lessons learned

The first big thing I took away from this trip is that it’s time to give up and quit trying to wish a better social media realm into existence. It’s not going to happen, and I can mostly get by with what I have carved out, which is mostly as follows:

1) Twitter, locked and limited to people I actually know, with controls on who can retweet stuff into my feed, and only accessed through Tweetbot so that I get a chronological feed with no ads. (And then a secondary account to follow the sports teams and brands and entities I want, with no expectation of being particularly interactive.)

2) Instagram, but only via the website and only via the iPad. That doesn’t work perfectly, but it does spare me the ads and the endless scroll of stuff I didn’t want to see, and having to get at it through the iPad limits the amount you can perseverate somewhat especially if you aren’t posting at vacation volume.

3) Signal, the only cross platform messaging tool worth mentioning. We got a couple more friends onto it this trip, and it remains my best way of messaging the people who are otherwise on no social media at all to share our happenings. If Signal would implement something like Stories, I might be done altogether, but nobody on WhatsApp ever looked at them and I was not sorry to dump WhatsApp altogether. It also occurs to me that if Signal would let you send to multiple group chats at once, that would be useful (and get a lot of the old Venn functionality, even though the notifications would be batshit after a while) but I suspect the encryption requirements would make that untenable.

4) Slack, where a small knot of daily-chat internet friends carries on as we always used to in the MUSH in days gone by.

And that’s pretty much it. There are a couple of other group chats that are redundant subgroups of the above, but by and large, that’s it and that’s all. No Meta apps on my phone, no means for posts I didn’t ask for to be injected into my flow. Everything I want to see, and for the most part, nothing I don’t. And almost entirely self-contained in the phone, at that. It’s not much, but it’s enough to make me feel like I mostly have other people I can interact with in a world that has conspired to put most of them in other counties or other states or sometimes other countries.

Four apps. Which is a shame. Flickr, the ur-app for phone and photo, isn’t a viable alternative. The rash of Path-like apps like Peach or Cocoon never got traction. micro.blog, though standards-based and interesting, was ultimately more public than you want from social networking. HelloApp, which is basically non-Meta WhatsApp with a feed, is dead on the launchpad. Even attempts to do something with iCloud Photo Sharing never got traction with more than a couple of people. The above four apps are basically all there is for me, because they’re the minimum necessary to circle up all the people I want to communicate things to in a casual manner on vacation, with varying degrees of success. Until Apple finally deploys the mythical PalAbout or something like it, and everyone adopts it, we’re kind of stuck.

Whatever. Sorted. (Well, that and that my phone battery is a tragedy, but more on that eventually.) So next up: pub life. The first problem, and one there is no evading, is that I have moved to a place that does not believe in transit. Hauling out the old reliable Citymapper app, it would be almost as quick for me to walk to the pubs of my former frequency on Murphy Street than to try to take transit there. Which means the pubs I hoped would be my regular stop are now going to be a drive, as are the pubs of downtown San Jose.


If everything is a drive, then that changes things. For one, the proximity of the closest downtown is not appreciably different from the next-closest downtown, and that means I can be driven to and from one as easily as another. More to the point, it means that a certain pub that was never on the radar before is suddenly as drivable as anywhere else, and has the not-inconsequential advantage of being an actual English pub that was built in Sussex, disassembled and shipped to Cupertino in 1983. In my latter days at Apple, I was prone to walk over at lunchtime for potato skins and a pint of Guinness, so it’s not like I don’t have a past there, and it is also open from 4 PM to 10 PM every day – making it available on Sunday evenings in a way that my previous best pub no longer is. 

Problem is, I’m ultimately going to need something like Lyft. (Uber is right out, though Lyft is hardly better especially after their Prop 22 bullshit.) There’s an app called Alto that looks like it’s trying to be a more posh version of either, but I’m not interested in ponying up for a membership and to use it on on one-off basis looks unreliable and pricey. Ultimately, having three pints on a Sunday evening is going to involve troubling someone to pick me up (and drive me there in the first place, most likely). Which means the pub may still have to be something that happens mostly at home, with maybe a monthly indulgence in travel and whatnot. But being upstairs in a reasonably posh public house and mostly having the place to myself of an evening – well, it was a dream come true on a day when I desperately needed it.

