November 30

Ordinary World: A Family Story

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“What’cha doing?” Gracie asks me, catching me off guard.

I glance up at her quickly.  I’m sure I look guilty.  I’m supposed to be doing bookkeeping, not browsing the news.  I briefly consider closing my browser so she doesn’t know I’ve been goofing off, but I have five windows open with various news reports and financial analyses.  It’s obvious I haven’t been doing the books.

“The news says that California is about to go bankrupt, and that New York and Illinois aren’t far behind.”

She frowns. 

“That doesn’t sound good,” she says.

“No,” I agree.  “And there’s a report that says there are 32 states in all that are technically bankrupt.”

“Is Utah one of them?” she asks.

“No,” I say.  “Actually, we’re one of the 18 that isn’t.”

“That’s something,” she observes.  “But I suppose we ought to review our preparedness supplies.”

Ordinary World is about preparedness, but it’s much more than that.  From its initial conception as a series of blog entries, I envisioned it as not just a story about facing a possible future, but about a family like mine having to face that future together.  The characters are loosely based on my wife, my stepson, and me.  The life they lead going into the crisis is much like ours was when we were still making cheese.  I wanted the story to emphasize the family as much or more than the crisis itself.

[A]s we change our clothes together, we take advantage of a rare moment alone.  I’ve pulled off my hay-covered clothes when Gracie comes up behind me and puts her arms around me.  I turn and put mine around her.

“I love you so much,” I tell her.  “You are a remarkable woman.”

She laughs.  “I think you are a remarkable man,” she says.

Then she turns pale.

“What?” I ask, thinking that she may be afraid of the dangerous baggage I’ve unwittingly brought with me.

“I’m sorry,” she says.  She breaks her embrace and runs for the bathroom.  A moment later, I hear her retching, then the water running.

When she emerges, she still looks pale.

“Are you okay?” I ask her.

“I think so,” she says.  “This has been happening a lot lately.”

“Jeez,” I mutter.  I’ve been so busy doing other things that I didn’t even know my wife was sick. 

“Do we need to get you to a doctor?” I ask.

“I don’t think so,” she says.  “I’m pretty sure I know what it is.”

“It will pass, then?” I ask.

“It will,” she says.  “In about nine months.”

I stare at her, trying to grasp the meaning in her words.  Nine months?  What kind of a disease…

“Oh, holy hell,” I say, finally.  “Are you pregnant?”

“I think so,” she says, and smiles tentatively.  “Are you happy?”

“Happy?” I ask.  I’m still trying to process this.  Gracie is pregnant?  “Of course I’m happy,” I tell her.

To myself, I think: I’m going to be a father?  My God, that’s what I have hoped for so long… and feared… what if I can’t do it?  What if I’m a lousy father?  What if I fail Gracie?

“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Gracie asks.  “You seem upset.”

I’m going to be a father?  With Gracie?

Finally the reality begins to get through.  I throw my arms around her and kiss her. 

“It’s taking a minute to sink in,” I whisper into her ear.  “But you are making me the happiest man on earth.”

“You’re afraid,” she observes.

“Of course I’m afraid,” I reply.  “I’ve never done this before.  I’m terrified I won’t be good at it!”

“You’ve been pretty good at everything so far,” she says. 

I’m not sure if it’s a double entendre or not, so I let it slide.

“I will do my best,” I tell her.

“I know you will,” she says.  “You already are.  You are a great dad to Joe, and I know you will be to your own child.”

It’s tough to write about characters that are so close to your heart.  It was tough reading it to my family, too.  As bad things happened, and at one point one of the family members got severely wounded, my wife warned me that if I let them die, she was going to kill me!  I have to admit that I cried as I reread what I wrote, and some days I still cry when I read it.  I hope that level of emotion comes through to readers outside my family.

Lack of protein and the lack of Vitamin C have combined to make us all feel weary and slow-witted.  I’m not confident of my ability to make good decisions.  And our family meetings suggest that no one else is, either.  There’s a lot of “I don’t know” being spoken.

So here I am, ten miles or more from home, determined not to come back empty-handed.  I’m carrying the 30-30, which is a bit big for rabbits, but which is the most flexible rifle I have.  I can shoot anything up to the size of a deer with it.  Including coyotes, should they decide to try to make a meal out of me. 

