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December 4, 2012

Christmas Reads: The Jolly Christmas Postman

At the beginning of November, when I too was moaning about “the Christmas creep”, I forgot to bat an eye when I came across The Jolly Christmas Postman in the bookshop, and instead partook in an elaborate jig in my head and bought the book immediately. Because we’re big fans of the Ahlbergs at our house, and of the Jolly Postman in his original form, and the postal system in general. I saved the book until December 1 and we’ve been reading it steadily ever since. And how wonderful it is that this book isn’t riding the tails of its franchise, but instead is even better, richer than the original. We’re totally in love with it.

There is so much detail here, right down to the postmarks (from such places as Banbury Cross and Wobbleton, and if you’re as entrenched in Mother Goose as we are, you too will find this delightful). Allusions to the lady with the alligator purse, a glimpse into Red Riding Hood’s playhouse, updates on our favourite characters (The 3 Bears have become a 4some, Baby Bear now a big brother!). And it’s not jus’t letters our Jolly Postman is delivering; along with Christmas cards, his envelopes contain a jigsaw puzzle, a board game, and an elaborate 3D card. A present full of presents indeed.

Oh, and I love the meta elements! “‘A book in a book!’ says the Gingerbread Boy./ “What a simply delicious surprise.”/ (But if he only knew he’s in one too–/That would really open his eyes.)’ The first two lines of which are basically my literary philosophy.

The Jolly Postman’s route ends up at the North Pole at a certain workshop where he’s dropping off a huge pile of children’s letters. And fortunately, because it’s dark, snowy and cold, he’s able to hitch a ride on Santa’s sleigh to get home.

November 21, 2012

Scaredy Squirrel Gingerbread House (with a Building Permit)

Of everything we’ve ever received in the mail, the Scaredy Squirrel gingerbread house certainly takes the cake. It’s not just any gingerbread house kit, you see, because it comes with a building permit, and special instructions by Scaredy Squirrel on building the house right to code. Further, the gingerbread is completely delicious and has filled our entire house with the redolence of Christmas (already). Perhaps reminding us that there are only 30-some days left in which to come prepared for the holiday, and in accordance, we’ve also been equipped with the brand new Scaredy Squirrel book, Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas. With instructions to wear a hockey helmet (in case of falling ornaments), and to avoid candy canes (might shatter!!!).

The kit arrived yesterday, and Harriet insisted that we build it while her little friend Iole was visiting. It occurred to me at this point that 3 year-olds are far better are being agents of destruction than construction, and so this might be a terrible idea. It also made it quite possible that I’d end up swearing at Harriet in front of Iole’s mother.

Fortunately, the girls were very helpful, and we did the windows, and put the walls and roof up. I figured the instructions to wait overnight before decorating were only optional and we got started on that too, but then the house collapsed in on itself over and over again and I realized that maybe Scaredy Squirrel knew what he was talking about with his instructions. So we let the house dry, and Harriet finished decorating it this afternoon. We love it, and don’t know how long we can wait before we eat it– that smell! And the best thing is that I didn’t even swear once.






July 16, 2012

Letters were no longer brought by the postman

“…letters were no longer brought by the postman; after he had fallen twice from Maurice‘s ill-secured gangplank, the whole morning’s mail soaked in the great river’s load of rubbish, the GPO, with every reason on its side, had notified the Reach that they could no longer undertake deliveries. They acknowledged that Mr. Black, from Lord Jim, had rescued their employee on both occasions and they wished to record their thanks for this. The letters, since this, had had to be collected from the boatyard office, and Laura felt this made it not much better than living abroad. ” –from Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

May 31, 2012

Franklin Stamps

There is not much we love at our house more than we love mail and books (except perhaps for bunting, tea, and train journeys) and it’s always a joy when worlds collide. Yesterday, we picked up a set of Franklin the Turtle stamps at the post office, and we’re in love with them. But they confuse us too, because Harriet thinks they’re stickers and wants to stick them all over her hands and legs, and as for me, I can’t see myself using them anytime soon because then we wouldn’t have them anymore!

More about postal goodness: the joy of postcards.

November 29, 2011

Frog and Toad: The Letter

Without a bit of exaggeration, I promise you that “The Letter” by Arnold Lobel is the very best short story I’ve read lately. A chapter in Lobel’s book Frog and Toad Are Friends, “The Letter” begins with Frog coming along to discover his friend Toad sitting on his porch looking sad. Toad explains that this is his sad time of day, because it’s the time of day when he waits for the mail, but not once has he ever received a letter.

