Category: Personal (Page 1 of 4)

Four Years (and Change)

There’s wayyy more dog under the water that you can’t see (thanks to the eldest child for the photo)

This summer marks four years since we moved from the Ozarks to London. We’ve survived a global pandemic, multiple heat waves, and the brilliant idea of adopting a puppy and a kitten at the same time. 

The pandemic did, eventually, catch up to us. Both the youngest child and I had positive tests in late June and early July. It was a miserable experience, and not one I want to repeat. I had a fever and sore joints for three days. Those eased up, but a sore throat, persistent cough, and general fatigue hung around for a few more days. Eventually, after about a week, I was down to a mild cough. In the time we’ve been in London, I’ve been wiped out a few other times by viruses that ran their course in a couple days. This was much worse and for much longer. I feel fortunate that covid didn’t impact me as much as it did some of my coworkers, and even more fortunate that I was able to get back to running after about three weeks. 

Gratuitous food pic so Brittany isn’t disappointed

Speaking of running, I’m in the middle of a marathon training block for a race in October. Post-covid I tried to ease my way back to my prior mileage, but it was a bit too much for my knees to handle. I’ve had to lower my training targets, but that still means I’m running 30 miles a week and will be in the 40s when I hit the peak in late August and early September. 

I have not yet taken Aela out running, but her day is coming. Fetch is life, but hopefully, she’ll take well to running with me once I get through this marathon. We’ll practice a bit between now and then, too. She’s gotten past the worst of the chewing, but at the cost of four sets of headphones, countless boxes, and my 20-year-old Serengeti sunglasses. I did, finally, have to replace them. 

The weather in England has been sunny and hot this summer. This is a country where most homes don’t have air conditioning. Not only that but they’re built to retain heat. Historically, we spend much of the winter around freezing with highs in the (I’m switching to Fahrenheit for the Yanks) 40s. When you’re heating the house with hot water pumped to radiators in each room, you want the building to hold the heat. Summers are usually more like highs in the low 70s. This summer we recorded the nation’s highest-ever temperature of about 105. Add a drought to that, and this is a very crunchy, very brown island.  

That boy loves him some dog food

Despite Aela’s best efforts, Fezzik is still alive and well. They fight like, well, cats and dogs. I understand the cliche now, okay. It would go easier for him if he didn’t try to steal her dog food at every opportunity. Or if he didn’t periodically race past her and swat her in the face. We joke in the house that Aela is smart, for a dog. Well, Fezzik is dumb, for a cat. It’s opposite ends of the pet intelligence bell curve in here. 

Stealing more pictures from the kids. Aela loves the paddleboard as much as they do

The kids are well. We–mostly the eldest child, to be fair–survived the nearly two months of GCSE (general certificate of secondary education) exams. Results are coming later this month. Imagine taking the SATs, but you have to take them every day for the better part of two months. The education system in this country feels practically foreign at times. The youngest child had school until mid-July, but she’s on break now, too. Both kids and the dog have been spending the last week taking the paddleboard out on the Thames. It’s very much tbd on which of the three of them like the paddleboard the best, and in this heat, it’s hard to blame them. 

A day out in Tottenham with new sunglasses and a pretty lady

Football is back. The England women’s team won the European Championship a couple weeks ago. The youngest child and I were able to get to the Germany vs Austria match at Brentford. We had a lovely time. Last weekend Carissa and I went out to Tottenham for Spurs’ Premier League opener. It was beautiful weather, the nicest stadium in the world, and the home team won. We had a great day out. 

The writing continues, albeit slowly. I’ve written a few short stories this summer and sent them out on submission. I’m stalled on two novels. One needs edits; the other needs me to finish the first draft. The combination of being busy with work, busy with running, and having Fezzik and Aela around has reduced my time and energy to a point that writing has had to take a back seat for a while. I’ll work more diligently on both novels again in a few months, once I get through the marathon and a few trips. 

Take care of yourselves, folks.

He’s as dumb as he is cute, and he’s mighty cute

Every Run Is A Gift

You may recall the previous entry about running. In the middle of the Hampton Court Half-marathon I decided that entering the race was the dumbest thing I had ever done, and I was certain I’d never, ever run a full 26.2 miles. At the end of the race, I felt exhausted and triumphant, and I was already planning my next race. The next race was the Kew Gardens Half, which was scheduled for last weekend (10 April).

Aela, relaxing

The training block started in December, which meant sticking to a decent running schedule while we were visiting family in Missouri. I put together a plan modified from the Hanson Half-marathon plan and did a decent job holding to it with lots of runs by Fellows Lake and even one in the middle of Springfield. Things were going great until mid-January when I was playing football and felt something like a hot knife drive into the bottom of my kneecap. It passed quickly, but it came back with a vengeance the next day while I was walking to the kids’ school. It was strange because it was so sporadic. I could walk a hundred meters with no issues at all, only to be hit by a dagger to the kneecap with the next step.

The Thames at Barnes on my last long run before the Kew Gardens Half

In retrospect, I probably should have seen a professional. In reality, I did some research and found that my symptoms matched patellofemoral pain syndrome aka PFPS aka yet another square on my bingo card of runner’s injuries. Rehab for PFPS is much like rehab for other running injuries: rest until the acute pain subsides (a few days), then strengthen the glutes and legs. I had been doing those exercises, but I am fairly convinced that the bigger issue was the ramp in the training plan’s mileage coupled with the addition of intervals and tempo runs. After years of desk work, my legs weren’t able to handle multiple new stressors at once.

