I Failed Again

May as well call it what it is. I hoped, I intended, to at long last get book 5 finished and published by the end of this year. But once again, I failed.

Everyone’s life is always somewhat of a juggling act, and life on our farm, for Jeanette and me, is especially one. We moved here closing on twelve years ago. Neither of us had ever lived anything other than urban lifestyles. We had no concept of what we were getting into. I am not in any way saying that Jeanette and I have any doubts or regrets about our choice, or the life we live. For us, the life amidst such beauty—we live in a valley that is, where our farm is located, perhaps one mile wide, with mountain ridges rising up sharply on either side, and the beautiful McKenzie River running through it—living so close to and in tune with nature, interacting with our animals, and even dealing with the constant and often unexpected challenges this lifestyle brings, has become a life we cannot imagine living without. We cannot imagine becoming city-dwellers again.

But it is a reality that life on a farm is one of relentless, never pausing work. Down time is not really a thing. There are just degrees of busy. This does create a constant tension with my being able to write, because being able to complete writing a book and publish it requires, on my part: (1) time to write, and (2) the ability to focus deeply on the characters and story, in order to immerse myself in and create its fictional world.

And over time—relentless, unforgiving time—something else has been added to the mix. I was 60 years old when we moved to the farm. I am 72 now. The years have taken a toll. I have arthritis in my lower back, which causes almost constant pain and stiffness. When we moved here, my Multiple Sclerosis had been mostly dormant for about ten years. Sometime around 2018 it woke up, and has stayed that way since. I’m still very fortunate, in that it is, for MS, a relatively mild, well controlled case, and my neurologist says that given my age and the prolonged stability of the disease, it is unlikely to progress. But my feet are always somewhat numb from it now, and it causes pain in my legs with some frequency. Also, from an injury that occurred during 2020, I am missing one of the four tendons in my right shoulder joint. Although I have managed, through focused exercise, to restore the shoulder to almost normal range of motion and strength, it, too, experiences an amount of chronic pain. So, whereas at age 60, and the early years after that, I could put in six to eight hours of manual labor in a day without difficulty, now a full day of physical labor is more like four hours. I move more slowly and tire more quickly. As a result, things take longer to complete now.

Nevertheless, even though as this year progressed and the likelihood of completing and publishing book 5 by the end of the year was clearly slipping away from being realistically possible, I had really hoped that I would at least be able to complete writing the first draft during the last months of the year, which are usually the lowest level of busy we get in this life. But even in that, I have completely failed. I have not been able to write.

Jeanette, my wife, is my life. She is everything to me. Over the past few years, she has developed a very serious problem with her vision. It actually started before we moved to Oregon and the farm, when we still lived in Houston, Texas in our “city lives.” Occasionally when she would become very tired, she would experience double vision. Back then, it was a rare enough phenomenon that she could shrug it off.

Over the years, living here in Oregon, it gradually became something that manifested more frequently, that became more difficult to ignore, but for the most part, she could still, with effort, cause the double vision to go away. But over the last two years, that has changed. It has gotten worse, especially over the course of this year, to the point where it has become a constant.

Let me explain what I mean when I say she has double vision. With normal vision, what our two eyes separately perceive is melded into a single image by our subconscious brain. To try to visualize this, imagine that what you see is like a flat screen TV image out in front of you.

More and more frequently, and all the time for most of this past year, Jeanette has been seeing two separate, distinct flat screen TV images, side by side, one slightly higher than the other. I honestly cannot begin to imagine how she has managed to deal with that.

This is not a “normal” eye issue. Most ophthalmologists, including our regular eye doctor in Eugene, do not have the expertise to deal with it. In fact, here in Oregon, there are very few specialists who do deal with this issue. When we first began trying to get her help with the problem in early 2022, the only specialists we could find to consult with, and there were only a few, were in Portland, Oregon, the state’s largest city, a five and a half hour round trip away. Over the course of 2022 we made several trips to Portland, so she could be examined by two specialists there. They did rule out several possibilities that could have been causing the problem: she had not had any head injuries, and an MRI of the brain eliminated a tumor as another possibility.

Normally, the eyes are positioned in the skull so that their visual beams of focus are exactly parallel, and when the eyes move, the muscles controlling them move them in tandem so that the fields of vision stay parallel. That way, although the two eyes produce two distinct visual images, they are so similar that the subconscious brain can meld them into a single image, which is what our conscious brain “sees.” The two Portland specialists we consulted explained that Jeanette’s eyes were not aligned in perfect parallel. After ruling out the injury and brain tumor possibilities, they both theorized that she had always had this condition, but that for most of her life, her subconscious brain had, through shear brainpower (she is a Very smart person!), overridden the dual images and melded them into one. However, as she aged, and as the dual images more frequently “broke through,” her subconscious brain could no longer overwhelm the reality of what her eyes were actually seeing.

Imagine trying to do anything in your daily life while seeing two of everything you look at. That is what Jeanette has been dealing with constantly this past year

Correcting the condition can be possible, but it first requires diagnosing which of the many muscles connected to each eyeball are causing the misalignment. If that can be done—and determining which muscles are involved is to a certain degree more of an art than a science—then the muscles can be surgically detached from the eye, and reattached in a location that will hopefully correct the misalignment. One of the two specialists we consulted, who was not a surgeon, stressed that in most cases, multiple surgeries are necessary because figuring exactly how and where to move the muscles to correct the alignment tends to be somewhat of a trial-and-error process. The other Portland specialist, who was a surgeon, initially planned to do the surgery. But as he tested and tried to measure the alignment of Jeanette’s eyes over the course of several appointments, he eventually told us that he could not do surgery, because he was unable to determine, with sufficient certainty, which muscles were causing the problem, and if he were to move the wrong ones, it would cause the problem to get worse, possibly irreversibly so.

Then, in late 2022 or early 2023, a new specialist, Dr. Sabah, moved to Eugene. Jeanette was finally able to get an appointment with her in June. Dr. Sabah said at that appointment that she believed she could fix or at least improve Jeanette’s double vision (although the more she examined Jeanette’s eyes over the course of two separate appointments, the less strong a result she felt comfortable promising—Jeanette’s was clearly a difficult case). Then came six more months of waiting for a place in her surgery schedule. The surgery finally took place about two weeks ago, in mid-December. During the surgery, Dr. Sabah detached one muscle from each eye, and reattached them in a different location.

I cannot stress enough the degree to which accurately diagnosing which muscles are causing such a vision problem, and how they must be moved to correct it, is not some kind of simple, mechanical process. Each of the specialists did the same sorts of tests: holding up different strength prism lenses in front of one eye, while repeatedly covering and uncovering the other (and I have no idea what they learned from that); and telling Jeanette to focus on their fingertip while they moved it around in different directions in front of her face, while studying how her eyes moved. It is obviously very much a process based as much, if not more, on personal skill, intelligence, and judgment, as it is on any science.

It was a major surgery, under general anesthesia, that took about two hours. Recovery for Jeanette was quite painful for a number of days. But Dr. Sabah worked a Christmas miracle. We are still in awe. When Jeanette looks straight ahead, she now sees only a single image. As she told Dr. Sabah in the post-op check-up a few days before Christmas, “Now when I wake up in the morning, there’s only one ceiling fan rotating on the ceiling up above our bed.” She does still have some degree of double vision peripherally, when she looks to the side or down—something Dr. Sabah said was almost certainly going to be the case even if she was able to achieve the best possible outcome—but for her primary field of view, Jeanette has normal, functioning vision again.

You may be wondering why I have been telling all of this. It is because, especially as the date for the surgery grew closer over the final months of this year, I have been so worried and anxious about Jeanette, my love, my life, that I have been completely unable to have anywhere near the ability to focus on the fictional characters and story of Halfdan and the Strongbow Saga. The cares of our real lives made the fictional world, for a time, unimportant and inaccessible to me.

So, for all of you who have been waiting so very long for the next installment of that story, I have failed you. Again. For that I am very sorry. I have not by any means given up on Halfdan’s story. I will keep working on it, and intend to get it to you. That is the most I can tell you for now.

One last thing. I do understand how long so many of you have been waiting for me to continue Halfdan’s story. I am both deeply sorry and deeply embarrassed that I keep letting you down, and I very much appreciate the kind words and incredible patience some of you share when you communicate with me through this website. There are some, though, who choose to be rude and unpleasant in their comments. For those people, don’t bother, don’t waste your time. I have ultimate control on whether any posts appear here, and snarky posts go straight to trash.

Goodbye, Hawkeye

In April of 2012, eleven years ago, Jeanette and I moved onto our small farm in western Oregon, in the McKenzie River Valley. It was a life-transforming event that has brought us many adventures.

Although we had no experience with either, we decided early on that we wanted to have chickens and sheep on our farm. And so, in May of 2012, we bought, and brought home, our first generation of chicks. Among them was an Ameraucana hen whom we named Hawkeye.

Hawkeye, on the right, with the rest of our first generation of chicks, at about three weeks of age.

We have, by now, been through many generations of chickens, some purchased as chicks, others hatched by our hens. The average lifespan of a chicken on our farm has tended to run somewhere between five to seven years. Hawkeye, however, has been the exception. She was still with us until sometime last night. Had she lived for a few more weeks, she would have been eleven years old.

Hawkeye in her prime.

She laid small, bright blue eggs, although in recent years, she laid them only rarely. She still had lots of spunk, but starting about four months ago, she started showing signs of aging, in a very cute way. As she walked, she would occasionally start to lose her balance, would flap her wings frantically trying to regain it, then fall over on her side. The she’d lay there for a few minutes, looking around as if she was wondering, “What just happened?” Eventually she would climb back up onto her feet, or occasionally, we’d help her get back upright.

Our chicken coop is in a corner of our barn, which we enclosed with chicken-wire mesh, and in which we built several nesting boxes and various roosts, which the chickens sleep on at night. For several months now, Hawkeye had been unable to sleep on the roost at night due to her poor balance–she would too often fall off after she fell asleep–so she had taken to sleeping on the floor of the coop, in a little nest-like depression she scooped out below one of the nesting boxes, near the roosts. The coop’s doors open into a section of fenced pasture, roughly thirty yards long and twenty wide, that the chickens can free range in. Despite her instability, Hawkeye still liked to try to roam the pasture with the other birds. However, it eventually became more than she could manage. About ten days ago, when Jeanette and I went up to the barn to give the chickens their afternoon snacks (we do spoil our animals a bit), Hawkeye was not with the other birds who gathered round. I found her under some overhanging blackberry vines along the fence, at the far end of their pasture, lying on her side and apparently no longer able to get up on her own. I picked her up and carried her back to the coop.

