DIY Greeting Cards and the Digital Age

DIY Thank You Card Set

Four handmade thank you notecards and envelopes.

I’ve been experimenting with DIY thank you cards as a creative outlet. For years, my sister and I have added personal touches to Hallmark envelopes by creating elaborate designs suited to the occasion. Last year, when she legally became old enough to drink alcohol, I drew a wine bottle with flowers springing from the top. When I finished, it occurred to me that I’d drawn a closed bottle, but that’s neither here nor there.

Wine Bottle Envelope

The hand drawn wine bottle envelope I made for my sister.

I wanted to take my work a step further, so I cut and folded my own envelopes and inserted polka dot liners cut from a large sheet of scrapbook paper. To create the cards themselves, I measured out 3.5” x 5” notecards, realized I couldn’t find my paper cutter, and resigned myself to manually cutting each rectangle. My goal was to maintain a cohesive design element between the envelopes and the cards, so I focused on the seafoam green liner for inspiration. Ultimately, I settled on drawing Echeveria plants because I love the way the fleshy robin’s egg blue leaves transition into rosy blush-tinted tips.

Succulent Card

Handmade blank thank you notecard with a watercolor Echeveria drawing.

DIY Envelopes

Charcoal grey DIY 4-Bar envelopes with seafoam green and white polka dot liners.

As I was working, I thought about NPR’s article last month on Hallmark’s struggle to stay relevant in the digital age. With the advent of the quick and thoughtless “Happy Birthday!” Facebook post, e-cards, and other means of digital communication, the greeting card industry has been jettisoned into that desolate pit of obscurity known only by other relics of bygone ages. We are a nation of consumers, governed by capitalist commandments. We hold fast to the fallacies that Thanksgiving is naught but Black Friday Eve and generic labels are a sin. We throw cash at all our favorite brands, but $4 greeting cards are viewed as superfluous expenditures.

For most people, greeting cards are a waste of money. I keep all the cards I receive in shoeboxes, so I was surprised to read multiple comments on the NPR article stating that people generally throw them away after reading. With all the “You Know You Were a 90s Kid if…” listicles and I Love the [insert decade here] VH1 shows, it’s apparent that we are obsessed with nostalgia, and yet have no time for sentimentality.

Perhaps the real issue is that our nostalgia is rooted in narcissism, rendering sentimentality worthless in the digital age. People love looking back into their own past, but they have no use for boxed remembrances. Physical cards are essentially direct messages from sender to recipient. Unlike publicly visible social media messages, they aren’t meant to serve as exhibition. They aren’t sharable or likeable; they’re inadequate social barometers.

Card companies like Papyrus have responded to the decline in sales by creating 3D cards with unique designs. Rather than hoping to sell high volumes, it seems as though their brand strategy is to depend on society’s lust for commodification. They’re appealing to people who find exclusive cards irresistible, regardless of their cost. Like the Etsy shopkeepers who create handmade cards to supplement their own income, I know I’m hammering one more nail in the card industry’s coffin with each card I make. When I reach a level of wealth that enables me to spend $10 on a sentiment, I’ll return to the card aisle. Provided it’s still there at that time.


Living with the Dead

Cultural Parallels

Regardless of religious dogma, most cultures believe in a clear line of demarcation between life and death. Certain holidays, such as Samhain or Día de los Muertos, celebrate the dead and are believed to be occasions where the veil between life and death is at its thinnest. During these special events, the dead are given an opportunity to once again enter the realm of the living, under the caveat that they will soon depart again. However, in South Korea and the Philippines, growing populations and dwindling space have permanently blurred the line between the living and the dead.

Of the 13 million Filipino residents living in the capital city of Manila, 43% live in informal settlements. While some live under bridges, or along highways, over 10,000 people call Manila North Cemetery their home. Laid out in 1904 to spread across 54 acres, it is one of the oldest and largest cemeteries in Metro Manila. The community has flourished over the course of several decades, with multiple generations of families spending their whole lives between the walls of the cemetery. Residents make wages by working as caretakers for the mausoleums they inhabit, or by selling food to neighbors and mourners. Children help collect money for their families by carrying coffins and rummaging for saleable plastic or scrap metal.

