Saturday, October 18, 2014

Keep Your Mind Nimble. . .

How does an average guy, who is working to kick up his everyday style several notches,  exercise his mind and keep it nimble?  Not by dulling out on whatever loud and lengthy professional sporting event happens to be on the idiot box, or online, at any given moment.  Neither do you keep your mind in fighting trim by surfing internet porn sites, or killing 'people' and stealing their virtual stuff with any of the apparently hundreds of computer games available for Playstation or Xbox (or their online cousins).  Nope.  How about instead trying the following to raise your level of mental acuity, maturity, engagement, and awareness, making yourself a more interesting and well-rounded person in the process?  

1) Readings is fundamental.
As the old RIF public service announcements on Saturday morning kids' TV used to say.  Reading is an excellent way to engage and broaden your mind, but read books about something else besides sports, the American Civil War, Vietnam, or anything by Dean Koontz or Lee Child.  All are done to death.  There is a great deal of interesting and thought-provoking fiction and non-fiction out there, and that's just considering what's available in English.  And by the way. . .

2) Learn another language.
And learn it well enough to have an unscripted conversation in it.  Ths will take a few years, but doing so will open up new worlds, experiences, and ideas to you in the meantime, and enable you to make better sense of your own mental place in the world.  It might be better to take a few classes to get started though.  Self-study is also an option, but beware of the various DVD packages on the market.  Not all are created equally.  Rosetta Stone packages are, for example, pedagogically weak and overpriced.  Since the advent of the web, accessing actual cultural materials, so called 'realia', is easier than ever, and along with the right kind of self-study tools, they can be really helpful in learning the ins and outs of another language and, by extension, culture.  In any case, listening to online radio and TV in your target language (even when you don't understand much at first) as well as looking at online versions of newspapers, magazines, and catalogs will support your class time/self-study efforts.  Before you know it, you'll be able to do more in Urdu or Swahili than simply ask for a beer and where the nearest public toilet is located.

3) Do crossword puzzles.  
Not always easy and sometimes maddening beyond belief, but you learn as you go, get better over time, and add appreciably to your working vocabulary, which ain't necessarily a bad thing.  Nope.  Not at all.

4) Have more conversations.  
Actual conversations where you are looking at the other person or people involved and truly listening rather than talking at each other as you stare like moon-eyed zombies at the flat-screen TV mounted on the wall.  Sound familiar?  I encounter men of various ages all of the time, who have difficulty with even simple conversations.  My wife and I often chuckle about a student trip we led to the annual German Christmas Market in Chicago about ten years ago, which concluded with a lovely evening meal at an old German restaurant downtown.  At my end of the long table, I sat next to a charming young lady of 22 or 23, from our own university, on one side and her high school boyfriend, who attended a different university in Chicagoland, on the other.  She was gregarious, amusing, full of plans for her future, and could easily carry on a conversation.  He, on the other hand, was like talking to a tree stump.  Monosyllabic responses about Baseball and his upcoming Certified Public Accountant exam were about it.  No more than that.  The point is, you've got to be able to carry on interesting conversation for longer than 90 seconds.  And don't you dare talk about sports or whatever tripe you've heard recently on talk radio.  Speaking of which. . . 

5) Listen to something else besides talk radio.  
Ever tried to have a conversation with someone who subsists on a steady diet of talk radio?  Regardless of whether their particular source of infotainment is slanted politically to the left or the right, these people seem able only to parrot back whatever the latest on-air rants might be for a given week.  Not only does this kind of programming provide the absolute wrong kind of model for public discourse and discussion, but for God's sake, moderate your sources of information and resist the tendency to use talk radio as a form of self-affirmation!  You know the sort of thing I mean.  "My own uninformed, poorly supported, off-the-wall opinion MUST be right because there is a radio host who says so, and there are other ignorant, narrow-minded wackjobs calling in who think the same way!"  Try, instead, getting your information about the world, events, developments, and people from various different sources once in a while instead of continuously listening to the blowhard-of-the-moment who is pushing some kind of bizarre, unbalanced, and one-dimensional sociopolitical agenda.