Hawkeye on the way back to the barn, after her final day of free-ranging.

She went downhill fairly quickly from there. Within a few days, she could no longer get over the thresholds of the coop’s doors and make it outside, so she stayed in the coop. And perhaps five days ago, she became so weak and unbalanced that she could barely move around in the coop. We’d often find her lying flopped over on her side, but still alert, head up and looking around, so we always made sure she had food, including treats, on the ground in front of her, and she would eagerly eat them. Hawkeye was not a quitter.

But this morning she was gone, literally. We have been fortunate to have never lost any of our flock to predators, other than some birds we lost in the first years to hawks–and that ended after we befriended and began feeding the large community of crows living near our farm, in exchange for which they drive away any hawks that come near. But something, possibly a fox, or a racoon, or a possum–we’ve seen all of those at times on the farm–went into the coop last night, found Hawkeye on the ground, dragged her outside, and ate her. This morning all that was left was a few scattered pieces of skin and feathers.

Before we had chickens, we would never have guessed how much personality they can have. Hawkeye was a sweet, cute, spunky bird, and we will miss her.

It’s Not Happening in March

I am very sorry to have to announce that I have failed yet again to meet a target completion deadline for book 5. This book has, from its earliest beginnings, been much more of a struggle for me than the first four books. I had hoped that I was now far enough along that I could push through to completion by March (after failing to meet my previous December goal), but the writing just isn’t flowing that smoothly.

I am continuing to work on it, and will get it out this year, but at this point I am not going to state a new date until I’m sure I can achieve it. I am very, very sorry–I know so many of you have been waiting a very long time for more of Halfdan’s story.

I am fairly certain by this point, by the way, that the title will be Into the Wildlands (although perhaps it should be The Long Wait).

It’s a Matter of Time

April and May of this year have been unusually cold and rainy, which has caused both downsides and upsides.

As I explained in my February 27th post, although Jeanette and I love our life on our small farm in Oregon, it is very challenging because there is always work to do. There is never any real “down time,” when we have nothing to do; there are, at best, periods of the year when we are—barring some unforeseen mishaps that must be dealt with—somewhat less busy. Those are the periods when I plan to fit my writing into our schedule, but after ten years of life here, I obviously still struggle to balance being an author and living on a farm.

Late winter through early spring in a “normal” year are one of the somewhat less busy periods. Our primary farm related tasks during those months, outside of the work of every day life, are starting the seedlings of the numerous different crops we will eventually plant in our garden, and, as they grow up-potting them to larger size pots. I had hoped, this year, during the time between seed starts and up-potting, to scramble and complete writing book 5 of The Strongbow Saga. But as I explained in my previous post, this, once again, was not a normal year. We lost a large block of time repairing a fence line that was damaged in a snowstorm, then I lost even more time when I learned I would have to have cataract surgery on both of my eyes. That pushed my hoped-for completion date of writing book 5 to, in a best case scenario, late May or early June.

That hasn’t happened. The eye surgeries did not go entirely smoothly. In theory, the surgery on each eye, which replaced my aging and cloudy natural lens with an acrylic implant, and which also was supposed to correct some distortion in my vision due to astigmatism, which is caused by irregularities in the shape of the cornea, or surface of the eye, would have left me with 20-20 distance vision, and I would have needed to wear glasses for reading and close work. In theory. As the surgeon said, when he first reviewed the status of my vision several weeks after both surgeries were done, “Sometimes we hit a home run, and sometimes the process takes several base hits.”

The surgeries improved, but did not fully remove the astigmatism in my eyes. To (hopefully) correct that, I will need a laser surgical procedure called Lasik. But that has not happened yet, because I’ve had to have two other procedures to correct other issues. It turned out that I had some debris from the removal of the old lens remaining in my right eye, clouding my vision slightly in that eye, which required a laser procedure to clean up the debris by vaporizing it. Then it turned out that the artificial lens that was implanted in my left eye had over-corrected and made my vision far-sighted in that eye, so last week I had a different (and quite uncomfortable) laser surgery procedure to reshape the surface of the left eye and hopefully correct the farsightedness. Assuming that was fully successful—and I will supposedly find out later this week—I will still need the Lasik surgical procedure for the astigmatism. Aging bodies suck!

All of this has required numerous trips into town, both for the procedures themselves and for various pre- and post-operative check-ups. From where our farm is located, it requires about an hour and a half round trip just for the driving time to town, on top of whatever time the actual business in town requires. We love living out in the country, but it is not always convenient. Needless to say, because of the further loss of potential writing time, I have once again  failed to meet my hoped-for completion date of book 5.

So, what is the new plan, and current projection for book 5? My new goal is to finish writing book 5 and publish it by the end of this year. I’m going to have to try to find bits and pieces of time where I can, and summer is the busiest time of the year. In so many ways, though, this is already not a “normal” year.

In a “normal” year, by the end of May we would have already planted in the garden most of those plants we began as seed starts weeks or months ago. But April and May have been unusually cold and rainy. We even had a light snow just a little over a week ago. Many days, even when it has not been actively raining, the ground has been too wet to work. The downside of all of that is that we still have much work to do to get our garden in—most of our numerous plant starts are as yet still unplanted—and because of the late start, our garden will for the most part be much later than usual producing the various vegetables and fruits which we both enjoy fresh and preserve by freezing and canning, to feed us throughout the rest of the year.

But there are also upsides. One is that after we do get the garden planted, there is going to be somewhat of a lull, while the plants grow larger, before they begin producing harvest-able crops. That does not happen in a ”normal” summer, and I plan to use that time to write.

Additionally, we were very concerned, because we have been in drought conditions here in western Oregon for several years, about the poor condition of our pastures, and their resultant inability to provide sufficient food for our herd of heritage sheep. In anticipation of that, we had reduced the size of the herd by aggressively harvesting from it. But after weeks and weeks of rain, our pastures currently look the best they have in years, so that crisis may have been averted, for this year, at least.

So, to summarize, although book 5 is once again behind schedule, I am still working on it, and still plan/hope to publish it this year, though now that will not happen until closer to year’s end. And in separate Strongbow Saga news, which I failed to mention back when it happened, I did publish the German language edition of Book 4 back in January of this year. The series is still progressing, just not as smoothly or timely as we all wish that it would.

The German language edition of book 4 was published in January of this year.

Ten Years

on February 26, 2012, Jeanette and I reached Oregon.

Ten years ago yesterday, Jeanette and I reached Oregon, after a several day road trip from our former home in Houston, Texas. Within a week after arriving, we had found the small farm where we now live and entered into a contract to purchase it.

Neither of us had ever lived on a farm before, or had any experience with farming or livestock, but we were ready to make a lifestyle change. It certainly has been that. It has been a fascinating, challenging, often fun and exciting, and at times exhausting and overwhelming experience. Every summer we plant and grow a large garden, and preserve, by freezing, canning, or fermentation, much of the many kinds of vegetables our garden produces, and which provides us with food throughout the year. Our first year on the farm we created, around a single, old apple tree growing on one edge of the property, an orchard which has flourished over time and now gives us a summer and fall bounty of peaches, pears, and several varieties of apples. We currently have a flock of twelve chickens plus one rooster that keeps us supplied with eggs, and a herd of heritage sheep that provides us with delicious, lean, healthy grass-fed meat. We have learned so much from living here, from all of the new skills, experiences, and challenges we’ve had to master. It has truly been a wonderful new life for us.

Jeanette has been the perfect partner to share this adventure with. She clearly was made for this kind of life. It has even brought out some previously unsuspected Oregon superpowers, including an amazingly acute power of observation that would make Sherlock Holmes proud. I still vividly remember one mid-summer morning in 2012, as we were walking from the house up to the barn, to let the chickens (a much smaller flock back then) out of their coop. She suddenly stopped and frowned, then pointed at some blackberry vines we were passing. “Look,” she said, “something has eaten some of the leaves on this plant.” She looked around some more, then pointed at a spot on the ground nearby. “And what is that strange looking poop?” I had been oblivious to what she had spotted. But that was how we first learned we had deer roaming the property—a discovery that months later, in October, led to our first meat harvest.

But nothing is ever all positive. Life doesn’t work that way. The amount of work this life on our farm demands of both of us is constantly, relentlessly high. And we’ve had some hard times here, as well as good, and some struggles. 2020 in particular was a tough year, with three serious health problems for me, one of which dragged on into 2021, plus a major wildfire that threatened to destroy our home, but thankfully got no closer than the top of the mountain ridge that overlooks our farm. Additionally, since at least 2019, and maybe earlier, every year has brought some significant unanticipated issues we’ve had to deal with, that have too often eaten away at the time I’d planned to use to complete writing book 5 of The Strongbow Saga. That has been the biggest downside of our life here, and a curse that seems to keep delaying Halfdan’s story.

In theory, the winter months here are our “down time,” to the extent that we have any, and are supposed to be when I have time to write. But from mid-November of 2021 through the end of the year, much of our time was consumed by visits from members of our family, plus a very old and dear friend whom I had not seen in over twenty years. Especially after almost two years of semi-isolation due to the pandemic, the visits were wonderful and joyous experiences, but no writing occurred during them.

My new goal became to finish book 5 and publish it by the end of April of this year. But that goal, too, has already fallen to the curse. We had a major snowstorm during the last week of December, which dumped about fourteen inches of snow on our farm. The weight of the snow crushed the blackberry vines that grow on the fence lines along our driveway (and which provide us with gallons of delicious, sweet berries each summer), and broke fence-posts along the fence in several places. It took Jeanette and me over two weeks, working off and on, to clear the dead and damaged vines off of the fence along one side, so that I could remove two broken fence posts and replace them, and so we could prune, train to the fence, and hopefully salvage what was left of the vines that used to produce the majority of, and without question, the best, of our annual blackberry crop.

A heavy snow in late December crushed these blackberry vines and damaged the fence buried now beneath them.

