London: A Trip to a City Emerging From a Pandemic

I was in London for the past two weeks, and it was a strange and unique experience. Until Covid-19 I used to visit London once a year, every year. Once the travel restrictions changed so that I didn’t have to quarantine on the way there or on the way back, I decided to book a trip. It ended up being a good but somewhat bittersweet trip, with a lot of interesting new caveats and restrictions that I had to take into account.

Kensington Gardens on a sunny Sunday with very few people outside.
Kensington Gardens on a sunny Sunday with very few people outside.
  • I was travelling to London from a Green List country. That meant taking a Covid test 72 hours before the flight, filling a Locator Form, and taking a Covid test within 2 days of arrival. On the way back I had to take a Covid test 72 hours before my flight back, as well as another test upon arrival. These were all PCR tests in my case, which were uncomfortable to take (first time I took a Covid test) but not painful. They were expensive, and dealing with them did add an added layer of hassle to the trip. In London I bought a test package from Randox, using the British Airways code to bring the price down (it was still much, much more expensive than local tests here – 60 GBP per test after a 50% discount), and dropped the test at a clinic near the British Museum. I would have said that the experience was smooth, except one of the kits that I ordered had a test tube that wasn’t sealed properly, which meant that all the preserving liquid inside leaked. I got a replacement from Randox, but it was a hassle to get them on the phone and get my test kit replaced.
  • London is not for the spontaneous at the moment. You have to book every museum visit in advance. There are fewer musical and theatre tickets on sale as social distancing requirements are still in effect, and there are less show on, which means you need to book well in advance and there is no lining up for day-of tickets. Exhibitions are also at limited capacity, which means that for the popular ones at the V&A, for instance, you will have to book more than a month in advance. Concerts are the same deal, and many churches no longer offer concerts due to social distancing requirements. If you want to see or hear anything, you’re going to have to plan it out to the minute well before your trip.
  • Places are closed or have closed down. I expected that to some extent, as this was case here as well, but I was taken by surprise by the amount of closures, considering just how much support (relatively) the UK government provided to citizens during the lockdowns. Antique markets seem to have taken most of the brunt, with Portobello being a gutted (many arcades are half or three quarters shuttered), Spitalfields reverted mostly to crafts and food, and Greenwich losing one of its markets. A lot of stores in the most expensive and touristy parts of town (Covent Garden, Oxford/Regent Street) are closed and papered over with posters etc so you won’t notice as much. Some have moved to places with lower rents, most have shut down.
Socially distanced performance of Six: The Musical. Chairs with the cardboard sign remained empty. About half the chairs in the picture are marked with signs.
Socially distanced performance of Six: The Musical. Chairs with the cardboard sign remained empty.
  • There are upsides to visiting London now: there are much fewer tourists, which means much fewer lines to things, accommodation prices are lower, and as long as you book a ticket in advance, museums and attractions are emptier. There’s no shortage of cabs after a show, and you usual can find a place to sit in any restaurant you want to.
  • A lot of places have moved to contactless payment only (i.e. no cash), and restaurants are among the most aggressive of the bunch in terms of movement to no cash payment. In many places you will order your meal via an app or a website, and in almost everywhere you’ll be required to scan in via the NHS covid tracker app, or provide your personal details for tracking purposes. If that’s something you feel uncomfortable with, I understand, but do know that you are in one of the most surveilled cities in the world when you’re in London, so maybe it’s not the city for you.
  • Masks and disinfectants everywhere. Not much else to say about that.
  • Museums and larger stores have designated entrances and exits now, which means that you can’t go in through any door that you want.
Trafalgar Square deserted.
Trafalgar Square deserted.
  • London is still London though: there are a lot of interesting things to see and do, especially if you plan ahead. We saw the refurbished wings of the National Gallery (they take you through one of three set tours across the gallery, or you can do more than one tour. It’s not a guided tour – just a path that they want patrons to follow). It’s well worth the visit. We saw the Alice exhibition in V&A and it was wonderful, and the Fantastic Beasts exhibition the Natural History Museum, and it was nice, especially for children (very interactive).
Covent Garden. very few people outside.
Covent Garden. I have never seen it so empty before.
  • We also heard a jazz concert in St Martin in the Fields, heard Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall, and even managed to see Princess Diana’s dress at Kensington Palace. All in all it was a good, if peculiar trip.
Fantastic Beasts

Analogue Planning and Task Management in Covid Times

When Covid-19 hit last year and I started working from home my old task management system completely disintegrated. It was a combination of trying to find a new work/life/health balance, coupled with starting a new job that really made me aware that my old running daily work checklist and home checklist were no longer going to work. I was also keenly aware that I could no longer do any long term planning, and yet that I had to find a way to plan ahead somehow, or I’d accomplish none of my long term goals. After trying several systems with little to no success, it took until January 2021 for me to find a system that worked for me. In the hopes that this may help someone build out their own system, here is a glimpse into mine.

