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Joel Achenbach

Surviving the Mailstrom

Dealing with modern correspondence has become an occupational hazard

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page W05

Every few weeks I go to the Post mailroom to open a bunch of stupid stuff and throw it away. Some days all I do is toss mail, purge spam and edge away from people trying to talk to me. In the 21st century, communication is a hostile act. People want your attention and have invented various wires and tubes and vectors to invade your brain. In the midst of it all is the U.S. Postal Service, with its increasingly eccentric communication debris. The office mail in particular is slightly crazy, as though it's been smoking something.

The mailroom is down a floor and across the building, and it is specially designed to ensure that if I open a letter containing anthrax it won't spread beyond the room. I assume steel doors descend instantly. You're sealed: you, the anthrax and your mail.

(Richard Thompson)

They give us razor blades in the mailroom to open letters, and they may actually come in handy if the mail gets so awful we can't take it anymore. It's been five years since I got any useful mail. The degeneration of the mail is accompanied by an increase in its size. A little press release will come in a box big enough to contain a severed head.

Also popular are packages that can be opened only with a machete, or perhaps a chainsaw. You wind up wrestling with the things on the floor, growling, cursing, rolling as though you're on fire, until finally, gasping, you manage to retrieve from the envelope something that should have its own brightly illuminated shrine in the Total Crap Hall of Fame.

The other day I went to the mailroom and waded through a three-week pile of garbage, each item slightly more perplexing than the last:

A new book, Who Killed the Jingle?: How a Unique American Art Form Disappeared. Finally, a book for jingle-lovers! (I'm thinking, why send it to me? Do people think jingles are my beat? Do people refer to me behind my back as "the jingle guy"?)

A new CD, "Romeo Rodney: Rodney Dangerfield Sings." (Do they think I'll write an article about Dangerfield crooning "Strangers in the Night"? I write only about jingles.)

A floppy picture frame made of purple duct tape, from the Humane Society. The press release says, "Why not create a piece of art using one of America's favorite tools, duct tape, to commemorate the special bond between pets and their owners?" Um, because that would be stupid?

Publications I don't read: National Review, Smithsonian Associate, Reason (with the headline "Are We Just Really Smart Robots?" -- a story I would definitely read if I weren't too busy rebooting).

An entire book in loose-leaf manuscript form, bound with a single rubber band, titled A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. It begins with a description of people eating in 1650: "The Coles ripped the meat off the bone with their dirty hands and shoved it in their mouths. Food scraps were soon scattered across the table. There were no forks, spoons, or individual cups or tankards. The cider pots were passed upon request to the person who wanted a drink." Sounds like my house when my wife's out of town.

A special report by the World Future Society, titled "53 Trends Now Shaping the Future," which includes such wild, out-on-a-limb statements as: "Important medical advances will continue to appear almost daily," and "the global economy is growing more integrated." They should add, "You will be getting very sleepy."

A Christian pamphlet from a man who calls himself The Colonel, and whose address indicates he lives in the Florida State Prison. A second enclosure, titled "My Story of Innocence," says he is serving 25 years mandatory for a murder he didn't commit. He claims to quote the prosecutor in the case, in closing arguments: "We have no weapon, no witness, and I personally do not believe Mr. McCord killed anybody. But if for nothing else, this man should be convicted for his lifestyle! One of this man's suits would buy 5 of my own!" So this guy's not a killer, just dressed to kill.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't exactly hostile, all this stuff. But it was so random. To a large degree, it wasn't really meant for me. Modern communication uses a scattershot strategy. If I died, the mail would still come. This is a glimpse of the fate of civilization. Our society is mortal; there will come a day when America and its cultural constructs will be extinct, our artifacts broken, our bones bleaching in the sun, decaying, desiccating. But someone will still need to check the mail.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

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