Reader, I have done so many leg raises and butterflies. The good news is: they worked. I was healthy enough to get back to running in March, but I was cautious. I stayed at my easy pace for everything. No intervals. No tempo runs. Only limited strides. I had a few little twinges along the way but felt near 100% by race day.

The morning of the race was cold. Three Celsius (37F), but it was due to warm up pretty quickly. The original plan was shorts and a t-shirt, but I didn’t want to freeze my tail off before the race started, so I decided to go with running tights, a long-sleeve breathable base layer, and a warmer quarter-zip top I could stuff into my camelback prior to the race start. In retrospect, knowing that I would get warmer from running plus the ambient air temperature coming up to about 8C (46F), I should have stuck with the shorts and t-shirt. It wasn’t a huge issue, but I was definitely uncomfortably warm for the last few miles. I now understand why marathoners wear and discard old sweatshirts at the starting line.

This is what middle-age looks like

The race organizers put me into corral 1. At the point I signed up, I thought I’d finish around 1:45, and that made sense. By race day I was hoping to finish around 2:00. Anything under 2:00 was a bonus, and I didn’t think my 1:55 at Hampton Court was in danger.

I made the mistake of shuffling to the back of the corral prior to the start. Little did I know that the back of the corral was actually the front of the corral, and by the time I realized I was next to the 1:30 pacers, things were too tight to wriggle toward the back.

I started much too fast.

My plan was to put in a few 9:00 minute miles before dropping to 8:45 for a few more and then finishing at 8:30. Instead, I came out at 7:50. Even there, I was being passed constantly. It was a bit demoralizing, and I wish I had found a group of people running at a similar speed.

Around the 3 mile mark, I settled into my 8:30 rhythm, and it felt good. I was still being passed by faster runners, but much less frequently. I cruised along (still being passed frequently) through mile 7.5, where I saw Carissa and our friend Yvette waiting at Twickenham Bridge and cheering for me. That was a big lift, just as I was starting to flag.

Around mile 9.5 the fatigue started to creep in. My pace dropped back to about 9:00, and I shuffled along the loop through Ham. When we came back out to the river, I realized my form had collapsed. My shoulders were slumped and my feet were shuffling. I focused on getting my back straight, my glutes firing, and my arms swinging. I repeated what has become my running mantra: every run is a gift. When I’m tired, when it’s cold, when it’s dark, I remind myself what it felt like to be injured and unable to run. I remind myself that every run is a gift, and this is a sport that is about the journey far more than it is the destination (at my paces, anyway). The mantra and the form corrections helped me get back to the 8:30 pace. It wasn’t as easy as before, but it was still sustainable, so I powered through back to Twickenham Bridge where I saw Carissa and Yvette again around mile 11.

At that point, I thought I’d have my revenge on the people who had been passing me. With two miles left, I wanted to up my pace and start picking off stragglers. That lasted about a quarter-mile before I dropped back to about 8:40. My fitness didn’t quite match my ambition. I kept my form and put another burst to clear a group of runners, then cruised at 8:30 to the last 100 meters. I focused on a straight back and high knees, and I ran down a half-dozen people. Two other people managed to pass me in the final 25 meters, but I felt like I finished strong.

My final time of 1:51:15 wasn’t as good as the 1:44 I was targeting in January, but far better than the 2:00 I was hoping to hit at the start of the race. I felt more in control this time, especially the last few miles. I could have held the overall 8:27 pace for a few more miles, but there’s zero chance I could hold it for another 13.1.

I ran with my hydration vest and two 500ml flasks of Tailwind. I only drank about half of each and didn’t otherwise take on any water. In retrospect, I could have skipped the vest and Tailwind, with maybe a single gel around mile 9 to give myself a kick for the final quarter. On the other hand, part of using the vest was to test it in race conditions prior to running a full marathon later in the year, and it worked great. I’ll keep it for long runs when I don’t have water stations and for the full marathon when I actually need nutrition mid-race.

For my next half I have a few takeaways:

  • Skip the hydration vest and just take a gel in my pocket
  • Find the right pacers in the corral
  • Dress for the weather mid-race more than the start

I’m aiming to run a full marathon this autumn, ideally under 4 hours, though the estimators currently put me at about 4:10 based on my weekly training mileage and my half finishing time. I’ll try to bring that down if I can do it while staying healthy.

Fezzik, chillin

Aside from running, things are good in England. We’ve had a few birthdays recently, including some delicious birthday dinners and birthday cakes. We have had Yvette, a friend from one of my very first writing groups, staying with us for a few days, which has provided a good excuse to get out of the house. The pets have not murdered each other yet, and sometimes they can play together for whole minutes at a time. Aela continues to be highly intelligent and highly energetic. We’re all looking forward to puppy school starting later this month.

The author and spouse, enjoying a birthday dinner

I’m taking a couple rest days, but I’ll be back on the trails and river paths this weekend, base building for the autumn marathon.

Every run is a gift.

On Puppies and Kittens

When we came back from our trip to Missouri, the younger child made a compelling case for us to adopt a kitten. “Dad, you miss Piper. I miss Piper. We should get another cat.” She was right. Her mother and I agreed that a cat would be acceptable, but we wanted to find one that would minimize dander for the sake of the elder child’s allergies.

So Carissa adopted a half Angora fluffball. 