If I see a rabbit, I’m just going to have to hit him square in the head so there’s something left to bring home.

But I haven’t seen a rabbit, not even in the distance.

I’m not going back empty-handed.  In my pack, I have a down sleeping bag, a tent, and some supplies.  I’m prepared to spend the night out here if I have to.  Even two nights.

Gracie is pissed at me for that.  She doesn’t want me camping in cold weather.  I’ve done it before.  Heck, I grew up in cold weather, and winter camping was one of the things we learned.  But Gracie is scared.

“Why don’t you at least take the truck?” she pleaded.

“I’m not taking the truck,” I replied, sternly.  “If anything goes wrong here, if anything happens with Kendra, you’ll need the truck.  There’s no other way to get into town in a hurry.”

“This is crazy,” Gracie said.

“These are crazy times,” I said back.  “Weylan and I have been combing the valley for days, and we haven’t seen anything we can eat.  I’ve got to go to the hills.”

“And what if you don’t come back?” she asks, a note of panic in her voice.

“I’ll come back,” I insist.  “Everything has to be wintering somewhere.  I’m going to search the canyons until I find something, and I’m going to bring it home.”

“Look at you,” she said.  “You’re tired, you’re weak, and I don’t think you’re quite rational.”

“None of us are,” I replied.  “And it’s only going to get worse.  We’re starving.  If I don’t go now, I may not be able to go at all.”

There were harsh words spoken, words I now regret.  I closed the discussion with the words, “I’m going, so get over it,” and the slam of the front door.

If I don’t come back, that’s not the way I want her to remember me. 

But I’m going to come back.  Just not empty-handed.

When I wrote Ordinary World, I didn’t have a child of my own.  My wife and I lost a baby a year earlier, and we talked about trying again, but hadn’t yet been successful.  I wrote about the birth of Bill and Gracie’s child from my imagination.  Now, with a 17-month-old son of my own, I look back and think I did pretty well.  My son Sam was born in a hospital, which contrasts markedly with the home birth scene in the story, but from the birthing itself to the emotions I felt for my brand new child, I wasn’t far off.  One of Bill’s great loves is his daughter, Kendra.  He would do anything to protect her– and does.  Now I feel the same way about my own son.

[In the bottom of the freezer we find] a bag of rice, which is perhaps symbolic of our times.  I bought the twenty-five pound bag of high-quality Basmati rice down in Las Vegas a couple of years back at an Asian store.  When I got it home and opened it, I found that the rice had weevils in it.  Having traveled overseas, I know that almost any culture in the world would have washed away the weevils and eaten the rice.  But we’re not just any culture, we’re Americans, and we don’t eat food with bugs in it.  So I put the rice in the bottom of the freezer to kill the weevils and to keep until I decided what to do with it.

Now, a couple of years and an economic meltdown later, we have no problem washing the weevils out of the rice.  Throwing it away would be unconscionable.  Just like most other places in the world.

Is this desperation, or practicality?  Was the convenience-filled world we were so accustomed to the real world?  Or is this one? 

I’ve seen too much of how people live outside our sheltered boundaries to think of this as anything other than an ordinary world.  At least half the world’s population would look at our current circumstances with envy.  Even without phones and internet and gasoline and utilities, we own our own land and home and business.  And we have physical security.  That’s something many folks in the world can’t even dream of.

At night, our daughter Kendra sleeps between Gracie and me.  We don’t have a crib, but we do have cloth diapers and rubber pants.  Gracie feeds her a couple of times a night.  Neither of us sleeps as much as we used to.  And, as I look at the two of them lying next to me, I am overcome with love.  My wife and my daughter.  Family.

Of all the things I thought I wanted in life, I never knew that the most satisfying would be the simplest and most universal.

