2020 Writing Statistics

I mentioned in my end of year roundup that while 2020 has been a terrible year in general, it’s been surprisingly good for my writing. One benefit of being at home all day, every day is that I have had more time to write. Truthfully, I’ve spent much of that time watching football (soccer) and playing video games, but I have done a good bit of writing, too. At various points I’ve felt unproductive, but I think that’s a reflection of working in small, productive chunks followed by long, fallow weeks of football and video games.

Looking back, I have completed:

10 flash fiction pieces
4 short stories
1 novella
1 novel (in-progress)

All told, that’s about 100k words of fiction, not counting rewrites and edits. Even within that 100k words, not all of them were keepers. I’ve trunked (retired with no intention of submitting or publishing) a few of the short stories and the novella already. They are story-shaped pieces of prose, but they either don’t have much to say or need to be tackled with a new story rather than edits. Some of the others may end up in the trunk if they don’t sell, but there are a handful that I think are legitimately good, and three have already sold.

Selling, dear reader, does not come easy. You don’t spend long in this business without learning to deal with rejection. I’ve gone back and looked at my statistics for the year, and while I’ve had a record number of sales, I’ve also had a record number of rejections. According to the Submission Grinder, I have submitted a story 145 times this year. Of those, 104 were form rejections, 17 were personal rejections, five were sales, and the rest are either pending or were closed with no response. That may seem like a huge number of stories, but the reality is that many stories were rejected multiple times, and I have been submitting stories from prior years as well as 2020.

Five for 145 is a 3.5% success rate. It’s not great! Selling three of 15 finished stories this year is a 20% success rate, which looks better, but that still means 80% of the stories I’ve written are misses rather than hits. The 100k words written is probably my lowest since I got back into writing seriously in 2011.

And yet, I’m actually thrilled with how the year has gone.

It feels as if I’ve turned a corner in the last eighteen months. Not just the sales, though the external validation certainly feels nice, but the way I look at my own work. In the past I would write a story, feel good about it, and send it out. Sometimes the story was decent, but many times it was flawed in a way that I couldn’t personally see. Sometimes my writing group could help me see the flaws, but I couldn’t fix them in a satisfactory way. Turning the corner has meant seeing the flaws sooner. It’s meant crafting stories in a way that the flaws other people find are more-easily resolved because the story itself has stronger characters, setting, conflict. It’s also meant looking at a story, seeing what I can use later, and throwing out the other 90%. Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does work. Writing is sometimes adding little pieces of clay to a skeleton until the sculpture is built, but other times it’s starting with a roughly-shaped block of marble and carving off the parts that don’t belong until the sculpture emerges.

2021 will mark 10 years of serious writing for me. If I’ve learned nothing else in that time, it’s that downs follow the ups, and ups follow the downs. I may not sell a single story next year. I might sell ten. I might sell ten and a novel. (Dream alert!) Obviously, I’d rather sell than not, but if it’s another year of growth and learning without any sales, that’s okay, too.

My goals for the year aren’t measured in sales, they’re measured in finished stories. I want to complete at least ten short stories, finish my current novel that’s in progress, and get another novel started. Those all feel achievable and they are within my control without being subject to the whims of editors or agents. If I can write a few more stories that I’m proud of, I’ll be a happy writer.

When I was a kid my mom had an old Ford sedan. It’s been so long, I may be fuzzy on the exact details, but it was a white, four-door sedan approximately half the length of a WW2 aircraft carrier. On the back bumper was a sticker in red, white, and black that said M.A.D.D. Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I had to ask Mom to explain what it meant, and I no longer recall how that conversation went, but I remember my feeling at the time: anger. Anger that people, through their own willful negligence would put another momma’s little boy or girl in danger so senselessly.

I am reminded of that bumper sticker today when I see social media posts and talk to people and hear that they are opposed to vaccinations in general and the covid vaccines in particular.

Anti-vax is the moral equivalent to drunk driving.

You may be able to get in a car while drunk and get home safely. You might catch covid and get away without symptoms. Depending on the number of drinks you’ve had, your base level of health, and your age, you might even be low risk. But this isn’t about you. It’s about the people around you. It’s about the other drivers just trying to get home from a long day at work. It’s about the other shopper just trying to get a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread for their little boy waiting at home.

Did you know that we’ve eliminated smallpox globally? We’ve eliminated polio in the USA. We did–for a while–eliminate measles in the USA, until people forgot how much damage it did two generations ago. My grandmother is a polio survivor. These diseases aren’t ancient history; they affected people you know.

I still have my vaccine card from when I was a kid. Measles, mumps, and rubella. Even polio. I can’t think of a single person my age who had to deal with any of them. We both know why: vaccines work.

You may get in your car while drunk and end up in a ditch, or maybe you catch covid and all you experience is a minor cough. But maybe you wrap your car around a telephone pole or end up on a ventilator. It’s impossible to know when you put your key in the ignition.