If he fits, he sits

Fezzik is undeniably cute. He’s also perfectly willing to sleep in a doll carriage and be carried around the house by anyone who scoops him up. He’ll attack your toes if he sees them wiggling under a blanket, and he’ll claw your hand if you make the painful mistake of messing with him when he’s got the zoomies, but he’s a good boy the rest of the time.

Well, mostly.

20 in charisma, 1 in intelligence

See, he also has a sister.

When man and dog decided that they were going to be best friends, I am 100% certain that the dog in question was an adult dog, not a puppy. If a puppy had tried to befriend a grown man, said puppy would have been fed to the nearest sabertooth tiger after it chewed up the man’s favorite club. And shoes. And tools. Said puppy would have been packed into a neat box and express-mailed straight to Abu Dhabi. 

She’s resting. It doesn’t happen often.

Puppies are hell. I say this because we have one. Again. The eldest child, who has always loved dogs more than everyone except Nonna (her mother may argue, but I am under no illusions about where I, personally, rank), made a compelling case for us to adopt a dog. “You left Ollie in America, and now we’re probably not going back. You should let me get a dog.” A father with a harder heart might have refused, but by acquiescing I hope to have climbed above Mom and possibly Nonna on the favorite person list. 

We’re safe from thieves, drafts, and kittens

So we have a puppy. She’s a border collie. Her name is Aela, as in the character in Skyrim. (Skyrim ranks somewhere below Nonna, possibly above Dad, and definitely above her sister. Ranked. Past tense. I’ve climbed the list.) In the first week Aela lived in our house she learned to sit, lay down, and rollover. She did not learn where to potty.

Puppy resting on a rug
Aela at Rest, part 2. It’s the only way to get a photo of her

In the second week that Aela lived in our house, she learned to shake hands. She did not learn where to potty.

In the third week that Aela lived in our house, she learned where to potty.

No, really. She goes to the door, she whines, and if she’s let out, she uses the back garden (yard). If she is not let out, well, the chips fall where they may. 

Back to the kitten. You know that line in “Ghostbusters” about cats and dogs living together, where it’s compared to human sacrifice and mass hysteria? I believe it, now. 

I’m gonna herd him, Dad

I spend much of my days working from my desk in a corner of the kitchen. Aela spends most of her days hanging out with me and forcing me to distract her from eating the entire house. Fezzik waits outside the kitchen door. As soon as it opens, he darts inside. If Aela sees him, a chase immediately ensues. Fezzik, a perfectly capable climber, could escape, but he has no brains. None. Zero. Nada. He tries to brawl, as if all four pounds of him (we tossed him in a mixing bowl and put him on the kitchen scale to check his weight) can take 25 pounds of border collie. Reader, it cannot. The boy is a chewtoy. We have to separate them lest he be loved to death. It’s not as if Aela is trying to hurt him, but he’s approximately the size of her head. 

Dad, he’s in there, I know it

The best (worst) part is when Aela doesn’t see him. He. Starts. Shit. He will bite her tail. He will bite her ears. He will leap three feet into the air and engage in vertical combat. 

Fezzik is a complete and utter moron whose only redeeming qualities are that preposterous cuteness and a willingness to purr for anyone. 

Aela is a guard derp who will probably know how to read by the end of summer.  If we can avoid any murders (by parents or by pets), we’ll have two great pets in another year. We just have to make it until then. 

Two derps trying to eat each other’s faces

If you spot any sabertooth tigers, let me know.

Christmas in Missouri 2021

When we landed in Springfield, we went to pick up the rental car I had reserved. The nice lady at the counter checked my information and offered to upgrade me from the mid-size sedan I had booked to a brand new Toyota 4Runner that she had on the lot. I gladly accepted, rightfully thinking that the 4Runner would more easily hold all our bags than a Corolla would. All was good.

We drove the 4Runner for over two weeks, including trips to Arkansas and to Kansas City. It was a beast. Huge, for sure, with a great view of the road, but only a moderately comfortable ride. The interior–after driving an Acura and a Lexus before moving to London–was a bit basic. Not bad, but not as nice, either. The real issue, though, was the gas mileage. We were getting under 18 miles per gallon throughout the trip. I was appalled the first time I had to fill the gas tank. I used to get 24 mpg in my ’03 Acura TL (with my heavy foot driving it) and 21 mpg in Carissa’s RX350. A mere 18 was horrific, especially in a newer vehicle. 

I noticed, too, that there were a lot of big vehicles on the road. Why does America have so many four-door trucks? Wouldn’t a light pickup be better for trips to Sam’s Club and a sedan be better for hauling kids to soccer practice? I can maybe wrap my head around someone in construction needing to move building supplies and a crew of workers in a single vehicle, but not the average person for everyday driving. Such a massive, inefficient truck seems like a waste, not just of greenhouse gases, but of purchase price and ongoing fuel expenses. It makes me think buying a vehicle that size is about something else… Missouri, if you’re considering buying a four-door truck, maybe you should go see your urologist instead. A Viagra prescription will surely be less expensive than your weekly fill-up, and it will do far more to help you compensate for whatever is lacking in your life. 

I managed a good bit of jogging on these roads while we were in town. After all the eating, I needed it.