Something was different this time. I know I was looking at a lot of pubs in 2016, but nothing like this. I’m more conscious of where things are, partly because of Citymapper for three weeks but also because Watched Walker is reinforcing it. And I’ve dreamed of London every night since we landed back in the states, which is something that’s never happened on any trip. Brick and stone and cobbled streets and narrow alleys and Tube line routes, all the things of my imagination. There’s nothing like it out here, largely because anything with that much brick either crumbled or burned in 1906 – maybe in Boston, or in Manhattan south of Houston, or Old Town Alexandria. All the more reason to consider domestic travel again.

OK, what else? Well, one thing that struck me repeatedly in a number of places is how much money Disney spends to try to create the kind of vibe those spots had built themselves over a century or more. And that immersive Disneyland feel is something I want more of in my life – whether it means the new tiki bar in San Jose, or the old speakeasy in San Francisco, or just the pub experience of the Duke of Edinburgh, I need that place-feel to help escape every bit as much as in Black Spire Outpost. So up next on the list is “where else can make me feel like I’m genuinely Somewhere Else?” And I have a small but growing list, part of which includes downtown Santa Cruz – but I also have car exploration on the radar again. Just as we were able to explore from the front of the top of the bus, it occurs to me that our shiny new electric crossover is the perfect instrument for going out and seeing other parts of the South Bay in safety and comfort without exerting myself too much on the scouting trips. Sure, the old practice of riding around for Washington games is basically dead, but before it turned into a coastal drive every time, it involved driving just wherever. No reason I couldn’t put on an appropriate stream or playlist in the ID.4 and just try to cruise it out a little.

In the end, the big revelation of this trip is that there is a wider world to venture into and explore from the other side of the last two years. Is it over? Nope. Is it “back to normal”? Can’t be. But it is whatever it is now, and it’s time to figure out what that looks like. And if I can stay in travel spirit here, maybe I feel better here, and maybe things start looking up.


more stray thoughts from W1 to N1

The Park Lane had this pleasant citrusy smell in the lobby, and the Palm Court always had a weird blend of Aloft-ish music, AM-era soul, and gypsy jazz playing overhead. It made for an atmosphere more suited to a G&T than a pint, which I guess is rather the point of a posh Mayfair hotel from the Bright Young Things era. The club room access – which made for free breakfast, more than one grazing dinner and a steady supply of fizzy lemonade and blackcurrant jelly babies – didn’t hurt either. Leaving there felt a lot like the vacation was over – it meant leaving Shepherd Market behind, but it also shifted into a slightly more urgent phase of things where it was important to make sure nothing important got missed.

Speaking of missed, we spent maybe two hours at the British Museum, and blew off the V&A altogether. I think what we found is that we were overwhelmed with the volume of things we were only marginally interested in, and that slow museum-trudge is hell on your back (and my shoulder) after a while. I think it was the right move – what we wanted was to see the city. We spent a lot of time in the front seat of the top of a bus, rather than on the Tube or actually walking, and that worked out well enough that I didn’t feel the need to walk down the King’s Road on foot. What stands out in retrospect was how many things we didn’t revisit – I mean, we were always going back to Borough Market, but we never set foot in the Shard. We didn’t circle back to Gibbons’ Rent or Camden Market or the Transport or Canal Museums or go to any West End shows or football matches. We mostly went out to be around things we hadn’t been near before, with the aim of seeing all we could see, and for the most part it worked well.

The Park Lane feels like home, too. I meant it when I said that every time I step out the door onto Piccadilly and turn left felt like the first day of the honeymoon all over again. “Shout to the Top” tends to come on in the AirPods all by itself, and you’re on the right side of the road for a cab or bus straight into the heart of the West End. (And a good thing too, because the slope up to the Green Park tube station is a lot steeper at 50 than it was at 33.) We were there with my mother in 2010 as well, and there aren’t a lot of non-Disney hotels outside San Francisco I can say I’ve stayed at three times. I don’t regret staying at the St Pancras, the creepy paintings in the hallway aside, and I’d sure liked to have been closer than the furthest room down the hall so we didn’t start every day using up a quarter mile of walking – but it’s not something I feel the need to repeat, whereas the Park Lane just feels special in a way that makes me hope we can stay there again in autumn 2027 or whenever we inevitably return.

