All posts by K. Tempest Bradford

The End Of Week 1: How Would You Change The Postal Service?

The first week of Month of Letters is now over and we have a day of rest! Unless you, like me, plan to at least write a letter today even if you can’t send it until tomorrow. I’m busy getting through all of my postcards, which meant a trip to the post office yesterday for more odd denominations of stamps.

U.S. Post Office - Wicomico, VA by Carmen Shields
Not the post office I went to! This photo is by Carmen Shields. U.S. Post Office – Wicomico, VA from Flickr

This recent postal experience was quite pleasant. But not too long ago on a Saturday I went to my local post office to buy some stamps and mail some letters. I took one step in, saw the long line, and walked right the heck back out.

This is a pretty typical interaction between me and that post office. It’s constantly understaffed, the lines are often long, and now it has very inconvenient hours (which is why everyone crowds in there on a Saturday). I know there many reasons for this, and most of them are not the fault of the people working at my local branch. Still, it’s frustrating.

In some ways the US Postal Service is remarkable and awesome. Even efficient. It’s the other stuff I find maddening. And in all the talk about how to fix the USPS or trim it down or make it profitable or whatever the latest drama is, I rarely see any practical, useful ideas offered up to eliminate postal pain points.

For instance, I’m a big fan of being able to purchase postage online. I do it often when sending a package, and it’s a simple process via the USPS website and even gets me a small discount. Why, then, can’t I buy a stamp just as easily? I can buy sheets of stamps, of course, and get them delivered. But buying a single stamp for a letter requires going to Stamps.com, which is not owned by the USPS, and signing up for a monthly service. That solution is great for businesses, but not for someone who sends letters occasionally.

As I said, it’s seemingly small pain points like this that get to me. Why, in an age where this kind of thing should be convenient and simple, are things complex?

Last year I caught an episode of the Freakonomics podcast where the hosts talked about some other ways the USPS might improve based on ideas from listeners. One thing Stephen Levitt points out is that big, lumbering organizations like the post office are harder to change than nimble startups. Seems to me the USPS could benefit from at least some start-up mental juice. The last time any of that kind of mindset got near them the Postmaster General shut it down with extreme prejudice and for no good reason. More recently I’ve seen reports that the USPS is considering the addition of banking services in order to make some money. It could work, if done right.

If something dramatic happened and you were suddenly asked to offer some out-of-the-box ideas for how to make the USPS better, what would they be? What the the pain points you’d like to see alleviated? Are there things postal services in other countries do that we should be doing?

Sending snail mail from your smartphone

TouchnoteWhen I first started doing Month of Letters I had a hard time figuring out what to write some of the people on my list. Did they want to hear a lot of random stuff about my life? Would they rather have a poem? All I wanted to do was ask about their lives! I finally hit on sending postcards at first. The condensed space meant I didn’t have to think about filling a whole page. Plus, postcards usually have interesting art on them, so they’re useful beyond being mail.

I’m doing the same this year, though with an extra twist. I’m sending some postcards via my smartphone using my own pictures. Even though the message on the back is short, I hope these postcards will feel as personal as a longer letter. I just sent my first one today! I took a picture of my altar and sent it to a dear friend who recently showed me hers.

This time I used the Touchnote app for Android based on the advice from this post rounding up the various options. The author also recommends Postify, which I’ll probably try in a few days. I’m also going to give Postable a go, but I really like being able to add my own images to the card.

The trouble with trying to decide on a service like this is that you can’t always rely on the reviews on app stores nor are they easy to sift through. I much prefer roundups like the one I found where the author compares services against each other. It took far too much Google-fu to find that (no idea why), so I hope it will be as useful for you as it was for me.

I plan to make this a regular thing, so I’m eager to hear back from the recipients on the quality of the card and how long it took to arrive. Once I get that data I’ll settle on one or the other app.

I’m curious if any of you have ever tried these services or something similar? Which ones do you like? Any you would never use again?

Is there such a thing as the Best Pen Ever?

