August 31

The Ordinary World Story


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 27

The Nature of War – Part 2


D. J. Mitchell photo: Members of rival Tamil organization EPDP (Baticaloa, 2006).
D. J. Mitchell photo: Members of rival Tamil organization EPDP (Baticaloa, 2006).

The most obvious feature of a post-modern war is the insurgency, a para-governmental or non-governmental force that seeks concessions from an established government.  Most media reports portray the war just that simply.  But if it was that simple, the fighting would not continue for years or decades.

I studied the Sri Lanka civil war in great depth for exactly that reason: if it’s that simple, why can’t they end it?  Of course, it wasn’t that simple.

The war in Sri Lanka pitted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL).  The LTTE claimed it was fighting for a Tamil homeland because of decades of abuses by GOSL against Tamils.  The history of abuse is well documented, stretching back to the 1960 violent suppression of a peaceful protest by Tamil activists, and even further.  But that’s not enough to explain the LTTE.

Sri Lanka is a unified state, meaning that all power rests with the central government, which is elected through a simple majority.  State and provincial officials are appointed by the central government.  The country is about 3/4 Sinhalese. while the Sri Lanka Tamils, the second-largest majority, make up just over 12%.  In a simple-majority system, the Tamils have no chance at influencing the central government or its appointees to state and provincial office.  So Tamils are at a severe political disadvantage to the extent that one might say they are denied self-determination.

But the problem does not lie solely with the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamils.  Both Sinhalese and Tamils have a caste system.  Unlike India, in Sri Lanka in both ethnic groups, the upper castes are the largest.  Thus, the lower castes have little influence even within their own ethnic groups.

The founders of the LTTE came from the lower Tamil castes.  They were a double minority, unheard by either the government or their own people.  And while their nationalist message initially appealed to intellectuals and some upper caste Tamils, as the war began in earnest, LTTE turned to the Tamil lower castes for support and recruits.  Though they claimed the war was for the benefit of the “Tamil people,” their real motive was to gain power for themselves and the unheard low-caste minority within Tamil society, as well as from the Sinhalese-dominated government.  Over the years, they mercilessly quashed competing Tamil groups, intellectuals, and high-caste leaders.  Their claim to represent the entire Tamil people was true only insofar as they had eliminated any other possible representatives.

One factor in the LTTE’s success was its development of international support.  There is evidence that they received some support from India in the early years, but their support primarily came from the tens of thousands of Tamils living abroad.  Sometimes voluntarily and sometimes under coercion, the Tamil diaspora provided money and publicity for the LTTE’s efforts at home.  LTTE supplemented this support with global enterprises, smuggling guns and drugs all over the world.   Thus, LTTE had a stream of foreign support that no other Tamil group could match.

LTTE shares characteristics common to many insurgencies in post-modern wars.  They originate in a voiceless group of people with at least some legitimate grievances.  They compete successfully within their larger group identity for leadership, often offering para-governmental services such as education and health care that no one else makes available.  They develop support networks beyond their immediate constituency.  And they use the war skillfully to cement their position.

Similar characteristics can be seen in Hamas in Palestine, the Taliban in Afghanistan, ISIS in Iraq, and many other insurgencies.

One of the most important keys to understanding a conflict is this: under the existing systems, the insurgency’s leaders would have no chance of getting elected through a democratic process.  They hold power only so long as the government in question has no control over them.  Thus, whether they can win the war or not, they need to keep fighting, because they could never gain or retain power during a time of peace.

August 23

Bring Forth the Kingdom

Last Sunday, I attended my home church in Denver.  As a distance member living eight hours away, this was an uncommon and welcome visit.  I find the services there inspirational and focusing for me, and this one was no exception.  It began with all four verses of the hymn, “Bring Forth the Kingdom.”

This hymn reminds me that our calling is not just to find God, or to enter into a spiritual Kingdom after death, but to bring forth that Kingdom here and now.  In Mark, Jesus proclaims, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”  The Cmmon English Bible translates this verse even more clearly: ““Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”  If the Kingdom is “at hand,” that means we can reach out and touch it.  It is here already.  We can reach out and touch it.  Or, more to the point, we can choose to be part of it.

Or not.

