ANOTHER YEAR HAS PASSED

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.

Strongbow Saga book 3 German Edition

Der Weg zur Rache (The Road to Vengeance), the German language translation of book 3 of the Strongbow Saga, is now available in print and Amazon Kindle e-book editions, joining Ein Krieger der Wikinger (Viking Warrior) and Drachen aus dem Mer (Dragons from the Sea). E-book editions for other distribution platforms, including Apple and Kobo, will follow. Bringing these German language editions into being is the result of an ongoing partnership with author Ruth Nestvold, an American ex-pat who lives in Germany. Many thanks to Ruth and her husband Chris, who is the German language editor of the series.

Where is Book 5?

I have had several very kind, gracious inquiries from readers recently asking about the status of book 5. An update on that is due.

First, let me reveal that there now are going to be two more books in the Strongbow Saga series, a fifth and a sixth book. I was hoping to fit the remainder of the story into one long book, but have come to realize that that’s not the best choice for several reasons. First, the remainder of the Strongbow Saga has two very distinct plot arcs. The first, which will now be book 5, concerns the company’s journey into the area that is now Northern Russia, in an attempt to find and rescue Sigrid. The second, which will be book 6, concerns the return voyage to Denmark—a relatively short segment, but one that will contain some significant plot developments—then the journey on to Ireland, where the final confrontation with Toke will take place. The two arcs are more logically two books than one, plus there’s no way I could complete both this year, which is a strong argument for splitting them up.

A major part of the delay in getting book 5 out was the research necessary to write the Russia part of the story. The history of the Vikings in Russia is not nearly as well known or understood as is their history in the west, in their own homelands, in Europe, and in England. There is quite a lot of source material available for those areas, including accounts actually written during the Viking era, saga stories, and archeological findings, plus numerous works summarizing and/or analyzing the underlying historical data.

By contrast, for the period in which the Strongbow Saga is set—the mid 9th century—there is relatively little data available about Russia. There are essentially no contemporaneous accounts, save one or two brief, cryptic mentions in Frankish sources, and only a few mentions in the old sagas. Most of the data is just archeological findings, which, while they reveal the presence in the north-western Russia area of Viking-age Scandinavians, do not provide a clear picture of what exactly was going on there. The picture is further muddled by the fact that the later-written annals of the Rus, the Russian kingdom which was founded by Swedish Vikings beginning sometime in the mid to late 9th century, are more legend than fact when trying to tell the origin story of the Rus kingdom.

I write by “seeing” the scenes of the story in my mind, then putting those visual images into words. For a long time, I could not “see” Viking Russia clearly enough for that process to work. But eventually I finally did process the very extensive amount of researched data into an understanding of what I believe is a very likely historically accurate composite of mid-ninth century Viking Russia. Once I could “see” the setting, the story began to fall into place, and the Russian segment of the story is now largely worked out. That is not to say it has been completed—I’m still in the process of going from notes and outlines to fully fleshed out, finalized pages—but I do believe I can complete and publish book 5 before the end of this year, barring unforeseen problems.

Progress on book 5 has been, in fact, delayed in recent months by unforeseen problems, in that both my wife and I had to deal with some health issues that ate up a lot of our time. And living on a farm as we now do, there is always work to be done that cannot be ignored, and must take priority when time is limited. But those health issues seem to be behind us now, thankfully, and hopefully will not delay my writing any more.

I do apologize for how long this next installment has been taking, and appreciate my readers’ patience and understanding.

Viking Recipe: Stuffed Roasted Sheep’s Heart

Here’s an unusual heart-themed idea for a special Valentine’s Day meal, which also provides a look at a historical Viking-era recipe: stuffed roasted sheep’s heart. The Vikings would not have celebrated Valentine’s Day, of course—it was originally an early Christian feast day, in honor of a saint martyred in ancient Rome, and did not become associated with romantic love until the Middle Ages. However, because of the relatively small size of this specialty meat, roasted stuffed heart would have undoubtedly been a “special occasion” delicacy, such as would have been prepared for an honored guest, or perhaps even (and this is purely my own conjecture) for a couple at their wedding feast.

This recipe comes from An Early Meal—A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey, by Daniel Serra and Hanna Tunberg, a wonderful, very thoroughly researched book that combines historically authentic and surprisingly delicious Viking-era recipes with fascinating bits of history and archeology behind their discovery and creation.

