Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Keeping Track - with PenPal Pro

Ah, it pays to have in-house tech help!

About 20 years ago, my computer-geek husband, Steve, noticed - or, more likely, heard me complain repeatedly - that I was struggling to find a satisfactory system to keep track of all my correspondence. At that time, I was keeping in touch with more than 100 penpals. About 50 or so family members and friends from the east-coast Canadian Maritimes were also about to become correspondents, since we were contemplating a cross-country move west, all the way to Vancouver, on Canada's Left Coast, to attend grad school.

My address book - which featured beautiful illustrations of Anne of Green Gables (my childhood idol!) on every page, and seductively smooth paper that begged to be written on - was suffering. Now that I had so many addresses to record, the entries were hopelessly out of order, as there were several pages dedicated to each letter, but addresses were recorded within the letter categories in the order in which I'd received them.

Complicating matters were all the moves everyone in my age group was suddenly making, to go to school, get married or take on a new job. I had to use Liquid Paper to blot out the old address and put in a new one, which seemed sacrilege in such a lovely book. Even worse, I ran out of pages for some letters. (If you, dear reader, have an address-keeping system that works for multiple correspondents, would you consider sharing it in the comments?)

At the same time, I could no longer easily keep track of whom I owed letters, when they came in, or which letters had come in first and thus deserved priority attention. Or letters that deserved replies right away for other reasons. I tried keeping lists on looseleaf, and I kept dates marked on the envelopes, but paper lists got messy - and I feared someone would fall through the cracks. Something had to be done, and soon.

Enter Steve. Rather than complain about my complaining or just block it out, he decided to help me find a solution. And so PenPal Pro (version 1) was born. It quickly became my best organizational friend.

Fast forward to today, and let me introduce you to PenPal Pro 2! This program allows you to enter data on each correspondent, including address, when letters are received and sent, hobbies, important dates for the correspondent and those close to him/her, and more. Here's the main screen:

My favourite parts are the address and letter-tracking functions. Whenever a letter comes in, I enter it into the system. And when I send a reply, I go in and add that letter, too. For both letters received and sent, there is the option of adding info, such as what the conversation was about, and any enclosures that were included. It's a great way for me to keep track of whether I've sent someone a particular photo or post card, for example. (It's amazing how often I find I get the same "great idea" of what to send somebody, twice over.) Here's what the letter screen looks like:

After I've entered all my data, I go back to the main screen and select the Reports tab. Then I get this wonderful report summarizing all the letters I owe. Here is a sample, containing just one (imaginary) letter...although I suspect Gryffindog would love to get mail, especially if it contained treats!
These few glimpses do not begin to do justice to the fantastic capabilities of this program. In fact, I love it so much, that Steve decided to offer PenPal Pro as Shareware, available here. That link will take you to the main page, which describes the program & its technical requirements. (It is currently Windows-based only - our apologies to Mac users. Our own main computer is also a Mac. So we would like to upgrade PenPal Pro to the Mac platform, once our 3-year-old - lovely though she is - can become a little more independent and less time-demanding. Stay tuned!)

The program page also allows you to download the program to try it out. You'll find a blog there, too, which acts as a series of help files to give info on how to do various tasks within the program. If you have a question that is not answered there, just ask it on the blog or email Steve, and he will do his best to reply.

My only caveat is that this program was created specifically for me, for my particular needs and interests - so it may not address exactly what someone else is looking for. However, he is always making adjustments, so if it is missing something you consider crucial, let us know and we'll see what we can do.

For PenPal Pro, there are two free options with full functionality except for allowing only a limited number of penpals to be entered, plus a version available for a modest fee ($20 Canadian) that gives you the capability of entering an unlimited number of correspondents.

Here's the link, for those of you who prefer to have the full address: Why not check it out?

