We spent four days in Paris the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s. It was beautiful, not very busy, and cold.
The Eiffel Tower: worth climbing to the second floor for sure. The line for the stairs was much shorter than the elevator, so we took the stairs. There’s no choice but to take an elevator further up if you wish to go to the top. We did. No regrets, but it’s not really necessary, either. The second floor is impressive on its own.
Versailles was even more ornate than I expected. I’d like to visit in the spring or summer to see the gardens. I booked my tickets in advance, which meant I was able to spend 5 minutes in the queue rather than an hour (said queue is surely much worse in warm weather), but the really pro way to see Versailles is book a tour in your language. That lets you enter with your tour group, and then you can stay inside the gates and view the rest of the palace on your own without needing to back out to the queue. You need tickets to enter whether you do the tour or not, but the tour is worthwhile in its own right, and the ability to skip the queue is a nice bonus.
The whole time I was there I couldn’t help but think about how such ridiculous excess ultimately resulted in the French Revolution.
The Louvre would be worth seeing if all the art and artifacts were removed. The building itself is gorgeous. No one does ceiling moldings like the French. Again, book your tickets in advance. The worst queue here wasn’t to enter the museum itself, it was to get through security. If you enter through the Lions’ Gate or another side entrance, you can drastically cut down the time you wait. You can also book timed tickets, which we did; we had to wait for all of five minutes.
I’m not sure if you can book Notre Dame ahead of time. If you can, and you want to see the inside, you should. We wandered around the outside and skipped the inside due to lack of time for the queue. Basically, if you want to see anything in Paris, book ahead of time.
Also, research your restaurants in advance. We picked a random spot for our first meal just because it was near our hotel. I will charitably call it mediocre and accurately call it over-priced. I spent an extra ten minutes looking for food for subsequent meals with much better results.
Spend the extra ten minutes is pretty good dining advice anywhere. Download Yelp (for the US) or Trip Advisor (for Europe) and look at some reviews. See how a place rates. If it’s not in the top 10% in its city, consider something else unless you have inside info. Also look at the 1-star reviews and see if they are coherent and whether they address the same things. I’m perfectly willing to ignore bad reviews if they are reflective of staff having a bad day, but I’m less inclined to ignore them if multiple people mention quality declining over time.
An ongoing meme for 2018 was “the last week has been the longest year of my life.” This is frequently in response to some heinous fuckery in American politics, but Brexit is running a close second. On a personal level, the last year has not been the longest year of my life, but it has been the most momentous. I’ve taken on a new role at Ye Olde Day Jobbe and moved from southwest Missouri to London, UK.
The first part of the year was much like the previous ten years. As a family we made a few trips to Kansas City, spent most holidays with family, read some books, played soccer, played board and video games, and traveled hither and yon for work. Around March the opportunity to move to England arose, and things went into overdrive. We listed and sold our house, sold our cars, and readied ourselves for the big move. I made a trip to England in May to investigate neighborhoods, finally settling on southwest London as my target area due to a combination of proximity to work (about an hour away), schools (good to very good), and cost (expensive, but not zone 1 or 2 expensive).
The big move happened in July. By American standards we didn’t bring much with us. A few suitcases each, a few boxes shipped separately, and a whole lot of hard drive space for photos.
Before we left the States, the girls asked if we were going to do more stuff in England than we’ve done in the US. It really drove home how much we had taken being in the US for granted. The girls had traveled around Missouri, made a few trips to Florida and the Gulf Coast, but seen little else. Travel in the US means either driving for hours (or days) to get somewhere or spending a fortune to fly. With so much to see and do in London plus the ease of affordable travel to Europe via air and train, I assured the girls we would do more in the UK.
London itself has plenty to see and do. It’s one of the top tourist destinations in the world, and for good reason. We have scratched the surface while we’ve been here, and that’s been with trips into the city multiple times a month.
In addition to London, the girls went to Dublin for a weekend (when I was in the States for Viable Paradise), and we have just returned from a four day weekend in Paris. Rather than write out a list of highlights, I’m going to throw in some photos with captions. Y’all are here for the pictures, anyway.
A quick shot of the London Eye at sunset in December 2018. We haven't visited it yet, but it's on the list.
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Friends and coworkers have asked what’s different. The answer: nearly everything. Springfield and London have about as much in common as Springfield and the moon. The differences, though, are more city vs rural than American vs British. We used to have a yard, and now we have a “garden” with no grass. Going somewhere used to mean getting in the car; now it means catching the bus or the train. Distances are no longer measured in miles (or kilometers), but in minutes and hours. The food is good in both cities, but there’s so much more variety in London.
And yet… London and Springfield aren’t so very different. People are people everywhere. Regardless of language or religion or skin color, people are opinionated, caring, flawed, indifferent, busy, generous, self-centered.