You will need the following ingredients:

–One sheep’s heart. Although I have not tried it, I suspect a deer heart would also work well.

–One leek

–Roughly half a cup of lingonberries—I substituted fresh blueberries, having no access to lingonberries

–five to ten dried juniper berries

–four to five slices of thick-cut, meaty bacon

–honey

To begin, using a sharp knife split the heart lengthwise by cutting along one side, and open it out flat. Trim out all tough inner chamber walls and valves, so that only the main body of the heart muscle remains.

To make the stuffing, chop some of both the white end and tender green leaves of the leek. Crush the juniper berries with a mortar and pestle. Dice one slice of bacon into roughly one-quarter to one-half size pieces. Place the chopped leek, crushed juniper berries, chopped bacon, and blueberries or lingonberries together in a bowl, and stir them together with enough honey to bind them together.

Place the stuffing in the center of the opened heart and fold the heart closed around it.  Wrap the heart with two to three slices of bacon to cover it, then wrap and tie with cotton cooking twine.

The original cooking method, according to the recipe, would have been to put the heart on a spit beside an open fire and roast it slowly till done. I cooked it on a charcoal and wood smoker grill, in which a fire is built in the firebox using a charcoal base with pieces of wood added, and the heart was placed in the attached smoker compartment, so that it was slowly cooked by offset heat and smoke. Turn the heart periodically to cook evenly on all sides. When done, the bacon will be crisped and brown, and the heart, though cooked through, will still give off red juices when pierced.

Slice thinly to serve, and enjoy a delicious glimpse of what the Viking peoples cooked and ate.

Things Are Broken, Part 2

In Part 1 of this continuing post, I wrote about—in addition to the fact that book 5 of The Strongbow Saga is still a good ways from being finished—the problems that we are all now facing and will face in the future due to climate change. As I explained, some dangerous times are coming, and we truly need to pull together—in this country, and also across the world—and help each other in order to face them.

The fact that, in the United States at least, we are currently not doing a good job at all of pulling together and one reason why, plus a bit of history to put our current times within a larger context, is the subject of this installment.

I am 66 years old. There has only been one other period during my life when I have seen this country as divided as it is now. But here’s a little reassurance—as bad as things may seem today, they were far worse then. Here’s a quick overview of that period, the 1960s through the early 1970s, before I discuss our present situation:

The troubles of that period grew mostly out of two ongoing events: the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, which to some extent was an outgrowth of the Cold War.  Although the Civil Rights Movement, in which black Americans began protesting their unequal treatment under the law and in practice in the United States, began in the late 1950s, it gained momentum and public attention during the 1960s as protests grew more frequent and larger, and—particularly in the south—opposition to the movement by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists became violent, including by murders of civil rights protestors and bombings of black churches. The violence against blacks led to the creation of the Black Power Movement, which espoused a more aggressive approach than the peaceful Civil Rights Movement, and ultimately led to the rise of armed groups such as the Black Panther Party, who sought to prevent mistreatment of blacks, particularly by the police, through their own threats of armed retaliatory violence.

The most prominent leader of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1968. In reaction to the assassination, large scale violent race riots broke out in over 100 U.S. cities. Shocked by the extent of the violence, President Johnson and the U.S. Congress quickly passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968, which added to protections of the earlier Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This period of the country’s history was scarred by other assassinations, as well: President John Kennedy in 1963, and Senator Robert Kennedy, a presidential candidate, in 1968.

The Vietnam War also had its origins during the 1950s, but the major involvement of U.S. forces did not begin until the early 1960s, a period when the tensions between Cold War opponents the United States and the Soviet Union were at a high level, peaking with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 which brought the two countries perilously close to nuclear war. Initially “sold” to the U.S. public as a necessary fight to stop the global spread of communism, the war in Vietnam was in its early years not unpopular among the American public. However, as the level of U.S. troop involvement—and of casualties—grew, public support for the war began to wane. A turning point occurred in 1968, when the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched the bloody Tet Offensive, aimed at overthrowing the South Vietnamese government. Although the offensive ultimately was defeated, U.S. forces suffered heavy casualties, and for a time control of some urban areas was challenged.

Back in the United States, the Tet Offensive, which received heavy coverage by U.S. news outlets, was taken by many as proving that the government’s rosy forecasts about how America was winning the war were false. Widespread protests against the war became more and more common, and at times violent. A low point occurred at peaceful student protest in 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio, during which responding National Guard troops, frightened by the protestors, shot and killed four unarmed students.

