All about the law of the letters

A postal clerk named Robert McLaughlin has achieved a fame he never asked for. For 11 years Mr. McLaughlin sorted the mail of Des Moines, Iowa, with no complaints -- until, that is, last summer.

Then he ran rudely into something called "The Postal Services Manual Operations Methods Improvement Program" -- a breath-exhausting title thought up, no doubt, by the same man who first proposed a nine-digit zip code.

In due course the manual-operations manual gets around to prescribing the improvements for Mr. McLaughlin and his fellow sorters. A line drawing illustrates the proper way for a clerk to sit on his sorting stool ("one foot on floor at all times") while holding each letter at a precise 45-degree angle.

Here is where all the trouble started Mr. McLaughlin, who wears bifocals, operates at a 90-degree angle.

The reports we have seen give no indication of where Mr. McLaughlin parks his feet. But he has confessed to a certain amount of "wisecracking," and we can easily imagine him lifting both feet off the floor more than once and tucking them elfishly beneath him.

At any rate, Mr. McLaughlin received a letter from his supervisor charging him as follows: "You refused to hold your mail at a 45-degree angle, as I had instructed you to do. You insisted that your method of holding the mail was superior to the method that I had instructed you to employ."

The upshot was that the unregenerate Mr. McLaughlin found himself suspended seven days for insubordination and docked some $400 in pay.

As one who reads mail at all sorts of cockeyed angles -- especially the bills -- we are prepared to sympathize with Mr. McLaughlin. Furthermore, we are willing, as usual, to give the incident a broad reading.

The McLaughlin 90-degree-angle affair suggests, we maintain, that 1984 will witness not the Orwellian tragedy of Big Brother, the mind-bending superdictator , but the comedy of Little Brother, the Petty Tyrant of middle bureaucracy who leans over your shoulder and nags (and nags) until you crack.

Adoring rules and regulations, Little Brother leaves nothing in life to improvisation or happy chance. Little Brother -- like Mr. McLaughlin's supervisor -- would love to line up the whole world at a 45-degree angle, as if people were so many rows of neatly sharpened pencils.

This dully sharpened pencil joins Mr. McLaughlin in scratching out a no.

Still, in all fairness, it must be pointed out that there is a touch of Little Brother in most of us, even including perhaps the insouciant Mr. McLaughlin.

We have prepared a few questions so that readers may test themselves for the latent presence of Little Brother:

Do you comb your hair just before going to bed?

Do you rearrange the table settings in restaurants -- exactly so -- as your first act upon sitting down?

Do you sometimes wish that all trees were clipped and shaped like a formal Italian garden?

Do you buy fruit and vegetables in plastic packages because they look so neat?

Do you keep your change in a coin organizer?

Do you become a little frantic if your shoelaces do not lie flat?

Do you, in fact, line up your perfectly sharpened pencils in perfectly parallel rows -- even if they are hidden in your desk drawer?

Unless you can answer all such questions with a thundering "Never!" you probably have the makings of a Little Brother in you, given the right position in the right post office.

Nor should this impulse toward wild restraint be given a total bad name. Petty sel-expression is only the reverse side of petty discipline. Being a slob is no sure sign of genius. T. S. Elliot was tidy; Leonardo da Vinci really organized those notebooks.

And so, for 1984 we intend to keep an eye on the random rebel as well as the petrified b ureaucrat.

Two cheers for Mr. McLaughlin. But we want it understood -- when we sort our mail, we do make it a rule to keep one foot on the floor . . . almost all the time.

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