Jesus’s message, from the story of the rich young man to the Beatitudes to his warning in Matthew that not all who claim him are his followers unless they feed and clothe the poor, it is clear that faith must include radical action and a new attitude toward those around us.  The disciples thought so.  Acts tells us that in the early community of Christians, “[N]o one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”  Moreover, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

Can we imagine such a society?  Could I possibly look at the after-tax money I take home not as “mine,” but as “God’s”?

Jesus and the Apostles did.

I’ve met people who believe that it is not the government’s role to help the poor, but that of individuals.  Some, like Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker organization, took radical action to do so.  She and her followers lived in poverty so that they could help the poor.  But others talk of personal responsibility while doing little themselves to feed or clothe those in need.

The Kingdom is not just about making sure those in need have their needs met.  It is about belonging, about celebrating faith together.  Not everyone in the early community believed the same, as can be seen in the different approaches of John and James, and Paul’s conflicts with both.  Yet there was a sense of wholeness, of being filled, that seems sorely lacking in modern America.

“Bring Forth the Kingdom” is a reminder that a society in which we don’t need government to help the poor requires a massive transformation on our part.  It is a reminder, too, that Jesus calls us to just such a transformation.  He asks us to help establish the Kingdom of God right here, right now.  He offers us the opportunity to join together as family, loving and being loved, helping and being helped.  I, for one, find that a worthwhile goal.



August 22

Canning Peaches

canning peaches 2015

“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.

August 21

The Nature of War – Part 1

Tamil Guardian photo: LTTE soldiers pictured in Vanni training with 120mm heavy mortars.

There are many reasons not to try to understand war.  It’s ugly.  It’s inevitable.  It doesn’t concern me.  It only matters who wins.  Let them all kill each other.  My country, right or wrong.  If the leaders would only be reasonable!

Yet there are good reasons why we should try to understand war.  The most important is, if we don’t understand a war, we cannot end it.  And, if we don’t understand a war, getting involved with it in any way can have adverse and unexpected consequences.

War in the 21st century is far different from war in the 20th.  No longer do we see nations fighting nations for territory or resources.  These days, we see governments facing off with para-governmental or non-governmental forces over what sometimes seem trivial issues.  Yet the issues over which these forces fight are often far removed from the ones they claim publicly, making post-modern war more difficult to understand than ever.

Here’s an example of the complexity of post-modern war, and of the danger of getting involved without a thorough understanding.  In 2001, the Bush administration believed that if the U.S. invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power, the country would be spontaneously transformed into a peaceful democracy.*  The war would be over in months.  However, Iraq was a far more complex society than they anticipated.  The doctrine of Spontaneous Democracy failed, and fourteen years later, Iraq is still far from democratic—and far from peaceful.

For me, the most important reason to understand war is because of the suffering of civilians.  These days, civilians are regularly targeted.  In Iraq, Palestine, and Sri Lanka, noncombatants have died in far greater numbers than combatants.  An astounding number of those killed are children.

These are ordinary people who just want to get on with life.  Most did not choose war, and many did not support it.  These people and their suffering compel me to study war for one purpose: to end it.

This series of posts will explore the unique nature of war in the 21st century.  It will examine its common features and explore how it differs from war in the 20th century.  And it will briefly examine how an understanding of war help those who wish to end the violence.


*See, for example, The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought since September 11 by John Brenkman, p. 169.

August 16


This is the second sermon given by fictional Pastor Jason in the forthcoming novel , Steve’s Grace.  I hope you enjoy it.

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.  They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.  Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips:  Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:  Their feet are swift to shed blood:  Destruction and misery are in their ways:  And the way of peace have they not known:  There is no fear of God before their eyes…  For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;  Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:  Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;  To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. –Romans 3:10-24

“How many of you here,” he asks, “fall short of what they know they ought to do.”

He raises his hand, and almost everyone in the congregation raises theirs.  I do, and Cindy quickly follows.

“It is impossible to be human, and make all the right choices,” he says.  “That’s the nature of the free will we have been given.  Sometimes, we choose wrong.  And when we choose something other than what God wants us to do, that’s sin.  It is falling short of God’s desire for us, and our duty to serve Him.

“How many here have made a really, really bad choice at some time in their life?” he asks.

Several hands go up.  Mine is one of them.

“How many have made a really bad choice in their life but don’t want to admit it?” he asks, chuckling.  Another hand goes up, but most do not.  “That’s okay,” he says.  “You don’t have to admit it in public, or even to me.  But sooner or later, you have to admit your sin to yourself, and to God.