The system is built into two separate Moleskine Large Hardcover Squared notebooks. This was my notebook of choice for my previous system, and it has served me well. I don’t use fountain pens for my planning, just fine gel pens, and I don’t mind the ghosting, as I find that it’s more pronounced in photos than it is when I actually use the page. One notebook is my weekly planner, and I reference it about once or twice a day. The other notebook is my daily task list, and I reference and update it all the time. Why two notebooks and not one notebook with both a weekly plan and daily pages? I tried that and the need to constantly flip between pages with no ability to see my weekly plan before me as I create my daily task lists was too much for me to deal with. I don’t have a dearth of notebooks and I do have dearth of time and attention, so two notebooks it is.

Here’s a weekly notebook spread:

Weekly notebook spread, before filling.

Each spread in my weekly notebook is divided between my weekly schedule/plan on the the left hand side of the spread, and a weekly goal list on the right hand side. This is a sample of the following week’s spread before I start really filling it. On the left hand side I fill in the days of the week and the dates. I put in appointments and things that I need to take into account while doing my planning, but this page isn’t a replacement for my Fantastical calendar. I still want and heavily use a digital calendar with reminders, but this notebook page is crucial for my ability to see and plan ahead. I plan and think better on paper, and so if I have a D&D game on a certain day, I know that I need to schedule time to prep for it. This is also where I plan my weekly training: when I run, when I go to the gym and when I rest. I also use it to plan ahead things that I need to be aware of for my mother’s various doctor’s appointments, from reminders, to various forms that need to be filled, blood tests scheduled etc.

The right side of the page is the most important part of each spread, as it is where I plan out what I want to get done each week. My yearly goals are broken down and mapped out week by week here. I break the goals down by title, and then write down 2-3 related goals under each one (except the fitness goal which gets more). Some goal groups are consistent – fitness, reading, writing, blog, cleaning. Other goal groups change depending on the week and my focus. The “Also” goal group is for miscellany, such as watching a weekly episode of a show that I don’t want spoiled, or renewing/cancelling subscriptions.

The daily notebook is much simpler, and is merely an evolution of my old task system, adapted to working from home:

Daily task list, in the afternoon of the day it was created.

On the left side of every work day there is a professional task list, with work related things that I want to do that day. On the right side of the page is the personal task list, with stuff that I want to do before and after work. On weekends the two sides of the page simply both list out personal tasks. This system is clear, simple to use, flexible and doesn’t require a lot of “meta” effort to set up or maintain.

If you’re struggling with time management lately, take some time to create a system that works for you and doesn’t overwhelm you. I highly recommend not using a planner but rather creating your own schedule, since it saves you from the disappointment and stress of empty planner pages. It also allows you to add specific pages to your setup as the need arises. For instance, as global shipping and our local post office have gone haywire since Covid, I dedicated a spread in my weekly notebook to tracking various shipments. When I need to go to the post office to collect a package I note it down in my schedule, and so it was easy for me to use a different page on the same notebook to track the status of each package.

Let me know if this was helpful, and if you’ve also been forced to revamp your planning over the past year.

TIMEX x DDC

I tried to get my hands on the Timex X DDC Scout watch designed by Aaron Draplin for three times before I managed to snag one. They are sold out so quickly that if you want one you really need to set an alarm and be quick with your keyboard and mouse. Then our local post office tried to do a vanishing act with my package, but finally, a month after I ordered it, I got my hands on this orange and black beauty. I only use analogue watches, usually Swatch watches (in recent years it was System 51 Swatch mechanical watches), but I’ve never owned such a heavy watch. It took me a day to get used to it, and since then it has been my constant companion. It is a beast of a MACHINE but an eye catching one, and I couldn’t be happier with my purchase. I highly recommend getting one, if you have any interest in watches.

This page was created as part of Liz Steel‘s Sketchbook Design course and is all about the white space.

2021 Yearly Goals (New Year’s Resolutions) and Theme

2021 has finally arrived! Every year since 2015 I’ve kept a list of yearly goals in a Baron Fig Confidant. I still call “New Year’s Resolutions” despite their being SMART goals and not pie in the sky resolutions. Over the years they have expanded to be ever more specific and quantifiable: I started with one page, and now have a main two spreads with related lists spilling out to adjacent spreads, and an entire notebook dedicated to capturing my reading goals.

