You've got mail(box)

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, April 19, 2011 10:49 PM

It’s a ritual nearly as old as the fine art of writing itself. It is the art of writing a letter and putting it in the mail with the hope and knowledge that it will make its journey however long or short to its intended destination; that it will be delivered via a certified mail delivery person who will walk, drive, or ride to deposit the envelope into a proper receptacle. A mailbox.

According to the National Postal Museum, the mailbox has been around for more than 150 years. But the earliest history of a mailbox in the US is actually at the corner of Boxtree Road and Lewis Road in East Quogue, New York. It stood there in the late 1700s. In 1863, postal carriers began delivering mail to homes by knocking on doors and waiting patiently for someone to answer. Because people were often not home, mail like that special letter, wasn't delivered in a timely manner. People soon began installing mail slots or letterboxes as they’re known in Europe. Of course, this was in the city. If you lived in the country, where roads were scarcely traveled, there was often no delivery at all. In 1896, the United States Post Office introduced a concept called rural free delivery, though mailboxes consisted of empty bushel baskets, tins and wooden boxes. In 1923, the Post Office mandated that every household have either a mailbox or a mail slot in order to have mail delivered. The flag was added later.

Originally, the flag was raised not by the owner of the box to signify outgoing mail, but by the mail delivery person to indicate mail had been delivered. Post Office employee Roy Joroleman designed the curved, tunnel-shaped box, so rain and snow could slide off, with its latching door and movable signal flag to indicate outgoing mail in 1915. This box became the standard for years, especially after the Post Office issued specifications for curbside mailbox construction for use by a variety of manufacturers.

Luckily, not everyone complies with the standard. And as long as they conform with specs that will hold at least one and half inches of stacked envelopes without bending or damage, be about 9 inches wide and 13 inches high, standing between 27 inches and 66.5 inches off the ground and be able to withstand rain, wind, snow or sleet, they’re OK to display any artistic box they want.

Mail delivery is what truly matters; the style and shape and personality of the box is what defines both the mail sender and the receiver. It’s a way to non-conform and a way to celebrate originality.

Our mailbox is currently standard issue. A black dome shape. Some of the paint has flaked off, exposing gray steel beneath. The front latch takes some coaxing to get it to catch correctly. The box came with the house and it’s on a post at the curb with three other boxes just like it. It holds our incoming and outgoing mail, and its red flag works just fine.

I have to admit that I’d like to revert to the old days, when the flag was raised to indicate mail had arrived. It’s much more dramatic and suspenseful to see what’s waiting, who wrote, and what they have to say.

These days, most of the people who write are asking me to send them money. In other words, you’ve got bills!

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The great first paragraph from "Here on Earth"

by Lorin Michel Friday, April 15, 2011 5:27 PM

"Tonight, the hay in the fields is already brittle with frost, especially to the west of Fox Hill, where the pastures shine like stars. In October, darkness begins to settle by four-thirty and although the leaves have turned scarlet and gold, in the dark everything is a shadow of itself, gray with a purple edge. At this time of year, these woods are best avoided, or so the local boys say. Even the bravest among them wouldn’t dare stray from the High Road after soccer practice at Firemen’s Field, and those who are old enough to stand beside the murky waters of Olive Tree Lake and pry kisses from their girlfriends still walk home quickly. If the truth by told, some of them run. A person could get lost up here. After enough wrong turns he might find himself in the Marshes, and once he was there, a man could wander forever among the minnows and the reeds, his soul struggling to find its way long after his bones had been discovered and buried on the crest of the hill, where wild blueberries grow."

The opening lines from Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman.

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great first paragraphs

The great first paragraph from "The Poisonwood Bible"

by Lorin Michel Monday, April 11, 2011 6:40 PM

"Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever."

The opening lines from The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

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great first paragraphs

Of pen and paper

by Lorin Michel Saturday, March 26, 2011 7:59 PM

The art of putting pen to paper now seems quaint. Since the advent of typewriters and then computers with integrated keyboards, most people rarely pick up a pen to actually handwrite a note, a letter, a poem, a story. I fall into that category myself, since I can type much faster than I can scribble. But there is something organic and lovely about physically handwriting something. It’s a process unique to civilized humanity and it puts us deeply in touch with what we’re saying.

Putting pen to paper requires focused and sustaining thought. There is no delete key, so it becomes a much more deliberate process. And that alone makes it worthwhile. To be deliberate is to engage almost all of the senses in order to create something that can live forever. You can see the words as they appear, and hear the silky, scratching sound the pen makes on the paper, paper that feels good under your fingers. Ink has a gentle, oily fragrance that floats in through the nose and settles on the tongue. You can taste the smell of good ink. Imagine the men who penned the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and how the scent and taste of ink must have wafted through Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

It was the Phoenicians who first developed a system of letters for writing, albeit one without vowels. The Greeks added vowels to this alphabet in the 8th century BC, influencing the Hebrew and Aramaic scripts that followed. The Romans adopted a modified version by the Etruscans and virtually invented cursive writing, an informal style of writing that began as a derivative of capital letters that was much less precise than ever before. Charlemagne, the commanding Roman Emperor, also conquered handwriting, commissioning a new style called Carolingian minuscule. Gothic script evolved from there as did copperplate engraving, a process that better produced the flourishes in handwritten script. It was known as Spencerian, Getty-Dubay, Icelandic, Zaner-Bloser, and D’Nealian. Penmanship.

Some of the greatest dictates and professions humanity has ever known came from putting pen to paper. The first Bibles were handwritten, often in the original Greek. Proclamations of war and declarations of love were all handwritten; many still survive today. The letters of Napoleon Bonaparte to his beloved Josephine can still be read. The musings of Benjamin Franklin are still on display. Jane Austen hand wrote all of her novels; Emily Dickinson all of her poems. Museums house both and more. Since 2004, football great Peyton Manning has been handwriting letters to retired players he admires.

I find it almost impossible to come up with an idea without a pen or pencil in my hand. It helps me think, it spurs creative thought. I know there are people who think and create just fine with a keyboard, as do I on many the occasion, but there’s something comforting about holding a writing instrument, about the power it possesses to change the world with nothing but a simple movement of the hand.

I’m writing this blog post on a keyboard and I wouldn’t trade my Mac for anything, except maybe another Mac. But here on the desk beside me is an assortment of pens and pencils. In the drawer ahead are even more. Loose papers and notebooks are stacked on the floor. In every room of the house, there are pens and paper just waiting to be used.

Because you never know when inspiration might strike, and I believe in always being ready.

Pen on paper by Selinah


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