Micro pen pal


Years and years ago, I knew a guy who was intelligent, nice and cultured. We lived in different cities but had many lovely conversations about music and art and the world in general. But at some point, he kept backing me into corners with his feelings and suggestions. And what do I do when backed into a corner? I push my way out with (verbal) fists flying.

For me, he was a pen pal, whom I saw on occasion when in his city, but he interpreted all of it to mean I also wanted some kind of romantic relationship. I thought after meeting that I had made it – and repeatedly did – abundantly clear, that I had no interest in this whatsoever. But beset by lack of self-esteem, an inexplicable persistence and jealousy, I suppose he thought anyone who would talk to him as much as I did must have felt something else, something more, but … it was next to impossible to see redeeming qualities that would make someone be attracted to him. Not because he was repellent, ugly or stupid or anything like that. No, it boiled down to his COMPLETE lack of confidence and accompanying spinelessness.

One summer when I was visiting his city, I stopped by his place to pick him up to go to a gallery. While waiting in his tiny flat, he came out of the shower (undressed) and said, “OH, I did not realize you would be there.” Where the hell else would I be in this micro apartment? (I could not help but notice, in the midst of this particular awkward “overture” on his part, that the apartment was not the only “micro” item in the room.) Eventually this kind of behavior made me run away, realizing that it was not possible to be friends and that he could not, in the absence of other viable options, deal with the direct truth (my telling him he is cool but not for me romantically just made him try harder and annoy me more). Given his hard luck and “nothing going for him” nature, I also didn’t want to hurt him. But any compassion or kindness, he misinterpreted as (ardent) interest. After enough of these misunderstandings, I felt frustrated, angry and trapped, and this is when I lash out most cruelly.

At some point, in the midst of a couple of stupid affairs I was having (which I used as fodder for making him jealous/angry enough to stop talking to me and leave me alone, which never worked. Instead I got lectures about devaluing myself; certainly all true, but nothing I wanted to hear) I indirectly compared his penis to Brussels sprouts (i.e., when he said I had never had sex with him, so I should try him out to get over an obsession with someone else, to which I replied, “That is like telling a heroin addict that she will stop shooting up if she just eats some Brussels sprouts.” As he well should have, he got angry and hurt).

But what upset me was that the next day — and this was the crux of his total problem with women, people and success in general — he sent me flowers and apologized for getting angry. Seriously?! He had every right to be hurt and angry, and what he should have understood is that he needs to own that anger and lay down the law. He should have told me, “You have no right to talk to me that way.” But no, he just took it. And that is so utterly unattractive in another person.

At some point this kind of talk finally made him so angry that he stopped contacting me for three or four very peaceful months. I enjoyed that time because, most of all, I respected that he finally took a stand. Unfortunately he was never going to know about the respect or get credit for it because it would all disappear if he were to contact me again, which he did.

Thereafter (still years and years ago), for the most part he seemed to accept that I would never be interested, but on occasion he would do something like send flowers at Valentine’s Day and make some remarks that would again push me into petty territory (talking about my ultra-promiscuous life with lesser intellects) and sheer cruelty: “Ah the Married Idiot (one of the erstwhile affairs, whom this guy hated and had the most jealousy for) is in town this week and wants to get together.” His reply, “That guy has HUGE problems.” Seeing “HUGE” written in all caps like that made me immediately respond, wickedly, cruelly, inexplicably, just to be hurtful, “That’s not all he has that’s huge.” ?! What on earth was wrong with me?

After this, he got mad, as I hoped, and went silent… for a while at least. I am happy to report that sometime soon after, he finally met someone who loves him and probably does not treat him in a cruel and careless way, the way I, his pen pal, did.

