Monday, August 31

Republik Maluku Selatan

Here are two stamps that should not appear in any reputable collection, apparently. They are known as bogus stamps, are not official postage, and were printed by a private interest on behalf of the South Moluccas.

The South Moluccas are a group of 150 islands between Indonesia and Australia, south of Malaysia. They are not a major world power, they are certainly not a sovereign nation; they do not have an indomitable army, navy, or air force. They are not a predominant world economy. And they have never printed official, legal postage stamps for themselves.

Henry Stolow, a certain stamp dealer operating in Berlin and New York, ordered 150 sets of these stamps from Austria in 1955 and apparently sold and distributed these. Being that there is no Republic of South Moluccas, inclusion of these stamps into any responsible philatelic collection spelled disaster for the collector. Why would he do such a thing? Vengeance? Power-mongering? Simple whim? The world may never know.

And yet somehow I have come into possession of two of these stamps. How? From where? I have no idea. I was just cleaning out my stationery supplies and I found a small, yellowing paper packet with several stamps in it. One's from Romania, one's a Bulgarian stamp celebrating with 100-year mark of the April Uprising, one's from Poland and it features a thistle. But here are also two bogus stamps from a fake nation, which I actually think (given their history) makes them especially cool.

Friday, August 28

To Stick or Not to Stick?

I'm not one for cute little stickers, when it comes to crafting stationery. I don't feel it's enough, for a craft project coming out of me, to paste a couple stickers on a blank page and call it a day.

On the other hand, I have found some awfully cute stickers.

Pictured to the left is a selection of punk-themed stickers. These things are tiny, intricate, and in some cases fragile. The concept of Japan's impression of British punk (not the first time Japan has admired the traits of Great Britain) is irresistible to me. I love to think that it was some young Japanese artist's job to come up with an array of the accoutrements to punk music. Was she a fan of it already? Did the graphic design company actually hire some punky-looking Japanese kid off the street? Or was someone just tasked to sit in a room and study a bunch of old movies and music videos for reference?

Did that change his life? After the completion of this sticker sheet, did he abandon his proletarian values and take his burning message to the streets and stages of Tokyo, rebelling against the very establishment that created him?

Oh, one can only dream!

I also came into possession of a sheet of Doraemon stickers, very tiny, very cute. They featured him dressed in an insane variety of costumes and outfits, no repeats, dressed as anything from a samurai to a lobster. They were a nice accent on the corner of a page or envelope, just a subtle mark to catch the eye and cause to study, to wonder.

Thursday, August 27

Victorian Punk

Anything, literally anything can be used to make interesting or evocative stationery. Pictured here are old illustrations of hellebore and belladona plants. I situated them on the page and beneath them probably typed out "Fig. 27: Belladona" in some loopy Edwardian font. The impression was to recall an antiquated biology textbook: lacking one, I replicated the effect.

Being that I was into the gothic subculture at the time, and writing to people of like mind, this was an eminently appropriate choice of flora for stationery. These are poisonous plants and bring to mind someone like Lucrezia Borgia or whatever romanticized and insane historical figure. It's the drama, the romanticism I was going for with this project.

It was nothing at all to find suitable woodcuts or illustrations that could be stratified into stark black-and-white imagery for this purpose. With the intention of slicing an 8.5"x11" sheet of paper in half, I would print two images to a page, halve the sheet, and start writing on a document of a less intimidating and demanding size than a full piece of paper, if I should choose. (As it ended up, usually, I would bind four of these smaller pieces of paper together--two sheets in total, writing front and back--so it was nothing more than a psychological palliative.)

Wednesday, August 26

Behold the Lowly Vandal

This was an interesting trend in graffiti: lacking self-publishing resources, steal a bunch of post office labels for a canvas. Grab a stack of these from the courtesy desk, write out your tag or slogan, then go around down and slap them to any available surface. Very handy if you're too scared to stand in place long enough to write out your tag.

Wish I could remember whose quote it was: "The blank wall is the idiot's canvas."

In no sense do I support or admire vandalism. I choose to see little distinction between a street artist and a crude tagger: they are each forms of fascism, in which one person decides his values supersede those of others--in this case, those of the property owner. I can admire a street artist's work, but I will always wish he chose a legitimate venue by which to succeed, rather than expressing himself at the expense of someone else's rights.