“Why do you have to admit it?  Because until you do, there can be no redemption.  If you don’t admit you did wrong, you can’t be forgiven.

“Think about it, people,” he says.  “If I steal your wallet, and I deny I did it, can you forgive me?  Of course not.  You’re not even sure who took it!

“Suppose I come to you and say, ‘Hey, Bob, I stole your wallet and I know it was wrong and I’m asking for your forgiveness.’  Now you have the option of forgiving me.  And it is an option.  You don’t have to forgive me.  Unless, of course, you happen to be a Christian, in which case Jesus tells us that we can only be forgiven for our sins if we forgive the sins of others.

“And that right there is the formula for being forgiven,” he says.  “You have to admit your sin and ask for God to forgive you.  And you have to forgive the sins of others.

“But what if you’ve done something really awful?  I know a man who committed murder.  Because of the circumstances, he was never arrested or tried by the law.  But he did it, and he knew it was wrong.  Now, the Bible says the penalty for murder is death.  If he asks God to forgive him, will God do it?

“Yes! Because Jesus gave his blood so that those who repent might be saved.

“And that man did ask for forgiveness, and he repented, and now he lives his life according to what he believes God wants him to do.  He helps people.  And he does it not so he can be a good person, but because he wasn’t a good person and he owes a debt to God that can never be repaid.

“Every one of us is a sinner,” he continues.  “Every one of us owes a debt for God’s forbearance.  Because God sent his only son Jesus to die for us.  What an amazing gift that is!  Jesus gave his life so that we can be redeemed from our sin.

“And it is a gift.  But when someone gives you the gift of life, don’t you feel just a little bit obligated to them?  Maybe grateful?  And wouldn’t you want to live your life in a way that expresses that gratitude?

“A wise man once said that mercy is not getting what you deserve, and grace is getting what you don’t deserve.  I look at my life today, and I am struck by the mercy and grace of God.  I am a sinner.  But I have not gotten what I deserve for my shortcomings, and I have gotten so much goodness in my life that I don’t deserve.

“We fall short, but God forgives us.  We do bad things and God forgives us.  We don’t do some of the good things we should do, and God forgives us.

“Can anyone relate to that?  If so, I want to suggest that when you leave church today, you find a way to express your gratitude to God.  Because, I don’t know about you, but my life is better today than I have any right to expect.


August 12

Forget About Guns

I’m going to make a statement that will likely get me crucified by conservatives and liberals alike. Here goes: If you argue that the solution to gun violence is more guns or less guns, you are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

That’s because focusing on the symptoms of a disease doesn’t cure the disease. And America has a disease. It’s called untreated mental illness.

Ever since the national mental health system was dismantled under Ronald Reagan, our country has increasingly suffered from undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.

It’s not just crazy gunmen. They’re the ones that make the news. But we live in a country where schizophrenics intentionally get arrested because jail is the only facility that will care for them, where PTSD sufferers live on the street because, even though they can’t work, they aren’t “sick enough” for admission to an institution, where bipolars who need six weeks of hospitalization to balance their meds get kicked out in 5 – 7 days because their insurance won’t pay for more, where mental health hotlines go unanswered, where GPs administer psych meds because psychiatrists are unavailable or too expensive, and where the suicide rate is more than double the homicide rate.

The recent wave of mass shootings is a clear sign of how sick we are.  Yet it’s only the visible tip of an unseen iceberg.  Mentally ill people don’t look different from anyone else.  We can’t see them.  We don’t count them.  At least, not until they’ve committed harm to another person.  And there are literally millions of them.  No one knows exactly how many, because too often we don’t diagnose them anymore.  But we can see from the suicide statistics that we are not a healthy nation.  Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in this country, and the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds.  Veterans are reported to make up 20% of the suicides each year.  And the overall suicide rate is rising.

If you need more evidence, check the stats for antidepressant prescriptions.  CDC reports that 11% of Americans take them!  NAMI reports that one in four adults – 25% – experiences a mental illness in a given year. That’s an astounding figure!

Yet we spend our time arguing about guns.

Our mental health system is a travesty.  When Reagan dismantled the national system, the states were supposed to pick up the slack.  They didn’t.  They had neither the funding nor the inclination.

Now we have the third-highest suicide rate in the industrialized world.  We have homeless dying on the street because there’s no help for them.  We have people dying from poorly prescribed medication.  And, of course, we have people dying from murder by a growing handful mentally unbalanced people.