It took the better part of two weeks to cut out all of the dead and damaged vines, and repair the fence they had been growing on.

The burn pile of the dead and damaged vines we cut off of the fence.

Unfortunately, the fence we cleared and repaired was much less damaged than the fence on the opposite side of the driveway. It is still untouched, and the pasture behind it will be unusable until we can get it repaired.

We’ve also had to devote time over recent months to reduce the size of our sheep herd. It had reached 26 sheep after the 2021 lambing season—a far cry from the two ewes and one ram which we began the herd with back in 2012. Western Oregon has, for several years now, been in the grip of a severe drought. A consequence of the drought is that our pastures do not grow the deep, lush grass that they used to each spring and summer in our early years here. Without that kind of pasture production, our farm cannot support a herd of 26 sheep, so we have been working, since the early fall of last year, to downsize the herd. For us, that means harvesting sheep: giving some to neighbors who know how to butcher their own meat, two to my son, when he visited in December, and butchering several for ourselves. For the first time since we began harvesting sheep, we have focused on females, instead of limiting the culling to males, in order to reduce the number of lambs that will be born in the spring. After I harvested a mature ewe a week ago, the herd is now down to 19 sheep. That is still too many, given the fact that the drought is continuing, and our pastures are already clearly not showing the rate of new growth that is needed. We will have to continue downsizing the herd over the rest of this year, but that, like everything else, takes time. Harvesting a sheep and butchering it takes me pretty much two full days of work.

Year after year of drought, and its effect on our pastures, have forced us to aggressively harvest sheep this year to downsize the herd.

And just within the last few weeks, the curse struck again. When Jeanette and I went for our annual eye exams recently, I was informed by the doctor that the cataracts in my eyes—I’d known for some years they were slowly developing—had reached a point that he advised surgery to correct them. In case you are not familiar with what cataracts are, I’ll explain. Your eyes contain a lens which is what allows you to see by focusing the light entering the eyeball into an image on the retina, the “viewing screen” of nerve ends on the back side of the eyeball. Without a lens, your eye cannot focus. But in most people, as they reach an age, the lens becomes cloudy, causing a deterioration of the quality of vision that, if not corrected, can eventually cause blindness. Fortunately, cataracts can be very effectively treated by surgery: the doctor cuts open the eye, removes the cloudy lens, and puts an artificial, acrylic lens into the eye. In modern, well-equipped eye surgery centers the operation is done partly by computer-controlled lasers.

I had surgery on my left eye three days ago, and will have it on my right eye in two days’ time. It can take the eyes up to two weeks after the surgery for the vision to stabilize, so I’m not going to be functioning at full capacity for a while. For example, on the day of the surgery, for most of the day looking through my left eye was somewhat like looking through a piece of glass smeared with butter. Although the vision in that eye is still somewhat blurry, it is much clearer now, but I periodically have the disconcerting sensation that the ground, or surfaces in front of me, are sloping downward away from my left side, which causes me to feel a bit dizzy at times. And because I opted to have the lens implants with a focal setting for distance vision, after the surgery on my right eye, for some period of time I may be unable to read, until the eyes stabilize enough for reading glasses to provide the necessary close-in focus.

So, what’s the bottom line? I am clearly not going to finish writing book 5 by the end of April, much less get it published by then. My new goal is to get it out by late May or early June. And to help achieve that timeline, I have belatedly accepted the fact that I have not managed to successfully be both a writer and try to handle all of the work that this farm life requires, especially now that I am 70 years old, and do things a bit more slowly than I used to. Going forward, I have resolved to start hiring out some of the work that is needs to be done on the farm, including repairing the rest of the fence line that was broken in the December storm. I will get this book, and the next one, to you, I promise.

November Notes

It has been far too long since I have posted an update here—not since my rather grim post in late January about our hard year in 2020. I apologize for leaving you all in the dark, about Jeanette and me, and about book 5. I also apologize to all who’ve tried to send me messages through various formats, which I have not responded to. I have not had time to spend on social media in recent weeks.

I am happy to report that this year has been far, far better than the last. Jeanette’s and my health, overall, have been good. The mystery condition in my legs was finally diagnosed as a fairly rare, and thus not readily recognizable, symptom caused by my Multiple Sclerosis. It was affecting the autonomic nervous system in my legs that assist with the circulation of blood, causing the blood flow to slow, and blood to pool in the veins until it leaked out into the tissues and caused the swelling and nasty looking rash and sores. It is mostly under control now—I still have occasional pain in my legs, and so far they do not let me hike as far as I used to do regularly. But then again, I will turn 70 in a few weeks, and my legs are not the only parts that are showing wear and tear from the years. I miss a young man’s back! The fix for the leg condition (and very appropriately, the wonderful physician, a dermatologist, who finally diagnosed the condition is named Dr. Fix) was surprisingly simple: I have to wear compression stockings on my legs to assist the blood circulation. May all of my problems find such simple solutions!

This year, like every year, brought its own unique mix of joys and challenges. We have been fortunate, living in relative isolation on our farm, to have been able to avoid most of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to rage around the world. In fact, just yesterday we learned of a new and potentially more dangerous variant of the virus that has developed in Africa. Jeanette and I have paid the virus the cautious respect it deserves: we got vaccinated as soon as we could, more recently have gotten booster vaccinations, and we religiously wear masks, regularly douse our hands with sanitizer, and try to maintain safe distancing whenever we must leave the farm and go out in public. It continues to baffle me that so many still refuse to get vaccinated, when by now millions upon millions of people have been vaccinated, with no ill effects, whereas the Covid-19 virus continues to kill relentlessly—as I write this, we are nearing 780,000 deaths from it in the U.S. alone, and millions more have died around the world. Those who spread lies and misinformation about the vaccines have a lot, including thousands of unnecessary deaths, to answer for.

Here on the farm, nature, and the change of seasons, play a large role in our existence. In late winter this year, as we always do, we began the early stages of working on our garden, which we depend on to provide a large percentage of the vegetables we eat throughout the year.

Seed starts for the garden.

Spring brings lambing season, always a fun time, although occasionally also sad times, when a lamb does not survive. We do not take extraordinary measures to try to save unhealthy lambs. Our ancient-breed heritage Soay sheep are by nature very hardy and self-sufficient. We do not want to weaken the herd by introducing members with weaknesses or ailments that might be reproduced over time.

Deedee, one of our Soay ewes, with her twins.

Sigrid and a dead lamb.

Although there were a few underperforming areas—every year there always are—overall, our garden and orchard had a very successful, productive year. Some crops, in fact were our best to date, including eggplant, peaches, pears, and apples.

The garden in midsummer.

One of our peach trees, loaded with fruit.

One day’s harvest of apples and pears.

At times the bounty felt like a mixed blessing. Heavy production means long hours of preserving the various crops, so we can enjoy them over the many months until next summer’s crops come in. Late summer and early fall are consumed by freezing and canning vegetables, and Jeanette baked many, many pies this year, which she divided into portions and froze to provide desserts during the winter.

Now that’s an apple pie!

We had enough rain in late spring to allow our pastures to produce lush growth, giving us hope that they could provide our sheep plenty to feed on through the summer.

Lush pasture in early June.

But western Oregon was gripped for most of 2021 by a severe drought, and in mid-June it was hit by a record-setting heat wave: the temperature hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit on our farm, and across Oregon over 100 people died from heat-related causes. By midsummer, our pastures had been burned dry and lifeless, and we were forced to buy hay and alfalfa to supplement what little the sheep were able to forage.

What grass was left by mid-July was so dry it crunched underfoot.

The effects of the heat and drought by midsummer.

For a second year in a row, thanks to the extreme drought and heat brought on from the effects of climate change, Oregon had a brutal wildfire season. At least, unlike last year, we were not directly threatened on our farm, but through most of August and much of September our farm was wreathed with smoke from large fires, the closest of which was burning only about six miles away.

Smoke over the farm and mountain ridge behind during September.

But I have digressed. What you really want to know is what about book 5, yes? I made strong progress on it in late 2020 and the early months of this year. Although having time to write is never a realistic possibility during the busy months of summer, I very much hoped and intended to be able to complete writing book 5 in the fall, setting it up for publication in early 2022. Alas, I’m not going to meet that goal. In the early spring, rather unexpectedly, my German author-partner, Ruth Nestvold, who together with her editor husband, Chris, produces the German translations of the books in The Strongbow Saga, delivered the German translation of The Long Hunt. As those who have read it know, that was a very long book—over twice as long as any of the first three books–and it took a very long time to translate, far longer than Ruth had anticipated. Whenever I have had time to work on The Strongbow Saga since then, I have mostly been working on formatting the Kindle e-book edition of Die Lange Jagd—I contract out the formatting of the EPUB e-book version, which I received back only recently, and the print version, which I’m still waiting on. Because of its length, preparing the German edition of book 4 for publication has been a much longer than usual process. However, I owe it to my German partner to get the book published, and available for sale, as quickly as I can, so that has taken precedence over working on book 5.

I anticipate publishing book 4 in German within the next week or two, after which I will immediately resume writing book 5. However, at this point I cannot realistically hope to complete it before the end of this year. I promise to push hard, though, and get it to you as early as possible in 2022, before the rhythms of life on the farm can once more consume my time.

As Jeanette and I continue with the amazing journey our lives together have given us, we wish you all peace, happiness and safety for the holidays and the coming year.

A Very Hard Year

I had intended to title this post simply “2020,” and post it before the end of the year. It was intended to be a summary of what we had, at times just barely, survived over the course of the year. But 2020 still strikes out at us when it can, so only now do I have the time to write this.

Looking back now on my March 3rd post in early 2020—my last post before this one, other than the Book 5 preview in December—it feels like a last communication from the before times, from before when everything changed, and a warning of what was to come:

We—all of us, not just Jeanette and I—are embarked on a very momentous year. The earth’s climate is rushing toward irreversible damage faster than any scientists anticipated, causing ever more frequent extreme, erratic, and destructive weather events. We are, as I write this, in the early stages of what may develop into a dangerous, world-wide pandemic, which could not only cause numerous deaths, but also drive the economies of much of the world, including the United States, into recession. And here, in the United States, we are facing an election which may well determine whether our democracy, as the founding fathers intended it to operate, will survive. We do not seem prepared: our populace is facing these dangerous challenges in a more divided, polarized condition than I have, in my lifetime, ever seen.