Two young Manila North Cemetery residents riding a bike beside stacked tombs. Photo credit: AP

Two young Manila North Cemetery residents riding a bike beside stacked tombs. Photo credit: AP

Sleeping atop graves or playing between the stacked tombs, Manila North Cemetery residents spend their lives in communion with the deceased. Though many work to protect the burial sites from grave robbers, the residents themselves are in constant risk of peril. Gang violence and robberies are prevalent in the cemetery. Without access to hot water, electricity, viable roofs, or locked doors, cemetery conditions are hazardous for the dwellers. Still, the inherent dangers do not prevent the tenants from growing their families.

The Philippines has one of the fastest growing populations in Asia, largely due to its status as a devoutly Roman Catholic nation. Under the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines, abortions are illegal. Abortion patients and doctors alike face imprisonment for taking part in the procedure, with longer sentences imposed on women who sought abortions to “conceal” the loss of their virginity. However, the threat of incarceration is only one of many reasons some Filipino women avoid abortions. Though some clinics perform clandestine abortions, the fee of 2,000 to 5,000 pesos – roughly $43 to $108 USD – is too high for many impoverished women. Many fear facing complications resulting from unsafe abortions, knowing that some hospitals refuse to treat these injuries, while others punish patients by operating without anesthesia.

Extreme poverty and religious beliefs have resulted in unmanageable surges of population growth, with no immediate sign of hope for change. Government officials repeatedly threaten the cemetery dwellers with eviction, but with nowhere else to go, the families have no intention of moving. While many Filipinos are fighting to live among the dead, South Koreans are increasingly choosing to avoid graveyards.

Prompted by a dearth of cemetery space, South Korea passed a law in 2000 requiring the removal of subsequent graves after a period of 60 years. This law undermines the traditional conviction that burial sites are places where the dead may rest in peace for all eternity. To avoid future exhumation, the majority of South Koreans now opt to be cremated. However, the rise in cremation has stimulated a cultural shift in traditional beliefs.

South Koreans believe that the dead rightfully deserve to be returned to nature, though many are unsatisfied with the idea of ashes being spread in the wind. Traditionally, South Koreans have strong bonds with their ancestors, and it is common for family members to regularly visit gravesites. Cremation strips relatives of a place to visit when they want to be with a deceased loved one.

Bonhyang beads, made of cremated remains. Photo credit: NY Daily News

Bonhyang beads, made of cremated remains. Photo credit: NY Daily News

Based in Icheon, South Korea, a company called Bonhyang transforms the cremated remains of loved ones into decorative, Buddhist-style beads for a fee of roughly $900. According to CEO Bae Jae-yul, Bonhyang beads are unadulterated, containing only human remains. Rival companies, such as Mikwang, blend in supplementary minerals to produce more symmetrical, gemlike beads faster and at lower temperatures.

These companies subject cremated ashes to ultrahigh temperatures, until they are crystalized and transformed into beads. Bonhyang’s whole process lasts 90 minutes, and results in blue-green, black, purple, and pink cremation beads. The ashes of an average adult typically generate four or five cups of beads, and those with higher bone density, namely children, can result in double the amount. Families often disperse the beads among their relatives, so that the departed can remain with multiple members of the family. Many keep the beads on decorative dishes, or in glass containers in centralized locations of the household.

While some might be hesitant to openly display the cremated remains of a relative on their coffee table, many cherish the beads as tangible connections to their ancestors. Rising population and limited space have forced South Koreans to welcome the dead into their homes, whereas mirrored conditions have had the opposite effect in the Philippines. Stricken by greater poverty, Filipinos have countered population capacity by instead moving in with the dead.

Die Küche


The first installment of my "First 1000 Words" in German.

The initial installment of my German “First 1000 Words” project. Art by me.