It also felt good to go out and do things with people. We had a couple of dinner gatherings, but we also went out to pubs twice with friends, once for a roast and once just to be out and about – which ended up with a trip to Popeye’s and a return trip on high speed rail. To be out with my boot heels on foreign cobbles in the company of friends is something we haven’t had since Ireland, and it filled a hole in my reality that was so much bigger than I thought – after sheltering and cocooning long enough, you can almost convince yourself that you’re content with your own company until you realize there’s an alternative. Hopefully we get to make more of it now.

And there were minor things, too, but no less valuable for having them. I was able to actually make conversation in a pub a couple of times (ok, one was technically a craft beer bar, details details). I was able to visit Oxford without being consumed by regrets and angst about The College Thing, which means maybe the distance and the therapy are finally paying dividends. I got the closest straight-razor shave of my life, which put me on notice that such might be a replicable indulgence here, and the one bad day I had was fixed with a quiet Saturday night upstairs in a Mayfair pub with red flocked wallpaper – which makes me think that it’s about time I gave the Duke of Edinburgh another chance of a Sunday night, of which. 

I think the biggest and most precious thing was: I stayed punched out. I didn’t perseverate on work, or politics (US domestic, anyway), or the backlog of things that have to get done here, or the looming drama and trauma in Alabama in May. It would have been so easy to get consumed by other stuff, which I think is no small part of why the heat took me out entirely in 2016. For the first time since the first time, I got to visit London with my sweetie and no sword of Damocles in sight, And the desired result was obtained, handily.

So now the thing to do is start planning for the next thing. Sometime in 2023, hopefully, it’ll be time to go somewhere else again, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have two or three thoughts on the boil already.


Life in London

It was meant to simulate living there. Three weeks in London and no other travel (apart from the occasional side jaunt for the day to Oxford or Windsor). No obviously touristy plans – no Tower, no bus tour, no London Eye. Just a list of things we’d like to do accumulated over the last six years with an eye toward the day we’d finally get back, when we could use two years of accumulated credit card points and PTO to emulate life abroad.

The nice thing about staying in the Park Lane for the third time was that it meant close proximity to Shepherd Market, that tiny urban village down an alleyway and around a corner. Like some mystical portal, going around the curve of White Horse Street suddenly opens onto a courtyard with a couple of pubs, a couple of restaurants, a news stand, a pharmacy, a barber shop, and narrow streets to other shops and eateries. It was convenient, it was cozy, and – along with Ye Mitre in Holborn – it reinforced how much I like an alley and an interior courtyard with back-alley shops and pubs.

More than in years past – especially post-Brexit – the experience of London felt as if the British Empire had colonized the world, and in exchange, the world colonized London. It felt like the Bay Area, but different – less East Asian, more African and Muslim – but definitely felt like a world city. London is definitely a city-state the way California is a nation-state: something old, unique, separate from England or the UK. And I found that the older it was, the more I liked it – especially in pubs like the George or the Anchor or Ye Olde Cheddar Cheese or The Prospect Of Whitby, places that were serving ale before there was an English-speaking colony in North America, (But the resulting phenomenon of the toilets always being upstairs or downstairs in a stairway the width of an iPad makes me wonder how more people don’t break their necks.)

Actually maybe they don’t because every pub had two or three cask ales that were under 4.0% ABV. And because every pub serves halves which work out to about 9.5 ounces. I ended up celebrating my 50th birthday by having 50 different new beers I’d never had before, most of which were cask ales. If I can find 3.8% session IPAs like Ballast Point’s old Even Keel, that’s more or less what’s on offer, and I’m grateful for it because it means you can have a leisurely pint or a cheeky half most anytime without having to worry that you’re going to get completely hammerjacked. And you can tap to pay, too – you can tap to pay anywhere, seems like. The UK’s COVID response included a mass move to touchless NFC payments and self-checkout – even more than in the Bay Area.

So what am I bringing back this time? I’d love to bring back London cabs, which remain the world’s finest (even if the new electric ones only have a 60 mile range) or a pub in walking distance of anywhere you are (I might have to revisit the ostensible pubs in San Jose, now that most of the restrictions seem to be lifted). But what did I discover or learn about myself this trip that will enhance my life on the return?

