Posts Tagged ‘penpals’

[January, 1996] A Letter from Alaska

November 11, 2014 1 comment


I got a letter from Brad a couple of days ago. Anita called while I was reading it and I could barely speak. It was the most wonderful, most beautiful letter. He practically called me his soulmate in it. He said he knew he was probably being forward for a first letter but wrote the loveliest things.

I have not been able to stop thinking about him. It’s scary because all I have to go on is the brief moment in B. Dalton’s and this letter. Anita said it seems too good to be true, echoing my thoughts. But I knew it would happen in an unusual way. What would happen? It could be too soon to say it. I don’t know him well enough but there’s a part that’s instinctual (if that’s a real word). I’m scared to put all my trust in him so soon (and there is the 4000 mile distance) but Bradley could be the one. Strange to say this after the whole Nathan ordeal (which isn’t even over). But I’m saying it. I feel a very special connection.

I admit there were many false starts in my brief romantic life prior to this. Most could be chalked up to unrequited crushes or random encounters. And for all I knew, this could be no different. And yet it was different. I think I knew it, deep down, the moment he approached me in that bookstore.

I remember opening the letter in the elevator. The envelope was handmade (as was mine when I wrote to him; I was fond of making my own envelopes from oversized music and fashion magazine pages). The letter was a single sheet densely packed with jagged handwriting on both sides. There was a wrapped stick of clove gum in the folds.

I still have that letter, in a box upstairs, surrounded by other boxes that will remain unopened for a long time. I could excerpt it, but I won’t. Because even though I’m laying my diaries bare here, some things need to stay private. And also, it’s not the words so much as the feelings it evoked.

Those feelings were a blend of terror and elation, with a dusting of wonder, certainty and hesitation. Because a ten-minute meeting and two-page letter do not a soul mate make. Or do they?

David Letterman had a recurring skit on his show called, “Is This Anything?” He’d reveal random acts, like a woman hula-hooping several hoops or a pumpkin being dropped off the roof of a building. At the end of the segment, Dave would either proclaim the act to me nothing or something. That day, when I got Brad’s first letter, I thought of the Letterman’s skit and asked myself the question. I knew it was too soon to put a name on it, but I knew, this was something.

I bet that letter still smells of clove.



[June, 1995] Carnival and Catherine Wheel

January 26, 2014 2 comments


Wow, I almost felt like I was starting a letter (I must comment on how annoyed I am that I haven’t gotten any real letters in a while. I just know I’ll get about 8 in the same day). But now isn’t the time to be sarcastic because it was a beautiful day. Carnival was great even though all I did was sit there and talk and sign people’s yearbooks and sit there trying not to melt under the sun. It was great.

There is a strong possibility that I first owned this album on cassette.

There is a strong possibility that I first owned this album on cassette.

Then (w/Anita) on to Tower Records in the village to see a free concert by Catherine Wheel. Very good they were*, bought the album then & there (I love the single “Waydown” so much, I wouldn’t mind if it was that song over and over). Got yet another set list which was signed by all the band members this time (very nice people, a British band).

For anyone joining the game late, I was a big penpal nerd in the ’90s and continued to be so in my later high school years (I’ll spare you additional gushing about how superior paper letters were to electronic correspondence—this time!—and direct you to this earlier blog post for more background). Inevitably, no matter how I tried to space out my letter-writing, I’d usually get responses in bulk, despite the letters coming from all over the world.

Carnival was an annual event that I imagine most schools have a version of (booths with games, food, etc.) so I’ll spare you details, but mostly because that particular year I didn’t do much more than “sit there” and call it “great” (can’t you tell I was an aspiring writer from that vivid description alone?).

Before delving into the show itself, a note for the younger readers: once upon a time there were these places called “record stores” where they sold music in physical form, on vinyl, cassette and these small plastic discs called CDs. Some of these larger shops, like Tower Records, hosted musical artists from time to time to do in-store signings, and sometimes the bands would also perform a 20-minute mini-concert to promote their latest album. 

Anita and I had a previous adventure in New Jersey seeing Sponge at a different Tower Records, but it was nice to be able to attend another in-store closer to home.

Somehow this photo of Catherine Wheel manages to look both extremely spontaneous and staged.

Somehow this photo of Catherine Wheel manages to look both extremely spontaneous and also staged.

To this day, Catherine Wheel is one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen. For those unfamiliar, their sound is a shoegaze/rock mix with a dash of dirty guitars (I initially wrote “grunge” but couldn’t live myself for labeling them that way). They also sounded better in person than they did on any of their albums (one of the few bands I could say the same for is Pearl Jam).