There is a very real core of American exceptionalism that thrives in the Midwestern United States. This belief that our innate Americanness makes us special. That our religion or our culture are superior. Folks, those things are not only untrue, but the very belief isn’t even exceptional. It’s delusional. The Brexiteers over here are preaching the same toxic narrative as the nationalists in the US. The nationalists in France, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Sweden, etc are doing the same thing.
America, as a country, has done amazing things. Exceptional things. It has spawned great thinkers, great artists, great leaders. It has also participated in its share of atrocities and crimes. None of which is to say that an individual American is special because they were born in America. Are you special because your team won the Super Bowl or the World Series?
SPOILER ALERT: You’re not. You’re special or not because of the things you have done and the way you treat people. And if 2018 taught us nothing else, it’s that treating people poorly overrides any celebrity or accomplishments a person can have. Just ask Bill Cosby.
Look, we’re all on this planet together. We’ve got one little blue pebble floating amongst an enormous, uncaring cosmos. The ice caps are melting and Americans are talking about building walls. How about instead we all try to be a little nicer to each other? My goal for 2019–and I know I’m setting a high bar here–is: don’t be so much of a dick. I hope you’ll join me.
Take some binder clips to hold your packets together. There’s lots to read, and you’ll be dragging papers around.
Take warm, comfy clothes. It gets chilly downstairs. I bought a hoodie on the island and wore it practically every day. No regrets.
Take good walking shoes. You’ll likely be doing a fair bit of walking, whether it be to town and back or out for your 1 on 1s.
Take the time you need to meet your critique and creative obligations, but don’t be afraid to take that time in the common room with headphones on. If I have one regret, it’s that I spent Wednesday afternoon–and especially Wednesday evening–holed up in my room getting work done when I could have been more social while still getting my work done.
Do not miss out on Steven’s pies. Or the fudge.
You’ll have a chance at leftover curry, but go back for seconds, anyway. It’s worth it.
The calendar says that it is nearly winter, but the weather feels as if winter has already arrived. At the same time, it’s hard to believe we’ve been here for five months and that Christmas is only two weeks away. The girls were having a similar conversation last night, and it made me think about what we did in November.
On November 1, I captured a video of the autumn rain. I didn’t record this thinking it would make a good intro to a blog post, but play this thing on loop. It’s incredibly relaxing.
Technically, bonfire night was on the 5th, but London celebrated in style on Saturday the 3rd. The girls and I went to Battersea Park and took in the biggest fireworks show I’ve personally seen. It was truly a delight.
The following week took me to Dublin for work. Traveling for work generally means long days and little time to enjoy the place I’m visiting. The museums and cultural attractions are typically closed by the time I leave the client office, but I usually manage to find a decent meal, a drink, and then see whatever I can. In Dublin that meant this guy:
And of course a pint of Guinness.
I didn’t like Guinness in America. I tried it a few times, but it always tasted slightly burnt. When I came to London, I tried it again. It was better! Creamier and that burnt flavor was gone. Then I tried it in Dublin. Reader, a pint of Guinness in a busy pub in Dublin might just be the best pint of beer of in the world. (I am open to suggestions otherwise!) It’s like drinking a hug from an angel. Like warm sunshine on a cold day. Like a nice, long piss after… well, you get the idea. It’s not remotely the same beer as America. I realize folks have lots of reasons for not consuming, and I respect that. However, if you enjoy a pint now and again, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better pint anywhere.
The following weekend Carissa and I managed to get out of the house for a few hours for a date night. We saw Dessa in concert, and the show was delightful.
Dessa has her own, distinctive sound that covers ground between indie, hip hop, and pop. I enjoy music as a neophyte. I do not catch the complexities of composition, and I cannot carry a tune in a bucket. What I do especially love are clever lyrics, and Dessa’s lyrics are razor sharp. We had a delightful time supporting our fellow Yank.
Toward the end of the month I made my first-ever trip to Portugal. As with any work trip, the pictures are A: photos from airplane windows, or B: inanimate objects. I need to work on this.
Lisbon was great. Warm weather, friendly people, great food.
My biggest challenge was the language. It turns out that all those years of Spanish have left me in a spot where I can almost sort of understand Spanish if people speak slowly, but completely confused me for handling Portuguese and its pronunciation.
Enter Scene: Brent walks into a small, family-run cafe.
BRENT: Buenos dias. Una taza de cafe, por favor.
WAITER, in English: Sir, this Portugal. We speak Portuguese. And your Spanish is atrocious.
BRENT: Uh, I’ll have a glass of water. Please.
That story may not have actually happened, but it is true nonetheless.
The final day of the month saw me back in London, and the girls and I went to Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park.
Winter Wonderland is lovely
Winter Wonderland is crowded
Winter Wonderland is expensive
We plan to go back next year
The girls went ice skating, and we all went through the magical ice forest. It was cold. It was also magical. There were rides. There was bratwurst. There were CHURROS!