Toad, characteristically, is resigned to his sadness, but Frog wants to help his friend. So he rushes home and he writes Toad a letter, arranging to have it delivered to Toad by– and wait for it– “a snail that he knew.” And I’m not going to give away any spoilers here, but I suspect you can surmise where the rest of the story might go.

Frog and Toad is a recent discovery for us, part of the Classic I Can Read Books whose series include both Frances and Little Bear, who we love. All three series are simple in their language, but magic in their depths, in their strangeness, their child’s-eye-view of the world revealing such startling vision. The characters are all lovable, real in their foibles, and driven by a very human kind of motivation (which is remarkable, actually, when we’re talking about toads, badgers, and bears).

Frog and Toad in particular is philosophy and poetry, provocative, but also comforting. And they’re funny, on the surface yes, but also underlyingly so in a way that young readers won’t necessarily understand, but won’t feel foolish for missing either. Arnold Lobel never patronizes. What a truly masterful storyteller.

September 23, 2011

Envelopes by Harriet Russell

As any bookish person would, I spent much of Heather Birrell‘s daughter’s birthday party a few weeks back examining the family bookshelves (while HB led the kids in a round of Pass the Parcel). I was, naturally, interested to discover Harriet Russell‘s book Envelopes, which combines my two great passions of Harriets and the postal system, and the book did not disappoint. Harriet Russell is an artist who came upon the greatest idea ever, which is to send letters to herself with cryptically addressed envelopes requiring a postal worker to solve her puzzles.

As Lynn Truss writes in her foreward to the book, “each envelope… is also a triumph of humanity– because, after all, in nearly every case, the letter arrived! Therefore a human person must have worked out Harriet’s code, or enjoyed the conceit, or (at the very least) held the envelope at arm’s length, recognising the handiwork of that annoyign woman in that flat on Montague street.”

Eventually, the postal workers started writing, “Solved by the Glasgow Mail Centre” on the backs of the envelopes, and their own annotations in the process of solving the puzzles are, as Russell writes, “[now] a real part of the work, adding an extra element that would not be there had they not participated.”

I think my favourite envelope was one made from an old map of London with an X, and the note, “Please deliver here. This is a very old map and the street used to be called Grand Junction.” Also, the drawing of the house with a note reading, “Please deliver to the house pictured”. The address is hidden in a crossword puzzle, connect the dots, colour by number, shopping lists, excerpts from a dictionary, a script from a play, a photograph, a menu, musical notation, and the periodic table of elements. Etc. Etc.

Cover to cover delight.

June 23, 2011

Penguins in the Post

Oh, there are words to describe yesterday, but they’re not very polite ones. They’re the words I was thinking as I hauled my hysterically tantrumming toddler home from a drop-in we visited in the morning, one that was so nice that apparently Harriet never wanted to go home. She was able to contort her body to become completely rigid (this kid would rock at planking) or to become a wet noodle, therefore rendering stroller get-her-inning completely impossible. She wanted me to carry her, and it was raining, and I couldn’t push a stroller, hold Harriet and an umbrella, so we got soaked. And then I could no longer carry Harriet at all, and that was all she wrote. It was horrid. And we won’t even get started on the whole “leaving the farmer’s market” meltdown in the afternoon, which was even worse, totally embarrassing and annoying. By the time Stuart came home from work, I was totally broken, and once again, considering putting Harriet up for adoption. “But tomorrow will be better,” I told myself, believing this to be somewhat naive, but it is June, mind you, and life is good in June, and indeed, better today has definitely been.

And it still would have been better had I not received this incredible surprise from my pal at Penguin Canada. A Penguin tote bag (which would be enough in itself) packed with 24 Mini Moderns. But it would not be possible to receive a package like this, and for a day not to be made. And yes, partly because we’re in our third week of a mail strike and I’ve been missing surprises at my door, and partly because these books are so brilliantly Penguinesque in their design and because I can’t wait to find a place where I can line them all up in a row, and because there are authors I love here, and others still yet to be discovered. But mostly because now I am totally assured that there is such brilliant possibility in never knowing what a new day might deliver.

June 20, 2011

We love Postal Workers (in principle).

This morning, Harriet and I took a batch of cookies to the locked-out postal workers picketing at the Post Office at Bloor and Spadina. Not because we’re supporters of labour per se (because really, our political leanings tend towards the middle of whatever fence we’re sitting on), but because these are the people who bring us the mail. And admittedly, they don’t always bring the mail so brilliantly– sometimes it takes two weeks to deliver a letter across town, I’ve had packages fail to arrive more times than should ever occur, and my letter-carrier is not the friendliest of women. Which is why it’s hard to wholeheartedly put my support behind Canada Post, particularly as the price of stamps go ever up-up-up, but they’ve got my support anyway because I believe in the spirit of the thing. And because I’m wary of angry people who believe that it’s too much for anyone to ask for a decent job with a living wage, just because they’ve given up hope for such a thing themselves.