Catherine Wheel had some brief MTV success with the single for “Waydown” but never made it really big like—Radiohead big. (Fun fact: lead singer Rob Dickinson is the cousin of Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson.)

It’s a shame they weren’t able to find a wider audience, because I think they put out of lot of solid music and put on great concerts. And while it was nice to see them perform at smaller venues, they deserved more wide-spread attention and success than they ever received. The album I bought referenced in this entry, Happy Days, is pretty good, but Chrome and Adam and Eve are even better and some of the most underrated music to come out of the 1990s.

* No idea why I decided to sound like Yoda there.

[December, 1994] WDRE and G.O.D.


“See faces frozen still against the wind” – U2

Ellis Island was not the huge bore I expected it to be. Mom and I had an… interesting train adventure on the way back. The blind leading the blind.

“Glitter Over Disintegration” is the title I decided upon. I made it an acronym on purpose (sort of). This one moved along fairly quickly. It’s relieving to know I can write outside of life experiences.

Anita and I have already scheduled our first trip to the Village, this Friday. I want these next 4 days to be over with more than anything. Anita heard that Larry Mullen Jnr was at the DRE acoustic Christmas concert. It’s a little frustrating, yes, but it just wasn’t meant to be, like with the backstage passes.

I’m in the process of dying my hair (reddish-blond, so the box says). “That tingly feeling means it’s working.”

“Destiny protect me from the world” – Radiohead (one of the bands at the DRE thing)

WDRE was a fantastic radio station based out of Long Island that used to be known as WLIR. It was known as the listening destination for alternative music, but balanced the more popular bands at the time like Green Day, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots with 80’s alternative that was rarely heard on other stations, like The Smiths, early Cure, and Madness. Back in the day, radio stations used to give out concert tickets, usually to the caller that corresponded to the station’s ID (i.e. Z100 awarded its 100th caller). I wore out my phone’s redial button trying to win all kinds of tickets, but unfortunately, I was never lucky when it came to shows I really wanted to see, like the DRE Christmas concert. Instead, I won tickets for artists/bands I had no interest in, like Barenaked Ladies and Paul Weller. In fact, I won Paul Weller tickets twice and didn’t go to the show either time. I listened to DRE in the last years of its heyday, because a couple of years later it switched format to adult contemporary, which made me pretty much give up on radio.

boat trip, anyone?

 “Glitter Over Disintegration” was about a couple, Rob and Tera, trying to have a picnic on a boat, except for the threat of “shadows” which periodically appear to Rob and slowly drain his humanity. It was my none-too-subtle metaphor for depression. Here’s an excerpt from the last page:

I sank my teeth into my lip to hold back the rising bile and hysteria. Each time the shadows came they took a little bit more of Rob, leaving me with less to look after. I hated compensating for this gradual annihilation.

I reached my arm out but he wouldn’t let me touch him. The gnawing of my frustrated teeth cracked open my thin skin and blood poured over my lip and chin, leaving both wet and sticky. I sat back and lifted my tired eyes when—

It was as if ink was slowly staining the sky, pretty blue being eaten by darkness. The trees shriveled, becoming ash, and the water coagulated into murky gelatinous lumps. The boat spiraled into different directions, pieces of it chipping off and flying into the blackness. I started to scream then abruptly stopped when Rob took my hand. The sadness in his soft face became a resigned fear as he placed his other hand around our wrists.

We kissed as the pandemonium crashed down on us.

Reading that last line so many years later makes me chuckle at all the intense drama I was trying to invoke.

The story was inspired by Tim Wunderlich, a pen pal whose acquaintance I made via a friendship book. Tim was an alternative kid living in a small town full of people who were intolerant of him. Whether it was circumstance, biology or a bit of both, Tim had some pretty intense depressive episodes. His negative rants at the world worried me, but also added to his mystique. And also made me determined (let’s say it all together now) to be the one to save him.  Of course, sometimes my optimism just couldn’t withstand his pessimism and his letters left me depressed, but the good kind of depressed where I was able to channel it into fiction, even if it does read more than a bit melodramatic today.

[November, 1994] The Crush Report



“I’m drunk and right now I’m so in love with you.” – NIN


Yes, the countdown has moved up 2 days because I’m going to the Wednesday show (after Claudia the Wonderful gets us tickets). It was an up day. Don’t care about randomness too much. T.W. Wrote back, just what I need. Wonders indeed (I use that word too much. Even though I don’t use it all that often). Chorus sub looks like a Depeche Mode reject. Bad thing? Naw.

