Monday, December 28, 2009

Penpal of the Week #29

Today, I'm pleased to announce that our Penpal of the Week is a man! He's only our second one so far, so let's welcome David from Costa Rica / the USA!

1. Please tell us about you!

Hi, my name is David Jiménez, I will be 29 years next month. I am a professional mathematician (I bet you don't hear that too often). I was born and raised in San Jose, Costa Rica, in January 1981. Although I always lived in San Jose's suburbs, I moved thirteen times before moving with my wife, and three times since. That's a LOOONG story!

Since I was very young, I liked science and math, and when I was in high school, I started participating on math competitions, and when I got into college I started as a Computer Science major with a Math minor, but at some point very early on, those got inverted, and I graduated with a BSc in Mathematics in July 2001.

For a couple of years, as I was death broke, I worked as a high school math teacher, before applying to grad school. I got into the Math PhD program at Georgia Tech in Atlanta in the Fall 2003. It took me five years to finish, and it still feels awkward when someone calls me "Doctor". I specialized on quantization problems, something applied to Image and Signal Processing. But of course, we are not to enter on technical stuff here. Once I finished, I got a Postdoctoral Professorship at Texas A&M University, and I've been here for three semesters, and will be here for other three.

My wife Susana and I, New Year's, 2008.

I have been married for eight years next March. Susana (my wife) and I met during my first semester in College. She was then a third year math education major. I realize she was amazingly bright... just after meeting me she took an immediate dislike of me. (I am serious on both, she is bright, and she did take a dislike of me as soon as she met me!) Unfortunately for her, I managed to charm her somehow (I still wonder what I did to do so) and we started dating about six months after we met. We dated for two and a half years. By that time both had graduated and decided to marry.

So far we do not have children, and as of now, we are in no real hurry to become parents. The truth is that we are very comfortable just the two of us. Probably at some point we will feel the call to raise the next generation, but who knows. But we do have a third member on our family. Her name is Mawamba, and she is a three-year old Ball Python. Snakes are very misunderstood pets, and Pythons are really tame and nice pets, though, not so cuddly! But living in an apartment, I don't feel like having a dog!

This is my pet Mawamba, picture taken a few days ago.

I have a few hobbies, just like everybody. I have always liked writing. Short stories, entries in a journal, entries on my blog (feel free to visit: - I know it is not grammatically correct, but most of my other options were already taken), and pen paling of course. I love martial arts, though, I have not been practicing for about two years. I enjoy hiking (but this is Texas, gosh! Flat as a pancake, I need to move to the North West, or the Canadian Rockies!). I enjoy photography, but I must admit I have to dedicate a bit more time to my hobbies.

Ah! I am atheist, what for some reason seems to bug a lot of people. Really, in many places and with many people you say "I am an atheist" and they look at you like if you had just said "Hi, I am a suicide bomber!". But believe me, just like 20% of the people born in the 1980's, I reached the conclusion that just like Santa Claus, God does not exist. Nevertheless, I am very interested on what people believe, and further more, why they believe it and how they rationalize it! And by the way, I am a fan of Bill Maher!

2. Describe your personality in 10 words!

Well, let's have fun with a bit of narcissism. I mean, having ten words to describe my personality, most people would, most likely, exalt what they perceive as their best attributes. Anyway, let's start.

* Rationalist: I think, therefore I am! I am someone who tries to rationalize most aspects of his life. I want to find the reasons behind my actions, behind the things I believe to be truth. To explain things. Probably that's one of the reasons I am a mathematician.

* Talkative: My mom used to say, when I was little, that if I didn't have someone to talk to, I would talk to the walls... and she was almost right. A few years back I had a bad cold and it degenerated on an ugly throat infection that left me literally voiceless for two weeks. And when my voice returned, my wife hugged me, kissed me and told me that "she had missed me A LOT" (and she had spend most of that time with me!). I enjoy talking, I enjoy hearing people... and I must admit, I enjoy finding disagreements, and exploit them to make the conversation even more interesting.

* Creative: I consider I am a quite creative person. I like creative writing (short stories and stuff like that), writing is one of my dearest hobbies, both to pen pals, on journals, opinion pieces, or plain fiction writing. I am not gifted at all when it comes to performance arts (my wife says that hearing me sing is a torture!) but I think I have my way with words.

* Happy: Have you ever met someone who seems to be always on a good mood, to the point of being annoying? Well, I am that guy! I learned early in life that worrying too much for things and getting too upset over trivialities would lead me to the grave rather soon, and make me miserable in the mean time, so, I tried not to worry for what I cannot change, and not to get upset over trivialities... and for the most part it has worked. That doesn't mean I am an irresponsible slacker, I am not (believe me, I didn't get my PhD in a cereal box!) and I have my bad days like everybody, but you see me once every day for a year, you will probably see me smiling more than three hundred times!