Opposition to the war gave rise to a wave domestic terrorism in the U.S., through the formation in 1969 of the radical group known as the Weathermen or the Weather Underground, who conducted a series of bombings, including of the U.S. Capitol in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972, to protest the war. A similar, but much more violent, wave of domestic terrorism involving murders, bank robberies, kidnappings, and bombings also swept across Italy and Germany during the 1970s, after the formation in 1970 of the left-wing terrorist groups the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany.

A major turning of the tide of public opinion against the war occurred in 1971, when a secret Department of Defense history of the Vietnam War was leaked to the New York Times, which began publishing it. The history, which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, laid out in detail the extent to which the government had been lying to the American people, and even to Congress, about its conduct of the war. The Nixon administration quickly obtained a court order blocking the Times from releasing any more of the Pentagon Papers after their initial articles. In response, the Washington Post then began printing summaries of them. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the lower court’s order, stating in part that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

With the full release of the Pentagon Papers, what remained of the American public’s support for the Vietnam War collapsed. In 1973 the United States pulled the last of its troops out of South Vietnam, which fell very soon thereafter to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong’s advancing forces.

To culminate the tumultuous period, in 1974 the Watergate Scandal broke, exposing corruption and illegal acts by the Nixon administration, and President Nixon resigned as president to avoid being impeached. As a historical side note, prior to his resignation, Nixon became so enraged and unstable due to the pressures of the unfolding scandal and investigation that many of his top aides, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, feared he lacked the sanity to be in charge of the country’s nuclear arsenal, and that he might recklessly start a nuclear war, and made contingency plans to try to block him if he did.

Why, I suspect some may by now be asking, am I telling you this? Why is any of this past history relevant to today? Two reasons. First, as I stated up front, although our country is presently very badly divided and many of our citizens are polarized against each other, things for the most part were much worse during the 60s and 70s than they are today, and we managed to come out of it okay—although we are currently, frighteningly, more in danger of a nuclear war than we have been at any other time in history since the early 1960s, thanks to the dangerously reckless approach our current president has taken to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. But second, there is a troubling difference between that period of our history and today, and it is one we all need to be very aware of and concerned about.

Back during the 1960s and 70s, everyone in the United States was, for the most part, operating off of the same set of facts. Many people were still polarized to a very strong degree back then because of differing beliefs, of course, including the white supremacists versus the blacks and their supporters who were fighting for civil rights, and supporters of the Vietnam War versus protestors against it.  Opinions differed, at times violently, but what constituted “facts” were generally agreed upon. Back then, we all got our knowledge of the facts from the same news sources: local and national newspapers and the news reports by the three television networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC. For many years, of course, the entire country was misled about the true facts of the war, and those falsities were dutifully repeated by the major news outlets because they believed and trusted the government’s reports. But once the government’s deception began to be revealed, the major news sources all worked to dig out the truth.

This is no longer true today. There are at least two major and widely divergent versions of the facts, of what constitutes reality itself in this country, at play. One version is that presented by all of the major traditional news outlets—those same news sources that existed during the 1960s and 70s, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the three television networks’ news services, plus CNN, a cable news station founded in 1980—who for the most part agree on what constitutes reality and truth. The other version, the other “reality,” is put forward by various pseudo news outlets, including (and I have no doubt that this will anger, perhaps even enrage, some who read it) the Fox News network, owned by conservative Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch, plus many conservative commentators on radio, television, and the internet.

I am trying to write this post in as nonpolitical tone as possible, although it is to some extent a politically charged topic. My hope is not to provoke anger or hostility, it is to hopefully stimulate thought and concern. The people of this country cannot learn to pull together again as a nation if the different factions that currently exist cannot even agree on what reality is. Facts are facts. The truth is the truth. There is a reason that long-established newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times have repeatedly won journalism awards such as the Pulitzer Prize. They are devoted to uncovering and disseminating the truth, as they did in 1971 when they exposed the government’s lies about the Vietnam War. And there is a reason the Fox News network does not win major journalism awards: it is devoted to pushing a conservative agenda, including by often slanting the news or, in the case of many of its “editorial commentators” such as Fox and Friends or Sean Hannity, flat-out making things up.