We are all in this life together. We must realize that. If we cannot learn to pull together, to try to combat the serious threats we are facing, I do not know what will happen, but I fear things will not end well.”

Covid-19 did in fact become a world-wide pandemic. As I write this today, over two million people have died of the disease world-wide, and over 400,000 of those deaths have been in the United States. And although vaccines have recently become available, it will be months, and hundreds of thousands more deaths, before the pandemic can be considered even somewhat “controlled.” To put the numbers in context, the U.S. has roughly 4.25% of the world’s population, but to date has suffered about 20% of total world-wide deaths from the pandemic. There is no way to white-wash this: in the United States, we botched it badly. Thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens died unnecessarily. The pandemic was always going to be horrible, and a struggle. It was made far worse by the incredible incompetence of Donald Trump and his administration. They have the deaths of thousands on their hands.

My March 3rd statement that the United States was facing an election that “may well determine whether our democracy…will survive” may have seemed to many who read it at the time as over the top alarmism. Yet what have we all lived through since then? An election that has been repeatedly certified by state and federal officials as clean, fair, and essentially problem free, was repeatedly challenged by Donald Trump as fraudulent. When, in over 60 cases, numerous state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, did not agree, Trump incited his followers—those who chose to blindly accept his lies over the readily available, widely accepted truth—to violently attack the U.S. Congress, in an act of insurrection.

For now, just barely, this country has survived as a democracy. Whether it will continue to will depend upon us all. It is alarming that despite clear, convincing, and readily available evidence to the contrary, millions of Americans chose instead to believe the lies told by Trump and his enablers—including numerous Republican members of Congress, and conservative media, especially the Fox News Channel—that the election was somehow fraudulently stolen from him. As I have written before, it is a terrible danger that there is no longer a single, commonly accepted “truth” in this country.

But let me take this year-end summary back down to a personal level. 2020 was a terrible year for the world, for everyone in it. My heart goes out to all who lost loved ones to the pandemic, who are facing financial struggles or even ruin due to the ravages the pandemic has battered the economy with. For Jeanette and me, it was a very hard year, too. This is our story.

In “normal” years, we measure how the year went by how our garden did—we put much effort into it, and a large percentage of what we eat comes from it. Another measure is how our herd of heritage Soay sheep fared.

When the year began, even despite the gathering storm clouds of the pandemic, it looked likely to be a good year for the farm. Our pastures were the lushest they had been in years, after several years of drought. The spring brought us a healthy crop of new lambs, and a good start to the garden.

Unfortunately, it was the calm before the storm.

In late February, while pruning a tree, I injured my shoulder. At first, I thought it was just tendonitis, a recurring problem I’ve had since we moved to the farm. But when it did not heal, I sought medical assistance, and in March learned, from an MRI exam, that one of the four tendons in my right shoulder joint had ripped loose from the arm bone. It was, at the time the MRI result was reported to me in late March, surgically repairable. Unfortunately, I received the diagnosis two days after all non-essential surgeries were temporarily banned in Oregon, to preserve essential medical supplies.

I did, eventually, receive the needed surgery on my shoulder, in late May of 2020. But whether that particular type of injury can be surgically repaired is time sensitive: if too much time passes, the detached tendon atrophies, and there is no longer anything to reattach to the bone. When the surgeon got inside my shoulder joint, that is what he found (and with 20-20 hindsight, he should have ordered another, updated MRI before proceeding with the surgery). I ended up with a shoulder that now not only is permanently damaged, in that certain ranges of motion are no longer possible due to the missing tendon, but also that was further weakened and damaged by the multiple incisions into the shoulder muscles during the surgery. I am frankly still at a loss to understand why, when he realized the situation, the surgeon did not just back out without doing additional damage.

Back to the garden. The theme of 2020 as the year of the plague carried over. Our garden was hit with multiple plagues of destructive pests. In prior years, during the spring and early summer we could typically harvest almost a cup of raspberries every morning, to enjoy with our breakfast, when we walked up to do our morning chores with the chickens and sheep at the barn. This year, our garden was overrun with an explosion of population of voles, small, rat-like rodents that live in tunnels underground. Most of the new shoots of raspberry canes that grow in the spring and produce fruit were eaten off at ground level by the voles. The canes that did survive and produce fruit were scoured clean every day by swarms of starlings, the bird equivalent of rats. We literally did not harvest a single raspberry from the spring crop.

The voles hit many other crops hard, as well. We have an eight-year-old asparagus patch that normally produces quite prolifically. In 2019, we enjoyed fresh asparagus from April through late July. Although the crop started strong in the spring—and the asparagus patch is surrounded by a low, wire-mesh fence, to in theory protect it from pests—the voles discovered it, tunneled under the fence, and quickly began eating new shoots off as soon as they appeared above the ground. But their damage went far worse than that. When growing asparagus, every year you let a certain number of the shoots grow up into tall—about four or five feet high—fern-like plants, that over the course of the summer give nourishment to the asparagus roots and crowns underground, that produce the crop each year. In normal years, by mid-summer our asparagus patch looks like a fern-like hedge along one side of the garden. But this year, the voles not only ate the new shoots, they also cut down and ate all of the ferns. By late summer, there were none left, and the patch itself was filled with their tunnel openings, worrying us that they may have eaten the roots and crowns as well. We will not know until the coming spring whether we even still have a viable asparagus patch, or if it was destroyed.

Besides the asparagus, the voles ate probably 50% of our pepper crop—sometimes we’d walk into the garden and see them, climbing up on the plants and gnawing at the fruit—and at least 30% of our eggplant. In the orchard, although we were on track in early summer to have our best harvests ever of peaches and pears, in the end we lost at least half of both crops to birds (starlings again, but also crows, which felt like a betrayal, given our long-running relationship with our local flock of crows), and our entire cherry crop.

But the garden travails actually proved to be the least of our struggles in 2020. On the evening of July 30th, I felt like I might be about to have an attack of diarrhea (and I apologize in advance if this is too graphic). It was something quite different. I had, over the next several hours, repeated instances of large amounts of blood gushing from my bowels. After one occasion, I staggered out to our living room, collapsed onto the sofa, then my head fell back (I learned this from my poor Jeanette, who dealt with it), my eyes rolled back into my head, and I stopped breathing. Jeanette grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, crying, “Jud, come back to me!” until I finally started breathing again, and regained consciousness.

The EMT crew arrived soon after. Not surprisingly, my blood pressure had fallen dangerously low. I was transported by ambulance to a hospital in Eugene, and spent most of the next five days there. The bleeding continued for some time, and I ended up having five transfusions to replace the large volume of blood lost. Eventually, the bleeding stopped. Disconcertingly, despite several exploratory procedures, including an endoscopy, a CT scan, and a colonoscopy, the doctors were never able to determine where or why the bleeding had occurred.

If there is a single picture that captures 2020 for us, it is the following one, taken by our driveway camera, of Jeanette, walking up the drive to check the mail on one of the days when I was in the hospital. At the time, neither of us were sure whether I’d be coming home. It is a visual moment in time reflecting pure stress.

But thankfully, I did make it home. I was physically weak for some time afterwards, and we were both emotionally shaken.

In mid-August, a new problem arose. I developed a large, red lump on the side of my left ankle. It was roughly the size of a tennis ball, cut in half and painted red, stuck onto the side of my leg. Jeanette, who is a retired nurse, was concerned that it was cellulitis, a potentially dangerous infection. I did not have the emotional energy to deal with it, and tried at first to ignore it, hoping it would just go away.

Then came Labor Day, 2020. Our farm is located in the McKenzie River Valley in western Oregon. On the night of September 7th, Labor Day, there were high winds. We’d been planning to grill lamb burgers that night, but changed our plans and threw together a simple meal inside because of the wind. About 8:30 PM, our power went out. We learned later that about ten to fifteen miles upriver, the winds had knocked down a power line, and started a wildfire that spread rapidly, driven by the wind. A small town called Blue River, close to the origin of the fire, was completely destroyed during the night, and emergency alerts went out for residents downriver to evacuate.

We went to bed that night blissfully unaware of what was going on. Our farm is in a cell phone dead zone. When at home, our cell phones depend on our household Wi-Fi system to operate, and that died when the power did.

We awoke the morning of September 8th to a surreal view. The sky was a dull, yellow-gray haze. The sun wasn’t visible. The ground was covered with charred, blackened leaves and pine needles.

Charred leaves littered the ground.

We walked up to the street to check our mail and paper, and noticed that the neighborhood seemed deserted. As we reached the mailbox, my cellphone began screeching an alert tone. The message said, “Wildfire. Code 3 evacuation. Go Now!”
A few moments later a police car, from the nearby city of Springfield, came driving slowly down the street. The officers stopped, and asked what we were doing—were we waiting for someone to come pick us up? When we said no, and explained that we really didn’t know what was going on, they said a wildfire was spreading rapidly down the valley, and we needed to leave as quickly as possible.
As quickly as we could, we loaded our car with what we thought were essentials: changes of clothes, important documents, dog food for Sigrid, our Border Collie, etc. For some reason, I loaded all of our emergency lanterns and batteries we kept on hand for power outages. I still don’t understand that thought process. There was nothing we could do for our chickens and sheep, other than hope they would make it on their own. Our property is mostly open pasture, which is grazed by the sheep, so if the fire did reach it, hopefully any burning would be a relatively low-level grass fire.
We eventually ended up in a motel in Eugene, roughly 30 miles from our home. Even that far away, the smoke was so heavy that people were warned to venture outdoors as little as possible.

The smoke was heavy in Eugene, thirty miles away from the fire.

We lived in the motel in Eugene for eight days. After the first day or so, we discovered geographic maps available online that were updated daily, and showed the progress of the fire. We could zoom in and see how close it was to our farm. Although it came quite close, burning the top of the mountain ridge right behind us, fortunately it never reached our land.

The restrictions of the ongoing pandemic complicated our evacuee life. Most restaurants were open only for take-out. We ventured out of the motel room only briefly, once or twice per day, to take Sigrid for walks or to pick up food. Netflix was a very welcome companion.