6) Broaden you palate.  
Sure, we've all got our favorite foods and drinks, but there is so much else out there that's tasty and interesting.  Food and beverages are interesting subjects in their own right.  So, how about eschewing the usual beer, burgers, pizzas, and generic Olive Garden food for a bit, hmm?  If you want something different, it's also a good idea to skip microwaveable crap like Hot Pockets, Slim Fast meals, or Pizza Combos.  Likewise, you might want to look beyond the ubiquitous Chinese and Tex-Mex too.  How about considering slightly more esoteric cuisines like Nepali, Thai, Indian, Turkish, Persian, Afghani, Korean, East African, North African, or Middle Eastern instead? All of these look delicious and smell delightful when they are brought to the table, and the various flavors will knock your socks off.  That's not to suggest the level of piquancy, necessarily.  It's simply a figure of speech.

7) Develop several different consuming interests.  
I've mentioned this before here at The Average Guy's Guide to Classic Style, but it bears repeating.  You need something to think about  and occupy your mind besides work, TV sports, or mindlessly surfing the web.  Average guys working to kick up their everyday style several notches should keep that in mind.  And no.  Sorry, boys.  Sex doesn't count either.  Unless you actually aspire to be like Dirk Diggler in the film Boogie Nights.  Then by all means.  Carry on.  Kidding aside, there's actually lots else out there in the world that is interesting and will help you develop and maintain a nimble mind.  Just look around.  Take some enrichment classes in the evening at your local college, university, or community center, go to museums, take up fly-tying, learn to paint with watercolors, join a book discussion group, or visit your local library if you're coming up empty.

8) Volunteer your time.  
How about giving freely of yourself without expecting anything in return?  Churches, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, community centers, scouting, boys clubs, animal rescue centers, adult literacy programs, elder hostel programs, Habitat for Humanity, and the like are all viable options for volunteering.  All might welcome an extra set of hands and/or mind and simultaneously provide you with interesting new perspectives about the world and the people in it. . .  plus your own life and values.

9) Work with animals.  
Training animals like horses and dogs is highly interesting and immensely rewarding.  I urge everyone to give it a try and make a concerted effort to learn how it's done properly.  And hey, one less untrained dog leading its owner by the leash down the sidewalk would be a step in the right direction for everyone concerned.

10) Listen to different kinds of music than you usually do.
Popular forms of music are fine, and there are many terrific artists, past and present, out there.  But how about giving jazz and/or classical music a try.  They are infinitely complex, challenging, and demand active engagement on the part of listeners.  I guarantee you'll hear something new each time you give a listen to Coltrane, Mingus, Baker, or Desmond.  Or perhaps Bach, Strauss, Mozart, and Vivaldi are more to your liking?  Of course, you could always try your own hand at learning to play an instrument well yourself.

There we are.  At least ten different ways to keep your mind nimble regardless of your age and specific interests.  And remember.  Your mind is much like a muscle.  If you don't use it and challenge it beyond what is comfortable, it will atrophy, and you too will risk turning into that very tree stump I describe above.  Push yourself to try, accomplish, and achieve new things in your personal life.  Always.  Now, what are you waiting for? 

-- Heinz-Ulrich

Friday, October 17, 2014

Casual Need Not Mean Slovenly. . .

The attire for a mid-October Casual Friday at home in the basement den.  Or as we like to call it around here, Zum Stollenkeller.

You know, it's entirely possible, and not that difficult, to look presentable and 'be comfortable' (an apparent obsession for the 99% here in the United States).  For instance, throw on an old oxford cloth button-down collar shirt (tucked in) with a sweater over top, a well-worn pair of tan corduroy jeans (with a belt), and a pair of leather docksiders, or the suede version thereof, on a cool, crisp mid-October morning, and you're all set.  Drop off the Young Master at preschool, vacuum the rugs on the first and second floor, and put away said boy's clean laundry.  Or just sit down for some quiet 'me time' with the felines and another mug of coffee before getting to all of that.  You look relaxed, yet pulled together. . . Nice even.  Three-piece suit and tie not required.