Many people asked what had changed while we’ve been away. Springfield, the city, was much as we remembered, give or take a few stores and restaurants. We, on the other hand, felt that we had changed considerably. The kids have grown, of course, but even Carissa and I have noticed that our view of America and the world has shifted. When you’re swimming in a pot that’s slowly boiling, you don’t notice the change as much. Looking in from the outside, we can see the bubbles forming. There’s an attitude of selfishness in Springfield, the Ozarks, and America, in general, that is much more apparent to us now than when we lived there. It’s both political and cultural, and I think Trump and Covid have laid it bare. I don’t remember when science denial became a key plank of American conservatism. I don’t remember when utter disregard for the safety of your friends and neighbors became widely accepted. I surely don’t remember when the pandemic skipped over the Ozarks like a tornado over a sheltered valley. Aside from talking to a handful of people, it was like being in an alternate universe compared to Europe. I guess your hospitals aren’t so full of covid patients that other appointments are being rescheduled? How Americans can look at the rest of the world and be like, “nah, it’ll never happen here” blows my mind. (And don’t get me started on voting rights!)

If you’re thinking “yeah, whatever, dude,” I present you this gem to neatly encapsulate whatever the heck is going on back home:

I just don’t even know what to say, and this wasn’t the only example we saw on the trip. Also, that is not how Jesus OR vaccines work

In other news, it felt like we ate our way through Springfield. In 17 days, I think I had barbeque on 7 of them. We also ate a preposterous amount of Mexican food, frozen custard, and chicken sandwiches. Add Nonna’s cooking on top, and it was a calorie-rich environment. 

I know you’re expecting a punch line. There isn’t one. We ate a lot of comfort food, and it was good.

A waste bin with "patriot disposal" written on the side
Missouri, I have questions about what, exactly, you’re disposing

We went to Kansas City for New Year’s Eve to see the Diullos and play board games. This was an all-day affair, and it included a round of Battlestar Galactica. If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s a secret identity game where the humans are trying to save their spaceship and get to a safe planet while the hidden Cylons are trying to sabotage them and destroy humanity. We had 8 players, which is more than the game supports, but we decided to play, anyway. This included giving the youngest child a human loyalty card so she would have an easier time learning the game. Naturally, she picked a character card that made her President of humanity. I was actually a hidden Cylon, and I had the admiral card that allowed me to do significant damage to the humans. I knew we had at least one other Cylon, but possibly two more. The youngest child started accusing everyone, but especially the guys at the table. She was in peak, shouty, tween form, but it was all good fun. Then the humans won a skill check that allowed them to see my loyalty card. I thought I was sunk. Revealed. Busted. Off to the brig where I couldn’t do nearly as much damage. The eldest child was the current player, so she took my card. She looked at it, passed it back, and announced… “he’s human.” The youngest child demanded that she look her in the eye and repeat that I was human. Eldest child was a stone-cold killing machine and stared her sister down with a curt declaration that “he’s human.” Reader, I was such a toaster (Cylon) that I should have had Black+Decker written on my forehad. (Non-Americans, Black+Decker is a common brand for household electronics.)

Everyone bought it. I was in shock. I mean, I was bursting with pride, but I could barely look at her and keep a straight face. At that point, the humans were done, but we took another half hour to really turn the screws on them, including brigging the two most dangerous humans before I finally revealed my true allegiance and the penny dropped that the eldest child was also a traitor. The non-reveal when I thought I was sunk was one of the best board game moments I’ve ever had. Thank you, Diullos, for being such good sports about it!

We all missed Nonna’s super cozy Christmas decorations

On our way back to London, we had to check bags at the Springfield airport. The first bag up weighed in at 55 pounds. This was 5 pounds over the limit, and it was going to incur an excess weight fee. Initially, we were thinking we should just pay the fee, but then I remembered the last-minute trip to Walmart and the extra supplies (sweets) we bought. Specifically, I remembered the double-pack of Jif peanut butter that weighed exactly 5 pounds. I dug out the peanut butter and a hardback book, and we were back in business at 49 pounds. The book and the peanut butter went into other bags, and we were good to go, but we were about 30 seconds away from a $110 jar of peanut butter. Oops. 

Missouri beaches are special, but they’re extra special when it’s a freezing cold January morning

All joking aside, we had a good time seeing our friends and our family. I know we didn’t get to see everyone, but we tried to fit as many people as we could without running ourselves completely ragged. Two and a half years away was a long time, and we hope to be back to visit sooner next time. I can’t possibly give enough thanks to everyone who hosted us, visited us, and generally put up with our stories about Life Over Here, but thank you all the same.

I miss the Missouri sunsets. London has some pretty ones, but they’re much fewer and further between

On Childhood & Race in the Ozarks

I grew up in the Ozarks. For my first ten years, I was in the heart of the Ozarks, in Harrison, Arkansas. There weren’t any black kids at school. There weren’t any black people at church. There weren’t any black people in Boone County. I think it was probably a trip to Springfield, Missouri when I saw my first black person somewhere other than the television, but it could have easily been my first trip outside the Ozarks when I was eight or nine. The Ozarks weren’t exactly the most-diverse place at the time. They still aren’t.

As a kid, I never really thought about why that might be.

Back in 2015 I read a Kameron Hurley blog post that introduced me to the Tulsa Race Riot and Black Wall Street. Tulsa wasn’t far away, but I had no idea about any of it. Like, I knew that black people had a hard time post-1865, but high school history lessons touched on the Civil War and slavery, glossed over Reconstruction, talked a bit about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr, and ended on a note of “but things are great now!”