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

An Extraordinary Welcome - LEP

I used to think that nothing could compare to the flurry of Christmas mail - which is more like a blizzard at our condo. We consistently get more than 100 Xmas cards, and this year we topped 130. But this holiday season, as much as I enjoyed all the festive mail, my most surprising postal windfall came after the usual Christmastime cards subsided. From January 13th until the present, I've received these six delectable items by post, all from new correspondents:

The cool thing is, every one of these pieces of mail is a friendly welcome, sent by people I don't know. What are they welcoming me into, you may be wondering? Into the League of Extraordinary Penpals - which has been living up to its name. 

I'd never joined an online-based snail mail penpal club before, and this one is new, turning just two years old this February. It is based in Québec, which appealed to me a great deal, as both a Canadian and a French-second-language speaker who used to work in the bilingualism field. So I decided to join. On January 5th. I was introduced to the online Facebook community on January 11th. 

The welcomes - from complete strangers who didn't even demand a reply - started coming on January 12th. Yes, you read that date correctly. That's the very next day after the Facebook group first heard about me. Somehow, six club members (and counting - I have received a new welcome nearly every day) found the time to write a short but sunny note, address it & put a stamp on it (in several cases, decorating the envelope or choosing a fancy card), and take it to the post box. The warmth and inclusiveness, from complete strangers across the miles who ask nothing in return, have stunned me. Given my work as an Anglican priest, this is my ideal for my own and our church's approach to people who come across our path. I hope that we offer people this kind of hospitality, too.

You need to know that I don't usually rely on a good first impression to set the tone for the long haul. To quote Canadian Shania Twain, "That don't impress me much." Let me explain...I know first impressions can turn people off, and so I try to create a good one myself, whenever I can. But I've misinterpreted others' first impressions enough times, that I don't consider them to be the last word. I really don't think it makes sense to take the very first word that seriously. There are too many things we don't know, when we first meet someone - and that applies whether it's a person, an informal group, or an organization. On any given day, so many things can affect our judgment of that first impression - including our own mood - that I think it's wise to be forgiving and give them the benefit of the doubt. I believe in second chances. And this approach has held me in good stead in life. I would have missed out on one of my best friends of two decades now, for example, if I'd trusted my first impression. 

So I prefer to gather more information before I make decisions. But I can say, with no small amount of confidence, that The League of Extraordinary Penpals has given me the info I need. Six welcome notes, already? Really? And many more friendly comments and offers of snail-mail friendship through the online group? If it had been one note, I would have been charmed. But six? I'm bowled over. Way to make a first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth impression!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Ode to IYS

Going to the mailbox has been my favourite part of the day since I started penpalling in the early 80s. But it was extra-exciting if I found a letter from an unassuming-sounding organization in Finland, called IYS: International Youth Service.

Their mailouts contained delectable possibilities of international cross-cultural friendship and armchair travel. I would stretch out on the living room carpet, world atlas open nearby, and pore over their forms for hours, trying to limit my penpal applications to a reasonable number. (I suspect that my conception of "reasonable" and that of my parents may have been somewhat different! Fortunately for me and my far-flung friends, though, they indulged my writing interest.) Through sending me their appealing, multicoloured forms, IYS - and not the school system - is largely responsible for my grasp of world geography, as well as for my awareness of and fascination with the tiniest of countries. Places as diverse as Luxembourg and Réunion, for example. And yes, I did manage to find penpals in both places...I am grateful to have a very good friend in Luxembourg even now. (Hi, Nadine!)

The form you see here particularly interests me because it dates from 1986, during the Cold War, before the Eastern Bloc countries were open to outsiders. What a great day it was, when I received my first IYS form listing Russia and other formerly closed nations! Meanwhile, one of my German penpals, from Berlin, recounted her participation in an elated, all-night street party when the Berlin Wall fell. World events took on a personal significance.