That said, it's not impossible to admire the techniques of one's enemy. Just as we can be impressed by the persistence of the cockroach or the robustness of the latest season's flu virus, so can I admire the resourcefulness of a vandal. If you really, really don't want to spend any money, where would you go to look for free stickers? And if by radical chance you happen to know someone with a legitimate job, you could ask him to swipe a couple markers for your craft. All that's left is for you to refine your misguided and misapplied calligraphy, then disseminate your non-message throughout town for everyone to see and not understand. Awesome: way to fail to communicate anything of value. You have achieved nothing useful and only worsened your living environment.

Plus, you stole supplies from the post office. That's pretty sad, stealing something that's free from people who legitimately need it. Yeah, vandals are somewhere just above pond scum in the grand scale, somewhere below jackals and carp.

Tuesday, August 25

Wrapped in Culture

This will look odd, but it's better than me linking to a Word document for you to download.

What I did here was take a section of the ancient tale Beowulf, render it with a font (originally Calligrapher but, here, Calligula), fade it to a pale grey, and... I can only guess what this must've been for. Perhaps I canted it at an angle and carved envelope liner out of it--that certainly would have been a suitably creative project I'd've undertaken in my heyday. Unlikely that it would have formed the envelope itself, being that space is so limited in 8.5"x11" paper. If I could've brought this to wherever I was working at the time and printed it out at 11"x17", sure, then I could've done something. Third guess: maybe the background for address labels. Again, tilt them at an artistic angle, cut them up, and write something in bold black ink across the faded grey print.

The idea here was to impart the feeling of literary tradition, hearkening to a seminal piece of work, just as one would use photos of cemeteries to evoke somber feelings or a sense of horror. Lacking suitable materials, I have never been one to give up a project when I might craft the materials for myself. I think the only drawback to this particular project was that the laser printer ink tended to smear or blur in the process: I remember being dissatisfied with the result.

Oh well, caveat emptor.

Monday, August 24

Alternative Envelopes

In an effort to reduce the amount of physical clutter in our apartment, and consequently increase the amount of space, my wife and I undertook several projects from donation/regifting to savage, unconscienable trashing of our property. It was obviously more satisfying to pass something useful on to someone who would appreciate it, but when push came to shove we found ourselves not above hauling a bag of crap to the trash bin out back.

In the case of DVDs, what we did was this: we decided we didn't care about owning the case that it came in and invested in some nice DVD albums. We removed the jackets from the DVD cases, trimmed them down to a size where they would fit in the album with the DVD, and discard everything that remained. Now we have lovely albums grouped by genre and the compendiums look no different than any other large tome on our bookshelves.

In the case of the pictured, these were slipcovers that went outside the box or case in which the DVD rested: extra packaging! Normally evil, but in this case useful. I saved several of my favorite slipcovers and intend to convert them into envelopes for letters for friends. They're stored in my stationery cabinet until when cometh such day as I may use them.

Who will get them? Who deserves them? It is impossible to know for now.

Sunday, August 23

Mailbox Fetish

I know I geek out on this postal stuff, but currently that's still allowed.

This is a photo of a vintage postal box in my building at work. The box is no longer in use: if you put a letter in it, it will get trapped between the walls somewhere in the basement. On each floor, directly above this box, there are mail slots once used for depositing all letter mail and post cards.

Imagine the convenience of a system like this! Instead of having to walk four blocks over on lunch break to drop off a letter, or wander around in ever-widening concentric circles in search of one of the mailboxes that hasn't been removed yet, imagine simply walking over to a letter slot on your floor and depositing your letter in a mail slot. Man, prior generations really knew how to live!

And look at the art that went into this display. Someone was commissioned to design this mailbox, someone who went to art school and studied metalcrafting. Probably this was a repeated mold whose product several businesses purchased, or maybe they were standard issue by the post office, but originally someone spent his creativity in its design. There is symbolism in several of the icons pictured, only a fraction of which any lay person might guess at today; messages lost like letters that slip through the cracks and deteriorate in the foundation of a building.

Saturday, August 22

Return Address: Think About It

Here's another example of the value of a return address, albeit an extreme example.

