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!

2014 Reading

January was a lousy month for writing. I wrote a short story for the William Ledbetter contest, and that’s it. I started two novels, and while I do want to finish them both, they won’t get finished with the plot or characters I had mind. C’est la vie.

On the other hand, January was a great month for reading.

Non-fiction
War – Sebastian Junger
My Story Can Beat Up Your Story – Jeffrey Schechter
Wired for Story – Lisa Cron

Novels
Big Red’s Daughter – John McPartland
Scrapyard Ship – Mark Wayne McGinnis
On Basilisk Station – David Weber
Terms of Enlistment – Marko Kloos
Armor – John Steakley
Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
Redshirts – John Scalzi
Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein
Sand – Hugh Howey (incomplete)

Short Fiction
Clockwork Soldier – Ken Liu
The Wrong Foot – Stephanie Burgis
Pastry Run – Nancy Fulda
Cannibal – Chuck Palahniuk
The Jackal’s Wedding – Vajra Chandrasekera
That Undiscovered Country – Nancy Fulda
The Lamplighter Legacy – Patrick O’Sullivan
Taking the High Road – RPL Johnson
Letting Go – David Walton
She Who Lies in Secret – Steven R Stewart
Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls – Richard Parks

Not many of those were published last month, let alone last year, but this is about when I read (or re-read) them, not when they were published. I do intend to finish Sand, but I found myself distracted by non-fiction. The “I should be writing” guilt doesn’t way on me as heavily when I can justify my procrastination on “research.”

What I’m Reading

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, so I’ve had extra time to read while sitting in airports and in airplanes.

In no particular order:

Jake Tapper, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor (A+ heart rending non-fiction)
David Farland, Million Dollar Outlines
David Farland, Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing
Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
Melanie Marchande, I Married a Billionaire (reading outside my normal genres)
Barry Eisler, A Lonely Resurrection
Barry Eisler, Inside Out
Jeffrey Ford, Creation (short story)
James White, Un-Birthday Boy (short story)
David Cordingly, Pirate Hunter of the Caribbean (non-fiction about the golden age of piracy)
Brit Mendelo, The Finite Canvas (short story)
Rachel Swirsky, Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia (short story)
Meghan McCarron, Swift, Brutal Retaliation (short story)
Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Jay Lake, The Stars Do Not Lie (short story)
Mary Robinette Kowal, The Lady Astronaut of Mars (short story)
David Farland, Charley in the Wind (short story)
Donald Edwin Westlake, They Also Serve (short story)
Ernest Hemingway, A Clean Well-lighted Place (short story)

I think that covers the last month or so. Maybe the last two. Of all those, I recommend Jake Tapper’s the most. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were remote events to me, and he told a powerful, moving story that brought the cost of war home.

It’s Not Cancer

I spent nine days in the hospital earlier this month. It wasn’t a fun experience, but I’m home now and finally on the mend. It started the week after Memorial Day. The Wednesday after the holiday I had some shooting pains in my stomach. The first doctor thought it might be an ulcer, so he prescribed some medication to help with the pain and the acid formation. After a couple days with no appetite and no ability to keep food down, we decided that if it was an ulcer, it wasn’t just an ulcer. I suffered through a tough weekend before finally going to the ER on Monday, June 4.

The ER moved me to the main hospital in the wee hours of June 5 with a premilinary diagnosis of a bowel obstruction. I spent most of week completely miserable. I knew I wasn’t getting better, even though the days were trickling on by. I had a tube down my nose to keep my stomach drained. I couldn’t eat or drink anything. Once the diagnosis was confirmed and the doctor was sure the stomach suction wouldn’t clear the obstruction, I went to surgery on Friday the 9th.

They gutted me like a fish.

I have 6 inch incision down the center of my stomach now. The doctor found a “thick band” of scar tissue that was choking off my small intestine. He also removed some adhesions from my stomach and cleaned up the old scar. While I was opened up, samples were taken for biopsy.

The good news is that I’m on the mend. My digestive system is working again. The better news is that the biopsies all came back negative—there are no signs of cancer. The bad news is that I’m *sore.* I have a minor wound infection, so I’m getting to experience the joy of having a small portion of my incision packed with gauze everyday to enable it to heal from the inside out.

Many, many thanks to everyone that helped us out. Carissa was at the hospital with me almost the entire time. That wouldn’t have been possible without everyone’s help with the girls. It really means a lot to us. Extra special thanks to Carissa for being there with me quite literally day and night. Being in the hospital is a miserable experience. It would have been far more miserable if I had been there alone.

I feel tremendously better than I did a week ago. I no longer have a tube down my nose. I can eat and drink whatever I like. Most importantly, I’m home.

A Eulogy for My Pawpaw

My Pawpaw died on the Sunday before Memorial Day. That’s now two and a half weeks ago. I composed this eulogy in the days after learning about his death, but life has conspired against me getting it written and posted until now.