But the chemistry that makes the family work is Bill and Gracie.  He couldn’t survive without her, and she wouldn’t want to survive without him.  As Bill says,

I know Gracie as the hardest, softest, most naïve, most jaded, most practical dreamer I have ever met.  That may make her sound like an enigma, but she isn’t at all.  At least, not more than any other woman.  She’s just, well, Gracie.  She’s hard when she needs to be, and soft when she can afford to be.  She can be the most compassionate person I’ve ever known, and then she can shoot a deer or tell me it’s okay to steal wood.  This woman who will beg me not to kill a spider in the cheese room, but to put him outside instead, can kill and dress out a chicken, or point a rifle at the chest of a biker who might be threatening our family.  I’ve now seen her point a rifle at a man and pull the trigger.

And she is my wife.

Ordinary World was my first novel, but it seems to me to be the best writing I’ve ever done.  What makes it work is the family.  And I hope my readers feel the same.

August 31

The Ordinary World Story

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I live in one of the most prepared states in the country: Utah. The Mormon Church, as it is called by non-members like myself, has taught preparedness for decades. Most families here have a year’s worth of food in storage, an abundant supply of ammunition for their firearms, and a seventy-two hour kit in case of evacuation. Outsiders seem to find that strange. Evacuation? Why prepare for that? They have already forgotten about hurricanes that hit the Gulf and the East Coast, floods in the mid-west, wildfires in California and Texas, and any number of other natural disasters that displace tens of thousands of Americans each year. Since 9-11, the federal government has gotten on the preparedness bandwagon. Homeland Security advises us to be prepared, to have an emergency plan, to keep a supply of food on hand. But I wonder how many folks outside of Utah and the Mormon Church are listening? –“Zombies and Boy Scouts,” Ordinary World

Ordinary World was my first published novel. I was surprised how well it did, selling over 3,000 copies and garnering 73 reviews and an average of 4.4 stars on Amazon.

The idea for the book began several years before I started writing it. When I moved to Utah, and especially during the financial crisis of 2007, I adopted the local preoccupation with preparedness. I began stockpiling food and ammunition. I went to the annual Preparedness Fair in Cedar City. I listened to experts talk about the Spanish Flu Epidemic. I read military strategist John Robb’s analysis concluding how vulnerable our centralized system is to terrorism or acts of God.

I began to wonder, if any of these events actually happened, what would life look like for us? I mean, we have some medical supplies, lots of wheat, guns and ammo, sleeping bags and cots for refugees, and backup kitchen supplies. But how prepared are we really?

I first conceived Ordinary World as a fictional blog, posting the chapters in real time. I posted several chapters. The problem was, no one read it.

I thought the story was a good one: a family struggling to survive as the economy slowly melts down around them. I wanted people to read it. So I turned it into a novel.

This is the third winter since the collapse began. In the first, Gracie and I did pretty well because we were prepared. In the second, after Rita, Bernard, and Weylan joined us, we were helped by mild weather and supplies left over from before. This time, we have to face a winter relying on our own resources. It’s the first time that has been true. Coming as I do from old New England stock, the phrase “First Winter” strikes a chord of fear in my heart. The cultural memory of the hardships the first settlers faced is ingrained deeply within me. —“The First Winter,” Ordinary World.

I read it to my family as I wrote it. The characters Bill, Gracie, and Joe, became real to us. We cried when Sunflower the goat died, just as we cried when our real-life goat Christie died. I think my wife was as nervous in real life as Bill is in the book about whether Gracie would recover from her injuries. (She actually threatened me that I better not kill Gracie!) Ordinary World became a labor of love for my whole family!

When the time came to publish it, I chose Amazon’s CreateSpace as my platform. My history with query letters to publishers is dismal. And I really wanted people to be able to read it.

Even before publication, my family had encouraged me to think about an audio book. With the book’s success, I began to take the idea seriously. I was fortunate that narrator Scott Pollack became interested on the project. He did a fabulous job, and the audio book is available on Audible and Amazon.

(Sample the audiobook here:)

Fans have encouraged me to write a sequel. I’ve tried. But Ordinary World is in my opinion a great story with some of my best writing overall. I haven’t been able to come up with an idea for a sequel that measures up to the original. For the time being, Ordinary World stands alone.

We ran out of meat two weeks ago. When I say that, I mean we cooked our last stew bone. There is nothing left… Lack of protein and the lack of Vitamin C have combined to make us all feel weary and slow-witted. I’m not confident of my ability to make good decisions. And our family meetings suggest that no one else is, either. There’s a lot of “I don’t know” being spoken.

