About Me

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As I begin this blog I have begun my 50th year, and that sounds both scary and exhilirating. I was raised in a Christian home by two loving and faithful parents, for which I am forever grateful. I have served the Lord my entire life, and look forward to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, where I will be united with all who have come before me in the Lord and all who will succeed me. I am married to a beautiful woman that I met in China in 1985 when I was teaching English in the city of Changchun, Jilin Province, China, and we have two teenagers that we love to pieces and delight in bragging on. I live in the Chicago area, and all of my career has been as an educator, teaching the English language to international students at the collegiate and university level, but for the last few months I've been laid off. Here I am, wondering why I'm in this place, why this fork in the road has been placed before me. I'm contemplating going into a completely new direction, of becoming an entrepeneur and starting my own business, another thing I find both scary and exhilirating. This blog will be a chronicle of what unfolds.

Followers

A Word About the Title of This Blog


The Bear represents my heritage:

I am Ben, born 1958,
the son of Ben, born 1930,
the son of Benjamin Siever 1885-1943,
the son of Jacob "Seven Folds" 1845-1911,
the son of Michael 1814-1898,
the son of "Red" Yost 1775-1856,
the son of John 1732-1813,
the son of "Immigrant" Christian , born c.1700 in Switzerland, died 1775 in Berks County, PA.

The area my ancestors came from is called the Bernese Oberland, the region around Bern, which is now the Swiss capital. Bern means "bear" and a bear is featured on the Bern flag. They immigrated in 1742. There were two families on the ship, one headed by Immigrant Christian and the other by a certain "Widow Barbara", whose deceased husband is believed to have been Christian's brother. I have no way to know what any of them looked like, but one of Widow Barbara's sons was called Strong (German "Stark") Jacob. According to accounts, he was a massive man of great strength, hence his nickname, but he was also a pacifist who took great pains to never be violent with anyone, even when provoked. He had a son named Christian, whose nickname was "der Dick Christel" (literally "thick-through"), and this man had a son called "Big Dan." Obviously they had the genes for size. Then you add in my great grandfather, who was so large and ponderous that he was given the nickname "Seven Folds" for all his double chins, and my dad, who has never been extra-large or anything, but whose co-workers sometimes called him "Gentle Ben" for his easy going ways, and you can see that I am descended from a line of bearlike men. We aren't the ferocity of wolves, the duplicity of serpents, nor the royalty of eagles, just men that are big, strong, unfussy eaters, affable, good natured and middle class. I am a bear!


The Dragon has a number of connections. First and foremost, it represents my wife, who is from China, and thus it pertains to my interest in Chinese people and culture. When I was studying Mandarin, I asked her to give me a Chinese name. She chose "Bin-Long" (bean-loong). "Bin" means "talkative, well mannered, well educated" and is often translated "urbane." She chose it because she felt it described me and it sounds like Ben. She then told me, "I chose 'Long' because it means 'dragon,' and I know how much you love dragons!" Lastly, dragons represent to me the exotic, the far away, the mythical, which has always drawn me. I can at times be a grumpy, overweight, slovenly bear, but in my heart, I dream dragon dreams. I have always loved Tolkien, fantasy and science fiction literature, folktales, epic sagas, the distant past and the distant future. It's what drew me to China in the first place, I think. It's why I enjoy thinking about all kinds of non-standard and even bizarre things. Coiled up inside, I am a dragon!

Family Pictures

Family Pictures
Susan and Maranna (8th grade graduation)

Maranna

Maranna's last birthday and new laptop

Julian being all serious

Julian being all unserious

the two together

And finally, me

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good
I'll start here by saying it's absolutely wonderful but it doesn't have a good name. I prefer to call it worm castings, but that is still an unknown term to a lot of people, and has to be explained. (Even more so for another term I've seen bandied about-- vermicast.) If I explain it I can say:
  • worm feces-- this sounds so cold and clinical it makes my skin crawl. We'll leave it for the zoologists and pathologists.
  • worm manure-- much better in my opinion, but still not great. To me, "manure" evokes cows, horses and the like, and is associated with the smelly, fly ridden piles found in barns and pastures.
  • worm poop-- simple, direct and accurate, but sounds like you're talking to a five-year old.

The best you can do is try to judge your audience and pick the least offensive.

Now how can I call something so patently gross "wonderful"? It's simple. Castings are the most potent, beneficial natural fertilizer one can obtain. They neither look nor smell bad, but rather look like black, crumbly earth and smell like garden soil that's been freshly turned. (In fact, it is a major component of rich, verdant soil.) When I say, "potent/beneficial," I specifically mean:

  • It has much more highly elevated levels of macro- and micronutrients compared to ordinary compost, and the nutrients in it are in a form more readily available to plants.
  • It has a wide array of microorganisms with it. The gut of a worm is an ideal place for microbes, and most of them leave the worm with the castings. These organisms have a profound positive effect on the soil ecosystem, which is as complex as anything the Amazon ever produced.
  • It is a plant growth stimulator. Plants grown with castings outgrow plants without castings but the same level of plant nutrients. It is appears the humic acid in castings affects plant growth regulators, and causes higher germination and growth rates.
  • Castings have the ability to suppress plant disease. This may be due to the microorganisms present in the castings outcompeting pathogens in the soil. Plants grown in castings were resistant to a wide range of molds and fungal diseases.
  • Castings may repel some insects. Although the research is incomplete, some scientists say certain insects are vulnerable to chitinase, a compound found in castings. Chitinase dissolves chitin, the substance from which insects' hard outer case (their exoskeleton) is made.

