How to Take Trains: A Guide

There are many things that the locals take for granted, but someone that’s an outsider may find confusing. Riding trains, when you’re accustomed to driving everywhere, is one of those things. Here is a quick guide.

Empty tracks in Central London. The Shard in the background.

Step the First
Buy a ticket. Or don’t. If you’re traveling inside the 6 zones of London transit, you can use your Oyster card. Otherwise you can buy a ticket online via TrainLine or the train company website. Or you can buy a ticket in person at one of the ticket booths or self-service kiosks.

First class tickets cost more, have slightly more comfortable seats, and are near the front of the train. Not every train will have carriages with first class. If you have a second class ticket, it’s on you to not sit in first class. If you do find yourself in first class and a conductor comes along and finds you, plead ignorance and lean on your non-British accent. It might allow you to stay where you are. Otherwise move to a new seat in the regular carriages.

Outbound tickets are typically cheaper if you pick a specific time to leave. Return tickets don’t tend to matter as much. If you know you will be making your return outside of rush hour, get a non-peak return without a specific time. This will enable you to hop on the earliest train if, for example, your meetings end early. Otherwise, if you have a specific return time, you might find yourself sitting in Leeds for two hours while your coworkers abandon you to get back to London earlier.

Step the Second
Get on the right train. If you’re going to a major terminal or junction, this is easy. If you’re going to a stop between major terminals or junctions, be sure you’re not on an express train that will skip your stop.

Two trains on adjacent platforms in Barnes

The trains are ordered by departure time. If you scan down from the destination, you’ll see all the intermediate stops. Say you’re at Waterloo and you want to get to Barnes. You can hope on a train bound for Twickenham, and it will probably stop at Barnes along the way. But there’s also an express that will hit Clapham Junction, Richmond, and Twickenham while skipping everything in the middle. If you get on that train, you’ll speed right past Barnes and find yourself in Richmond, which means you’ll either be waiting on a new train going the opposite direction or walking to the bus stop.

Step the Third
Get off the train before it leaves your destination. Seems obvious, but if you’re standing at the doors waiting on them to open, you might be in for a surprise.

They’ll light up green when the doors are active

Unlike the tube, train doors do not necessarily open on their own. When the button lights up, push it.

Other Things
Don’t be afraid to take an inside seat if it’s empty. People will either scoot over or let you past them. You sitting down means there’s more space for others to stand.
If you’re wearing a backpack on a crowded train, take it off and set it between your feet. It makes more space for others to stand, and it keeps you from smacking people when you turn around to reach the door behind you.
Either hold onto a rail or take a good stance for balance. (Feet shoulder width apart and turned to a wide angle.) Don’t lean on the rail. Don’t slouch against the wall and fall over when the train stops.

Navigating the trains is not hard, but it’s also not intuitive to new people. Hopefully this will help you avoid some of the mistakes I have made.

If your train is canceled, the board at the station will list your alternative trains. Sometimes this means any other train from that line, but if it’s on another line, you lose that flexibility. I can speak from experience when I say that riding the wrong train on another line means you get to buy a new ticket at full price.

Laser Eye Surgery, A Retrospective

After years of thinking about having laser eye surgery done, I finally decided that now was the time. In early May I went in for a consult at Mattax Neu Prater in Springfield, MO, and they ran a battery of tests on my eyes. The end result was that Dr. Mattax though I was an excellent candidate for either Lasik or PRK. I scheduled surgery for the end of May and went away to think about whether I wanted PRK or Lasik.

Pre-surgery selfie taken at the doctor’s office

There are plenty of places online that will go into more detail on each type of surgery, but here’s the summary:

Lasik: the doctor uses a laser to cut a flap in your cornea, the flap is peeled back, and the cornea beneath the flap is shaped with a laser to correct your vision.

PRK: the top of layer of cells on the cornea are removed via some chemical and a delicate squegee, and the cornea is shaped with a laser.

Lasik provides a quick recovery time, and most people have good vision within a few days. The downside is that the cornea isn’t like your knee. Once that flap is cut, it never truly heals. Dr. Mattox explained that there’s always a small risk of the flap getting ripped open or torn away. I still regularly play soccer, and I do occasionally catch elbows and hands to the face, so this was a concern.

PRK provides a much slower recovery time, and the first few days after surgery can be downright painful for people as the cells on the eye heal. It does not require a flap to be cut, so there is no concern about it being re-opened or torn. Dr. Mattox mentioned that police officers, firefighters, soldiers, and professional athletes typically go with PRK.

After considering the options for two weeks, I decided that I was willing to deal with short-term pain and a few months of blurry vision in order to not worry about the flap and future complications.

