Anger Management

mad kidMaria Konnikova’s piece in the New York Times,The Lost Art of the Unsent Angry Letter,” delineates one of the steepest downsides of instant communications: hitting the send button too swiftly and too often. Citing examples from Abraham Lincoln to Harry S. Truman, Konnikova reminds us that some things are better left unsaid—or at least unsent. Many an angry letter was written but filed for posterity to read, not its intended target.

I still sometimes vent frustration by penning notes with each letter scrawled on top of the one preceding it. My message quickly turns into a dark blot in the middle of the notepad, maybe with a hole in the center where the paper thinned because I was REALLY miffed and needed a lot of stacked words to explain why. I’ll never hit the send key by mistake. No one will unearth it from my computer’s buried memory. I’ve said what I needed to say, but not what anyone else will read. Occasionally, communications works best as a one way street.

Depredators of the Mail!

Secret Service annotatedWhen my grandfather was a child, someone named E.S. Harding gave him a copy of The Secret Service of the Post Office Department. (Or, on the book’s spine, the Post Oiffice Department—nothing like an extra i to add symmetry.)

At 583 pages, the tome is chock full of “the wonderful exploits of special agents or inspectors in the detection, pursuit and capture of depredators upon the mails.”

I love this book, from the cover’s crossed mailbags rampant to the 162 engravings of stage coaches and wily depredators with captions like, “With guilt pictured upon every lineament, he answered, ‘I have not got the letter.'”

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is still active, of course. One of  America’s most venerable law enforcement agencies, 2000 postal inspectors pursue criminals who tamper with our mail.

If you live near Washington, D.C. you might still catch the special exhibit “Postal Inspectors: The Silent Service” at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum before it ends April 8, 2014. Or visit online to read about Public Enemy #1 or to try your hand at solving a case.

The Secret Service of the Post Office Department was already decades old when Harding gave it to Grampa. Perhaps it was a favorite book or perhaps he thought the tales of derring-do just the thing for a young boy. Harding chose well because that book became one of the few possessions my grandfather brought with him when he moved from Maryland to California.

So it’s high time I finally read it. Look for the occasional future post about the “complicated contrivances of the wily and unscrupulous to defraud the public.” I promise that the stories will be both hair-raising and condensed. In other words, I’ll read the book so you don’t have to!

Film Friday: Dear Frankie

Dear Frankie CoverI love, love, LOVE this movie. Dear Frankie, starring Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, and a luminous young actor named Jack McElhone, is that rare delight—a pitch perfect film.

For years Lizzie has told her son, Frankie, that his father is away at sea. She encourages Frankie to write letters to him care of a post office box in Glasgow. Lizzie answers them, talking about the sun beating down on the ship’s rail and the taste of salt air on the tongue. Frankie’s deaf, but we hear his voice through the letters he sends his Da.

Disaster looms when a cargo ship bearing the name of the one Lizzie made up is scheduled to dock in a few days. Frankie asks if his father is coming home, so Lizzie hires a stranger to play his dad for the day, just one special day and he will be off to sea again.

From the lyrical piano music that begins and ends the movie to the gritty, yet beautiful, port side town, Dear Frankie is an unforgettable film. By turns funny and touching, it brims with sentiment but is never sentimental. Plus, let’s not forget hearing Gerard Butler speak with his true Scottish accent!

Add Dear Frankie to your watch list; you won’t regret it.

Film Friday: Let me know if you give Dear Frankie your stamp of approval.

Visit Film Friday’s Pinterest pinboard, Lights, Letters, Action!


The Titanic Remembered

letter_2859332a“My most tragic memory of my seventeen year trip around the world is the Titanic sinking. I’m 83 years old, but it is an hour [a moment] of my life that I will never forget.” So begins a letter purportedly written by Rose Amelie Icard in 1955, the longest living French survivor of the disaster. At age 38, Icard boarded the Titanic as a lady’s maid.

Mike Delgado bought her 10-page letter at an auction and posted it on Reddit, asking for help with translation. Icard may have written the letter 43 years after the events described, but decades could not fade such harrowing memories.   Continue reading…

Mail for Sale

churchill2There’s a booming business in mail today—at least on the auction block. On sale this week are letters by both Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway, expected to fetch $25,000 to $50,000.