You might also get in that car and t-bone someone in an intersection, kill the other driver, and orphan her little boy. You might even walk away from covid without a single symptom. Unlike driving drunk, there are not consequences for spreading covid while symptom-free. You might not even know you’ve done it. That won’t bring back that boy’s momma.

For me, it’s an easy choice. I’m (relatively) young and healthy, and I’m about as far down on the list as you can be. I’ll be in line as soon as they’ll let me. I don’t want to spread covid to my friend that’s undergoing chemo. I don’t want to spread it to the friends and family that can’t be vaccinated due to other medical conditions. A shot and a sore shoulder is a small price to pay to protect my neighbors and my family.

Join me, please. We can even start our own club: S.A.A.V. Sons Against Anti-Vaccination.

2020 – Year in Review

Hello friendos and welcome back. It’s the end of another year, and I feel that I should leave some notes for my future self that I may remember this most-unusual of years.

2020 has been, in many ways, an absolute shitshow. Bad enough to have a global pandemic, but then to see both the country in which I live and the country of my birth handle it so poorly is beyond disconcerting. I’m not going to get too political in this post, but I will say this to both my American and British friends: it didn’t have to be this way. Look around the world and you’ll see plenty of places that did much better. Americans and Britains are no more dumb than Australians or Germans, but we did have worse political leaders. Please remember that the next time you have a chance to do something about it.

Bushy Park with trees along a rainy path

Bushy Park on a rainy autumn morning

Family Notes
Many of my friends and family have been affected by covid, though my immediate family has escaped either without catching it or with mild cases. We’re not actually sure if we’ve had it since we had mild symptoms back in March when testing was unavailable. Since then, we have spent much of the year in one stage or another of lockdown, though it’s felt like a faux lockdown for the most part. The kids are still going to school in person, and I’m still busy with work, albeit remotely. Hordes of people are still shopping, and restaurants have had plenty of diners. We have only been able to make one trip into central London since March, and we spent most of it outdoors looking at the Christmas lights. For the most part, we’ve stayed in our borough and made many trips to the Thames and to the local parks, including the ever-beautiful Kew Gardens.

The year has not been all bad, however, and the Baldwin house (at least this Baldwin house) has escaped the worst of it. The girls are doing well. They are both quick-witted, independent young ladies who are more than capable (believe me) of speaking for themselves, but I’ll share a few things. They are both in music lessons, and it warms my heart to hear flute and piano riffs echoing down the stairwell. The oldest started year 10. The youngest started year 7. That’s 9th grade and 6th grade for my American readers. They are now both at the same school near where we live in Twickenham. They both very much enjoy it and have complimented the school’s instruction and general attitude toward students as being positive. Do you know the joy it brings this writer’s heart to talk about history and Shakespeare over the dinner table? It is boundless.

The girls are in a Goldilocks age. Old enough to be independent, but not so old that their social life has overwhelmed their sense of self-preservation. We certainly have some moments when we remember there’s a teenager in the house, but both girls are such vibrant, delightful people that I embrace even the “teachable moments” when they come.

Personal Notes
I’ve sold five short stories this year, an all-time high. Three of those have been published already, and two more will be out next year. You can find more info on the stories here. I’ll also be putting together an end of year post with submission statistics for my writer friends.

Being at home so much has meant that I’ve had plenty of time to cook. It’s also meant that I’m not walking all over London to work off those calories, so I decided to make an effort to get more exercise. Initially, that meant cycling, but the time commitment to get a decent workout wasn’t something I wanted to undertake. So I started running in June. I’ve always hated running. That didn’t change for the first few runs, but I kept going. After about the second week, I was able to run the first couple of miles without wanting to die. Somewhere in there I found that there’s a yearly 10k race a Kew Gardens, so Carissa and I signed up. That gave me about 10 weeks to train, so I found a plan online and dove into it. The problem with running, it turns out, was with me. Once I had a basic level of fitness, I found that I enjoyed the thirty to ninety minutes of solitude. I especially enjoyed how I felt the rest of the day. It helped that the weather here is so mild. It also helped that I’ve done much of my jogging along the Thames while listening to history and writing podcasts. The only downside has been the injuries. Running in your late thirties isn’t as simple as running in your mid-teens, it turns out. I’ve had to learn more about physiology, warm-ups, and stretching than I ever expected.

We did successfully complete the 10k race in September. I finished in 56 minutes, which was a few minutes faster than Carissa. My body may have rebelled during the training, but I still ran faster than she did, so it’s all good.

This year also marked a milestone anniversary for us. We celebrated by going to our first-ever Michelin starred restaurant. (This was when covid cases were super low in London!) The Dysart in Petersham isn’t too far away, and it was absolutely delightful. The food was good, of course, but the service was a level above any other farm-to-table restaurant where I’ve eaten. We have both agreed that we must return in the future, and we’ll have to find a special occasion when we can bring the girls with us.