The fact that we were already in Eugene—plus the fact that my leg was becoming increasingly painful—did lead us to see our primary care practice and begin the odyssey of trying to figure out what was going on with my leg and treat it. The initial diagnosis agreed with Jeanette’s worry—probably cellulitis—and a short course of antibiotics was begun.

Finally, on September 16th, we learned that residents of the valley, up to milepost 19 of the McKenzie Highway, were allowed to return to their homes. Our farm is literally at milepost 19. We gratefully made our way home. By the time we arrived, the power was even back on, although the contents of our refrigerator and three freezers, including most of the summer’s crops we’d processed and frozen, were spoiled from eight days without power.

Approaching a National Guard checkpoint as we returned to the Valley on the 16th.

The photo below, showing the burned ridge-top behind our home, shows how close the fire came. The wildfire, officially named the Holiday Farm Fire, burned approximately 25 miles of the McKenzie River Valley. It spread almost 20 miles during the first night’s wind storm. Fortunately, after the first night, the high winds died down and the fire moved from the valley floor up onto the mountain ridges on either side of the valley, away from most homes and communities. But vast areas of forest were burned. And in the fire’s aftermath, extensive salvage logging—a controversial practice—is now occurring. Every day, all day long, empty logging trucks race up the McKenzie highway past our farm, and return carrying the blackened trunks of trees, many huge, old growth ones. Vast areas of forest are being transformed into barren clear-cuts. It will be decades before this once pristine forest valley recovers, if it ever does.

But the fire was not the last of our 2020 troubles. The issue with my leg—eventually it spread to both legs—has proved to be a “stump the doctors” mystery. Repeated bloodwork lab tests, a biopsy, and an MRI have all been inconclusive, but the condition, whatever it is, has gradually gotten worse. Multiple medications, aimed at theorized possible causes have mostly proved unsuccessful. By New Year’s Day, both legs had severe skin eruptions and discoloration, swelling, and the ankle and knee joints were painful and swollen, to the point where I could barely fit shoes on my feet.

Things are a bit better now. After researching the National Institute of Health’s Rare Disease site, I suggested to my doctor that possibly I could have Brucellosis, a bacterium carried, often asymptomatically, by various types of animals, including sheep—we have a herd of heritage sheep. By this point she was willing to give any reasonable theory a try, so ordered blood tests to look for the Brucella antibody, and put me on a long-term program of Doxycycline, the  antibiotic used to treat Brucellosis. Although the blood test came back negative, the antibiotic has gradually reduced the inflammation in my legs, to the point where there is almost no swelling or joint pain, and the skin inflammation has receded to just the areas around each ankle. So, although at this point we still have no idea what the condition in my legs is, it does seem that, due to the improvement brought about by the antibiotic, I have some kind of systemic infection., although it is a mystery why signs of infection do not show up in the lab tests. I am still a long way from well, but at least, for the first time in a long time, the condition of my legs seems to be heading, though slowly, in a positive direction.

So that was our hard year. Jeanette and I still find ourselves feeling emotionally, and often physically, exhausted many days. But we made it, and are keenly aware that in this past horrible year, and its continuing effects in the current one, many people did not, and many others are still struggling to survive. It is too often uttered as a cliché, but our thoughts and prayers are with you all. And on the bright side, a brush with mortality is a strong motivator to complete things still undone. Book 5 is on the way, and book 6 will follow.


The farm.

And I imagine, because I have been so terrible over the past year about communicating, that more than a few readers of the Strongbow Saga have once again been wondering if maybe I passed, too. Nope—I’m alive! And the good news is that I have made more progress writing book 5 during the first two months of 2020 than I did in all of 2019. I am trying to force myself to have the self-discipline to write every day. That admittedly is something that is not always possible on the farm, but I am now writing more often than not, which keeps the momentum going. I’m not yet able to predict when the book will be finished, but it is at long last coming along steadily.

On the subject of my poor communication, I would like to apologize to all who have tried to contact me by posting or trying to post on this site. I used to have a feature that would send me an email notice whenever someone posted (and if you’ve never posted here before, I have to review and approve it before it will appear). But as I explained in my last post, during 2018 my web hosting service moved all of the websites they host to new, upgraded servers, and that process disabled some features of my website, including the notifications about posts. I am decidedly not tech-savvy, and the friend who was also my website specialist has very little time these days to spare anymore, so I have yet to find a solution to the problem.

Jeanette at the Oregon border, February 2012.

Eight years ago, on February 26, Jeanette and I reached Oregon. Less than a week later, we found and purchased our small farm located on the edge of the Cascade Mountain range, in the McKenzie River valley. Our life since then has been an amazing adventure: always challenging, often exciting, sometimes overwhelming. But it has been a wonderful experience to share. We met later in life—though we have now been married for sixteen years, this is the second marriage for both of us. We both went through some pretty hard times, separately before we met, and together after we married. To have so many of the things that used to batter us in the past now, and to be able to be together, all day every day, has been a blessing and a joy. We find the solitude especially peaceful: many weeks, we have no interactions with others except for our once-a-week trip to town for grocery shopping and errands.

We certainly did not anticipate, though, when we bought our little homestead farm, how constantly busy our life was going to become. There is no such thing as “free time,” with nothing to do, on our farm. There are just really, really busy times, and somewhat less busy times. Winter, which we are currently coming to the end of, is one of the less busy times, but already we are beginning work on our 2020 garden, by starting seeds to grow the plants which will go into the garden when the weather warms up in the spring.

Fortunately, 2019 was a far healthier year for both of us than 2018. My MS, which flared up badly during 2018, seems to have returned to the mostly dormant state it had been in for over ten years. But I was 60 years old when we moved onto the farm. I’m 68 now, and those eight years have made a difference. This life frequently involves a lot of physical labor, and it is a reality that aging bodies tire quicker, and are more prone to injury. Just since December, for example, I’ve been dealing with two injuries: plantar fasciitis, a form of tendonitis, in my left foot—fortunately I have mostly worked through that by now—and an injury to my right shoulder which I thought was also tendonitis, but which I learned just a few days ago is actually a torn rotator cuff, which may require surgery to repair. But the amazing beauty of this mountain valley where we live, and the challenges of constantly problem solving a variety of issues, many of which we’d never even dreamed might be something we’d someday face (dealing with a herd of sheep, for example), make this life something we love, so much so that now we can no longer imagine going back to a more “normal” existence, which would feel so limited and limiting. For several months this winter, for example, two enormous bald eagles frequently hunted in our area, and the chance to observe such beautiful and magnificent creatures was thrilling.

It’s a miracle he never went after our chickens.

Every year, and especially every garden year, brings different challenges. Last summer, in contrast to the two preceding years, the weather was mostly quite pleasant. We had good rainfall in the spring. The garden should have been a heavy producer, and for certain crops, it was—we had asparagus, for instance, from late spring into August. Our potato harvest was also the best we’d ever had, as were our crops of kiwi, pears and apples.

Our 2019 garden at its peak.

A good day’s harvest.

Our best potato crop ever.

But the pleasantness of the weather brought unusually cool nights, which caused many crops to come in very slowly and very late. Some years we’ve had our first tomatoes as early as late May. But in 2019 we got none, not even the early varieties, until late June, no heirlooms until mid-July, and because the autumn rains began in August—something that is almost unheard of in this part of Oregon—our total crop was cut short and was the worst year for tomatoes we’ve ever had. Similarly, our dry beans were so slow to develop we were able to harvest almost none. Nevertheless, we did manage to fill our freezers with a good supply of most types of vegetables and fruit, which we have been enjoying all winter, and the sheep we harvested from our herd of heritage Soay sheep have provided us with a wonderful supply of lean, grass-fed meat.

Kiwi on the vine.

This made over three quarts of delicious sauerkraut.

We—all of us, not just Jeanette and I—are embarked on a very momentous year. The earth’s climate is rushing toward irreversible damage faster than any scientists anticipated, causing ever more frequent extreme, erratic, and destructive weather events. We are, as I write this, in the early stages of what may develop into a dangerous, world-wide pandemic, which could not only cause numerous deaths, but also drive the economies of much of the world, including the United States, into recession. And here, in the United States, we are facing an election which may well determine whether our democracy, as the founding fathers intended it to operate, will survive. We do not seem prepared: our populace is facing these dangerous challenges in a more divided, polarized condition than I have, in my lifetime, ever seen.

We are all in this life together. We must realize that. If we cannot learn to pull together, to try to combat the serious threats we are facing, I do not know what will happen, but I fear things will not end well.

Sigrid, the supervisor of all chickens and sheep on our farm

What Happened to Book 5?

The farm, summer 2019.

Let me begin with a couple of announcements: First, I am not dead. I suspect that because book 5 did not come out in 2018 as I’d predicted it would, and because my website has not been updated with any new posts since July of 2018, some may have wondered.

Second, I apologize to anyone who has tried to contact me through my website since late last summer. Two things happened around that time. One was that Jeanette and I were hit with, to borrow a phrase from the title of a children’s book series, a series of unfortunate events. Dealing with them was all-consuming, and I did not even try to get to my website at all for the rest of 2018, or during this year until late last month. Second, around the end of August 2018, the hosting service where my website is located moved all of its hosted sites to new, upgraded servers. Unfortunately, the move disabled a number of features on my site, including the one that would notify me whenever a visitor had submitted a post so I could approve its publication on the site—a security feature to prevent trolling. So I didn’t realize people were attempting to post on the website or contact me through the site.

The server move also, as it turned out, automatically reset my password needed to log in to the administrative control panel for my site, from which I do things like make posts, approve visitors’ posts, etc., and it disabled the “send email” feature on the site which was necessary to reset the password if I could not log in successfully. So when I finally tried to get back to working on the site, including to begin working on this update, I discovered that I was effectively locked out of my own website with no way to get in. Only a few weeks ago was that problem finally resolved by a good friend and very savvy web programmer.

So…where is book 5? Back in my May 2018 post I was still hopefully predicting I could complete it by the end of the year. What happened?

The short and obvious answer is that I failed. I still have not yet completed it. There will be a book 5. I am working on it, and much of the story-line is thoroughly fleshed out. But there is still a lot of actual writing yet to be done. In truth, for reasons explained below, I made no progress at all on the book from August through the end of 2018, a period when I had been hoping a hard final push might get the job done.