That doesn’t take into account the suffering of those who are untreated or poorly treated.  It doesn’t address the cost of using first responders to treat mental health emergencies, or the cost of medical ERs attempting to treat mental health crises from patients who can’t pay because without proper treatment they are unemployable.

What bothers me most is the suffering of those left untreated.  Mental illness isn’t fun.  Being unable to function isn’t fun.  Being unemployed because your brain doesn’t work right isn’t fun.  (Ask me how I know this.)

What bothers everyone else seems to be fear of getting shot.  So let’s face the truth: mentally balanced people don’t shoot each other, or attack each other with knives or hammers or hatchets or any other weapon.

While gun opponents and proponents argue, Americans are getting killed.  So please: shut up and let’s talk about mental health.

August 9

How Hard Is It?

This is the first of two fictional sermons given by fictional Pastor Jason Schumer in the forthcoming book Steve’s Grace.  If I could actually preach like this, I would become a minister!  I hope you enjoy it.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:  But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.  And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.  Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.  Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.  But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?  And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? –Matthew 5:38-47

“When I was a kid, my mother said to me, ‘Stay away from those Catholic kids. They don’t go to the right church.’ Then my father said to me, ‘Stay away from those Jewish kids, because they don’t go to any church at all!’ Both of them thought that if I only hung out with kids who went to the same church as I did, I would grow up with better standards.

“You know, peer pressure is very strong, and I think that’s what my parents were counting on. If my peer pressure came from good kids, they figured I would learn good behaviors. So I hung out with kids who went to my church, and I did what they did.

“My parents were just a little shocked when I got caught in the back seat of my buddy’s car with a bag of marijuana, a twelve-pack of beer, and the sixteen-year-old girl who lived next door.”

The audience chuckles. Then Jason delivers the punch line:

“And both my buddy and the neighbor girl went to the right church!” he shouts.

Everyone laughs. He has our attention as he delivers a sermon about how we are all sinners, and we are all God’s children, and he loves every single one of us.

“God doesn’t love Catholics more than Baptists, or Baptists more than Catholics,” Jason pronounces. “I’ve got news for you. He doesn’t even love Christians more than non-Christians.

“So if God doesn’t love us more for being Christians, why are we in church this morning?” he asks. “Is it because we can’t find anything better to do?” He raises his hand as he asks, “Would anyone here rather be surfing?”
Everyone laughs, and I gather Jason must be an avid and vocal surfer.

“We’re not here to make sure God loves us,” he says. “At least, I hope that’s not why we’re here. No, my friends, we are here to be reminded that as Christians, as people of God and followers of Jesus, that we are commanded to love everyone else!

“I was on the freeway back from El Segundo one morning this week and this guy cut me off. He just cut right in front of me, like I wasn’t there. I’m human,” he says. “I wanted to give him the one-finger salute. But that’s not what Jesus says I should do. He says I should love that person.”

He pauses, and rolls his eyes..

“If it was up to me, I’d have loved that guy right off the side of the road! But that’s not what Jesus says to do.

“Who can think of a reason the guy might have cut me off on the freeway?”

“He didn’t see you,” someone suggests.

“He didn’t see me!” Jason repeats. “It had nothing to do with me at all!”

“He was having a bad morning,” says someone else.

“Yeah, he was having a bad morning,” Jason repeats. “And I’m about to make it worse! How Christian is that?”

“He doesn’t like surfers,” someone shouts.

Everyone laughs, including Jason.

“You get the point, right?” he says. “I don’t get to hate anyone, no matter what they do to me. Jesus says if someone sues me for my coat, give him my cloak, too. If they want me to walk a mile with them, walk two.

“How hard is it to look at someone who just cut you off in traffic and say, ‘I’m sorry you’re having a hard day, and I hope it gets better’?” he asks, loudly.

“Hard,” shout several people at once.

“How hard is it to see someone doing something you don’t approve of and forgive them for it and love them anyway?” he shouts.

“Hard!” comes the reply.

“How hard is it to forgive someone who hates your guts and love them anyway?” he calls.

“Hard!” everyone shouts.

He pauses again, and his voice softens.

“How hard is it to be a Christian?” he asks.

They seem to know this one is rhetorical, because no one answers.

We sing another hymn, and there are announcements. Then Jason stands again.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven,” he says. “Thank you all for coming.”