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Offline: the mailbox revisited

Offline: the mailbox revisited


Paul Miller discovers the joy of mailing

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Let's celebrate the small successes: I can mail things now. I do it on a regular, multiple-times-a-week basis. I mailed two things today, in fact.

If you'll recall, there was a time I could not mail things. But now I can mail things. I mail renewal slips for magazines, insurance claim forms, self-addressed stamped envelopes requesting photos of my new nephew, personal letters to close friends, personal letters to new friends.

My greatest triumph involved mailing a thumb drive to a drum machine manufacturer, requesting an offline activation of their online-activation-only software. They haven't gotten back with me yet, and I'm not going to name names — it's an above-and-beyond kind of request — but just the sheer act, the multi-step process that I undertook, is a real achievement for me.

My greatest triumph involved mailing a thumb drive to a drum machine manufacturer

I've made phone calls requesting catalogs and magazines and documents, all of which came in the mail — days, weeks, or months later. I registered to vote in New York for the first time in the seven years I've lived here. I've written multiple checks to my landlord, paying him for letting me live in my apartment.

The process is not very complicated. The first major hurdle was to carve out specific time to work through incoming and outgoing mail. I now do this when I clean my desk, which happens once every two weeks or so — I get a lot more paper detritus nowadays. I sit down on my couch, listen to a pulpy audiobook or a pre-downloaded podcast sermon, and sort stuff into stacks, one of those stacks being called "action items." Then I burn through the action item stack, making sure to do all the writing, addressing, and stamping right then.

For random spur-of-the-moment letters to real people, I try to write the letter the moment I think of it, then put it in my "action items" stack for later. For responding to letters from Verge readers — something I'm still behind on, but making headway — I write them in batches at the office. I'll admit to misappropriating an intern to address the letters for me; please don't judge me, I get terrible hand cramps.

Hurdle number two was the act of mailing stuff. In the past, I would have letters that would sit on the table adjacent to my front door for months. One time I had a single Netflix Blu-ray for half a year. Now I will drop off letters when I go to the post office to pick up my P.O. Box correspondences, but I've also just started walking the five minute walk to the mailbox nearest my apartment.

It's that last thing that's the most astonishing breakthrough for me. I don't know if the skill was unlocked by boredom, or by the I-just-sent-something-in-the-mail high, but it's a new concept for me. I'm sure it's hard to believe this, but taking the time to walk somewhere specific, with no other gain in sight (I don't even stop at the Starbucks or Duane Read along the route), is a huge change in the way I do anything.

In personal experience, I think the internet made me impatient for something that isn't accomplished with a single click. Amazon knows this — you're so much more likely to buy something when it's 1-Click™ than when it's two clicks. Google knows this — Google Instant was a sincere revolution in search frequency, by merit of its click reduction. But for me it was beyond the "convenience" of a click, it was a serious temporal impatience. I'd rather pay more money at the Best Buy down the street than wait for overnight, or [gasp] two-day shipping.

As I wrote before, my hand used to shake when I addressed letters. It continued to shake when I dropped them into the mailbox. The shakes are gone now. In hindsight (which isn't always 20-20, but worth a shot), I think the symptom had two different causes.

While addressing the letter, I had a small fear of failure — I'm famous for botching forms; I forgot my birthday once on a written test at the DMV — but my larger fear was that after addressing this letter, it would sit dormant for months and not go out in the mail. I was afraid that by completing this letter, I was giving Paul a task that Paul would fail at.

I got the shakes, because I was dependent on the split-second, and submitting myself to the indefinite

But at the moment of slipping the letter into the blue box and clanging the hatch, I was merely afraid of time. One days, two days... the letter could take a week. I'd have no idea when it would be received, when the check would be cashed, when the next Netflix DVD would ship out. My body couldn't wait that long to be unknowing. I got the shakes, because I was dependent on the split-second, and submitting myself to the indefinite.

Now I'm a little bit better.

Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.