The park is a “Christmas” carnival, which means it is an exercise in capitalism in its purest form. They let you in the gates for free, but everything from there has both a queue and a cost. The place was absolutely jammed with people by the time we left around 9:00 PM, but we still had a lovely time, and the girls want to go back next year.
It’s been six weeks since Viable Paradise ended. It feels like yesterday. It also feels like a lifetime ago.
Before I went to the workshop I read a bunch of blog posts from other students. One of the things I noticed was how many of the blog posts occurred weeks or months after the workshop ended. People wrote about how they needed time to process things, how they just weren’t ready to write about the things they had learned. It seemed weird to me then, in the before time. It doesn’t seem so weird now.
Moment: sitting in a critique group with my classmates, listening to people passionately discuss a story about a black woman in prison. Hearing Nisi’s feedback and seeing a glimpse of a world I didn’t realize existed.
When you step off the boat on Martha’s Vineyard, you leave behind whatever else is happening in your life. For that week all that matters is making good art. Work can wait. Family can wait. It’s like emerging from the wardrobe into Narnia where the forest is covered in ice and strange creatures are prowling just out of your sight. Only the island is covered in autumn leaves and the strange creatures make a damned fine curry.
Moment: walking along the beach with The Oracle of the Buses and discussing how trying to twist a trope can still give power to the trope.
The workshop occurs on an island that exists outside the regular flow of time. There are so many people to meet, so many stories to read, so much to learn. I arrived late on Saturday evening, and approximately one month elapsed before dinner on Tuesday . I blinked sometime after dinner, and it was already Friday afternoon, and I was scrambling to escape the nor’easter bearing down on the island.
Moment: reading novel chapters that are so good I can’t believe they aren’t published
I have notes. I always have notes. I write because it helps me order my thoughts and it helps me retain what I hear. Lord, do I have notes.
The staff remind you on day one that you deserve to be there. You were invited to attend because your work was good. There was a conversation one evening about Imposter Syndrome. Every single person in the room had it to one degree or another, including the ones with their names on the covers of best-sellers. That was strangely reassuring.
Moment: hearing critiques of those novel chapters that want to change the parts that I loved
Over the last few years I’ve read a number of books on craft. Dozens. The best books help you see things differently each time you read them. Many of the lectures at VP cover topics that exist in the craft books. There’s a difference between reading a thing a few times, hearing a thing a few times, and discussing a thing with someone that has been doing the thing professionally for decades and has incorporated it into their writing DNA.
Moment: listening to one of my writing heroes discuss the financial realities of a career in the genre.
The instructors are wonderful. There were a few that were not part of my critique groups or one on ones, and they each made a point to chat with me during the week. I don’t know the best advice I received, but I know the piece that felt most real. It had nothing to do with craft and everything to do with the realities of living in a world where obligations and art must compete for the scarcest resource of all: time. The advice was that when you get ready to be a full-time writer, see if you can reduce your hours at your day job to be part-time for a while. This will help with cash flow, but it will also help transition to a new routine without a single enormous shake-up.
It was good that the island existed for a week outside the ordinary flow of time. Not everything would have fit, otherwise.
There are many things that the locals take for granted, but someone that’s an outsider may find confusing. Riding trains, when you’re accustomed to driving everywhere, is one of those things. Here is a quick guide.
Step the First
Buy a ticket. Or don’t. If you’re traveling inside the 6 zones of London transit, you can use your Oyster card. Otherwise you can buy a ticket online via TrainLine or the train company website. Or you can buy a ticket in person at one of the ticket booths or self-service kiosks.
First class tickets cost more, have slightly more comfortable seats, and are near the front of the train. Not every train will have carriages with first class. If you have a second class ticket, it’s on you to not sit in first class. If you do find yourself in first class and a conductor comes along and finds you, plead ignorance and lean on your non-British accent. It might allow you to stay where you are. Otherwise move to a new seat in the regular carriages.
Outbound tickets are typically cheaper if you pick a specific time to leave. Return tickets don’t tend to matter as much. If you know you will be making your return outside of rush hour, get a non-peak return without a specific time. This will enable you to hop on the earliest train if, for example, your meetings end early. Otherwise, if you have a specific return time, you might find yourself sitting in Leeds for two hours while your coworkers abandon you to get back to London earlier.
Step the Second
Get on the right train. If you’re going to a major terminal or junction, this is easy. If you’re going to a stop between major terminals or junctions, be sure you’re not on an express train that will skip your stop.
The trains are ordered by departure time. If you scan down from the destination, you’ll see all the intermediate stops. Say you’re at Waterloo and you want to get to Barnes. You can hope on a train bound for Twickenham, and it will probably stop at Barnes along the way. But there’s also an express that will hit Clapham Junction, Richmond, and Twickenham while skipping everything in the middle. If you get on that train, you’ll speed right past Barnes and find yourself in Richmond, which means you’ll either be waiting on a new train going the opposite direction or walking to the bus stop.
