Visit theallusionist.org/open-me-2 to hear this episode, read more about it, and see photos of the letters that are featured.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, confiscate language’s selfie stick and snap it over my knee.
Following last episode’s letterpollooza, coming up today, we’re rummaging through the postbag. But not my own postbag. Before we snoop into other people’s correspondence, I just wanted to mention, for the second and final time this year, that Radiotopia is currently fundraising - but not for long, it’s the final hours of it now. At midnight on Friday 10 November US west coast time - 3am midnight east US, 8am Saturday in the UK, 1.30am Newfoundland, 11am Moscow, 7pm Saturday in Sydney, I could go on - by that time, whatever it is wherever you are, Radiotopia’s fundraiser will be over for another year, so you won’t be able to get the INCREDIBLE Radiotopia socks or the delightful camping mug or any of the prizes exclusive to the fundraiser. And you also won’t have to hear me asking for money again for ages; but your support of the network really helps us keep all our shows going, so if you can spare even a dollar a month, it would mean a lot to us. And if you can’t, don’t worry at all - I’m a professional podcaster, I’m very familiar with that financial situation. If you like the show and want to support it, tell someone about it, if you think they’ll like it. But if you are being weighed down by excess money, here are a few compelling reasons to go to radiotopia.fm to become a regular donor to the collective:
- Your donation is tax-deductible in the US.
- You like this show.
- You like this show, and you also like translating your emotions into money.
- You’ll know that your money is going to independent audio makers to produce more of the podcasts you like - none of it’s going to waste, we’re all running shoestring operations, we’re not frivolling your money away on tiaras, or gilded macarons, or tiaras made of gilded macarons. Well, I admit, I spent three dollars on a second-hand dictionary the other day.
- You’re funding podcasts to keep you and everyone else entertained, to liven up your commute, to keep you company during work or walking the dog or line fishing, to drown out roaring silences or insidious interior monologues, to lull you to sleep at night, to gently drag you from slumber in the morning, to give you information to throw into a conversation because “I heard on a podcast” is the new “I read”. You read with your ears now. Deal with it.
If any of those reasons strike home with you, or you have your own ones, please do run quickly to radiotopia.fm to become a recurring supporter. It’s marvellous to have you involved in what we do. And let me say, preemptively, thank you, sincerely. Even though I always sound sarcastic when I’m being sincere, I don’t mean to, let me try again... thank you? Thank you! Thank you.
There are three category B swears in this episode. Prepare yourselves accordingly.
Ok, let’s rip open some envelopes. On with the show.
JULIE SHAPIRO: Oh gosh... I think the value first and foremost is in touching something that someone else touched and wrote and thought about and sent. I'm struck now by the effort it takes to actually write and send the letter; that has always been the case, but now that we do it so infrequently, it's that much more effort. I still receive letters in the mail, but many fewer than I used to. But that kind of glee and excitement of getting a letter is something unparalleled by any sort of digital missive that comes through.
HZ: This is Julie Shapiro, the executive producer of Radiotopia, and a keen letter writer. Or she tries to be - it can be hard to find the time - but I’ve seen some pages of the ledger she was keeping a few years ago, noting all letters sent and received, and she’s an impressively diligent and multinational correspondent.
JULIE SHAPIRO: A lot of the people who I ended up writing letters with I met through doing a zine, actually, that started through contributions through the mail. And some people read my zine and started writing letters, and other people contributed, and those sort of back and forth just lasted.
HZ: Some of her penpalships have lasted for two decades or more. For instance there is one penpal, Laris, with whom Julie has been exchanging, for years, a list of favourite words.
JULIE SHAPIRO: And so we would just send something and include our new favorite word on the list and send the list back with the additional favorite word; and recently last year he kind of struck the list back up and sent me a very short letter with the list and he added the 26th word to the list, so we had of those back and forth 13 times each. And it's a pretty good list of words I think.
HZ: Ooh. Do you have it.
JULIE SHAPIRO: I have it right in front of me.
Number one: liquorice. Pajama. Cul de sac. Gurney. Verge. Kudos. Stave. Villain. Avid. Squirrel. Utterance. Word. Florid. Smitten. I don't know how to pronounce this next one - onychophagy.
HZ: That is new to me.
JULIE SHAPIRO: Well, I had totally forgotten what this word meant, but it has to do with nail biters, like the condition of being a nail biter or having your nails bitten. So it's an amazing word.
HZ: It sounds so much more elegant than what it means.