It’s now been three months. My vision is at least 20/20 in both eyes, possibly better. Dryness is largely gone, with the exception of a few days in the last month where I spent 12+ hours staring at a screen. (Computer job + writing hobby = too much screen time.)

What follows is my journal of the surgery and post-surgery days.

Day 0
I went in to the doctor alternating between excitement and trepidation. A nurse took blood pressure and gave me a valium. I was already fairly relaxed as laser surgery was something I had wanted to do for years. Even if I was kidding myself, the valium made sure I wasn’t. The nurse gave me a hairnet and booties for my shoes. She swabbed around my eyes with an iodine solution and I waited a while for the valium to take effect.

In surgery they laid me back on a padded bed. The doctor explained what he was going to do, and proceeded to tape my eyelids open and put a ring over them. He gave me numbing drops and let me rest a moment, then dabbed some solution over my eye and wiped it carefully. It took a few wipes, but I couldn’t feel anything. My only job was then to stare at an orange light. The laser thumped a few times, and the light gradually turned blurry. A fain smell of burning, not quite hair, but certainly not charcoal, reached my nose. The doctor pulled the laser away, warned me that he was going to squirt cold liquid in my eye, and gave me a squirt. It felt good. I cracked a joke about when was the procedure going to start? No one laughed. I explained that it was a joke because it was so quick and painless.

They repeated for the second eye, and it was much the same. No pain, and over in under 10 minutes. The time under the laser was about 35 seconds each. Someone was in the background counting backwards in 5 second increments, which made the time under the laser seem even easier.

Afterward I felt some pain as the numbing drops wore off. My vision was shockingly clear, but then the pain grew. It wasn’t horrible. Not even to the level of jalapeno juice, but more like sweat on a too-dry contact. If I kept my eyes closed, I didn’t feel it at all, so I made my way to the car by holding onto my daughter’s shoulders while my wife and a nurse guided my arms.

Once I was home I put on some doctor-provided goggles (to prevent unconscious eye scratching), went to bed, and napped for a couple hours. Light sensitivity wasn’t too bad–I wanted a dim room, but was able to move around otherwise. I applied steroid and antibiotic drops regularly as directed, and didn’t experience much discomfort. I spent most of the day resting in a dark room listening to Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology.”

Post-surgery goggles. There may have been strong, prescription drugs involved in the taking of this photo

Day 1
Woke up at 7:00 AM with an appointment at 8:00. Eyes were a little dry, but not terrible. Did another round of steroids and antibiotics. Wore sunglasses and a big, floppy hat (my yard work hat) to the doctor’s office. They said I was at 20% regrowth and to keep with the medical drops 4 times a day. They also instructed me to use plenty of moistening drops, too.

Pain was minimal. Hard to even call it pain, really. Felt like I was wearing contacts at the computer and not blinking enough. Which, come to think of it, was literally the case. In the first 36 hours I used three small tubes of “single-use” preservative free eye drops. Single use really meant quadruple use–I could douse each eye twice before the container was empty.

At this point my vision was blurry. I’d have moments of clarity, but mostly it felt like i was reading with my glasses off and the book was just a little too far away. With text blown up to 200% I could use my computer, but the characters were still fuzzy. From what the doctor told me and what I read online, this was to be expected.

Day 1.5
Pain picked up as I approached 36 hours post-surgery. Even with wetting drops, felt like sandpaper in my eyes. Or old, crusty contacts. And it persisted when not blinking. Research said that the 36 to 48 hour mark was often the most painful. This was probably a 6 on a scale of 10. Rough, but not curl up in a ball and cry rough. I took half a hydrocodone and went to bed. That didn’t help immediately, so I covered my eyes with a cold, damp wash cloth. Finally, the drugs kicked in, and I replaced the cloth with the goggles and went to sleep. I woke up around 5 am with scratchy eyes, so I added some drops and took the other half of the hydrocodone. The doctor was clear about staying ahead of the pain. By the time I finally got up for the day around 7:30, my eyes were scratchy again, but not really hurting.

Day 2
My vision in the left eye was better than the right, but was lousy in both. Where I was able to get by with 200% text size on day 1, I couldn’t read anything on day 2. I had some moderate burning in the morning, but countered it with a hydrocodone. Pain eased off later in the day, though I applied eye drops regularly to help with scratchiness. By the end of the day my vision had shifted to where the right eye was more clear than the left, but still, both were bad. I was able to read at 200% magnification, but only with difficulty.

Day 3
I woke up with no burning, just dryness. Treated with the preservative-free drops, waited a few minutes, and started the first course of antibiotics and steroid drops. Blurriness persisted throughout the day. It was impossible to read more than a few words at a time without frustration. I listened to more Norse Mythology.