* Practical: I said I am not a slacker... but I am a firm proponent of the MEL (Minimum Effort Law). If it is not a hobby, I like things to get done, to get done in the best possible manner, and to get done fast and with the least amount of effort. So, I try to be as practical as possible, and can accommodate easily for unexpected surprises.

* Curious: Oh goodness, if there is something to be known, I want to know it! You would see me reading things, visiting Wikipedia very often, talking to people about things they know about and I do not, and researching things I want to know better. It's just the way I am. Even with pen pals, after a couple of letters, when the ice has been broken, I can probably ask a thousand different things.

Hapkido Belt Test...2006?

* Liberal: I would say that for the most part my views are very liberal. I think that people should be free to live their lives the way they want, as long as they are not imposing themselves on other people, and they are not committing crimes. And I think that a "victimless crime" is not a crime, and a crime where criminal and victim are the same person is not a crime either (just a fantastic display of stupidity, very likely!), and that as long as nobody is abused, people can do whatever they want. Activism is not one of my first priorities, and the time I spend on it tends to go towards GLBT rights, but that doesn't mean there are not other issues I would aboard if I had more time.

* Playful: I must admit I am a bit of a clown when I am in the right environment (social gatherings with people I trust). It was not something that was part of my personality since I was a toddler. It actually developed on my late teens... and like many things on a man's personality, it was discovered and developed as a resource to attract girls. As most kids on the last years of high school, I was terribly self-conscious of my looks (yes! men are just as self-concious of their looks, we just have been trained not to express it), I was not athletic... more on the geeky side, and I was by far not a smooth talker. But almost by accident, on a plane, when I was trying to get flirty with the girl next to me, and out of nervousness started telling jokes... and in no time I had her and the girl on the third seat were both laughing her socks off! I realized that many girls around me found me funny, and that could open me some doors. Later on, I just enjoyed making people laugh in general, and I am not too bad at it... though with time I have gotten "shy" at it, meaning, I tend to joke that much just around people I trust a lot.

* Strong minded: I tend to meditate a lot about my points of view, and thus, I tend to be hard strong minded about them. Also, I consider conflict as a part of life, that we tend to see as very destructive, but it may be the total opposite, and thus, I tend not to be afraid of it, and I have found that just fundamentalists tend to feel offended when you openly disagree with them, most intelligent adults understand someone may be a great person, and still disagree with you on many fundamental issues. But of course, I size my pen pals, and choose when and with whom to discuss (or not) certain topics. Sometimes is not worth losing a good pal over a philosophical debate!

* Honest: I know probably everybody says the same about themselves. I don't think people like to think of themselves as liars. But I think I am an honest person... not perfect but honest as much as I can... sometimes even too much. With this I mean, don't expect me to be the guy who would sell you the moon and the stars for something! I am more of the "what you see is what you get" type! I respect other people's opinions, I have my own. I don't invent parts of myself, I expect other people to do the same!

3. How long have you been penpalling? How did you first start? Tell us about your first penpal!

That is a question that may have different answers, depending on how you look at it. If you define pen paling as just the somewhat regular exchange of correspondence with someone... then, probably as soon as I learned to write in the second half of the 1980's. I have an uncle, Jorge, who, at the time, was living in Germany pursuing a PhD, and who I had never met personally, as he had studied his undergrad, master and first PhD in Brazil, living there since before I was born. So, once I saw the address on an envelope my grandma asked my mom to post in the mail, I copied it and wrote to him. It seems to have, at the very least, amused him, as we corresponded for several years, until it was easier to email.

Now, if you define pen paling as correspondence with someone unrelated with you, then, it started in 1992, when I was 11. There was this children magazine called "Tambor", that had a section for kids looking for pen pals. I wrote to four ads I liked, a boy and three girls. The boy never answered, but the three girls did. Two of them, whose names escape to my memory right now, stopped writing within the year, but Andrea, the other girl, did keep in contact for about six years. At the time, we lived about 30 miles away, a huge distance when you are 11, but we met a few times, when we were both in High School. Then, she went overseas as an exchange student, and we only wrote to each other about two letters during that year, and when she returned, we were enrolled in the same University (Universidad de Costa Rica), and indeed, we were classmates, taking a common class in humanities. After that, life got busier, and we drifted apart for some time, but when I moved to the US, we sort of reconnected. Now, every time I go back home (not as often as I would like to) we meet once or twice for coffee or lunch.