The major news outlets are often accused by conservatives of having a liberal slant to their news presentations. Is it true? I read a very interesting article about a recent study conducted of several major news sources to test that accusation. It found that actually most of the news stories reported by the major outlets, including CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, have a very high level of factual accuracy—and moreover, when these news sources do make mistakes, they are scrupulous at issuing corrections. What this study found is that it is often the facts—i.e., the truth–that have what conservatives would claim is a liberal bias. In other words, when, for example, the major news sources report about global warming, and the overwhelming consensus of scientists around the world that global warming is real, worsening, and is caused by human activity, that is not liberally biased reporting—it’s just the truth. When they report that Republican sponsored legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act would cause tens of millions of our citizens to lose health care coverage, that’s not liberal bias, it’s the truth. And when they report that the recent Republican tax bill, touted as a big gift to the middle class, actually gives huge financial benefits to wealthy, again, that’s the truth.

Believing in separate realities often seems to give rise to tremendous anger. As an example, after my first post in this series, I received an email from a clearly furious individual who identified herself as a long-time, but now former, fan of my novels. The email, which was written with lots of CAPITAL LETTERS for emphasis, railed against me for spreading the “False Narrative” of global warming, and its writer went on to say that she was one of the only 25% of people in this country who actually hold down a job (a very questionable statistic), that she was “Sick and tired of working and supporting the people that don’t work, will never work and expect me…to support them,” and that as to the person I referred to in my post as “ONE IGNORANT MAN…That Man Has and IS SUPPORTED by thousands of hard working  people like me AND NOTHING you or the FAKE NEWS say about him will EVER change that fact.” That’s a pretty strong, angry, and far-ranging reaction to a post about the dangers of global warming and our need to pull together to deal with its threats. But her anger stems from this existence of belief in two separate realities. From her perspective, I was not just expressing views contrary to her own, I was questioning the very reality which she chooses to believe in.

How can we ever reach common ground with others who live, or at least believe they live, in a world that is totally different from the world we live in? How can we reach common ground, and pull together, with others who wholeheartedly believe in a reality that actually does not exist, and who believe that the world we live in is a lie, is “fake news”? This is a major challenge we are facing today, one that did not exist during the 1960s and 70s.

To borrow a line from the television show the X Files, the truth is out there. And to again quote the U.S. Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case, “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government,” a problem we are once again facing in the United States. It is important that we all know what the truth is. If you do not already regularly follow the news, please start to do so—and from reliable sources. It is dangerous to make important decisions, such as choosing whom to elect to public office to run our country, based on a reality that actually does not exist. If you are a fan of the Fox News network, please at least also regularly get news from some other sources, such as any of the network news shows, CNN, or the major newspapers. Question why the stories presented are so different. And if you get the majority of your news from Facebook, please just don’t! Facebook itself manipulates the stories you see—you are not in charge. But even more importantly, all of the intelligence services in the United States government agree that Russia has made, and continues to make, widespread use of Facebook and Twitter to circulate false news stories as a means of attacking the U.S., purposely trying to create factions and stir up anger among the American people. The Russians understand that a divided populace makes a country much weaker than a united one, so that is their goal—to weaken the U.S. We need to find common ground and work together, because we are all Americans, and we are all in this together.

To be continued.

Things Are Broken, Part 1

Let’s make the obvious official, and get the bad news out of the way right up front: Book 5 of the Strongbow Saga will not be released in 2017. As I’ll explain in greater detail below, I have lost too much time in recent months to have been able to even complete writing the book, much less complete the steps necessary to publish it, including editing, formatting for print and e-book editions, and getting a cover designed. I am very, very sorry, but it just did not work out to be possible this year. My new goal is to complete and publish it sometime in the first half of 2018.

So what happened?  In a nutshell, this summer was a tough one for us.  About five and a half years ago my wife, Jeanette, and I moved from Houston, Texas to a small farm in the McKenzie River Valley in western Oregon to change from city life to a homesteading lifestyle.  As part of our new life, we strive to produce a majority of the food we consume. We grow a large variety of fruits and vegetables, raise chickens for eggs and occasionally meat, and have a herd of sheep, which also provides meat. It’s a lifestyle that puts us closely in touch with nature and with the natural cycles and rhythms of life. It’s also a lot of work and sometimes quite exhausting, but we enjoy it.  To the extent it’s a burden, it’s one we choose.