It felt like I wore my contacts in for too long. As if they’ve gone blurry from protein buildup. I kept thinking that I should put on my glasses and I’d be able to see. Or take out the old contacts and my vision would clear right up. The brain does funny things when it’s trying to adapt to a new situation. I did some reading and saw something saying that vision declines when the protective lenses are removed. It was not reassuring.

By the end of the day my vision almost felt decent. I could read text at 125% with only a little blurring. I could see well enough to butter toast. And then I put the drops in again, and everything went back to blurry.

Day 4
With halfway decent vision, I decided to cut a bagel for breakfast. I didn’t get my finger out of the way and laid it open with a quarter inch slice. Thirty minutes later, I went in for the 3 day (4 day, really) checkup. The bandage contact lenses came out, and any thoughts of “almost decent” vision were soon gone. The doctor said everything was recovering well and looked good.

Unfortunately, blurry vision persisted throughout the day, making reading difficult. I had intended to work at least part of the day, but my to-do list involved a fair amount of writing, and I couldn’t read well enough to do it. I ended up taking a couple conference calls and using PTO for the rest of the day.

Day 5
Woke up to continued blurry vision with little improvement over day 4.

Day 6
More of the same, but a little more clear. Still far from 20/20. I couldn’t read a book with normal text size, and even blowing up the text in an ebook it was still blurry.

Day 7
Woke up feeling like things were more clear, but after putting medication drops in, vision felt blurry again. About like day 6.

One week in, I was not disappointed, but I was not ecstatic, either. From what I read, I was right on track with where most people are. I wished my vision were a little more clear than it was, but I felt safe driving in the afternoon. And for the record had no accidents.

Month 1
Vision has been steady the last few weeks. At the last checkup, two weeks ago, my left eye was around 20/30 and the right was 20/50. Acuity comes and goes, but it was still in the same general area. The doctor reduced me from four to two prednisone drops a day. I could see reasonably well at a distance. When driving, I could see the other vehicles fine, but license plates were blurry. Most of the time my vision felt acceptable, but when I had to read or pay attention to fine details, it was frustrating. It should improve, so I didn’t let myself worry too much about it.

On the plus side, my vision wasn’t actually bad. It was like wearing glasses that are smudged. I could navigate the house and do normal activities with no problems. I still started to reach to take off my glasses before washing my face each night. Then I realized that I didn’t have them anymore, and it made me smile.

Month 2
Vision was pretty solid. For most of each day it was around 20/20. No noticeable blurriness, no haziness, no concerns. My use of the eye drops tapered off over the previous two weeks, so the giant box I bought back in June could last a few more months. After trying a few brands, my favorite has been the Systane Ultra drops. They are every so gooey, and my eyes relax after they go in.

Month 3
We’re now at Month 3 at the time of this post. As far as I can tell, everything is perfect. Maybe even better than perfect. I have had a few days in the last month where my eyes felt dry late in the day, but it wasn’t bad enough to outweigh my inertial laziness and unwillingness to go find the drops.

The surgery itself was easy. The recovery wasn’t as bad as I feared, though day two had some moments that would have been miserable without good drugs. After about two weeks I could see tolerably well, and after about six weeks things were mostly back to normal. The good news is that PRK patients often end up with 20/20 or slightly better vision, though it takes three to six months.

My total cost was right around $4k for both eyes. This included the pre-op appointment, surgery, follow-ups, goggles, cheap sunglasses, and medical eye drops. It didn’t include the hydrocodone prescription or the additional lubricating eye drops.

I am under doctor’s orders to wear sunglasses when outdoors in order to prevent possible hazing in my eyes. The irony of giving up eye glasses to wear sunglasses is not lost on me, but when it was pouring down rain at Notting Hill Carnival, I could see just fine, which was heavenly. It is also amazing to wake up at night and be able to see across the room. Every evening when I go to wash my face before bed, I still reach for eye glasses that are no longer there.

Would I do surgery again? Yes.
Would I choose PRK over Lasik again? Yes.
Have I already been smashed in the face with an errant soccer ball? Also yes.
Do I have any regrets? NONE

Some Sartorial Advice for Junior Developers

Why, hello there. If you’re trying to navigate the transition from jeans and a t-shirt to the kinds of clothes you can wear to an interview / onsite with clients / to a job with a dress code, here are some pointers. There are few rules to style, and these shouldn’t be taken as such. They’re more things I’ve picked up in the course of my career, but I think they’ll help someone that isn’t sure where to start.