The Norwegian fisherman's sweater pictured above -- the genuine 'Made in Norway' article actually -- is a recent purchase of an old model that used to be sold by L.L. Bean.  Sadly, the company ceased offering these quite a while ago although I managed to purchase another, in navy and cream, on seasonal clearance during the winter of 1993.  That sweater also gets routine wearing during cooler months and has also cropped up here at The Average Guy's Guide to Classic Style now and then.  

This particular cream and charcoal model is identical to one given to me for a birthday way back in '92 by Mom and Step-dad, which I still have and wear.  However, when I spotted it in the An Affordable Wardrobe online store 10 days or so ago, I snapped it up since I prefer these more plain, 'everyday' versions of the Norwegian sweater to the fancier (and much more expensive) versions made and sold by Dale of Norway.  I've got a couple of those too, but they work less well for casual wear. 

By the way, and in much the same way as quality leather dress shoes, Norwegian sweaters wear like iron and will last for years with just a bit of care and maintenance.  They are perfect attire for a fall afternoon raking leaves outside, a walk around the neighborhood, joining some friends or the family at the local cafe for some hot chocolate and something sweet, or a snowy winter's evening before the hearth.  They also look good peeking out from beneath a tweed sports jacket. . .  or even the right sort of leather jacket.  In much the same way as I wrote recently in a letter of reference for a student, I recommend the Norwegian fisherman's sweater without reservation.  It is an ideal and slightly more sophisticated replacement for the ubiquitous, and invariably grubby,  fleece or 'hoodie.' 

-- Heinz-Ulrich

My more usual pose. . .  A coffee addict's version of mainlining.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A damnable popinjay!

 Today's ensemble, built around a wool flannel three-piece suit made by Ralph Lauren for Mark Shale.

Not the greatest of photographs, but today was the first wearing of that Ralph Lauren woolen flannel three-piece that I stumbled onto for less that US$5 back at the start of September.  When I wear the suit again next week, and the weather, hopefully, is better, I'll ask my wife to snap a brighter photograph outside and replace these with better ones.

Apropos the title, I wore an Italian silk necktie featuring parrots that dear ol' Mom and Step-dad brought me 18 or 19 years ago after they spent the summer in Trento one year, where the latter was doing some things for the U. N.  They also had quite a bit of time to visit several places in Northern Italy before coming home, and Mom picked up the tie for me during several days in Milan.  My first really good necktie by the way, and it still gets worn often.  I figured it offset the very traditional suit with a bit of playful irreverence.  Amazingly enough, while on campus today, I spotted our university provost from across The Quad in a similar charcoal three-piece!

Anyway, while I think the jacket sleeves could maybe be a hair shorter, and perhaps the inseam a bit longer, I'm extremely pleased with the general condition, look, and fit of the suit.  I'll wear it again before making up my mind on these two points and, if necessary, take it back to Mrs. V. for those adjustments at the end of the month.  A cool day today in any case, which was good because a woolen flannel three-piece suit is quite warm.  And extremely comfortable.  If more men were aware of that one feature of flannel suits alone, maybe a lot more of them would leave the house looking considerably better than they do.

But back to the suit.  Particular details include, among other things, pants lined to the knees, brace buttons on the inside of the waistband (I'm wearing blue and red paisley silk braces here), inward facing pleats, a fully canvased coat with natural shoulders, and an actual real boutonniere hole on the left lapel.  I'm not sure what the fabric weight is, but the suit is quite heavy even without yours truly in it and drapes very well.  I really like the lines/silhouette of the suit too.  The nap of the fabric is also in amazing condition everywhere (unusual for previously owned items), and I can only conclude that the suit was worn once or twice***, if at all, before finding its way the thrift/charity shop where I discovered it.  I've wanted a three-piece suit for a long time, and this one fits the bill wonderfully.  

