding.

KELLY: Yeah. I'm sure it's done.

Ms. DAUM: I shudder to think. But apparently, that goes on as an option.

KELLY: It's funny, though, you know, certain things seemed to have bucked the trend. I mean, if my mailbox is any indication, people still do send actual, physical paper holiday cards. I didn't get that many email holiday cards. People still dig out that picture and write their family letter and print it out and mail it to you.

Ms. DAUM: Oh, your friends must be more polite that mine. I - you know, I've ranted about this before in the column, the whole phenomenon of the holiday newsletter. I feel like that's fallen by the wayside. I mean, for one thing, I am getting these e-cards more and more. And then people, instead of sending an - a physical card, they make these photo cards. So - and it has the picture of the kids or whatever, and then names and the greetings are printed right on them, and they seem sort of impersonal that way.

But, yeah, the newsletters, they have always been art form unto themselves. I mean, I remember, again, as a kid, reading these missives from near strangers about how many trophies their kids won this year or their latest gallstone operation and being so intrigued. You know, these were often relatives that I've - I had perhaps never met, or people from my parents' past. I mean, that, for me - the mail really was this kind of portal into the life that my parents lived before I was born, you know. This is a newsletter from my mother's college roommate, for instance. And this is what this person's kids look like, and this is where they live. And it's like, wow. My parents had a life before I existed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: Who knew?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: Let me bring a caller into the conversation. This is Carl calling from Tulsa, Oklahoman. Carl, you're on the air. Hi.

CARL (Caller): Hi. I am a member of the International Union of Mail Artists.

KELLY: Ah.

Ms. DAUM: Wow.

CARL: So, we make postcards and other key pieces of mail that are sent through the postal service. I'm a collage artist. I paste things together. And mostly, I just make postcards. But some members make really elaborate packages and things and send them to through mail. And it's something that I just started doing a few months ago and have really - it's really kind of amazing thing for me to do. It's a great outlet for artistic things that I've always played around with and never had an outlet for. And I just love it.

KELLY: Hmm. It's interesting. You mentioned you make artistic postcards. Meghan Daum, does - how does that factor into your concern about mail dropping off? Do people still send postcards?

Ms. DAUM: I hardly ever get them anymore. If it was an artistic postcard - I mean, I just hope that it would stay intact. I think of a collage going through the mail, and I hope that it doesn't get shredded to bits or something like that. But, no, I love this idea.

I mean, again, it's - the whole - paper as a tactile entity is something that's kind of an incomparable, and I love to hear that people are still thinking about it and working with it.

KELLY: Carl, may I ask how you came to choose this medium, how you found yourself making these collages for postcards?

CARL: Well, I have a friend - who's actually an online friend, who I've never met personally - who's been doing this for years, and he sent me one. I guess I was next on his list. And that kind of sparked it off of for me. I sent one back to him. And I joined a group online called the International Union of Mail Artists. And there's a big social networking component to that, that we, you know, we post pictures of the postcards we received, and things like that. But still, the core of everything is actual physical document.

And part of the excitement of it, part of the joy of it is seeing what happens to it as it goes through the mail, seeing the postmarks and seeing the - you know, I received a piece - one of the first ones I got was this very intricate, computer-drawn geometric design. But it was printed on regular paper, and it had gotten a little bit of water on it. And so, that completely changed the design. It had this - the change in tone, and it's all part of the process. It's all part of the way it works.

KELLY: Hmm. Well, thanks so much for calling in, Carl. We appreciate it. And we've got another caller on the line. This is Lisa in Mount Dora, Florida.

Hi, Lisa. You're on the line, here.

LISA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me. I wanted to comment on what the last caller just said. I am a quilter, and I wait anxiously every day for my mailperson, who hates me, because I send so many packages. And I also send quilted postcards through the mail. And I'm one of the only people I know who actually make postcards and mail them.

KELLY: Huh. And...

Ms. DAUM: Wow.

KELLY: Yeah. What do you make of that, Meghan Daum?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAUM: I don't know. I don't really - are you sure your postal carrier hates you? I would think that they would love you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAUM: The postal service must love you.

KELLY: You're keeping them in work

Ms. DAUM: You're keeping them in business. Yeah.

LISA: He hates me because I always have packages where he has to get out of his car and come to my door. And I live in Florida, so it's nice and hot, and he has to constantly leave that semi-air conditioning. And I -for some reason, I never seem to put enough postage on my postcards, or whatever. So he's always giving me tickets for additional postage due, but that's okay.

Ms. DAUM: Oh, you need a mail scale. That's all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAUM: It should be your next birthday gift.

KELLY: All right. Thank you for the call, Lisa.

LISA: Thank you.