If that’s all you wanted to know, feel free to stop reading here. But if you want to learn the details of all that has been going on in my life that has prevented me from finishing a very long awaited and long overdue next book, then read on for the long answer, because what happened to book 5 is due to all that has happened to my wife, Jeanette, and to me since late 2017. So let me explain, first by providing some background.

Seven years ago this past April Jeanette and I moved to our small farm in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in western Oregon. It was a major leap of faith for several reasons. First, we were moving into a totally new lifestyle, a homestead farm existence, which neither of us had any prior experience with. Jeanette had been a cardiology nurse her entire adult life, while I had worked in criminal law, primarily as a police officer, federal agent, and prosecutor. With this move, neither of us would be working day jobs anymore (I had actually not worked outside the home for several years prior, due to a health issue). We were planning to support ourselves financially by a combination of income from my writing plus income from investments in the stock market I had made over many years. We also expected that as we produced more and more of our own food on the farm, we would hopefully see some reduction of our living expenses. So although neither of us would be holding outside jobs, working for someone else, in a sense our plan required each of us to juggle several jobs. I had four: writer, publisher, investment manager, and farmer, while Jeanette was my partner in publishing and the farm, and ran the household.

Our juggling act worked pretty well for the first several years here on the farm. Back then, the e-book market, which before around 2010 was a very minor segment of book publishing, was continuing to grow year by year as Amazon almost single-handedly strove to develop it. Amazon grew the e-book market by two methods. First, for a number of years during the early growth period of the market, each year as Christmas approached Amazon would offer new, improved versions of their Kindle e-book readers at low prices, to induce persons who had not yet tried e-book reading to take the plunge, or to give an e-reader as a gift to another. During this period, every January millions of new Kindle readers would come online, and their owners would be looking for e-books to buy. Amazon also grew the e-book market by establishing an easy-to-use self-publishing platform to allow authors to bypass the big publishers, publish their books directly, and keep a much higher percentage of the profits on sales of their work—70% of each book sale, versus the 10% to 15% big publishers paid (and still pay) authors. More and more authors, both established ones who were choosing to switch from working with a publisher, and many who’d never been published before, swarmed into e-book publishing, providing for Amazon (and for other e-book sellers such as Apple and Kobo, who eventually followed Amazon’s lead by creating self-publishing platforms) a huge supply of reasonably priced e-book content to sell. During those early years of the e-book market expansion, I saw my book sales grow and produce a strong income stream for us. The book sales in the early years on the farm were often more than enough to cover our monthly expenses, and if we occasionally needed a bit more, the returns I was receiving on my investments were more than adequate to cover the balance. So in those days I was able to let the investment side of our multi-faceted life for the most part drift along on auto-pilot without requiring much of my time or attention.

The farm side of this life has always been quite time consuming, however. In the early years there was a lot of learning of new skills and problem solving, and there is always a LOT of physical labor. During our first year we planted an orchard of nineteen fruit and nut trees on one side of the farm, around a single, ancient apple tree located there, which we over time pruned back into strong productivity.  That work is finally beginning to pay off: last year we harvested numerous apples, a decent crop of peaches, and our first crops of pears (only two of those, and our big ram got to one before we did), cherries, and Kiwi fruit. In our first year here we bought chicks and raised them to become a source of eggs and, occasionally, meat. We’re in our fourth or fifth generation of chickens now, although one hen from the original batch of chicks is still alive, spry, and laying. Each year we have planted a large garden, producing significant quantities of numerous types of vegetables that we enjoy fresh during the summer and fall, and preserve by freezing and fermentation to enjoy over the winter. Because most of our five acre farm is open pasture (which I did not want to spend my time mowing), the first year we acquired a small herd—three ewes, each with a lamb—of heritage Soay sheep, the oldest domestic breed of sheep still in existence today, and the breed closest genetically to wild sheep. Our first year with the sheep was a struggle—we lost three to illness—but as the years passed our herd grew, and eventually we were able to start harvesting the excess rams for meat.

Dammit, our mature ram and leader of the herd.

During those early years here we were able to keep enough balance in our multi-sided life for me to complete writing and publish The Long Hunt, book 4 of the Strongbow Saga, in late 2013, to work with a narrator and produce all four books in audio format over the course of 2014, and to take a research trip to Ireland to support the planned final segment of the Strongbow Saga story, as well as a stand-alone novel set in the Strongbow Saga world, The Beast of Dublin, which I had been writing on and off since 2010.

I had hoped to complete The Beast of Dublin during 2015-2016 while the Ireland research was still fresh in my mind, but after spending some months working on it, I realized that my mind kept drifting back to the main Strongbow Saga story, so in mid-2015 I once again shelved the stand-alone book and began work on what I originally believed would be the fifth and final installment of Halfdan’s tale, with the intention of completing it during 2016.

The continuing Strongbow Saga story has long had a definite structure and conclusion in my mind. Part of my plan for the overall series was for readers to be able to experience, through Halfdan’s adventures and travels, almost the entire scope of the ninth century Viking world, including life in the Scandinavian homelands, expeditions for raiding and war in France, England, and Ireland, and the Vikings’ extensive trade routes in the east that connected the early northern medieval world with the middle east and the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantium. After book 4, there were two story or plot arcs left to complete: the attempt to rescue Halfdan’s half-sister Sigrid, who had been sold into slavery by Toke in book 4, and the final hunting down of Toke and the resolution of his and Halfdan’s conflict. That final part of the story will take place mostly in Ireland, while the Sigrid story takes place in what is now northeastern Russia.

To write Sigrid’s story, I had first to thoroughly research the history and culture of the Vikings in the east. That proved to be much more of a challenge than I had anticipated. There are far fewer sources—both original ones dating from the Viking era plus modern analyses and interpretations—of the Vikings in the east than exist for the western Viking world, for which numerous studies, sources, and types of historical evidence exists. The Russian research ended up taking well over a year, bringing me into 2017 before I was finally ready to start writing book 5. And that, unfortunately, was when the juggling act of our lives here became badly unbalanced and much more of a challenge.

A number of things went wrong in 2017. First of all, it was the beginning of a period of higher than normal temperatures and drought in western Oregon. There are always wildfires in the northwest during the summer, but the wildfire season was especially bad in Oregon during 2017 due to the heat and drought. Several major fires burned not far from our farm—one about ten miles further upriver, and another on the other side of the mountain ridge that rises above the river directly behind us. During August, many days the smoke from the fires was as thick on our farm as heavy fog, and the air quality in the nearby Eugene-Springfield area was so bad that numerous outdoor events were cancelled.

Smoke from nearby wildfires, summer 2017.

Our finances were no longer working out as planned by 2017, either—in fact, that problem had begun even before then, by 2016.  The e-book market had reached maturity around 2014—huge numbers of readers were no longer joining for the first time every year. And the amount of e-book content available had grown to millions and millions of books, magazines, etc., making it much more difficult for any individual book or series to be found in searches on Amazon or other venues. Amazon’s search engines, which help readers find potential books to read, to some degree exacerbated the problem, because their programs decided which books to push to the front in searches in large part by sales rankings. So the lower your rate of sales were, the less likely your books were to be found, which lowered your sales further, which lowered your placement in searches further…you get the idea. As a result of all of this our monthly income from books sales began to gradually decline, and by 2016 had fallen off considerably.

At the same time that our book sale income was decreasing, one of our monthly expenses—the cost of medical insurance—was significantly increasing. In 2012, it cost a little over a thousand dollars per month for insurance coverage for both of us (and at the time, that seemed high). Since 2017, thanks to the repeated Republican efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act, private insurance rates have risen so much that coverage for Jeanette alone is now over $1,200 per month. Thankfully, I’ve aged into Medicare, so my costs are considerably lower, but even so, currently many months our book sale income does little more than cover our combined medical insurance premiums, leaving the rest of our monthly expenses to have to be covered by other funds. And because the income from book sales had fallen so much, the amount I had been making in passive dividend income from my investments was no longer enough to bridge the gap between our income and expenses. So to make up the difference, during 2016 I began engaging in options trading to generate extra income by selling options contracts.

To give a brief and simplified explanation of what that entails, there are two basic forms of options contracts (there are also a number of more complex combined types of options trades, but I rarely used those). A Put is a contract where the seller offers to buy 100 shares of a particular stock—we’ll use XYZ as a hypothetical stock symbol—for a set price per share, called the strike price. The contract has a set expiration date, and if the stock’s price per share falls below the strike price when the contract expires (or before then, if the buyer of the contract chooses to exercise it early), the seller of the option contract must buy the 100 shares of XYZ from the buyer at the strike price. However, if at expiration the stock’s price is above the strike price, then the contract just expires, and the seller keeps the proceeds he received from selling the contract as pure profit. It is obviously somewhat of a gamble, and carries an amount of risk for the seller, but so long as prices in the stock market remain stable or the market is rising, it’s possible to make a decent amount of money selling puts without any overhead expense.

The other type of basic option contract, a Covered Call, is considerably less risky for the seller, but does require the seller to own the stock which is the subject of the contract. In a Covered Call, the seller of the option contract offers to sell 100 shares of XYZ company for a set strike price on or before the contract’s expiration date. If the stock’s price is lower than the strike price at expiration, the contract expires and the seller pockets the proceeds received from the option sale as profit. However, if the stock’s price rises above the strike price, then the seller is required to sell the 100 shares at the lower strike price.

For over two years, I sold both Puts and Calls—numerous of the former—and was successfully able to generate enough income to more than make up what we needed to cover our monthly expenses. However, options trading is fairly time intensive. Compared to earlier years when I could only check in on our investments once a month or so, now I was spending an hour or two at my computer most days every week—time which could otherwise have been spent writing. And always in the back of my mind I was aware of the risk. If the stock market were to crash while I was holding a large number of Put contracts, I would be on the hook to buy a lot of stock.

Also by 2017, our herd of sheep had grown large enough to where we needed to sell some, to avoid ending up with a larger herd than our five acres could support. Soay sheep are VERY reliable breeders: every spring each ewe can be depended on to produce a lamb, and occasionally some give birth to twins. During the fall of 2017 we lined up a sale of enough sheep to reduce the herd back to a manageable level, but unfortunately the buyer backed out at the last minute, deciding he and his wife weren’t really prepared for the work and responsibility that would be required.

