Anyone keeping track of the precipitous decline of civilizational standards can add this to the list: The other day I received a piece of mail that was significantly crimped.

Usually, I wouldn't care; usually, I wouldn't notice. The mail, once a daily visitation of the commercial and the personal, is now a daily disappointment. Not to give away my particular demographic, but the mail usually boils down to cruises and cremation. Now and then the local grocery store sends a card that can be redeemed for a free item, and that's what arrived in careworn form.

Again, I wouldn't have noticed, had it not been enclosed in a plastic envelope that contained the most heartfelt mea culpa I have ever received from a government entity.

"We sincerely regret the damage to your mail during handling by the Postal Service. We hope this incident did not inconvenience you. We realize that your mail is important to you and that you have every right to expect it to be delivered in good condition.

"Although every effort is made to prevent damage to the mail, occasionally this will occur because of the great volume handled and the rapid processing methods which must be employed to assure the most expeditious distribution possible. We hope you understand. We assure you that we are constantly striving."

And so forth. On and on it went, beating its breast and banging its forehead on the floor, begging for my forgiveness. At this point, I was starting to get worried about the mood down at the office.

"Do you think it's enough?" the supervisor said of the apology.

"Oh, don't be silly, of course."

"No. Put yourself in the customer's shoes. It's possible this comes across as just a rote, insincere, institutional apology."

"Beg to differ, but it really sounds as if we're at the point of opening our guts with a letter opener already — I don't know what more needs to be said."

"That's the problem. In our attempt to express our true regret, we oversold. We lily-gilded. Now, I have no doubt that this text expresses what we all feel, but people who believe that genuine regret and institutional concern are a thing of the past may think we're going overboard. If we really want to atone for this — this despicable act of missive abuse, this, this mutilated obscenity — we need to try another approach. I'm tasking you with coming up with some new text."

"Will do, chief."

And so the next version of the apology was drafted, and sent to the committee for approval.

"Dear Customer: We apologize for the condition of this mailing. But is it the worst thing that ever happened? What matters is being good to one other, to be kind and to realize with a sense of unexpected gratitude that the machinery of the Post Office might crumple only one letter in a million, and that even though the paper is marked with the plain sign of mechanical trauma, the message it contains is intact, its meaning undimmed.

"So you've got that going for you. Bottom line, it showed up as guaranteed, and it's probably junk anyway, because no one writes actual letters anymore, and we've got our guys out there humping catalogs from a place you ordered from six years ago.

"You know, once upon a time the daily delivery was a sheaf that summed up life itself — a letter from a loved one, a postcard from an acquaintance bragging about her vacation, a dire bill with an overdue alert, a geegaw cereal promotion bought at the cost of six box tops, a circular from a local store.

"Once we postal folk tied together the people of the nation — a quiet army that trod the sidewalks and climbed the stairs, beset by the barks of sentry dogs, broiling in the summer sun, bones aching in the winter cold. And now we deliver nothing of consequence. No one cares when the mailbox lid clanks; they know the deposit is thin and impersonal.

"And yet we have to apologize when one of these useless cards is excessively crimpled. Well, you have a lot of nerve. Here. Take your slightly creased glossy card inviting you to a seminar on gold-coin investing. Take it. We're sorry. Are we done here? I think we're done."

The room is silent. Eventually, the manager speaks.

"Who wrote this? Dan? Everything OK at home, Dan? All right, Betsy, you had a proposal."

"We just say, 'Sorry about this, it got all chewed up. Happens sometimes! Enclosed is a complimentary first-class stamp by way of apology.'"

The manager nods, peers through steepled fingers. "You know we never give away stamps."

"We've got a backlog of that unpopular 'Salute to Spittoons of the 19th Century' series."

"No, those are collateral for the pension fund."

I'm glad they cared, and I appreciated the apology. And I'd like to see what the apologetic envelope says if the letter from the cremation people isn't crumpled, but burnt. • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks •