President and Mrs. Bush have vowed to go ahead and do it, and no two-bit terrorist is going to stop them. From sending out Christmas cards, that is.
Despite the mystery surrounding the recent anthrax death of 94-year-old shut-in Ottilie Lundgren and the ongoing fears of many Americans about postal bioterrorism, the first couple recently announced that they would be mailing out cards as usual, in this most unusual year, to several hundred thousand of their closest friends. The cards will include an upbeat Bible verse and the unassailable holiday wish "May happiness be yours during this season of goodwill and may the New Year bring peace on Earth."
While I certainly second those sentiments, I've decided to break with tradition this year. Ever since my first child was born 12 years ago, I've sent out Christmas cards with my daughters' pictures on them. It's a ritual we've cherished -- as both an official record of the girls' transformation through the years and a way to make annual contact with absent friends. So I made the decision not to send cards this year with genuine regret. But, as with so many other aspects of our lives lately, 'tis the season for difficult decisions.
As much as our leaders want us all to get back to normal, it's time to admit that when it comes to going postal -- this is not your father's mail. Now that postal workers are suddenly on the front line of the war against terror, shouldn't the generous spirit of Christmas dictate that we contribute not one more piece of inessential mail to their substantial load?
I can already hear the howls of protest from those who feel that any deviation from pre-Sept. 11 rituals is tantamount to waving the white flag: "If you don't mail Christmas cards, they win." And I'm pretty sure the folks over at Hallmark -- whose hot-selling holiday card features a flag-waving snowman and the message "God Bless America" -- will be slipping word to Santa that I've been "naughty" not "nice." The greeting card lobby is probably already rushing to Washington -- they're not nearly as powerful as the airline lobby, but they always know just what to say at every occasion.
I do realize, of course, that if everyone in the country made the same no-holiday-card choice as I have, it would further diminish the Postal Service's shrinking bottom line -- as it is, the agency has lost more than $150 million a week since Sept. 11. But there's got to be a better way for it to make a buck than encouraging people to mail more letters -- even as questions of cross-contamination remain unanswered.
How about a special commemorative stamp honoring Thomas Morris Jr. and Joseph Curseen, the postal workers who died after handling the germ-filled letter sent to Sen. Tom Daschle? Make it a $1 first-class stamp, with the extra 66 cents going to offset the cost of making our mail system safer. I know I'd buy a roll. And, given the continuing need that people have both to give and to memorialize what's happened this fall, many others would, too.
The Postal Service is in the process of equipping high-risk facilities with machines that sanitize the mail using electron beam technology -- so zip codes will now be joined by zap modes. But beyond cleaning up our mail-sorting machines, this crisis is a golden opportunity to also clean up the mail we receive.
Let's start by finally doing away with the junkiest of junk mail -- those negative fundraising letters that have become the hallmark of dirty politics. It's more than a little ironic that the checks raked in by the massive direct-mail solicitations of both parties' congressional campaign committees were filtered through the tainted Brentwood post office in Washington. And that mail from Brentwood was the first to be zapped with the sterilizing electron beams. While the hazmat crews are at it, why don't they also think of a way to decontaminate the noxious contents of the letters themselves, which are poisoning our democracy every day? Knocking off two toxic birds with one blast, as it were.
This also seems the perfect moment to eliminate the 4 million tons of junk mail that Americans receive each year. It would reduce the yearly load of each of our 293,000 beleaguered mail carriers by almost 18 tons. And it would also free up the eight months Americans spend on average opening the stuff over the course of their lifetimes. It will be hard, but somehow I'll find a way to survive without that 25th reminder that AT&T is offering high-speed Internet access in my neighborhood.
And while we're taking control of the mail, how about declaring our mailboxes off limits to unsolicited easy-credit come-ons? Americans are already seriously on the hook, now holding more than $1.6 trillion in consumer debt, yet credit card companies continue to carpet-bomb us with 4 billion solicitations each year -- that's around 43 offers per household. So the last thing we need are more credit card enticements jamming our mailboxes.
Of course, this postal wish list will probably be stamped "Return to Sender." But, in the meantime, I'm going to be passing along my holiday wishes via e-mails, phone calls, visits -- and, yes, this column. So to all of you, "May happiness be yours during this season of goodwill." (Hey, it was good enough for the president!) Now, if I can just figure out a way to put a picture of my kids under my byline, I'll be set.