This year, Mother Nature made the burden much harder. Spring was unusually cold, wet, and late.  Whereas we normally begin planting our extensive garden as early as April, and typically have it fully in by early June, this year, due to the weather, we were forced to delay most of the planting until June, which meant that every day during the early summer was consumed with frantic work in the garden trying to get things planted in time for them to reach maturity and harvest. Then, by July when the garden finally began producing steadily, once again our time frame was compressed, and our days were spent harvesting and processing crops for storage, either by freezing, canning, or (on a small scale) fermentation. The winter’s supply of hay also had to be cut—something we normally do in June and July, but this year couldn’t get too until late August and early September.

Simply put, June through October were exhausting. And adding to the feeling of relentless grind was the often brutally hot and very dry weather of July and August, forcing us often to do our outside work late into the evening after temperatures began to fall. Also, during much of August and part of September, thick smoke (as the photo above illustrates) often blanketed our farm from the numerous wildfires burning across Oregon, some only ten to fifteen miles away. Most days we only ended up grabbing an hour or so of respite, usually after 11:00 PM, by collapsing on the sofa with our dinner and our good friends a bottle of wine and Netflix.

By mid-fall, when the garden chores finally began to slow—and thankfully, the rains began and extinguished the wildfires—we had to catch upon everything other than the garden that we had been neglecting on the farm. Needless to say, no work of any kind occurred on the book during that stretch of months from June through early November. Only recently have we begun to feel “caught up,” and only recently could I even contemplate getting back to work on Halfdan’s story—although encouragingly, I have made some good progress in the past month.

But though this summer was a struggle for us, we cannot help but feel, in light of what has been happening around the world this year, to feel fortunate. Our freezers are full with the bounty from our farm, and we have our health—although Jeanette was injured earlier this month, painfully but fortunately not permanently, when a young ram butted her in the leg.  2017 was so much worse for so many others. It has been a year of terrible natural disasters: hurricanes hitting Texas and Florida, devastating Puerto Rico—where over half of the population are still, months later, without electrical power—and other islands in the Caribbean, and even striking, of all places, Ireland; huge, deadly wildfires raging around the globe, including in Portugal and California (where some fires are still burning even still), several horrific mass shootings in this country, and brutal acts of terrorism in others. We dealt with exhaustion and lost time, but compared to so many who have experienced devastating loss, we are among the lucky ones.

It feels like the earth spoke this year. Although there are still those, including the current president of the United States and many cabinet leaders in his administration, who try to deny it, we are all facing a very dangerous global threat. The earth’s climate is broken, and we—human beings— broke it.

The deniers argue that there have always been climate shifts, with prolonged cold periods, like the ice ages, and prolonged hot ones. That is a simplistic argument that ignores what is different about what is happening now. Past major climate shifts occurred gradually over extended periods of time, hundreds or sometimes even thousands of years. This one is happening at a speed that has never been seen before. Every year the average temperature of the planet is rising. Almost every year new records are set for high temperatures, droughts, and other measures of climate.  And the rapidly rising temperatures are setting in motion more and more extreme weather patterns and catastrophic weather-caused events.

This is not theory or conjecture. It is accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists around the world. It is accepted by the government of every single country in the world—except the United States, thanks to our science-denier president. Think about that. Every other country in the world has now joined the Paris Climate Accord, an international agreement that human-caused climate change is happening, that it is terribly dangerous, and that every nation must do what it can to curb the emission of greenhouse gases in order to try to slow the warming of the planet. The only country in the world now not a part of the Paris Climate Accord is the United States, because an ignorant man thinks that the world coming together to fight a great danger was a “bad deal” for the United States.

We are all citizens of the earth. We are all in this together. Things are going to get worse. I would like to be able to add “before they get better,” but there is really no assurance that they are going to get better, at least not in our lifetimes, if at all. The planet, and the human species, are in uncharted territory.

Let me give one small example. My son is a scientist in training. He is a PhD candidate in an area of very advanced applied mathematics: creating mathematical models to predict real-world biological trends and events. He visited for the Christmas holidays, and spoke about one such predictive problem he’d been studying: the bleaching and dying of coral reefs around the world, due to rising ocean temperatures. He explained that the difficulty creating a predictive model about the reefs illustrates how what is happening with the climate is a new phenomenon. Normally historical data on things such as prior occasions of coral reef bleaching, changing ocean temperatures, etc., over time would be used to create a mathematical model. But there is no prior data. There is no evidence that a mass die-off of coral reefs has ever occurred before. But it is happening now, and the rate at which it is occurring is accelerating. There is a genuine possibility that the tiny sea creatures that create coral reefs may be facing extinction.