Dishoom's Ruby Chicken and Naan

Ruby Chicken with a side of rice and naan

Some favorites from this year:
Book:
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It was published in 2015, but I only found it this year. It weaves two story threads together, but it also weaves two veins of science fiction. One is a doomed generation ship, which is a common science fiction trope, but the other is the evolutionary biology of a colony of super-intelligent spiders. The biology-focused thread was an absolute delight. It was everything I love about science fiction, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Short Story:
There have been many wonderful short stories this year, and my favorite isn’t one that I necessarily think is going to place highly in the usual awards, but I absolutely loved “Yo, Rapunzel!” by Kyle Kirrin. It is simultaneously fun, playful, and deadly serious. The artful swearing made me giggle, and Rapunzel’s take-no-shit attitude made me wish I had written it.

Game:
Working from home for nine months has meant no commute, no travel, and far too many hours lost to video games. There have been many I’ve enjoyed. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey was a fun open-world RPG. Crusader Kings 3 was everything I wanted it to be and more. Horizon Zero Dawn took open-world RPG storytelling to another level. If I had to pick a game of the year, I’d go with Hades. It’s a rogue-like, which means you go back to the beginning whenever you die, but it has RPG elements built into it that allow you to grow stronger with each attempt. The general concept is that you are Zagreus, son of Hades, attempting to escape Hell and get to the surface. The story unfolds on each escape attempt and as you talk to the other characters. The story alone would have been enough to make me enjoy it, but it really excels with the way you interact with the Olympian gods and receive their boons (character and weapon buffs). Each escape attempt is different than the last, and it gives the game a ton of replayability. I played on PC, but I’d 100% buy it on Switch if you have a Switch.

Song:
Working from home has meant that I’ve had Spotify running all day, every day. Mostly this means listening to a private playlist of old favorites, but I do occasionally listen to the curated lists and the new album suggestions. I’ve long enjoyed Chris Stapleton’s music and his blend of country, bluegrass, blues, and rock. My favorite song of the year is his track “Cold,” which adds piano and strings to his usual genre-bending. I am such a sucker for songs that start quiet, build to a crescendo, and throw in strings.

Album:
I mentioned country offering more misses than hits for me, and pop isn’t much better. But Taylor Swift, like Chris Stapleton, refuses to be pinned down by a single genre. I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but I’ve enjoyed some of her earworms over the years. The video for Blank Space is one of my favorite music videos ever. It packs more storytelling into four minutes than most Hollywood blockbusters manage in two hours. This year, however, she put out an album that’s a mix of folk and pop: folklore. I really enjoyed it. No single track is as strong as “Cold,” but from end to end it’s just so darned listenable and perfect for a rainy London day stuck indoors.

TV Show:
This one is pretty easy. I don’t watch television. Plenty of football, yes, but little else. After Carissa raved about it, I watched “The Queen’s Gambit” and found it to be thoroughly enjoyable. It is a bit formulaic as far as plot, but the quality of the acting, the attention given to the costumes and sets, and the novelty of following a chess prodigy all combined into something that was highly entertaining. It’s also a perfect length for me. Six hours is enough time to work through more than one story arc, but not so much time that I get bored halfway through the season and go back to books and video games (and football).

Recipe:
Who has a favorite recipe for the year? Me, that’s who! With the pandemic we couldn’t go out to our favorite restaurants, so I had to bring them to us. One of my favorite places in London is Dishoom, and the owners/chefs put out a cookbook in 2019. I’ve made a number of the recipes over the last year, and the family favorite is the Ruby Chicken. It’s similar to chicken tikka masala, but with much more depth of flavor. Buy the cookbook and make everything. Or go to the restaurant when it’s safe and order everything. I shall do both.

Conclusion
2020 has been a very bad, no good year, but I’m still thankful at the end of it. It’s been another year of good health spent with Carissa and our girls. I am thankful to be employed at a company that has not just allowed–but required–me to work from home since mid-March. I am thankful to have seen career growth at both my day job and with my writing gig. I’m looking forward to 2021 and hopefully a safer year when we can visit with friends and family again. Stay safe, everyone. Stay healthy. Try not to kill any grandparents while you wait on a vaccine.

2020 Award Eligibility

2020 has been a terrible year in many ways, but it’s been fairly decent for my fiction career. I’ve sold four five stories and had three published. All three published this year are eligible for the major science fiction and fantasy awards.

My first sale of the year was in February. “Better in Every Way” is a user manual for your new clone. It can cook, it can clean, it can do so much more. As long as you treat it well. “Better in Every Way” is available online via Flame Tree Press.

Up next is “Where the Earth Meets the Sea and the Sea Meets the Sky.” It’s a combination of two fairy tales long after those stories end. At its heart, it’s as much romance as fantasy. A tale of two lonely, broken hearts helping each other mend at the far edge of the world. Ages ago I saw someone ask “what if a selkie story ended with a happily ever after.” I’ve tried to present how that could look. This one is not available online, but the print anthology can be purchased from Air and Nothingness Press. If you’re reading for awards and would like a copy, please reach out.

