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.

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.

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.

A Friendly Suggestion for Beginner Vintage Fountain Pen Users

I’ve been catching up on the Pen Addict members-only “Friend of the Show” podcast (highly recommended), and person after person said that they prefer modern pens, and they have a vintage pen, an Esterbrook, which they don’t really use. That people’s first vintage pen is an Esterbrook didn’t surprise me, as it’s a great little pen at a very compelling price, and it can be easily modified to suit your writing style by swapping out the nib. What did surprise me a little is that people aren’t really using the Esterbrooks that they have.

Then again, I own five Esterbrook pens:

Yet I haven’t used them in years. They all have nibs that I carefully selected to fit my writing style perfectly, and still I haven’t used any of them since 2016 or so. And the reason I don’t use them is the reason why I’m going to suggest to people starting out with vintage pens to maybe not pick the Esterbrook as their first vintage pen, ubiquitous and cheap and beautiful as they may be.

They’re lever fillers, every last one of them.

The dreaded lever.

Lever filler mechanisms are very common in vintage pens, because they are so cheap and easy to produce. They’re also fairly easy to mend, and so you’ll find them everywhere on a vintage dealer’s table or on a vintage pen site. They are my second least favourite filling mechanism (hello button fillers, you get first place) because they are not great to use when you’re filling a pen, and they are really not great to use when you’re cleaning it.

The Esterbrook does allow you to bypass the annoying cleaning part in that you can unscrew the nib and clean the pen like that, but you still have to use the lever when you fill the pen, and you still have no earthly idea how much ink is in your pen while you’re writing with it.

So my friendly suggestion would be to delay your first purchase of a vintage fountain pen and buy something a little more expensive (in the $100-$150 range) that is easier to fill and clean. If it turns out that you like vintage fountain pens, then you can start getting used to lever fillers and their quirks.

Parker 51, Parker Vacumatic and Pelikan 140

Here are my top three suggestions, in order of most beginner friendly to least beginner friendly (but still friendlier than a lever filler): the Pelikan 140 (a piston filler), the Parker 51 aerometric (an aerometric filler that works like a squeeze converter), and the Parker Vaumatic (a vacumatic filler).

Aerometric, Vacumatic and Piston filing mechanisms.

The Pelikan 140 is a piston filler with a gold nib, and a semi transparent body which allows you to see if you filled the pen properly and how much ink is left. It was made for over a decade and has a wide variety of nibs, so you can quite easily find it, and look for the perfect nib for you, just like with the Esterbrook. It is a more expensive pen, but you can still get a phenomenally good pen (ebonite feed, gold nib which can sometimes have flex, and a large ink capacity) for significantly less than what the same features would cost on a modern pen. The downside is the aesthetics, which can be a little spartan (Pelikan 140s are mostly black with green stripes), and the trim’s tendency for brassing. But brassing adds character, as once a very good vintage pen blog said. These pens are also likely to be more easily obtained in Europe than in the US or Asia.

Pelikan 140

The Parker 51 is still my absolute favourite vintage pen, but that’s not why it’s here. It’s here because the aerometrics (which are also cheaper) sport a filling mechanism that works very much like a modern squeeze converter, albeit permanently attached to the pen, and the filling instructions are etched into the pen, which is very helpful of Parker.

Parker 51

Theoretically you can gauge if there’s ink in the pen using the transparent sack but in most cases the sack will no longer be transparent, and even if it was, its position doesn’t really tell you a lot about the state of the ink in the pen. So it’s relatively easy to fill and clean the pen, but you’re not going to have any indication as to how much ink is in it at any given time.

Filling instructions on the pen body.