For more information see http://oacc.info/DOCs/Vermiculture_FarmersManual_gm.pdf, which explains it in more detail along with the results of their own clinical trials.

In short, plants crave this stuff. It has everything a plant needs to thrive. Combine it with your plants and be prepared to see dramatic improvement. What a gold mine castings are!

The Bad
Landfills. Need I say more? A.k.a. the dump. Or if you're an archeologist, a midden. In the past, if you lived along the banks of a river, you heaved whatever you didn't want into the river and it floated around the bend, out of sight, out of mind. The landfill is the direct lineal descendant of that mindset. Heave it into a landfill, out of sight, out of mind. The problem is that will only work when people are sparse in the landscape, and we are becoming ever more aware of how our numbers are pressing on the land. Landfills desperately need to have their wastestream reduced for the following reasons:
  • We are running out of space and sites, increasing the cost and fuel needed to truck waste further and further to more and more expensive sites.
  • Landfills are laced with toxic substances, which, no matter how well insulated, will eventually leak into their surroundings. For example, some plastics, such as grocery bags, have substances in them (phthalates) that make them soft and flexible. These substances have been linked to allergies and insulin resistance, among other things. I have no way to know if there's any connection, but my daughter has a severe dairy allergy, and I suffer from insulin resistance, also known as Type II diabetes. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phthalate#Other_effects.) The list of toxic substances found in landfills is long. (See http://www.sixwise.com/newsletters/06/09/29/how-dangerous-is-it-really-to-live-near-a-landfill-and-how-near-is-too-near.htm.)
  • Virtually nothing deposited in landfills gets re-used or converted into anything of use. This is the opposite of the natural world, where every output is something else's input. Nothing is wasted and everything stays in dynamic balance (the way God planned it).
  • Organic matter is often trapped in airless conditions. This means anaerobic (without oxygen) decay begins, leading to methane and other, usually foul smelling, gases being produced. Under the right conditions, it could be utilized (biogas can be burned for heating, cooking or eletrical generation), but no, for the most part it is vented into the air. First of all, the smell can be overwhelming. From time to time I drive through the Chicago suburb of Hillside, where for the last several years a landfill has gone amok. The smell is nauseating, even from the expressway. How would you like to be trying to sell your home or attracting new business to Hillside? Secondly, methane is some twenty-one times more potent than carbon dioxide at retaining atmospheric heat (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methane).

The Ugly

Admittedly you are not likely to want to pet one, teach it to peform tricks, or let it sleep in your bed, but Eisenia fetida, a.k.a. the Red Wiggler worm, is a fascinating little animal, one of the examples of how God has delicately and artfully arranged this earth to endure in an incredibly complex symphony. Aristotle, who was wrong on a lot of things but got this one completely right, called soil dwelling worms "the intestines of the earth," and that sums it up. Every time you eat something, remember it either directly or indirectly comes from the earth, and thus sprang from something that passed through the gut of a worm. Without worms, the earth would have long ago withered into permanent poverty.

Red Wigglers are not the large earthworms or nightcrawlers you might encounter in your average garden, but are more likely to be found in pastures, consuming manure or rotting vegetation. Because their food sources are intermittent, they aren't fussy on the conditions they encounter, they don't mind crowding, they eat voraciously, and then reproduce like crazy, and they lay eggs that endure through temperature and pH swings.

In short, they are perfect for cultivation in enclosed spaces.

Conclusion

Take the bad (organic waste otherwise destined for landfills), combine it with the ugly (worms), and produce the beautiful (castings). What a beautiful equation. Everyone wins: cities win, the environment wins, the soil wins, we food consumers win. The great feedback loops that guide our natural world are incorporated rather than thwarted. And now, the question remains of whether it can make economic sense. Can you make a living out of this equation? I sense you can, but the road is not clear, and I have a lot of questions to ask. But that will be the subject of another post.

Badminton Pictures

Our church had a badminton tournament at a parks and recreation community center. Susan and I were a team, and got thrashed badly, but oh well, we had fun and got some exercise, which was the point. Maranna paired up with Sherry, and they designed their own t-shirts, made with indelible ink Sharpie pens. Their numbers on the back are their graduation years, and above the numbers are their nicknames-- Marinara and Sherberry. Julian's partner was Jason, one of his best church friends. They beat Susan and I (no great feat, I admit), and advanced to the next round but lost to the team that eventually won the tournament.