“Love comes in colors I can’t deny” – S.P. [Smashing Pumpkins]

More of my teenage code in this entry, but I’m actually able to decipher most of it.

Collecting crushes became something of an inadvertent hobby for me when I was 16. It was rare for me to go more than a couple of months (or even weeks) without having at least one target for my boy craziness, but sometimes I accumulated a few. I remember a lot of them today, but still can’t recall who “Wonderfully Random” was. If it wasn’t Neil, the younger punk kid, it was some classmate I decided was cute and crush-worthy.

However, none of that mattered because I was smitten with Tim Wunderlich from his first letter (and because of his last name, I was fond of making bad puns using the word “wonders.” Sorry.). He was frustrated and jaded and had the furious male scrawl of a teenage malcontent. Tim lived in a small town full of ignorant people, where he was called a “faggot” because he wore his hair a little long and listened to bands like The Cure and Cocteau Twins. He felt imprisoned and misunderstood, which was something I could identify with (as could just about any other adolescent, I imagine). Even though I lived in one of the most dynamic cities in the world, Hunter was a small school which felt like a microcosm unto itself, a brick prison full of kids who were smart, but not wildly eclectic or unusual–at least not on the surface. And while I had momentary escapes from the school, it dominated my social existence for a long time, and I felt more pressure to fit in than stand out. Tim did as well, but fought back against that pressure and did not pretend to be something he wasn’t. That quality in both Tim and Neil were big reasons I had crushes on them (on top of finding them generally attractive, of course).

You could do a lot worse than having your sub look like this.

Then there was, of course, the “Depeche Mode reject,” which was in reference to a substitute teacher who bore a striking resemblance to Dave Gahan, the band’s lead singer. Even though I was not a fan of the group as a kid, I did gradually like them more and more as my music tastes evolved. And while Dave Gahan was no Trent Reznor, he did have a certain physical appeal at times. And having a temporary chorus teacher who had a similar slender, dark-haired, broody, pale British look to him made me… rather uncomfortable. It was the first–and possibly only– time, I felt attracted to a teacher (not counting my girl crush on Ms. Donaldson, which had no sexual component to it). I was embarrassed by this crush, because it felt taboo to have lustful feelings for a so-called authority figure. Much like the crush on Neil felt wrong because he was so much younger than me, this felt wrong because Mr. Pseudo-Gahan was considerably older than me…  and because I kept picturing him starring in music videos wearing leather pants. I could barely even look at him in the classroom for fear of blushing. Luckily, he only subbed for a few chorus sessions.

[October, 1994] Friendship Books




“The city’s a fire, a passionate flame
That knows me by name.” – U2

Yesterday I found an e-mail message waiting for me from Julie Wilson, this girl in Nebraska.  One of them was a form letter for her ‘zine Heaven or Hell.  The other was a letter from her.  We’ll probably trade ‘zine issues.  I also have myself a new penpal from Australia, Edna. She lives in Tasmania and seems really nice.  I returned an FB to her (actually, it was a sheet) and she mailed me a whole bunch of stuff.

I had this dream that I met this girl Mary Salardi (I don’t even write to her but I see her in lots of other FB’s) and told her that when she writes NIN she has to put the second “N” backwards.  It was funny.

“I want to fly but my wings have been so denied” – Alice in Chains

I had to include this entry because it mentioned email. In 1994! When computers were still so intimidating and novel and I had my doubts whether I would become an avid user of one (Doogie Howser Diary entries notwithstanding). This was back before Google or Hotmail, when checking for “e-mail messages” was a multi-step process and addresses involved suffixes like “” that I had to write down in order to remember properly. Though it was around this time a new Internet service provider called America Online (later to become AOL) was starting to get adopted by non-luddites.

I still preferred my correspondence to be on paper, in stamped envelopes. Reading  a person’s handwriting was so much more personal, and you could write letters anywhere, whereas I had to sit in computer lab to type out emails. Plus, back then something like friendship books (or FB’s) would have been difficult to do via email. In high school I had a friend who would make photocopies of all his letters before mailing them, and I always found it strange that he did so. Considering how uber-nostalgic I am, now I wish I had done the same, at least with some of my letters, if only to see what I left out of the diary.