JULIE SHAPIRO: I know; it's amazing there is a word for that. But of course there's a word for everything, right. Continuing on, we have: average, calendula, beard, dribble, lateral, roux, with an X; tight, castle, abacus, mangle; and then he came back with ‘jubilee’ last year.
HZ: One word at a time, over years. The value of the correspondence isn’t just about the volume of information contained therein: the act of sending the letter is expressive in itself.
JULIE SHAPIRO: And of course, for me, the process of mailing things out and then getting the mail back - I have a 6 year old son and he gets a little grumpy when I get mail and he says, "I don't get any mail" and I just repeat myself: "To get mail, you have to send mail, it's really easy."
HZ: Julie’s six-year-old son has started his own word exchange, with a penpal in Australia. It’s up to two words so far: love, and bear.
JULIE SHAPIRO: What strikes me is that people overreact so much to the idea of letters, like, "You still write letters?!" as if they're exotic and impossible, and they're not, you know; anyone can and should and could.
HZ: And if you do, you can’t necessarily predict what might result.
DAVE NADELBERG: So my life changed nearly two decades ago. No, my life probably changed like maybe 17, 18 years ago: I discovered a love letter that I'd written to somebody when I was in high school and she was like a year younger than me, but I discovered that in my mid-20s - I'm now forty-two - and what I discovered was a letter that I had never given to this person.
HZ: Do you remember why you didn't give it to her at the time?
DAVE NADELBERG: I didn't give her the letter because, quite honestly, I was chickenshit.
HZ: This is Dave Nadelberg, who fifteen years ago founded Mortified, a stage show where people read things they wrote as kids - diaries, letters, poems, song lyrics. Mortified runs live events in twenty cities around the world; it’s been made into a documentary, TV series, books, including the new Mortified guided journal, My Mortified Life, and it’s a podcast, also a member of Radiotopia. But all that stemmed from the moment when Dave, then in his mid-20s, was visiting his parents in his home town in Michigan. He was rummaging through his old room when he found a box.
DAVE NADELBERG: And inside that box, AAAAHH! It was really like opening up the Ark of the Covenant. Anyway there was like a whole bunch of things in there, and one of those things was a letter. And I read it and I thought, “This is ridiculous.”
HZ: He’d written the letter when he was aged 15 or 16. I think we can all identify with having been a bit ridiculous at 15 or 16.
DAVE NADELBERG: What year would that have been in? I probably wrote it in 1991 or something. The letter was intended for a classmate, and I didn't really know her, I still don't. I would make up all these excuses to talk to this girl. For instance, I worked in the school library, so I printed up all these fake library fines, saying “If you have issue with this, come and complain in the library at Thursday at 3pm,” which was my shift. Shocking!
HZ: Fancy that!
DAVE NADELBERG: Fancy that. And so that I didn't get busted, I gave it to like five other students in that class. Nobody ever came and complained.
HZ: Did they pay?
DAVE NADELBERG: Yeah. And my whole thing was like, “Oh I'll just waive it for you, don't worry about this,” and I'll rip up the library fine and I'll be her hero.
HZ: Would this girl realise that Dave, whom she barely knew, is actually the guy of her dreams...because he waived her library fine? We’ll never know - because she never came to the library to contest the fine.
HZ: How long were you into her?
DAVE NADELBERG: Years.
HZ: And at some point during these years of unrequited ardour - most of high school, Dave reckons - he composed a love letter.
DAVE NADELBERG: I wrote this letter, I think, at least 15, 20 times. There were drafts of this letter. I remember writing it probably on the backs of napkins and so on. I might have typed some of them up. This was a handwritten one, the one that I found, the only one that exists as far as I know. I wrote it on the back of the entry form of my high school's poetry magazine of which I was an editor. I say that proudly; I don't know if I should have done. But I often point it out just to sort of showcase the level of pretentiousness that I am, because when you hear the letter there's a lot of flowery, overwrought… it's trying very hard to be a lot of things to this stranger.
HZ: It’s not really a love letter. The tone is not amorous. Dave jokingly calls it a cover letter.
DAVE NADELBERG: Because it's like I'm applying for the job of like her boyfriend and so it's just as awkward as a cover letter would be.
OK. “Hello Lesley. How is your day today? Mine's quite well, I must admit. I do hope that yours is a good one, because what you are about to read may or may not add an extra colour to the rainbow at day's end.
First off, let me introduce myself. My name is Dave. For quite some time, I've been trying to figure out a way to meet you. The older we all get, and the more the time that we include into history passes on, it has seemingly become harder and harder to get to know one another. I could have just called you or simply approached you and said hi. But with that there's no enchantment or uniqueness. Besides that means actually having to use courage. So I wimped. Sue me. I could have also faxed you. Wouldn't that be modern? Ah yes, but maybe just a bit too high tech and impersonal.
