In Praise of Paper Maps

One of the tricks, I’ve mentioned before, for getting around accessing books I can’t afford, is the used book market.  Now Amazon is probably just about as bad for small business as Walmart is, but it does seem to have its logistics down.  (Most of the time, anyway.  Early in the fall I ordered some horror movie DVDs.  One of them was out of stock and Amazon eventually sent me a notice that it was lost in shipping.  Would I like another, at no extra charge?  Shipped to the same address?  Of course I said “Yes!”  But they shipped it to my mother instead.  Most of us are probably embarrassed about what we watch and don’t want our mothers to know.  In any case, she had it forwarded on and I received it a mere two months after ordering it.)  They also let you track it.

If, however, you buy used books from Amazon, you may need to go with a separate vendor’s shipping.  (I tend to use BookFinder.com, but lately it’s been routing me back to Amazon.)  So it was I ordered something with a projected delivery date of October 25–29.  Not too bad.  It’s not like I need it for a book I’m writing or anything.  I was cheered, then, when on October 14 it was tracked to Secaucus, New Jersey.  I used to go through Secaucus every day on the bus.  Twice.  Surely I would have my cheap source before the 25th!  But my package likes Secaucus, apparently.  Once it got there every day the USPS tracking system assured me it hadn’t moved at all.  “You signed up for delivery on October 25–29 didn’t you?  Well, you’ll get it then.  Perhaps.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if shipping had the option of “Your package is pretty close, do you want to collect it yourself?”  Then on the 22nd I learned it was in Glendale Heights, Illinois.  It arrived on the 25th.

Why do I write these things?  (This isn’t the first time, young man!)  It’s because I think they’re funny.  To me, a society that has lost its heart to technology has to be ready for some laughs now and again.  (Some of my critics think I’m complaining; I guess I need more irony in my diet.)  Life during a pandemic has become one of having stuff shipped.  From last year’s toilet paper from China to my current academic book that’s just too expensive to buy new, I sit with my ear cocked for the Amazon footstep on my front porch.  And occasionally getting into my car to drive to a distant post office just because, well, it’s easier for me to find them than for them to find me.


Seedy Delivery

Call it a weird indulgence, for that it surely is.  I’ve been slowly re-collecting childhood books—really what we call “tween books” these days, but there were no tweens back then.  Since these are out of print and somewhat difficult to find, I order them when I can afford to, and have been doing so for over a decade now.  The latest one shipped from Minnesota, via the US Postal Service.  Since these are not easily replaced, I follow the tracking.  The seller indicated a delivery date of September 16-18, only to send an early delivery notice when it was mailed.  Indeed, I’d ordered this on the 8th and by the 10th it was in Pittsburgh.  In case you’re not familiar with Pennsylvania geography, I’ve sketched a map.

Pittsburgh is about 6 hours away from where I live.  It was now scheduled for delivery on the 11th.  I had my doubts.  I awoke on the eleventh to find that it had overshot and was now in Baltimore.  Baltimore is only about two-and-a-half hours away, but still, the thought that it could reach the local post office and get out for delivery that same day seemed slim.  The next day was Sunday, so I figured maybe Monday.  Sure enough, on Saturday the 11th it had reached the dreaded Lehigh Valley Distribution Center, in Allentown.  Allentown is only ten miles from here, within actual walking distance.  The tracking site said it would be delayed.  On the 14th it had been shipped back to Pittsburgh (where it had been less than a week before), from there to Warrendale (which I had to look up on a map), and from there to Johnstown.  Barring another flood, it was due here on the 16th.  Of course, it may have to go through the horror-inducing Lehigh Valley Distribution Center again.

That same center had shipped a package to East Stroudsburg, over thirty miles away, just the week before and had sent a notice that it had reached its final destination.  I’m not one for squandering money, but I would gladly buy the Lehigh Valley Distribution Center a map.  They could look and see that Bethlehem is a mere 20-minute drive to the east.  That could prove useful information.  The package arrived the 15th.  The next day I received a status update alert that it was out for delivery and would arrive that day.  I’m a Post Office booster.  I believe the government should fund the postal service adequately and quit trying to win elections by cheating.  And maybe they could throw in a map while they’re at it.  I’ve got one they can have for free.