If you need to wear a suit, you need one that fits. It’s possible to spend thousands of dollars on a tailored suit, but unless you’re in finance, it’s not necessary. If you can get a made-to-measure suit, that’s probably your best option. Something like Suit Supply, Thick as Thieves, or Endocino are popular options. If you can visit one of their stores in person, they’ll take your measurements and cut a suit for you based on an existing pattern that is close to what you need. This will get you a suit that fits well and is made with reasonably good material. If you aren’t close enough to visit, you can often do your measurements at home.

A navy suit jacket by Thick as Thieves

For your first suit, go with navy or charcoal. Can’t decide which? Flip a coin; heads navy, tails charcoal. If you’re having it made, anyway, get an extra pair of trousers cut from the same roll of cloth. It won’t cost much more, and the trousers will be the first piece to wear out. Personally, I’d get a vest a made, too.

A new suit comes with a wealth of choices. Notch lapels or peak? One vent or two? Button cuffs or sewn? What color lining? You can’t truly go wrong here, but my observation is that senior folks tend to have peak lapels, two vents cover your ass better than one, and it’s cheaper to adjust the cuffs if the button holes are sewn. For the lining, I’d stick to something that’s similar to the color of the suit, at least on this first suit. (I did once work with a guy who had shirts that matched the lining of his suits, and it was a nice touch, but that’s more advanced than we need here.)

If you have an option to upgrade the buttons to horn, do it. Plastic buttons look cheap because they are cheap. (I wish I had done this. I still might.) If you have an option to pay a little more for pick stitching, consider it. It’s not make or break by any means, but it’s a nice touch. (Another thing I wish I had done.)

Things to look out for in the fitting:
The shoulder pads should end with your shoulders.
Can you raise your arms to horizontal without the arms binding?
When you button the jacket (always the leave the bottom button unbuttoned), do you see an X across your chest? If you do, it’s a sign the jacket is too tight.
Can you walk comfortably without the trousers binding in the crotch? What about climbing a few stairs?
The bottom of the jacket should be halfway between your head and your feet, neatly dividing your body in half. If it’s much longer, you look like a kid wearing his dad’s suit. If it’s much shorter, you look like a kid who has outgrown his only suit. Neither are the end of the world, but if you’re getting a jacket made, make sure it fits.

Getting the right fit in the shoulders is the most important part of suit sizing. It’s easy to adjust cuffs, and it’s easy to adjust sleeves, but if the suit doesn’t fit in the shoulders, it’s doomed. Next up is the fit in the chest followed by the seat of the trousers.

Can you go to Jos A Bank, Mens Wearhouse, or JC Penny to get your suit? Well, technically, yes. But don’t. For not much more, you can get a higher quality material that will fit you better. If getting measured by one of the big made to measure places isn’t an option, check out a Nordstrom Rack and find something that fits right in the shoulders and chest, then get the sleeves and legs adjusted. You want wool without a polyester blend.

Burgundy oxfords by Meermin.

Now that you have a suit, you need shoes. Your options are black, one of a million shades of brown, or burgundy. For your first pair, go with burgundy. One, I love the color. Two, it looks good with navy, charcoal, light gray, and white; basically anything but black or brown. I personally like both split toes and cap toes, though neither are considered as formal as a plain toe. Monk strap vs laces is your call. Both look good. For brands, Allen Edmonds is a good Made in the USA choice. Don’t pay full retail. They’re routinely on sale for $250 or less. And yes, good dress shoes are probably going to set you back about $250. If you want to look more to Europe, Carmina, Meermin, or Loake are nice shoes at decent prices. While you can get by on an $80 pair of shoes from the mall, if you spend a bit more, you’ll have something that will last you ten or more years with proper care.

When you buy your shoes, buy a matching belt. You don’t strictly need one if you’re wearing a suit that fits properly, but it’s nice to have for all the times you’re wearing trousers and a dress shirt without the jacket. I don’t have much of an opinion on buckles. Something simple and silver would be my choice, but you do you.

What about suspenders? you might ask. Yeah, what about them? I don’t own a pair and I don’t have much of an opinion on them. I would probably stick to a belt on the first suit and branch out to suspenders once you are able to read this post and think “your style is boring.”

Plain blue dress shirt by TM Lewin

Next up are shirts. To get started, go with Charles Tyrwhitt or TM Lewin. Both regularly run deals that let you get 4 shirts for $150 or so. They are not the best shirts in the world. They are better than what your mom bought you at the mall when you needed a shirt for pictures in high school. (Hi mom! No offense!) For the first four shirts, get a white one with texture, a blue one with texture, a blue one with a pattern, and something with some spunk. Pink or lavender or orange; whatever you like and whatever you think will look good on you. I love my lavender shirts and wear them regularly. If you’re in America, get button cuffs. If you’re in Europe, get French cuffs and some cuff links.