So here I am, ten miles or more from home, determined not to come back empty-handed. I’m carrying the 30-30, which is a bit big for rabbits, but which is the most flexible rifle I have. I can shoot anything up to the size of a deer with it. Including coyotes, should they decide to try to make a meal out of me. If I see a rabbit, I’m just going to have to hit him square in the head so there’s something left to bring home. But I haven’t seen a rabbit, not even in the distance.

I’m not going back empty-handed. In my pack, I have a down sleeping bag, a tent, and some supplies. I’m prepared to spend the night out here if I have to. Even two nights.–“Desperation,” Ordinary World

Ordinary World is available from CreateSpaceAmazon and Kindle, AudibleSmashwords, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers.

August 22

Canning Peaches

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“I love to can fresh vegetables and fruits.  When winter comes, I’d much rather eat our own tomato sauce, for example, than something out of a can or jar.  Pickles, apple sauce, chutney, and more spice up our winter diet.  Gracie likes it, too.  But the weeks of produce-covered counters, stacks of pots and pans, and spills on the stove sometimes combine to make her grumpy.  She loves the result, but hates the process.  So this time of year, there’s tension between wanting to can, and not having enough time.”

So writes Bill in my novel, Ordinary World.  And it’s true!  I love to can, and my wife Carrie dreads the mess in the kitchen.

This week, we found a box of locally-grown peaches at a really good price.  Last night, I washed and sliced them, sanitized jars and lids, and filled ten quart jars with peaches and “syrup.”  My syrup contains very little sugar, since I make it with fructose and coconut sugar, and I reduce the comparative amounts of those, too.

March 8

An Except from Ordinary World

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Gracie and I have been blessed.  We live on twenty acres well outside of town.  We raise goats and make cheese, which we sell everywhere we can in Southern Utah.  We have a healthy son, now seven years old, who goes to a very good public school and does well there.

We don’t have a lot of money, but we have an incredible amount of freedom. And that’s a worthwhile exchange.

I spent years punching a clock in Los Angeles, building up a retirement fund that went broke when the tech bubble burst.  With the California economy in tatters and promises of a new beginning failing to materialize, I sold what I had and moved to Utah.

That’s where I met Gracie, who had moved from the Rocky Mountains with her family some years before.  Together we built the cheese business.  It took all the money we had, and took a few detours along the way, but these days it’s putting food on the table.

Gracie and I work together, as a team, making our decisions together, raising our son together.  We set our own hours and take responsibility for our own success or failure.  If we take a vacation, we don’t sell cheese that week, and we have to live with the consequences of that.  Which means we learn to plan for it.

Our ranch is located in rural Iron County.  We live, basically, in the middle of nowhere.  We’re just two miles of dirt road from the interstate, but our nearest neighbor, Steve Peck, lives a half mile away to the south.  To the north, east, and west, there isn’t another house for miles.

The town of Paragonah is only five miles from us, and that’s where we get our mail.  If we went to church, that’s where we’d go.  It’s a small town of 500 people, and there aren’t any businesses there.

Parowan, eight miles away, is the county seat; it has a courthouse, a small grocery store, a hardware store, three gas stations, and a handful of restaurants.

The closest “big box” store, movie theater, or hospital is in Cedar City, twenty-five miles south of us.  Cedar has 30,000 people, half the county’s residents.  It has a bustling main street, complete with traffic lights.  It boasts four grocery stores, three feed stores, an office supply store, two movie theatres, and even a handful of factories.  But if you want to shop at a department store, you’ll need to drive to St. George, population 100,000, which is fifty miles further south.

Often, Cedar City seems very distant.  Our ranch is so isolated and peaceful that it’s easy to forget there is another world out there.  We’re on the floor of a high-desert valley, surrounded by sagebrush.  Our house sits at nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, but we are surrounded by mountains that to rise as high as 11,000 feet.  Much of the year, they are covered with snow.  In May, it can be ninety degrees on the valley floor, yet all around us are snow-capped mountains.  In some ways, it’s like living in a postcard.