The winding trajectory of letter writing


Please Read the Letter”  Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

Having written almost prolifically about postage and the controversies of postage stamp motifs, it occurs to me to write about the corollary of postage stamps – letters. We need letters to mail if we are going to get excited about postage stamps. Sure, a lot of people do not mail anything any more – and in fact, many young people apparently don’t even know how to mail things — but if you are going to “go postal” (in the literal sense, not in the violent figurative sense), you might as well do it in a visually appealing way, with fine, varied stamps (after all, someone has gone to the trouble of designing and producing them!). And while you’re at it, you can revive a nearly lost art – letter writing. Don’t use stamps to mail bills (yeah, yeah, I know most of us are paying bills the virtual way these days): fill mailboxes with lovely cards, postcards and handwritten letters. “The letter is dead; long live the letter.

“…newly shaken with the power of so seemingly simple a thing as a letter — a medium that’s always held enormous allure for me, a humble page that blossoms into a grand stage onto which great romances are played out, great wisdom dispensed, and great genius manifested. But what exactly is it about a letter that reaches such depths, and what ineffable, immutable piece of humanity are we losing as the golden age of writing letters sets into the digital horizon?

That’s precisely what Simon Garfield, who has previously explored how our modern obsession with maps was born, seeks to illuminate in To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing — a quest to understand what we have lost by replacing letter-writing with email-typing and relinquishing “the post, the envelope, a pen, a slower cerebral whirring, the use of the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers,” considering “the value we place on literacy, good thinking and thinking ahead.” (from “The letter is dead, long live the letter.“)

The beauty of the art of letter writing – the anticipation and the intimacy – is captured both in the article I cite and the book the article writes about. But it’s not something one really understands fully unless s/he has been immersed in this “otherworld” of letter writing. It’s still appealing in some way, but the magic it used to hold over me has faded. I don’t know whether this is because of the ease and immediacy of digital communication (against which I fought tooth and nail for such a long time, which one would never guess now) or because of age (that is, life and priorities shift to such a degree that sitting down to devote time to letter writing – which used to be a large chunk of many an artist or writer’s day – seems wasteful).

I don’t know if it is a byproduct of becoming more “worldly” myself – as letter writing was one of the major ways in which I felt I could reach out into a wider world and experience new languages, new cultures, new countries. I could get a glimpse of Communist-era Eastern European countries, just on the cusp of a democratic shift. I could admire the philatelic sensibilities of the French. I could note the similar curves and twists familiar to a country’s handwriting – as though everyone in that one country had been taught to write and form letters and numbers on a page in exactly the same way (a letter could arrive, and even without seeing the stamp, I could usually identify whether it came from Germany or Italy or Japan – how similar the graphology).

There is still something very intoxicating about the idea of having to really want to communicate with someone else so badly that you will make the effort of putting pen to paper and go through the motions of packaging and posting a letter to some other place in the world. It is not really a massive effort – but it is becoming a less and less likely occurrence all the time. When I mail my quarterly CD mixes and sometimes even handmade cards, many people (non-pen pal people) who make it onto the mailing list often express such shock that they received a real, genuine piece of mail. “I haven’t received a personal letter since the 1980s!” they exclaim.

And frankly, I don’t think most people have much experience receiving personal letters. Maybe people’s grandparents are still clinging to the postal service, along with outliers like myself. Everyone seems to enjoy receiving, but like a lot of things in life, people are too lazy or disinclined to reciprocate.

But there are those among us who keep this hobby – passion, even – alive. I can’t say I have been particularly good at it in recent years, having said goodbye to a number of my longtime pen pals because my global bounding and bouncing around has not been conducive to keeping regular contact. There are a few people I will never say goodbye to – and it is funny to imagine ever saying goodbye to anyone, given how protective and “into it” I was in the old days. In the heyday of my pen pal life, I had more penfriends than I could count, all over the world, and counted them among my best friends (despite a few horror stories – which is entirely another story). They were my window to the world, and the daily visit from the postman (whose name was “Maynard” haha) was a lifeline for me throughout my adolescent and teen years. It seems so strange to me that I was checking the mail every ten minutes back then, wondering why the mailman was late, whether my letters were lost, etc. – when now I could go days without checking. And to imagine that the biggest problem in my whole life back then was managing to get enough stamps. I never had enough stamps or money for stamps. And any stamps I was given were gone as soon as I had them in hand. Now I have piles of stamps (that I, perhaps ironically, order online and have shipped directly to me!).