As the song by The Doors goes, people are strange.  My father and maternal grandfather both owned and wore a number of Brooks Brothers and/or Southwick three-piece numbers during the cooler months when they worked in Manhattan during the 1950s-1980s, and I always liked the look even as a boy and teenager.  I suppose you could say things have come full circle here.  I'm finally dressing like Dad and Granddaddy after years of swearing to myself (and others) that I would never, ever -- under any circumstances -- do so.  An apple never falls far from the tree I guess.

A second, less stiff shot of same.  Doing my best Betty Grable.  In this suit, I feel almost like one of those old Laurence Fellows illustrations.  Almost.  It's the silhouette most of all I think.

***A useful thrifting tip.  Don't waist time and money buying things in thrift and charity shops that are within an inch of becoming threadbare. . .  or with tears, holes, pulls, stains, etc.  They'll look like you bought 'em from the back of the neighborhood ragman's cart.  Instead, purchase only items with minimal to no wear, ensuring that you can wear and enjoy said garments for years to come.  After getting any necessary minor alterations from your tailor or seamstress of course!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dressing for a Damp, Cool Autumn Day. . .

Look!  Up in the sky!  It's a bird, it's a plane, it's. . .  Bertie Wooster?

Nothing like tweed, corduroy, and a pair of vintage 'Phi Bates' brogues by the Bates shoe company on a chilly, wet mid-October afternoon.  Besides the cheap IKEA umbrella, the ensemble pictured above includes a tweed hacking jacket by Hart, Schaffner, and Marx (made in the U.S. of A. and featuring a functioning boutonnière hole and leather buttons), the old Phi Bates shoes (still in remarkable condition given their presumed age***), and a hand-printed and unlined wool Ravetz necktie made in Great Britain. . .  all worn with a pair of Land's End corduroy pants, a Ralph Lauren oxford cloth button-down collar shirt, and a tweed vest whose precise provenance escapes me at the moment.  

My wife remarked that I had a jaunty look going today when she snapped this picture on the front walk of our schloss, and, indeed, jaunty I felt when I dressed this morning.  All very fitting since tomorrow (Wedenesday) is P. G. Wodehouse's birthday.  Sadly, I lack a gentleman's personal gentleman the caliber of Jeeves, so I'll have to pack and load up the ol' two-seat roadster myself for the trip down to Totleigh Towers later today.  Hopefully, neither Madeline Bassett, Honoria Glossop, nor Bobbie Wickham will be lying in wait once I've arrived.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

*** The Bates Footwear company still produces military and police footwear, but civilian shoes have not been manufactured since the early 1960s, making my shoes at least 5o years old, if not older than that.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

How are your 'other' social skills?

Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes, the highly clever and sadly defunct comic strip by Bill Watterson, being rude as only Calvin can.

In today's post, we're not talking about various 'soft skills' like the kind beloved and espoused by human resources folks in the workplace.  Neither are we considering more basic social skills like firm handshakes, listening attentively when speaking with someone, pleasant table manners, or certain exceedingly unpleasant personal habits that too many adult males still revel in and consider funny.  We're going to take a a quick look, instead, at 'other' personal habits and behaviors that average guys working to kick up their everyday style several notches should remain aware of and do their utmost to practice. . .  Or not as the case may be.  Ready Teddy?  Then, here we go.

1) Control your temper!
Losing it now and then is ugly enough, but when it happens routinely, the inability to control your anger is inexcusable.

2) Avoid offensive speech.
Shouldn't have to say this in 2014, but sadly it remains necessary.  A gentleman does not allow sexually or racially derogatory words to creep into his speech.  It just sounds awful.  There is not other word for it, and it's also highly offensive to more people than you might think.

3) Watch your #%$@&*!!#%$ language! 
The same thing applies when it comes to obscenities, and the number of people who fail to realize this and fill their everyday speech with this kind of talk is mind-boggling.  As my maternal grandmother cautioned us, "Not only is swearing extremely common and a sign of people not having much of any worth to say, it's also a sign of an extremely limited vocabulary."