For once, I’m going to ask for sparking water more often. More than any previous trip, I felt acutely the small size and lack of ice in most soft drink servings. How can they serve an Imperial pint of ale and a thimble of literally everything else? But sparkling water – especially with the house water filter in place – might be the hydration strategy this summer. Having the new ID4 is also a nice bring-back; the ID3 was surprisingly present, one for every two Teslas we saw, and while it took a year and a half for me to get my hatchback after 2005, this time I have the Euro-vehicle waiting in the driveway already.

There’s other stuff here already, too. Transit payment with the phone (my Clipper card is already installed even if the passes can’t be). There are new game shows of interest which are already available in BritBox, meaning we have new comfort-food content to pass a cozy evening. There were unexpectedly immersive settings like Mr. Fogg’s which can, in their way, be replicated locally (the new Dr. Funk’s, perhaps).

But most of all, London had already arrived in the new normal. You still have to be wary, and plenty of folks still wore masks on transit (as we did), but it was possible to while away a quiet evening upstairs in the pub. Or meet up with friends we hadn’t seen in six years and enjoy a dinner party or an afternoon by the river. California did its part for two years and is coming to equilibrium, and maybe just being able to go into the wider world again will mean enough.

And three weeks of detachment from the trauma of the real might be enough to reset the clock for a while. Your wounds can’t heal until the knife is pulled out, and for three weeks, the knife didn’t exist. That was a real and tangible blessing. Being allowed to catch my breath and enjoy life with my sweetie was as good a way of beginning my 50s as i could have hoped for. Fingers crossed we can keep the momentum.

halfway home

The first time I was in London was my honeymoon. Four nights in the Park Lane (the groom’s mother apparently pays for the honeymoon with Starwood points) en route to the Cotswold, Bath and Edinburgh. After a few months of Virgin Radio at work, it was astounding, all of it: the Tube, the double decker buses, the London Eye, the wild array of cell phones in the shops, the West End – and way too much time spent in the easyInternet cafe posting about it in the pre-smartphone era.

The second time I was in London was 2007, and it reflected its era as much as the honeymoon did: a scattered trip with Paris, Oxford and York excursions built in, tiny hotel rooms in the streets behind Victoria station, an iPhone with no service and at the mercy of Wi-Fi that was not the least bit pervasive, and a general bewilderment matching the chaos of having guessed wrong and left Apple.

The third trip, in 2010, the world was better…but I was towing relations through the same stuff I’d already seen, for the most part. And I still couldn’t unlock an iPhone 3G, which was an impediment (as was the shite camera) so I was carrying two devices, neither of which was particularly useful most of the time. Lot of ducking into Pret to get mail and Tweets and download more music.

The fourth trip was 2016. It was a little over a week, and probably should have been for longer. It was right after the Brexit vote, so the world had already started going to Hell – which you could tell because the high temperatures were 90 degrees and up on almost every day. It was the first trip where I was actively seeking out pubs, the patrons of which were unfailingly gathered outside for want of air conditioning. This time we were in a cozy boutique hotel by Kings Cross, and there was a real sense that something had shifted because we flew over international business class and stayed in this nice accommodation on our own credit card points.

And now here we are. Halfway through three weeks in London (apart from a day trip to Oxford for a chartered private boat cruise). Our world isn’t exactly better, and it my not get better, but it has reached equilibrium in a way worth celebrating – and worth not deferring, because who knows what could happen. Tomorrow is not promised to you, and if you’re sat on the thin edge of the Third World War, best you should do so on vacation and using up those intangible points that you accumulated through two years of a pandemic.

Two years. Two years of Watched Walker on YouTube, the getaway we couldn’t have, dreaming of these same streets we are walking now – not particularly quickly, and not all the same, as as often as not we’re in the front of the top of a London bus taking in the scenery. I did have one day where I hit ten pubs and drank thirteen different beers, but it wasn’t as enjoyable as one evening and two pints in the upstairs of the Rose & Crown around the corner.

