After seven years of living abroad, I can't decide which makes my heart beat more fondly for home: the spectacle of hockey hooligans rampaging through the streets attempting to liberate polyester loungewear from its Sears prison, or the ritual of our mail held hostage in a postal dispute.
This time, I'd have to say the postal strike wins my sympathy, not just because mail carriers are being hustled back to work by some brutal legislation, but also because it has drawn out people who think handwritten correspondence is an absurd anachronism: Snail mail? What loser still licks a stamp?
At the beginning of the series of rotating walkouts, the Internet was flooded with contempt. A postal strike - how would anyone even notice? At least mailboxes would be free from flyers advertising deep-fried pizza nuggets and The Amazing Cindy, neighbourhood psychic. Why even think about the mail when there's Twitter and e-mail and Facebook?
Well, let me tell you: Nobody has ever felt their eyes well up at the arrival of a tweet. No one is going to be clutching a bundle of tweets on their deathbed. E-mails are not redolent of old people's sock drawers, the way envelopes containing birthday money are. Facebook is a fusillade of vacation photos and cat miscellany, but a letter is a guided missile to one person's heart. Maybe it's not the hard work of writing letters that accounts for their rarity these days, but the privacy of the sentiments they contain.
When John Keats wrote to his beloved, Fanny Brawne, "I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair," maybe he was merely a captive of technology. Perhaps, 200 years later, he would have texted her a picture of his weedy, tubercular chest next to the words "Yo, Fanny, you is well fit," but somehow I doubt that message would be handed down through time.
We all know that the volume of mail is shrinking every year (the two sides in Canada's dispute understandably have different figures. According to the CBC, Canada Post estimates a 17-per-cent drop in five years, while the postal union says 6 per cent. The vast majority of that is stuff nobody is pining for: bills and Visa statements and requests for money from the university that once tried to kick you out. After 11 days of rolling walkouts, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said, "there hasn't been a lot of public outcry." In other words, no one's waiting by the mail slot with bated breath.
I get where the derision comes from: These days, speediness is next to godliness. It's not just an admirable quality, it has becoming the defining quality. Recently, British writer Ben Goldacre (author of The Guardian's indispensable Bad Science column and blog) tweeted, "If you're sending me something important/urgent as a letter can I suggest throwing it in a stream at ur local park as a more useful method?" So much for the letter as a medium for conveying gravity and import (or, even better, lewdness: Remember that Napoleon once wrote to Josephine, "I will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don't wash").
There are people fighting for the letter with fountain pens drawn, even at the risk of being called fuddy-duddies. "Receiving a letter is a special thing," says Dana Gornitzki, a Canadian based in London who runs an etiquette blog called Mien Magazine and hosts letter-writing workshops. "It shows that someone has really thought about you - found a pen, bought stationery and a stamp, put it in a mailbox. It's a bit more effort than forwarding a Groupon coupon." Her classes are filled with twentysomethings who ask about salutations and spelling. In one class devoted to writing love letters, most of the correspondents were young men; one wrote to his girlfriend to say how glad he was that they were moving in together.
I recently came across some letters my late father sent me when I was travelling in South America. One of them ran to four pages written entirely in verse ("doggerel" would be more accurate), and contained a gentle hint that I should write more often: "Tell us that you are still hale/ Presto andante to the mail/ So I will not have to pack my love and admiration for you in an admonishing pail." He had written on the outside, "Save letter for future sale, like Jackie O's." He was partly right; there's one person who understands its value.