Earlier this year I was plundering my collection of vintage postcards (from the '80s) and disseminating them, rather than letting them grow older and unappreciated in my possession. I mailed a bunch out to various friends around the nation and the world, and now I have to wonder how many reached their destinations. For it happened that this one was torn apart, only half of it surviving--and how remarkable is it that my return address happened to remain intact?

It's rare that I'll include a return address on a postcard. There's so little space to say anything, unless you're very good at writing tiny (and you have a Slicci), that sometimes it's too much to even trim a return address label down. And I have plenty of return address labels: my car insurance company printed them out as gifts around Christmas each year, as did the Humane Society and other non-profits, I believe. But I was writing a friend and wanted to ensure she had my address, so I wrote it, and then the card was sundered. But because one of the pieces had my address on it, the post office bothered to put it in an envelope (with a completely unapologetic letter, suggesting I had somehow mispackaged a postcard, causing this minor disaster) and send it back to me.

Return addresses: they're good!

Friday, August 21

Advertising Errors

Okay, people don't think they need editors, but editors know that everyone needs them, that their need is ever-present and constant. Imagine a movement of people trying to insist we no longer needed undertakers or janitors, that things are fine as they are and the problems will take care of themselves.

This sign was posted in Pier 1, during a clearance sale. I pointed it out to the clerks, none of whom could detect any error. When I explained what was wrong, each one claimed someone else was in charge of that and it was out of their hands to correct.

But few people would have sympathy for me. If anything, I would be gently chided for having a large stick up my ass. People who can't see the problems don't think there are any problems, but this is absolutely not true. Walking around downtown--walking around anywhere--I, or any other editor or English major, could point out half a dozen spelling or grammatical errors in public display.

What's the grievous offense? What's the grand crime if someone spells something wrong on a sign? It looks unprofessional, for one. It compromises the consumer's trust in that vendor, it makes the business look ignorant and sloppy. Then again, if the public can't identify the errors either, then this is only an offense to the educated, to "those in the know." Customers who don't know any better can safely shop at businesses that don't know any better, and then we get scenarios where an obese mom responds with shock to her obese kids, who she's been feeding at McDonalds twice a day for years, claiming she had no idea that food was bad for a person. Claiming ignorance.

That's something I wouldn't scream too loudly. I wouldn't exactly advertise that on the street, but that's just me. Clearly.

Thursday, August 20

Letterhead: Think About It

Here, this is the argument in favor of letterhead. I wrote a letter to a friend and the envelope got torn apart in transit. It was a regular old business envelope, plain white paper with blue patterned ink on the inside to make the letter hard to read, gotten in a box of 40 or 50 from any general store. Nothing remarkable or exceptional about this envelope, except that it happened to run afoul of a processing glitch and was shredded, its contents spilled.

By some lucky accident, I happened to have included my return address on one of the pages in this two-page letter. I don't recall whether I designed the formal letterhead described earlier in this blog or if I simply wrote my address up in the corner, but whichever, it was enough. The letter was returned to me by the post office in Madison, WI, with the pictured letter included. Usually I don't include my address in the letter itself, so I felt tremendous relief that this should have worked out so.

And yes, I realize most people don't write letters, they write e-mail if they write at all, and the concept of a return address is a thoughtless given. But, for those of us neo-Luddites who still know how to navigate a pen across a sheet of paper, I urge you to consider making up your own letterhead. It doesn't have to be fancy, nothing more than your name in 16pt. and address in 12pt., all in some interesting font (and gods knows there are many thousands to be had for free online). That would be enough.

Wednesday, August 19

Writing Reboot

Something like this is what got me into writing letters all over again. In this photo, a hailstorm has temporarily knocked out power to the building. Lights out, computer down, I lit up a couple candles and penned a quick note to a friend.

Nearly two full decades ago, wen I was stationed in South Korea during my Army career, I had 30 active pen pals simultaneously. I don't even remember what I was writing to all of them: many were cute gothchicks I found in the back of Tiger Beat Magazine. A friend back in the States turned me on to that publication as a source for pen pals, and it was entirely valid when musical taste constituted a larger portion of what I needed to have in common with a friend. I wrote to these girls about my petty military exploits, asked them about the world outside, stuff like that. When I left Korea and started college my recreational writing activities rather dropped off.