Perspective on Distance

Thirty miles can be pretty close or pretty far, depending.  This time it was pretty far.  I know the Post Office has been having trouble, but when the tracking number on the package said it was “being held by customer request” (wrong) at a Post Office thirty-plus miles away, I had to wonder.  I still remember when zip codes were made mandatory for mail.  They would give the Post Office a more precise set of coordinates to get to your house or apartment.  The funny thing is they’ve been vastly outdone by other delivery services.  Amazon makes mistakes too (they recently delivered something I’d ordered for myself to my mother—thankfully it wasn’t too embarrassing), but less often.  It would seem that if you pay someone to bring you something, they should be able to manage a bit closer than thirty miles.

I went to the website where delivery instructions was an editable field.  In it the PO had helpfully written “DI not available for this delivery.”  If you want it, you have to drive over sixty miles round trip to get it.  Only during office hours.  Don’t get me wrong—I’ve always been a supporter of the Post Office.  They generally get things to you—it’s pretty remarkable.  (Junk mail inevitably arrives, of course.)  I even used to collect stamps.  I’m still reluctant to not save one or two that catch my fancy.  But thirty miles?  You’d lose at both hand-grenades and horseshoes with that kind of accuracy.  When I called they offered to put it back in the system, but that would add several days to the delivery schedule.  Who’s to say that it might not end up even more than thirty miles afield?

If it were an atomic bomb, or a volcano, thirty miles would hardly seem far enough.  It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose.  So it is with most things in life.  Nine hours isn’t long if you’re engaged in a task you really enjoy.  In fact, the forty-eight hours of the weekend go by so fast that you’re left wondering where they went.  If you take nine hours and put them toward a dull and tedious task, however, they stretch to monstrous proportions.  Science tells us that the amount of lapsed time—or space—is the same.  It’s just our perception that changes.  In the larger scheme of things thirty miles in the middle of the day can take only a couple hours, with traffic.  From that perspective it’s better than a nine-hour drive to the original shipping location.  It’s all in how you look at it.

It depends on your perspective

News Shipping

There’s no question that the pandemic has disrupted shipping.  It didn’t help that Trump basically tried to shut down the entire postal system so he could try to steal the election (which he instead tried to take by force on Epiphany), but shipping services still haven’t quite recovered.  I can’t help but wonder if it’s all the “middlemen” who’ve gotten involved.  I still buy things from the internet and if they’re not coming from Amazon they give you tracking numbers, sometimes for companies I’ve never heard of.  No matter whether it’s UPS or OSM, it always comes to the same message when you type in that tracking number that’s just shy of pi in length.  The package is awaiting USPS pickup.  I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened in the past several months.

Limbo is an old religious concept that seems to have been revived.  Your package simply can’t be found.  You can try the Post Office, but since they haven’t picked it up yet they can’t tell where it is.  Or you can call the company involved.  They’ll tell you the Post Office has it.  So you go stirring the alphabet soup of shipping company names while your parcel’s MIA.  I wonder if what these other companies do is go to the loading dock of the seller, get the package, then drop it off at the PO on their way home.  That sounds like the business to get into.  Why say you’re a shipping company when you’re just going to let the beleaguered Post Office handle it?  Because someone will pay you to do it, obviously.

We recently had a package that took three weeks from its drop-ship to UPS to get to the Post Office and finally here.  I stopped into the local PO and asked about this strange partnership.  The woman at the counter told me, “It’s the slowest way to ship, that’s why companies use it.”  Slowest, and therefore least expensive.  Never mind what they charged you for the shipping and handling.  Handling will cost you, you know!  Meanwhile I’m thinking maybe I should start calling myself by my initials and hire out my services to drop things in the local mailbox.  As a corporation I’d have greater protection by law than I would as a guy in his own car.  And besides, if I ordered something myself I’d be able to pick it up directly without having to wait for the tracking number to catch up.