So what am I left with? Of course! Write her a letter! Why not? I've got nothing to lose but my dignity, pride, courage, confidence, self-respect, acceptance, sleep, honour. No problem.” And it keeps going... and going…
HZ: You're really talking around the subject, aren't you? She's just gone through the page at this point and you haven't really got to your demands.
DAVE NADELBERG: That's correct. And this is I think a big problem with a lot of teenage writing, and certainly with me, I'm beating around the bush because I say, "I've been trying to figure out a way to meet you," but I don't get to why.
“Basically this whole thing has been a commercial, an advertisement. I sincerely hope you at least consider purchasing the product. Here's a coupon” - and then it's got my number - “5 1 7 3 5 8, Dave,” and then I drew tiny cartoon scissors gobbling up dashes like you know Pac-Man as they circle my name and number around everything, for the authenticity, and it even said “clip ‘n’ save”.
HZ: So you can't, even when you get to the point, say it directly; you have to put it in the form of a commercial.
DAVE NADELBERG: Yeah, everything is cute and it's holding back - and it's all the qualities in a romantic relationship or romantic partner that I do not value today, like this is not the person I would want to be. Just be forthright and be vulnerable. This kid who wrote this is terrified of being vulnerable.
HZ: Do you think one of the reasons why you didn't deliver it to her was because it was easier to have the potential than a definite no?
DAVE NADELBERG: Yeah. I mean, the hurt of a no, which I learned later, sucks; and sometimes it's fun to be in love with love.
HZ: Did you ever write a love letter that you did send?
DAVE NADELBERG: No. I have never... I just went up to people. And now I'm just like, kill the crush. Kill the crush. You confront the person and just find out the answer. And just so that you can have an actual real relationship with that person, whether that's platonic or romantic or go back to being strangers.
HZ: These things require more courage than most people have.
DAVE NADELBERG: So now if I'm dating somebody or if I'm interested in somebody, I try at some point to confront it pretty quickly. I mean, I'm a human being, so I'm not always good at that. But I try to end it, end that stage of it. A lot of that comes from - I remember how miserable I was thinking about this girl, the girl who I wrote the love letter about, and I just hated the sickening feeling in my stomach about this person. I was very unhappy with the agony of this imaginary relationship. When I was in my 20s, I had more or less forgotten about her, the girl that I had a crush on; that was all out of my system. And then when I found this love letter in that box in the closet it was like everything started like coming back - not just like the memory of how I had this crush on this girl, but the feeling of it; the magnitude of it, the weight of it, the agony of it; just all of it, the anxiety of it, pulsed you know through my system, and it really it really transported me. I had this extraordinary sense of empathy for that that childhood version of myself, and I was really fascinated by the relationship betweenthe laughter and the empathy. And that's how Mortified began.
HZ: If he’d actually sent the letter, maybe, best case scenario, Dave would have got a date. Or maybe even a few dates. Maybe a relationship. But he wouldn’t have got Mortified.
DAVE NADELBERG: It's a pretty seismic change this little tiny letter had in my life. Whatever my 16-year-old brain thought going on a date with her would lead to, I got something a whole lot better. It never ceases to amaze me where this letter has taken me. Because of this letter, I've met you. Because of this letter. I've traveled the world. I've met like huge heads of various industries. I've met people who said that they've cried and had their lives changed because of something that happened in Mortified that they experienced. Babies have been born because of Mortified. And all these extraordinary things. That letter had no idea how powerful it was. Because it's just a stupid little thing saying “this is who I am.” But it's brought me a lot of misery. It's brought me a lot of joy. It's just so bizarre. It's like how the hell, of all the things... so that is never lost on me.
HZ:And they always start with "Hello loves”.
MARK SHEPHERD: Yes, that was her that was her tagline. "Hello loves."
HZ: A couple of weeks ago, I was staying with my friends Juliet and Mark in New York. I mentioned that I was working on these episodes about letters. And each of them brought out remarkable, but very different, caches of family correspondence. Here’s Mark’s.
HZ: In front of us is a very neat and tidy folder full of aerograms, blue aerograms. I haven't seen an aerogram since the early 90s.
MARK SHEPHERD: Where do you buy them from?
HZ: No idea. Do they still sell them?
MARK SHEPHERD: Do they sell them in a post office?