That might not sound very serious to you. But life on this earth is intricately interconnected. Coral reefs create rich, healthy habitat for a large variety of fish and other sea creatures. If the reefs all die, it will have a negative impact on every creature that depends upon them to live. Numerous major close-to-shore fisheries around the world will collapse. When that happens, millions of people will lose not only their means of supporting themselves and their families, but also their primary source of food.

That is the elephant in the room that so far has not been widely addressed in discussions of climate change. As species extinctions occur, as areas that now are capable of producing food no longer will be able to due to drought, as heavily populated coastal areas become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels caused by melting arctic ice, there is going to be a humanitarian crisis on a scale the world has never seen.

Think about it. Try to get your head around it. Over the past few years, the European Union has been strained at times almost to the breaking point by an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the wars in the Middle East and Africa. That is just a fraction of what is likely to occur as the climate changes brought on by increasing global temperatures progresses. What is going to happen when there are millions upon millions facing and trying to flee starvation and uninhabitable homes?

We are all in this thing together. We had better start acting like it.

To be continued.

Why Is He So Slow!? (A Book Five Update)

A fan of the Strongbow Saga series, Jaeden Byerly, recently asked on the Discussions page of this website when, or even if, book 5 might be coming out. I am painfully aware that I am running far behind on finishing and publishing it. But I really appreciate the very understanding tone of Jaeden’s inquiry, and on reading it felt it is long past time to give readers an update on where I am on the book.

I know that there are authors who regularly manage to publish at least one book per year, and I have one author acquaintance who often publishes more than one per year. Why, I’m sure all fans of the series must wonder, am I so slow? Let me try to explain.

First of all, writing is not a full time job for me. For some authors—like the one I know who sometimes writes more than one book a year—it is. That’s their only job, that’s all they work at. For me, writing is one of four part-time jobs that I have to try to divide my time among.

The most time consuming of my jobs is the farm that my wife, Jeanette, and I moved to five years ago. Although it’s just a homestead farm, not a commercial one—by that I mean that we only grow crops and raise animals to provide for our own food needs, not to sell—it still requires some amount of work (often quite a lot) every day. There are chickens and sheep to tend to every day, and our large garden requires a lot of work to plant, care for, harvest, preserve the food, etc. But after decades of working at often emotionally grueling jobs in law and law enforcement for me, and nursing for Jeanette, it is a life that we find brings us much peace, satisfaction, and pleasure, and to be able to experience that we gladly accept the amount of constant physical labor the life requires.

We have also chosen to embrace this farm life for health reasons. Many people, as they grow older, become less and less active, which tends to have deleterious effects on both the mind and body. We have chosen to fight aging as much as possible by becoming more active, not less.  Additionally, I have for some years now had a chronic health problem: Multiple Sclerosis. Years ago, when I first became ill with it, I was often quite sick, to the point where I could not realistically hold down a full time job any more. But I have in recent years found that I can keep the effects of my MS at a very manageable level through eating a very healthy diet: large amounts of organically raised fruits and vegetables, which are free of any chemical contaminants, and for proteins we eat wild-caught seafood and only pasture-fed meats (to a large extent from our own chickens and sheep). By producing a large percentage of what we eat, we can ensure that our food does not contain chemicals, hormones, drugs, or any of the other contaminants that are frequently found in commercially produced food products. Adopting this diet has wonders on my MS.

Admittedly, when we took on this new life five years ago, Jeanette and I had no idea what we were getting into, nor any concept of how constantly demanding the life would be. Without question, it takes a lot of time away from writing (or anything else, for that matter). But for health and happiness, that is a trade-off I’ve chosen to make.