It was only a few years ago, living alone in my apartment north of Uptown, that I got back into writing. A very good friend of mine, Angela, had enticed me to write a few letters back and forth. At first I was prone to procrastinating but she was persistent and eventually I got into the swing of it. That was what started my hands-on craft of making envelopes and stationery.

So when my neighborhood's Internet service was knocked out for a week, I used that opportunity to get back into letter writing. I sent out 40 postcards to friends, anyone for whom I had an address. About 20 of them came back due to postal errors (I included a return address, obviously, to initiate contact), I received eight responses, and the rest simply vanished into the ether or the recipients were too lazy to respond.

I resolved to assemble a better address book for all of my friends, gathering more information and storing it on a Web-based service rather than on my hard drive, where it could be locked up and lost to me. Yahoo and Gmail each have excellent address book systems, for instance. Now I could travel around the world without my hardcopy address book, hit an Internet café, look up my friends' information, and send postcards wherever I go. It's a good failsafe.

Tuesday, August 18

Old Hand

This isn't a letter or anything, and it's not even anything I made. Three years ago I visited Fort Snelling on Independence Day weekend, where they host an event called "Ft. Snelling 1827." They dress up as soldiers and various workers, making things, standing guard, playing games, etc., just as the soldiers and settlers had back then.

What this is, is a trading inventory. It was a list of the exchange rate of various pelts, where muskrat is apparently the standard. If you had a buffalo skin, you could trade that in for 15 muskrats, according to this list. Or perhaps it was that if you brought in 20 muskrats, you could come away with one "pound of beaver."

That's all well and good, and obviously those rates have changed since then, but what's interesting to me is the handwriting. This was a merchant's script, fairly quick and casual. It had to be a swift handscript in order to make it efficient and worthwhile, in the course of doing business. It also had to be legible, so anyone could peruse it without much trouble.

I think this handwriting is gorgeous, and I'm envious of how nice it looks. There was a time in my own italic hand drills that I realized I was close to practicing a form of cursive not dissimilar to this font. What inspired me to finally pursue this handwriting was two movies: Hannibal and Sleepy Hollow. In each, the main character exhibits a gorgeous, flowing script. In the latter case, even, it looks a little spooky and I've never been able to figure out why. Is it the antiquity? Is it the strength of a hardened people conditioned to roughing it in nature, when technology hadn't made us soft nor veiled us from the potency of supernatural Earth?

But I'm rambling, now. I just wanted my handwriting to look that nice. I tried it for a while and even wrote letters to friends in this strange Declaration of Independence handwriting, but it was never very good. I'll have to practice it more on my own.

Monday, August 17

Grandmother's Wooden Stamps

Last year I visited my grandfather in Idaho. One thing I always looked forward to in visiting my grandparents was rummaging through their books and creative supplies. I always had a set of favorite books I needed to find again and reread, and I also looked forward to finding new material that perhaps I wasn't hold enough to appreciate in years previous.

Last year's trip was no different, except I was about 30 years older. I found my old favorite children's books and reminisced over the feelings that these illustrations and stories made me feel. There was a giddy magical feeling to them, in that they only seemed to exist at my grandparents' house. I was not just separated from them by geography: even as a child I knew these books were representative of an entirely different generation from my own.

But this time I dug through the office supplies with intent to chronicle, and I was amazed at what I found. I'll post various of these pictures as we go along, but right now I'll only mention the cork stamps. I think they were cork, or else carved out of some other very soft, light wood. They were manufactured in India, according to their markings, and their surfaces were deeply dark and dyed from dozens of uses.

They were simple floral stylistic designs. I didn't know their exact purpose but I imagine they decorated the corners of pages of writing paper, in a letter to a friend, or the backs of envelopes. Really they could've been stamped anywhere, and a child would have stamped them anywhere, but if an adult had a set of these stamps, I tried to imagine when and why they would use them.

Friday, August 14


Here's a little item I'd forgotten all about: my collection of postal error labels.

I used to work with a non-profit that received a lot of mail and, necessarily, sent out a lot more. We were a non-profit, we had to contact old donors, new donors, potential donors, etc. One of my roles at this place was to update donor records with new address information, when applicable. Sometimes that meant nothing more than noting "old address canceled, no forwarding address" and putting a hold on the record.

