1560. I've owned a cocktail lounge, studied the Bible, raised 6 children, searched for and found the first child reliquished at birth, driven a semi, and been sounding board and confidante of many. Write to me and I'll answer.
1321. Do you hear voices, does anyone you know? Are they spirits, devils, the political police, or media? What's your guess?
1057. Any Golden Retriever lovers out there?
"Meeting people is not necesary to my life Writing letters is," says Steve Sikora. "Sure, it takes time -- a good letter might take as long as watching an episode of Crockett and Tubbs -- but you've got to make the choice."
The Letter Exchange, a little magazine issued by Sikora from his home in Albany, Calif., seems to be encouraging many people to spurn "Miami Vice." The 140 listings in the summer issue of LEX have already drawn more than 1,700 replies. From born-again pagans to parents of only children, they're all searching for pen pals.
Don't these people know that writing letters is drudgery, to be undetaken only when you must thank Aunt Edna for that birthday check?
"I often think of the analogy with physical exercise," Sikora says. "Jogging looks impossibly difficult to me, yet people say they couldn't get through the day without it. With letters, there's an initial mental discipline involved, but for those who do it regularly, it doesn't feel like work at all"
378. One thing I do well is write letters. Don't talk to me about math, but any other subject -- yes. ANY subject, honest. Can and will speak openly. No trivia.
Jeanne Perlis got "25 or 30" replies to that one, which ran in the spring issue of LEX. The Mill Valley, Calif., resident is still corresponding with most of them.
"I was withdrawing from society, and I thought this was a good way to make my way back toward it, instead of retreating," she says. "I guess I was in a mild depression."
The letter cure worked, reports the 57-year-old Perlis. "Now I do many more things voluntarily than I used to . . . (A letter) is someone to talk to who's not judgmental. It gives you a chance to air your views, which is nice. In real life, you wouldn't get people to stand still for that long."
While some of the LEX listings bear a strong resemblance to the personal ads in the back of magazines -- 1460. Enjoy steamboating in the summer, writing, reading biographies, diaries, & Russian history . . . A city girl with her heart in the country -- Sikora says those looking for a date should go elsewhere: "This emphasis is on the pen rather than the pal."
He began LEX three years ago with his own listings and those begged from friends. Voracious for written conversation, he had earlier exhausted his own circle and taken to leaving notes ("Anybody who reads this, please write to me") in favorite magazines in the library.
"The reading by itself amounted to nothing, unless I could creatively respond in some way. Otherwise, an article that excited me I would forget three days later, when another article came in," he says. But the library scheme didn't work. "I typed the notes so people wouldn't think I was a total nut, but maybe that made it all the worse."
Only subscribers can run listings in LEX, which comes out three times a year. As a precaution, the first time you respond to a listing, you send your letter to Sikora. He -- or actually his 84-year-old mother Florence, who's in charge of the forwarding department -- gives it the proper address and sends it on. The recipient, however, generally writes you back directly.
The 42-year-old Sikora, who lives with his teen-age son and daughter, isn't working eight to 10 hours a day on LEX to support the U.S. Postal Service. No, this sometime professional carpenter, Vietnam vet and lapsed Berkeley doctoral candidate in the history of literacy is trying to put his stamp on society.
"Talk lives and dies in the moment, and much of modern literature seem to me a steaming-open of someone else's mail, a kind of voyeurism," he says. "Letters live in the midlands, halfway between the ephemeral and the near-immortal. They're active participation in the life of the culture."
About three-quarters of the subscribers are women, a condition the editor doesn't find a bit surprising. "Madame de Sevigne, Jane Carlyle, Abigail Adams were the great letter writers of our past, and that's a continuity that's certainly present now."
Psychologists' studies also help explain the female tilt, Sikora says. According to their research, women do most of the conversational work -- filling in the pauses, asking the leading questions, brushing past the awkward moments -- but at the same time do the least amount of actual talking.
"Women enjoy the give and take, the reciprocation of a conversation much mroe," he says. "It's not a question of delivering the right answers on a political, religious or social issue, but delighting in the back-and-forth of words -- and letters are nothing if not the kind of give and take."
Letters to the editor, on the other hand, tend to be written primarily by men, he argues. "They're written by someone who wants to get something -- poverty, defeating communism, making friends with communism -- off his chest. Typically, these are one-way communications rather than the two-way discussion that is at the heart of letters."
The listings in LEX don't ask for a two-way conversation. They demand it:
1414. Deaf woman wants to hear from deaf and hearing people . . . Am a firm believer in Life After Deaf . . .
1560. Need rich and materialistic pen pal to balance out knowning so many poor, struggling friends. I don't want to get into your billfold, just tell me how you acquired luxurious lifestyle. No fantasies or exaggeration.
371. If we can elect Ronald Reagan, Shirley Temple, and Clint Eastwood to government, why not Bruce Springsteen?!!
If two correspondents hit it off, the temptation to meet can be irresistible. Nevertheless, it's an urge that should be squelched, Sikora maintains.
"Many readers report that once you meet the person, the magic's gone," he says. "Letters allow you to focus on one thing -- the content of the communication at hand -- without any other distraction. Minds are beautiful, bodies are not."
"Who among us wishes to communicate with flesh and blood and reality?" asks John R. Smith of Shavertown, Pa., in the LEX letter column. "That sort of creature lives down the road somewhere and the world is filled with them. Surely the hazy, indefinite soul holding the pen on the other side of the exchange is the finer creature?"
Perlis says she's met some of her correspondents, who range from a 6-year-old boy to a 75-year-old woman. "Naturally you form a picture of what they probably look like, and then they don't, so it can be disillusioning," she says. "But even then, I know how their minds work, and I'll be prepared to give them every benefit of the doubt."
Letter writing also needs the benefit of dinner, when the kids want attention, when I'm separating the cat from another cat, or just not in the mood to talk," he says.
"And face-to-face meetings depend on the two of you clicking in that particular moment in time and space. But meeting by mail -- there's a wonderful freedom to it."