Australian linguist punk in search of old school penpals…

October 12, 2011 at 9:37 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

I know so much about my friends.

For many of them, I know their first album, their biggest fear, and the secret crush they only ever admit to at the tail end of a whiskey night (R., Axl Rose is all yours, ok?) .

But what I don’t know, and really should, is what the loops of their F’s and the tails of their Y’s look like, spilled onto a page.

In class recently, the question came up: what was the last personal letter you received? And when my entire class – every single one – shrugged, and confessed they’d never received a handwritten letter in their life, I had to go outside and put my head between my knees.

I won’t even tell you my reaction when they were asked the antonym for ‘like’ and as one, in a zombie intonation that made my classroom suddenly drop ten degrees, intoned ‘unlike.’

Facebook, you have SO much to answer for…

I write letters. I write them often, and always have. My first penpal was at age ten, though all I remember is that her name was Brandy and she thought books were ‘too much trouble.’ I haven’t, needless to say, kept in touch with her.

But in my late teens and twenties, trapped in my house by a battle with agoraphobia that was to last three years, I started pressing stamps onto letters and sending them out into the world again, and again, and again. I found most of my penpals in the back pages of Maximumrocknroll, a punk zine where for a few dollars, you could write your life into a few short lines and hope that somewhere in the world, someone would connect with it enough to respond.

And they did.

I still remember the joy of sending off a classified ad – Australian linguist punk in search of old school penapls. At one point I had over two dozen penpals; from Rotterdam to New Orleans, Glasgow to Albuquerque, stuffing their envelopes full of mixed tapes, photos and treats. For someone who literally couldn’t leave her house without panicking – sometimes even getting to the mailbox required thick armour and an hour to calm down – connecting with people became more and more difficult over the years. For a long dark while, ink on paper was pretty much all I had, and I came to adore the little slices of life that fell through my mailbox, my way of keeping the world outside alive.

 I’ve just spent an hour digging out the music that was my soundtrack back then, much of which I first heard through those beloved mixed tapes: The Blatz, Snap Her, The Muffs, The Gr’ups, Pansy Division, 7 Year Bitch. I remember reaching into my letterbox and pulling out an envelope, coffee smears across the paper, real life caught in ink.

Although many of my paper friendships have moved into the email sphere, some of us are still old school. I can always be relied on to stay home one rainy afternoon, sit on the floor, and send pages and pages of black words onto pale paper, to throw in photos or newspaper articles, and seal it up with the accidental odd fiery strand of hair or damp little paw mark from a curious kitty.

I’m trying to imagine the handwriting of my friends here in Melbourne, to close my eyes and recall whether it lopes to the left or the right, whether their penmanship is extravagant and dramatic, or tiny and contained.

And I can’t, damn it.

Maybe I should set myself some homework for a change?



  1. Hilde said,

    Oh man…penpals. I loved to write and receive thick envelopes, but I have never been such a loyal penpal as you are!
    Recently I have been looking for a girl from Boston I exchanged letters with for years and who even came to visit me in Rotterdam, but I can’t find her anywhere online (this was a while before we ever even met). I’m kind of getting obsessed with finding her….but there’s also a reason we lost touch. Argh. Anyway, she has an impossibly common English name, but I think that the search itself is what enjoys me. Maybe I never want to find her. Time will tell!

    • inkymouth said,

      Hildelein, I’ll never forget pulling your packages out of my mailbox, Dutch stamps making me grin. And then standing under the clock at Amsterdam Central Station years later, wondering if I’d know who you were as you walked towards me…old school penpalism (it can be a noun, right?!) has worked magic in my life. How many times have I hopped on a plane and wrapped my arms around you – five? Rotterdam, Brussels, Prague, Berlin…if I stop telling you about those damn bird-eating spiders, maybe even Melbourne!

      PS Keep looking for your Boston penpal…yes, there’s a reason you lost touch, but also a reason why you’re looking for her….

  2. kimmerlyaj said,

    I’ll be your pen pal! Have you seen the film Mary and Max? Mary lives in Melbourne and Max lives in New York and they are pen pals!

    • inkymouth said,

      Consider it done – us cancerian scribes have to stick together! And no, I haven’t seen the movie but given my past agoraphobia and my reliance on ink, I know I really should have by now. It seems that old school punk ads have now given way to blog posts…the way of the future, hey? And I’ve had NY penpals before but never one from Texas 🙂

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