Step the Third
Get off the train before it leaves your destination. Seems obvious, but if you’re standing at the doors waiting on them to open, you might be in for a surprise.
Unlike the tube, train doors do not necessarily open on their own. When the button lights up, push it.
Don’t be afraid to take an inside seat if it’s empty. People will either scoot over or let you past them. You sitting down means there’s more space for others to stand.
If you’re wearing a backpack on a crowded train, take it off and set it between your feet. It makes more space for others to stand, and it keeps you from smacking people when you turn around to reach the door behind you.
Either hold onto a rail or take a good stance for balance. (Feet shoulder width apart and turned to a wide angle.) Don’t lean on the rail. Don’t slouch against the wall and fall over when the train stops.
Navigating the trains is not hard, but it’s also not intuitive to new people. Hopefully this will help you avoid some of the mistakes I have made.
If your train is canceled, the board at the station will list your alternative trains. Sometimes this means any other train from that line, but if it’s on another line, you lose that flexibility. I can speak from experience when I say that riding the wrong train on another line means you get to buy a new ticket at full price.
After years of thinking about having laser eye surgery done, I finally decided that now was the time. In early May I went in for a consult at Mattax Neu Prater in Springfield, MO, and they ran a battery of tests on my eyes. The end result was that Dr. Mattax though I was an excellent candidate for either Lasik or PRK. I scheduled surgery for the end of May and went away to think about whether I wanted PRK or Lasik.
There are plenty of places online that will go into more detail on each type of surgery, but here’s the summary:
Lasik: the doctor uses a laser to cut a flap in your cornea, the flap is peeled back, and the cornea beneath the flap is shaped with a laser to correct your vision.
PRK: the top of layer of cells on the cornea are removed via some chemical and a delicate squegee, and the cornea is shaped with a laser.
Lasik provides a quick recovery time, and most people have good vision within a few days. The downside is that the cornea isn’t like your knee. Once that flap is cut, it never truly heals. Dr. Mattox explained that there’s always a small risk of the flap getting ripped open or torn away. I still regularly play soccer, and I do occasionally catch elbows and hands to the face, so this was a concern.
PRK provides a much slower recovery time, and the first few days after surgery can be downright painful for people as the cells on the eye heal. It does not require a flap to be cut, so there is no concern about it being re-opened or torn. Dr. Mattox mentioned that police officers, firefighters, soldiers, and professional athletes typically go with PRK.
After considering the options for two weeks, I decided that I was willing to deal with short-term pain and a few months of blurry vision in order to not worry about the flap and future complications.
It’s now been three months. My vision is at least 20/20 in both eyes, possibly better. Dryness is largely gone, with the exception of a few days in the last month where I spent 12+ hours staring at a screen. (Computer job + writing hobby = too much screen time.)
What follows is my journal of the surgery and post-surgery days.
I went in to the doctor alternating between excitement and trepidation. A nurse took blood pressure and gave me a valium. I was already fairly relaxed as laser surgery was something I had wanted to do for years. Even if I was kidding myself, the valium made sure I wasn’t. The nurse gave me a hairnet and booties for my shoes. She swabbed around my eyes with an iodine solution and I waited a while for the valium to take effect.
In surgery they laid me back on a padded bed. The doctor explained what he was going to do, and proceeded to tape my eyelids open and put a ring over them. He gave me numbing drops and let me rest a moment, then dabbed some solution over my eye and wiped it carefully. It took a few wipes, but I couldn’t feel anything. My only job was then to stare at an orange light. The laser thumped a few times, and the light gradually turned blurry. A fain smell of burning, not quite hair, but certainly not charcoal, reached my nose. The doctor pulled the laser away, warned me that he was going to squirt cold liquid in my eye, and gave me a squirt. It felt good. I cracked a joke about when was the procedure going to start? No one laughed. I explained that it was a joke because it was so quick and painless.
They repeated for the second eye, and it was much the same. No pain, and over in under 10 minutes. The time under the laser was about 35 seconds each. Someone was in the background counting backwards in 5 second increments, which made the time under the laser seem even easier.
Afterward I felt some pain as the numbing drops wore off. My vision was shockingly clear, but then the pain grew. It wasn’t horrible. Not even to the level of jalapeno juice, but more like sweat on a too-dry contact. If I kept my eyes closed, I didn’t feel it at all, so I made my way to the car by holding onto my daughter’s shoulders while my wife and a nurse guided my arms.
Once I was home I put on some doctor-provided goggles (to prevent unconscious eye scratching), went to bed, and napped for a couple hours. Light sensitivity wasn’t too bad–I wanted a dim room, but was able to move around otherwise. I applied steroid and antibiotic drops regularly as directed, and didn’t experience much discomfort. I spent most of the day resting in a dark room listening to Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology.”
