The inevitable happened in the first weeks of my year of daily letters:
Jan Bateman is asking about newspapering.
As of this writing, on Feb. 7, I have written 37 letters in 2019 at the rate of one per day. (I usually sit down in the evening and take 15 or so minutes to write a short but, with hope, interesting and informative letter to a friend or family member.)
In a previous column, I alluded to this, my annual regimen of one daily activity.
This year, I place a piece of paper with a hand- or typewritten message (I AM working on my crummy penmanship) in an envelope with a stamp in the upper right corner and send in the mail.
Please do not say “snail mail.” I do not like the term.
“The mail” is fine, as lexicologically it still remains distinct from e-mail or voice mail. Or call it conventional mail.
My friend Ueli had some fun with me after I mentioned the above criteria to him in a letter last month: He labeled his reply “a piece of paper” and on the envelope drew an arrow to the stamp, marking it “upper right hand corner.”
I deserved the jest, for being such a crank. But when it comes to the art — and, no, not “lost art” — of letter writing, I am proudly a crank.
I believe letters do still resonate with people and that they are an essential means of human interaction. I am happy to continue the tradition. My friend Tom Trimbach takes it one step further: Tom and I have written to each other for years, and in December saw each other face-to-face for the first time since 1982.
Tom seals his envelopes with wax and presses it with his “T” stamp — a time-honored practice I plan to take up this year.
As I’ve written in this space before, I’ve been a letter writer for years, and in 2003 and 2008 chronicled my daily letter writing regimen. Both of those years yielded a total of about 50 responses out of the 365 and 366, respectively. I decided to take it up again in 2019.
I’d be lying if I did not say that the number of replies is important to me, and that in past years, I was disappointed at receiving them back at an average rate of little better than once a week.
Happily, the 36 letters sent so far this year have yielded a total of nine replies. One day, I received five answers (and a postcard from my fifth-grade teacher who lives in Hawaii, whom I had not yet written to this year). Another arrived Friday of last week, for six in the span of a week. It’s encouraging, but I don’t try to dwell on the numbers, and I know there will be droughts.
One reply came from my high school journalism adviser, the above-mentioned Jan Bateman, or JKB. She’s retired and lives in Corvallis, and we have corresponded once or twice a year, most years, since 2003. Her letters are pithy and contain challenging questions, which is just the way she was in those three years I spent in her classroom learning the basics, and nuances, of journalism in 1974-76. I was a teenager, but I learned more from JKB than just about anyone else I’ve ever been connected to in the field that has kept me occupied for nearly a half-century. (I date it to my start: Writing the occasional column for the local paper in then-sleepy Redmond, Wash., when I was in the eighth grade.)
JKB has long been friends of my parents, and she wrote about my father and her memories of his helping her as a realtor, and told me she would believe it when she sees it about my stories of playing basketball at 6 a.m. three times a week. “How about a photo?” I will oblige, with the clipping of three photos about “Morning Ball” we published on Nov. 28, 2018.
But the truly challenging question, more statement, in her letter, was her sign-off: “In my next installment, I want to get into the unenviable position of print journalism, small or large in this AGE. I admire you and your career to the hilt.”
That letter, her “next installment,” will come, but I will probably wait a bit to ponder the answer: I will tell her first that my position is not “unenviable,” that despite our challenges, this is the best job in the world. But she is aware of the realities we face, and was there when I got my start, so my full answer had better be well-crafted.
And so, 2019 so far, I am off to a one-in-four response rate to letters sent with top-right corner stampage. Not bad returns. It’s somewhat Quixotic, this quotidian quest, and that is half the fun: the mystery, the anticipation, the pleasure of the expectation.
Three of my favorite words: “The mail came.”