As Kathy mentioned a few days ago, finding a great pen for letter writing can be a transformative experience. I told you all last year about how I got addicted to fountain pens (Mary is to blame…. she is always to blame), though I do still have my gel pens as well. With all the pen choices out there I’m sure there are still a few of you looking for the One. If so, you may want to check out this post over at The Wirecutter wherein they’ve determined that the best pen ever is the uni-ball Jetstream.

To call that post a simple pen review is to severely downplay how extensive it is. Clocking in at over 6,000 words, the post is actually super informative for people who want to understand what makes a pen awesome or crap (hint: price is not the only factor). The site called on multiple pen experts to come up with the ultimate determination, all of whom make it their business to know all there is to know about pens. Incidentally, the blogs of the experts are great to follow if you’re a pen nerd.

The Wirecutter focused on pens that are inexpensive, semi-disposable, and easy to find at major retailers in the US, so that leaves out high-end fountain pens, imports, and specialized instruments. Still, it’s always good to know which pen out of the sea of them at Staples is better than all the others.

What are your favorite pens? Not just the ones you use to compose beautiful letters, but the ones you reach for when you need to jot a note, sign something, or write in a journal. Are they the same pens?

Preppy Pen

My current favorite fountain pen is an inexpensive one from Japan called the Preppy pen. If you’re lucky enough to live in a town with a Japanese bookstore or other store that imports from overseas you can probably get one for around $4. JetPens sells them, as does Amazon. You can get it with a fine or medium nib and the ink cartridge is replaceable. I like Preppy pens not just because they don’t cost much, but because the caps has a great seal on it that doesn’t allow the nib to get dried out. Even if I leave it in my pen bag for weeks it still writes just fine without assistance.

iWalk Amphibian

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a digital person, so it will not surprise you that I carry around a tablet stylus in my pen case. My stylus happens to be a pen as well: the iWalk Amphibian. The cartridge that comes with it is a typical ballpoint, but it also takes Parker gel pen refills and that’s what I use with it.

Show and Tell in the comments, let’s see your favorites!

Day 26: Fountain Pens and Typewriters, favorite old-school writing tools

fountain pen and typewriter - unsure about the origin of this photo. please advise if you know the photagMany, many years ago when I was just a wee Tempest in grade school, I read an essay by a writer who stated that every writer needed to keep a journal and write in that journal with a fountain pen because fountain pens are the best. Being young and impressionable, I bugged my mother until she took me somewhere I could buy a fountain pen (probably Staples) and proceeded to write in my journal with it like a real writer and everything. The story ended in tears, though, when the fountain pen leaked all over everything and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to make it stop or change the ink.

Since then I have avoided fountain pens even though I did like the smoothness and ease of writing with one. Eventually I found that gel pens of a certain size gave the same satisfaction of gliding across the page without effort and I’ve been happy with them since. However, I find myself super tempted by fountain pens once more thanks to Mary.

Those of you who hang out in the forums may remember a post from earlier this month about a small tragedy Mary suffered. She lost all of her favorite fountain pens while traveling and right as A Month of Letters was in full swing. I (sneakily) got her to tell me which pens she lost by pretending that I intended to get into fountain pens, then I asked her friends to donate toward replacing them or send one as a gift. I’m happy to report that Mary now has a replacement for all of the pens, including the vintage one we couldn’t find, at first. That’s partly due to some of the folks here (thank you, by the way!).

As I was pretending to be interested in fountain pens, I found myself actually getting interested in fountain pens again. Mary has this affect on me. I also had a brief moment of madness where I wanted a typewriter after visiting her apartment, which is filled with beautiful antique typewriters.

Both fountain pens and typewriters activate the same section of my brain that tingles when I write a letter to send in the mail. Mailing letters, writing by hand, typing on a machine that doesn’t require a battery, these are all old school activities. They’re no longer necessary or the most advanced. This is part of the appeal. Feeling like you’re connected to some part of the past simply with the tools you use or the action you’re taking adds weight to the proceedings. It makes me feel connected to people who are no longer with me.

And who knows, someday I might be sitting in front of a computer trying to recapture my middle years while my grandchildren look at me funny from behind their Google Glasses. “You still use a KEYBOARD to TYPE, grandma? OMG.”

What do the tools you use to compose your letters make you think about or feel? Do they put you in a specific mindset when you sit down to write letters?