The Parker Vacumatics are gorgeous pens with great nibs, and the striped Vacumatics let you know what the ink level is unless they are stained beyond belief, in which case I’d wait a bit for a pen in better condition. The Parker Vacumatics I’m recommending are those with a lock down mechanism. Of the three pens they are the most fiddly, and that’s why they’re in third place, but they allow for a relatively large ink capacity, and the option to see the ink levels at all times, so they go on the list. To fill the pen you unscrew the blind cap, give the metal nob on the top a slight turn and push (a bit like opening a child proof pill bottle) and then the metal plunger springs out. You push the plunger a few times to fill the pen, and then you push down the plunger and twist it once it’s down so that it locks back into place. If you’ve ever used a child-proof pill bottle then you’ll be familiar with the push and twist mechanism, and if not have it demonstrated when you buy the pen or find a youtube video that shows you how to do it. It’s not difficult.

This is a more expensive, double jewelled model, but the filling mechanism is generally the same on cheaper vacumatics.

The Parker Vacumatics are not as intuitive to use as a lever filler, but they allow for an ink window which means that you can see if you have ink left or if you’ve filled or cleaned the pen properly pretty easily:

You can see the ink levels through the orange transparent bits between the stripes.

These pens are never going to compete with the Esterbrook pens on price because they have gold nibs and more sophisticated filling mechanisms. They do quite easily compete with modern pens in terms of bang for your buck when it comes to getting things like a piston filler with a flexy double broad gold nib. If you’re buying a vintage fountain pen that you want to have a relatively easy time filling, using and cleaning, and that will give you a unique and oftentimes exceptional writing experience, any one of these three pens ought to do.

And just to set the record straight: I love Esterbrook pens, and there was a time when I used them constantly, and I still heartily recommend them as they are little workhorses of delight. It just occurred to me that perhaps that little lever combined with the opaque body may be off-putting to new users, and so I’m suggesting a few (much more expensive, sometimes harder to obtain) alternatives. With vintage fountain pens purchase patience is required and not FOMO, so it’s worth waiting for a great $100 pen that you’ll use more than buying a $50 one that you won’t.

A Pen Hack, a Field Notes and the Hi-Tech C

I had an issue with my Ti2 Techliner where my favourite gel ink refill (the Uni-ball UMR-85) and basically all gel ink refills dried out and stopped writing a few words after I uncapped the pen. While ballpoint refills like the Jetstream faired better, they also would “fade out” after a few lines, and then, after some coaxing, return to normal. It couldn’t be that the refill was drying out, as after capping the pen, it wrote well enough again for a few words. It was a refill problem, as the same refill wrote perfectly fine in a different pen.

I tried searching for answers and asked around in the Pen Addict slack but got no answers. It was frustrating, since I liked the pen, but couldn’t use it because it wouldn’t work with my preferred refills. I had a feeling that the magnet at the tip of the pen was what was causing the ink flow issue, but it only yesterday did I figure out how to bypass the very thing that was holding the pen together.

What I did was change the order of the parts in the front section of the pen. The original order was refill, plastic spacer, red o-ring, magnet and then the section screwed over that. What I did was reverse the o-ring and the magnet so now it’s: refill, plastic spacer, magnet, red o-ring, and then the section. The result is kind of pleasing to the eye, and more importantly it fixed the flow problem completely, and now I can actually use this fetching pen.

You can see the red o-ring around the tip of the pen.

I tend not to review Field Notes because they arrive so late to me (due to postal issues, not Field Notes issues) that it seems irrelevant to review last quarter’s edition when everyone already has the new one at hand. Covid-19 has made the postal problems even worse, and so only now, and after contacting the wonderful Field Notes people and getting a reshipment, have my Vignette notebooks arrived.

What also arrived were my Field Notes Rooster 2020 notebooks, which are part of Field Notes’ yearly sponsorship of the Morning News and the Tournament of Books. I read all of the books in the Tournament of Books shortlist this year, for the second year in a row. I didn’t post reviews of them all in this site as I didn’t enjoy the last 3-4 books, and I didn’t feel like posting negative review after negative review.

I did, however, love this year’s Field Notes Rooster special edition notebook, and it is by far my favourite Rooster special edition notebook that Field Notes ever issued. It is a squared notebook, and not lined, for the first time ever, and the bold red and black print on the cover is much more striking than their usual craft or cream choices for this series.