But I was intrigued that we received so many donations from around the world, and not all of our distributed mail reached its destination. It was inevitable that mail would be returned to us--not for improper postage, but for all sorts of reasons: no forwarding address, misunderstanding in the address, bad weather, processing error, force majeure, what have you.

I saved them up. Sometimes they were labels I could peel off with care, sometimes they were stamps I clipped with scissors. I collected them all out of curiosity, just to see how many different kinds I could get. Notice the details of the pointing hands, how they're essentially the same but with slight differences.

Eh. I thought it was neat.

Thursday, August 13

My History With Calligraphy

When I first began practicing calligraphy, I was in 5th grade. There was a special school day for the art classes in which instructors were brought in to lead us in various projects. I barely remember this day, but apparently I contributed to a large mural with some friends. What I do remember is a stout, middle-aged woman dressed in medieval peasant's garb teaching us calligraphy. We practiced it for one day, a certain blocky German Gothic font (I hadn't heard of Gothic; I thought "calligraphy" was the font) that I tried to replicate at home. Then I forgot all about it.

The second time I practiced calligraphy, I was in high school. I was looking for something interesting by which to distinguish myself. Bagpipes, accordion, and martial arts were my first choices, but the first two were completely outside of my realm and the third took too much work. As it happened I found my mom's Fred Eager book on italic calligraphy. It looked like the wrong calligraphy to me, since it wasn't Gothic with its sideways diamonds and extra decorative thin lines, so my mind expanded to allow that there were two types of calligraphy: one that looked like the script of ancient Bibles, and this more modern style that looked like the cover of a church newsletter. I thought I could only stand to benefit from neater handwriting, anyway, so I started to try it. It, too, was too hard and I abandoned it immediately.

Finally, well into my 30s, sitting at my desk for weeks on end at a thankless and soul-sucking corporate job, I decided to make some use of my time. I pulled out that Fred Eager book, dug out a beginner's calligraphic pen set (three nibs that fit into three fountain pens and a rainbow array of ink cartridges) that also came with its own calligraphy instruction guide--finally I realized that "calligraphy" was the discipline of handwriting and it could manifest in hundreds of different fonts and languages. And where ordinarily I would sit at that corporate desk day after day and stare at the grey fabric of the cubicle wall, now I was salvaging discarded paper notepads from the trash (honestly, these people would write on five pages and throw the entire pad away) and practicing writing evenly spaced "O" shapes, practicing letter angles for hours and hours.

As well, I practiced a few different, simple forms of calligraphy and wrote letters to my friends in these experimental fonts. Sometimes it was the pen that made all the difference, the nib dragging across the page that dictated which font I would use. The sample font (right) was one I designed myself but it is clearly borrowed from several varieties. In no way is it original, but it is the end result of practicing one font and, over the course of time, as my style relaxed, watching that font shape and morph into the related fonts that came before and after it in the continuum of handwriting. The size of the letters are sloppy but the style at least was consistent and I scanned in a page of a letter I was writing, that I might pick it up again and develop it with better discipline.

Wednesday, August 12

Some Tools of the Trade

These are some of the items I use in the course of my letter-writing and such. Yes, I really do use bottled ink, and yes, I really do use the rocking blotter, such as was typical desk accoutrement in Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons in the '60s.

This ink in particular is called Noodler's, and it's an excellent item. It comes in many vibrant colors, holds a rich hue, dries well, and is fairly resistant to environmental damage. When I know I'm going to use a fountain pen quite often, I'll go ahead and fill it up with this stuff. Otherwise, there's something about the richness of this ink that makes me think it shouldn't sit around in a pen cartridge for months, unused. It should be a fine dipping ink, too, but I've never used it for that.

The blotter is something I'd never need with Noodler's, but in the past I've used weaker, more insubstantial inks that take forever to dry. Sometimes that's the fault of the paper I'm using but mainly it's due to the chemical composition of the ink. Before I can fold that page up or set anything else on top of it, I've got to rock this blotter over my writing and sop up the extra juice. And I've learned it's no good to rapidly rock it back and forth over a sentence, unless I want to replicate ghost-prints of that sentence in the area surrounding the original print. One slow, firm tilt from side to side should be enough to dry up the page or remove enough excess that it can dry itself.