2020 was a weird and challenging year, and it managed to land a large, hard hit on me on its very last day. These goals were written before I got bad news regarding the health of a close family member (Cancer, not Covid), which means that there’s a good change that 2021 will shape out worse than 2020 in terms of my goals. However, ever since 2018 I build my goals with those kinds of emergencies in mind, and so most of my goals, if not all of them, should be attainable.

2021 goals and theme in my Baron Fig Confidant

Some of my usual goals are off this list, because I’m afraid that Covid will not be over so soon. For the first time ever a significant chunk of these goals is professional. I’ve changed careers, and new opportunities have opened before me – creating professional goals makes sure that I take advantage of those opportunities.

My writing and journalling have taken a hit in 2020 (particularly the latter part). Hopefully with some concerted effort that will change in 2021. I’ve made significant progress in terms of fitness in 2020, and I plan on maintaining the course in 2021. I’m also putting some effort into taking time to enjoy my hobbies. If I don’t prioritize them, then they just get left by the wayside.

Finally, for the first time I’ve created a yearly theme, that is part of the yearly goals and yet also a separate entity. 2021 is the “Year of Clearing Out”. That means decluttering my apartment, pruning my podcast/book/viewership lists, and getting rid of some recently acquired bad habits (mostly doom scrolling on Twitter, but not just). This may end up being a theme that will spill into 2022, but the idea is to try and tackle it in 2020, to build a good foundation for the years to come.

What are your goals/themes/resolutions for 2021?

Happy new year!

2020 Yearly Goals (New Year’s Resolutions)

2020 was a pretty terrible year for most people, which is why I debated whether to even go over my 2020 goals or just talk about my 2021 ones. In the end I decided to talk about them, because 2020 really stress tested my system of yearly goals/resolutions.

At around March I thought that I’d have to trash the whole thing, as we went into our first lockdown of the year. My travel plans were cancelled. Any option to meet friends went out the door. My plans to change careers were at risk. I couldn’t even run, because the first lockdown involved extremely strict rules and the police were constantly around my house, yelling at people to go home and fining people. My writing was on the rocks, my drawing course was cancelled, and for the first time in my life I spent Passover alone.

Journal spread with my 2020 goals filled in with my terrible handwriting.
How 2020 looked like.

After some debate I reminded myself that my goals were built with failsafes in mind, since my 2018 annus horribilis, and so I had a chance of completing most of them, even if I’d miss any “stretch goals” that I had in mind. The basic goals were there to keep me focused, motivated and moving in the right direction. In the end they worked. The got me working out when I couldn’t run, running in circles (literally) when I could only move in a 500 meter radius from my house. They got me to keep on reading, keep on writing (not as much as I would have liked, but I’ll take it), and to dare to make the career change that I promised myself.

I hit most of my basic goals, missed a few completely, and got a few more partially. Yet the point of this post isn’t to brag, as my year could have shaped out worse than it had. The point is that I would have given up on myself if I didn’t have a plan that I thought that I had a fighting chance to accomplish, given the circumstances. I couldn’t participate in any races, but I enrolled and ran in several virtual races. Races keep me motivated to run, and running makes me feel better and gets me out of the house. I couldn’t go the gym, but I could do NTC workouts at home, so I had a chance to get that in. Reading provided me with an escape, and my reading goals and reading journal provided me with motivation to read, and to read books that were challenging as well books that were comforting. I couldn’t meet up with friends to play tabletop and RPG games, but thanks to Discord, Steam and Zoom we could still play together.

All of these things required extra effort in a year that really did its best to convince me that it would be a good idea to give up in advance and write the year off. The infrastructure that my goals provided kept me on track, and helped me salvage something of this terrible year. They also taught me how to structure my goals for 2021 better, but more on that in a separate post.

Sketchbook Design: My Tools

I’ve enrolled into Liz Steel’s Sketchbook Design online course, as I like the way Liz designs her notebook pages and I’ve taken an Urban Sketchers workshop (in Porto, 2018) which was excellent. Liz sent the first intro videos to the course to her newsletter subscribers, and so I decided to pick a sketchbook for the course (which starts on January 4th) and draw the tools that I plan on using in it.

The sketchbook that I chose is a Stillman and Birn Beta softcover A5 sketchbook, because it has watercolour friendly paper and I wanted to try that paper out. Here’s a sketch of my tools done with a Lamy Safari Petrol fine nib fountain pen and a Lamy Safari Dark Lilac medium nib fountain pen, both with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black.

I got carried away with the lines when drawing my palette, so I decided to roll with it and just use it to write down the paint details.