My final publication of the year was “Hope, Unrequested and Freely Given.” This is another story that’s as much romance as fantasy. It’s the tale of two elderly magicians in their twilight years. The woman is wracked with cancer, and her husband is trying desperately to save her. Ultimately, it’s about accepting and embracing the inevitable. It’s available online at Zooscape.

Of the three, I suggest “Where the Earth Meets the Sea and the Sea Meets the Sky” as the strongest. It’s a bit longer than the other two, and it ends full of hope and the promise of a new beginning. As 2020 winds to a close, I feel like hope is something we all need.

Cyberpunk 2077 – Review & Tips

Cyberpunk 2077 will end up regarded as a genre-defining game, but not in the way the marketing would have you believe. It’s not the next-generation open-world RPG I expected. It’s not really a looter shooter, either. It’s more a cinematic experience where you, the player, are the co-star in an A-list actor’s interactive production. At its best, Cyberpunk is a cinematic experience played out across the gorgeous, gritty backdrop of Night City.

tl;dr: did you grow up making jokes about hacking the Gibson? If so, you’ll like this game. Read on to see why.

Caveat to this mini-review: I’m playing on PC rather than a last-gen console, so bugs and performance issues were all tolerable for me.

Cyberpunk liberally borrows ideas and systems from other games. You can certainly see the influence of other open-world RPGS, from The Witcher to Fallout to Grand Theft Auto. What the different systems lack in originality, they make up for in overall fun. They all hang together well enough that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Where Cyberpunk really excels is its integration with Keanu. He plays a major role in the main story, of course, but he also turns up on many side quests and adds pithy commentary. His role is a key part of the game’s lore and of the playing experience, and it comes with all the weight of Johnny Mnemonic, John Wick, and Neo behind it. We’ve seen good storytelling in other games, but nothing that blends action cinema and action gaming like this.

The side gigs and side characters are well done. You will come to love Jackie, Panam, and Judy. Probably more that I haven’t met yet. There are some really well-executed emotional turns in there, too.

There are multiple possible playing styles available. I started with the idea that I would play as a stealthy, katana-wielding ninja (channeling my inner Snow Crash), but I found the hacking to be so fun that switched gears to quickhacks and a tech pistol. There are also options to play as a cyber-enhanced Wolverine, complete with giant retractable claws. Or as long-distance sniper who can shoot through walls. Or a grenade lobbing pyromaniac.

At its worst, Cyberpunk is a buggy, repetitive grind to raise a few thousand eddies (eurodollars) for your next upgrade. I have had NPCs disappear mid-quest, I’ve hopped through a window and out of the world, and I’ve had special effects from some NPCs stick around after they should have faded. All these were fixed by exiting and reloading the game, but they were annoying all the same.

While leveling your character increases your power, you also need to enhance your cybernetic options, and that means collecting a whole pile of eddies. The scripted side gigs and side quests are engaging and just as fun as the main story, but they don’t pay enough to get that legendary operating system or those double-jump legs in a timely manner. And Soulkiller forbid you want to respec your perks; that costs a cool 100k eddies. A resource grind is pretty typical for RPGs, but no less annoying when the world is washed in neon.

Cyberpunk is a violent game. While you can get through much of it as a non-violent player, the inherent violence of the world is inescapable. Night City is a dark, treacherous place full of terrible people doing terrible things. It’s also full of nudity and sex. I’m not opposed to there being sex in video games, but I am not impressed with how they usually handle it, and Cyberpunk is not an exception. It’s mostly ham-handed fantasy with a smattering of unnecessary violence. But hey, you get to choose your character’s penis size, which is a nice change of pace from the more-typical choosing of breast size.

On balance, I like the game. The good outweighs the bad, and much of the bad feels as if it will be patched over the coming weeks. The game really shines with the story and movie star intersection. I don’t want to say Cyberpunk is a turning point in game/movie interaction, but it certainly feels as if has let the genie out of the bottle, and I’m betting we’ll see more of a blend of games and cinema in the future. Add VR to the mix, and the next generation of entertainment will really have arrived. There’s a famous line from William Gibson, the father of the cyberpunk genre, that says “The future is already here–it’s just not evenly distributed.” Cyberpunk 2077 makes that feel true in a way few games have previously.

–End Review–

–Begin Lessons Learned–

Money is important! (So say we all.) There’s a gimmick for making money fast, too. You can buy soda cans from the 10 eddie machines, disassemble them, and sell the components for far more than the cans cost. It’s a little tedious, but it makes eddies fast. I won’t be shocked if this is changed in one of the upcoming patches. If you want to take advantage until then, head to the ripperdoc in Watson’s Northside for easy farming. There’s a collection of vending machines out front.

