It's always a shock when you get that AARP card in the mail. What? I'm not old. Although the actual sound of surprise and indignation you make is usually "aarp!"

Then come the letters from Social Security, telling you how much money you'll get someday. The first one usually says:

"If you retire today, you get (this sum, which is almost enough for a cup of gas station coffee) a year.

"If you retire at the impossibly distant age of 65, you get (this sum, which is a terrifyingly small percentage of your annual expenses).

"If you somehow hang on until 70, you get (this sum, which looks better but still makes you suspect you're being paid in bricks of ramen noodles)."

There's another sign of age, though — and this one also is a sign of youth, a reminder of when you were hopeful and foolish. It's the day you send in the Publishers Clearing House — PCH, for those of us in the know — sweepstakes entry.

I was intrigued by the letter's opening line: "Does August 31st sound like a good day to win?"

What a stupid question: Every day sounds like a good day to win. No one ever looks at the calendar and thinks, "Ew, Aug. 10, that would be a horrible day to win millions of dollars. I'm burning this entry now."

The letter continued: "We hope you respond now because that's the day we're ready to award a life-changing, multimillion-dollar prize."

I should note that the entry form says, "We're getting ready to select Our Newest Winner," which makes me ask: Are you ready, or not? If you're getting ready, that suggests you're not ready yet. What's the hang-up? Has Bob, the guy in charge of making the enormous prop checks, been sick lately? Granted, he's a crucial part of this endeavor. You can't just hand someone a tiny piece of paper; it has to be a huge simulacrum of a check that takes four hands to hold. Has anyone heard from Bob lately? Been around to his house to see if he's OK?

"No," they'd say, "we're ready. Totally! And if you're the winner (see separate insert for the soul-crushing odds that suggest you have a better chance of being struck by a meteorite while being struck by lightning on an airplane at the precise moment you win the Powerball) you will get ... $7,000.00 A Week For Life!"

This is different from the PCH mailings of yore. They were all about the big, life-changing numbers. In the TV ads from the '80s, they had big prizes totaling $250,000, which now seems hardly worth the bother. If you took the lump sum, it was $17.67; otherwise, it was paid out over a period of time best described as "a geological era," and when you got your final check, all the continents had re-formed into Pangea.

OK; I exaggerate for legal reasons. That said, it's more attractive to consider $7,000 a week FOR LIFE, because it certainly does take the pressure off. But then you'd realize that you'd still have to budget because you'd feel spectacularly dumb if you ended up spending $7,008 a week.

Imagine calling up the PCH and asking if they could send that next check a little early.

"No, sorry, we can't."

"C'mon, I'm good for it! If anyone knows, it's you guys!"

Anyway, back to our original theme. So, why is this a sign of being old? It isn't; credulous people exist at all ages. But there seems to be three phases in life.

Youth: Heck, this would solve everything, why not try, what's the harm?

Middle age: Thirty years of amused contempt for the whole operation.

Agedness: Heck, this would solve everything, why not try, what's the harm?

I doubt that today's youth have the same attraction to this sort of thing, because the PCH letter comes in the mail, and they are accustomed to regarding the mail as a strange remnant of a bygone world. To the young, the sound of the mailbox lid clanking shut is like the sound of glass milk bottles clinking or a rotary phone dial. You really want to mess with them? Make them drive a manual transmission car to the post office. "A what to the what?"

But when I was young, you were full of foolish hopes, so you affixed all the stamps correctly, sent it off without buying any magazines ... and forgot about it. The Prize Patrol never came around.

Someone showed up on a TV commercial a few months later, holding the big check, beaming brightly, and you suspected she was sitting at the front window all day with the drapes open, waiting for the Prize Patrol. She just had a feeling about this.

It was never someone in a housecoat with her hair up in curlers, Winston 100 dangling from her lips, a bit bleary: "Really? You gotta take a picture? OK, I guess, if that's what it takes to get the quarter-mil."

So you're wondering: Why would I enter the contest now, knowing that it'll probably result in an endless, eternal, ceaseless, unstoppable barrage of more mail from the PCH? Because I got one piece of mail yesterday, and one the day before. It's a long flight of stairs up to our mailbox.

I want the mail carrier to feel like it's worth it.