My dad and I, New Year's, 1982.

Finally, if we count international pen pals, well, it all started in 2006. You know how from time to time there are events that make us think about things in life probably quite unrelated. Well, that year my dad passed away. Although we had a sometimes difficult relation (two hard headed analytical men with very different points of view about almost everything in life), we were really close. If I have ever been closer to someone, probably it was only to my wife. After that, I thought about those simple pleasures in life I had abandoned, and it came to mind... I really really liked to go to the post office, open the mail box and finding a letter to my name. So, I searched online (had to learn the term pen pal, as it is somewhat different to the Spanish term). The first I found were tons of sites to pen pal with inmates... but I did not like the idea. Then, I found pen pal world, found a few profiles, started writing, and with some of them I correspond to this day. The first, in this case, was Tatevik, from Armenia, a lady my age, a published poet, and professional translator... and a very interesting person for those and many other reasons.

4. How many penpals do you have now and where are they from?

Well, again, it depends. Let me explain.

There are the pen pals who have been with me for a while, with whom I have exchanged more letters than what I can count with my fingers, and who have been writing with me for over a year, and are, I think, unlikely to stop for no reason. There are five in this category, and they are from Armenia, Russia, Estonia, Canada and Sweden.

There are the pen pals with whom I have been writing for much lesser time, maybe just a few months, but we have already exchanged at least a couple of letters and, at least I, have found the correspondence quite interesting. There are eight in this category, and they are from Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Russia, Singapore, Ireland, and two from the US. I would love to say that all of them will keep in contact forever, but from experience, sometimes even great pen pals go MIA.

Now, there are a few new pals, people to whom I had given my address, or to whom I have written a first letter and I am waiting for the reply. These are from Russia, Germany, England, Italy and India.

As of now, all my pen pals are female. Not that I have anything against my own gender, but I haven't found male pen pals that have the same ideas about pen paling as I do. You can go to question #10 to hear the creepiest cases, but also, I have found guys who only want to talk about their seemingly tremendously exaggerated claims of sexual deeds (the liar's club, I tend to call them), or just all about gaming. I played with a few consoles in the 80's and early 90's, but I haven't touched one at the very least since 1995! So, nothing that I really find interesting. But I would enjoy having some male pen pals.

Recently replied letters.

5. What are your favorite topics to discuss in letters?

In general, anything that comes to mind, from the mundane to the philosophical, that makes both of us (my pen pal and me) interested. Sometimes the simplest topics turn out to be amazingly interesting. From funny childhood anecdotes to the difference on how we were raised.

But it varies depending on the pen pal. I do not have taboo topics (except for bank account number or balance, and similar information... but that's rather common sense), but there are topics that may cover much more than half my letters to a pen pal, that I would probably not touch with another. Let me see.

Politics: One of the American pen pals I've come acquainted with recently (about six months ago) is very eloquent and articulate when it comes to expressing her opinion. And it happens to be that we have VERY DIFFERENT opinions on a lot of topics of political relevance. We write VERY LONG letters to each other, debating about topics from Jeffersonianism to Prop 8 and Health Reform. But I know that there are many people out there who do not like their views to be challenged on any way (for me is a necessity, if I don't know the opposite point of view, it makes me feel I am losing something), so, I would discuss this only if the conversation naturally takes that direction.

Sex: I believe that sex is an important part of the life of healthy adults, and I don't correspond with kids. I don't mean the most graphical details told in the sleaziest of the ways. No! I am talking about general experiences people have. Again, this is something that not too many people like to talk about, and I respect this. But with several of my pen pals, the conversation has taken that path. Particularly, with my long term Swedish pal, she has such a free spirited and refreshing stand regarding her sexuality, that it is amazingly interesting hearing her stories and her opinions on the topic.

But in general, one of the things that I like, is to know about the stories of our lives. Those little things that we think make us who we are today!

6. What are you looking for in a penpal?

Honesty! That is the first thing I would expect from a pen pal. Also, people who are not afraid to share more than their grocery shopping list with me. The idea is to get to know each other on a way that sometimes we don't even know people who interact with us all the time.

Also, creative people. For example, if you ask me "Tell me about your mom", I wouldn't only reply "Her name is Maribel, she's in her early 50's, and lives in San Jose, Costa Rica". That may be relevant information, but way too incomplete! If it is one of the first letters, when I am not sure what my pen pal is expecting, I would probably be a bit general, but it will include at least a couple of paragraphs, where I would try to paint a mental image of her, so, you have a closest idea of what kind of person I think she is! Well, I expect the same. It's somewhat discouraging when you include a dozen questions on your letter, and the other person tries to answer all of them in three lines!