Once you have a stack of eddies, buy yourself something nice. Cyberpunk as a genre goes hand in hand with body modification, and Cyberpunk the game leans in on it. You can–and should–upgrade yourself. You’ll need some street cred to get the better choices, and I’d wait until you hit a street cred of 12 to get the legendary operating system at the Kabuki Market ripperdoc, though there are cheaper (and less reputation-intensive) options, too. Once you upgrade, hacking really takes off. You can also upgrade your personal cybernetics. The double-jump leg implants are a nice quality of life improvement.

You’ll want to put at least 6 into Tech to help with opening doors.

There’s a perk that allows you to automatically disassemble junk loot. This means you disassemble some stuff that would sell for 750 eddies, so you might want to skip it. I took it and made up the money by recycling soda cans.

Motorcycles are great. They steer better than the cars, and you can lane split.

As mentioned above, there are many useful weapon options. I loved going crazy with hacks. Upgrade your quickhacks at ripperdocs and netrunners, and you, too, can take down an entire building from the sidewalk outside.

The game will glitch. Save, exit, and reload when it does. That has gotten me around all issues so far.

Quicksave (F5 on PC) is your friend. Use it liberally. I haven’t noticed any performance impact from it.

Happy hacking, chooms.

Hope, Unrequested and Freely Given

Buddy & Kathy’s Front Yard

I have another short story out in the wild today. “Hope, Unrequested and Freely Given” is live at Zooscape. There was no rapid turn-around on this story. I wrote it in 2019 and subbed it a few times before sending to Zooscape in May 2020. They accepted it a few weeks later, and it’s out now in the December 2020 issue. This is a fairly typical timeline for many stories that reach publication. Alas, they cannot all be written in a weekend, sold a few days later, and published within a week.

It’s a story written with Missouri on my mind. Baroch and Valerie’s porch has the same view as my in-laws’ porch. The mood was inspired by the Chris Stapleton song “Scarecrow in the Garden.” Sort of a quiet hopelessness, but it didn’t feel right to end the story on the same emotional note as the song, so it goes a different direction.

Where the Earth Meets the Sea and the Sea Meets the Sky

Hello Friends,

This post is entirely politics-free.

2020 has been a good year for fiction for me. I had a story out in February, and I have another out this month. “Where the Earth Meets the Sea and the Sea Meets the Sky” is the closing story in the Upon a Once Time anthology of fairy tale mashups. The anthology is print only, and it’s available at Air and Nothingness Press’s website. (If you find this link after November 2020, you’ll need to search for “Upon a Once Time” anthology and hope it’s still in stock.)

“Where the Earth Meets the Sea and the Sea Meets the Sky” is another of those stories that irritates other writers. Not the story itself. It’s possibly the kindest story I’ve ever written. It’s the way it sold. I wrote it over a weekend a few days before the anthology’s submission call ended. I edited it a bit, let Carissa read it once, and edited it a bit more. I do love rearranging adjectives. And then it just… sold. To the first market I sent it to. I sent it at 2:02 PM and it was accepted at 8:19 PM. That’s twice I’ve had super fast turn-arounds to the very first market I submitted a piece. It simply doesn’t happen.

So that was nice.

I have another story that I sold earlier in the year that should, hopefully, be available online next month. I’ll link it when it’s published.

Until next time…

Pre-Election Update

In my last post I talked about the mighty Bees of Brentford and their push for promotion to the Premier League. Spoiler alert: they lost in the Championship final. Fulham played well, Brentford played well, but Fulham did a better job countering Brentford than Brentford did imposing their will. After the season ended, Brentford let two of the BMW (Benrahma and Watkins) leave for beaucoup pounds, some of which they promptly reinvested into the squad. I don’t know if the Bees will be fighting for automatic promotion again at the end of this season, but they’ll probably make the promotion playoffs again. 

My usual running path is off to the right on the Twickenham side of the Thames

I was sad when Ollie Watkins went to Aston Villa, though my Villa-supporting coworker was quite pleased. And rightfully so. Ollie scored a hat trick against Liverpool a couple weeks ago. Supposedly he wanted to go to Tottenham, but the Spurs chairman wouldn’t pay as much as Brentford wanted. Speaking of Spurs, it’s hard to complain. They’ve had a couple dubious draws lately, but the team looks revitalized in a way I haven’t seen in two seasons. Harry Kane is back to being one of the top strikers in the world, Son is one of the best wingers in the Premier League, and prodigal son Gareth Bale has returned home from Madrid with a trunk full of silverware to inspire his new teammates. Add some canny transfer business, and the squad has both a fine starting lineup and depth to allow them to compete in multiple competitions. It’s just a shame I can’t go watch in person. (Maybe in the spring?!?)

The younger child and I made donuts a few weeks ago. Some with cinnamon and sugar, some with a basic glaze

The girls are both in school (in-person) and doing well. We moved from Barnes to Twickenham over a year ago to try to get them into a different secondary school, and they are both finally in it. All indications so far are positive, and they both seem to be thriving. Carissa, unfortunately, has not been able to keep up with teaching gymnastics due to the pandemic.  

