USPS

The boxes are about 4 feet by 4 feet, and 4 or 5 inches tall. They look like giant pizza boxes, but I’ve never seen a pizza box so I couldn’t make that comparison. I ‘m about 8 years old, helping my dad on his rural mail route, and on this spring morning we are delivering baby chicks to a farm a few miles out of town.

The boxes have little holes in the sides, just big enough for a child’s finger. And there is a constant peeping noise coming from the boxes. I stick my finger in, and feel a soft, warm fluffiness. I want to bring it closer and pet it, but it moves away from my finger.

Boxes of baby chicks were one of the many things my dad delivered to the farmers on his mail route, but they were my favorites. Packages, letters, advertisements (he called these “boxholders” because they came in bulk, simply addressed to “Boxholder, Edelstein Illinois”) were loaded up every morning and carried around the 50 or so miles of the route.

I helped Dad on the route most Saturdays, and during the summer when school was out I rode with him even more often. I sat in the “shotgun” seat of his Studebaker, with a cardboard box of newspapers and letters between us; Dad had sorted and bundled all the mail before we set out, so that at each mailbox we could pick up the newspaper and the mail for that patron. Mailboxes were sometimes on the right side of the road, sometimes on the left; when Dad pulled up to one on the right side, I would reach out, open the box, and shove in the bundle of mail.

Sometimes a mailbox would have its flag up; that meant there was something to be picked up. Usually it was a letter, stamped and ready to be sent on its way, but sometimes there would be a note and some change: someone wanting to buy stamps or penny postcards, which dad carried in a wax-paper envelope in his pouch. Occasionally there would be a gift: a plate of cookies, or a package of sausage from a recent hog-butchering.  

Mail arrived at the post office, and left it, in two ways. The less interesting of these was Peter Post’s truck (yes, that was really his name). He drove from Peoria very early in the morning with a sack of mail, and took an outgoing sack away with him. Much more fun was the mail cart that old Lee McWhorter wheeled up from the depot every morning and every afternoon. Two mail trains went past the depot each day (never stopping, of course; the town was too small for that, even though many years ago it had been larger and there was actually a waiting room in the depot with a couple of benches and a pot-bellied stove) and threw off one or two gray canvas mail bags. Lee loaded them into his two-wheeled cart and trundled them the three blocks to the post office, where Dad and the Doris, the postmistress, dumped them out and sorted them. Dad got the rural mail; Doris got the in-town mail.

This was the USPS as I knew it, growing up. We lived in a tiny village, so I never saw a “postman,” though I had read stories and seen pictures of a man in a blue uniform, with a leather pouch hanging from his shoulder, delivering mail from house to house. I had never seen a mail truck, or even a specially built mailman’s car with the controls on the right-hand side. Houses in our town didn’t have mail slots; people who lived in town walked to the post office and collected their mail from little glass-fronted pigeonholes in the lobby. Special delivery letters, or certified mail, or priority, or overnight delivery, didn’t exist – or if they did, we didn’t have them in Edelstein. It was all pretty simple: the mail came in by train or truck, and Doris and Dad and the old Studebaker took it from there.

It’s been more than 70 years since I rode the mail route with Dad. I’d like to be able to do it again, to reach out of the car window and try to snatch leaves off the tall weeds by the side of the road as we drive past, or pet the farmers’ dogs when they run to the mailbox to greet us, or listen to One Man’s Family on the car radio as Dad maneuvers the Studebaker along dusty summer roads or up icy hills to deliver Christmas packages.

Few little girls, I think, have had the privilege of spending so many hours with their father, riding through the countryside, talking and listening, watching the farms and fields pass by. So for me the USPS hasn’t just brought me my mail every day – it has given me my father, too. It has helped Dad and me to know and respect and love each other. And that’s worth a lot more than a package of sausage or even a box of baby chicks!

Intransigent

blog4-2Walking along yesterday afternoon, enjoying the relatively cool weather and wondering how long it would last, I realized that I needed to write something to bring to my Writers’ Group. But what to write about? My mind was already occupied by listening to a Talking Book, and watching out for unmasked pedestrians that I’d need to avoid, and enjoying the wonderful scents of those tiny white flowers clustered on the bushes by the sidewalk – were there any brain cells left over to think about writing?

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a word popped into my awareness: “intransigent.” Where in the world did that come from? Not from the Talking Book; its hero was busy drinking vodka and singing Swedish folk songs. There were no other pedestrians in sight, masked or unmasked, and I can’t think of any reason to connect “intransigent” with the white flowers. It was simply a gift, a random hiccup from a couple of neurons that accidentally connected somewhere behind my forehead. But there it was, and I had to use it. Continue reading Intransigent

The USPS

chicksThe boxes are about 4 feet by 4 feet, and 4 or 5 inches tall. They look like giant pizza boxes, but I’ve never seen a pizza box so I couldn’t make that comparison. I’m about 8 years old, helping my dad on his rural mail route, and on this spring morning we are delivering baby chicks to farms a few miles out of town.

