Category: Personal (Page 2 of 5)

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

A Year+ of Running: A Retrospective

Our lives were upended, along with the rest of the world, in March 2020. A year and a half into our big adventure of leaving Missouri for the UK, our plans of cavorting around London and dashing off to Europe were thwarted. With us all stuck at home, I cooked more than ever. I also learned to bake my own bread. After a few months of being entirely sedentary and eating lots of good food, I had an acute realization that I had to get more exercise. (See my post last summer about a trip to Accident & Emergency (American translation: the ER).)

The wicker dragon at Hampton Court Palace

At first I tried cycling. Carissa and I rode around the borough a bit, including a trip up to Kew to see the new Brentford Community Stadium. I realized, though, that cycling is both time-consuming and expensive. It also isn’t that great at helping prepare a body for the only exercise I knew I really enjoyed: playing football (soccer).

Richmond Hill and the Thames

After years of incomprehension about why people would possibly do it, I laced up my shoes and went out for a run. See, my joke had been that I only believed in running if there was a ball, frisbee, or the police involved. The first run was two miles, and I hated it.

I went out again two days later.

Somewhere around run number four or five, it started to suck less. After about three weeks, I was actually enjoying it. I chatted with a friend who was running long road races in the US (hey, Carey!), and he gave me some advice and suggested some books to read. Somewhere in that first month, I saw a signup for the Kew Gardens 10k. Running 10 consecutive kilometers seemed like a stretch, but I enjoy a challenge, and one of my coworkers (hi, Matt!) encouraged me to try it. When I mentioned it to Carissa, she was eager to join me, so we both signed up.

I found a running plan online and set to work. Along the way, I decided to replace my old, battered Adidas running shoes, and after reading “Born to Run,” I went for some minimalist shoes. Cue my first running injury. I didn’t realize that you need to shift from padded shoes to minimalist shoes gradually, and I especially didn’t appreciate what running with a zero drop from heel to toe would do to my achilles tendon. I lost a few weeks to achilles rehabilitation (so many eccentric heel drops!), but I was in good enough shape to run the 10k in September.

A greenhouse at Kew Gardens

It was a blast. Hard, but fun. I was doing 6 mile runs prior to the race, and on race day I went out and pushed myself harder than I had since I was playing soccer in high school. I finished the race in 55:59, which wasn’t exactly fast, but it was faster than Carissa, and that was what really mattered.

After the race, I kept running. English autumns are mild, and I cruised through October and November. I looked at the race calendars for the London area, and I set my sights on a half-marathon at Hampton Court Palace, which is only a few miles from us. I found a new training plan, and set to work.

The path at Bushy Park

The training plan lasted about three weeks. In early December my second bit of trouble hit. I started to get pain in my knee. I first noticed it out on a long run where the first four or so miles were fine, and it gradually grew worse until around mile seven. I had to stop and walk home. I rested a few days, everything felt fine in the house, so I went for another run. About a mile into it, I felt mild pain. A half mile later, and it was excruciating. Some internet research made me think I was suffering IT band syndrome, so I was back to rehab. Amy Winehouse would not have approved. (This routine from Strength Running worked really well.)

After about a month of knee and hip work, I was back out on the road in January. English winters are mild, but they’re dark. And wet. Working from home was convenient because I could watch for a dry part of the day, block an hour from work, and dash out the door. This kept me going until March when the light started to improve. Unfortunately, with the UK in another covid lockdown, the half-marathon was moved from April to September, which was probably for the best for me. Fortunately, the lockdown was relaxing in stages, so I was able to sign up for another 10k at Kew in May.

Sculpture at Kew Gardens

I adjusted my running routine in the spring. I added lunges and leg swings to my pre-run warmup. I kept doing my hip and glute work once a week or so. I made sure to foam roll and stretch after each run.

I went into my second Kew 10k, and I felt good. Carissa ran it with me again, and this time I was ready. My goal was sub-50 minutes. My stretch goal was sub-48, and I thought I had a chance at it after seeing how my interval training went in April. I finished in 47:45. I was over the moon. (Yes, I beat Carissa again; she has long-term knee problems and can’t push as hard as I can. Naturally, I taunted her about beating her a second time.)