But back to IYS...I loved them because they were not only the first penpal organization I came into contact with, but also because they provided the best penpal service I've ever experienced to this day. They asked prospective penpals to choose the top four countries on the form, from which they wanted a correspondent. Then they did their best to fulfill these wishes. Most of the time, in my experience, they came through. If they couldn't, though, they would still provide you with a penpal address from another country, which was gracious on their part. Even more gracious still, was their replacement guarantee. If you did not receive an answer to your initial letter, after a reasonable time to allow for the vagaries of world postal systems, you could request a new address, free of charge.

Pictured above is the kindly letter they included, whenever this happened. I especially like the graphic, which expressed just how disappointed I felt, whenever my new penpal didn't work out.

I came to love their little response forms, which you see below. At the top, they listed the recipient's name. Below that, their country, interests by letter code (you could choose up to 5), and the four countries (also by code), in order of priority, from which you'd requested a penpal. (In this case: Germany, Iceland, Poland, Netherlands.)

I read and dreamed over IYS forms so much, that I internalized their country codes - and I still use them, more than 30 years later, as shorthand for the nations' names. (I also passed them on to my husband, Steve, when he designed my PenPalPro database, to keep track of when I receive and send letters, along with addresses, important dates, etc. So the codes are now en-coded in software, too!) Beneath the country codes, in the yellow box, are the details on my new penpal. You can see she is female, born in '73, then her interest codes are listed, plus her name and address. I'm glad I kept this response form, as I began writing Tanja in 1991, after after a year-long, introductory German language course during my first year at university. I wanted to practice my newfound German skills, limited though they were, and to meet someone from the country whose language fascinated me. Ten years later, she and her husband came to visit us in Canada. And we're still in touch now, sharing stories of family life, careers and vacations.

Several more of my long-standing penpal friendships came from IYS, too. My relationship with my Swedish friend, Cecilia - whom I now consider a sister - is one of them. We first met through snail mail more than 30 years ago. Since then, we've met in person four times, she attended our wedding, and our children even know each other now. I'm grateful for the role of IYS in my life - I wouldn't be who I am today, without their influence. Even our daughter's name is the result of penpal influence - but that's a story for another day.

Does anyone else out there remember IYS with fondness? What are your stories? And have you found new organizations that rival their gracious yet efficient service?

Over the coming weeks, I'll keep researching and sharing what I know about other penpal organizations. But for now - thank you, IYS!

Monday, 5 January 2015

New Year - New Blog

Happy New Year - Bonne Année!

For the New Year, I decided to start a blog that encapsulates some of my life's biggest passions - writing and travel, especially connected through the medium of snail mail. I'll be posting tips and info that overlap with these topics, as I come across them. So the blog won't always be about me. But for my inaugural post, let me simply introduce the topic of penpalling and how I got into it, so you know where I'm coming from.

My introduction to penpals came through my grade 5 teacher in the Maritimes (Atlantic Canada), who asked the whole class if anyone would like a penpal. Little did she know that almost everybody would want to give it a try! And then some of us took it to a whole new level. I started with one penpal in England at age 10, then 4 more the next year, and the rest - as they say - is history.

By the time I was in high school, I had 50 penpals. In university and beyond, the number climbed to 150+. For the past several years, my family and I have been sending 300 Christmas cards to far-flung penpals, plus friends & family we know in-person. (My husband is a very understanding and tolerant guy!) My grade 5 teacher had unwittingly created a monster. Or at least a penpalling addict.

Needless to say, for many years now, my main spare time activity has been writing.  Chances are, if you come looking for me in my off-work time, I'm composing letters, penning post cards - or posting one of the above. Here I am admiring a mailbox in Iceland.

So in this blog, I hope to give some fun glimpses into how much penpalling, travel, and armchair travel through penpalling, can enrich one's life. Sometimes the posts will be about my own experience - and sometimes I'll share resources on penpalling, writing, travel, postal systems, or anything else related to such matters.

Will you come along with me for the ride? I can't wait to see what we'll discover!

Meanwhile, I wish you a good mail day. :-)