HZ: They don’t. Aerograms - the prepaid all-in-one airmail letter and envelope, sometimes called air letters - stopped being available from the Royal Mail in 2012. The US phased them out around 2006.
HZ: So who are these all from?
MARK SHEPHERD: They were all from my mother. And she was a creature of habit. And she would sit down every week religiously and write us a letter. And we used to receive them five or six days afterwards. And it was great excitement in the family: we would sit down and I would read the Betty letter.
HZ: The Betty letter.
MARK SHEPHERD: The Betty letter. Grandma Betty sent us a letter. And I couldn't throw them away. You've got to keep stuff like that. There's certain things you get shit all through your life. And some shit you can't throw away.
HZ: Mark is from Yorkshire, in northern England. But he and his family moved to the USA 26 years ago, before online communications were an option, and international phonicalls were prohibitively expensive, so his mother kept in touch via letter.
MARK SHEPHERD: Some of them are so funny. Some of them read like Alan Bennett on acid. And every one has the same format. She starts off by describing the weather in England.
HZ: Classic English opener for anything.
MARK SHEPHERD: And then sets the scene. For example she'll say, "I've just done the washing up and I'm sitting down to write you a letter. It's raining outside." And she was a country girl, so she would she would mention something in nature that would show what kind of weather it is, like: "I found a ladybird on my wellington boot the other day.”
HZ: So she sets the scene with this detail, plunging you into her own head and what her eyes can see and what she can feel.
MARK SHEPHERD: And then she diverts into people in the news, things she's either seen on TV or things she's read in the newspaper. But she doesn't put any background in. She just goes straight in for it.
HZ: So you've got to understand that that is where her mind has veered off to.
MARK SHEPHERD: Without even choosing one: "People in Newcastle have been warned to keep an eye on their washing because there have been a lot of thefts of the black and white Newcastle shirts. Yesterday Yorkshire beat the West Indies." She's all over the place! "I bought my list of things to tell you." During the week she would write down lists of things to tell me, and this is what we get. "The big news today is that two doctors have performed an operation for a lady with a collapsed lung on a BA flight from Australia using a coathanger, knife and fork, sterilized with brandy. She is doing fine. Rang Kevin to say happy birthday…”
HZ: Aerograms are a single sheet of paper that folded into thirds, to become a self-adhesive envelope. You were allowed to write on the whole of one side and one third of the other side. And impressively, Mark’s mother always managed to fill the allotted space exactly.
MARK SHEPHERD: Yes, that was simply wartime frugality.
HZ: It's a real skill.
MARK SHEPHERD: Well no, because it's easy: you just fill it up with crap. The last three sentences to fill up the space. "Just went out to get some beans and got stopped by Sheila" - that's her next door neighbour - “telling me about taking Marmie to the vet's. It will cost about £50." Why would I be interested in next door's cat? “Hope you feel better for your holiday, Juliet." You know, this is bringing it all back to me. We used to feign illness so she wouldn't come and visit. "Hope you're feeling better for your holiday, Juliet. Looking forward to seeing you all in Scarborough. Love to you all." Which is how she finished every one. And then “x x x x x x”. So she fills the space. I think she enjoyed writing a letter because she was in control.
HZ: No one can answer back for about three weeks.
MARK SHEPHERD: I think I've got four or five years here, until she passed away.
HZ: And now that she's gone, how is it different reading them now?
MARK SHEPHERD: It's very - it's very emotional, looking at her spidery white writing and then remembering what her hands look like. And looking through and remembering certain things that happened. It's quite poignant, and I'm glad I've got them. Which is more than I can say for that stupid doll's house that my father made for my daughters. I have brought it across country three or four times, unable to throw it out of sentimentality, and it's rubbish. I mean, if it were a real house, it would be condemned.
HZ: It's full of asbestos?
MARK SHEPHERD: It's full of asbestos, there's squirrels in the ceiling…
HZ: I’m sitting with Mark’s wife Juliet in their kitchen in Brooklyn, New York. There’s a small cardboard box in front of us.
JULIET BLAKE: So this is a box which is a 1950s chocolate assortment Terry's All Gold box.
HZ: The box is about the size of a 400-page paperback, a little fragile at the edges, with a photographic illustration on the lid of an opulent array of pineapples, nuts, and a blue patterned vase. None of these things are to do with its original contents, chocolates, or its current ones.
