I'm going to pause here to let my mother freak out for a little bit while she thinks about me writing letters to felons. In fact, I'm going to depart completely from my topic, knowing she'll read whatever is next out of motherly obligation. She'll read it as fast as she can, sure, but she'll read it, trying to get to the part where I reassure her about the felons.
I once had a pen pal in third grade or so, arranged through the school. My classmates and I were all paired up with the classmates in some other school in Montana. My girl sent me a picture of her with her pet bunny, and all the boys in my class thought she was really pretty. Or maybe they just liked a girl who could handle a rabbit. In any case, I enjoyed a very weird sort of popularity for having the only pretty pen pal in Montana. Later, the pen pal (what was her name?) wrote and asked for that particular picture back, because her bunny had died and that was the only photo she had of him. Because of the really bizarre popularity that picture provided me, I was very reluctant to send it back. How did young Sandra respond to this early test of her willingness to help out her fellow man? I'll just say that I found a picture of a very cute little girl holding a rabbit in my stuff a couple of years ago.
Alright, my mom is getting pretty antsy now, so I'll just let you know that you have to have a P.O. box to write to a felon, and I don't. I was secretly relieved. No matter how funny it is when Steve Urkel's convicted pen pal gets out of jail and comes to see him, I can imagine other scenarios that would end up on the 10 PM crime drama. And of course, that's very unfair to judge the incarcerated that way, but there you go.
But I did find a nursing home in California which had a pen pal program for its residents. And this sounded like a great idea for me, because I could feel helpful to the world without actually having to leave the house. It also gave me an excuse to buy stationery.
I'd always really liked pen pals. On that old PBS show, Ghostwriter, there was a cute Hispanic kid named Alex who had about fifty pen pals all over the world. He had a map up on his wall with push-pins representing each long-distance friend.
I thought Alex was really cool.
Aside from the prettiest pen pal in Montana, I had another pen pal for about five years who lived in New York. We wrote each other from about third grade to eighth grade, a time period that seems really long in retrospect. I found some of her letters recently, and I was shocked at the things I had told her, including highly-sensitive information about a crush on a boy that I never told anyone else in the world about. I guess that's the good thing about pen pals, the level of trust that comes with distance. Of course it is possible that the entire town of Victor, New York knows about how I almost "went with" that boy. I found a letter where she told me about her first kiss, and it was terribly sweet, like the stuff of a sappy coming of age movie. Of course, I cringe to think of all the letters of mine that might exist somewhere and how I probably sounded idiotic and naive. But she, she was sweet.
I actually sent a letter to this girl's old address a couple of years ago, but either she moved or she wasn't interested in putting a push pin on Raleigh, NC. I would have liked to inform her that I, too, have since been kissed by a boy (but not by that other one). I like to assume that she moved. Lots of people deride denial, but I personally find it very useful in day-to-day ego maintenance.
I wonder if pen pals have fallen out of fashion now that there is email. Of course, you can just have an email pal. But I'll go ahead and give the usual argument in favor of the old-fashioned and say that it's not the same. It's less personal. Maybe something is lost when you can't hold something in your hands and think that it came from someplace far away. Or maybe it's better because it's instant and easier to maintain. Or maybe it's worse because a friendship which is more difficult to keep inherently means more. Or maybe nothing is ever good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
I can't decide. I wish I knew how Alex felt about it.