A word on FB’s for those who didn’t have pen pals back in the day or those who spent more of their lives typing than writing by hand. Back before the worldwide web became ubiquitous, before it was easy to find people with common interests via websites, blogs, message boards, and social media, there were friendship books. Here’s how it worked: One person started the FB by stapling a few small pieces together into a booklet (sometimes a single sheet of paper was used, but usually they were booklets.). Their name and address would go on the cover and could be decorated with various   photos/glitter/doodles (I was a fan of borders in funky nail polish colors because they were shiny and bright). There was usually a list of favorite bands, interests, and the types of pen pals being sought. Sort of like snail mail platonic personal ads. The friendship book would gets mailed to a pen pal, who decorated the next page with his/her (usually her) details and then sent it on to a different pen pal. And so on and so forth until person to fill the last page mailed the friendship book back to its owner. Ideally, the book came back with a few potentially interesting new people to write to. You could also start a friendship book for one of your own pen pals as a surprise for them.

I was initially excited to find new U2 fans through Propaganda, but that pen pal circuit was pretty incestuous, so FBs dedicated to the band had a lot of the same names in them after a while. However, there were always a few new folks in the mix, and the less obsessive fans with more varied music taste, had more eclectic FB’s. Once I branched out to more alternative music, the pen pals became even more diverse and interesting.

I wish I kept a few of these friendship books for posterity, because there’s really nothing like them today. They would have been a great time-capsule, of a period before communication became more electronic and disposable.

[June, 1994] I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

December 28, 2010 1 comment

faceless soul mate or fate's cruel practical joke?

Saturday, June 11, 1994

Dear Journal,

Carnival was Wednesday and Holly, Hahn, and I left after the first hour (and I thought even that was too long).  We went to the movies and saw “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”  It was great.  What was even better was when I got home my second letter from Ronin was waiting for me.  I was expecting it for a week and a half because Anita got a letter from him (I gave her the address) and we mailed ours around the same time.

In the letter to her he wrote: “I think Damiella is wonderful.”  Heh-heh.  Well this second letter was so worth waiting for.  His first quote was from “All I Want is You” which is going to be my wedding song.  Then he wrote that I was very pretty (I sent him a photo) and that he thought I was his other half.  At the end of his letter he wrote he thinks he’s found what he’s looking for!  Then there is all this little stuff that we have in common (except our “other” music tastes vary) such as our favorite version of “Pride” (the original) and our favorite Doors song (“The Crystal Ship” and I’m not even into them!).  We also agreed that Achtung and Zooropa have changed the face of music.

There is a catch.  I haven’t gotten a picture of him yet.  I don’t want to be shallow but it does matter what he looks like.  If he’s plain-looking, no problem.  If the photo thing turns out all right and he’s being sincere, I think I’ve also found what I’m looking for even if it’s (he’s) in Scotland.  Hey, at least I’ll have one hell of a story to tell the kids.  We’ll see.

I got home from Anita’s a while ago.  I consider her my closest friend at the moment, we get along so well.  This summer we will go (as soon as her parents let her) to Lolapalooza together where one of the headliners will be my second favorite group, Smashing Pumpkins.

The year is almost over.  Good, I have more interesting things to do.

[Last entry in Teddy Bear Diary. Quote on inside back cover:


I remember those nerve-wracking weeks leading up to getting Ronin’s picture.  I would look at every guy I passed on the street and think, “if he looks like that, I would be fine with it… if he looks like that, I would be…less fine with it.” I tried to forgive Ronin for any physical flaws he might have ahead of time, tried to remember the connection we quickly established over the course of several letters, which would surely surpass the superficiality of what he looked like. But I did pass quite a few males that didn’t pass my “If he looks like that” test.

Finally, his next letter arrived. I tore into it in the elevator, fishing out the small, passport-photo-sized picture, wondering if I was about to see the face of my soul mate.

I felt like I was on a game show where I picked the wrong curtain and the wah-wah-wahhhhh trumpets sounded announcing my misfortune.  When I described him to Anita, the first word I used was “bulky.”  It wasn’t just that he was a large guy; I was hardly a waif myself, and have always been forgiving of some extra poundage on male. No, it was his face.  Despite having blue eyes, there was something doughy and vacant and unappealing about it. I just wasn’t attracted even a teeny tiny bit to Ronin and no amount of great personality could make up for it.

I couldn’t think of a graceful way to reject him.  I was so disappointed that I couldn’t bring myself to write Ronin another letter.  It was terrible.  I can’t imagine how insulting and upsetting it was to him. He may have hinted some concern in another letter to Anita, but she stopped writing to him too. I still feel a twinge of guilt about the whole thing today.

I hope he eventually did find what he was looking for, because it definitely wasn’t me.

* From an interview with Bono.