When Churchill resigned as Prime Minister in 1955, he wrote to John Harvey to explain why he was stepping down at age 81. It’s worth noting that Churchill retired as PM, not from British politics; he served as a member of Parliament for another nine years.   Continue reading…

Ladies with Letters: A Little Austen

Vittorio ReggianiniTo paraphrase “We Need a Little Christmas,” sometimes:

I need a little Austen
Right this very minute
Candles in the window
Lizzy at the spinet…

And doesn’t this portrait look like an illustration for a Jane Austen novel? Vittorio Reggianini, an Italian artist born in 1858 (or maybe 1853), painted this letter-sharing duo. Part of the Florentine historical genre school, he usually depicted elegant folk in luxurious settings.

While these women might be wearing gowns from the late 1800s, their attire looks much more like the Regency era Austen made famous. I could easily imagine them as Elizabeth and Jane Bennett or Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, although neither pair of sisters could afford such lush gowns. Note how the sheen of the ivory silk reflects the peach and check out those impossibly tiny shoes. Didn’t any women in the 19th century have big feet?

Not only do I love their look of shared secrets, but also how they’re sharing the letter. People regularly shared mail, passing letters around the family and mutual friends. Facebook is not the first to invent that concept.

Whatever the era, this painting makes me smile. And hum—”Because when you need a little Austen, right this very minute...”

You can find products with this image in the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.

Something for You: 1 Chicken

Escaping Chicken delivery noteLet’s give a loud tweet on the postman’s whistle to the alert mail carrier in Somerset, England, who left this note for Leanne Preston when her chicken flew the coop.

  • Number of Items: 1 chicken
  • Could not be delivered because: It’s too large

No doubt the freedom to escape is dear to Windmill—the chicken Mrs. Preston calls “a bit of a Houdini”—because it’s an ex-commercial caged hen, adopted from the British Hen Welfare Trust. Mrs. Preston first posted a photo of the delivery slip on the trust’s Facebook page, which features oodles of photogenic chickens, but only one busted by the Royal Mail.Unknown

Start Spreading the News

NYCWe shared I love yous, and I know it’s something I’ve felt from our first dance. A part of me just didn’t want to accept it. A part of me didn’t believe it was real, but what if it is. I can’t risk not taking a risk.

So begins a love letter addressed “Dear New York City,” recently found taped to the side of a building at 98 Orchard Street. According to the blog Bowery Boogie, the envelope is marked 1/40 so perhaps NYC can expect 39 more to pop up around the neighborhood.

If you were to write a love letter to your favorite city, town, village, where would that be?

See the letter—both in its envelope and out—at Bowery Boogie. 


Linked by Mail: China & the U.S.

First Flight Cover -- round the world via Hong Kong

1937 First Flight Cover celebrating Pan Am’s new roundtrip route to China via Hong Kong

The Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. has opened a fascinating new exhibit on the Pacific Exchange: China & U.S. Mail, March 6, 2014 – January 4, 2015. In both English and Mandarin the exhibit’s landing page states:

Giant Panda Stamp 1973“Using mail and stamps, Pacific Exchange brings a human scale to Chinese-U.S. relations in three areas: commerce, culture, and community. The exhibit focuses on the 1860s to the 1970s, a time of extraordinary change in China. It also explores Chinese immigration to the United States, now home to four million Chinese Americans.”

museum web page traces the history of China and America’s exchange of goods, ideas, diplomacy and stamps through the stories behind the exhibition’s envelopes and postage.

Save Our Cursive

1890s penmanship - what grampa taughtHas it come to this? The Tennessee House of Representatives has introduced a measure to require schools to teach students cursive writing. Learning to loop and join together alphabet letters used to be a rite of passage for third grade kids, but it’s in danger of being phased out in some school districts. Now that a computer in every classroom is giving way to a computer at every desk—if not in school, then at home—the handwritten essay may become obsolete.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE computers in general and my Mac in particular, but even my font menu still includes several cursive options. If we stop teaching children cursive, not only will Microsoft Word need to update that font list, but one day only scholars will be able to read original documents that range from the Declaration of Independence to the lyrics for “Eleanor Rigby” (handwritten by John Lennon on a scrap of notebook paper).

Several states (including my native California) have already taken action, adding a cursive requirement to their national standards. Bravo! Keep our handwritten heritage alive, if not in practice, at least in training.

Now if only someone will author a bill that requires doctors to learn a legible form of cursive…