In case you missed it, the folks who burned down 35 blocks worth of homes in Tulsa were white, and the people they burned out, the 300 people who were killed, the 10,000 people left homeless – were all black. It was not until 1996 that the state even bothered to commission a proper history of the event that would be available to everyone, instead of relying on a spoken oral history maintained by survivors who were now dying.

When I heard about police cars blocking off roads and journalist access in Ferguson, Missouri last year, Tulsa immediately came to my mind, and I thought, “If you think the shit you’re seeing on Twitter is bad right now, can you imagine what they’d be doing to people right now if there wasn’t any Twitter?”

Kameron Hurley – Welcome to the Hurleyverse

Reading about Tulsa led me to Springfield’s history. You gotta go back fifteen years before Tulsa to 1906. In 1906 the fine people of Springfield lynched two black men in front of three thousand people. You can read about it here. Or here. Or here. The short version is that a mob of white people broke into the jail in Springfield, abducted two innocent black men, and lynched them on the square. That wasn’t enough blood, so they went back for another black man and lynched him, too. No one was convicted.

Following the lynchings and mob violence, a grand jury was called to indict anyone who had participated in the mob. By April 19, four white men had been arrested and 25 warrants were issued. Only one white man was tried, however, and no one was ever convicted.

Equal Justice Initiative

There’s a plaque on the square in Springfield that talks about it. That plaque was installed in 2019, after I moved to London.

Today, in December 2021, I learned why there were no black people in Boone County, Arkansas. It was not an accident. It turns out that we have to backup before the 1906 lynchings in Springfield.

Harrison, in the early 1900s, had about 1500 people, of which about 115 were black. I’m not saying Harrison was diverse, but it was more diverse than the literally zero people of color it had in the 1980s. In 1905 the railroad in the county went bankrupt. People were hurting. The white people of Harrison did what, apparently, white people in the early 1900s did. They formed a mob, stormed the jail, and hauled some black men out for punishment. In this case, they whipped two men, told them to leave town, and then went back to town to finish their business.

The mob then went on a rampage through Harrison’s black community. Numbering about thirty, they burned down homes, shot out windows, and ordered all African Americans to vacate the town that night.

Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Not all the black residents in Harrison left. No, it took another riot in 1909 for that to happen.

Now, maybe you’re reading this and thinking that my ignorance is on me. I’d like to think I’m a well-read person. Someone who is knowledgeable about history. Clearly, I have some gaps, but I try. But you know what? That’s wrong. Here’s why:

As Harrison’s white residents tried to erase the black community in their town, they apparently also tried to erase the historical record of the events in question. The files of the local newspaper, the Harrison Daily Times, contain gaps coinciding with the dates of the riots, and though records exist, including transcripts of testimony, for most of the other cases heard by Judge Rogers’s 1905 grand jury, only one handwritten note with the dates of the investigation’s beginning and end remains extant.

Encyclopedia of Arkansas

The white people of Harrison, Arkansas willfully and intentionally tried to erase the embarrassing parts of their past. Read that quote again. The files of the local newspaper contain gaps coinciding with the dates of the riots.

Was it my parents that lynched those men in Springfield? No. Was it my grandparents that ran the black community out of Harrison? No. Did my parents or grandparents teach me the history of our cities? They most assuredly did not. Is that their fault? Shoot, they probably didn’t know about it, either.

I talk to folks back home. I read the news. Today folks are upset about critical race theory. Last year it was election fraud. Before that it was migrant caravans. It was super-predators. It was hippies. It was civil rights. It was slavery.

America will chew you up and spit you out. It will use you and discard you. Maybe you’re reading about labor unions at Kellogg or Activision Blizzard. When you read about them, do you think about why we don’t have child labor? Why we have a minimum wage? Why we have a 40 hour work week? Do you think about Blair Mountain? Have you even heard of Blair Mountain?

There’s a lot we don’t teach in school. A lot we should.

So as you’re sitting there watching your Fox News, listening to your Rush Limbaugh and grumbling about those damn Democrats and their critical race theory, take a pause. Think about your history. Think about your lack of history.

It’s a lot easier to blame someone else than it is to put yourself in their shoes. It’s a lot easier to grump and moan than it is to look in the mirror and think about your past. Our past.

I know you’re not racist. I’m not racist. None of us are racist. We don’t see black and white. We just see people.

But if that’s true, why wasn’t there a single black kid in my elementary school class in Harrison in the early 90s? Why were there only two black kids in my high school class in Missouri in the early 2000s? Why did it take until 2019 for Springfield to put up that plaque?

Makes you think, don’t it.

Autumn 2021 Catch-up

Autumn has been (mostly) good to us. Since the last update we’ve had Carissa’s parents come to visit, and we managed to get out of the house and enjoy London and the surrounding area.

Korean BBQ was a hit

We took Nonna and Papa over to New Malden and had Korean BBQ for the first time. It was amazing. I had heard good things, and I was eager to try it, but I didn’t appreciate the variety or quality of ingredients and sauces. Apparently, New Malden has the largest concentration of people from North Korea outside of actual North Korea. I don’t know which side of the 38th parallel the people who run the restaurant were from, but either way, their food was amazing. 

HMS Victory from a distance. The pavement doesn’t provide enough scale to do her justice

We also took a day trip to Portsmouth and toured the historic dockyard and HMS Victory. It was a great trip, and I managed to find a good bargain on a jumper (American translation: sweater).