Woke up at 7:00 AM with an appointment at 8:00. Eyes were a little dry, but not terrible. Did another round of steroids and antibiotics. Wore sunglasses and a big, floppy hat (my yard work hat) to the doctor’s office. They said I was at 20% regrowth and to keep with the medical drops 4 times a day. They also instructed me to use plenty of moistening drops, too.
Pain was minimal. Hard to even call it pain, really. Felt like I was wearing contacts at the computer and not blinking enough. Which, come to think of it, was literally the case. In the first 36 hours I used three small tubes of “single-use” preservative free eye drops. Single use really meant quadruple use–I could douse each eye twice before the container was empty.
At this point my vision was blurry. I’d have moments of clarity, but mostly it felt like i was reading with my glasses off and the book was just a little too far away. With text blown up to 200% I could use my computer, but the characters were still fuzzy. From what the doctor told me and what I read online, this was to be expected.
Pain picked up as I approached 36 hours post-surgery. Even with wetting drops, felt like sandpaper in my eyes. Or old, crusty contacts. And it persisted when not blinking. Research said that the 36 to 48 hour mark was often the most painful. This was probably a 6 on a scale of 10. Rough, but not curl up in a ball and cry rough. I took half a hydrocodone and went to bed. That didn’t help immediately, so I covered my eyes with a cold, damp wash cloth. Finally, the drugs kicked in, and I replaced the cloth with the goggles and went to sleep. I woke up around 5 am with scratchy eyes, so I added some drops and took the other half of the hydrocodone. The doctor was clear about staying ahead of the pain. By the time I finally got up for the day around 7:30, my eyes were scratchy again, but not really hurting.
My vision in the left eye was better than the right, but was lousy in both. Where I was able to get by with 200% text size on day 1, I couldn’t read anything on day 2. I had some moderate burning in the morning, but countered it with a hydrocodone. Pain eased off later in the day, though I applied eye drops regularly to help with scratchiness. By the end of the day my vision had shifted to where the right eye was more clear than the left, but still, both were bad. I was able to read at 200% magnification, but only with difficulty.
I woke up with no burning, just dryness. Treated with the preservative-free drops, waited a few minutes, and started the first course of antibiotics and steroid drops. Blurriness persisted throughout the day. It was impossible to read more than a few words at a time without frustration. I listened to more Norse Mythology.
It felt like I wore my contacts in for too long. As if they’ve gone blurry from protein buildup. I kept thinking that I should put on my glasses and I’d be able to see. Or take out the old contacts and my vision would clear right up. The brain does funny things when it’s trying to adapt to a new situation. I did some reading and saw something saying that vision declines when the protective lenses are removed. It was not reassuring.
By the end of the day my vision almost felt decent. I could read text at 125% with only a little blurring. I could see well enough to butter toast. And then I put the drops in again, and everything went back to blurry.
With halfway decent vision, I decided to cut a bagel for breakfast. I didn’t get my finger out of the way and laid it open with a quarter inch slice. Thirty minutes later, I went in for the 3 day (4 day, really) checkup. The bandage contact lenses came out, and any thoughts of “almost decent” vision were soon gone. The doctor said everything was recovering well and looked good.
Unfortunately, blurry vision persisted throughout the day, making reading difficult. I had intended to work at least part of the day, but my to-do list involved a fair amount of writing, and I couldn’t read well enough to do it. I ended up taking a couple conference calls and using PTO for the rest of the day.
Woke up to continued blurry vision with little improvement over day 4.
More of the same, but a little more clear. Still far from 20/20. I couldn’t read a book with normal text size, and even blowing up the text in an ebook it was still blurry.
Woke up feeling like things were more clear, but after putting medication drops in, vision felt blurry again. About like day 6.
One week in, I was not disappointed, but I was not ecstatic, either. From what I read, I was right on track with where most people are. I wished my vision were a little more clear than it was, but I felt safe driving in the afternoon. And for the record had no accidents.
Vision has been steady the last few weeks. At the last checkup, two weeks ago, my left eye was around 20/30 and the right was 20/50. Acuity comes and goes, but it was still in the same general area. The doctor reduced me from four to two prednisone drops a day. I could see reasonably well at a distance. When driving, I could see the other vehicles fine, but license plates were blurry. Most of the time my vision felt acceptable, but when I had to read or pay attention to fine details, it was frustrating. It should improve, so I didn’t let myself worry too much about it.
On the plus side, my vision wasn’t actually bad. It was like wearing glasses that are smudged. I could navigate the house and do normal activities with no problems. I still started to reach to take off my glasses before washing my face each night. Then I realized that I didn’t have them anymore, and it made me smile.
Vision was pretty solid. For most of each day it was around 20/20. No noticeable blurriness, no haziness, no concerns. My use of the eye drops tapered off over the previous two weeks, so the giant box I bought back in June could last a few more months. After trying a few brands, my favorite has been the Systane Ultra drops. They are every so gooey, and my eyes relax after they go in.