And finally you’ll need a tie. There are ten million options and most of them are bad. So I’m going to make this really, really easy. Start with one tie: a navy blue grenadine silk tie. Grenadine is a type of silk that’s woven into lace. It’s soft, it’s textured, and it matches practically everything. A decent one will run you about $90. Sam Hober and John Henric make quality ties at better prices than the bigger London tailors. You’ll pay more than you would at Tyrwhitt or Lewin, but you’ll get a better quality, and this tie will last you decades.

Navy grenadine tie by Sam Hober

In theory the socks should match the color of the trousers rather than the shoe. In reality, socks are a place to have fun and throw in some wild colors and patterns. Personally, I have some socks that I bought from Uniqlo that are solid colors with some texture, but I’m not terribly adventurous.

Speaking of Uniqlo, I highly recommend the Heatech and Airism undershirts. Also highly recommend the Airism boxers and boxer briefs. Most men I’ve seen in London have not had undershirts under their dress shirts. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps they like sweat and deodorant stains on their shirts? Personally, I go with undershirts that either match my shirt color or are neutral.

Hopefully that gets you started. If you have questions or want to gripe at me, you can use the comment system here, but I’m bad at checking it. Try twitter instead: @dbrentbaldwin

Welcome to London

Things to Do in Advance
Before you leave home, download City Mapper and Trip Advisor on your phone. City Mapper handles the transit options better than Google maps. There are more restaurant reviews for London on Trip Advisor than Yelp. I would also download the official Transport for London Tube Map to your phone. While there’s supposed to be 4G reception in the tube starting in 2019, there’s no guarantee visitors will have working data plans.

The Gherkin, one of the most distinctive buildings in London.

Bring comfortable walking shoes. If you’re accustomed to hopping in the car to get everywhere, your feet are in for a surprise. I’m seriously not kidding here, and I have the tendinitis to prove it. London and New York are similar when it comes to getting around. Springfield has more in common with the moon than it does New York or London. My first trip to London I had a pair of stylish sneakers, and I wore them some and dress shoes some. My feet were killing me after two weeks. When I went back to the States I bought a pair of decent running shoes and some high quality insoles to go in them. (Shout out to Fleet Feet Shoes in Springfield.) Three weeks of daily walking in London, and my feet feel great.

A rain jacket is a good idea. A compact umbrella is a good idea. A big golf umbrella is a poor idea. London gets less rain than New York, but the rain it gets falls more slowly and lasts longer.

Have a pen in your carry-on. You’ll need it to complete the immigration arrival form. Also know the address for where you’ll be staying. Be prepared to spend an hour standing in line at immigration.

Things to Know Once You Arrive
If you want cheap mobile service in London, do not do it at the airport. Get into the city and stop at any of the mobile shops that are on every street. As long as you have an unlocked phone, you can buy a sim card for £10 that will give you a few gigs of data, some amount of minutes, and unlimited texts for a month.

To get from Heathrow to central London you have a few options. There are cabs and ride hailing services, but expect them to take an hour and set you back £50 or more. The better options are to take the trains. If you’re in a hurry, the Heathrow Express will get you to the middle of the city in 15 minutes for about £25. As you leave the airport, look for signs indicating trains. You want an actual train, not the Underground (aka tube aka a subway, though a subway here is actually an underground footpath). The most common option is probably the tube. Look for signs saying Underground. The trip will take about 45 minutes on the Picadilly line and cost around £3. Personally, if I’m just lugging a suitcase or two, the tube is fine. Everyone else leaving Heathrow will be hauling luggage, too.

The pond and sculptures at the York House Gardens in Twickenham

To use public transit you will need either a contactless bank card or an Oyster card. If you’re coming from the States, you should plan to buy an Oyster card. This can be done at any tube station, including Heathrow. If you’re going to be in London running around doing touristy things, £5 to £8 per day is a good estimate. You can add more to the card in the middle of your trip, if necessary.

Busses don’t stop unless you signal them. Many bus stops have multiple routes, and the driver will assume you’re waiting on another bus unless you signal. To signal, step to the curb and extend an arm, fingers outstretched.

Once you’re on the bus, it might not stop to let you off unless you signal. There are red buttons all over the bus. Simply push one when you hear your stop announced. A bell will ring, and usually a sign will light up at the front of the bus that says, “Stopping.”

Double-decker buses offer a great view of the city. You should probably sit upstairs unless you are elderly, with a small child, or disabled. Or if your ride is only a few minutes, in which case consider standing.