There were “pen pal migrations” over the years. I found that when high school and/or college ended, a lot of pen pals disappeared because they “got on with their lives”, so to speak. Careers, marriage, children, just not being interested in writing or maybe just not wanting to write to me. Fine and dandy. And then there was a mass migration to online communication – many people, citing convenience and expense (envelopes and stamps, once again), shifted entirely to email, and for me, that pretty much ended a lot of friendships because there is nothing about instant email that rivals that sense of excitement one feels when receiving an envelope from somewhere across the world, savoring the reading of every word, setting aside some huge chunk of time to write back and sending off a response, not knowing when you’d get a reply.

It is, it’s worth saying, also intoxicating to think that you might have to wait to get an answer. You might ask a really burning question – and at best, you could expect an answer in two weeks. And at worst – well, who knows? Months? We’ve sort of lost the charm of anticipation – we expect to have everything immediately and instantly, and that instant gratification culture has perhaps spoiled us and made us far less patient, treating others as disposable and thinking of ourselves as much more entitled than we actually are. Letters manage somehow to humanize and slow things down.

The whole thing about letters and parcels – it is just a wholly different feeling, a wholly different world. I will never completely stop with my postal entanglements; it will just continue on this meandering, winding road.

For the Philatelically Inclined: Homoerotic Finnish Postage Stamps


Just hours before I saw that Finland had introduced these unusual and rather groundbreaking postage stamps featuring homoerotic images, I had a playful debate with someone about “the best stamps ever”.

Homoerotic philately in Finland

Homoerotic philately in Finland

Now, sure, I write and talk about stamps a lot – but I am no philatelist. I have never collected or thought about the value of stamps (other than when the price goes up and my postal costs – as a lifelong pen pal type – go up). I have always sought to get the most interesting or visually stimulating stamps because I assume that is the kind of stamps my pen pals (and anyone receiving mail from me) would want to see. Not patriotic row on row of American flags! No. Give me the Johnny Cash or the March on Washington! Or Harvey Milk or… Jimi Hendrix! Give me the Imagine Peace Tower or Eyjafjallajökull! Give me the cutest depictions of animals ever on Swedish Christmas stamps – or even Swedish luminaries (albeit from totally opposite ends of the cultural spectrum – Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer and footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic!). Give me heart-shaped French designer Valentine stamps! Just not something boring. So the playful argument ended up with a UK resident telling me he was going to outstamp my stamp prowess (I argued that my Swedish wildlife Christmas motif was the best ever, hands down). He claimed he could outdo it.

But before that could happen, I saw the breaking news – Finland had unleashed these stamps by influential artist Tom of Finland. Well, announced them, anyway. The real release, according to the Finnish post website, is in September.

Not that Finland has bored us too much with stamp design before (quite unlike Scandinavian nation, Norway – almost the world’s most boring stamps in my humble opinion. Bore-wegian stamps!) – they’ve given us Angry Birds, police cars, a whole lot of postal representations of Finnish design (and when it comes to design, is there any better?), an homage to their world-leading education system, Tove Jansson, teddy bears for Valentine’s Day (Teddy feels honored of course), Moomin, ice hockey, loads of nature – and that is just in the current lineup.

Postcards from Paradise” – Flesh for Lulu… “I fell under your spell…

Africa 101: Togolese radio, stereotypes and Africa in small doses


“What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?”

-Countee Cullen – “Heritage

Like many “westerners” (or whatever you want to call us – which is a group of mixed, all-over-the-place folks), I never used to give much thought to the specifics of the African continent. It was some “other place” I had not seen, dreamt of or had feelings about one way or the other. It was not really included in any appreciable way in my education, and I did not know anyone from Africa or who had been to Africa. Thus, it was a nebulous concept – just “Africa” without subtlety and nuance. It was not unlike the application of this blanket term “westerners”. What does it even mean?