The boxes have little holes in the sides, just big enough for a child’s finger. And there is a constant peeping noise coming from the boxes. I stick my finger in, and feel a soft, warm fluffiness. I want to bring it closer and pet it, but it moves away from my finger. Continue reading The USPS

Portrait of the Artist…

artTableI walked out of my bedroom this morning and stared at my work table. Littered with colored pencils, erasers, masking fluid, all the tools of the artist’s trade, it sneered back at me.

At various times in my life I’ve flirted with image-making. Back in high school, I tried oil paints. Later, it was water colors. Charcoal drifted into my awareness and became my medium of choice. Then Photoshop sang its siren song, and the convenience of digital techniques overwhelmed all the rest. And now it’s colored pencils. Continue reading Portrait of the Artist…

Morning

earlyMorningSmell. Scent. Odor. All words that refer to that most difficult to quantify of all our senses. And none of them captures the incredible, almost magical, ability that smell has to call forth memories. We all know about it, have experienced it: a waft of perfume, and we are back in the high school gym on prom night. Brush against a pine branch, and we see a Christmas tree with presents piled underneath, and kids saying “Now? Can we now? Is it time?”

For me, though, nothing is as evocative as the smell of early morning in early summer. That fresh, cool, newness, the newness of a world not yet awake, a day not quite begun. The promise of something good, something special, about to happen. Continue reading Morning

Skin-Hunger

baby monkeyIn the 1950’s when I was studying psychology at the University of Wisconsin, psychological research was quite different from what it is now. Psychologists were not so sensitive about the effects of their studies on those who volunteered to be “subjects,” and some were treated very badly. The infamous “Eichmann experiments,” for instance, led subjects to believe that they were administering painful electric shocks to someone in another room (where a confederate gave out realistic moans and screams of distress); the study was designed to explore how far a normal person would go when ordered to harm someone else. Philip Zimbardo, at Stanford, put students into a simulated prison; some were “prisoners” and some were “guards.” Zimbardo and his colleagues studied how quickly the “guards” began to behave cruelly and even sadistically toward their “prisoners.”

Animal studies, too, were conducted with only the most perfunctory concern for the welfare of the animals being observed. Laboratory rats had electrodes placed in their brains or were placed on electrified grids to study the effects of punishment. Animals have been starved, stressed, over-crowded, and even given surgical brain damage in the name of research. Continue reading Skin-Hunger

Owls

owl1As the country begins to open up again, people are starting to flock into the countryside and into our parks and wilderness areas. Great for the people who are tired of being cooped up; maybe not so great for the animals whose homes are being re-invaded. Owls, for instance. I have a special Thing for owls.

I learned early in life that the Owl is a Wise Bird with a Messy Nest, and I’ve been trying to emulate him ever since. I have a small collection of owls, made of everything from wood to glass, from soapstone to alabaster, proudly displayed in my living room. At one time I even had owl wallpaper in my bathroom, and a bright red toilet seat with an owl painted on the lid (the story of bringing that toilet seat home to Oregon from the East coast, and how Katherine Hepburn got into the trip, is far too long to related here). Continue reading Owls

Crackpots

crackpotThe other day I heard someone give this recipe for getting along in life: “If it moves when it shouldn’t, use duct tape; if it doesn’t move when it should, use WD40; if it’s stuck, hit it with a hammer.”

The duct tape and the WD40 I can go along with, but I’m dubious about the hammer part of it. Because the stuck-ness in my life most often happens inside my own head, and I don’t think hitting it with a hammer is likely to help. It’s more likely to just give me a headache, or turn me into a crackpot (did you know that the word “crackpot” came originally from “crack” + “pate”, meaning literally a cracked skull?). Continue reading Crackpots

Premature

openDid you ever have a creepy, uncomfortable feeling that the Universe was trying to give you a message? That omens could really mean something? That powers outside your understanding might be prowling around, casting weird shadows, poking their bony fingers into your life?

I began this morning, as is my habit, by checking out the day’s news. It was full of stories about “opening up,” about beginning to work our way back into some semblance of normality.

Then I checked my “prompt” list to find out what I was supposed to write about today. There it was, in big black letters: premature. It’s enough to give you the chills! Continue reading Premature

Complication

escherWay back in 1939, Winston Churchill described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The phrase was so arresting that people have been quoting it ever since. It fits so many complicated situations, so many things we simply can’t figure out.

How to deal with covid-19 is certainly a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It is an unbelievably complicated problem, one with so many parts and pieces, all tangled up together, each affecting all the others in dozens of different ways. How to keep ourselves healthy, of course. How to find a vaccine, and a cure. How to protect the economy. How to distribute resources fairly. How to educate our kids. What about sporting events, and theatre, and the arts? The advertising industry? And, of course, for politicians – who to blame? Continue reading Complication