Elena's 2009 Birthday

Today is my sister's birthday. Happy birthday, Elena! A birthday is a good occasion to take a look back. I remember one time Elena and I had gotten to the age Mom and Dad thought we were old enough to be at home by ourselves. They may have miscalculated. :-) As soon as they left, we got to chasing each other through the house. At some point, I slammed the door to cut off Elena's hot pursuit, and caught her finger against the jamb. She immediately began howling at the top of her lungs, screaming that her finger was broken, that I was mean, that she was going to tell on me. I went into a panic. What was I supposed to do? I had just squashed my sister's finger, and boy was I going to get it when Mom and Dad got home. I thought for a minute and then realized I had the answer. What did Mom do when we had an owie? She stayed calm and broke out the Band-Aids. Of course! A Band-Aid is the answer to any known medical crisis! I ran to the kitchen, got the box of them out of the drawer, unwrapped it and took it to Elena. By this time she was lying on the sofa, still screaming, holding her hand up (no visible damage, but hey, you never can tell about this kind of thing), and proclaiming she was going to die any minute. I told her to let me put the Band-Aid on her finger. To my utter astonishment, she refused! Here was medical treatment, and all she said was, "No, no, no!" My panic level rose even higher. What was I going to do? She had to see reason. Mom and Dad walked in the door to witness me sitting on top of Elena, waving the Band-Aid with one hand, and with my other hand slapping her on the cheek to bring her to her senses. Needless to say, that was the last time, for a very long time, that Mom an Dad let us stay home by ourselves!
Then there was the time we were running through the house, and we broke one of Mom's vases. It was a tall plaster one that stood in the corner and had a lot of peacock feathers stuck in it. We had snapped the narrow neck clean off. We gave each other a look of dread. But Elena's quick thinking saved the day. She got a roll of masking tape and we quickly got everything back in shape and lashed together with several wrappings of tape. For several days after we were on our best behavior, practically tiptoeing around the house, but Mom never noticed a thing. It was only several months later that Mom happened to look at the vase and exclaimed, "What in the world!" But by then, it was way too late to be punished. "Mom, that happened a long time ago!" we exclaimed. So we escaped, and I have Elena to thank.
It's been many years, with lots of long talks, lots of hearing each other's ups and downs, and not nearly enough of actually being able to be in each other's presence, but I truly count myself fortunate to have such a wonderful and loving sister. You're a treasure, Elena! Happy Birthday!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Wisdom

John Eldridge wrote a book entitled Wild at Heart, and it spoke very strongly to me (and to many others I might add; it was a bestseller). Near the end, he recounts picking up a book at random in a secondhand bookstore, and browsing it to discover a sentence that hit him between the eyes. The author, Gil Bailie, shared some wisdom a mentor had given him:
Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
That statement has been on my mind a lot lately. I have come to a juncture in my life that I never expected. I'm 50 and I thought that by this time I would be near the apex of my career, respected, consulted, and getting ready for the long final cruise toward retirement. Instead I find myself unemployed. I'm at zero and not quite sure where to turn. I have been feeling restless with the idea of returning to the classroom, to what I've always done. I feel my strengths could lead in several directions, but where exactly?
John Eldridge speaks of the need of the male heart to face and overcome risk-- run the rapids, climb a peak, dive from a high cliff. I ask myself if this isn't tied up with the reason for me being placed in this situation. I'm not one to thirst after risk and dancing out on the end of a limb, far from it-- I've always avoided risk like the plague. But maybe it's time I faced my fears head on and conquered the troll under the bridge. What concerns me so much that I would take on major risk? One thing I care deeply about is the natural world God has created and our need to be good stewards of it. Ever since my wife and I bought our house in 1992, I have rediscovered the beauty of gardening. It was another hot, sweaty chore to be endured when I was younger, but I learned what a great pleasure it is to turn the earth, enrich it, sow seeds, and reap the results. I've become passionate about composting and organic gardening, just like my parents were all my growing up years. I truly delight in taking kitchen waste and returning it to the earth, where it will feed the soil ecosystem and eventually me and my family. I worry about the fact that we as a culture casually discard so much, dump it into a landfill (a glorified gigantic diaper, when you think abut it), where it either leaches toxins or produces smelly methane gas to further warm the planet. Tackling this problem is something that truly makes me come alive. The question I face is-- Can I find some way to help heal the earth, and make a living at it?
Two aphorisms have been on my lips a lot lately:
1) It's not waste until you waste it.
and
2) Waste is a resource in the wrong place.
How can I turn what no one wants into something good and positive that everyone could benefit from? The answer I've found myself turning back to again and again: vermiculture. No, wait, that's the fancy knockout word. Let's get blunt: worms. Yes, slimy, blind, deaf little hermaphroditic invertebrates that eat dirt. Let me explore my idea at greater depth in a later post. Instead I'll end here with another quotation from Wild at Heart, from the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters:
I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me--
A boat with a furled sail at rest in the harbor
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life
For love was offered me, and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one's life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire--
It is the boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.