4) Keep it down.
Lower your voice in both personal interactions in personal spaces AND when you are out in public.  No one is suggesting that we whisper.  Don't misunderstand my point here.  But the rest of the world neither needs, nor wants to know about your intestinal issues, your ingrown toenail, what Da Bears should have done to win the big game last Sunday, or why your 3rd cousin's neighbor's best friend from high school is no longer talking to your great aunt on your father's side.

5) And when others are talking. . .
Avoid habitually interrupting conversations that you are not a part of as well as interrupting people in general.  It's obnoxious, intrusive, and irritating.  If the people in said conversation wish to include you, and solicit your, no doubt, valuable and informed opinion in the process, they'll make it clear.  Enough said?  And hey, sometimes it's just better to keep your mouth closed and keep those witty replies to yourself.

6) Avoid making an inordinate amount of noise.
Don't make all kinds of unnecessary noise in your daily movements or comings and goings to and from home, the workplace, or anywhere else.  Keep yourself to yourself, and that includes opening and closing doors/drawers loudly, slamming things when you put them down, or tossing your keys noisily onto a table or desk top each time you empty your pockets.  If Mom never told you, being obtrusive is nothing to be proud of.  Ok?  Be quiet.

7) Pick up after yourself.
You're not eight years old anymore.  Surprise!  Besides leaving a room or space the way you find it, it's also a sound idea to avoid leaving a trail of detritus and effluvia in your wake everywhere you go.  You know what I mean?  So, make sure to sweep any area you've been with your eyes, push in any chairs you've pulled out from a table or desk, and pick up things like paper clips, thumbtacks, bits of paper, pocket change, food crumbs, snack food or candy wrappers,  soda bottles, discarded clothing, and the like.  Not only will it make future clean-ups much easier and faster, but it is considerate of others, and will make you much easier to live with for those poor souls forced to share a dwelling with you.

8) Honk!  Honk!  Hooonnnkkk!
Sound familiar?  We've all experienced it, and I'm not talking about an irate driver sounding his or her horn incessantly in traffic.  I'm talking about blowing one's nose loudly, habitually, and obtrusively in public.  The issue is not whether someone uses facial tissues, or a cotton handkerchief.  It's simply about not doing something that is loud and just plain gross if others are within earshot, or worse having a meal at the dining table.  Excuse yourself and go somewhere private to take care of the problem.  Likewise, don't be a chronic sniffler.  Blow your nose!  Oh, and an over the counter nasal decongestant like Duration will help dry up those sinuses when you have a bad cold and congestion.  Buy it and use it until your head clears.

9) Avoid touching and/or picking at yourself.
Another pointer that should not need any mention, but if you spend any time with people from different backgrounds, it will become clear that it DOES need to be said.  So, here we go.  Stop touching, poking, picking, or prodding at your face, your nose, the corners of your eyes, or frankly anywhere else on your clothes or body.  Not only is it distracting for anyone forced to look at you, but doing so also makes you seem nervous and uncomfortable in the extreme.  In addition, it's just downright icky for others to witness.  Besides, who among us, assuming we are more mature than a group of 8-year old boys at summer camp, wants to come across and be thought of as disgusting and socially awkward?  Right.  I didn't think so.

10) Clearing your nose and throat.
Constantly 'snorking' mucus from your sinuses and/or clearing your throat is another gross, irritating, and apparently very common habit that far too many men -- and amazingly also quite a few women -- indulge in all of the time besides just first thing in the morning.  In short, don't.  Just stop it.  It is a jarring, disgusting noise that is so far removed from anything approaching gentility that I don't know where to start.  In a word, it's offensive.  Incredibly so.  If you are aware of it and genuinely cannot stop the problem, see either a medical doctor, a mental health professional, or, if you've got a bad cold, purchase some over the counter decongestants in the form of pills, nasal spays, or syrups to solve the issue.  Anyone who is forced to spend time in your company at work, at home, on the street, or a long flight will be silently grateful.  