Polyglots are linguistic superheroes. Some kids want to be Superman when they grow up, but I was more interested in expanding my lexicon than battling Lex Luthor. Throughout the years, I’ve attempted to learn Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Dutch. Most of these efforts have been ill fated; I gave up on Japanese after memorizing ten Kanji characters in elementary school, and I gave up on Dutch when I realized I would never use it. Despite the six years I spent studying Spanish, I am not fluent in the language. I was able to ask for directions in Barcelona, and help hispanohablante customers at work, but I think too slowly in Spanish to feel confident in conversation.

An excerpt from "The First Thousand Words," detailing words from the countryside.

An excerpt from “The First Thousand Words,” detailing words from the country.

A few weeks ago, I found a box of old childhood books. One of my favorites was a Where’s Waldo-esque fully illustrated book called The First Thousand Words. It struck me then that I was going about learning languages the wrong way. As a child, I learned English by associating words with pictures. In school, we’re taught to translate foreign languages into our native tongue. The problem is that this creates too many degrees of separation from thought to speech. Before responding to someone, we translate their words into our own, think of an English response, and then speak a translation. It’s too much! My goal is work on thinking in foreign languages, rather than simply attempting to speak them.

Inspired by The First Thousand Words, I’ve started learning German the way a German child would. I’m not yet concerned with conjugation charts; I’m focusing on listening to which words sound right. Ich habe einen Apfel. Sie isst ein Ei. In honor of my childhood book, I drew representations of a few things one might find in die Küche (the kitchen). In case anyone else wants to use my drawing as a learning tool, I included translations. However, I recommend focusing on pairing the German words with the pictures rather than the English translations. It was a fun exercise, so I might sketch more household items soon.

My mom painted the country scene on the front window of the playhouse my parents built me.

My mom painted the country scene on the front window of the playhouse my parents built me.

You Would Cry Too

Cultural Parallels

Birthdays always blindside me, like an annual cairn of squandered youth. The preceding weeks are filled with vague dread, until suddenly it’s my birthday, and I’m like, “It’s my birthday? Already? HOW?” Lamentably, the only thing more predictable than the day itself is the crying that ensues. Birthday tears are a self-fulfilling prophecy, but as Lesley Gore said, “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to!” In honor of my birthday, this week’s Cultural Parallels is dedicated to four global birthday traditions that might inspire you to shed a tear.

Li xi, or lucky money, is given in red envelopes. Photo credit: Intead

Li xi, or lucky money, is given in red envelopes. Photo credit: Intead


The Vietnamese New Year celebration Tết Nguyên Đán, literally the Festival of the First Day, functions as a birthday party for everyone in the country. In Vietnam, people do no acknowledge the day they were born. Instead, the Vietnamese align themselves with the lunar calendar symbol from the year they were born.

Thimble cake

Little thimble cakes. Photo credit: Pinterest


Some people in England still practice an ancient birthday tradition involving coins and thimbles. In Medieval England, these small, symbolic items concealed in cake batter prophesied the future. A coin in one’s slice of cake was a welcome ingredient because it was said to have foretold future wealth. Unfortunately, not all cake surprises are equal. Those who received the thimble, a tool of the spinster, were unlikely to wed.

North Korean war veterans, tearing up. Photo credit: Daily Mail

North Korean war veterans, tearing up. Photo credit: Daily Mail

North Korea

Kim Il-sung was the premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from its 1948 inception until he died, July 8, 1994. Picking up the mantle upon his father’s death, Kim Jong-il ruled until his own death on December 17, 2011. As a result, North Koreans born on July 8th and December 17th refrain from celebrating on their birthdays. Instead, they celebrate on the following day.

Drinks are on me! Photo credit: Daily Mail

Drinks are on me! Photo credit: Daily Mail


In Germany, it pays not to have many friends. In America, people are accustomed to being taken out for birthday drinks by their friends. Germans, however, traditionally pay the tab for all the guests they invite out on their birthday.

Toilet Humor

There is a direct correlation between a clean public bathroom and a lack of a toilet seat.

There is a direct correlation between a clean Italian public bathroom and the lack of a toilet seat.