Taste of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered a world classic.  Some would designate it the first novel written and others an example of how basic human concerns haven’t changed for thousands of years.  The ancient scribes and story-tellers, I suspect, anticipated none of this for their tale.  It was a religious story, perhaps taken as literally as some now take the Bible.  However you understand it, the Epic is part of the foundation of civilization itself.  I have to admit my Akkadian is rusty—I never had the opportunity to teach anywhere that I could regularly exercise it.  Still, I’m pretty certain that no one involved in one of the many versions of the tale that have survived would’ve expected it might end up on a rolling pin.

Back in December I wrote about Farrell Monaco’s Gilgamesh Epic column 5 rolling pin.  Her blog, Tavola Mediterranea features culinary archaeology—a good fit for these foodie times.  Having somehow found my blog, she kindly sent me a Gilgamesh rolling pin.  It was, in fact, one of the packages I wrote about a few days ago that was tracked as delivered but never arrived.  There’s no telling how long it will take to sort the Post Office out after Trump tried to destroy it so he could start the steal.  I was told it had been delivered in early January—not in time for Christmas itself, but still in the gingerbread season.  I called our local PO with the tracking number and was told it had been delivered.  If sent to the wrong house I’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Last week, after I’d completely given up hope, it arrived.  Since, like many overfed Americans, I’m trying to wean myself off holiday excess back to my usual austere diet, it may be the next Christmas season before I get a chance to use it.  Still, the thoughtfulness of the gesture is deeply appreciated.  Anything that connects us so palpably to our ancient forebears is truly a gift.  If my career (if that’s what you call it) had gone a slightly different way, I might’ve ended up spending it with Gilgamesh.  As it is, I still turn to the Epic for inspiration now and again.  I wrote a couple of articles in the last couple of years where Gilgamesh makes part of the argument.  Now I’ve got something tangible to prove it!  Take a trip over to Tavola Mediterranea and see what wonders edible history holds.


Ship Shop

I support the US Post Office.  As someone who still prefers print to electronic, having something actually delivered remains a thrill.  I have to confess, however, that electronic bills are much more convenient.  In any case, with Trump’s war on the mail (he seemed to hate everything), and lack of interest in the Covid-19 pandemic, shipping has been slowed down considerably.  People stayed at home and had Christmas shipped this past year, and, combined with the idiotic cuts to the Post Office budget, things were (and continue to be) delayed.  In this extended season of shipping I’ve had two packages that tracking services have told me had been delivered but, in reality, weren’t.  At least they weren’t delivered to me when the tracking indicated they were.  Of course, package thieves do exist.  I suspect that, if stolen, my items raised an eyebrow or two.

Most recently I had a notice of a Saturday afternoon delivery.  Said item wasn’t there when I checked my mailbox about half-an-hour later.  Someone could’ve idled on by and taken it in that time, I suppose, because the USPS said it was “in or near the mailbox.”  Now, my mailbox is down at sidewalk level.  The porch is a short distance away.  When I went out on Saturday it was in neither location.  Back before Christmas Amazon did the same thing, telling me that a package (small enough to fit easily in my mailbox) had been left in “a secure location.”  So secure that I couldn’t find it.  I even went outside in the dark with a flashlight after watching a horror movie to search for it.  That one, it turned out, had been delivered to an honest neighbor who brought it over after daylight returned.

The tracking notice that says “delivered” means nothing if the package isn’t actually there.  Hide-n-seek instructions simply aren’t helpful.  The way our mailbox is situated the only “near” is on the open ground.  Pandemic life is difficult.  If 45 had had any compassion for the average person needing a lifeline (rather than his self need to be in the spotlight) he would’ve strengthened the Post Office rather than gutting it.  Many people rely on it for the delivery of their medications.  For some of us it’s more a matter of awaiting some token of our preserved sanity.  As it is the tracking notice claimed I had items never received.  This may be a parable for the Trump Nightmare Administration after all.  Then, about two weeks after it had been officially delivered, my package arrived one day unannounced.  Parable indeed.