A little gift from the Dysart in Petersham on our anniversary

When spring comes and things start to relax I hope to continue my football pilgrimage. The original goal was to visit all the professional grounds inside the M25 (the highway that circles London). I’m well into that, having already been to see Spurs (both in Tottenham and at Wembley), Brentford (multiple times), West Ham, Crystal Palace, Chelsea, Fulham, Arsenal, Millwall, and AFC Wimbledon. I need to get to QPR, Charlton, and Leyton Orient still, plus a few of the grounds used by the Women’s Super League. 

I love a good beef stew. This one has carrots, parsnips, potato, and onion. Google “Jool’s favourite beef stew” to get the recipe

I’ve also cooked up a new plan for when things reopen. I want to have a pint at every pub in my borough. The idea is to get a big map of Richmond-upon-Thames and mark each pub with a red pushpin and update it to green once I’ve visited. If anyone wants to come visit next year, feel free to use the excuse of helping me in my quest!

Who needs to go out for dinner when you can buy Nando’s sauce at the grocery store.

The cooking has, of course, continued, and in an effort to not gain 20 lbs from my food, I’ve taken up running. 

I’ve always hated running.

In my book, if you were going to run, there needed to be a ball or the police involved. After not being able to play football through the spring, I started running in June and signed up for a 10k in September. The first few weeks were terrible. I wasn’t in terrible shape, but I couldn’t run a full 5k, never mind a 10k. I worked my way through one of Hal Higdon’s novice 10k plans for a few weeks, but then injury struck. After changing from broken down Adidas running shoes to a pair of Merrell minimal running shoes, I didn’t make a gradual transition, and I twanged my Achilles. It took a few weeks in August to get that healed, and I’m still not truly back to 100% (like 95%). Still, I persevered and ran the 10k in September with Carissa. I finished in 55:59, which is extremely Not Fast, but it was under my goal of one hour, so I consider it a win. Since September, I’ve kept up with the running. I’m in the middle of a half-marathon plan and running 4-5 times a week. It’s weird to wake up and look forward to running rather than dreading it like in high school.

Carissa after completing the Kew Gardens 10k in September

Writing has continued. I sold a story in September to the “Upon a Once Time” anthology. It’s out now, though it requires buying the anthology. I have another story I sold in the spring that should be out this winter. I’ll link it when it’s published. It will be available online to read for free. I’m continuing work on a novel, but it’s been slow going. 2020, y’all. I’ll try to get a draft done by the end of the year. Hopefully. My level of optimism about the world is being influenced by external factors, so we’ll see how things go.

Continuing my experiments with the Dishoom cookbook, this is their rajma. It’s an onion/tomato masala with kidney beans

Speaking of external factors, there’s an election coming. It’s inescapable. I follow news in both the UK and the US, and it’s Biden this or Trump that. When I get on Facebook, I see all manner of terrible articles and memes from people back home (hi Mom!), usually in support of Trump. I saw one the other day that got me thinking, and I decided it could use some improvement. I present you this:

That moment when someone says, “I can’t believe you’re voting for Sauron!”

I reply, “I’m not voting for Sauron.” (I vote for policies not personalities)

I’m voting for Grima Wormtongue and King Théoden’s Freedom of Speech.

I’m voting for Saruman and my right to defend my life and family from the radical Ent hordes.

I’m voting for the Nazgûl to be respected and to ensure Law and Order.

I’m voting for the Uruk-hai who defend us from socialist elves.

I’m voting for tax relief for Smaug and all hard-working dragons. 

I’m voting to protect MOUNT DOOM and the blighted land in which we live.

I’m voting for the continued appointment of trolls who respect the sun and will eat meddling hobbits.

I’m voting for our jobs to remain in Mordor and not be outsourced all over again to Gondor, Eriador, and other foreign countries.

I’m voting for Shelob to secure our western border and enforce legal immigration.

I’m voting for the wounded orcs and wargs who fought for Mordor and to protect our freedoms.

I’m voting for unborn babies and the ghouls who will ignore them after they’re born.

I’m voting to sack the lazy peaceniks of Hobbiton and protect our way of life.

I’m voting for continued peace progress in Middle Earth.

I’m voting for the Freedom to Persecute.

Make Mordor Great Again!

The beef at the Dysart in Petersham

Do I think Trump is comparable to Sauron? Of course not. Sauron paid more taxes.

The election is barely more than a week away. If you haven’t voted, you should. Lot of people around the world–and plenty in America–that can’t. 

Football is about to kick off, and I need to get up early for a long run in the morning. Catch you next time, friendos. Try not to burn down the country in the meantime. 

Mawwiage is what bwings us togewer today

Football and Brent(ford)

Let’s talk about the Championship!

Brentford Community Stadium nearing completion in early August 2020.