Another of the part time jobs that consume my time is running our publishing business. The first three books of the Strongbow Saga were originally published by HarperCollins, one of the big publishers. With them in charge, I made almost nothing from the books. So about seven years ago, I regained the rights to the series, and Jeanette and I set up our own company through which we republished books one through three, and eventually published book four in late 2013. Through our company we also arranged for the creation of the audio book editions, and have been gradually getting the series translated into German and on sale in Germany. But running a business takes time. Even when we’re not engaged in a special project, such as audio book production, I spend several days every month bogged down doing business paperwork: logging in monthly royalty payments, paying royalties to our German translator, paying monthly payroll taxes and keeping up with the extensive documentation any business must maintain. Again, it takes away from potential writing time, but if we weren’t publishing the books ourselves, I would not be able to afford to keep writing, nor could we afford to live on our farm.

But the books currently do not bring in enough monthly income to fully cover all of our expenses—do not assume that most writers, including this one, make a lot of money. I have to supplement my writing income so we can make ends meet, which I do by investing, which requires a number of hours of my time every week to manage.

Finally, we come to the writing. From the above, it must be obvious that I do not have time every day to write. That alone is a big part of why book five has been taking so long to see the light, and why book four did, too. But it is more than just a question of time—it also has to do with how I write.

When I begin work on a new installment of the Strongbow Saga story, I initially have only a very broad, general idea of where the story is going to go next. With book four, for example (I don’t want to give out any major spoilers on book 5), my starting outline was basically that:

  • The Danish army returns to Denmark after its victory in Frankia;
  • Halfdan returns to his family’s estate, seeking revenge against Toke;
  • Toke has been forewarned warned by the crew of Snorre’s ship, who left Paris on the night of the duel, before the rest of the Viking fleet departed;
  • Toke kidnaps Sigrid and flees, intending to sell her into slavery in Birka, a major trading center in the kingdom of the Sveas (Sweden);
  • Halfdan and Hastein pursue Toke across the Baltic;
  • A major sea battle occurs.

As an aside here, part of what I have been doing in the Strongbow Saga, besides just telling Halfdan’s tale, is over the course of all of the books presenting the reader with a thorough, historically accurate cross section of what the Viking world was really like in the ninth century. For instance, something that occurs often in the old Viking sagas are violent feuds and nighttime attacks on homesteads, as part of those feuds. Those elements of Viking life appeared in book one, Viking Warrior. Viking raids against other lands were obviously also a large element of the Viking era. Those are reflected to some extent in book one, in the tales of Hrorik’s ill-fated raid on England which brings about his death, plus the earlier raid into Ireland when Derdriu is captured. And the very large scale attack on Frankia—a raid on an entirely different scale, more warfare than raid, and an actual event of the ninth century—provides the the primary setting and historical backdrop for books two and three, Dragons from the Sea and The Road to Vengeance.  Another very iconic aspect of the Viking period was the occasional battles at sea which are related in a number of the old sagas, so I have almost from the beginning intended to at some point work such a battle into the story, and decided to in book four. Similarly, there are specific aspects of Viking life and the Viking period that I have long intended to be a backdrop for that part of the story contained in book five.

Because my goal is to present a very historically accurate picture of the Vikings’ culture and society and of the time period, my writing is very much research driven. What that means is that as I do research for a particular book, invariably the more I learn about an area, a historical event, or the like, the more my bare bones starting outline becomes fleshed out with additional details, or sometimes even new subplots and story lines. In book four, for example, as I researched the route across the Baltic Sea that Toke and his pursuers would have followed, I discovered the island of Oland, with its mysterious series of ancient, abandoned fortresses, and chose to weave it into the story. My research also uncovered that pirates were a serious problem in the Baltic, and that, around the time the story was set, Frankish Christian missionaries were violently expelled from Birka, and a Danish attack on that town was threatened. All of these became elements of Halfdan’s tale in book four as the story developed.

The story also always evolves as I become more deeply engaged with the characters, and try to think about what they would have been thinking and feeling in any given situation or scene. That led me to realize in book four, for example, that it would be unlikely that all of the warriors at Hrorik’s estate would readily accept Halfdan, a former slave, as their leader, and so led to the creation of a whole new aspect of the story I previously had not anticipated.