I took these pictures, and many others like them, for a Facebook game in which people could set up little stores with items of their own design. You could sell these items to people for in-game credits or you could gift them to lucky recipients. Needless to say, the stationery items in my store did not exactly move like hotcakes, not when other people were taking pictures of expensive cars, celebrities, and lingerie.

Tuesday, August 11

Linocut: Portrait of Katrina

This is the first portrait I ever attempted in linocut; definitely not the last. I think it was the most successful, however, and in the course of time as I post the others, you may be the judge of that.

This is my friend Katrina. She lives in England and has long been supportive of my writing career. For her part, she is a staggeringly talented artist. You know how there are people you know who are really good at something? This goes beyond that: when she finishes a painting, I think, It is highly unlikely that my path could have crossed with someone of such talent. You know? You expect people with that calibre of talent and skill to exist on completely different strata from yourself. You expect to read about them, maybe, if you happen upon the proper obscure art magazine whose demographic is still a few strata above your own.

She is also a very lovely woman, and it was my vanity to render a linocut based on one of my favorite portraits of her. Not knowing what I was getting into, I quickly decided it should be a symbolic representation of aspects of her rather than an exact portrait. Maybe if I continue linocutting and get very good at it, I can try it again and do a smoother, crisper job. As it is, I'm not terribly disappointed with how this turned out... until I stare at it too long.

Saturday, August 8

The Drama of Vintage Valentine's Days

Here are the Valentine's Day cards I'd mentioned previously, salvaged from my in-laws' basement in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

What's wonderful about these is the unpretentious font, as seen in the "wood/duck" valentine. I find this especially adorable: was it professionally render, an early wabi-sabi masterwork, or was the lettering where they skimped on the budget? Whichever, it's a strong marker of the times--that's the impression I come away with after studying hundreds of photos of the era, being exposed to however many movies and cartoons that also utilized this especially hand-rendered effect.

Pictured is a sweet little blonde girl, rocking away in this little toy wooden duck structure. Was it a common enough piece of furniture at the time, that any card company could hearken to it and connect with the card-purchasing audience? (In fact, the back of the card behind the girl's head was supposed to fold down and the entire card could rock like the illustrated toy.) The author certainly feels justifying in implementing the material of the structure as part of the pun in this greeting. The term "ducky" was certainly in coinage (though if we know anything about adults, it was probably on its way out at the time of this printing). But what is the function of omitting the d at the end of "and"? Is this girl from a rural region? Is she necessarily undereducated? Or is that merely representative of her youth? She can't be four years old in this picture.

On the right, the hole in the center of this guy's chest is a little metal brad, acting as an axis upon which his arm spins. It's a simple mechanism that stabs toward animation: you move the arm like he's dropping a letter in the mailbox. He's with his little girlfriend, they're holding hands, and he's dropping a letter (presumably to her) in the mailbox. Her task is to guess who's sending her this valentine.

Tick tock, little girl, tick tock. What's your guess?

Or maybe they're mailing together to a sick aunt. I don't want to suppose anything more prurient than this, again, given their youth. I am curious what the big V on his chest means: varsity? Visitor? Vadultry? Of course not: Valentine! This is the sweater-vest he gets to wear once a year. His mom has to make him a new one each year, he's growing so fast. She packs them away in a hope chest for the grandchildren these kids will yield in two short decades.

There's a story behind every card!

Friday, August 7

Postmark: 1940

I was very lucky indeed with this find: vintage stamps and postmarks from 70 years ago!

While poking around in Rebecca's parents' house, we found a box of old family photographs. I had no way to record them then, but we wanted to preserve these images and possibly upload them to share. They were wonderful images of the past: outfits, architecture, civic events, holidays, everything that showed what people were doing decades ago.

The next time we went out to Green Bay, I brought my laptop and flatbed scanner plus a backup hard drive, totally ready to scan the hell out of this pile of photographs. Predictably, they had vanished: a friend of the family had cleaned the house and was unavailable when we tried to contact her as to the photos' whereabouts. We don't think she took them, but we absolutely could not find them anywhere we looked (which isn't to say they weren't stuffed somewhere completely obscure).