We’re now at Month 3 at the time of this post. As far as I can tell, everything is perfect. Maybe even better than perfect. I have had a few days in the last month where my eyes felt dry late in the day, but it wasn’t bad enough to outweigh my inertial laziness and unwillingness to go find the drops.
The surgery itself was easy. The recovery wasn’t as bad as I feared, though day two had some moments that would have been miserable without good drugs. After about two weeks I could see tolerably well, and after about six weeks things were mostly back to normal. The good news is that PRK patients often end up with 20/20 or slightly better vision, though it takes three to six months.
My total cost was right around $4k for both eyes. This included the pre-op appointment, surgery, follow-ups, goggles, cheap sunglasses, and medical eye drops. It didn’t include the hydrocodone prescription or the additional lubricating eye drops.
I am under doctor’s orders to wear sunglasses when outdoors in order to prevent possible hazing in my eyes. The irony of giving up eye glasses to wear sunglasses is not lost on me, but when it was pouring down rain at Notting Hill Carnival, I could see just fine, which was heavenly. It is also amazing to wake up at night and be able to see across the room. Every evening when I go to wash my face before bed, I still reach for eye glasses that are no longer there.
Would I do surgery again? Yes.
Would I choose PRK over Lasik again? Yes.
Have I already been smashed in the face with an errant soccer ball? Also yes.
Do I have any regrets? NONE
Why, hello there. If you’re trying to navigate the transition from jeans and a t-shirt to the kinds of clothes you can wear to an interview / onsite with clients / to a job with a dress code, here are some pointers. There are few rules to style, and these shouldn’t be taken as such. They’re more things I’ve picked up in the course of my career, but I think they’ll help someone that isn’t sure where to start.
If you need to wear a suit, you need one that fits. It’s possible to spend thousands of dollars on a tailored suit, but unless you’re in finance, it’s not necessary. If you can get a made-to-measure suit, that’s probably your best option. Something like Suit Supply, Thick as Thieves, or Endocino are popular options. If you can visit one of their stores in person, they’ll take your measurements and cut a suit for you based on an existing pattern that is close to what you need. This will get you a suit that fits well and is made with reasonably good material. If you aren’t close enough to visit, you can often do your measurements at home.
For your first suit, go with navy or charcoal. Can’t decide which? Flip a coin; heads navy, tails charcoal. If you’re having it made, anyway, get an extra pair of trousers cut from the same roll of cloth. It won’t cost much more, and the trousers will be the first piece to wear out. Personally, I’d get a vest a made, too.
A new suit comes with a wealth of choices. Notch lapels or peak? One vent or two? Button cuffs or sewn? What color lining? You can’t truly go wrong here, but my observation is that senior folks tend to have peak lapels, two vents cover your ass better than one, and it’s cheaper to adjust the cuffs if the button holes are sewn. For the lining, I’d stick to something that’s similar to the color of the suit, at least on this first suit. (I did once work with a guy who had shirts that matched the lining of his suits, and it was a nice touch, but that’s more advanced than we need here.)
If you have an option to upgrade the buttons to horn, do it. Plastic buttons look cheap because they are cheap. (I wish I had done this. I still might.) If you have an option to pay a little more for pick stitching, consider it. It’s not make or break by any means, but it’s a nice touch. (Another thing I wish I had done.)
Things to look out for in the fitting:
The shoulder pads should end with your shoulders.
Can you raise your arms to horizontal without the arms binding?
When you button the jacket (always the leave the bottom button unbuttoned), do you see an X across your chest? If you do, it’s a sign the jacket is too tight.
Can you walk comfortably without the trousers binding in the crotch? What about climbing a few stairs?
The bottom of the jacket should be halfway between your head and your feet, neatly dividing your body in half. If it’s much longer, you look like a kid wearing his dad’s suit. If it’s much shorter, you look like a kid who has outgrown his only suit. Neither are the end of the world, but if you’re getting a jacket made, make sure it fits.
Getting the right fit in the shoulders is the most important part of suit sizing. It’s easy to adjust cuffs, and it’s easy to adjust sleeves, but if the suit doesn’t fit in the shoulders, it’s doomed. Next up is the fit in the chest followed by the seat of the trousers.
Can you go to Jos A Bank, Mens Wearhouse, or JC Penny to get your suit? Well, technically, yes. But don’t. For not much more, you can get a higher quality material that will fit you better. If getting measured by one of the big made to measure places isn’t an option, check out a Nordstrom Rack and find something that fits right in the shoulders and chest, then get the sleeves and legs adjusted. You want wool without a polyester blend.