If you’re not familiar with the Championship, it’s the second tier of professional football in England, and each season the top two teams are automatically promoted to the Premier League, the next four go into a playoff for a promotion place, and the bottom three teams are relegated to League One. The Championship tends to have a vast range of quality in both teams and individual players, as well as a vast range in budgets for the teams competing. The money is nowhere near as good as the Premier League, so teams are often desperate for promotion for the giant windfall of TV money that the top flight brings. 

Cue 2020, and the pandemic restart. 

Brentford FC are the closest professional team to me, and the first team I saw in person after moving to England. The fact that they are named after me certainly endeared them to me, and I have followed them with interest for the last two years. 

After a massive winning streak during the restart, Brentford had promotion in their hands coming into the final games. They’ve only been in the top flight for five seasons in their history, stretching back to 1889 and most recently in 1947. With two matches to play, West Brom had dropped points and Brentford needed a win to move into second place and the automatic promotion slot. Heavily favored against a Stoke side that was in the Premier League just a few years ago, Brentford managed to lose 0-1 away at Stoke. There’s an old joke in football about the prima donna continental teams: they might look good on Saturday afternoon, but can they win a match on a rainy Tuesday night in Stoke? Turns out, Brentford could not. Sigh. 

Going into the final day, Brentford no longer had their own fate in their hands. They needed a win and for West Brom to drop points. West Brom had played well all season, but their form was patchy during the restart. All the matches on the final day of the season were played simultaneously, and West Brom struggled to a 2-2 draw against Brentford’s local rivals QPR, and Brentford were at 1-1 against Barnsley, who were fighting for survival. With only minutes remaining, it was less a football match and more a basketball game. The ball and the players were moving from end to end of the pitch as both clubs were desperate for another goal. Brentford, at the last, had a defensive breakdown and Barnsley scored at 90+1 minutes. The celebrations from the Barnsley players were rapturous and hard to begrudge. After spending most of the season in the relegation places, they survived on the final day. 

Brentford’s season was not done, however. Enter the playoffs. Brentford, 3rd in the league, traveled to Wales to face Swansea, 6th in the league, who managed a small miracle to sneak into 6th place and the playoffs on the final day. The Swans were all over the Bees, continuing Brentford’s run of poor form. At halftime the match was goalless, but around 60 minutes the Brentford left back, Rico Henry, made a (stupid) lunging challenge on a Swansea winger. Henry got the ball, but he also clattered the player. It looked worse in real time given that he started his slide about two meters from the Swansea player. Henry was shown a straight red, and Swansea made good on their advantage to score a goal and take a narrow lead back to Brentford.

The second leg was last week in Brentford at the side’s historic home ground. Griffin Park is a proper, old stadium in the middle of a block of houses. It famously has a pub on each corner and includes the only standing terrace in the Championship. The standing area was a special dispensation from the Football League given Brentford’s recent promotion up from League One and their plans to move to a new stadium. Next season (mere weeks away at the time of writing), the Bees move to their shiny, new Brentford Community Stadium (17,250 all-seater) about a mile from Griffin Park. 

Brentford’s attack this season has been a poor man’s Liverpool, powered by a front three of Ollie Watkins, Said Benrahma, and Brian Mbeumo, who scored 57 goals between them. Unlike Liverpool’s front three, Benrahma, Watkins, and Mbeumo have a snazzy nickname: BMW. Behind the BMW Brentford have a midfield core of Josh DaSilva, formerly of the Arsenal academy, who has been outstanding, as has Danish international midfielder (the poor man’s Cristian Eriksen) Mathias Jensen. 2019 signing Pontus Jansson from league-winning Leeds has been a rock in the defense, helping Brentford to the second best goals against record, behind only Leeds.

Fifteen minutes into the second leg Swansea had a corner. David Raya, the Brentford keeper, caught the ball cleanly, threw a laser beam pass to the right flank where Jensen waited. Jensen took three touches and played another laser beam 60 yards on the grass to a sprinting Ollie Watkins, who finished his 26th goal of the season coolly. Four minutes later, a lovely little chip from Benrahma found previously unmentioned Emiliano Marcondes wide open for a glancing header to make the match 2-0. Swansea picked up the pace and played well going into halftime, but were still down the two goals.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y3aTPpGWE8
Four touches and a goal

Prior to the match, Brentford appealed the Rico Henry red card. I was watching it in real-time, and when it happened, I turned to my wife and said, “That’s a yellow.” It was a bad tackle, but the ridiculous slide made it look worse than it was. The club were convinced it would be overturned, and with nothing to lose, lodged the appeal.

Seconds after the kickoff, Brentford worked an overlap down the left wing. Rico Henry, having successfully dodged a ban for his red card, ran onto a great pass and hit a great one time cross to the edge of the six yard box. Brian Mbeumo, a man with a damned good left foot and absolutely no right foot, connected with his left foot to a ball about waist high and put it in the net. Brentford 3 – 0 Swansea.