Bold, bright colours on the cover.

The fact that these notebooks (sold as singles, with the proceeds going to literacy related charities) arrived so late means that I have a had a few months to think about the Tournament of Books 2020 reading list.

Squared notebook.

I enjoyed the 2019 reading list more, but the 2020 list was overall a good, interesting list of contemporary writing that I for the most part would not have read otherwise. There were a few mediocre books on it, and a few that I really disliked, but as a whole it wasn’t a bad list. I may try reading next year’s list too.

The list. There are 18 books on the list, 4 books that I though weren’t worth reading, of them two were a silly, bloated waste of time and two were infuriatingly bad. There were 7 books that I thought were real gems.

I wrote a few weeks back that I was struggling with my notebook setup, and things have changed since then. I’ve settled on using a blank large Moleskine hardcover in Reef Blue and a Pilot Hi-Tech C 0.4 for a running list of work projects and related notes.

I’ve customized the cover with a Star Wars decal to make it pop and let me easily identify it.

I use the right hand side for a running tasks per project (I still manage major project points in the Things app), and the left hand side for related points, reminders and ideas. Each project has at least one spread, and I drop in pages with ideas and things to remember in between the project pages.

The Pilot Hi-Tec-C (also known as the G-Tec-C4) is not a pen that I would recommend because it’s so very delicate and unreliable, but I used to be a fan years ago, and in a burst of nostalgia (and against my better judgement) I’ve gone back to using these pens. There’s something about the barrel design of this pen, combined with it’s needle tip that makes me enjoy writing with it. Again, I wouldn’t recommend it, as you’ll rarely see a refill through (the tip will bend, or it will become to scratchy to use, or it will dry out and become unusable) and in general the Uni-ball Signo DX are much better 0.4 tipped gel ink pens. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and this is what I prefer for daily work use right now.

Rotring 600 Levenger Fountain Pen and Rollerball Review

I haven’t bought a fountain pen on eBay in years, but when I decided to celebrate completing a six month intensive DevOps course, I headed out to eBay in search for the Rotring 600 Levenger rollerball. Yes, you read that correctly, I was looking for the Rotring 600 rollerball, not the fountain pen. I love the design of the Rotring 600 Levenger pens, but I thought that there was zero chance that I’ll manage to snag a good quality fountain pen, not to mention a fountain pen and rollerball set, so I decided to focus on the cheaper to obtain rollerball. As it turned out, I landed on an estate sale Rotring 600 set, and managed to get a Rotring 600 Levenger fountain pen and rollerball in great condition for a pretty good price.

The Rotring 600 Levenger pens aren’t flashy. They both have metal hexagon bodies with knurled ends and the classic Rotring red rings on the cap ends. The cap ends and the grip and the pen finial and round, and the pen body and cap are hexagonal, and somehow the transition between these two shapes is perfect and seamless. Industrial design at its best.

The fountain pen cap snaps into place with the help of the two silver protrusions on the knurled grip section. These protrusions don’t get in the way while writing, no matter how weird your pen grip is, and the section itself is very comfortable to hold. The knurling isn’t as dense as on the Rotring 600 mechanical pencil, and it is smoothed over so it doesn’t dig into your fingers. It provides a secure grip, while giving the pen the traditional Rotring look.

Because of the silver protrusions the pen cap snaps very securely into place. The fountain pen came with no converter, just unbranded short international cartridges, but it was easy enough to take the converter off my Super5 pen and use it here. The nib grade is indicated on the pen cap, which is what you’d expect on a drafting pencil. I like that oh so Rotring touch.

The Rotring 600 fountain pen comes with a steel nib that’s shaped a lot like a Lamy Safari nib. It’s stamped with Rotring’s logo on one side, and the nib grade on the other.