The tube is great, though it gets crowded at rush hour. When you’re using the escalator, stand on the right only. People will shoulder you out of the way if you block the left side. When waiting to board your train, stand to the side of the doors and let people exit down the middle. You have to tap in when you enter the station, and you also have to tap out when you leave it. This shouldn’t be an issue unless you ride the DLR (Docklands Light Rail).

Things to Do While You’re Here
Most museums in London are free, though they do often have paid exhibits. They also have a donation box, but it’s truly a donation and not a shakedown. Feel free to drop £5 in the box. Or not. Your call.

A model of the Globe Theatre at the Museum of London

I loved the Museum of London. It shows London from the Paleolithic through the modern era. You walk through in sequential order, and it is wonderfully arranged. The Imperial War Museum is the 1B to Museum of London’s 1A. The tanks and planes are good, but the can’t miss portion is the Holocaust gallery. Prepare to be gutted.

Other places I enjoyed
Victoria & Albert
The National Maritime Museum
The Cutty Sark
The Tate Britain

I need to spend more time at the V&A. What I saw I enjoyed, but it was only an hour.

There are plenty more I haven’t visited yet, too. (Yet!)

Bits & Bobs for Other Things in the City
If you go to a football match, you will not be able to take your beer to your seat. The fan culture is even more tribal than in the US. Where Americans will jeer the opposing players, the fans here will jeer the opposing players but especially the opposing fans. It’s uglier than I expected. My understanding is that the beer prohibition is to prevent thrown cups and to contain some of the ugliness. This is one of the biggest cultural differences I’ve found, but to be fair to the English, I haven’t ever been to a Raiders game, either.

The view of Wembley as you leave the train station.

If you go to the theater, you will be able to take your beer, wine, or cocktail to your seat. I saw Wicked for 30 quid and bought my ticket the day of the show. The seat wasn’t great, but it was incredible value. There are plenty of shows with similar options. Also plenty with better, pricier seats. The performance was fantastic, and I can’t wait to go back with my girls.

The stage before the performance started at the Apollo Victoria Theatre

I’ll do some food reviews once I’ve visited a few more places. There are plenty of amazing places to eat here, and I’d like visit a few more so I can present a wider variety.

Safe travels!

Goodbye, America

The Golden Gate from the north shore

Dear America,

I’m leaving you. Or by the time you’ve read this, perhaps I will have already left. It’s not you, it’s me. Well, actually, it’s both of us.

I’m leaving for professional reasons. I’m also leaving for personal reasons. The chance to move to London, see and experience much of what it has to offer, and to see and experience more of Europe in general, well, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. But more than seeing and experiencing Europe, the move is about perspective.

One World Trade Center

A few years ago I spent five weeks in China. When I came home, I saw America differently. It’s a lot easier to eat spaghetti with forks. It’s reassuring when the baby formula doesn’t have guards. It’s hard to find good Mexican food in a country that shares no land borders with Mexico. I want my daughters to have that kind of perspective. I want them to be able to look at their country with a critical, constructive eye, and I want them to have a broad frame of reference for that criticism.

Like the old saying goes, it’s hard to see the Ewoks when you’re in the middle of the bantha.

To be honest, I’m not hopeful about how things will be when I return. We’ve been on an ugly path lately, and I don’t see many signs of it changing for the better. The water is simmering, but most of the frogs are still croaking merrily.

A duck pond in North Texas

November is coming, folks. If you stood on the sidelines in 2016 because you felt like you had two bad choices, don’t stand on them this time around. If you’re rich enough and white enough and healthy enough that the GOP isn’t going to screw you over when they gut social security or WIC or healthcare (again), then vote for who you want. Otherwise, look real hard at your less fortunate neighbors, look real hard in the mirror, and vote for candidates that aren’t going to actively work to screw over average Americans in order to prop up themselves and their donors. You could do a lot worse than picking the candidate that exhibits the most (or any) compassion.

You’ve got this, America. I believe in you. And I’d really like to come back home to a country that isn’t in worse shape than the one I’m leaving. Don’t be a frog.



Autumn in the Ozarks

Summer 2018 Update

A supermrine Spitfire suspended at the Imperial War Museum
Photo taken at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Oh, hello again.

Some things are changing around here. I’m moving from southwest Missouri to London, UK this summer. There will be more blog posts. Expect to hear lots about museums, food, travel, and general life in a place that is very different from my corner of the Ozarks.

There is a novel in-progress. It’s a sprawling thing that isn’t quite science fiction, isn’t quite fantasy, is definitely not Hamilton fanfic, but is definitely inspired by the American Revolution, wealth inequality, steampunk, and the month I cooked vegetarian food. “Sounds weird,” you’re thinking. “But I like weird. When can I read it?” Now that, dear reader, is a good question. I don’t have a good answer. “Someday” would definitely be accurate. “Next year” would be too ambitious. I’m planning to send this one out to the major publishers when I feel like it’s ready. It may well be years before it’s either published or I give up on selling it and publish it myself. Don’t hold your breath, but keep an eye on this space for updates.