I’ve explained all of this because it has been a major factor in why book five has been slow to develop. Without getting into too much detail, the first part of the story in book five deals with the efforts by Halfdan, Hastein, and their men to find and rescue Sigrid, who was sold in Birka to an Arab slave trader. The Vikings’ eastern trade routes, and their presence in what now is eastern Russia and the Ukraine, were an important part of the Viking world, and I have always intended to take Halfdan’s story there so the reader can see that side of the ninth century Viking world. But the research has proved to be far more difficult and time consuming than I anticipated. For the ninth century time period when the story is set, there are far fewer sources, and far less concrete historical knowledge, of what was happening in Russia compared to what was happening in the west, in locations like England, Frankia, and Ireland. By the mid-tenth century, a powerful kingdom, known as the Rus, had emerged in Russia and the Ukraine, and it was clearly Scandinavian in origin. But how that kingdom came to be created from what was, in the early and mid-ninth century, apparently just random trading expeditions, is very murky, and even historians who have specialized in the study of the Rus are not in complete agreement.

If I could not understand and see the historical background and locations which formed the setting for the first part of book five’s story, it was proving impossible for me to visualize the story, to put my characters into it and see how they would act and react. That’s how I write—I see the story play out visually in my mind, then put it into words on the page.

The good news is that although researching and understanding ninth century Russia proved to be a major unanticipated obstacle, it is now behind me. The Russia research is essentially compete—I have pulled together the numerous and sometimes disparate facts to reach an understanding of, as much as is known, what was happening around the year 845, and for what is not completely known, I’ve been able to come up with logical, plausible theories to bridge the gaps. In fact, in the very near future I plan to add a detailed article about the Vikings in Russia, based on my research, to the Viking History section of this website. I am finally in the story creation/writing phase of book 5, rather than bogged down in the preliminary research phase which dragged on far longer than I expected (and incidentally, research for the second part of book 5, which is set primarily in Ireland, is thankfully already largely complete).

I am at this point still far from being able to predict a date when the book will come out, but it will. I still have not given up my hope and goal of getting it out this year, though I cannot guarantee than will happen. There is still a long way to go and much to do to make that come to pass. But as soon as I’m able to give a realistic estimate, I promise to do so.

It is coming. I promise.

Viking Recipe: Mussels with Leeks and Fennel in Ale

Here’s another authentic Viking recipe from the previously-reviewed book An Early Meal a Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey. My review of the book is here.

This recipe is for mussels, a bivalve shellfish, and is based on archeological finds from Viking-era Dublin and Jorvik (York). The proportions described will provide two persons with a hearty bowl of the stew. It’s a simple but delicious dish: the ingredients are two pounds of mussels, one leek, one fennel bulb, a bunch of cilantro (also known as green coriander), and a 750 ml bottle of ale.

Mussels are a fairly delicate shellfish, and should be handled with some degree of care. They’re a farmed and sustainable seafood, and usually can be purchased at a very reasonable price. They should be alive when you purchase them—ask your fish monger or seller to discard any that will not close tightly when handled. Keep them on ice until ready to use, even after you get them home and place them in the refrigerator.

When ready to cook, start by scrubbing the mussels. I like to use a bowl full of cold water and a dish brush—the shock of the cold water should cause any open mussels to close. Scrub the shells lightly with the brush to remove any sand or loose debris, and pull off any “beards”—scraps of fiber, seaweed, or frayed rope that the mussels would have been clinging to in the water—extending from the closed shell.

Slice the white portion of the leek stalk into thin rounds, and finely chop the tender inner green tops. Discard the tough outer top leaves. You may need to rinse the green top portions of the leek after separating them from the solid white bottom, to remove traces of soil which often can be found in between the leaves. Also chop the fennel bulb, and a small amount of the stems, as well.

Melt two to three tablespoons of butter in a pot large enough to hold all of the mussels, and sauté the chopped leek and fennel until tender.

 

 

Add the mussels and ale, and stir to mix with the leeks and fennel. The cookbook’s authors suggest, for authenticity, using a Geuze, a Belgian ale fermented in open vats with naturally occurring airborne yeasts, which would be similar to Viking-era ale. The photograph is of the label of one such I was able to find, but if you can’t find a Geuze, you can substitute a medium-bodied modern ale. Just try to avoid one that is heavily hopped, as hops were not known to be used in Viking brewing, and will impart a more bitter taste than an unhopped ale would have.

Simmer the mussels for eight to ten minutes, stirring once or twice until they open. Putting a lid on the pot may help distribute the heat through the pot more evenly. Be careful not to overcook the mussels—they’re best when just done, but still plump and tender. While the mussels are simmering, coarsely chop the cilantro, and add it to the pot when the mussels are almost done. Taste the liquid and add salt to taste. Serve in bowls with the broth, discarding any mussels that did not open.