The nib is smooth and a lot of fun to write with, but it’s on the wider (European) side of fine. A 0.7 mm width line. Check out that grip section design:

The rollerball has a blue indicator, presumably for the colour of the ink refill inside. By the time I got it the refill had dried out, and so I replaced it with my favourite refill, the Uni-ball UMR-85N gel ink refill. This is the reason I bought the set and I couldn’t be happier with my purchase. Just look at it:

That’s so sleek and so clever, and I have no idea why they stopped producing them. Side by side you can see that the knurling on the fountain pen is slightly more pronounced. You can hardly feel the difference when in use, but I thought that it’s worth pointing out.

And here is that glorious nib in use, with a quick sketch of the Albert Memorial in London. The ink is Sailor Jentle Ink Epinard, which is a fun ink to sketch with an a green ink dark enough that you can sneak it into office use (not that anyone would notice or care right now).

It’s been a tough time, and a long and challenging six months course, but I couldn’t be happier with my “reward” for finishing it. If you run across a Rotring 600 rollerball or fountain pen at a reasonable price, by all means, buy them. The design on these pens is the kind that belongs in museums it’s so good, and they are a lot of fun to use too.

Rotring, if you’re listening, bring these back!

Tournament of Books 2020: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

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Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is more of a memoir in poetry than it is a novel. Even as you read it it’s clear that this book is so autobiographical that practically only the language use in it is fiction. It’s a sharp, painful and beautiful memoir, and I’m glad that it exists, but it’s just not a novel, so it’s impossible to judge as one. The characterization is brilliant, but it’s clear that these characters are very real, and their complex relationships and behaviours are recorded from life. There’s no plot except the protagonist’s life, Vuong’s life. The writing is wonderful, although it’s not an easy read. It’s poetry from start to finish, and it expects the reader to work for their reading.
There are more and more “fictionalized non-fiction” books that are being published as fiction, and some of them are excellent. It’s just makes the task of judging them against “fiction fiction” much harder.
So a recommended read (it does require a strong stomach. There are some very disturbing images and scenes that appear again and again in the narrative), but one that also calls into question the definition of fiction.

I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020, where it’s up against “Nothing to See Here” in round four of the contest. It’s so hard to compare these two books, even though they both deal with childhood trauma, loss and being impoverished outsiders in a world that values wealth and conformity. “Nothing to See Here” is entirely a work of fiction, while “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is so very clearly not. Vuong’s work is more culturally significant, but I enjoyed “Nothing to See Here” so much more, and it’s such a risky and clever piece. I wouldn’t argue with anyone picking “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” as the winner of this round, but my pick is Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here”.

How I Use My Notebooks: Yearly Goals (Resolutions)

Near the end of one year and the beginning of another various articles and podcasts about New Year resolutions start popping up. They either give tips on how to make resolutions, debunk resolutions in favour of something else, and almost all of them try to sell you something.

This post is about how I create yearly goals (i.e. resolutions), using things that I already have, in a way that has worked for me since 2015.

I wrote about the way I do “New Years Resolutions” in the past. I call them that because I like the non-business ring of “resolution” over the “business-jargon” sounding goal. My “resolutions” are, however, S.M.A.R.T. goals: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. I manage them using the least used notebook that I had lying around (a Baron Fig Confidant), and whichever pen I have at hand. They aren’t made for instagram, rather I use my plain ugly handwriting, and what marking are on the page are there because they’re useful. Over the past five years I’ve attained about 90% of what I set out to achieve, with even an annus horribilis like 2018 not putting me too much off track. My goals are tiered, much like Kickstarter stretch goals, with most goals having a fairly easily attainable first tier, just in case life decides to kick me in a tender place.

I’m going to go over this year’s goals, and last year’s goals (apart from a few that I’ve censored for privacy’s sake). I know that February is usually the month when people give up on their resolutions. I hope that this post will help and inspire people to give yearly goals or resolutions a chance.

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My 2020 resolutions

Above you can see my 2020 resolutions. A lot of them are things that appear in almost every year. The professional goals are all new (I didn’t manage my professional goals with my personal goals until this year, and even now only a small part of my professional goals are here). 