Now that you have a suit, you need shoes. Your options are black, one of a million shades of brown, or burgundy. For your first pair, go with burgundy. One, I love the color. Two, it looks good with navy, charcoal, light gray, and white; basically anything but black or brown. I personally like both split toes and cap toes, though neither are considered as formal as a plain toe. Monk strap vs laces is your call. Both look good. For brands, Allen Edmonds is a good Made in the USA choice. Don’t pay full retail. They’re routinely on sale for $250 or less. And yes, good dress shoes are probably going to set you back about $250. If you want to look more to Europe, Carmina, Meermin, or Loake are nice shoes at decent prices. While you can get by on an $80 pair of shoes from the mall, if you spend a bit more, you’ll have something that will last you ten or more years with proper care.
When you buy your shoes, buy a matching belt. You don’t strictly need one if you’re wearing a suit that fits properly, but it’s nice to have for all the times you’re wearing trousers and a dress shirt without the jacket. I don’t have much of an opinion on buckles. Something simple and silver would be my choice, but you do you.
What about suspenders? you might ask. Yeah, what about them? I don’t own a pair and I don’t have much of an opinion on them. I would probably stick to a belt on the first suit and branch out to suspenders once you are able to read this post and think “your style is boring.”
Next up are shirts. To get started, go with Charles Tyrwhitt or TM Lewin. Both regularly run deals that let you get 4 shirts for $150 or so. They are not the best shirts in the world. They are better than what your mom bought you at the mall when you needed a shirt for pictures in high school. (Hi mom! No offense!) For the first four shirts, get a white one with texture, a blue one with texture, a blue one with a pattern, and something with some spunk. Pink or lavender or orange; whatever you like and whatever you think will look good on you. I love my lavender shirts and wear them regularly. If you’re in America, get button cuffs. If you’re in Europe, get French cuffs and some cuff links.
And finally you’ll need a tie. There are ten million options and most of them are bad. So I’m going to make this really, really easy. Start with one tie: a navy blue grenadine silk tie. Grenadine is a type of silk that’s woven into lace. It’s soft, it’s textured, and it matches practically everything. A decent one will run you about $90. Sam Hober and John Henric make quality ties at better prices than the bigger London tailors. You’ll pay more than you would at Tyrwhitt or Lewin, but you’ll get a better quality, and this tie will last you decades.
In theory the socks should match the color of the trousers rather than the shoe. In reality, socks are a place to have fun and throw in some wild colors and patterns. Personally, I have some socks that I bought from Uniqlo that are solid colors with some texture, but I’m not terribly adventurous.
Speaking of Uniqlo, I highly recommend the Heatech and Airism undershirts. Also highly recommend the Airism boxers and boxer briefs. Most men I’ve seen in London have not had undershirts under their dress shirts. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps they like sweat and deodorant stains on their shirts? Personally, I go with undershirts that either match my shirt color or are neutral.
Hopefully that gets you started. If you have questions or want to gripe at me, you can use the comment system here, but I’m bad at checking it. Try twitter instead: @dbrentbaldwin
Things to Do in Advance
Before you leave home, download City Mapper and Trip Advisor on your phone. City Mapper handles the transit options better than Google maps. There are more restaurant reviews for London on Trip Advisor than Yelp. I would also download the official Transport for London Tube Map to your phone. While there’s supposed to be 4G reception in the tube starting in 2019, there’s no guarantee visitors will have working data plans.
Bring comfortable walking shoes. If you’re accustomed to hopping in the car to get everywhere, your feet are in for a surprise. I’m seriously not kidding here, and I have the tendinitis to prove it. London and New York are similar when it comes to getting around. Springfield has more in common with the moon than it does New York or London. My first trip to London I had a pair of stylish sneakers, and I wore them some and dress shoes some. My feet were killing me after two weeks. When I went back to the States I bought a pair of decent running shoes and some high quality insoles to go in them. (Shout out to Fleet Feet Shoes in Springfield.) Three weeks of daily walking in London, and my feet feel great.
A rain jacket is a good idea. A compact umbrella is a good idea. A big golf umbrella is a poor idea. London gets less rain than New York, but the rain it gets falls more slowly and lasts longer.
Have a pen in your carry-on. You’ll need it to complete the immigration arrival form. Also know the address for where you’ll be staying. Be prepared to spend an hour standing in line at immigration.
Things to Know Once You Arrive
If you want cheap mobile service in London, do not do it at the airport. Get into the city and stop at any of the mobile shops that are on every street. As long as you have an unlocked phone, you can buy a sim card for £10 that will give you a few gigs of data, some amount of minutes, and unlimited texts for a month.
To get from Heathrow to central London you have a few options. There are cabs and ride hailing services, but expect them to take an hour and set you back £50 or more. The better options are to take the trains. If you’re in a hurry, the Heathrow Express will get you to the middle of the city in 15 minutes for about £25. As you leave the airport, look for signs indicating trains. You want an actual train, not the Underground (aka tube aka a subway, though a subway here is actually an underground footpath). The most common option is probably the tube. Look for signs saying Underground. The trip will take about 45 minutes on the Picadilly line and cost around £3. Personally, if I’m just lugging a suitcase or two, the tube is fine. Everyone else leaving Heathrow will be hauling luggage, too.