Here it is after applying watercolour:

It’s not perfect, but I like the way this page looks.

Here’s my Winsor & Newton Travel Watercolour box, filled with Schminke watercolours (some of them on their second or third refill from the tube). I love this paint box so much that I used my previous one until it fell to pieces. This is my new one, and it’s holding up well so far.

The fountain pens that I’ll be using: Lamy Safari Petrol F nib with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black, Lamy Safari Dark Lilac M nib with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black, Lamy Safari Charcoal EF nib with J. Herbin Bleu Pevench, Sailor Fude MF pen with Noodler’s Lexington Grey (Bulletproof ink).

My non fountain pens are my beloved Saedtler pigment liners in 0.3 and 0.7 and a Uni-ball Signo broad white.

The pencil I will use is a vintage Eagle Turquoise “Chemi Sealed” H drawing pencil. I just love everything about these pencils, and I really wish that they were still in production.

My brushes: a Raphael round travel brush, I’m not sure what size. There’s a good chance that I’ll replace it with a better round brush as the course progresses, as I’m not enamoured with it. The black brush in the middle is a Winsor & Newton Series 7 no 2 Kolinsky sable brush. The white and silver brush below is a Rosemary & Co R12 Sable/Nylon Dagger brush, and it’s a brush that I haven’t 100% mastered but that I’m growing to like with use.

That’s it for my tools at the moment. I’ll update this blog with my progress as the course takes place, and I’ll be sure to note if my tools change throughout.

Typewriters, pens, pins, and more.

My Pen Chalet exclusive Typewriter Retro 51s arrived this week, and the mint one is a perfect match to my Hermes Baby (and Hermes 2000) typewriter keys. I’m happy that I splurged on this pen and the copper Typewriter edition. They are both utterly unnecessary pens that make me smile without breaking the bank. I have 11 typewriters, but these are the first typewriter themed Retro51s that I’ve bought. I only slightly regret not getting the red one as well.

It was a virtual convention kind of fortnight, and in both cases the pandemic afforded me the opportunity to go to a convention that I normally wouldn’t have been able to attend. The fun and pretty well run one was the Disney Pin Trading 20th anniversary event. I’m not a huge Disney pin trader by far – I have pins from my Disney races and a few others that caught my eye, because I’m so aware of how easily I got fall down that rabbit hole. But I was curious enough about the behind the scenes of pin creation and well aware that is probably going to be my only chance to attend such an event that I enrolled. It was interesting and fun, and a generally well thought out event that didn’t feel like a “we’re doing the same thing only on zoom” kind of thing. I wish that I could say the same about Kubecon, the second convention that I attended. It’s a poster child of how not to run a virtual convention. Still I managed to learn quite a lot from the hours that I squeezed in, and I plan on catching up on more video sessions next week.

My first Disney Pin Trading Pins, from the DLP inaugural half-marathon weekend.

This weekend was stormy, so no long run today. I had about a month of perfect running weather so far, and it looks like I may yet make my 2020 running distance stretch goal of 700km run total this year.

In a fit of anger and frustration I created an “obituary” page for 2020 in my journal, but one that listed the bad moments of the year. It ended up taking four pages, but I managed to find something positive about most of the moments and events of the year, so it cheered me up.

TV (or streaming to be exact) has been one of the high points of the past few weeks. I don’t watch much of it, but “Ted Lasso”, and the new seasons of “The Mandalorian” and “Star Trek Discovery” have been great to watch. Also I’ve been playing “Pandemic Legacy Season Zero” and so far it’s excellent and distinctly different from its predecessors.

How I Journal: A Sample

I decided to upload the pages from my journal entry today, as a sample and perhaps an inspiration for anyone wondering what to journal about. There’s nothing big or grand here, no deep felt angst, just small observations about my day that will bring it back to life later on. I made an effort to make my handwriting neater than it usually is, and I cut out a page of what happened later in the afternoon as it involved a family member suffering an injury and getting hospitalized, and I want to protect their privacy. Otherwise it’s a fairly standard entry. What’s missing is a title (added after the entry is completed and in this case not something I want to share) that summarizes the day. Oftentimes I glue things in instead of drawing something, and sometimes I just write in a rush and the page is just dense, messy handwriting.

I use a Moleskine Large hardcover, in some limited edition or another (in this case Pokemon Charmander), and a gel pen of some kind or another. Today it was the Karas Kustoms Ink v2 rollerball with Uniball UMR-85, my favourite refill. I don’t mind the show through, it helps me get through the fear of the blank page, and there’s no other notebook that has the Moleskine cover and internal design, so after years of futilely trying to replace it with something else, I just shut out the voices of the detractors and allowed myself to enjoy what I love and what works for me. Please do the same.