With promotion to the Premier League on the line, Swansea weren’t done. Chelsea loanee Rhian Brewster capitalized on a wretched mistake by Pontus Janssen and chipped the ball over David Raya to make it 3-1. At about this point I pulled out my phone to lookup the Championship Playoff rules in the event of a tie. It turns out, there’s no away goals rule. Any tie results in extra time being played, and if the match is still tied, it goes to penalties. (The away goals rule applies in European competition, and it means that in a two-legged tie the team with more goals scored at the opponent’s stadium wins a tie. If that number is equal, the match proceeds to extra time and penalties.)

Swansea pushed hard and had a couple of chances, but Brentford held strong to win 3-1 on the night and 3-2 aggregate. They now face local rivals Fulham.

The final is next Tuesday, August 4th at 19:45 local time, 2:45 PM EST. Brentford have beaten Fulham twice this season, and go into the match as favorites, but no Brentford supporter will forget the three match losing streak that nearly undid a season of superlative football.

If you can spare a couple hours of your afternoon next Tuesday, tune in!

Griffin Park, home Brentford FC.

On Taxes & Healthcare

Cat with its head pressed against a wall

Accident & Emergency 

Recently I had to see a doctor. There are several local surgeries (American translation: doctor’s offices) within a mile of me, so I registered at one, waited a day for the paperwork to process, and called in for an appointment. With the pandemic still very much a concern, the office offered me an in-person appointment, but also suggested they could have a doctor call me back within two hours for a phone appointment. I took the phone appointment. The doctor called about an hour and a half later, I explained the symptoms, and she suggested I go to the hospital to be examined where they have more diagnostic capability. 

I took the train to Kingston A&E (Accident & Emergency; American translation: Emergency Room), where I was triaged within ten minutes of arrival. Twenty minutes after triage, I was having blood drawn, and ten minutes after that I was speaking to a doctor. The doctor did an exam and sent me to radiology, where I waited about five minutes for an x-ray. Results came back negative within a half hour, so the doctor treated me with medication on the spot, had me wait around another 45 minutes for observation, and sent me off with a prescription. I was there about three hours in total, including getting the prescription filled. 

Total cost for all this was £9.15 to fill the prescription. (American translation: about $11.60.)

That on its own doesn’t seem too unusual, compared to America. Ten, fifteen dollars for a prescription is pretty normal, in my experience. But here’s the thing: that was the only cost. The hospital won’t send a separate bill. Neither will the doctor. Or the radiologist. I spent under $12 to go to the emergency room, be seen in a timely manner, and be treated. That is, in three paragraphs, why the British love the National Health Service so much. You get sick, you get treated, and you don’t worry about the bill.

But they’re so slow, you’re thinking. I was in and out of the ER in under three hours, and a fair chunk of that was observation time after I had seen the doctor. But you pay so much more in taxes, you’re thinking. So I decided to compare. 

Let’s talk about taxes

I’ve tried to make this comparison as apples to apples as I can, so I used my 2017 US tax numbers (the last full year I lived in the US) and my 2019 UK tax numbers (the first full year I lived in the UK). 

Income tax is the most obvious tax, but in the US we also pay Social Security, Medicaid, property tax (on real estate), personal property tax (on cars, boats, etc). But don’t forget the hidden tax: healthcare. It’s easy to ignore, but every dollar you spend on premiums, copays, deductibles, and scripts is effectively a tax. Look, I can’t go without health insurance. I’m a cancer survivor, my wife is a cancer survivor, and I have two kids. We get sick, we get treated, and we continue contributing to society. My opinion is that everyone should be so fortunate. 

I totaled up what I paid in the US, including my employer’s contribution to my insurance. We had no major healthcare expenditures in 2017, so I’ve used what I put into my flex spending account (which was used only for health-related expenses). 

I then did the same exercise for the UK. This included Payroll tax, National Insurance (which funds the healthcare system), council tax (like property tax, but also include my trash service), and TV tax (yep, I pay £13 a month to fund the BBC). 

The result

UK effective tax rate: 37.2%

US effective tax rate: 38.7%

The US is slightly higher, but honestly, it’s mostly a wash. I had two cars in the US, but none here. I lived in a low cost of living part of the US in Southwest Missouri, and I’m in a high cost of living area in southwest London. 

I basically pay the same amount of taxes in the UK as the US, when you consider the cost of healthcare. If I have a cancer recurrence while I’m in the UK, not only is it not going to bankrupt me, I don’t even need to worry about the deductible. I chose my primary care physician in the UK, just as I would in the US, and I was assigned the rotation doctor at A&E, just like I would in the US. I was treated professionally and quickly. The only real difference is that my £9.15 bill would have been a $500 or $1000 deductible in the US, plus a percentage of the total hospital charge. 

I’m going to leave you with a parting thought: If I made less money in the UK, I would pay less in taxes while receiving the same care. If I made less money in the US, my insurance premiums, deductibles, and general healthcare expenses would not go down, and might in fact go up if I had worse insurance.

We can do better, America. 

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