To use public transit you will need either a contactless bank card or an Oyster card. If you’re coming from the States, you should plan to buy an Oyster card. This can be done at any tube station, including Heathrow. If you’re going to be in London running around doing touristy things, £5 to £8 per day is a good estimate. You can add more to the card in the middle of your trip, if necessary.
Busses don’t stop unless you signal them. Many bus stops have multiple routes, and the driver will assume you’re waiting on another bus unless you signal. To signal, step to the curb and extend an arm, fingers outstretched.
Once you’re on the bus, it might not stop to let you off unless you signal. There are red buttons all over the bus. Simply push one when you hear your stop announced. A bell will ring, and usually a sign will light up at the front of the bus that says, “Stopping.”
Double-decker buses offer a great view of the city. You should probably sit upstairs unless you are elderly, with a small child, or disabled. Or if your ride is only a few minutes, in which case consider standing.
The tube is great, though it gets crowded at rush hour. When you’re using the escalator, stand on the right only. People will shoulder you out of the way if you block the left side. When waiting to board your train, stand to the side of the doors and let people exit down the middle. You have to tap in when you enter the station, and you also have to tap out when you leave it. This shouldn’t be an issue unless you ride the DLR (Docklands Light Rail).
Things to Do While You’re Here
Most museums in London are free, though they do often have paid exhibits. They also have a donation box, but it’s truly a donation and not a shakedown. Feel free to drop £5 in the box. Or not. Your call.
I loved the Museum of London. It shows London from the Paleolithic through the modern era. You walk through in sequential order, and it is wonderfully arranged. The Imperial War Museum is the 1B to Museum of London’s 1A. The tanks and planes are good, but the can’t miss portion is the Holocaust gallery. Prepare to be gutted.
Other places I enjoyed
Victoria & Albert
The National Maritime Museum
The Cutty Sark
The Tate Britain
I need to spend more time at the V&A. What I saw I enjoyed, but it was only an hour.
There are plenty more I haven’t visited yet, too. (Yet!)
Bits & Bobs for Other Things in the City
If you go to a football match, you will not be able to take your beer to your seat. The fan culture is even more tribal than in the US. Where Americans will jeer the opposing players, the fans here will jeer the opposing players but especially the opposing fans. It’s uglier than I expected. My understanding is that the beer prohibition is to prevent thrown cups and to contain some of the ugliness. This is one of the biggest cultural differences I’ve found, but to be fair to the English, I haven’t ever been to a Raiders game, either.
If you go to the theater, you will be able to take your beer, wine, or cocktail to your seat. I saw Wicked for 30 quid and bought my ticket the day of the show. The seat wasn’t great, but it was incredible value. There are plenty of shows with similar options. Also plenty with better, pricier seats. The performance was fantastic, and I can’t wait to go back with my girls.
I’ll do some food reviews once I’ve visited a few more places. There are plenty of amazing places to eat here, and I’d like visit a few more so I can present a wider variety.
I’m leaving you. Or by the time you’ve read this, perhaps I will have already left. It’s not you, it’s me. Well, actually, it’s both of us.
I’m leaving for professional reasons. I’m also leaving for personal reasons. The chance to move to London, see and experience much of what it has to offer, and to see and experience more of Europe in general, well, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. But more than seeing and experiencing Europe, the move is about perspective.
A few years ago I spent five weeks in China. When I came home, I saw America differently. It’s a lot easier to eat spaghetti with forks. It’s reassuring when the baby formula doesn’t have guards. It’s hard to find good Mexican food in a country that shares no land borders with Mexico. I want my daughters to have that kind of perspective. I want them to be able to look at their country with a critical, constructive eye, and I want them to have a broad frame of reference for that criticism.
Like the old saying goes, it’s hard to see the Ewoks when you’re in the middle of the bantha.
To be honest, I’m not hopeful about how things will be when I return. We’ve been on an ugly path lately, and I don’t see many signs of it changing for the better. The water is simmering, but most of the frogs are still croaking merrily.
November is coming, folks. If you stood on the sidelines in 2016 because you felt like you had two bad choices, don’t stand on them this time around. If you’re rich enough and white enough and healthy enough that the GOP isn’t going to screw you over when they gut social security or WIC or healthcare (again), then vote for who you want. Otherwise, look real hard at your less fortunate neighbors, look real hard in the mirror, and vote for candidates that aren’t going to actively work to screw over average Americans in order to prop up themselves and their donors. You could do a lot worse than picking the candidate that exhibits the most (or any) compassion.
You’ve got this, America. I believe in you. And I’d really like to come back home to a country that isn’t in worse shape than the one I’m leaving. Don’t be a frog.