Drawing Insights and the Viarco 3500

I was going to write a blog post reviewing the Viarco 3500, and so I started writing a page of notes in my usual pencil review notebook (the Baron Fig Confidant). Once I started writing I realized two things:

  1. The Viarco 3500 is a good looking but boring pencil. It’s an HB/No. 2 pencil that’s slightly gritty, slightly dark and soft and not much different than other branded pencils of its kind, like the Ticonderoga or the Palomino Golden Bear.
  2. I wanted to reflect about the difficulties of drawing.
Pretty but dull, the Viarco 3500 No. 2 pencil.

So here’s my page of notes on the Viarco turned into reflections on the drawing process:

This isn’t a “woe is me” post. It’s a “embrace the suck and take courage” post. Perspective is HARD. But it’s worth learning. And learning again. And learning again. And boy is it worth practicing. Why? Because while nobody is born knowing how to draw in perfect perspective, practically everybody can tell when the perspective is “off”. You can tell yourself that it’s an “aesthetic choice,” however, I do believe that you are cheating yourself out of something when you don’t even try to get the basics down. I know, I tried to do that for literally years. I have good enough hand-eye coordination that I could cheat some people some of the time. Then I tried learning it from books. I drew the boxes, the shaded ball, the room with the door and window, and I told myself that since I copied them so well, I now “knew perspective”. Hah. The minute a teacher sat me down and told me to draw the corner of a room, a still life of some boxes and a vase, and an old shoe the truth was all too apparent. I didn’t grok the principles behind those boxes and skylines and spheres and so I couldn’t extrapolate from them to the real world. I now have 11 plus years of knowing groking those principles and I still tell you that it’s hard.

Can you catch the perspective mistakes here? This is from 2009 and it makes me cringe.

You can cheat, and I did and sometime do cheat, the eye with colour and crosshatching, but it doesn’t take an art critic to point out that something is “off” in the drawing. The same goes for poor composition choices, muddy pigment mixtures, colours that unintentionally clash and cause unease. These are all very technical skills that require a good amount of studying and a great amount of practice to master. It doesn’t help that most of them are difficult to learn from books and tutorials and are still best taught in a live art class. It’s also frustrating that you usually work and work and work with little or no progress for some time and then suddenly your hand and eye and mind click and you jump forward a level or two. It’s so easy to give up before that. I have several times in the past. Then I found a new teacher and I got back to the grind.

Why do it? You don’t have to. Instagram and Facebook likes are independent of your drawing skills, and more related to tags, followers and how colourful and eye catching your work is. If you’re doing it for that, then there’s no point in doing it. But mastering the basics allows you to advance all your drawing skills at once, with great leaps and bounds. Every breakthrough I had with the basics allowed me to draw better, faster, with more confidence and to tackle subjects and locations that I otherwise would have avoided.

So, the Viarco 3500… It’s a good looking pencil to have around. Perspective, colour theory and composition? If you have any interest in drawing I highly recommend investing in mastering them.

Broken Lamps and New Pens

My little cat (I have two, a little black and white cat, and big black cat) managed to drop a desktop table sharpener on my banker’s lamp and it cracked the glass lampshade clear in half. So I had an interesting but unexpected project today: I bought a replacement lamp shade and took the lamp apart to get rid of the broken glass pieces. A youtube video and a Philips screwdriver took care of the taking apart bit; let’s just hope that I can put it back together again.

Broken shade halfway through dismantling.

I got my Battleworn INK 2.0 Karas Kustoms grab bag rollerballs today. This was my first Karas Kustoms grab bag and my first ink rollerball and I’m very pleased with both the colours that I got and the way the INK 2.0s look and feel. These are chunky but relatively light pens, and I look forward to using them and maybe reviewing them in the future.

Karas Kustoms Battleworn INK 2.0 purple and cyan.

The INK 2.0 uses the Pilot G2 LG2RF refills, which are larger than the usual G2 refills, and built a little different. I haven’t yet tried to swap them out for a different refill, but I suspect that they won’t accept my beloved Uni-ball UMR-85, which is something I was aware of ahead of time.

These are the pens and some of the notebooks that I’ve been using today (I’m not getting much fountain pen use lately): my beloved Orange Crush Spoke pen, and the new purple Karas Kustoms Battleworn INK 2.0 rollerball.

These two pens look great together. Spoke on the left, INK 2.0 on the right.

Field notes came out with a new addition to their National Parks series, which I’ll probably pick up on my next purchase there. They’ve got an offer for a free decal for purchases made by the 30th of August if that speaks to you.