Before we could try to scramble to line up another sale, disaster struck. We give our sheep daily “treats”—hand feed them cut up pieces of apple, carrots, and the like. Not all of the sheep participate—they are a semi-wild breed, and many of them are quite skittish—but a number of them very eagerly do, and it helps us control the herd to have a number of tame, friendly ones.

Treat time for the sheep.

A young Ram we’d named Robbie, who had always been very tame and friendly, was, from a young age, an eager participant in the daily distribution of treats. But one morning in November of 2017, however, he apparently felt Jeanette was not feeding him enough, and out of the blue butted her quite hard in her leg.

At first we thought her leg was just badly bruised, a painful injury but one that would quickly pass. But actually, there had been significant damage to the muscle fibers deep in her thigh, and bleeding deep in the muscle there. About a week after the injury, in the middle of the night her leg suddenly swelled, became extremely painful, and she was unable to bend it, all of which caused us to make a middle of the night run into town to the hospital emergency room. It turned out that the pain and swelling were caused by pooled blood deep in the muscle tissue which her body was trying to dissolve, causing an inflammatory response. When that process was completed, her leg should, the doctors assured us, return to normal. But the muscle did not heal as the doctors had predicted. The pain and lack of full mobility persisted even after the swelling had ended. It turned out that the concentrated impact of the ram’s horn against her leg had damaged the muscle fibers, leaving them twisted and knotted. Ultimately, Jeanette had to begin a course of twice per week physical therapy in Eugene, involving massage, stretching, and strengthening exercises, to gradually restore the muscle fibers to their normal configuration. It was a slow process, which continued from late December 2017 through April of 2018.

We have come to love living in the country, but there are a few downsides. Trips to town, which require a drive of a little over an hour round trip, do tend to eat up time and limit what could otherwise be accomplished in a day. Thankfully, Jeanette’s leg eventually fully recovered, but I lost a lot of potential writing time, and we lost a lot of time during early 2018 when we normally would have been beginning the year’s garden, due to all of those twice per week journeys to Eugene. We also had to stop what had been an important part of our weekly exercise and fitness regime: hikes in the hills above our farm three times per week.

As to Robbie, until the attack we’d always found him to be so tame and personable that we did not want to “harvest” him for meat—the eventual fate of most of our rams. We’d thought we would either keep him to eventually replace our existing lead ram, Dammit, or else sell him to someone as a good, tame ram to anchor a small starter herd. We considered neither of those alternatives viable after the attack. Robbie’s future had been changed. It did not happen immediately, but eventually Robbie met his fate. We ate his liver sautéed with bacon and onions for New Year’s Eve dinner at the end of 2018, and enjoyed Robbie burgers this past Memorial Day weekend.

The various problems we’d had during 2017 led to a cascade of worse problems in 2018. By the time Jeanette’s leg was far enough along in the healing process for her to be able to work outside, we were already behind on the garden. So from spring through early summer we abandoned everything else we could—our hikes and other regular exercise, plus my writing—to try and catch the garden up. Although we were somewhat successful, our 2018 garden was definitely the lowest producing garden we’d had since moving to the farm in 2012. Every crop came in later than usual, some produced much less than in typical years, resulting in less for us to freeze for winter consumption, and some types of crops we regularly grow never reached maturity at all.

2018 was also a tough year for me physically. I have thinning discs and arthritis in my lower spine. In the past, it mostly has caused some stiffness and soreness in my back if I worked too long in a bending over position, but during 2018 it worsened into almost constant pain, at its best moderate at times, but fairly severe at others, making the level of physical activity our farm life requires far more difficult and wearing.

On top of the constant back pain, I was very sick for the entire month of August. I have had Multiple Sclerosis since the late 1990s. It is an unusual disease, and there is still much that doctors do not know about it, including what causes it. In MS, the body’s immune system for some reason starts to attack nerve fibers in the brain, or sometimes the spinal cord, as if they are infection or bacteria of some other kind of illness-causing invader the body needs to fight off. The damage to the brain can cause a wide range of effects, depending on the area of the brain affected. Some people with severe MS lose the ability to walk, lose part or all of their vision, and some die from the disease. I so far have been fortunate: my most common symptoms have been mostly pain, fatigue, and sometimes numbness in my arms and/or legs, and even those I do not experience all of the time, but only when the disease flares up for some reason.

There is no cure for MS, although there are drugs that can, in many people, slow the progression of the disease. Unfortunately, the drug treatments don’t work for everyone, and even when they do, many of the treatments can sometimes cause significant side effects, in part because they act by suppressing the body’s immune system, making it potentially more susceptible to other illnesses or infection.

I was on one of the treatments for MS—a weekly injection of interferon—for several years after my MS was first diagnosed in 2003. The short-term side effect of the injections was flu-like symptoms for about 24 hours after each shot. But I eventually also began to develop a more significant side effect, damage to my liver, so the treatment had to be discontinued. Fortuitously, however, by that time Jeanette and I had begun eating the Mediterranean Diet, a diet high on fruits, vegetables, and seafood, and in which only modest amounts of meat, and essentially no processed foods, are eaten. The foods in the Mediterranean Diet tend to have high anti-inflammatory qualities, which seemed to have a very beneficial effect on my MS, because even after I discontinued the interferon treatment, my MS did not worsen. In fact, it gradually improved to the point that while not gone altogether, it very rarely showed itself, and when it did, symptoms would usually only last for a day or so. By 2018, despite not having taken any sort of treatment for MS for well over ten years, I had not had any significant episodes of the disease during that time. My MS had, except for an occasional brief day of pain and/or fatigue, been essentially dormant.

That changed in August of 2018. My MS had a major flare-up that lasted the entire month. In addition to pain and fatigue, I experienced major numbness in my hands and legs, cramping and spasms in my hands, and often significant dizziness. But the daily workload on our farm does not pause for illness. So every morning and evening I would stagger up to the barn and garden with Jeanette, to tend to the sheep and chickens, and water, weed, and harvest the garden—efforts which left me exhausted by the end of most days.

Fortunately, the MS flare-up tapered off in September. But because of all that had happened by then, I had made very little progress writing book 5. Jeanette and I tried to come up with a plan for the remainder of the year that would hopefully allow me enough time during the fall to push and complete, or at least come close to completing, writing the book. Although we usually plant a fall garden, in 2018 we decided not to, to save me time.

But even without a fall garden, we still had a major farm issue to deal with that fall. The drought which had begun in 2017 continued through all of 2018 and into the early months of 2019. Spring rains in a normal year here in western Oregon usually continue, in a gradual tapering off process, into early June, after which the summer months are typically almost rain free. In typical years, our pastures have a growth spurt during the spring, and are quite lush by early summer. But the spring of 2018 was unusually dry, and the grasses in the pastures—already somewhat stunted by the drought of the preceding year—never achieved their full growth. On top of that, our already too-large herd of sheep expanded dramatically during the spring lambing season, so that by summer we had twenty-eight sheep. The combination of the effects of the drought on the grasses’s spring growth and having too many hungry mouths grazing on them wreaked havoc on our pastures, rendering them by late summer almost barren in places. So by the end of summer 2018 we were facing two must-do tasks: we desperately needed to reduce the size of our sheep herd significantly, and also needed to try to rehabilitate several of our most badly damaged pastures.

We blocked off and reseeded several sections of pasture, so that hopefully at least those areas could recover over the winter and in the following spring. We sold ten sheep to a buyer from Washington State, and sold two for meat to a Mongolian family from Portland who wanted whole animals for a traditional christening celebration. We also gave away one of our young rams for butchering to some friends, butchered another for my son when he came for a visit at Christmas, and butchered Robbie for ourselves. In addition, a young ram born during the spring apparently ate something that severely disagreed with him and he died. From all of that, by the end of the year we’d reduced the herd down to twelve: nine ewes, our big, mature ram Dammit, and two young rams to grow for next year’s meat, but the process took time—lots of time.

But 2018 was not through with us. As I mentioned earlier, during 2016 I had begun selling options contracts to generate extra income. It had proved enough of a successful means of generating income that over time I had gradually increased the amount of options trading I was doing. In the fall of 2018, I was holding a significant number of PUTs contracts I had sold, each requiring me to buy 100 shares of a given stock at a set strike price, if the stock’s price per share dropped below the strike. Because I was selling a number of contracts each month, usually with expiration dates three months out, as of the beginning of October I had waves of contracts with expiration dates each month through January of 2019.

In October, the stock market crashed due to jitters over the effects of President Trump’s—who likes to call himself Tariff Man—trade wars with China and almost every other country the U.S. trades with. The effects of the widespread tariffs—which, contrary to what Trump claims, are actually paid by U.S. companies and consumers, not the foreign countries whose products they are levied on—were, and still are, having ripple effects throughout the world’s economies. As just one example, although the service sector of Germany’s economy is still strong, its manufacturing sector is currently showing recession levels of weakness. In the U.S., many farmers who grow bulk crops such as corn and soybeans for export markets have suffered huge losses, and bankruptcies by farmers who grow export crops are up dramatically—all of which Trump is trying to limit, because he needs those farm-belt votes in 2020, by giving certain classes of farmers billions of dollars in Federal bail-out funds (which means our country and its taxpayers are paying for his tariffs in multiple ways, from higher costs for imported goods to billion dollar bail-outs for certain classes of commercial farmers).

The stock market eventually recovered in early 2019, but for three and a half months I got slaughtered on the options contracts I was holding. As stock prices plummeted, the buyers of the contracts exercised them to cut their losses, meaning that over and over, when I would log onto my brokerage account each morning, I would find that I had bought shares of stocks that were now worth far less than I been required to pay for them. Nevertheless, because of the extent of my exposure, I was forced to immediately sell the purchased stocks at a loss, then sell other investment holdings over the three month period to generate enough cash to cover the losses. Instead of the fall being a time when I’d thought to make a hard push to complete book 5, I spent hours online most days juggling our finances trying to stave off disaster. Although I never did a precise tally, by the time the stock market recovered in early 2019 and the bleeding finally stopped, I had lost somewhere around $40,000—and had made no progress at all on book 5.

Although that three month period was more than a little bit of a disaster, I have, over the years of my life, gradually come to recognize that to a remarkable degree, when something bad has happened to me—something that, at the time it happens, feels like a huge setback—I will actually find when I reassess that new opportunities have become available or are coming, and in the end, in the long run, my life shifts in some way for the better if I am open to seeing the new path(s) to take. My financial crisis in the last quarter of 2018 turned out to be just such a positive twist. It was a true trust fate experience.