There’s also another Porter Melo story kicking around in my head, but I probably won’t write it until Prosperity, LTD is out on submission. The Porter Melo story will be about soccer, FIFA corruption, and organized crime. Probably set in London since I’ll be able to do plenty of onsite research. This one I likely will self-publish. Ideally it will be available before the 2022 World Cup.

I do have a new story available Right Now, though. It’s only available in paperback, and you can find it in the Santa Barbara Literary Journal at Amazon. The story is titled “Petunia’s Baby” and it’s about a young lady that falls in love with the wrong sort of man, realizes that the world doesn’t owe her anything, and finds her own happy ending. Spoiler alert: things get dark, fast. If you’ve read “Who We Once Were, Who We’ll Never Be” (my story about the young lady in China), you’ll notice some similarities. Look, I won’t pretend that these aren’t my way of trying to send not-so-subtle messages to my daughters. Kick ass and take names, ladies. And have an alibi.

Altar of Tyranny: Available Now


Indeed, Altar of Tyranny has been available since Tuesday, but it’s also available now. And probably tomorrow, too. Maybe even the day after that.

Initial reactions have been strong. People are buying it. More people than I personally know, so that’s always a good sign.

You can find it in ebook or trade paperback, though the paperback is only available through Amazon and CreateSpace.

Amazon US, UK, CA, AU
Barnes & Noble

Coming December 8th: Altar of Tyranny

Greetings Revolutionaries!

It’s that time again. The holidays are nearly upon us, but it’s also time for a new book release and an ever higher bomb, bullet, and body count. Porter Melo is still in Hong Kong, and the world is collapsing around his ears. After the fiasco of the last job for the CIA, Sam’s on the ropes mentally, Porter is exhausted, and the Yan family is waging war against the state. But there’s no rest for the weary, and a Melo always looks after his own, so Porter is right back in the thick of things as the revolution turns into an all-out war.


The book is available for preorder at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon AU, Amazon CA, Kobo, and Apple. It will be available on December 8th at those retailers as well as at Barnes & Noble.

Every writer wants the newest book to be his best work yet. I can say with certainty that The Altar of Tyranny is a big step forward for me. It’s been a year that I’ve been working on it, and it’s been through more work and re-work than anything else I’ve ever written. I’ve tried to raise the bar for characterization, detail, and general mayhem higher than ever before. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

A New Crop of Boardgames

It’s been a while since my last boardgames post and I’ve played a number of other games in the last two years. Many of these games aren’t exactly new, but they’re new to me.

Some new favorites:

Hanabi Box

This is a cooperative card game with a unique twist. You don’t see your own cards until you play them. There are five colors of cards (plus a bonus rainbow color for advanced players) with numbers one through five. The goal is to play all five colors in order from one to five. Each player gets a turn and they have one of three actions. The player may give a clue to another player. The player may play a card from their hand. The player may discard a card. Players win by playing all twenty-five cards or by getting through the deck without four misplays. There are some limitations on the kinds of clues and the number of clues, but it’s a very elegant set of rules.

The game is deceptively simple, and there are layers of strategy in which clues a person provides, who receives clues and even how long it has been since a person has received a clue.

This a fascinating game, and I highly, highly recommend it.

Love Letter

Love Letter
Another fairly quick card game, but not cooperative. In this game there are eight types of cards ranging from a lowly guard all the way to the princess. The theme is that the player is trying to send a letter to the princess, and the person that sends her letter as close to the princess as possible wins the round. The players start with one card in their hand and then draw a single new card each turn. Each type of card has a unique effect, and the player must always play one card. There’s a good bit of interaction between players, and the rounds move very quickly. My girls love the game, though I’m not quite as crazy about it. The randomness of the card draws has just as much (or more) outcome on the game as the individual player’s decisions. This makes it fun for newer (or younger) players, but it gets old for those with more experience.

It’s fun, but simple, and well worth consideration.


Pandemic is an older game, but my group has only recently started playing it. We immediately loved the theme of CDC researchers trying to stop the world’s destruction by multiple viruses. The game requires good communication and good coordination in order to succeed, but even then there are no guarantees. Some of the role cards are significantly stronger than others, so if you’d like an easier path into the game, consider selecting some of the more powerful roles.

I love this game. The theme, the teamwork, the nailbiting tension as the draw deck dwindles and too many infections remain on the board. It’s a blast and a must-play.