JULIET BLAKE: I never saw this box with chocolates in it. It was sent to me in, I guess, the early 1990s by my mother. When this envelope arrived, I do remember that you could see her lipstick on the stamps of the Queen outside, and there's like a whole almost quarter of the envelope. She didn't know how many stamps to put on it, so I suspect she just put all the stamps she had. And I thought this must be something important; she's filled a quarter of this whole very tatty envelope that's come all the way from Blackpool in the north of England, the postmark was, to Los Angeles. And it was a broken bag. I mean the envelope was; it's a miracle this ever arrived. But anyway it had purple stamps of the Queen and my mother's red lipstick was all over her face.
HZ: Maybe she just really wanted to give the Queen a smooch.
JULIET BLAKE: So I miss those things. I miss the visceralness of letters. And inside it was this crazy box. And so when I opened the box I was staggered. This box is really my family history in a box.
HZ: Inside the box is a stack of letters, postcards and documents from or relating to Juliet’s maternal grandparents, who were German Jews. The papers span about forty years, from the very early 20th century until 1944.
JULIET BLAKE: The first thing is a very white piece of paper which just says "Marga Blake of Lytham St Annes” - that was my mother - “Her dear parents, Berta Halbrun and Solomon Halbrun, who lived in Essen, Germany, until deported on transport number 7/1 from Dusseldorf on July 22nd 1942 to Terezín; they were further deported from Terezín by transport DC on the 15th of May 1944 to Auschwitz, where they both perished.” These are from my grandmother Berta Halbrun, who was my mother's mother, who died in Auschwitz. You'll see Hitler’s stamp on all of them. And they basically say "Thank you, I've received the package that you sent me." And then she's only been allowed to write a few things underneath.
HZ: I think a lot of people would be quite surprised that in the concentration camps they were able to get letters out at all.
JULIET BLAKE: Well you'll see from these letters that they're printed and you're allowed to write the smallest amount on them.
HZ: It's about a couple of dozen words that you can fit onto them.
JULIET BLAKE: And I'm sure you had to be very careful as to what you wrote on them. They go from Theresienstadt, eventually to Auschwitz. And you can see how her handwriting declines and how weak she became.
HZ: How did the news reach your mother that her parents had died?
JULIET BLAKE: The letters stopped coming.
There are letters in here that sort of reveal what my grandparents had done in terms of they had a business. My grandparents used to love to travel. They were great bon viveurs. They love the opera. They had a wonderful house full of paintings and they had great friends; they had a fabric business in Essen. And when I look at this, it comes to such an abrupt halt. They were people who had businesses, who had season tickets to the opera who had lives and then suddenly they had nothing. It all grinds to this terrible halt. And so over that four year period from being taken from their home in Essen and then going to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, they were snuffed out, and so many people lost their culture and their lives. And it's happening all over the world.
HZ: How do feel when you handle these things that someone wrote over a hundred years ago, or someone wrote in Auschwitz?
JULIET BLAKE: It makes me think about the spirit of the people from whence I came. I have travelled with this box as my touchstone. If I had to do something really difficult, I'd have this packed away with me, because it gives me strength to know from what I come.
Thanks to Squarespace for sponsoring the Allusionist today. Use it to build yourself a stylish website - or even build one for someone else. Whenever it’s my dad’s birthday, and I ask him what he wants, he’ll say something like a tape measure. Boring, dad! Buy that yourself! Actually what he really wants is a fourth sledgehammer, but I don’t know what can be achieved with a fourth sledgehammer that can’t be achieved with the three he already owns. So anyway, a couple of years ago, I decided instead to gift him his own website, to show pictures of his sculptures. I built the website using Squarespace, it took maybe forty minutes - quicker than a trip to the sledgehammer shop! - and got the domain zackzaltzman.com thrown in. And when I was purchasing the year’s subscription at squarespace.com, as an additional gift to myself, I got a 10% discount for the year using the code ALLUSION. Christmas is coming, get someone a gift they’re not going to take to the charity shop before the new year. Squarespace.com, the discount code is ALLUSION.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with assistance from Martin Austwick, who also provides the music for the show. You heard from, in order, Julie Shapiro, Dave Nadelberg, Mark Shepherd and Juliet Blake.
During the fundraiser every year, I like to get Radiotopians on the show. Dave Nadelberg and his partner in Mortification Neil Katcher talked about diaries in the 2015 episode Spill Your Guts. And on last year’s episode The State Of It, about the mottos of the United States, you can hear Julie Shapiro, along with lots of the staff at PRX, who work tirelessly behind the scenes at Radiotopia.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts on the interwaves, made possible - not to labour this point - by you listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
drabble, verb: make wet and dirty in muddy water.
Try using it in an email today.