We love making cheese.  It’s satisfying to take a raw material – milk – and turn it into a delicious artisan product that people enjoy.  It’s “artisan” cheese because we make it in small batches, not factories.  Our vat has a 150-gallon capacity.  If that seems like a lot, consider that most cheese factories produce 100,000 pounds of cheese every day, or more.

If that sounds like a canned pitch, it’s because I say it a dozen times a month at least.  We sell at all the farmers markets in the area.  There are three on Saturday – I take one, Gracie takes another, and we hire someone to do the third.  There’s another on Wednesday, which Gracie and Joe and I all do together.  And we do music festivals, wine tastings, and a handful of other events throughout the year.  The market is seasonal – we sell far more cheese in summer than in winter.

Our cheese is seasonal, as well.  Our goats produce milk nine months out of the year; we dry them out at year-end so they can give birth in March.  By April, we’re up and running again.  That’s the natural cycle of things.

A lot of people are so far removed from the source of their food, they don’t understand seasonal cycles.  They expect to find a decent tomato in January.  And they don’t understand why our goats can’t produce year-round.  Many don’t realize that a goat has to give birth before she will produce milk.  Just like human beings.

But then, some folks forget that milk actually comes from animals at all.  When I sell cheese at events, I invariably meet people who make faces when I suggest that their cheese comes from cows, goats, or sheep.  I can almost hear their inner voice: “Ick!”

Our friend who grows vegetables gets similar responses at times from people who didn’t realize vegetables grow in dirt: “Ick!”

Cheese comes from milk, and milk comes from animals.  We do buy cow milk from another dairy, but the animals we raise are goats.  We bring them into the world at their birthing, we get to know their personalities as we milk them, and we mourn them when they die.  Yes, our goats are part of the family.  Asni was the first doe we buried.  She died during a bad birthing, despite us nursing her night and day for five straight days.  And she wasn’t the last.  We have cried as they gave their last breaths, and said prayers over their graves when we buried them in the back yard.  There are eight goats buried there now, and I remember each and every one.

This is where food comes from, and this is the cycle of life.  We bring them in, we see them out.   And in the process, we enjoy their company – and are reminded that we, too, are subject to that cycle.  As we come in, so shall we depart.

February 25

What Inspired Ordinary World?

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Our family is pretty serious about preparedness.  Yes, we have a year’s supply of wheat stored away, and a hand grinder so we can make flour.  We have solar power and solar hot water; they don’t provide everything we need, but they help.  We have medical supplies and ammunition.  This seems like common sense when you live out in the middle of nowhere.  The power used to fail regularly, and at times the road has been impassable.

As an accountant, I love numbers.  Some of the numbers I find are pretty scary.  For example, from 2000 through 2012, the U.S. GDP grew by 25%.  Over the same period, the money supply, as measured by M-2, grew by 125%.  The national debt more than tripled, from $5.6 trillion to $16.1 trillion.  And it grew from 55% of GDP to 98% of GDP (IMF puts it at 106% of GDP).  That puts our nation in the company of such stellar-performing nations as Greece, Italy, and the Sudan.

As the real estate crash rippled through the economy, the possibility of a complete economic collapse seemed very real.  We began to wonder how prepared we really were.  What would we do if the trucks stopped delivering to our local Walmart?  What would we do without cell phones and internet?  Would we survive?  How?

Thus was born the idea for Ordinary World, the story of a family living much like we do, facing the collapse of the U.S. economy.  Some of the challenges they face they find solutions for without too much difficulty, often because they were prepared.  They are also fortunate to live in a community that helps each other, and they often find the right person or idea at just the right time.  But for some challenges, there are no easy solutions.  The world they live in is much less comfortable than ours, though they often describe it as far more rewarding.

I wrote Ordinary World mainly for my family, and have read it to my wife aloud several times.  It has helped us look at preparedness more seriously.  I can’t explain how surprised I was to find that so many other people were actually reading it!  If you’re one of those people, thank you – I hope you enjoyed it.  If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you’ll consider it.  Whether or not you find it likely that the economy will collapse any time soon, this may suggest some new ideas for being prepared.  And even if not, I hope it’s a fun read.