European toilets astounded me. When I landed in London, the first thing I did was beeline to the bathroom. I crammed my suitcase into the stall, rigged up my duffel bag so that it was teetering on the suitcase by the grace of the tiny door hook, and turned around to see the cutest toilet I’ve ever seen in my life. This must be for children, I thought. In my sleepless, post-flight, full-bladder stupor, this was the only rational explanation for such a petite toilet. What if a child has to pee, and I’m in here? Children can’t wait; they wet themselves! Or worse.

So, logically, I had to go check the sizes of the other toilets. Of course. I squeezed past the baggage blockade, and awkwardly popped through the narrow opening, as though the stall had given birth to me. A woman washing her hands at a nearby sink squinted at me suspiciously, her eyes trailing down to the abandoned luggage. In a flash, my mind went to all those “If you see something, say something” posters plastered around New York. Sheepishly, I slid back through the crack in the wall.

Someone call Marcel Duchamp - I found toilet art at Heathrow.

Someone call Marcel Duchamp – I found toilet art at Heathrow Airport.

What struck me was how clean the bathroom was. It could be down to timing – it was before 8:00 a.m., and presumably, not many people had passed through yet. I have no explanation for the rest of the bathrooms I encountered, though. I have never seen so many consecutive clean toilets. On my return flight from Heathrow, I actually went to the bathroom with the sole intention of photographing one of the miniscule toilets. Unfortunately, I found a stall with litter on the floor, but I tiptoed around the Band-Aid minefield and took the picture anyway. The last time I ducked out of a Heathrow bathroom stall to check another, I was nearly reported for suspicious activity.

In a one-woman game of thrones, it took some maneuvering to balance on the ledge.

In a one-woman game of thrones, it took some maneuvering to balance on the ledge.

Many of the toilets I used in Italy had no seat, and at first, I thought they were broken. Then I realized, people can’t pee on a seat that doesn’t exist. Genius. This is the sort of innovation that propelled the Roman Empire, folks. Others had lifted seats, but I welcomed those situations all the same. My favorite Italian toilets were the ones on pedestals. What better way to feel like you’re ascending to the throne than to literally climb a stairway to toilet heaven? Some bathrooms also had efficient foot-operated sinks, so I didn’t have to play that game where I try to scrub my hands before the water stops flowing, inevitably fail, and have to start all over after touching the faucet again. One toilet in Rome had a pull chain above my head. Like the foot-operated sink pedal, I missed it at first, and stood dumbstruck for a few moments before I figured it out.

Greek toilets were a different ballgame. We were warned, as we boarded the ferry to Corfu, that we would not be able to flush toilet paper in certain areas in Greece. I didn’t realize that included the ferry, so by the time I tried to use the bathroom, the toilets were overflowing with backed up toilet paper. Despite signs everywhere stating that tissue paper must be discarded in the provided trash bins, several cavalier toilet rebels disregarded the rules and flushed away. Opening the trash to see someone’s sodden butt paper after what must have been an upsetting meal is a distinctly unpleasant experience. Greek hotel maids deserve massive tips, especially considering the current state of their economy. Before going abroad, a particularly green-minded friend told me about her experiences with European bathrooms, and espoused the virtue of their dual flush, water-saving toilets. Figuring out which button to press was supposed to be the extent of my bathroom culture shock, but I got so much more than I bargained for.

What’s in a Name?

Cultural Parallels

Shakespeare’s infamous second act of Romeo and Juliet posits the arbitrary consequence of names by asking, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet muses to herself that were Romeo no longer a Montague, or she no longer a Capulet, the two star-crossed lovers would be free to pursue their relationship outside the confines of their feuding families. Shared familial surnames enforce the notion that identity is linked to the family unit. Iceland and Spain reject conventional Western naming practices in favor of those that promote individuality and gender equality. Though different, both structures endorse matrilineal genealogy in ways most Western societies do not. Notably, women of Iceland and Spain do not take their spouse’s name after marriage.