The Victory’s gun deck. American bloke wandering along on the left

I didn’t realize it until I was listening to the tour, but HMS Victory is actually older than the United States. The ship was built in 1765! She was an effective warship for 40 years, fighting her most famous battle at Trafalgar in 1805 where she was so heavily damaged (and so old) that the Royal Navy didn’t want to restore her to fighting shape. As someone who is about the same age, I found that part of the ship’s history to be entirely relatable. 

The plaque marking where Horatio Nelson fell at Trafalgar

While the in-laws were here, I took my father-in-law to see Spurs, Harlequins, and England rugby. Was him visiting an excuse for me to get out of the house and attend some in-person sporting events I hadn’t been able to see since covid upended all our lives a year and a half ago? Of course not! We were walking through Twickenham, and I noticed that about half the men going to rugby were also wearing blue quarter-zip sweaters. I’m not going native; I just like to be comfy, okay. 

Brent and Carissa Thanksgiving Dinner
Carissa and I at Thanksgiving Dinner, including my new favorite jumper

Our sporting experience included sitting behind the goal in Tottenham where Cristiano Ronaldo scored in a match that led to Spurs sacking their manager two days later. I, too, would like to be so good at my job that someone is willing to pay me millions of dollars a year to do it, but just bad enough at my job that they are willing to pay me even more millions of dollars to simply go away and not do it. 

Spurs stadium as seen from the High Road

If you saw my post about Piper, you know that our autumn was not all sunshine and roses. We’re still devastated to have lost him. At least once a week I come around a corner and see something orange, and for a split second, I think it’s him. We’ve lost pets over the years, and I know it’s part of life, but losing Piper hit especially hard. He was such a sweet, people-friendly cat. Carissa and I have talked about getting another cat in a few months. We are not, apparently, the kind of people who are capable of optimal function without feline supervision. 

England v Tonga as seen from the second row

After the in-laws went back home, we had another friend in town visiting. Carissa and our eldest were able to go in and meet her for high tea at Kensington Palace. High tea is a total tourist trap, but I’m told it is worth doing once just to experience the pageantry. Carissa brought me leftover biscuits, so I can’t really complain.

We had hot pot on one of the last days with Nonna and Papa

And now, storytime. This is the story of “the little French girl,” aka “why it’s important to be punctual.”

After the in-laws left, I made a trip to Lisbon for work. I was out there for a week and had dinner with various people from my work and some of the other companies that work with us. For one of those dinners, a coworker and I went into central Lisbon to meet some Portuguese colleagues and a couple of our coworkers from Madrid. 

The dinner was at a shopping mall, and Matt and I arrived early. We stopped for a beer–as you do–then went to meet the rest of the group. We weren’t entirely sure where the restaurant was, but we figured it was probably a reasonably nice place (this was a work outing, after all), and the mall wasn’t that big. We searched. We searched some more. Finally, we called someone who spoke English, and they told us to look behind the McDonalds. Not exactly what we were expecting, but sure enough, our place was a little sports bar tucked in behind Micky D’s. 

The breakwater along the Tagus River in Lisbon. My home flight was canceled, but I managed a Saturday morning run along the river to make up for staying an extra night.

We find the place and take our seats at the end of the table. Most of the group had already ordered, so Matt and I requested some drinks and checked the menu. The menu was in Portuguese, but between my poor high school Spanish and my willingness to try anything once, I figured I’d be okay. I ordered something that sounded like a hamburger with pulled pork and an egg, which sounded a bit fancy for a burger, but I was willing to roll with it. We chatted about work a while, ate a few appetizers, and the entrees started arriving. 

I wish I had a picture of the dish itself

My “burger” turns out to be a mass of pork, glued together somehow, with an egg on top. Not a bun in sight. Nor any beef, for that matter. Unbeknownst to me, the Portuguese contingent at the other end of the table has all ordered some traditional Portuguese sandwich, and they had convinced one of my Spanish coworkers to try it, too. The server brings out four plates of something perfectly square and covered in some kind of gelatinous orange sauce. The Spanish coworker takes a few bites and starts pushing his food around. Matt, ever a fellow to take the piss out of his mate (American translation: pull a prank on a friend), asks why our colleague hasn’t finished his food, to which the colleague claims that it’s an awful lot of bread, and he had eaten earlier. At this point, I’m feeling like maybe my own gelatinous pork dish was the better option, but then the Portuguese guy beside me explains that this is a very famous dish from Porto. It’s called the “francesinha,” which translates to “little French girl,” and it’s basically the Portuguese take on a croque monsieur, which is–as far as I’m concerned–the food of the gods. 

This news left me in quite a bind. Had I known this dish was so popular, I would have had to try it, but alas I was late for dinner. So the next time I’m in Portugal my options are to order a “little French girl” and immediately be sent to jail as a nonce (American translation: pedophile), or never try this dish. 

So, anyway, that’s why I’m spending Christmas in prison.

Sailboats on the Thames

The writing continues apace. I’m editing a novel and trying to keep some momentum. I already want to move on to the next thing, so it’s hard to stay focused. Alas, no new sales or publications to report. I put together a post with my stories eligible for 2021 awards. They’re good stories, though I’ll be surprised if they garner much attention. Someday.

We’re planning some travel over the holidays, so perhaps I’ll see you soon. Take care, everyone. Get your vaccinations!

From Barn Cat to Barnes Cat

Piper passed last week. This post is me recording some of the moments of his life that the girls and I remember.