But in rooting around for them, we found something else entirely: a trove of photos and old Valentine's Day cards from Rebecca's mom's side of the family. Right now I just want to show off these old, old stamps and the perfect specimens of postmarks they present. I will share some of the vintage Valentine's Day cards later, rest assured.

Thursday, August 6

Xmas From Japan

This was a little Christmas card a friend sent to me from Japan. She represented an array of traditional winter/Christmas items and the (Anglicized) Japanese words for them. I was surprised that "candy cane" translated so easily into such a small word, and the origin of rizu is obviously linked to the Japanese pronunciation of wreath.

But more than that, I am charmed by the card by itself. The illustrations are sweet, the gesture of holiday tidings and connection is especially touching! This is a priceless item in my esteem, a simple card made by a friend for another friend. I feel bad that I couldn't do the same for her--write out all our English words for a traditional Japanese holiday we celebrate in the States, because we don't do anything like that.

Something like this is one of the rewards of having an international pen pal, and it's why I've been so excited to find new people to write to around the world. Once in a while someone does something nice like this for you, or you get to share something special with someone else. When I found out that England doesn't typically sell cinnamon or root beer-flavored candy, I boxed a bunch up and send them to a friend in West Yorkshire. I thought it would be uncommon and of interest. I know that's why I shop at World Market (or used to, before they folded), to access all that strange and exotic candy from around the world.

Wednesday, August 5

Buddhist Temple Deity

When pen pals send me letters, I love to scan the stamps in and upload them to my Philately folder on Flickr. I'm fortunate in that my pen pals have chosen a unique array of stamps to share with me.

This stamp was puzzling to me because I'm no longer in touch with the person who sent it, and she probably wouldn't have known what it meant anyway. I wanted to know what the image depicted was intended to be: was it a god or a demon? Was it a character from a very popular play? Why is its face chipped on the side? That suggests to me a layer of paint, on the mundane level, but the hair and the underlit features impress me with something more supernatural.

Fortunately, a person who knew found me. A Japanese stamp collector spotted my stamp on Flickr and asked to include it in her vintage stamp group's collection. She said the image was of a Buddhist temple deity, and that the stamp itself was minted in 1971. I thanked her profusely for coming out of the blue and resolving this nagging question in my mind. Can't always rely on that, but it's nice when it happens.

I liked it so much, of course, I incorporated it into the header image of this blog. I wanted some postal images but also something a little out-of-the-ordinary, and I felt this stamp met that challenge.

Tuesday, August 4

The Envelope Collective

On November 3, 2005, art students Garrett Miller and Adam Morse initiated the Envelope Collective, a "mail art" project. They invited anyone to send them interesting envelopes and stationery for a collection to be displayed online.

Around April of 2006 someone pointed this project out to me, knowing my interest in letter-writing and making stationery, so I compiled this collection of my efforts to send to them. In the upper left you'll see a simple laser-printer label I'd designed for my return address; upper right, more interestingly, is a picture of my buckle boot, which I'd gotten made into a legal postage stamp through It's pretty common, old news now, but at the time it was an exciting new feature.

I used this buckle boot motif to create a logo for my personal Web site, Heavy Boots, and applied it throughout my DIY stationery caprices. In the lower left of the envelope you'll see an ink stamp I'd crafted: this was actually my first linocut experiment, and it was pretty elaborate. I took a picture of my boot, shrunk and reversed it in Photoshop, printed it out, pasted it to the linoleum block, then carved around it. That was my first ever attempt at linocutting--as you can see, I'd been dwelling on it for a long time before ever attempting it. The stamp turned out well and I used it in black ink on the front of the envelope and red ink for the pages within. The envelope, of course, was that wonderful Chinese paper with the labeled ideograms and intermittent item/picture. The pages, incidentally, were from an old Bert & Ernie drawing pad from my childhood: I lost it, found it as an adult, and the edges of this cheap paper had started to brown nicely with age. Now I save it for special stationery projects.

The Envelope Collective featured my envelope in their directory and the two guys in charge commented with interest on the postage stamp, adding that they would probably see that feature more heavily used in the future.

Now it looks like the Envelope Collective has shut down, as of 2008, despite their idealism: on their FAQ, when asked about any deadlines, they responded, "This project has no foreseeable end or outcome." Old pages may be found with the Internet WABAC Machine, and a blog entry from 2007. But is a dead link that returns an error message; however, takes you to an indie band on MySpace. They don't appear to be related to the art project at all, other than co-opting its name.