Some basic level of knowledge in a common language. I have seen letters from people (some of which are supposed to be native speakers) that are complete ciphers. Note that I am not a native speaker, and neither are over half of my pen pals, though I know that I will write and I will read letters with some minor grammar mistakes here and there. I don't even mind, as I think they make letters colorful. There is a cuteness on catching those small mishaps. But when whole paragraphs make no sense what so ever, and you have to re-read each sentence fifteen and twenty times to get a small grasp of what the the writer may have been attempting to say, it sucks all the fun out of reading the letter.

Finally, someone who writes back, and writes more than a few words. I understand the fact that sometimes it is a bit awkward to write a first or second letter. But when you get to the fifth letter, and the volume is still barely over a page, then, there is something missing. I am not sure if it is worth my time and postage!

7. What do you like the most about penpalling?

Well, what is there not to like? I like the feeling of anticipation on receiving a specific letter, the thrill of getting to the mailbox and finding out a letter for you from some corner of the world. I like the intimate friendship that can be developed by words on a sheet of paper. I love when a pen pal has told me about some dilemma on their lives, and then, later on getting to know how it was solved.

Also, I remember how thrilled I was when Tatevik, my Armenian friend, told me she and her husband were expecting their first child. At the time, my sister was also expecting, and I found interesting how I was always craving news from both of them (as my sister and I live a few thousand miles away!). Those kind of personal news, specially when you have started to know that person, are very rewarding.

I wanted the picture to show I was standing on the edge of a 100m cliff,
but it didn't. On the background, the Columbia River.
I am in the Oregon side, Summer 2005.

8. In what language(s) do you correspond?

Currently I write to all my pen pals in English. It is the common language with them. I could also write in Spanish, as it is my mother language.

My uncle (my "first" pen pal) has lived over half his life in Brazil, and when we wrote to each other, years ago, I asked him to write in Portuguese, as it is "in the language neighborhood", I could read it very very easily, maybe stopping once or twice per paragraph to look for a word in the dictionary. But I would reply in Spanish.

9. What are some of your habits in regards to letter writing?

My habits to write have evolved a little bit since I re-started a few years back, but for now they seem to be somewhat settled down. Normally if I received a mid-length to long letter, I would probably read it all at once. Then, I would re-read it, writing down in a piece of paper some of the points I want to refer to, and once this is done, probably the following day I sit down, depending on my mood at the time, either in silence on my office when I am alone at home, or some times in front of the TV, and write.

When I was finishing my doctoral thesis, I have to admit, I neglected my pals a little bit, in a few cases, not replying for over four months, so, since then I have made the personal pledge that I will reply to my pen pals within the month, and earlier if I can. I rarely write a letter all at once, as I am a pathological day dreamer, and often, I am writing something, and a related idea comes to mind, and I stop writing and start thinking about it for several minutes. But I have also pledged to myself that once I start writing a letter, it should take me no more than five sessions to finish them.

I write in a variety of papers, from 4"x7" (10cm x 17.5cm), to 16"x20" (40cm x 50cm), but for the most part, I write in regular letter sized paper (8"x11"). I may write in different types of paper (different grammage, texture, ruling size, etc), but I don't really write in what most people understand as stationery. I don't really decorate my letters, I am not so art inclined, though, I find interesting when people do.

Very often I write on ruled paper, and my handwriting has the tendency to naturally adapt to the size of the ruling, thus, I tend to look for those papers where I can write smaller, and write more per page. But in contrast, I have been "accused" of wasting paper, as some times I write with fountain pens (rarely, as they tend to slow me down) or with some pens that do not write, but rather spill ink, and then, I write in one side of the paper only. The good news for people who like my letters to go both sides of the page, Pilot is no longer producing V-Ball pens, so, once I ran out of the few I have left, I will write with ball point!

Sometimes I write in graph paper, or with pencil. But I don't do this often, as some people don't like it. But if I received a letter with either of these peculiarities, I would probably write back in the same style.

The average length of my letters vary from pen pal to pen pal. For the most part, they tend to go from 5 to 10 letter-sized pages (understand, one side of the sheet), but 15 or more are not unheard of.

I thought to offer a neutral sample of my hand writing,
instead of a letter, two of my favorite poems.