Of course when I got older, it dawned on me that Africa is a vast place and the diversity was something I could not even begin to fathom. If each state of the American union, sharing a common language and currency, can each be as different as they tend to be, then the countries and regions of Africa would have to dwarf American diversity in some ways (although of course America is a land of immigration, making it a strange concoction as well. In fact most western countries, through years and years of immigration activity, have become their own strange concoctions).

Still, despite the few little tidbits of specific information I gathered haphazardly – nothing systematic about it – Africa was still just a jumble of faces in magazines or on tv, stereotypes, unusual names, places with ever-changing borders, names and leaders but nothing cohesive.

I could swear I had written about this “incremental introduction to Africa” in a previous blog entry before but cannot find any evidence of it now. All I can find is someplace that I wrote: “It seems that it does not matter how much one protests that Africa (especially sub-Saharan Africa) is not just one monolithic entity. Most will continue to treat this massive and diverse continent as though one remedy, one answer, one strategy works for the entire place.” Not that I was ever that different before really giving it some thought and consideration and a lot of time learning.

Where did all the questioning start? I cannot pinpoint an exact moment. In elementary school, when I was a child, I had absolutely no exposure to Africa or anything of direct African origin, other than some carved wooden turtle knick-knacks my grandmother gave me. They were “made in Kenya”, which she informed me was a country in Africa. It sounded so far off and exotic – very hard to comprehend. Later, in elementary school, our social studies textbook mentioned “Mba, Aubame and Bongo” – the only thing I learned about Africa in my entire public school education. The fact that I remembered only their names and a picture but nothing about where they came from shows only how disconnected this piece of information was from anything else. It was as though the textbook creators wanted to mention Africa but did not really have anything to say about it. (Later, of course, with these disconnected names floating around in my head, I checked into it to discover that these men were figures in la politique gabonaise.)

Later, as late as university, I felt a real elevation in my consciousness about this idea of “Africa” as a monolithic entity. A musician from Ghana, Obo Addy (RIP, 2012), came to my university and lectured about this topic – and it was, even though obvious, as though a light came on. The light of ignorance versus stupidity. Haha. No, I wasn’t stupid – I just didn’t know and, like most people, had no reason to think about these things. How did Ghana differ, I started thinking, from Nigeria, or from Gabon? How, even, did North Africa differ from sub-Saharan Africa? As ridiculously surface-level and limited as this sounds now, for 17-year-old me, it was all new. Meanwhile many of my classmates had spent parts of their lives in places like Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire (I want an Ivorian passport – it has an elephant on the front!) and thus had this air of experience and of being cosmopolitan. They had such a different worldview – or seemed like it – and I had no reason or circumstance to know more than I had before this point in time. I suppose this is partly what filled me with an awkwardness and feeling of inadequacy – that my life then was so sheltered and limited in scope. Even my aspirations, reflecting on it, were so puny and plodding. In a comparative light, my experience, despite being mine, just felt like nothingness. My closest encounters with Abidjan were little French-language profiles in my high school French-language text when we were optimistically introduced to all kinds of characters in le monde francophone. (Naturally I also enjoyed our little vignettes of the Swiss, Canadian, Tahitian and Martinique francophones!) To this day, it is hard to imagine spending part of childhood in some part of Africa (again, high school viewing of the Claire Denis film Chocolat should fill that gap in some one-dimensional, take-a-quick bite kind of way).

But then, all my knowledge about “African things” comes from “take-a-quick bite”, almost accidental approaches. From the strange trend in my life of meeting a string of strange men from Gambia (either in the Turkish fruit-and-veg store I frequented in Oslo to being seated next to a Gambian on an Icelandair flight) to the unusual way that Congo (formerly Zaire) keeps popping up in my life (watching When We Were Kings, reading a book about Congo that I found in Trondheim, Norway, seeing a film about Patrice Lumumba and thinking that maybe – just maybe – there was a mention of Lumumba in a schoolbook in my childhood, but that might just be wishful thinking. It’s hard to resist a story with names like Lumumba, Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu Sese Seko), it is as though I am meant to absorb Africa in small doses.

