Going Postal

Picture me finishing up my lunch at the Game-of-Thrones-ish table in our office dining room. This massive and gorgeous thing was handmade by a local furniture-maker out of reclaimed lumber. It’s got nicks and gashes in the wood that allow me to imagine some tribal lord making his oath official by slamming his mace down on the tabletop in some sort of brute ceremony… before being shot up full of arrows by his new-friend-but-actually-enemy’s henchmen. I don’t know. My brothers showed me the “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones so that’s what I’m working with here. Otherwise, I have no idea what I’m talking about. So, right, that’s where I am. It’s raining outside. WINTER IS COMING!

Going Postal is a phrase you don’t hear much anymore. And thank goodness for that. I hadn’t thought about the whole “going postal” thing for years until it came up just the other day in a discussion I heard on the radio. Someone mentioned “going postal” somewhat off the cuff, to which someone else replied, “Right, going postal! Why doesn’t that happen anymore?” Then, another voice chimed in. “Any job with that level of daily, repetitive monotony is bound to drive people to snap.” I wonder, though. Any job? I bet there were some other characteristics specific to working in a post office in the 1990s that contributed to the “postal” phenomenon. There had to be. After all, so many jobs — with which many people continue, happily, for years and years — are daily, repetitive, and monotonous. While I was listening I thought immediately of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which I finally got around to watching a few days ago (I know, finally!). And it, of course, was worth the wait. Such a beautiful meditation on simplicity and discipline. And that’s the entire point of the film — that Jiro’s mastery is the product of years and years of daily, repetitive monotony! Though the film doesn’t really get into this much — it’s certainly in the subtext, though — Jiro’s approach to his work is basically a spiritual discipline. Focus. Simplicity. Practice. Patience. Repetition. Honor. So why doesn’t Jiro — or his sons and apprentices, for that matter — snap? Sure, it’s mentioned that a few apprentices can’t hack it and leave rather abruptly, but none of them exit with an act of violence. In fact, Jiro’s son Yoshikazu specifically mentions that the apprentices who quit simply disappeared. Quietly. I thought of a few scenes in Jiro that, at least in part, seem to account for the difference between sushi making and, say, mail sorting. They all had to do with witnessing the fruits of one’s labor. Jiro and Yoshikazu watch their customers eat the sushi they make. They watch them close their eyes. They watch them chew and swallow. They hear them murmur with pleasure. What a high that must be, to see — every day — the immediate validation of one’s work. Although I imagine it takes discipline, too, to continue to derive pleasure from that. We humans have such a low threshold for joy, don’t we? All it takes is a little on repeat before we grow bored and cynical and push it away. Rejecting joy, of all things! It’s almost as if we need its opposite to keep us in balance, like something in the core of our being says five parts suffering and one part joy and all is right with the world. Of course, it doesn’t have to be like that, does it? But, with that in mind, consider, again, working for the postal service. Particularly, within the post office. Sorting mail, all day. Moving parcels from one bin to another. No connection to those who send them, nor to those who receive. No sight of the pleasure in either. How much more quickly abject futility must set in! The daily, unanswerable travail of why? And what? And who? But imagine this. What if a postal worker had some sort of clairvoyance and could “see” (somehow!) the future of each piece of mail she held, however briefly. OK, maybe it’s technology. Some sort of viewer that followed the package to its destination. See, you got all weird when I mentioned clairvoyance but believe me, this viewer tech is much more creepy. So let’s forget how it works. How it works is a distraction right now. Right now, imagine she could see the pleasure on the faces of those who arrive home to find that brown-paper-package on their doorstep, the anticipation as they pick it up and examine it, the excitement of opening it, and the joy of discovering its contents? What then? Yeah, yeah, not every package is welcome. I’m starting with an ideal. I know it. But even unwanted mail would still offer some human connection. The disappointment of a rejection letter. The frustration and anger at a past-due notice. Grief. Fear. Shame. There’s a delivery for all of these. But if the person toiling in the sunless bowels of the USPS distribution center got just a glimpse of any of it… I wonder, would “going postal” have ever happened? And how many jobs sit in this place of disconnection? Too many, I guess. What can we do about that?

The protests in Hong Kong are no joke. They are another product of disconnection. Have you been following this story? The BBC has a page devoted to live coverage that’s worth checking out if you want to get up to speed on what’s going on there. Basically, this is a protest over the administration of Democracy. The changes that Hong Kong’s citizens are protesting call into question what, exactly, Democracy means. What are it’s essentials — what is “orthodox” Democracy? I wonder, would we take to the streets here if suddenly, our representative Democracy was diluted as is happening in Hong Kong — if candidacy was no longer a theoretical opportunity for anyone, but had to first be approved by central government authorities? It’s an interesting and sober step forward on a slippery slope toward a lesser government, I think. And certainly one which gives new meaning to the phrase “political theatre.” (Perhaps someone aught to update the “political theatre” Wikipedia page and see how long it sticks.) To give you a sense of scale, here’s a video showing the massive crowds, and a pretty succinct comparison with our own geography that puts the whole thing in perspective.

Heavy Rotation: It kind of goes without saying that when I talk about listening to music these days, I’m talking about using a subscription service, like Spotify, or Rdio, or Google Play, or Beats. Those are the big ones, but there are many others. I’ve used all the big ones. I’ve even had paying accounts with three of them. But I eventually came back to Rdio. It’s always been the one that, in my opinion, is the easiest to use. Maybe this has to do with my age, but my preference is to have a collection of albums as the core structure to my music-playing experience, rather than, say, a set of playlists. Now don’t get me wrong. I love playlists, and have made lots of them. But I still want my collection to be a group of albums. The album is the form that most musicians intend their work to take, and though there are always songs you like and don’t like — songs which make up the next “unit” of measure down — I still feel a sense of duty to respect that form. Anyway, Rdio is where my “heavy rotation” happens. On the rise in my network is Syro, the latest (and first in a very long time!) album from Apex Twin. Oh, and by the way, my friend Able just wrote a pretty good defense of Rdio, if you’re interested. What I appreciated about his take on it is that Rdio is more than just an internet stereo. It’s a design system, too. And really, the piece is less about defending Rdio’s design decisions, than it is about reminding all of us unjustifiably righteous designers that design itself is far less easy than is complaining about what it produces.

Recent Tabs: The world is a strange place, as illustrated by a few things that are open in my browser right this moment. Like, ghost ships of the arctic, containership collisions, and a couple’s plan for when Mars separates them.

Written by Christopher Butler on September 29, 2014,   In Essays

Next Entry
Flesh and Machine Picture me sitting in the dark of my home office, staring in disbelief at two things. Number one, the absurd number of open tabs in my browser. One
Previous Entry
Independent Brains Picture me watching my younger brother play Hill Climb Racing on our Amazon TV while he eats what he calls a “peanut butter surprise.” Somehow, an
chrbutler.com is the personal website of Christopher Butler.
© Christopher Butler. All rights reserved.
About this Website
Subscribe to the Newsletter