Piper posing for a Christmas photo

It started in a barn. The kids were hanging out at Carissa’s grandparents’ farm, and one of the cousins came in and asked if they wanted to see some kittens. Two girls, aged 7 and 10, clearly wanted to see some kittens, so off they went.

The mama cat liked to move her litters, so they had to check multiple places, but eventually the girls found their kittens. The kittens were a couple weeks old and various colors, but one little ginger guy was fearless enough (or foolish enough) not to flee the approaching children. It was pretty much love at first sight.

Piper was such a good sport with any nonsense two little girls could imagine

Piper joined us a few weeks later. He was still pretty tiny, but his mama wasn’t giving him the care he needed since cats struggle to buy antibiotics, so we picked up the slack. The girls were in heaven, and I was happy to have another male in the house.

Piper was an asshole jerk the first year and a half. Pretty much all kittens are, but he was the epitome of a rambunctious kitten. No matter how many feathers we dangled in front of him, not matter how many laser dots we gave him to chase, he loved to pounce. He’d pounce the kids. He’d pounce the dog. He’d pounce Carissa. He’d pounce his own tail and act indignant at the assault.

Pretty sure that’s intentional handball

The joke is that ginger cats all share a single brain cell, and today is never a given ginger cat’s day. I can believe it.

Life was good the first two years. He mostly stayed in the house, and whenever he escaped we knew he was in the storm drain out front. We lured him out of it with kibbles and treats on a weekly basis.

Just keeping the hamster company, guys

Piper’s life–and ours–changed in the summer of 2018 with the move to London. There was no question about whether he’d come with us or not. The youngest child told me flat out that he came or she stayed. I’m pretty sure she meant it.
Unfortunately for Piper, traveling to the UK was an ordeal. He had to arrive via courier and pass through the animal reception center. It was summer, so we had to wait for the weather to cool enough that he wouldn’t suffocate in transit in Dallas, which meant he had to spend a couple weeks boarded with the vet in Missouri. When he finally reached us, he was exhausted, afraid, and stressed. We took him to his new home in the village of Barnes, in London.

Piper helping me edit a novel

Living in the States, we never considered that it would be difficult to keep a cat in the house. The windows and doors were usually closed to keep the heat or the air conditioning inside. When the windows were open, there were screens. None of this was true in London. Relatively few houses have air conditioning, and they’re built to retain heat in the winter. Summers mean throwing the windows open and turning on fans.

Piper, already stressed from travel, bolted out the nearest open window.

We found him a few houses down, tangled in a thorn bush. The girls rescued him and passed him to me. That lasted about 30 seconds until he tried to flee the area. When I wouldn’t let him jump down, he decided to go vertical by climbing my face. Our relationship suffered for a few days until my face healed.

He settled in pretty well. We kept him in for much of the winter, and when spring returned, he ventured outside for a few hours at a time, but he always came back for dinner.

He averaged fewer than one mouse per year, so he wasn’t entirely useless

After the first year in London, we moved houses to Twickenham, a little further out from the city center. This gave us a bigger back yard garden and Piper more friends to make. He always loved people, and the neighbors soon knew his name when he turned up to beg. I’m sure the women next door thought we were the worst people ever for starving that poor cat. It was as if he had never had a meal in his life.

While Piper liked people, he hated other cats. The boy was a fighter, not a lover. (He was neutered, else he might have been both.) He loved a good brawl, and he came home more than once with another cat’s fur stuck in his claws. My running joke over the last two years was that he was London’s second-least-favorite orange American. At least no one ever flew a blimp to mock him.

Helping me choose a dress shirt for a work trip

In late September Piper stopped eating. We knew something was wrong and took him to the vet on the second day. They treated him for constipation and dehydration. He came home and ran around a bit, including attempting to flee out the upstairs window and being stopped cold by running headlong into the glass. The good times only lasted a few days. He still wasn’t well, and we took him to the vet again. A few days later he stumbled when trying to leave his litter box, and within two days he could barely walk. We took him to another local vet, who found a lump in his back and thought his symptoms might improve if we reduced the swelling with a steroid shot. Over the next few days we fed and bathed Piper and tried to nurse him back to health. None of it worked. Ultimately, we took him to a neurological specialist at the Royal Veterinary College.

His spine was damaged.

Shouldn’t you be feeding me more and working less?

There were no good options. His breathing was already poor, and the best outcome from attempting surgery was that he might be able to walk again, but the vet didn’t think he would ever run or climb again. We left Piper with the vet overnight for another exam, and the news the next morning was no better. His breathing had gotten worse, and they had put him on oxygen. The recommendation was palliative care. Ultimately, we made the decision to say goodbye.

We don’t know what happened. I don’t think it was a brawl; he showed no signs of blood or missing fur. It’s easy for me to imagine him leaping down from the retaining wall to the bike shed, slipping on the plastic, and landing poorly. I don’t understand the progression of symptoms, and I don’t want to think about what our options might have been if the first vet had found the spinal damage. They didn’t, and here we are.

He was a good boy. The best boy. It’s been a week, and I’m tearing up again writing this. Piper and I were bros. The winter in England is gloomy, and we spent much of the last three winters hanging out together at my desk and in the kitchen. He would sleep in the floor behind me, on the cat furniture beside me, and sometimes in my lap. I never lacked for a lap warmer or for someone to interfere with my typing. When things were stressful with work, a relaxing purr was only a few scritches away.