First of all, it convinced me that options trading is not a viable long term solution for producing extra income. When the economy is strong and growing and the stock market is rising, it can be profitable. But sooner or later, the economy always takes a downturn and the market falls, and the risk of trading options when that happens is just too great. I believe that is especially true now. Although the U.S. economy may currently look strong by many measures, whether our stable genius president understands it or not, our economy is inextricably linked to the global economy, which is weakening in no small part due to his trade wars with seemingly the entire rest of the world. More and more economists are predicting that we will fall back into a recession, possibly a severe one, by 2020, and a growing number are saying a recession could begin this year. My 2018 financial pain made me realize that to protect Jeanette’s and my financial security, I need to act now to build us a stronger, safer source of extra income.

That realization brought me to another one. As I mentioned earlier in this overly lengthy post, I have invested in the stock market for many years. Over time, I eventually came to focus most my investing on companies that paid a dividend to stockholders, and that dividend income was the source of our extra, supplemental income when we first made the leap to this new life. Those investments were paying, when averaged together, probably somewhere around 3% to 4% per year. In order to make up for the extra income option trading had been producing for me when it was going well, I needed to at least double that. Fortunately, I have found a way. It requires a two-step process that is still ongoing, though I’m getting close to completion. First, I have been identifying safe investments that will pay from 8% to 10% per year, and second, I have been plugging enough funds into those investments to generate the level of income we need to meet our monthly expenses.

I’m going to explain more about the first step in a minute. But first let me briefly cover the second one. I’ve been investing in stocks for probably close to thirty years now. As I mentioned above, over time, I’ve come to primarily put new money into dividend-paying stocks. But years ago I did invest in some pure “growth” stocks—companies that don’t pay a dividend to stockholders, but that, because they have been very successful in a niche they created and dominate, have experienced large increases in their stock share price over time as the companies have become more and more successful and valuable—companies like Amazon and Netflix. Over the years, the value of what originally were fairly modest investments I made in those companies have grown quite a bit. I had not done anything with those investments for many years, figuring that they were sort of a nest egg to be held in reserve, one that maybe I would eventually cash in and reinvest in income-producing companies when I got “old.” My wake-up call from my fourth quarter 2018 option disaster, and the need to restructure our finances, made me realize, “Hello, stupid, you are old! You’ll turn 68 this year. What exactly are you waiting for?”

I am going to interrupt this personal story for a moment to strongly urge everyone to try, if you do not already invest in stocks, to find a way to start doing so. If you want financial security, unless you are already wealthy or in line to inherit wealth, you are going to have to take responsibility for building that security yourself. The earlier you start, the better. There are certainly risks involved with investing in stocks. The stock market goes through cycles of growth and crashes. The crashes are scary—in my roughly thirty years of investing, I’ve been through several, the worst of which was the crash accompanying the start of the great recession in 2008. In that one, like many, many investors, I saw the value of my stock holdings drop by at least 50%. These things happen. But the stock market always bounces back, and over time, ends up stronger than it was before a crash. As long as an investor does not panic and sell during a crash—a move that makes paper losses real—but instead holds on to his or her stocks and waits the downturn out, the vast majority will rise again, and eventually surpass where they were before the crash. That, too, has happened to me several times since I have been investing.

I would particularly urge any young adults who are reading this to start building your financial future now. Retirement may seem like something that is a very long way away, but if you do not start planning and saving for it now, when you get older you may find yourself facing the reality that you cannot afford to retire. Beginning is easier than you might think. There are a number of very easy-to-use online stockbroker services. I primarily use E*Trade, but there are a number of quite good others, including Fidelity.com. To get started, just apply to open an investment account and make an initial deposit. Identify what stock(s) you want to invest in (more on that in a moment), and place an order to buy as many shares as you can afford with the cash you’ve deposited in your account. With most good online brokers, the fee to make a trade is quite low: $4.99 is a common rate. And whenever you get a windfall of some extra cash—maybe a tax refund, or you inherit some money when a relative dies—don’t spend it all on something frivolous. Spend at least some of it on your future by investing it.

How do you know what stocks to invest in? I certainly am not knowledgeable enough to research and identify companies on my own to evaluate what to invest in. I rely on experts who are much more knowledgeable than me to do that. There are numerous types of market advisors out there, who sell their expertise and investment recommendations to investors. Some are, to be frank, charlatans. There are many who are not, although the rates of success of their recommendations, and the fees they charge for their investment advice, can vary greatly.

During my recent research while planning how to restructure Jeanette’s and my finances, I stumbled upon two online investment advisers who specialize in investment recommendations aimed at generating a safe but high level of income to help investors build enough of an income stream to live on after retirement. They specialize in analyzing and recommending companies in a little-known niche market called Closed End Funds, or CEFs, which are relatively small mutual funds that specialize in various types of investments. Some of these two analysts’ research they offer for free on a public access website: https://contrarianoutlook.com/ . To get the full range of their recommendations, though, it’s necessary to subscribe to their premium services. One, the Contrarian Income Report, is currently remarkably inexpensive: $39.00 per year. The other, the CEF Insider, is more costly, at $399 per year, but that still is not unreasonable when compared to other online subscription investment advice services.

There are a number of things I particularly like about the CEF-based investments these analysts recommend. First, most of the funds they suggest pay from 7% to 9% per year, far higher than the rate of return on most individual companies’ dividend-paying stocks, and a few pay 10% or higher. Second, because CEFs are mutual funds that hold a wide variety of stocks and other types of investments, they tend to be more stable and less risky than investing in individual companies (although a flip side of that spreading of holdings and risk is that CEFs will likely never experience the huge levels of growth that can be possible to achieve with a fortuitous investment in a break-out growth company, such as an Amazon—but those don’t come along every day). Third, the Contrarian Income Report offers a proposed portfolio of CEFs and other funds that pay monthly dividends, especially geared toward providing a steady stream of income for retirees, which was exactly what I needed. And last, a majority of the recommended CEFs have quite low share prices, most near or under $20.00 per share, and some under $10.00, which makes them very appealing and accessible for beginning investors with only modest amounts to invest with at any given time. Just as an example, one fund they recommend, the Liberty All-Star Equity Fund (stock symbol USA), currently costs only around $6.20 per share, and pays an approximately 10% per year dividend. So please, if you do not invest, give serious consideration to beginning, and if you’re already an investor, consider taking a look at what these two analysts are recommending. We all have to take care of ourselves and our families, and that seems to be getting harder and harder to do in this country these days.

End of the infomercial, and back to my story. As 2018 finally ground to an end and 2019 began, Jeanette and I resolved to regain control over our lives. On the financial front, I have been selling off all of our prior stock holdings, and reinvesting the funds in high-paying CEFs, and have been closing out selling options contracts. Soon, I will be finished with our financial overhaul, at which point my “job” as our investment manager will once again require relatively little of my time and attention.

I have also been working at reclaiming a better level of health. An x-ray of my lower back revealed that the arthritis there has caused a portion of the spine that is supposed to be curved to become straight, which was causing my constant pain. My doctor referred me to physical therapy to try to counter that, but I quit after going for two sessions, during which the therapist tried to show me “safer” ways to do things like get up out of a chair, or get out of bed—he really didn’t grasp the lifestyle I am living. Instead, Jeanette and I have resumed doing a yoga workout together once or twice per week—something we had been doing up until things went crazy in 2017. The stretching and strengthening yoga provides has brought a dramatic improvement to my back. We have also resumed regular workouts with weights, and our regular hikes in the hills above our farm, both of which we had dropped during the struggles of 2017-2018.

I also began a doctor-patient relationship with a MS specialist in Eugene, and had a MRI scan of my brain. Unfortunately, that did show new damage, which presumably occurred during the August 2018 flare-up of my MS. I have not yet decided to resume taking medicine for MS (there have been a lot of new drugs developed for it in the ten-plus years since I stopped the interferon injections) because of my concerns about their side effects possibilities, but I’m keeping a watchful and wary eye on any incidents of symptoms, which unfortunatelyhave been occurring somewhat more frequently than in the past.

Although so far the current “rain year” for this area—the measurement of rainfall that tracks the rainy season, and runs from October 1st through September 30th—is at about ten inches below the historical normal (but is there such a thing as normal weather anymore?), we did have lots of spring rain, and that has done wonders for our pastures. The ones we reseeded last fall, in fact, are lusher than we’ve ever seen them, and will provide us an abundance of hay, as well as ample grazing for the sheep. We will need to reduce the herd size again during late summer or fall—that is going to be an annual task going forward—but at least the situation is not dire like last year.

This now-lush pasture was almost barren in places by the fall of 2018.

We also have tried to reduce the size of our garden somewhat, for this year at least, to hopefully free up more time for me, although it is still a large garden. The spring and early summer are always extremely busy until all of the various crops are in, and this year has been no different, but we are nearing completion of that process. We will see how the summer goes—how much I am able to get back to writing—and decide based on that whether to plant much of a fall garden. We are trying to clear time for my writing.

Our garden is almost completely planted now.

Of course, there are always things that happen to disrupt even the most careful of plans. In late February, this area had a freak blizzard, with over eighteen inches of snow falling in about 48 hours. The snow was unusually wet and heavy, and broke or brought down trees all over this part of the state. Power outages were widespread—we were fortunate to only be without power for 24 hours, but some areas were without power for up to two weeks, and a few small communities were cut off from the outside world for that long due to the roads to them being blocked by numerous fallen trees. On our farm, we had a number of trees with heavy limb loss, and several fence lines that were broken in places when the fence posts broke from the weight of the snow. Dealing with all of that damage has taken time, and there is still some fence repair to be done.

The surprise blizzard of late February 2019 did a lot of damage, bringing down numerous trees across the region and breaking several areas of fence on our farm.

Nevertheless, so far 2019 has been a positive year. Jeanette and I rejoice in this life, in its beauty, the closeness to nature, and even in its challenges, and we are thankful to have the opportunity to spend every day together, sharing this incredible experience. We will continue to search for ways to restructure our lives to give me writing time. Don’t give up on me. I will get books 5 and 6 to you, and finish The Strongbow Saga.