I set my sights on the Hampton Court Palace half-marathon, but I also signed up for another 10k in August.

In addition to running, I started playing football again. I was fitter and lighter than ever, and I went from being one of the weakest players in the group to one of–I don’t want to say better players, but I’ll at least say that I didn’t feel as if I was embarrassing the entire United States when I stepped on the pitch.

In early June injury struck again. This time it was a recurrence of an old injury from Missouri: busted ribs. Playing indoor soccer in Missouri involved a few untimely collisions with other players and the wall, and one of those cracked a rib on my left side. I missed a month of playing, and it healed, but another hard blow at 7-a-side this past June took me out of commission for a few weeks. Things healed with time, but my half-marathon training plan was destroyed. I kept running, but without as much structure or volume.

The Supermarine Spitfire

The Spitfire 10k is a fundraiser for the RAF Museum, and I ran it in late August. I finished in 51:31 minutes, right in between my previous two races. I felt tired. And heavy. And slow.  The lack of structure to my training didn’t feel as obvious on my long, easy runs, but I really felt it on race day.

The first two injuries were my fault. I should have done more research before changing shoes. I also should have been more careful about increasing my volume after the first Kew 10k. The rib injury, though, was more of a freak accident. I could quit playing football, but I enjoy it too much to walk away because I might run a few minutes slower in a race.

I had a two-week gap between races, and I was determined to improve on my Spitfire time. The course at Kew Gardens is a bit more twisty, but it’s one I know well.

Look at those turns!

Carissa and I both ran it in early September. With a cool, cloudy morning and no traffic exhaust filling my lungs, I was ready to run. Going in, my stretch goal was to set a new personal best (beating 47:45), my primary goal was to break 50 minutes, and my tertiary goal was to improve on my Spitfire time of 51:37.

People like Kew Gardens. No, people love Kew Gardens. It’s one of the prettiest places in London, and worth a day out even if there’s no race. And it was packed. Over 2000 people turned up. The organizers had people in waves, but they were by bib number rather than expected finish time. This meant significant crowding near the start, and with the first few kilometers being so narrow and windy, it was hard to settle into a rhythm. I probably lost 30 seconds to a minute fighting the crowd. Not that it really mattered. My fitness wasn’t quite as good as it was in May, and I don’t have a great feel for how to pace myself yet. Those were much larger contributors to missing my stretch goal, but I was reasonably pleased to finish in under 50 minutes at 49:21.

Carissa, unfortunately, injured her knee around the eight-kilometer mark. She somehow limped to the finish line, but really struggled after that. We walked–very slowly–out to Kew Green and caught a cab home. The good news is that she felt better the next day and is now working on her own rehab routine.

My final race of the year was the big one. The Hampton Court Palace Half-marathon. Hampton Court Palace is in the southern part of the borough, about four miles from us. I jog through the adjacent park (Bushy Park) periodically, and I was excited to have a race through the park and along the Thames.

Going into the race my goals were to finish under 2:00:00 as the main goal, under 2:15:00 as the B goal, and simply to finish without injury as the C goal. The race calculators said I should be able to finish in under 1:50:00, but I was far from convinced.

The moat at Hampton Court Palace

Sunday morning was cloudy and cool, and the crowd was about the same size as the Kew 10k at 2000 people. I felt undertrained, and wasn’t sure how things were going to go, but I went out at about an 8:40 pace, and it felt easy. I held close to it throughout the race, with a few dips here and there. Around the 9-mile mark, I was telling myself that I was almost finished, under 1/3 of the race to go. At about the 11-mile mark things started to hurt, and I was once again wondering why sane people would go running if they weren’t getting paid to do it. I remembered, though, that your body lies to you. It’s lazy. It wants sourdough and wine and Football Manager. I kept going. Maybe not as fast as I did at the start, but at a pace I was sure would get to the finish line under two hours.

Ultimately, I finished in 1:55:07. I stopped jogging for about 30 meters to drink a half bottle of water, and that probably cost me the 8 seconds I needed to break 1:55. You could also say that I could have pushed just a little harder at pretty much any point in the race, and that would have been true, too. It’s a good result and one that I’m sure I can beat in the future if I can string together a few months of injury-free training.

