What led a man to write a 1,905-page suicide note? What does it mean to have a library without books? What happens when the state makes it easier for neighbors to seek restraining orders against each other? Over the years, I have written a wide range of stories that don't fall into neat categories. Here are the highlights.
The Freedom of a Kilt
Mailman Lobbies for option as Postal Service uniform
By David Abel | Globe Staff | July 21, 2008
Dean Peterson has heard the snickering.
His 17-year-old son "keeps quiet" about his father's new obsession, and when his 15-year-old son proposed following in his dad's footsteps, the principal at the boy's school warned that other students might pick on him.
But the 6-foot-tall, 250-pound mail carrier from Lacey, Wash., doesn't worry about anyone questioning his virility, or ogling his bare knees. He just wants to feel as free as a woman wearing a skirt.
"A lot of people think I'm crazy," said Peterson, 48, who became a mail carrier after retiring from the Air Force eight years ago. "This is important to me - I just want to be comfortable. I just want the option."
As some 10,000 mail carriers gather in Boston this week for the 66th biennial convention of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Peterson is on a one-man mission to persuade his colleagues to approve a change in their strictly regulated uniforms. He has proposed a resolution to allow mailmen to wear kilts, which he calls a Male Unbifurcated Garment, or MUG.
Over the past few weeks, he says he has spent the $1,800 he received as part of the federal government's stimulus package to send about 1,000 letters and photographs of a mockup of the new uniform to postal union branches in every state, as well as Guam and Puerto Rico.
"MUGs are worn all over the world, and have been for thousands of years because they are comfortable," he wrote to fellow mailmen. "Unbifurcated Garments are far more comfortable and suitable to male anatomy than trousers or shorts, because they don't confine the legs or cramp the male genitals the way that trousers or shorts do."
He argued that pants can cause sweat rashes and added, "Please open your hearts - and inseams - for an option in mail carrier comfort!"
Peterson's efforts have already attracted support. During the spring, similar resolutions calling for mailmen to be allowed to don kilts passed at letter carrier conventions in Washington and Oregon. Women can wear skirts.
Paul Lunde, who promoted the resolution in Oregon and has worn kilts on St. Patrick's Day, Halloween, and occasional Saturdays when his supervisors aren't paying attention, said that expanding the uniform choices would be a way to express his Celtic heritage, just as Jewish postal workers are allowed to wear yarmulkes.
Some of Lunde's co-workers have accused him of cross-dressing. Then there are the inevitable, sophomoric questions: "What are you wearing under there?" (He and Peterson insist they wear underwear.)
"They're mostly ribbing me, but occasionally there are people who appear to be offended," said Lunde, 38, who has delivered mail in Salem, Ore., for nine years. "I say, 'Show me a picture of Jesus in slacks, and I'll consider it.' " He's usually portrayed wearing some kind of long robe, Lunde added.
Others who have watched Peterson lobby for support are less eager to change their style.
"I'm just old fashioned," said Bob James, 56, president of the Washington State Association of Letter Carriers, who is more concerned about the declining use of the mail system and efforts to contract out work. "I've always been raised that guys wear trousers. I personally will not wear one, but if that's what the membership wishes, that's fine with me."
If the mailmen who staff Local 34 National Association of Letter Carriers on Dorchester Avenue are like the other delegates at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston, Peterson's efforts may be for naught.
Inspecting a picture of Peterson in his pale blue short-sleeved shirt, gray kilt, and shiny black shoes, Bob Simpson shook his head and his cheeks turned red. "I don't think we would be interested," said Simpson, 52, who has delivered mail in Brookline for 21 years. "It just doesn't fit my idea of a uniform look."
Michael Kidd, a 15-year veteran of the US Postal Service, has worn kilts and likes the way they feel. But the South Boston mail carrier wasn't sure the kilts would be right for the hard work of fending off dogs and other activity that requires a lot of bending.
"I don't think it would be such a good idea when you have to go up and down a lot of stairs and get in and out of a truck," he said. "I don't know how feasible that would be."
Peterson's resolution is one of about 60 that the convention's delegates will consider, including everything from whether the nation's 220,000 mail carriers - about 30 percent of whom are women - should support certain national taxes to whether they should endorse contract changes.
The association's executive committee has already voted against the proposal, but that vote is merely advisory.
"His resolution will be debated and discussed, and what the members decide, we will do," said William H. Young, the association's president. "I don't want to say my opinion before the members of the union discuss it. They make the decision."
If Peterson manages to persuade fellow delegates, he will then have to win the approval of management officials, who every few months meet with union officials as part of the uniform control committee.
Postal officials said nothing in the contract would bar mailmen from wearing kilts, which are not worn by mail carriers who work for Royal Mail in Scotland.
But the uniforms, according to their contract, must meet certain criteria, such as an "immediate visual identification with the Postal Service to the public," a "neat, professional, and pleasing" appearance, and "a feeling of esprit de corps."
David Partenheimer, a Postal Service spokesman, added: "There are also questions of safety. Any apparel must go through extensive testing."
Whatever happens, Peterson's wife, Joni, said she is proud of her husband, even though he has spent a lot of the family's money on his campaign.
After all, she said, she's the one who three years ago introduced kilts to Peterson, a descendant of Norwegians and Finns with no Scottish ancestry. She brought one back as present from a trip to Scotland. "We are a primarily one-income family, and he earns the income," she said. "If he wants to dress in a kilt, that's his choice, and I support him."
For now, Peterson is resigned to wearing his kilts - he owns 15 - after hours, every day, even when he picks up his children at school. He and several colleagues plan to wear kilts at the convention.
"I'm known as the kid's dad who wears the kilt," he said. "People are getting used to me."
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.