10. Has anything strange/funny ever happened to you since you've been penpalling?

Oh boy! Where should I start? Yes, there have been several funny and also creepy things that have happened. The first surprise, and probably the only innocent that I have had, was when a pen pal with whom I had written back and forth only a couple of times sent me, out of the blue, a gift book, the Spanish translation of "The DaVinci Code". It was sweet... though, I had already read the book in English! Curiously enough, she wrote back once more after that, telling me she was getting married, and then, never replied my following letters.

I have had my share of creepy things happening, most of them associated with one single mistake I made. Just after I started pen paling again, in 2006, a guy sent me a PM on a website asking for my address. I was living in Atlanta at the time, and had a P.O. Box on campus, so, I didn't think it twice and sent it to him. About three weeks later I received a thick envelope from him, where he included a booklet with an ad with my address, where he had copied my profile photo and part of the text. I wrote back to him, a bit upset, and asked him to remove me from that list. Well, I don't know if he did or not, but I had quite a few replies for about a year.

It seems this particular booklet/magazine had two main markets: inmates and gay men. I first received a letter from a guy, very typical from a first letter, a presentation, the name of his partner, where he lived, and a tiny bit of his story. I wrote him back in about the same fashion, but never got an answer. I think it was the fact that my partner's name is Susana, clearly a female name! I think he was expecting me to be gay!

Later on, I started receiving letters from convicts. About two or three a week for several months. None of them really creepy, but I am not really interested on pen paling with inmates. But about four or five months later there was this letter that was the creepiest I have received. This guy, who was old enough to be my father (indeed, he was older than my father would have been at the time), sent me a first letter, confessing me that he was bisexual, that his wife didn't know and he didn't know how to tell her, and a long sob story about living a double life for so long, as being "as he was" was not something accepted in the 60's and 70's. Not too terribly creepy so far... though a little bit for a first letter. But the interesting detail is that he sent me three pictures of himself naked! I don't know if I would call them suggestive, as they didn't suggest anything enjoyable to me, but they creep me out! I wrote him back telling him not to write me again, and he didn't!

Since then, I tend to spend a few emails before giving my address.

11. Have you met any of your penpals?

I met Andrea, my first unrelated pen pal. But unfortunately, I don't have any picture of the two of us right now. But I hope to have the opportunity to meet at least a few personally within the next five years. I'll see how that goes.

12. Are you currently looking for more penpals?

Well, I could never say no to a good pen pal. As recently I have written a few first letters, and given my address to a few pals, I am probably not going to look for profiles to write to in any site, but it would be wonderful to hear from someone else interested on writing.

Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us, David!

Anyone who would like to be featured on my blog as Penpal of the Week - please get in touch with me.

Julie xox


  1. there really are interesting male penpals out there!!! glad to know you David and thank you a bunch for sharing your penpals views with us on here!!! ^__^

  2. I agree with Martj :). Thanks for the interesting interview!

  3. Wow! This is the first time I read about a guy taking penpalling really serious. Congratulations David! And congratulations to Julie =P for finding such interesting people to interview.
    Fernanda (@bfersapiens in Twitter)

  4. Hi, this is David! I think I forgot to write a way to contact me, just in case. My email address is djimenez81 at yahoo dot com!

  5. Wow, I love your blog. It is so interesting reading about other people interested in snail mail and pen paling. I also love your shop! I would love to feature as a pen paler if you ever need someone. My email is
    Very glad i stumbled upon your blog and shop.

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your views/perceptions. Gosh to read so much detail about a person after such a looong time..its like a breath of fresh air! ;-)

    By the way it must have been an interesting experience...conversing with uncle Jorge via letters considering that you were just a kid at that time! I think it was very sweet of him to have continued correspondence with you. Such experiences go a long way in helping a child develop positive impressions about an acitivity such as writing!
    Are you still in touch with Armenia? She sounds like an intriguing person ;)

    Oh and I must tell you that your pic with your dad is *really* cute and I'm sure it makes for a beautiful memory , one you'd cherish forever!

    You had me laughing big time one of your major traits ....Talkative!! It was funny to learn what your mother had to say. Hmm...turns out I'm not the only one who feels she'd choke if she doesn't find some interesting soul to converse with and boy! I'm a chatterbox even when i'm sick LOL ;p though of course I have to sleep more often in that case for I exhaust my energies at a rapid pace!
    Oh and I can only imagine your wife's happiness upon having her hubby back not just in person but in Voice too lol ever heard of that? huh ;)

    Your handwriting idea was quite ingenious! And I'd say you've got a pretty good hand...well its any day better than mine ;p
    I was beginning to believe that people don't like writing more than 2 pages but thanks a lot for correcting that perception :)

    What is MIA?