Leif Erikson, the historic Norse explorer. Photo credit: DK Find Out

Leif Erikson, the historic Norse explorer. Photo credit: DK Find Out

In Iceland, kenninafn, or surnames, are patronymic, meaning that the father’s given name forms the root of the child’s surname. This structure links the child to their parent, but does not reflect any family lineage. Icelandic surnames are gendered, ending in the suffix –son (son) for males and –dóttir (daughter) for females. Therefore, the Norse explorer Leif Erikson’s name literally describes him as being Erik the Red’s son. Modern endeavors toward gender equality and a sudden rise in single motherhood have led to matronymic surnames. Icelandic footballer Heiðar Helguson, for example, goes by his mother’s name, Helga. In some cases, people can have a last name comprised of both matronymic and patronymic elements. Reykjavík City mayor, Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson, for example, is the son of Bergþóra and Eggert.

Thwarting concepts of legacy and lineage, it is unclear how nepotism would work in Iceland. In America, legacy names can secure places at prestigious universities, or otherwise pave the way for a life of privilege. In Iceland, the response to, “Don’t you know who I am?” would most likely be a resounding, “No.” With popular Icelandic musicians like Björk, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men gaining worldwide recognition, it would be insincere to claim that fame is nonexistent in Iceland. However, with an average population of 329,000 people, there is a narrower gap between stars and their audience than there would be in most other developed countries. Partially due to this sense of national intimacy, but mostly because Icelandic last names are patronymic, Icelanders are generally referred to by their first names. Singer Björk uses her first name only, though her full name is Björk Guðmundsdóttir. The current Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, is simply referred to as Sigmundur Davíð. This familiarity is uniquely Icelandic, though the patronymic system was once common throughout Scandinavia. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden abolished patronymic names through separate national laws, and adopted the Western concept of family names.

Pablo Ruiz Picasso is known by his maternal name because it is less common. Photo credit: Kübra Geyik

Pablo Ruiz Picasso is known by Picasso, not Ruiz, because it is less common. Photo credit: Kübra Geyik

Spanish apellidos, or last names, are a unification of a person’s parents’ surnames. The double last name system dates back to the 16th century upper classes of Castille, but only became common in the 19th century. Generally, a child is given the first surname of both the father and the mother. For example, if a man named Mateo Álvarez García and a woman named Marisol Ramón Benítez conceived a son named José Enrique, his full name would most likely be José Enrique Álvarez Ramón. Women do not take their husband’s names upon marriage, as doing so would eliminate the cultural practice of having two last names. In the way that Icelandic women would not suddenly become someone else’s daughter upon marriage, it would not make sense for Spanish women to cast aside their parents’ names. However, some Spanish women may choose to informally append their husband’s first last name after the preposition de (of). Marisol Ramón Benítez, from the earlier example, would then be Marisol Ramón Benítez de Álvarez. Used solely for social purposes, the name would have no legal value.

Due to this format, members of an immediate family cannot have the same last name unless they are siblings. Gender equality laws passed in 1999 enable matrilineal surname transmission to precede patrilineal transmission, such that our imaginary José Enrique Álvarez Ramón might instead be called José Enrique Ramón Álvarez. As the first surname is typically paternal, and children only take the first part of each parent’s surname, the maternal elements are generally lost after one generation. Regardless of which configuration parents choose for their firstborn, each subsequent child must legally bear the same arrangement of last names. Much like the Icelandic convention, Spanish surnames are generational, linking siblings, yet estranging children from a singularly named nuclear family unit.

Icelandic Ponies. Why? Because! Photo credit:

Icelandic ponies. Why? Because! Photo credit: Fine Art America

Before 1925, Icelanders were legally permitted to invent a family name, but that is no longer the case, unless granted by special exception. The Iceland Naming Committee, formed in 1991, upholds rules regarding the names of its citizens. Unlike Spanish citizens, Icelanders cannot have more than three personal names. Moreover, Icelandic names must adhere to the nation’s grammar, and they must only contain letters that exist in the language. The Icelandic alphabet contains 32 letters, not including C, Q, W, or Z. Despite their prevalence in America, the Icelandic Naming Committee would reject the names Charles, Quinn, Walter, and Zachary, and would require any American immigrants with those names to choose a suitable Icelandic alternative. Iceland itself is referred to as Ísland by its inhabitants, due to the lack of the letter C in the native language of Íslenska.