Every goal at this point only has the basic, first tier goals set beside it. The first three goals for example, all reading related, will eventually have stretch goals. They’re interesting to note here because back in 2016 I only had one reading goal: read 24 books. Once I got back into the habit of reading, I started to challenge myself with longer and more challenging books. These are all my base reading goals. I usually stretch them to around 50 books a year.

Why don’t I start with 50 books then? Because the point of these goals is to build myself up for success. The basic goals are the “even if I have a horrible year I should be able to reach these” goals. They are there to remind me that there’s a tomorrow, and something I can and should do about that tomorrow, even if a family member is hospitalized (or worse). The stretch goals are then built in small increments, reaching to my my final goal for the year.

Why don’t I write my stretch goals down from the start? Because the point is to keep myself focused on the next small step. That’s why things are broken down to the smallest increment that makes sense: one book, 10k, one month.

There’s a reason for each goal on this spread. I won’t go into each one specifically, but they all fall into the following general categories:

  • Read more.
  • Write more (my writing goals are censored, because if I publish them, I won’t do them. I know myself well enough by now).
  • Use the stuff I own.
  • Challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone.
  • Social goals (partly censored).
  • Health goals (running, cross-training, bloodwork, dentist visits).
  • Professional goals (partial list).

Everything has to fit in on a two page spread, or I lose track of things. That’s why I spill over to other pages in the same notebook to track some of the details of my goals:

Tracking page for fountain pens, ink, tea and pencils.

Here are my 2019 resolutions. A pink check mark means that the basic goal is finished. You can see the increments things grow by (my stretch goals):

2019 resolutions

You may have noticed that the “fill triggers” goal isn’t filled up at all. This is the “relevant” part of the S.M.A.R.T. goals. I used the trigger system from Marshal Goldsmith’s “Triggers” book for a few months in 2018, and I decided at the beginning of 2019 to not continue with it. It was a conscious decision, and so I just ignored that goal. 

Here are my 2019 “spill” pages, just to get an idea of how the whole thing works together:

10 different fountain pen inks. Can you see where the stretch goal is marked?

Here are pencils, fountain pens, notebooks and races tracking:

And my largest tracking list, books:

The Baron Fig Confidant that holds this list has a bright cover and sits right in front of me, on my desk, at all times. I set up my goals that at every day or two I crack the notebook open and update the lists. Once there, I scan everything and check if there’s something that I can do to get it done. The point is to have this list on the top of my mind as much as possible, or else I’ll just forget about it, or it becomes something that I avoid checking out.

This is a system that supports me every day, giving my goals and aspirations much needed structure. I hope that this will help you build a personal system of this kind for yourself.  

How to Buy Your First Parker 51

Since there’s a good chance that people reading this post, about buying your first vintage fountain pen, will want to purchase a Parker 51, I thought I’d write a separate post with a few extra tips on how to get a good, working Parker 51 at a decent price.

So, one of these pens costs upwards of $400 and the other can be purchased for closer to $40. Which is which?

This is one of the dilemmas facing a new Parker 51 buyer: you’ve heard that this is a great vintage pen, but you can’t make heads or tails of its market value. How do you know what to buy and that you aren’t being ripped off?

Here are a few things worth knowing, if you want to buy a Parker 51 that you actually intend to use. If you’re looking to buy a pen to collect, this is not the guide for you. I’m assuming that you want a good, writing pen that will last you for years and won’t break the bank.