KELLY: Thank you. All right. We're here talking with Meghan Daum about her love of snail mail and the ritual of the daily mail check. And we've got an email here. This is Christina, writing from Rochester, New York. And she writes: Our neighborhood mail carrier not only brings mail, but brings the local gossip, just like in the good, old days. There would be a real gap in our connectiveness(ph) to the folks down the road if we lost her. In the time it takes for her to juggle the mail into my mailbox, we can have a porch-side conversation about new babies, what's going on down the street, and can we confirm the names and addresses of any pets that have been wandering by. Nothing could replace that. Meghan...

Ms. DAUM: Oh, that's great.

KELLY: ...mail carrier as gossip carrier, as well - a neighborhood connection point.

Ms. DAUM: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAUM: I had a postman who would often, you know, come to the door and say, well, you know, you got a bill from Macy's, I noticed here, you know? You know, I - oh, you've been - I noticed you've been shopping a lot lately. So it wasn't so much gossip, but sort of idled chitchat. You know, it's funny, because we do have a personal relationship with our postal carrier, in some cases.

I mean, I think it's - again, it's one of these sort of subtle, quality-of-life issues that you wouldn't necessarily think about when you're, for instance, assessing a neighborhood or something. But it, you know, you can have the kind of postal carrier that seems to change a lot or doesn't know anybody's name and you wouldn't know his or her name or that kind of thing. But then, you can have these sort of great, little friendships with these sorts of people.

I mean, my postman in New York - probably because I was forever bounding into the lobby to see if he'd come yet, you know, we knew each other on a, you know, name basis. And I never had to put it in a little card, saying I was going to go out of town. I would just tell him the day before I was going to be gone, and he would hold the mail until I got back. And in the middle of Manhattan, that was kind of a great little aspect of life.

KELLY: A rare thing, to know your mail carrier's name.

We're talking with Meghan Daum, and this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Meghan, another email here that I'd love to read to you. This is Michael, writing from Algoma, Wisconsin. And he writes: A couple years ago, my granddaughter told my daughter that she wanted to get mail. I sent her and her brothers a letter every week by snail mail with a dollar for each year of their life, referred to as boppy(ph) bucks. I include worksheets, thoughts, jokes, et cetera. The kids liked to get that letter every week.

It's true. It's not the same to get the email. You can't put the boppy bucks in there.

Ms. DAUM: No. And you can't put the cash in the email. You know, you're not supposed to send cash through the mail. That's sort of, you know, the cardinal rule of being a reasonable person. But it's kind of great. My grandmother used to send $5 bills to us in the mail. And it just seemed like a colossal amount of money at the time.

KELLY: Hmm.

Ms. DAUM: And it - just getting a check is not the same. I'm not advocating sending cash through the mail, but it's nice when it does arrive.

KELLY: It reminds me, too, of the long-awaited letters, you know, at camp, when you're away from home for a couple of weeks, or a month.

Ms. DAUM: Yes.

KELLY: And the letter from your grandfather that maybe you wouldn't have cared that much about if you'd gotten it at home in the middle of your daily life, it suddenly became, you know, life-changing when you got that letter.

Ms. DAUM: Well, it's such a status thing when you're at camp, or even when you're in college, to be able to go to your little box or cubby or what it is and be the person who gets a lot of mail. I mean, there was a kind of hierarchy in that.

KELLY: One more email. This is a poignant one from Keith, writing in San Rafael, California. He writes: When clearing out our parents' home after they both passed away, I discovered mom kept every letter I send her from college - or working overseas, or in another state - for 30 years, with the envelope. It was like reading a life journal I ever - a life journal that I never kept.

That's a lovely way of thinking it, too, the chronology of the correspondence and the weight of them over the years.

Ms. DAUM: That's great to hear. That's really lovely. And I wonder how many people will ever be able to do that with emails that they send, even non-tossed-off emails. Are they going to be archived in some sort of logical, cohesive, findable way? I kind of doubt it.

KELLY: Yeah. Yeah. Well, are you going to do anything today to reverse the trend? Go out and write a letter to somebody?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAUM: Well, I'm going to write some checks and put them in the mail. So there's a start. But, yeah. Maybe I will get inspired today and put something in the post.

KELLY: Well, I'm going to let you go and start working on my handwritten thank-you note to you for coming on the show today.

Ms. DAUM: I better get it in the next 10 days.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: There you go. There you go. We've been talking with Meghan Daum. She's a columnist for The L.A. Times. There's a link to her piece today at our website: npr.org. And we thank you again for your time, Meghan.

Ms. DAUM: Thanks.

KELLY: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, and Ira Flatow will be here for a look at how walking could make your brain bigger. Plus, a recipe for turning skin cells into heart cells.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.