I am terrible at writing letters. Either I:
A. Receive a letter with joy, and then spend the next two days composing a response in my head, and then I never actually physically write it (the same goes for email)
B. I do, actually, write out the letter, and then it turns into a sixteen page long monstrosity that goes into way too much detail and is too big to shove in an envelope or for one stamp, and the recipient realizes that I am scary (the same goes for email)
C. I write a letter, put it in an envelope, get distracted looking for the address or a stamp, and then find it eight years later and wonder, "Who's Ed?" (the same goes for my email drafts folder)
All in all, I am a terrible correspondent.
And I have been this way my whole life. I got lots of stationery for birthdays -- little cards featuring sparrows wearing jaunty hats, postcard sets of Holly Hobbie-esque girls holding kittens, creamy pink sheets with green borders and (gasp) matching pen -- and the reason I remember them so well? They're still in boxes at my mom's house, with maybe only two missing. (And let's not forget the famous Hello Kitty stationery -- seven pages missing, used for a letter to Judy Blume, never sent. Thank God.)
But I swear, I meant well. (And I still do.) When I moved from Illinois to California, I thought my six-year-old heart would break when I left my best friend Becky behind. We vowed to write. And look, she did:
That stationery? It was called ZOOPERS and had stickers that went into the circles. The reason I remember? I STILL HAVE MY SET. UNTOUCHED.
Alas, I don't think I ever told Becky my favorite color or my teacher's name. Maybe I did -- I don't know. We stayed in touch and she came to visit me in California when we were in junior high, and I visited her in Illinois in eighth grade so it couldn't have been entirely one-sided. But I'm sure she grew weary of my lack of responses and we dropped out of touch. Becky, wherever you are now, I think of you often. I still have the picture of your pet rat Templeton that ate your mom's curtains.
But Becky wasn't my only pen pal. (If you could call poor Becky that.) When I was about ten, somehow, maybe through church or something, my mom hooked me up with a pen pal from Sweden named Kirsten. I was super excited. This wasn't just any pen pal; this was a Swedish pen pal. She was from the land of my people!
Her letter was written in very basic English, with beautiful handwriting with big circles over the i's, telling me about life in Smoland, her province in Sweden. And she included a school picture of herself -- sweetly smiling and looking off to the side, blonde hair in pigtails, and, like, you could totally tell she wasn't into roller disco like everyone at my school was. (Including myself, sadly. Pffft.)
The picture did me in. There was no way I could send her my school picture -- in my fifth grade picture I looked like Danny Bonaduce with lopsided hair. How could I send her a letter, portraying myself as a cool California girl while looking like the ugly little brother on The Partridge Family? What if, like, that was the only American show they showed in all of Sweden? She'd hate me! I wondered what to do.
And while I wondered, I got another sweet letter with that beautiful handwriting with circles over the i's, talking about the Santa Lucia pageant and what she was going to do for the holidays, and asked me what I was going to do as well.
And I shoved the letter in a drawer, and now, thirty years later, I can still feel my stomach knot with guilt at this little girl's disappointment that the mailbox stayed empty, because she had the misfortune of being assigned to the worst pen pal ever, who was too insecure and lazy to think of anyone on the other end. I SUCK.
Luckily, however, there are people who don't suck and who are good pen pals, and I admire these people. I admire their ability to sit down and write a letter to show that they are thinking about their friends, and then actually have stamps or go to the post office and don't get distracted or worry that they have to send pictures that make them look like Danny Bonaduce. These people are the salt of the earth.
One of these people is my friend Carlos. Now, Carlos is a good person and I love him, but he has the Pen Pal gene that I lack; therefore I admire him. And before the days of the mighty Internets, Carlos saw an ad in a mod fanzine for pen pals and unlike me, who would just think of poor Kirsten and turn the page, Carlos responded and made cool friends across the globe.
Flash forward years later, when the mighty Internets had prevailed and the Mighty Myspace still hadn't been usurped by Facebook. For hours Carlos and I delighted in trawling all over the site, looking at people's pictures and stats and leaving obnoxious comments for one another. And one day I saw a comment from a pixie-like girl named paintergirl on his page, someone I didn't know, and being myspace I snooped.
She was an artist and had "Chick Habit" on her page and I was impressed because I love that song, and I demanded to know how Carlos knew such a cool girl from Melbourne, Australia? He sheepishly admitted that they had been pen pals from old mod fanzines in the early 90's, and found each other again on myspace. The beauty of the internet. And the internet is small -- I saw her on Flickr, too, and again was impressed and delighted with how cool she was -- a talented painter, good taste in music, and that envied Pen Pal gene. But did I email her and tell her that? Of course not. See, my inner Danny Bonaduce would never let me, and so I simply admired her from afar.
Click here to listen to "Chick Habit" by April March, so you can get an idea of how cool Gemma is.
But as fate would have it, I found out that I had to go to Melbourne for work earlier this year, and I was a little nervous. When I told Carlos, he got excited. "I'll email Gemma for you!" he said. Which made me scared, like I was going to meet a rock star, but I told him that would be great.
And being that Gemma does possess the correspondent gene, I had an email from her instantly, and a week later a little package with Melbourne maps and traveler information was in my mailbox, addressed to me in lovely handwriting, and my heart nearly burst because I could not believe my good fortune.
When I got to Melbourne, I also discovered that not only does Gemma possess the coveted Pen Pal gene, she also has the Good Hostess Badge and unofficial title of Melbourne's Ambassadress of Fabulous. She came and picked up my coworker and me in her Bug and took us to pubs and a dance class where I learned the Madison (my lifetime DREAM), and invited us to a party at her art gallery where SHAG was signing (and I met another Flickr friend Michele!) and to a dj and dance night... Gemma made me feel at home and like I had friends on a continent on the other side of the world. I left a piece of my heart in Melbourne when I came back home to San Francisco.
Thanks to Flickr and myspace and blogs and the mighty internets, I have been able to keep in touch with Gemma, in my horribly flaky way. Gemma, like Kirsten, deserves a far better pen pal than I am. I sign exes and ohhs on her pictures as comments, and squeal when I see her new artwork and tell her that I love it and her.
And thanks to her ability that I lack to put a pen to paper and find stamps and go to the post office, I found this in my mailbox the other day:
Sigh. Isn't it marvelous? These are her Gocco prints I admired on her Flickr, and these too can be yours:
And her blog, Kaotic Kraft Kuties is linked to the left. Check it out.
So I must have good karma and I must have done something right to reap these wonderful gifts, and to have a real, live pen pal in Melbourne, Australia. And maybe, just maybe, she will open her mailbox someday and find something from me in it. Just not my fifth grade picture.
Thirteen down, 84 to go.