I understand these things: that Canada Post continues to be a profitable enterprise, that postal workers’ salaries do not come from taxpayers, but that pension programs are unsustainable. I understand that (from the UK example) that there is argument as to whether mail circulation has in fact fallen, and that the state of privatized mail service (from the Netherlands example) is abysmal to customers and employees. What I don’t understand is this angry reflex of contracting out services being a viable option, which fails to acknowledge the economic drawbacks of a society in which full-time, decent-paying work is impossible to come by. I think workers have to stand up for their rights, and the rest of us ought to stand up alongside them (even those of us who, like the woman who called into Ontario Today last week bemoaning the sea cruises she will never get to take because she doesn’t have a pension at all). Hence the cookies. Solidarity.

I miss the mail. I miss my magazines, and thank-you notes, and wedding invitations, and birthday cards, and paycheques, surprises, presents, books, and even Bell Canada’s emphatic pleas for return of my patronage (though I’m never fooled by that font on the envelope that’s supposed to look like handwriting). I miss going to check for the mail’s arrival, and usually finding something great. I miss the Canada Post vans, which look so lonely in park at the end of my street, and I’d like to see them on the road again. I’ve been getting through these last mail-less week or so by imagining the massive postal backlog bundle that’s going to await me at the end of it all. And I determinedly hope that the woman breaking her back to deliver that bundle to my door managed to succeed in getting what she wanted.

May 19, 2011

It's the houses, not the people

“For years, my route has been in Kerrisdale, the neighbourhood to the west of Shaughnessy, where I grew up. Like Shaughnessy, it’s affluent. The streets are pretty and tree-lined, with many of the original stucco and shingle houses. This makes Kerrisdale an unusual neighbourhood in a city with a propensity for destroying and remaking itself. Because I grew up in an old house, and because I live now in Fairview Slopes where in the eighties virtually all of the original houses were demolished and replaced with leaky condos, I feel protective of the houses that remain. It’s the houses I deliver mail to, not the people, whom I hardly ever see. It’s happening here too now. The dismay I feel climbing up the steps to an Arts and Crafts bungalow, depositing The New Yorker and Architectural Digest in the box, then turning and glimpsing from the corner of my eye an orange fence halfway down the block. Did I process a Change of Address? This was when I might have taken warning.” –Caroline Adderson, from “Mr. Justice” in Pleased to Meet You

February 10, 2011

My postal phantom receives a letter from the Undeliverable Mail Office

Kyo Maclear’s 2007 novel The Letter Opener is about a woman who works at Canada Post’s Undeliverable Mail Office in Scarborough, and as I am a postal enthusiast, I devoured the book with delight. I also really enjoyed Maclear’s essay in the back of the book about “Postal Phantoms”– those people who inhabited your home before you and whose mail you continue to receive for years and years. How you come to understand these people’s characters through the return addresses, and they become so familiar that it would almost be disappointing if you one day encountered your postal phantom in the flesh. (I wrote about my own postal phantoms in this post, back in 2008.)

So worlds collided today when my current postal phantom received a letter from the Undeliverable Mail Office! (This phantom is not mentioned in my other post, because I’ve moved since that post was written and left Amanda Lee Hickman behind. In fact, no doubt Amanda Lee and I are now postal phantom-ing it together back at my former address.) I wanted to call up Kyo Maclear and tell her all about it, because it’s really quite remarkable– this means that my postal phantom is out there in the postal phantom netherworld sending mail to undeliverable addresses. What a menace this guy is!

The root of most of his problems, I think, is that his old/my address is still on his cheques, which was how the Undeliverable Mail Office tracked him down (misleadingly) to my house. The whole thing makes me feel quite sorry for that postal employee (and in my head it was Maclear’s Naiko) who took care to open his envelope, redirect his letter, and even include a standard notice about why she had to open his mail that ends with a happy face and the message, “We care”. She must have felt so satisfied, tracing this piece of mail (with no return address, mind you. My postal phantom is so careless!) back to its owner, and I hope she never realizes that she’s only sent it further amiss.

And yes, I do open my postal phantom’s mail. We have been in this relationship long enough that I feel like his letters are really for me. Now I may have to track down the actual person behind the phantom, because it would only be responsible. But then I’d also have to explain why I’ve been opening his mail, which might get a little bit awkward.

*I recently read Maclear’s picture book Spork. It’s awesome.

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