Lessons learned over the last year:

  • Don’t ramp up pace or volume too fast; the guidance I’ve found is to only add 10% volume per week and to only run 20% of your miles near a race pace
  • Ease yourself into any new shoes
  • Take the time for preventative maintenance with dynamic stretching before each run and static stretching after
  • Don’t be a slave to the training plan; take breaks when you start to feel worn down

From here, I plan to keep running. I have my sights set on a marathon next year. The Richmond Marathon is organized by the same people who organize the Kew 10k, and it’s scheduled for 11 September 2022. It’s the flattest marathon in London, run all along the Thames path from Kew Gardens down to Kingston and back. I know the course, and I know I can handle up to 15 miles, and I have plenty of time to prepare.

I don’t need to be fast. The only race I’m really trying to win is against congestive heart failure and myocardial infarction. That is the longest race, and I have miles to go before the end is in sight. Many, many miles, hopefully.

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:
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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

Football and Brent(ford)

Let’s talk about the Championship!

Brentford Community Stadium nearing completion in early August 2020.

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

Cue 2020, and the pandemic restart. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Griffin Park, home Brentford FC.

On Taxes & Healthcare

Cat with its head pressed against a wall

Accident & Emergency 

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s talk about taxes

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

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

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

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

The result

UK effective tax rate: 37.2%

US effective tax rate: 38.7%

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

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

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

We can do better, America. 

London Update, Pandemic Edition

I’ve been meaning to write a “what we’ve been up to in London” post for a while, but it’s been hard to find the motivation when there’s a raging pandemic, America is on fire, and the UK has the worst covid numbers in Europe. I’m sure you can all relate, at least to two out of three. 

Watermelon sharbat from the (wonderful) Dishoom cookbook

We have largely been at home for the last three months. Exceptions have been trips to the grocery store, to the post office, and one trip to A&E (the emergency room for my American audience) in Kingston. For the most part I’ve seen people doing their best to maintain social distance, though that tends to break down in the grocery store. Maybe 25% of people are wearing masks. The UK government has now mandated that masks should be worn on public transit from June 15th, so I expect to see a general uptick. 

Professionally, Ye Olde Day Jobbe has continued with little interruption. I feel fortunate to not just continue my employment, but to continue to grow and learn. It’s been nearly two years in the UK now, and I’ve been forced to stretch and grow on a monthly basis. It’s been good for me. 

Two boules made from the King Arthur Rustic Sourdough recipe

Personally, I’ve been up to my usual things. Lots of reading, writing, cooking, and video games. On the reading front, I thoroughly enjoyed Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and Martha Wells’s Network Effect (definitely read the prior four novellas before diving into Network Effect). I have written a few short stories in the last three months, and I have made my second story sale of the year. It should be out late this year; I’ll post about it when it’s published. I also wrote a novella in the vein of The Witcher and The Black Company. It’s a secondary world fantasy set in an analog of the middle east during the late bronze age collapse. The initial feedback is that it has some pacing problems, but that’s fine. I was planning to expand it into a novel, anyway.

Homemade, soft pretzels. Alas, the lack of sea salt

I don’t tend to buy newly-released games, but Steam (and lately Epic Game Store) sales usually see a few of my shillings. Recent favorites are XCOM 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. AC Odyssey is the first Assassin’s Creed game I’ve played, and my understanding is that longtime fans of the series give it mixed reviews. It works well for me because I wanted an open world RPG with bronze age technology. (See the novella I wrote earlier in the year.) 

For the cooking, well, see all the pictures littering this post. My coworkers are talking about all the running and cycling they’re doing, and how they’re losing weight. I have found the weight they’ve lost. I need to find a better routine than work all day, cook a high-calorie dinner, and read/write/game all evening. 

Almost eggs benedict, but we were out of bacon. The crumpet is the King Arthur sourdough crumpet. The Hollandaise is Kenji’s recipe.

The girls are all doing well. Carissa is eager to get back to gymnastics, but her gym hasn’t reopened yet. She is dragging me on plenty of walks and spending a good bit of time in the garden. 

The eldest child has been playing Animal Crossing New Horizons non-stop. I’m starting to worry about her relationship with Tom Nook. Her school took a few weeks to adapt to online learning, but has been moving along reasonably well for a while now.