Monday, August 3

Postal Mystery!

Awesome: to make up for skipping yesterday's entry (which I regret!), I have occasion to post two entries today. Submitted for your consideration:

I assumed it was sent to me through the Postcrossing network, but there's no identifying code listed anywhere on the card. I tried searching for it based on the various clues:
  1. The sender's signature resembles the name in the salutation, "Philipp," though it's addressed to me.
  2. The postmark indicates it was sent out on July 29, 2009.
  3. "Philipp" says he lives in the hometown of Beck's beer, namely, Bremen, Germany.
Despite these helpful hints, the program did not have listed in its own database any cards coming out of Germany around that date. So is this a pen pal I'd forgotten? Is this a friend from some other channel? I'll go through my other postcards and see if we've corresponded previously.

As it stands, an intriguing and well-written card like this, coming out of the blue, is still a pleasant surprise.

Update: It was indeed through Postcrossing. It was sent to me by someone who joined within the last three weeks, and he simply forgot to put the ID code on the card. Postcrossing features an excellent search program: I typed in everything I knew and, while it couldn't find an instant answer, it did later e-mail me with a successful resolution.

Stamps: New Things to Care About

If one is at all open to the idea of letter-writing, finds it at all appealing and discovers within oneself the motivation to continue, one becomes cognizant of certain new things.

One develops a sense of patience as one trains one's own hand to write neatly yet swiftly enough to carry one's thoughts to the page. That's the most difficult trick and quite a common complaint: it's faster to type than to write, and one's handwriting sucks anyway. And I'd be hard-pressed to convince today's generations of this, but it is quite rewarding to sit down and, over the course of several quiet weeks, practice handwriting.

With these come an attention to other details. One starts to critically examine the paper one is writing on. One takes a second look at the pen one is using. One gets excited for little things, like discovering a particularly cunning set of Japanese stationery.

One also looks forward to new stamps. One actually becomes curious about what stamps one's local post office has for sale, and one becomes excited about which stamps are coming soon. One may even become aware of a new level of drama: "The price of stamps is going up next Monday, but for some reason (shakes head, sighs) they aren't releasing the new rate stamps for another month and a half. No telling whose brilliant idea that was."

I picked up these Gulf Coast Lighthouses stamps today, but I'm looking forward to the release of the US Flags this month. When I was in the UK I'd hoped to pick up the McKean/Gaiman Mythical Creatures stamps, but no opportunity presented itself. I never ended up near a post office, and W.H. Smith was fresh out of any kind of postage.

Saturday, August 1

These Are the Pros and Cons of Postcarding

Independent of Postcrossing, I sought pen pals on Facebook and a few other online sources. Many networks were free but the "pro" column ended there; in the "cons," their layout and design were at least unattractive and sometimes unnavigable, and it was very difficult to compel a real person to correspond. Many accounts had been abandoned due to lack of interest or perhaps being plagued with spam: setting up an account on these pen pal networks was an invitation for a barrage of "God bless, I'm a refugee from [west African nation] being held in [another west African nation], and I'm looking for love," or "God bless, I'm yet another nephew of this petty warlord you've doubtlessly heard all about, and I need your bank account info to send you ungodly amounts of money."

There's also a pen pal Usenet group in existence--alt.penpals--or it's only called that these days: currently it's overrun with obnoxious high school kids from the States (plus one middle-aged man who is only comfortable associating with teenagers), using it for a private message board. Lacking sufficient Web-savvy to figure out how to set up their own free forum in Google Groups (or any of a hundred other programs), they insult and harass anyone who shows up genuinely looking for a pen pal. More's the pity, it also attracts its share of sexually deprived subscribers from third-world nations. Don't go there expecting anything good.

None of this happened in Facebook. I found a group dedicated to exchanging postcards and made the acquaintance of a gentleman in Genoa who takes great pride in sending postcards from various Italian cities. His hobby is to collect postcards not only from different countries, but from different regions within those countries and cities within those regions! He has hundreds upon hundreds of cards and categorizes them diligently on his Web site--it is an impressive collection indeed. Below is one of the cards I have from him. Thanks, Davide!