My Pawpaw had 26 grandchildren. Many of them hardly knew him. Some of them knew him more as a father than a grandfather. Even of the ones that knew him as a grandfather, I’ve known him the longest. This is my story of him. My story of Pawpaw.

When I was little, maybe pre-K or early elementary, Pawpaw ran the FBO (airport) in Flippin, Arkansas. It was the kind of lazy little place that didn’t get too much traffic, and if there was a little boy riding his bicycle across the runway, it wasn’t a big deal as long as the boy had the sense to watch for planes landing. I remember my dad and my uncles brush hogging a path through the field that separated Pawpaw’s house and the airport. I would ride my bicycle through the field and then all over the airport.

Pawpaw used to take me flying. One flight in particular stands out after all these years. Pawpaw had me sitting in the front with him, and he banked the plane way up onto a wing until my nose was pressed against the side window. It was terrifying. Then he brought us back level. Once I calmed down, he let me drive. What did I do? Bank the opposite direction until HE was pushed up against the window. He thought it was just as hilarious as I did, and after he made sure we weren’t going to stall, he let me keep flying.

Without exception, every single person that has ever offered me an opinion about Pawpaw has thought highly of him. My mother’s family attended my grandfather’s church in Northern Arkansas years before I was born. They love him to this day. When I was fifteen, I rode along when Pawpaw made a trip to Teterboro, New Jersey. The folks in the airport, hotel and restaurant greeted him enthusiastically, some of them by name. It was then that I realized that my Pawpaw had never met a stranger. I doubt he ever did.

While we were in Teterboro, Pawpaw took me across the Hudson River and into Manhattan for the first time. We walked around part of Manhattan, though all I really remember was seeing the Empire State Building and walking on the steps in front of Madison Square Garden. There was no particular reason to take me halfway across the country just to go for a walk in Manhattan, but Pawpaw thought I’d enjoy it. He was right.

Once in a while my dad would take us kids over to see Pawpaw and Grandma, even if there wasn’t any particular reason to visit. On those visits, you could catch Pawpaw watching television. When he was around, his TV only had two choices: The Weather Channel and Westerns. I never saw the man watch a movie that didn’t involve horses and dusty men with guns. I never did ask him to explain what it was about John Wayne and Gary Cooper that so enthralled him.

In high school I drove my dad’s old Toyota Tercel for a while. When I took it over, it needed new brakes. I changed the disk brakes in the front myself, but I didn’t know what to do about the drum brakes in the back. Dad sent me over to Pawpaw’s. I pulled the Tercel onto the hill that passed as Pawpaw’s driveway, set my emergency brake, and went inside. Pawpaw followed me back out, wearing jeans and a button up shirt. (This was as casual as I ever saw the man. I think he wore slacks and a button up shirt in the shower.)

We jacked up the car and took off the rear wheel. When we tried to unbolt the drum, we ran into problems. Even unbolted, it wouldn’t come off. After fifteen minutes of tedious work with a screwdriver, Pawpaw loosened it with an emergency release I hadn’t known existed. We got the brake changed with some more work, and Pawpaw suggested we test it before doing the other side. We hopped in the car, I took off the emergency brake and away we went. When we came back to park, he very politely suggested that I leave the e-brake off this time. We had the wheel off, the drum off, and the pad changed in about ten minutes. He never had a negative word to say about the extra work I had unwittingly caused us (him).

A couple years later I was at the end of high school, about to go to college. It was summer and I was broke. Pawpaw came by the house one afternoon and mentioned that he could use some help cleaning airplanes. I was interested in helping because, hey, airplanes, but then he mentioned it was the kind of thing that would pay, and if I did a good job, it could turn into something regular. I cleaned airplanes most every Saturday for four years. I didn’t always do a good job. Sometimes I was tired. Sometimes I was hungover. Sometimes I was lazy. Pawpaw never had a negative word to say. In retrospect, I don’t think he really needed the help. He could clean faster and better than I could. I think he just knew I could use the extra money and cleaning was a way he could help me out when I needed it.

I appreciated it back then because I did need the money. Those weekly trips to the airport kept gas in my car and food in my belly. I appreciate it now because of the thoughtfulness. He created a job out of thin air, just because he saw the need.

Since college I haven’t seen as much of Pawpaw. I’ve had my own family to raise, and I’ve had a falling out with my father. I’m indescribably sad that Pawpaw is gone so soon. The Pawpaw I saw at the visitation and at the funeral isn’t the man I choose to remember. The one I remember was vibrant. He never had a gray hair on his head (I’m told he had a little help on that front). He always had a ready smile, and a willingness to help. That’s my Pawpaw. That’s who I’ll remember.

Picker, grocer, preacher, pilot. Pawpaw.