I’ve enjoyed it here, in this 20s and 30s Bright Young Things hotel for the third time but the first under our own steam. Everyone has been very nice, and while the war in Ukraine looms over everything, I haven’t had to think about Jamf deployments or job hunting or American political bullshit or my relations in Alabama or my mortgage in California or whether the damn charger is finally installed for the ID.4 or what is sufficient dress for an overnight restroom visit. We are in Mirror World, with its heavy plugs and its heavy coins, a place where everyone except street beggars has switched over to touch-free cashless payment (and the spectacle of at least one pub that would not accept cash at all, astoundingly).

I’ll miss walking around the corner in the morning, heading down White Horse Lane until it bends out of sight, and finding myself in a tiny urban village with restaurants and shops and newsstands (and four pubs). I’ll miss that first step onto the sidewalk facing Piccadilly toward the Green Park underground station, which always feels like that first time in London renewed. But I have another ten days to go, in a different hotel with different objectives, and the prospect of a weekend abroad with friends. That – after the last two years inclusive and everything about them – is a dream far too long deferred.

half a life

Fifty is a strange age. You’re not old, exactly, but you’re far too old to think of yourself as young. Whatever you are at fifty, for better or worse, is probably what you’re going to be for the rest of your life. Your midlife crisis is past, hopefully. There are no more kids on the way, probably. You’re nowhere near retirement, but you’re too close to it to seriously consider chucking your entire career and becoming a baker or a poet or a travel blogger unless you somehow became independently wealthy in the first fifty years. Who you are now is who you are, and if you can’t live with that, it’s important to understand why – and whether you can actually do anything about it.

Ten doesn’t feel like much of a milestone, and I don’t remember it being one, either. Twenty means you’re not a teenager anymore, and I remember feeling some pangs and angst about that, but our society hangs too much on 16 and 18 and 21 for 20 to really have any traction. Thirty is the end of your millennial adultolescence, the age where you feel like you have to start being a grown-up, get married if you’re gonna, buy a house if you’re gonna, have kids if you’re gonna, get on with your life. Forty…well, as I said, forty is the age you have to stop pretending. And by fifty, life has started taking away some of what you’ve been given. You might be given more, but you’ll never have it all at once. Assuming you ever did.

I think in a lot of ways, I’ve spent too much of my last twenty-five years trying to reframe my first twenty-five into a better story without having to make anything up. Trying to will it into being a better past than it felt like at the time. Maybe part of turning fifty is just accepting it as it was, and maybe letting time file the sharp edges off what was at the time a pretty painful trudge. Then again…is a memory really a memory if you don’t share it with anyone else? If there is no one else who was there who can still affirm your memories, couldn’t you have just as easily made the whole thing up? Or just as easily make something up to replace it? 

It seems like the last decade hasn’t been as full as the one before – that despite adding two new continents and three more countries, despite finally getting the long-desired sysadmin job with options to work from home, there was a lot of drudgery and loss. And there was. But this is also when I remade my wardrobe with a capsule of things that weren’t in my life ten years ago. This is when I made the shift from gas to hybrid to electric. This is when I re-embraced the blazer and established that my most self-actualized state is a drink in one hand and a phone in the other, sat in the first class lounge getting ready to depart abroad. This is the decade I returned to glasses, for crying out loud, for the first time in a quarter-century.

Twenty-five years ago, my world more or less completely reset itself. Completely new career, in a completely new city, with almost no connection left to anyone from my past. My father dead a year later was just the icing on the cake. Now, at fifty, I find myself in a new house for the first time in sixteen years, in a new car that replaced one twenty-two years old, and…well, I’d love a different job, but that has been awfully tough to come by under the circumstances, and I probably won’t be making much of an effort until April.

Because we’re going away. Three weeks in London. None of you pricks come rob my house. This is our exit from two years of turbulence through a fantasy of stepping out of our lives for a bit and then back into whatever new equilibrium we have achieved. One week for my 50th, one week for hers, one week for a second honeymoon as we begin our new new life together. What else are you going to do with two years of accumulated unusable PTO and credit card points?

I need the hard reset. I need pub night writ large. I need to punch out of reality for a bit and see if I can get my head together before kicking off my sixth decade.

Let’s go for a ride.

maybe it’s the getting by that gets right underneath you

it’d swallow up your every step, boy, if it could

but maybe it’s the stuff it takes to get up in the morning

and put another day in, son

that keeps you standing where you should

so put another day in, son

and hold on till the getting’s good