  • Check if the pen is a vacumatic or an aerometric Parker 51. You can either ask the seller, or take a quick glance at the pen body. If there’s a visible seam near the end of the pen, its a vacumatic. You want an aerometric, because they’re cheaper, easier to use and clean, and generally have less issues requiring repair than their earlier counterparts. Aerometric Parker 51 have a filling system that looks like a modern squeeze converter: a sack covered in a metal sleeve. The sack is transparent when the pen is brand new, but 95% of the time you’ll see sacks that are discoloured to a black, opaque state. That doesn’t affect the workings of the pen, but the more transparent the sack is the higher the pen’s price will be. You don’t need a pen with a clear sack to enjoy your 51. Just press the sack to check that it’s still supple (it usually will be. The sacks aren’t rubber so they don’t crumble with age), and remember: you’ll need 4-5 presses to fill the pen properly.
  • Most of the value of a Parker 51 pen lies in the cap. I know, that sounds weird, but since the body has no markings (usually), there’s really note much else that can differentiate between one Parker 51 and another (we’ll get to the colours later, I promise). Gold, gold-filled, coin silver and sterling silver caps will make the price of the pen skyrocket. Telling the gold apart from the Lustraloy (regular) caps is easy, but don’t worry, you won’t get any silver capped 51 for less than $150, so that’s how you can tell even if you don’t want to ask the dealer. But by all means, ask the dealer. Sterling silver caps are stamped, as are the gold ones. The gold filled caps are merely marked as gold filled, and if your heart is set on them they aren’t wildly expensive usually (they actually cost less than a modern Edison or Franklin Christoph pen, so long as you’re going for an aerometric in a common colour).
  • Caps that are even slightly dinged or nicked, visibly scratched or have lost the frosted lustre in their Lustraloy also seriously devalue the price of the pen. A brand new Lustraloy cap has a frosted finish and shiny bands on the top and bottom. The pen in the middle of this photo is NOS, and you can see that it looks different than its well worn neighbour to the right (the black pen). Gold filled and gold caps are usually dinged in some way if they were used, and this is the case of the demi Parker below (the grey one). Needless to say, the state of the cap doesn’t affect the writing experience with the pen, so you can get 51s for a song if you’re willing to go with a common coloured pen with a Lustraloy cap that’s seen some wear. It doesn’t even have to be dinged – just the existence of significant micro-scratches is enough.
  • In order of rarity the common Parker 51 colours are: Black, Navy Blue, Grey, Burgundy, Teal. None of these colours are rare, and none of them should raise the price of the pen.
  • If the pen is NOS or stickered and sold as almost NOS, walk away. That significantly raises the price for a pen that’s meant to be looked at, not used.
  • All Parker 51s use a slip cap mechanism. That means that oftentimes a well used pen will have scratches, abrasions and visible scuffing on the section (the part of the pen above the band, near the nib). That also devalues the pen, but like other cosmetic flaws it does nothing to affect its writing capability.
  • So what does affect the Parker 51’s writing capability? The tipping material. The thing you absolutely must check before buying a Parker 51 that you intend to write with is how much tipping material it has left. This may be a little tricky, because in finer 51 nibs you may not see how much tipping material there is on first glance. The trick is to look at the pen nib not from the side, but from below. Look at this 51 pen nib for example. Without a loupe it’s difficult to see from the side how much tipping material is left on it:

 

  • Hard to tell if there’s a lot of tipping material left there or not.

The answer is to flip the pen and look at the flip side of the nib. The tipping material looks like a shiny dot on the tip of the nib. If there’s no shiny dot and you just see the gold nib, the tipping material is gone. You’ll also feel it immediately when writing, as the pen will drag over the paper instead of floating on it, and may even be scratchy. Parker 51 nibs don’t get misaligned very often, so a scratchy nib usually means the tipping material is gone.

  • A medium Parker 51 nib with plenty of tipping material left

    A fine Parker 51 tip with some tipping material left. This should still last for years of use.
  • Parker 51 pens have gold nibs, unless they’re Parker 51 Specials, in which case they have steel nibs, shiny caps and a black jewel on top. I personally am not a fan of the 51 Special, but if you are, they’re usually an inexpensive way to get into your first vintage fountain pen.
  • There are two lengths of pen body, the full size Parker 51 and the shorter Parker 51 demi. I don’t recommend buying the demi because they’re too small for even my tiny hands  to use with comfort (without posting), and they tend to cost more because there were less of them made.
  • As usual, personalization of any kind on the pen body or cap makes the price of the pen severely drop.

Bottom line: you can get a phenomenal gold nibbed pen in a beautiful Jetson design for less than $100 if you know what not to pay for. Now can you tell which pen is the Plum?