Terra Mystica

Terra Mystica
In Terra Mystica you are playing as one of 14 different factions. The victory conditions are the same for every faction, but there are some differences in how they get there.

The basic goal of the game is to terraform land, build buildings, lead a cult, and score victory points. The game happens over the course of six (or maybe it’s seven, I don’t remember exactly) rounds. You get points along the way for leading some faction of the cult (Wind, Water, Earth, Fire) or building certain buildings.

The buildings themselves are pretty amazing. You have the settlement, recognizable from Settlers of Catan. It upgrades into the “trading post,” recognizable as the city from Settlers of Catan. The trading post upgrades to a Stronghold, recognizable as a squarish wooden thing, not from Settlers of Catan. Or if you’re feeling cultish, the trading post instead upgrades to a temple, recognizable as a round wooden thing that could belong to any other game ever. And finally the temple upgrades to a more expensive temple, not substantially different than a regular temple, called a sanctuary.

The real clever bit here is that your buildings are all on a little mat in front of you, and much like in Eclipse, when you place a building on the board, you then get paid the resources that the building was previously covering on your mat. Your settlements provide workers. Your trading posts provide money and “power.” Your strongholds provide something unique for each faction. Your temples and sanctuaries provide priests each turn, but also each one you build allows you to a gain a favor, and the favor itself provides various things including one time perks and recurring resources. The real key here is that you have to expand territory to put out new settlements, and those settlements provide additional workers, but when you upgrade the settlements, you put them back on your little mat, and you lose the worker income. So the game becomes a balancing act between going horizontal into more territory or vertical into better buildings.

There are four currencies in the game. One is money. It’s just… money. But money can’t buy you love, and neither can it buy you buildings unless someone actually builds them. So money gets used with your workers from your settlements to upgrade your buildings. Once you build temples, you get priests. They are used for things like building a navy (because buggery?) or incurring favor with the cults. Along the way, various things give you “power” and this is the most interesting currency, at least from a “I haven’t see anything work like this before” perspective.

Power is a finite resource on your playing mat, something like 14 little purple chips. These chips live in a set of three connected circles cleverly numbered 1, 2, and 3. They start in some combination of circles 1 and 2. The gimmick is that to spend them (which lets you do things and also moves the chips back to circle 1), you need chips in circle 3. And you can only move chips from 2 to 3 if all the chips are gone from circle 1. You can use power to gain extra money, extra priests, extra workers, bridges (recognizable as the roads from Settlers of Catan) that allow you to link buildings across rivers, and a few other things that don’t spring to mind. Once you get an engine going to bring in resources, power gives you a good bit of flexibility.

At the end of the game you score points for your position on each of the four cultist tracks. You also score for the total size (horizontal; it ignores vertical) of the linked buildings in your empire. And I definitely missed that the scoring ignored upgrades the first time I played, so that hurt. Ultimately, it’s a very clever, very fun game that combines the best bits of several other games, adds some of its own and calls it a day.

Risk Legacy

Risk: Legacy
This is not the Risk of my childhood. Yes, there’s still some dice rolling, and yes, Australia is still really strong, but there are so many changes that game only bears a passing resemblance to its namesake.

The biggest, most unique aspect of the game is that you the player will permanently alter the game every time you play it. At the very beginning of the game the players start by customizing their starting factions. Each faction has a sticker sheet with some abilities on it, and you only use part of those stickers. Once they are put on the faction’s card, they are permanent, and the others are thrown in the trash forever and ever amen. This is a theme that repeats itself through out the game. Events happen. Players respond. The game forever changes.

The second amazing aspect of the game are the “surprise” bins. The box ships with a number of sealed compartments. You are only supposed to open those compartments when the events listed on the compartment occur. This can be something like putting thirty armies on the board or using three nuclear missiles in a single combat or creating a special city. The boxes contain new cards to add to the game, new rules to put into the new rule book and all manner of wondrous and amazing things.

One of the single best moments I’ve had in any board game was when one of my regular gaming buddies and I got into a fight over a third buddy’s capital. The fight triggered an event, and it permanently modified that space on the board. It. Was. Glorious.

Unlike the Risk of yore, the game finishes when the first player acquires four tokens. At the beginning of the game (as in when you first start playing it), each player starts with one of these tokens, so victory can occur by capturing only three enemy capitals. No needs to conquer the whole world; only their nearest neighbors.

The game is intended to played fifteen times before the board stops changing. It’s been a blast getting to fifteen, and while there’s no reason to stop, I’m more likely to buy a new copy of it and start over from scratch. I really enjoy Risk: Legacy, and if you’re into wargames, you should take a look at it.