Bonus Tip
Don't spit!  Ever.  If I've failed to mention it elsewhere here at The Average Guy's Guide to Classic Style, I should have because loads of people everywhere still exhibit this charming habit.  Not only is it disgusting, but it's also highly unhygienic.  Spitting spreads germs, no one should have to see you do it or walk through the remains, and, as an older female friend and former colleague once remarked a year or two ago, "Gentlemen don't spit."  There really isn't much else left to say, is there?  If a guy is proud of being a crass rube, so be it.  But any man worthy of the term, who genuinely wants to come across as a bit more polished, sophistiated, and well-bred should take great pains to break the spitting habit and never look back.  Ugh!

There we are.  Ten 'other' social skills and habits for us to become better aware of and make a concerted effort to either practice, or eradicate from our personal behavior, so that we do not come across to others as rough around the edges.  Paying attention to the kind of things I describe above will also help ensure that you become a more pleasant person to be around. . .  even at a distance, and certainly up close and personal.  It will also help you to kick up your everyday style several notches.  Perhaps even more than might an expensive suit, necktie, or a pair of shoes.  Personal style is, after all, about so much more than simply our attire.  Rather, it has a great deal to do with the kind of person we are beneath  those clothes.  A guy can drive an expensive car, have a high status job, an MBA from a first class university, and a vapid 'trophy' wife 20 years his junior, sure.  But if his personal habits and behavior are, shall we say, less than attractive. . .  Well, he can hardly be thought of as pleasant or stylish.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

Friday, October 10, 2014

Make It a Double-Breasted Flannel Fall Friday!

Today's clothing combo included a nice, warm pair of salt and pepper, charcoal wool flannel pants, barely visible here, along with the wool flannel sports jacket shown, which is terrific on a cooler fall day.  It also has a fantastic shape with just enough waist suppression, although I must confess that the sleeves still are a bit too long and need to be shortened about 3/4" to allow some cuff to show.  However I threw caution to the wind and wore the jacket anyway.  I know, I know.  The shoes were some nice, shiny black Allen Edmonds short-wing brogues along with a black leather belt.  Oh, and a Phi Kappa Phi pin on the  lapel, which is an academic honor society I've been part of since my undergrad days.

Some days, everything goes just right.  It's Friday, always a good thing.  I wrapped up early for the day.  It's a crisp, cool autumn afternoon, my favorite kind.  I felt reasonably good about today's attire, even with the too-long jacket sleeves.  And I picked up something nice at my best thrift spot before heading home, the wool overcoat pictured below.  Best of all, my wife and I had a bit longer than usual for our semi-regular Friday afternoon cafe rendezvous before the Young Master finished with preschool and had to be picked up.   Sometimes, everything works out just right.  If the rain holds off, we'll bundle up and enjoy a campfire in the fire pit out back tonight after supper.  Ahhhhh. . . 

-- Heinz-Ulrich

Look what I found at the better of my two local thrift/charity haunts on the way home this afternoon!  A nice medium weight wool overcoat by Chicago's venerable Hart, Schaffner, and Marx.  I picked it up for less than US$10 thanks to a full customer punch card, which got me the coat at 50% off.  Not bad, and it doesn't even have that awful thrift/charity shop funky stink, but I'll have it dry-cleaned just the same before wearing it.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

That Boy Took My Love Away. . .

This model of 3/4 size acoustic steel string by Ibanez is on the way to Stollen Central!

A completely unrelated post here, but I'm excited.  At the end of the month when he celebrates his 5th birthday, the Young Master will receive a guitar like the one above from Ol' Dad.  Like many children, he loves music, often requesting Diana Krall for suppertime listening when we sit down at the table together.  Sting, Peter, Paul, and Mary,  and The Beatles are among his other favorites, and he enjoys listening to me play the guitar on rare occasion.  Yours truly first received a guitar on the day I celebrated my own 5th birthday way back in 1971 (truly the Stone Age), and it seems like a sound idea to continue the tradition.  I think he'll be thrilled when he unwraps it.  For my part, I'll certainly be thrilled to present a guitar to the Young Master on the big day.

-- Heinz-Ulrich