Pure joy for Carissa, and I’m pretty sure Piper managed to beg an extra meal afterward

The girls loved him even more. The youngest came into our room every night to check on him, and most of the time he was already asleep at the foot of my bed. The oldest gave him pets and scritches, even after developing an allergy that meant every scritch ended with a dose of Benadryl.

I don’t know if he lived his best life, but I am certain that he lived a good life. He had lots of adventures and lots of love.

We’ll miss you, bro.

Goodbye, bro

Piper Baldwin – May 2016 to October 2021

March Happenings

Spring has arrived in England, and the weather has turned beautiful again. It’s still cool, but the sun is out and the rain is more sporadic. It makes for wonderful jogging weather. With the country still mostly in lockdown, I’ve been getting out of the house by jogging around the borough. I’m in the middle of a half-marathon training plan and doing about 20 miles a week right now. Carissa and I are signed up for a 10k at Kew Gardens in mid-May, and I am confident in repeating my September 2020 victory in our head-to-head competition. She’s back to running, but not with the same consistency as I am. Maybe I should feel bad for taking such joy in beating her at her own sport, but that’s not how either of us are wired.

Grazing deer at Richmond Park

The deer at Richmond Park. There were about 30 more to the left.

In other news, I have received my first vaccination. The NHS sent me a text message on Saturday a few weeks ago. Initially, I thought it was a scam, but when I went to the NHS website and entered my information, it allowed me to schedule a jab for the following week. It still seems odd–and honestly kind of inexplicable–since I’m younger than the current age group getting the jab and I don’t have any current underlying conditions. Maybe childhood cancer has been useful for once? Maybe I am the beneficiary of a computer glitch? Either way, I wasn’t going to turn it down.

I received the first round of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab a few days after my invitation. My shoulder was a little sore by the end of the day, but I felt pretty well until I woke up in the early hours of the morning with a fever, headache, and full-body aches. Even my achilles tendons ached. After tossing and turning for an hour, I took a tylenol and dozed for a few more hours. One of the benefits of working from home is that I was able to roll out of bed at 8:50 and be online before 9:00. I felt a bit under the weather throughout the day, but it was like deal with a mild cold. I wanted to go out for a run, but Carissa wouldn’t let me.

Kebabs on the grill

Chicken, mushroom, onion, and bell pepper kebabs right after they went on the grill

The next morning, day 2 post-jab, I felt fine, other than a sore shoulder. That evening I went out for an easy four-mile jog and had no issues.

On day 3 I woke up and my shoulder was a little sore, but otherwise I felt completely fine. I did a 5k time trial midday. My time wasn’t great, to be honest, but that’s probably more about my own fitness and pacing than the vaccine.

By day 4 even the shoulder soreness was gone.

Pepperoni pizza, fresh from the oven

A pepperoni pizza with pepperonis from the local butcher

When I made the original appointment, I was able to schedule a second jab for June, but it was at a pharmacy a few miles away, which was annoying given that the first jab was at the Twickenham Stoop (Harlequins rugby stadium) that’s half a kilometer away. I gambled a little and canceled my follow-up appointment. It took two days, but I was able to book one at The Stoop for the week after the original follow-up.

Carissa is still waiting to be called for her first jab, but we expect that to happen in the next month or so. Given the 12 week delay in second jabs, we’re thinking we’ll postpone our planned trip to America this summer and try to do it at Christmas instead. Neither of us want to get on an airplane with a bunch of our fellow Americans until our systems are fully-loaded with covid antibodies. It will also be nice to spend the holidays with family; it’s one of the things I miss most about living so far away.

Uncooked Hawaiian pizza

Hawaiian pizza with Black Forest ham. Because Germany is closer than Canada.

The girls were doing remote schooling from January until early March, but they’re back to in-person classes. Well, they were. They’re currently on Easter break for two weeks. They were fairly happy to go back, but happier to have the break. I’m taking a week off, too, so I can relate, kind of.

The country has relaxed the lockdown a little. We can now meet up to six people outdoors and get takeaway beers from the pub. The kids both met up with friends today. The next big relaxation is April 12th, and the whole country is looking forward to being able to get haircuts and drink in the beer gardens again. Or maybe that’s just me.

A slice of homemade carrot cake

A slice of homemade carrot cake for our March birthday girl. The icing didn’t quite turn out, but the flavor was divine.

In the meantime, we will continue our usual routes. Planning groceries. Buying groceries. Cooking groceries. Planning groceries again. Insert some laundry in there, too.

The writing continues apace. I’m nearing the end of the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on since the autumn. (I’ve taken lots of breaks to write short stories and play video games.) The plan is to get the last few chapters into place over the next week while I’m off work, then do some cleanup before I send it to some writing peers at the beginning of June. I don’t know if this novel is good. I re-read the first chapter, and I genuinely enjoyed it, so I’ll take that as a good sign. I have more in mind after this one, whether this one sells or not.

On the short story front, I have 50 submissions so far this year with 43 rejections and 0 acceptances. Eighteen stories are currently out at various markets, including some reprints. It would be nice to sell another story or two this year, but much like the novel writing, I have more tales to tell, whether these sell or not.

The author at the Stoop after his covid jab

A quick selfie at the Twickenham Stoop after my covid jab, complete with my “I was vaccinated sticker.” Did you know the jab comes with FREE STICKERS?

Take care, folks. Stay safe. Get vaccinated.

EDIT: It has been brought to my attention that you get free donuts in America if you get vaccinated. I’m so jealous. Get vaccinated. Get those donuts!

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.

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