A closeup of the roses in our garden

The youngest child has been playing everything under the sun other than Animal Crossing, including the Sims 4. I gotta say, though, she’s an enabler. I wouldn’t be doing nearly as much baking if she weren’t encouraging me by eating everything I put in front of her. Growth spurts will do that. I think the child has grown six inches this school year. 

Piper continues wandering in and out of the house, pretending that he’s starving if he hasn’t been fed in the last two hours, and getting into scuffles with the neighbor cats. He is definitely London’s second-least-favorite orange American. 

Oatmeal chocolate chip and oatmeal cranberry cookies from Bravetart

All this talk of food, and you all are thinking “how you gonna do this to me and not link some recipes, Brent?” I got you, fam. Some recipes:

Tomatoes, peppers, onion, and garlic, ready for fresh salsa

Brent’s Easy Salsa

  • 3 heirloom tomatoes, diced (don’t bother with standard grocery store tomatoes)
  • 2 jalapeno or red peppers, diced
  • 2 to 3 anaheim and/or other mild peppers, diced
  • 1 medium white or yellow onion, minced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1/2 bunch of coriander (cilantro, my Americanos), chopped
  • Big pinch of salt 
  • A few grinds of a pepper mill
  • Optional: a birdseye or Thai chili, for extra heat
  • Instructions: Combine in a bowl and eat with tortilla chips! 

Consuming Media in an Age of Bullsh!t

The opinion section is the chocolate cake of journalism; it tastes good, but you can’t eat it by itself for long and stay healthy. 

I spend too much time on social media. Because of that, I’ve developed what I feel is a reasonable set of filters to tell the difference between plausible news and bullshit. 

I start with what the insurance industry calls “knock out questions.” These are questions an insurer asks upfront to see if the potential risk is so high that they can skip the more-detailed assessment, saving everyone time. These are things I can assess in a few seconds to decide whether I’m even going to click the link.

  1. Is this a link to Youtube? If it is, it’s out. While I tolerate Youtube for entertainment, I don’t for news. The site’s goal is not to help you find facts; it’s to keep your eyeballs on the screen and feed you advertisements. I feel the same way about cable news, though I’ll at least entertain the idea that cable news might sometimes show actual news.
  2. Does the website name contain any of the following words: patriot, tea party, liberty? If so, I ignore it. Let’s be honest with each other: the tea party movement was a reactionary backlash against a black president. America is now paying with the lives of doctors and nurses for having a government full of incurious science deniers. 

With the knock out questions out of the way, I look at a few general things to help me understand the potential slant of what I’m reading.

The first thing I do is look at the publication. Is it a known news organization? I’m going to give national newspapers with actual news departments far more credence than an entertainment outlet. Does this organization have a known bias? My skepticism is going to be much higher for organizations with naked political agendas, and I’ll look for corroborating stories at other outlets. 

Is the article an opinion piece? I immediately slide opinion pieces further toward the bullshit side of my internal scale. The opinion section is the chocolate cake of journalism; it tastes good, but you can’t eat it by itself for long and stay healthy. 

Then I look at the author. Is it someone I recognize? If not, what else have they published? Is this article trying to appear neutral when they have a history of writing things that otherwise have a clear bias? That’s a sign this is bullshit in disguise. Do they have a publishing history? If not, I’m immediately skeptical unless they are experts in their field and are speaking to their expertise. 

If it’s an article about verifiable science, I like to see the sources the authors are citing. Does the article even have citations? Are those citations coming from reputable journals? Is this a contrarian view of a hot topic, and if so, what new evidence is on offer to support this view? I don’t need to understand the science, but something that is based on peer-reviewed journals is more believable than something that is plausible but untested. A contrarian opinion is just that: an opinion, not science.

Similar to the verifiable science, I like to know if this is a press release in disguise. Are the people being cited the public relations arm of some company? If so, I maintain a healthy skepticism about whatever is being claimed. If there are sources in the article, are they named? If they aren’t, I’m skeptical. How many sources are in the article? If there’s only one, this isn’t news, it’s gossip. If there are none, it’s an opinion piece. 

Is this method perfect? No. Are there things I’m forgetting? Probably! Does this enormously cut down the level of bullshit I consume? For sure. 

« Older posts Newer posts »