There was the strange flood of postal letters in both English and French that I received from misguided but hopeful suitors from Togo that put Togo on the map (quite literally) for me. Years ago when I was very active in the postal pen pal community, I used to exchange “friendship books” – small, decorated little booklets one might make for herself or a friend that included some info on interests and the postal address. You would send this to a pen pal, who would include his/her information and forward it to another of their pen pals and so on, until theoretically, this little booklet would be full of decorated pages and addresses of new potential friends. Occasionally these booklets would make their way, somehow, to African destinations. Normally this resulted only in a few unwanted letters (many people actually made a point of specifying on their friendship book pages: “No Africans!” – it still strikes me as kind of a horrible generalization but I imagine people had their reasons). In many cases – and very likely for a good many others – it resulted in a few weeks of receiving 50+ letters, daily, from men in Togo who were, according to their letters, “very excited for our marital relations to begin”.

I had no idea who these men were – where were they getting my address? Eventually one of the letters explained that they had heard an ad on the radio – someone was selling the addresses of women in the once-again-undefinable “west” seeking African husbands. All these guys had paid some undetermined amount of money to get their hands on addresses of women who had no interest whatsoever in an African husband. I imagine some enterprising, entrepreneurial type got his hands on one of these friendship books and used it to make a bit of cash. (Advertising on the radio seems a bit weird, but then I don’t have a clue if the radio in Togo is a normal means of advertising.) After seeing probably 400 or more letters come to my postbox, I really could not take it anymore. I just started throwing them away without opening them. Receiving the letters suddenly felt at once creepy and sad.

But I had my little slice of Togo and took in information I would not otherwise have had.

I met a French guy who had African parents (from Ghana and Benin); I knew quite a bit about Ghana by that time, but Benin was a bit mysterious. I managed to learn that Benin is the only country in the world (or at least at that time) which counts voodoo among its state religions. Voodoo, widely associated with Haiti, is only so associated because of the slave trade. It actually came from places like Benin.

I worked with a guy who was part Tanzanian, part Norwegian, who remarked on the “personal space bubble” of northern Europe. If you were to get on a bus, for example, in Tanzania and sit alone, the next person who got on the bus would sit down next to you – somehow being alone or perceived as lonely or wanting personal space is not perceived as “normal”. Life is much more about being a part of a community.

Eventually getting into development studies, Africa is often at the core of this discipline. My studies have taken me (virtually) to Mali (warfare and the films of Malian-Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako – such as Bamako, which was a film I watched several times for its multilayered commentary). My obsession with news and tendency to watch AlJazeera English (which focuses a lot of attention on Asia, Latin America and Africa – all under-reported on American news channels) has given me insight into Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Mali – among a million other things, including France’s continued influence in the African sphere, as evidenced by its eagerness to jump into military conflicts and/or peacekeeping (most recently in Mali and CAR).

But it is still a slow and incremental learning process, especially because I am only doing it on screen or paper. I still have not travelled to Africa. But because Africa, African geography, African issues are all so distant and perceived as so esoteric, if you happen to know one or two facts about a given African country, people – sometimes even people from that country – imagine you are an expert. Comparatively speaking, maybe I have become a pseudo-expert – but I am still a novice with so little expertise or experience. After having eaten Ethiopian food perhaps once and knowing that the spongy bread is called injera and is made from teff flour, an Ethiopian guy decided I must know everything about Ethiopia (he was just impressed perhaps that I was not one among the multitudes of insensitive assholes who always reply to comments about Ethiopian food with, “I didn’t know Ethiopians had food.”)

Most recently, I watched a film, Rêves de poussière (Dreams of Dust), which was about a man from Niger who travels to Burkina Faso to try his luck as a gold miner in horrific and dangerous conditions. Cinematographically beautiful, all these films, I am still a geography dunce. I find – still – I always have to look at a map.