Postcard Protocol

No tool of communication can match the humble postcard. Postcards are perfect links between unrelated time, separated space, and disconnected people. They are the postal service’s hand-delivered proof that during one expired moment at some distant location, you were in someone else’s thoughts.

More than a letter, and certainly than any e-mail, tweet, or Facebook posting, a postcard needs its recipient to complete an action. We do not merely write and send a card, we chose it, and someone has to read and look at it to fulfill the unspoken postcard protocol. With its selected image, a postcard adds to the receiver’s information of what the sender is trying to say.

A letter puts pen to blank paper and stuffs it into an appropriate envelope like cramming a body into tight tomb. A postcard finds a picture of a separate locale, a silly sight gag, or something telling about the sender or the receiver, then adds a few trenchant words to tell a more vibrant story.

A letter is written then sealed and closed to the world. A postcard is open, inviting anyone to take a peek. Despite this openness, a random, even anonymous postcard poses a deeper cipher than a similar letter. You need to know more than mere words on paper to grasp its potential meaning.

There’s the image to consider.

Why send that picture of that place at that time to that person? Why the one with the goofy cartoon? Or the bawdy joke? Certainly, sending a picture postcard is often arbitrary and meaningless. Yet, its ever-present image adds an undeniable dimension to the exchange that is rarely neutral, often relevant, and occasionally crucial.

One birthday greeting to me came from an old friend from my grad school days at the University of Kentucky where Eric still teaches. Pressed for time, he grabbed a postcard at hand, which was the festooned Belle of Louisville riverboat with its gangway pointed forward like a lance. From that sparse visual he wryly observed: “Don’t let the colorful appearance fool you. The plank on the front is reserved for old expatriates.” Old expatriate, indeed. Still, no hackneyed happy birthday joke was necessary because the combination worked as well as any Hallmark witticism—for me. Pointless to anyone else.

A postcard’s complexities can turn occasional correspondents into profound friendships. Carla and I got our M.A.s in history at the same time, but avoided each other during most of our student days. We only drifted into each other’s orbits in our final semester. It was enough to start a modest exchange of postcards that has turned into a 30 year correspondence that would fill a sizable boot box and built a friendship that is too big to measure.

You just never know with someone who likes postcards.

The postcard can use more than friendly words and lovely pictures to evoke a profound connection between two people with vast distances and time separating them. Some years ago one of my more peripatetic friends, Davis, sent me a postcard from Bhutan. The front depicted a temple perched on a hillside. Amidst pleasant observations of his journey Davis had asked a single question adjacent to the postmark: “How about those stamps?” Two large “10nu” denomination stamps depicted a Mother Theresa portrait and a photo of Mother Theresa holding hands with Princess Di. Just two weeks before Davis had departed for his months-long Asian trip, we had discussed these now-departed icons of world culture. No letter could as neatly evoke our previous moment together while simultaneously creating a new serendipitous one.

I am shameless about postcards. I love to get them, especially from places I’ve never been. I’ll ask anyone to send one to me. When I met Charles over dinner one year in San Francisco and learned he was returning that summer to his alma mater, American University in Beirut, I asked him to send me a card and forced my address on him. He not only obliged my rude request with kind words on a card from Lebanon, he followed it up with another one from Jersey, an independent isle off the coast of England. Seems he likes to visit out-of-the-way places and I’m now on his send-to list. Postcard jackpot! Granted, the depth of our communication will be, to say the least, superficial, but it exists at all because of the postcard. Its sole purpose is to make Charles the sender and me the receiver. And who knows whether he is the next Carla in my life?

I started asking virtual strangers to send me cards more than 35 years ago when I was an undergraduate in Santa Barbara. Two friends of friends were driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles and dropped a much younger, but still very mobile, Davis off along the way. My apartment served as a brief rest stop for the drivers, who told me they were heading to Israel that summer. I asked them to send me a card. Months later, lo and behold, one showed up. It was a bizarre photo montage of Red Sea fishes with a few stilted words from one of the drivers about his time on a kibbutz. Yet, it was specific to me, vaguely linking me to a place I had not yet been to. It pleased me and I’ve been intrusive with nearly everyone since.

I’ve sent my share of postcards from here and abroad, so I know that postal systems around the world are different. It often takes a significant effort and, to many, no small expense to send a few cards to friends and family loitering back home. Adding me to their list is a burden, but I’ve learned that most people enjoy the gesture of sending cards.  There is pleasure in knowing that others are aware that you are someplace unexpected, someplace famous, someplace exotic, someplace else. Sending a postcard establishes a bond between you, that place, and the receiver of the card.

The spacial restrictions of a postcard is perfect for most correspondents, For anyone wanting to send more than “wish you were here” sentiments, postcards are challenging. Real estate is at a premium; compared to a letter, you have very little territory to say much. A letter or an e-mail  is potentially endless with a big enough envelope or enough bandwidth; not so the restrictive postcard. If you can leverage an image on the front, all the better, but if you can’t and you have something important to say, you had better be concise.

I have one perfect postcard in my collection. Erica sent me a complete, beautiful short story on the back of a pre-stamped post office card with no image on the front, just my name and address on the blank white card. She was on a McDowell writing fellowship in New Hampshire and someone had suggested that if you could tell a good story on a postcard, you were a damn fine writer. Erica doubted the logic, but accepted the challenge and hand-wrote a brilliant piece on the back of the card that is, by definition, a short story. But to make it an authentic postcard, she sent it to me. Ironically, it is the only postcard I have framed and it has no image. It’s just words. But they paint a thousand images.

© Mark Everett Hall 2011

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