Language aside, the Icelandic naming format presents problems for families traveling with small children, as non-Icelandic customs officers in foreign countries might not be familiar with families wherein mother, father, sister, and brother could potentially all have different surnames. To avoid this type of confusion, phonebooks are alphabetized by first name. Naming structures are strict, and occasionally challenging, but the Icelandic language is an important element of national identity amongst Icelanders. Today, with some effort, most Icelanders would be able to read the 13th century Prose Edda drafted in Old Norse by Snorri Sturluson. In contrast, the epic poem Beowulf was composed in Old English sometime between the 8th and 11th century, and is incomprehensible to most modern English speakers.

Mendoza Vineyard with mountain view, in Argentina. Photo credit: Zicasso

Mendoza Vineyard with mountain view, in Argentina. Photo credit: Zicasso

The links between Spanish language and names are also strong. In some cases, Spanish surnames offer insight into the geographic history of one’s ancestors. The name Mendoza suggests that centuries ago, the family came from an area by a cold mountain, while those named Morales may have lived by blackberry groves. Occupational names such as Herrera, Molinero, and Romero, suggest that one’s ancestors were ironworkers, millers, and pilgrims respectively. Descriptive names like Cortés (courteous), Delgado (thin), Moreno (brown hair and skin), and Rubio (blonde) are common, as well.

Some of the most common Spanish family names are products of Spain’s past patronymic system. Historically, the suffix –ez meant “son of,” denoting that those named Rodríguez were the sons of men named Rodrigo, or that a Sánchez was the son of Sancho, a González was the son of Gonzalo, and so on. Like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, Spain eventually converted patronymic names into heritable family names.


St. Nicholas Cathedral, resting site of Grace Kelly

St. Nicholas Cathedral, resting site of Grace Kelly

St. Nicholas Cathedral

Did you know that the first step toward immigrating to Monaco is to open a bank account with a minimum initial deposit of €300,000 – €1million? With the intention of rubbing shoulders with the rich and the famous at the Monte Carlo Casino, we drove to Monaco one of the nights we were based in Antibes, France. Unfortunately, the traffic was so bad that by the time we arrived there was only enough time to walk around and take a few pictures.

Yachts in Monaco Harbor

Yachts in Monaco Harbor

Monaco Harbor

The fantastically pink Prince's Palace of Monaco

The fantastically pink Prince’s Palace of Monaco

Ranked the second smallest country in the world, at 0.78 square miles, it’s actually impressive that I did not see every inch of Monaco. As I stared out over the harbor, counting all the locals’ yachts, it occurred to me that the price of residence was a necessary consequence of keeping the small nation afloat. However, as I began tallying superyachts, I understood that the price of inclusion covered more than taxes; it purchased exclusivity. With its gorgeous pink Prince’s Palace, Grand Prix roads, and luxury boutiques, Monaco is a five-star hotel posing as a microstate. To live in Monaco is to exist in a perpetual state of vacation.

Monte Carlo Casino

Monte Carlo Casino

Monte Carlo Casino

The casinos in Monaco are surrounded by luxury cars

Luxury cars outside the casinos 

Outside the casinos, people milled around, peering into Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Bentleys. We even spotted a Bugatti Veyron. I recalled an alleged car show I once saw in a Burger King parking lot, attended by Honda Civic owners with brightly colored spinning rims and illegally tinted windows on their cars. They were so proud of their aftermarket headlights, and I remember thinking the spectacle was ridiculous. Standing outside the Monte Carlo Casino, with my inexpensive dress and accessories, I suddenly felt like the human equivalent of a Honda Civic. I had to laugh; it was absurd to be surrounded by such an embarrassment of riches.


The world's most famous bend!

The world’s most famous bend!

Little yellow submarine outside the Musée Océanographique

Little yellow submarine outside the Musée Océanographique